you have such a nice smile, the old woman was saying to tamara, a personal aide. doesn't she have a nice smile? she asked me. i set down a paper place mat in front of her.
wouldn't it be good to go among the colored people to find a boyfriend for her? she asked me in low tones.
you're too young for 99, laughed tamara, shaking her head. i placed a knife and spoon on her place mat.
do you set the table at home? she asked me. yes, i said.
that is so wonderful, she said. and is your wife the only one, and you've never forgotten what it was that made her the only one? yes, i said.
i know, she said. you do it so you can sit with your paper and she will bring you coffee. i tried saying something but she was already somewhere else.
i haven't seen a nice boy like you for such a long time, she said, reaching out for my hand. i let her take it. i had one just like you, with blond hair and blue eyes. the aides laughed. i am not blond.
do you know how i met my husband? she said. at a party. he came in the door, saw me, and said "You!" he came over and said, I'm going to marry you. And he did! i began stacking cups out of the dishwasher.
if she heard two lines of (italian name), she said, she would go crazy, she said to me about tamara. so, sing it, i said. she croaked out some alien words. tamara was still sane.
i had ten years of music, she said. don't be afraid to let your children know opera. let them sing it in the house. i will, i said.
will both of you work all your lives? she asked.
probably, i said.
i never saw her speak, i said. she has her days, tamara said to me.
her words had a mysterious force, as if coming from somewhere very far away, as if her head were above a layer of clouds but her words were still audible. her nose was slightly hooked, her hair short, her eyes bright. i imagined upper society pasts for her: a flapper at parties, or in an opera box. was she a performer? she had that "qizhi," Chinese for personal aura or air, or the tautological "character." it was a grandiosity of statements still operating, even if the brain was more and more muddled, 99 years from the source. she was becoming an oracle.