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American Wife(11)
Curtis Sittenfeld

The elevator operator carried our bags inside the apartment. The room where I was to stay featured twin beds separated by a white marble table, and on the table sat a lamp with a large base of raspberry-colored ribbed glass; also, there was an actual suitcase stand on which the operator set my suitcase. At first I’d thought to decline when the man had offered to carry our bags, but when my grandmother had accepted, I had, too. Then I wondered if she ought to tip him, which she didn’t. Her room, connected to mine by a bathroom we’d share, had a canopy bed, the canopy itself silvery-blue silk shantung gathered in the center around a mirror the size of a Ritz cracker.

In the living room was a mix of modern and old-fashioned funiture: two low, geometric white couches, an antique-looking gold-leaf chair, a revolving walnut bookcase, and many prints and paintings, some of them abstract, hung close together on the walls. Dr. Wycomb asked a maid in a black dress and a white apron for a Manhattan. My grandmother held up her index and middle fingers: “And two old-fashioneds.”

Dr. Wycomb glanced at me through her cat’s-eye glasses. “Would you prefer a hot cocoa, Alice?”

“She’ll take an old-fashioned,” my grandmother said. To the maid, she said, “With brandy, not whiskey.”

“Oh, Myra knows.” Dr. Wycomb laughed. “Don’t forget, I’m from Wisconsin, too, Emilie.” When the maid left the room, Dr. Wycomb said, “Myra and I have quite a rivalry going. She’s a White Sox fan, while I root for the Cubs. Do you follow baseball, Alice?”

“Not really,” I admitted.

“We’ll convert you yet. Last season, I’m afraid Myra had more to gloat about, but with Ron Santo, the Cubs just might have a chance this year.”

When Myra returned with the drinks, my grandmother held up her glass and said, “Gladys, I’d like to propose a toast. To you, my dear, for being a world-class hostess and a true friend.”

Dr. Wycomb raised her own glass. “And I turn it back and say to both of you—to the Lindgren women, Emilie and Alice.”

The two of them looked at me expectantly. “To baseball,” I said. “To 1963.”

“Hear, hear.” Dr. Wycomb nodded emphatically.

“To a wonderful time together in Chicago,” my grandmother said.

The three of us clinked our glasses.

DR. WYCOMB, IT turned out, had taken several days’ vacation to be our hostess. Our first order of business was for my grandmother to acquire her sable stole, which, as by then I had intuited would happen, Dr. Wycomb paid for with no discussion. Over the next several days, we bundled up and toured the city together, visiting the Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium (I was appalled and transfixed by a ten-foot alligator), and the Joffrey Ballet, where we took in an afternoon performance of La Fille Mal Gardée and where Dr. Wycomb, I observed, fell deeply asleep. At the Prudential building, my stomach dropped as we rode the elevator forty floors—when the building had opened in 1955, its elevators had been the world’s fastest—and on the forty-first-floor public observation deck, I thought how much my father would have enjoyed the view. Even though I wore a hat, scarf, and mittens, it was unbearably cold in the wind, and I stayed outside under a minute before retreating. My grandmother and Dr. Wycomb did not venture onto the observation deck at all. In the evenings, we ate heavy dinners prepared and served by Myra: braised veal chops with prunes, or lamb and turnips.

That Sunday, Dr. Wycomb went to the hospital to check on her patients, and after she’d left the apartment, my grandmother and I caught a cab to the Pelham. We climbed the steps to the third floor—the building was five stories, with no elevator—and found in our room a double bed and not much else. Breathing heavily from the stairs, my grandmother threw back the coverlet, mussed the sheets, filled a glass with water from the bathroom sink, and set the glass on the windowsill. Then she stood at the window, which looked onto the gray backside of another building. It was seven degrees that day and so overcast I was tempted to lie on the bed and take a nap. “I’m being a little silly, aren’t I?” my grandmother said.

I shrugged, still unable to bring myself to ask about our duplicitousness.

“It’s not as if your father will ring the management to see if our room looks inhabited,” my grandmother said. This was true—due to the expense, my father avoided making long-distance calls. The rare times when he did make them, he shouted uncharacteristically, as if raising the volume of his voice would enable a second cousin in Iowa to hear him better.

“Did Dr. Wycomb ever have a husband?” I asked.

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