“Protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than reception of stimuli.” From Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
Patiently waiting for the last of the honey to drip off her spoon and into the steaming tea, Johanna realized that she had not been startled by the telephone for a long time. In some ways, that was a good thing. Johanna’s phone rang so seldom she usually had to wait through at least three rings before she was recovered enough to pick up the receiver and speak. Like most shocks in life, this minor one resulted from a contrast from the norm, and almost any disturbance was a contrast to life at 39 Audubon Lane. Johanna seldom watched television and only listened to the radio when she was cooking or cleaning. The high electronic chirping of the telephone always startled her. It did not help that calls often meant bad news these days, as the digital voice signal often transmitted news of hospitalizations or verbal obituaries – like when her nephew called her to tell her that her sister Flo had died. Modern communications had replaced the death knell of the church’s bell tower, but the result was seldom more information than the old brass bell used to impart – who was dead and for how many years they had escaped their ultimate fate. Whatever the relationship of the deceased to Johanna, the calls spawned grief – the grief of loss or the grief of apathy.
Johanna tried hard to recollect when last the telephone had upset her cloistered existence. Had it been when Lucy had called to tell her that she had just been diagnosed with cancer and was going into the hospital? She had sent Lucy’s card off over a week ago, so that must have been quite a while back. There had been a solicitation from the local police department – or at least for someone functioning for some kind of benevolent society purported to support the police. She hadn’t fallen for it, so there would be no notation in her checkbook of when that was.
Johanna licked the last of the honey off the spoon and walked over to the wall phone and picked it up. Dial tone. It seemed to be fine. She tried calling Lucy’s number and got her answering machine. Lucy must still be in the hospital. When she was ill enough to be in the hospital, Johanna hated visitors and assumed everyone else felt the same, so she left her friends to the privacy of their bodily crises. Lucy had children to take care of her and, besides, she had really been Flo’s friend. Johanna left a cheerful message and hung up. The phone seemed to be working. So did her hearing.
Johanna sat down, drew her cup toward her, and pushed her smoky gray page-boy behind her ears. It was at afternoon tea time that she browsed the mail order catalogues that she often found in her mailbox. She never bought much – she didn’t need anything – but she enjoyed contemplating whether she should indulge herself in a new coat or blouse – she would never buy shoes or pants from a catalogue (too hard to fit). Besides, Johanna had long ago decided what she liked to wear and what she didn’t, so shopping was a matter of replacement in kind rather an occasion for decisions. But just as she contemplated a new hair style and then decided against it every two months when she went to her hairdresser, she enjoyed briefly considering exchanging her khaki slacks and cardigans for jersey knits and tunics. But Johanna had nothing to leaf through today. All of the old catalogues had gone out in the recycling on Tuesday and there hadn’t been any new ones. There hadn’t been much of any mail at all – a postcard a few days ago telling her about a symphony concert which she could still get tickets to, but little else. Not that she ever got much mail. Her pension check from Massachusetts Mutual was directly deposited into her checking account as was her Social Security check. She got her bank statement on-line. She had paid off her mortgage, she only had one credit card, and the only other regular bills she got were from the utilities and the tax assessor. And for her Medicare extension plan and AARP dues. So there never were more than one or two envelopes to open – except, maybe, at Christmas, when old friends and people she used to work with (who weren’t really friends) would send her greetings. No one but Lucy remembered her birthday, and often Lucy called instead because she had forgotten to buy a card until it was too late. Still, there should be some mail. Maybe she would check with the post office next time she was there to buy stamps and inquire into whether there wasn’t perhaps some mix-up going on. Once, when she was back working at the insurance company, she had gone on a vacation with her sister, and when she got home they had forgotten to start delivering her mail again. Maybe the post office thought they should be holding it for some reason. Or maybe it was really true that regular mail was being replaced by e-mail.
The one place where Johanna felt she was in touch with the rest of the world was on her computer. She knew all about computers from working in the office, and was proud of the fact that at seventy-three she could use this new technology. When she retired, she had bought an Apple and arranged for an internet connection. She had an e-mail address and checked daily on the news and weather. She lingered over all of this, even reading her junk mail. She checked out any interesting news stories and looked at the weather for the day and for the next ten days. She pulled up the weather where her nephew lived in Arizona, even though she hadn’t heard from him in over two years – not even a Christmas card. When she had retired, she thought she might like to visit him and see something of the west, but it seemed pushy to contact him and invite herself out when she hadn’t heard from him in so long. She did occasionally get e-mails from people in the office, and she had a few old friends who were computer-savvy enough to keep in touch, and once in a great while they sent her a note or even pictures of the grandchildren. But there wasn’t much. Johanna wondered if she should figure out how to join a chat room or make some friends on-line. She wondered, but she never did anything. It seemed rather dodgy, she thought, to make friends with strangers over a machine when she wouldn’t do it on the street. Yet it would be nice to find mail – mail addressed to her personally – when she powered up the computer in the morning. It might also be nice to tell someone what she was doing every day. On the other hand, Johanna admitted that she did not have much to tell – although maybe having more communication with the outside world would inspire her to lead a more interesting life.
But things had not changed when Johanna powered up her computer again the next morning after her coffee and oatmeal with raisins. With her pale face tinted slightly blue by the light from the flickering screen, Johanna went through her routine. Check the e-mail on Yahoo. (She used Yahoo because she had always liked Gulliver’s Travels.) Check Weather.com – even though the only reason that she was likely to go outside was to get groceries. Check the news at CNN.com and then on the BBC homepage (just to get the European point of view). There was weather (cold but fair) and news (none of it good), but there was no e-mail, not even solicitations from Russian women or purveyors of sexual enhancement pharmaceuticals and paraphernalia. Johanna wondered if she should subscribe to some list serves just to make sure that there was something in her inbox. She tried sending herself an e-mail and it arrived, so there was probably nothing wrong with her account. She went to the home page for the local symphony and signed up to be on their e-mail list, and then did the same for the local public radio station. Johanna wondered to herself why she wanted mail – most people just complained about the quantity of junk mail that they had to wade through and delete every day. But she couldn’t help thinking about a story she had read once in a magazine at the beauty parlor about a woman who slowly shrank and disappeared while no one around her seemed to notice. Johanna also thought about the conundrum of the tree falling in the forest with no one within hearing distance – would it make any noise? Would anyone care? Were you really alive if no one noticed?
As she washed up a cup, a saucer, and one small bowl, it occurred to Johanna that this sense of isolation was vaguely familiar. It was the same feeling that she had as a heavily-bespectacled, raw-faced teenager when the prom was coming up and the phone never rang. When no one paid attention to you, it seemed like you were not really present, that you were a gate-crasher who did not deserve to be taking up space. That’s how she had felt as a teenager – like someone brought her to a party where she had not been invited, where she did not want to be, where she was afraid to eat the pretzels. These memories made her think of poor Benny, her next door neighbor’s son whom she would see waiting for the school bus all by himself. No one else his age rode the school bus, but apparently his parents refused to either drive him or buy him a car and he did not seem to have any friends that could give him a ride. Benny was at least fifty pounds overweight. He always looked like he had just gotten out of bed and was ready to go back there. She would see him standing by the side of the road gripping his overloaded backpack (full of food no doubt) for companionship as he waited for the mostly empty bus to come down their road and take him somewhere he clearly wasn’t excited about going. She had never seen Benny with anyone his age. She marveled that so many people survived their teenage years. Johanna stopped at that thought and decided it depended on how you defined the word survive.
Johanna turned on the radio and tuned it to a talk station just to hear another voice in the house. She continued to think about her lack of interaction with the outside world. With Benny still in mind, she circled back to memories of her own youth in the 1930’s and 40’s. Her mother – long dead – used to say that in order to have a friend, you have to be one. The teenage Johanna had longed to respond to her nagging mother with the plain truth: no one wanted her for a friend, but she was afraid to put this painful fact into words and broadcast it aloud.
In any case, Johanna had had Flo to verbalize everything that was wrong with her. Johanna had shared a bedroom with her older sister who was good-looking and popular and happy to tell Johanna what her problems were. Johanna used to get into bed at night and pretend to fall right asleep so that Flo wouldn’t start talking. Johanna pretended a lot during those years – that she was asleep, that she was happy, that she didn’t care – but she was miserable. She was the youngest child of older parents, and they didn’t make it any easier with their old-fashioned ideas about how she should dress and act. If she tried to look more like the crowd by wearing make-up or short skirts to school, she made them unhappy. If she dressed to make them happy, the scorn at school only got worse. But deep down Johanna knew it had nothing to do with make-up and clothes. Flo was doing fine with the very same parents. Johanna had just soldiered on, hoping that some miracle would turn her into a social swan, teach her the mystery of fitting in, but the only thing she really learned during this period was not to believe in miracles or fairy tales. There were some things she liked to do when she was young – listen to jazz, write sentimental poetry, collect sea shells and fossils, read big nineteenth-century novels – but these activities were not held in high regard by her peers or her parents and were wittily and viciously ridiculed by Flo. Johanna learned to hide these vulnerabilities, and what is hidden is soon forgotten.
When Johanna got older and lived on her own it was a relief, although she could not get rid of those voices in her head telling her that she should have friends. In fact, she did make some friends over the years (mostly at work though). While they were not really intimate friends, she got along with them well enough and seldom quarreled with anyone. Adults may be as cruel as children, but they tend to save it for people they are close to, and Johanna never managed to get close to anyone – although she continued to try. She had even had some dates, but the men she met seemed very critical and even though she tried to please them – and often hated doing it – it was not enough to entice any of them to stay around long. Eventually, she had realized that she was going to be single and had bought herself the little house she lived in. Johanna had purposefully looked for one in a neighborhood where she might meet people, hoping for an “Ethel Mertz” kind of neighbor, but it had never happened. She had extended herself to some of the people on her street, taking them homemade cranberry nut breads and cookies at the holidays, but the faces that opened their doors to her had looked so dismayed that they had nothing to give her in return, she had finally given it up. Johanna joined a church, but got sick of being spoken to only when a volunteer was needed for a job that no one else wanted to do. Once in a great while – usually shortly after the church had chosen a new leader – the pastor came to visit her, but she was not a regular attendee and had stopped any regular financial contributions once she retired, so they never came twice. Nevertheless, Johanna continued to believe that she should be more social and to feel bad about her failure in this regard. No mail, no phone calls.
Well, Johanna thought, she would interact with at least one or two people today, because she needed groceries – there was a list on the counter that Johanna had been adding to all week. After lunch, she took one last look in the cupboard and refrigerator to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. The store was twenty minutes away and she hated to go more than a few times a month. She picked up her list, got her jacket out of the closet, and set off for the Stop and Shop.
Johanna did not like the process of loading and unloading groceries, but she did enjoy walking up and down the aisles with their endless possibilities. Not that she really took advantage of many of the possibilities. While she could afford it, she knew from experience that mocha-flavored coffee would be hard to swallow after a few days, and because she never threw out anything, she would make herself swallow it. The same was true of exotic fruits and that fancy pastry beside the bagel counter. Johanna had bought basically the same things for thirty years. But still, having choices made her feel good. Unlike other areas of her life which were closed doors – it was too late to have children, go back to college, hitchhike across Europe – she could still decide that she was an espresso type of person or begin eating guava fruit for lunch. If she wanted to. But not today.
With her cart loaded with Quaker Oatmeal, Maxwell House coffee, Arnold’s bread, and an array of fruits (pears and bananas) and vegetables (potatoes, green beans, and lettuce), Johanna got in line at one of the regular checkouts, having ascertained that she was slightly over the limit for the express lane. Not that anyone else much paid attention to the posted fourteen-item rule. The cashier and the bagger in her lane looked familiar, although she did not really know them. She said hello, and both of them grunted and half-smiled, but did not speak. She tried again.
“Not too busy in here this morning.” She smiled at the cashier who didn’t seem to hear her. The bagger kept his head down. He was a teenager about the same age as Benny, but taller and better looking. She gave the cashier the benefit of the doubt and tried again.
“Don’t you think it’s cold for April?” Johanna nodded toward the plate-glass window just beyond where the bagger was still trying to look busy even though all her groceries were now back in the cart. The cashier looked directly at her for the first time.
“That will be thirty-two dollars and thirty-seven cents.” Johanna had been so intent on getting a response she had failed to pay attention to the total on the LCD screen. She took a moment trying to decide whether to put it on her credit card and then fished a twenty, a ten, and a five out of her wallet, got her change, and trundled the grocery cart out to the parking lot where some old melting ice mired down the wheels. She loaded her groceries in the trunk and replaced the cart in the bay as she was supposed to. As she looked around the parking lot it occurred to her that she was the only one who bothered.
Johanna stopped at the end of the driveway to check the mailbox, and it was still empty. She decided to do something about it right away, and backed out into the street and headed for the new post office, which was now outside of the village center so one could have one’s choice of dozens of parking spaces. Of course, the new location meant that you could not just park once and get all your errands done, but apparently the USPS was not too concerned about that. Johanna walked up to the empty counter and rang the hotel-style bell for assistance as no humans were evident. After some rustling noises from the back, a short young man with glasses several sizes too big for his head came out and looked at her without saying a word. Johanna was not quite sure how to start her inquiry.
“I’ve been worried that I haven’t been getting mail. Nothing for days. Could you just check and make sure that they aren’t holding my mail or something?”
“Give me the address.”
“39 Audubon Lane.”
The young man retreated to the back again and returned in less than two minutes.
“Nope – we’re not holding your mail. Are you expecting something specific that you haven’t got?”
“No, no – it just seemed as if there should be mail. After a while, at least. I used to get mail.” Johanna was aware of starting to sound pathetic, and she was eliciting no sympathy from the short mail clerk, who had put both hands on the counter and was leaning forward as if to dare her to ask him to do anything else.
“Well, thank you. Just wanted to check.” She hurried back to the car and headed home. Just in case, she checked the mailbox one more time on her way up the driveway. As she was examining the empty box for the third time that day, she noticed Benny trudging up the road from the school bus stop. She waited for him to come within talking distance and greeted him. He walked up to her and put his backpack down.
“Hi, Mrs. Green. Getting your mail?” Miraculously, Benny looked right at her and seemed willing to stand out in the sun and talk to her for a minute.
“No mail. Haven’t been getting mail, but I went to the post office and they said there was no problem.”
“My mother says it’s a good thing when there’s no mail – no bills. And all I ever get is recruitment brochures for colleges I probably can’t get into and couldn’t afford. Or for the Army. As if anybody could picture me in the Army.”
Johanna thought she shouldn’t let this last comment pass. “You certainly could make yourself into a fine soldier if you wanted – but I personally hope you don’t want to. Too dangerous these days. And don’t be so negative about college – what year are you in now?”
“I’m a junior.” Benny paused and then seemed to decide to confide in her. “I’ve had enough of school already and after another year I will certainly be fed up. Going to school just gives the whole world permission to rag on you – adults do it about my grades and college and whether I’m doing enough extracurricular stuff – especially sports – they all want me to do sports. And they even want to know whether I have a date for the prom. And the kids pick on you about anything and everything from my weight to my backpack to the color of my teeth. And if I tried sports it would be worse – so you can’t win. I even get nasty e-mails and calls from girls where they say stupid things and laugh and hang up. So it’s sure not likely I’m going to get a date to the prom, which is just as well because I’m sure I would hate it. I wish everyone would just leave me alone. Leave me alone.”
“You know, it’s funny that you said that because I am having the exact opposite problem. Everyone is leaving me alone. No mail. No phone calls. I’ve been feeling bad about it. A lot of my friends are sick or gone – dead or moved away – but still it would be nice to hear from people.” Johanna immediately felt herself stiffen with the mortification that she had shared her isolation with the young man who continued to peer at her through the lank dark hair that hung down his forehead.
“Not for me. I would give anything to be somewhere where nobody had a right to talk to me unless I wanted them to. When I finish school, I’m going to get a job and apartment somewhere far away where I don’t know anyone. I can’t wait.”
Johanna started to protest, but caught herself. She admired Benny’s honest assessment of his situation – an honesty that had probably been what prompted her own outburst. “I remember thinking the same thing when I was your age. The same thing. And it does get better.” She tried to give him a smile laced with sympathy and watched him as he shouldered the backpack and lumbered on down the road to his driveway.
Back in the house, Johanna unloaded the groceries and started to follow her usual pattern of going straight to the den to see whether the light on her answering machine was flashing and to check for e-mail. She stopped at the threshold, leaned against the door frame, and stood staring out the window for a good five minutes before she turned back into the kitchen and put some milk on the stove to heat for cocoa. Johanna found the fat library book she had been neglecting and sat at the kitchen table reading while she waited for the milk to heat. Maybe later she would put some music on the stereo – some of her old LP’s that she hadn’t played much since Flo and Lucy had commented on how scratchy they were. The scratches never used to bother her, and most of her favorite music – and all of her Thelonious Monk – was on vinyl. And her favorites had been played often enough to be scratchy indeed. But no one else had to listen. Marking her place in her book with a napkin, Johanna went into the den and flipped through the large cardboard jackets of all the old albums she had liked enough to purchase. Some of the music was even from when she was Benny’s age. Which – all of a sudden – did not seem so long ago.