Maggie Daniel Caldwell and Val Bonney

In Two Minds

by Val Bonney



Once A Beauty

by Maggie Daniel Caldwell

Jane pushed aside the overgrown tangle of passion vine and willow branches to reach the woman’s front door, cursing softly when a thorny yucca, gone unnoticed in the twilight, scratched at her bare legs. She hesitated before knocking; up-close, the small house, which appeared quite charming from the street, felt of neglect. Decay. Strips of paint were peeling from the faded red door, cracked clay pots on the stoop held withered stems, and coffee rings, it looked like, stained the front curtain – a frayed sheet with a faded floral print taped onto the inside window.

She raised her arm to knock, but the woman had anticipated her arrival, slowly opening the door and looking up at her with an eager smile, displaying a mouthful of brown, widely spaced teeth. Jane was visibly taken aback at her appearance – papery skin stretched tightly against her skull, a thin wisp of grey fluff lining her forehead, and a few long whiskers jutting from her chin. It was the first impossibly old person Jane had ever seen, and the face briefly frightened her. Briefly thinking of Hansel and Gretel meeting that witch in the forest, she took a deep breath, smiled back, and held up a bag.

“Hello Abi. I brought your groceries.”

Jane had seen Abi shuffling around the neighborhood, always dressed in baggy brown trousers and blue pea coat with dark sunglasses and corduroy cloche hiding her face. Once Jane offered a hello in passing; the next time they exchanged pleasantries, and finally Abi suggested Jane share her phone number, “because sometimes I find I’ve run out of things.” That was several months ago, and this was Abi’s first call; she needed two bananas, one lemon, and vanilla ice cream.

“Thank you, dear. Please come in.”

Jane stepped into a living room and looked around. Piles of books, papers, and journals were piled on every conceivable surface; dust collected in nooks and crannies of the furniture. Abi looked as if she’d dressed up a bit for this visit, with lacy periwinkle tights and a red knit skirt peeking out from under her housecoat. Now over the shock of her appearance, Jane was now curious to see how the woman lived, evidently on her own. How was she taken care of?

A wide counter took the place of a wall, with the kitchen on the other side. Abi leaned against it for support, fumbled through a pile of papers, and pulled out a checkbook. “Will you take those things out of the bag for me and put them on the counter, dear? I’ll write you a check for what I owe you.”

Opening the freezer, Jane was surprised to see it already stuffed full of ice cream – at least a dozen cartons, all various brands of vanilla. Unsure about Abi’s financial – and mental – situation, she answered that it was only about five dollars. “I’ll just keep track and you can pay me next time, when you need more.”

Abi smiled that wide, happy grin again. “Thank you, dear. Would you like to sit and talk for a while?” Jane glanced around, debating, when a framed photo caught her eye. It was a large a black and white fashion spread featuring a young woman with swanlike neck and 1940’s-style couture gown, cupping a lily pad in her hands and pursing her lips in a kiss. Abi moved up behind her.

“I was a great beauty, once upon a time.”

“This is you?”

“Yes. A very famous photographer took that one.” She paused for a moment and gazed at it. “I don’t remember which one right now. It may be written on the back if you’d like to take it down.”

“No, that’s fine. It’s a gorgeous shot. You were a model?”

“Well, it’s funny you ask that. Yes.” She held up a gnarled finger and paused for a moment. “You know, I don’t remember what I was going to say. That happens when you’re get so old.” She took Jane’s arm. “Thank you dear, you’re a lovely young girl. Would you help me for a minute now? I need to lie down and rest a bit.”

She leaned heavily on Jane’s arm, slowly lowering herself onto the worn tapestry couch and pointing to a brilliantly colored granny square afghan. “Can you please hand me that throw? I’m a bit chilly.”

Jane held it out. “This is wonderful. I made one like this when I was a kid but we didn’t have yarn like this.”

“Thank you. We have something in common, then, I made this to. I bought the yarn in Marrakesh. When we lived in Greece I traveled around quite a bit, you know, it was wonderful the things you could find.” She closed her eyes.

She covered Abi and continued examining the walls. Yellowing pages carefully clipped from glossy magazines overlapped under thumbtacks. Jane recognized the ingénue from that first photo in a few advertisements, and at parties with swarthy men and a few recognizable actors. There were other framed photos, too – a wedding portrait of the younger Abi in a tailored white suit, posed with a dark-haired man in front of what looked to be a castle. She was holding a spray of lilies, and Jane could see the resemblance to the woman on the couch in her wide, happy smile. Another formal shot, this one of the new parents cradling identical infants in christening gowns. There were several watercolor drawings of a harbor dotted with sailboats, several showing islands in the distance. Each was labeled “Mathraki, 1954” in spidery script in place of a signature. But nothing more recent; nothing that gave a clue what the more recent 60 or so years of her life looked like.

Abi? Jane asked softly, looking down at the sleeping woman. No response. She leaned in to feel shallow Abi’s breathing on her cheek and gently patted her balding head and wondered. Wondered how old those children were now, if they were even alive. Wondered how that frightening looking old woman ended up in a ramshackle house in a small American town after what seemed to be a glamorous, jet set life. Wondered if she should leave a note, or just leave.

She turned off the light and shut the door behind her.