You are reading Fiddleblack #14
“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fucking misery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a microscope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.
Then she went out to the garden in her Holly Hobbie hat and spent five minutes getting down into a kneeling position on this geriatric-looking green foam “gardening aid” I found in a Lillian Vernon catalog one night when I was looking for something, anything to read while I took a dump. She stuck her little fingers in the earth and groped around for a while until she got a grip and then she pulled out some soil-crusted blob that was probably a rutabaga.
“Fuck,” I said, and banged my coffee mug down on her stupid breakfast bar and turned away from the window.
She was out there for a while so I let her be and cleaned up the kitchen some, washed all the plastic cups that she kept lining up on the counter every time she had to take a pill or something. I told her one sip didn’t make a cup dirty, but she felt otherwise, and what the fuck do I know about germs anyway. I never claimed to know anything, that’s for sure. Not to her, and not to my ex. But you can bet my ex would shit her velvet lounger pants if she saw me soaping up dishes in some twinkie cottage in the woods. How the mighty have fallen, and all that.
After a while I realized she wasn’t coming back on her own, and I was going to have to go get her, so when I had all the cups lined up on the clean side of the sink, I put my shoes on and went to find her in the yard. She hadn’t gone far. From what I could tell, she’d just managed to rotate the gardening aid something like forty degrees to the left. At least that damn rutabaga wasn’t all alone. She’d dug up a stack of turd-shaped objects I knew she’d expect me to roast later and mash up for her. I couldn’t see her face under that hat but she knew I was there and her shoulders were jerking around under a plaid shirt that was actually mine, and I couldn’t believe that she’d play that same old game again, with the tears and the silent suffering.
“It’s your house,” I said, and she said, “That’s not the point,” and she was definitely crying, so I said, “Well, have them over if you want, I’m not going to stop you,” and she said, “The thing is, I’m not sure they’ll come,” and I said, “Those assholes will be here,” and she kind of laughed and said, “Maybe you should invite them, personally,” and I said, “It would be my pleasure,” and she said in some dumb voice that was supposed to be me, “Yo, you little pricks better show up for dinner,” and I said, “Sometimes actions speak louder than words,” and she said, “What, like you’ll go hunt them down?” and I said, “Let’s not rule anything out.”
Then she tried to sit up so she could show me how she was happy again, but she’d been kneeling too long and her muscles had gone soft and her joints locked up and I had to rub her down some before we could get her to stand. Then I made her walk back to the house by herself and she didn’t like that but it was good for her and we got her settled in her prissy old rocking chair on the sun porch and I went back for the vegetables and cleaned them up with the garden hose over a pile of dead leaves. This was the first washing. She’d insist on a second washing in the kitchen, before I started cooking. One washing was never enough, and that first round of dirt would go into the sink over her dead body. “Promise me, when I’m gone, you won’t be putting dirt in my nice kitchen sink,” she’d said, and I’d said, “What’ll you care what I do to your sink,” and she said, “I’ll know and I won’t rest easy,” and I said, “I’ll kick your ghost ass right out of here,” and that made her laugh.
Later that night she called her daughter, and she didn’t want me around when she did, but I had to be there to translate if necessary. Those little bastards of hers didn’t know what she was saying half the time. I sat there pretending I wasn’t listening while her throat muscles closed in on themselves and she gagged out her usual series of sounds. They started out with small talk about nothing, and then she said, “Do you think you could make it out for the holidays?” and there was a long silence and she said, “I hope Brandon can come, too,” and then, “I haven’t seen him since last August,” and then, “Could you talk to him?” and then, “Please just tell him this might be my last Thanksgiving,” and I rolled my eyes at her and she saw it and it made her laugh, but then her daughter made her repeat it again, then again, and she started to get frustrated and held out the phone.
I said, “She says this will be her last Thanksgiving,” and she nodded at me, satisfied, but her daughter said, “Who is this?” and I said, “It’s Gerald,” and she went all stuffy and prim with the “ohs” and the “ums” and finally she said, “Could you put my mother back on,” and I said, “With pleasure,” and I handed off the phone and then Cynthia gave me a look like, get lost, so I did. I left her in there with her bratty child, which was how I thought of Ines because I didn’t know her and that’s what she looked like in her bellbottom trousers mauling some innocent kitten in an ancient Polaroid picture that had been stuck to the harvest gold fridge with a mushroom magnet since probably 1974.
After that it was all logistics, because Ines was sure as shit going to come out and see who was taking over the family home, and she must have said something to Brandon, because he decided to fly out too. Never mind they hadn’t been to see their mother since I’d known her, which was quite a while, actually, and nine times out of ten she was the one who placed the calls. “It’s hard for them, they don’t know what to say,” she said, and I said, “Guess what, life is hard,” and she got all quiet and then she said, “When you judge them, you judge me, too,” and I said, “Yeah, and I had you pegged as a softie from day one,” and she said, “I’m pretty sure it was the other way around,” and I said, “What a crock of shit, I’m the biggest bastard you know, you told me so yesterday,” and she said, “I’m just tired of resistance bands and rubdowns, what’s the point,” and I let it go, because she was right.
Her kids got in the day before the holiday, pulled up in a rental car and came in with their rolling fortress suitcases, wired up like robots. Brandon turned out to be a geeky little cock top in a nelly scarf. He couldn’t make eye contact, was always laughing and looking away from his mom, from me, from his sister. “Nice to meet you,” he said to me when I shook his damp hand, and I said, “Finally,” and Cynthia gave me a warning look, so I let it go. Ines hadn’t changed much from the Polaroid. She had on some fancy business, grown-up size version of the bellbottoms, a silky top, and that same look in her eye, like she was casting about for some damn cat to throttle.
We got them all settled in and I put supper on the table, tomato soup and grilled cheese, and the wind started kicking up outside. We ate at the breakfast bar, and I got Cynthia tucked in closest to the window and Ines tried to sit next to her mom, but I put my beer down there and claimed the spot for myself, and she didn’t like that. “This is my place,” she said, and she kind of smiled like she didn’t want to come off like a bitch or something, but I just told her, “You’re all grown up now,” and she went and sat with her shifty-eyed brother across from me without saying anything else. Cynthia didn’t say anything about it either. The wheels were turning for old Ines. I could see her sizing things up and not liking what she saw.
I kept Cynthia’s chin clean but she wasn’t happy about it. She jerked away from me at one point and I saw Brandon notice but he didn’t know what to make of it and he looked off outside, but there was nothing to see. It was black as Santa’s boots out there, nothing but trees and night animals. Tootsie the owl hooted away like a broken record from out by the old carriage house. Brandon turned back and said to me, “So how did you meet,” and I said, “It’s a funny story,” and Cynthia said, “It’s not that funny,” and Ines went on high alert, and I said, “Well, she’s got a real mean streak, you know,” and Brandon kind of nodded, maybe just to be polite, and Ines was staring me down with these pea-green eyes she must have got from her dad, and I said, “She came to me for PT, after three other people refused to see her,” and she said, “They didn’t refuse,” and I said, “Right, they referred you,” and she said, “To someone who could meet my needs,” which we thought was pretty funny, so we were both kind of laughing, but Ines and Brandon just looked confused and I didn’t feel like explaining and she didn’t either.
After a while, Cynthia started getting to that part of the night where she’d kind of curl in on herself and wilt, but I could see her trying to keep her shit together for her kids. The strain was showing around her mouth and she startled them by losing her plastic cup, but when it slipped out of her grip, it landed flat-bottomed on the table and didn’t splash much. They didn’t say anything about it, so they probably had no idea what was going on, which to be fair, was Cynthia’s fault anyway, she kept so much from them.
After supper, Brandon went up to fart around with his technology and Ines hustled Cynthia off for some kind of heart-to-heart while I got stuck with the dishes again like a rube. She didn’t have a dishwasher. The first night I was over, I did the dishes for her, and there were a lot of them stacked up, so I said, “Jesus, woman, get a dishwasher,” and she said, “Well, if I’m not mistaken, I think I just did,” and it turned out she knew exactly what she was doing all along. Since the winter was coming, I had to suds up with yellow rubber gloves or it turned my hands dry and cracked. The dryness never bothered me much, but she yelled one night and accused me of trying to sand down her skin, which was about her usual level of bullshit. The gloves made me look like a real pussy, but wearing them was better than the alternative. When my hands got all scratchy, she pulled out this big tub of white crud for cows she called udder cream and make me work it into my hands. Then I left greasy fingerprints all over everything.
I finished the dishes and slapped the extra water off the gloves and left them dangling over the edge of the sink. I had to walk by the guest bedroom on my way to the den, which was where Ines had cornered Cynthia, and there was no way I could pass without trying to figure out what was going on inside. Damned if I could hear anything through the door but murmur-murmur-murmur, so I went to see if I could find a game or something on her old TV. There was nothing so then I went to look for something to read, and wouldn’t you know the only thing in the magazine basket was Lillian Fucking Vernon and her best girlfriend, the Avon catalog, so I put the TV back on and just stared at it while I waited for Ines to finish her twenty questions. Some show with screaming, jumping elves in purple sweaters was on. They flailed and flailed and I just thought how there was no way Ines would come out of there without knowing about the will.
I went into some kind of elf trance and didn’t even hear the door open, but next thing I knew Cynthia had shuffled up behind me, and she looked like it was all she could do to not fall over, so I said, “I don’t care what you say, I don’t want to go dancing. Leave me alone,” and she said, “I’ll have you know my dance card is full,” and I said, “What the fuck? Who’s dancing with you?” and I got up and went over there and got her around the waist with one arm and said, “I’m cutting in,” and she said, “If you must,” and I put her arm up around my neck and took her upstairs, one step at a time, and when we got to the top I looked down and thought I saw something move, that sneak Ines, so when we got to her bedroom I shut the door good and hard and we didn’t come out until morning.
I got her all set up in the den with the Thanksgiving Day Parade and settled in to start cooking. I never cooked in my life until I hooked up with Cynthia, but it turned out I had almost what you’d say was a calling. I never followed a recipe, which really pissed her off at first, because I could turn out, say, a steak, or a pan of sautéed vegetables I seasoned with bacon fat and random herbs from her garden I couldn’t even name, and it all tasted like fucking manna. “Where did you learn to cook?” she asked me once, and I said, “My grandfather was a chef,” and she said, “So you learned at his knee?” and she got this little soft look on her face like she was imagining this whole scene, and I said, “Hell no, I never met the asshole,” and she said, “Well, I don’t think it’s relevant then,” and I said, “I’m just saying it’s in my blood,” and she said, “Huh,” and we left it there.
After a while Ines showed up in the kitchen, and she washed up her hands and told me to put her to work. I gave her the potatoes to peel, the Yukons, and she went to it, clumsy, like she never held a peeler her whole life. “Don’t cut yourself,” I said, and she said, “How do you cut yourself on a peeler?” and I said, “Keep it up and you’ll find out,” and her lips got all tight and she said, “I want you to know that Father Mahoney will be coming out to visit, on a regular basis,” and I said, “Which one’s that, the drunk or the beekeeper?” and she said, “You should show some respect,” and I said, “I do, when it’s earned,” and she said, “I know what you’re doing here. I see right through you and you’re not going to get away with it,” and I pulled my fist out of the turkey cavity and showed her the tight bag of viscera and said, “It’s for your own good, you wouldn’t want a chunk of plastic liver in your Thanksgiving dinner,” and she put the peeler down in the sink, quiet-like, and left the room.
It was four o’clock before I had everything ready and we all gathered around in the formal dining room with her lace tablecloth and all her fancy plates from the hutch. Ines went to pour the wine she brought, but I gave Cynthia Sprite before Ines could get at her wineglass, and Cynthia didn’t mind but Ines did. Then we all held hands and Ines led us in some prayer consisting of multiple Bible verses that she rattled off like a machine gun and I looked up and caught Brandon rolling his eyes, and maybe he wasn’t such a bad one after all.
Then we ate and Cynthia got down a lot of mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and even a couple bites of turkey. “Gerald is an amazing cook,” she said, and Brandon said, “It’s really good,” and Ines said, “Oh, my turkey was a little dry,” and I said, “My potatoes are kind of bitter,” and Brandon said, “Really? Mine are awesome,” and after we all finished I sat back and unbuttoned my jeans and said, “Well, I’ve got a Thanksgiving Day surprise for you people,” and Brandon said, “What?” and Ines looked at me with her little sour mouth, and I said, “You are all on official cleaning duty,” and Cynthia said, “But they’re our guests!” and Brandon said at the same time, “That’s fair,” and Ines stood up and actually started clearing plates.
Then I went upstairs to call my little girl, because Cynthia’s kids were a shitty substitute for the real thing, and my ex handed the phone to Jennie right away, but then she took it back and we had what you might call an altercation about the usual sort of thing, money. She’d started talking about garnishing my wages, but seventeen percent of nothing is still nothing. The woman was never strong in math, but even she knew that much, not that she gave a shit, particularly. “What about a massage place, someone must be hiring,” she said, and I said, “You think I want to spend my days elbow deep in patchouli oil, rubbing knots out of naked hippies?” and she said, “I thought you wanted to see Jennie,” and I said, “Are you fucking threatening me? I have rights,” and she said, “So do I,” and that was when I hung up. When I turned around, I saw some movement outside the bedroom door and it was probably Brandon. But there was nothing to be done about it.
They both scheduled their flights for Friday to save some money, and Ines had a husband to get back to and a set of in-laws with some kind of cozy, catalog-type lifestyle in the foothills of her suburb. I’d gotten Cynthia all dressed up nice for them in a sweater and slacks, and she sat watching them without talking while Ines worked through spurts of verbal diarrhea about her couch and her dog and her team at work. Brandon darted looks through the window at his mother’s pride and joy, the vegetable patch, and picked at his scarf.
After a while Cynthia interrupted Ines’s simple-minded stress-out about some big damn test, like a GMAT or something. “It was so wonderful to see you both,” she said, and Ines said, “It was wonderful to see you, we worry about you,” and she looked at me when she said it, and Cynthia said, “That’s not necessary,” and Ines said, “Father Mahoney will be by later, between noon and two,” and Cynthia said, “Oh,” and looked confused, and Ines said, “He just wants to spend some time talking to you, privately,” and I said, “Where’s that confession list you’ve been working on?” and Cynthia said, “That’s your list, not mine,” but Ines didn’t think that was very funny. She hugged her mom, and then Brandon did, and I took both their wheelie suitcases outside for them while Cynthia held on to them and it was hard for her when she got emotional.
I put the suitcases in the trunk of the car and stood outside for a minute. It was cold, a real pisser of a morning, and I thought about how Jennie and my ex had probably gotten up before dawn to go on some kind of sick shopping frenzy. How enough of that was sure to poison Jennie over time and the day would come when she couldn’t even stand to talk to me. I didn’t look forward to that day.
The wind picked up some and I went back inside. Cynthia stood there gagging over something she was trying to say. Brandon was looking at the floor like he was embarrassed but Ines was wide-eyed and teary. “What is it?” I said to Cynthia and she gasped something out, so I told them, “She wants you both to call when you get home,” and Cynthia nodded so Brandon said “Oh,” like he was relieved, and Ines looked relieved too. We all walked outside together and I shook Brandon’s hand before he got into the passenger seat. Ines didn’t even look at me, and I figured I’d made an enemy after all, not that it mattered much. We stood there and watched them while they drove away.
“Well, you got your wish,” I told her, but she didn’t want to talk much, so we went inside. I picked up some, washed some clothes, and the cabin felt small, like I was stuck, and I decided that when the priest came out, I would leave, give them some privacy. Just before noon, I combed her hair and got the piss out of her and set her up in the sun porch. But fuck if priests these days don’t operate like the cable repairman, and after a while I realized that when Ines said he’d be out between noon and two, it didn’t mean he’d be there for that period, it meant he’d show up at some point during that range.
It burned me to see her there shrinking in on herself as a half hour turned into an hour turned into an hour and ten minutes and I had to rub her down some and take her on a spin around the room and put her back with extra pillows. When we finally heard his electric clown car crunch up on the gravel, I was on the verge of homicide, but she just said, “Oh, he’s here,” so I said, “How delightful. I will let him in.”
I met him out on the driveway and I told him, “I’ll be back in an hour,” and he looked surprised and said, “Are you leaving?” and I said, “Yeah, I just need to run a few errands,” and he said, “She’s a seriously ill woman,” and I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Is there another caretaker there? The daughter?” and I said, “You’re it, buddy,” and he said, “I’m not qualified to care for her,” and I said, “Well, it turns out the only qualification is compassion,” and he didn’t like that, but I slapped him on the arm and left him there. Only a prick of the lowest order would have left, and he wasn’t of course. By the time I got in my car and backed out down the dirt road, he was already inside, probably praying as much for himself as he was for her.
When I came back with a trunk full of Christmas presents they were sitting together real quiet on the sun porch, and she was all hunched over, elbows on her knees and fingers knotted together, and it looked like she was praying but I knew better. Her face was in shadow from the agony of it all so I brought the stuff in double-time, and this time it was the priest who met me in the driveway, and I said, “Father,” and he said, “I wasn’t able to complete my evaluation,” and I said, “Evaluation?” and he said, “The competency?” and I said, “What do you mean?” but it was clear enough that Ines was behind it. He put a hand on my shoulder like he wanted me to understand something man to man, and then he said, “It was terribly hard to understand her,” and I said, “It just takes a little practice,” and he said, “It’s probably time to look into some help, some full-time care, around the clock,” and I said, “I’ll take that under advisement,” and he said, “Her daughter has some calls out, to some facilities in the area,” and I said, “Well that’s a bunch of bullshit,” and he said, “I understand your anger, but we all have our limitations,” and I said, “Isn’t that the truth,” and it turned out that all three of us were glad to see him go.
I went inside before he’d even backed out of the driveway. “Goddamnit,” I muttered as I got her bath going. She was still crunched up in the sun room, but we both knew what she needed, and the bath filled up, all nice and hot like she liked it with the Epsom salts and the lavender oil and those fleshy rubber pillows I had to adhere to the porcelain. Then it was ready and I carried her in and she moaned to be touched and cried when I tried to rub her arms down enough that I could lift them over her head to get her sweater off. I propped her up good on the toilet and went for the scissors. I cut the sweater up the back then down the front. “Let me tell you,” I said, “This is one sorry fucking sweater, and I am going to use it to clean rutabagas from here on out,” and she said, “This morning you said it looked good with my eyes,” and I said, “That was the color, not the sweater. The sweater is for shit,” and she said, “What about the pants? Are the pants for shit?” and I said, “That depends on how far you can bend over,” and she said, “That’s what she said,” but it turned out I was able to get them off her with less trouble than either of us expected because they were stretchy.
I put her in the tub. It was getting harder, not because she’s heavy, because I’m still pretty ripped, even if I’ve got a gut like a knocked-up dog, but because when she gets like that she can’t help any and it’s awkward as hell. I maybe even dropped her there a bit at the end but the inflatables helped and she groaned, but it was OK. I sat down on the floor next to the tub and stuck my hand in the bathwater and she got her hand in mine and tried to squeeze, but couldn’t, so I squeezed for her and we waited for the heat to sink into her bones.
Liz Warren-Pederson’s work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson.