My family is deciding what to do with me. I am the oldest sibling. Always have been. I thought the years might mute the effect of that, but nothing so far. I have been, and I remain, the reason why the siblings take each new birthday with some measure of aplomb: Well, I’m still four, seven, fourteen years younger than her. My age, their comfort.
They hold disposition meetings. I am not invited, but during the phone calls that follow each conclave I read the minutes of the meetings in the awkward silences and odd questions: “How do you feel about Texas?” “Do you mind the cold?” “Do you have any special friend who lives in a big house [pause] with a trained nurse?”
I don’t mind this actually. I am quite pleased at their level of involvement. I think there were decades when they forgot I was alive, or, if they remembered, they forgot I was their sister — or sister-in-law, a friendlier affiliation by a mile.
“Invite me to the meetings,” I say to my brother Paul. “I promise not to voice opinions or spill my drink anywhere it will show. I’d like to know just what sort of arrangement might be under consideration.”
“No,” he says.
I like his style. My brother Freddie would have said, What meetings? Paul got whatever integrity was floating in our gene pool.
“I might be able to help,” I say, encouraged by his candor.
“I don’t think so,” Paul says.
“Are you sure you’ve saved no money whatsoever?” This would be my sister Irene — I mean, Eileen — on the phone. I like it that I can never keep her name straight. It gives me hope.
“Zero money?” she says.
“Oh, no,” I say. “I saved a bundle. It’s. Just. That. I. Spent. It. All.”
Each word seems worthy of its own personal sentence. “Tom is coming over Tuesday morning. Please write that down. I’ll wait,” Eileen says. She pauses. Tom is her husband.
I mime writing, “Toooosday, Doomsday,” on the palm of my hand.
“Tom’s taking you for a ride.”
“I’ll be ready,” I say. “Don’t tell me what time. I like to be surprised.”
“Ten o’clock. Wear stockings, Margaret,” she says. “Wear shoes.”
“Okey-doke,” I say. “Okey-dokey.”
People think that crazy is achieved when one day the gale-force wind makes a final, violent tear, and your little craft slips its mooring. Oh, no. It is achieved by you, who, one knot at a time, untie the tethers, whimsically at first, and then with some — or sometimes no known — purpose. You write a shameless letter to a friend who has blown you off once and for all and say, with no shame, “Why don’t you like me? Did you ever?” You offer up tidbits that will be the stuff of ridicule for certain, and you pass them out to members of your family on a tray like peculiar, worrisome hors d’oeuvres.
My brother-in-law Tom rings the doorbell. My siblings would have done the same. To walk right in would signify an affinity they neither feel nor seek.
“Would you like any sort of carbohydrate?” I ask. He is still standing on the porch. He never comes in unless it is a national holiday, and then it must be one celebrated across the board, not just by Jews or Christians or the tree people.
“I’m good,” Tom says.
“I have no doubt,” I say, “but are you hungry?”
“Oh . . .” The question catches him off guard. He clearly doesn’t know the answer. It is most often decided for him by Eileen.
“Why did you marry her?” I say while he is still busy with the last question.
“Oh, yes,” I say. “I had forgotten. You were married once before Eileen.”
“I wasn’t thinking about that,” he says.
“No,” I say. “I wasn’t thinking of her either. You never talk about her.”
“Well, we should be on our way.”
“Maybe I could go live with her — your first wife. Let’s see: I’d be the sister-in-law of her ex-husband,” I say. “Stranger things happen every day. A lot of them to me.”
“Do you want a coat?” Tom says.
“No,” I say, “I’ve got a closetful of them. But thanks.”
He gives me a frightened stare. The man would not know humor if it wore a name tag.
“Well,” he says, clearly with no heart whatsoever for this project, “we should be on our way.”
He is so dutiful it makes his skin sag.
“Why are you doing this, Tom? This is your life. You could be dead by nightfall. A lot of people will be, and you could be one of them, as easy as the next person. Let’s forget about wherever Eileen wants you to take me. It will only be a waste of time. They won’t admit me. It will turn out they only take retired Presbyterian clergy. Or Paul won’t want to pay for it. Or they’ll have a waiting list. Or at the last minute I’ll kick the bucket. If this is the last day of your life, trust me when I tell you, you will want to have spent it some other way, no matter if you end up in hell or heaven.”
“I don’t believe in hell.”
“Well, there you go.”
It’s the first nearly interesting thing I’ve heard him say since he met my sister.
“What was she like?” I say.
“Wife One. Eileen’s predecessor.”
“I don’t remember,” Tom says. I’ve been married to Eileen for nearly thirty years.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I am, too. I always thought he was born this way, never thinking what it might do to a person to be married to Eileen.
“Why did you marry her?” I say.
“Oh, I was young.” He makes it sound a rather unusual thing to be. “And she was beautiful.”
“Janet Moyer.” His voice is just above a whisper. “Janet Helen Moyer. Look, we really need to go. Eileen has made an appointment for you.”
My sister is forever making things for people: appointments and decoupage; Rice Krispies treats and bright fabric snakes you’re meant to keep your plastic-bag collection in.
I grab my pocketbook and slam the door behind me.
“You want to lock that?” Tom says.
“I do not,” I say.
It takes me fourteen minutes to locate Janet Helen Moyer on Google. First I typed in “ex-wives.” Four million, one hundred and six results. Then I tried her name, which reduced that number by about four million. Turns out she illustrates books for dyslexic children, using words as illustration. She calls them “word pictures.”
It seems she draws words under the pseudonym Janelle Moy — not the most profligate use of the imagination, but I allow for the possibility that she makes the most of what she’s got, a habit I refuse to despise. I send her off an e-mail through her website to say my six-year-old dyslexic son, Leroy, reads her illustrations with great pleasure, as does his auntie Eileen Ferguson (just in case Janelle Moy is a woman given to putting two and two together).
I’ve issued myself a poetic license: I do not have a son named Leroy, or any other name, but if I let my childlessness figure largely in every single e-mail I send off, I might as well downgrade to dial-up and be done with it.
A week later Janelle Moy (aka Wife One) sends an e-mail in return. She wishes me “every joy” — which strikes me as being a bit over the top, but I prefer it to a curse and let it be. At the bottom of the e-mail it says that she will soon be giving a reading at “a mall near you.” That is to say, near me. I click on the bar that says, Find a Mall near you, hardly troubling to fret that Mall is capitalized, only to find the Mall (maul?) is even nearer than I thought.
I call Eileen to arrange a little rendezvous with her hubby’s previous wife. Stir the pot a bit. The answering machine picks up. Eileen hasn’t answered her phone since that little fiasco the day Tom and I resurrected Janet Moyer, when he took me to the perpetual-care place. How was I to know she’d paid 140 bucks for the evaluation? How was I to know she’d sent me there to take a test? A person should be told these things. Now she’s terrified that no place will have me — as though I’d want to go anyplace where people are excluded on the basis of how strenuously they agree or disagree with statements like “I am not worried about the future.”
I leave a message for Eileen. “There is an author reading from a book, The Idiot’s Guide to Nursing Homes,” I say. “Tuesday night at seven at the mall in Coudersport. Could you drive me? I could take the bus, but I didn’t know if you wanted me appearing in public unchaperoned. Plus, if the bus crashed and I didn’t get killed, but only severely maimed and injured, we’d be even worse off than we already are.”
Eileen picks up just as I am finishing my final phrase.
“Hello?” she says.
“Hello,” I say.
“Who is this?” she says.
“Who is this?” I say.
And we’re off to the races.
Eileen drops me at the main entrance to the mall while she goes to park the car. I allow it. I really can’t walk as well when I am with her.
There’s an old man standing by the door with a collection can labeled in bright red for the retarded, which I take as a sign he’s working freelance; the organized prefer “developmentally disabled.” I don’t know, though. Retarded seems more hopeful in some way, as if it were nothing permanent or cast in stone, but more a matter of speed than anything else. Timing. “His progress is only retarded, slowed a bit, delayed, but coming — oh, yes, coming certainly. Just not today.” Retarded gives a person something to look forward to.
“Well, I must say that was a good evening,” Eileen says. When I told her I’d read the listing wrong, her sincere pleasure at my having made a mistake was enough to sweeten the whole night.
Eileen and I are shut back up inside the brand-new Japanese container that we will travel home in — or, if not, that will transport us to our long home. “Long home.” I say the words out loud. They sound portentous as we drive off together into the black night. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘long home,’ referring to death — or, I guess, to where death takes us to?”
“Don’t talk about death,” Eileen says. “It’s morbid.”
“Duh,” I say, the word duh being one of the three innovations of the last half century that are really worth something, the other two being e-mail and all-day breakfast at fast-food restaurants. I don’t go to fast-food restaurants, but I like knowing that, if I did, I could get a fried-egg sandwich in the middle of the afternoon.
“I don’t know why you have to work death into every conversation,” Eileen says. “Don’t think I didn’t hear you mention it to that woman tonight, the one with those oxygen tubes in her nose.”
“The way she looked, it seemed to me it would have been impolite not to mention death. And don’t say you didn’t sense the general amazement that she was still alive when we went to get our coats. Trust me: death is on everybody’s mind at least four times a day.”
“Not mine,” Eileen says. “I concentrate on happy things, like the nice books that lady was showing tonight. Her word pictures were beautiful.”
I wonder would she be calling Janelle Moy, aka Janet Helen Moyer, a “lady” if she knew the author was the one woman in the universe she’d shared a husband with?
“What did you think of her?” I say.
“I thought that if she needed oxygen, perhaps she might be more comfortable at home than in a bookstore.”
“I didn’t mean her,” I say. “I meant, what did you think of the author?”
“Someday you will appreciate what I am trying to do for you, Margaret.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” I say. “Get it? It’s an oxygen-tank joke. But what did you think of the author?”
“Why do you care?”
“Because she was Tom’s wife.”
Damn. I wasn’t going to tell Eileen that — or, at least, not until we had invited Janet Helen Moyer to Thanksgiving. See, this is why I am no earthly good at card games. I cannot keep a secret for two minutes in a row.
She’s asking for form’s sake. She knows Tom who.
“But Tom’s first wife’s name was Janet; this woman was named Janelle.”
“Uh, that’s not exactly dna evidence.”
“You knew it was her. You brought me on purpose. You told me it was a book on nursing homes.”
“Eileen, what person in their right mind would drive twenty-five miles on a school night to get the author to sign a book on nursing homes?”
“I’m gonna tell,” Eileen says, and suddenly she is four, and I am eight, and neither one of us has even heard of Alzheimer’s or hip replacements or long-term-care insurance. The only thing we know of human tragedy is what goes on inside our family.
“Who you gonna tell?” I say, but already I am warming to the prospect of our reporting all the crimes committed on the planet to the proper authorities. I want to take Eileen by her thin, clammy hand, her diamonds hurting both our fingers in the tightness of my grip. I want to pull her out of the car and drag her down the street for blocks, calling out to strangers on the way, Police station! Where is the police station? Is that it? and pull her with me through the heavy doors and grab the sleeve of the first policeman we see and say, Come quick. I need you to arrest our parents. They are scaring us to death, and when we are old women, we will put each other into nursing homes and into unnatural situations in bookstores in shopping malls. Malls — places where people go so they won’t have to think about death. Oh, never mind! Just come. You need to lock them up and throw away the key.
“Remember,” I say to Eileen, in a voice gone hoarse from all the yelling that I should have done a half century ago, “remember the night you started to take Freddie downtown to the police station, to show them the belt-buckle welts, the places where the tip end broke the skin?”
“Oh, Margaret. That was in another lifetime.”
“No. No, it wasn’t. It was this same lifetime. This one we’re living in tonight. There is only just the one.”
“Well,” Eileen says, “I never got there. I met Grandma Chase at the corner, and I told her where I was taking him, and she told me to go back home and to never, ever tell another living soul, or God would punish me.”
A different God from that one crawls into the back seat as we stop for the light.
“I was just trying to help,” Eileen says. “I was trying to do the right thing with Freddie. I was just trying to save his life.”
Tell her she did. It’s God, in the back seat, talking.
“You tell her,” I say to Him.
Nah. She’s gotta hear it from you, He whispers in a raspy, smoker’s voice.
“You did save Freddie’s life,” I say, glancing over my shoulder.
God clears His throat and makes a “Go on” motion with his hand.
“I mean, look at him,” I say. “Look at Freddie’s marriage. Look at his kids. Look at their kids. He’s had practically the best life I know.”
“Yeah, well . . .”
“Yeah, well, why do you think that is?”
“Well . . .”
“Hello? Because of you.”
I know she gets it. When a thing is true, you don’t have to explain. I turn around to wink at God, but He’s gone. Off to save some other sisters. It must take Him all night just to do one neighborhood.
“And I am just trying to help you,” Eileen says.
“I know,” I say. “And I was just trying to help you, taking you to meet old Janet Moyer tonight at the bookstore.”
“No, you weren’t,” Eileen says as she pulls into my driveway, a little closer to the holly bushes than she might have liked.
“No, I wasn’t,” I say. I open the car door. “Did you forgive them?” I ask. “Our parents? For what they did?”
“Yup,” Eileen says. “I did.”
She gets out and walks around the car.
“And do you forgive me?” I say.
“Nope,” she says, and she takes my hand and pulls just hard enough to make my standing up a thing that I can do, then lets me lean pretty hard on her arm. “Not in this or any other lifetime.”
Eileen walks me to my door and leaves me there.
There’s a priest in my kitchen. If I had to go to church to confess my sins, I’d spend my whole life in the car driving there and back and wouldn’t need a nursing home or any other housing.
No matter that my priest is one I have concocted out of equal parts worn, shiny black cloth and blessed fathers born on the silver screen — he is just as unforgiving as the real thing. I have purged the fey Bing Crosby, long lines of priests in handcuffs on the evening news, fabled fathers that my Catholic friends have cursed after they have lost their faith or seriously misplaced it. My priest is no more efficacious than the fat man who waddles to the altar at Saint Michael’s every morning, even government holidays.
Still, he is my confessor. There are agents in our lives we do not choose.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” I mumble as I open the freezer and take out a bag of frozen cherries. “It has been three hours since my last confession.”
He’s as silent as the night.
I wait him out.
“OK, OK,” he says, “what did you do this time?”
I keep him on retainer for the reason that he has even less patience than I do.
“I took my sister to a bookstore for the express purpose of cutting her down to size — or, at the very least, of annoying the hell out of her.”
“And did it work?”
“So you are guilty of the sin of wasting time created by the Eternal One.”
“Are you sorry?”
“Sort of. I wish she had gotten really angry and thrown her purse at my head and forced me out of the car by the side of the road on a dark and stormy night, the avenue awash in burglars and other men in urgent need of immediate incarceration.”
“You can’t always get what you want,” he sings. He is a priest who, if he ever moved beyond the walls of my kitchen, would play guitar in church and have the Host be sourdough. “You want to be punished for your sins,” he says. “There is no penance in the book for sins against the sister. And so there can be no forgiveness that way.”
“Eileen just told me that tonight.”
“And she’s an atheist,” he says, “a card-carrying member of the club that says that sin is only mental illness, mental flu, mental tb, mental appendicitis.”
“But we know better.”
“We know worse,” he says. “Sin’s the best hope we’ve got. If it’s mental, all we’ve got is pills, and they stop working the day you stop taking them. Ah, but sin . . .” His voice softens. “Sin can be named and napalmed. You got to love a God who’s up to that. Your problem is, you always want to save yourself.”
It is a sermon that I’ve heard before. “So, what would you say to giving me a few Hail Marys here?” I say.
“All they do is keep you busy. They only sandblast sloth. What we need here is a Savior.”
He turns his head, and for the first time I notice that his hair falls in gentle waves onto his shoulders.
“I always thought that you were bald,” I say.
“I’m not,” he says. “You never really look at me.”
“I never really look at anyone. Could I offer you a cherry?” I hold out the bag.
“They’re frozen,” he says and grabs the bag of designer potato chips from the breadbox and sits down at the table to read the paper.
I don’t know what the priest in your kitchen is like. Mine is a slave to carbohydrates.
I take my glasses off and place my face six inches from the mirror on the wall. My eyebrow is a composite of so many different sorts of strands. I am absorbed. Time stops for my eyebrow inspection, as time will if ever you are lost inside a moment. Time stops and waits, and then you look away, and time starts up again.
That’s how I come to know there is eternity.
I awake to find I’m lying on the floor. And in this slim interval between bemusement and the stark desperation to come, the room has become all ceiling. It’s wider than the floor, making the kitchen one of those odd shapes you study in geometry but rarely come across in real life. The underbelly of the antique carved desk my grandmother wrote her grocery-shopping list upon appears to be nothing more than a piece of Masonite. And exactly where have I pulled that midcentury word from? I take no small amount of comfort from its having come to me so easily. I do not think a person calls back the word Masonite if she has had a stroke.
I take it also as definitive proof I have not lost my mind. I give myself these periodic evaluations. A person likes to know just where she stands — or, in my case, lies. I will assume that I have not hurt my head. I find out some extent of the damage, though, when I try to drag myself, body and soul — one so thin, the other so heavy — across the kitchen floor. I left the telephone up on the counter when I immigrated to the floor, and now I find it is a one-way trip I’ve taken.
When I awaken again, the light has moved from the front porch to the back deck. Cold. I’m mostly cold. And I am sad and clutch the sadness like a ragged baby blanket I’ve uncovered in a bureau drawer. It’s faded, aged by time and overuse, but it is there; that’s the main thing. If I am sad, if sad is something I can still be, then it will be all right.
The next time I open my eyes, it is dark. But darkness happens, it occurs to me, once every day.
The fourth time I awaken, Eileen is beside me with a magazine. She’s sitting in a chair. Her makeup isn’t working for her. Any shade of orange will betray you in the end. The floor I’m lying on has gone all soft and white and warm, and I am loving lying here.
“I was sad,” I tell Eileen. “I was cold, but I was sad.”
“Oh, Margaret, you’re awake. We were so worried. That tiny woman next door phoned us when she couldn’t get you to answer the door. How do you feel?”
“Fine,” I say. “Nice and warm.” I don’t say it, but the sadness is all gone. Now I will have to see just how I am to live with that.
“Life is so short these days.”
The words are whispered by a voice I do not recognize out in the hallway, whispered by a person I don’t know — although it would probably be good for me to spend some time with a person who says such things without a twisted curl, a single saffron thread, of irony.
Irony is mother’s milk to me, but at the end of the day it doesn’t make a twiggy twig of difference. It’s not how you view your life that matters; it’s what happens in it.
Right now what’s happened in my life matters a great deal. I have a heart that let me down, as I have long suspected it might one day do. It actually stopped beating. Tell that to the lady in customer service when you go to get my money back.
And when that happens to your heart and you live to tell the story, people demand it be a good one. Even strangers in blue-spotted nightgowns sliding down the hallway, holding on for dear life to some rolling pole, transparent plastic bags in full sway, asses veiled from public view by loosely knotted ties — even they arrest their snail creep, stop the rolling poles, and say in voices manufactured down intubated airways, “What was it like?”
I tell them what they want to hear, once they have told me precisely what that is. They are not shy in their requests. Then it’s just a matter of a spattering of yeses and the odd no and a great deal of shaking of the head.
“Did you see a great white light?” they ask.
“Why, yes, I did.”
“And was it the brightest thing you ever saw or hope to see?”
“It was,” I say.
“Were you amazed?”
“I still am.”
“Is there hell, then?” A former Christian missionary, who has come to write her final chapter as a nurse, asks me this while standing just outside my door at the trash chute to the incinerator.
“Oh, yes,” I say.
“I thought so.” She upends a schoolroom metal trash basket, sending something that sounds like a bowling ball with spikes on it crashing down the chute. “I thought so,” she says. “But you never know.”
“No,” I say, “you never do.”
Actually, though, I do know. I have seen what does await us. The whole thing. There is good reason that we are not told. There is good reason why we cannot tell what we have seen and why the white light is so popular in stories resurrected people tell. White, the color of no story. Blinding light, the opposite of truth.
Everybody asks what it is like, everybody but Eileen. Her, I would tell.
My new home is a kennel. No matter that every dog in the whole place is registered and has had all its shots. I call it the “kennel club.” It drives Eileen nuts.
“They give us dog food for lunch,” I tell her. “In dog dishes. With dog silverware.”
“Oh, Margaret, stop it. They’ve got paella on the menu for tonight.”
“Don’t let them fool you. That’s code for mussel shells in red-food-coloring broth. Woof, woof,” I bark.
Eileen sets about tidying up the room, which she keeps tidied up to within an inch of its life.
“Eileen,” I say, “sit down. Stop fidgeting. Take a pill. Read a book. I have a copy of Great Dog Expectations I got from the pound library.”
She doesn’t take the bait. She knows me well enough to realize that in another fifteen seconds I will be so sick of dog jokes, I will never bark again.
“It is awful,” I tell her. “Here,” I say, in case there’s any question where awful is.
I’ve not felt sad one moment since they brought me here the day I left the hospital.
Eileen comes to visit dutifully — far more often than I’d visit her, I’m pretty sure.
I have a dream, and in the dream I am in kindergarten, and Eileen is my grandfather. And every day she walks me to school and sits outside the schoolhouse on an old, backless wooden bench until school is over, and then she walks me home. I wake up feeling as safe as that. But sad is what I want to feel, not safe. Safe means there’s harm and danger out there, just the other side of that thin windowpane. But sad — sad means there is love to be missed, or had and lost and maybe had again, or at least to be longed for, missed and reminisced about and carried in you in a place where safe has never been. Sad is the deep of feeling. Sad tells a person that good is.
And here I am, arrived at the asylum: I, who always thought that safe was everything. And only now the telegram bearing this understanding has been forwarded to this address, carried by the last deliveryman on earth on the day before the world ends.
Eileen wants me to sign a power of attorney: a sheaf of papers that declares she can forge my signature on anything she wants and never spend a single night in jail.
“No,” I say. That’s the long answer. The short answer is the silent one. The short answer is I lift my fake-palsied hands, gone clawlike in pantomime, let one side of my mouth droop, and stare.
“It isn’t funny,” Eileen says.
“Are you enjoying this?” I say.
“I’m serious,” I say. “I honestly hope that you are getting something from the roles we have been cast in here. You are well and strong and truly married, and I am enfeebled in this frightful way, and I just hope you feel the muscles of that victory. Living well, that best revenge.”
“I’m not looking for revenge,” she says. Her shoulders slump, and I would write a check with lots of zeros on it if she could be all spit and vinegar again; the little bony girl, all fire and spine, who told our brother Paul that he could fly if he jumped off the armoire, who said ice cream would come from the light socket if you wet your finger and stuck it in the hole; that girl I begged our father to beat one Sunday afternoon for her nefarious infractions, and when finally, near nightfall, he did, I wished her strong enough to turn on him and slay him. We had a King James childhood, with verbs that could rear up on their hind legs and scare tall men. I want Eileen to be as powerful as she seemed then. As mean.
“You do want revenge,” I say.
“No, Margaret, I don’t,” she says. “I’m too tired for revenge. You want revenge.”
“No, I don’t,” I say, telling us both a thing we didn’t know. “Do you think that we will ever be friends?” I say. “You and me?”
“We’re sisters,” Eileen says.
We could be friends — if you would change every single thing about you, I don’t say to her; she doesn’t say to me.
We sit pretending it were possible, if only the wanting were there, when we both know that we will not be friends until we find ourselves on the Last Day, discovered and forgiven.
I’m pretending I am dead. It makes for a change. There are few amusements left to me. I’ve tired of magazines. I lie, not breathing, on the bed, mouth gaping, eyes staring. Until I blink. It’s probably just as well I never took up acting.
The matron enters on her clicky shoes. I call her “the matron” in my mind, as if she were some housemistress shrew whom Dickens dissed — or would have if he’d thought of it.
“And how are we this morning?” the dragon lady says.
I don’t answer. I’m pretending she is dead.
“Cat’s got our tongue?”
I see this boiled tongue we were just about to slice and serve with serious mustard and a sturdy stein of Old Peculier beer, then see it being pounced on by an enormous tabby who, fierce, fat feline though she be, can do little more than gnaw one corner.
“Eeeewww,” I say involuntarily.
“Do we have a problem?”
“Any number, I should think,” I say. I’m old and you’re mean, for starters, I don’t say. I’m a big fan of letting the obvious speak for itself.
“Well, we will take care of you.”
A threat, if I ever heard one.
Eileen pokes her head around the door frame. Have I ever been so glad of her appearance?
“May I come in?” Eileen says.
“No,” the matron says, more brusquely than even she might have chosen. “No, I’ll come out. If you don’t mind, I’d like to have a word with you. We don’t mind, do we?” she says to me.
I lie back, pretend to be dead. No one appears to notice or care.
“We will be moving her today.” The matron’s voice carries in from the corridor, as she must surely have known it would. Her voice is noisy, like her shoes. She must have been an irritating child.
“Moving?” Eileen says.
“Yes, dear, it’s time. We must accept these things.”
Who’s this “we,” white man? as Tonto said to the Lone Ranger when the Comanches appeared.
“Moving where?” Eileen’s staying focused here. I like that.
“Upstairs, dear. To the Sunshine Unit.”
Good grief, we’re back to second grade, when everybody knew that “Bluebirds” was a euphemism for the kids who’d probably never learn to read. Sunshine Unit. Even the name is scary.
“But my understanding is that the upper floors are for people with bigger problems?” Eileen can sling euphemisms with the best of them. “Margaret’s mind is as clear as it ever was.”
“Dear, she’s incontinent.”
Shit! I didn’t want Eileen to know. I did not want Eileen to know. I so wanted her not to know.
“A secretary I work with is incontinent.” Eileen’s voice is matter-of-fact. I had forgotten she looks at life with a less impassioned eye than her incontinent sister.
No matter. I hate to have her know, to have her thinking of that every time she looks at me. She pees herself, our mother would have said, whispering derision.
“Dear, we have to accept that there will be more changes.”
“My name is Mrs. Ferguson,” Eileen says.
You go, girl!
“Well, Mrs. Ferguson, dear, we need to accept little changes along the way.”
Little changes. They’re shipping me to hell.
“She’s fine right here,” Eileen says.
“And she will be fine upstairs, dear.”
“Well, she won’t be going upstairs,” Eileen says.
“Dear, you have no choice.”
“Actually,” Eileen says, “I do. We have decided that my sister will be leaving Pine Brook.”
“And where will you put her, dear?”
“We will not ‘put her’ anywhere. She will be coming home to live with me. We have been planning this for quite some time.”
Hallelujah! I feel a sweet and certain sadness start at the bottom of my toes and fill up all of me. Sadness everywhere. The sadness I have sought in every hiding place.
“Well, I think you will be surprised to learn just how difficult your sister can be.”
“I will not be surprised at all. It’s a thing I knew about before you were born.”
Cue the angels. Blow the pitch pipe.
Eileen appears around the corner. She’s one determined Girl Scout. “Let’s pack your things, Margaret. We’re getting out of here.”
“Whatever you say, Sparky.”
Eileen carries a small overnight bag filled with what I need tonight. “We’ll be back for the rest of her things later,” she tells the matron, who is standing at the front door, trying to look as though her life had meaning.
Eileen takes me by the hand and drags me past the woman, and there is no grandmother on the planet earth who will stop her this afternoon, no force in hell or heaven that would dare try.
“Well, good luck, dear,” the matron says as we pass by.
“My name is Mrs. Ferguson,” Eileen says, icy, stern.
"So, should I call you that too?” I say and squeeze her hand as she all but drags me across the parking lot.
When Eileen’s grandson was very young, I took him to the movies, and the only movie not sold out that afternoon was The Madness of King George. Driving home that day, I asked the little boy if he had understood the movie. “Sure,” he said. “The people said, ‘God save the king,’ and at the end of the movie, God did.”
“Mrs. Ferguson,” I say as Eileen climbs into the driver’s seat and buckles in, “I like the way this ends. I like what this ending does to the whole story.”
“Don’t call me ‘Mrs. Ferguson.’ ”
Eileen puts her foot down, and the car jerks forward. The whole way home she pumps the gas pedal up and down. It’s how she drives; it’s how she’s always driven. But tonight I think she’ll get us where we need to go.