“Hello?? Oh, hello dear. No, nothing’s wrong. I was just hoping it was Ruth and my grandkids calling. Yes, I’m sure they’ll call soon. You know how busy young people are these days. Uhuh. Well, thank you for thinking of me, I appreciate your call. Bye.”
Today is Marta’s birthday. It’s a big one: she’s turning seventy. All Marta really wants for her birthday is to see her grandkids. She hardly ever sees them, because her daughter, Ruth, is always “too busy” to come visit. She’s also “too busy” to talk on the phone, and she never invites Marta over, either. Marta can count on the fingers of one hand how often she’s seen Ruth’s family in the last few years.
She lives alone, with a cat named Valentino, and a hallucination named Sally.
Sally claims not to be a hallucination, of course. She claims to be the ghost of an actress who drowned in the pool of the St. Francis hotel, while at a drunken party with Charlie Chaplin in 1935.
“You were always drunk around Charlie,” Sally likes to say. “The old scoundrel.”
The night that Sally first appeared, Ruth had cancelled a long-awaited visit — yet again — at the very last minute. Marta sat at her dinner table all alone, drinking her fourth glass from the special bottle of Cabernet that she had bought for the occasion.
“Be careful,” said a female voice from out of nowhere, causing Marta to jump and spill wine all over her good tablecloth. “You’ll end up like me.”
Marta looked towards the living room — had she left the television on? When she turned back, there was a young woman perched on the edge of the table. She wore a clingy white evening gown, floor length and sleeveless. Her wavy blond hair reminded Marta of old movies on TCM.
The woman leaned down to read the label of the wine bottle. “French. Ooo la la,” she said. “But I’m a whiskey and soda girl, myself.”
She turned to Marta and smiled. “Oh, I suppose I should introduce myself. I’m Sally. And you are…?”
But Marta was having none of it.
“What are you doing in my house??”
The woman slipped off the table and glided around the room, touching the pictures on the wall, peeking out the window.
“A cozy place you’ve got. But it needs a little brightening up. That’s what I’m here for.”
And so the story came out.
Marta was very drunk, but not so drunk that she believed what she was seeing and hearing.
“If you drowned at the St. Francis,” she said after Sally explained her life (or rather, her death) story. “Why are you here? This is the other side of town.”
Sally shrugged. “I’ve seen nothing but tourists for eighty years. Booooring. I can’t remember how real people live anymore. So I decided to make like the wind and blow.”
Marta pushed her wine glass away. “No. You’re not real. I’m drunk. Or maybe I’m going senile. Is this what going senile is like? I’ve been watching too much television, that’s what it is. Too much History Channel. You don’t exist. You’re just — just my imagination!”
“Whatever makes you happy, honey. But like I said, this looks like a sweet little place. I think I’ll stick around here for a while.”
Even though Marta speaks to Sally, she still doesn’t believe that Sally really exists. After all, Valentino, her cat, doesn’t seem to notice Sally. Though come to think of it, Valentino doesn’t notice Marta much either, except for when he’s hungry.
Marta has noticed, though, that the bottle of Johnny Walker that she keeps on top of the refrigerator for special occasions does seem to be getting emptier, ever since Sally showed up. But it’s probably just evaporation. After all, the bottle has been there for about fifteen years. Marta’s not had a lot of special occasions.
“Why are you just sitting there next to the phone like a constipated frog?” Sally asks her now. “It’s your birthday! Let’s go find a good bar. Preferably one with some good-lookin’ fellas.”
“But Ruth hasn’t called yet,” Marta says.
“Hello — turn on your cell phone! Jeeze Louise, Marta, when I died some people were still using carrier pigeons, and even I know what to do with a cell phone. If she wants to call, she can call your cell phone. If.”
“But what if she and the kids want to come over? They can’t visit if I’m not home.”
Sally sighs. “You really spend too much time moping around and waiting. You should go out more. I know! I was just at the YMCA the other day, eyeballing all those tasty bodybuilders, and I saw they’re offering Swing Dance classes. You should take the class, and I can give you pointers. I’m quite a hoofer, you know.”
She does some fancy footwork and spins around the living room. “I love a good jitterbug! Let’s go see if they have a class today!”
Marta shakes her head. She can’t take a chance on missing Ruth.
But by early evening, there is still nothing. No phone call, no card, no flowers, no visit. Marta is losing hope. She picks up Valentino and hugs him tightly, smothering him with kisses, crying into his fur, until he gets sick of it and escapes to hide under her bed. Sally appears beside her, and Marta can almost feel the touch of Sally’s imaginary hand on her shoulder.
“All you’re doing is hurting yourself,” Sally tells her. “Let go. If Ruth doesn’t want you in her life, you can’t force her. Get out of the house! Make some friends!”
“Is it too much to ask, to see my grandkids on my birthday?” Marta says. “Why can’t I be with my family?”
“You don’t pick your family,” Sally replies. But it’s no use.
And now it’s ten pm, and Marta is sitting in her living room, in the dark. The cordless phone lies silent on the coffee table where she left it. She’s been sitting on the couch for at least an hour, too depressed to turn on the lights or the TV, too tired now even to cry. Valentino has come out of hiding to sit next to her, perhaps sensing her loneliness. She doesn’t even bother to pet him. What’s the use?
She hears footsteps approaching the house. Ruth? She knew it! Of course her only daughter wouldn’t forget such an important day! She’s just late, that’s all. Ruth couldn’t be punctual if her life depended on it. Marta gets up to open the door. Valentino yowls, and Marta hears a voice in her head — Sally’s voice. “Marta! What are you doing?!”
She pulls the door open, and runs down the steps to meet them, but it’s not Ruth. Instead, she startles a strange man skulking around, casing her house. The two of them stare at each other in surprise, but the man recovers first. He pulls something from his pocket. It takes her a few seconds to realize that it’s a gun.
“Is anyone else home?” he asks her.
She is in shock, she doesn’t think to lie. “No.”
The man herds her through the open front door, slams it shut and flicks on the lights. Her purse is hanging in the entry hall. He grabs it and rummages through it, pocketing her cellphone and rifling her wallet.
“Twenty bucks? That’s it?” He flings the wallet on the ground. “Where’s the rest of your money?”
Just give him everything he wants, she thinks, but she can barely speak. “Um, I have a coin jar…” and points towards her bedroom.
“Coin jar?” He is not impressed, but he drags her into the bedroom anyway. He dumps the coin jar into a pillowcase, along with her jewelry box, then he ransacks the drawers. Stockings and sweaters and scarves fly all over, as Marta cowers in the corner. She looks down at all her clothes being trampled underfoot and thinks that it’s going to take her all day to wash it after he’s gone.
When he finds nothing else in her room, he drags her through the rest of the house, probably hoping for an iPad or a laptop, or other small expensive electronics. But she doesn’t have any of that.
Frustrated, he grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her. “Where’s the rest, bitch?”
“I don’t have anything else!” Tears are rolling down her face, and she’s finding it hard to breathe. “Please, just take it, take it all, don’t hurt me!”
“You’re lying!” he shouts, and backhands her, hard. She falls to the floor. He raises his hand to hit her again.
And then a dusty, half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker comes flying across the living room at his head.
It misses him by inches and crashes to the floor. He jumps, and looks around. “What the fuck!?!”
A table lamp hurtles through the air in his direction, then a heavy glass vase. Books fly off the shelves and attack him. He drops his gun and shields his face with his arms. He’s forgotten about Marta, and so she stumbles away, grabbing the cordless phone as she runs to the bathroom and locks herself inside. As she calls 911, Valentino appears at her feet; he’d been hiding behind the shower curtain.
The 911 operator tells her to stay on the line, a patrol car is on the way. Outside the door she hears more crashing and yelling. She hears the robber fumbling at the front door, and then a scream of pain, just before his footsteps pound down the front walk at a mad run.
Sally materializes next to Marta, perched on the rim of the bathtub. “I’d replace that carving knife if I were you,” she says. “Who knows what kind of nasty blood disease that man has.”
The police arrive a few minutes later, with Marta’s things. They’d caught the man running down the street, bleeding from a stab wound on his left arm.
“Some kind of crackhead. Musta flipped out and stabbed himself,” one cop says to another. Marta doesn’t correct them.
“Good thinking, getting away like that when he lost it,” they tell her. “You were lucky.”
After they finish taking their report, they ask her if she would like to call someone to come stay with her, before they leave.
Marta thinks of her daughter — but then she wonders. If she called Ruth now, in the middle of the night, would she come? Would she even pick up the phone?
Marta looks over at the couch, where Sally sits, unseen by the police. “No,” she tells them. “I don’t need to call anyone. I have friends here, if I need them.”
Tomorrow, she decides, she’ll find out about that Swing class.
Photo: 1931 Advertisement (for Bembert brand stockings?). Source: Vintage Ad Browser