Short fiction by Pam Hawley
The home health aide the state gave us to help take care of Gran is named Jessie, and she comes on Tuesdays and Fridays. She’s a big woman, with doe eyes and a mouth full of white teeth. She wears scrubs with dancing frogs on them, except at Christmastime. Then, she shows up in her Santa Claus scrubs and a headband that looks like reindeer antlers.
Gran loved that stupid headband so much that Jessie bought her one of her own for Christmas. All through the spring, those antlers bobbed on Gran’s head like cattails in the wind as she sat on the porch drinking her afternoon tea. The kids who got off the school bus at the corner of Ryerson and Maple sniggered as they passed our house.
No wonder people say we need to send her to the home.
The headband bugged Momma, too. “I hate that thing,” she said when Gran put it on her head or just sat holding it in her trembling fingers. “I don’t know what possessed Jessie to buy it.”
It never really bothered me. If wearing a simple holiday toy could make Gran’s eyes light up like they did back when she could kneel in her flower beds for hours, pulling weeds and tossing them aside like a holy rolling minister casting out sin, then I didn’t care if the whole neighborhood pointed and laughed. Once when I was tucking Gran in for the night, I took the headband off her nightstand and put it on my own head. Gran cackled and clapped with delight.
“You look funny, Bev, like a little puppet.” She reached out and wagged one of the antlers back and forth while I made silly faces. Abruptly, her delighted laughter died in her throat, and she was a bleary-eyed old woman with a face like crumpled paper again.
“Take them off. They’re mine. You can have them later, when I can’t use them anymore.”
I yanked off the headband and set it on the nightstand, where Gran could reach it. I didn’t take her change of mood or her odd fear that I’d want to take off with her silly antlers personally. I was just happy I’d had her smiling for a brief moment.
At first, everyone in our little town supported us when we decided to keep Gran at home in spite of her failing health. I work the night shift down at the diner, serving drunks pancakes and eggs when the bars close and they need something to sop up all the booze. But Momma is home with Gran most of the time. They sit up and watch TV together sometimes while I’m at the diner, serving up endless cups of coffee and plastered-on smiles to men who think gawking and asking for my phone number makes up for leaving lousy tips.
Momma and Gran were watching Three’s Company re-runs the night Rick Strathmore came into the diner full of whiskey and did a little more than just stare. He reached out and pinched my rump as I was leaving his table. I jumped and skittered away, spilling a tray of waffles and bacon all over the floor. Believe it or not, that was the first time something like that had ever happened to me. As town drunks go, ours are polite. They stare, but they usually don’t touch. I was so shook up that Ned, the cook, walked me to my car at the end of my shift.
Gran and Momma were still up, staring at the boob tube. Jack, Janet and Chrissie were getting into some scrape at the Regal Beagle. Gran was in her tatty blue housedress and Momma wore her bleach-stained sweats. I sat on the couch between them, comforted by Chrissie’s snorting laughter on the TV and the vague smell of camphor coming off of Gran.
“How was work tonight, honey?” Gran asked, and I burst into tears.
Momma was shocked when I told them what Rick Strathmore had done. He runs the auto body shop in town, and always gives us a good deal when our old clunker needs a tune-up. Sometimes in the summer, he sends his son over to mow the lawn for us free of charge, and Momma drives the boy home loaded down with a tin of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies or containers of chicken and biscuits. We aren’t friends with Rick Strathmore, exactly, but he looks after us the way lifers in a small mountain town will watch over a house full of women who have no men folk to call their own.
“See if he gets any more biscuits from me,” Momma harrumphed, and huffed off to the kitchen to make me a mug of tea. Gran just clucked softly, that sloppy suction sound she makes when she’s not wearing her dentures, and then said “Never mind him, dear. I’m sure he won’t bother you anymore.”
I figured she was right. Strathmore didn’t hit the whisky all that much. He’d had a rough night, and probably wouldn’t even remember it in the morning. I was over-reacting, and had best just forget about it unless I wanted to mow the lawn myself this summer.
A week later Will, Rick Strathmore’s teenage son, fell off his bike while doing his morning newspaper deliveries. He bounced off the concrete and cracked his head. Ginny Kindle, who lives a block away from the Strathmores and walks her yappy terrier just before dawn each morning, found him lying unconscious in front of her mailbox. He was drooling a little, his hair was matted and sticky, and the sidewalk was dappled with blood. Will is home from the hospital now, playing X-Box and having friends bring by his homework while the hairline fracture on his skull heals.
Ginny told Momma that Will said he’d swerved to avoid a woman who had come running down the sidewalk in the dusk. The kid claims she was aiming straight for him as if she didn’t even see him coming. It was still dark, and a thick fog had enveloped the streets, so he couldn’t really make out much other than that she was wearing some sort of housedress or nightgown.
Well, he also mentioned something about antennas sticking out of her head.
Momma and I had actually burst out laughing when we heard that. Surely the kid had suffered too hard a hit to his noggin. Or maybe he’d gone out to his father’s shed and gotten stoned before his morning deliveries. Everyone knew Will Strathmore and his buddies smoked weed. A woman with antennas flying towards him in the darkness had to be a hallucination.
Our town has boozers, lots of gossips and even a flasher, but no aliens.
Just the same, after that night I took Gran’s antler headband off her nightstand and carried it to my own room, where I stuffed it in the back of the closet. People didn’t need to see Gran sitting on the porch with it waggling on top of her head while all this yapping about an “antenna woman” went on.
Of course, the tongues wagged anyway. It was while Will Strathmore was home recovering and telling his story to anyone who would listen, which is everyone in a town where the most exciting thing to do on a Saturday night is listen to a geezer with a goatee and a guitar sing Willie Nelson songs at the local dive bar, that people started talking about Gran.
Neighbors still stopped by to see if we needed them to pick us up anything from the city when they made their weekly jaunts. But instead of having a cup of coffee and chatting about the weather, they asked about Gran with probing, wary looks in their eyes. Ginny even went so far as to ask me if I thought Gran could be out wandering at night.
I said of course not. Even Ginny knows that Gran has dragged me and Momma to church every Sunday morning for years. But lately, her ankles and knees have swollen like well-fed ticks, and even scooting along with her walker is painful. We haven’t been to church in three months. Instead, Momma and I say a little prayer over our Sunday morning coffee. We ask God to forgive us for being a wee bit relieved that Gran’s knees are finally granting us a day to sleep in.
The other day, I checked the mail and found a manila envelope with my name, Bev Amos, scrawled across it in loopy print. Inside was a glossy brochure for someplace called Sunset Acres Assisted Living.
The words “The Sunset of Your Life – a Beautiful Time to be Enjoyed in a Beautiful Place,” were etched across the front of it. Under the words was a picture of a smiling elderly couple sitting in matching rockers on a Colonial porch. They were holding hands as they gazed out over carefully manicured gardens.
Inside the brochure was a handwritten note from Monica Miller, the local librarian. “My husband’s parents, Everett and Mabel, have lived at Sunset for a year now, and they love it. Have a look, and if you want to come with us to see the place the next time we visit them, let us know.”
I tore the brochure into long, even strips and threw them in the trash, then dumped a few leftovers from the fridge on top of the shreds to bury them. Gran must never be able to piece that brochure together, and it would only make Momma cry. Those pictures of that happy old couple on a sunlit porch could never tell the whole story of how everything inside the place smells faintly of air freshener, disinfectant, and piss. There’s a reason they don’t make scratch-n-sniff nursing home brochures.
For the rest of that summer, I pushed my thoughts of Gran’s declining health, as well as any lingering worries over teenage boys who got stoned and fell of their bikes, out of my mind. Gran spent more and more time in her room, and when I came home from work Momma was usually sitting alone in front of the TV.
One night in August, Momma was sitting in the dark when I got home. I grabbed a beer from the fridge and joined her on the couch. She looked at me with eyes so drawn and tired that you’d think she was the one who had just spent 10 hours trotting around with an order pad and a coffee pot.
“She’s talking in her sleep again, Bev.” Momma said wearily.
“What does she say?” I asked.
“I can‘t really understand her,” Momma replied. “She’s mostly just mumbling. But sometimes it sounds almost like she says ‘make them stop.’ It scares me a little.”
I took a gulp of beer to quell the icy fingers tickling my spine. “Well, that makes no sense at all, Momma. She’s just dreaming.”
Jessie and the doctor both say Gran’s mind is on the way out. She sometimes asks for my grandfather, who has been dead fifteen years, or calls me “Sherry,” which is Momma’s name. Once, she called Jessie “Bev,” which was really funny since Jessie outweighs me by almost a hundred pounds and has long black hair instead of my tussle of short blonde curls.
In early September, Gran fell and broke her hip. I was off that night, out on a date with John Clements. He and his daughter Ashley moved here from the city after his divorce. He wanted Ashley away from the neighborhood that had drawn her mother into drugs and booze. I guess as long as he keeps Ashley away from Will Strathmore and his weed, she’ll be okay. We’d met when John and Ashley had come into the diner for the Tuesday night spaghetti special, and John and I have been catching a drink and a movie on my nights off ever since. The night of Gran’s injury, we were taking in a horror flick and sharing a bucket of popcorn. Back at home, Momma fell asleep on the couch with the remote in her hand. Gran took it upon herself to try to make it downstairs for a glass of water. At least she got to the bottom step before she slipped.
Jessie started coming five days a week after that. Momma was guilt-ridden and afraid to leave the house even when I was home or Jessie was on the job. I tried to reassure her. After the fall, we rearranged the house and turned the downstairs study into Gran’s room. She rarely left her bed. Instead of having me help her to the porch rocker with her paper and afternoon tea, she just called for me to bring them to her bedside.
Still, it took Momma a month to work up the nerve to leave for even the smallest errands. She forgot about the stack of library paperback romances she had sitting on her nightstand, and they were two weeks overdue when she took them back to the library. Monica Miller gave her an earful, and Momma broke down sobbing and told her about Gran.
Two days later, there was another envelope in the mail addressed to me. This time, it was a greeting card, the kind with nothing but blank space inside so the sender can write their own note.
Please give me a call. Have you had a chance to look over the brochure I sent this summer? I know decisions like these are hard to think about and even harder to talk about, but I’d really like to help. I worry about your mom, too. Your friend, Monica.”
This time, I didn’t throw the evidence away. I tucked it into my underwear drawer and pulled it out at least once a day. I read it over and over again, until my eyes blurred with unshed tears. On my next evening off, I sat on my bed with the note in my lap and my cell phone in my hand, dialing the first four digits of Monica’s number and then hanging up. After I’d done this twice, I tossed both the phone and the note on my pillow and went to my closet, where I rummaged until I found Gran’s antler headband. Holding the silly plush novelty in my hand and thinking of Gran’s faraway smile as it bobbed on her head in time to the motion of her porch rocker caused a fresh flood of tears to stream down my cheeks.
I couldn’t send her to Sunset Acres, or anyplace like it. I just couldn’t. But were Momma and I really able to give her all the help she needed, even with Jessie? Was it fair that Momma was tying herself to this old house while she was still young enough to get out and enjoy her own life?
With these thoughts swimming through my head, I tossed the antlers, the letter and my phone on my nightstand, curled up under my covers, and drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
The next morning, I was sitting in Gran’s rocker having my second cup of coffee when Momma raced up the walk. Her hair was tousled and her eyes were wide. She’d left early that morning to stock up on some new romances, and I figured she’d just worked herself into a panic about Gran. Her brisk pace in the chill morning air should have put a blush on her cheeks, but instead she was ghostly white.
“She’s fine, Momma,” I began, but she cut me with off with a bewildered “Huh?”
Then she took a deep gulp of the crisp air and said “Good. Oh, good. But that’s not why I was hurrying. I wanted to catch you before you got on with your day. Can you take me to the grocery store? I need to make a casserole.”
“A casserole? Sure. But, um, dinner’s no reason to get worked into a tizzy.” I smiled gently at her. Gran was enough of a handful. I didn’t need Momma losing her marbles on me.
“Oh, no, honey. The casserole isn’t for dinner. I’m making it for poor Monica and her family. Her father-in-law died last night!” In that awful, breathless rush that people reserve for telling tales of death and tornados, Momma went on to explain how Monica hadn’t been at the library, and the college girl Tina who worked there part-time had said it was because her family had gotten a call from Sunset Acres that morning to tell them that Everett Miller had died during the night.
“That’s awful,” I said, somewhat automatically. I felt bad for Monica and her husband, but I wasn’t exactly surprised. Everett Miller was eighty.
“Really awful,” Momma nodded. “He went out wandering the grounds late last night. He and his wife aren’t … weren’t … in the actual nursing home side of the place. They live on one of the floors where you can come and go as you please, because they still get … got around pretty good. But that doesn’t mean an old man should go wandering off alone at night.”
I was sitting up straighter now, stilling the rocker with my foot. “Well, what exactly happened to him out there?”
“They aren’t sure. His wife woke up and he wasn’t in bed. He sleepwalks sometimes, so she got worried. She checked the bathroom and the common area and couldn’t find him there, either. Rather than go get one of the staff to help her, she went out looking for him herself. She found him on the far side of the gardens, behind a maze of bushes. They say it looks like he fell and broke his neck. But he walks those gardens every darn day.” Momma’s brow furrowed.
“But it was night, Momma. It was dark, and he’s old. It’s terrible, and I’m so sorry for Monica and her husband, but …”
“You’re right. It’s just that … well, I’m sure the poor old lady was a wreck. I know I would be. But Mabel Miller swore she saw a woman running off into the woods. Mabel said she popped out from behind a bush and took off. She even called out to the woman for help, but she just kept running.”
Momma swayed woozily, so I stood up and coaxed her into the rocker. She looked up with big eyes, blue and thick-lashed like my own, full of sadness for the Millers. Then she asked if I’d bring out her recipe book, because in towns like ours, the smells of death are masked by those of casseroles baking in the oven.
When Jessie came, I took Momma to the store to get her fixings. I stayed in the car as she shopped, smoking a cigarette and hating myself for the smug feeling that was spreading like a rash across my chest.
“Tell me more about your damn Sunset Acres, Monica. They couldn’t even keep your father-in-law from wandering out in the dark and killing himself. At least Gran is still alive.”
That thought made me feel so bad that I took the night off so that after Momma made her casserole, I could drive her over to Monica’s myself. I waited outside while Momma offered up food and condolences, afraid that if she saw my face Monica would know how glad I was that I’d never worked up the nerve to call her about that damn place.
When Momma came out and climbed into the car a few minutes later, she grabbed my cigarettes and lit one for herself. “Monica says Mabel still swears she saw a woman running away. And that the woman had something that looked like antennas on her head.”
The similarities to Will Strathmore’s story were just too much to consider out loud, so we drove the rest of the way home in silence. Momma doesn’t drink, but once we were inside she poured herself a shot of brandy and went to her room. Unable to settle down myself, I went to the kitchen to tackle the dinner dishes.
The first thing I saw when I flicked on the lights was Gran’s antler headband, sitting on the kitchen table beside the little basket of silk flowers Momma sets out for decoration. My heart hammering in my chest, I crossed over to the table and picked it up. It was soft and familiar in my hand. There was a speck of dried mud on the headband, and a tiny twig poking from the left antler.
“A woman with antennas on her head ….”
With my heart still pounding like a hammer hitting my chest, I tiptoed to Gran’s room. The door was closed but not latched, and opened with a feeble groan when I nudged it. Gran was propped up on her pillows, lost in a deep sleep. Her mouth was open and her breath escaped her in a snore that was almost a whisper.
I made my way to the bed and stood over her, covering the hand that rested on her chest with my own. Her fingers felt like charred paper. As I watched her chest rise and fall with the breathing of sleep, I was surprised to realize how small she was now. Gran had always been a stout if short woman. Now, she seemed like a withered husk, lost in her sea of blankets. I found myself thinking her quilt could just swallow her up, and I’d come to check on her in the morning and she’d be gone.
The absurdity of what had run through my mind in the kitchen hit me then, and a jagged laugh – part relief and part sadness – escaped my lips.
There was no antenna woman. And if there was, it certainly wasn’t Gran. She couldn’t even make it to our yard without Momma and I helping her anymore. She used a walker to get to the bathroom, and slept more than she was awake. How could I have thought for even a second that my grandmother, who was gentle and loving in the best of health and was now also weak and frail with old age, had flown at Will Strathmore like a banshee and scared him into wrecking his bike? Even more absurd, that she’d hiked five miles to Sunset Acres to catch old Mr. Miller out on his night stroll?
Everyone said Gran was losing her mind, but maybe I was the one who needed her head checked.
Momma went to Mr. Miller’s funeral. The police did a cursory investigation at Sunset Acres. John is friends with Jack Finnegan, one of the cops on the case. Jack said they didn’t put much stock in Mabel Miller’s story. Eighty-year-old men who wander around at night fall down. When young Will Strathmore had taken his tumble, Monica had told Mabel the kid‘s “antenna woman” story. It had probably lodged in her subconscious and come crawling out in her distraught state.
November faded into December, and the air turned crisper and colder. We got our first flurries of the season the day Momma and I put up the Christmas tree. Our tree is artificial, but we use that pine-scented air freshener so the living room smells like it did back when Gramps was alive and would take us to cut down a live one. Gran actually came out of her room and sat on the couch to watch us decorate and sip a glass of eggnog.
Jessie stopped by as I was putting the final touches on the tree. She was on her way to a Christmas party given by her employer, and was wearing slacks and a sparkly red sweater instead of her scrubs. Her hair was twisted up into a wild ponytail, and shiny earrings made to look like Christmas tree balls bounced softly against her cheeks. She was loaded down with gifts – a new quilt for Gran, slippers for Momma, and some scented bath products for me. Momma ran upstairs to our little gift stash and brought Jessie the candles and scarf we’d gotten her while I finished up the tree. Jessie sat next to Gran and gave her a hug.
“Where’s your headband, Ms Amos?” she asked with a chuckle. “It’s that time of year again, you know.”
My hand hung suspended midair, a silver ball dangling from my fingers.
“Headband? I haven’t worn a headband in years,Beverly,” Gran said to Jessie, and patted her hand. “Could you get me another glass of eggnog?”
“Sure, Miz A.” Jessie’s eyes were soulful and she chewed her lip thoughtfully as she hoisted her hefty weight from the couch. “Bev, can I talk to you for a second?” she asked as she made her way into the kitchen.
“Sure thing.” I hung the silver ball on a bare branch and followed Jessie. She was leaning against the kitchen counter, and took my hand as I came up beside her. Her eyes were troubled and friendly as she spoke, but the hard, factual edge of a medical professional sharpened her voice.
“I know this isn’t the best time to bring this up, Bev, with the holidays and all. But after the New Year, I really think we should sit down and talk about options. She’s only getting worse, and it will continue. My agency can help find the right place …”
“Like Sunset Acres?” I spat bitterly.
“Maybe, but not necessarily …”
“Lot of good they did Everett Miller,” I cut her off.
Jessie sighed. “We just need to start thinking about it, Bev. I don’t mean to upset you.”
I took a deep breath and sighed, watching light dance off of Jessie’s big earrings and flurries fall softly out the window behind her.
“I know, Jess. Sorry I snapped. Let’s get through the New Year, and Momma and I will come down to the agency to talk some more after the holidays, okay?”
“Okay.” Jessie reached out and gave me a hug. I resisted at first, but her meaty arms were comforting and she smelled of soap and gingerbread, so I gave in.
Jessie stayed for a glass of eggnog, and left wearing the scarf we had given her. Gran didn’t notice her leave, because she was too busy asking me and Momma if the cookies neither of us were making would be done before Gramps got home from his poker night.
I knew Jessie was dead before we got the call from the agency, and before John came into the diner to tell me the news he’d gotten from Jack.
I knew she’d had just a little too much to drink at her employer’s Christmas party. Nothing that would alarm anyone, just a glass or two more than she usually allowed herself. I knew she’d driven with the window down and the music loud to keep herself alert, and had taken the back roads to avoid traffic.
But avoiding traffic took her right to that sharp turn that leads to the bridge about a mile outside of town. She hit a patch of black ice and crashed her little compact car. That car had always seemed way too small for her girth. She slid off the road, slammed into a big oak tree, and died on impact.
I knew all this before the newspapers reported the unfortunate accident, and before the agency began scrambling to answer questions about serving too much booze at the Christmas party.
I also knew that if Jessie had lived long enough to tell anyone what she had seen in her final moments, she would have sworn that a woman darted out of the line of trees on the side of the road, flying straight towards her little car with an expression of unfathomable rage on her face.
The last thing she saw, Jessie would swear if she knew anyone who could speak to the dead, were the antlers on the woman’s head, bobbing merrily from a headband she herself had given a little old lady for Christmas a year ago.
I knew all this because I was there. I have no recollection of leaving the house or of the long walk I must have taken through the bitter cold night, snow falling in my hair and the wind whipping through my thin nightgown.
But I do know that I woke up aching and cold by the side of the road. I was curled in the fetal position, and the muscles of my legs and arms screamed painful protests at the hard ground and the biting wind. There was something soft but knobby poking into the side of my face.
Reaching under my cheek with my numb hand, I pulled out the crumpled headband, and could have sworn I heard Gran cackle in the distance.
I am scared now.
I want to turn myself in. I thought I was going to, today.
But I’m not sure I can. Momma talked to a few of Jessie’s colleagues at the funeral. They said they were short-staffed until they found a replacement for Jessie, and someone can only come to help with Gran two days a week for a while. And this morning, I heard Momma on the phone with Monica Miller, talking about Sunset Acres.
I rustled up my cigarette lighter from my purse and went to burn the headband in the sink. But when I tried, pain shot up my arm and I couldn’t get the flame to catch.
In her room, Gran snores softly, a peaceful expression on her face.