The Mean Mrs. Dickstein
Mrs. Dickstein, age seventy-five, sat on her favorite bench in Central Park overlooking the lake on a lavishly sunny May day reading Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which she had read three times over the course of her life.
A widow, she loved this exercise in delicious tranquility, and in the spring, when the weather was perfect, she would revel in this particular spot with the special view of the lake and the trees in bloom around her. Weekdays were best, for the crowds were sparse and most children were in their strollers pushed by chatting moms or nannies.
Looking up from her book, she would observe the rowboats quietly cutting through the slate-colored lake waters and people reclining on the grassy knolls, lovers embracing and oblivious, a lone man or woman, lying supine or sitting cross-legged Indian style, perhaps like her, enjoying the optimism and glory of spring.
All in all, with the exception of the loss of her beloved Henry three years ago, she could savor the best of times in her long life. She had made peace with the demise of Henry, who had been a dozen years her senior, and his departure was long expected to be before her own.
Her two grown sons lived elsewhere and were dutiful in their absent devotion, calling her at least once a week to report on their various experiences in the interim and especially on the antics of her grandchildren. Each visited a couple of times a year, and she visited them in sequence during holidays and was both happy to arrive and happy to depart.
Her children knew too that she was a habitual and inveterate New Yorker, a native, who would never leave, although she suspected that they and their wives were happy with her chosen location. An aged parent and grandparent could be a disruption and an emotional bother, especially to a daughter-in-law. She had never ever considered a move to be near her children. Nevertheless, they did worry about her safety. They chose the next best thing to proximity. They gave her a cell phone as a Christmas gift, which she used sporadically to call friends and on occasion her sons, who insisted that she keep it charged and carry it around with her, which she did.
She had been a professional nurse in her time and since her retirement had invariably volunteered to help, as she phrased it, “the less fortunate.” She assisted in serving Thanksgiving meals at homeless shelters, was active in those groups that helped orphaned children, and was one of the numerous gray-haired single ladies who volunteered at Mt. Sinai hospital, wheeling carts of books to patients or completing other chores to lighten the burden of the needy.
She believed implicitly in charity and caregiving, which had motivated her to become a nurse many years ago. Since Henry had gone, she spent most of her time with friends in her own widowed or single situation, pursued her charitable work, went to lectures at the Met and the 92nd Street Y, and generally lived what she characterized to herself as the life of the heart and the mind.
She supposed in retrospect that she had lived a good life, respecting her fellow man, avoiding all the pitfalls of mean-mindedness that seemed to afflict human endeavors, both in the past and especially now. She prided herself in not having a mean streak in her, taking the burden of affliction on herself rather than hurting other people. Not that she was self-conscious or dwelled inordinately on her goodness; she was, as she told herself, built that way.
Nor was she the type who fed squirrels and pigeons or mourned over the loss of an insect she had stepped on, but she did pride herself on her innate sense or compassion and decency. At times, when she felt wronged, she chose the path of avoiding confrontations, probably more out of fear than conviction.
Sitting here on her favorite bench, lifting her eyes to observe her favorite view, and reading a classic novel, was her version of nirvana.
There were times, of course, when her expectations had been dashed by people getting to the bench before her. When such a situation occurred she walked about the park for awhile, checked the bench again to see if there was room for her, and, if not, she would go home. Such were the limitations of habit. Thankfully, it did not happen very often.
It did not happen on this particularly glorious day, and she was able to plunge deeply into the lives of the novel’s characters.
A red-haired woman sat down next to her and immediately fired up her cell phone. She chattered incessantly and, after awhile, the sound disturbed Mrs. Dickstein’s concentration and tranquility. She made it a point not to decipher the specifics of the woman’s conversation since that seemed an intrusion on her part on the privacy of the caller.
Of course the woman’s conduct was rude, she reasoned. On the other hand, she did not feel she had the right to intervene, since there were no legal restrictions of talking on a cell phone and she was not one to complain about such things. Moreover, she figured that sooner or later the woman would stop and her peace would be restored.
Unfortunately it didn’t and Mrs. Dickstein, despite herself, could not avoid the substance of the woman’s conversation. She was apparently making a series of calls to change the venue of a party of some kind from one restaurant to another.
To further exacerbate the situation, the woman’s voice was harsh, loud, and vulgar, interspersed with strings of four-letter words. Peripherally, she noted that the woman wore large sunglasses and smeary red lipstick. She was dressed in tight jeans and wore high heels. She struck Mrs. Dickstein as snarling and hard.
Despite herself she could not avoid hearing that the new venue was Danielle’s and not Cipriani’s, which, for some reason, was not suitable. The party was called for tomorrow at eight and the woman was contacting all the invitees, who apparently were considerable.
When those she called were in, a conversation ensued that went on for a long time. When those she called were out, she repeated a long explanation and asked that she be called back. Mrs. Dickstein caught her name. “Molly Harkins.” Interspersed between the call-ups and the callbacks were some musical renditions that signaled that a call was coming in.
After some considerable debate with herself, Mrs. Dickstein finally reacted.
“Please excuse me, I hate to suggest it. I know these are important calls, but would you mind making them elsewhere,” Mrs. Dickstein said timorously, looking around her. “There is lots of open space around.”
At first the woman merely frowned, since she was in the middle of a conversation, but when she hung up she turned to Mrs. Dickstein.
“Why don’t you change your seat, then?” the woman asked.
“I don’t mean any offense,” Mrs. Dickstein said, politely offering a smile. “I can understand one or two calls but . . .”
“Why don’t you mind your own fucking business, lady,” the woman cried, eyeing her with obvious contempt.
The rebuke seemed so hostile that Mrs. Dickstein was silent for a long time, not knowing how to react. Yes, she could go to another bench or walk around until this woman vacated and avoid any confrontation altogether. She felt frozen in place, unable to react.
The calls continued, and Mrs. Dickstein had completely lost her concentration but still felt constrained from moving. Finally, summoning up all residue of courage, she reacted again.
“At the very least,” she said. “You could talk less volubly.”
“Jesus,” the woman said. “Get out of my face.”
At that moment, the phone trilled again and a conversation began.
“I know. I know. I do sound pissed off. Some old bag is giving me a bad time.”
Mrs. Dickstein, having heard the reference, seemed to poke her nose deeper into her open book. The words swam without meaning in front of her unseeing eyes. Still, she could not rouse herself to the confrontation. Finally, the best she could offer was a shrug of the shoulders and a whispering, “How rude.” But she refused to budge from the bench.
“Why?” the woman on the cell phone said, turning a bit to avoid looking at Mrs. Dickstein. “Because they gave me a better deal at Danielle’s. I was lucky as hell. Usually they’re booked for months. They just had a last-minute cancellation. It will be one helluva party. And will Harry be surprised. They made a cake and the menu is to die for.”
“Yada yada,” Mrs. Dickstein said under her breath. At that point the best she could muster was what she decided was “a dirty look.” The woman beside her paid no attention.
“I will not surrender,” Mrs. Dickstein told herself, forcing her resolve to endure the harassment of the woman’s voice and appearance.
Mrs. Dickstein found herself contemplating ways in which she could counter the woman. She opened her bag and took out her own cell phone and punched in the number of one son, then the other. Neither answered. In retrospect she was relieved. Their conversation would be personal and she had no desire to let this terrible woman into her private life.
She toyed with the idea of singing a song or making unnatural noises, but that seemed childish and unworthy and would subject her to embarrassment. She turned to face the woman and, although she held the pose for a minute or two, the woman merely looked up and offered an expression of contempt. Finally she turned away, fearing that the woman might take it into her head to call a policeman and tell him that she was being annoyed and harassed by a crazy old lady.
Instead, she tried concentrating on the content of the book, which proved impossible. Also, the tranquil view of the lake and softly rowing boats offered no solace for her anger. She was, she decided, genuinely upset. The woman’s voice went on and on, grating, vulgar, and never-ending.
It became, then, a silent endurance contest, although Mrs. Dickstein was not such a fool to believe that the battle was joined. At best, she decided to sit there, offering occasional side-glances of annoyance, which hardly made a dent on the woman or her incessant conversation.
On and on it went as the morning wore on. It must be one big party, Mrs. Dickstein thought. And expensive. Danielle’s, she knew, was one of the priciest restaurants in Manhattan.
One of her sons had taken her and her husband there for her seventieth birthday. It was too fancy for her tastes, and the food she found much too rich, and a brief glance at the check informed her that it was extravagant. Her husband had told her privately after the meal that the expense was in direct proportion to their son’s guilt at being neglectful of their parents. She did not agree, but then she was not given to ascribing such bad motivation to people, especially her own son.
The battle to endure and not surrender went on for what seemed more than an hour. She considered herself brave and valiant to suffer through the ordeal.
Then finally it was over. The woman snapped shut her cell phone and turned an arrogant smile toward Mrs. Dickstein.
“Now you can play with yourself,” the woman said, bouncing along the path in her high heels and tight pants.
Mrs. Dickstein sat for a long time, still unable to concentrate. Then an idea penetrated her mind and she giggled.
“Yes,” she decided, saying aloud. “I will play with myself.”
She dialed information and got the number of Danielle’s. The phone rang for an annoyingly long time until finally someone answered in a French accent.
“This is Mrs. Harkins,” she said. She wanted to sound harsh and grating but was unable to be less than polite. “I have reservations for tomorrow night.”
“Oh, yes, I see that. Four tables. Yes, Mrs. Harkins, what can I do for you?”
“Please cancel my reservation.”
“Cancel? On one day’s notice?”
“I think your restaurant is overpriced and the service is bad. Please cancel.”
“But Mrs. Harkins . . .”
“You heard me, buster. Cancel. I wouldn’t be caught dead in your shithouse.”
Mrs. Dickstein hung up the phone. It took her awhile to regain her tranquility. She smiled to herself, opened her book, watched the rowers on the lake, then lowered her eyes to read.