Unemployed Again

Unemployed Again

Friday, March 12, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Even after they knew she was dead, they continued to shove birthday cake into her open mouth. It’s an image that will forever haunt me. But that’s not how it started.

My friend Siobhan was a personal chef to Alice Kent, a wealthy living legend with a history that could fill volumes of gold gilded manuscripts with fascinating tales. Kentfield, a quixotic little town in Marin County, California, was actually named after her family. She was born both wealthy and powerful, and lived a life that most of us only dream about. Her husband, Roger Kent, was a powerful attorney, who had Richard Nixon as his client. And Alice, a staunch democrat, was known for rubbing shoulders with Jimmy Carter. They knew artists and writers and famous people from around the globe. And they had lived the glamorous life that only a few, and very rich, can even imagine.

But by the time my friend was hired on as her personal chef, Alice was approaching the final days of her life. Alice was old, and her husband was dead. She had long ago given up her mansion and most of her belongings, and moved to a modest condominium in Kentfield. She used her money to surround herself with a variety of talent; she hired astrologers, masseuses, psychiatrists, writers, Professors, and live-in caretakers to fill her days. And my friend Siobhan cooked for her; filling her mouth with every delectable treat that she might have a yen for. “This morning, only a raspberry scone seems palatable,” she might say. And soon the kitchen filled with the sounds of Siobhan’s laughter, and the smells of rising yeast and butter.

Siobhan mentioned to me that Alice was looking for a writer, and I applied immediately. All of my life, I’ve dreamed of making my living as a writer. Of course, for the most part, this was just a pipe dream, imagined by a little girl who believed she would always have a mountain of opportunities at her feet. Life never turned out that way for me, and it seems I’ve always struggled in a career I detested. But occasionally, because I enjoyed writing so much, opportunities came my way. With my friend’s wonderful references, I was hired.

When I met Alice, I realized her body was on its last legs. She was so hunched over, I don’t think she stood over four feet tall, if she could stand at all. For the most part, she got around in a wheel chair, and for much of the day was hooked up to an oxygen tank. Her day was scheduled and regimented; a reflexologist might come to massage her feet at 9:00 a.m., and a holistic healer might be scheduled to give her nutritional recommendations at 10:00. But while her body was withering, her mind was sharp, and she had stories to tell. She asked me to help her tell those stories.

So my days at my new job began.

My shift was 6 hours, which took up most of Alice’s day. Certainly we might break for one of Siobhan’s exquisite luncheons, or to take tea on the veranda. But for the most part, my instructions were simple. She wanted me to talk with her. She wanted me to converse with her for hours and hours, while all the while I would be taping the discourse. Then using a transcriber with a sticky pedal, and her archaic apple computer, I would transcribe our entire conversation.

Following that, I would turn her words into prose.

I loved this job. Alice Kent was a fascinating spirit. She regaled me with stories about the Kennedys, rejoicing in little quips about what Jack or Bobby might have done as children, recounting her memories of the First Family with a wistful look in her eye. She captivated my attention as she told how she helped to start the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. “I had a vision, it was that simple,” Alice told me in her no nonsense way. “So I set out to create that vision. I’ve always had money.” She had met the Beatniks, including Jack Kerouac himself. “He was devilishly handsome,” I remember her telling me, her eyes lifting in a flirtatious way. I was mesmerized by her stories, and was always egging her on to go deeper and deeper into her rich history. I was fishing for golden material that I could use later that day when I turned her stories into living fairy tales.

In the mornings we would talk about anything and everything, from her Jungian Therapy work to her belief in astrology. Sometimes we’d have other guests, from Theology Professors to Historians, sitting in on our chats. It was always a far more difficult job to transcribe conversations when there were more than two people talking. I can still hear the whir of the tape and the clicking of the pedals, as I stepped on them rewinding and forwarding and rewinding again, to catch every phrase and nuance. Sometimes I would take a little respite and sneak into the kitchen to giggle with Siobhan, and poke a spoon into her aromatic concoctions. Then, in the afternoons, as Alice was having her massage, I would sit at the dusty Apple, turning her words into paragraphs and then into chapters, creating until it was time for me to go home for the day. I felt happy.

I hardly noticed the months passing, or how rapidly Alice’s health was deteriorating. She began to take to her bed more and more, and we began to have our taped conversations while she lay flat on her back, staring at the ceiling. She became incontinent, and our conversations often took an unpleasant turn to her urine concerns. Soon, a little potty was set up right next to my work station; and as I tried to create paragraphs of lyrical prose, I was treated to the sight of a bowl filled with yellow liquid, that didn’t have a particularly good smell. The condominium became more like a hospital to me as time went on, and it became more difficult to find my inspiration.

One cold winter morning in December, I arrived at work to find her alert and sitting up in her wheel chair. “Good morning, Alice,” I started. “You look well.”

“We need to talk,” she said gravely. “Please wheel me into the parlor. Siobhan is preparing our tea.”

I did as she asked, and was soon seated directly in front of her on a pink French Chintz chair. Siobhan came in and served us tea, and she and I exchanged a meaningful giggle as we always did. “Enough carrying on,” Alice warned us sharply. “I need some privacy with Cathy please.” Alice’s live-in caretaker ushered Siobhan from the room.

Alice didn’t waste any time. “I am about to die,” she told me. The words hung in the air as if they were heavier than most. As if they were incapable of dissolving.

“Of course you’re not,” I quickly assured her, the way we do even when we know we’re lying. “Look at you today! You look well.”

“I will be dead, in my estimation, in approximately a fortnight. In fourteen days, give or take a day or two. I’m not sure of the exact day,” she said, sipping on her tea and looking placidly out of the window.

I saw no sense in arguing with her. “In that case, I’ll miss you.”

“I know you’ll be flying to Washington D.C. next month for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I should have really done this sooner, but I have arranged for you and your companion to have a special invitation into the Presidential Ball, and two tickets to sit in the V.I.P. section when the President is sworn in. These are highly coveted tickets, and worth a mint. They’ll be arriving by mail.”

I was both overjoyed and touched, and I fell all over myself trying to thank her properly.

“Thank you so much, Alice. You’re too kind.”

“There’s more.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. With great difficulty, and with her fingers shaking, she unfolded it, and then held it out toward me. I put down my tea and reached over to fetch the paper she was holding. It was a check. And for a pretty healthy amount of money.

“What is this for?” I asked, astounded.

“I wanted you to have that. It’s too late to put you in my will, and my family would battle you for the money for years. Just take that and use it for something that would help you in your writing. Perhaps a magical trip somewhere. Perhaps a writer’s retreat. Whatever you think best. Perfect your gift. Hone your craft. Follow your passion.”

I was stunned. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome,” she said quietly. “But you mustn’t tell anyone. For instance, I am not leaving anything to any of the staff. And that includes Siobhan.”

This hurt me to my core. “But I don’t understand. Why not?” Siobhan had worked for her for years, while I’d barely completed thirteen months. Not to mention, she’d gotten me the job.

“As liberal as you know me to be, this might come as a shock to you. But the way I grew up, the cooks were merely servants. Your services are on another scale. You are an artist, and your efforts must be supported. You are not my employee. I am commissioning you for your talent. Do you see the difference?”

“Not really,” I told her. “Siobhan is an artist. She is a chef. What she creates in the kitchen is mind blowing.”

“And I agree with you,” she told me. “It’s just not the way I was raised to believe. I hope you don’t think less of me, and that you use this money to further your craft.”

“I will,” I said, folding the check and putting it in my pocket. “Thank you.”

“Because I can’t pinpoint my exact moment of death, it is impossible for me to know if I will die on your shift or not. It could be in the middle of the night, while you’re sleeping at home. But if at all possible, I would like you to be here.”

“I hope I will be.”

“Thank you. And once I’m gone, I’d like you to publish this book you’ve been working on for me. This is the legacy I want to leave behind. I’m certain my family will try and prevent it. I hope you’ll persevere. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Good,” she said loudly clapping her hands together. “Then let’s get busy. We have a lot of work to do. We need to come up with a viable ending for this story that has become my life. Go grab the tape recorder. I am ready.”

For the next two weeks, Alice and I worked tirelessly, my six hour shift stretching to eight or ten hours per day. In the evenings I would type away next to her bowl of urine, working as quickly as I could to write my conclusions to her life story. Time was running out, and Alice wanted to make sure it was completed.

The last day I saw Alice, it was her birthday.

She had been doing well during her last few weeks of her life. But when I arrived at work that day, I found her stretched out in her bed, moaning into her oxygen tank.
“Happy Birthday, Alice,” I said softly, as I stood at her bedside.
Alice took the oxygen tube out of her mouth for a moment, as if she was struggling to say something to me. I waited, but no words came. She put the tube back into her mouth, and began breathing slowly and methodically. The sound reminded me of snorkeling under water.
“Are you up to doing any work today?” I asked.

She shook her head vehemently, indicating that she was not. Then she took out her tube and spoke.

“You finish.” She said in a labored way. She raised her eyebrows as if to ask if I understood. I nodded. “I will lie here and listen to you type. I love the sound. It sounds like rain.” It took her several moments to get those three short sentences out. I didn’t want to tire her, so I took my place on the computer and began to write.
I wrote for hours, with the slow labored sounds of her breathing my only company. Once in awhile I’d look over and smile at her and she would only nod, as if to say, “Keep working.”

The afternoon slipped by, and by the day’s end, I felt as though I finally had a finished draft. “Alice, I think we have a book!” I shouted excitedly. “Would you like me to read you the end?”

She struggled to take the oxygen tube out of her mouth. “No,” she almost choked. “I. Trust. You.”

I smiled. “My shift is over .Would you like me to go home?”

“Not. Yet.” She struggled over every syllable. “Sit. With. Me.”

I pulled a chair near her bedside and took her hand. “Funny we finished the book on your birthday,” I said.

“Yes.” She tried to laugh. “And. My. Death. Day.”

I didn’t argue; I just held her hand tighter. We sat in silence for at least fifteen minutes.

“You. Go. Home,” she said at last. Her breath had become even shallower.

“Are you sure?”

“Good. Bye.  Good.  Luck.”

“You sure you don’t want me to stay?”

She shook her head again, although this time it seemed a bit sad. I grabbed my purse and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. The last words she said to me, as if with a sudden burst of energy, were “Do you hear the sounds of the birds singing?”

I strained my ears, but there were no birds. It was utterly silent. I nodded yes, and then left.

Alice died later that night.

After I left, her children came over and joined Siobhan for what was supposed to be a birthday celebration. Siobhan had just put the finishing touches on Alice’s birthday cake as the family arrived. But when the family went in to say hello to Alice, they realized it was only a matter of time.

They gathered around her bedside, and held hands with Alice, in a complete circle. Siobhan recounted later that they had called her in to join them. “It’s any minute now,” they had told her. “Come join our circle and say good-bye to mother.”

Siobhan wasn’t sure what to do with the birthday cake, but she wasn’t a chef that would allow one of her stellar creations to go to waste. With shaking hands, she put candles in the cake and lit them. Then she brought in the flaming dessert to Alice’s bedside. She was singing “Happy Birthday.” The family joined in, and they all serenaded her as Alice slipped away.

A final gasp was heard before she passed over to the other side. The family, along with Siobhan, continued to sing; they blessed her spirit as it filled the room, and just as quickly vanished.

To this day, Siobhan isn’t sure why she did this. But she broke off a piece of the birthday cake, and opened Alice’s mouth and laid it on her tongue. Of course I joked with her later that she was too conceited over her creation for Alice to die without even tasting it. But the real reason is a mystery to us all. All I know is that she continued to shove bits of birthday cake in Alice’s mouth as she lay dead, and as her children continued to sing. Soon the mouth was too full, and crumbs began falling into the crevices of her neck. It is an image that has always haunted me.

By the time I went to Clinton’s inauguration that winter, the VIP tickets and invitations she had promised me hadn’t arrived, and I left to D.C. without them. But when I returned home, I found them in my mail. Sadly, Alice had procrastinated a little too long in getting them to me on time, but I still treasured them. I framed them, and hung them on my wall as a remembrance.

A few days later, a funeral and wake was held in Alice’s honor. Both Siobhan and I attended this event, and felt quite honored to be there. The guest list was long and distinguished; from politicians to actresses to writers. The event was featured on the Society Page.

At the wake, I pulled aside Alice’s son to tell him how sorry I was to lose her, and how much she had taught me. He met my smile with reproach, and ignored my offers of sympathy. Instead, he told me that he had heard of my “little endowment,” as he called it. “I hope you didn’t take advantage of my mother and her money,” is what he told me. “In her diminished state, I’m sure you could have convinced her of anything.”

I was hurt and offended. “I never asked anything of Alice, except my paycheck. She offered me that money.”

“If you say so,” was his sharp reply. Then he scoffed. “Enjoy it.”

“Her only request was that I finish and publish the book the two of us have been working on.”

He laughed and tipped back his glass of champagne, letting the last few drops of expensive effervescent bubbles fall onto his tongue. “There will be no book,” is what he said, wiping his mouth and wearing too big of a grin.

“That was her last wish.”

“Let me make this clear,” he told me. “I’m an attorney. There will be no book.” And with that, he turned on his heel and left me standing there.

And there was no book. I contacted the rest of the family following the funeral with parts of the manuscript, and her dying wish to have it published. I was ignored, rebuffed and even threatened. I eventually dropped the idea.

But I think of Alice and her stories often. I’ve always wondered what birds Alice heard that winter day when there were no birds. All I know is that she heard them.

I, too, often hear birds that aren’t there. They are the sounds of ultimate peace. And with them I am able to pull an entire blanket of stars over my shoulders like a blanket, and for just one minute, I am reminded how things never really die. And how if we listen very carefully, the birds are always singing.

Me in Kindergarten

Me in Kindergarten