Last week I took my mother to lunch with the girls. The girls range in age from eighty-five to ninety-three. They eat lunch the first Tuesday of every month at Mancusa’s, famous for its grilled oysters, on Napoleon Avenue. I can’t stand Mancusa’s. It’s dark, mafioso, divided into a series of low-ceilinged rooms. Each room has only a few occupied tables, so you never get any companionable restaurant buzz. Pauline Rosenheim is the chief girl. Mom fears Pauline and constantly quotes her. Their friendship used to be equal, but after Dad died the balance shifted. Mom foresaw this. In the hospital, sitting by Dad’s bed, Dad in a morphine coma, Mom said to me, savagely, “You know what I’m going to be now? One of the widows. The couples who are healthy enough will take me to dinner once and then drop me. I know the drill.”
The way she said she knew the drill, I had to ask, “Did you and Dad do that?”
“We were better than that. Well, I was. Your father needed a push.”
Pauline called me Monday, “Honey, we’ve got a problem. Your mother insists on coming to Girls’ Lunch.”
“Yes,” I said; “Carmella is taking her.” Carmella is Mom’s favorite aide. She’s in her forties, with-it, treats Mom like a friend. I closed my laptop, wandered into the yard, and stood beneath the sweet olive tree, trying to concentrate on its fragrance.
“Dear, last month your mother ordered badly, insisted on stuffed eggplant. We all know she doesn’t like stuffed eggplant, but she got stubborn. We said, ‘Janie, soft-shelled crabs are on the menu; you love soft-shelled crabs; what are you doing?’ Not one bite did she eat, not one word did she say.”
I crumpled a blossom in my hand to get as much fragrance as I could.
“Sweetie,” she said, “The things that made Janie Janie are gone. I know it’s hard for you and your sisters, but you need to face it.”
“She’s on some really strong meds. They exhaust her and take away her appetite. I’ll tell Carmella to make sure she orders the soft-shelled crab.”
Long pause. “Carmella insisted on sitting with us. A couple of the girls bring aides, and the aides sit in a different room. They have a grand old time, but Carmella didn’t want to sit with them. Maybe because she’s Brazilian? Venezuelan?”
I didn’t want to get into any of this alarming one-drop talk with Pauline, who by the way, is emeritus on the board of all sorts of liberal organizations; so I said I’d bring Mom.
Mom and I went to Mancusa’s, and getting from the car to the table was tough. Mom lurched and flailed on her walker; but as she flailed, she said, “Whoopsie,” with her old gusto; and I thought lunch might be, if not a triumph, a small victory. She’d gotten her hair done and she wore new clothes, a fuchsia silk shell and matching sweater with black pants that weren’t, as she said, old-ladyish. The girls greeted her warmly. Pauline patted the empty chair next to her and Mom slid into it. She gave Pauline a pleased smile. I sat on Mom’s other side. Pauline opened lunch the usual way, with a recitation of the girls too infirm to make it to Mancusa’s. Her expression was mournful but her voice brisk, and her clothes, a crisp white blouse and blue blazer with brass buttons, gave her a jaunty, nautical air.
After Pauline’s recitation, Carol Ruth Rossiter, the only girl there who still phones Mom just to chat and visits her when she has a driver, asked Pauline how her husband was.
“Leon is fit as a fiddle! At this very moment he’s swimming laps at the JCC. The younger swimmers tell him he’s an inspiration. Yesterday he volunteered as a docent at the World War II Museum. Our phone never stops ringing, they request him so much.”
Carol Ruth then asked Carolyn Cahn—four of the girls are named Carol or variations on it—how her husband was doing. Carolyn Cahn stammered, looked troubled. Pauline laid a reassuring hand on her arm. She looked across the table and said, “Richard left us six months ago, Carol Ruth. His death was sudden, shocking. I don’t how you could forget a thing like that.”
Carol Ruth looked like she might cry. She has a wide face and Roman features, so when her face turns red it’s a big canvas. Pauline kept her focus on Carol Ruth. One by one the girls joined her, creating a canopy of shame.
Mom had crumpled into herself. Her mouth hung open, her skin gray, as if getting to lunch with the girls was enough, and now she was there, she could fade into the ether, but at Pauline’s words she surfaced. Her eyes grew shifty, sly, furtive. She jabbed her finger, bony as a witch’s, at Pauline’s glass of iced tea. She did it safely, protected by the collective rebuke of Carol Ruth, and she did it fast, like she’d figured out where the least motion would have the most velocity. The glass toppled. Tea gushed over the tablecloth and onto Pauline’s lap. Mom pinkened with pride.
Pauline sprang up, shrieking, “My pants, my pants.” She was wearing white pants. This seemed appropriate. Back in the ‘60s Pauline, Leon and their children lived in Northern Virginia for a few years; Leon’s engineering firm transferred him there. When they moved back to New Orleans, Mom had the girls over for a welcome-home lunch. My sisters and I loitered about, swiping mini-doberge cakes. It was 1967; the girls talked about whether Bobby Kennedy would run for president. Mom relished this sort of conversation. Pauline said her children had attended the same elementary school as the Kennedy children and she’d stood behind Ethel Kennedy for three years in a row at the end-of-school fair. “Ethel always wore the same pair of white slacks. They started off too small and only got tighter. Last year I could see her entire panty line.” That ended all discussion of Bobby getting into the race.
The tea stained Pauline’s white pants a transparent rust; I averted my eyes from her panty line. She said, wildly, that she hadn’t touched her glass. Carolyn Cahn said the vibrations from the streetcar might have knocked it over. Pauline snapped, “Don’t be a jackass. We’re three blocks from The Avenue.” I grinned at Mom, because whenever anyone said, “The Avenue” instead of “St. Charles Avenue,” we called and reported it to each other, so to have it happen while we were together: jackpot, bonanza, something to laugh about on the way home. Mom didn’t return my grin. She’d sunk back into the cave of herself, skin dingy, eyes out of tune.
Pauline’s mishap agitated the girls. They fussed and got in each other’s way blotting the tablecloth with napkins they swiped from empty tables. Even Carol Ruth, who should have reveled in Pauline’s distress, rubbed the heavy links of her necklaces like they were worry beads. No waiter showed up, so Carolyn Cahn dragged over a chair from a nearby table. Pauline finished wringing the tea from her pants. She sat down and said, festive, merry, “Let’s take it from the top. What do you all have planned for the week?” The ship righted; the girls relaxed. Pauline turned to Mom. “Janie, you go first.” Mom shut her eyes. Pauline repeated, enunciating like a teacher with a dunce, “Janie? Plans for the week” Mom gave a shudder that might’ve been a snore. Pauline shot me a look heavy with, “What did I tell you?”
I stared across the room out the window. Cars hurtled down Napoleon Avenue. Buses lurched beside them, horns and exhaust pipes silenced by Mancusa’s thick walls. I launched into Mom’s plans for the week. I skipped the litany of doctors’ appointments but landed hard on a book group meeting at the JCC and piano recital at my daughters’ school. Those didn’t seem like enough, so I fabricated a coffee date with her nieces. Mom’s eyes stayed closed. She reached beneath the billowing tablecloth for my hand. She knotted her fingers around mine. I kept talking. She held fast, as if I could save her from drowning.
Milly Heller lives in New Orleans. Her most recent short fiction appears in Parhelion.