Winter 2012, #18


Wizzie's Room

     by Charles Salzberg

I am in the air 15 minutes when it hits me. I have left New York forever. Everything I own is either under the seat in front of me, in the cargo bin above my head, or on its way to my sister’s house via UPS.

Part of me is sad, the part that came to New York to fulfill my dreams. Part of me is excited at the prospect of starting a new life. But most of me is frightened, confused and disoriented. I feel as up in the air as the plane in which I am riding.

When I get to O’Hare, I panic. I am in Nowheresville. I want to get onto the next flight back to New York. I am no one there, but I am nowhere here. Does that make any sense? Probably not. An old boyfriend once told me I was too emotional, that I never made any sense. He told me this after I caught him in bed with another woman. I sometimes wonder what he told her.

I have very explicit instructions how to get from O’Hare to my sister’s house in Monroe. Because she thinks I’m stupid, she made me read them back to her to make sure I had them right. I have not looked at them since I wrote them down two weeks ago. Now, for the first time, I take them out and read them. I do not recognize the handwriting, but I know it is mine. People have often complimented me on my penmanship, which has always been clear, slightly slanted to the right, with not too many unnecessary swirls and loops, no little circles dotting my I’s. A sign I was clear headed, a man once told me as he looked over my job application. That’s the actress in me, I suppose. I’m good at fooling people when I have to. I thanked him and then he asked me out on a date. I have a difficult time saying no, but since I knew I wasn’t going to get the job anyway, I did.

I am supposed to catch a Greyhound bus which will take me directly from the airport to Monroe. The bus stop is only two blocks from Kathy’s house. It will be difficult to mess up. Difficult, but not impossible. I wonder if I should try. Maybe that will be a sign that I’ve made the wrong decision. But I haven’t. I haven’t. I haven’t. I keep telling myself this as I pay for my ticket and get on the bus.

It is 8 o’clock Friday evening and not many people are on the bus with me. I hand the driver my ticket and take a seat to his right, near the window. No one sits next to me, which is fine, because I don’t feel like talking.

Near the end of the trip, when I am one of only two people left on the bus, the driver turns and says, “On your way home?”

“No,” I answer, without thinking.

“So where’s home?”

“New York,” I say, again without thinking. I’ve got to get out of that habit. New York is not my home.  Not anymore. I don’t have a home now. I will, but I don’t have one now.

“Whatchoo doin’ goin’ to Monroe?”



“My sister.”

“I got me a sister. We don’t have much to do with each other no more. She lives out west. She don’t like the cold. I don’t know, cold ain’t so bad you dress for it. Thing is, you got to know how to dress for it. You like the cold?”

If I were going to answer truthfully I would say I like extremes, hot, cold, it doesn’t matter. My old boyfriend accused me of living life in extremes, so I guess that explains why I like hot and cold weather, and can take or leave anything in between. But I don’t want to get into that now. Not with a bus driver.

“As long as I’m dressed for it,” I say.

“That’s the ticket. So your sister lives in Monroe?”

“One of them. She’s married, with a baby.”

“Babies, they’re nice. It’s when they get older you got trouble. Course babies ain’t so nice when they’re in the bus bawlin’ like crazy. Hard to concentrate on driving with them back there screamin’ their heads off. Thank God for Ipods.”

Which reminds me I’ve got one in my bag. Trying not to be rude while at the same time hoping to firmly close any further conversation, I fuss with my bag, then pull it out, jam the earphones in my ears, and turn it on. I don’t care what I’m listening to. It’s just music I want to hear, not anyone else. Not even myself.

When the bus pulls into Monroe Kathy is waiting for me. My sister loves me. She hardly knows me, but she loves me just the same. She is seven years older than I am and growing up we didn’t have much to do with each other. Now she’s trying to make up for that. She feels very motherly toward me. She wants to take care of me. It’s because of her I left New York and came here. She thought I was going nowhere in a hurry. Maybe she was right. About going nowhere, I mean. I don’t know about the hurry part. That would mean I was moving at a pretty good pace, which I don’t think I was.

Kathy hugs me and tells me how much she’s missed me, how glad she is to see me, how happy she is I’m out of New York. I don’t know why, but I start to cry. She cries, too. There we are, standing alone at the bus stop under a street lamp, crying.

When we get back to her house Kathy asks if I’m hungry. “You must be hungry,” she insists, when I say I’m not.

“No, Kathy, I’m really not. I ate on the plane.”

“Plane food? Yech!”

I realize that Kathy has never been anywhere other than where she is now. “There is no plane food anymore. I brought a sandwich with me. And some fruit. I’m stuffed. Really.”

“In that case, you’ll have to see Bradley.”

Bradley is Kathy and Andy’s two-year old. I like him. He calls me Aunt Wizzie, because he can’t quite pronounce his L’s. “I don’t want to wake him,” I say.

“We won’t wake him. We’ll just sneak a look.”

We do and then we pop into the bedroom to say hello to Andy, who’s already in bed. He’s reading Sports Illustrated, the swimsuit issue. so maybe he’s not reading it at all. “Sorry, girls,” he says, “but I’ve got to get up early tomorrow. If I miss you in the morning, Lizzie, I’ll catch you later in the afternoon. It’s great to have you here.”

The next three hours are spent at the kitchen table where Kathy and I dissect my life and how the future’s going to be so much brighter for me now that I’ve left New York and given up any idea of being an actress.

My sister has fixed up the guest room for me. Bradley calls it Aunt Wizzie’s woom. Even though Kathy has tried to make it really Aunt Wizzie’s woom by putting photographs of me on the dresser and a poster of James Dean on the wall, it does not feel like mine. Before I fall asleep I feel like I’m floating on air. Not too high, but high enough that I know I’m floating. It should be a good feeling, but it isn’t.

The next morning the sound of the telephone ringing wakes me. At first, I’m not sure where I am, but I know I am no longer floating. It takes me a few seconds to realize I’m in Monroe, in my sister’s house, in what is supposed to be my room. The phone keeps ringing. Finally, someone picks it up. I look at the clock next to my bed. It’s 9:30.

Bradley peeks in the door. When he sees I’m up, he jumps on the bed and gives me a hug. He yells, “Aunt Wizzie, Aunt Wizzie,” over and over. I yell, “Bwadwey, Bwadwey,” over and over, as we jump up and down on the bed as if it were a trampoline.

Kathy comes in. “I’m sorry if the phone woke you, Lizzie,” she says, running her hand through my hair as if I’m a child. “I wanted to let you sleep in.”

“That’s okay. I have to get back into a normal schedule.”

We have breakfast in the kitchen. Andy is already playing golf. As we’re doing the dishes, Ellen, Kathy’s neighbor and best friend, comes over. We sit around over coffee, as they talk about their kids. After a while, I excuse myself and go into the living room to play with Bradley. Late that afternoon, after Andy gets back from his golf game, we go over to Ellen’s house for a cookout. I am introduced to her husband, Bob, who has a clothing shop in the mall. We get to talking and, when he finds out I like to exercise, he invites me to his gym. I think he’s a jerk, but I say, okay. I need the exercise.

In order to pay my keep—my idea, not theirs—I have volunteered to take care of Bradley while Kathy and Andy are at work. I find out that really doesn’t consist of much, because from 9 to 12, he’s in daycare. When he gets home, I give him lunch and then he takes a nap. I play with him a while, then Kathy gets home from her job at the hospital, where she works in the administrative office.

At first, I enjoy it. But after three days I am into a routine and am going out of my mind. Bob calls and asks if I’d like to work out on Thursday, after work. I jump at the chance. Anything to break the routine.

The workout feels good. I work the free weights and I run around the track a few times, then I ride the bike for 20 minutes. Bob is pretty much off doing his own thing, which is fine with me. Afterwards, he asks if I want to go out for a drink. Fine, I say.

We go to a local tavern for a beer. Bob, who’s never been further away from Monroe than Chicago, is fascinated by the life I led in New York. He asks what it’s like being an actress. I tell him I don’t know, since you could hardly call what I did being an actress.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“I took classes, I auditioned, but mostly I waited on tables. I was a waitress.”

“You mean you were an actress who worked as a waitress to make ends meet.”

“Listen, Bob, after four years trying to get parts and the best I’ve got to brag about is a bunch of callbacks and a few first refusals, I’ve got to consider myself a waitress, not an actress.”

“What about that soap thing your sister told us about?”

I smile because I see that I am now part of another Wilson legend, right up there alongside Kathy and Judy Wilson, the Mount Airy beauty queens. Now, added to that, is Lizzie and the soap thing. “I didn’t get the part.”

“But you almost did. They flew you out to Hollywood to test, didn’t they? They even had a contract ready for you to sign, right?”

“Someone else signed it, not me. But if they ever have a part for a waitress, I’m their girl.”

“You’re not going to give up, are you?”

“I’ve already given up, Bob. That’s why I’m here. That’s why, starting Monday, I’m going to look for a job.”

When I get home, Kathy is waiting for me. I can see something’s on her mind. Her face is taut, her teeth clenched. “Where were you?” she asks.

“At the gym.”

“Till now?”

“We went out for a beer afterwards.”

“You mean you and Bob?”

“That’s right.”

“Sit down, Lizzie,” she says, putting her hand on my shoulder. “I don’t know quite how to put this, but this is Monroe, not New York. We don’t do things like that here.”

“Like what?”

“Like going out for a drink with a married man. People talk. I know it sounds silly and provincial, but they do.”

“Jesus, Kathy, we weren’t doing anything. We were out in public, for Chrissakes. Besides, Bob’s a jerk and I don’t give a fuck what people think.”

“Lizzie, Andy and I have to live in this town. Unfortunate and as unfair as it might be, what you do reflects on us. You’ll just have to be more careful...”

Friday night a bunch of us go out to dinner. Monroe’s version of the Sizzler. Lots of beef, shrimp and a salad bar. The waitress is about the same age as I am. She is very sweet and tries hard to get the order right, but it isn’t easy because there are seven of us. The bill comes to $94. The men divvy up the check and they leave a $7 tip. I know I should keep my mouth shut, but I can’t. “You’ve got to leave more than that,” I say.

“That’s a dollar apiece,” says Bob.

“We had that girl hopping, Bob. You sent her back for something at least half a dozen times.”

“That’s her job, Lizzie,” says Allen, a golfing buddy of Andy’s, whose wife, Becky, has French tipped nails, frosted hair and enough gold jewelry to sink the Bismarck. “She’s a waitress,” he says, and the word waitress comes out like a curse. “That’s what she gets paid for.”

“How much do you think she gets paid? Part of her salary is supposed to come from tips. Seven dollars doesn’t go very far...even here.”

Kathy shoots me a look. “And how much should we have left?” asks Becky, very snottily.

“Twenty percent.”

“That’s almost $20,” says Becky, who must spend at least that much on her nails each week. “We’re not in New York, you know. We do things differently here.”

“I know,” I say, and then I see Kathy looking at me with daggers in her eyes. Andy, who I can see is embarrassed, reaches into his pocket and puts another $5 on the table. “I think we ought to get going,” he says to Kathy. “I promised to get the sitter home by ten.

Saturday morning I decide to take a walk. I put on my black tights, with a leopard print blouse over them and black, Converse high-tops. I put my hair up and tie it with a big, red ribbon. I grab a couple of Prince tapes, my Ipod, and a pair of wraparound sunglasses, and I’m off. As I walk down the streets, which are virtually empty, I really get into the music, snapping my fingers, moving around, like I’m dancing with myself. I’m actually beginning to lose myself, which is good. I’m walking around like this when I notice a kid, a boy around 10, following me. He’s staring at me like I’m from another planet. I try to ignore him, but he keeps following me. Finally, I pull down my earphones, turn and say, “Can I help you?”

He just looks at me.


“Are you on drugs?” he asks.

“Drugs? Whatever gave you that idea? And what do you know about drugs?”

“TV,” he says, jutting his chin forward.

“What makes you think I’m on drugs?”

“The way you’re dressed. The way you’re kind of dancing around the street listening to that thing. You’re on drugs, aren’t you?”

“I certainly am not. What’s your name?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“Because I asked.”

He thinks a minute, perhaps weighing the consequences of giving his name to a drugged out stranger, and then says, “Kenny. You don’t live around here, do you?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

“I’ve never seen you before.”

“Well, I’ve never seen you before, either. That doesn’t mean you don’t live around here, does it?”

“I live here. I’ve lived here all my life.”

“I can tell,” I say, and I have this mental picture of him growing up to be Bob or Andy or Allen. “But maybe, if you’re real lucky, you’ll live someplace else when you grow up.”

“I don’t want to live anyplace else. I like it here.”

“Maybe you’d like it someplace else, too.”

“I don’t think so.” He looks me over and moves closer to me. I think maybe he’s going to reach out and touch me, as if I’ were some kind of alien from outer space, just to see if I’m flesh and blood.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“You mean where was I born?”

“Yeah. Where were you born?”

“North Carolina. In a small town. Kinda like this.”

“Why did you leave?”

“I didn’t like it.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know, I just didn’t. Besides, what I wanted I couldn’t get there.”

“How come you’re here now?”

“Because my sister lives here. I’m...visiting...”

“Can you get what you want here?”

“I doubt it.” Saturday night Kathy invites some people over for a barbecue. One of them is Eric, a guy she’s been talking about for months. There are no eligible men my age in Monroe, so they have to be imported. Eric’s family is from Monroe, but last year he moved to Chicago to become a male model. Kathy says he looks like George Clooney. He’s 27, two years younger than me. They’ve built me up for almost a month. They told him I look like Kate Beckinsale, only my hair is longer. He seems nice enough. Kind of bland, but nice. And he does look vaguely like George Clooney, only his accent is pure mid-west.

When the barbecue is over, Eric asks me if I’d like to take a ride up to the lake the next day. I say, sure. I see Kathy and Bob off to the side, smiling. Maybe they think if I hang around with Eric I’ll learn the rules of how to live in a small town.

We have a nice time at the lake. I can see Eric is infatuated with me. I don’t think he’s ever met anyone like me before. Although he’s lived in Chicago almost a year, he’s really just a small town boy with small town values. When I was in New York this was the kind of man I was looking for, but now that I’m in Monroe, it’s not. I can see it’s easy for me to shock him and, even though I hate myself for doing it, I do it whenever I can. For instance, he’s not used to women cursing and so I curse whenever it’s appropriate and sometimes when it’s not. He doesn’t say anything, but his face gets red. I try to think of something that could make me blush like that, but I can’t, which makes me sad.

Eric asks what it was like living in New York, so I tell him about the drugs and my boyfriend who used to beat me up and how I once slept in the hallway because he locked me out of the apartment. I can see he is both repelled and attracted. For me, it’s all a game and I’m ashamed of myself. But I do it anyway.

That night, when Andy and Bradley are asleep, Kathy talks to me in the kitchen. “So, Lizzie,” she says, “what’s the plan?”

“I wish I knew.”

“You could maybe help out at Inger’s House of Beauty.”

“I don’t think so.”

“There’s the...”

“Not the mall.”

“That’s not what we got you out here for.”

“You know, Kathy, I was thinking about maybe moving to Chicago.”

“Eric’s in Chicago,” she says, smiling.

“That’s not why I’m thinking of moving there.”

“Then why?”

“I’m thinking about maybe giving it one more shot.”

“You mean acting?”


“Oh, Lizzie...”

“It’d be a fresh start. I’d give it six months and then, if nothing happens, I’d have an easier time finding a job there. And I’d only be a few hours away from you...”

“And closer to New York,” she mumbles. I think maybe she’s going to try to argue me out of it, but she doesn’t. I think maybe she knows this isn’t right for me. We tried, all of us, but it just isn’t working out.

“Maybe,” she says, after thinking for several moments, “that’s not such a bad idea.”

“And you know, Kathy, it really is kind of crowded around here. I think, if I left, you could probably make very good use of Aunt Wizzie’s woom.”

There is a moment of silence. I see tears well up in Kathy’s eyes. I think she’s going to cry, but she doesn’t. Instead, she smiles. I smile, too, even though I’m the one who feels like crying.

And then we both laugh.