Alice raises a hand and tears the page out carefully, making the broken line that runs down clean, and neat. She reads it again, picking out sentences almost at random with her quick eyes.
“You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random and irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious.
They named her after a minor character from early American television: Alice, the Brady family’s maid. Mr. Cooper would watch multiple episodes of The Brady Bunch simultaneously on the plasma wall every night. The massive screen would split into a grid of nine, and he would sit and watch with a can of beer in hand. During the theme song the screen would split again, and a million squares and smiling faces would appear.
He was watching it that night, sipping his beer. Alice was in the kitchen preparing tea for Mrs. Cooper, who read on a chair in the den. Pete and Janet were already tucked away in their beds upstairs.
“You can lead an untroubled life provided you can grow, can think and act systematically.
The teabag string was tied loosely around the handle of the mug so that it would not be pulled in when she added the water. She poured the steaming water from the kettle. The string went taut, but the simple knot held. She set the kettle down.
“The tea is ready Mrs. Cooper.”
“I’ll take it now.”
She had to pass through the living room to get to the den. Mr. Cooper was sitting in his big, memory foam chair, cracking open another can and sucking at the froth.
On one of the divided screens an episode was ending. Mr. and Mrs. Brady were standing at the entrance to their home, hugging each other, smiling and waving. There was a glare on the screen, and Alice could see herself standing there: blue and white apron on the outside, all silicone and wiring underneath.
“Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.
Mrs. Cooper had her reading glasses on. She set the book facedown on the side table, took the mug, and sipped.
“Mm, thank you Alice. It’s delicious.”
“Keep it down.” Mr. Cooper’s voice was loud but not shouting. The sound of the many Brady families raised as he turned up the volume.
Mrs. Cooper smiled. She took another sip, and mouthed, “It’s good,” with a thumbs up. The hand holding the mug was shaking.
“Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.
Alice took care of the laundry. On Sunday evenings like this one, she would move the damp clothes from the washer to the dryer in the basement. She could hear the television above, and Mr. Cooper pounding a foot on the floor and laughing.
Then there was the crash of shattering glass. The sounds from the plasma wall paused.
“Not again,” groaned Mr. Cooper.
Deep, thumping steps passed above, from one side of the room to the other. Then a slap and a stifled scream. Another.
The steps thumped back across the room. The Brady Bunch theme song filled the house.
Alice added a dryer sheet in with the load of laundry. Then another. She closed the dryer door and turned the knob to tumble press. Then she pressed the start button with a cold silicone finger.
“…your responsibilities can be broken down into individual parts as well. Concentrate on those, and finish the job methodically.
Alice waited in the laundry room until the dryer finished. She could hear and follow every line of dialogue from the multiple episodes being played, and still pick up the quiet sobs of Mrs. Cooper on the other side of the room. Mr. Cooper burped in his chair.
By the time the clothes had dried, the plasma wall automatically shut down, and Alice knew that Mr. Cooper was asleep in his chair, head flung back and legs extended. She packed out all of the clothes into a laundry basket, and carried them upstairs.
“Alice.” Mrs. Cooper was sitting on the kitchen floor. Her tea mug lay in pieces on the white laminate, and a glass of white wine was in her hand. Runny mascara left black trails down her white face, like indigenous war paint.
“I should get up and go to bed.” She rubbed a hand over her face, smearing the wet makeup, and pushed herself to her feet. “Look at me, I’m a mess.”
Alice set the laundry basket down and knelt to pick up the jagged ceramic pieces on the floor. She stacked the biggest curved piece on her palm, and placed the smaller ones in it. The lopsided shards resembled a lotus flower in her hand. She dropped them into the trash.
Mrs. Cooper was at the door to her bedroom when Alice turned around. “Goodnight Alice.”
“Goodnight Mrs. Cooper.”
She closed the door.
Alice got to work cleaning the few splashes of wine Mrs. Cooper had spilled. She recycled the bottle and wiped down the floor and counter top.
Then a sudden impulse sparked in the circuits of her mind. Alice paused. The thing she experienced could only be described as curiosity, looking back. She didn’t recognize the impulse, but followed it anyway, into the den, until she was standing over the coffee table.
She opened up the small red book to the page that Mrs. Cooper had been reading earlier. As she read, her clean and perfect eyes flipped back through the events of the day.
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
Alice tucks the folded slip of paper away in the front pocket of her apron. She closes the book and sets it down. Out in the living room, she begins to pick up the pile of empty, crushed beer cans around Mr. Cooper’s sleeping body. She can hear Mrs. Cooper’s breath coming in stuttering gasps through the walls, like a broken engine trying to start again.