O. Henry Prize Winner: Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s ‘The Golden Rule’

Originally Appeared in 'Fifth Wednesday Journal'

May 21, 2015  By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
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It started innocently enough. Could Amanda pick up a few groceries—it was raining so hard. Mail a letter (addressed in such light pencil that Amanda doubted it would ever arrive)? Program Maria’s new alarm clock—digital, baffling—for the hours of her medication? Amanda thought nothing of it. It was the sort of thing you do for a frail old neighbor. They lived on the same floor of a solid downtown building where Maria, it seemed, had occupied her apartment since the dawn of time. The other neighbors were newer, young families, everyone running off to work and school, the building left to nannies and maids. How could she refuse?

Over the last month or two, though, the phone calls had become more frequent, their tone more pressing. Would Amanda fetch a prescription at the drugstore, have something copied at the local shop? In mid-October, Maria opened her door as Amanda was coming in—she’d taken a rare half-day off to do some shopping—and handed her a set of keys to her apartment. Just in case, she said, her voice obsequious, petulant. “And do you have a minute to come in and call the doctor for me? I can’t cope with his new phone system, pressing all those buttons, and in the end you don’t even get a real person.”

“Sure, I’ll just get rid of these packages and be right back.”

When Amanda and Jack moved in twenty years ago, Maria had been the age Amanda was now, and quite able to manage her own errands as well as attend the nearby church most mornings. Even then she was tiny, birdlike, a bird without feathers or song, who spoke in whispers as if she feared eavesdroppers. She had an unlisted phone number, she’d told Amanda, in a tone that sug­gested lurking menace. She always wore a navy-blue kerchief tied under her chin—Amanda would rather have died than be seen in such a thing—and white Peter Pan-collared blouses, dark skirts and stockings, oxford shoes. Slacks, never, even in the coldest weather. Over the years her costume had remained the same, but her voice had grown weaker, though no less tinged with com­plaint.

 

Amanda had never been in Maria’s apartment before. Its gloom was startling: moss-colored drapes on the windows, massive dark furniture, and a stale, sequestered smell, reminding her of grot­tos she’d visited in Italy long ago. Bits of paper littered the din­ing room table, jotted notes in a prim, upright handwriting, like a convent schoolgirl’s. The doctor’s phone number, when Maria finally located the scrap of paper, was written in that maddening number four pencil, so faint that Amanda had to read it under one of the fringed lamps.

Returning home was like coming out of an afternoon movie to the stun of brightness. Amanda’s own apartment was splashed with color, open to the light. After Jack’s death five years ago, she had immersed herself in redecorating projects. She’d also made sure to keep her clothes in order, get her hair cut regularly, not let things go. It had been disheartening, at first, to look at her face in the mirror: It wasn’t so much the minuscule lines or the no longer glowing skin—she was familiar with the concoctions to remedy those. It was the somber resignation in the eyes, the slackening of the profile, the downward slant of the mouth that suggested disappointment and an unappealing severity. She felt herself in a permanent battle with time and nature, and though in the end she would lose, as everyone does, she resolved to fight valiantly to the death. She had the means and the will.

 

Several weeks later Maria called at six in the morning to say she had terrible pains in her stomach.

Ben, who’d slept over because of a thunderstorm, rolled over and grunted irritably, so Amanda took the phone into the living room. “Did you call the doctor?”

“It’s too early. They’re not in yet. Anyway, he’s out of town and I don’t like the substitutes.”

“But even so… Do you want me to call?”

“No, I told you.” Maria’s voice was becoming a whimper. “I didn’t get any sleep all night, the pain was so bad.”

The emergency room, Amanda declared. She’d get dressed and take her.

“No, no emergency room. They make you wait for hours, and you have to sit with all kinds of people.”

“I’ll call an ambulance, then. They’ll take you right away.” This she knew from Jack’s heart attack. Arrive in an ambulance and you get first-class treatment.

No, those doctors were just students. She didn’t trust them. And no, she didn’t want Amanda to come over.

“Well, I don’t know what else I can do.” She struggled to keep her voice even, her impatience in check. “I’ll phone you later from work. If it gets any worse, call 911.”

“Her again?” Ben muttered, throwing an arm over Amanda. And after she explained, “So if she won’t let you help, then why’d she call?”

“Not to be alone with it, I guess.” She knew what that felt like. She’d often been tempted to call friends at the slightest change in Jack’s condition, simply not to bear the information alone, as if she were in a narrow space with a large package and needed help carrying it—not that it was so heavy, only very hard to maneuver. She’d given in to the urge, though it hadn’t helped much. Her daughter, Jessica, had phoned daily—she was in Spain then, with a new baby. She’d flown back in time for the funeral. “Tell her you can’t be her personal assistant—you have a business to run.” He couldn’t see why Amanda capitulated: She should do what was convenient and refuse the rest. Ben, a vigorous sixty-eight, was ten years older than Amanda and prided himself on not being “needy”—he liked to show he was up on current buzzwords. Of course he wasn’t needy, Amanda thought: He had a housekeeper and a secretary. But she knew better than to say that. He was easy and compliant. Best of all, he was firmly settled in his own place uptown and busy with his accounting practice, leaving her free to spend long hours at the shop. Jack, whom she had loved to dis­traction, hadn’t been easy in any way, especially near the end. But he’d never talked smugly about neediness. He would have under­stood why she gave in to Maria, would even have been amused. Always into self-improvement, he used to tease. Is that so bad? she asked. Not bad, he said, just a whole lot of work. He would have understood Maria’s strategy, too: the cunning tyranny of the weak. And grasped that in Amanda, so clearly strong—large, firm-voiced, competent, occupying space with the authority of ownership—Maria had found the perfect foil.

“She probably just has gas pains,” Ben said, and rolled over. Was that what he’d say if she woke up one morning in agony? Kindness, Amanda thought, but didn’t care to explain to him at six fifteen in the morning, shouldn’t depend on convenience, or even affection. If it did, it couldn’t be called kindness. She was following the Golden Rule, after all, doing unto others…

Did Maria follow the Golden Rule? Not very likely. She was mean-spirited, bigoted. She whispered carping comments about the neighbors, and the things she said about their West Indian cleaning women made Amanda shudder. Everything about her was scant and pinched, plus she hardly ate—a refusal of life that irked Amanda—and her clothes were dreadful, though this, Amanda knew, was hardly relevant; she noted it in her inventory only because she thought about clothes all the time—she owned a selective upscale boutique and chose every item herself.

Of course none of this should matter. Charity need not be deserved, nor should it be offered grudgingly, in bad faith. Her objections, Amanda knew, were more than uncharitable. They were suspect, rising as they did from the pit of her own dread.

She couldn’t sleep anymore—the call had left her jittery. She moved closer to Ben and asked, “Do you still think I’m beautiful? Or am I becoming an old lady?”

“Of course you’re beautiful. Why do you even ask?”

“It’s good to hear it once in a while.”

“You’re beautiful. This part is beautiful, and this, and this.” At first he sounded tired, mechanical, but as he went on his voice gathered enthusiasm. He moved his hands down her body, enu­merating, making it a game. “I can’t get anywhere below the knee from this position, and I’m too comfortable to move.”

“Never mind. That’s enough.”

“You know what’s especially beautiful?”

“What?”

“Here. The hip bone. I like the way it pokes out.”

“Don’t talk about bones, please.”

“Well, I like what’s around them. Your wrists are very nice too. And your hands. The fingers are really long. Look, I’ll show you what they can do.”

Was this, what he wanted of her now, also a species of kind­ness? She had brought it on herself, asking if she was beautiful. She’d never asked before and now wished she hadn’t; beautiful or not, she was tired.

Afterward, she lay in his arms and ran through the teenagers in the building, the ones Maria found so offensive, their scant mumbled greetings, their boisterous ways, their door slamming. Which ones would she be calling someday, asking them to pick up a quart of low-fat milk and a loaf of bread?

No, what was she thinking? When that day came, twenty years from now—if she was lucky—those teenagers would be off on their own. It was their parents she should be consider­ing. They’d be just the right age by then—past full-time par­enthood, old enough to have subsided into compassion, yet still competent. Maybe she should start cultivating them now. Who else would there be? Jessica would be full of concern, but would she fly in from halfway across the globe to tend to her? Right now she was in Prague. Her husband was in the diplomatic corps; she’d always be far away. When they spoke once a week, the old closeness returned—a sheltering warmth of knowing and being known, a loosening of every taut cell—but when Amanda put the phone down, the warmth dissipated as if she’d shed a fur coat.

As for Ben, most likely any helping would be the other way around. That was the price for having a lover at her age: Eventu­ally the woman had to manage the decline. She’d thought of it when they first met two years ago and fell immediately into bed. Did she really want to risk going through all that again? Yes. So far she didn’t regret her decision, even though bed was not quite what it had been at the start. A man a decade younger rather than older would be preferable, but that opportunity came up very rarely.

 

The shop was bustling that day. There was a convention of psy­chotherapists in a nearby hotel and the women came in groups, chattering, going through the racks and taking turns in the dress­ing rooms. Her two assistants were overwhelmed, and Amanda had to help at the register. The neighborhood was buzzing with the rumor that the landlord was planning to raise the rent: It was only a matter of time before the independent shops would be forced out. This Amanda refused to think about. She telephoned Maria the first chance she got. No change. The pains were still terrible.

“You must call the doctor immediately.”

As soon as Amanda got home, the phone rang. Maria must have watched from the peephole or listened for her key in the door.

“The doctor said I have to call an ambulance and go to the hospital as soon as I can.”

“So? It’s nearly eight o’clock. What are you waiting for?”

“I have to have my dinner first.”

“Dinner? With all that pain?”

“I can’t go on an empty stomach.”

“I’m coming over in half an hour to call the ambulance. Be ready.”

Several of the teenagers were standing outside the building as she saw Maria into the ambulance. They nodded and looked appropriately sober; one boy offered to help Amanda with Maria’s overnight bag, which was hardly necessary. They probably thought she and Maria were of the same generation—to teenag­ers everyone over forty looks alike.

Maria had emergency surgery to remove her appendix. Amanda veered between sympathy and rage. If the appendix had burst and been fatal, she would have been the one to find the body when she went in to check. A vague guilt, barely averted this time, hovered nearby.

She visited the hospital every few days on the way home from work, summoning the required good cheer. It was like putting on an old dress she’d never much liked, but was right for certain occasions—a funeral dress, a job interview dress. Hospital visits to Jack had been easier after he lost consciousness—at least she didn’t have to pretend optimism. Maria’s progress was slow, the nurses said, not because of the operation, which was successful, but because she wouldn’t eat. She sat in a wheelchair and whined about the poor food. She was down to eighty-five pounds, she told Amanda with a perverse pride.

Fortunately there was a social worker in charge now. This was Amanda’s busiest time. Christmas wasn’t far off: The gift items had to be displayed, and meanwhile she had to go around looking at the designers’ spring fashions. She needed to do some shopping for herself as well. It wouldn’t do to appear shabby—not that she ever approached shabbiness, but her standards were high.

Nevertheless, when Maria told the social worker that the one thing she enjoyed eating was soup, Amanda made a vegetable soup to welcome her home. The next day Maria reported the soup was “too much,” so she’d put it in the freezer. Amanda seethed. What did too much mean, anyway? Quantity? She needn’t eat it all at once. Too thick? Add water. She was sorry now that she hadn’t kept any for herself.

Fine, she thought, once you finish starving yourself to death I’ll defrost it and have a memorial meal.

 

December was unusually dark and bleak. The first ring of the phone didn’t quite wake her but transformed into a dream: Jack was calling from the hospital, his voice surprisingly strong and deep, as it was when they first met. He asked her to bring him a book about World War II that he’d been reading before his heart attack and wanted to finish before he died. She tried to remember where in the apartment she’d last seen the book: in the freezer, it seemed, but that didn’t make any sense. The phone kept ringing, the dream slid away, and Amanda leaped up, thinking how odd it was that anyone, especially Jack, should want to die with war on his mind. Her hand on the receiver was shaking—she half-expected to hear his voice when she picked up. Instead it was the familiar plaintive whisper.

“I’m sorry to call so early but could you come over right away?”

“Maria? What’s wrong? Are you sick?”

“No. I can’t tell you over the phone. Could you just come over?”

Her whisper was like the rustle of a mouse. Amanda had to strain to hear. “Do you realize what time it is?” She glanced at the clock. “Five fifty-four. Isn’t the aide with you?” Since the surgery, there were aides around the clock.

“She’s sleeping. If you could just please come over? And close your door very quietly.”

Amanda put on a robe, drank a glass of water, and smoothed down her hair, glancing in the mirror as if something might have changed while she slept. But there was that face again, the face she couldn’t believe was her own: tense and ashy without makeup, ringed by hair that was lusterless and awry, a face that warned of things to come. She grabbed her keys, and, like a helpless child seeking small ways to show power, didn’t close the door quietly as instructed.

Maria’s door opened a crack and she motioned Amanda to sidle around the edge. The dim hall smelled like old cooking—dark root vegetables, eggplants, turnips, squash. In the wan light, Maria’s bony face was gray-green, the hollows in her cheeks tinged beige. Besides the kerchief tied under her chin, she wore a short filmy garment that reminded Amanda of Indian holy men with their begging bowls. She had on the black oxford shoes and white stockings, dotted with holes, that went from her ankles to her knees like dancers’ leg warmers; between the stockings and the nightgown was a bare strip of desiccated bluish thigh. Her legs were so narrow that Amanda could have ringed them with her hands. She tried not to stare.

The aides couldn’t be trusted, Maria whispered. Things were missing.

“What things?”

“Things. I want you to take something for safekeeping. Come.” She shuffled into a small room crammed with ancient furniture and pointed to a two-foot-long metal box on the floor, labeled with her name. “This is my good silver and some other things. I want you to hold it for me.”

“Oh, come on. No one’s going to make off with that. It must be heavy.” She lifted it; it was very heavy. At this hour, for this absurd caprice, patience deserted her. “I was sleeping. Did you really have to wake me for this?” The call from the hospital when Jack died had come at 4:17—she remembered the green numbers on the clock. That was in June, the sky already lightening, and she wasn’t sleeping well anyway.

“I’m sorry,” said Maria. “Don’t talk so loud. Will you take it, please?”

“Maria.” Ridiculous, this whispering in the dark like con­spirators. “You know I’d help you with anything reasonable, but this—this is…”

“Will you take it?” she pleaded.

“All right. But if you keep thinking this way, next thing you’ll be accusing me of stealing it. Have you been eating?”

“I’m okay,” Maria murmured. “Just a little weak.”

“From now on, don’t call at this hour unless it’s an emergency.” Amanda lugged the box across the hall and stowed it under the bed in Jessica’s old room. She didn’t want it in sight, remind­ing her of that cringing imperiousness, those dreadful stockings, the Tinkertoy legs, the whining voice. This must not continue, she thought, as she climbed back into bed, her insides trembling. Later she’d call the social worker and tell her about the growing paranoia.

But she never did manage to call. The day turned out hectic. An order of cashmere scarves was delayed, one of the assistants was out sick, and a longtime customer made a fuss about return­ing a suede coat that had obviously been worn. The rumors about the landlord continued, becoming more credible. Just when Amanda thought she might catch her breath, a new customer entered, young, impeccably turned out, flaunting her beauty, and so much like Jessica—the glossy chestnut hair with its non­chalant swing, the broad shoulders and narrow hips and small breasts—that for a mad instant Amanda thought she’d come on a surprise visit and almost dashed over to embrace her. Luckily she caught herself in time. The young woman’s fingers flicked swiftly through the clothes on the rack as she frowned in con­centration. Clarissa, one of the assistants, greeted her and began the usual routine. Instead of working at her desk in back as usual, Amanda lingered nearby until the woman went into the dressing room with three suits. Later she asked Clarissa if she’d bought anything. No. “I don’t think she was really serious. Probably just passing the time before a lunch date.” Amanda was so rattled that she had to do the accounts over again; she’d forgotten to save her work on the computer.

She didn’t get home till almost nine. The janitor was polishing the brass in the lobby.

“She’s gone, your neighbor,” he said in greeting. At her puzzled look, he added, “The skinny lady opposite you? An ambulance came at five. Big scene. That’s why I’m so late doing this.”

“Gone? You mean back to the hospital?”

“Gone like dead.”

Amanda’s heart thumped, and then came a small ping of relief: Thank goodness she hadn’t had to deal with it.

“She looked dead already when they loaded her on. Can’t nobody live, that thin. I knew when I saw her after the operation. It was only a matter of time.”

Isn’t it always? she thought. “She’s been here for ages, hasn’t she?”

“Fifty years. Longest tenant in the building. The super next door, Freddy? He remembers her husband.”

“She had a husband?” This was incredible. What could he have been like? Cringing and fearful like her? Or overbearing, a hawk to her sparrow? Immediately she envisioned sex: not possi­ble. Maria being caressed, penetrated? Maria under a man, or sit­ting on top, bouncing up and down? The chirping sounds she’d manage to squeeze out? The vision was grotesque.

“Yeah, he died maybe thirty years ago,” Freddy said. “In a wheelchair by the end. She must’ve lost her will after that. You need will to go on in this life.”

She preferred the super’s bluntness to the professional tones of the nurse who’d called about Jack: “We’re terribly sorry to tell you Mr. Green has passed on.” She could still hear the creamy voice. Four seventeen, a promising June day.

No more crack-of-dawn phone calls. Well, she would hardly miss those. In fact she wouldn’t miss anything about Maria, not even the chance to exercise her own virtue.

And yet Maria would not be quite gone. There was still the box. Upstairs, Amanda dragged it out from under Jessica’s bed. The label was written in a spotty ballpoint pen, a marginal improvement on the number four pencils. She had no desire to open it, no curiosity, only distaste. Probably she wasn’t supposed to open it. There must be a lawyer involved, maybe a distant heir. There’d been a husband; could there be children, grandchil­dren? Maria had never mentioned any family and seemed never to have visitors. What was it like to pass through life leaving no one, nothing? Would anyone turn up to arrange a funeral service? Someone from the church, maybe. Maria had managed to get there now and then until her appendicitis.

The box could wait. She shoved it back out of sight, then lay down on Jessica’s bed as if she too were waiting. Shouldn’t she be feeling something? Her own callousness distressed her. She hadn’t always been this way. When had she changed? In an effort to induce a respectable response, to pierce the numbness surround­ing her like a bubble, she tried to picture Maria’s last hours, alone except for the aide she distrusted. Pain, maybe. Fear, certainly. She was sorry Maria had had to endure them. But it was a generic sorrow, what she might feel for any living creature. There was nothing that reached inside the bubble, no grief, no loss. Perhaps Maria had drifted off in her sleep. Or had she reached for the phone to call Amanda? She checked the machine again: no mes­sages.

It was useless trying to conjure emotion out of nothing; she need not add hypocrisy to detachment. She changed into a pair of sweatpants, turned on the TV in the kitchen to catch the news, and got busy making a salad.

 

Two days later, at the shop, she got a call from a lawyer who informed her that she was the heir to the contents of Maria’s apartment.

“I assure you, you’re the designated heir. It’s in the will.”

“The will? But what am I supposed to do with all that stuff? I mean, I don’t know what to say. I had no idea she planned to…”

“There are places that deal with unwanted items. Auctions, that sort of thing. I can send you some information when I send a messenger with the keys.”

“I have her keys. She gave them to me weeks ago.”

“I still have to give you the set of keys in my possession.”

She told the lawyer about the box. “What am I supposed to do with it? Silver, I think she said. There must be someone…”

“There’s no one else mentioned in the will. I’m afraid every­thing she had is now yours.” He had a rueful, ironic tone that appealed to her. He understood—he must have known Maria. She wondered what he was like, how old he was.

“What about… will there be a funeral?” Surely this could not fall to her too.

He seemed to read her mind. “Yes, not to worry. The church is handling that.”

The conversation was over before she could learn anything about him. They arranged for the messenger and he gave her his phone number in case she had any questions.

Now she could repossess her rejected soup. Ben would enjoy it. But at the thought of the soup a wave of nausea skimmed through her. She wouldn’t go so far as to think Maria poisoned it—though the notion did flash by—but she imagined the soup might have soured simply by languishing in the freezer of that unwholesome apartment.

 

The next day she opened the box. She found an excellent set of silver, service for eight, in an austere, old-fashioned pattern; it needed a good scrubbing and a dose of silver polish. Wrapped in a bit of flannel were a strand of pearls, a plain gold bracelet, and two pairs of earrings, small glittering studs. They looked like costume jewelry, but she would have them appraised, to be sure. If they turned out to be worth anything, she’d give the money away; she did not wish to profit from her inheritance. She didn’t deserve to profit, because there had been no love. Only kindness. No, even less, acquiescence. She rather liked the silver, but would not use it. It felt… tainted. The word that sprang to mind sur­prised her. Tainted by what? By solitude, by isolation, and those would not wash off.

She delayed entering the apartment for several days, dreading her task. At last, on a Sunday morning, she unlocked the door and turned on every light. She ripped the drapes from the win­dows and they settled on the floor in a cloud of dust. Daylight came oozing in, strained by the film of dust coating the windows. She was overcome with desolation. Why had all of this been given to her? Possessing it seemed to taint her with dust as well, with a musty odor of loneliness and decline. It was given to her because there was no one else. Because Maria had appreciated her help. Or perhaps the opposite: a slap in the face, paying back the false kindness in kind. Or was there an even more subtle motive for the bequest, an ironic, taunting message: You too, someday

* * * *

Whatever the motive, Amanda resolved to do the minimum—the dead don’t need kindness. Any papers that looked important, she’d give to the lawyer, then call one of the places he’d suggested and have it carted away. She could pay the janitor to empty the refrigerator. It was the landlord’s job to have the place cleaned for the next tenant. Someone else in her position, she knew, might be eager to go through Maria’s things, construct a plausible history or unearth surprising adventures, to understand how a person could come to such a solitary end. But she had no curiosity; she had had none before, and death had not altered her indifference. No matter what she might discover of Maria’s past, it had evapo­rated. Now there was only emptiness.

She stood at the window looking out at the park across the street; the bare branches shook in the winter wind. She rubbed at a small area on the pane to see more clearly, but though her fingers got sticky with dust, the view stayed filmy: too much grime on the outside. Her own past—Jack, Jessica as a child, the beauty that had sustained her—felt like something she had once dreamed. She still had the shop—though maybe not for long if the rumors about the landlord were true—and she had Ben, yet they felt meager compared to what was gone. Insubstantial some­how, like polyester clothes.

One day Jessica would stand gazing out at the same trees, won­dering what to do with her mother’s possessions. The clothes, the books, the furniture would seem a burden. Though maybe she’d want some of the clothes, all so finely made and carefully chosen. Jessica was more or less the same size, at least when Amanda last saw her. She might have gained weight with the second baby. Later she would phone Jessica. Maria’s apartment was chilly; she needed to feel warmth. Love. Not so much Jessica’s love—that was dependable, if distant—but her own. Love of the world. She needed her daughter’s voice to rouse her into feeling.

 

 

Lynne Sharon Schwartz reflects on writing “The Golden Rule”

That this story exists at all is really a fluke. I wrote it a couple of years ago and wasn’t quite happy with it. I knew it needed something but didn’t know how to complete it. I set it aside and pretty much forgot it. Then a magazine editor asked me to contribute a story; I hunted around in my files and found “The Golden Rule.” Strange how feeling wanted by an editor—having an assignment, so to speak—gave me the impetus to return to the story. What had seemed unclear and undoable became clear at once, and the finishing touches weren’t nearly as difficult as I had imagined.

As far as the subject, I’ve been living in New York City apartment buildings for over forty years and have closely observed all the interactions in those buildings. I even based a novel, In the Family Way, on the antic and fictional goings-on in one such building. So the subject is dear to me; urban apartment buildings are a microcosm of society at large. I’ve also been thinking a lot about aging, and how the “getting old” observe the truly old, in anxious anticipation of their own futures.

 




Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, a native New Yorker, is the author of 23 books, including the novel Two-Part Inventions; short stories; nonfiction; poetry; a memoir, Not Now, Voyager; and translations from Italian. Her latest is a collection of essays, This Is Where We Came In.









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