Driving Miss Saltus

Author: Sean Vernon

The ad in the paper read: “Driver and companion sought for elderly woman. $150/week and use of car.” I’d just graduated from high school and needed a summer job, so I called and talked to a guy named Jamie, who sounded about my own age and seemed eager to find a replacement. Extremely eager. He’d been on the job for all of three weeks.

We met at his house the next afternoon, and he drove me over to meet his employer. Shortly after passing through the center of Green Village — a post office and general store — we turned into a driveway that curved between tall bushes whose branches sometimes scraped the sides of the car. When the green wall outside my window came to an end, before us stood an aging Victorian house clothed in peeling yellow paint. A riot of vegetation pressed against the walls and windows as though wanting to get inside.

The driveway ended at a set of three stairs leading to a small porch and a white door that opened into the kitchen. Jamie turned off the engine. “I’ll go call Miss Saltus,” he said, opening his door. “She’s probably still asleep.”

I stepped out of the car and walked to the back of the house. The yard was a jungle of weeds, bushes, vines, and young trees. Miscellaneous items were strewn about: the arm of a wooden chair, a rusted watering can, part of a broken trellis, a window screen. About 100 feet away and rising above the tangle was the shell of an old barn. Sparrows raced in and out of gaping holes in walls that were no longer perpendicular to the ground. I turned back toward the house and was pushing vines out of my face when something caught my eye. Beside the cellar door, sticking out of a crack in the base of the wall, were the lifeless head and shoulders of a large brown rat. Its eyes and mouth were frozen open, and terror was written on its face, as though death had seized the animal from behind. I felt a little queasy and hurriedly made my way back to the car.

I told Jamie what I’d seen. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “The exterminators were here last week. Do you know how Miss Saltus explained the rats? She said her house is on a rat route. She also told me that she misses their sweet faces.”

Jamie went silent. I had the sense that he’d said more than he’d intended to say; perhaps for a moment he’d forgotten who he was talking to. From inside the house came a mechanical hum and a metallic clicking sound. “That’s her stair elevator,” Jamie said. “She’ll be here in a minute.” The humming stopped, and through the screens we heard a shuffling sound, like sandpaper on wood. Suddenly her face was at the screen door. She stood and surveyed us. Her hair was a shade of orange I had never seen on a human head.

“Who’s that?” she cried in a shrill falsetto that suggested British aristocracy. Her tone combined outrage and fascination.

“This is Sean,” Jamie said. “He’s coming with us today.”

“How lovely!” Miss Saltus sang, apparently delighted to see a new face. “Jamie, come here and find my bag.”

Jamie disappeared through the door, re-emerging a few moments later with a large, black, badly worn leather handbag. His employer stood beside him. From the top of the steps, Miss Saltus eyed me again and smiled. “How do you do?” she cried, as though asking a homeless person, “Where do you sleep?” Then, looking down at the stairs below her, she barked: “Hand!” Jamie immediately offered his arm, which Miss Saltus clamped onto at the wrist. Gripping the banister with her other hand, she started cautiously down the stairs.

As Jamie led her to the car, I took my first good look at Ethel Saltus. She stood 5-7 or 8 and had large and striking blue eyes, the lashes thick with mascara. The line she had drawn under her eyes was too low and crooked. Her mouth was small and round, and her lips were painted bright red, contrasting sharply with the pallor of her face. She looked more than a bit like Bette Davis.

She stopped in front of me. “My, you’re tall,” she said. Then she shuffled past, stopping at the passenger door of the car and waiting, apparently, for Jamie to open it. Giving me a meaningful look, Jamie nodded toward the car. Taking his cue, I stepped forward and swung the door open wide.

“Why thank you!” she beamed at me. “What a gentleman!”

We had gone less than a mile when I became aware of an intense and offensive odor. “God, what is that smell?!” I cried.

Instantly Miss Saltus twisted around in her seat. “Whaaat?” she exclaimed, stretching out the word while the pitch climbed ever higher, as though she’s just heard news of an unimaginable scandal.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, I caught Jamie’s look of alarm and immediately realized what I’d done.

“That’s Victoria,” he said quickly. “Miss Saltus’s dog. She sometimes comes with us.”

“Does she?” said Miss Saltus, surprised but allowing herself to be reassured. I thought she must have had an inkling as to the true source of the odor, but she was content to be ruled out. The rest of the ride passed without incident.

I decided to take the job, mainly out of sheer desperation, and the next morning I was at work. Miss Saltus had seemed almost as thrilled to be getting me for her new driver as Jamie had been to turn over the car keys. I pulled into her driveway at five minutes to nine, feeling happy to have stumbled into what would surely prove to be one of the easiest jobs I’d ever had. I was required to take her out twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, driving her wherever she wanted to go — the supermarket, drugstore, hairdresser’s (where they had a tube of that unearthly orange color she wore in her hair) or just for a tour of the lovely, rolling countryside around Green Village.

As Jamie had instructed me, I entered the kitchen and called out to let Miss Saltus know I was there. (“If she doesn’t answer, you may have to walk through the dining room to the base of the stairs and call her again.”) The room, still shrouded in semidarkness because of the vegetation crowding the windows and blocking out the sunlight, slowly began to fill in. The table was littered with dishes and bowls (one of which held half-eaten chicken pieces), an open package of ground beef, a sauce pan of what looked to be cream of vegetable soup, cups and saucers, a pint carton of cream standing in a white puddle, and a grimy glass beside an uncapped, half-full bottle of King William scotch. One of the chairs was pulled out from the table and on the seat was a bowl of melted ice cream. A chicken bone lay on the floor beneath the chair. The sink was piled high with dishes on which the remains of meals had hardened, and on the counter beside it were more dishes and another open bottle of whiskey. A small pile of paper food cartons and tin cans had collected next to the garbage pail in the corner, which was full to overflowing. Within a matter of moments I had developed a powerful aversion to touching anything in the room.

I went through the dining room, passing by a long, dusty rosewood table covered with papers, Time magazines, letters and hardcover books. A large, oak sideboard stood next to the wall beside a marble fireplace, and on the mantle I saw several yellowing, black-and-white photographs of people in severely dated fashions. Continuing on, I entered the front hall and stopped at the bottom of the staircase. I hesitated a moment and then called out her name.

“What? Who is it?” Her voice was heavy and garbled, as though she were talking from the back of her throat.

“Miss Saltus, it’s Sean. I’m here to take you for a drive.”

“Uh., uh . . . Sean? Oh, yes I . . . I’ll be right down.”

Rather than go back through the kitchen, I stepped out the front door and sat down in a white wicker chair on the porch, keeping one ear cocked for the sound of the stair elevator descending. The floorboards beneath me sagged badly and one of the porch steps was missing. The whole area looked as though it might cave in at any moment. After 15 minutes I went back inside and called her again. This time there was no reply. At 9:30 I got back into the car and drove home.

When I returned at 2, Miss Saltus was sitting at the kitchen table in front of a nearly empty bottle of King William scotch, the same bottle that had been half-full that morning. She didn’t look like the same person I’d met the day before.

“You were supposed to be here hours ago,” she snarled as I came in the door.

“I was here, Miss Saltus. I called but you never came down.”

“Oh, don’t give me that!” she almost shouted. Pressing down on the arms of her chair, she got unsteadily to her feet.

“Look . . . will you find my bag?” she said, peering around the room. “I can’t find it anywhere.”

The handbag sat on the table before me, no more than two feet from her right hand. “Here it is, Miss Saltus,” I said, holding it up.

“Good, where’s my coat?” She was rocking on her heels, holding onto the back of the chair with one hand, making chewing sounds with her mouth. Her tan raincoat hung over the back of a chair in the corner.

“It’s here, too,” I told her.

“Good. Help me on with it.” She stepped away from the chair and gripped the edge of the kitchen counter. When I brought her the coat my nose was hit by the reek of urine. I held out the coat without breathing, and when she had pushed her arms into the sleeves I took up her bag and escaped to the porch, filling my lungs with clean air. She came out a minute later. In her hand was a saucepan of cold soup. “I’d like to take this along,” she said, quite-matter-of-factly. I didn’t want to argue. So I took the saucepan to the car and laid it on the floor in the back. I had just straightened up when Miss Saltus cried, “Hand!” from the top step. I trotted over and extended my arm. She clamped onto my wrist with a white, bony hand and started down the stairs. My first day with Miss Saltus had begun.

In no time at all I understood why Jamie had told me almost nothing of what I could expect. He’d taken the job, as all of Miss Saltus’s drivers had — and there must have been an army of them over the years — on the understanding that if he ever decided to quit, he would first find a replacement, so as not to leave her stranded. He didn’t want to scare me off. Suddenly I was confronting a long list of unpleasantries that I assumed would only get longer and more unpleasant the longer I stayed.

Miss Saltus’s personal hygiene was almost nonexistent. I don’t think she stepped into a bathtub once in those two weeks. She wore the same clothes for days in a row, turning her pants and shirts inside out when the dirt and stains exceeded even her extremely loose standards. There were often crumbs and other tiny remnants of previous meals glued to the front of her blouse. She urinated in her pants and smelled so bad that when we went into a small shop, the stench would drive other customers out the door. (When she was in the car with me I drove with my head partway out the window if she was looking the other way.)

She regularly did and said shocking things in public. One day I took her to the supermarket and watched her pull the leg off a rotisserie chicken, take a few bites, and put it down on a shelf. Another day we were sitting in a parking lot when a woman walked past our car. “What an interesting dress,” Miss Saltus said to her as she passed by.

“Oh, do you like it?” the woman said patronizingly, as though addressing a child.

“I hate it,” Miss Saltus snapped.

I quickly came to suspect that King William was probably the most important figure in Miss Saltus’s life. Of all the items on the list of reasons why I wanted out, her drinking and drastic change in personality it wrought was the most distressing. When she was drunk, which was a good deal of the time, she turned nasty, even cruel. One day she asked me who my favorite writers were and then mocked my choices. Another day I made the mistake of telling her I played the guitar and wrote songs. “And I suppose you consider yourself an artist?” she sneered. “The world is full of young people like you who believe they’re artists simply because they bang on a piano or splash paint on a canvas. It’s all nonsense! They ought to be working in banks!”

Two weeks to the day after I started working for Miss Saltus, I had made up my mind to take out an ad in the same paper Jamie had used to gain his freedom. It was a rainy Monday morning, though the clouds appeared to be breaking up. As I parked, Miss Saltus stood on the porch, tying the strings of her rain hat under her chin. I was unhappy and sullen and stayed where I was. Let her get down the stairs by herself.

She must have immediately gauged my mood, for she stared down the rain-slicked stairs alone, gripping the handrail tightly. As she touched down on the second step her foot slid out from under her, and she fell heavily on her left side. Rolling over once, arms flailing, she bumped down onto the next step and bounced off the porch, ending up sitting in a large ceramic pot beside the stairs.

Leaping from her car I raced to her side, thinking I had probably killed her. “Are you all right?” I cried, kneeling before her and seizing her by the shoulders. She made no reply. She was pushing down on the rim of the pot, trying to free herself. I grabbed her under the arms and heaved, but the pot came with her, and I couldn’t lift the both of them.

“Get behind me,” she ordered. I quickly moved around the back, braced my left foot against the pot, heaved once more and pulled her upright. “Take me to the car,” she said. With a firm grip on her arm, I led her over, opened the door, and eased her down into the seat. When she raised her head to look at me, I saw blood streaming down her cheek from the corner of one eye. Above her lower lid a red pool was forming. I felt my knees go weak.

“Miss Saltus, there’s blood coming out of your eye,” I said, as calmly as I could, fully expecting the news to make her faint.

“How much?” she said without emotion.

I didn’t respond. The blood was dripping down her chin and onto her shirt. She touched her cheek and looked at her fingers. “Get me a wet paper towel,” she said, like a surgeon asking a nurse for an instrument.

Dashing into the kitchen, I brought one back to her. She gently dabbed around her eye, occasionally examining the towel to see whether the bleeding had stopped, appearing not the least bit alarmed by the amount of blood she was soaking up. In a few minutes the bleeding ceased. Miss Saltus asked me how her eye looked. Drawing my face close to hers I saw a tiny, vertical cut on the skin, perhaps a quarter of an inch below the lower lid.

“It looks good,” I said with profound relief. “There’s just a little cut.” I went into the kitchen for another damp towel and wiped the blood off her face.

“Why Sean, you look so pale,” she said as I cleaned her cheek. She sounded almost pleased. “Did that frighten you?”

“Very much. I was afraid you wouldn’t get up.”

“Oh dear!” she cried, surprised and delighted that I should care. “Oh poor dear! Were you terribly frightened?”

“Yes, I was. It was an awful thing to watch. And it was my fault . If I had . . .”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” she said, cutting me off. “Come and sit in the car, you’re as white as a ghost.”

At Miss Saltus’s insistence, we did our normal morning errands — stopping at the supermarket and the post office where, as usual, she had no letters — and then took a drive through the countryside in order, she said, that I might get some color back in my cheeks. The rain had stopped, and now and then the sun reached golden bars toward the earth, momentarily lighting up a group of trees or a hillside.

“Don’t you love the light green tips of the pine needles?” she said. “And look at my roadside lilies! Have you ever seen anything lovelier?”

“I’m a great believer,” Miss Saltus began, chin up, staring straight ahead and squinting, as though the words she wanted were down the road and coming into view, “— a great believer in the idea that really serious diseases are caused by a blow to the spirit.” She scrutinized my face to gauge my reaction. “Do you think I talk nonsense?”

“Not at all.”

“I’m so glad,” she said, beaming. “I never forget that I’m a medical person. Do you think I sound like a medical person?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do I?” she said, surprised. “I wasn’t aware that it showed.” (Jamie had told me that 50 years ago Miss Saltus had worked briefly as a nurse’s aide at Saint Luke’s Hospital in New York, but that time and desire had transformed her memory, leaving her with the impression that she had been a surgical nurse.)

In an hour or so, we returned to her house and rolled to a stop at the scene of the recent drama. I was in no hurry to leave, so I turned off the engine and we sat in the car in silence. Miss Saltus was looking off toward the broken-down barn. After a few minutes she placed her hand on mine and spoke.

“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all.”

The words were from Hamlet, a play I had studied that year in school. I stared at her in wonder. (It would be another month before I learned, in a telephone conversation with her niece in Florida, that Miss Saltus had been educated at Radcliffe and at the Sorbonne in Paris and had been fluent in French and German.)

“Miss Saltus,” I almost whispered, “I didn’t know you could quote Shakespeare.”

She didn’t hear me. She was watching the sparrows flitting in and out of the holes in the barn, tears in her eyes. I knew they weren’t tears of sadness. We sat there several minutes more.

I drove for Miss Saltus the rest of the summer before going off to college in September. Her accident, and my reaction to it, proved to be a pivotal moment in our relationship. My anguish seemed to have shocked and amazed her, giving rise, to the remarkable notion that someone actually cared whether she lived or died — her, an old woman with no friends and virtually no family, no one in the world who would spend time in her company or even come near the house except for money. It gave her hope; maybe it made her feel that there was, after all, something to live for.

Her fall did something else. It forced me past my feelings of disgust for this sometimes ill-tempered woman surrounded by filth and decay, and helped me see beyond the extremely unappealing exterior she presented and recognize that she was capable of deep and tender feeling, and, like any other human being, deserving of my compassion, though it did not always come easily.

She didn’t say goodbye to King William, but after the accident she seems to drink less, though I may be fooling myself — I’d so much like that to have been true, just as Miss Saltus wanted so much to believe she had been a “medical person.” Perhaps my memory is no less reliable than hers. Voltaire may have gotten it right when he said history is tricks we play upon the dead. One thing I know for sure is that after her fall we talked a great deal more and often made each other laugh, and that I would often take her for long rides in the countryside around Green Village once we had done our errands, even though I was technically free to go home.

Once we even socialized together. She invited my girlfriend, Margitt, and I to lunch one Sunday in July. Although Margitt was queasy at the prospect, she agreed to go, mostly out of curiosity. Miss Saltus served us tea from an antique teapot that looked as though it hadn’t been washed in a generation and then sent me off to the kitchen to retrieve the cheese and tomato sandwiches she’d made and cut into quarters. There were black thumb prints on several of the pieces of bread, and Margitt and I did our best to eat around them without attracting too much attention.

I called Miss Saltus that night to ask what she’d thought of Margitt. “Marry that girl,” were the first words out of her mouth. “She’s bright and very sweet and best of all, she’s from the Midwest. Midwesterners are very reliable, you know, very loyal. It doesn’t matter that they’re a bit colorless. Don’t argue with me about this — she’ll make an excellent wife.”

On our last day together, I helped Miss Saltus out of the car and up the stairs to the porch, the stairs I’d let her descend by herself one rainy morning a few months before. We stood together for a few moments, then she took my hand and squeezed it. “Didn’t we have fun, Rothelchen?” It was German for robin redbreast, a name she’d stared calling me because of the rust-colored jacket I wore.

I smiled at her. “Yes, we did,” I said truthfully.

“And you’ll come and see me?”

I felt the end of my nose tingle and a sudden fullness behind my eyes. “Of course. I’ll come and see you whenever I am.”

“You can bring Margitt.”

“I will.”

Then she gave me a long, dry-eyed look — as though trying to impress my visage into my memory — patted my hand and went inside. I would never see her again.

I stood on the porch a few minutes longer, feeling a heaving in my chest. I had worried that my leaving would devastate her; I think now that through a simple demonstration of concern, I had caused a change in her thinking, a change that did not go with me when I left. As I walked down the driveway for the last time, and the tears started to fall, I realized it was my own heart that was breaking.