The door banged against the wall as it always did, making the house sound empty. As it always did. Leona closed the door and carefully poised her briefcase against the hall table. She shook her short gray hair free as she removed her knit cap. She hung up her coat and removed her belt, sighing with the relief the action brought her thickening waist. Relief turned into her most familiar ache. When would she ever get used to coming into an empty house?
The mail helped. For the moment that it took to shuffle through the magazines and fat envelopes of coupons life held hope. A stack of mail was a chance. At this time it held a letter from Don. Leona put it on the bottom of the stack to stretch out the pleasure. And to feel again that little twinge of surprise each time she saw those heavy buff envelopes. Midwest Insurance Company, Wichita, Kan., the envelope announced in its left-hand corner. But even if it had no letterhead, she would by now recognize Don's typewriter. Even if he used no typewriter, she guessed, she would recognize the precise way he positioned the address, his special abbreviations. She savored riffling through past envelopes in her mind, slowly letting herself come to the very first, Don's personal -- more than personal, agonized -- letter of sympathy after Leona's husband died just one year ago. Don and her husband had been agent and client, but they had also been the kind of casual friends who always meant to become better friends, at least until her husband moved from Wichita to Philadelphia, and then became her husband.
Leona had known of Don for years. He was the wacky one, the one who suggested they all show up at the local bar one night in red wigs, the one who organized them all to serenade their old eighth grade teacher when they heard she was in the hospital. It wasn't that Leona's husband had talked directly of Don -- in fact, he had never really described him -- but that every old home town story he told had Don in it somewhere.
So when the first letter arrived, she had not exactly expected it, but she was not totally surprised. What surprised her was the warmth. And that he knew so much about Leona.
Those first weeks, though, Leona seized on anything -- bills, campaign literature -- for human contact. She had never been much of a telephoner or casual visitor. She knew her neighbors only formally, and their post-funeral calls with casseroles and pies were brief. Her children soon returned to their distant states. Leona had always been a private person. The ends of their visits were accompanied by relief on all sides, as well as sadness. What the children didn't know, and had not made allowances for after the funeral, was that Leona's husband had been not just her best friend, but her only friend.
The months melded; Mondays became Thursdays, Thursdays identical with Fridays. She woke up late so that she would have to rush unthinking from bed to bus, trying not to notice how alone she was in both. The morning went quickly and painlessly. Reviewing housing proposals removed Leona from her unpopulated present life and settled her into a paper world of dense highrises and tightly knit townhouses. The paperwork and phone calls carried her through the morning. Lunch time might have been rough if she had not had the habits of years to leave her with no choices to make. A tuna fish sandwich bought from the lunch wagon that came by at precisely 12:30 day after day. A cup of tea with the lemon wedge squeezed and then dropped in, and half a packet of sugar. And the crossword puzzle the man in the next office clipped from the Times each morning and left on her desk. For the past year now she had been more grateful than ever for 3 down and 15 across. No necessity to listen to the three young women in the outer office with their tales of what had transpired the night before or might transpire over the weekend.
As long as Leona kept contact with people to a minimum and her load of paperwork to a maximum, the work days was pleasantly numb.
Food had become the focal point of Leona's existence. Her daily menu being so unvarying, the tastes became her only friends. The doughnut in the morning, sweet, yeasty and slightly spongy, was the treat a good gossip might have once been. She elongated the pleasure by daubing up the sugar flakes from her napkin one by one and licking them off her finger. Her tuna sandwich at lunch she ate slowly -- as she tried to stretch out all of her safe activities -- alternating nibbles of crust with the soft, moist center of the bread, licking the edges free of oozing tuna between bites. She sipped her tea, not allowing a long draught until the very end. The oily smell of the sandwich, the bitter tang of the lemon peel were her dearest acquaintances these days.
Dinner, on the other hand, was an intriguing stranger. She always tried to taste something she had not tasted before, or at least not for a long time. One day it was rice pudding, which was a childhood intimate. Another day it was couscous, the very scent like a foreign vacation. Leona concentrated on each knife cut. Her fingers so rarely had the chance to touch human flesh these days -- even shaking hands had all but disappeared from her life -- that she relished the touch of her food, pinching stray bits between thumb and forefinger, rolling a stem of parsley between fingers and letting its frilly leaves brush her hand. She avoided thinking of how pathetically narrow was the focus of her senses now that she lived alone.
Going home was the problem. She postponed it as long as possible. But the very postponement required choices, and choices made Leona feel more alone. If she shopped for groceries, she could postpone going home for an hour. But then she would have to eat at home to use up those groceries. She could instead use up an hour eating in Lammer's Cafeteria, but then she would have that empty chair opposite her to face, or even worse have some stranger to face in that chair.
Always she found solace in the letters. She had answered Don's first, thanked him, and something in her letter had prompted him to reply. Their messages grew longer, though Leona was hard-pressed to fill the space. Initially, Don wrote of his youth, reminiscences that Leona already had stored in her family history. Always he asked about how she was getting along. Later, perhaps he, too, had begun to run out of easy things to say, for he had begun to tell of his days and thoughts. The letters were funny, cheerful, with the verbal remains of the wackiness that had identified Don in her husband's tales.
Leona was sure Don did not know how much his letters meant to her, even though they came more frequently now. Nobody could know how much they meant to her. They were her dearest companions. She left the unopened letters in her pocket, opening them only after she completed every routine the apartment could support. She closed the curtains (so she could open them in the morning in order to close them the next evening). She took off her shoes and set them side by side, slipping into blue scuffs. She emptied the trash, though some days there was scarcely a tissue in the basket. She watered plants, turned on lights, plumped pillows.
Then, with a glass of red wine, she curled up in the corner of the sofa, feet tucked under her, and read his letters. She read them the way she ate, slowly and with concentration, rereading each paragraph before she went on. Her fingers caressed the crackling paper, flicking the corners. Her thumb swept across the signature as if it were written in velvet. Then, reluctant to come to the end, she read the letter once straight through, and a third time. Then Leona forced herself to put the letter away with the others and to turn on television. But sometimes she could not resist pulling another out to reread it. Depending on her mood, it might be the funny one about the New York client who called all the women in Kansas Dorothy. Or it might be the poignant one about the year that his mother slowly died. The letter was now the only thing in her life that Leona allowed herself to cry over.
There was one letter that she anticipated yet feared, and one day it came. Don said he was coming to see her. He was arriving on a Wednesday evening and would drive right to her house on his way to registering at his convention. He would arrive about 10 o'clock. He knew it was late, but he just wanted to say hello first, and then they could get together for dinner the next night.
Leona was so excited that she found herself pacing the floor as she read the letter. She could not stay still, wondered how it might feel to shout with joy in an empty house. But she was also uneasy. She imagined his face falling as she opened the door, his sitting on the edge of her sofa and looking for an excuse to escape. Did he know her hair was gray?Would her voice sound raspy to him? Would she seem boring, stodgy?
On Tuesday she bought butter and the very best raspberry jam and spent the evening baking little cookies, indenting the center of each with her thumb. She filled each center with jam. It had been years since she had baked these crumbly, fragile cookies. She had considered using the raspberry jam for a Linzer torte, but was put off by the image of nervously trying to cut the tart in front of a stranger. Suppose it slipped off the plate and smeared jam on the table? She imagined her embarrassment, feeling her sticky fingers as she tried to wipe the jam off the table. Cookies needed no cutting.
On Wednesday she arranged the cookies on a doily, carefully balancing a second layer on the first so that none of their jam centers touched. She percolated a pot of coffee so that it would be hot and ready with no waiting. Maybe he didn't drink coffee at night? Maybe he would prefer liquor? Just in case, she put a bottle of her best white wine in the refrigerator and a bottle of scotch on the counter. Leona set a tray with cups, napkins, sugar, cream, spoons and the plate of cookies. Was there anything else she would need? She left the tray in the kitchen rather than setting it on the coffee table. She would somehow seem too eager if the food were already waiting for him in the living room.
Wondering whether she should change her dress, she decided that would only make her feel bad for trying too hard. She combed her hair and put on fresh lipstick. The less effort she expended, the less disappointing the results would be when she looked in the mirror. Still, she could not resist wearing the scarf that emphasized her green eyes.
The only thing that Leona had not considered was that he might be early. She had been busy since she came home, so when the doorbell rang the house was tidy but her worried thoughts were not. Startled, she froze, not knowing what to do.It even crossed her mind to pretend she wasn't home. But, shaking slightly, and breathing in little gasps, she walked to the front door and opened it.
What a relief. It wasn't even Don. It was a pudgy man with a loud sports jacket and sideburns.
"Leona is alone-a no more," burst out this garish stranger as he reached to kiss her hand. She instinctively pulled back, bewildered to find Don so different from every one of her hundreds of imaginings. He didn't seem to notice. She recovered her manners, smiled wanly and invited him in.
The first minutes passed in a welter of activity. She took his coat from him arm, showed him to the sofa, turned on a lamp. He talked nonstop about his drive from Wichita, leaving her blessedly free from having to add anything original. She excused herself to fetch the coffee, and leaned her head against the cool refrigerator door as she tried to pull together all the parts of her that had splintered in the last five minutes. Leona had never been good about surprises. Why had she let herself in for this one? She took a deep breath and carried the tray to the living room.
Don gobbled cookies absentmindedly as Leona nibbled the edges of one. The buttery crumbs dissolved on her tongue, but she had difficulty swallowing them. When he asked about her day at the office, she tried out a silly anecdote that one of the girls had told her at the water cooler. Don guffawed and slapped the table, startling Leona into spilling her coffee. He grabbed a napkin and daubed her knee, countering with his own anecdote, not even noticing the flush his forwardness has caused. As the hour wore on and Don carried the burden of the talking, Leona tried to pick up the cadences of his letters. The rhythms were there, but they sounded unfamiliar coming from his pudgy flesh.
The hour passed. Don's hour. Chatter and slurping and hoarse laughs and winks at first, then as Leona grew more nervous Don grew less kinetic, quieter. Finally Leona plucked up enough courage to say that it was getting late, and Don nearly leapt off the sofa in his embarrassment.
"Oh, of course. The sun's hardly gone down on Kansas. But here I am keeping you from your beauty sleep. I always forget that there is a tomorrow out there, and I just want to use up today until it's all worn out.I'll just toddle on down to my hotel," his voice ran out of steam.
Like a film of his entrance running backwards, she brought him his coat and ushered him out the front door, her pleased-to-meet-you's punctuated by his raves about her cookies (had he even tasted them?) and her graciousness. He would call her tomorrow.
Leona closed the door with relief. She was walking back towards the living room, when the sobs started. Amazed, she stopped short. Her tears poured out, her sbos sticking in her throat so she could not catch her breath.
There won't be any more letters.
Leona thought she would suffocate. That night she spent a long time staring at herself in the mirror: gray hair, stolid, a face that a stranger might pass a hundred times without noticing.
The house echoed with quiet.
There won't be any more lettrs.
Through the night, Leona was never sure whether she was awake or asleep, as images of Don floated through her mind, changing and changing back, from fat to thin, short to tall, serious to comic. His image disappeared altoghether, and only then did she notice the resonance of his voice, its softness once his nervousness had faded. She remembered his asking about her grandchildren by name. Grateful as she was to hear the arlam, it reminded her:
There won't be any more letters.
The mail slot clanked. Leona ran to the door in her bathrobe, and there was a familiar buff enevelope on the floor. It was handwritten, stampless. But there was the familiar placement of the address, the special abbreviations.
She opened the flap slowly. Habit dies hard.
"Life does not meet expectations all at once," he had written. "You have to creep up on them. Give us time."
Leona tore open the door and nearly bumped into Don, leaning against the jamb and grinning. "What are you doing tonight?" he asked in a stage whisper.
Leona grinned, too. "I think I have a hot date," she returned his stage whisper. She put one hand on one pudgy cheek and kissed the other. Nice rough male cheeks.