Alice

Alice sat in the waiting room – waiting, no paperwork. No need to check contracts or scripts – not anymore. She really hated waiting – always had – and realized it might be a symptom of her illness that she could even bear to sit there. She’d had to fight the receptionist for an appointment (Dee would have handled it easily), had promised to make it short. She just wanted a local referral – someone she could talk to if it began to get worse. Neurologists didn’t grow on trees, not the good ones. It was better to go to someone who knew this disease. No, that was impossible. No one knew it. Just her luck – all her connections – the best specialists. No use now. She’d already had a second and a third opinion. None of them positive. It had been a relief when the diagnosis came through. Finally, she knew what to expect. A degenerative neurological problem, it would take some time to become life-threatening. There was no cure. Retirement was definitely the right step. She would sell the business. Maybe Dee could take over, buy her out. She would go on with her life she decided, but somewhere else, out of the limelight, away from Los Angeles and New York, away from the people who knew her. Nevada might be nice, close to Reno for the gambling. If she found the right place, with luck, she would die in her own house, no clinic, no hospice.

The doctor will see you now.

The house looked big from the outside, impressive. Three oversized rooms downstairs and upstairs what the agent called a “sleeping gallery”, reminding her of the cheap seats in a theater. If the stairs proved challenging later, she could switch to the guest room downstairs. What really convinced her was the land behind the house, reaching almost to the mountains – ‘four acres’ according to the realtor.
Used to New York and Los Angeles prices, the idea of owning so much land was tempting. “And down there, there’s a stream,” he’d said, gesturing toward the distant mountains,” at least in spring when the rains come”. Alice was entranced – a bubbling brook right on the property, increasing the value if she ever wanted…. caught herself before finishing the thought. It would never happen. This was it – end of the line…. She took a breath and agreed to the offering price – done. Even if it was mostly scrub land, it was hers.

The house took a lot of time. Her days were full – finding the right furniture, the decorations, wall colors. She was still in charge – at least until the disease cancelled that. She wanted comfort and status, she’d earned it. Never looked at the price tags on the cowhide sofas, the artifacts and Indian beadwork she’d found at the antique place in Reno. Bought a huge Lexus to drive around, four-wheeled drive, off-road enabled, all the doodads – like the Jeeps she saw on the roads – but better.

Living in a big house – isolated, a woman alone – she should have a big, aggressive dog. But she was afraid of dogs, horses too, had been since the “usually very friendly” dog had jumped on her when she was four, knocking her to the ground, standing over her panting, his large tongue hanging out. She still shivered at the memory. Big, hairy, smelly – she’d avoided dogs ever since. Horses were the same – but part of life out here. She would deal with horses later, but a dog, like the top-of- the-line alarm system she’d had installed, was a necessity.

Resolved, she checked ads, looked in the kennels, read books about canine character traits and finally chose a big Labrador retriever who looked very threatening, at least to her. After all her experience at casting auditions, she’d chosen wrong. The big white Labrador was miscast as a watchdog. More curious than threatening, he was already friends with the mailman and would probably lick the hands of any invader. She thought of bringing him back to the kennel, then hired a dog trainer to help. Dog and mistress grew fond of each other. She was proud she’d done it, bought her own dog, fed him, walked him, all the expected stuff, even taught him to fetch and carry. Snowflake was gentle, obedient – company when the housekeeper and the cleaner had gone home.

Driving the Lexus on some errand, her thoughts would drift off. The summers at Tamiment, when she was still Bessie Szymansky, Max, her first mentor, Tante Ida and Mama – what would they say if she could see her now; Ben, her first crush, the kids onstage – some of them big stars now – and she’d seen it, knew talent when she saw it, even then. Ben called her the judge and where was Ben now? Still in Philadelphia with his plays and his little theater. If he’d come with her then…. But she never pushed, never told him how she felt – frightened, thinking he might be in love with someone else or queer or something.

A sixteen-wheeler had pulled out in front of her. Where had he come from? What nerve. She edged out, passed the huge truck, shaking her head. She couldn’t get used to it, everyone out here so patient, so slow.

Like that kid Jake Seidell – waiting for the perfect part, not aggressive enough – the one Ben sent over from Philly, so young, so green, a favor for Ben, who’d written “the kid has something. Maybe you can help.” She’d been flattered. Ben, the golden boy from her teen-age summers in the Poconos, asking her for help. And she had helped, got Jake jobs, sent him to LA, got him that first movie. It was easy for her in those years. Where was he now? She’d lost track. Her fault or his? Could never tell with actors. Before she closed the business, she even asked Dee to look for him, then forgot about it. It bothered her now, felt was her fault, hated feeling guilty. She would call, ask Dee to find him, say it was one last business thing.
Dee would do it; she always did. All those years working together – sort of together. She knew, as soon as saw Dee that first time in the theater with Sam Shapiro. Dee was smart but quiet, a fixer. Sam was right. When it was time, Alice made her will: the house to be sold, proceeds going to help addicts, left her investments to Dee. Funny Dee never saw Sam for what he was. Well, him with a wife and kids, you had to have experience, not be fooled. No one fooled Alice. Dee – maybe, but not Alice. Then she’d pull into the parking space – at the supermarket or at the mall – and the past was gone, chased off by today’s list of things still to do.

She was more or less sitting on the saddle, not very secure – her horse trotting after the riding teacher. What was his name? maybe Rob? Cute ass, broad shoulders, like the first one back at Tamiment, one of the staff – a kid out from New York on a summer job. It wasn’t love for either of them, just another activity offered at the mountain resort. Hidden away up in the mountains, it was part of life, something else available at Tamiment. She wasn’t sad when it ended with the summer season. It was part of growing up. Today you had to be more careful, Aids on top of everything else. Terrible.

Sex wasn’t tender, not what she saw in the movies. She wasn’t sentimental about it. Maybe if Ben…. she never finished the thought, drowning it with memories of all the one-night stands in the big hotels she used when she traveled.
Simple Sex she called it and never allowed it to interfere with business. That was over too.

She felt what’s-his-name’s hand on her waist. “Whoa there. You alright? If you’re tired, we can stop for today, pick up next week.” Slid gratefully down to firm ground, said thanks, and aimed for her Lexus and home.

Once every two weeks she treated herself to a session at the tables. She didn’t often think of her short marriage but on the drive to Reno it almost always popped into her head. Was it the open road, the risk at the tables? Mo loved to gamble too. It was one of the things that brought them together – that and dope. They’d met in a bar in Chicago, one of her trips. Mo was a big guy, brawny, boss of a waste removal firm. They’d had a lot of fun until they got carried away – deciding on a high to get married in Las Vegas.

Narcotics Anonymous had helped her but Mo kept falling off the wagon, didn’t stay with the program. Understandable for her. The feeling you could beat the world – the table, the system, everything – was hard to give up. Easier to keep going. But she’d pulled away. It wouldn’t have worked without NA. She felt sorry for Mo but sober, she knew it was no basis for a marriage or a partnership (something they thought about shortly – Mo becoming a partner. She must have been crazy – or high.)

She could manage the gambling. Win or lose (and she mostly won), she never went over her limit. The attraction, the thrill was the time between bets, testing her own skill, would she win or lose, like negotiating the contracts for her clients. But the dope was different – had nothing to do with her brain really. At the beginning she thought she was smart enough to handle it. One of the few times she had to look for help.

She kept busy trying to ignore the disease – her enemy, still hidden, waiting to creep up on her. It was hard for her – waiting, never knowing if some small thing – tripping over the carpet, trouble going upstairs, not being able to reach the top shelf in her kitchen – was just age or a symptom that would get worse.

Gradually, the riding, gambling and shopping became too difficult; her to-do-lists were dictated to her housekeeper who also took Snowflake for his daily walk. Forced to move downstairs to the guest room, she was resentful, no longer her own boss, and dreaded the future. She slept fitfully, haunted by the image of strangling to death, her heart no longer pumping, her lungs unable to fill with air.
She was just able to reach the pills on her night table. Was the overdose a mistake or a last stand, Alice taking over one last time?
She died just as she’d wanted – in her own house, no clinic, no hospice, all details taken care of; her desk cleared.