She’d had so much sorrow in her life, it made for a happy old age. What more could happen? Her husband, a good man, struck down by his heart on the trolley on the way home from work. They brought his salami when they told her. A good man — always thinking of his family. So there she was, a widow with two children. She went to work for a caterer — weddings, bar mitzvahs. All the time on her feet. Her daughter married finally; her son went to California. Her daughter was settled, so she would take care of her, Esther thought. Then, her daughter’s husband had a stroke, he couldn’t move his legs, her daughter went to work in Filene’s basement. No word from the son in California; he had things to do, maybe.
So, enough already. She stopped with the caterer, she started getting money from Social Security, she got mugged three times (put up a good fight every time; they didn’t seem to care, those young kids) and went into Senior Housing.
Her whole life had been work and hard times. Suddenly, nothing was too good for her. A movie in the community room every Friday. A bus for the groceries on Tuesdays. Of course, there were always fights at the butcher’s, but they stirred up the blood, those times. And her chicken soup — it was the best in the building, the manager told her. Esther thought she was doing OK. And then she met Rose.
She met Rose at the butcher’s one Tuesday. Rose was waving a chicken at the butcher: “If it’s a whole chicken, where are the legs?” Esther noticed how Rose stood her ground in the crowd from the Senior Center, and how she didn’t listen to the butcher. Esther knew that was the best way to have an argument, but she herself couldn’t do it so well.
Esther rushed, not even squeezing the melons — one time, she’d take a chance. She wanted to get to the bus first. When she saw Rose, she waved her over. “Here, here. Here’s a seat. Right here.” They sat with their groceries in silence, Esther wanting to make conversation.
“So, you going to the movie this Friday?”
“‘All About Eve.’ Bette Davis and Gary Merrill. Gary Merrill was Bette Davis’s fourth husband, and her last chance for happiness.”
Esther was astonished. This was wonderful. To know so much about such important people. There was nothing to say.
She looked for Rose at the movie, saving a seat for her right up front. Esther watched the whole movie thinking about Bette Davis and Gary Merrill. She could see they felt something special for each other. After, she said to Rose she didn’t know that kind of life was so complicated, all those people doing those things like that. Rose said oh, it wasn’t like that, really. No? Esther said, but how could she know? Rose said she knew because she used to be in the business.
Esther was dumbstruck. “You were an actress?”
“I was a singer.”
Esther invited her up for chicken soup. Rose admired it (as who wouldn’t?) and told her about her borscht. They exchanged opinions — how to cut up an onion, how to roll out a strudel — and they were friends. Rose told Esther she had some earrings to match Esther’s blue eyes — come, let’s try them.
So Esther went to Rose’s apartment and saw the photographs on the walls, signed by the best: Irv Feldman, The Man With Taps On His Hands; Harry Thatcher, The Tenor From Heaven; Mary Fields, The Sweet Soprano From Sioux Falls. “To Rose, the light of my life,” they said. “My guardian angel”; “Keep smilin’ thru, Love from your Dapper Dan.” And there was Rose — Rose in furs, Rose in sequins, Rose with a cigarette.
“This is you?” asked Esther.
“Sure,” said Rose.
“You are beautiful.”
Rose preened. “My face now, all wrinkles. But then, I turned heads.”
Esther went up to the picture with the fur. “What is this — mink? It was warm?”
“You had to have it. Those gowns, in the winter — they were cold. The fur was warm. But too heavy now.” She shook her head. “It’s not for old ladies.”
“Here. You sparkle.” Esther pointed.
“Sequins,” said Rose. She joined Esther at the picture. “It scratched, but people liked it.”
They moved into Rose’s bedroom, to the jewelry box. Rose’s knobby fingers picked out the earrings. She put them into Esther’s old ears.
“Come, let’s look at you,” said Rose. “You should wear your hair more off your face, like this.” Esther felt transformed — to think so hard about eyes, where to put hair. She felt ravishing, like Bette Davis, maybe, or that nice Joan Crawford who got into so much trouble.
Esther had a thought. “What about your children?”
Esther said, “They should have their mother’s earrings.’’ Certainly Esther had treasured the pin from her own mother. They never saw each other again after Esther got on the train that took her to the boat to America.
Again Rose shrugged. “These are for you. You keep them.”
Esther wasn’t used to a woman putting aside her children. She was used to the talk in the lobby — the boasts, the lamentations. “Everything he touches turns to gold.” “Can you believe she never comes to see me, her own mother?” But to just shrug away the children, who everyone knows are the comfort and hope of your old age — that was brand new for Esther.
She wanted to try it. She shrugged herself and took the earrings. “They’re beautiful,” she said.
Esther floated back to her apartment to get ready for bingo. She won $2.
After that, Esther sat with Rose at all the movies. While Esther studied the screen, Rose gave her the inside story. “She hated when he had to kiss her,” she whispered to Esther, when Sir Walter held the Queen. “She had in her contract to get paid extra for those times.”
“He loved her, but he wouldn’t leave his wife. Catholic.”
“That man wouldn’t stop drinking. He was three sheets in the wind the whole time.”
“She had a short life. Drugs.”
“They had to sew that dress on her — it was that tight.”
Afterward, they had a cup of tea in Esther’s or Rose’s apartment and talked over the movie and the stars. Thirty-, forty-year-old movies and gossip. It was like new to Esther. Why did Judy Garland go for Fred Astaire, a dancer, instead of that nice Peter Lawford, a law student?
Why did that sweet Elizabeth Taylor have so many husbands? You’d think a pretty girl like her could make a go of it.
Esther was uneasy when Rose suggested lunch at the Ting-A-Ling. How would they get there? A taxi, said Rose, like taxis were nothing to talk about. And how much would it cost? Rose shrugged. They should have a day out now and then, she said. Beyond that, words failed Esther. How could she ask about what to do in a restaurant called the Ting-A-Ling? Once a month, on a Sunday, Esther’s tired daughter showed up and took Esther out to lunch at Walgreen’s. Esther always ordered the special of the day. They browsed a bit afterward, looking for greeting cards and the good sales on foot powder (they both suffered with their feet). That was Esther’s experience with restaurants. So she worried about the Ting-A-Ling.
But she kind of enjoyed the worry. It gave some spice to her life, a little sparkle to her planning. She carefully counted ten dollars out of the envelope that held her Social Security money. She cashed her check right away every month and hid the envelope in the closet behind her ironing board.
Her daughter didn’t approve of the plan. “The Ting-A-Ling, Ma? That’s Chinese.”
Esther was so relieved to find out what kind of restaurant it was, she didn’t answer.
“Ma, you don’t know what they put in their food. You could be allergic. It could kill you.”
Esther decided she’d rather die eating Chinese than die not eating Chinese. She said so.
Her daughter hung up, then called back three times that night and once in the morning before she went to work.
“Just promise me one thing, Ma. Promise me you don’t eat the chop suey. Chop suey gave Martin the worst night he’s had in years.”
Esther promised, more excited than ever. The outing not only had the allure of the unknown, the glamour of being with Rose — it had the thrill of danger.
She changed her clothes twice, and was resting in a chair when Rose came in. Rose wore a hat with a feather, and gloves. Oh, she looked smart. Esther was proud to be with her. Rose said she’d called for a taxi, and they were to go downstairs to wait. Out they marched.
Esther felt the eyes at the peepholes, looking out at them. Esther knew word had spread that they were going somewhere. They swept through the lobby to the bench by the door. Neighbors came up to chat.
“So, Esther, where are you going so dressed up?”
“Oh, out to lunch.”
“Your son is in town?”
“No, me and Rose, we just thought we should have a day out now and then.”
Esther liked being the center of attention. She sat up straight and held the handle of her handbag with both hands. The taxi came, and she knew that everyone in the lobby was watching while the two of them stepped into the back seat and rode off.
So they went to the Ting-A-Ling. The waiter knew Rose and greeted her like she was his mother. They didn’t even order; he just brought things to the table. A feast. Rice and funny dumplings and beef cut up with mushrooms like Esther had never seen. And there was tea in little cups with no handles, and brown sauce that Rose poured on everything, and Rose told stories about other days in other restaurants, and they had a little wine, and the waiter called a taxi for them, and Rose put on her gloves and straightened her hat, and they came home.
The phone was ringing when Esther walked in the door.
“Ma? You OK, Ma? Did you stay away from the chop suey like I told you?”
Esther told her daughter all about it, the food and the tea and the taxi. But she couldn’t tell how grand it was to be with Rose, how Rose made everything into an adventure, a leap into another world. When Esther was with Rose, she felt like she, Esther, was wearing sequins and smoking cigarettes.
It was tiring. Esther took a nap.
That Sophie Goodings with her daughter in medicine asked Esther about Rose during the rinse cycle in front of the washers on the second floor.
“Who is she anyway?” asked Sophie. “She thinks she’s too good for us? She can’t come to bingo maybe once in a while?”
Esther started to fuss with her machine, checking to make sure all the clothes were down in the water. If you didn’t check, they might not come out clean. Finished, she closed the lid and placed both hands on top of the washer to let Sophie know she was about to say something important.
“Rose is a singer.”
Sophie nodded like she knew that already. “Have you ever heard her sing?”
“She calls herself a singer, but she never sings. Does she come to the sing-alongs? Never. I’d like to know why.”
Esther asked Rose why she didn’t come to the sing-alongs. Rose said she didn’t care for the songs, she didn’t care for the music, and she didn’t care for the company. The next time somebody complained to Esther about Rose, Esther said it was nobody’s business and, as far as she was concerned, Rose could go ahead and do as she pleased — a line that made the rounds of the lobby within the next half-hour.
Rose read about the Golden Agers’ Ball in the building newsletter. She came rushing into Esther’s apartment, waving the paper at Esther.
“Did you see this?”
“The dance for the Golden Agers. That’s us. We’re the Golden Agers. At the Starlight Ballroom. I had some of my biggest hits there.”
Rose wasn’t used to this, being the one who got excited while Esther was blase. Esther wasn’t either. The truth was, Esther wasn’t comfortable about the Golden Agers’ Ball. She knew about it; it happened every year. The Starlight Ballroom was two blocks from their building. It now featured third-rate rock groups and wrestling, but in its glory days, it had been a showcase for the big bands. People still dreamed about — and talked about — the nights they danced at the Starlight. But Esther had no such memories. When others were dancing at the Starlight, Esther had been serving latkes at bar mitzvahs.
Esther told Rose: “I’m not going.”
“What do you mean you’re not going? Of course you’re going. You should see the chandelier they’ve got there; it makes everyone beautiful. You walk in, all of a sudden you’re Princess Grace of Monaco. I did Cole Porter at the Starlight. Every place else, I couldn’t do Cole Porter. It wouldn’t go for some reason. There, I could do it.” Rose went off humming to her apartment.
Esther struggled. To go to the Starlight on her old stumpy legs — it was ridiculous. There were people who did and people who didn’t. She’d known that all her life. Yet there was Rose, telling Esther she could do what she’d always thought she couldn’t. Lunch at the Ting-A-Ling. Blue earrings. Taxis! But this . . . what would she wear?
One afternoon, Rose announced they would practice the fox trot; she needed to brush up. Esther demurred: “I don’t know the fox trot.” “Come, I’ll show you,” said Rose. “You think I can do it by myself?”
Rose started pulling Esther around her tiny living room: “Da da de dum . . . slide step . . . da de . . . watch the lamp . . . da da de dum . . . that’s it . . . da da . . . we’ve got it.”
Rose made some changes in Esther’s hair. She consulted Esther about what she — Rose — would wear to the ball. Well, she talked at Esther about it. How could Esther have any advice for all-knowing Rose? And then, in triumph, Rose produced the dress for Esther to wear.
It was blue satin, with a touch of beading to sparkle in the light when she danced, as Rose pointed out. Esther’s old dry skin caught on the satin when she stroked it, too full of emotion to speak. That she should have such a friend, who would provide her with such a dress — it was too much. Of course she would go to the ball.
All the blue-haired ladies put on dresses they’d found at the Goodwill store, or gowns that had been put away from family weddings or fiftieth anniversaries, which they now carefully unwrapped and slipped over stiff heads, helping each other with zippers, exclaiming, “Oh, my, don’t you look nice.” They paraded out into the afternoon and walked slowly to the Starlight, cautious about stumbling on the sidewalk and fearful of wrinkling their dresses. The sprinkle of men — there aren’t so many when you’re in your eighties — looked sharp in their white shirts and ties of different widths, depending on when they’d bought them. Everyone was excited to be so dressed up.
The ballroom was dazzling. The chandelier brought magic into the room; it was turned up a little brighter for the fading eyesight of this group, but it still shadowed the walls so the grime didn’t show.
All the guests were assembled when the band began to play. These people weren’t willing to dabble with time, to amble in and out. They were there for the whole dance, beginning to end. The music started, the couples moved onto the floor, dowagers dancing together, practical about the shortage of men — an occasional dapper couple doing Arthur Murray turns.
Esther couldn’t take it all in. There was the chandelier to study, the band to watch, the people dancing. And food — all along she’d been wondering about the food. She made her way to the refreshments table. The cucumber sandwiches were disorderly. She looked around for the one in charge and saw her with her back against the wall, reading a book. Esther sniffed. A college student. She’d worked with them. Worthless. They didn’t know pimento from a hole in the head. She straightened out the sandwiches so they looked real nice. The girl came over just when Esther finished.
“May I help you?”
“I just fixed these up for you.”
“You can’t mind the food with your nose in a book.”
“What? Oh . . . er. . . .”
“I’ll have some punch, please.” Esther collected some sandwiches for herself and swept away.
Rose was at her elbow.
“Esther! Let’s dance!”
They went twirling off, and suddenly Esther felt she was no longer shuffling along, trying to keep up with Rose. She was floating. The music was inside her, and she was floating, up with the chandelier, up with the stars. Her eyes filled, and then she was beyond tears. So this was dancing. This was what people talked about when they said they were “going dancing.” This was heaven.
The music stopped.
“So, what do you think?” Rose brought Esther back to the ballroom.
“It’s . . . wonderful.” Rose made a face. It wasn’t enough for Rose to hear, but she knew, like Esther, words weren’t adequate. They danced some more, ate more refreshments, mixed a bit with others, Rose was gone for a while, Esther was lost among the gowns and music, then suddenly Rose was back, trying to tell Esther something over the noise.
“What? What is it you’re saying?”
“Sammy Hines. The drummer. He’s here in the band. Oh, Sammy and I go way back . . . way back. He wants me to sing.”
Esther was beside herself. “Oh, wait’ll they all see you. Wait till they hear. . . .”
Rose seemed to fall apart for a minute. “I can’t do it, Esther. I’m an old goat. No voice.”
Esther, ever loyal: “Of course you can do it. Of course you can.”
Rose pulled in her mouth. “I’ll do it.” She stalked over to the bandstand and disappeared.
Esther stood there, watching for Rose. The band finished the number, then played another. Esther stared, waiting. She didn’t know how they did these things. Would Rose appear in the middle of something? She waited.
The conductor signaled the end of the tune. The instruments came down. He stepped to the mike. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have the honor of presenting for your pleasure this evening the great, the one and only, Rose Turalsky.”
And there was Rose, sweeping onto the stage in the gown she and Esther had found on a tumble table in Filene’s basement, marked down twice, that they had altered together in Rose’s kitchen. The light set off the henna in Rose’s hair. She hadn’t missed a Friday rinse in forty years, she told Esther, ever since the first strand of gray. A woman shouldn’t let herself go, she said. Her garnet earrings hung down her neck — big splashes of jewelry that looked good on the stage. Rose stood still, her head up, while they lowered the mike for her; Esther could feel her own heart pounding. Where were her heart pills? Should she take one? Rose nodded, the band played, and Rose started to sing.
Esther’s hands grabbed for each other. She knew, she knew Rose was special. Now everyone else could see it, too. Esther looked around the room, her chin jutting her triumph. “You see, you see,” her chin said to them all. “Someone like this, she doesn’t have to go to bingo. She doesn’t have to sit in the lobby. She is not like us. You see?”
Of course, even Esther could hear that Rose’s voice had cracks in it. She was an old lady, for God’s sake; she had an old voice. But even so, Rose did something — talking through the quavery parts and over the cracks — so that they didn’t show so much. Esther got caught in the song. “Happiness is just a thing called Joe . . . ” Rose sang, or talked, and Esther could picture him, the Joe Rose sang about. No one was dancing; they all stopped, inside the song with Esther, held by Rose.
The song was over. Rose was surrounded when she came off the stage. Memories were thrust at her. “I remember you now; we danced to you at the Green Mill.” “I remember . . . I remember.” Those who couldn’t get to Rose came to Esther. Esther listened and nodded, not quite knowing what she heard, transported by Rose’s triumph.
It finally ended. The band played “After The Ball.” They had one last dance. Esther had one last sandwich, and one last sniff at the lady behind the table. They went home to talk it over with tea in Esther’s kitchen, not even stopping first to change their clothes so they wouldn’t soil.
Rose left. Esther took off her dress and hung it up, putting it under plastic to keep off the dust. She ran a bath, ready for a good soaking, and lay in the water, warm and happy, and quietly fell asleep. Then, gently, so as not to wake her, Esther’s heart stopped beating.
Esther’s daughter made a scene. The management killed her mother with their parties, their activities. They should have left her to live her life in peace. Esther’s son called from California, demanding an explanation. Then Esther was buried where she should be, next to her husband, and the people in the lobby began to talk of other things.
Rose kept to herself for three weeks, scarcely leaving her apartment. She gave notice she was moving, the management suggested she wait a month, she said her mind was made up, then took them up on their offer, though still filling the packing boxes she’d collected in her apartment. Then she was seen talking to Alice Malone, the new one in 4B who’d been a domestic all her life. They had tea together; Rose thought perhaps she could stay. She missed Esther, though. A good friend, Esther was; a good friend.