Elise (At the Rehabilitation Restaurant)

In memory everything seems to happen to music. – Tennessee Williams

i

As a girl, Elise loved to sing. Singing made her happy. She’d wear an old pair of her mother’s long white gloves and a flowing dress and put on a show. Her father played the piano for her and her mom was the audience.

She sang the songs they heard on the radio, and she sang the songs her dad knew, with made-up lyrics. At bedtime, he would sing her the final verse of “Irene, Good-Night,” and change the name to Elise.

When she was eight years old they went to see The Wizard of Oz, and she soon memorized the words to “Over the Rainbow;” it remained her favorite song till they saw Going My Way a few years later and “Swinging on a Star” became her song. This was at a time when Bing Crosby was everywhere—records, radio and the movies. Elise and her dad joined his fan club and bought many of his records.

Another star descended in the nineteen-forties and Elise’s mom switched allegiance. Elise and her dad remained loyal to Crosby. “That boy from Hoboken can sing,” her father said, “but he can’t hold a candle to Bing.”

Elise’s father endured poor health, the effect of injuries he suffered as a Marine in the battle at Belleau Wood. He and his battalion had marched in their well-disciplined lines across a waist-high field of wheat—right into the horror of German machine gun fire. He recovered from his wounds but the mustard gas left permanent scars. He worked in the parish office when he could and her mother taught school there. Elise sang in the school choir.

She married young, at age nineteen, the sandy-haired boy she had dated her final year of high school. It was around this time that her father’s health worsened and he rarely went to the parish office anymore. He had lost weight and he’d cinch his belt at the waist to hold up his pants. He spent many days in bed.

Elise visited her father often. She would open the blinds and play his favorite records on the phonograph. Some days she read him the newspaper and when he fell asleep she would tuck him in and quietly slip out. For one visit, at his birthday, she had cut pieces of canary yellow and bright gold corrugated paper into the shape of moonbeams, and put them in a mason jar. She wrote an inscription on each of her moonbeams, and he drew one from the jar and read it aloud: “I’ll love you forever, daddy.” He clutched his slip of paper and several tears graced his cheeks. He was unable to read any more of his moonbeams.

The last time Elise saw her father she noted an unfamiliar light in his eyes. She sat in the chair beside his bed and held his hand a long while. Before he nodded off he asked her to leave the window open for him. “I like to hear the wind,” he said. He took a small swallow of water and closed his eyes. “I’m happy I have you and your mother to escort me out, sweetheart. You’ll play some Ella and Lady Day for me, won’t you?”

ii

Their son was born and they named him Luke, after her father. She rarely felt rested in those days of Luke’s infancy, but she cherished the serenity of his early morning feedings and the oneness she felt with this little being at her breast.

He was a serious boy and he seldom cried. Staid, like his grandfather, she thought. His smile could disarm the sadness that lay in wait for her, and she’d tickle the bottoms of his feet to see him laugh.

She sang to him when she pushed him in the stroller and the baby cooed back at her. She pointed out the squirrels that scampered up the trees or the birds singing in the brush, or the bigger birds that swooped high in the sky. She announced the color of the cars that passed by and she told him they were unafraid of the Marines that gathered on the Oceanside street corners because his grandpa was a Marine and she knew the Marines only took on the bad guys. “And we’re the good guys,” she confided.

Roger, her husband, seemed more interested in sex than parenting, and his constant pawing at Elise troubled her. Roger was unhappy in his work selling shoes at the department store and he spent time after work at the bar. Elise encouraged him to find something different, maybe something better, and she cut out “Help Wanted” ads for him. He shook off her suggestions.

She made friends at the apartment complex, though these friendships proved evanescent; her new friends slipped from the small orbit of the apartment building when they bought their first home and moved away. She made their flat as nice as possible and wondered when she, too, would be able to move away.

Luke started school and Elise took a job serving lunch at Jay’s Gourmet, in Karlsbad. Several experienced waitresses took her under their wing and she learned restaurant etiquette, to stand up straight, and which wine might complement which plate. She learned to look her guests in the eye and she learned how to read them: to tell apart, for instance, those who’d enjoy a drink from those who needed a drink. She developed her own style, kind and attentive, and diners remembered her—they asked for her when they came back to Jay’s.

She found she liked her work; it gave structure to her day and she liked to hear the anecdotes her patrons told about their lives. Like any skillful waitress she learned to flirt, and how to brush it away with a smile. She saved her tips in an old handbag she kept in the closet, and she was able to buy new clothes for herself and Luke. She’d clock out after her shift and race home to be there when the school bus arrived.

This was the decade when the big bands and orchestras gave way to guitars and the rhythm and blues. She listened to Ray Charles and Fats Domino, but never warmed to Elvis or Buddy Holly. Occasionally she played her old 78s, but music no longer guided her life. Roger, who supposed himself a person of the times, bought a guitar and scratched away at it some nights after work. He learned a handful of chords but never put them together in a way that sounded like music.

Elise had expected that she and Roger would grow closer, the way her mom and dad seemed to have grown more fond of each other with every passing year. She read the articles in McCall’s and Redbook and talked with her mom, even confided in an old high school friend, and all concurred: it’s a big adjustment; be patient; love will grow. Shortly after the baby was born she had turned Roger away and now he seemed set on turning her away. There were evenings she had prepared his favorite dish and he hadn’t come home for dinner; and nights she’d showered and dressed for him and he headed back out. She recalled their courtship, when they couldn’t wait to get at each other, the thrill of hands finding places they’d never been, and it all seemed a dreamy fiction, someone else’s story.

She devoted herself to her son. She helped at school when she could and she saw that the other kids looked up to Luke; he was tall for his age and strong, and Elise fancied him their quiet leader. Elise and Luke savored their small rituals: Fridays in summer they rode up to the Pepper Tree in Vista for a cheeseburger and milkshake, and Sunday mornings they attended Mass together at the Mission and treated themselves to breakfast out.

Her favorite photograph from his childhood, the one she framed and kept on the dresser, was taken from behind them. The ocean sparkled ahead, in the distance. She wore a denim jumper and her hair fell over her shoulders; Luke wore his swimsuit and his hair was close-cropped, in a crewcut. They held hands and their heads were turned to each other. He had stopped to ask her a question, but his question eluded her. She believed that one day his question would come back to her; till then she only hoped she had given him a full and thoughtful answer.

Luke matured and Elise faded herself into the background of his life. She looked on as he nurtured his friendships. She still attended his ballgames, but now at a greater remove, from high in the stands. He grew out his hair and followed his instincts in music. He liked the British bands, especially The Beatles. When the band peaked in 1967, and John Lennon was pictured on the first cover of Rolling Stone, he asked for a subscription. He traced out a genealogy of his music for her, from folk rock through the British Invasion, and gave her a list of the ten great albums of the decade.

Elise’s mother died that year and Elise inherited her childhood home. She continued at Jay’s, and now she trained the young waitresses. She spent the few dollars her mom had left her redecorating the house, and the only remnant that seemed out of place, that didn’t belong, was her husband, Roger. In her darkest view he seemed an intruder.

Luke graduated high school in May 1970, and Elise held an open house; the crowd had thinned when Elise found Roger and Luke in the back of the yard, behind the acacia tree. Roger was jawboning, gesticulating with his beer can. Elise raised her eyebrows toward Luke, a question.

“Dad thinks I should join the Marines,” he said.

She looked at Roger and back to Luke. “Dad isn’t thinking.”

“Your father—” Roger pointed his beer can at Elise. “He was a—”

“Yes, Roger. We all know that my dad was a Marine.” Elise was furious and she made no effort to hide it.

“Dad says they’ll teach me a trade.”

“The trade they’ll teach you, Luke, is how to kill. Some of your guests are leaving—come and say goodbye.”

Elise could no longer bear to hear or read anything about Vietnam. She saw Nixon come on the television to dissemble darkly about bombing Cambodia, and she turned it off. She saw the headlines about the kids killed at Kent State and then at Jackson State, but didn’t dare read the stories. She glanced at an article in Time about the economy, but it only seemed more Nixon illogic: engineer a recession to ward off inflation. She ended her subscriptions to both the newspaper and magazine.

Summer wore on and still Luke hadn’t found work; nobody was hiring. In early August he asked his mom to ride along with him to the Pepper Tree. They sat at their familiar bench and finished their burgers. “I’m not having much luck in the job market,” he said. “I think it’s time I join the Marines.”

Elise was silent. She studied her last bite of food as tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Don’t worry, mom—I’ll be alright.”

“I worry about you all the time, Luke.”

He was assigned to the First Marine Division, served his boot camp at Camp Pendleton and shipped off to Da Nang Province. His regiment was the last of the Marine ground troops stationed in South Vietnam. He sent his mom one letter from Vietnam—he told her that Da Nang was much prettier than he had imagined, with Marble Mountain behind them and the China Sea opening out ahead of them; that there were a number of great guys in his company and that there was a rumor going round that in a couple months they’d all be transferred to safer harbor in Okinawa. He’d keep his fingers crossed.

Luke never received his mother’s reply. He was killed in January of the new year, in a lightning attack by Viet Cong guerillas. The notification officer was a totemic black man, immaculate in his Marine uniform. All Elise remembered from his visit was the kindness in his eyes.

iii

She damned them all to hell—Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon—and their heinous lies. She couldn’t remember which one had insisted that we seek no wider war, but supposed it didn’t matter. They could all go to hell.

She told Roger she would file for divorce as soon as she could think straight again, and asked him to leave. She sold the house, put the proceeds in the bank and took a small apartment in Karlsbad, on Juniper Street. She cut her work schedule to one shift per week; she’d quit altogether, but she feared becoming an arrant recluse. She persuaded herself to paint a smile and be personable for four hours, one day each week.

She was angry with her God because He had inflicted a burden she couldn’t bear; she shunned the Mission and she no longer prayed. She subsisted on Special K and toast, and she felt her strength seep away; she seemed to need more and more sleep. Near the end of her two-year lease she didn’t know what she should do—she only knew she couldn’t go on like this.

The next time she saw Jay she asked if he would increase her hours. “Is Sleeping Beauty awakening?” he asked.

“Baby steps,” she said. She pointed to the restaurant across the street. “Why aren’t there any cars in their parking lot?”

“You’ve just noticed? You really have been asleep, Elise. The County bought the restaurant. Lot’s been empty for a month.”

After her shift she crossed the street and climbed the front stairs to the porch of the princely restaurant and peered into the lobby; only the television in the far corner seemed out of place in the Queen Anne style parlor. She wondered if the family still lived upstairs.

“Grand Lady in Rehab” was the title of the newspaper column that was taped to the inside glass panel of the door. The article told the restaurant’s history (built in 1887 by a master carpenter from Germany…), its heyday in the early years of the motorcar and Prohibition, and its recent assumption by the County. The feature closed by directing applicants who aspired to renewal or rehabilitation to call Miss Margaret O’Flynn at the North County offices.

Elise wrote the phone number on a matchbook she found in her purse and called the next day to schedule an appointment; she cried the entire fifteen minutes of her interview. Miss O’Flynn drew the word melancholia on an index card and slipped it into her file. She came around the desk and took Elise’s hand. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” she asked. Elise nodded and managed to say, “Thank you.”

She thought the best way she could fit in was by being helpful, but discreetly. She poured coffee for the waiters during the heat of the dinner rush and she listened politely to Gunner’s lunatic rants. Tuesday mornings she helped Grace with her laundry. She hoped to gain Lillian’s trust so she could help when her baby was born in November.

She found solace in the company of the young people all around her and she took strength from their energy. They wore their emotions nakedly, as quick to smile and laugh as they were to pout. Their music was ubiquitous—record albums that played on the phonograph in their rooms streamed from the open windows, and when they rode in the County van the music plinked from the tinny speaker.

She knew a number of the voices—Lennon and McCartney, from the Beatles albums Luke had played; she found the intimacy of James Taylor’s voice as soothing as Bing Crosby’s and she thought the sweet harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash would sound angelic in a country church. She asked Emma about the women’s voices she heard, and Emma played Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt for her.

The women of the Restaurant worked the lunch meal, and the only two who served at dinner with the waiters and busboys were Emma, the hostess, and Elise, who served drinks. This bound them together and they watched out for each other. Elise marveled at the notion of making a new friend—she had feared that her days of making new friends had passed.

It was the final weekend of the Del Mar race meet, the days growing shorter, and the coastal towns, from La Jolla to Oceanside, bid adieu to another summer. Cars jammed the Coast Highway and horns rang out for no reason. Patrons packed the restaurants and saloons, and all pressed for the best table to witness one final sunset.

 

Elise helped Emma seat the initial rush and she took cocktail orders for diners at the bar awaiting their table. Willie the barman requested coffee to fix a Kahlúa drink, and Elise slipped into the kitchen to make a fresh pot. She caught her breath at the Bunn-O-Matic while the coffee brewed. She lifted the brimming pot in her right hand and swung it out in front of her. She pivoted from the machine and extended her left arm, elbow locked and palm open, poised to straight-arm the push-plate of the swing door—when it all stopped. Her scream silenced the dining room.

A busboy had committed the grievous sin of shoving into the kitchen through the egress door. The door hit the coffee pot and the pot burst instantly; it drenched Elise with scalding coffee, and shards of shattered glass cut her arms and face. The door continued on its perverse course and cracked Elise on the side of her head; its force knocked her off her feet.

The door settled to a rest and the guilty busboy peered through its small window into the kitchen. He saw Elise, supine in a mess of coffee and broken glass, on the kitchen floor. “Oh, no—Oh, no,” he repeated out loud. He held his face in his hands and backed away from the door; lost to him now was any urgency to rush into the kitchen.

Jude was at the bar window when he heard Elise’s cry, and felt certain he knew what had happened. He broke for the kitchen’s exit door and physically moved the moaning busboy so he could look through the window; he saw the kitchen crew hurry toward Elise. He looked across the dining room and saw that Emma had abandoned a party midway across the dancefloor as she bolted for the kitchen’s ingress door. Jude wedged his fingers into a corner of the door’s glass pane, tugged the door toward him, and edged into the kitchen. He skirted the puddle of coffee and broken glass and knelt beside Elise. Emma squatted on her haunches across from him.

Elise still clenched the handle of the busted coffee pot and Jude gently unwound her fingers. He bent closer to inspect the cut where blood matted her hair. “We’ll need some ice,” he said.

The kitchen crew grew more confident, with Jude and Emma at Elise’s side. “She hit the deck hard, man,” Sebastian said. “Probably a matching lump on the back of her head.” He went for the ice and Tawkee, the cook, said he’d go to the office and call an ambulance. Guillermo dropped the broken coffee pot into the trash and swept bits of glass into a dustpan.

Jude took Elise’s wrist and felt her pulse—he was surprised at the delicacy of her wrist and hand; he held onto her hand and remembered the morning he first met Elise. She had leaned against the picket fence at the edge of the parking lot and gazed out over the yard and the Restaurant’s grounds. He had crossed the lot to see her. What a pretty face, he had thought. Her hair had been parted in the middle and pulled back in a satin band. She had appeared more rounded in the hips and shoulders and breasts than the angular girls his age, and her eyes—amber with flecks of gold that circled her pupils—more somber. He had liked her immediately.

“Hey, Elise, can you hear me?” He looked across at Emma. “Concussion? You remember what we’re supposed to do?”

“I think we’re not supposed to move her.”

He looked at Elise’s mocha-stained blouse. The damp cotton of her blouse clung to her skin and around the shape of her breasts. “Her front’s probably burned from the coffee.”

The busboys, the waiters, even Willie the barman had left their posts and surged into the kitchen to answer Elise’s cry. Mr. Wooster scuttled out of his office. “Zis iss a shame,” he said. “A got-damm shame.”

Tawkee announced that the ambulance would arrive in ten minutes and he ordered the gathering back to work. “Your gawkin’ ain’t gonna’ help her any,” he said.

Sebastian handed Emma a baggie of ice which she pressed against the gash above Elise’s ear. “I’ll ride along to the hospital with her,” she said.

Jude turned back to the manager. “That means you’re the host now, Mr. Wooster—no more hiding in your office.”

Elise sighed and blinked her eyes open; she startled to find herself on the kitchen floor. She lifted her shoulders up off the floor and tried to fix her stare on Jude. He reached across her and guided her back down, with a hand under her head.

“Feels like I’m all wet,” she said.

“Yeah, your coffee pot broke,” Jude said. “And you got conked in the head and knocked on your butt. I’m afraid it’ll all hurt in a little while.”

“I think it hurts now. My head, I mean. And I feel a little dizzy. I think that if I tried to stand up I might just fall down.”

“I know, sweetie,” Emma said. “An ambulance is on the way.”

“Am I hurt badly?”

Emma looked across to Jude for help. “I think you’ll be OK—but the doctors will want to take a look.”

Elise’s convalescence was a difficult time for her. She had pills for the pain and salve for the burns but neither delivered the promised magical relief. She couldn’t shower, and so she never felt clean. She’d sit on the edge of the mattress to regain her bearings before climbing out of bed.

The women visited regularly; they carried meals to her from the Restaurant which remained on their trays, largely uneaten. She reread several pages of the novel Emma had brought her before she gave up on it for good. She missed the commotion of the Restaurant and how it carried her away. Recuperation meant too much time alone, empty time to remember losses and lick old wounds. She wondered what it would be like to feel less sad.

She had a handful of relatives, all still in Ohio, and she thought of writing them, but she didn’t want her foul mood to stain the letters. She pondered her family’s generally short lifespan, and wondered if she too was not meant to live long. She wasn’t taking the pain pills, she was saving them up, and she hid them in the dresser where they could no longer call to her. Finally she flushed them down the toilet, where they’d be gone for good.

Emma told Elise that the busboy felt miserable, that he had been acting strange since the accident, and they shared a laugh—could he be any goofier than he’d been before the incident?

“Wonder if he’s expecting me to come and absolve him?” Elise asked.

“He should be expecting a kick in the ass, if anything.”

“How’d Mrs. Kessler’s surgery go?”

“I saw Mr. Kessler. He said it was a difficult surgery. Tougher than they thought it would be.”

It was an itchy restlessness that finally drove Elise from bed. She put on her softest cotton top and loosest-fitting slacks and brushed back her hair. She crossed the parking lot to the Restaurant and climbed the outside stairs. She hesitated a moment at the door when she realized she hadn’t brought anything. She knocked and Mr. Kessler answered the door, flanked by his two girls; one stood hip-high, the other a head taller. Piano music sounded from the front room—that must be Aaron, Elise thought, the oldest.

“Nice to see that you’re up and around again, Elise. Jude came up and told me what had happened. We’ll string that busboy up by the toes. You feeling okay?”

“Much better, thanks. And how’s the patient?”

“A lot of pain—they scraped and scraped and then they found tumors in the lymph nodes.”

The girls led Elise to their mother’s room. The curtains were drawn but light entered the room through the stained glass panels at the topmost edge of the windows. “Mommy, Miss Elise has come to visit.” The girls squeezed together on the chair at the foot of the bed, and Elise took the bedside chair.

The girls’ mom opened her eyes and tried to smile, but it expressed more as a grimace. Elise took her hand and warmed it between her hands and held it in her lap.

Elise was aware of the piano music, the Ave Maria, floating in on waves from the front room and she was aware of the girls watching her with their bright and hopeful eyes. She was aware of the delicate light in the room, the pattern of the sea-green flower pots and pink tulips, and she was mindful of Mr. Kessler in another room taking his much-needed break.

For a moment she thought that it could be Luke’s hand or her father’s hand that she held, but for now it was this mother’s hand that she would hold as long as she could. She knew that she was finally again just where she needed to be.

Michael J. Martin is a graduate of UCSD, where he studied Creative Writing. He has worked in journalism and at many restaurants and bars. He has mopped hospital floors and mown many lawns. He drove the news truck. He has worked the auto trade and sold space on steamships. He has coached kids’ baseball and basketball. He most enjoys writing fiction. The family formerly lived in a rehabbed chicken coop which sank, and now lives in an exurb of Chicago. He’ll take a deep breath and begin the next chapter of his novel-in-progress.

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