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Brendan Short

When I arrive at her apartment, Mrs. Waller is standing in the dark, holding a sheet of note paper. She does not know who I am, of course, but as usual she says that she is delighted to see me.

"It's been so long," she says.

She wears a silk robe, frayed at the collar and faded purple, her monogram embroidered on the breast pocket. During the day, the robe hangs on the back of her bedroom door; she sleeps in it at night.

"How is your daughter?" she asks.

"I have a son named C.J.," I say, "and he's fine, thank you."

"And your husband, how is he?" It is a good guess--one that she has made before, one that would make Derrick laugh.

"I'm not married, Mrs. Waller. I almost was, but that was a while ago."

She stares at me and smiles, though I don't think there is a reason for her grin. I am a new person to her.

"I'm Molly," I say. "I visit you during the week."

Mrs. Waller hands me the note, strolls to the window, and runs her fingers over the blinds. I walk to her and pull the cord. The blinds rise and sunlight fills the living room, spreading over a shelving unit adorned with Hummel figurines and photographs of forgotten relatives, over a basket filled with old issues of TV Guide and Reader's Digest, across a throw pillow stitched with a saying: "Women are like tea leaves. You never know their strength until they're in hot water." The light reaches the dining room, where a simple wooden table and four chairs stand. Mrs. Waller grasps my upper arm and smiles. I smile too.

The blinds were drawn because I drew them yesterday, right before I left. When the blinds are open, Mrs. Waller is tempted to go outside, and when she goes outside she ends up lost somewhere: in the woods behind her apartment complex, in the Safeway parking lot, on the corner of Blueridge and Spruce. When the blinds are drawn, she forgets the outside world and shuffles around her apartment. At least this is her family's theory, their clutch at understanding in a world where their mother has forgotten them.

I look at the ivory paper, which is folded and has my name written on the outside in the fat handwriting of Lillie, Mrs. Waller's eldest daughter. Lillie and her husband live in a Colonial seven times the size of my apartment. Though I have talked to her at least twice a week for three years, I have met her only five times. At Christmas she leaves me a wicker basket of cheeses and marmalade, a check for one hundred dollars, and a photo Christmas card of her family, including Duke, a Bay retriever.

I read the note in my hand:


   We are so grateful for all the work you've done for Mother over the
   years, and we are deeply sorry that you are leaving us--it's like
   you've been a member of our family all this time. If you reconsider
   your decision (please do!!!) or need a reference, please contact
   Jack or me.


I ponder the word "Love" and wonder how long Lillie hesitated before writing it. Maybe she did not hesitate at all. Maybe she does think of me as family. I look at the fold; it is precise and strong, as though smoothed out with the edge of a credit card. The letter could easily tear in half.

Mrs. Waller sits at the dining room table and rests her hands behind her place setting. When I ask if she is hungry, she says that she is. I pour orange juice into her glass, Corn Flakes and two-percent into her bowl. I prepare an identical meal for myself and sit. Mrs. Waller has not started to eat. (She claims sometimes to wait because a proper hostess allows her guests to begin. But I've seen her reach her hand into a bowl of minestrone and stare uncomprehendingly at silverware, and I know that confusion and fear of embarrassment are her reasons for waiting.) When I grab my spoon, she grabs hers. When I scoop the cereal and bring it to my mouth, she follows my lead. She smiles in relief.

"It's a lovely day, isn't it?" she asks.

"It is," I say. "Perhaps we could go for a walk later."

I dab the sides of my mouth with the pink napkin. She pats her mouth clean.

"That would be wonderful," she says.

And so we will eat, walk, watch television--spend the day together. I will bathe Mrs. Waller and explain to her how to use the toilet and toilet paper. I will do my best to make sure that nothing in the apartment can trip or confuse her more than is inevitable. Then I will draw the blinds for the last time.

On Fridays I usually say, "See you Monday, Mrs. Waller." In bed for the past several nights I have practiced what to say today--profound statements about how much these past three years have meant to me, how much I have loved spending time with her, how much I will miss her. I even imagined that I told Mrs. Waller about Derrick and C.J. and my new job, and I pretended that she forgave me.

After I have helped Mrs. Waller dress, we stroll along the sidewalk, arm in arm, just like--like what? Like lovers, old friends, grandmother and granddaughter, client and caregiver? I cannot say. I do not know. In most ways, we are strangers. We walk a few blocks, past the strip mall with its framing shop, a Middle-Eastern market, UpScale Extensions and Styling; past the bank; right at the Victorian with a turreted roof; down a leafy, sun-dappled street.

Mrs. Wailer wears black pleated slacks that taper at the ankles and a white linen blouse that buttons tightly at the wrists. (Beneath her outfit, I know, are a Maidenform bra, which has lost much elasticity, cotton-blend panties with a faded tag, ankle-high nylons, pale skin.) Her slender wrists are adorned with a platinum watch and silver bracelets. She wears rings on four of her fingers.

"Is the sun too much for you?" she asks when we stop at the corner of Chestnut and Douglass. "You have such delicate skin." She reaches to touch my face, but before her fingers can brush my cheek, I step away.

"I put on sun screen before we left," I say.

"Your freckles are lovely."

"Why is it," Derrick once said, "that freckles on a white girl look so much better than freckles on a black girl?"

"Why is it," I said, "that black men look good bald, and white men just look bald?"

This was thousands of years ago. Approximately.

After our walk, I check her refrigerator and cupboard and make a list of food my successor will need to buy Monday morning. Then I walk around the house to check up on Mrs. Waller. I take the pillow from the dresser drawer and put it on her bed, move the dirty clothes from the freezer to the hamper, remove garbage from the pockets of her cardigan. After I explain the toilet and half-close the bathroom door behind her, I pick up the phone in an attempt to plan my life. (I am always making arrangements to pick things up, it seems, and making check marks in my Day Timer. Sometimes I envy Mrs. Waller's freedom from memory and obligation and sense.) I call day-care to say when I will pick up my son, the dry cleaners to see when I can pick up a skirt, the agency to find out when I can get my final paycheck and return the key to Mrs. Waller's apartment. I call Derrick and ask when he will pick up C.J. and when he will bring him back.

"The family reunion's an all-weekend thing, babe," he says. "I'll pick him up at seven tomorrow morning and bring him back Sunday night."

I think for a moment that I won't say what I know I will.

"Is she going to be there?" I ask. I want to grab my words from the air, pull them back and hide them, but it is too late. We are in well-worn territory; Derrick runs, I chase. We did this for most of the three years we were together; we've done this all eleven months since.

"Don't, babe," he says. "Don't go jealous on me."

As we talk, we become civil, though I still envision his fiancee--darker than Derrick, darker than his entire family, she is an acceptable spouse, an appropriate mother for Derrick's illegitimate son. We chat, and I am able to laugh, but we fail to enter the other territory, where cultural differences, as Derrick calls them, draw us together instead of pull us apart.

As I say goodbye to Derrick, Mrs. Waller walks into the hallway, looking frightened. She stands with her slacks unzipped and excrement in her hand. Water drips from the cuff of her blouse. I hurry to her.

"I feel so silly, dear, but I can't remember where this is supposed to go," she says as I stroke her back and lead her to the bathroom. "I'm so sorry. I'm so ... I'm just so sorry. I feel so confused, I just don't know."

As I calm her, I take her waste and place it in the toilet bowl. I wipe her bottom and zip up her slacks. I unbutton the cuffs of her blouse, and together we wash our hands. Our fingers dance together and juggle the soap; warm water pours over them. We are little girls, with nothing to do but play. When she laughs, I try to laugh too.

After lunch and her pills, Mrs. Waller and I sit on the living room sofa and watch television. I click from cartoons to the stock market report to a trashy midday talk show. A black girl and a white girl are in each other's faces, bobbing their heads and letting their breasts jiggle away.

"I just don't understand," Mrs. Waller says. "What are they saying? Why are they acting like that?"

I understand, but I don't try to explain.

"What is wrong with these people?"

I cannot answer her. I don't know what's wrong with them, or if wrong is what it is.

I switch to another channel. An Englishman in a khaki shirt leans against the railing of a boat and talks about the "thrill of discovery." The wind wrestles his thinning hair. The boat moves slowly, somewhere west of Africa. "This is much better," Mrs. Waller says as she nods toward the television set.

I close my eyes, to rest my brain. C.J. was a terror last night--dropping clumps of mashed potatoes onto the floor, refusing to go to bed, waking up with wet sheets, crying for his daddy--and my lack of sleep pins me to the couch. I inhale and exhale deeply. Just before I dream I see the house where I will report Monday morning: a mansion named Proud Oak, where a live-in maid will make me lunch each day, and a chauffeur will drive me to and from the bus stop. There will be other co-workers too, and an elderly client so healthy that she hardly needs my help. Each morning, everyone will remember me.

My sleep is so heavy that when I wake, my body shivers. I open my eyes and see that the front door is open. Mrs. Waller is gone.

I describe Mrs. Waller to pedestrians, policemen, and shop owners, and I ask if they have seen her. I ask girls on bicycles and old women pushing grocery carts. A few people think they have seen her, but they are far from certain. I walk down one side of Route 64 and up the other. I check parking lots and alleys but cannot find her. In The Exquisite Epicure, I see the flier I put up three weeks ago:

   Need Responsible Care for Your Aging Parent?
   Tired of Unreliable Help?

   Molly Walsh
   Home Health Aide
   5 Years Experience--Elder and Alzheimer's Care

I put my picture on the sign--a smiling face; white, like the people who could afford my services--and I hung the posters mostly in gourmet markets and boutiques. By the time I got home from posting the signs, I had four messages. The phone hardly stopped ringing for the next two weeks.

"It was such a relief to see your advertisement," said the first woman I spoke to. "I don't want this to sound bad, but we've had problems before with some of the aides that agencies have sent us. There was a language barrier with some. And with the others, there was the problem, well, not so much a problem, I guess ... "

"Were there cultural differences?" I asked. I thought of Derrick, his fiancee, and his family, and I felt that I had beaten them at something. I tried not to think of C.J.

"That's it," she said, relief in her voice. "That's exactly it. They would bring their children with them and talk on the phone, listen to their music. Three of them quit without warning us--like they had no obligation to Mom whatsoever. Once I had to postpone Europe when a girl didn't show up."

"Unfortunately, with what the agencies pay, they attract people you wouldn't want to care for your lawn, let alone an aging parent," I said. It was something I had rehearsed. "As a result, the family spends too much and gets too little--and in most cases ends up paying for an unreliable type of person or, at the very least, someone the aging parent would not be comfortable with."

I told her my fee: thirty dollars an hour--more than triple what I make now, ten dollars more than the woman would pay an agency. She hesitated and then said that she would have to talk to her family. When I thought of the money, I thought of C.J. and what I would need to keep him.

"I just know that Mom would love you," the woman said.

I walk the route Mrs. Waller and I took earlier and check the woods behind her apartment complex. I wander among the trees. Leaves are starting to appear on branches, and a robin swoops down to gather twigs for a nest. Mrs. Waller stands beside a spindled elm and stares at her arms, which she holds out in front of her.

When I call her name, she looks up and grins, then looks back down at her arms. I run to her. I want to take her in my arms, hold her to me, but instead I stop.

"Something has happened to my blouse," she says. "Would you look at that?"

I search for something on her sleeves--a stain or snag, perhaps--but find nothing.

"It's all over me," she says. "Even on my hands."

She rotates her hands, but I see nothing there except the shadows of blossoms and leaves and branches, darkening her skin and the fabric of her blouse. And when I see this, I realize that she is speaking of the shadows.

As I point up to the branches and then down at her arms, I explain shadows to her. She nods and thanks me. Between Mrs. Waller and C.J., I am often asked to make sense of the world and trusted to tell the truth. I tell myself that I do my best, though sometimes I don't believe it.

I have things to finish, things to straighten out, before I leave Mrs. Waller forever. I run bath water and help her undress. As she sits in the tub, I microwave macaroni and cheese, take out the garbage, sweep the floor. I wash her with a sponge, and when she is dried and dressed in her pajamas and robe, we sit down to dinner. She waits for me to take up my fork before she does the same.

We eat in silence. When we finish dinner, we sit in silence. Mrs. Waller waits for a cue from me, but I am unwilling to move. The wall clock ticks. The sun sinks outside the window and shadows obscure parts of the room. I am already late to pick up C.J.; each minute costs a dollar more, but still I cannot move. I don't want to leave this world of anonymity and gentility, where I am new each morning.

"That was a lovely walk we had earlier," I say, finally.

"It was, dear. Just lovely."

"We are good friends."

She smiles. "We are, dear. We are."

"We understand each other."

She glances to the side and then back at me.

"Yes, dear. We do. We certainly do."

"We're practically family."

"I couldn't agree more."

I pretend that we know each other and are too polite to point out the faults. I pretend that neither of us has lost or denied anything essential.

Mrs. Waller sits on the couch in her darkening apartment, looking frail and helpless, humming a song I don't know. She is alone, without even memory for company. Wordlessly, I walk past her. As quietly as I can, I lock the door behind me, then head down the stairs. Most likely she has already forgotten me.

After waiting a few minutes for the bus, I look up at Mrs. Waller's window and see that I have forgotten to draw the blinds. I step toward the building but stop when I hear my bus approach. My job is done, I tell myself. It is best to forget, to leave bits of myself behind.

I pay the driver, find a seat, and look up to see Mrs. Waller in her window, touching fingertips to the glass. When the bus moves, I press my hands to the window and turn my head to keep her in my sight. She is there, but then she quickly disappears.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Fairleigh Dickinson University
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group