On Evelyn’s move-in date, Louise asked Ayoka to help her into her best blouse—a delicate process now that the socket of Louise’s right shoulder was so deteriorated its meager lip no longer held the ball in place. Her shoulder could dislocate and relocate at random, as easily as a goldfish shifting directions in its bowl. But Ayoka managed the task well enough that Louise’s shoulder stayed intact this time, and Louise felt as put together as she possibly could. She asked Ayoka to push the wheelchair to the front doors, where she planned to carry out an all-day vigil if necessary. She would not be the foolish bridesmaid who hadn’t brought enough oil to allow for the bridegroom’s tardiness.
Despite Louise’s resolve to keep alert, when the automatic doors at last snapped open, they pulled her from an inadvertent doze. Out of the parking lot, near white with sunlight to Louise’s startled eyes, Evelyn appeared, all the details of her purple sweatshirt, gray slacks, and hosed ankles revealing themselves as Louise’s eyes adjusted. It was Evelyn, all right; only she could wear such a dumpy outfit with the bold air of somebody intending to make herself at home.
Evelyn looked in her direction, and Louise almost said something but caught herself. Evelyn was coming through her door; let Evelyn announce her own presence. But just then the doors jerked open again, and now a younger woman trundled in with powerful, unstoppable mass. Louise felt shaken until she realized that beneath the bulging chin and ballooning arms was Evelyn’s daughter, Janet—and Janet was now next to Evelyn, goading her forward. Evelyn moved on at Janet’s behest without so much as a nod to Louise.
“Evelyn!” Louise called out.
The purple sweatshirt stopped. The head with the wiry gray bob—leave it to Evelyn to have a hairstyle other than the set curls of everyone else—began to turn and, to Louise’s astonishment, continued turning enough for Evelyn to look directly at her. There was still a suppleness to Evelyn after all.
“Come on, Mom,” Janet said, and, in hurrying Evelyn along, caught sight of Louise. “Oh, Aunt Louise!” Her face all smile, her voice rose to booming. “Jim said we might run into you here, and here you are.”
Louise almost told her she wasn’t hard of hearing but thought better of it. Janet couldn’t help the falseness; it was all Evelyn’s influence. Louise had tried, over the years, to trace a glimpse of Boyd in Janet—he was Janet’s father, after all—but even now she couldn’t. Boyd’s child would have asked how her Aunt Louise was doing these days instead of standing there grinning that sardonic smile, the same one boys had once found so attractive on Evelyn.
“I thought I’d just come down to say hello,” Louise said.
“Well, that must have been a lot of trouble.” Janet looked pointedly at Louise’s wheelchair. “All for us, Mom. Don’t you want to say hi to Louise?”
“Of course. Hi, Weezy.” And Evelyn’s old smile was there as she said it, the original, that insolent angle so perfectly managed it betrayed that Janet’s was a copy.
“We’ve got to get Mom moved in. They’re waiting for us. Good to see you, Aunt Louise.” Janet used her bulk to hasten them onward before Louise could decide on a response.
That evening, Louise summoned Ayoka tohelp her use the bathroom and transfer to her walker before dinner. She preferred to use her own two feet for small distances—Jim encouraged it, good son that he was—and so she made sure to arrive at Evelyn’s door under her own power. The management had hung a welcome sign. Evelyn Kelson, it said, with an arc to the letters as though they rode a rainbow. Just like that, as if she had every right to the name Kelson.
“Well, I thought it might be you,” Evelyn said when she answered Louise’s knock. And just as Louise had spent most of the day debating whether Evelyn had actually been blinded by the sun and legitimately passed her by, or if she had only tried to get away without talking to Louise, she now wondered if there wasn’t an undertone of mockery to the statement—belittling her kindness into mere predictability.
Evelyn moved forward for a hug, leaving Louise no choice but to return it awkwardly and painfully over the walker.
“I imagine no one has told you yet that the policy here is to keep your door open during the day,” Louise said, remembering that she had had to knock.
“Oh? How come?”
Louise looked at her. If the tables had been turned and Louise were newly arrived, she’d have been grateful to anyone who told her the rules and certainly not questioned the authority of one who had lived there for years. “The management thinks it helps foster community. You remember how it was when we lived in the sorority house? It’s just the same reasoning.”
Evelyn looked as if she didn’t know.
“You remember. Our house mother—she was always making sure we kept our doors open to invite conversation.”
“Oh, yes.” Evelyn gave her signature grin. Something about its cocky slant struck Louise as being more than the smile born of fond memories. She must be thinking of the same night Louise had remembered all these years—the night at Bowman, more than half a century ago, when Louise caught Evelyn breaking the rules, for Evelyn had not only closed the door to her room, but she had done so to hide the boy accompanying her.
Standing now in the half-unpacked clutter of Evelyn’s new room, it seemed too soon to broach the subject, and so Louise turned to her reason for coming. “Anyhow, I thought you might like to have dinner with my friends and me. There will be room if Rose doesn’t show up. She takes meals in her room these days.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to be an unwanted guest,” Evelyn said with a brightness Louise suspected was put on for her benefit.
“Nonsense. I came down to the lobby today specially to greet you.”
“Well—” Evelyn demurred as if she needed more reassurance, but Louise simply waited. “Sure I’ll come. Give me just a minute.”
Evelyn didn’t offer that Louise take a seat or go ahead, and so Louise was left standing, watching how easily Evelyn vanished into the bathroom without needing the least bit of help.
“Everybody,” Louise addressed the table, “meetEvelyn, my sister-in-law.” Heads nodded and voices murmured as Louise introduced each one: Geri, who added that it was short for Geraldine; Roger, one of the rare widowers at Shady Acres, whom Geri had clearly claimed; Martha, whose extreme wrinkles suggested she had once been a large woman; and Joyce, Louise’s best friend. Rose was absent again.
Evelyn, unbidden, plopped herself in Louise’s usual seat next to Joyce, and Louise was forced to fill in between Evelyn and Martha.
“So, I understand you moved in today,” Joyce said to Evelyn as the servers brought trays of fish filet with tartar sauce in a paper cup, roasted potatoes, and garden vegetable as promised by the calendar hung in each resident’s room.
“Yes, but I still have lots to unpack.”
“Where were you moving from?” Geri asked. “Most people here were already local.”
“Me too. I just lived over on Jefferson.”
“No kidding! You must be Louise’s best-kept secret,” Geri pursued in her innocence.
Roger began putting pieces of fish in his mouth and peering from saggy-lidded eyes like a creature sunning himself. Even Martha, who couldn’t taste anymore and who tended to carry on about it in the worst way, had started to eat, but Louise felt horribly on the spot.
“I guess we go back such a ways I take for granted people know Evelyn,” Louise said with a chuckle. “Seems like she’s always been around.”
“You could almost say it’s because of Weezy that Boyd and me got married,” Evelyn piped up. “See, we were sorority sisters at Bowman College, back before I ever met Boyd. Then later we both worked at Parkside Elementary. That’s how I met Boyd, my husband. Her brother. He used to give her a ride home on rainy days. Pretty soon, he was coming on more than just the rainy days, ’cause he wanted to see me. I always said to Weezy that that’s how it went—no boy, no matter how fond of his sister, would go out of his way for her like he would for a woman who wasn’t his sister.”
“I was teaching fourth grade in those days,” Louise clarified. “Evelyn was the secretary.”
“So you’ve both been in town all these years?” Joyce asked as she cut her filet with an angle to her fork forced by her spreading arthritis; still, she managed to make the angle elegant.
Evelyn, sporting the same purple sweatshirt as earlier, dumbly continued to smooth her napkin in her lap as if she didn’t know a whole tray of food sat before her. “Weezy lived here her whole life. And Boyd and me did too at first. But we moved around, once for fun, once for his job.”
“Boyd didn’t really want to move, as I recall,” Louise said and took up her fork.
“Yes he did. You might not have been in touch enough at the time to know, but he did. Anyhow, once he died, I came back here. By then Janet—that’s my daughter—she was starting at Bowman herself. Following the old family footsteps.”
Evelyn didn’t mention that Janet had never graduated, that she just kept switching majors until some requirement proved too difficult, so she’d try her hand at another until she failed there, too. It would have killed Boyd to see it if he hadn’t been dead already, Louise knew; Boyd was good at everything.
“Joyce is a professor emerita of Bowman, you know,” Louise said to Evelyn, hoping it would chasten her.
“Oh! Then maybe you knew Janet? Janet Abbott? Actually,” Evelyn laughed, “she would have still been Kelson back then.”
Joyce considered before she expressed her regret that she didn’t.
“I don’t suppose you’d know my granddaughter; she’s at Bowman now. Erin Abbott. She’s already published, too. American Essayists of Today. You heard of that?”
Joyce said she hadn’t, and Geri spoke up. “My granddaughter is planning—”
“American Essayists of Today is a great big book”—Evelyn used her hands to demonstrate its dimensions—“and Erin’s essay is on page one. How about that?”
There was a general murmur as everyone but Evelyn continued to eat.
“Hers was about—”
“Evelyn, your food will get cold. It cools off quickly here, doesn’t it?” Louise addressed the table, and they agreed.
“Although,” Martha said, “it doesn’t much matter if you can’t taste it anyway.”
“Weezy,” Evelyn tried again, her mouth now full, “did I tell you what Erin’s essay was on?”
“No, I don’t believe you did.”
“It was about growing up right here in town. How about that?”
Louise hadn’t felt the need to unburden herselfto a friend in years. She had tried, after her husband, Ray, died, to join a widow’s group at church for that very purpose, but mostly people talked in matter-of-fact ways or broke down in sentimental weeping that Louise could hardly stand. Besides, she had always shared her thoughts better with men than with women, and not in any loose sort of way. She truly believed growing up with Boyd had made it so, for he had been her best friend all through childhood and even into her Bowman days when he wrote her a letter from the war every week. She always wrote back, telling him her impressions of this person or that professor, recording even minor occurrences because Boyd always cared.
But now that Evelyn planned to entrench herself here at Shady Acres and Boyd was long gone, she found herself craving a sympathetic ear, and so that evening she asked Ayoka to push her wheelchair down the hall to the sweet shop. She was hoping to find Joyce, and sure enough, as Ayoka steered around the corner, her bent posture came familiarly into view. Joyce’s arthritis made her one of the few who understood daily pain; only in each other’s presence was such pain anything more than plain suffering, for together they made of it a sort of tacit agreement.
Ayoka rolled Louise up to the table, asked if they wanted juice, and at their assent filled two glasses from a machine with the Minute Maid logo glowing bright. That machine, two tables, and a potted fern comprised the sweet shop. Its window overlooked a different bird feeder than the one Louise could see from her room. Joyce had been puzzling over a crossword from a paper dated several days before; she read a clue aloud, and they sat trying to think of the answer while a few grackles competed for seed.
“Joyce,” Louise said. “What do you think of Evelyn?”
Joyce met her eyes. “She seems fine.”
“You won’t offend me. You can tell me the truth; Evelyn and I were never close.”
“She seems just like any other resident here. I have no objection.”
But you would if you knew what I knew, Louise thought.
“But she’s always talking about that granddaughter of hers,” she said instead.
“As I said, just like any resident here.”
“I suppose.” Louise watched a grackle snatch up seed, cocking his head with fast movements between pecks. Here was her moment to tell about that night all those years ago at Bowman; to tell how the rule of the sorority house was that men—boys, really—were not permitted except in the front parlor before 8:00; to faithfully recount that it had been nearing 11:00, curfew time, when Louise, properly showered and in her nightgown, had come down from the cold dorm where all the girls slept to retrieve her book and read a chapter. She had just reached the end of the long hallway with doors to the girls’ private studies when she saw Evelyn’s thin elbow and her heeled foot, but most damning of all, the brown-and-white-checked hem of Evelyn’s favorite skirt, disappearing through the jamb to Evelyn’s room. She knew it was Evelyn. And pausing in her wake was Tony Wilson.
Louise glanced at Joyce, who continued watching the birds play in the evening shadows. Maybe she should start by describing Tony, saying that she knew him because his fraternity was a sibling house, and she’d seen him at joint socials. She would emphasize that the Tony she knew was tall and self-assured, the captain of the swim team and worth a second look. That way, Joyce might appreciate how Evelyn had so reduced him to the uncertain, stooping form lingering at her doorway. He had seen Louise down the hall. Evelyn had not, but Tony had. And though, for a second, Tony’s eyes met her own, he had done nothing to acknowledge it and stepped through Evelyn’s door, closing it so softly the tongue didn’t even click as it fit in the groove.
The memory was ready, shaken out, dusted off even down to the infraction that closing the door had been. Louise felt Joyce’s silence as an invitation to speak.
“She ruined herself before she married my brother.”
“I’m sorry?” Joyce turned toward Louise.
Something in Joyce’s attentiveness took the words from her. She felt certain she could describe Tony in his everyday state, but the thought of relaying how he had hunched his shoulders to hide … whatever it was he had to hide, filled her with shame. She and Joyce had never been gossips, neither one of them, and Louise felt a stab of rage at Evelyn for nearly making her one.
“Evelyn was popular with the boys before she married my brother. That’s all.”
Joyce seemed to sense it wasn’t all. She looked on the verge of saying something, but Louise was determined now to be rid of the topic.
“Besides, she’s giving away to everyone that I used to go by Weezy.” She chuckled as if the whole thing were a joke and felt the memory settling down the way the family dog used to retreat to his rug after a spell of fruitless barking.
Joyce peered at her a second longer, then asked how Louise had acquired the nickname.
“It was Boyd. He decided it fit after he and I had chicken pox at the same time. He would make up these stories to keep us entertained, but if I took to laughing too hard—which, you couldn’t help but laugh at one of Boyd’s stories—Mother would peek in from the kitchen and tell us to settle down or she’d send us back to school. That always got us to pipe down, until Boyd started in again. But Weezy—I don’t know why he chose that,” she said, at once tickled. “Chicken pox doesn’t make you wheeze.”
“I thought it was just a nickname for Louise—the phonetic similarity.”
“That’s true; it was the similarity. But even if it hadn’t been, Boyd was funny like that—very creative. I always believed he’d be a brilliant writer, or maybe something more scientific. Maybe a doctor who would discover a cure for arthritis.”
Joyce gave a laugh. “What a shame he wasn’t. What did he end up doing?”
“He sold insurance to support Evelyn and their kids until he died.” The fondness had left Louise’s voice, and she tried to change the subject just as quickly. “What about Peter? Did he ever call you anything?”
“No, just Joycey sometimes.”
“Isn’t that just like an older brother?”
They clucked over names so old and funny. The Minute Maid machine kicked on its refrigeration mechanism as if in agreement. The moment passed for Louise to unburden herself to Joyce. Peter had died in the war, Boyd had died in his sleep. The sisters they’d left went on watching the bird feeder and sipping their juice in silence.
The next morning, Jamila came to help Louise dress. Almost all the attendants at Shady Acres were from Somalia. They were beautiful, these Somali women, with their deep eyes and smooth foreheads. Every last one of them was beautiful, which made Louise wonder if perhaps they were nothing special after all. It seemed highly unlikely that an entire nation should be so blessed, even if it was so distant she’d barely heard of it before she lived here. Maybe the beauty was simply in the way their presence reassured her that a whole other world could exist without her seeing it. Or maybe it was sheer capability, how they could push wheelchairs as if it were nothing. So this was the wisdom of old age, Louise had thought before and now thought again as Jamila worked about her—to at last be able to see beauty and perfection where only ordinary bodies moved.
Dressed and with her walker, Louise reached the dining room only to find Evelyn next to Joyce and sporting an amoxicillin-pink sweatshirt with the word grandma across the chest. It was the work of Janet, no doubt, operating silently behind Erin. Everyone else was in their place, except for Geri, who always came late to Sunday brunch, and Rose, who was still eating in her room.
“What’s on the menu?” Louise asked.
“Doesn’t matter to me. I won’t be able to taste it,” Martha said.
“Oatmeal, Egg Beaters, fruit cup,” Evelyn recited, fidgeting with her bob and looking like she might start swinging her painless legs under the table any minute.
“Did you sleep well your first night here?” Joyce asked, and Evelyn replied that the sheets seemed scratchy and the register blew air too hard.
“Perhaps you’ll get used to it.” Joyce straightened her blazer. Since it was Sunday, many of the residents wore nicer clothing as if paying respects to that dead notion of a Sunday best they had known in their youth. Louise had a lavender scarf tied around her neck; Roger sported a bolo. Just then, Geri came in looking like a great colored bird.
“Good morning,” Geri nearly tweeted, laying a hand on Roger’s shoulder. “What’s for brunch?”
“Oatmeal, Egg Beaters, fruit cup,” Evelyn squawked again.
“I was just saying, it doesn’t matter much when you can’t taste,” Martha confided loudly to Geri.
“Back when I was teaching at Bowman,” Joyce began, and Louise gratefully turned her attention to her, “I remember that on Sundays—”
“A professor at Bowman?” Evelyn stopped fidgeting with her bob. “Then maybe you knew Janet Kelson?”
“Why, I said yesterday that I didn’t, I’m sorry to say.”
“I don’t suppose you’d know my granddaughter, Erin? She’s already published!”
Joyce, at a loss for how to respond, looked to Louise. It irked Louise to be considered Evelyn’s keeper, but she saw that the rest of the table didn’t much notice.
“Evelyn,” Louise said. “You told us this yesterday.”
“Oh. Well, American Essayists of Today is a great big book.” Evelyn used her hands in the exact same manner as before. “You heard of that?”
Louise looked hard at Evelyn. It seemed impossible that she could use the same words, same gesture, and not know it. She must be faking somehow, trying to manipulate them into believing she was bad off.
Evelyn waited for an answer, but Louise was spared one by the arrival of their trays. No sooner were they settled than Evelyn tried again. “Did I tell you what Erin’s essay was on?”
“Yes, you did. Now we’d better eat.” Whether it was the firmness with which Louise said it or the base appeal of food, Evelyn took up her fork and obeyed. Louise watched her, then reached for her own, feeling a stab of pain in her fingers but priding herself on not recoiling even an inch.
Vespers were held on Sunday evening. Louisewould spend the hour before the service sitting by the birdcage in the lobby. Usually she remembered to bring her Bible, and if she tired of watching the four parakeets fling themselves from perch to perch with clipped wings, she would flip the membranous pages, searching for solace.
Her current thesis was that God did not understand old age. How could he when he didn’t really have an ending, the great everlasting? And though Christ’s death had its share of physical pain, that pain lasted less than a day. Then there were the old men in the Bible, those Old Testamenters who had lived so outrageously long that their years read more like weights: Abraham, 175; Isaac, 180; Joseph a more human 110. She’d tried to figure out ways of understanding such age—perhaps years were different back then and only half as long. That meant eighty-eight, ninety, and fifty-five. Maybe a little young for poor Joseph.
When Louise entered the auditorium, she looked immediately for Joyce, but when she spotted her, she saw, too, beside her, Evelyn. The sight was as foreign and awful as seeing “Kelson”—her maiden name, her own identity still when Evelyn first adopted it—appearing after Evelyn’s name. Louise’s first instinct was to sit somewhere else, anywhere it might be plausible she hadn’t seen Joyce and Evelyn. But to do so would not only appear wrong to others; it would also allow Evelyn to get away with something, and she was tired of letting her get away with something. She’d let her get away with marrying her own dear brother. Nobody had bothered to think that Louise might know more about Evelyn than Boyd did. Nobody had asked, and she hadn’t felt it her place to speak except to Boyd, and to Boyd she could say nothing for fear he would reply, “Thanks for your concern, but that just doesn’t sound like my Evelyn.” My Evelyn. But if only she had spoken and if only he had listened, he might not have fallen for Evelyn; and if he had not fallen for Evelyn, he might not have married her and let her convince him to move away; and if he hadn’t married her and moved away and spent himself catering to her every selfish whim, he might not have died suddenly at fifty-one, still young by anyone’s count.
Louise had hesitated too long; Joyce had spotted her and gave a little wave.
“Oh, Joyce,” Louise made her voice friendly as she pointed her walker toward them. “I almost didn’t realize it was you with Evelyn there.”
That night, Jim called. He was a good son,his Sunday-evening calls as reliable as the sound of his wife, Caryl, clearing dishes in the background.
“Evelyn moved in,” Louise told him.
“That’s what Janet said. She called yesterday morning to ask whether towels are provided,” Jim said. “She also told me that Evelyn’s dementia is worsening. Did you notice anything?”
“She repeated herself once, but otherwise she seems same as always to me.” Louise lowered her voice; the door to her room stood open according to protocol.
“She said Evelyn wandered off to the grocery store just last week without telling anyone,” Jim said.
“From her house? That’s a good distance.”
“I think that’s why it scared them.”
“But she seemed to know me perfectly well. And she dominated the conversation at dinner—you know how she always was.”
Jim said he did. Louise would have gone on, but Jim spoke up with a thought that seemed too much for him to hold. He’d never been able to talk long about one thing if another was on his mind; he was that honest, this son of hers.
“Mom, I was thinking we ought to set aside a weekend this summer to clean out the house.” He meant her old house on Ardmore Street. The children had talked about it before, but she’d always managed to keep them from it a little longer.
“Oh, you kids don’t need to spend your time doing that.”
“I already talked to Margaret about it, and she agreed. In fact, she was the one who brought it up. She offered to come.”
“But it’s such a big trip for her—and what will Dave and the kids do without her?”
“She’s bringing them. I would have asked you first, but you know how Margaret is; she already bought tickets.”
“Well, that will be nice.”
“She’ll be calling you about it soon.”
“Say, speaking of my things, you know where those letters are from your Uncle Boyd?”
“The ones from the war? I thought they were with you.”
“Yes, top left dresser drawer. If anything ever happens to me—”
“Right, I know.” Jim ducked away from the implication and quickly asked, “How many are there?”
“Oh, lots. Boyd didn’t miss a single week. He was afraid I’d worry.”
“Right. Anyway, Mom, about the house—we can’t keep putting it off.”
“I know, dear.” It had already been four years.
Evelyn took to visiting Louise’s room. Therewas no schedule to her appearances; she would simply wander through the open door and perch on Louise’s bed, just like that, like she was a sorority girl all over again, settling in to tell what she had been up to with Tony Wilson, which she had never done.
Over the years Louise had had enough time to carve out the story for herself, using her regret like a tool to mold and turn each contour of that evening until there was a discernable shape to the events she had never actually witnessed. There had been little question that many of Bowman’s graduates would be drafted. No doubt Evelyn had used the very circumstance to dupe Tony and, at a dance that evening, had whispered snake-like in his ear that he may die soon but that she could help him live first.
In all the visits Louise endured from Evelyn over the course of her first month at Shady Acres, Evelyn never alluded to that night, even though she prattled on about old times. Evelyn’s chatter was exactly what Louise expected—how great Evelyn’s children had been and now how wonderful the grandkids were. Boyd she mentioned only as she would a favorite couch whose upholstery had worn well over the years until it popped a spring and had to be hauled off.
On one of Louise’s particularly bad days, Evelyn wandered in to visit. Louise spoke the bare minimum, but she was polite enough to ask how Evelyn was.
If Evelyn had returned the inquiry, Louise might, for once, have complained about the pain. Her shoulder had dislocated in the course of getting dressed. Her arthritis was bad. She couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep. Sitting hurt. Lying hurt. Standing was excruciating. The pain was so omnipresent, she wouldn’t have known where to tell Evelyn it hurt if she had asked. But Evelyn didn’t ask, and Louise went back to looking at the bird feeder outside.
“Hey, Weezy, did I tell you how Erin got published?”
It was an effort for Louise to answer. “Yes, a few times.”
“Well you’ll never believe, it was an essay about growing up here in town.”
Louise tried to channel her thoughts on Evelyn and away from the pain. “What did she say about it?”
“This and that. It was very smart.”
“Oh.” Louise could barely get the word out. She imagined the ease with which Evelyn must have pulled her swimming-pool-blue sweatshirt over her head this morning.
“She’s the smartest in her class at Bowman, you know. That’s why she got published.”
It was the twentieth time, at least, that Louise had heard it, but it came upon her now as a fresh torture. All she wanted was to be alone, and here was Evelyn, a garish succubus touting the same unimpressive thing over and over as if it were impressive. “Tell me, did Janet have to pay thirteen dollars for the book?”
“And would it have been published in there if she hadn’t?”
“Of course.” But Evelyn’s face became drawn, and she looked out the window.
“You know that’s not true. You know it and I know it, because when Jim was in high school, he got a letter offering to publish a poem of his in American Poets of Today—a leather-bound volume, it promised, if we just paid $12.95. I told him it was a scam; I told him it was nothing selective, but he couldn’t be convinced, so I sent off that check. And when the book came, he saw that I was right. That the poems were crammed in there like entries in a telephone book, and every last one was as hackneyed as you please. Jim even looked to see if he could buy it in the bookstore and he couldn’t. That’s not being published; it’s being scammed. Erin was scammed. Janet was scammed. You were scammed.”
Speaking so sharply had hurt her physically, and her eyes became clouded with tears; she could no longer see Evelyn to know how the speech had affected her.
“Well,” Evelyn said. “That’s what happened to Jim. I’m sorry Jim wasn’t talented enough to be published. But Erin’s in American ESSAYISTS of Today. It’s clearly different.”
Wanting to scream, Louise pushed the button that would summon a nurse and closed her swimming eyes. Evelyn was saying something else about Erin, but Louise concentrated now on her physical pain in hopes of escaping her sister-in-law.
Jamila came after what felt like a good twenty minutes.
“What’s wrong, Louise?” Jamila’s accent sounded with the flair of distant places. “Something bother you?”
Louise opened her eyes. Evelyn had left.
The following week, word came that Rose had died. The table took it with equanimity; they had all suspected something was wrong. Geri spoke of visiting Rose the previous week.
“I could tell,” she was saying. “You know the way you can just tell sometimes.” There was nothing triumphant in her voice, only a knowledge of death that had become matter-of-fact, like an ending told first.
“I could tell the week Ray died that it was going to happen,” Louise commiserated, but not wanting to divert attention from Rose, she didn’t tell how her husband’s stertorous breathing had become a shade raspier, as subtle as a piano nocturne drifting from major to minor. His battle had not been as prolonged as some, but each hour had felt like years, which made decades pass in the course of a week.
“When was that?” Geri asked.
“A long time ago.”
“Yes, long time ago.”
Joyce pushed her food around without lifting it to her mouth. Martha took measured bites, slow with the disappointment that she could not taste. Only Roger and Evelyn seemed undiminished in their eating.
“Salisbury steak, potatoes, peas, fruit salad,” Evelyn said, still shoveling away.
“Doesn’t much matter to me,” Martha said to nobody.
“The menu said country gravy, but that would be white. This is brown, and there’s too much sage,” Geri said. “Don’t you think, Rog?” She turned to him and only then noticed that he wore his favorite pair of leather gloves, which he once wore to drive. “Roger!”
The whole table watched as Geri removed his left glove. “What are you doing with these?”
Roger rolled his eyes toward her, then slowly turned back toward his tray. He still had the right glove on, holding his fork.
“Darling, it’s dinner. Give me that one, too.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to.” Evelyn popped a spoonful of peas into her mouth. “I’ll bet his hands get cold. He told me he has poor circulation.”
“Oh.” Geri smiled. “I don’t recall him saying that; do any of you ladies?”
Joyce, Louise, and Martha didn’t.
“It wasn’t at dinner. I go visiting. Just like I visit Barbara.”
Geri turned a fierce look on Louise to explain, but Louise was at a loss trying to think of who Barbara was.
“Who’s Barbara?” Joyce asked.
“Her. Right there.” Evelyn looked directly at Louise.
“Evelyn, I’m Louise.”
Evelyn ate another spoonful of peas.
“Weezy,” Louise clarified, glancing uneasily at Geri and Martha, but even Geri busied herself with her food to avoid what was obviously taking place. And then it hit her that Evelyn had a sister named Barbara, and Barbara had passed away not long ago. Louise felt irrationally desperate to assert herself, for Evelyn had so easily taken Rose’s spot at the table and now Barbara threatened to take her own, their identities shifting with the unchecked movement of her shoulder lolling in and out of place. She was about to explain to the table who Barbara was, but Evelyn spoke again.
“He said he fainted just standing at the altar on his wedding day. Low blood pressure.”
Geri looked flustered, as if Evelyn might be making it all up. Roger continued to eat, one-gloved. Joyce and Martha offered no help, and all at once Louise said what she hadn’t wanted to say.
“She used to eat right there. Rose did. Right where Evelyn is now.”
The pain of death hadn’t been fresh to anyone for a long time; it was for the young to wonder how one who had eaten in that very chair would now never eat again. Once, they had felt afraid even in church, the resurrection seeming distant, cold in its emphasis on angels and earthquakes and trumpets. At funerals they read the part about the resurrected dead having every tear wiped from their eyes because it was the only clear indication that there would be feeling in the resurrection after all; that there wouldbe a resemblance to that which came before.
What Louise had said was an utterance of those old feelings, the feelings that had been there before they’d watched their parents die; their husbands and wives die, however shockingly or slowly; siblings, too; friends; the numbing effect of something repeated which turned to the craving for that same numbness to reach their own selves. And yet, only the bravest could say they wanted to die; the rest sat as if smoothing the napkins in their laps, unsure of where to begin.
“Barbara,” Evelyn persisted, “what was the name of that restaurant where they served country steak? You remember, where we used to take Janet and Cassie.”
“That wasn’t me,” Louise said, recognizing Cassie as Barbara’s daughter.
“Actually”—now Joyce spoke, clearing her throat—“Rose sat where you are, Louise.”
Louise took breakfast and lunch in her roomthe next day, then asked to be wheeled to the birdcage. She didn’t feel like walking. She wondered if the parakeets still felt their wings the way her neighbor’s husband on Ardmore Street had felt his missing leg after he came back from Korea. He felt it so vividly he tried to walk, attempts that always ended in his wife calling to ask if Ray could come help him up from the floor. None of them—not Louise, not Ray, not the neighbor’s wife—had seen anything but a pitiable situation. But she wondered now if the man had known that he was richly blessed. Louise had memories, small ones, that were almost vivid enough to recall what it had been like to have a body that moved freely—but mostly, she couldn’t remember what that was truly like. What a blessing it would be, even for a moment, to feel youth that wasn’t there.
“They don’t have any plants in there.”
Louise couldn’t see who had come up behind her, and she knew better than to try to turn. But she didn’t need to; it was Evelyn’s voice.
“They don’t need plants,” Louise replied. “See, they like their perches just fine.”
Louise waited for her to ask why she’d missed breakfast and lunch, but Evelyn stood silently next to her. She had a blouse on today, but it was buttoned wrong; the horizontal stripes didn’t align.
“Are you waiting for Janet?” Louise asked.
“No, I don’t believe so.”
“I just thought maybe that’s why you came to the lobby.”
They continued to watch the birds.
“Remember that time me and you took Janet to the zoo?” Evelyn asked. “Remember, all the way down to Cincinnati?”
Louise waited for the hook of memory to grab her. “No.”
“Of course you do. We bought balloons for the girls, only Janet let go of hers, and she cried until we bought her a new one. And then Cassie, she carried on when you wouldn’t buy her the stuffed giraffe she wanted something bad, remember?”
Louise had been watching the birds, but now she looked at Evelyn. “Tell me something else about that day.”
“We drove your old Impala.”
She and Ray had never owned an Impala. “Evelyn, do you know who I am?”
“Of course.” Evelyn looked straight at Louise. “You’re Barbara.”
Louise had expected last night’s lapse to be temporary, and in her surprise she began to say, “It’s me—” But just before she added her own name, a new thought came to her. “I’m Barbara. You’re right.”
Evelyn went back to watching the birds so nonchalantly that Louise hesitated. She felt the same furtiveness she did whenever she sat in this very spot, contemplating that God might not understand age, that slight flirtation with crossing a line into wrong that she’d so rarely—perhaps never—crossed. But Evelyn had, and Louise suddenly wanted to hear her say it. “It just took me a minute to remember that old Impala,” Louise said. “Blue, wasn’t it?”
Evelyn was quick to affirm, and Louise knew she was right—she remembered that car of Barbara’s.
“You know who else used to drive an Impala?” Louise said, though what she was about to say wasn’t true: “Tony Wilson.” Louise watched for a jolt of recognition, but Evelyn merely went on working her hands behind her back as she’d done all along. “You remember Tony. Your old—boyfriend, from Bowman?”
“Captain of the swim team,” Evelyn said. “He was the nicest boy.”
“Yes, everybody thought so. I’ll bet lots of people were jealous that you and he were going steady.”
Evelyn cackled, startling the parakeets. “Tony and I never went together.”
At once, Louise’s nervousness dropped away, and in its place was a deep, disgusted calm that marveled at how Evelyn could so casually admit that a man she’d done that with hadn’t even dated her. It made her press on.
Evelyn shook her head.
“How odd. I remember Weezy one time telling me a story about you from when you and she lived in the sorority house. Remember?”
“Of course. Alpha Delta. Course Weezy, she was a year older than me and had a big-shot senior attitude.”
“Well, I’m sure she had earned it; I heard she worked really hard. Anyhow, she told me this story about how after a dance with another fraternity—oh, I won’t be able to remember the name now, but whatever fraternity your sibling house was …”
“Delta Tau Delta.”
“Was that it?” Louise tried to keep the note of celebration out of her voice; Evelyn did remember it. “I wouldn’t know. But what Weezy told me was after one of those dances, she saw you and Tony together.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.” Evelyn laughed. “We were good friends.”
“Poor Tony. I hope he had some good times before he went off to war.”
“Tony never went to the war. He was flat-footed. Anyone who knew Tony knew that.”
“No,” Louise said in spite of herself. She had told herself the story so many times over the years, how Evelyn had seduced him by reminding him of the war, that she almost forgot this was not a part she had actually witnessed.
“It’s what made him so good at swimming, people said, those flat feet. I never knew if that was true, but I was glad he’d be safe.”
Louise was silent, trying to decide what to say next. Evelyn belched and didn’t excuse herself.
“They don’t have any plants in there,” Evelyn said, bringing one of her hands to the cage, which had as good as disappeared for Louise. Just because she’d held incorrect assumptions all these years didn’t mean she was wrong about what she’d seen.
“But Weezy saw you going into your room with him after that dance.”
She watched Evelyn unabashedly now, no longer afraid of Evelyn’s memory reappearing.
“Did she? Oh, I don’t remember that.”
“That’s because you didn’t see her. You didn’t know she knew.”
“That you took him into your room. After curfew.”
Evelyn cackled again. “Now that I don’t remember.”
“No. You have to remember. I know it happened.”
“Maybe. We had probably just come for my coat.”
“But I remember—I mean I remember Weezy telling me what she saw. And she said the look on Tony’s face, his awkwardness—you were up to more than getting a coat.” She took a breath to calm herself, for Evelyn was looking at the birds once more, and she couldn’t risk losing her now. “Come on, Lynnie. It’s your sister, Barbara. You can tell me what happened.”
“Well, we went to the zoo, and Janet’s balloon…” but Louise wasn’t listening, wondering how much more she should say—if she should say that what Evelyn had done, whether she remembered now or not, was wrong. She’d ruined herself and then had the nerve to act like she hadn’t, to present herself to Boyd. Louise was on the verge of speaking when Evelyn began to wander away. She drifted into the coat-room, still talking about the zoo, reappeared a moment later, smiled, turned first toward Louise, then disappeared into the depths of Shady Acres.
Louise returned to the dining room the next day only to find three empty seats. Geri had relocated Roger and herself without offering an explanation, though it was obviously Evelyn’s fault. But Evelyn herself failed to appear. Joyce and Martha asked where she was, but Louise didn’t know.
Lunch came and went and still no sign of Evelyn. Even Geri, on her way past with Roger, stopped to ask where Evelyn was, eyeing their old spots. When dinner came and still no Evelyn, Geri and Roger returned to their places.
Since everyone seemed to expect Louise to know her sister-in-law’s whereabouts, she made her way to Evelyn’s room after dinner. The door was closed. The sign still hung on it, welcoming Evelyn Kelson. Only when no response came to her knock did Louise entertain the possibility that Evelyn had died, but before she jumped to conclusions, she decided to phone Jim.
When Jim heard her voice, he sounded alarmed. After all, he always called her, not the other way around out of respect for his busy life. She assured him she was fine, and she could hear his instant relief. These children were funny—content enough to go about their own lives without even thinking to inform her that Evelyn had been moved to the mental-health wing, but absolutely frightened if Louise herself might fall into decline.
In the coming weeks, if people asked after Evelyn, Louise told them what Jim had said, and if she commented, “You’d think they’d at least have told me in advance,” her auditors often commiserated with stories of how their families on the outside had forgotten to tell them something major, as if they had already ceased to exist. Louise was tempted to add that the elderly had always endured this; look at the Bible, she would say, the New Testament. Could anyone really believe that in the throngs of crowds who had tried to be healed by Jesus—and some going to such desperate lengths as to be lowered through a roof!—not one had asked to be healed from age? Surely this wouldn’t have been too great a task for the man who could raise people from the dead. But of course, whatever obscure old woman had asked it and no matter the Lord of Life’s response, nobody had thought to include it in the Gospels.
In many ways, Louise’s normal life resumed now that Evelyn was gone. Her table sat together; she was no longer separated from Joyce at every function. Meals, vespers, Louise’s own room—none of them were plagued by Evelyn, and Louise felt no regret for her. Evelyn’s absence was a wonderful gift; Louise should have felt liberated.
And yet, leave it to Evelyn to make her last conversation one that would haunt Louise constantly. She couldn’t believe—she just couldn’t—that Evelyn hadn’t remembered what she’d done with Tony. Her long-term memory had been intact, that much Louise had proven. So she must have been pretending not to remember, Louise consoled herself, but even as she did, a small doubt brought to mind Evelyn’s shining eyes, the way she’d bumbled on about the zoo. Nothing suggested duplicity. Louise warred with herself so much that Evelyn seemed even more malignantly present than when she’d appeared in person in her swimming-pool-blue sweatshirt.
Anxiety was not uncommon in the elderly, the RN said while the blood-pressure sleeve tightened on Louise’s already aching arm. She was white, a middle-aged woman with brown hair and appropriately sized hoops on each ear; she smelled of hairspray. Louise had said nothing about anxiety. The RN offered to add a sedative to Louise’s chart, but Louise declined. She had soldiered through the years with her Midwestern sobriety fiercely arming her. You bore up and dealt with it. You prayed. Medicine was for physical ailments only, and people nowadays should remember that.
The nurse continued on next door. Outside, a shadow passed near the bird feeder and all activity ceased. It stood empty. A young man who tried to replace Bob Barker spoke from the television. He was not Bob Barker.
In August, Louise’s family arrived, and Jimcame to take Louise to his house, where Caryl made dinner for everyone. Louise sat next to her youngest granddaughter, who politely answered her questions about school and summer vacation. But once those were exhausted, Louise didn’t know what else to say to this granddaughter of hers, and so the two ate in silence, listening to Margaret recount her travel hassle from Seattle.
“So, Mom,” Margaret said after the details of her trip were spent, “I hear Aunt Evelyn moved to mental health.”
“Yes, she did.”
“Thank heavens you get a break from her,” Margaret said. Dutifully, none of Louise’s children had ever liked Evelyn. “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen her since Dave and I moved to Seattle.”
“That’s been a good fifteen years,” Louise said and hoped her children knew to treasure how good she was with numbers. Most of her compatriots, Joyce excluded, confused five years for ten and last year for yesterday.
“I hear from Janet that she’s declining quickly,” Jim said. “Do you know anything new?”
“No.” Louise regretted her lack of knowledge for the conversation it might have created. “But the last time I saw her, she thought I was her sister, Barbara. You kids remember Barbara?”
Jim and Margaret conferred, consulted their spouses, too, but none of them did. It was before their time.
After dinner, Louise’s eyelids got heavy and her body ached. Jim said he’d take her home. But as they walked the quiet hallway to her room, she didn’t feel that this was home. Neither had Jim’s house felt like home, even with her children there, for she had been uncomfortable and trying every minute to think of something to say to join the life that thrummed around her. The only time all evening Louise had been asked for news was in talking about Evelyn.
Saturday came and Jim drove Louise to her oldhouse on Ardmore Street, which the kids had spent the intervening days organizing. Now it was time for Louise to look through things herself. On the way there, the sun shone so brightly, Louise couldn’t tell if what she saw etched in the landscape was her memory of what had been there or the presence of a real tree, a real mailbox. Once inside, the contrast to the sunshine made it so she still couldn’t see, but she knew exactly where they had put her, for this house was more familiar to her than any of the people she sensed standing about.
“Margaret came up with a plan,” Jim was explaining, and Margaret jumped in.
“We started out in the basement, but we were constantly losing track of what we’d sorted. It only made sense to bring everything up.”
And then Louise realized that what she had thought were sunspots filling her vision were actual objects—her things; Ray’s things; her children’s former things. Everything upstairs. Where everyone could see it. Glasses, stationery, candles, cookbooks, mirrors, papers, decorations, toys, pots, unopened items she’d bought on sale intending to use or gift to people but never had, clothes, heaps of clothes, furniture. She gazed at the jumble and couldn’t speak.
It wasn’t that she had anything to fear—she had tried to be good her whole life, and so had Ray; there would be no letters exhumed that would reveal an affair, because neither had had one. It was simply that the remains of a middle-class life lay all around her, each item at once perfectly familiar, yet foreign in the massive accumulation.
Her grandkids trolled the possessions like browsers at a flea market. Soon the questions began. Could so-and-so have this? Did it have a lid? Whose was it? What was it for? What was to be done with it now?
Louise bore up. She soldiered on. She told herself that they were only trying to help; that the house—her home, Ray’s home—was a liability. They were doing the responsible thing, whereas Janet would likely leave Evelyn’s house to become overgrown, an eyesore. If Louise was ashamed at the shocking accumulation, how much more shameful it would be to do nothing at all, to act as if the house could be here forever and she might get back to it someday. That was a miracle too great to ask.
She answered each of their questions, and since her mind was sharp as a tack—that’s how Jim described her to people these days, sharp as a tack—she answered them well and reliably. She knew what had belonged to whom and, in most cases, how they had acquired it. Sometimes it brought to mind a story; almost always it brought Ray. She hadn’t missed him this vividly for a long time. But it wasn’t until she found his bedside cup—the one he kept filled with water, just in case he woke thirsty—that she knew it was no blessing to feel a leg that wasn’t there.
His cup was the only item she set aside to take with her, save one, and that was a leather-bound volume: American Poets of Today.
“Do you remember that one, Jim?” Louise asked when she saw it.
“What is it?” He pulled the book she indicated and almost instantly recoiled.
“Let me see it.”
“Mom, you were right about it, okay?” He rarely got touchy with her anymore, and she almost drew pleasure from it, any normal son reacting to his normal mother.
“What’s this?” Caryl had overheard and now took the book from Jim. “What was ‘today’?”
“Jim was sixteen when that happened, so 1965.”
“When what happened?” Caryl asked, but as she did, she opened the book. “Jim, you’re right here, page one! ‘Elegy for the Cleveland Indians,’ ” she read.
“They were terrible back then,” he said, reaching for the book.
Louise didn’t analyze her feelings about that day; neither did she analyze her feelings when it was time for Margaret and her family to return to Seattle. She felt sad, and that was enough, knowing that to probe her sadness would only make it worse, just as she no longer asked God for physical healing for fear that he might interpret her request as a wish for death and bring it to her sooner than otherwise called for. And even that was a feeling she didn’t dare probe, for though there were times death seemed a welcome release, there was yet that desire to cling to the familiar with a ridiculous ferocity—the bird feeder outside, the regularity of the dining room, the stupid little things that made up every dull little day.
After the housecleaning, Evelyn became one of those. It struck Louise as strange that none of her children remembered Barbara. She knew very clearly who Barbara was; Boyd would have, too, and Ray, and countless others, but most of them were dead. Her nights were filled with dreams that started off just like real life: going into the house on Ardmore and seeing all her things. Then suddenly she wasn’t standing in her house at all, but in the middle of a cemetery and everything she had thought to be a possession was actually a gravestone of somebody she knew. She dreamed this a few times before she realized she wanted to visit Evelyn. This was one feeling Louise did examine. She had no fear of finding a motivation she didn’t want to admit; she knew, as strongly as she knew her own name, that she didn’t harbor an ounce of tenderness for Evelyn. All she wanted was her confession.
So when a day came that Louise felt able to walk clear across Shady Acres to the mental-health wing, she put American Poets of Today on her walker and pulled her door closed as she set out.
She rested along the way, first in the front lobby by the birdcage and again in the last stretch of hallway. There were no windows here, no views of any bird feeders. A disk like the sleepless eye of a seraph hung above the closed double doors of the mental-health wing, giving a frenetic wink of light to confirm its engaged status.
Louise had been given the code to disarm the alarm that kept the inmates from wandering off. She approached the keypad, typed the code. A small red light turned to green. The seraph eye blinked. She pushed the door and it yielded.
Artificial lighting illuminated the hallway that stretched before her, giving the impression of a sickroom purposely shuttered. People in wheelchairs sat along the walls in all states of confused dress and slumpy postures. Some wriggled; one lady bounced as she sang Row, row, row your boat; others sat listless and blank. The stale smell of too many people in one place for too long hung thick. There was also a food smell.
Louise thought of leaving immediately, but the door had swung shut behind her, and she worried that disarming it too many times might somehow anger it. She walked forward. The rooms on either side of the hall gaped with open doors. Clearly the people had issued from these, and they came in and out regardless of whether the threshold they crossed was theirs. The bouncing woman sang the same line as if waiting for someone to join the round, and now Louise noticed the moans and yelps that came from the hallway or deep in one of the caves along the wall. She could barely think over the noise. She didn’t know where to find Evelyn; there were no signs on any of these doors.
Louise passed through the hall, steeling herself and looking nowhere except to the information desk at the end of it. She had to let her heartbeat calm before she could ask for Evelyn. The secretary told her a number, pointed, and said she could go on in.
She found Evelyn perched at the head of her bed, grinning as if she’d expected Louise. She wore the same blouse she’d had on the last time Louise had seen her, only it was buttoned properly now, the horizontal stripes aligning around ghosts of food stains. Evelyn went on smiling, but her grin didn’t have its usual mischievous twist; it seemed fuller somehow, taking up the whole of Evelyn’s small gray head.
“Hello, Evelyn.” Louise closed the door behind her, and at once the outer conflicts became muffled, the light from the room’s small window more natural. Perhaps Evelyn had managed to carve a den of peace after all.
Evelyn went on looking at her and grinning, and it occurred to Louise that she might be unsure whether to address her as Barbara or Louise. “It’s me. Louise,” she said charitably.
The grin didn’t speak. Then all at once, it let out a stream of unrecognizable words.
“I beg your pardon?”
But Evelyn remained silent. Louise didn’t know what to say. Since standing hurt, she moved to the sole chair in the room. She decided to try a pleasantry or two about the weather, then about Janet. Evelyn nodded when Louise spoke Janet’s name, and the hope that the far reaches of Evelyn’s memory lingered led Louise to unlace the tote bag from her walker. She had just withdrawn American Poets of Today when a knock came on the door. Louise jolted, fearing a wandering patient, but it was only the secretary. “Excuse me—we don’t allow the doors to be closed at any time,” she said. Then, spotting the book, “Oh, you’re reading to her. How nice.” She disappeared again. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily carried over the hallway noises.
“Evelyn,” Louise said. “Does this look familiar?” She held the book out, but Evelyn’s eyes refused to move to it.
“Look at this. This is familiar to you. See, it’s American Poets of Today. Just like Erin got ‘published’ in.”
Evelyn went on grinning and got to her feet, and before Louise could react, she drifted out of the room. Determined not to let her get away, Louise began the slow process of standing.
In the hall once more, Evelyn seemed to wait for her, but when Louise caught up, Evelyn only lingered. Louise stayed with her until the pain was too much. She needed to move, and since she didn’t want to be in this place any longer, she would have to leave.
Louise began to push on. Life is but a dream, the song crescendoed as she drew nearer the singing woman, then diminished by the time she reached the keypad. She was just punching the number when something brushed her arm like a timid cat. She flinched. Her shoulder throbbed. She turned just a little, and there stood Evelyn.
If Evelyn had cooperated in recognizing the book and admitting it was a scam, admitting further that Louise was right about so many things, about Boyd, about Tony, Louise would have left satisfied and made sure that Evelyn stayed. But Louise knew Evelyn wasn’t coming back to assisted living, which meant she would never see her again, never have the opportunity to hear the woman who had stolen her brother from her—her Boyd, Boyd who called her Weezy—admit what she’d done.
Louise punched the final key. The light turned green. She clambered out with her walker, then held the door as Evelyn meandered through as easily as a stick breaking loose from an eddy. Louise led them past the nursing facility, her eyes fixed straight ahead while Evelyn scuffled along behind her. It wasn’t until they reached assisted living that getting caught began to seem entirely possible. They neared the dining room where a busboy was setting tables. He looked up and smiled. He didn’t know any better. Next came the front desk, but the woman behind it was on the phone, taking down information. They caught the eye of a few people who, relaxing in their rooms, peered out their doors, but everybody was so used to seeing them together, nobody questioned it.
At last, Louise arrived at her own door, her nervousness making her try the key a few times before she got it open.
“Go on,” Louise said. Evelyn pushed her way in, and watching her disappear through the door, Louise could practically glimpse the brown-and-white-checked hem.
Evelyn stood at the window watching the bird feeder while Louise shut the door behind them. “Take a seat. I believe I will.” Louise sank into her La-Z-Boy. She closed her eyes to let the relief of sitting and the ache of pain come over her. When she opened them again, the room looked somehow smaller with the door closed, and feeling the pressure of space and time—for she knew Evelyn would be missed at lunch if not before—she decided to begin.
“Evelyn. It’s Weezy. You know where you are, don’t you?”
The birdseed was halfway down in the feeder.
“You’ve got to listen to me. Now, I’m going to say a few names, and you just nod if you know them.”
Evelyn’s grin had been fading, and in its place a tired look spread.
Evelyn didn’t move.
Evelyn’s hand twitched, as if a fly had landed on a horse’s withers.
“Tony,” Louise tried again, her eyes fixed only on Evelyn.
Nothing this time.
“I said, Tony! Did you hear me?” Then, frightened someone else might hear, she said more quietly, “Janet.”
Louise looked away in frustration, thinking of what to try next. The book maybe, or a photograph—something to draw out Evelyn from deep inside herself where she cleverly hid. Just then, Evelyn slid to the bed. Louise looked up, startled. Evelyn’s face was more startling still. The grin was gone, leaving only slack lines.
“Oh no you don’t,” Louise whispered from the La-Z-Boy. “You remember all this as much as I do. And as much as Boyd would if he were still alive. And Ray. And Tony… .”
Evelyn’s eyes began to close.
“Wake up!” Louise snapped. “Wake up, Evelyn!” She continued to rail at her from the chair, but when Evelyn had obviously fallen asleep, still sitting with her legs over the bed, Louise knew she had no choice but to shake her awake.
In Louise’s haste to pull herself up, her shoulder dislocated. Her knees buckled. Shocked by pain and not yet fully standing, she pitched forward, grabbing at Evelyn’s legs as she crashed over the walker and onto the floor, bones snapping audibly, pain vibrating in their wake.
“Ohh,” she raised a moan more pitiable than any she’d heard in the mental-health wing. “Uhhhh; ohhh …” on and on until she could at last form words, and when she did form them, she cried out loud to God to release her from such pain, careless now of how he might interpret it. “Oh, God, heal me, please, heal me!” The pain was everywhere, coming from everywhere, traveling through her body in every direction, landing everywhere.
She opened her eyes. Evelyn still sat on the edge of the bed above her, slumped and sleepy, but awake now. She seemed to be looking across the room at nothing in particular, and Louise at once hated her more than she had ever hated her before. She hated her with all the vengeance of a lifetime’s worth of hatred, with a power as strong as the pain in her body, for Evelyn had gotten Boyd and deserved nothing; didn’t even deserve the privilege of oblivion in which she now sat while Louise lay on the floor, sharp as a tack. And of course, when the attendants came, it would be for Evelyn. Why, sure, they’d take care of her, too, Louise knew, but it was Evelyn who would be missed first.
“Evelyn, press the nurse’s button.” It came out as a moan and she tried again. “Evelyn! The nurse’s button! Press the nurse’s button!”
Something in the commotion made Evelyn look down at her, and Louise looked up into her sister-in-law’s uncomprehending face.