Rachel lived near U.S.C. off of Western in a modest beige bungalow that hadn’t been painted since the Watts Riots. A mass of miniature palm trees, yucca trees, and camellia bushes packed the front yard. Getting to the front door was an act of ducking the green and whipping away the gnats. Tall stacks of newspapers crowded the porch and a skinny grey cat mewed at me from an old stand-alone swing.
The assignment was to talk to her for a short while, spend “quality time” with her. She was lonely – her husband had died years and years before and she had no children. The director of the Joint Educational Project told me she was nearing 88 and her health wasn’t good.
I knocked on the screen door, able to see inside the cluttered house. A billowing woman wearing a print housecoat shuffled from behind a wall-papered wall, coming to the door. She couldn’t have been more than five foot two, smiling, wearing bright-red lipstick. Her white hair was just as puffy as she was, brushed carefully into a quasi-bouffant, a pink-bow barrette to the side. Her eyes were moist and blue and she seemed so, so happy to have company.
She ushered me in and took my bag from me, laying it down next to an empty planter in the entranceway. She chattered, thinking I was from the synagogue she could no longer attend, but when I corrected her she remembered that she was approached by someone from the college.
“Oh yes,” she said, “such nice people.”
The kitchen was as ancient as her house – appliances, a table and chairs dating back to the fifties, green tiles, and plain cupboards painted yellow. She had a toaster covered by chicken-fabric. She stood at the counter on a small stool to bring down cookies. She arranged them on a plate and poured milk into two purple glasses that looked eerily similar to glasses my mother once got as a promotion from a gas station.
I asked her how long she lived in the house.
“Johnny and I bought this house in 1942. We thought it was the most beautiful house on the block. A real nice lawn in front. We loved to work in the garden. This is Johnny.”
With a serene smile on her face, she reached across the table and showed me a picture of a man in his 60’s maybe – white hair brushed to the side, wearing black-rimmed glasses. The color picture had faded as if she kept the framed shot in the sun. I took the picture into my hands and nodded appreciatively.
“He looks like a very nice person.”
“He was so smart – he was an engineer. Worked for the city. He used to take me to all the buildings he worked at. He died of pneumonia.” Her face changed a little, but then she resumed the smile again. She ate a cookie, taking small bites at a time. I ate, too, drinking some milk to wash down the basic chocolate chip.
We talked some more and then she wanted to share something with me. She shuffled away and for the first time I noticed her slippers, pink and fluffy. When she returned, she had a cassette in her hand. She sat down at her seat and put the tape into a black tape recorder. She pressed the play button, her face serious, anticipating what she’d hear.
A man’s voice crackled out of the recorder – he was singing something I didn’t recognize. Sounded like a folk song. Rachel lit up, looking at me.
“Doesn’t he have a beautiful voice?”
“Yes, he does,” I said.
The song ended and he laughed, making a comment about the machine. “Rachel what do I push? My Rachel, you can do these things better than me.”
She laughed along with herself on the tape. “Johnny always made me laugh.”
“You’re my life, honey. Come and sing with me. I’m not the only one who’s going to be a fool on this machine.”
“You couldn’t be a fool, Johnny.”
“I love you, honey.”
“I love you, too.”
The two laughed together on the tape and then Rachel shut the recorder off, smiling at me. “This is the only thing I have left of my Johnny. I listen to him every day, whenever I feel like I miss him.”
She pressed a red-painted fingernail on the machine. We listened to Johnny talking about work and about his parents. How they lived in New York City in the Bronx and had died in the fifties. The tape showed a sliver of a tender and lasting relationship between two people alone in this life – she still hadn’t let go of him. I couldn’t blame her. I took a furtive glance at the living room seeing a house full of collections. Old radios lined shelves, curio cabinets overflowed with porcelain trinkets, and throw rugs draped the furniture and floors.
We talked about Rachel’s schedule which wasn’t much. Get up in the morning, shower, dress for the day. Make breakfast for herself. Clean the house a little. Not so much anymore. Not with her arthritis and heart problems. Lunch. Listen to Johnny. A girl from the synagogue brought groceries twice a week. I’m lonely, she said. I miss conversation, she said.
I checked my watch and smoothed my skirt and blouse, smiling at Rachel, telling her in turn about my schedule. I said I know love, but not like yours.
“Nobody’s like Johnny.”
“No,” I agreed, taking her hand in mine.
I glanced up at the clock on her wall, a plain one with black hands and red second hand, and the hour told me it was time to go. Our time was up. She walked me to the door and I shook her hand. I’d be back next week. This was lovely, I told her.
“Thank you,” I said, “For telling me about Johnny.”
“I miss him so much.”
She smiled and I stepped out the door into the wild brush along the walkway, hearing the door slam gently against the frame. I turned and waved and she waved back, her form shadowed behind the screen.
We met only a few times more, each time, Johnny’s crooning accompanying our conversation. The last time I saw her was a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, water pouring onto her porch due to clogged drain pipes, the cat nowhere to be seen. Rachel was in tears when she opened the door for me. Someone had broken into her house when she was at a doctor’s appointment and had taken her tape recorder with the tape still inside.
There was nothing I could do or say to console her. I held her hand as she cried and cried. She’d lost Johnny.
My assignment had ended. The next person I was given was a brisk ninety-five year old woman who used the students from U.S.C. to shuttle her around like a taxi service – against the rules due to liability issues. The director warned me not to let her suck me into her schedule. I got sucked in, taking her to a doctor or two, to the store once or twice. The next job, the last one before I abandoned the idea of being a social worker, had been to volunteer at St. John of God’s convalescent hospital on West Adams Boulevard with Alzheimer patients who often had forgotten love, along with everything else that mattered in a daily life. I pushed the patients around in their wheel chairs in the garden or fed them their lunches.
I thought for a long while after that perhaps forgetting was better than remembering.