A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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My aunt Eunice never married. I have not married either, and I think that perhaps we remained single for the same reason, though I may be wrong. Eunice never said why she hadn’t married, except in the joking way one replies to the curiosity of children. “I never found any man I liked,” she told us. “Wasn’t anyone good enough.” She let us know, however, that she could have married if she’d wanted to. Someone had asked her, but she’d turned him down.
As I grew older, I sensed the shame associated with being unmarried, and I no longer inquired about it, just as you would not ask about a large red birthmark on someone’s face. Later on, though I wanted to know how Eunice felt about the single life she’d lived, I believed that she should be the one to initiate the conversation. She never did. Maybe she thought I should be the one, or maybe she didn’t want to talk about it at all. In any case, we never discussed it, and now it’s too late, because she is dying.
Eunice is spending her last days in a nursing home that looks like a motel: a long, one-story stucco building with a neat lawn and a fenced-in patio. I come to visit every couple of days. Her room is at the end of one wing — a good location, far enough removed from the wide central corridor that you can hardly hear the woman who calls out unceasingly, in a gravelly, mechanical voice, “Help me, help me, help me!” There is little traffic outside Eunice’s room: An orderly goes by pushing a cart stacked high with towels, a mop lashed to the corner like a flagpole. A couple of nurses confer briefly in Spanish and laugh.
Today, when I visit, a thick, fertile lawn smell floats in through Eunice’s open window. The top of her hospital bed is angled like a lounge chair. She is asleep, her head sunk into a large white pillow. I stand and look at her for a minute. The skin of her face, blotched and thin and eerily transparent, clings like crinkled plastic wrap to the bone. Her eyes have fallen deep into their sockets, and her cheekbones stand out like knobs. Her nose is a sharp edge, her open mouth a hole. What I see before me on the pillow is a skull, lightly wrapped.
When I wake Eunice, her mouth closes, and she resembles a living person again. “Thank you for coming,” she says in a voice that is almost a whisper. “It’s good of you to come.” She wants to know what time it is.
“Nine-thirty,” I tell her.
“Day or night?”
“Day. It’s morning.”
On the rolling tray-table by her bed, where the nurses place paper cups of water and meals she doesn’t eat, lies a fashion magazine. The cover shows a young woman in a yellow bikini with a bare-chested man standing behind her, his fingers curled around her waist. The woman is arching her back and flinging one arm upward, displaying a long sinuous curve of tanned flesh, from armpit to crotch. “Make-up Secrets for Summer!” says the headline, and below it, in smaller letters, “For Skin That Looks — and Feels! — Luscious.”
“Who brought you this?” I ask, holding up the magazine, but Eunice doesn’t hear me. I sit down to stay with her for a while as she waits, with characteristic impatience, for her long life to end.
It’s a warm summer morning; it will be a hot day and a warm night, the sort of night when, forty-five years ago, Eunice might have invited my sister and me to have dinner and sleep overnight on the back porch at her house, where she lived with her mother, our grandmother, Nano. Her house was only a few blocks from ours, but was not nearly as modern or as large. Ours was redwood with a flat gravel roof and plate-glass windows. Eunice’s house was white stucco with green shutters and, at the back door, concrete steps and a railing made of thick iron pipe. Its rooms were small and dimly lit by sunlight coming through the filmy curtains and the wide-slatted blinds. The dining room was dominated by a great, looming black-brown sideboard, its elaborately carved legs bulging like stockings stuffed with onions. The bathroom smelled like vinegar, the kitchen like stewed chicken. The back porch where my sister and I slept was a small, raised rectangle of green concrete, beyond which was grass, a clothesline, and a lemon bush. It was the kind of house where old people lived (Eunice was in her fifties then, Nano in her nineties), especially old women without families of their own. It was not the sort of house I ever wanted to have, although I liked going there. Eunice did everything she could to make our visits a treat.
“Eunie’s fixing something special tonight,” she would say, “for two special girls. Chickie on the barbecue. And for dessert, a surpriiiise!” My sister and I would drag the box of toys out of the hall closet and strew them across the floor. We’d do somersaults on the prickly grass, getting green stains on our sleeveless cotton shirts. We’d run behind the bushes and hoist ourselves up to look over the fence into the neighbors’ back yards. “You little rascals! You little skeezixes!” Eunice would cry. We were her delight.
Though I would never have said so, it was Eunice’s friend Helen I most enjoyed seeing: Helen with her ruddy cheeks and great, wide hands; Helen with her jeans and cowboy boots and plaid shirts with the sleeves rolled halfway up her strong arms; Helen who had been in the military and who, with her square jaw and sturdy legs, looked uncomfortable in a skirt and heels; Helen who was always there, though she had her own house somewhere else. Eunice always bossed Helen around: “Have you turned the chicken, Helen? I said to turn it five minutes ago — it’s going to get burnt”; “Helen, don’t let those girls climb all over you. I need some help in here with the salad.” Helen always smiled and acquiesced. She knew it was Eunice’s show.
I wondered, years later, whether Helen had had a hunch about me, about the way I would turn out. Though not a boyish, swaggering, gruff little girl — I was thin, shy, and bookish — I was fonder of jeans than of dresses, and much preferred to climb trees and capture insects than to sew and play with dolls. Compared to Helen, I was girlish, but the truth is she and I were two sides of the same coin: she was the masculine sort of woman, and I — already, at age eight or ten — was the sort who is attracted to such women. If she did suspect this, I doubt she mentioned it to Eunice.
Certainly, under other circumstances, Helen and Eunice would have been lovers. They were inseparable, one brittle-tempered and nervous and fine-featured, the other manly and handsome. But I am almost sure they were not — at least, not physically. Once, in later years, when Eunice was having dinner at our house, my father mentioned that a man in his office was a homosexual, and Eunice trembled with rage. “It’s wrong and disgusting,” she said. “Wrong and disgusting.” Perhaps Helen had once dared to hint at her feelings for Eunice. Maybe that was why, when I was around twelve, Helen had disappeared from Eunice’s life — and ours. “She’s moved,” Eunice told us. “She got a job somewhere else.” Or perhaps neither of them ever said anything at all, and unspoken emotions grew between them like ivy between fence planks, pushing them apart.
Eunice groans and turns restlessly in bed.
“Are you uncomfortable?” I ask her.
“My legs,” she says.
I step into the corridor to look for a nurse and hear the distant chant: “Help me, help me, help me!” like a malfunctioning wind-up toy. I flag down a stout, young black woman whose face is expressionless but whose tone is kind. “How you doing, Eunice?” she says. “Need to shift your legs?” She pulls down the sheet. Eunice’s nightgown has ridden up around her hips, and I see for a second the pale, flat V of her vulva, hairless as a child’s. I wonder whether, in her ninety-five years, she has ever been touched by a lover. I think not, and it seems to me an unbearable deprivation. I remained untouched much longer than most girls of my generation. Feeling no attraction to men and unable to act on my attraction to women, I was desperately lonely. When I was twenty-three and still had never had a lover, I thought that I would as soon die as live the rest of my life that way. But Eunice is of a different time, when a certain number of women resigned themselves to a sexless life — welcomed it, even, sex having come to seem both frightening and wicked. Still, the body must have signaled its desires. There must have been an inner struggle for self-mastery, a periodic arising of self-hatred, some grief.
“Better?” the nurse asks Eunice.
“Yes,” Eunice whispers. “Thank you.”
I follow the nurse to the door and ask about the woman who cries for help.
“She does that all day, when she’s awake,” the nurse says, shrugging. “When you go in and ask her what she wants, she don’t know; she just keeps on saying it.”
When my visit is over and I am on my way down the wide, gleaming hall, past the residents slumped in parked wheelchairs, I notice another visitor walking several yards ahead of me. The shape of her narrow back, her brushy hair, and the way she moves — a hurried, stiff-legged scuttle — are familiar. As she turns the corner, I catch a glimpse of her profile, her big beak of a nose, her wiry bangs, and I see that it’s Marie, who goes about as far back into my childhood as Eunice.
When my sister and I were little, our mother employed what she called “live-in help,” a series of women who slept in the bedroom next to ours, served as baby sitters, cooked, cleaned, washed the dishes, did the laundry, and tried to make sure we stayed out of trouble. The first of these was Marie’s sister, Theresa, whom we loved. Gray-haired and soft-bodied, Theresa wore a plain blouse, a plain straight skirt, and heavy shoes. Her clothes were like a nun’s: modest and boxy. Through the fabric of her blouse I could just make out the dress shields under her arms. A thick, dull silver cross hung from a chain around her neck.
Theresa talked in a fast, murmuring way, often just to herself: “Yes, yes, yes, these dishes go here, that’s right, plates here, come now, girls, bring the plates over to the counter.” She shuffled quickly and unobtrusively from room to room, turning sideways when she passed our mother in the hall, smiling and bobbing her head. She hummed to herself, perpetually cheerful, always grateful. On Sundays she went to Mass with a bandanna tied under her chin.
Theresa and Marie lived with their mother in a small white clapboard duplex with two screen doors in front. By their last name, Hiller, I suppose they were German. Because their English was slightly strange, I imagine they came here at an early age, smelling of poverty and musty Catholicism, to be commanded all their lives by God and the masters and mistresses of the houses where they worked. I was too young then to sense whether Theresa accepted her lowly place or not. I accepted it for her. Some women, it seemed, were designed for this sort of life — grayish, lumpish, unmarried women. It was their job to take care of people like us, whose lives were bright and real.
So why is Marie visiting this nursing home? I think I know the answer. Going back to the far end of the hallway, I read the names beside each door. About halfway down is the one I expect to see: Hiller, Theresa. It is the room from which the endless call for help emanates. Cautiously, I look inside. Someone with a face of mushroom whiteness sits upright against the pillows at the head of the bed. Her legs, in blue nylon pajamas, stick straight out and are parted, the legs of a big doll. Fixing her eyes on me, she reaches out a hand, still chanting, “Help me, help me, help me!” I am as horrified as if she had snatched hold of my wrist to pull me into her bed. I flee.
Theresa stayed with our family a year or so and then went to work for another family, and there followed in her place a string of wayward souls: rootless, drifting women who usually stayed no more than a few months. Finally, when my sister and I were almost too old to put up with live-in help anymore, our mother hired Marie.
Marie was well-meaning, but something had gone slightly awry in her mind. She was small and thin, with coarse, black, bushy hair that shot down to her shoulders — witch’s hair. A thatch of ragged bangs stood out over her forehead, and above them she wore, attached with a bobby pin, a little colored bow. With her long teeth and jutting nose, she was hardly pretty, and the bow made her look ridiculous, like a horse in a party hat.
Marie was wound more tightly than Theresa. She hunched a little forward and scuttled when she walked. Like her sister, she spoke in a running patter, but it was quicker and more frantic: “Little girls, little girls, now listen, it’s lunch time, lunch time, such nice food to eat, your mama says come and sit down for lunch, you come right now, quick.” She was eager to please our mother — so eager that she could not rest but always had to be darting about, looking for tasks that would earn favor. Sometimes, when our parents were out for the night, Marie got up and hauled the vacuum cleaner out of the closet and ran it vigorously across the living-room carpet. When we came home from school, Marie would often be ironing in the laundry room, a great heap of clothes spilling over the edges of the canvas laundry basket. Sometimes she’d sing, in her hooting voice, “Oh, I love to do the ironing, I love to do the ironing.”
Marie had no sway over us. When we laughed and disobeyed her, her fingers shook, her words came in a sputtering stream, and the dark, heavy eyebrows that met over her big nose quivered in frustration and fury. My sister and I couldn’t stand her, and our father said she was feeble-minded and had a screw loose, besides. So our mother let Marie go. Theresa came to get her in an old gray-green car.
In the years that followed, I would see the Hiller sisters now and then on their way to or from church, walking arm in arm, backs bent, faces lifted as if looking up at a superior, ready to smile and nod. They wore filmy pastel bandannas, dark skirts, and gray cardigans, buttoned up. Once, I went up to them and told them who I was, and they broke into a twitter, reaching out, patting my sleeve, both speaking at once: “Oh, so nice that you stop to speak to us, yes, yes, we remember, thank you, how nice, how is your dear mother? and your sisters? so nice of you, such a good girl you always were, all of you girls.” They smiled and nodded and patted, and then I took my leave, thinking, with a shiver of pity, How dreadful it must be to live such a wretched, meager life. I had no idea, though, if that was how they saw it. Perhaps they were happy enough. Perhaps they derived satisfaction from their job as caretakers — of their mother, of each other, and of rich families’ children.
Aunt Eunice, too, was a caretaker, supporting her mother all through her working life. For a while, she also supported her brother — my father — so that he could go to Stanford and get his business degree. She worked in the ticket office of the Stanford Athletic Department, which was housed in an old building of dark yellowish brick. The high-ceilinged room at the front was the clerical workers’ brown realm — brown furniture, brown metal filing cabinets, glossy brown floor. Wooden desks stood in rows, at each a typewriter, a black telephone, and a woman in a swivel chair. Eunice was one of these women until she became the office manager, overseeing the production, allotment, and sale of all tickets for sporting events at Stanford. She worked very hard and was often at the office on weekends and evenings. We would hear tales of the boss who made a decision Eunice knew was bad, the last-minute crisis before the big game, the girl who came in late every day because of trouble at home and who finally — though Eunice hated to do it — had to be let go.
One summer when I was in high school, I worked for Eunice, counting and proofreading the tickets for the eighty thousand seats in the football stadium. I could bear the staggering tedium only because I knew that it would soon end, and that I would go on to better things. I entertained myself by daydreaming of the English teacher I was in love with, feeling a tiny romantic pang every time I counted a ticket on which the number of her age — twenty-seven — was printed. I did not belong in that deadly place, would rather have been penniless than work there all my life, but it was Eunice’s domain, and she was queen of it: gracious, firm, and intelligent. Good-looking, too, with a patrician face, Roman nose, blue eyes, and thick, graying hair, neatly waved. While the other women chatted about husbands and children and dessert recipes, Eunice smiled and joked but contributed no stories of her own. After work, she met Helen at the Stanford stables, and they rode horses along the trails.
Eunice worked there for forty years. When she retired, they hired three people to replace her.
Did she dream of a wider life? If so, she didn’t mention it. I never heard her say she’d rather have been a forest ranger, or a horse trainer, or a travel writer. She took what was handed to her — the ticket office and the elderly mother to support — but I don’t think she was content. Once, Eunice had dinner with our family on the terrace of my sister’s apartment in San Francisco. If you looked sharply to the left, you could see the ramparts of the Bay Bridge and ships chugging toward the Golden Gate. At the table, my father talked about how, after he’d graduated from Stanford, he’d gotten a job with the telephone company and been sent to Brazil for a year. Suddenly, Eunice burst into angry tears.
“You went off!” she cried. “You went off and left us, and I worked and worked. . . . Mother was . . . We needed him, but no, he went to Brazil.” Her voice cracked; the tears ran down her face. All of us sat in shocked silence.
“That was a long time ago,” my father said at last.
Every time I come to the nursing home and pass Theresa’s room (I won’t venture in again), I think what a strange coincidence it is: here they both are, Eunice and Theresa, and here I am, a link between the two. I search for some meaning to this, grouping our lives like a spray of flowers and examining them. Is there something significant I am supposed to see? I see that we are three women, all a little odd (each in her own way), all single, all living lives that don’t show up much on television screens and magazine covers. I see that Eunice and Theresa have led the sort of lives that I used to fear falling into myself — lonely and desolate, marooned at the far edge of things. Luck and education have protected me from the scarcity of money that hindered them both. But even now, with a lover and many good friends and a house of my own and work that interests me, there are times, especially at dusk, when I have no engagements, the telephone doesn’t ring, and there is too much silence in my house. For a moment, I feel as if I am almost old and might be sitting for the next twenty years alone in a room.
On what turned out to be very bad advice from my father, Eunice sold her house and moved to a rented duplex. She acquired a thin-legged, barrel-chested terrier with an assaultive bark. Whenever I rang the doorbell, she would ask the dog, in her high, dog-pleasing voice, “Who’s that coming to visit? Who’s that coming, Cindy? Could it be our Jeanne-bean?”
The little living room was neat and carefully arranged: flowers in a glass vase, some pine cones on the mantel, a few Smithsonian magazines on the coffee table, and on the bookshelves some greeting cards and framed pictures of my sisters and me. The moment I sat down, I felt restless and confined. My visits were usually brief. I had moved in with a lover, Sylvia, by then, rescued at last from the horrible fate of lifelong singleness. I told Eunice about the vacations Sylvia and I had taken, and how we were redecorating our house and planting a vegetable garden. Eunice never asked why I hadn’t found myself a nice young man.
The year that Eunice turned ninety, Sylvia died of cancer, at forty-four. Eunice acknowledged my loss, though we’d never spoken openly about the kind of relationship Sylvia and I had. “Sylvia was a good friend to you, wasn’t she?” Eunice said. “You were lucky to have her, even for such a short time. She shouldn’t have died so young. Death is for old people like me. I’m ready to go.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” I said to her, “if we could just flick a switch when we wanted to leave the world?”
“Yes,” Eunice said. She liked that idea. “Turn me on; turn me off,” she said.
By then, Eunice had moved to a “senior-care facility.” A volunteer named Barbara came every week and took her to the hairdresser and the grocery store. Sometime after Sylvia had died, Eunice told Barbara, “Jeannie needs help with her garden. She can’t do it all by herself.” Barbara said she knew the very person, a woman who had designed a garden for her. I called the number Eunice passed on to me and hired Susie the gardener to come to my house twice a month and prune, fertilize, and plant.
Now I am here at the nursing home for what will be my last visit. I have brought with me the pictures taken at my fiftieth-birthday party, showing me standing close to Susie the gardener, who has become my lover. I want Eunice to know at least this much: that, because of her, I have a new friend. But I see that it is too late. Eunice doesn’t respond when I speak to her. She is too busy dying. She hauls in a breath, then collapses under its weight. Her hands on the sheet are blue-white and motionless, as if severed.
“It won’t be long,” the nurse says, checking her pulse.
I stand by Eunice a little longer. The sun streams through the slats of the blinds and lights the wave of white hair springing from her scalp. Her thin chest rises and drops: hoarse breath in, exhausted breath out. Almost everything is gone now but the last stubborn impulses of heart and lungs. All sounds but her breathing seem far away — a faint rumble of cart wheels, a brief exchange in Spanish, Theresa calling, “Help me, help me, help me!” from down the hall, longing for the same deliverance that has finally arrived for Eunice. The fashion magazine still lies on the bedside tray-table. What is it doing here? Its presence is a wrong note, like an advertising jingle in the middle of a piano sonata, a squirt of day-glo paint on the surface of a somber painting. The woman in the yellow bikini waves from the cover, the man’s hands at her waist. She smiles at me from a world that seems immeasurably distant.