I stood in the lobby of St. Petersburg City Theater next to Alice. We wore white button-down shirts. She had on black slacks and loafers. I was wearing a black pencil skirt and low heels. Alice stood next to the wooden box by the door to the theater, tearing the patrons’ tickets. I positioned myself on the other side of the double doors, greeting the guests and ushering them to their seats.
It was the final performance of The Miss Firecracker Contest, a comedy about a southern girl auditioning for a 4th of July pageant in her hometown. The Sunday matinée show was not expected to be full. My ushering duties would be easy.
“Are you from Florida originally?” I asked her in between tearing tickets and seating people.
“No, I live here in the winter and go back to Philadelphia in May. Most of my kids live there still and I miss them. Although, I stay so busy. My daughter is amazed at how I’m always on the go,” Alice explained.
I nodded. The average age of the show-goers was 78-years-old. Alice was in the majority.
“Are you from here?” Alice asked.
“No, I moved here from Michigan a year ago,” I said.
“What brought you down this way?”
“I quit teaching a couple of years ago and decided to travel. I ended up in this area because my brother and his family live here and I was ready for a change,” I told her.
“My daughter was a high school English teacher. What did you teach?”
“I taught mostly first grade for 12 years,” I said.
“Oh. Well, my daughter taught high school English for 34 years,” Alice added as she lifted her chin to honor the great length of time her daughter served.
“And,” she emphasized, “has been a substitute teacher since she retired. She always has teachers requesting her. They even called her last week while she was visiting me.”
“Mmm-hmmm,” I smiled. “That’s great that she’s found what she loves.”
“Maybe you’ll go back,” Alice’s voice raised at the end and her eyes widened.
“Uh. Huh. No. ” I sort of chuckled. “The system doesn’t work for a lot of kids and it didn’t work for me. I got burnt out and decided to pursue other passions.” I rejected the thought of launching into an explanation of the unschooling movement and my support for it.
Two women approached and thrust their tickets toward Alice. She tore them and handed the stubs back.
“I’ll be happy to show you to your seats,” I smiled and stepped toward them.
“We’re season ticket holders. We know where to go,” one said to me.
“Oh. Okay.” I stepped out of their way.
“Enjoy the show,” I chirped after them as they walked in.
“What do you do now that you don’t teach anymore?” Alice pressed.
“I have been traveling quite a bit the past couple of years. I’m working in a clothing store downtown and I write about my adventures and life.” I decided not to share that in addition to working at a women’s consignment shop, I model nude for artists at various figure drawing classes in the area and across the country as a way to fund my travels.
“What brought you to volunteering at the theater?”
I love finding ways to do things for free, is what I wanted to tell her.
Instead, I said, “I enjoy celebrating the arts, supporting live entertainment, and meeting new people.” This was true of my modeling gigs, too.
“And now you live here near your brother’s family. That’s lovely.” Alice said.
“Yes, he’s married and they have three kids. I adore them,” I told her.
“Do you see each other often?”
“Yes, in fact, I lived with them for several months last year between my travels. Now, I live across the lot from them.”
“All six of you stayed together? How nice. They must have a large home,” Alice said.
“Actually, they live in a 40-foot long RV. It’s about 200-square feet.”
Alice took a moment to digest this, blinked a few times, and asked, “You all lived in an RV?”
“Mmm-hmmm. It was amazing how we made it work. We had so much fun together.”
“But aren’t you married?” She continued to try to process my life.
“I was. For eleven years. But, uh, that didn’t work for me either,” I smiled at her and hers faded.
“But your ring…” she looked down at my left hand.
I held it up and showed her the silver band. “No, this is on my middle finger,” I explained.
My brother’s wife gave me this ring, which read I promise. It was one she wore after a serious relationship ended and she had made a commitment to be true to herself. She passed it to me after my divorce.
“You don’t have kids then?” Alice asked.
“I don’t have any of my own. I’m grateful to be auntie, though, to three amazing kids. Plus, when I was a teacher I got a ‘kid fix’ every day.”
The house lights dimmed and flicked on, indicating a few minutes until show time.
I walked the last few patrons to their seats and returned to my position with Alice, ready to help the last-minute stragglers.
“I love kids,” Alice added. “I was the oldest of nine and then had five of my own. Now I have seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.”
“My mom was the oldest of seven. She came from a big, Irish-Catholic family.” I added as I assumed Alice understood that being Catholic in that era was synonymous with no birth control and breeding a big family.
Alice nodded, “I’m from an Italian-Catholic family.” She did understand.
“Do you still go to church?” Alice made a run at it again, hoping to find an edge of common ground to stand on.
“I don’t practice anymore, but my parents do. They are staunch Catholics.”
“Oh.” Her face fell and then brightened. “All of my children attend, thank goodness.”
“Maybe you’ll go back,” she said with hopefulness.
Poor Alice, I thought. I envisioned her dropped to her knees that night with hands clasped together, head bowed, praying for my lost soul.
The lobby lights dimmed, signaling the start of the show. The ushers inside the theater motioned for us to shut the doors and find a seat.
“Uh…no, it just didn’t work for me.”
“I’m sure your parents pray for you,” Alice said as I closed the door behind us.
“I’m sure they do,” I whispered as I walked into the darkness.