"How are we doing today Adelle?"
She sits perched on her wicker chair. Already dressed. Dressed herself, like she's always done, for almost ninety-two years. The bright blue parrots on her dress chatter in the sunlight. She can't hear the clock tick -- deaf as a rock. Her own clock on the inside, sunup, sundown, years on the farm always gets her up. Trust that. Today is the day Mary Cooper comes.
"Here, let me raise the blinds for you." The nurse fussily slips the blinds up halfway. Doesn't matter, blind anyways. She stares straight ahead, eyes like fork tines. The neck of her dress is askew, her shoes on opposite feet. Like a queen she sits, cane like a scepter. The nurse changes her shoes, straightens her dress, tsking like a metronome. "Nobody can say you don't try."
"What?" Her eyes still at attention.
The nurse switches on her hearing aid, shouts right into it. "I changed your shoes for you, Adelle. You had them on backwards."
"No I didn't." She doesn't clearly remember if she did or not. Been dressing herself for almost ninety-two years. Anything could happen.
"Adelle, your walker is by your chair." No response. Like an Egyptian mummy. "Adelle..."
"I heard you." She flicks her cane at the nurse. "Go away."
When she is fairly sure the nurse is gone (the thud of the door up the stiff bones of her legs), she swings the walker in front of her, cranes herself upright. She hangs the cane by its crook. The hum in the hearing aid... bees in August. The time the bees went crazy on her father. She is only ten. The hum comes, goes. Her father is laid on the kitchen table. She is standing at the door, peeking around the hips of the neighbors, her hair, then long, swishing across her back. The doctor and some other people are bent over her father, tweezing out the stingers they can find. Other women are helping her mother soak linens in clean water for compresses. Her father, his eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. The thick ends of his mustache quiver each time they pull, a short snort of outbreath. The hum comes, goes. The swelling goes down, her father again up and around, again tall and strong. She hugs him around the hips, her fear dissolved into love again. He doesn't smile, just like him, just tousles her hair. Long hair on a little girl. She hugs his hips, cheek against belt buckle. Cool metal...
Her cheek is against the aluminum bar of the walker. Her hair feathers along the collar of her dress. Her shoes on backwards -- maybe. She stares at what she knows is her dresser, a cane length away from her walker. That day. She rises again, grabs her cane like a rapier. It was her first day here. Her son drives up the gravel way (she knows it's gravel because she can feel the stones through her feet), pulls into the parking lot. Heat ripples over her like water over stones. There is the slam of her son's door, then the open emptiness of hers. She wants to fall out of the car, just to cause trouble. He holds her up, saying something she can't hear anyway. A little too roughly, she thinks. He already has the walker out, has put her hands on it. (Where did he get that? She missed him getting it out of the back seat. She makes believe she doesn't know what it is.) He waits. She waits. He re-positions her hands. Waits. She stares where she thinks his bellybutton is. She doesn't want to go. She has time. She hears the click of her hearing aid. "Mother, we can't keep them waiting." She isn't in a hurry. Like water over stones. She listens to her heartbeat. Let them die and leave her alone. Maybe she should die on them right there, make a real mess, let her bowels go as she keels forward onto her son. New car of his. Her eyes jump to where she thinks his heart is. "I'm not going."
"Mother, we've been over this before. There is no place else to go." She envisions that red spot on his cheek that resembles a thumb when he gets angry. Thumbs-up.
"I'm not going."
"Mother, the house is sold. To George and Mary Cooper. You don't live there anymore." No more. Empty as a piece of white bread. He was born in that house. She looks to where she thinks his eyes are. Born there. So much there. Dr. Kelley, the same one that brings her son into it all, the same one who sells her and Vernon the house. Beautiful house. Red stucco with white trim, solid as Vernon's hips, sturdy as a belt buckle. Carriage house in the back where the Dr. keeps his horses. Space for a garden. Inside, the woodwork is chestnut, cut from the Dr.'s own trees, kitchen wood stove, huge master bedroom. She holds Vernon like she will never have another chance, like he will disappear. He calls her plum bunny and laughs. They make love on the hardwood floor of the bedroom. His hands, lithe, skim over her body, run through her hair down her spine over her hips....Five years later she cuts her hair and wears grey all the time. He keeps his hands in other pockets.
"Mother, come on. You don't have a choice." She rises to the gentle pull on her wrists, edges out of the way of the car door. He rests one hand on her elbow. She stiffens, grabs her cane and pokes him with it until he lets go. "You just head me in the right direction. I'm not dead yet." Her hearing aid hums; she tugs it out of her ear. Suddenly she knows she can't hear his directions but refuses to put it back in. Let him figure it out. She holds her cane like a lance. He grabs the cane's end and swivels it to her right. She follows the cane's vector, stopping when unsure, wishing she could ask him for help up the incline but I'll be damned if I'll ask him or anybody. She clomps along the porch. Inside, the nurses fly around her. Someone puts the hearing aid back in. Sounds like someone ripping wood. Someone guides her to a room. She senses ghosts round her, stale air, like an attic. Her son is nowhere. When she thinks the nurse isn't looking, she turns the hearing aid off. She's hungry, she needs to pee, she is tired. Vernon, hold me, she thinks, and smells the ghosts.
She swims in silence. Bustle around her, someone's lips brush her cheek. Then emptiness. She reaches in front of her, waves her arm like a dowsing stick, until she hits the walker. She pulls it to her, rises. Grabs the cane hanging on it. Using one hand for balance, she raises the cane with the other. Then swipes downward. Nothing. She takes a step forward, cuts again. A crack that shoots up her arm. Good. Before they stop her, she knows how many cane lengths the room is. For all she can tell, they might have put her in the gymnasium. Then where would she be? A hard knuckle of an old lady rapping her way around just to know how big her last days are. Time to count down....
"Time for your medicine, Adelle."
That much time gone already?
"I won't take it."
The hearing aid clicks off. On. "Yes you will. It doesn't hurt you."
Off. "I don't care. Give it to someone else." She pauses. "I'm a stuffed bird. A turkey." She pauses again. "I'm dead anyway. So are you. Go away."
On. "Adelle, you should be ashamed. Your son gives you the best care and you go and..." Off.
On. "Take the medicine, Adelle." She tosses two pills into her mouth, tucks them under her tongue, swallows the water and grins. "Did you swallow them?" The grin nods yes. "Let me see your tongue." She quickly rolls them between her teeth and gum, opens her mouth, wags her tongue. "All right, Adelle, don't give me so much trouble."
"If you don't want trouble, leave me alone." Off.
When she's sure the door is shut, the spits the two pills into her hand and tucks them under the cushion of her seat. She finds the pills under her mother's pillow, too, and she scolds her mother. "Don't think you can lecture me jes' because you're seventeen and I'm sick." Her mother's grey face, grey against the overwashed grey pillowcase, quilts gathered like an army around her -- the air stands stale. Her father, on the other side of the bed, his huge hand mute and helpless on the bedsheet, his ruddy face empty. Everything hangs still, still as waiting for a storm. She and her father know the pills are sugar pills; the doctor tells them he can't save her, she just met her time, and maybe the pills will fool her out of a little pain. "That's like tryin' to fool a fence post it's a tree," her father says. The doctor agrees. They wait like pigeons on a phone line.
Her father is asleep, his hand still warmly on the quilt, his head nodded forward like a gun trigger. She is wiping a cool cloth over her mother's forehead. The breathing thins. As she strokes the broad wrinkled skin, as the cloth passes over her mother's eyes, she sees the color wash out of her face, and when she completes her motion, her mother is dead. She stares at the rag in her hand, expecting to see her mother's face there. Squeeze it back into her, wring the breath back out. There is no face in the cloth. Her father's head cocks back as she lightly brushes his hand with the cloth. No tears in her eyes. He takes his hand off the quilt and shoves it in his pocket. No tears in his eyes.
She writes a poem. She can even remember some of it now, has to, since there are no eyes left to her, but only the last verse flares up in her mind:
Like autumn's leaf, when summer goes
That falls at last to the ground;
Until the snow and warm spring rain
Come once more to their round,
You'll lie like death at the bottom of my heart
And never make a sound.
Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter a bit. The priest thinks it's morbid. Father dies seven years later. The cloth gets used for dishes again, wipes muddy boots, gets thrown away. It makes no difference. Her son doesn't realize that -- he still wants to give her pills. He will not be at her beside when she dies. She'll see to that. Better to have strangers. More truthful.
Her dresser is one cane length away in front of her chair. Her chair is next to her bed. One length away on her right is a window. One length on her left is the door. She never bothers to check behind her. She grips her walker, sidles to her dresser. The picture on the left is of Vernon -- a picture long after their marriage, when he was mayor. Tintypes in the middle are her parents, faces stiff and wrenched. The other picture, the smallest, is her son. She sweeps the pictures to the floor. She pulls out the top drawer, full of old letters, poems, bygone scratchings, upends it. She doesn't bother the drawers with just clothes in them. Over the dresser is a sampler embroidered just after Vernon's death: "Now comes the mystery." That man Beecher her father spoke of. She jabs it off the wall with her cane. "Clean the crap up," she yells to nobody. She yells it again: "Clean the crap up." There was Vernon, all politician even then, even though mayor was still years off, standing his usual stance, hand in vest pocket, one leg bent, hip out, a swashbuckler, small cigar clenched in his teeth, watching her smash the crystal wedding glasses methodically into two heaps of shimmering splinters and dust with a hammer. Her hair still long, though done up in a benign bun on the back of her head. She wears a grey dress, collar up, cuffs down. When she's done, facing him across the table, the lunchtime afternoon sunlight behind her, illuminating him, he calmly takes the cigar from his lips, and looking at the grey-ash tip of it, tells her to clean it up now that her tantrum is over. She takes a handful of the glass and throws it at him. He flinches, slightly; the crystal dust glints on his lapel. Blood runs from a cut in her right palm, drips slowly off her fingers. She grabs glass with her left hand, throws it. A chip nicks his cheek. Daintily, he dabs the cut with his handkerchief. She bleeds from both hands. "Clean it up," he says, flicking the dust off his suit. "Stop this nonsense." Before he can leave the room, she points at him with one bloody finger and screams, "You clean this crap up. Clean this crap up, Vernon!" He does not look back. "Vernon!" she shrieks. At the threshold he pauses, his hat square on his head. "What's wrong with us, Vernon?" He wipes imaginary dust off the brim of his hat. "It is not us, Adelle, but you. What I ask is not much. All I want is..."
"Clean the crap up!" She is sitting in her wicker chair, wreathed in a cheshire smile, by the time the nurses comes in. For fun, she turns on the hearing aid, delights in their cackle, woodenly oblivious to all their requests for explanation. "What will your son think when he comes to see you tomorrow?"
"I don't have a son."
"What? Of course you do, a fine son."
She lifts her eyes in the voice's direction. "I don't have a son."
A voice behind her speaks. "You have a better son than most people have. At least he cares."
"My son was a mistake. Even he knows that. That's why I am here. Bury me away." She clamps her mouth shut, then adds, as an afterthought, "What does it matter? He's lost anyways." She raises her cane, stabs the air. "Give me his picture."
"The glass is broken on it."
"Give it to me!" Something metal and square slides into her hands.
"Be careful, Adelle, you'll cut your hand."
She lifts the picture up to her eye level and peers at it as if she can see it clearly. What is your face? Whose is it? Her muscles ache. The weight of the baby in her arms pulls on her shoulders, but she continues to hold it at arm's length, wondering serenely how long it would be before she dropped it. The baby, her son, wriggles inconclusively, his face puckering and pouting. "You're so stupid," she says, and gathers the baby onto her breasts, embracing him tightly, her muscles singing with electricity, suddenly so scared and protective. It is grey autumn in the bedroom. Vernon is somewhere, she is not sure. Her son grabs the collar of her housecoat, balls it in his fist, rubs his face on her shoulder. She does not know where Vernon is, but she has his son. Eighteen years after she asks for a child she gets one. She is forty-two. How like him to do that. She will be sixty when he is eighteen. His youth will mock her age. She will be dead when she is a grandmother. If he gets married. Married? The dim light washes out her eyes, his color. Vernon is nowhere, she is sure. She dandles the baby in her lap, vacantly staring out the window. The baby starts to cry. Without hesitation she slaps the baby's face. Her son, delaying half a breath, launches into squawl that she tries to deafen by holding him tightly against her shoulder, rocking back and forth cooing to him that she is sorry, she is sorry, she is sorry....
She lets the picture drop to the floor. No matter. No bitterness now. Vernon's mistress -- skeletons, sour relics, dead. Making her son grow into a nobody because she could not love or hate him enough to make him fight back. No virtuous smell on her. A stone, rolling downhill. Not thinking. Not feeling. Wasting time. The bile sticks in her throat, the dead venom of old thoughts. She revives Vernon's face on the death pillow, the truculence of his earlier days no longer usable. His expiration. The pointless wake and consolations. The two of them -- herself and her son -- living in the big house. Bumping together like flies in a jar. So full of emptiness they choke and cannot speak. Finally, only her. Her eyes disconnect. Her ears disconnect. Within her skull inside her house she digresses, an unusable wraith, more respected as she grows less alive. Until people forget and call her virtuous, a survivor, a good woman, an oracle. No answers, she has no answers. Only quaint bitterness, a lot of cry and no wool. Noise and nutmeg.
The nurses clean up the glass, put the pictures back. Impassively she listens to their bustle. Eyes sheathed. Ears untuned. One of them asks her if she wants anything, but she ignores the request. Two nurses leave. She senses one more in the room, near the door. She waits. The nurse waits. "Adelle," she finally says, "when are you going to act your age?"
"I don't have an age," she shoots back. "I'm ageless. No excuse for me."
The nurse leaves. Mary Cooper comes to today. Mary Cooper. George. She resents the house in their young hands. Too much like her and Vernon at the start. Seventy years later they will get what she did not get seventy years ago. They have a young marriage, room to flower. Why do they think they need her? She senses someone standing in the door. "Who's there?" Her hearing aid hums with someone's voice but she's not paying attention. Images of the red house, the chestnut woodwork, Vernon. "What? Say that again."
"It's only me, Mary Cooper. I brought you some rhubarb."
"C'mon in, c'mon in." There is a sudden lightness in her heart and she yearns to know what they are doing, hungry and anticipating. "How are you? I was just thinking of you the other day," the furrows in her mother's hand, the smell of Vernon's skin, her father's gritty eyes, the touch of wedding lace, "wonderin' how my house was coming along," the taste of hand-milled ice cream, her son at her nipple, a desk littered with poetry, "and wishing I could see all the marvelous changes you've made," the milky darkness of blindness curdling to half-recalled pictures of pain and happiness, a kaleidoscope spinning eagerly until, in a rush of memory, her hearing drowns and she nods smilingly at her own image fading into the warm emptiness of her heart.