Vol 3 ~ Issue 3
p1~In the Kitchen, After the War
p11~When Maggie Went Away by Tammy L. Remington
In the Kitchen, After the War Adam Moorad ***
he kitchen was dim and dry. The blinds were closed but the day had begun to peak through, painting vague highlights across the bare walls. Rand watched the microwave’s infrared clock glow as he filled a glass from the faucet opposite the room from a linoleum table. On the windowsill in front of him, he noticed a frayed hole in the screen of the storm panel that several lady bugs had crawled into, died, and dried-up on the pane. He examined them resting in the dust, lying lifeless among putrid peals of paint. He shut the nozzle off. The water continued to drip from the spout and thumped on the thin aluminum drum of the sink’s hollow belly. Rand was waiting for his wife to wake and fix him breakfast. Every so often he would look over at the digital clock burning soft carmine beneath the dark cupboards. He waited patiently, content enough to enjoy the dawn, its calm succor, with the knowledge that he would be fed soon. Taking some pleasure from the gentle light of the kitchen, Rand carried his glass over to the table and sat across from an empty chair. It cast a thin shadow across the floor. He leaned his shoulders against the wooden shay of the seat curiously palming the crown of his bald head. His scalp was cracked and tawdry from some sixty-odd-years of life that left his tatty skin worn like tired leather, spotted and cracked. His brow was pale and bristled and a cool greyness hugged his eyes, giving the weary quality of age to his sockets which seemed to sink deep into dark, hollow pits in his skull. It was from these pits that he gazed at the clock that now read a quarter past six, when he began to hear the sounds behind him in the house. The weak creak of the bedroom door opening down the hall, the bathroom light clicking on, then the rasp of footsteps moving slowly over carpet and onto the vinyl laminate of the kitchen. He rose and refilled his glass at the sink before turning to his wife who stood at the mouth of the hallway. “Good morning,” he said. “Good morning to you,” she replied. She tied the belt of her robe - plaid, flannel, and blue - concealing her goosey figure draped in a laceless, yellow nightgown. She dawdled her way over to the sink and pulled the drawstring of the plastic blinds down letting in the sunlight. The bright beams invaded the musky dark. The contrast dazed Rand as he returned to the table, squinting, shifting back to his idle morning ritual diagonally from the empty chair, feeling his pupils squeeze themselves shut. For the pair, this was a relaxing way to begin each day. It always had been. Neither spoke much knowing the other would feel the same until the food had been finished. At the table, Rand was motivated only to sit quietly, settled, waiting for his wife. He liked the solace she afforded him each morning and it fulfilled him as it would
a monk in a period of meditation left alone in prayer. It is in such moments that empathy is resolved and intention is born. He cherished her for this, for the way she would remain noiseless filtering coffee or setting the table, for the way she alone would bring light to the day with a single tug of the blind drawstring, and for the way she was able to make him feel that it was all done for him, even now. She was a nurturer. This was her gift. He loved the intent with which she moved in these early hours of the morning, not yet fully awake or aware of herself or him, alone at the empty table, scratching his hairless head, watching her in her seamless, drowsy motion. “Sleep well, dear?” “Very well,” she announced bluntly and without elaboration, speaking with her back turned, facing the counter. Rand drank the remaining contents of his glass, filling his cheeks with the tap water, and then swallowed until his mouth was empty. From where she stood, his wife could not see him, but could feel his presence after hearing him place the empty glass down on the table. He let the liquid settle in his stomach for a moment before he rose and walked slowly to the coffee pot on the counter. “Milk?” she offered, without eye contact. “No, thank you,” he said, drawing a mug from a cabinet above the microwave. He turned to collect the coffee pot from the machine and craned his elbow awkwardly to pour. When he sat back down, he examined his arms outstretched against the pale enamel, and turned his mug with both hands in slow, snug rotations. His skin was old and his arms wrinkled, his veins slowly pulsed, his tendons softly rolled over the bones in his wrists, his eyes fixed on the frayed backrest of the empty chair.
“I thought I’d make us pancakes?” she said loudly at an unchecked volume, more into the window than anywhere else. “An omelet? How about an omelet?”
“That’s fine,” he replied impassively, testing the temperature of his drink tapping the surface of the dark fluid. Thinking his wife was awake enough and in high enough spirits, Rand considered that he had waited long enough to speak candidly and spoke in measured form.
“I think I’ll go up to the school later,” he said, “Those boys play Saint X tonight. Got a
good team this year. Besides, it’s been so long since we’ve seen a football game at the high school.”
The words floated off his tongue and hung formless in the void between he and his wife, perhaps unheeded, perhaps rejected.
She did not reply and remained square to the counter arranging the ingredients she had gathered for pancakes, and then pulled out a large white mixing bowl from the bottom cabinet, pausing briefly to absorb her husband’s statement. Rand knew he spoke misguidedly, but it was unintentional and, besides, he was entitled. Some subjects are dealt with delicately and others are never considered or more accurately – are ignored. Everything remained still and a great strain totaled itself across his forehead. Each time Rand lifted the mug to his lips, she could hear him blow gently on the steamy drink, then sip. Moments passed without any response and the clamor of spoons and spatulas booming in the sink’s hollow drum reverberated mutely, drowning in the abyssal gap opened by her silence. “Honey,” she said, finally. “Would you like to eat anything while you’re waiting? Like a banana? How about a banana? It will take me a minute to fix everything.” “No,” he said, high with inflection. She moved, verging from one hip to the other, opened the box of mix and poured the powdery contents into the bowl. A cloud plume of dry batter rose and floated away. “I’m sure the paper has come,” she said to him. “That is...if you’re not too lazy to get it off the lawn.” Hunched, she made humble movements between the steps of her process, cracking eggs over the bowl, dusting off the countertop, trying without success to both use and clean her work area simultaneously. She began to whip the mix. He remained still. She had ignored what needed a response, what required her to feel, if not relive, something hidden, masked beneath the layers of needless preoccupation used to bury the scar of a loss. It was an admission of an unseen ache. “Or,” sighing at the afterthought, “you can wait there while I finish these.” “I don’t want it yet,” he replied. His words were vacant. Rand sat there motionless and unanimated, listening as she worked over the stove. The crackled smell of pepper filled his nostrils, the aroma blending in the air with the pointed stench of onion. The skillet hissed with steam and sizzled. She walked over to the refrigerator and propped herself onto the tips of her toes, reaching for a clean bowl, leaning against its door for balance, struggling. Bending forward, Rand adjusted himself in his chair and watched her, poised for movement.
“Need help, dear?” he offered, half-standing. She managed to snatch the bowl off the top of the refrigerator before he could help and then calmly moved back toward the stove.
“Sit down,” she said. “Sit. I got it.” Her voice was tinged with the audible pressure of a latent frustration. “Go on, now,” she said. “Sit. Sit.” He hung his head and raised his hands up in a surrendering motion, slowly moving back to his seat watching her in retreat. He finished his cup of coffee and was staring at the empty chair, morose, tracing the rim of the empty mug with his index finger over and over. For a few moments they remained as they had before: time passing, tension mounting - static without friction. She continued to prepare their meal but with a concealed stress. Rand endeavored. “Listen,” he spoke breaking the silence. “I think we could both go to the game tonight,” fielding the suggestion pensively and without much optimism, halfknowing the ensuing response. She turned and, standing evenly, spoke facing him, making the first eye contact of the morning.
“ Why would I go? And why exactly do you want to go, anyway?” she said, holding
the mixing bowl, pressing it against her empty womb. “It’s not as if our son will be playing tonight.” Rand had sat with his head pointed at the floor so that the window light behind his wife would not beam directly in his eyes. He palmed his scalp, picking up her silhouette in his peripheral vision, unable to look directly at her. He felt the muscles in his jaw tweak and twitch as he searched for the words. “I’m not really sure why – or why you would,” he began. “But I’ve given it some thought – that’s all. It’s just something that I think would be nice. For both of us, like it was when Randy played.” It didn’t seem to take that long, but for a few moments he felt a bricklike weight press upon him. She stood still watching him, still cradling the bowl. A tension buzzed around the room like an angry wasp trapped by the walls of the kitchen. Her presence was such that only silence could fully accommodate the cavernous pain her body engendered. He could see it was in her eyes and posture. He saw it when he would move through the garden and when she watched the evening news. After all, these were his feelings too but his first instinct was to rush past them, to accept them over and over, to be strong hoping she could one day find peace in his strength or, at least, a refuge.
“I’ll run and get the paper for you,” she managed to say, feeling naked, receding into the blank chasm of her own creation. “Please make sure nothing catches on fire,” she said, nodding at the stove. As she cut across the kitchen, he could feel the beat as her bare feet scratch along the stagnant vinyl of the floor. The room was still – except for the soft vibrations of her footsteps heading toward the front door, making grainy clicks as she stepped against floorboards that disappeared down the hall. She was outside now and, for a moment, he was alone. A minute went by before she returned.
“Hasn’t come yet,” she announced and briskly returned to the stove. They ate the pancakes at the table in silence across from the empty chair. When they finished, she carried their plates over to the sink, holding one gently in each hand. When she turned on the faucet, she heard Rand rise, quietly push his seat under the table, and leave the kitchen behind the sound of the running water. He walked through the doorway into the next room and he waited for a moment, listening to his wife at work. He waited until she shut the faucet off. The spout continued to drip into the sink. He could hear her fight back tears, trying to conceal them with coughing and sniffing, not knowing if she was fully alone. Rand lingered in brief indecision, not knowing whether to go to her or to let her be, voluptuary indulging in his idea of restraint and strength. He walked through the living room over the matted, beige carpet to the front door, open it and stepped out into the light shutting the door behind him without pause. He stood on the front stoop, the house lying behind him. He froze, looking out at the road bisecting the neighborhood. He stood there for several minutes, watching the leafy tree branches waft gently in the early air, their trunks hugged at the stump by mounds of black mulch encircled by the green tufts of the groomed lawns, all identical. Then a crash of a plate breaking came from inside the house. The sound echoed cruelly as it shot through the calm air outside, resonating harshly. He imagined the white porcelain dish shattering in sharp fragments, sliding across the kitchen floor. Blood? Cries? The noise shook him, awaking something deep inside. He hurried into the house, alarmed. He moved quickly through the living room and, at the doorway of the kitchen came to a stand still. He found her on hands and knees, her thin arms moving across the floor, sweeping for shards of splintered glass with a small hand broom.
“ What happened?” he said. “Are you all right?” She did not answer. He could see that the mixing bowl had been dropped. She did
not turn around immediately but when she finally faced him, he noticed her rouged face, bloodshot eyes, and sore limbs. When he saw her frail frame sprawled and exposed on the kitchen floor scooping up the pieces of a broken platter, he felt a tightness press in his chest and a pressure swell behind his eyes. For a while, he could only stand there blinking, attempting to muster focus and restraint. He walked over to the pantry and retrieved a metal dust pan, then squatted down next to his wife sifting the pieces of her folly into small piles across the yellow vinyl. He laid it on the floor and positioned it so that his wife could sweep the bits into the pan, together, picking up the broken pieces which seemed to be everywhere, ordering the fragments as best as they could, tidily, to make disposal easier.
“Sorry for the mess, Hun,” she said as she tidied her hair, dabbing her nose and
eyes checking for moisture, her voice frail. She rose and left the remaining piles for Rand to collect. “Can I get you anything else? Maybe some more coffee?” Always a nurturer.
“No. No, thank you, Dear,” Rand said. She left the kitchen and went into the bedroom. It was eight o’clock now and the sun was stronger, the room now full of bright light. “Thank you for a delicious breakfast,” he said softly, consoling, smiling thinly at her backside as she moved away. “You are welcome,” she replied faintly, her voice trailing off against the plaster ribs of the house. Quite returned then, a leaden calm accumulated in a regional pattern, far in the hallway first, moving inward toward the center of the kitchen, twisting in ropelike spirals coiling taut like a snake beneath Rand’s ribs.
*** When Rand entered the house through the front door, he was whistling the jingle to himself and sounding glad to be home. “Hello,” he called. “I’m home, Dear?” He grazed through the front hall into the kitchen where he dropped a bag of fruit down onto the table, then wandered into the living room where he found his wife spread out on the couch, still robed, arms laid gently by her sides. He went over and knelt down beside her as she lay placid, wraithlike. She was awake and wore a glazed expression. He touched her arm and watched her. The television was on, soundless, except for the set’s vacant static humming on the margins of audibility.
Reaching out, he took her hand, gently holding it between his. Her fingers were icy and white. “Let’s say we get you up off this couch?” he said. He hovered over her waiting for a response that did not come.
“ What do you say, Dear? Why don’t you get dressed? It’s a beautiful day. We’ll go outside. The fresh air will be good.”
She continued to lay blank, her eyes aimed mindlessly at the ceiling. Shadows of the kitchen fan danced across the walls, haunting cycles revolving in nightmarish circuits, shriveled memories corroded by what they have come to signify.
“I told Randy I would wait for him,” she said. Rand stood turning his head away and sighed, taking his eyes off his wife. Above him hung the overhead light fixture and the smooth lens of the light was smoky and dark. Through the tinted plastic he could see small silhouettes: tiny, dehydrated, and alone. Flies, cockroaches, millipedes - insects that had infiltrated his home, made it theirs, and perished. He closed his eyes and said nothing.
“I told him we’d wait,” she blurted, still hushed. There was no warmth in her voice. “You didn’t talk to him,” Rand said composed, blunt with agitation. “Let’s get you up.”
“ Yes, I did too talk to him,” she said, smiling impassively, her eyes on the shadows, resistant to her husband’s speech.
Rand walked away from her, across the room into the kitchen, himself expressionless.
“Just a few more minutes,” he heard her say again, more quietly, just a murmur from the lungs.
Now weary, he stood silent, looking back at his wife helplessly. He looked at her toes wrinkle as she rested her legs against the armrest of the couch sulking in mad conversation with herself. He turned and picked up the sack of fruit, selected the ripest peach, and left.
*** Rand sat alone on the front stoop of his house. The day was hot and the air was thick, southern, and full of vapor. He could feel tiny beads of sweat coalesce on his temples and stroke his beardless face. Gnats buzzed around his head hungry for the odor of perspiration.
He looked over the trimmed shrubbery hugging the brick steps of the front entrance, and then examined the flowerbeds for weeds. He rose and walked over the clumpy lawn toward the street in front of his house. He could feel how the ground was uneven beneath his feet then bent down to pick up a small stone in the grass. Cradling it in his hand, he noticed it was smooth and red. He thumbed it in his palm for a few moments then tossed it out into the empty road. It bounced several times across the asphalt and skipped into the white cement curb on the opposing side of the street. He peered out past the road in front of him at the rows of mailboxes lined neatly, positioned unvaryingly next to the driveway of each brick home. Some driveways were paved, some aggregate, and others were tarred blacktop a few shades darker than the adjoining street. Many had cars parked in them. Others were empty. Some had basketball hoops with ragged nets hanging from the rim that swung in the heavy breeze. He tried not to think of his wife. He stood on his lawn and examined the pastoral landscape of the well kept homes with manicured lawns. It was bright outside and he squinted, gazing at an abandoned swing set in the yard next door. The soft squeak of a rusty hinge carried in the air. No children were around. It was a weekday when most children were in school, he thought. They all had been awakened by their parents and reminded to dress, to eat their breakfasts before the school bus rolled down the street and took them, brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, with their books and backpacks, to school. Rand recalled such mornings. He preferred not to think of the children, their young faces, his, in such a way. He much rather liked to think of them swinging happily on the playground, filling the neighborhood with laughter. He certainly did not want to picture them, rotten before ripe, filing into their classrooms before the beginning of each day, in ritual, to pledge allegiance to nothing of nothing and to nothing, for nothing, one nothing, under nothing, and so it goes, with nothing and nothing for no one. It had been so long since the war had started, he forgot when and why it had begun. If it had ended, then he did not know. He moved gradually along the lip of his lawn, where his property ended at the curb. In the street, dead night crawlers lay curled across the road, shrunken and hard, melting into the microscopic crevices in the charred pavement. He kicked his feeble legs around in the grass, looking for more stones. An underground sprinkler system began watering his neighborâ€™s lot next door and he could hear the pipes under the earth gargle and hiss as the spouts sprayed the ground, giving it its greenness, operating in mindless automation. He opened his mailbox but it was empty. Only a small nest of dead ants lying curled and black in the shadows inhabited the murky interior, dim like a tomb. Rand felt the invisible mist of the sprinklers against his leg and watched, enamored with the mechanical system working robotically, spurting water where it would, operating without eyes like a blind organism pumping below the surface with only a preset device controlling it, telling it when to turn on and off, feeding the leaves of
grass, not free but sodden, cold, and asleep. Rand heard the front door of his house open. He turned to find his wife standing on the stoop still robed. He looked at her and smiled from the lawn.
“ Whatcha doing?” she asked him. It was a different woman. “Nothing,” he replied. She stepped off the stoop and approached him so that she would not have to shout. “ Well, I thought I would make you a tad of a snack,” she said.
“That sounds lovely, Dear,” he said, “I would love that.” She smiled and disappeared into the house, closing the front door behind her. Rand stood alone on the lawn for about ten minutes, giving his wife the time and space to work, content with her job, a mother at peace in her preoccupations. He stood still, looking back at the clone lots lined along the road, with swing sets, mailboxes, and basketball hoops. He watched closely as the breeze came again, bending the misting spray of water from the sprinklers as it soaked the shallow roots of the neighbor’s lawn then he left. Inside, Rand entered the kitchen to find his wife, laying fresh slices of apple next to a small sandwich on a plate. When she heard him come in, she turned around and smiled.
“Here you go,” she said and offered him the plate. “ Well, well,” he said taking it from her, “Thank you very much, my darling.” He kissed her softly on the mouth.
He smiled at her kindly as she turned around, smiling back. He watched her as she picked the knife up off the cutting board and washed it in the sink. When she turned the faucet off, drops of water continued to fall from the steel spout onto the hollow belly of the sink. It thumped like a dull pulse, moving slower then gently it stopped. Rand walked across the kitchen with his plate and sat down at the table across from the empty chair, each heartbeat a secluded eruption, each second an isolated eternity. He ate quietly in the afternoon light burning amber seams in narrow opaque rhythms across the room, reaching further up the hollow drywall and growing weaker.
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When Maggie Went Away by Tammy L. Remington
*** Tammy Remington grew up in a very small town in Ohio, using reading and drawing as her escape. At 18 she made her break to Cleveland and expected to be recognized as a great artist. Instead, she learned to shoot a mean game of pool. Later she studied writing at Case Western Reserve University. In 2000, she transferred to Columbia University and moved to New York over Christmas break. She graduated last May and writes fiction because when that last sentence locks perfectly into place and pulls the story into a perfect whole, there’s no better feeling in the world. She is editorial assistant on two scientific journals and lives in Harlem with her cats, Alice and JJ. Her first novel is being shopped around and this will be her second published short story.
*** I like it when the children come to visit. I like it better when they leave, but that explosion of noise and confusion jolts me out of my stupor, staves off something for another day or two. I never had kids myself. In fact, it’s only since my nephew put me in this wheelchair warehouse, that I’ve found I can stand the little monsters. There’s one in particular, a mouthy eleven-year-old with braces, freckles, and an attitude that’s going to get her into trouble down the road: Maggie. I call her Maggie May because it’s too much fun to watch her splutter and roll her eyes. This one seems to seek me out. “How come you’re so old?” she asks one day; it’s raining out so we’re all cooped up indoors together. “Bad management.” I’m doing another jigsaw puzzle for lack of anything more interesting. “I think the worst part of getting that old is that you get forgot.” Maggie’s leaning against my wheelchair, comfortable as a cat and twice as nosy. “You think? Get those sharp, young eyes of yours over here and help me find this last piece of daffodil.” I could tell her a thing or two about what’s “worst” about getting old. “Ok.” She complies, rounding the card table to perch on the edge of a wobbly chair. “It’s like nothing you ever did matters, cuz it’s all forgot, not like stuff that Joan of Arc did or that guy in A Beautiful Mind, you know the math genius who went crazy.”
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I believe she’s got some sort of messy home life. I’ve overheard things. These idiot nurse aides seem to think anything in a chair with wheels is by definition deaf or insensible. I pay attention. And just to keep them yakking, I drool a little now and then. Morons. “So, tell me this plan of yours not to get ‘forgot,’ ” I say. “Can’t.” “Won’t.” “Nope, can’t. It’s not that kind of plan.” Maggie finds a puzzle piece, the wrong piece, and tries to muscle it into the hole. It nearly fits and that’s making her nuts. I sit back and watch. Any first year psych student would have it that the kid reminds me of me when I was a kid, but that’s crap. Anything that didn’t fit perfectly in my life was immediately discarded; I never muscled anything. “Here. Try this one.” Okay, yes, I had the damned piece the whole time and she gives me the only stink eye, snatching it away from me like it was money. “You think you’re so smart.” She pops the piece in and sits back, swinging her legs. “I’m not forgot, that nephew of mine visits every week.” “You didn’t have a plan.” She’s bullet proof. “What makes you think I didn’t?” Snapping her gum, she shrugs “If you did, it didn’t work otherwise...” “What?” I prod her, “Otherwise what?” “Nothin’.” Now she heaves this big sigh and looks around at the other humped over old people. Most of the kids are over clustered around the television. “Only one thing works anyway.” “Yeah, die young.” I really need to watch this mouth of mine sometimes. She is just a kid after all. “You chickened out, didn’t you?” She isn’t fazed. “I told you, bad management.” I need to steer things back to kid friendly, more for my benefit than hers obviously. “Show me that magic trick again.” Maggie narrows her eyes, but then shrugs again. This much I do know about the kid: she hates to read, loves math, and has discovered a talent for sleight of hand. Something to do with an uncle visiting (I think) from Atlantic City where he does some (I imagine) lame magic act in a casino. She roots around in her pink glittery backpack, pulling out some plastic disks. She’s a little clumsy to start, but after flipping several back and forth over her knuckles, she gets warmed up. There’s this whole routine she’s got, flicking the disks in and out of sight. From time to time, they all disappear and she flashes her open hands out like small starfish only to reach over
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and pull one from behind my ear. “A ll right, children, tell your special friends goodbye, it’s time to go.” Two o’clock and fun’s over. I’m tired. Christ, I hate being old. “You’ll see.” Maggie leans in close to stage whisper, saying goodbye to her special friend. I try to grab her arm, stop her, get her to tell me what she’s talking about, but she skips away to join the mob by the door. There’s that grin over her shoulder and then she’s herded in with the rest and they’re gone. I wheel past the geri-chair crew in the hallway and go back to my room. Unlike wheel chairs that allow some independent mobility, a geri-chair has little wheels and whoever is strapped into one is completely unable to move themselves. They’re an item reserved for the seriously demented and those considered too far-gone to waste a wheelchair on. The day they put me into a geri-chair, I want someone to give me too many pills. Maybe I can work something out with Mortimer. I do get dope here, pills to keep my pressure down, my spirits up, and my insides inside. Despite the happy little blue bedtime pill, I’m wide awake most of the night thinking about Maggie and her plan. Should I say something to someone? What to whom? Hell, I don’t even know what she was talking about. Kids are different today; they’re harder, faster, and not terribly impressed by the authority of anyone. But she’s not the type; she’s not, as they say, troubled. She’s just a kid who likes yanking old ladies’ legs. I refer to my nephew as Mortimer. I like to think it gets his goat; but he’s not a bad sort. He’s my baby sister’s only kid. He stayed around, got his associate degree from the community college, and settled down to count beans for the rest of his days. His name is David, but Mortimer fits better; that or possibly Ichabod. “You’re looking wonderful, Auntie.” He is the dutiful one, I’ll give him that; visits every week and brings flowers, the new TV guide, and caramel nut fudge from O’Neill’s. “I can’t imagine why; I didn’t sleep for shit last night.” “The staff here must love you.” Every so often he slips in what could be a zinger, but it’s hard to tell. “Mom sends her best.” I’ll just bet she does. Now that she’s got Mother’s house, I’m sure she’s brimming over with all kinds of best to send. I don’t say this out loud, Mortimer loves his mother and who am I to sully the poor bastard’s meager joys? “Have you given more thought to what we spoke of on my last visit, Auntie?” “Yes, and the answer is still no.” They say that possession is nine-tenths of the law but while darling Edith may “have” the family home, I’m still executor of the estate. She can live there and furnish it any way she pleases (so long as she keeps up payments on the storage space to where Mother’s heirlooms have been exiled), but that house and that five hundred acres will remain inviolate while I’m the one holding the pen.
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Mortimer delicately clears his throat; here it comes. “Mom and I don’t think you understand the reality of the situation.” He hates this. He should. “I fully understand the reality of developers breathing down Edith’s neck.” I reach for a piece of fudge and offer some to Mortimer who shakes his head. “What you and your mother don’t seem to grasp is that our measly five hundred would be the first domino. We go down, it’ll be ten years and this whole valley will be nothing but strip malls, gas stations, and subdivisions.” “Aunt Lacey, you don’t give a flying rat’s behind about developers, strip malls, or subdivisions.” Mortimer’s tone hardens and I think the boy might have a pair down there after all. “You just like holding this over Mom’s head.” “I can’t imagine it was any too difficult to convince her to sign the papers that put me in here.” I have a pair, too. “Now you both can damned well wait till I’m dead to get your grubby paws on that land.” “Auntie, don’t be like this.” “You brought it up, David.” A thought occurs. “What’s really going on here?” And the boy just sits there; butter wouldn’t melt in that mouth and I think maybe I need to reassess my opinion of Mortimer. Edith’s not that bright, but this one is up to something. I’ve gotten pretty good at letting the left corner of my mouth droop a little; that string of spit always works and I see Mortimer dismiss me. I won’t be making that particular mistake about him again and make a note to call Dunhill first thing tomorrow. I trust my attorney more than my family. Oy vey, as they say in the city. “Please think it over, Aunt Lacey. Okay?” Time’s up. He gathers his things, stops to chat with the ladies watching their stories. Their wrinkly, old mugs raise like grateful sunflowers as he bends, smiling, to ask how they’re doing. Other folks here are envious of me and my Mortimer. What do they know? I’m relieved to see Maggie troop in with the rest of the monkeys the next week and don’t give it much thought that she doesn’t make her usual bee-line to me. I wheel around to face the window, but catch a glimpse of her latest foray into magic: colored scarves. Let her wow the cheap seats. I’ll wait. But with my back turned, I miss something. I can hear some kind of hushed murmuring. There’s something about a telephone call and an adult voice using that special bent-from-the-waist tone directed at one of the monkeys. I gaze out at Mulberry Road, serene in my refusal to join the excitement. Someone will know what happened. I wait. But no one says anything to me and, before I know it, whatever it was is over and all the monkeys are spreading out to visit their special friends. All but Maggie.
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Eventually I have to wheel back around, but do so without looking like I’m trying to figure out what happened. Several of the monkeys are leaning over the wheelchairs of the wrinkly old sunflowers, watching cartoons. The staff has reverted to their quietly purposeful diddling. Sunlight streams in: a sly benediction, mute, and choosing to remain so. “M iss Dempsey, would you like to join us?” It’s that frightfully cheerful new volunteer. I’d prefer to have my eyes put out, but maybe I can find out what happened. Maggie is nowhere to be seen; surely that’ll have the old tongues wagging. “Thank you, that’s very nice of you.” I wheel over to the big table where construction paper and glue and safety scissors mark us all as able to handle nothing more complicated than Sunday school crafts. Where are the bars of Ivory soap to make sailing boats? “Why, Miss D., this is an honor.” One of the sunflowers snipes. “Now, now, Mrs. Manderson, let’s make Miss Dempsey welcome.” Little Miss Sunshine twinkles. “Ladies, you all know Miss Dempsey, yes?” This was a stupid idea; these imbeciles either don’t know what happened or it hasn’t even registered that anything did happen. I reach for the closest pair of scissors with their blunted little ends and LMS pushes several sheets of construction paper towards me, emitting a soothing stream of instruction. There is rustling around the table and soon high-pitched monkey voices are piping, pushing, bossing. “I thought the uncle had gone back to Atlantic City. Funny that he didn’t come in.” My ears almost swivel to catch this as I snip, snip at the red construction paper and reach for the pink. “Dunno.” The little shaver being addressed is blissfully ignorant of us nosy old ladies and mumbles his answer. “W hat about you, Donnie, did you hear about this before?” Old Manderson’s got more on the ball than I’d given her credit for. “You’re Maggie’s best friend; she had to have said something.” He is? I check this one out, floppy straw hair and vacant, darting eyes. “Nope.” “Well, we know what’s really going on here.” Manderson directs this at me, her new ally. “It’s always the uncle.” “Now, Mrs. Manderson!” Little Miss Sunshine bustles over, bending to whisper into the old bat’s ear. “Oh heavens, I do apologize, children.” Manderson exaggerates it just enough that I almost burst out laughing.
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Instead of giving Manderson the audience she’s looking for, however, I bend to my “work,” snipping, snipping and listening. Donnie the dope, he’s got nothing to say. The rest of the sunflowers droop and sway. Someone switches the television off and the thousand strings version of “Yesterday” wafts throughout the room. Little Miss Sunshine strolls the perimeter, pausing to open a jar of mucilage or admire a particularly deft use of composition. I adjust the pieces of my own composition and find LMS smiling over my shoulder. “What an unusual flower, Miss Dempsey.” I pat everything into place, waiting. She won’t get it. Sure enough, she holds it up by the thick red stem for everyone to see. A couple of the monkeys look up, scratch behind their ears or wipe gluey fingers on their clothes. “Look what Miss Dempsey has created!” LMS burbles, obliviously holding the “flower” by the base of the cock so the frilly pink of the vulva bobbles, ready to orgasm. I’m thinking Manderson will be the first to get it, but am as shocked as everyone else when tiny Mrs. Fletcher shrieks. “The children! The children!” She waves and bounces in her geri-chair, going alternately red and white in the face. She’s choking, LMS is doing the headless chicken dance and now Manderson gets it; so she’s roaring and pounding the table. The pandemonium is more than I’d hoped for, but I’d prefer old Fletchie not go and croak in front of the monkeys. With that first tea kettle screech, the kids get scared or curious on a case by case basis, but Manderson sets the rest off and each old lady around the table explodes as she gets a look at something she may have not seen in a good twenty years. There’s probably never been this much laughter and silliness ringing around the tired old day room and, once it’s clear that Fletchie’s just having the vapors, I’m rather pleased with myself. Then I see Dr. Miller arrive. Miller, the executive director of this little geriatric fiefdom who seldom, if ever, mingles with the Depends set. LMS has finally realized what she’s been waving around and drops it like it was dirty. The monkeys have seen, now they’re doing and at the top of their skinny, little lungs. Miller disposes of my “flower” and then raises his hands like Charleton Heston doing Moses. “Children, please!” His deep voice cuts through the hilarity and the kids all get that wary look as if he’s somehow intoned every single one of their middle names. The sunflowers are slower to comply, still tittering and snorting. “Ladies, I am surprised at you. Miss Klein, please take the children out to the garden. Mrs. Davis, kindly have the driver bring the bus around.” “Why?” Donnie, dopey or not, pipes up. “What’s everyone freakin’ out about? It’s just a big, ugly, weird flower.” He looks around for support and Manderson chimes in.
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“Yes, Mr. Miller, what did you think it was?” I watch Miller; we never see the man so there’s no telling how he’ll handle this. “Oh for goodness sakes, Iris,” Mrs. Fletcher has found her voice, “don’t start.” Tough little thing after all, she signals for one of the nurse aides to wheel her geri-chair around to face Miller. “And if you, sir, could be bothered to actually spend time out here and away from your office and your telephone and your computer, you might have a clue what is going on.” A bony finger wavers in my direction, “This one was clearly going to be trouble from the day she arrived and you’d know that if you ever disengaged your head from that telephone.” “Exactly what do you people think that was that our Miss Dempsey created?” Manderson is not letting it go. I’m wondering how my reputation managed to precede me even to this dead end. Trouble, huh? Nice to know I haven’t lost my touch. “It was a penis! A penis and a vagina; a penis in a vagina!” Miss Fletcher’s voice is climbing back towards tea kettle range and even Miller’s beginning to look alarmed. “There; happy now, Iris?” This has prompted much whispering and snorting among the monkeys and the situation is threatening to go out of control again. “Please, we all need to calm down.” Miller should consider doing voice over work; I’d buy laxative from that voice. The noisy jumpiness of the kids begins to subside again. “We’ve had rather a lot of excitement this morning as it is; perhaps we all need some quiet time.” A magisterial nod of his head has the obedient Mrs. Davis herding the puzzled kids out of the day room. He’s good, I’ll give him that. “You really think Maggie’s mom’s sick?” Donnie’s not budging. Okay, kid, bring it on and I’m watching Miller’s face. “You just gonna take the word of that ‘uncle’?” I can’t stand it anymore and wheel over to where Manderson’s sitting with narrowed eyes. Before I can ask her anything, Miller decisively scoops the defiant Donnie into the amoeba of children and the bus is out front and out they all go. Little Miss Sunshine is actually wringing her hands, but Mrs. Davis has marshaled the drug cart and is bearing down on us with little white cups. The woman is a real professional. You know those movies where the hero hides the pills under his tongue and then spits them out after Nurse Rachet’s gone? It’s not that easy and, when the sulky nurse aide comes to wheel me back to my room, I’m already half under and have forgotten what it was I wanted to ask Manderson anyway. The next day, Miller suspends the visits for a week and gives me a stern talking to in the guise of just us real adults conferring about the easily ruffled sensibilities of the demented. After he’s satisfied that I won’t be shocking the children and Mrs. Fletcher again, he shakes my hand, man-to-man, and goes back to his reports. His office, like every room here, is designed with lots of room to maneuver and I easily wheel myself
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out and straight back to where Manderson is dozing in the sun. “That went well.” I deliberately bump into her and then give her a second to gather herself. “What?” Reflexively, she wipes at the side of her mouth. “Huh?” “I’ve seen the error of my ways,” I settle into my plush, new sheepskin chair padding, the latest offering from Mortimer, “and shall go forth and sin no more.” “I won’t hold my breath.” “He managed to completely sidestep any mention of Maggie or what happened.” “He should go into politics.” Manderson shifts, trying to get comfortable. “Wonder how he’s going to spin the fact that he released a minor into the care of an unauthorized adult.” “Didn’t the mother call?” I’m still not clear on the details. “Miller’s an idiot.” Manderson looks around and then leans in closer to drop her voice, “And not long for that corner office the way I’m hearing it.” “Where’d you get that?” I lean closer to her for the dirt. “Mrs. Davis is warning the new aides to get their certification.” Manderson nods once with emphasis. With nothing but time on our hands, we become quite the experts on the politics and undercurrents that affect even this backwater. Having upto-date certification is only important when inspections or a new executive director are looming and inspections are over for the year. “What Miller doesn’t know is that that uncle only recently appeared on the scene.” “What?” “Something about having been put up for adoption and only now finding his birth family. According to Donnie, it was quite the joyous reunion.” I peer over at Manderson; she’s awfully knowledgeable about my kid. My kid? In the immortal words of Donnie, the dope: sheesh. “How long you been here?” I change direction, needing a moment to sort out this new information. “My” kid hadn’t seen fit to tell me word one about some long lost uncle suddenly appearing in her life. “I forget, more than a couple of years, less than ten.” Manderson’s fidgeting again; she’s got one of the cheap, squared off chairs. “You’ll see. Time gets squishy and meaningless in here what with only one deadline left.” “Like us.” “Huh?” “Squishy and meaningless.”
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“Pah! What the hell do you think these cows would do with their lives if they didn’t have us to wash and feed and wheel around?” She nods at Becky, the one nurse aide I know by name and that’s only because of the enormous plated name necklace she wears every day. Becky stops, wary and scowling, “What? You just ate and I know Juanita already took both of you to the john.” “Nothing, dear. Miss Dempsey here was pondering the meaning of our lives and...” Manderson didn’t have to finish, Becky rolled her eyes and slouched off. “See? She’ll go home tonight and crab to her family about those old fools at work and then they’ll all get to feel superior to us rich, old white women who are going to die soon anyway.” “Rich?” “Everything being relative, yes, Lacey, we are rich.” I guess she’s got a point; as long as I hold power of attorney for Mother’s property, I really am rich. Rich enough to keep Mortimer coming and probably rich enough to get a decent wheelchair for my new friend. And the latest tidbit from Dunhill, that old Mortimer’s investigating a career change (Math teacher? Where had that come from?) can be brought to bear. It’s all about leverage and, the older I get, the more important my levers become. “You’re going to want to see this.” One of the more energetic sunflowers is zipping by on her way to the day room. I look around and see just about everyone’s heading in there. A week ago I’d have let them go glue their glassy old peepers onto whatever latest rubbish was spilling out of the boob tube. A week ago I had better things to do with my time. Today I fall in line, making room for Manderson. “And this just in from our Newscopter Seventeen,” the news anchor’s full complement of perfectly aligned teeth turns everything she says into a toothpaste ad and I’m having trouble concentrating on what she’s actually saying. “An unidentified man is being pursued going north on County Road 11. It is believed that he’s got two local girls with him, but we cannot confirm that or his identity at this point. What we do know is that this was a routine traffic stop that resulted in the driver fleeing the scene.” The scene switches to an aerial view of a small, white car taking the curves on 11 a little too fast. I know 11; that fool I almost married flipped his Ford on the approach to the narrow bridge that this fool is heading for. I feel Miller arrive, but we all ignore him and he’ll turn this television off at his personal peril. The camera pulls back some and now the police cruisers in pursuit come into view. Somebody down there has a brain in his head and he’s using it, because the lead cruiser is keeping pace with the little white car, but not attempting to catch up.
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I’m wondering about the little girls. I can’t remember if Maggie’s got a sister or not. I look over at Manderson and she’s looking at me funny, frowning. “This just in: neighboring Anster township has set up a roadblock just before the Rutland creek bridge.” The announcer is keeping a grim lid on her enthusiasm for real news. Abruptly, Manderson, swings her chair around or tries to. She bumps into me and then backs up. But it’s gridlock in here and she’s not going anywhere. The ladies behind us are craning their necks and glaring. Manderson glares back. “Move.” She’s getting agitated and I try to wheel back to give her some room. But I hit Fletcher’s geri-chair and, of course, she’s not moving. “Move!” Manderson’s swung her head around the other way and is ordering the Bittner sisters out of her way. In the confusion of Manderson fighting her way out of the traffic jam, I’m missing what’s happening on the screen and pull back as much as possible to see past her. There’s that approach to the bridge and I wince; the stupid fool is taking it too fast. What the hell gets into people anyway? The camera zooms in and suddenly I can’t breathe. I’m imagining things; I know I am, but that car looks just like Mortimer’s Toyota. It’s not. How could it be Mortimer? That’s not possible. Manderson has fought her way out of the herd; I’m alone with this horrible suspicion. I remember Edith coming to me after he’d turned thirty and still hadn’t married. He’d dated one or two unremarkable girls right after high school, but had settled into a bachelor existence that seemed to suit him after college. She’d been in tears, worried that her little boy was a homosexual. While I’d reassured her that some men
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just preferred their own company, I’ve been pretty sure since then that Mortimer’s a fairy. I don’t have a problem with that; I don’t give a crap who he sleeps with and don’t need him to procreate as poor grandchild-starved Edith does. But even I know that fairies don’t go around kidnapping little kids. I’m leaning to the left as if I can get the camera to pan left. Edith gave that car to her son and it still has a Mary Kay bumper sticker. Do I catch a glimpse of pink? The camera pulls back and I grit my teeth. Whatever is being said, either by the television set or the gabbling crowd around me, isn’t registering. All I can see is that damned little car speeding up. I’m rocking, muttering no. No. No, no, no, no. Someone turns to stare at me. Oh, I was saying that out loud. I can’t stop and I can’t stop looking. No, no, no, no, no, no. When the little car wipes out on the approach to the bridge, it seems to happen in dream time slow motion. I see one wheel leave the ground. There is higher pitched gibbering all around me and then I see it: the Mary Kay bumper sticker. The Toyota does a clumsy ass to nose twist before rolling onto its side. The back of my throat is gummy and I need to get away from this room before I see something I can’t un-see. There are gun-toting toy soldiers converging on the tipped over car. And there it is: Maggie’s red head emerging from the back seat, arm around a smaller, paler redhead. Before I can make out if the driver is my nephew, the police have him on the ground and the station breaks for identification and a commercial. “Look! Look, the little girls! They’re all right!” Fletcher’s voice pierces the babbling voices. There are old ladies crying on all sides of me. Manderson got out. I can. I muscle my way out, probably bruising someone’s fingers or feelings. Breathe. I’m not breathing. I pull a hard, ragged sob of a breath and make for my room. Don’t let any of them figure it out, just get me out of here.
*** “Have you seen this one?” Maggie knows I have even as she’s pulling the big, gold plated rings out of her back pack. It’s Tuesday and it’s snowing; we weren’t sure the kids would make it today. “Like it’s gonna slow you down if I have?” Today’s puzzle is a dizzy welter of fireworks with the Washington monument in the foreground and I make a show of peering at several seemingly interchangeable pieces. I’m keeping an eye on Edith over by the nurse station; she didn’t make it through Mortimer’s trial and is now part of the geri-chair crew. Miller’s replacement, the somewhat frightening Ms. Wyndham was more than happy to welcome her into our little asylum after the sale of the house and the five hundred went through. Someone had to pay for that useless defense lawyer and, what the hell, at least Edith and I have a final roof over our heads. “How come you didn’t know your own nephew was pretending to be our Uncle David?” Maggie’s busy with her hoops, dropping this little grenade.
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“How come you didn’t know your Uncle David was pretending to be my nephew?” I’ve waded through mine fields since last summer and her casual artillery can’t touch me. “He wasn’t so bad.” In triumph Maggie raises her now-linked hoops. “I knew he wasn’t really our uncle, though.” This pulls me up short. I frown at Maggie’s grin. “What are you talking about?” “I’d seen him here, coming to visit you.” With a flourish she separates the rings and sweeps into a low bow. “Then why on earth did you get into the car with him that day?” I can’t believe what I’m thinking. She’s only eleven, for Christ’s sake. Okay, she had a birthday; she’s twelve. “It makes sense, though, that he’s your nephew.” She’s completely unconcerned, fiddling with the rings and pulling a stray hair from the corner of her mouth. “I heard about that dirty flower you made on the day he came to get me. You’re a pervert, too.” I find I can’t suck air, and cold sweat sheets my shaky old frame. Direct hit. If I hadn’t turned away that day, stubbornly refusing to be party to the general melodrama, what could I have prevented? A dark, bad tasting thought occurs. She got into the car with him. Twice. And the second time, she let her little sister get into the car, too. “You knew.” My tongue is thick and gluey, allowing only the two words. “Oh sure.” She tosses her hair and smiles brightly. I’m cranking the rusty old cogs of my brain, fighting a flight of bats that want to obscure something. “Hey check it out!” Maggie drops the hoops and runs over to the television where a grainy shot of the two little girls being helped from the upended car is shown. She’s hopping up and down until Mrs. Davis turns the volume up. “And this from the end of the legislative session at the Capital: Maggie’s Law has been ratified and signed into law unanimously.” The announcer drones on with some back story and how this law will impact future Mortimers. I studiously ignore it. Maggie swaggers back to the card table and leans against my chair. “It’s always good to have a plan.” She’s grinning from ear to ear and what can I say? She’s right. I can only hope that poor Edith and myself will be forgotten and that Mortimer will become a statistical point on some folded up spreadsheet somewhere; but Maggie, Maggie will never be forgot. Good for her. I shove her off my chair and wheel over to the drug cart where Mrs. Davis is not that surprised that I’m now taking my meds.
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