As a child I had this terror of the night. It would kick in after Alice nodded off. I’d lie in bed and listen for the moment her breathing changed from the quick, light breath of her wakefulness to the long, peaceful sucking and blowing of her sleep. Next, I’d listen for my dad wearily plodding in from the garage, my mom putting up the last of the dishes, straining my ears for the click of the lights being switched off as they trundled to bed, imagining the house growing darker with each click. Kitchen. Click.Outside porch light. Click. Living room. Click.Hallway. Click.The small standing lamp at the end of the hallway. Click.Water would run. The toilet would flush. Depending on the house and on how much they’d been drinking, I would hear my parents’ muffled conversation or argument or the soft thump-thumps of their carnal roughhousing, my father’s rhythmic grunting, my mother’s, Oh…yes…oh…oh…ohhhhh!A door might slam. A peal of laughter might ring out.
Under no circumstances were Alice and I allowed to disturb them once their bedroom door was closed. My mother’s rule. “It could scar you for life, trust me,” she’d say. I didn’t trust her, but knew better than to go against her. So I’d lie there imagining the terrifying hush of the darkness wrapping itself around the throw pillows on the couch, around the ankles of our kitchen table, creeping its way up the stairs to where I lay, wide-awake, frightened out of my mind. I’d feel as though I were the only person alive.
Old enough to understand the difference between sleep and death, I was still unable to calm my racing heart, and would tune my ears to the outside world, seeking comfort in the random stoppings and startings of the traffic outside, the slam of a car door, an eighteen-wheeler on a distant freeway, a neighbor’s dog barking—anything to assure me that, somewhere, life continued, that I wasn’t really alone. Blankets pulled up to my nose, my feather pillow pulled down over my eyes, I’d focus on the suck-blow suck-blowof Alice’s breath. Try to match it.
Some nights I was so scared I had to wake her. I hated doing it. She was my little sister and should have been the one scared and waking me. But, unlike me, Alice took refuge in the night, when the complicated social demands of the day were finally finished.
“Alice! Alice! You awake?” I’d whisper, then listen for her to blindly reach past the little Scottie dog lamp standing sentinel on the nightstand separating us, past the meticulously placed ChapStick Alice always kept on her side of the nightstand so she could coat her lips before going to sleep—God forbid I should ever touch it!—finally landing on her thick black glasses with the rubber headband. What purpose she supposed those glasses served her in the dark, I cannot tell you. Understanding the reasoning behind Alice’s decisions was like trying to understand an appliance manual printed in a foreign language. The one thing you couldbe sure of, whatever choice she made was thought out, in triplicate.
I’d roll onto my side, prop myself up on my elbow, hoping to give the impression of the untroubled, slightly annoying big sister I so wanted to be, my eyes dissecting the shadows until I could make out her knees tenting the blankets of her bed, her elbows poking out as she adjusted the elastic strap of her glasses.
“What?” she’d grumble.
“I just wanted to see if you were sleeping.”
“Obviously, I was. What do you want?”
“I heard Mrs. Kearin say that they’re closing down the school library next week for renovations.”
This might or might not have been true. The point was to get Alice talking, and if there was one place Alice loved, it was the school library. Anytime she wasn’t required to be in class, you could be sure to find her at the library, even during recess. Whatever new school we were thrust into—and we were thrust into a great many, we moved a lot—she’d immediately stalk the librarian until the poor woman had no choice but to befriend her, which would activate the second step of Alice’s campaign: to gain early morning and recess access. I suspect this was to bypass the cruel teasing she invariably endured in each new schoolyard, but as I said, one never really knew with Alice.
Alarmed, and shifting around in her bed, she’d respond to the news of the library closure just as I’d hoped, with a good dose of wide-awake adrenaline. “What?! Why didn’t she tell me?”
“I dunno. Guess she forgot.”
“She wouldn’t forget to tell me that,” she’d say. Or something along those lines. “Mrs. Kearin doesn’t forget things like that. Then again…she’s been busy. A whole bunch of science books got donated; need to be catalogued, they do. Or maybe it’s because her dog’s been sick. She told me about it Wednesday when I was helping her restock books…”
If I chose my topic wisely, Alice might go on for some time, weighing out the possibilities and consequences of this new bit of information. I’d pretend to listen, yawn a few concerned huhs and ohs, her muttered gripings lulling me to sleep.
Now she is gone.
Seventy-seven years old and she just had to climb that ladder to clean our leaf-filled gutters. From the look of it, the earth was at fault, not Alice. No surprise there. It gave way under a leg of the six-foot aluminum ladder, sending her toppling into the stucco garage where she slammed her head against its sharp corner. Probably due to a collapsed gopher tunnel. Alice hated gophers. I’m horrified to admit that last week, when she was setting a trap, I called out to her, “These gophers are going to be the death of you!” I was annoyed with her at the time. I can’t remember why.
I’m the one who found her, sprawled out on the cement path between our small yard and the garage, her head resting in a halo of congealed blood. I’d just come back from my daily beach stroll—the only thing that keeps my bad hip from seizing up. I didn’t find her right away. Went first to replace my sneakers with house slippers, as I always do, then wandered out to the yard to ask if she wanted lunch. A pointless question: we always lunched after my walks.
For all I know, this dramatic death was part of her plan. In the past months, the ever-practical Alice seemed to be intentionally putting herself in harm’s way—no doubt to avoid the nuisance of a slow, excessively needy death. She straddled the pitched roof to replace some rotted-out shingles; did some rewiring of the garage; rescued the neighbor’s mewling kitten from our old, non-bearing, avocado tree; each task seemingly begging karma to drop that final calling card.
I confess, karma is my thought, not Alice’s. Alice did not—would not—buy into the concept of karma. Cause and effect, sure. Cosmic scorekeeping? Way too hocus-pocus for Alice.
I had misgivings about moving in with Alice. She is—was—not the easiest of people. Nor was she wild about me moving in, but I expected that. She never welcomed change. It wasn’t programmed into her DNA, which is what I’d counted on four years ago when I lost Kim, the love of my life, to pancreatic cancer: a healthy dose of Alice’s rigidity to anchor me back to life. I reminded her that the house where she was living, once our parents’ house, officially belonged to both of us. Promised not to mess with her studio in the garage. Promised not to leave dishes in the sink. Promised not to rearrange things without her approval. Promised not to make her try new foods. She relented, at last, and we made it work, she and I, and in the end, I think she was happy to have me.
Now she too is dead and I have officially outlived everyone who cares about me. My childhood nightmare, in earnest.
My name is Lucy Louise Mustin. I am seventy-nine years old and occupy the last branch of our family tree. It’s October 23, 2015, 1:59 a.m., in Santa Cruz, California. Exhausted as I am, I can’t sleep. The day was unseasonably warm and breezy. We’re four years into a terrible drought. Fires rage in the hills up north—at least one of them believed to be the work of an arsonist. When the wind is up, the foul odor of smoke blows through my open window. I am settled into my favorite Morris chair with a cup of chamomile tea on the small cherry table next me; on my knees, my favorite of Kim’s crocheted blankets; on my heart, a secret that’s been harbored there too long.
Alice killed our mother.
Or maybe we both did.
This unresolved distinction has been rattling around in me for twenty-six years.
Actually, that’s not quite true. There have been periods of time when I put the whole horrible episode to rest; however erroneously, I convinced myself that I’d come to terms with what happened that night. But tonight, left with only my nit-picking inner critic, whose sole goal seems to be to make sure I meet my maker with an uneasy conscience, I am experiencing a troubled wakefulness, much like that of my childhood.
If you are reading this, I ask that you refrain from judging me, or Alice, too harshly. Then again, for all I know, no one will ever read this. But that’s of no consequence to my purpose. I need to tell the truth of what happened that night.
Outside, the barking of restless sea lions reminds me that life does, indeed, go on.
When All We Had Were Land Lines
October 9, 1989, Portland, Oregon. I was sitting in my small kitchen with my best friend, Toi. My second-story flat sat right under where the aerial tram is now. Like many photographers, Toi made a good portion of her living shooting weddings. I baked custom cakes. We were both single lesbians and, ironically, got much of our business from Dune, a wedding planner, also gay. He was every bride’s dream: a screaming queen who could talk tulle and shrimp canapés until even the most eager of brides howled uncle. Called his business Fabulous Weddings. I’m not kidding. We were quite the outfit: middle-aged, single homosexuals preying on the happily-ever-after dreams of young, starry-eyed heterosexuals, at a time when we couldn’t legally marry.
“I’m dreading Sunday,” Toi said, topping off her glass of Cabernet. Toi loved her Cabernet. Tall and muscular, she cut a striking presence. Her skin, a gorgeous olivey cocoa, had an amazing sheen, and she moved like a professional athlete, hopping over chairs, slaloming through tipsy guests and tables covered in fancy finger foods to get the perfect shot. “The bride’s mother has called me a gazillion times,” she continued. “She’s an amateur photographer and worried about the light. Thinks we should move the gazebo. I keep telling her I know the park. I’ve shot weddings there before.”
I pulled a tray of chocolate chip cookies from the oven. “Pass her off on Dune. That’s what he gets the big bucks for.”
I was a few years into being single, and its perks were starting to wear thin. As for Toi, she was in one of her I’ll-never-date-again phases, which is to say we were both more or less happy hanging out in our sweats on a Monday night, drinking Cab and feasting on homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Toi peeled a molten cookie off the pan. She had asbestos fingers, that one. “Think I should get my hair cut?”
She carried her cookie over to the small round mirror above my kitchen light switch. I had little mirrors positioned all over my second-floor flat, an attempt to feng shui myself into abundance and well-being, and while I hadn’t noticed a dramatic change in either category, I hadn’t given up hope.
Toi fussed with her shoulder-length dreadlocks. “I’ve been thinking of shaving my head. Just to shake things up.”
“Shaving your head at our age smacks of midlife crisis.” I cranked open the window to fend off an oncoming hot flash. “That, or people will think you have cancer.”
“I told you about that dyke zygote that called me a Whoopi Goldberg wannabe.”
I’ll admit, I’m embroidering the scene a little. While it’s true Toi was always calling young people zygotes or embryos or guppies, I have no idea if she’d just done so when the phone rang. I’m just giving you a taste of the carefree life I was living at the time. I’m sure I waited for the answering machine to pick up. I wouldn’t have picked up with the cookies just out of the oven. (Since my home phone also served as my business phone I had to draw the line somewhere.) I’mequally sure, when I heard who it was, I picked up immediately.
“Emma, I’m here. Is everything okay?”
Emma Buswell lived across the street from my mom and Alice in Santa Cruz. She was a nosypants, but I appreciated her immensely. She called when the ambulance hauled off my dad. Called when my mom tripped on the curb and sprained her wrist. Called when Alice was using a leaf blower at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Okay, so I didn’t appreciate thatcall so much. But in general, I welcomed her communications. A middle-aged, self-proclaimed Earth Mama, she wore scads of jewelry: rings couched in the fatty pillows of her blunt fingers, an army of silver bangles that jangled at her frequent gesticulations. I could hear the bracelets over the phone. Clinkity. Clink. Clink.“You need to come.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I haven’t seen your mother orAlice outside for weeks. Not since the middle of September when Alice hauled a bunch of furniture out on the street and stuck ‘Free’ signs on it.”
“Wait. What? She gave away Mom’s furniture?” I glanced at Toi. She knew Alice, knew how uncomfortable I felt leaving her and Mom living alone together.
“Not all of it. But a stack. You know that nice couch? That walnut roll top desk?”
“Mom’s leather couch?”
Toi shook her head and chuckled. “Hoo boy.”
“I’m going to give Alice a call,” I said, by way of closing out the conversation. “Thank you for calling.” The woman would talk your ear off if you let her.
Toi topped off my wine glass. “Trouble in Surf City?”
“Do you mind if I…?”
“Of course not. Go at it. But no guarantees there’ll be any cookies left by the time you get off the phone. And say hello to that nutty sister of yours.”
I took the phone into the small alcove off the kitchen, and gazed down onto the mossy, postage-stamp yard where my downstairs neighbor was trying, unsuccessfully, to grow pot. What had I been thinking leaving Alice and Mom alone in the house after Dad’s heart attack? I’d known Mom was starting to lose it, even then. The truth was, I’d let Alice convince me that everything would be fine. “We’ve lived cheek by jowl this long, sis. I’m sure we’ll do okeydoke.”
She picked up on the second ring. “Mustin residence. How may I help you?”
I pictured her in the cramped hallway between the bathroom and her bedroom using the mustard-colored phone with the long cord. It was the only phone she’d use, despite my having bought her and Mom a new cordless one. She saw no point in it. Why would she want to walk while talking on the phone? I pictured her wearing one of her kilts and a light sweater or T-shirt, knee socks, and a clunky pair of shoes or boots. I pictured her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, her thick Clark Kent glasses pushed up high on the bridge of her nose. She had a wide selection of kilts, collected them from all over the place; it’s all she ever wore.
“Alice, what’s going on? Emma says you haven’t been out in months.”
“Pretty much housebound these days, sis. Mom’s short-term memory is pushing up daisies. She’s packed her bags and returned to years gone by. Got her a walker, I did, but she refuses to use it. Thinks I’m Aunt Evockia half the time. Getting her out of the house is more trouble than it’s worth, it is. Can’t leave her alone, I can’t. No. No. No. Unless we want all hell to break loose.”
I tried not to panic. With Alice, “all hell breaking loose” could mean anything from a light left on to a four-alarm fire. She was born with Asperger’s disorder. Or that’s what I believe. She might have just had a monster case of OCD, or some other syndrome they have yet to classify—the Alice Syndrome—but she was never diagnosed as a child, and refused to be as an adult. Unless you counted one of the many diagnoses my mother gave her over the years: inhuman, devil child, stupid little goat…Or the one the small town doc gave her, which was actually a diagnosis of Mom. He called her a “refrigerator mother,” said Alice’s behavior was a result of her “lack of maternal warmth.” While it’s true that Euvonda Mae Mustin was not the nurturing type—if you came in crying from a busted open knee, she’d point toward the bathroom and say, “Don’t go bleeding on my good carpet!” followed by, “I swear! Somewhere, in a Louisiana swamp, there’s a tree stump with a higher IQ than you!”—it stands to reason her lack of maternal warmth would have similarly affected me. It is also true that other mothers might have shown a bit more patience with Alice.
“If you can’t leave the house, how are you grocery shopping?” I asked.
“Found a grocer that’ll deliver, sisteroo. Everything is fine. Shipshape. Aye aye, Captain.”
I ignored Alice’s attempt at humor. “Could you put Mom on?”
“Put her on what?”
Thanks to what I like to call Mom’s Hollywood Therapy, which basically consisted of forcing Alice to watch hours of TV and movies in the hope that she’d learn to at least give the impression of being normal, listening to Alice was much like listening to a bad actor recite lines. She’d emphasize the wrong words, would go up in pitch when the sentence wanted to go down.
“Alice, I’m serious.”
“Okay. Let’s do it. Get on with it. Make it happen.” There was a pause on her end. “Be right back.” Another pause. “A slight caveat, sisteroo: since her bladder infection, she hasn’t been the Mom we all know and love.”
“Bladder infection? When did that happen? Why didn’t you call?”
There was no response. Apparently, Alice had already gone to get Mom.
I scrolled through my mental calendar. How long had it been since I’d visited? Five months? Six? I tried to get down as often as I could. Dad’s death had accelerated Mom’s mental decline and I didn’t think it fair for Alice to have to go it alone. I’d stay a couple of nights, do some cooking. I worried that taking care of Mom was too much for Alice. Mom’s dementia made her even more impatient than usual, but Alice always assured me she had things “under control.” I can’t tell you how many times I cooked up something special only to have both of them dislike it. I think they were relieved each time I left. So was I. My relationship with my mother was strained long before she started losing her mind.
Gripping the phone, staring down at my neighbor’s sickly pot plant, I could feel my comfortable life in Portland shifting beneath my feet. I returned to the kitchen for my wine.
Toi shook her head. “That bad, huh?”
I didn’t know how to answer. Just tossed back what was left of my wine, poured myself another glass, grabbed a cookie, and headed back to the alcove.
I was two bites into the cookie when Mom came on the line. “Hello?” She sounded like she was holding the receiver to her neck. I could hear Alice instructing her to put it to her mouth. “Hello?” she said again, her voice all warbly.
“Mom. It’s me. Lucy. How are you doing?”
“We had breakfast for dinner. Used up all the eggs.”
“Two weeks ago,” Alice interjected. “That’s when.” I got the feeling she was holding the phone for Mom.
“I told you I wanted soup!”
“O-kay,” I said. “Besides that, are you feeling all right?”
There was some shuffling on the other end.
“She left,” Alice said. “Got distracted, she did.”
“Alice, what’s going on?”
“Told you. Since her bladder infection, she’s been more confused than usual.”
“Has she been to a doctor?”
“Yes, indeedydoo. Didn’t offer too many helpful hints, if you know what I mean. Antibiotics. All that. Infection’s gone. But she’s still confused.”
“Well, what did they say? Tell me exactly, Alice.”
“Hardening of the arteries. It’s natural. She’s old.”
I walked past Toi to the calendar in my closet-slash-office where I had a desk wedged in next to my sweaters. I was supposed to deliver thirty-six birthday cupcakes to Johnny Slattum’s third grade class on Wednesday. My thought was to drive down after dropping them off at the school, stay for a couple of days, see what was what, then tank up on caffeine and make the eleven-hour drive back for Sunday’s wedding cake—two cakes, actually, a lemon poppy seed cake with butter cream frosting and a bizarre groom’s cake too (his mother’s recipe). It would be exhausting, but I could do it. During wedding season I’d been known to pump out up to three cakes a day, but in the fall the jobs were few and far between. I really needed the money. “Okay, look. I’ve got a few things I need to take care of, but then I can come down for a couple of days. Can you get the spare room ready?”
“Will do, sisteroo.”
I didn’t wind up leaving until Thursday.
My reluctance to see my mother was fueled, in part, by the horrible argument we’d had the day of my father’s funeral. Mom didn’t want me bringing my girlfriend, Blue. Mom had met Blue, even liked Blue, called her “an awful lot of fun,” but she hadn’t told any of her friends about Blue, and while I could pass for straight, Blue never could, never would. She was a New Mexico cowgirl with multiple ear piercings, a Georgia O’Keeffe flower tattooed on her wrist (bold, back then), and wore her hair in a faux hawk. I thought I loved her. She thought she loved me. It was one of those relationships that mistook intensity for love. No matter. She should have been with me at my dad’s funeral, but Mom said if she came it would make the whole day about me instead of Dad, which was ridiculous, of course, so I brought her. Sprung for a motel. After Blue and I checked in at the Drift Inn, I went to check on Mom, leaving Blue in the room watching TV. That’s when I found out about the open casket.
“The family viewing is from five to six,” Mom said, handing me a program with the mortuary’s insignia of two crossed lilies right beneath my father’s name. “Still, you should look nice. Some of our close friends are invited for that time too.”
I was floored. Dad had had an unnatural fear of worms. He wanted to be cremated. I knew it. Mom knew it.
“You’re kidding!” I said.
She took a final drag on her Winston. “Don’t give me that look.” She stubbed the smoke out in a potted orchid, then discreetly tucked the butt beneath the accompanying condolence card. “I am a woman in mourning.”
She was wearing a stylish black silk dress with a row of tiny rhinestones around the neckline, clearly purchased for the occasion. Had had her hair and nails done too.
“Blue’s at the motel room,” I said coolly.
“Don’t you dare bring her to the funeral,” she said. “You’ll turn the whole thing into a circus.” There was alcohol on her breath.
I didn’t respond. Just stormed back to the motel without even saying hello to Alice and dumped onto Blue all that Mom had dumped onto to me, upsetting Blue, naturally.
“Fuck it! I’m not going,” she said.
“You have to!” I said.
But there was no talking Blue into anything.
I wound up boycotting the family viewing. I didn’t want to see my dad dead in a casket. Then, at the service, I couldn’t stand the thought of other people having seen him while I hadn’t, so I looked. I immediately regretted it. Mom had him duded out in a snappy Western shirt and bolo tie she’d given him for some birthday, an outfit he thought looked “hick” and had never worn. Alice told me the shirt didn’t even fit anymore, that it had to be slit up the back. At the reception at the house, Mom had Alice filling everyone’s champagne glasses and taking their covered dishes when they arrived, while she, the newly widowed, in her new black dress and new, pretty hair, held court among the mourners. I made myself stay, made myself smile when Mom introduced me to her friends, did my best to help Alice keep the potluck table looking fresh, drank my share of champagne, stuck around for cleanup, all the while keeping my emotions in check. When the last of the guests finally said their good-byes, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
That is, until Mom intercepted me at the door.
“Where are you going?”
“In case you’ve forgotten, you asked me to leave my girlfriend at the motel.”
“You’re just going to leave?”
“What do you want me to do? Sit around drinking spiked hot chocolate with you while Blue sits by herself at the motel? Is that what you had in mind?”
We were both on the wrong side of intoxicated, both speaking without thinking, which is why, no doubt, she let this slip out: “You being gay always ruins everything!”
Her words couldn’t have hit me harder than if she’d delivered them with a slap. “How?” I said. “How does my being gay ruin things?”
She knew she’d gone too far, but she wasn’t going to back down. She wanted the whole world to hurt as badly as she did; she was a wrecking ball gone rogue. “Has it never occurred to you,” she slurred, “I might have liked to have onenormal daughter? One whose wedding I could plan? Who would provide me with a handsome son-in-law to bring me flowers and tell me how young I look, even when we both know he’s lying? You don’t think thatwould have been nice? And how about your father? You don’t think it broke his heart that he never got to walk one of you girls down the aisle? Huh? You don’t think that might be part of what killed him?”
I think her spew stunned even her, because we both just stood there for a second listening to Alice emptying trash into the bin out back, our eyes filling with tears. Then I walked out the door. A week later, when I talked to her on the phone, she acted like everything was fine between us. It’s possible she didn’t remember the fight; forgetfulness was certainly becoming an issue with her. But I don’t think so. The silence smoldering under the small talk was deafening. Then, over time, she really didn’t remember. Couldn’t.
I did, though, and still hadn’t found a way to forgive her.
Don’t get the wrong impression about Mom. People loved her. It was hard not to. The mother of my youth had a style all her own: martini glass cupped in the palm of one hand, cigarette snugged between two slender fingers of the other, the next witticism teasing the corner of her crimson lips. She had impeccable timing, waiting for the perfect moment when a conversation lulled to deliver her bon mots with panache: “That dress on Darla Jenkins spreads her out like a cold supper!”
But one too many cocktails turned Mama Jekyll into Mama Hyde.
Growing up, Alice and I would watch warily as she fried up our fish sticks and tater tots, cocktail in one hand, grabbers in the other, happily singing show tunes. We knew that one more drink and she’d be slamming Alice’s and my plates down on the table, blaming us for Dad coming home late. “Lucy, would it killyou to try and look nice for a change? And, Alice, quit playing with your food and eat like a normalperson!” Still gripping her cocktail, she’d pace the kitchen, chain-smoking and berating us while we sat there, trapped, until we cleared our plates of the burned fish sticks and tater tots. “If I had known how hardit was to have children, if anyone had had the decencyto clue me in, I woulda thought twice, that’s for damn sure. I swear, raising you two is like being slowly pecked to death by a chicken! Honestly, coming home to you two! Who’d want to?”
She expected a lot from life. At eighteen had been crowned East Texas Yam Queen. Then, having reached the pinnacle of what small town life had to offer, she’d gone off and eloped with a traveling salesman—I’m not kidding. Dad was a Fuller Brush man at the time—and together they headed off for a bigger, bolder life.
I adored my dad. There was nothing I loved more than watching him wow the crowds on league nights at the bowling alley. Cigarette dangling, monogrammed bowling shirt hanging off his wiry frame, hair slicked back with pomade, he’d put a spin on that ball that would smack of a shooting star.
At home, though, when Mom wasn’t demanding his attention, which she was most of the time, it went to Alice. He’d step in when Mom lost patience. Would come up with things for him and Alice to do together: building a radio in the basement, helping him change the oil in his car. It made me insanely jealous. I wanted to be the one handing him screwdrivers and wrenches. Instead, I’d get stuck fending off Mom’s attempts to make me appreciate the joys of nice china, a well-cut dress, the wonders of womanhood. Mostly, though, Mom kept Dad to herself. She liked to point out that they were both left-handed, while Alice and I were both right-handed, as though this set us in different camps.
But there was one area where I was Dad’s number one: when he began dreaming of a new business venture. I was so desperate for his attention, I’d agree with whatever scheme he came up with. Once he got me on board, he’d approach Mom and Alice. “Lucy and I have been talking…haven’t we, kiddo?” I’d nod enthusiastically, and for a little while, I’dbe his special girl. His ruffling of my hair, his cigarette dropping ashes on my head, and his words: “As long as I’ve got you riding in my sidecar, we got nothing but green lights all the way, kiddo!” was worth suffering through Mom’s whining about the inconvenience of a move, worth the fights I’d have with Alice about her wanting to arrange our new room exactly like the old one, her going so far as to rearrange it while I was gone, even if it meant blocking our window with a bookshelf to get it exactlylike the last room. In those instances, I’d go straight to Dad, expecting him to take up for me. I’d wait until he was having his drink in the living room, his socked feet resting on the footrest of his La-Z-Boy. “Give it a rest,” he’d say, barely looking up from his newspaper, “or I’ll never hear the end of it from your sister.”
“Please, kiddo? Do it for me?”
Of course I would. I would do anything for him.
But this story isn’t about him.
Or maybe it is.
Maybe it’s about the shattered family he left behind after his heart attack.
He was lifting a fifty-pound bag of flour at what would be his last business venture, the Plaza Bakery. He dropped to his knees in front of a class of third graders, the visiting children being one of his many schemes to pump up sales.
Had he outlived my mother, none of what I’m about to tell you would have happened.
Of that one thing, I am certain.
On Tuesday, I baked Johnnie Slattum’s cupcakes. Then I took my old Volvo in for a tune-up while the cupcakes cooled; wrote the copy for a Lucy’s Custom Cakesad to be placed in a local weekly’s food issue; cut the neck and sleeves out of a sweatshirt, decided it looked stupid, and turned the whole thing into rags; picked up my Volvo and was told I was in dire need of new tires; went into debt on the tires. On Wednesday, I iced and delivered the thirty-six lemon poppy seed cupcakes to Woodland Elementary, mentally patted myself on the back for not having had children, then made the decision notto drive down after delivering the cupcakes, as I’d indicated I would, rationalizing that I didn’t want to do that much night driving. Instead, I got wretchedly drunk with Dune and Toi and we laughed ourselves silly over a potted plant that looked like a vagina. Once they’d left, I threw some clothes in a suitcase, set my alarm for 5:00 a.m., and tried to sleep. My mind, though, wouldn’t quit chewing on itself. Had Mom really been holding the phone to her neck, did she really not remember how it worked? Mom, who spent so much time gabbing with her friends on the phone that she’d yellowed the mouthpiece with nicotine stains?
Lest you think I am sitting here typing all this out on my laptop, let me relieve you of this misconception. Some months back, Alice got sick of me asking for help with my computer and installed an app that lets me speak my commands. It also, I have learned, converts my spoken word into text on the screen, which has been immensely useful as I am a terrible typist. It was a bit odd to use at first as the words on the screen lag behind, and I’m clearly going to have to proofread after each session (it autocorrected vagina to fajita), but it will allow me to get the story out. I’m due at the funeral parlor at ten this morning, which gives me time to put down a few more thoughts.
I miss Alice. The vision of her sprawled out there…How long did she suffer? The paramedics told me it would have been instantaneous, but I imagine they say that to everyone. No one wants to think of their loved one lying there suffering. To add insult to injury, I spotted that damn gopher out there this morning when I went to take out the trash. He was peeking his beastly little head out of a fresh mound, not a care in the world. The sight of him got me crying all over again.
Cleaning up the blood was awful. I used Alice’s towel (it seemed appropriate) and lots of bleach. The cement is still slightly stained, but I did what I could. Alice would have had a method to get it all up, I’m sure. She had a concoction for everything. I don’t mind the stain so much. It seems right that she should leave her mark, that any of us should. We will, each of us, be forgotten soon enough. I’ve just now spotted, through the sliding glass door, an aluminum water bottle on the back deck. One of the paramedics must have left it. Or maybe one of the neighbors. So many people trooped through here yesterday, so many wanting to help. The regulars: Emma Buswell and the nice young Realtor across the street…No doubt, he’s wondering what’s going to happen to the house when I die. They probably all are. Real estate has gone nuts around here.
One particular neighbor surprised me with her sincerity: a lovely, androgynous thing whose name I’ve forgotten. She asked if there was any blood, and did I need help cleaning it up. I thought her macabre at first. Turns out her dad has a hazmat business of some sort, which put my mind at ease. I think she’s a student at the university. Has a million tattoos and those ear things that aren’t quite earrings, more like placeholders for where the lobe used to be. They remind me of those little white donut-shaped stickers we used to paste on our three-ring notebook paper to keep the holes from ripping. She has some spunk, though, I’ll give her that. Rides around on a skateboard, jumping curbs, taking the corners sharp. It surprised me that she would offer to help. Most of the university students look right through me as if I’m a specter. Still, I refused her. To be quite frank, I didn’t want anyone touching Alice’s blood. She was my sister; her blood, my blood. It was nice of the girl to offer though. I hope I didn’t come off too rude. I just feel so raw.
How I will do without Alice is a worry. We’ve gotten on quite well these past few years, like two old pennies in a purse, not much use to anybody but ourselves. Now it’ll just be me rattling around here making a mess of things. I had to make my own coffee this morning. Honestly, I had no idea how much coffee to scoop into the pot, but I managed. Just as I did without Kim. Somehow, we do. And Alice has all her affairs in order. As do I. After our mother’s death, and the house going into probate due to her lack of a will, you can be sure we had our wills drawn up. Alice left everything to me and I to her. It was like a game of Russian roulette, which one of us would go first, but I always thought it would be me. It’s just the house really, and whatever happens to be in the bank account when the time comes. We both are to be cremated. Alice asked the very practical question of what the survivor is supposed to do with the other one’s ashes. Her point was a good one. At the time of our father’s death, Mom bought a double plot for him and her, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Not that either of us felt the need for a headstone, but something had to be done with the ashes, so we decided the survivor would cast them out to the bay. Alice wasn’t too keen on the idea. “You’ll be sad,” I said. “You’ll need to do something.”
She took me at my word. It never occurred to me I’d be the one left with the ashes.
I’m going to have to rethink my will. Going to have to rethink a lot of things. But there will be time for this. Or maybe there won’t. Who knows, really? Today, though, is not the day. Today is the day to begin the process of putting Alice to rest. I’ve gone through it with my father, my mother, Kim, and now Alice. You could say I’m getting good at it. Not something I’m proud of, just something that’s true. I don’t feel much urgency in regard to the legal end of things. A few bills taken out of her name, the house put into mine, all the death certificates gotten so that this can be accomplished. First, though, I want to get on with my story, our story, because until it’s told, Alice will not rest. I won’t let her.
I still have to write her obituary, but I have time. I’ll have the paper run it Sunday when there are the most readers. People knew Alice. Or knew of her. Hard to miss the old kilted woman who was always riding her bike through town. They deserve to know she died.
On next to no sleep, and several cups of high-octane French roast, I made the eleven-hour drive in one shot, leaving at 6:00 a.m. and stopping only for bathroom breaks, more coffee, and one very soggy tuna sandwich. I barely noticed what was usually breathtakingly beautiful scenery along the way: Ashland, Mount Shasta, Castle Crags State Park. The day I’d been dreading had finally come, the day we were going to have to figure out what to do with Mom, or so my gut was telling me—shouting at me! Meanwhile my poor little brain was running laps around my skull trying to figure out logistics. We didn’t have the money to put her somewhere, or the money to hire someone to look after her, unless we sold the house. But where would Alice live? Would I have to move down to help with caretaking? How was thatgoing to work? I got to Santa Cruz in what seemed like minutes.
The house was situated in the quirky West Side Circles. Not half a mile from the bay, the Circles are an eclectic jumble of family homes with landscaped yards featuring colorful play structures; trashed-out university student housing with overgrown lawns and too many parked cars; surfer crash pads with rusted-out cruiser bikes in the driveway and wetsuits draping the fence; and giant, zero-lot-line vacation dream homes that lord over the neighborhood like watchtowers. The lots are small and sprung up, revival style, in the late 1890s orbiting around a church. You can thank Alice for this bit of trivia. Part of her adapting-to-a-new-home strategy was to learn the history of each place.
Once Dad died, Alice and Mom stayed put in the Circles and lived off the paltry retirement money he’d managed to save and the income from the Plaza Bakery, which, thanks to the veteran staff, more or less ran itself. Or so I thought…
I made the turn onto Mom and Alice’s street. I was a bundle of stressed-out fatigue. My lower back ached. My eyes stung. I had a sour stomach. Pulling up to the house didn’t help. What were once tasteful clumps of bamboo dotting the perimeters of the yard had turned into an impenetrable hedge. I couldn’t even see the one-story stucco bungalow from the street, just the garage, where Mom’s dust-and-bird-shit-covered Acura was parked in the driveway. Cobwebs were knitted around the side mirrors. Had the bamboo been that tall when I’d last visited, or had it just grown really fast?
My chest grew tight. I was having trouble breathing. I considered not stopping, maybe taking the block, or two, to center myself. But I flicked off the air conditioner and slipped the keys out of the ignition. Outside was hot. Unseasonably hot. And I’m not just saying that because I was a Portlander, and menopausal. Santa Cruz was in a full-on Indian summer, and I was dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved jersey, wool socks, and sneaks. It was October, for God’s sake!
I hoisted myself out of the car and took in the surrounding street. It was a little after 5:00. The sun was still shining; a gaggle of kids was playing kickball; a group of young men clutched beers and stood around a car with the hood up, their radio blaring Mexican music; someone had a barbecue going. Just a regular neighborhood with one huge clump of bamboo stuck in the middle. Definitely the Boo Radley house.
I decided to leave my baggage in the car—and by that I mean my small suitcase and pillow; my psychological baggage was not as easily abandoned. I took another deep breath and prepared to breach the fortress. The waist-high gate had been replaced by a six-foot-tall one. That was new. There was a slot for the mail neatly cut dead center. I recognized it right away as Alice’s work. She was a self-taught carpenter, a good one too, and was big on home improvements.
I lifted the gate’s heavy latch and stepped inside the yard, then sighed with relief. The small square of lawn was neatly mowed and edged. The walkway was swept. Things couldn’t be that bad. I mounted the three steps onto the small porch, scanning for other clues of what I’d find inside: the windowsills and railing were wiped clean of any dust or grime, the rocking chair on the porch was free of cobwebs, as was the porch light, and the firewood was perfectly stacked. The obsessive tidiness probably meant Alice was doing all right. Then again, it could mean just the opposite.
I’ll admit I felt like putting my ear to the door for a listen, but it felt too stalkerish. This was family! Why was I feeling so unnerved? I tried the knob, found it locked, and pushed the doorbell. Alice must have been standing right there because she opened the door immediately. “I thought you were going to be here at five.”
I looked at my watch. “Alice, it’s five fifteen.”
She exhaled loudly and marched into the house, leaving me to shut the door behind me.
“Aren’t you going to give me a hug?” I called after her.
She pivoted mid-step, returned to me, did her version of a hug, clasping my shoulders with her wrists and dipping in slightly, keeping her torso as far from mine as possible. Alice did not like touching. But since the rest of the world did, she had to make some concessions. Having completed her duty, she resumed her trajectory to the kitchen, tossing over her shoulder, “I’m making stir-fry!”
I followed. “Where’s Mom? And what happened to all the living room furniture?” The place was gutted. All that was left was Mom’s gold La-Z-Boy, a small table next to it which held the TV remote, the green wingback chair, which I assumed was for Alice, the old oak TV console, and another small table by the door for keys, mail, and such. Gone were the doilies, the china cabinet, the matching floral couch and love seat, the tacky landscapes.
Alice put her fingers to her lips then whispered, “In the bedroom napping. And we didn’t need it.”
“What if somebody visits?”
“Like, I don’t count?”
“Not to worry, sisteroo, I have it all figured out. TV nights, you can use a chair from the kitchen.” She switched to a slightly British accent. “What is the projected timeline of your visit, might I ask?” It was her attempt at humor.
“Um. Not really sure.” I clutched the kitchen doorframe and leaned forward to stretch out my shoulders. I was already regretting not having picked up a bottle of wine on my way in. The kitchen looked fairly intact. “How come you left four chairs in here? Planning on throwing a little kitchen party?” Teasing Alice rarely produced the desired effect, but it never stopped me from doing it. I washer big sister.
She looked up from a bag of rice, stared just to the right of me through those Clark Kent glasses of hers. Clearly, she thought I was dense beyond words. “Couldn’t break up a set now, could I? It would ruin the resale value.”
I thought about the “Free” signs Emma Buswell had told me about; swallowed back the words: Some resale value.But there was no arguing with Alice. She would wear you down with her logic every time.
She clipped off the corner of the rice bag, measured one cup—to the grain—and poured it into the rice cooker. She gave the same exacting attention to the water. Then came the bouillon cube, which she shook from a jar, carefully unwrapped so as not to miss one crumb, and tossed into the mix. “Using low sodium these days I am. Mom’s got high blood pressure. Shooting through the roof! You still allergic to green peppers, still breaking out in hives at the mere sight of them?”
“You should have told me you were giving everything away.”
“No peppers it is. A pepper-free dinner for one and all.”
I opened the cupboard to get a glass for some water. There were exactly four glasses, four plates, four mugs. I didn’t ask. “Alice, I’m serious about the furniture.”
She plunked a bottle of something called House Red Wine on the table. “Relax, sis. I’ve got it under control, wrapped around my little finger, got the cue ball all lined up. We eat at six.”
The bottle of wine looked to be a small step up from cooking wine. I didn’t care. Every nerve in my body was screaming for a drink. “Thanks, sis.”
“No problemo.” She handed me a corkscrew. “Had it delivered with this week’s groceries, I did. Don’t let Mom see it.”
“Why? She’s not drinking? How did thatcome about?”
“I stopped buying it.”
“And she was okay with that?”
“Not at first, she wasn’t. Then she forgot.”
It was hard to imagine Mom forgetting about drinking, but easy to understand why Alice would want her to. Alice had difficulty navigating the stormy waters of Mama Hyde. She didn’t get sarcasm, Mama Hyde’s preferred mode of communication when she was drunk.
Alice set a sturdy white coffee mug on the table, the kind you used to see in coffee shops. “Use this. And hide the bottle.”
As long as I wasn’t the one being cut off, I was happy to oblige. I don’t mind telling you, I drank a bit more than I should in those days. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an alcoholic, but I would say my relationship to wine was one-sided; I loved it more than it loved me. Most mornings I woke feeling like I’d been left in the dryer too long. But a glass of wine signaled my nerves they were off duty for the day, no easy task when you’re self-employed, and single. There’s always more that can be done: advertising, bookkeeping, recipe-gathering, batters to be mixed. A glass of wine always did the trick. The glasses that followed, well, they followed.
I popped the cork and poured myself a mugful. “So, how is Mom?”
Alice looked up from cutting the tough outer skin off the broccoli stalk. “Gotta keep a close watch on her, keep my eyes peeled. Wanders off, she does.”
“What do you mean ‘wanders off’?”
“Takes off down the street for who knows where? The mall? The corner market? Kingdom come? Then can’t find her way back, she can’t. The gate, it keeps her in.”
“When did this start?”
“Been going on a while, it has. And I did tell you.”
She continued stripping the broccoli. “Nothing you could do, sis. Not a bling-blang thing you could do. Not all the way up there in Portland. Whoo-wee, no. It was up to me to take care of, so take care of it I did.”
Her use of the word “it” when talking about Mom was starting to worry me. I gulped down a swallow of House Red.
After Dad’s funeral, it just made sense to leave the two of them living together; they’d always lived together. Who was I to barge in and make other arrangements? Besides, Alice was the most capable person I knew. But here’s the thing: Dad buffered Mom and Alice’s interactions. And I knew it. It’s not that he understood Alice much better than Mom did, he was just more likely to take the path of least resistance. “For Christ’s sake, Euvie! Let ’er have it her way,” he’d say. “Would it kill us to have a coupla tomato beds in the front yard instead of those damn roses that always look half dead?” I could see the toll his absence had taken on Alice. Her face looked pinched; her choppy ponytail was showing a few streaks of white. “Hey,” I said, “You doing okay? You still making your bottles?”
Her gaze shot up from the broccoli, as if she’d been short-circuited. “Indeed I am, dear sister of mine!” She set down the paring knife with a flourish. “I surely am! I’ve taken over the guest room. You can go look. See the latest, the greatest, and all the rest. It is the world of worlds. A place of mystery and magic.”
I will admit my first thought was: If you’ve taken over the guest room, where am I going to sleep?But I didn’t want to spoil this moment with her. She seemed so happy that I’d asked. Clutching my mug of House Red, I tiptoed down the hall so as not to wake Mom. I didn’t want to relinquish my time with Alice, and Mom liked to be the center of attention. I’ll leave it at that.
I was surprised to see Alice hadn’t gotten rid of the happiest-ever family photos lining the hall: me and Alice on swings; me, Alice, Mom, and Dad sitting around a picnic table; me and Dad flying a kite; Alice on her first bike with Dad cheering her on; Alice and me looking miserable all gussied up like baby dolls, our naturally straight hair forced into Shirley Temple ringlets; an Olan Mills photo of Aunt Evockia and Uncle Frank; and, of course, in the center of all the photos, the most cherished of all, Mom in her gown posing as East Texas’s Yam Queen. I wouldn’t have blamed Alice for putting the lot of them out on the street with the rest. The photo ops were always horrible events with Mom prodding Alice to “Smile! Smile!”
I rounded the corner into the guest room and stopped abruptly in the doorway, stunned.
I’m sure you’ve seen ships in bottles, those tiny little frigates suspended in their glass tombs. Alice took this art to a new dimension, creating whole miniature worlds, each bottle unique, each with its own locality, its own genre. She used any number of materials, whatever the particular scene called for: wood (usually balsa), polymer clay, feathers, toothpicks, paperclips, cork, glitter, tiny googly eyes, found objects like charms and bobby pins, and, of course, the bottles themselves. Her tools were more run of the mill: oversized tweezers, glue, chisels, paint, twine.
She’d been making the bottles since she was in her early twenties and rarely gave them away. At the time, I was the proud owner of three: a scene featuring my first car, an old Pontiac sedan; a beach scene complete with dolphins arcing up out of the water; and one that actually had me in it, holding up an elaborately decorated cake. How she managed to fit these mini scenarios inside her bottles, I never had the patience to figure out, but I treasured the ones I owned. They made quite the conversation pieces, and gave me a perfect opening to talk about my nutty family.
That day, though, the sheer number of them was stunning—alarming, really. There were shelves of them, some two bottles deep, others three. It was overwhelming. Then, smack in the middle of the room, in the middle of those bottles, was a flimsy-looking foldout cot and a milk crate nightstand. There was also a small dresser inside the closet and a few empty hangers. That was it.
“What do you think, big sister of mine?” Alice whispered. I hadn’t even heard her come up behind me. “Can you believe your eyes? Can it be real? This world of a million worlds?”
I negotiated my way around the bed so she could join me in the small room, stifling my urge to scream: What the hell did you do with the Danish bedroom set?I loved that set, had always privately hoped when Mom died Alice would give it to me. But I hadn’t been there long enough to start in with Alice. Besides, she was exhibiting as close to excitement as she ever got, bustling around, dusting off the dustless bottles with her sleeve, so I did my best to view the gallery.
The bottles were much more complex than her earlier works. One bottle contained an exact replica of our old dining room. In it, the table was set, the little bowls filled with something like chili, a favorite of Alice’s. Another featured the Plaza Bakery. Another, our childhood street. But the bottles weren’t all autobiographical. There was a section dedicated to movies: Casablanca,Star Wars, Harvey; a section to fantasy: knights, sorcerers, sword fights; a section to crime: several murder scenes, a bank heist. It was too much to take in after the long drive. But I tried. “Wow, Alice. You’ve really been hard at work! These are wonderful!” If I’d looked more closely, I would have noticed that for each bottle filled with a happy scene, there were six or seven filled with disturbing ones. But all selfish me could think about was filling my now empty wineglass; that, and if it was too late to check into a cheap nearby motel.
A loud crash! thunk! coming from Mom’s bedroom, followed by Mom’s distressed, “Alice! Aaaaaa-lice!” robbed me even of that.
It’s difficult to look back on my life without a degree of contempt. I was so negligent in regard to Alice and Mom’s well-being! In my defense, it was a difficult time in my life. My last breakup had left me feeling as though I were incapable of a healthy relationship. And while Lucy’s Cakes kept me afloat, it didn’t do much more than that. And it was degrading making wedding cakes when I wasn’t allowed to marry. As much as Toi, Dune, and I pretended to be above it, we weren’t. Why else were we drinking ourselves stupid after each wedding?
One more clarification: For all the challenges I might have felt interacting with my mother, I loved her. When we were kids, she was by far the coolest mom, the one the other kids wished was theirs. She threw us the best birthday parties, made carpooling fun. Later, when Alice and I failed to marry and produce children (a great annoyance to her), she threw the wedding and baby showers for the daughters of her friends. And while she was hard on us in private, always pushing us to be what we weren’t, in public, she had our backs. Always. I remember one time when some kids were bullying Alice after school, making fun of the way she spoke. I was standing off to the side. Stepping in to defend her was social suicide and ran the risk of flustering Alice further. Still, it was awful to watch. I hadn’t even noticed Mom driving up or getting out of the car. But she walked right into the thick of those bullies, identified the leader of the pack, a handsome kid in high-dollar shoes, and took him on. “Look at you making fun of someone different than you. Does it make you feel like the big man? Is that it?” Then she turned to his followers. “You think hanging out with this loser makes you cool? You think he wouldn’t turn on you if it made him look good?” Then she did the remarkable: She invited them all to join us down the block at the ice cream parlor and sprang for a cone for each of them. All but the one bully, that is. I won’t say it made Alice and me instantly popular, but it did take him down in the eyes of the other kids, which was revenge enough. Of course, when we got home, it was a different story: How could I have not stepped in to defend my sister? Why did Alice have to act like such a numbskull? But that was Mom.
The DeLorean Time Machine
The crash turned out to be a glass of water that had shattered to the floor; the clunk, an alarm clock, which apparently had taken a similar dive. Mom was sitting sideways on my parents’ hideous, king-sized, white and gold rococo bed, Dad’s side, her veiny legs bent at the knees and dangling, her hands folded in her lap, the knuckles the size of large ball bearings.
The sight of her there, dwarfed in that bed, without any makeup, her thin white hair a series of haphazard parts showing through to her pink skull; her light pink floral muumuu, stained and twisted around her middle like a straitjacket, might as well have shot an arrow through my blindsided heart. When had she gotten so old? So weak? Had she had a stroke? I was furious with Alice for not letting me know how bad she’d gotten, for letting her getso bad. Furious with myself for blaming Alice.
“Mom?” I said. I didn’t mean it to come out as a question.
She briefly glanced at Alice then let her gaze rest on me, her once fierce blue eyes now milky with cataracts. She glanced at Alice again. Clearly, my presence was disturbing to her. She frowned, rubbed the swollen knuckles of her age-spotted hands, then said to Alice, “You got my shoes wrong! These are the wrong ones!”
I glanced at her feet. They were bare. Careful of the broken glass, I stepped in closer to make sure she saw me, then bent down so we were face-to-face. The years of beauty products promising everlasting youthfulness had failed her. Skin chalky and thin, her face and neck were a tapestry of hairline wrinkles. The corners of her eyes drooped. “What shoes are you talking about, Mom?” I spoke gently, kindly.
She made a point of not hearing me, averting her eyes as if caught in a lie.
I realized she had no idea who I was. It was surreal. Horrible. Hurtful. I too turned to Alice.
“Been a lot worse since the bladder infection, she has,” Alice said to me quietly.
“What shoes is she talking about?” I whispered.
She shrugged. “Not a clue, Professor Plum, but they’ve been weighing heavy on her mind today.” She spoke to Mom doing her Alice-best to sound bright and cheery. “Well now, that’s a real conundrum, it is. A real hiccup in your day.”
“I don’t see why you can’t get it right!” Mom spat, her face flushing with splotches. “I’ve told you a million times!”
It was unsettling to see her without her hair styled. Her weekly trips to the beauty salon had been one of the few constants of our lives. She slept on satin pillowcases in between visits to keep her “do” looking good. I reached out my hand to smooth a cowlick. She recoiled.
“Who areyou?” She looked to Alice. “Who isthis?”
“Who she says,” Alice said. “Lucy. Your daughter. Remember? I told you she was coming.”
Mom looked momentarily confused. “Who?”
“Lucy. Came all the way from the Portland, she did. To see the one and only you.”
“Don’t be a silly,” Mom said. “Lucy’s dead.”
That threw me—big time. It was one thing not to be recognized, but to have been killed off!
Alice began picking up the larger pieces of glass from the floor.
“I broke Mama’s lamp,” Mom said.
I started to correct her. Alice shot a look to shut me up. “No problemo, Mamasan. It’ll be taken care of in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
Mom squinted at me, then went back to her lamp. “We’re going to get in trouble. Mama loves that lamp.”
“Keep her on the bed,” Alice said. “I’ll get the broom.” Then she scurried off down the hall.
From Mom’s perspective, Alice had left her with a complete stranger, one she didn’t like the looks of. “Now, whoare you?”
“I’ve been gone a long time,” I said. “But it’s me, Lucy.”
She leaned forward, looking me right in the eyes, and for a moment, I was sure she recognized me. Then she said, “Mr. Marshall says she’s not right in the head.” She gestured toward the hall where Alice had gone. “Told me she didn’t belong in his school.”
Mr. Marshall, I recalled, was the spit-and-polish principal of our first elementary school in Long Beach, and I’d no doubt he’d said that about Alice. He was always angling for reasons to expel her. It was hard to justify when her grades were so good.
I adjusted Mom’s muumuu so it didn’t hang off her shoulder. (In point of fact, it wasn’t a muumuu; other women wore muumuus, she wore “floats.” A difference in semantics, maybe, but it added a little flair to those lumpy dresses.) “Mom, it’s me, Lucy, your oldest daughter. I’ve come to see you.”
She could feel something was expected of her but wasn’t quite sure what it was. She patted her thinning hair in an attempt to poof it up, the soft white skin hanging off her arm like pancake batter.
I spotted a plastic tortoiseshell comb on the dresser and snatched it up. “I came especially to see you, Mom.”
Like a watchdog who lets the bad guys pass when offered a nice juicy steak, she let down her guard and allowed me to run the comb through her hair. Anyone willing to contribute to her beauty couldn’t be allbad. “What time is it?” She brushed the front of her float free of invisible crumbs. “Aren’t we supposed to be going?”
I was unsure how to respond. Did Alice have something planned?
Alice returned with the broom. “Cleanup on aisle five. Watch where you step. Slippery when wet.” She swept as if her life depended on it, as if she were responsible for the broken glass. “It’s just a little thing. Just glass. Nothing that can’t be taken care of lickety-split.” She spoke to herself more than to us, surrounding herself in a protective wall of words.
“Are we going somewhere?” I asked.
She glanced at Mom, then back at me. Shook her head slightly. “She’s been having a bad day,” she whispered. “A bad, bad, bad day.” She swept the last of the glass and water into the dustpan. “Woke up all out of sorts, she did. Wrong side of the bed.”
“Stop your mumbling,” Mom said. “You’re giving me a headache.”
I picked up the alarm clock and placed it back on the nightstand, anger rising up my throat. Why in God’s name hadn’t Alice told me what was going on? Why hadn’t she reached out for help? Because reaching out for help wouldn’t have occurred to Alice. The same way it wouldn’t occur to her to complain.
Complaining made no sense to Alice.Just a week or so ago, I was complaining about the lack of mobility in my hands and she said, in that stilted manner of hers, “I don’t get it, old sport. Why are you talking about it if you can’t change it?” I tried to explain to her that whining serves to communicate discomfort and gives other people a chance to pitch in and help. She didn’t buy it.
“Does Mom have some slippers or something?” I said. “Just in case we’ve missed a sliver.”
“Slippers are in the closet. Starboard side.”
I had no idea which side starboard was, but was happy to have a reason to turn my back on the two of them. I needed a moment to calm myself. I found the slippers. They were stained but appeared recently washed. I handed them to Alice. It sounds selfish, I know, I could have put them on Mom’s pale, little feet myself, but in my defense, Mom was looking at me as if I were some solicitor who had barged my way into her bedroom. She tugged on Alice’s T-shirt then jerked her head toward me standing by the door. “Is she staying for dinner?”
“Yup,” Alice said, “and then some. We’re having stir-fry.”
I watched as Alice helped her to her feet, watched as she set Mom up with a walker, watched as she began guiding Mom toward me. I stepped out of the way. “When did she get a walker?”
“After her last fall. But she forgets to use it, she does. Don’t you, Mom?”
Mom didn’t respond, just purposefully thunked that walker down the hallway, Alice in her wake.
I lingered in the bedroom for a moment. I was suffocating. Like the rest of the house, Mom’s bedroom had been stripped to only essentials. Gone were her antique perfume bottles, her earring tree, her collection of lace hankies—none of which had ever been sullied by snot. All that remained were the frilly curtains and that damn rococo bed set she made us haul every time we moved, saying, “You’ll be glad I did. It’s going to be passed on to one of you girls someday.” I’d respond silently: Over my dead body.
I was just about to leave the room when I spotted Dad’s mahogany suit rack behind the open closet door. Dad called the rack Henry. Whenever the ice cream truck rolled past, or there was some needed trinket, Dad would say, “Go ask Henry,” and we’d race to collect whatever change was in the little tray. Seeing Henry standing there, empty of one of Dad’s fine suits, shot me back to him duded out in that casket, to Mom’s and my screaming match. There would be no reconciliation now. There couldn’t be. The mom that had had that fight with me was gone.
I blew my nose, wiped my eyes, and headed toward the kitchen, where Alice was frying up a wokful of broccoli and chicken, and Mom was emptying the fridge for reasons I couldn’t fathom. I didn’t bother asking. I had to get out of that house.
“I’m going to go—”
Before I could get out another word,Alice spun around and hollered a desperate, “No!”
Mom looked up from the jar of mayonnaise in her hand. “What?” She had a carton of orange juice in her other.
“I was just going to say ‘go out to the car to get my bags.’”
Alice did her version of eye contact, staring just past my right shoulder. “I thought you were leaving.” She nudged her glasses up her nose, tugged on her kilt. “Thought you were fleeing the coop, old sport.”
Her obvious distress cured me of any wishful delusions that I wasjust popping down to Santa Cruz for a short visit. “No, I’ll be right back. Wouldn’t want to let that wine go to waste.” I could barely look at Mom.
“Wine?” Mom said.
Alice glared at me.
Mom set the mayo and orange juice on the counter. “What wine?”
I shot Alice an apologetic look. She sighed dramatically. “It’s not here yet, Mamasan, but it’s on its way.”
Mom stood for a couple more seconds, considering this new bit of information, then said, “Well, good! I could use a drink.” Moments later, she was back to emptying the fridge, seemingly having forgotten all about the wine.
By now, my anxiety was blooming into a full-blown panic attack. The house felt riddled with land mines. “Be right back,” I said, and made for the front door.
The fresh air helped immensely, but it was more than that: cars were parked in orderly fashion along the street; trees were growing upward toward the sun; the sidewalk was sectioned off in tidy squares; the whole world hadn’t gone mad, just my family. But there was no time to tarry. Alice needed me. So did Mom, even if she didn’t know it.
I returned with my bags and dropped them in my room, then started cranking open windows in the living room. The house was stifling. Mr. Scratch, Alice’s old, gray tabby, crouched in a nest of gray hair on the seat of the wingback chair. He looked miserable. I sat on the arm of the chair and scratched his neck. “How you doing?”
His purring sounded like it hurt.
“What’s going on with Mr. Scratch?” I called into the kitchen.
“Tumor!” Alice called back.
I touched his nose. Warm and dry.
Alice stepped into the doorway, wiping her hands on a dishrag. “Vet came out. Said all I could do was make him comfortable. Made him a spot in my bedroom, but he likes that chair, that last bit of sun, he does.” She walked over and patted the old guy on the head, three little taps. “Dontcha, Mister?”
Mr. Scratch didn’t so much as look at her. He was in bad shape.
He was actually Mr. Scratch number four. Each time one of Alice’s cats died, she got another just like the last: all gray tabbies, all male, all named Mr. Scratch. Now that I think of it, the very first one was named Mittens, at least initially. Then Mom started calling him Mr. Scratch to keep little Alice from getting hurt. (Alice liked to pull his tail.)
“Alice,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea what all you were dealing with.”
A smile teased the edges of her mouth. “Welcome to Mama Headquarters, where we do the best we can, but it’s never enough, by golly.”
“Is Mom…” I didn’t have a clue how to phrase what I wanted to ask, wasn’t even sure what it was.
Alice glanced over her shoulder then spoke in a whisper. “It’s like riding in the DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future. Jumps back and forth in time, she does, willy-nilly. It’s worse when we go out, so we stopped.”
“Do I feel a draft?” Mom yelled from the kitchen.
Alice nodded toward the open windows. “She hates it when the windows are open.”
“But it’s boiling in here.”
“I feel a draft!” Mom yelled.
“I’ll get her a sweater,” I said.
Alice lifted an eyebrow.
Alice didn’t respond, just returned to the kitchen.
“Sweater in July?” Mom said when I came back with it. “Ridiculous!” Never mind that it was October.
When we finally sat down to dinner, Mom wouldn’t stay in her seat. Said she had to get ready for her “guests,” which essentially meant pulling items from the fridge and arranging them on every available surface. I couldn’t stand it; I had to stop her. “Mom,” I said, getting up from the table. “Nobody’s coming. Sit down and eat. Alice has made us this beautiful meal.”
She reared back and glared at me. “You keep it up, young lady, and I’m going to jerk a knot in your tail. You bet I will.” A thing I’d heard her say a million times as a kid.
“Don’t worry about it, sisteroo,” Alice said to me. “Empties the fridge all the time, she does. Makes her hap-hap-happy.” Then to Mom, “Nothing like opening your home to friends, is there? Quite the thrill it is.”
Mom pulled a jar of relish from the fridge and set it next to the milk.
Later, I sat and watched Mom eat her now cold dinner while Alice washed dishes.
In between bites, she said, “When it comes right down to it, family is what counts.” I had no idea if she was talking about us now, us from the past, or some other family entirely, but I tried to take it as a good sign, even if she was holding her fork upside down. I turned it over so Alice’s excellent stir-fry wouldn’t keep falling off.