One It was seven-thirty in the morning when Ella Rose, clad in her pink satin bathrobe, walked across her Culver City apartment, turned on the pert voices of KNX Newsradio, and sat down at her kitchen table, ready to write her morning list.
Ella's wooden table was dwarfed by her bulky kitchen appliances. Her table was now always set, elegantly, for one: a single lace napkin, a straw placemat, her favorite crystal glass. Ella put her pad and pencil on the placemat; she began her list with the date.
On her refrigerator, her daily calendar was turned to the page: September 23, 1978. lena anniversary was written very neatly in red ink.
Ella did not remember when she'd last changed the day on her calendar; she wasn't sure that today was, in fact, September 23. She reached over to her black phone on the kitchen counter. Picking up the receiver, she looked into it and then hung up. She lifted her thick Los Angeles Yellow Pages beside the phone; the book fell open as though exhausted. Placing her finger on an ad, Ella took a deep breath and carefully dialed the number. "Santa Glen Hardware," a girlish voice said, and yawned.
Ella sat very still. In a quiet, polite voice, she asked, "What day is it?" Silence. "Santa Glen Hardware," the girl announced, a bit more forcefully.
"September twenty-third?" asked Ella, her voice sharpening. "Miss? Is it September twenty-third?" "Who - Brett, what day is it!" the girl yelled. "Some - what! Twenty-what? Okay. Twenty-third. Hello? It's the twenty-third. Can I help -" "Thank you," Ella said, and hung up.
Ella wrote september 23, 1978 across the top of the page. She could hear the sounds of morning lifting off Pico Boulevard: produce trucks roaring like huge bison and birds cawing, sad, repetitive, from the trees.
On the pad, Ella wrote: 1. wish lena happy anniversary. Or perhaps, since Lena's husband was dead, this was not a good idea; she erased it and started again. 1. see if lena remembers anniversary.
2. tell mrs. lowenstein - What. Mrs. Lowenstein, the director of Panorama Village for the past two years, had called several times this week, each time describing Lena's latest misdemeanors with perhaps unnecessary detail. For twelve years, Lena and Bob had occupied Room 129. Ella had moved them into the residence when Lena was thirty-six and Bob forty-four. She had watched the two of them wander in, the babies of the place, her daughter's red hair shining like a poppy among the silver hairdos. Lena and Bob had always been on good behavior; Ella believed they had many friends.
Ella remembered why Lena was supposed to stop smoking and wrote this down: smoking is now limited to certain rooms at panorama village.
Why did they have to limit it, anyway? What small joys did Lena have?
3. buy lena gum.
No - her teeth were almost gone. 3. buy lena hard candy.
4. buy l new slippers. size small.
5. buy l chap stick.
6. check l toenails. cut.
7. check bathmat in lena's tub.
8. check for glass in rug.
9. check for food spilled in room.
10. check lena has soap. dove.
11. check for ants.
12. check for rug stains. cover them.
13. check lock on door.
14. check that windows close and open.
15. check for She tried to think of other points of danger in her daughter's room. With no further ideas, Ella amended number 15 to 15. check room.
Number 16 was a reminder for herself. Her hand was trembling slightly, and she put her pencil down.
She stood up, opened the refrigerator, and peered inside. Ella had lived alone here for three years, since Lou's death, and she was still not accustomed to a refrigerator that held only items that she liked to eat. At the moment, her refrigerator held two cans of V- 8, half a roast chicken, a carton of Mocha Mix, a pint of low-fat cottage cheese, most of a box of See's candy - some of the pieces with one bite taken out of them - an ancient container of Parkay, a large bag of Oreos, and a plastic container of matzo ball soup. She kept a package of beef jerky, one of Lou's favorite foods, in the butter compartment. It comforted her to leave the jerky there, and she harbored a secret hope that she might open the compartment to find that the package had disappeared. She had vowed not to eat it herself, but last night she had missed Lou terribly and had tried a few of the dry, salty strips while she watched television. When she went to bed, her mouth tasted like his.
Ella picked up her pad and wrote on a second page: 17. jerky.
What should number 21 be on her list? She closed her eyes, trying to remember, but her mind was dark. The content of number 211 was just another bit of information she had lost. And two weeks ago she had found in her closet a scallop-sleeved, eggplant-purple polyester dress that she was certain she had neverrrrr seen before. The dress hung, limp and arrogant; it seemed to have blown in, of its own volition, to join her other dresses in the middle of the night. Ella tried very hard to remember when she had purchased it. She took the dress from the closet and placed it on her bed, wondering where it had come from and wishing it would go away.
22. talk to vivien about lena.
Her younger daughter's name had floated on and off Ella's lists for the last year or so. She often wrote it with the best of intentions but then crossed it out.
This was what Mrs. Lowenstein had told her in their conversations over the last six months: Lena had left her room at midnight and tried to get on an RTD bus. Lena had been caught in the 7-Eleven down the street, her pockets heavy with stolen cigarettes. Lena had demanded to use the office phone and had dialed a strange number; she had ended up calling Singapore.
The phone rang. Ella set down her pencil and picked up the phone on the fourth ring. "Hello?" she asked. She was very still. "Yes, this is Lena's mother."
Ella's brown Buick floated in front of Vivien's house. The broad ranch-style homes were similar, built on a tract; her daughter's lawn was the only one aglow with red roses, and to Ella it looked as though the flowers were being readied for some exciting event. She didn't know exactly why she had come to Vivien's first, except that she needed company; Mrs. Lowenstein claimed that Lena had set fire to her room at Panorama Village, and Ella did not know how to handle this.
Her granddaughter Shelley was on the front lawn. Shelley was twelve years old and was sitting so quietly that Ella almost missed her; Shelley was staring at the empty street with a fierce expression.
Ella parked the car and got out. Shelley stood up and rushed to her eagerly, as though she were running downhill.
"Honey, where's your mother?" "Out." "Your father?" "Out." "You're all alone?" This must have been the wrong question. The girl looked lost on the patch of lawn, as if she'd just dropped there from the sky. She shrugged violently and nodded. Then she examined Ella. "Why are you all dressed up?" Ella had spent a half-hour selecting the right dress for her conference with Mrs. Lowenstein. After much deliberation, she had settled on a deep green silk dress with shoulder pads, her most recent acquisition from Bullock's. She had paired this with faux diamond earrings, which matched a star-shaped brooch. On her feet were her bone pumps in Italian leather. Lou had developed a theory that important people wore light-colored shoes, because this showed that they did not care if their shoes attracted dirt. "You buy shoes that show stains," he told Ella, his eyes large and philosophical. "You can afford to get them cleaned." "There was a fire at Panorama V...