We just had to be alone
Alca knew that, just as surely as she knew she was in love with Tom. She couldn’t bear the spying any more, no matter what Mrs. Buhay thought
MRS. BUHAY had had two husbands, had worked in restaurants, hotel dining rooms and at race tracks, and at fifty-two she was the manager of a cafeteria. She had become stout and florid. Her hair was tinted a light brown, her neckline wrinkled, and she had very pale shrewd eyes. She used to say with a hearty laugh that she had had a very sporty life. But she made people feel that she saw right through them, so she had no real friends and she lived alone in her apartment.
That summer she got a letter from a girlhood friend, Betty Holmes, who lived at a whistle stop about a hundred and fifty miles away. Mrs. Holmes wrote that she was broke and dying of tuberculosis and that she wanted her eighteen-year-old daughter, Alca, to get on in the world better than she had herself, and she asked Mrs. Buhay if Alca, who was coming to the city, could live with her until she felt at home. Mrs. Buhay consented and early that August Alea came to live with her.
Alca was a small-town girl with not much schooling but she was quick and intelligent, fond of music, had thick natural-blond hair with brown eyes and a lovely little rounded figure. Mrs. Buhay liked her. She bought her a smart white linen suit and got her a job in a music store selling records. By September she realized that until Alca had come she had been unbearably lonely at night in the apartment.
Every evening she used to wait for Alca to come home so they could have a cup of coffee together before going to bed. Alca would get into her pyjamas and Mrs. Buhay would put on her gaudy blue dressing gown and they would sit in the kitchen joking with each other. Alca, who wasn’t at all shy, liked listening to Mrs. Buhay’s salty stories, and Mrs. Buhay, touched bv her eagerness, her prettiness and her softness, often wanted to put her arms around her protectively.
She tried to teach her everything she knew. She told her about her own life in big hotels in many cities. She told her about clothes and how to handle customers in the store and she talked about men, too, with a coarse good-natured smiling contempt. Her plump elbows were on the table, her dressing gown flopped open and showed her great bosom and she nodded wisely at Alca.
“You’re pretty, Alca, honey. You’ve got it. But even a blind shoeshine boy knows when a girl’s got it and it makes her a
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We Just Had To Be Alone
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 18
mark. But the guy doesn’t live who isn’t an open book.” Then chuckling and winking she leaned across the table and patted Alca’s shoulder, her own shrewd blue eyes suddenly hard and her mouth turning down at the corners.
“Look after No. 1, Alca,” she said. “Never give anything away. This week I want you to open a bank account and no matter what happens it should be your secret love.” Alca’s respect for the big shrewd woman showed in her eyes and she knew there was nothing Mrs. Buhay wouldn’t do for her. They were very different and they loved each other.
One night Alca told Mrs. Buhay about a young man named Tom Prince who had come into the music store to buy some classical records. She had never met anyone with such nice manners, she said. It was wonderful the way he had made her feel she was a very dignified person.
The glow in Alca’s eyes and the pleasure in her voice worried Mrs. Buhay. “Look here, honey, don’t let the first guy you meet knock you over,” she said.
Next night Alca didn’t come home till midnight. Tom Prince had taken her to dinner and then a movie and she had found out all about him. He had finished a course in commercial art and was taking a job in an advertising agency. Alca couldn’t stop talking about him. Even after they had had their coffee she stood at her bedroom door remembering bright little jokes
Tom had made and trying them out on Mrs. Buhay.
“Okay, a very entertaining guy,” Mrs. Buhay said, putting her arm around her affectionately. “I remember the first guy who ever made a pass at me. I thought he looked wonderful because he wore shoes and pants. Let’s see this guy up close.” Alca laughed and said she would bring him home tomorrow night.
The next night Mrs. Buhay was in her bedroom when she heard them at the door. When Alca called, “Mrs. Buhay,” she followed them into the living room. They were both out of breath from running up the stairs and laughing and Alca had on her smart white linen suit. “Mrs. Buhay,” she said softly, “this is Tom Prince.”
“How are you, Tom,” Mrs. Buhay said heartily as she put out her hand. “I’ve heard all about you.” But she was surprised because he was a goodlooking well-dressed boy with an assured and cultivated manner and she wished she had dressed up a little more. With an easy smile he said he knew all about her too.
“I’ll get some coffee and some biscuits,” Alca said, and with her eyes she told Mrs. Buhay that she wanted to give her a chance to have a talk with Tom and get a good impression of him because she valued her judgment so very much.
“Sit down, Tom,” Mrs. Buhay said, and she sat down and smoothed her dress. She soon got him talking easily about his work while she appraised him shrewdly. She had a lot of experience with men that had started when she was sixteen and working at the carnival lunch counter. In the beginning she hád got the worst of it, but only in the beginning until she had learned to size a man up.
There were things about Tom that made her uneasy. Her blunt straightforward questions seemed to amuse him a little. He had a smooth soft-voiced politeness and well proportioned hands and he used very little slang. He wore grey slacks and a light-grey jacket with a blue check and as he leaned back on the sofa he was so much at home that he made her feel a bit clumsy and ill at ease. She began to take on an air of refinement and hated herself for doing it.
When Alea came in with the tray Mrs. Buhay sat back and listened to them and it seemed to her that Alca didn’t even talk his language.
“I’ll take those dishes into the kitchen,” she said, so they could be alone together, and she put the cups and saucers on the tray and went out to the kitchen.
WHEN she was washing the dishes Alca came into the kitchen and took her arm. “How do you like him?” she whispered.
“He’s quite a guy,” Mrs. Buhay admitted.
“He certainly is. Oh, I’m so glad you like him.”
“Look Alca,” she said, one hand on her hip as she smiled wisely. “That fellow’s a very intelligent young man.” “You bet he is, Mrs. Buhay.”
“And well educated, too.”
“Yes, he went to college,” she said proudly.
“Where does he live, Alca?”
“He’s got a room of his own.”
“And he’d like you to see it, I suppose?”
“He hasn’t said anything about it.” “He will. And don’t you go there, Alca. If I were in your place I’d watch that I wasn’t alone with him too much.”
“But I like being alone with him. Why shouldn’t I?”
“Alca, Alca,” Mrs. Buhay said indul-
gently. “What do you think that fellow’s up to with you? Ask yourself that.”
“He likes me. We like each other.”
“Sure you do. But a guy like that, Alca, intelligent and educated, and with that look in his eyes. What’s he up to with you, do you think?”
“I told you, he likes me,” Alca said, and she was hurt because she trusted Mrs. Buhay’s judgment completely. She blushed, feeling somehow belittled and she tried to hide it by turning away and picking up one of the dried cups and staring at the pink floral pattern on the rim. “Okay,” she said, and she walked out of the kitchen.
Mrs. Buhay stayed there until she heard Tom going home and then she came out and tried to joke with Alca, who didn’t laugh at all.
Alca kept bringing Tom to the house and one night Mrs. Buhay saw her glance at him with an uneasy question in her eyes, trying to see him as she had been told to. Whatever it was she saw, it made her look lonely and troubled, and Mrs. Buhay knew Alca was in love with him. Until then she hadn’t known how much she herself loved Alca. “That smooth guy with his soft soap knows she’s a soft touch for him,” she thought, and was angry. Until Tom went home she couldn’t sleep.
Each night it seemed to her that he stayed longer, and she took it as a sign he looked down on them. It outraged her. She used to look at the clock then get up and go to the bathroom noisily and call out warningly, “Alca, you know you have to get up in the morning.” “All right, Mrs. Buhay,” Alca answered meekly and the tone, quick and placating, seemed to tell Mrs. Buhay what was going on between them, and her heart would ache for Alca.
One night a few minutes before twelve, she lay in bed listening and worrying, and when she couldn’t hear them talking at all, she got out of bed and put on her dressing gown and went along the hall to the living room where they were sitting on the sofa close together. All her suspicious shrewdness was in her eyes as she stared at them. “I was going to get a glass of milk,” she said, shuffling along in her slippers to the kitchen.
Tom looked at Mrs. Buhay and then at Alca, who flushed as if she knew he was getting a picture of her she didn’t want him to have, and she was ashamed. When Mrs. Buhay came back from the kitchen Alca smiled self-consciously, but then she seemed to see herself mirrored in Mrs. Buhay’s eyes, and she slumped back on the sofa.
ANOTHER night they hadn’t come Jiome and it was midnight. It had been raining hard, and Mrs. Buhay, lying in bed, worried about Alca not having a coat with her. She caught cold easily. Then she heard them come in. They closed the door quietly and she could feel them listening outside her room, and then they tiptoed along the hall.
After that she could hear nothing at all, and hating Tom Prince for making Alca furtive and sly, she got up cursing him, threw her dressing gown around her and strode out into the living room. They weren’t there. The kitchen door though was closed. She went grimly to the door and pushed it open. “What’s going on here?” she demanded.
Alca stood by the stove where the coffee pot was on, and Tom was at the end of the kitchen table with his coat off, and as she stared at him he stood up and Mrs. Buhay was sure they had heard her footsteps and were both acting now.
“Why are you in here with the door
closed?” she said sharply to Tom.
“We are going to have a cup of coffee,” he said, and he reddened and stared right back at her.
“You were asleep, Mrs. Buhay,” Alca said. “We didn’t want to wake you. We were just sitting here, really.” Then angered by her own apology she put her hand on the coffee pot to show it was hot, and then had to jerk it away.
“Mrs. Buhay, do you object to me coming in for a cup of coffee. How about it?”
“I heard a noise,” she said, hating him for his tone. “There was no one in the living room. Naturally I wondered why there was a light in the kitchen. Well, all right.”
They were both stiff and tense, their eyes meeting as they waited for her to go, and when she got back to her bedroom and lay down she was sure she had been fooled somehow because Alca had looked so ashamed.
A faint streak of light from the window was on the ceiling and she watched it till she heard them come along the hall and say good night, and when finally she heard Alca go into her bedroom she relaxed and sighed, and turned over on her side and fell asleep.
A little sound woke her up suddenly, a little clicking noise like the latch on the door. Throwing the covers back she grabbed at her dressing gown, turned on the light, went out to the hall, then to Alca’s bedroom. Alca wasn’t there.
Hurrying out she forgot that she was a heavy woman and could easily trip in her slippers. She grabbed the stair banister and went running down. On the first landing she looked down the stairs that led to the apartment entrance and there was Alca sitting on the second step, her raincoat on, putting on her shoes.
“Alca, Alca,” Mrs. Buhay called hoarsely, and she felt a little dizzy with relief. Holding her dressing gown in tight at the waist, she came heavily down the stairs and into the light while Alca backed away, staring at her.
“Alca, you little fool,” she said, but she had to wait to catch her breath. “Where do you think you’re going at this hour?”
“Out,” Alca said sullenly.
“To be with that guy,” and then she grabbed her by the arm. “Where was he taking you at this hour?”
“Just . . . just somewhere,” and she jerked away from Mrs. Buhay.
“Where were you going? To his place?”
“I don’t know.”
“Answer me, Alca.”
“I don’t have to,” she whispered defiantly.
“To his room,” Mrs. Buhay said bitterly.
“Where is he?” And she went to the big glass door and looked out. It was still raining, but just a little, and the pavement gleamed in the street light. Across the road was a cigar store and she could make out a figure half hidden in the entrance. “There he is. Come here you little fool,” she said, and took Alca’s arm roughly and drew her to the door.
“Look at him, skulking around, waiting till I fell asleep. Like a dog when the moon is right, knowing you’ll come running. Oh, dear,” she said, sighing bitterly. “How nicely he played you. The boy with the elegant manner, the charm and the education. Slumming. Didn’t I tell you you’d lose your head? Didn’t I?” she asked furiously,
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and her fury frightened Alca, who still stood with her face pressed against the glass.
Then she turned to protest, but as she met Mrs. Buhay’s knowing and scornful glance her own eyes were lonely and stricken. “Yes, it’s wrong —all wrong. I know it’s wrong,” she whispered. Then she ran up the stairs. Mrs. Buhay watched her legs in the light rounding the turn and then she sighed wearily. “Well, that’s that,” and gathering her dressing gown around her, one hand holding it in tight at the waist, she climbed the stairs slowly, breathing hard.
IN THE HALL she heard Alca crying and she thought grimly, “Maybe now she’ll be wise to that guy,” and she went back to her bedroom.
She lit a cigarette, sat on the edge of the bed and wished she had a drink, and then the sound of the heartbroken sobbing in the next room began to worry her; it tore at her affection for Alca. Slowly, she got up and went
into Alca’s bedroom and in the dark she could make out Alca huddled on the bed, her face buried in the pillow'.
“Alca, be sensible,” she said roughly, kneeling on the bed, and as the spring sagged and rolled Alca toward her she reached out to touch her and was hurt when Alca drew away.
“Would you rather I hadn’t stopped you, Alca?”
“No, I’m glad you did.”
“Then why are you sore at me?” “I’m not sore at you at all, Mrs. Buhay.”
“Well, then,” she said, puzzled. “If you’re a little wiser now, it’s all right. If you had gone to the guy’s room and been easy for him then you’re cheap stuff. Don’t you see that?”
“I do see it.”
“Well, then ...”
“But you don’t understand, Mrs. Buhay,” she said half pleading as she sat up slowly. “When we came in tonight we didn’t intend to go out, we didn’t.”
“As if you knew what was in his mind, Alca.”
“It wasn’t in his mind, Mrs. Buhay,” and she shook her head with a desolate conviction. “Not in the beginning. We were just sitting in the kitchen with the door closed to be by ourselves. Then you came along; then it got that we had to be alone. I mean—it got different—”
“Alca, wasn’t I right about the guy?” “No.”
“You weren’t right about him; you were right about me.”
“How was I right about you?” “Well, you were sure I was no good.”
“Alca, I never said you were no good.”
“You didn’t need to,” she said simply, her voice breaking. “You said it every time you looked at me. You said it to Tom in the way you watched us, and tonight, well, I got mad and didn’t care, and I said let’s go somewhere else.”
In the dark Mrs. Buhay could make out Alca’s hand moving on the bedspread, and she watched it, and couldn’t find any words, and then she pleaded, “Alca, your own mother would have taken the attitude I did.”
“No, she wouldn’t,” Alca said quickly.
“She would, Alca.”
“No, she would never make me feel that Tom was too good for me, and that I was common. But, of course, she would be my mother, and maybe there’d be things she wouldn’t see.” “Alca, you took it in the wrong way,” Mrs. Buhay whispered, but she couldn’t go on. She was too shaken by Alca’s lonely acceptance of the fact that there was a common streak in her that she with her experience had seen at once, not being blinded by the love that her mother might have had for her, and she got up and moved heavily over to the chair and sat down.
She was bewildered at the failure of her own affection. It had been slowly destroying Alca’s self-respect. Drawing her dressing gown tighter across her chest as if she were cold she rubbed her wrinkled neck slowly with her right hand, and as Alca, troubled and wondering, stared at her, she felt old and unknowing and glad of the darkness. “Alca, I’m a fool,” she whispered.
“A fool about what?”
“I belittle you into seeing things my way.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” “It’s a fact, a fact,” Mrs. Buhay said, then she shook her head and got up and shuffled out of the bedroom.
It was dark in the living room and she stood by the window looking down at the wet street. She couldn’t see the cigar store where Tom had been waiting. As she watched to see if he would come along the street she thought of her own life and all who had passed through it and the two men who at one time had loved her, and how they had parted from her, and it seemed a very long time ago, and she felt lonely. And then she thought, “Oh, Lord, if I wasn’t like I am, Alca wouldn’t be in there feeling cheap and common.”
A shaft of light came suddenly from Alca’s bedroom; she had turned on the light and was getting undressed. Mrs. Buhay looked and went slowly toward the light. Alca was pulling her dress over her head. Mrs. Buhay went over and stood behind her, hesitated, then helped her draw it over her head.
“Alca, listen to me,” she said. “You were a good straightforward girl when you came here. A girl with good feelings.” Her wide mouth trembled as she groped for the right words, then went on urgently. “There’s something I want you to do, Alca. Tomorrow I want you to go and get a room for yourself, you understand?”
“Leave here? Don’t you want me here anymore?”
“That’s not it, Alca.”
“You’ve been kind to me, Mrs. Buhay. You’ve done everything for me. I know you like me.”
“No, get a room for yourself tomorrow, Alca. I’ll help you find one. Tomorrow, right tomorrow. Take a chance with your own heart, Alca. It’s good. You’ll be all right.” She fumbled the words desperately because they were cutting her off from Alca, but all she knew was that she didn’t want Alca’s life to be like hers. ★