She still smokes. It is the one visible vice she still allows herself, or so she tells herself to avoid the knowledge that the shortcoming is a fault of her will. They are long, thin tubes through which she tries to pull the air she feels she was denied for 40 years, although by that analogy she started smoking long before she learned to breathe. Their flimsy appearance brings to mind jaunty women in bright clothes swinging handbags that Elise imagines are full of feather-light essentials of which she is ignorant. This gap in her knowledge of womanly lore explains her own black cracked leather purse, the handles held to the body by chipped gold rings. The cigarettes are American whenever she can manage it – American cigarettes allow her the guise of boldness. She buys them by the carton on the trips to visit her children who live close enough to the border that the extra few miles cannot threaten further damage to her car. Already the hood is held together with grey plumber’s tape, and the body is deteriorating into bi-tone: original metallic grey losing its sheen against the more even and dependable rust. The only bright hues come from inside, where an old afghan sheathes the back seat and mirror decorations jostle each other in a mobile that would impede anyone’s line of vision but her own.
It’s been a year since the end of her marriage. Or, technically, the end of the marriage has not yet been heralded by lawyerly contrivances that try to fit 40 years of for better and for worse into documents indented and appended and properly spaced.
The first four months were a search. That was when she bought the car. Her son went with her to an auction, where she went one bid higher than his approval permitted. But it got her through a solitary road trip across the States; or almost, at any rate. There were two days of panicked desperation at a hotel in Utah. But the stay ended up being free, complete with a bouquet of flowers on her dresser. The husband and wife hotel proprietors’ restraint in questioning, even when she asked only for a meal and directions to an AA meeting, was like a benediction. Her husband wired her the money for the car repairs without so much as a weary sigh at the other end of the telephone. Nor did he ask her how she liked being alone, or if she would come back.
Shaking limbs and perplexity
Today she is sitting on the sagging couch of a home where people live with visible disabilities. The shaking limbs and perplexity are on the outside, and the sturdy rungs on the ladder to contentment are an hour of colouring, listening to favourite music, or arranging familiar photographs into a comforting sequence. On the coffee table in front of her is an ash tray. Only two efficiently smoked butts are mangled in a collage of ash and tobacco shavings. She takes breaks from making supper to talk to the residents. One of them helps her in the kitchen, creating salads that sometimes add an exotic touch and sometimes verge on inedible. Last week it was tuna and pineapple drizzled with maple syrup; this week Elise has set the vegetables closer to hand in what she hopes will unconsciously be perceived as inspiration by someone who repels any suggestions.
She only cooks here once a week, Fridays usually, revelling in this reprise of her maternal role. She came to this city community recently, after she left the country community where she herself was an aide for the months between her road trip and now. She had her own room there, and marvelled that she could fit her life into it; even so, the bed, dresser and lamp had been in the room when she arrived. She interpreted the furniture not as a sign of welcome, but as defiant sentinels of how easily she could be supplanted. True, she had cardboard boxes sealed with packing tape piled like bricks in her closet, a fortress of possessions she never even looked at, but that she still lugged out to her trunk when she was asked to leave, a nesting instinct that overcame the desire to flee without a trace. Out of vindictiveness, she had wanted to take with her, too, something so ludicrous as the pane of glass in the window, or the light bulb from the lamp – one of those that lights itself in three degrees so she could simulate dusk at any time of the day. But she knew such a gesture would only hold meaning in her own mind; to everyone else it would be a cryptic sign of imbalance.
Not that she had room in her car anyway, for ridiculous things that catered to a will that even she did not understand. If she gave in to every whim, she would not be where she was now. Perhaps she would still be with Matthew; or moving among her several children, leaving when the grandchildren ceased to be precious, or when the cabinet above the refrigerator was imposing an emptiness that she felt to her core; or maybe she would be dead of her own folly. No matter. Whatever it was that put her on the right track, she supposed she was on it now.
From the moment of her dismissal, before packing her car, she was already beyond the point where she could retreat disdainfully, sweeping a bold cape around her shoulders and bequeathing deep but dainty footprints in the lives of the people she left behind. Instead she felt like a soldier disgraced by a dishonourable discharge. In a community where disabilities are so visible, she had hoped she could hide.
She heard Yvonne shuffling through the motions of salad preparation in the kitchen upstairs. So far Elise had not heard the clamp of a can opener coming together and the faint hiss of a can losing its vacuum, so she presumed they were safe from tuna and pineapple. She remembered the looks of dismay last week as aides and residents alike passed the green plastic salad bowl from one to another. Steve, not socialized into hiding his likes and dislikes, merely frowned, but Louise interpreted others’ distaste as heralding a greater portion for herself. Not that she was overly-fond of the ingredients, but she knew that seconds were generally against the rules, rules that she could often bend if the only option was waste.
Elise blew smoke out in a concentrated stream before heading back to the kitchen. Yesterday she had gone shopping for the groceries, after a morning of deciding on a menu. She had put the total on the account in the name of the house at the local grocery store, had even toyed with the idea of having the few groceries delivered, but had finally seen that as foolishness and carried the three bags herself. It would have been free, a luxury afforded her by her white hair and senior citizen’s card, but it would have been a slothful letting down of the garrisoned barriers that hold in industry and activity.
Words aimed at her
She remembered several of the sermons her husband had preached on the Seven Deadly Sins. As if sloth was ever an option for a minister’s wife with a parsonage to care for and children to raise along the straight and narrow. Greed was more of a temptation, as was envy, but she could generally convince herself of her own contentment with only minor delves into casuistry. Pride was forgivable, in her eyes, since it was usually a maternal glow that revelled in the children’s school work or at-home cleverness. As for the others, she could rarely even remember them, and she always wondered, while she sat in a hard pew on Sunday morning, why she felt Matthew’s words were aimed only at her. She felt him arranging the abstractions into a collage mask for her to wear; the persistence of his words reached her even as she arranged a daughter’s legs on her lap, trying to avoid creasing her skirt, an imperfection that was certainly unbefitting a minister’s wife and would be noticed after the service at the fellowship coffee.
Back upstairs, she stayed out of Doug’s way as he moved between the kitchen and the dining room, setting the table one or two utensils at a time. Yvonne offered on-going encouragement that Doug ignored by singing under his breath until she joined in tunelessly and without rhythm, tapering off at the end of each breath. Sometimes Doug was so aggravated by Yvonne’s perceived assaults of friendliness that he screamed wordlessly, and when an aide asked him to tell what was bothering him he would mumble repeatedly some small complaint – his nose was running, his coffee was cold, his socks were falling down. Other times he could be coaxed into reciprocity. Then he would raise a crooked finger in the air, surrounded by a loose fist, and answer questions of what he did that day, punctuated by exaggerated shakes of his head to make sure everyone was still listening.
Elise remembered a picture one of her sons had hung in his room for years, moving it from wall to wall when Matthew took a new church. It always looked the same: an asymmetrical photograph looking slightly too long from when he had carefully pared away the vertical edges frayed from tearing it out of a magazine. Always framed only by the vast expanse of a parsonage-white wall, it showed a child, perhaps her son’s age when he had cut it out, maybe six or seven, sitting on a floor covered in beige carpet. In the background were people’s legs, some of them crossed and shielded in stockings, others the straight standing legs of pin-striped men hiding the scuffs on their shoe heels with lowered pant cuffs. Elise could always picture the men with their hands in their coat pockets, checking pocket watches, or signalling boredom to their wives. The women she saw balancing cups of tea on their knees, mentally noting who had spilled into their saucers, or who had taken more than a teaspoon and a half of sugar. Not that Elise had noticed these things in the years she looked at the picture. If these details were even shown, they were overpowered by the picture’s primary focus of the seated child whose head only reached to knee height of the adults whom Elise had imagined into individuals with a generalized personality. She had only thought of it after her son had gone off to college, presumably taking the photograph with him, or maybe finally throwing it away.
A scream can show so much
The mesmerizing fascination of the picture was the child: screaming, mouth open, the gapped procession of baby teeth an oval frame around the red tongue and palate. She had not known that a scream could show so much of what was inside. She remembered wondering what the attraction was for her son, and where he would have found such a print – such uninhibited disgust, discontent and dissatisfaction would not have been found in a Sunday School periodical. She had finally concluded that it must have come from a library copy of National Geographic, or some other magazine that showed cross-sections of foreign cultures that flourished right next door.
At supper they held hands to pray. They took turns, each one offering words of thanks, or at least framing a thankful intent in guttural whispers the way Steve did, emphasizing his incomprehensible prayerful soliloquies with startling throat clearings before ending in a series of nearly intelligible amens. Elise’s suppers had quickly become a weekly highlight. They all looked forward to one night of cooking seasoned by years of experience in providing for a large family. Elise never resorted to spaghetti with canned sauce, or a slab of meat loaf. Her meals were complete – vegetables; meatballs fried one by one, not baked in a mass of tastelessness; and bread and butter.
They resembled a family, this gathering around the table; the leaf was always in, and had settled into a permanent sag, a creed to their familial patterns. Although the aides came and went, fitting a year or two of this caretaking into their life plans of schooling or other work, the residents were constant. Some of them had come from their own homes when their parents grew old or died, others had come from institutions where they had lived for years until the very ideas of personal relationships or family were annulled by experiences of attrition: a tantrum of frustration would take away one privilege after another until all that was left were the borders defined by long green hallways frontiered by bolted doors. Elise could tell who came from an institution. It was in the way they ate quickly, not noticing the conversation around them, how they looked surprised when someone offered them seconds, and how they took their medications all in a gulp, barely swallowing before asking after bedtime.
Singing hymns out of habit
For dessert Elise had made a fruit salad – mostly fresh fruit, but then she had cheated by adding one can of fruit cocktail to satisfy her eye’s craving for the translucent shine of one or two maraschino cherries. She completed her domestic offering to this house that had let her in by cleaning up the dishes and kitchen. Sometimes she sang hymns to herself, a habit she had begun when she was first married in a conscious exorcism of paranoia, always afraid that one of the parishioners was listening to her as she kept their grudgingly-lent property impeccably clean; a scrubbing with hyssop was what they expected. Finally, she sang hymns out of habit, and recently their rote-remembered lyrics comforted her, the way a rolled “r” would put a Castilian heart at ease in the middle of a land where the r’s are swallowed and vacuous.
Tomorrow she would drive down to see Matthew. He had called with the problem of what to do with the piano. She thought of its lemon-oiled finish and cracked ivory keys, the colour of the dentures of a life-long smoker. Of course she realized that the family musical instrument could not fit in her car, so arrangements would have to be made since Matthew had no use for it. Whatever sensitivity he had developed to music he heard in the diction of his sermons, or in the clanging of his memories that he used as a shield and an example. Elise didn’t remember when the memories became harshest, if he had told her before they married the extent of his experience. Recognizing the peril of too much knowledge, maybe he had let it seep gradually into the seams of their bond, like melting snow seeps into cracks in the cement, splitting them slowly if the night brings a freeze. Sometimes her son’s religiously guarded photograph made sense to her then; when she would catch sight of it in a rampage of room-cleaning, the child’s scream would be almost audible. Maybe her son knew more than she did, and identified not himself but Matthew with the scream. But for Matthew, it was never a scream of petulance. Rarely was it even voiced, except in the spell-binding fury of a homily on suffering where he would offer concentration camp brutalities as examples of human degradation and the need for salvation. But never in the first person; Matthew never used the word I.
Elise wondered why she even cared about the piano. She could play the requisite pieces – enough to fill in at the church organ when occasional lapses in the organist’s memory left the organ bench empty until minutes before the service. At times like those, the congregation would still talk, but the whispers were strained, exposed by the absence of a sensible Bach Prelude – nothing too intricate or with too much counterpoint – or the pious melodies of an arrangement from “The Sunday Musician.” Finally Elise would stand, casting a warning glance at the pewful of children she left behind, and unceremoniously beat out the introduction to the first hymn without pausing to adjust the stops. The melody would resound through the church in the tones of the instruments chosen by the last musician and the congregation would rise, relieved, to greet their sure Redeemer.
All she needs
After another cigarette she would leave for a good rest before the journey in the morning to visit Matthew. For that is the shape it has taken: a visit of society, not a dry meeting to come to another meticulous understanding over the divvying up of household resources. She had a few hours in the car to forge her stronghold of defenses. At their last meeting, she had translated the movements of his hands into a glimmer of forgiveness and petition. Or maybe she had just imagined it, gathering wisps of hints into a handful, like the strings that tie helium balloons to a child’s wrist. They had sat on the porch steps together, not out of mutual pretense of appreciation for the other’s company, but as a concession that the time need not be punctuated only by arrangements and life-sized maps and mazes of belongings scattered over the floors of the house. She had created for herself, in those moments, the illusion of a little trickle in the dykes built around whatever kept them apart. But she had been wrong. So tomorrow she would go, knowing she has all she needs, even if her wants remain indiscernible for now, no more than the subdued clamour of a far-off struggle.
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