I Have to Tell You
by David Rabe
We are pleased to present, in full, this novella from David Rabe, from his forthcoming collection Listening for Ghosts (Delphinium Press, Autumn 2022).
Emma, nearing eighty, along with other elderly tenants in her midwestern apartment complex, seeks fairness from a conniving landlord. When an emergency stay in the hospital brings her face to face with looming injustice, she finds herself suddenly burdened with two mysteries to solve. She may never get to the end of them, but she is determined to do all she can, and maybe more than anyone expected.
Three pennies, two dimes, four nickels and two quarters formed a nest of coins on the cutting board balanced on her lap. She had to strain against the fog deep inside her hand. It muffled her effort to work the penny across the faded brown surface, the poor old wood almost worn blank. But she concentrated and managed, the coin traveling like this little nomad, this little child, and she was helping it along, holding its hand. It was terrible the way it had all worked out. All of them dead. Even little Teddy. Dead in the desert. An old fat man. Not a dime to his name, nothing to leave behind, but the clothes on his back. Nothing to call his own but a six pack of beer and half of it gone. Found by strangers in his little one room rented apartment, probably a shack. A bunch of rented furniture. The last letter he’d written to her had joked about the way he had to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes when he trekked through “this no man’s land,” as he called it, until he got to the road, where he could walk to the bar. Just like her penny, he walked for miles. It was three, if she remembered right—three miles to the bar/restaurant kind of hangout where he could play cards or bingo. She could get the letter out and reread to be sure, if she cared to. As if it mattered how far he walked to get to that joint way off in the desert, so far from home and family. All of ‘em dead, anyway. What was he even doing there? Arizona, for god’s sake. She’d stayed home, all her life while the rest of them left and came back to visit and left and died. Just like him, walking that Arizona desert road. No car for him. Drunk behind the wheel, one too many times. Put him away in a California prison. She hadn’t really believed it was him, her baby brother, dead when they called. She’d wanted to go see the body. But how could she do that, going on eighty years old herself. But it was damn sure hard to take on faith. Just a phone call like that. A stranger’s voice on the other end. It could have been anybody. But it wasn’t of course. And she knew that too. Just wished she didn’t. He was nice enough, that stranger. A policeman trying to answer all her questions about the body, the way they found him, this corpse alone in his bed. Little Teddy. The baby of the family. Stinking of beer and worse, for sure. The TV on. Dead for days. So five years younger than her. She knew the tally, but wanted to work it out, anyway, like it was something hard to be sure of. Little Teddy, born in December of 1923 would have been seventy- two if he’d hung on one more month until December 11th. 1995. But the poor kid didn’t make it.
After the penny, she did the dime. Doctor Cameron believed the trouble she was having with her fingers was most likely caused by a pinched nerve up around her neck. Where she felt it, though, was more under that wing bone. What was it called? It nagged like a saw blade in the hands of a little gremlin. Ache, ache, ache, morning noon and night. Sure, she knew she was riddled with arthritis, but this was something else.
The quarter was easier than the penny. The little extra thickness gave her just a shade more to get hold of. That perky little pregnant physical therapist had explained each of the exercises for her. Talked her through them. It was some kind of finger aerobics. That was the way she should look at it, and she was more than willing, scared as she was darn near to death of not having her fingers working. She needed her hands to take care of herself, especially her right hand. Needed it for darn near everything. Doors. Shoes. The TV remote. Had to be able to wipe herself. Pee anyway, if not poop. Poop was a matter of changing her colostomy bag. Not that she wanted to give that a try with her left hand.
The dime was tougher than the quarter, tough like the penny, and she should have expected that and been prepared, but the difficulty annoyed her. She was determined, though. She needed her right hand. She’d been right-handed all her life. Always a right-handed person.
The minute hand of the regular clock on the wall gave a nudge and twelve noon arrived. A minute or so more and the cuckoo clock, hanging nearby, would let go, the white bird carved with folded wings, jumping out on his platform and then back in the door that was stuck wide-open and wouldn’t budge. Twelve whole times he’d pop in and out, a little late, but dutiful as all get out, his wooden beak wedged open wide as if he really announced the hour with his cuckoo noise. Well, at least she could count on him, she thought, reaching for the radio which her son had fastened to the table with these Velcro strips the last time he visited. The idea was to give her more room on the table by putting the radio close to the edge but to fasten it down so she couldn’t knock it off. The idea was a good one, even though the location made it hard for her to reach the on/off knob without all kinds of contortions, or what felt like contortions. She wanted to hear the obituaries. They came on WDDQ at twelve every weekday. It was the way she kept track, or tried to, of who was gone and who was still around, names she didn’t know, and some she knew in passing, acquaintances, you might say; and other times somebody she’d known in the past, maybe even known them well. And every now and then there was a shocker. Somebody, who for one reason or another gave her a jolt, either because she knew them well, or had seen them the other day waltzing around the mall, or Eagles Market, shopping cart jam packed with what they thought they needed, or maybe they were the child of somebody she knew well. Dying young and tragic. Car crashes, more often than not. So, she bent and strained to get her arm out where she could give the knob the little twist it needed. And just like she hoped, the radio popped on—still kind of amazing if anybody wanted to know what she thought—this man she couldn’t see miles off somewhere talking and yet she could hear him without budging from her recliner. Douglas Wenke, the local radio personality, had a rich-sounding radio voice, respectful and familiar laying out the souls gone as of the hour, and his tone, so somber more or less, put them in their caskets where she saw them floating. The poor deceased fools. She was half holding her breath waiting to see who would be next. Here yesterday, but gone today. It was as if Douglas Wenke saying their names finished them off.
The knock on the door made her jump. Given her rueful thoughts, her mood almost suspenseful, she felt intruded on. She didn’t have time to move, let alone think who it might be, because she sure wasn’t expecting anyone, when the knocking came again, the bossy insistent impression even stronger this time, unmistakable really, of somebody standing out there who meant business, and expected to be answered. Like maybe a police officer or a salesman, or one of them Jehovah witnesses who got in the halls somehow.
So, she was surprised to find a bunch of her neighbors all huddled together. It was clear Elroy Kane from upstairs had done the knocking. His wife Connie was behind him with Maggie Ouderkirk from across the hall pressed tight to her, and May Brenner and Clara Luzum from the building next door hovering, the three of them widows same as her.
She gaped at them, tongue tied, trying to transfer her mind from the dead to the living where it was needed now.
“Can you let us in?” Elroy said. “We’d like to come in.”
“What’s the heck is going on?”
“Just let us in.”
She’d already backed up by way of invitation, opening the way for them to march in, but they seemed to need something more from her. “You bet,” she said. “Sure, sure.”
The women trekked past, Elroy waiting and gesturing for them to hurry, looking right and left, maybe out the windows at either end of the hall, like he was a lookout scanning for danger. He slipped in then, and shut the door.
“What the heck is going on with the bunch of you?” Emma said to him. “Did somebody die?”
“No, no,” said Maggie.
“You want to sit?” She couldn’t help staring at Elroy’s big feet. They were size fifteen or more. He’d been a farmer, owned hundreds of acres before he retired, and she had to say he still walked like he plodded around in furrows only his floor was her ceiling. She couldn’t see him without thinking how mean he’d been when Charlie, her husband had asked him to walk more quietly, poor Charlie barely able to walk at all after the accident, and Elroy stomping around overhead, and acting like such a bully. Iowa was full of oafs like Elroy, farmers who stopped farming but couldn’t get the hang of living around people..
“There’s something going on,” he said, “And we think you ought to know about it.”
What the heck could it be that it took the whole bunch of them to tell her? “Okay,” she said, watching the women perch in a line on her couch against the wall. Elroy stayed on his feet, the general, commander in chief, or whatnot, banty rooster with his gaggle of hens.
“It’s about Bud,” he said, his eyelids half lowered, ominously.
“Okay.” She searched the women for a clue. She was stirred up, no doubt; her heart quivering in a mix of fear and worry, a feeling of being overwhelmed already, even though she didn’t know what was going on.
Bud was the landlord of the apartment complex in which they all lived, five building with four units situated on MacDougal Road at the corner of Johnson Blvd, the main road in their part of town, so it was heavily traveled and noisy but convenient to a heck of a lot, drug store across the way for example, Eagles Market just a couple blocks on, and the mall a straight shot. Bud managed things, a hired hand with not ten cents worth of ownership; he took care of maintenance, made sure the garbage was picked up, the lawn mowed, that kind of thing. She figured he got a salary of some sort and his apartment rent fee.
“He’s pullin’ a fast one,” said Elroy. “Or tryin’ to. Excuse my French, but it’s B.S. Only we caught on. So now we got to put a stop to it.”
Bud was a nice enough fella, she’d always thought. He didn’t seem capable of anything bad enough to rouse this bunch into such a suspicious, indignant mood. He’d always been okay with her, friendly enough, taking things into account, civil for sure if she saw him outside somewhere, even considerate during one or another of her trials. Sending flowers when Charlie died. “What the heck did he do?”
“I’m the one who caught on,” said Maggie, hunching forward. “Blind luck. I was talking to that little chubby thing, who just moved into the corner building with that guy she’s living with, who’s maybe her husband.”
“I’d say he isn’t,” Clara chirped in, which got May nodding.
Taking in the three of them, powdered and rouged, their hair done up, Emma thought they’d gone to a lot of trouble just to drop in on her. At least she was dressed so they hadn’t caught her sitting around in her night gown and robe like she did some mornings.
“I almost did a double-take,” Maggie went on. “We were just passing the time of day, the way you do, especially with somebody new, making them feel welcome, and she let it slip.”
“She’s not playing with a full deck.” May sounded assured, like they’d all been waiting and kind of almost lost without her assessment. “Cute sure. But, I mean, good Lord.” She was shaking her head.
“Well, lettin’ it slip. Not knowin’ to stay buttoned up on something like that. And living with that wall-eyed one. What more do you need to know?”
Elroy cleared his throat in a big, showy way. He shook his head as if the disgusted curl to his mouth wasn’t enough to make clear how useless and female he found them. His head-shake got wider the way a voice might get louder, until finally they were all looking up at him, and he could drag them back to the point of what mattered. “The thing of it is, are you for us or against us, Emma?”
She scrunched up her eyes and looked out the window, feeling somehow incriminated in god knew what before she admitted her confusion. “I’m sorry? What?”
“We got to organize, don’t you see? Present a unified front when we call for a meeting with Bud and go to confront him. All the tenants who have been here for years. And that includes you.”
“Well, it sure does.” Her mind sprang backward, as if from an insult, bounding past events she’d survived in that apartment, like living on the ground floor with her poor crippled husband and then without the poor guy. It was some kind of endurance contest she’d triumphed in. She’d been there the day everybody else in that room moved in, Elroy and Connie the most recent to show up, Maggie the furthest back. She had seniority and it needed recognition. “I been here longer than any of you, I’ll have you know, Elroy,” she told him.
“We know that.”
Fixated on Elroy, she didn’t know which of the women had said what, but she thought it had been May first and then Maggie, though she didn’t much care.
“So, your participation matters,” Elroy told her, as if she hadn’t just told him.
“I think I said that.”
“We got to know if you are with us or against us.”
She’d asked it before, but it seemed the time had come to ask it again, and this time she knew to make her question forceful, like one nobody better disregard. “So, what is it? What the heck did Bud do?”
It was a kind of grab bag, potluck explanation that came her way then with everybody pitching in but Maggie and Elroy doing most of the talking. It turned out that what the little chubby thing had let slip was the amount she and the man she lived with, whose name nobody could remember, paid for rent. Maggie admitted to actually gasping when she heard the figure, because it was thirty-seven dollars less a month than what she paid and what she got Elroy and Connie to admit paying, Clara and May, too.
“Good lord,” said Emma. “You’re sure?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Maggie. “I double-checked. I covered up that gasp with a cough and acted pleased and impressed that they had such a good deal. I kept her talking, and one way or another the figure popped out of that pert little mouth again. I ran right home to write it down before my short-term memory fogged it over.”
It made no sense, they all said, one after the other, each in their own way. It was “morally reprehensible” Maggie told them, nodding for emphasis, the wealth of her vocabulary part of the point she wanted to register. She let it be known whenever possible that building up her vocabulary was something she pursued. And why not? It kept her mind sharp and helped everybody out in circumstances like these, where understanding was bettered by precise expression.
“Well, it sure is,” said Connie, her squirrely little eyes impressed behind her big glasses. “And Elroy when he found out—well you should have heard him. ‘No sir,’ he said. ‘No thank you. Not on my watch.’ Isn’t that right, Elroy?”
“Not while I have breath in this body. I had a shady feeling about Bud the first second I looked into his eyes.”
“Yes, he did.” Connie turned from one woman to the next, as if to remind them that the man talking was her husband, and so she could assure them that he was the kind of man they needed in charge.
The other thing Emma saw in Connie’s glance was pity meant to express her sorrow that she alone had a living husband, as if this was her special accomplishment. No need for that, Emma thought. As far as she was concerned, Connie and her pity were nauseating and totally misplaced, because if having a husband meant being married to Elroy she could do without.
“It didn’t take long. The second my Connie told me what Maggie told her, I let it be known, ‘No how, no way.’ I put my foot down.”
And I probably heard it land, Emma thought, imagining his gigantic shoe rising and falling on her ceiling. You and your size sixteens. She couldn’t help herself. She didn’t like Elroy and never would. The way he’d treated her and Charlie that time. Couldn’t forget it. Why should she? But in this instance, he was right. Darn that Bud. It was wrong in every way. If anybody ought to have lower rent, it was the one’s who’d been there the longest. The one’s who’d been loyal and steady. Never causing problems. If the rent needed to be lowered to get new tenants, which might well be the case—they all knew a number of the units were empty—well, then, the right thing would have been for him to tell the older tenants and offer to lower their rents, too. Why not? Maybe not good business in the short term, but in the long run it’d pay off. The least he could have done was inform them. Not try to pull the wool over their eyes, so cock-sure they were too old and stupid to ever catch on. And all this while she’d thought Bud was on the up and up. When would she ever learn? Maybe never. Old as she was there wasn’t a lot of time left. It hurt. It really did. Just hurt. That was the truth of it. In more ways than she could count. She hated using Elroy’s phrases, but in this case he’d been on the money. She remembered seeing Bud the other day as she was on her way back from the drug store and he was going over, and they’d said Hello, and he’d asked about her arthritis, like he cared. And all the while he was doin’ dirty sneaky business behind her back.
“You bet you can count me in,” she said, feeling her stomach tighten and twirl and a wave of these completely out of place tears rise up to push from behind her eyes. But she fought them, keeping everything roiling up inside her, the hurt and all, hidden away. Anger was better.
It was like she’d shot a gun to start a race the way everybody started yammering, with Elroy trying to keep them “on target,” as he called their plan to meet again on the day after tomorrow in order to plot out what they might say when they confronted Bud. They’d have to decide who went to him. Maybe they should all go, strength in numbers; or it could be better if everybody signed a letter and then only a couple of them delivered it, acting as representatives.
They wound down, starting to talk about maybe getting together in the afternoon to play some cards at Maggie’s apartment. Elroy and Connie were the first to leave—he sure wasn’t interested in playing any cards with them, he told them—which gratified Emma, because after a few minutes she got to roll her eyes with Maggie, May and Clara, the three of them laughing and shaking their heads at the sound of Elroy and his big feet clopping about over their heads.
David Rabe was born in Dubuque, Iowa. Drafted into the Army in 1965 he was stationed in Vietnam in a Medical Headquarters unit. Discharged in 1967, he returned to Villanova University to study theater under Richard Duprey, Robert Hedley and Jim Christy. Many of his early plays were written during this period. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel was his first play in New York in 1971. It was followed by Sticks and Bones, The Orphan, In the Boom Boom Room and Streamers. Other plays include Goose and Tom Tom, Hurlyburly, Those the River Keeps, A Question of Mercy, The Dog Problem, The Black Monk (based on Chekov), An Early History of Fire, Good For Otto, Visiting Edna and Cosmologies. Four of Rabe’s plays have been given Tony nominations as best play on Broadway. Other prizes and recognition include: American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, Drama Desk Award, John Gassner Outer Critics Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and The Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Drama Guild Award. Over time he has increasingly devoted himself to writing fiction with three novels: Recital of the Dog, Dinosaurs on the Roof, Girl by the Road at Night, and a book of stories, A Primitive Heart. In recent years, he has had stories published in The New Yorker magazine and at Narrative online. David Rabe currently lives in Lakeview, CT. He has three children, musician Jason Rabe, and actors Lily and Michael.
Her belly gave a twinge, and she told herself to calm down. It was the middle of the night, and she was dog-tired but scatter-brained. So much on her mind. Bud most of all. It rubbed her wrong. It was insulting and that was all there was to it that these kids were getting treated better than her, for no good reason other than the fact that they were young. For crying out loud, she’d been young and nobody gave her a hand out. What had this bunch done to prove to prove they were worth a darn, let alone deserved special treatment. Just born later is all. Like that mattered. All they did is run in and out and have loud parties that she had to call Bud about, and the others had, too, she knew, Elroy and Connie for sure, complaining about the noise on a Friday or Saturday night. Bud had to go down and knock on the door and ask them to be quiet. Not that it did much good, because it all went on, maybe even louder, cars pulling in and out of the parking lot everybody shared, music so loud a normal person would have thought they were deaf. Good lord, that was another thing she couldn’t stand about Elroy. The way he acted like Napoleon about his parking space. That time her friend Mary Beth stopped by, only going to stay a second, so she parked in the first spot she saw, which happened to be Elroy’s. She wanted to drop something off—Emma couldn’t remember what—she’d be darned if she could. And it just so happened that Elroy came back then and stomped up banging on her door, like he did today, only worse.
The need to pee had gotten her out of bed a bit ago and now she crawled back, wide awake and staring at the dark. Her insides hinted that everything wasn’t right with them, this knotted up feeling shooting out faint spasms of threat every few seconds. It was a miserable sensation, because she knew what it might turn into if she didn’t stop fussing and fuming. She took a deep breath, and the tangled-up squeezing grabbed at her belly so hard she winced, just the opposite of what she’d hoped for. “Oh, no,” she whispered, turning to get a look at the bedside clock. A little before three in the morning. “Please,” she said. “Come on now. Not tonight.” The diverticulitis had been so bad she had to have surgery and then the scar tissue afterward was so tough that when McNamara went in to reverse her he had to back out. All she wanted was to be able to go to the bathroom like a normal person, like she’d done all her life. But the scars were like cables, McNamara told her, and steel ones, too, leaving her like she was, with a bag of poop on her side, and these darn miserable cramps every now and then, no matter how often she flushed everything and kept it all clean. And they were coming now. She had to admit it. The pain had been remote and threatening, like something that might blow past the way storm clouds did sometimes. Up till now it had been like listening to distant thunder that might roll off in another direction, but this storm wasn’t going anywhere. It was rising up in terrible clouds pouring hurt down on her, and she let out a moan, which sometimes helped but it didn’t this time.
Far off and like some lonely friend who knew of her plight, the cuckoo clock called to her. She didn’t have to be in the living room to see him, his little beak wide open like he hurt, too. One, two, three cuckoos and then he fell silent. Three o’clock in the middle of the night and she was moaning now, over and over, the cramps increasing, like somebody in there was twisting her guts into knots. She had to get up and walk. Just change her position. Sometimes they went away, even after they got this bad. Fighting to find her way into her robe, she dropped the darn thing, and bending to pick it up made her yelp. What a dirty trick. It wasn’t leaving this time, unless she puked. Maybe then. Sometimes that helped. Or pooped. One or the other. The last time she puked and it went away, and she was weak for a day, but that was all.
She didn’t recall getting back into bed, but there she was rolling around, and then she was walking again. Prowling through her apartment. The cuckoo went off, calling out four times, and she saw him in the shadows like he was coming out of the wall. She went through the kitchen, and around the table. She thought about sitting in the recliner but was scared to try. By now she had her rosary in one hand, her fingers fidgeting over the beads, her mind squirming over the words, her voice joining in when she could manage a sound that wasn’t a groan. “Hail Mary, full of grace….” She had the little trash can she hoped to puke in on her lap, having picked it up along the way, and she held it tight with the hand that didn’t have the rosary. She looked down at it, feeling almost worshipful, and praying just as hard to it almost that it would let her puke, as if it was somehow in charge. It glowed just then in the excess of the streetlight out on corner of Johnson Blvd pouring in the window, where a car went by with a whoosh, the headlights washing over her and her bucket too. It was terrible.
Back in bed groaning, she got up and started walking, keeping her rosary and that bucket close, one in each hand, and the cuckoo clock cuckooed but she couldn’t keep the count. Fingering the rosary and praying when she could, a word here and groan there, looking down at the trash can, concentrating on her insides like they were behind a door she was pressed up against listening to hear who was coming because maybe it would be poop. She didn’t know which might come first, poop or puke— didn’t know where she was going or what she was doing—dropping into bed where she couldn’t rest so she got up again but she couldn’t be up, either.
It was seven when she called for help, tearful and shaking so bad she worried she wasn’t working the right push buttons on the phone. She stopped and started over, still worried. She hoped she didn’t sound too pitiful and useless when Maggie picked up. She was an early riser so the one Emma tried first, asking for a helping hand, if it wasn’t too much trouble. Could Maggie give her a ride up to the hospital? “Cramps…. colostomy bag…up all night….,” was about all the explanation Maggie needed to hear. Emma hated her situation and everything it indicated about her life, her need and all for her neighbor, the way her kids lived so far away, the mess her bowels were in, all of it. But she was at her rope’s end, and knew she didn’t dare try to drive. She’d kill herself for sure, and probably take a bunch of other poor souls with her.
Maggie kept her little Honda spic and span, seat covers on the seats, the dash and windows spotless. Emma couldn’t help but notice. And as they made their way through the hilly streets that rolled up and down, some of them way too steep, Emma tried to sit still and straight. As much as she’d prayed to puke all night long, she prayed now for the opposite result. It would be the height of ingratitude to make a mess in Maggie’s sweet little car, immaculate, as it was, her pride and joy. Just thinking about it made her burp, the burn in the back of her throat bringing up hot tears.
But then the hospital was in sight and then they headed for a stop at the emergency door. Maggie ran in and out came with an orderly pushing a wheelchair. He looked familiar but she couldn’t place him. But then she realized it wasn’t him she knew, but the blunt forehead and something in the nose spoke of a family resemblance she knew from somewhere. But she couldn’t think who they were either.
The doctor on call, whose name tag was crooked, said, “Well, now what did you do to yourself.”
“Not a thing,” she told him, way beyond finding jokes of any interest, particularly ones at her expense. He was scanning her chart and taking much too long, kind of bouncing from one foot to the other, like maybe somebody had told him to keep moving to burn calories. He was flabby enough for layers of belly to bulge his checkered shirt showing under his open white coat. He resembled somebody too, she thought, though who she didn’t know. She wondered if lack of sleep was getting to her and she was kind of hallucinating this sense of widespread familiarity. She’d read that happened when people got sleep deprived. Hallucinations. Not familiarity. “Morphine,” she said. “It’s all that helps me. It must say that.”
“I see,” he smiled, something narrow and unhappy in his eyes, like maybe his belly hurt, too. “It’s right here in your chart.”
“Good. It should be.”
“Well, that’s why we’re here,” he said. Nothing about him was real, especially not his smile. It looked like something he thought a doctor should have, so he’d practiced it in front of a mirror, which put him face to face with his deficiency and left him lacking confidence. He turned to the nearest nurse and said whatever mumbo jumbo was needed to get her scurrying off. “Is she going for the morphine?”
“Won’t be long now.”
“I been up all night, I have to tell you,” she said. “Miserable.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Maybe she was wrong about him. He seemed nice saying that. His nametag had been straightened. His last name was Paisley. Cute, she thought. Just knowing the morphine was on its way let her relax enough to look around for Maggie. They’d rushed her inside some kind of tent with curtains they’d pulled shut. “Where’s my friend?” she asked. Doctor Paisley was slow to respond, dialing a phone, and the delay gave her time to answer her own question by searching around until she spied Maggie’s pink shoes in the gap between the curtain and the floor.
“I don’t know where your friend is,” said Doctor Paisley. “Did she come with you?”
“She’s right there.” Emma pointed. “Those are her shoes.”
“Oh. Good. Would you like to see her?”
“I can see her.”
He started talking to whomever he’d called, which she realized was her surgeon, Doctor McNamara. Maggie’s legs were bare all the way up to her knees, kind of startling, all that skin, like she was naked out there except for her pink shoes and white socks, making Emma uncomfortable and embarrassed that she would have such a bawdy friend, until she remembered Maggie explaining on the way over that she’d been up early and just about out the door for a golf outing when Emma and her emergency call brought her plans to a screaming halt. She’d been wearing navy blue shorts and a lighter blue blouse, and one of those sun visor hats, which might have been blue, Emma mostly remembered now. The trip over hovered behind a haze of fogged-over pain, blurry and thick, only giving up the facts she could wrestle out of it, and surrendering those, stingily. They hooked her up to the IV, the nurse telling her to squeeze a fist and look out for a pinch. She watched the plastic bag beginning to drip, the doctor, breathing hard, she thought, bumping his stethoscope around on her chest, looking into her secrets.
“I checked with Doctor McNamara, and he said the morphine was just fine.”
“I told you. But I don’t want that stomach pump business. I don’t want it in my nose. It hurts too much.”
“We’ll just wait and see.”
“No, thank you.”
“I can’t promise.”
“Okay.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “How’d my heart sound?”
“People say I got a good heart. That I’m good-hearted.”
“I’m sure you are.”
“Sometimes too generous for my own good. That’s their opinion.”
“Sure,” he said.
“I don’t really see how that’s possible, though, if you know what I mean.”
“I think I do. I bet I do.”
Maggie’s pink shoes struck her funny the way they poked in under the curtain, like she was trying to eavesdrop or maybe peek. Or else she was just out there with her face pressed up against the curtain, which would be a peculiar way to stand, if standing were all she was up to. “That’s no way to stand,” she said.
“Sorry,” said Doctor Paisley. He looked hurt and ready to change anything and everything if he had somehow offended Emma.
“I like your name. Doctor Paisley,” she said, thinking he was doing his best and could use a little help, awkward as he was, almost too awkward to ever be good at what he wanted to be good at.
“Well, thank you.”
“That’s a nice name. Is it your real name?”
“Well yes it is.”
Didn’t hurt to compliment the poor fella some, working so hard the way he did to have a good smile which he did his best to come up with right then.
“I’ll be back to see how you’re doing,” he told her, retreating with a hand extended out blindly to feel for the curtain behind him.
“Better look where you’re going,” Emma said, hoping to get a laugh out of him. “I’m countin’ on you, you know.”
She wasn’t sure he got the joke. Well, she could only do so much. The nurse who came in as he went out could have done with a few less donuts, but both her eyes and voice were soft and caring. “How are we doing here?”
“Okay, over here,” said Emma. “How about you?”
“No complaints here.” She fingered the tape securing the IV in Emma’s arm. “You’re all hooked up nice and good here. How are you feeling?”
“My friend out there in the hall was headed out to play golf, but she stopped everything and brought me over. What do you think of that? No questions asked.” She felt like she announced valuable information, a kind of credential that would leave no doubt about her value in the world. “She’s dressed the way she is because of the golf. She was on her way. That’s how they dress.”
“Actually, do you know what? I play golf.”
“Yes, I do.”
“That’s the one.”
She stared at the nurse, cumbersome and thick and hard to imagine stuffed into Maggie’s dainty outfit. “She canceled her game just to help me. Can you imagine? Four of them were headed out. But they’re gonna have to play without her. She says they’ll be fine.”
“That’s a good friend,” said the nurse. “She can come in and visit with you in a minute, if you’d like.”
“Okay. Sure. She came all this way.” The cramps dissipated slowly but dependably, like black thick dirty water that the morphine washed away in a steady clean stream.
She dozed a little and woke to find Maggie sitting in chair leafing through a magazine. “Are you still here?”
“I’d say so.”
“Looks like it from where I seem to be. Did you get something to eat?”
“I did. Had some coffee and a sandwich.”
“Not half bad. Grilled cheese. Coffee was a little weak.”
“You oughta go, don’t you think? Get some good coffee on the way home. Dunkin’ Donuts.”
“How are you feeling?’
“Better. That’s for sure. I’m awful glad I didn’t puke in your car.”
“That’s a real nice car you got there.”
“I love it.”
“You really ought to go home, Maggie.”
“How can you be? Just sittin’ there like that. Time’s awastin’.”
“I was readin’ a nice article till you had to wake up and start bothering me.”
“You’ve done enough. Go home. You go on now and go.”
They went on like that for too long, almost getting really angry, and then Emma dozed some more and when she came to, she said, “Are you still here? Maggie? I wish you’d go. You go on and go, like I’m telling you.
“I’m not going to leave until you’re feeling okay.”
“I am feeling okay.”
“I’m thinking until they admit you. Maybe you go up to a room. If I stay on maybe I can take you home.”
“They’ll never let me go home tonight. They’ll take care of me, and keep me here tonight. That’s for sure.”
The next time she woke up she was all primed to say, You go on now, darn-it. She might have even said it out loud, though Maggie was nowhere to be seen. In fact, Emma was being wheeled into a room by an orderly who had the worst tobacco breath.
“Hello there,” said the woman in the bed they passed by, the one closest to the door. The orderly went, taking his stinky breath with him, and his belly so big it could have toppled him. Two nurses hurried to get Emma situated in bed. Between the morphine and her interest in the woman who’d welcomed her, Emma paid little attention to them. The woman wasn’t as old as Emma, but not too far from it, and tiny. She was just this almost shocking little slip of a thing, smiling her big welcome the wide-open, white expanse of all those sheets and pillows. Two other women, both younger, sat in chairs pulled close where they visited. One was in slacks and a nice beige blouse. The other wore a simple, pretty dress and had a kind seashell bracelet on her wrist.
Emma worried they’d grown quiet because of her. As the nurses left, she said, “Don’t let me interrupt your good time over there.”
“You’re not. I’m Annette Olson.” Her voice was big considering how little there was of her. “Annette Olson.”
“I’m Emma Skayhill,” said Emma
Annette introduced the other two women, kind of holding court, who were her daughter, Grace, and her daughter-in-law, Bonnie. Just then two young boys scurried in, herded along by a man. He was tall and rangy, you might say, in a white shirt, the tie loose, a jacket slung over his shoulder. The boys were both blond, one with about a million freckles. They were maybe five and seven.
“These are my grandsons,” Annette said. “Paul and Brandon.” She looked up at the tall man and asked, “How are you doing, Hank?”
Annette went ramrod straight, looking almost reprimanded by a strict superior. A person might have thought she’d forgotten something enormously important. “Now Paul. You and Brandon go on over and say hello to Mrs. Skahill.”
Before Emma could get a word out edgewise to say they didn’t have to bother, they were on their way, two perfect little gentlemen, coming up to stand side by side in front of her. They put their hands out for her to shake one after the other.
“Hello, Mrs. Skayhill. I’m Brandon.”
“I’m Paul.” The little one blinked a lot and kind of wiggled his nose.
“Well, hello,” Emma said. “Nice to meet you Brandon. And you, too, Paul. I’m very happy to make your acquaintance.” Past their somber little faces, she could see Annette looking on, a nice, smiling grandmother, and just like that Emma was having a darn good time.
Annette. Such a little bit of a person. Emma couldn’t get over it. Three daughters-in-law and two married daughters, all three of them pleasant, coming in and out all afternoon to visit Annette. One of them, Gracie, talked about her garden with Emma, pulling up a chair to sit beside her and ask real considerate questions about what Emma could eat and what she couldn’t eat, given her problem. Emma had made a point of grabbing the first opportunity that came along to explain about her colostomy operation, and about living with that darn bag ever since, and then the cramps that brought her to the hospital, getting it all out in the open right off the bat. Gracie looked real sympathetic and said she had the most wonderful string beans this summer. “I’m going to bring you some to take home with you when you’re out of here, Emma.”
There were interludes when Annette and Emma had the place to themselves, everybody gone off to the cafeteria, or on an errand, or home for this and that. She and Annette talked about their families—their kids and grandkids. Emma had three living out east with her son. She and Annette just hit it off. Just real good roommates. Annette’s grandkids came over and talked to Emma whenever they visited, both the boys and girls. Annette made sure of that. Emma enjoyed Paul and Brandon the most. Gwen, the daughter they belonged to, was married to an Allandorf. Tim Allandorf. Heck of a coincidence, if anybody cared to notice, because Emma had worked with Tim Allandorf ‘s mom, who would now be Gwen’s mother in law at Sears for eight years. So, there was all that to talk about. That’s the way they visited. Friendly like they’d known each other years when they sure hadn’t.
It went on like that all day, a steady stream of company, and they could have closed that curtain around Annette’s bed, any time they wanted, and they would have been within their rights. Emma would never have blamed them for wanting a little family privacy. But they always left the curtain open and kind of included Emma in their conversations because she was alone a lot. Annette had all these children who lived close around her. Her sons came after work, and their wives stopped by too. One of the boys worked at Billings Lumber, another sold insurance, and one owned a gas station. Her husband drove a truck delivering oil. He was a big man. They were all big men, and they were polite and friendly. Emma said a little prayer of thanks, because it didn’t have to be that way.
It took the end to Visiting Hours to quiet things down. Almost surprised to be alone, Emma thought they’d watch a little television. Annette turned out to be just as easygoing about what they might watch, as she was about everything else. Detective shows, or game shows. Comedies. It didn’t matter. So, it was all smooth sailing until they were ready to call it a day, and get some rest, when this ruckus started up in the hall. It was hard to tell what they were doing out there other than making noise. She and Annette rang a nurse to find out what the heck was going on, and get whoever was banging around out there to quiet down. The nurse turned on her heel and left, and this big man came in. He wore a green work shirt and pants, grease-stained with tattered pockets, and big work boots, and he said he was sorry, though he didn’t look sorry, but the hospital had gotten it into its mind to start laying new carpet and the work had to be done. With the meat-hook of his hand already clamped on the edge of the doorframe, he told them he was going to close their door so they could get some sleep.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Emma spoke up. “I got to say no thanks to that one. I’m so claustrophobic I don’t really like that door closed very well.”
He looked at her funny, and then did the same at Annette, trying to enlist her against Emma was the way Emma read him. But Annette eyed Emma knowingly, and said, “I’m with her.” The man did a kind of double take the way comedians do, like he had to make sure they understood how ridiculous they both were and where he’d like to tell the pair of them to go, but he left the door open when he went.
The nurse popped back in, looking disheveled, like someone had grabbed her and shook her before shoving her in. She offered them sleeping pills, which, after a shared shrug, they accepted, as they did her apology for the noise, though neither saw how that was her fault. Nighttime was the only chance the workmen had to do the job, she explained, in her husky little voice, because there was just too much traffic in the halls all day long. She snapped up the guardrails on the sides of Emma’s bed as she talked, and then moved on to Annette. “You understand, Mrs. Olson, that you must never, never get out of bed without one of us to help you.”
“Okay,” Annette said.
“If you need to use the bathroom, remember you must put on your light and wait, and never go until we get here.”
“I know. Okay.”
Emma thought Annette sounded embarrassed, even put upon, getting talked to, like she was a little slow or senile. Given all Annette’s visitors and the free way they talked, Emma knew that Annette could only see out of one eye, and she had a heart problem, too, though it wasn’t clear to Emma what kind. Not congestive though. She hadn’t heard that word.
When the nurse was gone, Emma said, “Reminds me of pulling up the side of that crib on my kids when they were newborns. Fencing us in like a couple of infants so we don’t fall out of bed and knock ourselves silly.”
“As if we ain’t already silly enough.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“I thought I was,” Annette came back at her, cheerful sounding, her spirits lifted.
When Emma woke up to pee, the door to the hall was shut tight. The dimness felt spooky, only those artificial lights glowing from the machines monitoring her and Annette, this fluorescent slash creeping in under the door from the hall, the clock on the bedside table blurry, but maybe about ten after three. She put on her glasses to be sure.
She felt lucky, because unlike Annette, she could get up and go to the bathroom on her own. After lowering the guard rails, she had to bounce to sit up, feeling a bit like a turtle on its back. Then she rocked back and forth to get her legs over the side. Her dangling feet searched for the floor and she was glad to find it. Pushing the IV tree along, she made her way through the blinking and beeping, some of it filtering in from the hall that was quiet now. She felt sad, for no reason she could find, and scared and like she was on another planet where human life was different and almost unwelcome. It made sense that they didn’t want Annette trying this business on her own with one eye on the fritz. It was hard enough for Emma with her two good ones and her glasses on. She shut her right eye for a second, just to see what it would be like to be hampered that way. Pulling the bathroom door shut, she was grateful to throw the bright lights on. Annette’s good spirits seemed all the more admirable, given her difficulties and how tiny she was, so darn near scrawny. It worried Emma a bit that Annette maybe had cancer. Skin and bones that way came with cancer. No wonder they didn’t want her getting up alone.
Emma had dribbled away, and she was finished now, but she sat a second more, all of a sudden fretting about the meeting that would go on back at the apartment building without her tomorrow. She almost ached to be there, putting her ten cents in so that Bud knew the older tenants were going to fight to get a fair shake on the rent. Maggie would surely tell everyone who was counting on her what had happened to Emma, and how she’d had to get to the hospital fast. Maggie was a good neighbor.
She flushed and stood, getting a firm grip on the doorknob before throwing off the bathroom switch. The light rushing in under the door from the room beyond she’d left dark startled her. Her feet looked pale and strange like fish. She opened the door to find Annette standing there, a nurse on each side, the three of them like cops with a prisoner ready to advance.
“Oh, sorry,” Emma said.
“Monkey see, monkey do,” Annette told her.
“Did I hold you up?”
“No, we just got here.”
And they marched in.
Emma was starting to feel halfway on vacation, as the next day purred along, Annette’s gang popping in and out. Emma was doing so much better, she felt ready to get out of there and back to takin’ care of all she had on her plate. Mainly that darn rent business. And she needed to get up to the cemetery to tend Grandma and Grandpa Durham’s graves, and her dear husband’s, too; and the refrigerator was darn near bare. And she should call her son out East and tell him what was happening, though she didn’t like to worry him. Still he should know she’d been in the hospital.
Mid-morning, both her GP and surgeon, Grennel and McNamara, came by. They checked her over and asked some questions, good ones, she thought. They ordered blood drawn to run some test they thought useful. After conferring right there at the foot of her bed, they decided they wanted her to stay on another day so she got good and rested. She was ready to argue when a spasm cut into her so sharp she winced. They saw it and exchanged a smile they shared with her, like it satisfied them somehow, these bad cramps ready to jump on her, because even if they hurt Emma, they proved that Grennel and McNamara were good doctors, so she better listen to them. Grennel thought they should do an electro cardiogram, and McNamara thought that might be a good idea. They could do it right in the room.
When she wanted to know why, McNamara said, “Nothing to worry about. Just wear and tear on the machinery. You’ve been riding around in this car for a lot of years.”
She figured she was the “car” he meant, her body anyway. He was an odd duck all right. “As if I don’t know it,” she said, figuring it best to show him she could make a joke, too.
As soon as they were gone, she called Maggie to explain she’d be stuck a bit longer than she’d first thought, and she was relieved to find out that Elroy, Connie, Clara and May, the whole bunch of them had agreed to wait for Emma to get out, unless her stay in the hospital went on too long.
“No how, no way,” Emma told Maggie. “I’ll be home tomorrow for sure. After they run these stupid tests.”
“What tests is that?” Maggie wanted to know.
The Electrocardiogram proved simple enough on her end, though she couldn’t understand why they needed to stick so many patches on her. Wouldn’t a couple have done the job? Soft, gooey, and cold, every one of them. Arms, legs, chest, you name it. Then the machine started up, lights and a purr, showing this pattern on a kind of TV screen, while rolling out a strip of checkerboard paper. Her angle on the whole thing didn’t let her see the details clearly, but there were lines, squiggly and dancing. “How’m I doin’?
“This won’t take long.”
“Hot off the presses,” she said, “Big news about Emma.” She nodded at the paper spilling out. The nurse didn’t seem to get her humor. When the end came and the patches got pulled off, she said, “What now?”
“The doctors will evaluate the results, and consult with you, of course.”
She was a prissy one. Had to say “evaluate” rather than some simple word like an ordinary person might use.
The day wore on, and Annette’s visitors starting up, the first being a woman around Emma’s age who appeared in the doorway, leaning on a cane. Annette whooped at the sight of her. Irene Wurzer was a childhood friend from Rydersville, a little town maybe twenty miles east, where Annette and been born and raised. Irene had called Annette’s house, hoping to stop by. The news that Annette was up in in St Anthony’s sent her straight over, like somebody shot her “out of a cannon.”
“A sight for sore eyes,” Annette said.
“You, too, Annie-bannie.”
For the first time excluded, Emma turned on the TV with the volume low while Annette and Irene visited. Then that prissy nurse came in to tell her neither McNamara nor Grennel were satisfied with the results of the Electrocardiogram, so they were going to take her down to “the echo chamber.” At least that’s what Emma thought she’d heard. “The where?”
“An orderly will come for you when they’re ready.”
She was thinking, Echo chamber, torture chamber? What the heck. Ohh, she felt so alone. She wanted to tell Annette, maybe crack a joke, but Annette and Irene were engrossed, chattering and gesturing with this bubbly laughter Emma could almost see. She felt like the smallest boat in the river, and the currents were spinning her off. The orderly who came was the same as the other time, his breath stinking of cigarettes in spite of the gum he chewed. The elevator shuddered several times on the way down and then made a grinding squeal as it came to a stop. The orderly delivered her to a young woman with smart-looking glasses and dark hair cut in a short perky style. “I’m your sonographer, Mrs. Skayhill. My name is Katie Shew.” Her smile didn’t amount to much, like she worried it made her less important. “You just need to open up your gown so I can get at you from the waist up, Then we’ll be all set.”
It seemed pretty much the same routine to her, the cold sticky gel and way too many patches, but then Katie started moving this kind of TV remote control around right on Emma’s chest. Her eyes were intent behind those glasses, staring up past Emma’s head to where Emma had noted a TV screen as she lay down. “There,” said Katie. “That took it. I got it.” The way she spoke included Emma, but it would have been stretching the truth to say she was talking to Emma. “You’re a hard one. Where did you go now?” Her expression reminded Emma of someone determined to win a game. “That little rascal, he’s hiding on me.”
“Who are you talking to, dare I ask?” Emma whispered.
“What’s going on?”
“Your heart is really hard to get close to—and to get a hold of and get good pictures of. Oh, there I got one.” She was completely unwilling to look away from the screen. She moved the remote-control thing, pressing a little hard. “That’s a good one. That’s it now, Mrs. Skayhill. Don’t move. You moved. C’mon now, Mrs. Skayhill. There. There. Oh, I grabbed a hold of it that time.”
“Of what? Could you tell me?”
“Your heart. But it’s hard. It keeps hiding. Hold your breath. That’s right. Keep holding. Thank you. Steady, steady.”
Emma wondered if this Katie was one of the Shews from the west end of town. There was a bunch of them out that way. Some of them got in trouble every now and then, and you read about it in the paper in the Police Blotter.
“You’re a tricky little devil,” Katie said “Yes, you are. I got you, though. Got him cornered, Emma.”
What she meant, Emma didn’t know and didn’t much care. She didn’t like hearing her heart talked about that way Katie Shew was talking about it, and she wanted to tell her there wasn’t a grain of truth in anything she said. Emma was good hearted all her life. She knew Katie was talking entirely different than the way her words made Emma feel hurt, but the two meanings were stuck together, melted into each other almost, and she couldn’t get them apart.
Once back in her room, Emma was glad to be with Annette, even if Irene was still there, because the regular visitors started to show up, opening Annette’s worldwide to Emma the way they had the day before. She tried her joke about the “echo chamber—torture chamber,” a couple of times, and it seemed to go over okay, but not well enough to keep trying it. Paul and Brandon made an appearance. But then another day was over and done with, everybody gone except for Annette’s daughter Gracie, who hung on past visitor’s hours like she didn’t want to lose sight of her mom. She told Emma that she’d bring those string beans she’d promised the next morning, since Emma had said she’d likely be discharged by the end of day.
Left on their own, Emma and Annette gave the television a try, more out of habit and stubbornness than interest, the both of them nodding off in spite of the squealing tires, gunshots and angry faces on the cop show. They finally admitted that they were wrung out.
“Probably because of all that ruckus in the hall last night, don’t you think?” Emma wondered.
“Let’s hope they don’t have another shindig in store for us.”
“All that banging and so on, and we’re in here not getting good rest. That’s what I think.”
“I am bushed, I have to tell you,” said Annette.
The door opened bringing in the Nurse who’d been on duty since late afternoon. She had a good way about her, Emma thought, friendly, but clear and firm, like a scoutmaster. The pregnant little red-head trailed her, the two of them talking about something that ended with a laugh, and then the scoutmaster said, “Well, ladies. Time for some shut eye.”
“That’s just what we were thinking,” said Annette.
The little redhead bustled over to the window cleaning up Styrofoam cups and food trays from dinner that had been set on the sill. The scoutmaster snapped up Annette’s guard rails and said, “If you want some good news, I have it. You can rest assured, ladies, the carpet got put down last night, so everything will be nice and quiet tonight.”
The redhead set about checking Emma’s pulse, while the scoutmaster eyed the monitor above Annette’s bed. “Now remember, Mrs. Olson, no getting out of bed on your own. No matter what. Your night nurse will be on soon. Ask for her. Just put your call light on. You’re getting a new night nurse, too.”
“So not that blonde who was on last night?” Emma wondered.
“No,” the scoutmaster chuckled. “You better believe this one is not a blonde.”
They were gone only a few seconds before Annette sighed, “Darn it, Emma, the thought just came to me that you’re not going to get to see Brandon and Paul again. They can’t get by in the morning. School and all, you know.”
“They’re a good pair, those two.”
“I’m a foster grandparent over at Washington School. You ever do that?”
“No. What is it?”
“Well those kids that go there, you know, they don’t have much. So, I go over and spend time, as a foster grandparent. Kids, you know, and those kids in that neighborhood, even their parents, half of them are cast to the winds.”
“I don’t know much about that place.”
“I like helping them.” They settled a moment, sheets rustling. “How things going for you, Emma, them cramps and all?”
“Pretty good. You know what they say about getting old.”
“Don’t they now.”
“How about you, Annette? How are you doing? They getting things figured out for you?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.”
Emma was sure it was part of a dream when she heard a whispering voice. The dream fluttered, pale and flimsy, all this fabric gathered into a curtain that she was on one side of and then on the other. “Emma, Emma,” the dream whispered. “He’s got awful big feet, you know.”
“What? Who? Elroy?” Whoever it was had come to tell her something about her brother Ted who was a baby in the desert, sand drifting over him, wind and loneliness rising, rattlesnakes everywhere.
“Emma, are you awake?”
“I am now.” She felt sad and lost, like the whole world was empty, but she sounded irritated, even angry. She was just this woman with this other woman in a hospital room in the middle of the night.
“I gotta go, Emma. I gotta go.”
“What the heck are you doing?” If appearances could be trusted, the pale blur that was Annette across the room was shuddering like somebody getting electrocuted.
“I gotta go. Bad. I got my call light on, but they’re not coming. Nobody’s coming.”
“Is it broke?” Getting her glasses on, she had a better look at, Annette, who twisted and twitched.
“I don’t know. How’m I supposed to know?”
“Maybe it’s not working right. I’ll put mine on, too.” She flailed to press the call button, hanging onto it and feeling kind of panicky, as if the predicament was as much hers as Annette’s. “Is it peeing you need?”
“No. The other. I mean, both. I can’t wait. I can’t.”
“Keep tryin’.” That it was her bowels gonna move was scarier still. At least Emma didn’t have to worry about that kind of trouble, because she had her bag. And the next thought that came was to wonder what in the world is going on over there with Annette wiggling around in her bed. There was no way to think of her except that she looked like little monkey, grabbing and shaking the guardrail. “I don’t think you wanna get out of that bed, Annette, if that’s what you’re tryin’. Not if you know what’s good for you.”
“I can’t get it down.”
“You’re not supposed to.”
“I can’t wait, I’m tellin’ you.”
“Hang on.” Emma hit her call button over and over, turning it off and on rapidly in the hope that the blinking would send a kind of SOS.
Annette was crawling right out under the bars. She couldn’t get the rail to lower, but she was escaping anyway. She was so darn tiny.
“I’d stay put, if I was you.”
“I can’t, and I ain’t .”
“Oh, be careful now, Annette. Hurry, if you can.”
Annette landed, aiming for the bathroom. “I’m not going go in the bed. I can’t, and I ain’t It’s their darn fault for – oh.” Her little cry was like she’d stubbed her toe, but that wasn’t what happened. She’d lost some of the poo on the floor. Even in the half-light, Emma could see it, wet and shiny, and she saw, too, the awful, appalled way Annette looked down at what she’d done. But she rushed on, grabbing at her behind, kind of packing her night gown up against her bottom to stop what was tryin’ to come out, and rushed on out of fight. And darned if the nurse didn’t barge in right that second, this sudden blur of a blue shape. It was the scoutmaster, the little red-headed gal trailing her still like they were some kind of team. “What’s going on here?”
“She’s in the bathroom.”
“She hadda go bad. You better help her.”
The nurse started toward the bathroom, and Emma, picturing her slipping and falling ass over tea kettle cried out in alarm, “Watch you don’t step in it. There’s some on the floor.”
“She had an accident.”
“I’ll be darned. I’ll be darned and kicked in the head,” said the nurse grabbing a fistful of napkins, a couple wipes and crouching. “Goddamnit.”
Oh, now she was mad. But to hear a nurse cursing like that gave Emma a start. A nurse, for goodness sake. At a patient. “You ought to know better! We told you.” She was down on the floor, facing into the open bathroom door that the little blonde held open. “No! Don’t you dare move. Didn’t we tell you not to get out of that bed, Mrs. Olson? Now look at this mess. You just sit there,” she scolded. “You’re one of those thinks they know best about everything. Well, you don’t. You damn well don’t!”
She was shrill and wild, kind of rabid. It struck Emma that cleaning up that mess had pushed her round some kind of bend, and she was having trouble coming back, if she even wanted to.
“Well,” Emma said, “she had her light on. And she couldn’t wait. Nobody came.” But Emma might as well have been talking to a post. That nurse was so far gone, she wasn’t hearing anything, just ranting at Annette, like you would at a child, who had dirtied her pants. “I said, ‘don’t you move. No, no. You sit there until your bowels move, because I’m not going to let you get back into bed and dirty that, too. Don’t try it. Or I don’t know what I’ll do with you. Or you’ll—if you fall, it’s not going to be my fault. Because I told you to stay in bed. We all told you to stay in bed. What kind of a person are you? What kind of a person would do this?”
Emma figured Annette was perched on the toilet, agog at this onslaught, and she kept expecting Annette to stick up for herself, but the bathroom was quiet. Though she hadn’t paid close attention, she had noted that the little redhead had retreated into the hall, out of sight for a bit but now she was sneaking back. The scoutmaster had gone into the bathroom and was coming out with Annette, still scolding her. And Annette just took it, like a little lamb.
Emma thought she had to say something. “She couldn’t help it. We did everything but call in the cavalry.”
The nurse answered with a glare and squint as if she was surprised to find Emma in the room. But the threat was clear. Emma better hold her tongue, or she’d be next. The scoutmaster and the little redhead lifted Annette into bed and popped up the guardrails. Then the curtain moved to enclose Annette with the scoutmaster’s fist on the rail like she might rip the whole thing apart. Annette started screaming as she disappeared. Just let loose a screech that turned into tears and blubbering. “I’m not staying in this goddamn bed. You can’t do this. I’m going home. Or to my daughter’s place. Get off me, darn you. You nasty shit. I’m going to my daughter’s place on East Twenty-Third. She’ll take me. She says I should stay with her.”
Lord, thought Emma. Now it sounded like Annette had followed the scoutmaster nurse off the deep end. Her cussing shocked Emma, but at least she had a right, the way Emma saw it. Oh, she was so hurt. You could just hear it. The nurses might be trying to calm her down now, but they’d let loose a banshee . “I’m not sitting still for this kind of crap anybody. I never took it all my life and I am not going to take it now. Not from the likes of you.”
Emma could barely keep track, but she guessed the little nurse had run out and come back with other nurses and a big orderly. Some kind of struggle full of shadows and grunting was going on behind that curtain. Orders shouted, like parts of something once sensible that had exploded into jagged pieces flying every which way. “Her arm.”
“Just grab her.”
“I don’t know.”
And Annette sobbing all the while. “You know what you can do, you son of a bitch. You assholes. You’re all full of shit. All of you. You sons of bitches. I’m talking to you. You let me out of here, you bunch of goddamn stinkers.”
“You’re not going anyplace. You hear me?” The scoutmaster was still in charge. “You just settle down. We’ll check on you in a minute, and if you have calmed down, we can remove those restraints.”
Goodness, thought Emma. Restraints. The whole bunch of them, so clumped together she couldn’t be sure of the number trooping out, leaving the curtain shut around Annette who wailed and sniffled, just heartbroken by the sound of her.
Emma was panting, too, her heart going full speed, as if she’d been battling to help Annette, the both of them in danger. If somebody had asked her, she couldn’t have said whether she was more confused than alarmed. But the weeping and misery behind that curtain was just too awful to bear. She had to do something. “Now Annette. Calm down. It’s over now.” The blubbering came to an instant halt. “You can just go to sleep, why don’t you.” So far so good, Emma thought
The secret space occupied by Annette filled with a kind of mystery. “Who the hell are you?” said Annette.
“Who the hell are you? Shut up.”
“I’m Emma. You know. It’s me. Emma.”
“I said, Who the hell are you? Damnit. Where’d you come from?”
“Well, I’m your roommate. We’re in this room together.”
“You’re crazy. Who’s your doctor?”
“Do you have a doctor? Are you a doctor?”
“C’mon now, Annette. We won’t pay any attention to that darn nurse from now on. You couldn’t help what happened. Go to sleep now.”
“Goddamn it.” She was guttural, like a growling animal. “I asked you a question. If I asked you once, I asked you a thousand times—who the hell are you?”
“Emma. I told you..”
“Are you a doctor?”
“What? No. I’m Emma. Emma.”
“Do you have a doctor? It’s a goddamn hospital.”
“Yes. I have two doctors. My surgeon is McNamara, and my—”
“He’s an asshole, that McNamara. I wouldn’t let that rotten son of a bitch take care of my cat. He’s a rotten son of a bitch. I hate them all, every one of the bastards. Because they’re all bastards.”
The scoutmaster nurse reappeared, only to vanish behind the curtain while the little red-head came up to Emma and said, “Hello, Mrs. Skahill. Sorry for all this. So sorry. You need to get some rest now. Would you like a sleeping pill? You must be all worked up.”
“What’s happened to Annette? She was never like this before you. Two whole days we’ve been together. And she was so nice. Will she be all right?
“Of course. But you need to sleep. Here.” Both hands thrust into view, delivering a pill, which Emma accepted on her tongue, and a cup of water that Emma tilted and sipped to swallow. And then she was looking up into the eyes of the scoutmaster nurse, who smiled, and with ice in her eyes said, “Now go to sleep, Mrs., Skayhill.”
They left. Annette wasn’t making a sound. “Annette,” Emma whispered. It was spooky how totally silent she was so all of a sudden. Emma wondered if they’d given her a shot of some kind, or just a pill like the one Emma had swallowed. Fearful that she’d made a mistake taking the darn thing, like gullible dope, she worried that if she went to sleep they’d come and do something even more awful to Annette, and maybe include Emma this time in whatever they were up to. I don’t know what her husband does, she thought. What had Annette said? It seemed maybe life-saving for her to remember. Annette really liked her daughter’s mother in law. And the feeling was mutual, the two mothers in law both liking each other a whole bunch. We had so much to talk about, Emma thought. She was so nice.
The room was eerily still, no one else there. But something had happened. Emma was waking up. The door was opening and there was this huge, dark shape filling the doorframe, blotting out the light from the corridor. “Hello, Emma,” said the figure, moving toward her, like a cloud or a shadow, gigantic-seeming and advancing. “I see you’re awake. I’m Marianne.”
She was a great big black lady. And Emma thought, oh my god what is happening to me? Am I dreaming or—? What is going on here?
The figure towered over her, smiling down with her eyes catching light and she took Emma by the hand and found her pulse. Emma was sure there were no black nurses working at the hospital, but here was this one, doing like they do, finding Emma’s pulse, taking her temperature, fitting that blood pressure cuff on her arm. She’d said her name was Marianne, and she was a little bit scary because she was awful black and awful big, and so strong. She could feel the strength in every little thing the woman did. She could just about pick Emma up out of the bed and go off with her, if she wanted, do anything she wanted to her.
“How are you doing, Emma? Sorry to bother you. But we need to make sure you’re faring well, don’t we? Through the whole night. And I’m the one here to see to it. And you are, Emma. In every department. You’re doing fine. You go back to sleep now.”
“All right. Thank you.”
“See you in a little while.”
Marianne had an accent, her words oddly shaped clots put forth on a hint of singing. Emma had no idea where Marianne might be from, but she guessed somewhere nice. She must be the new night nurse those other ones had talked about. When asked about the new night nurse, the scoutmaster nurse had said: Oh, believe me, she’s not a blonde. Emma had missed their joke then, but she got it now.
She woke up because she heard so much going on, so many voices. She opened my eyes, almost talking in her sleep, “What’s going on?” Blurry as heck, and like it was underwater, the bedside clock read right around three o’clock. Nurses were huddled around Annette, who was whimpering in the littlest voice, though curses surfaced, like hot steam bubbling up in boiling water. “What’s going on?” she repeated, and the nurses turned, all three of them, none of them Marianne, and none of them the scoutmaster, who of course wasn’t there, who must have gone home by now. Thank goodness. Good riddance to bad rubbish. One of the nurses who Emma recognized from somewhere, probably the hospital here, or maybe Eagles Market, approached and said, “Don’t you worry. We’ve called her daughter to come. We just had to. She just wouldn’t settle down.”
“Oh,” said Emma. She recalled a rumbling, quaking, storm-tossed presence in a dream. “Was there more? I was here for the first part.”
“She just had this terrible reaction to her medication.”
“I know. Is that what happened? It was terrible.”
“It’s good you were asleep, Emma.”
“I didn’t hear any more, I don’t think.”
“It’s just as well.”
“I was sleeping, I guess.”
“And you should go back to sleep.”
“How is she?”
“She’ll be all right. We have the doctor coming soon. “
“Oh. Good. Do you shop at Eagles?”
“For groceries. At Eagles Market. Do you?”
This answer, as if it made everybody friends, smoothed out the jagged edges of whatever was going on. Emma dropped into the power of irresistible sleep, just slipped off the edge of the conversation, and didn’t care. It was as if she was drugged. In fact, she had been drugged. I am drugged, she thought, surrendering to a force that inhaled her down into her mattress and through her mattress into some inky otherworld below the mattress, and on down past the bed, the floor, the other floors, the hospital basement, past everything to somewhere unknown where no one moved or spoke or thought, not even her.
When she bubbled back into the world, she was glad to find Annette quiet, and her daughters sitting with her, two of them anyway. Emma blinked, and because she wasn’t hearing anything too much from over there, only the smallest whispering, she saw no reason not to let sleep have her again. The next time she looked, she couldn’t focus. She peered groggily out of eyes barely able to get out from behind her leaden eyelids. It looked like Annette’s whole family was over there, and Emma got scared. Is she gonna die? Is Annette gonna die? Is she dying? Or what is all this? “Oh, no,” she said.
One of the daughters came gliding straight over. “Emma, dear, we are so sorry mom made such as fuss as we heard about. It must have kept you awake half the night.”
“Oh, that’s okay. Is she going to be all right?”
“Well, I hope so. She better be. She was fine yesterday, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, sure. But all of a sudden she didn’t like anybody. I never saw anybody go off the beaten path the way she did from getting scolded.” When the daughter, whose name Emma couldn’t come up with at that instant, didn’t react other than to squint and glance back at her sisters, like they might explain something, if she could get their attention, Emma said, “That’s what it was from. That’s what I think.”
“Mom got scolded?’
“That’s right. She got out of bed like she knew she shouldn’t, but she had her call light on to get a nurse to help her, and nobody came. We both did—both had our lights on and nobody came. So, she got up to go. Even though they’d laid down the law. But she had no choice. That’s how I’d say it. Couldn’t wait. Maybe she even waited too long, if you get right down to it. I think that’s the truth of it, because this little bit came out of her. An accident, you know. And then this nurse who had to clean it up, well, she lit into your mom something fierce. The way you would a child. Just crazy and mean because she had to clean it up. But it wasn’t a big mess—it was just where she dropped a little – and that goes with it I’d say, being a nurse.”
Listening had forged these big furrows in the daughter’s brow, worry or surprise so extreme she looked halfway cross-eyed. “That couldn’t be,” she said.
“They’re saying she was over medicated.”
“I don’t know anything about that.” With a wistful shake of her head, Emma added, “Annette just loves those little ones of yours. That Paul and Brandon. I hope they’re all right. I keep thinking about them, and the way they marched up to shake my hand. I sure hope they don’t have to see their grandma like this.”
“They’re my sister’s kids. They’re Grace and Hank’s kids.”
“Everybody’s saying she was over medicated. The nurses, and the doctor, too.”
It occurred to Emma that maybe this daughter, who was still close enough to touch, but somehow far off, too, didn’t want to know about this nasty business with her mother getting treated that way, maybe none of them did. “How’s she doing?”
“I think she’s going to be all right. There are these other doctors who are going to come soon to check her out.”
Darned if Emma didn’t go to sleep again, and the next thing she knew, she was surprised to be waking up to the sight of Doctor Grennel coming in the door in what looked to her like early morning light. She peered through eyes clouded over and blinking to focus, as he walked past the mob around Annette, the biggest gathering so far. He smiled, “How are you doing, Emma? Ready to go home?”
“I’d say so.” She felt better, getting her glasses on so he looked like he was really there, sitting down on the foot of her bed.
“I like the way you’re looking,” he told her.
“Everything in the blood work was fine. The electrocardiogram was inconclusive, so we did the echo. There was a little something, but not anything definitive, if you know what I mean. Let me ask you a few questions.”
“Would you say you’ve been feeling fatigued lately? Unduly fatigued?”
“I wouldn’t say so. You mean more than normal? I’m tired, sure.”
“But not so much you don’t want to do things.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, things that you normally do, but somehow you don’t want to.”
“Oh, no. I’d say, ‘no.” All of a sudden Bud and Maggie and the plans to get the rent problem straightened out jumped into the forefront of her mid, and just thinking about all that made her ready to get up and go.
“Also, any swelling that you’ve noticed?”
“You mean in my feet. Ankles. Like that.”
“Any more than usual recently. That you’ve noticed.”
“I always have a little. That’s not what you mean.”
He’d cleared away the blanket and sheets, and they both studied her feet, sticking up down there, her toes curled too much and a little crooked, the poor things battle scarred as they were, callouses, bunions. “My toe nails need a trim.”
“That’d be surgery. Not my bailiwick. Should I let Doctor McNamara know?”
“Getting up at night to go the bathroom. How about that?”
“Well, sure. But not more than normal.”
“No noticeable increase. No more often than you’re used to?”
“I would have to say, ‘no.”
“All right then. But let me know if there are any changes. In any of these areas. Have you been able to sleep?”
“Oh, yeah. They gave me this pill.”
He got jittery at that, looking at her like maybe there was more to her than met the eye, his glance skittering toward Annette, the four or five family members, and several doctors conferring quietly. “What’s going on over there?”
“Do you know what happened with her?”
It jolted her to have him ask. Shouldn’t he know? He might as well have been turning into a scary stranger jumping at her from somewhere she’d always thought harmless, like her closet or a kitchen cabinet. Coming from him, the question felt dangerous. She couldn’t say why it hit her the way it did, but she was scared. “I don’t know. They gimme this pill, like I said, and it put me into the sleep of the dead. I kept waking up and sleeping and waking up. Didn’t know where I was half the time. The sleep of the dead, let me tell you.”
“What was it they gave you?” He glanced down at her chart, leaving her to think how maybe the smart thing was not to get any more involved in this mess than she already was. She could end up in over her head before she knew the first thing about what was really happening. As often as she was in this darn hospital, she could find herself at the mercy of these very same nurses, especially that scoutmaster one. She’d already tattled maybe too much, and if that nasty thing found out, she was the kind of person mean enough to want to get back at Emma.
“I think I ought to move you into another room,” Grennel said, his attention fixed on the chart.
“No, I’m going home today. I don’t need to move. I’ll be okay.” She didn’t want to be disrupted. She just wanted to go home. But she also spoke from a sense of loyalty, not wanting to abandon Annette. Grennel might even be moving her out so she couldn’t see any more of what went on here.
“There’s a lot of commotion over there, as I think you know. That’s not what I want for you right now.”
Emma didn’t know how to take his remark. She felt uneasy with him, with herself, her body, all those tests, and stabbed at by guilt about Annette, who had her family to look out for her, while Emma was on her own. What came out of her felt like she was thinking on her feet, and slipping out a broken window but keeping clear of the sharp parts. “I really don’t know for sure what happened. But they’re a nice family. And she’s a nice woman.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that.” He stood and shifted his shoulders to adjust his navy-blue sport jacket, which had gotten crooked. He added a tug at the hem and used his palm to smooth his tie down his belly. “Anyhow,” he said. On his way to the door, he tapped the elbow of one of the doctors attending Annette, a chunky freckled fellow, who then trailed Grennel into the hall.
Emma’s throat filled up with tears, watching them go. It was like Doctor Grennel was her only hope, and she couldn’t trust him. She just wanted out. She regretted having shot off her mouth off to that one daughter, and tried to remember all she’d said. But the fact of the matter was that the daughter hadn’t seemed very interested. Like she didn’t take any of it seriously. Like Emma was old and senile, and less than reliable, the way you couldn’t count on a drunk. And maybe she was right. Emma had been halfway drunk in the night, drugged up the way she was on that pill.
It wasn’t long before a wheelchair rolled in, some nurse she’d never seen before behind it. Where the heck were they getting them? Or was she forgetting half of the ones she met? She was just glad it wasn’t that scoutmaster one walking in. It was scary to think that every time the door opened it might be her, meaner than ever.
“Orders are to move you to where you’ll get some rest,” this one announced.
“Does Grennel know?”
“Of course, he does. It’s his orders.”
“I thought he said he was letting me stay here. I’m getting discharged later on today, you know.”
“Doctors orders.” She smiled and nodded, as a second nurse, this one vaguely familiar, came in. “Her comes Sally to help gather your stuff.”
All of a sudden getting out of that hospital felt like the only thing that mattered. Better not to annoy these nurses the way Annette had annoyed that other one, she thought; so, she pointed out her belongings that didn’t amount to much, the clothes she’d arrived wearing, her earrings and wristwatch. These two were in one heck of a hurry, like they had to get out of there before a bomb went off, and they wheeled her past Annette, before she had her wits about her. She waved, and said, “Annette, they’re moving me. So, you won’t be seeing me. I just wanted you to know.”
“Who the hell are you?” Annette said. Her eyes looked way too big for her head and maybe getting bigger.
“I just thought—” Emma said. Well there’s is no need. That was the thought that came next. She was already in the hall. No need to try. The one pushing her hadn’t even paused. She felt dreary and dejected, gliding past all the other rooms on both sides of the corridor, some doors open, some shut, sick people in all of them, with who knew what happening to them.
Her new room was empty, both beds neatly made. She told them she’d like the window when they asked her preference. They explained that she would be discharged after lunch some time, and asked her to fill out the lunch menu. She dozed a little, watching TV, until fear plucked her out of her dreams. She’d left something important behind, something irreplaceable, and though she knew it couldn’t be Annette, the feeling declared that it was. She rang her call button. She kept envisioning Annette without her, all alone in that room in the night. At the thought of Marianne coming in the door, she wanted to tell Annette not to worry. She had the strangest desire to talk to Marianne. The actual thing she’d forgotten was the container to irrigate her colostomy. She was one hundred percent positive that she had told them to get it from the bathroom, but she didn’t see it anywhere now.
The responding nurse said she’d run back to check and if it was there, she’d bring it, but Emma said she wanted to go because she wanted to be sure. It was too important. She needed it. Truth be told, however, what she needed was to test the truth of the belief taking hold of her in which Annette was okay again, back to normal.
But there was no doubt Annette. laying all crooked with her fingers curled on the bars in the guardrail, was still out of it.
“Annette, hi,” Emma said, but nothing registered. She had no idea who Emma was. It was sickening to feel she might as well not even be there.
The nurse retrieved the missing container from the bathroom, and as they were leaving. Emma tried again. She couldn’t help herself. “Bye Annette.”
“You can just shut up. Shut up.”
One of the two daughters with her said, “Mom, you remember Emma.”
“Emma? Yes, I do. I sure do.”
“You like Emma.”
“You bet. But why are you talking about her? It’s that one there looking at me I don’t like.”
“Annette, I’m the same one that’s been here,” Emma said. “That I always been.”
“No, no. No, no.” She had a look in her eye that said nobody was tricking her. She was smarter than all of them.
“Mom, c’mon. Who else would it be?”
“Emma was nice, darn it. That’s not her. She’s fooling you, but she can’t fool me. You can’t fool me, damn you,” she said to Emma.
Back in her room, she felt so alone, staring at the empty bed near the door made up so neatly, like somebody had died. Her roommate had died. Or Emma had. There was no getting through to Annette, no matter what. Maybe she was never going to come back with her mind, and she had such a sharp little mind. Not a little one. But a sharp one. Nothing little about it. Emma felt so bad. She started to cry. Couldn’t keep from starting and couldn’t stop. Just sobbing and shaking, another sick crazy old lady in a hospital bed, thinking over and over, What’d they do to that woman? What did they do to her? It was awful to think Annette would never be able to play with her grandkids again, or return to being a foster grandparent at that school, where all those poor kids were cast to the winds, and the parents, too, and Annette helped the little ones with their reading, or even with going to the bathroom if that’s where help was needed.
Her lunch was a tasty enough slice of meatloaf in gravy, some mashed potatoes, peas, and cherry Jell-O. Already showered and packed up to go, she lay in her bed on top of the sheets and blankets, waiting for Maggie, who she called to come get her, and who was on her way. But it was Grace, Annette’s daughter who came in when the door opened.
“Hi, Emma,” she said. “I brought you some beans out of my garden. Like I promised.”
“Oh, thanks.” It was a nice little bundle in a baggie all right, fresh picked for sure, bright in color.
“I wanted to get them to you before you left. Mom’s settled down quite a bit now. But I have to find out what happened. We have to find out what happened to her. And maybe you’re the only one who can help, if you know what I mean.”
“If I can help you I will,” Emma said. Darn, but she wished Maggie had come by sooner so she could have been out of here before this happened, as if she was a criminal in need of escape and Maggie was her getaway driver. Now she was in a pickle, caught between her wish to help Annette and her fear of the scoutmaster nurse.
“You told my sister, Meg, about some nurse and scolding. So, we’re thinking we need a name. Is that right? She scolded mom. See, we’d like that nurse’s name.”
“Oh, heck. I can’t help you there. I don’t know her name.” Her relief felt honest and honorable, because it was true. She didn’t know the name.
“We were hoping you did.”
“I wish I did, too. But I don’t. Nice looking woman, if I try to describe her, maybe forty years old give or take. Kind of trim. And do you know what?” It came to her in a jolt of excitement right at that exact instant, a way out, the perfect solution. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? “Here’s the thing. I know for a fact that she had this other little one—like an assistant—a young nurse who was her kind of helper. She had red hair and was very pregnant, and she just kind of—she was young, see, and she kind of followed the other one’s orders, and did what she said all the while everything was going on. She was right there. She heard the whole thing. So, she’s the one you want to talk to. She’s gotta know the name of the one she was with. I don’t know her name either, but she was redheaded and pregnant, and on duty that night. She should be pretty easy to find, I would think.”
Of course, Maggie wanted to hang around and jabber after they landed back at the apartment. There was no way for Emma to tell her to go, after all she’d done, one favor after another, just being one heck of a good friend. So, Emma boiled some water and fixed them two cups of instant coffee. It was good fortune that she’d shopped the day before she’d been hauled off to the hospital, so the milk hadn’t gone bad. Maggie talked a little about Bud and the way Elroy and the others felt. Who’d said what recently. It sounded like there was a disagreement brewing about how to best go about getting what they needed from Bud, and Emma asked a couple of questions, but Maggie couldn’t seem to make the details clear. She was trying to get a meeting organized for the upcoming Wednesday evening in her apartment. Now that Emma was back home, she said she would push for it to happen. “Because, times awasting.” Then she went off on a golf tangent. Her putter had forsaken her, and she was about at her wit’s end. She talked about the ninth hole and the seventh hole, a par three she’d messed up in a way that was unforgiveable, so unforgivable she’d been about ready to just forget about golf. Give up on that one, and take up something else. And then she “sank a long putt.” The sound of the ball dropping into the hole—the way she went on about it, it was like she was in love, some high school girl in love writing a poem about the ball, the hole and the sound. Emma kept nodding, sipping coffee and making appreciative sounds when she thought she was supposed to, trying hard to be a good friend. Somewhere in the back of her mind, way back for sure, she was thinking that maybe golf was another of the wonderful things in life she’d missed out on. But all the while she ached to be alone in her little apartment, and when she finally was, she just sat in her chair with her empty cup held in both hands resting on her lap. She looked around at the photographs of her kids and grandkids, her own mom and dad, the desk her dad had made, the rug and empty chair where her dead husband had always sat when he was still with her. She was so glad to be home, her heart was beating fast. She could feel her heart inside her, thumping determinedly, just working away, glad to be home, too. She should probably call her kids to tell them what had happened. But then why call about that? They’d just worry. And the time to worry was past now. Why not just say hi. It didn’t have be bad news every time. And maybe they’d call her. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of them called her right now? Right this very next second, like they knew she was hoping to hear from them, and the ringing phone with them on the other end, her favorite voices in all the world, would bring proof of their special, lasting connection.
The next morning, crossing the parking lot on her way back from the drug store in the little plaza across from the apartment building, she had her head down against the chill of the wind that had turned icy overnight. Late September had run out of days and October was pushing winter at them, the gray air hinting of clouds, sunless days, even snow. Bud’s voice gave her a jolt, and she looked up into his round eyes deep in his round face. Headed in the opposite direction he had paused to smile and look right at her. “Glad to see you’re up and around, Emma.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, wondering if he had any idea of what she and the others were plotting.
“I guess you had a rough go.”
“Bad enough.” He seemed utterly sincere as far as she could tell, and she felt treacherous, as if she was planning to cheat him when that wasn’t the case at all. She didn’t even want to look at him. “How you been, Bud?”
“Okay. You know. Knock wood, right,” he made a face and then a fist that he tapped on his skull.
“Cold enough for you?”
“Getting there. Okay, then. You take care.” He waved and went on. He had a dainty way of walking.
She was letting herself in the building’s front door, when she heard her phone ringing. She still had to get into her apartment, and she fumbled to get her key into the slot, rushing the way she was. Like she always did when the phone rang, she hoped it was one of her kids, and halfway believed it would be this time.. “Hello.”
“Hello,” said the strong-voiced woman on the other end. “This is St Anthony’s Hospital calling. I’d like to speak Emma Skayhill—the Emma Skayhill who was staying at the hospital last week in Room 716. Is that possible?
Halfway tempted to say they had a wrong number, hang up, and not answer if they called back, she said, “Yes. I am Emma Skayhilll.”
“How may I help you?”
“And you were in the hospital last week.”
“Yes, I was.”
“Wonderful. I’m wondering if you would answer some questions for me.”
“Well,” said Emma. “About what?”
“We’re conducting an investigation into something and you might be of assistance.” Now that word chilled Emma. She did not like the sound of it and wanted no part of it, as the woman was saying: “I am sure you know something happened in the room you were staying in. It’s our feeling that if you answered a few questions, it would be very helpful.”
“I don’t know if I want to do that.”
“It would be extremely helpful. You don’t have to worry.”
‘I told one of the daughters all that I know.”
“But I need you to tell me. To verify that what they say you said to them is in fact what you did say. It will go no further than my office. But we have to reprimand the nurse who’s at fault, if what the family is telling us is true. And you’re the only one who would know because you were the only one in that room beside the nurses.”
“So that’s what I’m saying. Ask them. Ask the nurses.”
“We have. We have their accounts. And now we need yours. If you would.”
“That little redhead. She’s pregnant, that’s the one I mean.”
“Oh, we spoke to her all right. At length.”
“Good. Because I have to tell you, I don’t ever want to be treated like that at your hospital or any other one. Because when you’re sick you’re sick. You can’t always control everything. Things a person has been in charge of all her life. That control just goes and you can’t help it. It was unreasonable, the way she scolded that poor woman.”
“What we understand to have happened, never should have been and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“That’s right. As you should. But I don’t see what you need from me.”
“As I hope I said, we’re trying to be thorough, and according to the family the way things unfolded is that Mrs. Olson got out of bed to go to the bathroom, even though she had been warned not to go on her own, and she had a little accident on the floor as she tried to get to the bathroom, and the nurse who cleaned it up scolded her badly. Way beyond anything that could ever be thought acceptable.”
“Would you agree with that description of what happened?”
“Yes, I would. In a nutshell.” She was losing ground, if she hoped to stay clear of this mess. Her footing was giving away. She was getting hauled toward shore, like a fish that had taken the bait and now they were reeling her in little by little. If she didn’t want to land in the dirt, she better find a way to halt this conversation. “Well, it sounds to me like you got the whole business sorted out.”
“All right then. Good. That pretty much sums it up, and it’s good to know you agree. We’ve put Marianne on suspension, but I wanted to be fair and felt it necessary to check with you and makes sure about the details.”
Emma was frozen. Stopped in her tracks. “Could you tell me something? What’d you just say?”
Why the heck was she talking about Marianne? “Somebody is on suspension. Who’s on suspension?”
“Marianne Jones. She’s new here and –”
“Wait a minute now. The black lady. She’s a black lady right?”
“Yes, she is. And she’s the one who the other nurses say is responsible.”
Oh, boy, she thought. ”Oh, boy,” she said. “What was your name again? Did you tell me your name?”
“Okay. Because you should know, Mrs. Steger that somebody’s feeding you a line.” Now she was stepping in it. Cow pie with one foot, and dog doo-doo with the other. “Because she had nothing to do with any of it.”
“Well, what do you want to know?” Emma had popped out of the water and come down on dry land, and there she was, squirming and flopping. “I don’t know her name. I can describe her but I do not know her name.” So, they’d all gotten together and cooked up a story to accuse the black one. “I have to tell you, it’s really unfair to blame Marianne for what happened in that room. What I’m talking about. Because she did nothing wrong.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am.”
“That’s what I’m telling you.” What the heck was this Pauline asking? As if Emma couldn’t tell the difference between the white one who did it and the black one who didn’t.
“Now, Mrs. Skayhill, I want you to know I am so very glad to hear you say this. Because I have to tell you—I’m the one who hired Marianne. She had good credentials. We’ve never had black help up here, and we should have. So, I am glad to hear you say she took good care you.”
“It’s just not true if what the other nurses are saying she did it. Marianne did nothing. To either one of us. She was really nice.”
“Well, we ‘ve got Marianne on suspension for thirty days, because this other nurse—well, we don’t know who it is.”
“What do you mean? Because that little—” About to say “pregnant redhead,” she felt like a car screeching up to the edge of a cliff. Wait a minute. Something was fishy here. They could sure as heck find out who was on that shift couldn’t they? If they wanted to. What were they trying to pull—what kind of malarkey was this? Was all this just because the one who did it was saying it was this Marianne, and the others were going along with it. Annette would know—if she could know anything—that it couldn’t be that big black one. That it was the other one. She was a pretty lady, so trim, and such smart nurse, and good, too, up until she had to clean up that mess. How could she think she would get away with blaming a black lady—such a difference—my god anybody could tell that it wasn’t her. Unless the other nurses were scared. Unless the one who did it was so scary they were all scared of her.
“You were on a lot of medication that night, weren’t you?”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“According to your chart. Are you still taking it?”
“The medication you took that night.”
“You mean that pill? Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. It was an Opioid, you know.”
“I don’t.” Emma was looking to exit this phone call, which was beginning to feel like a very small, uncomfortable room.
“It’s a very powerful sleeping pill.”
“Well, okay. I took one. They gave it to me, a nurse did, and I took it. Like you’re supposed to, isn’t that right? Doctor’s orders. You know, I have to get off the phone.” She hadn’t planned to blurt it out like that, but that was the way things went sometimes. She was in the midst of them before she knew what they were. “I just remembered something I have to do. I got carried away here talking.”
“All right. You’ve been very helpful.”
“I may have to call you again. Would that be all right?”
“Sure. But I have to tell you I think I’ve told you about all there is to tell.”
“I’ll only call again, if I absolutely have to.”
“Okay. Suite yourself.”
“Bye now. And thanks again.”
Well, that’s enough of that, she thought. She had more to do than worry about what went on over at that darn hospital. For one thing, she had her mail to bring in. Her intention to stop on her way back from the drugstore had been disrupted by the ringing phone. That kind of bad behavior over there wasn’t hers to straighten out, not at her age. Had everybody forgotten how old she was, for heaven’s sake? That kind of mean stuff had gone on before she ever walked through the door of that place, and it sure as heck would go on after. It had been going on since before she was born probably, and it would go on long after she was in the grave. Since the beginning of time, probably. And what if there was a lawsuit of some kind? That was as likely as not, the way things were going, and there she’d be in the middle of it, if she didn’t watch her step. Those doctors had been swarming all over Annette. And the family would be well within their right finding out their mother was treated that way. Furious for sure, and they would probably have a good case. She wondered how Annette was doing and if she was home by now and feeling better. But she didn’t think she wanted to call over. Maybe a lawsuit was what that Pauline woman was really getting ready for, like a spy nosing around to see what Emma knew. She worried she’d said too much. Well she was done with it. No more. Lawyers and testimony and what was that other thing they did to people? Dispositions. That was the last thing she needed. Some lawyer asking her mean questions and trying to trip her up and make her look like a fool. No. That wasn’t what it was called. Not “dispositions,” but something else. Well, whatever it was—No thank you.
A twist of her key opened the door on her mailbox built into the wall next to the front door, along with the other boxes belonging to tenants in the building. The electric bill waited inside, the cable bill, and phone bill, too. It was that time of the month. The weekly flyer from Eagles Supermarket with sales, specials and coupons was stacked on the shelf under the mailboxes. She took one off the top and went back into her apartment, gazing down at the blaze of enticements that covered the front inviting her to buy things. She stood for a moment, leafing pages beside the kitchen table before moving on to settle at her desk under the painting her son had given her of an old man seated at a beige, shiny table, his head bowed toward bread in a bowl in front of him, his hands clasped in prayer below his white beard. Her dad had made the desk from scratch out of nails, glue, determination and ingenuity. He’d cherished it all his life and passed it on to her rather than to one of her brothers, or her sister, surprising the heck out of all of them at the time, her especially, and recalling that moment and the mystery of it, the way he looked up from his sickbed and told them all that he wanted Emma to have his desk, she nodded her approval for his handiwork of all those years gone by. He was a stickler for details, and skilled in any number of ways. The stained wood of the finish still shone under the glass panel she used to protect the surface from spills and whatnot. Every kind of wear and tear over the years. The glass was rectangular like the desktop, but a smidge smaller, about an inch or so along all four edges, which was good, because if it stuck out it could catch on something, or break easily. She retrieved her checkbook from the top right-hand drawer, along with the letter opener her husband had brought back Chicago, with Chicago imprinted on the handle, when he’d gone to a ballgame with his brother. Though the task before her meant money going out, she was glad to be doing it. Neatly slicing open the envelopes and peering at the official looking document inside, each bearing her name and address, as had the envelopes, made her feel she was part of the world. She was doing something, using things, and people knew of her activities and were holding her to account. The dollars demanded by the electric, phone and cable companies, all calculated to the last penny testified to her existence and participation in the routines of day-to-day life in a manner not much else did. She wrote out the three checks, fit them into the envelopes provided, and then sealed them with a sense of measured satisfaction and accomplishment.
Dusk had gathered outside, dimming the apartment around her. She and her desk with the friendly lamp shinning down on her hands were alone in the darkened apartment. She stood up carefully, her joints all but creaking. She started toward the hall to put the envelopes with her bills in her mailbox, where the postman would pick them up the next day, but then she felt like walking to the big mailbox on the corner of the plaza. A glance out the window warned of a chill now that the sun was more or less worn to a frazzle. A few bloody bands struggled through gaps between the homes and office buildings that mingled on the distant high ground along Tanner Boulevard. Lights burned in dozens of windows.
When she stepped out in her spring coat, she wished she’d taken the time to dig out the thicker one meant for winter. But at least there were gloves in the pockets. She quickened her pace. Nothing wrong with a brisk walk in the sharp air. With the wide mouth of the mailbox pulled open, she reached for the envelopes, but they weren’t where she’d put them. She groaned and scolded herself for having forgotten them on the desk, but then they turned up in the opposite pocket.
A large figure, bundled up and head-bowed was speeding toward her on the sidewalk that ran parallel to Bergen Ave and formed a right angle with the side street she’d used to end up where she stood. Whoever they were, storming ahead so heedlessly, they alarmed her enough that she thought it best to move out of their way. With someone apparently on a rampage and paying so little attention to where they were going, you never knew what they might find offensive. But then she recognized Elroy. He had a stocking cap pulled down over his ears, big mittens on his hands, a scarf around his neck and the collar pulled up on a padded coat that went down to his knees.
“Elroy,” she said. “Hello.” It seemed wrong and rude not to offer a greeting. He glanced at her out of narrow eyes, stomping past without a word. He looked furious, she thought. “It’s Emma. From downstairs,” she called, instantly regretting that she hadn’t just let him go, and watching, as maybe ten yards on, he turned to study her. He seemed to find her threatening, his gaze full of wary suspicion, even as his mouth worked oddly to form what she knew he intended as a smile. “Emma. I see you there. I didn’t know that was you. But it is. How do you do. I’m getting some exercise.”
With that he went on, his big legs and big feet hauling him on down the hill. “I was a farmer,” he called to her, walking backwards now. “I had two hundred and nineteen acres. I worked morning to night. Sun up to sundown. Drank a lot of water. Good fresh water morning, noon and night. Sun up to sun down. I was active you know. I need to stay active. I was active with tractors and harrows. Corn as far as you could see. As far as anybody could see.” Still on the move and further away, his voice had thinned some, as wind came up making him sound weak and almost pitiful.
“That’s a good life. You had the good life.”
“Okay,” he said, and went on.
Well, there’d been plenty of warning that the meeting at Maggie’s might not go smoothly, Emma thought, watching Elroy stand up and sit down every few seconds. She glanced at Connie in hope of an explanation, but she only smiled, nodding affectionately, as if her husband was a puppy given over to some animal necessity that would pass or turn into a clever trick. The fact of the matter was that weirdness and pointless inconvenience had been all too prominent in the run up to their get together with Elroy insisting that the time get changed from evening Wednesday to mid-morning Thursday. It didn’t make a lot of sense, but Clara Luzman had been the only one with a conflict, a dental appointment for a cleaning she was willing to cancel. Then Elroy wanted a time limit. They would start at ten-thirty sharp and go no more than forty-five minutes. But they should aspire to a half an hour. That’s what he was going to aspire to and they all should aspire to the same thing with him.
Maggie had readied a pot of coffee, and set out a plate of Oreo cookies, along with a bowls of M & M’s, peanuts and Gold Fish. Elroy grabbed and gobbled a handful of peanuts, before attacking the gold fish. There was a moment where he actually clutched peanuts in one hand and Gold Fish in the other, a few of each squeezing from between his fingers and falling to the floor. May and Clara fussed with their coffee, tittering over whether to add milk, or to use sugar or Equal, while sending quizzical looks back and forth to share their chagrin at Elroy’s slovenly behavior. Had they been off on their own they would have ridiculed him as “a nutty old clodhopper.” When Emma leaned over the coffee table to take a few M & M’s, Connie, who was seated opposite her, did the same, creating an instant of clumsy proximity that prompted her to say, “You go ahead there, Emma. Age before beauty.”
Emma smiled, “Don’t mind if I do.” She swore she smelled liquor on Connie’s breath. What the heck was going on?
“All right now,” Maggie said, as if the fact that they were in her apartment obligated her to move things along. “As I told Emma the other day: ‘Time’s awasting.”
“That’s right.” Elroy stood up. He brushed at his lap so crumbs and a fine dust of yellow spilled onto Maggie’s rug. “We’ve done nothing of value.”
“I was referring to the overall issue,” said Maggie in a defensive tone. “Not just the here and now.”
“That’s a joke,” said Elroy.
“The here and now.”
“Well, I’m enjoying my snack,” May said. “Especially my Oreo.”
“You think it’s a laughing matter,” Elroy grumbled. He looked wounded by her. “But it’s not. At least not to me.”
“I’m not laughing either. Elroy. But I am enjoying my Oreo.”
“There goes another minute,” he said.
“All I know is that I ran into Bud on the street the other day, and I felt like a criminal. ” Emma hoped to bring practical matters to the forefront and represent common sense with nod to decency. “Hiding what we’re up to. I don’t like it. It’s not my way. And so, the sooner we get this out in the open the better. That would be the way I see it.”
“We know what we want,” Maggie said. “We know what we need to say.” Her glance around the table found numerous nods and murmured agreement. “And so, what remains is to decide on who goes to him and when they do it.”
“The hell with the bunch of you,” Elroy said. “Damnit, damnit. Goddamnit.”
“Elroy, please.” Connie hands were up to her mouth, where they’d jumped, as if she was the one who’d misspoken.
“Don’t what?” He was on his way to the door.
“What happened?” said Clara. She appeared mainly to ask May who answered with wide eyes and a dramatic shrug.
Both Maggie and Emma said, “Elroy.”
“I’m going over there right this second. I’m sick of this pussyfooting around. This is man business. It’s man to man. I’ll face him and tell him, the sonofabitch. I’ll bang on his door and kick it in if I have too. Do you hear me, the bunch of you?” He eyed them one after the other with a dismayed frown that left no question about how small and worthless they were in his eyes. “Hens,” he said. “I’m done hanging around in the hen house waiting for the goddamn hens to tell me what to do. I’ll tell him what we want. ‘You son of a bitch, you give us what is ours. Rightfully ours. You’re a sonofabitch Bud Smith.’ I’ll tell him to his face, and if he back talks, I’ll punch him square in the mush. And if he punches back, so be it. We’ll fight to the death. And if he kills me, so be it. That’s what you hens don’t understand and you never goddamn it will. Being a man means you fight if you have to. You fight to the death. You kill and die, and there’s no two ways about it.”
His big hand swooped into the Goldfish, jamming the tiny yellow bodies into his mouth, as he plopped down on the couch, chewing grimly and surprising them all that he was still in the room. He coughed, crumbs and spittle erupting into the air. He gulped some coffee. He took up another handful of peanuts and then more Goldfish. He stood and started for the door. “Come, Connie. We’re going.” He left the door open for his wife to follow. She glanced back at them and molded her right hand into the idea of a telephone that she raised to her ear, signaling that she would talk to them later.
“He’s not going to do that to Bud, is he?” said Clara.
She shook her head ‘no’ with her eyes squeezed shut, like she could not bear to look at something zooming toward her.
“Is he drunk?” Emma wanted to know.
“Oh, no.” She repeated both her telephone gesture and her headshake ‘no’ before disappearing behind the closing door.
It was May who spoke first. “What was that all about? One for the ages, all right. I’d love it if somebody could tell me what the heck he was doing.”
“You know what I think,” Clara told her.
“Well, sure. Clodhopper. But maybe off his rocker, too.”
“Born in a barn. You know.”
“I think he was drinking,” said Emma. “I saw him on the street a couple nights ago and he was like that.”
“Just out here by the mailbox.”
“And he was acting drunk?”
“No. But odd. You know. It struck me.”
“She said he wasn’t drinking.” Clara pondered other possibilities that seemed to lurk in her coffee.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing. She was drinking,” Maggie said.
“Do you think so?”
“I don’t think. I know. I smelled it on her.”
“Did you?” Emma asked. “Because I did, too.”
“Who could blame her?” May wanted to know. “Married to the likes of him.”
“He was probably drinking, too, then. If she was.”
“Poor Connie.” May emphasized her sympathy for Connie with a sad clicking sound. “She’s got a tough row to hoe with that one.”
“Fifty years they’ve been married. Actually more. Over fifty.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s what she told me.”
This fact shoved them all into momentary reflection. In the developing silence, Emma sensed her companions depart one by one into this or that memory, while she felt the force and weight of time, or something, with her husband inside it.
“Let me freshen everybody’s coffee,” Maggie said. “I could make another pot.”
“No, no,” they all agreed.
“I don’t know where this leaves us with the whole Bud thing,” Emma wondered. “I mean, Elroy acting that way.”
“I’m halfway ready to give up,” said Clara.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Maggie said. “You’ll do that over my dead body.”
“But maybe the young people deserve a break. That’s all I’m saying. And we’ve been paying the rent he charges for a long time. It’s what we agreed to.”
“Well, I’m one who could use that extra few dollars,” Emma said. “I have to tell you.”
“We all could. But it’s the principle of the thing, too.” Maggie was slipping into that tone she had sometimes better suited to a soapbox, the way Emma saw it. “There’s nothing wrong with talking to him. We have every right.”
Clara looked at May who appeared permanently distracted. Of all of them, she’d lost her husband most recently. “You all right there, May?”
“Here’s what I think?” Maggie told them. “The first order of business is not to get too overwrought here, because of the way Elroy acted. Just take a little time until we find out what’s going on, and how to deal with him.”
“And how the heck do we do that, pray tell?” Clara struck Emma as snide and dismissive in response probably to Maggie being up on her high horse. The two of them could get that way. “The man is not exactly easy to talk to. He’s a kind of mystery man and the mystery is that he’s a kind of large farm animal.”
“You and your sharp tongue. That’s going a little far, don’t you think,” said Maggie.
“Remind me to stay on your good side.”
‘You really don’t like him,” said Emma.
“Well, at least you’re paying attention.”
Okay, so now she was going to start snipping at everyone. Emma suspected that Clara’s negative mood arose from the fact that no one else, not even May, had agreed with her about surrendering. “I think if we want to find out, we see what Connie has to say about it. It looks like she wants to talk. I mean, she made that gesture about the telephone, after all.”
“True,” said Maggie. “We can follow up on that.”
“I still say we need a backup plan.” Clara sounded insulted, like this was an idea she’d proposed a while back that no one had paid any attention to. “I like back up plans. It’s always good to have one.”
“Not quitting, though,” Maggie said, eyeing her. “That can’t be it.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to say. What I was going to say was that we get down to it. Move it along, so we can figure out who will be the ones talking to Bud, if Elroy’s not part of it. And I have to say—I want to go on record that I don’t think he should be part of it under any circumstances. No matter what. He’s liable to do anything. Go off half-cocked and we’d be responsible.”
“So, who do you see as the ones who talk to him in this back up plan of yours?” Maggie’s tone was not untouched by suspicion.
“Don’t worry. Not me. I don’t want to do it. I just want to get this over with one way or the other.”
“That’s what I said a bit ago,” Emma reminded her. “Right at the start.”
“So at least we agree on that. I think it should be you for one, Emma. And think it should be Maggie, too, because she’s certain about what she wants. And you, Emma, too, because you more or less agree with her on everything.”
“Okay by me,” said Maggie. “Emma? What do you say? I think we’d be a good team.”
“And we need to set a timetable, too. So, it just doesn’t drag on. It has to be done by next Saturday.” Clara certainly thought she was laying down the law.
“Wait. This coming Saturday? Today is Thursday remember,” Emma reminded them. “That puts it right on top of us.”
“I see your point. So, the next one. A week from this coming Saturday.”
“At the very latest.”
Emma was supposed to go with Maggie to an afternoon card game over at May’s, who lived in a building at the far end of the complex, a really nice spot, one of the best in the sense that it was the furthest from any of the heavily traveled roads nearby, about as far as it could be and still be in the complex. Emma had always kind of envied May that location, but whenever she thought of it now, no matter what the occasion, she always underwent a flickering impression of the hearse parked outside waiting to take Ed, May’s husband, off the funeral home when he keeled over while looking for the scotch tape less than a year ago. The scotch tape dispenser wasn’t in the drawer where kept it and knew he’d last put it, and he was storming around. At least that’s how May told it. Today’s game had been scheduled for her cozy little place, still kind of haunted, because everybody thought it would be good for her to take on the responsibility, maybe lift her spirits to act the hostess. Bring a little life inside those four walls where she sat alone too much, they all felt.
But as the time grew close, and noon went by, Emma felt a strong urge to stay put. Maybe she was coming down with something, or maybe she’d been pushing too hard. She could do that. When she spoke to Maggie, she tried not to make a fuss. “I apologize and I hope I’m not hanging you up, but I am bushed. My get up and go, got up and went. So, I think I going to just stay home and go to bed early.”
“Are you sure? A little fun might do you some good.”
“You might win a little money, too. Ever think of that?”
“Oh, sure. From all the high rollers. I’ve been through a lot lately, as you know better than anybody, all the ways you helped me, giving up your golf game and all. But maybe it’s the smart thing to take it easy.”
“Nothing all that hard about playing cards, Emma.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Sure. You’re all right, though. Nothing more than just tired.”
“That’s it. Have fun without me.”
The relief she felt hanging up left no doubt she’d made the right decision. Doing nothing seemed just what the doctor ordered.
The late afternoon sky had clouded over, nondescript dull ruffles shifting about, unable to understand what they exactly wanted to be or to do with themselves. A bird came flying right at her, going to crash into the window for sure, this crazed robin it looked like, and she waved her arms, to warn it away. The darn thing turned on a dime, like an acrobat, veering off to the left out of view, nothing but a blur. She’d missed Douglas Wenke on the radio with the obituaries at noon, she realized in that exact instant. She hadn’t heard him yesterday, either, or the day before, a failure she feared might become a habit, given the way her routines had been disrupted. Tomorrow she’d make certain, and she scribbled a note to make sure. The evening paper would come soon, and she could go there to catch up on who’d sailed off, and ease her guilt. She felt neglectful, somehow.
For a while she ricocheted from one disappointing TV show to the next, until she gave up thinking she could find anything she actually liked, and just stopped where she was, this big close up of Maury Povitch smirking at a pair of overweight black women with colored hair, purple and green on one, yellow stripes on the other. A mother and daughter it turned out, who were trying to nail down which of the daughter’s boyfriends was the father of her child, a kind of frail looking little boy. She couldn’t tell if he was right there with them, or off somewhere behind the scene. The picture only showed him alone Emma couldn’t help but think of Marianne who had been so quiet and caring, thoughtful, trustworthy and kind, unlike these two who shrieked and shouted, and wailed, too, when the DNA test said the boyfriend was not the father. He was a slim nice looking fellow, well dressed in a regular gray suit, and he ran down the aisle to celebrate the news, waving his arms like he’d just won a game. It must be awful for someone like Marianne to be associated with these kinds of people, and this kind of behavior the way Emma was associating her, though thinking about Marianne, made her wonder about the two women and where they’d gone off the track. She felt bad, especially for the little boy, who looked so worried. The women were enormous and their hair looked like somebody dumped paint on it, and the daughter had been sleeping with so many men she didn’t know who was the father. Maybe this one. Maybe that one. And going on television to talk about it, to put on a show. What went on in their heads to get them to do that? But then people did crazy things. Emma figured she’d done pretty well with her life, but there were girls she’d known when she was young, and some older, too, who fell apart. They seemed to have everything right, husbands and kids, and then they ran off the rails with boys and men, drinking, divorce, and that kind of stuff. Maury Povitch might smirk, but it was just a crying shame, the whole thing. It was pitiful the way that big woman, the daughter, she was pretty sure, just shook when she sobbed. The heck with Maury Povitch. She felt like smirking at him and his stupid show. He could smirk all he wanted, but he’d have to do it without her, because she was turning the channel. She passed through cop shows, comedy reruns, some movie that looked familiar, feeling almost dizzy, and hungry, too, she realized, as she shut the whole mess off.
She knew she should eat better than she was going to, but she couldn’t be bothered. Jelly on toast was about all she could handle. Later on, she might try something else, if she felt like it. Maybe soft-boil some eggs.
She went on then to get quite a bit done, cleaning out her colostomy bag and making herself comfortable in her nightgown and robe after a refreshing shower. But darn if she didn’t end up back in front of the blank TV screen, as if she might turn the fool thing back on, though she didn’t want to. She put one aching foot on top of the other, and pressed down hard, rubbing the arch, thinking about something she’d heard on Talk Net the other night, this man with a soothing, strange accent speaking about “emptying the mind” as a way to relax. The idea made little or no sense though the result he described sounded worthwhile. Not the empty mind part, but the peacefulness that might come.
When she looked up and saw the time, and the gray hours coming on outside her window, she had to wonder where the day had gone. Same place as all the others, she thought. It was like Douglas Wenke spoke to her. His deep announcer’s voice was emphatic in his reminder, almost scolding, that she had better remember to listen to him at noon tomorrow. To read the obituaries in the paper wasn’t the same as the sound of him tolling then in that reverent way he had, one little person after another in a kind of roll call. She peeked out the door, hoping today’s paper would be there, but it wasn’t, even though it should have been. It was useful to read the details after hearing the news from him. Yesterday’s edition lay folded on the couch, and she thought about looking it over again, even though she was sure only strangers had been listed. A few familiar last names, but that was it, along with that famous rock and roll singer whose name she couldn’t come up with just now, dead in a car crash.
The phone rang twice and stopped, done with her before she could budge let alone decide whether to answer or not. Still, she was on her feet, as if the ringing might come again and the phone in its cradle was something living, shy and flighty like a bird or squirrel she had to pounce on before it fled. The light rapping on the door behind her confused her. What the heck? But then she picked up Maggie’s voice on the other side. “Emma, are you up?” She was close to whispering.
“Oh, you’re up. Good.”
“What’s going on?” Emma said upon finding Maggie stranding in the hall. She had a worn, surreptitious quality, one Emma associated more with her own unsteady moods than with those of Maggie. “What happened? Did something happen?”
“Can you come over? Elroy is sleeping and Connie came down to talk as soon as he was out. She slipped me a note at the card game to see if coming to talk tonight might be okay. Can you come over?”
“Why a note?”
“I don’t know. She just did.” Maggie was backing away.
“Let me get my slippers on.”
“Come as you are. No need to dress.”
“I’m barefoot. I’ll be right there.”
“I’ll be right there, Maggie. I’d like my slippers. You’re acting funny, you know, like it’s some kind of an emergency. My phone rang before but no one was there.”
“I know. That was me. I hung up and come across to knock instead. And I have to tell you it is kind of an emergency. Connie’s all shook up. So please don’t dilly-dally. She doesn’t want Elroy to wake up and find her gone. I’ll leave my door open.”
Connie was sitting on the couch, looking worse for wear; that was for sure. She was sipping from a beer bottle, and when Emma stared at it, if only for an instant, Connie made her plea with a shrug. “It soothes me.”
“Sure. I have one every now and then. Or I used to.”
“Here’s the thing.” Connie rolled the bottle between her palms, and peered down at it, as if she were trying to see into the opening. “You and Maggie have to be the ones to talk to Bud. Elroy can’t do it. There’s no waiting to see how he’s doing. He’s not doing well. Good days and bad days. But it’s the bad days are piling up. I hate sayin’ it, but he can’t handle it. All of a sudden he starts talkin’ about marching over to see Bud and getting the whole thing over with. You saw him the other morning. Only he gets worse. If Bud wants to have it out with him, well Elroy is ready. I have to tell you, he can get scary. And then—and it makes me sick to say this, but I gotta before this whole thing gets out of hand—he starts to cry. Bud’s going to beat the crap out of him. Can you imagine? Bud couldn’t beat the crap out of you, Maggie. Or you, Emma. But something is happening to my Elroy. I wish we’d just stop the whole thing about the rent. I wish it’d never got started. I know Clara said the same thing, after me and him were gone the other morning. May told me, and I’m for it. But it’s not the whole thing. I think it’s the dementia, you know, coming on. And this is just one thing. Bud and all, but if not this, well something else. The Doctor has said that’s it’s coming, but it looks to me like it’s way past coming. It’s here. Elroy’s dad had it. Took him by storm. And his older brother, Earl; he has it bad. Took him by storm, too. Just wiped him away, the way a tornado knocks away a house or a whole little town. I saw that, you know. Over in Manorville where I grew up. Half the town gone in a blink. I never forgot it. And it’s here for Elroy. So, he can’t be involved more in any of this rent stuff. The other night he got out bed and I didn’t know it. But I woke up to go to the bathroom, and I found him in the living room, crouched down by the window, peeping out. Had the shade pulled down, and when I asked him what he was doing—didn’t he want to sleep—wasn’t he tired? Well, he said he was making sure Bud didn’t sneak up on him. We got to skip it. Or forget about it. Then maybe he can forget about it. Or you two just go and do it, and hurry up about it. Okay?” She put the beer bottle to her mouth and tilted almost straight up and down, trying for the last little drop.
Lord, Emma thought. She’d never heard the woman say more than two words at a time in all the years she knew her.
Connie placed the nozzle at a point just below her mouth, and pursing her lips like she might whistle, she blew, producing a hollow sound. “So that’s pretty much all I came to say.”
Maggie was nodding. “Okay. And it’s a lot. And it’s good you did it. But you better go, don’t you think. I don’t mean to rush you, but you said you don’t want him to wake up alone.”
“No, I don’t.” She got up and took a little step and then a big step, like walking was new to her. At the door, she said, “Sorry,” without turning back, like she didn’t care whether they heard her or not.
“Hardly your fault now is it Connie.”
“We don’t mean to let you all down.” She went, closing the door.
Emma and Maggie sat for a while without moving, perfectly quiet except for their breathing, and a heavy sense of being subdued, at least as Emma felt it. Then Maggie got up. It looked like she was going to walk into the wall. But she reached around the corner and dragged out this funny looking suitcase, which Emma recognized as a golf bag. “It helps me think.”
“Okay.” She watched Maggie, who did seem thoughtful. “What helps you?”
She pulled one of the clubs out from the bunch sticking from the top of the bag, and then, unzipping a neat little pocket on the side, showed two white balls in the palm of her hand. “Putting.” From somewhere around the same corner, she withdrew a green kind of plastic saucer. “We got to figure out what we want to do?”
“Yes, we do.”
“It’s all coming to a head.” Maggie placed the saucer thing down on the rug across the room, before returning close to where Emma sat. The bag was colorful and festive, mostly plaid interrupted by bands of leather up and down and circling above and below the pocket. It had neat little legs that kept it upright.
“You ever had dementia in your mom or dad, Maggie?”
“Nope. Both sharp as a tack, right up to the end. Dad especially.” Maggie held the club she’d chosen in both hands, a square part set behind the ball she’d placed on the rug. She was kind of crouching over and twisted, and she kept looking straight down at the ball and over at the saucer thing.
“Don’t that hurt your back?” Emma wondered.
“I’m putting.” She moved the club to hit the ball, gave it a kind of shove and off it went, after the tiniest click, gliding over the rug toward the saucer thing, but sliding past on the right, and bouncing off the wall. Maggie groaned and straightened, looking glum. “This rug is fast, you know. Real greens are never this fast, so it’s hard to know the speed. It’s the worst part of my game. Putting. Just breaks my heart. Because it’s so important.”
“Was that click the one you mentioned a while back, the one you love so much?”
“When you hit it. That click. Remember you told me?”
“Oh, no. That’s only on the course. You have be on a real course and then there’s this sound when the ball drops into the hole. It’s a really wonderful sound, but you have to be on the course.” She was setting the second ball down pretty much where the first one had been, and she was crouching all crooked again. “Would you stand behind me, Emma?”
“What? Sure. What for?” She figured that standing behind a person meant pretty much the same thing in golf that it did in the rest of life, so she moved, accordingly.
“You can help me aim.”
“How the heck am I going to do that? I don’t know the first thing about it, Maggie.”
“My alignments and all. Anyway, you can do it. Putting is more strokes than anything when you keep score. Every hole gives you two putts. So, if par is seventy-two, say, you can figure thirty-five or thirty-six are putts, and that’s when you shoot a perfect round. That’s how important it is.”
“Sounds important all right.”
“How’s this? Am I about where you want me here?” She was pretty much with her back to the door, and something in the perspective brought back her grandkids playing miniature golf. “Wait a minute. Is it like miniature golf?”
“This part. Kind of.” She raised and presented the club she was holding, pointing to the silvery end, which was like a little hammer. “See the flat part here? When I put it down behind the ball, I want you to make sure it aimed at the hole over there.”
“Why don’t you do it?”
“I am. But you can do it better. I’m on the side of the line, and you can look from the back the way caddies do, and tell me. Think like if you ran a thread through the head of the club, and through the ball over to the hole, and then ask yourself—would it be straight?”
“Okay.” She eyed the ball, the club, the imaginary thread and the cup thing. Darned if she wasn’t having fun. I’m playing golf, she thought.
“Anyway, the way I see it, we can do it.” Maggie used a tilt of her head to peek back. “I’m game to go see Bud, if you are. I’m feeling stubborn about it. I have to tell you, I don’t want to quit.”
“I could say the same thing. It’s not a lot of money, but there’s never a month I couldn’t make good use of a little extra.”
“And it adds up month by month. ”
“Month by month. Year after year.”
“You know, if you went ahead and gave it a push just now, I think it would need to make a pretty sharp left-hand turn to get to the hole thing.”
“Okay. See that’s why this is good. It’s helpful, because it looks right to me.” She adjusted the hammer part carefully, and then kind of bounced on her feet, wiggling her rear end. “How about now?”
“Okay, I think. I’d say okay. But don’t blame me if it don’t work out.”
They kept at it for another half an hour at least, stopping to share a diet coke, and then practicing a bit more with Maggie getting more and more putts to roll into the hole thing. About the time Maggie decided Emma should try a couple pokes, home started looking pretty good. “Thanks, but no thanks,” Emma said.
Her apartment was located so close by, directly across from Maggie’s, that she was there in a jiffy and halfway in the door before she remembered to grab up her newspaper, and mail she hadn’t picked up so far today. What she found was hardly worth the effort, mostly junk, fliers and advertisements for this and that. A waste of paper. But then the very last letter startled her with a return address of Saint Anthony’s Hospital. The envelope didn’t have the appearance of a bill, so she suspected it might be from that woman who’d questioned her. She hoped not, and opening it warily, found neither bill nor anything from Pauline Steger, but a form letter and a questionnaire. To her utter amazement the hospital wanted her to fill all these questions about her recent stay. How did she feel about it all? How was she treated? Would she rate the nurses? Rate the room? The food? On and on. She was flabbergasted. Didn’t they know what had happened? Didn’t the left hand know what the right was doing up there? Furious at this display of gall and ignorance she folded the pages back up, jammed them back into the envelope and tore the bunch of them in half. She’d be darned if she was going put herself through all that. Force herself to think back over it all to help them out with their dumb questions. The envelope was in two halves now, and she clumped them together and tore it into quarters and then went on to shred the pieces into tinier pieces and drop everything into the trash can. Where it belonged. Because she hadn’t been treated right, and if they didn’t know that by now, she sure didn’t think it was her job to tell them.
She couldn’t believe the phone started ringing. And crazy as it seemed, her first thought was that the hospital knew that she’d just destroyed their property. Who would call her this time of night? She stared at the handset, both annoyed and scared. The darn fools could ring all they wanted. She was closed for business. Done for the night. Of course, it wasn’t really all that late for most people. Nine-thirty was all. It was just that she was tired. The caller was as likely a wrong number as anything. Or maybe it was Connie upstairs. Right over her head. She looked at the ceiling, listening for signs of life. Connie and Elroy were up there doing something. After what seemed an eternity, she couldn’t take the badgering any longer, and the mystery of who was so insistent on the other end won out. And thank god it did, because when she answered, it was Bethany. “Just wanted to say ‘hi,’ Mom.”
“Bethany, hello. Oh, I almost didn’t answer,
“It scared me when it took so long. Why didn’t you answer?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Were you in bed?”
“I was headed for it.”
“Me, too, but I just thought, ‘Heck, I think I’ll call Mom. No special reason.”
“What a treat. That’s the best. A call like that. I just love it when you or Sam call out of the blue. Everything all right?”
“Oh, yeah. How about you?”
“Good. How are you and Ronnie?”
“We’re good. Weather’s a bit colder out here, though. What’s it like where you are?”
“We had a little frost the other night.”
“Did you now?”
“Woke up and there it was. Kind of pretty. It melted fast.”
“Weather here started to turn. But the way it goes these days, it could just a well turn back. Never quite know what to expect with the darn stuff these days.”
“That’s the truth. I’m glad to hear you doing okay.”
“Oh, sure. Except I was in the hospital for a couple days.”
That’s how it started; like somebody else had jumped in with them, the way it could happen in the old days when telephones were all party lines and you never knew who might be listening in, or might speak up next. “Just for a couple days.”
“What for?” Bethany sounded pained. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry. I don’t want to worry you. It was just those darn cramps, you know.” And then she was off and running. “Misery the whole night long. I had to ask Maggie to take me up to the hospital in the morning, and she did it wearing a golf outfit. That’s right. She was about ready to go play when I called. Dropped everything to give me a hand.” She laughed and told about meeting Annette, and the way the two of them hit it off first thing, the fun they had, how nice she was, and then she plowed on into the nurse and the night, and ran headlong into how Annette got mistreated so awful. By the time she finished Bethany was fuming.
“Boy if that had been you, I would have been out there on the first flight, Mom.”
“I know you would have, Honey. But it’s over now. I hope it’s okay I told you.”
“Of course. It’s terrible, though. To treat an old lady like that. Why would they do that?”
“That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, if you ask me, because it wasn’t her fault it even happened with that light business and them not coming. Either they need more help up there, or they should teach them to be a little more tolerant when you make a mistake with that kind of stuff.” She paused and might not have gone on, had she not felt the heat and power of Bethany’s concern radiating through the telephone all the way from Connecticut. Each and every detail she’d already told screamed out that it was linked to the rest of what happened, and so with the weight of everything waiting to be spoken pushing, while the events she’d already described pulled her forward, she went on, first to Bethany, and then later on to Sam, who she didn’t want to feel left out. She phoned him the instant she hung up with Bethany, and to her surprise he picked up, saving her from the ordeal of talking to his answering machine, which always made her so nervous. One after the other her kids listened, as she marched them through every twist and turn, beginning, middle and end. And while Bethany and Sam were attentive to all that went on with Annette, Emma felt their concern sharpen when Marianne entered the picture, especially as Emma spoke about how nice she’d been, how big and black and gentle.
“There, you see,” said Bethany as if a long-standing question had unexpectedly received a conclusive answer. Both kids lived out east and believed in civil rights, especially for black people, not that Emma didn’t, but she didn’t know many black people. Or any, if the truth were told. More and more black people were moving into town, but she still didn’t know any. So, the question lacked a certain immediacy. She thought she might stop as she approached the part about Pauline Steger trying to blame Marianne, or maybe just skip it, but she didn’t, just kind of tumbled on headlong into the whole thing, and thank goodness she did, because the kids blew a gasket. Both of them. Sam about jumped through the phone, and Bethany said, “I don’t believe it. I really don’t.” Their shock and anger had fire to it, a far greater heat than what they’d expressed upon hearing of Annette’s abuse. The questions flew, and when she reported how she’d stood up for Marianne in spite of being scared of the mean nurse, they all but cheered. They were so proud of her they said. She hadn’t expected all this, or any of it, and she started getting worked up to match them with a degree of indignation she didn’t know she felt. Her attitude grew harsher toward the scoutmaster nurse and that Pauline woman, too, her judgment and condemnation skyrocketing. Given this opportunity to view what she’d lived through from her kid’s perspective, she wondered how she’d put up with any of it for a second. “It was just awful that they would want to blame that poor woman. First they do what they did to Annette and then, as if they haven’t done enough damage, they go ahead and put the blame on somebody they think they can get away with accusing, innocent or not. It’s a heck of a thing.”
“It sure is.”
“I couldn’t believe my ears when I first heard her say it.”
“But you stood up for her, Mom. That was great of you and so brave, too.”
“I had too. If I wanted to live with myself, you know.” She wondered if maybe she had been heroic. She felt like someone on a TV show saying words that were perfect for the moment, but didn’t quite belong to her.
“A lot of people wouldn’t have done that.”
“You know that’s true.”.
Within minutes of hanging up from Sam, she was at the stove, utterly famished, heating up a can of tomato soup. Her venture into the refrigerator to see what else she might find to eat put her in contact with the string beans Annette’s daughter had given her. She hadn’t eaten them so far and didn’t want to now. She crumbled crackers into the soup. Glancing at the painting of the old man bowed to his bread above her dad’s desk, and feeling more and more tired, she ate in silence. She had hoped to put the whole episode with Annette and Marianne out of her mind. But then it had burst out of her, like her kids needed to know.
She wandered to her recliner. The TV was on, and she sat for a while in front of it before realizing she didn’t really know what she was looking at and hadn’t for quite some time. She was just sitting there staring at one cop talking to another about some murder and a suspect she knew nothing about. She could barely keep her eyes open.
But once in bed, the search for sleep led nowhere. If she dozed even for an instant, she jolted awake. She was in lather, replaying the excitement in Sam’s voice, the approval that Bethany expressed, savoring the regard in their tone, and the compliments they actually said aloud. She didn’t want the day to end the way it would if sleep got hold of her. That was the fear that kept jolting her awake. Strange as it seemed, she couldn’t help but feel that her trying to help Marianne had made her kids remember that she was their mom and that they loved her. She wanted to hang onto it all. Every second. She didn’t want to let any of it go. They were right. She couldn’t just step away and let Marianne fend for herself the way she’d been trying. It wasn’t right. Their interest urged her to stay involved, and to check things out further. Then she could report to them what she found out. Continuing her involvement would give her the opportunity to call her kids up with more news about Marianne and what was going on, the whole mess, and what she’d done to help out.
In the morning she all but lost her nerve sitting at the table with her coffee, wanting to make sure she was good and ready, on her toes so to speak, stirring milk and equal. She tried a taste, and finding it cool enough, took a gulp. Good sense was slipping into her thoughts, tampering with her decisions, warning against the calls she intended to make. It wasn’t her business. She had enough to take care of. She really didn’t want to risk making enemies. So much was going on. There was little new in these arguments, but they made her waver. She glanced at the ceiling, as if she might see Connie and Elroy up there. She wished she had some real coffee with some real kick to it, and turned the stove back on to heat the teakettle for a second cup of instant. She planned to start with Annette, saving the whole question of Marianne until after she had a more up to date lay of the land so to speak. Her time in the hospital seemed further back than it was, the days at home more than the few they were.
The phone book had a ton of Allandorfs, so she dug out her magnifying glass and leaned in close to scan the tiny print until she stopped at one named “Hank” which was the first name of the husband of that one daughter, Gracie, she thought. She was ninety percent positive. It was on West 23rd Street, which sounded like something she’d heard in one of the conversations. So, after making another coffee, this time double the teaspoons, she dialed and after a couple of rings squeezed her eyes shut, like that would help keep her from hanging up. The next ring was cut off by a man who answered, sharply, as if he knew she was about ready to back out. “Hello.”
“Hello, there. This is Emma Skayhill. I was the one with Annette’s in her room up at Saint Vincent’s. I think I might have met you there.”
“Oh, sure. I remember you.”
“You were all so nice, and I’m not just saying that. I appreciate the friendly way you all treated me. Anyway, I was with her that night when all the fuss happened. And I was sitting around this morning—and I don’t want to intrude, but we liked each other, I thought—I know I liked her—and I was hoping to find out how she’s doing.”
“Well, she’s come out of all that, Emma. I’m happy to tell you she’s getting along fine now.”
“Now that’s a relief. I can’t tell you. Does my heart good. Is she home yet?”
“Turns out she was over-medicated.”
She didn’t know what to make of that. It sounded like they’d concluded they knew what had happened, and the idea of overmedicated explained everything. “She was pretty upset, I’ll tell you.”
“You would know. You saw more than most.”
She wondered what he meant by that, and felt uncomfortable. “Well, I’m glad to hear she’s on the mend.”
“She’s doing a lot better. We’re all grateful.”
“Is she home? Did you say she was home?”
“I don’t know. I might have. Because she is. As of yesterday. Came home in the afternoon. Off all that medication. Something got mixed up, and the Doctors don’t know how yet, but she got over-medicated.”
His conviction annoyed her, like he was the one in the room that night, and there was no mystery about what went on, and everything was above board and ready to be looked at in the clear light of day. She had to bite her tongue to keep back what she felt. “Could I talk to her?”
“I was hoping I might get to talk to her.”
“Annette? Is that who you mean?”
She began to wonder about this guy. She couldn’t say for sure that she recognized his voice, but to be fair people sound different over the phone. “Just to say hello. I wouldn’t keep her long. I’m sure she needs her rest.”
“I see—that’s the mix-up. She isn’t here. She’s at home. I’m her son in law, Hank. You called here.”
“Of course. Sorry.”
“Could I call there, do you think? Would that be possible? Would you give me that number?”
He huffed, and a lot of crackly noise came through to her, along with muffled talk, or what she assumed was talk, figuring he had his hand over the mouthpiece. Then he said, “How about this? Let’s do this. I’ll see to it she knows you called, and if you give me your number, she can call you. Does that sound okay?”
“Sure. If that’s what you think.”
“Let’s do it that way.”
“Whatever’s best for her. I don’t want to be a nuisance to you people. You’ve had enough trouble.”
“No trouble. Just give me your number and we’ll work this out. Emma Skayhill, right.”
Well, she thought, at least he’d listened close enough to get her name right. “That’s me,” she said and gave him her number.
It wasn’t ten minutes before the phone rang. She was still at the table. Having detected Connie and Elroy overhead, she’d gotten caught up in listening to them, halfway hypnotized by their walking around, his big feet clomping and stomping, while hers whispered, trailing after him.
“Hello?” she said.
“Mrs. Skayhill. Hi. This is Gracie Allandorff, Annette’s daughter. I gave you those string beans.”
“Oh, sure,” she said. “Hello.”
“I think you spoke to my husband a bit ago.”
“I did. A matter of minutes. He tells me your mom is home and doing great.”
“She is. Back to normal almost. We’re so grateful, I can’t tell you. The other evening, we went over to mom and dad’s, and she was playing this card game—something silly with Paul and Brandon—and she had the two of them in stitches—laughing so hard. It gave me such a thrill to see her like that, as you can imagine. But the thing is—do you know what? When we try to find out what happened —you know, trying to get her version, she doesn’t have a clue. It’s a total blank.”
“Isn’t that odd?”
“I don’t know. I guess that can happen.”
“I guess so. Because it has.”
“I mean shock. That’s what they say. It can knock the memory right out of.”
“You mean, trauma and like that. Oh, sure. Too awful to remember. You read about that.”
“It was awful, let me tell you. So maybe she’s better off.”
“We keep trying to get to the bottom of the name of the nurse you mentioned.”
“The nurse. You said some nurse.”
“I never said any name, I don’t think.”
“But there was a nurse. I remember you telling me when we spoke that day—I think it might have been that morning right after—the next morning—and you said that mom had an accident, and some nurse had to clean it up, and she got really mad and started scolding mom bad.”
“Balled the heck out of her in a way your mom didn’t deserve. Not that anybody would, I can tell you that. Made me almost sick to hear it.”
“See—that’s what I’m getting at. If all that happened, you’d think Mom would remember it. But she doesn’t. Not being scolded or the accident. But then, as you say: ‘shock.’ You do read about that kind of thing. But it sounded to me that day we talked that you did. You remembered.”
“Does she remember me?” Emma wondered.
“You? Oh, sure. Of course.”
“Because she didn’t there at one point.”
She could almost see Gracie on the other end changing gears, the way her voice kind of backed up before going on to say, “Well, that’s tricky actually— I don’t want to give the wrong impression, because she remembers you for sure, but only in the sense that she remembers the good times you had, the way you two got along before that night. But she doesn’t remember you from then on. Nothing after.”
“What about now?”
“That’s what I’m saying. She remembers you, but only the parts from before. So, it’s tricky. Anyway, we’re having trouble finding out who did that to her, and we’d like to. We were all talking the other night, and we did our best to make clear to mom everything that happened to her, and mom said to tell you that if you ever remembered that nurse’s name, she hoped you would tell us. We all do.”
“I’m sorry. I thought I made clear—I know I wanted to and tried to make clear to everybody—that I’m not going to remember. Because I don’t know it. I never did know it.”
“I know you said that. But sometimes things come back to us. Time passes and they come back.”
“That’s true sometimes. Sure. But not in this case. I don’t think what I never knew is coming back. See? I never knew it. But I can tell you one thing–it wasn’t Marianne. She did nothing wrong.”
“Marianne. Marianne did nothing wrong.”
“I don’t know who that is.”
“She was on that night. A black nurse. She was the night nurse. That other one, though –she was a pretty lady, but tough—and smart, we thought—and good, too, we both thought. Or at least I did. But I mean, anybody could tell the difference—that the one wasn’t the other. My god anybody could tell that. But I don’t know her name.”
“Mom never said anything about any black nurse.”
All of a sudden Emma felt like she was looking into a snowstorm. All the facts, or what she thought were facts, or what might have been facts, or what she had at least hoped were facts were spinning and whirling out of whatever order she thought they possessed, or that the answers to the questions she had asked, or hoped to ask might discover they possessed, or somehow give them. The whole thing was like a zillion white flakes whirling around, crowding the sky in this wind tossing them thither and yon. She had no idea what anybody knew, or even what she knew, “I gotta go,” she said.
“Okay. Sure. Oh, my goodness, are you okay? I didn’t even ask about you, did I?”
“But how are you doing? Better, I hope.”
“I’m doing just fine.”
“Have you tried those string beans?”
“I been saving them, I think. But maybe tonight. I was thinking that earlier.”
“Their simple enough to cook.”
“I love string beans.”
“Don’t let them sit too long. The fresher they are the better. I picked them that morning, remember—just before I dropped by to see you.”
“Okay then.” She didn’t want to be rude, but she had to get off so badly she didn’t know if she could keep from slamming the phone down.
“You really want to go, don’t you.”
“I’m sorry, but I do.”
“Remember what I said.”
“I mean it.”
To her dismay Connie and Elroy were still at it, and she heard them, as soon as she was free of Gracie Allandorf. Her neighbors were on the move, like birds drifting through their kitchen situated right above where she sat. They were on their way into their living room that extended from their kitchen, just as hers did. They moved back then in a circular path, or maybe an oblong on the other side of Emma’s ceiling. When they stopped, and stood for a moment, Emma heard sounds she thought were tiny human words trying to escape down to her. Sometimes Elroy speeded up, and Connie’s little feet scurried after him, and sometimes she sliced in a diagonal across the loop he’d followed, like she was trying to cut him off before he got too far away.
Emma’s neck ached from looking up so sharply for so long.
She felt trapped, the world crowding in on her. Not only was she sure that the phone could ring in the next instant, but she was sure that it would with somebody else yammering at her about what they had to tell her or she had to do. Even the idea turning on the TV in the hope of a little amusement carried risks, given the stories she would be asked to follow and care about, advertisements blaring, people and dogs smiling one minute and worrying the next, music and singing, and all of it wanting to make her yearn to buy something that she’d probably never thought of wanting of in her entire life. And even if she did watch, it sure wouldn’t keep the phone from jangling. She needed to get out. Cabin fever, she thought, wishing there was somewhere for her to go where no one could find her. She imagined a forest and a cave, and decided to take herself down to the mall. It’d be strangers there, and even should she have the misfortune of bumping into a familiar face, they wouldn’t know all that had been going on with Bud and Elroy, or the hospital.
It was close by, too. She was lucky that way, a hop, skip and a jump, she thought, looking out the window at and that poor old Buick that her dead husband had worried along and left her. It looked forlorn out in her parking space where it sat day in and day out, month after month, enduring rain and snow. It was a beat-up jalopy, no two ways about that, twenty years old—twenty-two to be exact—rusted and creaky. But it still started in the cold when she needed to use it. As long as she did things the way Charlie had taught her, it got her where she was going. Don’t flood it, she could hear him now. Goose it twice and get the choke out. Then start her up. But don’t flood it. For god’s sake, whatever you do, don’t flood it.
She parked as close to the main entrance as she could, which was a good city block the way she saw it. The darn place was packed. And sure, the mall was always busy, and that was good, but it still it surprised her to find the stores buzzing even on a weekday in the middle of the afternoon.
Entering through the revolving doors, she passed by the information booth, where a young girl and middle aged woman, who really wasn’t acting her age, giggled, the older one patting the younger one’s arm, neither one of them giving any thought to being on the lookout for someone who might be lost or have a question. A dozen little stalls stood in a line down the middle of the long concourse in front of her. They didn’t sell much that interested Emma. Junk mainly, trinkets, sunglasses and coffee cups, pennants and doodads. Along the side of the corridor she strolled, glass panels framed the garish glare of display windows full of strange looking mannequins in stranger looking clothes. A perfume store let loose traces of its wares along with music as the door opened. The next shop was sports equipment, and then came vitamins followed by more windows with some other kinds of clothes aimed at teenagers, as far as she could tell. A lot of smells other than the perfume mixed into a single odor that made it impossible for her to single out any one source, though meat had to be cooking somewhere, peanuts roasting, coffee brewing, chocolate baking. She felt overwhelmed, like she was someone new to the earth and the ways of bodies and appetites. A second or two of rest on one of the benches that stood at intervals along the walls would get her back on her feet. Plopped down, and gazing up at this one passing, and then that one, a cluster of teens who ought to be in school, unless it was Saturday, which maybe it was. But it wasn’t. It was Thursday.
She had to wonder why she felt so assaulted by everything. At home and now here. She was sick of pretending she didn’t feel out of place, like a sightseer in a foreign country who didn’t understand what was going on when Belger was her hometown. Born and raised here. Lived here all of her life. She’d been to this mall a thousand times. But today was odd, and even though she’d come here to escape everyone and have some privacy, the fact that not a single soul, not one set of eyes in all these people crossing back and forth in front of her cared to say, Hello, or even glanced in her direction for that matter, made her feel alone and lonely in some larger, looming way than what she’d come here to find. Back and forth they went, hell-bent on whatever it was that mattered to them. And whatever it was, she could count on the fact that it wasn’t her. If these strangers took note of her at all, she was the old lady on the bench. Watching them made her sad in a way she didn’t much care for, even though she couldn’t put her finger on what lay behind it. She felt like a ghost. That was the sense that lay behind the feeling. Not that she knew what a ghost felt like. Unless she did, and this was it. Kind of lost and disconnected from the world, but still in it. Hanging around and watching all the everyday things, and seeing how it all mattered to people and remembering how it once mattered to her, but going unnoticed all the while Right there with them where they ought to see you, but they don’t. Involved, but not there. Nobody paying any attention to you. No matter what.
The heck with this noise, she thought, and stood up. What she needed was a task. Something to do, and maybe she didn’t know what it was just yet, but she could get started anyway, and figure it out later. Go buy something. Think of something she needed and shop for it. Find it and buy it. The problem was that she could imagine nothing in the nearby shops holding out the slightest appeal. And the same seemed true as far as she could see. She’d be better off at Eagles, which she had to drive right by on the way home. It would be easy to find some food to buy. Maybe even some of that sugarless ice cream. Chocolate, or Fudge Ripple, or Strawberry, or Vanilla, or that Cherry something. That was tasty, and she’d know it when she saw it.
Bodies shot by on either side in both directions, one at a time, or in groups or pairs, as she tottered along at a snail’s pace. Her knees hurt from sitting so long. They didn’t appreciate the change of getting up, like they thought she’d settled down on that bench permanently, and they were done with walking for the day. That’s what she could do, she thought. Go get some pain reliever, Tylenol or Aleve, from the drug store at the end of the corridor. She’d turned a corner. Afterwards, she could still go to Eagles for some ice cream if she wanted.
Once inside the store she tried to follow the big overhead signs identifying the larger categories of product, such as Pain Relief, though that one got mixed up with Cold and Flu. She hoped the smaller signs sticking out to cut the aisles into more manageable segments would helped more than they did. The place was a maze to her, and an enormous one at that without a single employee available to offer help. The heck with it, she thought. She still had to manage the long walk all the way back to her car. And anyway, she had both Tylenol and Aleve at home. She didn’t remember so many little things ever being so difficult as they were today, and wondered if she was slipping.
Eagles was pretty much the same deal, bigger than needed and organized on the basis of signs, though the layout was as familiar to her as the back of her hand because Eagles was close to home and she went there often. She made a beeline straight for the ice cream. But then rounding the last corner, she pulled up short, ready to stop before she had any idea why. Walls of stacked ice cream containers waited behind big glass doors, one of which was being held open by a man who shouldn’t be there, who actually shouldn’t be anywhere as he tilted forward, fishing around inside. It was Bradley Corrigan, who was dead. He straightened and looked at her. After a second he smiled, closed the door and went off carrying a pint of ice cream in his right hand. She tried to think hard. He wasn’t someone she knew well, but only in passing. He was a little older, and a star athlete in high school, and she’d had a schoolgirl crush on him from afar. She’d known his younger sister, Meg, and she’d wanted to phone Meg when she’d heard Douglas Wenke announce Bradley’s passing maybe six months ago. Or maybe a year. Or more? Could it have been more? It had shocked her. He was dead. She knew it. But maybe it wasn’t him. But how could she forget that face?
Peering around the corner that had swept him from view, she discovered that he now stood alongside the meat section. He smiled back at her, and he waved this time. She wheeled away, embarrassed to have him think she was following him. Which she was. When she tried to find him again, this time hoping to study him thoroughly, he was gone. Maybe it wasn’t Bradley Corrigan at all. It couldn’t be. But it had looked just like him. But maybe Bradley Corrigan wasn’t dead, and she was misremembering. She could hardly walk up and say, Bradley, I thought you were dead. Or: Bradley, are you dead? Or: weren’t you dead? Or: I’m glad you’re not dead. Or: are you Bradley Çorrigan? He was gone, anyway.
She thought maybe she would run over to Saint Catherine’s church for a little visit on the way home. As long as she was out and about like she was, she might as well. It wasn’t far out of the way. She could ask the girl on the register for a freezer bag, and maybe even some ice to pack around the ice cream. She’d taken Vanilla, a haunting choice calling out of a simpler past. Just plain Vanilla. She’d scoot over to Saint Catherine’s, and she wouldn’t stay long in case the ice cream wanted to melt. It was good soft anyway, and should it get too soft, she could freeze again, though she had to admit that for reasons she didn’t understand ice cream lost something the second time it was frozen.
The church was located on a hill, and rising toward it she blinked in the glaring sun still high but off to the side sending down fiery rays to splash off the slanted rooftop and the cross high on the steeple. Other than her Buick, the parking lot beside the church was empty. Once she hauled herself upright, she needed a moment to get her balance and bearings. She was cramming a lot into one day with all she’d been up to since morning, and probably ought to take a nap after she got home. But as she made her way to the front stairs, she felt kindness reaching out to her in the light breeze arising just then to meet her.
The front door brought her into silence and startling shafts of light. There was one just a few feet in front of her, so shocking in its definition and density it felt like she would bump into it if she kept going. The stained-glass windows were radiant high above her, ablaze with color and fanciful figures of angels and saints. Mary sat stricken over her beloved Jesus, who was half-naked, bloody and languid in her arms on the rough ground where they sprawled together at the foot of the cross. In a nearby window, an angel, his trembling wings and wide, intelligent eyes more alarmed than those of the youthful Mary staring up at him, announced what was to come her way, namely the baby depicted somewhere in one or another of the windows, Emma was sure, though she didn’t see Him at the moment. It occurred to her that the angel’s eyes appeared so wounded because he knew all that was coming to her, but he’d been forbidden to tell her that the infant he announced would turn into the mangled body embraced by the older, worn down, but still beautiful Mary in the window Emma no longer stood below; which darkened now behind her as the sun must have moved on or been covered in clouds, turning the brilliant images from seconds ago into shadows.
She went on, avoiding several bright pillars by stepping around them, while advancing down a side aisle. The statue of Saint Catherine stood inset into the wall in the corner above a kneeler and a table holding rows of votive candles. Emma had her purse and she dropped a few coins one at a time into a slot where they fell through a momentary silence until they clinked atop other coins at the bottom, reminding her of her childhood piggy bank. What a lot of hope she’d put in that thing. She knelt then, filling with a blast of need she had to let out, a desperate, mindless, nameless begging that made her shut her eyes and nod. This was her appeal. She was appealing. She waited, not exactly expecting a response. She didn’t know much about Saint Catherine. But the idea that came delivered that soothing funny accented voice she’d heard on TALKNET speaking about the comfort of having an empty mind. But her mind wasn’t empty. She was appealing. Nothing about the moment was empty. Not the light, the church, the shadows, nor Emma kneeling there.
Was that a prayer? she wondered. What did she have to do, or better yet, what did she have to feel in her heart to make a good one? Her heart that that girl, smart as a whip and trained to run her fancy machine in the echo chamber way down in the basement of Saint Vincent’s couldn’t find. The one she and Emma had worried she didn’t have. Giggling and playful like it was a game whether or not Emma had a heart. Or where it was. Or if it was hiding. She drew her rosary out of her purse and started at the beginning. The Apostle’s Creed, the Our Father and then the Hail Marys, from start to finish, all five decades, fingering the beads and trying to have her mind empty of everything but the words dedicated to Mary, but she wanted things, was scared of things, needed things, and she could not escape them for a single second. What did real prayer feel like, she wondered, the prayer the saints knew and spoke of?
She stood up suddenly, imagining her ice cream melting all over the front seat of her car. The world outside felt ready to become as vague around her poor old Buick as the dimness dissolving the inside of the church. Hastily she lit a votive candle, which she should have done sooner.
But then she emerged to find the sun still had a good distance to go before it was down, and the ice cream wasn’t in bad shape at all.
Emma wasn’t far from home when she started to worry that her Buick being gone from its regular spot was such a rare occurrence it might have caused a stir throughout the apartment complex, rumors and guesswork afoot, but particularly with Maggie. And so, to pull into the complex, as she did, and find that Maggie’s cute little Honda was absent from its designated parking space was a huge relief. It meant Maggie was out somewhere doing something. Emma just didn’t think she had the wherewithal at the moment to face even one question about where she’d been, why she’d gone, and who she might have seen. The only answers she could have given—the mall, drugstore, Eagles, and Saint Catherine’s, while leaving out the ghost by necessity, would have been so lacking as to make her feel she was lying.
She pushed her way in the front door and then on through the one to her apartment, where she felt immediate welcome and refuge. At the sound of a papery crunch, something moved under her foot. She’d stepped on an envelope that she didn’t remember being there. Someone must have slid it under her door. It was sealed, making it a matter of both surprise and mystery, as she went to her desk for her letter opener. It looked like Maggie’s handwriting, which she was pretty sure she knew, and she discovered she was right, her eyes falling to the signature before she read the content.
I took it upon myself to go see Bud today. Not to do
more than set a time for the three of us to meet.
I wanted to get the news to you since I won’t be back
until late tonight, and you’d already left. Where the heck
did you go? I was flabbergasted to see your spot empty. So
anyway, I resorted to this note. I told Bud we needed to
speak to him as representatives of other tenants. Boy did
that open his eyes wide. As you can imagine he wanted to
know about what we wanted to talk. But I couldn’t tell him
without you there. So, we set a time for next Friday. Ten
A.M. So that’s a week from tomorrow. Ten in the morning.
I told Connie, and May and Clara and they’re glad. Hope
you are, too. It just struck me the time had come for us to
get things moving. I think you’ll be glad to know that I did
get a little nervous without you at my side.
Okay, Emma thought, making her way from the desk chair where she’d settled to the recliner rereading as she went. If that don’t beat all. She had half a notion to be irritated that Maggie had acted in such a high-handed way, but the truth was she didn’t feel much of anything. Just tired. And that was Maggie’s way, after all. Nothing new in her being high handed about something. But what the heck, she was right. Somebody had to do something to get the ball rolling, and it would be good to get it over with. This rent thing had been dragging on and hanging over her head—over all their heads—for too long. A week from tomorrow seemed just about right. Not so far off in the future she would feel it might never happen, but not so immediate either that it felt right on top of her. She’d have time to think about what she wanted to say, and to get ready. She and Maggie could meet to talk the whole thing over. Consult, so to speak. She was probably making too much of it. It ought to be simple. But nothing ever was.
She figured she better come up with a note of her own, even though she didn’t have the energy to say much. But she wanted to make sure Maggie had some kind of an answer when she got home, so she wouldn’t worry that Emma hadn’t gotten the information, or that she was annoyed, or even mad about Maggie going over to see Bud without her. And she knew darn well she had better get those questions settled, or Maggie might feel like she had to phone over when she got home, or knock on Emma’s door, which Emma didn’t want to deal with tonight or maybe ever. Now that was a heck of a thing to think. She looked forward to dealing with it tomorrow. Just not tonight. She’d call Maggie bright and early in the morning. But first things first which meant getting her note written. Back at her desk, she dug out her best stationary with the matching envelopes. The ideas came out pretty easy, and she worked to make her writing clear, thinking back to the nuns who taught her, the ruled paper they used to give capitals their proper height over the lower-case letters put down at a lower, consistent elevation.
Great that you did what you did. Got us going. I’m
grateful. And thanks for doing it. And thanks for letting
me know. I bet Bud’s eyes did almost pop out of his head.
I’ll call you in the morning. Had my car out as you noticed
and I didn’t do much to speak of, but I’m bushed.
Once she eased the note under Maggie’s door, she realized she had a bit of dilemma. It was too early for bed, and tired as she was, she wasn’t ready anyway. She needed to eat something, too; and not only because she was hungry, but because she had an urge to now and chew and taste and swallow. The problem was that if she kept her lights on, or even watched television in the dark, Maggie, getting back and parking where she did and walking in the front door, couldn’t help but notice that Emma was still up. It’d be perfectly natural for her to knock and step in to say hello, especially tonight. Maggie was one to do that kind of thing with or without anything out of the ordinary like the note business as an excuse.
Having put toast in the toaster, she heard it pop behind her as she poked around in the refrigerator for the ham and cheese she had in the meat keeper. That’s when she saw the ice cream. She didn’t remember putting it there. She didn’t remember putting it anywhere, but there it was in the refrigerator rather than the freezer. All flummoxed by the envelope, she must have misplaced it without thinking. Absent minded for sure. But on the other hand, she had a lot on her plate today, and none of it food. That was a joke, Emma, she thought. You should laugh. You’re the only one here.
The ice cream wasn’t a puddle, more like vanilla pudding that tasted dreamy when she took a big spoonful. Still she placed it in the freezer, put her sandwich together with some mustard and sat chewing at the table. The thing to do she decided was turn out all the lights; all except the lamp on her bedside table in the bedroom. She could watch the little TV she had in there on top of the dresser, if she wanted. Of course, she had to deal with her colostomy bag and take a shower first, and not rush things so she took a tumble and knocked herself silly the way she did in the hospital that time after the surgery. But if she hurried and got lucky, she might have it all done before Maggie pulled in. If the living room lights were out not even Maggie would get it into her head to think it was okay to come banging on the door and barging in.
It was the same darn dirty tasks night after night, and she was never going to get used to it, and never going to like it, emptying the poop out of her bag. Oh, she had a load tonight, dropping toilet paper into the bowl to keep the water from splashing, and then getting bag loose from the stoma. And always alone. Every night alone. She dumped the poop and went on washing and hooking the new bag up, making sure it fit, making sure it sealed on the stoma, the warmth of her hand pressing the bag close to get the adhesive to stick. Nobody to help her or for her to complain to, even as a joke. She got to feeling so blue all of a sudden, lonely and wanting to call her kids. She wanted to call Bethany. Or maybe Sam. Or maybe both. It was a lot less scary to call Bethany. She didn’t know exactly why that was true, but had no doubt that it was. She could call Sam, though, and she had plenty of times, but usually she had a good reason. She wished she had something new to tell him about Marianne and all that business. Then she could call. And Bethany, too. They’d both been so interested. But she really didn’t know anything new. In a way, she felt that after trying to look into things the way she had with Annette’s kids she knew less than she had before. Particularly with that Gracie telling her she’d didn’t even know who Marianne was. What black nurse? she’d said. That was a shocker. For goodness sake. The whole thing was starting to look like Emma might be the only one who cared about any of it; the only one trying to get to the bottom of it all and make sure the right one got blamed. What would happen, she wondered, if she tried to talk to Annette again? It had almost seemed like the family was guarding her, protecting her. Protective custody. And who could blame them? She had to think that maybe the only way to find out more, if that was what she really wanted, and if she was willing to take the risk, would be for her to call that Pauline woman, and ask a couple questions. Maybe pretend she thought she was supposed to get back to her. Of course, that could be dangerous, making her seem nosy, and putting her in jeopardy with that scoutmaster nurse should she find out what Emma was doing.
But she really wanted to call Bethany. Or Sam. That was the thing. It was funny how she could get this pang out of the blue every now and then, this hunger for her kids, and it was a hunger, too, a real deep gnawing that wanted a lot more than talk could satisfy. It was a fierce animal loneliness inside her craving them in a way that was beyond the realm of anything that could ever really happen; and for which getting ahold of them on the telephone, hearing their voices, chattering about something, nothing or anything was a poor substitute, but the only one the cruel truth allowed.
She was in bed now with a bowl of ice cream and the little TV atop the dresser lit up like a cook fire in a cave. That’s how she felt. Holed up like an animal in a cave. She didn’t even have the bedside lamp on, and she had no earthly idea what was going on between the man and woman on the TV, except that their marriage was on the rocks, the way they were yelling and running around in maybe the plushest bedroom she’d ever seen, and this closet big enough for a whole family to move in and live just fine. The woman started grabbing clothes, beautiful dresses and underwear and shoes, too, off the longest row of shoes anybody could imagine. She was just throwing it all into a suitcase. Packing like a lunatic. She looked drunk, or on drugs. Probably drugs. She was pretty in a trashy kind of way, and then he started ripping the clothes out of the suitcase and throwing it onto the floor, and he hurled the suitcase, and she turned them off.
Maybe the best way to find out how to help Marianne was to listen to TALKNET. There was always all kinds of problems going on there and solutions being offered. There might even be one about how to help black people who were being unfairly treated at work.
She came in midway on a woman who sobbed every other word, making her story hard to follow. But then Emma started to catch on, understanding first of all that the woman’s name was Dana. The host kept saying, “That’s okay, Dana; that’s okay.” But how could it be okay that Dana had come in on her best friend, Carol, “doing stuff” with her little boy? “Eddie,” she wailed, “He’s only seven and there she was—I can’t say it.”
“It’s okay, Dana. It’s okay.”
Well, maybe. Maybe not, thought Emma, though she didn’t see how it could ever be okay. She did like the advice the host gave, though. He had a voice a lot like that of Douglas Wenke, only wiser and more watchful. “Go to the police. Maybe what happened in the past wasn’t your fault. Even if you suspected, you didn’t know. Forgive yourself. But any more of it would be your fault.” Dana was crying, whimpering really. Action was called for, but the idea of the police was too awful.
They went on a while with Emma trying to imagine what Carol had been up to with little Eddie. She thought she had a pretty good idea, and she wanted to take that dirty Carol and slap her hard.
All of a sudden, she worried she’d been maybe half asleep, or daydreaming, because Jacqueline—that’s what the host called her—was bawling that her mother was “a nasty bitch.” Her father had run off when she was seven, and Jacqueline knew why. Her mother was “a monster. She has no soul.”
Trish and her husband were fighting morning, noon and night. At least that was how it looked to Trish. Their sex life was gone and it had been the glue that kept them together for almost nine years. She didn’t know why it was gone, but it was. Everything was hopeless. Sex was the way they’d gotten over their fights in the past, but it didn’t work now. They couldn’t even do it. They’d start and one of them would get annoyed at something the other one said, or didn’t say, or did. Or used to do different. Sometimes it was her. She couldn’t help it. She would just feel cold. So cold.
Poor Dan had the saddest, most broken way of speaking that went from a whisper to a squeal. He had to be encouraged over and over to speak up and keep trying as he told how his daughter had killed herself. Jumped off a bridge. At night. He’d seen it. He sounded strangled at that point, and Emma was sure he was done. But he came back, panting like he’d run to get away, and then had run all the way back. His daughter was sixteen and in the back seat of his car. They were stuck on a bridge in slow moving traffic. He’d been upset and cursing the traffic because he had to get her somewhere and drop her off, and then get somewhere else for work, and he was cursing, and she got out and ran. Before he knew what to do he saw her go over the side of the bridge, her pale legs uncovered by the skirt rushing up around her from the updraft as she jumped feet first. He used that word—“updraft.” For an instant he couldn’t move. How could he get out and leave his car in all that traffic? He looked in the back seat like she might still be where she’d been trying to catch up on some homework. And then he bolted to the railing, shouting her name, “Kimmy, Kimmy” into the black so heavy he couldn’t even see the water.
Eileen was recently divorced, but doing pretty good, she thought. But her little son had started bursting into tears at school. The principal was worried.
No black people, Emma thought. They didn’t call in. Or maybe they called but they couldn’t get through. Or they were put on hold until they gave up. She couldn’t see the callers, but nobody sounded like a black person, not like Marianne, or those crazy ones she saw fighting on Maury Povitch.
She was dozing, and had been off and on, the radio voices a hazy background, like a church choir trying to learn some new song and practicing clumsily; or like her singing to her kids way back when they were little and needed help getting to sleep. They begged her to lay with them, and she did, offering a lullaby.
All those problems, and people calling to talk about them. She had to admit that it amazed her—all the different ways people came up with to get themselves into trouble. She’d seen plenty in her lifetime, the troubles of this one or that one, her own mistakes, too; though what she did, or even the worst of what the people she knew did couldn’t hold a candle to the crackpot stuff they got fouled up in today. But people back when she was young were ashamed and secretive, so maybe it all went on. Now they just blabbed away—taking the trouble to phone in to do it. All these strangers out in the dark somewhere, different states all over America, some in the Midwest, others far and wide, places she’d never been, all bearing their souls because they thought it would help, their secrets sailing about on the airwaves. She could halfway see them hung out there in the night sky, apologies, sad faces, mistakes. Dan watching his daughter drop out of sight in her dress all puffed up, falling past Eileen and her little boy waiting for the principal, and past Trish and her husband, too, walking around, hunting for their lost sex life. maybe near the moon, calling for what was gone. Like it was a dog they’d lost, or they were birds, who couldn’t find their nest. Eddie and his mom, too.
It was late. The wee hours and with the trials and tribulations of so many souls on her mind, she realized something else. She had not heard Maggie come home. At least she didn’t think she had. She might have dozed and then not realized that the sound she heard was Maggie pulling in. Or she could have missed it completely. Because she had gone in and out. She hoped Maggie was home safe and sound. It tickled her enough to make her shake her head and smile—the fact that in spite of the way she’d hidden in the dark, hoping not to be found, she felt a touch hurt and neglected that Maggie had come home without trying to check in on her. Unless she hadn’t come home.
It was real struggle between her sense of responsibility to Maggie warning her to check out the window, and the cozy comfort of the bed on her poor old bones urging her to stay right where she was. But she was moving, finding her way to her feet, remembering and kind of reenacting the way she’d been called on to wait up and worry any time Bethany or Sam were out too late, back in their teenage years.
Light from the parking lot framed the shade, which she didn’t raise, but plucked at the edge to open a rack out into the courtyard where snow was falling on Maggie’s empty spot. A faint sparse array of flakes melted as they touched down on the pavement, or the hoods of the other cars snuggled in their slots. Darn, she thought. Snow. Goodness. She gazed up into a halo of dancing white specks sharply visible as they passed through the spell of the streetlight. Where the heck was Maggie? Emma sure hoped she was all right. Slick roads now to worry about on top of everything else. This type of wet snow made for tricky driving. She was pretty sure she was right to remember that Maggie’s note said she would be out late. But according to her bedside clock it was two in the morning, for crying out loud. She hoped Maggie hadn’t gone somewhere where she had too much to drink. She had it in her to like a little more wine than might be good for her. And she was a bit younger than Emma and had some friends younger even than Maggie, who could get a little wild. She’d heard stories. Mainly ones Maggie told her, almost bragging, and trying to make what might have been a reckless sound like a good time.
She slumped down in bed feeling tireder than ever. Everyone wanted something from her, and it didn’t seem to matter if they were alive or dead. They just showed up at her door. Or they looked at her funny, the way Bradley Corrigan had done at Eagles. And now the people on TALKNET seemed to think they had the right to her attention. She had to laugh at that one. Maggie and all of them—they were barking up the wrong tree.
When she heard footsteps on the ceiling, she was puzzled and then disbelieving. She gaped up, as if intensity could pierce through the lumber, the sheetrock or whatever, and the plaster to take hold of Connie and Elroy and give them a good shake and tell them to get back to bed. They were on the prowl. Did this happen every night? she wondered, only she missed it being sound asleep, as she usually was. His big feet padded around followed by her little ones. And then Elroy started to talk. Or at least she thought so. It sounded like he said, “Gimp.” Or “Gimp me,” and nothing quiet about him, either. What the heck? Then he growled and it came through clear and scary, like she’d actually parted the floorboards, or he knew she was down there and wanted her to hear. “You pimp me,” he groaned to someone he hated, who could only be Connie, his voice furious and forlorn. “You pimp me. All my life. It’s all you ever did. You pimped me, damn you. You pimped me.”
Nothing more happened. Not a word more from him. Not a sound from Connie either. Not another step more from either one of them. It was like he’d never spoken. Like it hadn’t happened. They hadn’t prowled. They weren’t even up there. Emma waited through seconds that went on long enough that they had to turn into a minute and then more than one, holding her breath, truly afraid to breath. But it was over. It was like they’d vanished. Like she hadn’t heard what she’d heard. Like it hadn’t even happened.
Lord, she thought, as the scarlet glow of the vigil candles below St Catherine’s feet emerged in her head. There had been only a few burning in the church full of shadows, a scattering of ten at most among the unkindled majority lined up in neglected rows. What a terrible thing for Elroy to say to poor Connie. How awful to hear your husband of all those years say that to you. Emma regretted lighting only one vigil candle. Why didn’t she light one every day. If she really believed, why didn’t she light them all every day? She had her problems. That was for sure. She could use a little help. And maybe some Tums. Her stomach was burning. She could darn well phone into TALKNET, as well as the rest of them, if she wanted to, and had the nerve. Call in bend their ear about plenty; and maybe she darn well ought to phone in to TALKNET, if only she had the nerve. Or could find the nerve. Which she couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. Never ever. If she was certain about anything in this life, it was that she was never calling into a nighttime talk show to air her dirty laundry. But she had reasons enough. Offenses and disappointments galore. She’d done her share of bad things. Thoughtless, inconsiderate hurtful things. Regretful things. Like eating that cheese and ham that might have been in the refrigerator too long and gone bad. Her stomach was in a tumble. She couldn’t remember exactly when she’d shopped for that cheese and ham. And ice cream on top of it. She should have known better.
She turned onto her side. Like that time with the birds. Anybody could have done it, but she was the one, and it stuck in her like a bone in her throat with a sharp, physical dig, bringing such remorse every time she thought of it that she tried not to think of it. She was sitting there one day and when she got up and passed by the sliding glass doors, she saw all these strings and sticks and everything all over the patio. What the heck, she thought. And then there were birds headed in her direction; two of them They were bringing in little bitty twigs and strings and they had pieces of tissue, regular Kleenex and stuff, and they just come flying up with things hanging in their mouths. It was so cute. At first Emma thought she was seeing things, that they weren’t doing what she saw them doing. But then she got a little stepladder and looked up on top of her air conditioner which wasn’t running yet in the spring, and there it was, the nest they were making, all braided and partly put together. It was their supplies they were bringing in piece by piece. She’d been seeing all kinds of cardboard boxes on other patios and air conditioners in the neighborhood when she went for a walk and she had wondered what they could be for. But now she saw that those people were probably having the same problem. It was pretty quiet in that area and it would make sense for the birds to think they’d build their little nest far away from the bustle of the street and traffic noise. It had never happened before. And she thought, I really should let them do it. She started anticipating all the fun she could have watching them do it. She’d never seen anything up there before. They’d fly up with one little twig and one little piece of string and then a little piece of Kleenex that they’d found around. Oh, she remembered it now, how darling and sweet they were, and the nice way she felt watching them put it together.
But then one day she thought about it all in another way. That it was on top of her air conditioner and so she realized, Well, I can’t have that. When I turn on that air conditioner those poor little baby birds will all die. So, she went and got the broom and got up on a little stepladder to take another look, and there it was—just this little twig thing but it was how they make a nest. It was all interlaced so cute. But she had to knock it down, she thought, so she did and put all of the twigs and piece outside the railing on the patio in the grass, and then went away. It wasn’t long before both birds, the one the mother and the other the father, were swooping around. They knew Emma was doing something that they didn’t want her to do. It was like they’d watched her and waited for her to go back inside, and then they came right down into the yard, picking it all up, those same pieces and putting it back together on top of the air conditioner.
Well, that made her kind of mad. She wasn’t going to stand for it. The babies would get born and they’d be slopping all over and shitting all over the place, even if it was almost the cutest thing, She knocked it all off again and went and found a cardboard box about two feet high and sat it on top like her neighbors had been doing. Then the mother bird came alone after a while, and she didn’t understand what the box was. She came fluttering up with this string hanging in her mouth and then she just squawked a little bit and ran away. She came again; she really wanted to build her nest there for whatever reason. No reason Emma would ever know. In the late afternoon, or maybe early evening, if Emma remembered right, the bird came back and she fluttered around, looking at that box; she scolded a little bit and then she went away again. At least three different times she returned, and once Emma was watching from behind the sliding glass doors that opened onto the patio, and the bird saw her. She flapped her wings and zoomed, like she knew what had happened and who’d done it. Indignant, you’d have to say. Because Emma had fixed it so she couldn’t get to that spot any more. And Emma thought—Well, she didn’t remember what she thought. She no longer had any idea. But she knew what she’d done.
And then the really crazy thing that happened next was that those two birds went over to Maggie’s patio, and they went to work on Maggie’s air conditioner. One day Maggie said, Emma, I don’t know what’s going on in my patio. It’s all full of junk all the time. Do you have any idea where it’s all coming from? String and twigs and junk. Emma told her, Well, why don’t you put a box there like I did. It’s that bird trying to build a nest to lay her eggs. Maggie got angry. Why the heck didn’t you tell me before? Because now when they looked it was too late. There’s a nest up there, Maggie said, and I can’t touch it now, cause there are babies in it.
Her stomach did a flip, or half a flip, then shot this burning glop up into her throat and back down into her chest. Emma had to sit up. “Ouch,” she said, shaking her head in annoyance. Why the heck was she thinking about those birds of all things? What got her started on that? Somebody had done something. It might even have been her. But whatever it was sent her way off track. Because she had a lot of stuff far more pressing and real to deal with. Mainly, she had to get to sleep. Laying there worrying about things that were long past, and that hadn’t even mattered when they happened, let alone now, wasn’t going to get her anywhere.
Darn, she thought. Because if the way she felt was any indication of what was to come she was never going to get to sleep. Her stomach swirled and a whole bunch more of that really scalding gunky stuff jumped up into her throat. Why hadn’t she had the good sense to check the “use by” date on that ham? She hoped she didn’t throw up. It was only a hope and a thin one at that, but throwing up would be the last straw. It had to be the ham. It tasted of ham, all that bile.
Anyway, since she couldn’t sleep she could at least put the time to good use, and make some needed decisions. First off, she would be kinder to Connie from now on; that was one thing, and that was for sure. She’d make a real effort to say, “Hi,” and ask how she was when they ran into each other. That wouldn’t be asking too much. Should she tell Maggie what she’d heard? She had to call her first thing in the morning to talk over their meeting with Bud. Make sure Maggie knew she could count on Emma. But that was a different matter. And she should be kinder to Elroy, too. Not think so mean about him, every chance she got, his big feet and all. And she was going to call that Pauline woman. That was the most important thing. She would take the risk. Somebody had to worry about Marianne and her rights and all that, and if it was up to Emma, well then so be it. She’d figure out what to say, and maybe even practice it out loud to get the feel of it. Maybe even sit with the phone in her hand. Those birds should have known better. If they’d understood the simplest thing, or even anything, well they would have known that nurse was a bad one, mean and nasty, and the boxes and all, made everything different. But they were birds, and so— What was happening? Oh, look. She saw it coming. A wave of dark and velvet rising up.
She had to get ready. Dad was trying to help, but he had the wrong shoes on. No, she said. But he kept at it, trying to fix everything. But after she left the room and he was there at the table, and she came back, he was bowed over, sitting with his head down. She didn’t like it and she said, Get your head out of the food, Dad. Oh, she could see him so plain but he wouldn’t talk to her. And she couldn’t hang onto the meat. She couldn’t stop dropping the meat in the kitchen. She couldn’t get it in the oven, even though it was sliced up for her. Sam’s wife had cooked delicious steaks with little ropes on them. So, Emma had her beef on this string. If she connected this string to that one, the meat would cook quicker, so she was trying to get the two parts apart first, and she was dropping the meat and then this man came in and said he was a Doctor.
You’ll have to listen to Melissa, he said. Emma hated Melissa. She used to work in the office at the store and she was real bossy.
Well, you have to get everyone out of here by 2:30, she said to Emma.
Emma said, WHY.
And she said, Because my group’s coming in.
Emma said, IN MY HOUSE?
YES, she said back; In your house, and if you’re not out, they’ll just come in and eat with you.
HAAAAH, Emma says. They will not. She was ready to punch her too.
Oh, that was so dumb
She was really upset, her hands clenched in fists, but she was glad to recognize the ceiling that she knew so well, and the silent, blank TV on the dresser, and the blinds pulled down on the windows, where the snow was falling outside.
Whew, she thought. But there had been another part to the dream in which more had happened and which she needed to remember. Or maybe the dream was still going on. Maybe that was it. Because there was this big hole in the floor, and it went right on into the basement. The carpet and everything was burned and scorched, and she said, Dad have you seen this?
He came out and he said, Yes your friends did that when they were here.
She said, None of them smoke.
He said, Well, somebody burnt that and it was burnt bad, and it was burned right through to the basement.
I know, she said, and she was testing it, stepping on it, because somebody had put something over it, a carpet or something, so she couldn’t see it so good, and she was stepping on it to see how deep it was. And looking down into it, and trying to think of somebody. Who was it she was trying to think of? Somebody she knew and had seen at Eagles. What was his name? She really wanted to think of it and remember if he was dead or alive.? Teddy was down in the hole. Her little brother was down there, lying in the sand under the desert winds blowing over him, knots of sand, whirling, twirling dust making him hard to see. But it was him, her little brother, and her big brother was there, too. And her sister and mother and father. And grandpa and grandma Weber. Uncles and Aunts, too, Glenna and Clyde she thought. Or maybe it was Matt. Not all in the desert, but all in the hole.
What was it that she believed had happened to whoever it was she couldn’t remember, no matter how intense her desire, and no matter how hard she kept trying? Who was he to her even? Grade school or maybe high school. Some kind of school. She knew other tidbits about him, but she couldn’t quite gather them in. It was so frustrating; because she had all the information she needed, but she could not summon it up, try as she might. She had a sense of what she knew, an impression. Or rather, if she was more careful about how she looked at it all, she had the feeling of something elusive which might not even be connected to what she was hoping to figure out; but was some other notion entirely pressing her to let it barge into her head. It was a funny deal, all right, this living business. No two ways about it. When you got down to brass tacks, it was a mystery show like those detectives programs on TV with clues ducking in and out and she was supposed to make sense of it all, when half of it came and went on its own. And yet she was expected to know what to do. Know right from wrong. Supposed to know who she was starting way back when, and who she was now, and if that wasn’t enough, she had to know who the heck everybody else was, too.
Upright on the side of the bed, she rocked from side to side, and lurched back and forth. Boy, did she have a stomachache. This clot of fire, like she’d swallowed a red-hot coal that she had better cough up. Gathering all the breath she could, the sputter she managed hurt enough that she yelped. It hurt just to breath. Oh, boy, I’m getting Pneumonia. Oh, boy. I hope not. Everything hurt, so she twisted and turned and fell back and remembered that this had been going on all night, and it was no better now than it had been. If she was honest, it might even be worse. But it was no picnic either way she looked at it, and that was for sure. She should probably get up and see how much snow had fallen and whether or not Maggie’s little Honda was back where it belonged; and she should probably get some Vicks to rub on her chest. Oh, she hoped it wasn’t pneumonia. She flopped down, coughing with such pain that she squealed and hit her fist down on the bed.
In the bathroom, she realized the time—almost eight in the morning, and she hadn’t taken care of anything. Not a single one of her regular, morning things. I gotta get going around here. The idea of engaging in any one of the tasks that made up her daily routine consoled her. The colostomy bag didn’t have much in it, so she thought it could wait. It would have to anyway, given how she felt. Her skin was a little irritated from the adhesive. She needed to put something on it. But she’d do that later, too. She should irrigate tomorrow. Didn’t want those cramps coming back. She let the water run to heat up, and then she bathed a little, dabbing away with a washcloth soaked in warm soapy water. Normally she would have a bite to eat before too long, but that wasn’t in the cards today. Not with the miserable heartburn she had, the worst indigestion of her life.
Her big jar of Vicks was sitting right where it should be and she remembered it in the medicine cabinet. She lugged it with her back to the bedside table. Trying and failing to get her socks on wore her out, like it was this bizarre athletic event at which she had no hope of succeeding. She did wiggle into some clean underwear, and a pair of slacks, but that was the end of all she could handle. Collapsed in bed, she stayed quiet a moment before wrestling the Vicks jar open and slathering handfuls of greasy glop onto her chest with the pungent stench digging up into her nose. Too weak to finish, she closed her eyes, knowing a lot of the ointment had been left behind in lumps and waves. This is what she deserved, staying up so late instead of getting a good night’s sleep. She coughed and everything hurt. Absolutely everything. She took a penetrating, Vick’s flavored breath that made her feel sicker. This is what she deserved, fretting about foolishness instead of paying attention to what was important, like the rotten ham she was too dumb not to eat.
She dozed and woke up in tears; little tears slipping from her eyes down her cheeks. She was sick. It was definitely getting worse. She should do something. But she continued to lie there and to hope and to think rest could fix what was wrong. Or that she could out last it. She vowed to gut it out a bit longer, hoping for the best, praying for it, too. Her rosary lay on the bedside table, where she grabbed it, her fingers working their way along the beads to the crucifix at the end. Maybe another hour. One more hour, and if things didn’t improve by then, she’d call somebody. Amacare. They were the ones. They were close by. Right over in the little plaza. She could call them and see if she could get that nice little PT to stop by today—her name was Anne—and she’d done a really good job with the therapy on Emma’s shoulder a while back. Maybe that’s what it was. Her darn shoulder acting up. It hadn’t been bad for a while. Anne had pretty much fixed it up.
She found the Amacare number on the piece of paper she kept taped to the wall by the kitchen phone. Her glance darted between the paper and the dial, as she punched in the numbers, and they answered so quickly. “Hi. This is Emma Skayhill and I’m wondering about Anne. If she’s around. Or free. I hurt so in my chest, and Anne’s been really helping me. Do you think she could come over?”
“Oh, Emma,” the receptionist said. “That sounds hard. You’re suffering. I can hear it in your voice.”
“Yes, I am. That’s right.”
“I can really hear it. I’ll try to locate Anne for you and call you right back. When did it start?”
“Today. Last night. All night. It was one heck of a night I put in, I have to tell you.”
“I’ll call you right back.”
Time had taken a funny turn. Ten minutes, five minutes, and hour. Two hours. Everything was stretched out by the pain, and the haze it produced in her head, the measurements she was accustomed to trusting no longer dependable. Who knew how long it had been when the phone rang with Joanie, the Amacare receptionist, calling back either quickly, or hours later. “Emma. I can’t locate Anne.”
“Oh, darn. Why not? Where is she?”
“I don’t know. But I just can’t. What’s your problem?”
Right then and there Emma decided that Joanie was an imbecile. Asking such a question. Or maybe she’d been hit on the head by a rock since they’d last spoken, because Emma was sure she’d already explained everything to whatever ability she had, and so she said, “That’s okay. I’ll call back.”
“Emma, wait now.”
“Don’t get pushy.”
“I know you told me, but tell me again. What’s going on? Your symptoms, I mean. I want to help you.”
“Oh. Okay. It’s burning and miserable in my chest. Under that bone thing. In between. I told you. How many times do I have to say it?”
“Okay. That sounds awful.”
“It is awful. It hurts awful. And my cough goes right through me—this shock right through my body from top to bottom. Stem to stern. Do you know? Do you hear me? Please try to find Anne.”
“Have you spoken to your doctor?”
“No. I’m sure that little Anne can—”
“Emma. I think you really need to call him. I’ll try to find Anne, but you call your doctor’s office.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Right now. I’m telling you.”
“Promise me you’ll do it. Don’t just say ‘okay.’ As soon as you’re off the phone.”
“Will you do it for me? Call for me? I’m laying down. I’ve got to lay down. I’ve got to stay laying down. I can’t really breath very well. And dialing, you know. And talking.”
“I think you better do it. You’re the one who knows what’s going on.”
“The heck I do.”
“They’ll want to talk to you.”
“They’ll need to ask you things, Emma. Questions. Now I’m hanging up. Do you think I need to call back in a few minutes to make sure you did it?”
“Because I will.”
She was panting as she hung up. And tired beyond anything she’d ever known in her life. Going way back. Even when her kids were born. She needed a second, a chance to collect her thoughts. She sagged slowly onto her bed until she was flat on her back. And sick as a dog. She’d told Joanie that she was already lying down, when she hadn’t been. She’d lied, because she so desperately wanted to do it’ and now she was doing it at last. But she couldn’t get comfortable. Her whole body was jumpy, like it wanted to run off; Some far off deep part of her body was watchful like a scared animal that knew it was way off in the middle of nowhere with danger all around. She was in for something. Trouble was coming, though she didn’t know what. But she had to telephone Grennel the way Joanie had told her because if she didn’t that darn Joanie would call back and scold her.
The HMO number was carefully printed right under the Amacare number on the piece of paper scotch taped to the wall by the kitchen phone. What a dumb place to put it, she thought, making her way from the bedroom into the narrow hallway. She had no idea what notion had convinced her the kitchen was a good place to put such important phone numbers. She was barefoot and nothing on top except globs of Vicks. No blouse, no bra. Bras and blouses struck her as unreasonable, uncomfortable and utterly beside the point. Now she had to go around the bathroom corner. Ahead the dining room area waited with the table and the four chairs she had to get past; and everything seemed so much further than ever before. She had to think about breathing, both the need and the method, warning herself to be gentle, trying to smuggle her breath in without her body knowing what she was doing; because she dreaded coughing ever again. It hurt so. For a second she couldn’t remember her Doctor’s name, though she knew his nurse was that what’s-her-face—Irene—the one who gave the flu shots. Emma jabbed in the number, and didn’t even let the receptionist get halfway through her spiel before she said. “I need to speak to Irene—Doctor Grennel’s nurse.
Irene was a narrow rod of a woman with a pleasant enough voice who Emma had thought concealed the heart of a shrew, or a witch even, some figure of unspoken threat that made a person like Emma know to be on her best behavior, or Irene might just turn around and bite her head off. “Hello, Irene. This is Emma Skahill and I have to tell you, I’m not feeling well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Emma. Would you like an appointment?”
“I think so.”
“What seems to be the problem?”
“I’m having such chest pains. Terrible ones. What should I do?”
“I’ll say this once, and only once!” Irene shouted, turning into a crazy kind of army person and leaving no doubt that all hell was breaking loose. “And you better listen. Do you hear me, Emma?’
“Yes, I do.”
“I’m calling 911. You stay right where you are. Don’t you move from that spot until they get there. Where are you?”
“Where are you, Emma? Are you at home?”
“I’m—in the kitchen.
“Are you sitting?”
“No, I’m—I just—”
“Is there a chair near you? Sit if there is.”
“Well, the dining room table and chairs are—”
“Sit down on one of them. Right now.”
“Okay, but there’s a recliner just across the—“
“No. Sit in the nearest chair. I told you to listen.”
“Okay. But I don’t want to go to the hospital.”
“The ambulance will come once I reach them, and you just let them in when they get there. That’s all you have to do.”
“I don’t want to go up to the hospital.”
“Well, you’re going! Now are you sitting like I said?”
The tyranny of Irene’s orders could only mean that, as she saw it, Emma was in the middle of a full-blown emergency, and the realization just about scared the heart right of her. “Yes. I am.”
“Good. Stay there.”
Irene was gone, disappearing behind a scratchy sound and a click. Emma felt so alone, plopped down on a dining room chair in front of an empty table. “Irene?” she said, like Irene might still hear her, because Emma had kept the phone up to her ear. Across the room, the recliner looked much more sensible and inviting and she thought she might go there. It was a few short steps to the kitchen where she had to go if she was to hang up the phone, and she made it maybe a second before the energy expended by even this little act triggered a punishing cough that froze her where she stood.
It was faint and so far off she squinted as if narrowing her eyes would help her hear better, the ambulance siren rising and falling. Oh my god they’re coming for me. It was like something aimed at her, an arrow or bullet already fired and flying straight at her heart. She staggered to the recliner, and sat heavily, grateful for the Afghan she’d crocheted and left folded over the back, where she sometimes rested her head. It was her heart. The problem was her heart. Not pneumonia. Not heartburn. But her heart trying to choke and kill her. She dragged the Afghan down onto her lap, worried that she might never get up from this chair. That this was it, her last stand. Now her lack of a blouse and her lack of bra appeared to be as big and stupid a mistake as any she’d ever made. Why had she done it? She’d been tired, but there was more to it. She tried to get the Afghan to cover her shoulders and across her front, and the hard work of it made her gasp. She was glad they were coming. They’d have to take her as they found her, nothing on top but Vicks and her colostomy bag. There she sat, What a sight.
For a second, trying to sort out the sounds screaming toward her, she heard more than one siren, maybe five or six. Who had Irene called? she wondered, awaiting the din of rescue, coming like a whirlwind to find her where she huddled. And then the throbbing engine and the dying siren were right outside in the street in front of her window, and she put her hands over her ears. Still she heard the voices of men along with the curious cries of her neighbors The hubbub moved toward her, and someone she was sure was Connie called out to someone else that the Firemen were here. Someone needed help. Emma knew that Irene had ordered her to open the door to the building to let them in, and then the door to her apartment so they could help her, but she couldn’t move. Everybody and all their commotion had scared her into a kind of paralyzed helplessness.
Loud manly voices were saying loud manly things. It was the firemen, she knew, and they were tromping over the lawn in their big black rubber boots and heavy black raincoats and their big Fireman hats, those helmets they wore with those high bright skull parts rimmed and red and the brims sticking far out the front and the back. Their big hands waved and made fists and carried axes, ladders and hoses.
“Emma’s right in here,” Connie said. “Her apartment’s right to the left as you go in. You can’t miss it.”
The front door opened and their heavy footsteps filled the hall. Emma stood, lugging the Afghan with her, fearful that they would give up on their effort to summon her, knocking and calling her name, and start hacking away with their axes to break her door down.
“They’re looking for Emma,” Connie shouted at an angle that indicated she talked to someone up the stairs that started right past Emma’s door.
“What do they want?” Elroy demanded.
“I don’t know.”
The pounding fists of the firemen, and their urgent voices expressed desperate need, by the time she pulled the door open. One took her by the arm and moved her back. “Sit down, Ma’am.”
Another one said, “Thank you.”
By the time she hit the recliner, the Afghan was gone, though she had no idea where it had ended up. She could hear Connie yammering to someone who wasn’t Elroy. Emma could tell by the tone. The one who’d moved her had a pill he fit under her tongue, while Connie yammered about waiting for the mini bus, because she was going to the mall, and so dumb luck put her there in the right spot at the right split second. The one who had given her the pill said it was Nitro, and she nodded halfway expecting to feel better in that exact instant or the next one. He was hooking her up to “Oxygen,” he said, slipping this mask over her head and down to cover her nose. Connie was excitedly telling whoever was with her how the truck pulled up and the firemen jumped out and they asked her to let them in and she did.
If Emma had the count right, there were four big firemen. One had come and gone, and two were carrying on like madmen with her furniture, shoving it here and there, picking up the footstool and the little table, and then knocking the other recliner onto its back they pushed it so hard. The floor lamp jumped and went sprawling when one got tangled in the cord. She felt flimsy as paper. The Nitro hadn’t done a thing, she didn’t think. Not as far as she could tell. The one who’d given it to her was fiddling with the mask he’d slid onto her. And they weren’t Firemen. None of them were, no matter what Connie said. They were those other ones. Paramedics in those outfits. No big boots and raincoats, or fireman hats.
Catching sight of her eyes on him, he said,” We’re going to get you out of here now, Mrs. Skayhill.”
“Okay, but I need my robe. Can you get my robe or something please?”
He had bright serious eyes and he looked straight at her. “Yes, I will. Where is it?”
“In my bedroom. In the closet.”
He looked around, “Where’s that?”
“It’s there,” she said, pointing, and he startled her the way he took off, almost running.
Somebody yelled, “Ed, what are you doing? We gotta go.”
Two of the other ones were wheeling in a stretcher contraption. “Ed!”
“She wants her robe. I’m getting her robe.”
“Hurry it up!”
He was partway in the bedroom door, when he wheeled around, ran back and bent close. “What color is it? The robe. Ma’am, what color is it?”
“We don’t have time for this, Ed!”
“I know,” he shouted, but he went off anyway, angry, or maybe just edgy from all the pressure he was feeling to find her robe and save her life, too.
The one who’d scolded Ed crouched down. He had very blue eyes behind thick glasses. “We have to get you out of here, Mrs. Skayhill. Timothy and me are going to lift you onto the Gurney, while Ed gets your robe.”
Ed scurried up with a blue nightie in his big hands.
“Oh, no, that’s not it. That’s a—“
“Never mind,” said the one with the glasses. “We’re just going to wrap you in a blanket, and go.”
Ed tossed the nightie, maybe aiming for the couch, but it fell in a sad swirl onto the floor
“I don’t have a blouse on.” She was stupid to say it, because surely they could see.
“We don’t care.”
They were picking her up and moving her toward the gurney where one of their big thick blankets waited already spread. “You’ve seen worse, I guess,” she said.
She gathered what breath she could, and said, “Be careful of this bag. You know what’s in it.” She wanted to make them laugh, hoping a good chuckle would make them like her. “You don’t want it coming loose. Take my word for it.”
One laughed, and the other didn’t. But they moved her gently, all their big muscles working to take care of her and not hurt her, like she was something that mattered and that might even be worthwhile. They rolled her into the blanket, one of them pulling it up to her chin while another started buckling these straps.
“Wait,” said the one who wasn’t Ed. “She needs a key to get back in. Do you have a key?”
“To my place? Yes, I do. I sure do. It’s right over there.” She indicated the table they’d moved. It made her giddy to be helpful. “On the table.”
The one who went looking said, “I don’t see it.”
“Maybe it got knocked on the floor.”
“You have to be able to get back in here when you come home.”
“Yes, I do. But where is it, if it’s not there? I don’t know. I want to be able to get back in when I come back.”
“I think I saw some keys in the bedroom,” said Ed, darting off, like he was starting to know his way around.
The fella who was down his hands and knees by the table said, “I don’t see them.”
“You have to have your keys,” Ed shouted, coming back. He held them high so they jingled, the three of them against one another, the front door key, the one that opened her apartment door, and the one to her mailbox.
So that was it then, they were going. They wheeled her out of her apartment and out the front door into the bright air where the snow was falling. Not much had collected on the ground overnight, so it may have just started up again. The air was brisk and sharp on her skin. They lifted her down the stairs to the sidewalk and then they angled off over the sloping grass bouncing toward the waiting Ambulance. She saw Connie standing beside Elroy and May, too, who’d showed up somehow. Oh, she felt so bad. Too bad to even wave. She was so disappointed in herself. She was supposed to go talk to Bud. Who would go to talk to Bud now, if she couldn’t? She was letting them down. She was letting everyone down. What a failure she was. Poor Maggie would have to go do it all alone. And that would be hard. May couldn’t do it. Connie couldn’t do it.
Snowflakes tumbled toward her, touching her face, dissolving against her skin. But there were more above her, gathering multitudes as far as she could see into the gray where clouds were massed. Something was wrong with the ambulance door, it seemed. They couldn’t get it open and they were yelling and mad at each other. Nobody seemed to know who had closed it.
Ed appeared over her, looking down. “How are you doin’, Mrs. Skayhill?”
She smiled up at him, but didn’t know if she wanted to speak, her chest was so heavy.
The other one with his intense blue eyes behind his glasses showed up. “We got it,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
They were lifting her and the snow on her face was cool and almost refreshing, though the moisture of its melting felt like tears.
And what about Marianne? She had to help her. She’d decided she wanted to and was going to. Somebody had to. It didn’t seem anybody else could be bothered and so that only left her. Only Emma. She didn’t want Marianne to be on suspension. It wasn’t right that Marianne was on suspension because of what that other one had done. But what could Emma do? She could barely breath.
The doors to the back of the ambulance swung shut with thumps that shook the stretcher under her, wiping out her last glimpse of her neighbors bunched in a tight little cluster, craning their necks and adjusting where they stood to keep an eye on her, as long as possible, Connie, May and Elroy, and Bud. Bud was there too, arriving at the last second maybe. But no Maggie. Where was Maggie? And where were her kids? Why weren’t they here? Or at least living close enough that she could call and they’d be at the hospital the way Annette’ family had been, all those kids and grandkids. She must have done something wrong, though she couldn’t say what it was. But she’d been hurt and angry about it for a long time, the way Sam and Bethany were off so far from home, knowing too that they had their lives, and there was no changing any of it. Oh, well, she thought, that was the way things were for her. That’s all.
Now the ambulance was on the move. That was what the rattling and rocking was about. The siren started up, scaring her all over again, warning everybody about something, only this time it was like she was inside the shrill cry; like she was part of this huge noise rising and falling; like she was making it happen. Her neighborhood, the street where she lived had been shut away by the closing doors, and now she was leaving it behind. Good old MacDougal Road. How many streets had she lived on in her life? There’d been Crispin Street and then Jefferson and Johns and Milwaukee Ave and Garfield. There were more, too, she bet. She’d think of them in a second. The snow had been beautiful falling on her as she lay looking up, the whole of everything above filled with the white falling flakes.
Ed and the one with the glasses were in the back with her. The other two must be up front. She saw now that they’d put a blood pressure cuff on her arm, and Ed had a stethoscope to her chest. When he realized she was looking at him, he nodded and smiled, like the news was good, but she wasn’t sure she could trust him.
Oh, and who would help Maggie do her putting of the golf balls on her carpet so they rolled all the way across the room into the little saucer thing? She had to get good at it so she got to hear the sound she loved so much on the real course. Who would help her aim? If Emma didn’t come home, who would live across from Maggie? Who would look for her to drive up and park where she belonged?
And what about Dan—that poor Dan on the bridge watching his daughter disappear? She wanted to help him, and Marianne, too. What about everything that had ever happened to her? Not just the streets where she’d lived, but everything that had happened?. Who would care if she was gone? Who would remember Emma Skayhill’s life? And what about all the lives she remembered? What about them? Her brothers, and her sister. And her neighbors, going all the way back to when she was a child, the Santacruzes and Dwyers and Schemmels. What about them? Oh, boy, she thought, feeling the size of all she would take with her. Oh, boy.
Ed was looking out the back window, while the other one, who had removed his glasses, put them back on and reached down to pat her wrist. They were racing now. She could feel the speed in the body of the ambulance and in her body too. She’d seen this kind of thing. Stopped whatever she was doing and looked up. Been a bystander watching an ambulance flying by. An onlooker wondering what had happened. Wondering who was inside.
David Rabe was born in Dubuque, Iowa. Drafted into the Army in 1965 he was stationed in Vietnam in a Medical Headquarters unit. Discharged in 1967, he returned to Villanova University to study theater under Richard Duprey, Robert Hedley and Jim Christy. Many of his early plays were written during this period. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel was his first play in New York in 1971. It was followed by Sticks and Bones, The Orphan, In the Boom Boom Room and Streamers. Other plays include Goose and Tom Tom, Hurlyburly, Those the River Keeps, A Question of Mercy, The Dog Problem, The Black Monk (based on Chekov), An Early History of Fire, Good For Otto, Visiting Edna and Cosmologies. Four of Rabe’s plays have been given Tony nominations as best play on Broadway. Other prizes and recognition include: American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, Drama Desk Award, John Gassner Outer Critics Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and The Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Drama Guild Award. Over time he has increasingly devoted himself to writing fiction with three novels: Recital of the Dog, Dinosaurs on the Roof, Girl by the Road at Night, and a book of stories, A Primitive Heart. In recent years, he has had stories published in The New Yorker magazine and at Narrative online. David Rabe currently lives in Lakeview, CT. He has three children, musician Jason Rabe, and actors Lily and Michael.