“What’s your pleasure, Mom?”
She bursts into the kitchen, all smiles. My dark-eyed daughter, on holiday break from college, her round cheeks flushed from sleep.
What’s my pleasure? You, Elizabeth.
I take the croissants out of the oven, yeasty, too hot to touch. Strawberry jam. Black coffee.
“There’s a new exhibit I want to see at the …” Shit. At the …? If I wait long enough, the mouse in my brain will click on it. The letter A. I’m pretty sure it begins with A.
I make a stab at it. “You know. The fish house.”
She laughs. “Aquarium?”
I laugh with her.
“I’m losing my mind.” I didn’t mean to say that.
She laughs again. “Nonsense. We all forget names of things. For instance, last week I couldn’t for the life of me remember the name of Mount St. Helens. ‘You know,’ I said to Tif, ‘the volcano mountain.’”
“Tif?” I’m thinking, Tif? Who’s Tif?
“You know, Mom. Tiffany. My housemate.”
“Of course. Tiffany.” I’m looking out the window. My mountain is covered in clouds. Is it going to rain? “I have to get my …”
We both laugh.
Back in Wilmington to visit my brother. In the house I grew up in. Tom and Marsha own it now.
Has Tom noticed? I can’t tell. But Marsha has. I catch her watching me. Then slipping back to her iPad. Documenting?
Or am I being, what’s the word? It will come.
July 4th. Tom’s stuffing his face, as usual. Marsha plays the martyr-wife, cooking and serving and rushing about. All these other people I don’t know.
Some strange man with a double chin and eyes too close together hugs me.
“Why hello, Ellen, you look wonderful.” Such a loud voice.
I pat his beefy shoulders and smile.
“Hello to you too. It’s great to see you.”
He’s talking about Mary Louise. His wife? Sister? Cheerleading. My brother Tom.
I search his face, threading my way through the fog back to high school. Was somebody named Mary Louise a cheerleader?
Then. I know that voice. A name pops up. Where does my brain keep those names?
“Walter,” I say, relieved.
Something about the Senior Prom. Did he take me? But Mary Louise?
Elizabeth is here. Is it a school break?
“I’m volunteering, Mom. For Occupy.” Her dark eyes are bright. “That’s why I’m home.”
“Occupy. You must have heard of it.” She’s loading something into her backpack. Sheets of paper. She hands me one. “It’s exciting, Mom,” she says. “You should join me.”
I study the paper. A young woman in a leotard is dancing on top of a bull. The text reads, OCCUPY WALL STREET. Bring Tent.
“I don’t understand.”
“The 99 percent. It’s in all the papers. Wall Street is strangling us.”
“It’s a movement. We’re occupying Market Street. Downtown San Francisco. You should come with me.”
“We’re blocking the sidewalk, preventing the greedy bastards from going to work.”
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“I have to go. Come on.”
“What would I do?”
“Next time I’ll take you with me,” she says. “You’ll see.” And she’s out the door.
She should be in school.
It’s official. I can’t count backwards from 100 by sevens. But could I ever? I can’t name the Supreme Court justices. Lots of perfectly intelligent people can’t do that. Although I used to know them. But I don’t remember words given to me an hour before. So, they put me through a brain scan. And yes, I have dementia. Early stages, Dr. Garcia says. It might be the one that starts with A. Or something else. The label doesn’t matter.
“I’m too young,” I tell the doctor. I’m trying not to cry.
“I know,” he says and puts his hand on mine. “You’re sixty-one, aren’t you? I’m afraid it can strike as early as that. It’s called early onset, but the symptoms are the same. I’m sorry, Ellen.”
“How much time do I have?”
“It depends. You could live another eight or ten years.”
He doesn’t understand. He’s young. “I mean before I’m ga-ga.”
He won’t meet my eyes, the coward. “Nobody knows that.”
“Take a guess.”
He pauses. “You’ve probably had these symptoms for some time now. Maybe a year or more?”
“I would predict within a year you could see some short-term memory loss, difficulty with directions, that kind of thing. But then again, maybe not.”
“Is there anything … ?”
“You can do? Stay active. Read. Do you have someone you trust to help with your health care decisions?”
Elizabeth, I want to say. But not yet.
I think about my brother. Would I trust Tom to take care of me?
“No,” I answer.
“You need to find somebody.”
The voice on the telephone asks, “Is Elizabeth with you?” Is it the housemate? What’s her name? It’s like a dog’s name.
“No. Isn’t she at school?”
“She’s been gone all week. I hoped she was with you.”
A cold spasm grips my stomach.
“She’s not here. I don’t know where she is.”
“I don’t mean to alarm you, Ms. Foster, but maybe you should call the police.”
I punch “Elizabeth” on my cell. Her voicemail sings out: “I’m out and about. Leave your number.”
I try to think. She’s missing. Elizabeth.
I call 911. She’ll turn up, someone says. She probably just needs a break.
The doorbell rings. It’s dark outside. But there she is. My baby. I’m crying. It’s her. I pull her into the hallway, laughing, crying. She feels cold.
“Hi Mom,” she says and hugs me.
I look out the door. Is someone there? In the dark?
Elizabeth pulls away from me and calls out something to a shadow on the deck.
“I’ve been so scared,” I say. “Where have you been?”
“It’s complicated,” she says.
Complicated? “Who’s out there?” I ask.
“My boyfriend,” she says. “Lenny.”
Lenny? Who’s that? Should I invite him in? I don’t want to. Instead, I pull Elizabeth into the living room. We sit down on the sofa. I touch her cheek. It’s cold.
“Your friend called. Where were you?”
“I’ve been working day and night on Occupy,” she says.
“You should be in school.”
“College feels irrelevant right now, Mom.”
“Why didn’t you call?”
“I’m sorry. But we’re lying low right now. You might have sent the police.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Homeland Security. They’re everywhere.”
I pull her close, feel the anger, the fear.
“It’s not crazy,” she says, reading my mind. She starts talking about corporate corruption and Homeland Security and somebody thinking she’s a Communist.
“You’re going too fast, honey.”
“I can’t say any more. But we have a plan. We just need money.”
How did we get to money?
“Can you give us some?”
“You have money in your account.” Didn’t I just call the bank?
“That’s long gone. We need more. It’s for poor people, Mom. Please.”
When did this happen? She’s my sunshine girl. She goes hiking with me.
“We’ll talk about it later,” she says. “I can’t stay. I just wanted you to know I’m okay.”
“No,” I beg and hold her arm. But she slips away. I stand in the dark calling.
I’m bending over the coffee table, fingering pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Supposed to be good for my brain. Hah!
Tom’s here. He’s come about money. He’s gained weight and his beard is gray. It used to be the color of ginger. I adored him growing up. Trailing after him, picking up his golf sticks and tennis rackets, his dirty shirts.
Now he bellows, “Sis!” He’s holding me so tight, I‘m suffocating. “How are you?”
“I’m demented,” I say. “How are you?”
He laughs. “I’m getting there too.”
I turn to the window, toward my own green mountain, trying not to cry.
He doesn’t say anything, but pulls me back and kisses the top of my head.
I put my arms around his waist and feel safe for the first time since Elizabeth quit college.
“I love this house,” he says. He’s staring at Mother’s antique cabinet in the corner. “You know it’s worth a fortune, don’t you?”
I nod. Here it comes.
He plops down on the sofa and points to the cushion beside him.
“When’s the last time you had it appraised?”
I laugh. “You want me to sell the house?”
“Hell, no. But down the line …”
“I plan to be here for a while.”
“Sure you do. Look …”
It’s not what I expect.
“I’m worried about Elizabeth,” he says.
I hug him. “That makes two of us.”
He rubs my hand with a calloused thumb while I tell him what I know. She phones me often, says she’s okay. But I don’t know where she’s living. Not in a tent, surely not a tent, and I don’t like that boyfriend.
“Look,” he says, “I know you think I’m crass, but we need to be realistic.”
“Back to money?”
“You’re not leaving all this,” his hand sweeps the room, “to her, are you?”
“She’s my daughter.”
“She’ll burn through it in a year.”
“That’s my business.”
“Unfortunately, she’d make it everybody’s business. Those people would squander Dad’s money on god knows what.”
“Dad’s money, is it? You want me to leave it to you?”
He frowns. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“Why are you here?”
“I wanted to check up on you.” He looks away. “Let’s get real, Ellen. If you seriously have … dementia,” he chokes out the word, “you need to get your affairs in order. I have a lawyer who’s really good at this stuff. You could talk to him.”
I pull my hand away. “Go home,” I say.
He smiles. “Fair enough. I’ve said my piece. But look, Ellen, I really do care about you.”
And he does. I know that.
Elizabeth is here. Did Tom call her?
I look through her sharp, pale face, her ragged ponytail, and see my stocky fourteen-year-old Elizabeth. In jeans and a t-shirt. Running. Throwing sticks in waterfalls. Where? She’s laughing at me. Why? I’m creeping, crawling up a wooden ladder. On some trail. On my mountain. Elizabeth.
I hug her now and feel her ribs close to the skin.
In the kitchen, she picks red ceramic mugs from the cupboard and pours coffee. Didn’t she make those mugs in high school? I can’t remember. I try not to stare at the tattooed fish swimming up her neck. Her lovely soft neck. My flesh.
“I’m glad you’re home.” I reach across the kitchen table and squeeze her hand.
“I can’t stay long. Lenny’s got something big going.”
“Lenny?” I can’t …
“My boyfriend, Mom. You know.”
Was that his name?
“He’s the brains behind Occupy here in San Francisco,” she says.
“There are tents up and down Market Street.” Something about people blocking people from going to work. “It’s on TV. Haven’t you seen it?”
I don’t watch much TV these days. And when I do, I forget …
“Is it …?” My words get stuck.
“Working? You know, what you’re doing?”
“Occupy? You bet. Wall Street’s hurting. The government’s freaked out. Arresting people. Lenny got dragged off to jail in New York last week.” She sounds almost proud. “It made the Times.”
I struggle to find the words. “You can’t …”
How I can explain? “You’re twenty-two,” is what comes out.
“I don’t have a choice.” Something about corporations. “I’d rather be in jail than sitting here, pretending everything is cool.”
Is that what I’mdoing? I have arguments. Like she’s going about this the wrong way. Like this Lenny is no good. But I can’t put the words around them to make her listen.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” she says. “That was mean.” She puts her arms around me. “I hear you’re not so well.”
I stiffen. “Who told you that?”
“Never mind. Is it true?”
“In a way. Is that why you’re here?” My voice sounds far away, like it’s not part of me.
“I came here to check on you.”
“Can you stay?” I ask.
“I don’t … No.”
She pulls back her hand, spilling the coffee. It drips off the edge of the table. And then, “I need money. Please, Mom.”
“If you come home, finish college, there’ll be money.” There. That came out in one piece.
“But right now the one percent is strangling the country. We need money to fight them.”
What? I’ve got to keep my head clear.
I’m climbing green hills, traipsing through mud puddles left by the winter’s rain. Breathing in sunshine. Fields of small yellow flowers. Can’t remember …
Black and white wings. I know that bird. It has a clown face. Something about nuts. I know it. Begins with W. I can hear the rhythm of the syllables. It’s so near the surface. It’s coming; it’s coming.
I am not going to cry.
“I’m losing my mind,” I tell her.
I love you, Mom.” The static on her phone is so loud.
“Come home, sweetheart. I need to know you’re safe.”
“I’m safe. Don’t worry. Lenny takes good care of me.”
“Where are you?”
“Not far. Sacramento.”
“Please come home.” I’m begging.
“Soon. I promise. We’re making inroads, Mom. We’re going to win. You’ll be so proud of me.”
“I’m losing my mind.” Didn’t I just say that?
“I love you, Mom.”
I sit here with the dead phone at my ear.
Tom’s here. He took me to the doctor. I’m in perfect health, Dr. Garcia says. They don’t count dementia when they say that. Tom hired a very nice lady to do jigsaws with me. Her name is Veronica. She’s from Mexico, maybe?
Today he says, “We need to see your lawyer.” We’re sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. He’s reading the paper.
“Why?” I’m trying to remember.
“You need help with your finances, sweetheart.”
“I’m okay,” I say. “And don’t talk down to me.”
“I’m sorry. But you really need somebody to look out for you, pay your bills, handle your money. Who’s the executor of your will?”
“It’s not you.” Elizabeth is suddenly here. When did she come? She’s standing at the kitchen door. Her skirt comes down to her tennis shoes and has a coffee stain in front. Her hair needs cutting. She’s pale. I want to take her in my arms, bring her back to life.
Tom jumps up and reaches out to her, but she backs off.
“Who is it then?” he says. “The executor?” They stand facing each other.
“Wayne,” I say.
“Wayne’s been dead for ten years, honey,” Tom says.
Has it been ten years? “I mean, he was,” I say. I feel foolish.
“That’s why we need to see your lawyer,” Tom says.
Elizabeth slumps down on the kitchen chair next to me and takes my hand. “I’m sorry about all this, Mom.”
They’re arguing. I don’t understand everything they’re saying because they are talking fast and they’re mad. But I understand parts of it.
“You aren’t the executor. You don’t get the money.”
“… your mother … protected.”
“Bullshit!” Elizabeth’s voice snaps. “You want to get your hands on Mom’s money.”
“You’re running around with a bunch of lunatics who will waste your money and throw you out when it’s gone.”
“Stop!” I yell.
Tom’s face is red. “What’s your lawyer’s name?” Tom asks.
And of course I don’t remember.
I know I have to get some money. For Elizabeth. She’s my daughter. She’s here.
“Just call Arthur,” she says. “He’ll know what to do.”
“You remember, Mom. Your lawyer.”
“Now tell me again why you need money.”
“You’ll be supporting Occupy. I’ve explained it before.”
There’s more but it’s hard to follow.
How can I get money? They won’t let me drive.
Tom says if I leave my money to Elizabeth, that man will get it. I can’t remember his name.
Why do I need to see Arthur? Money. Elizabeth needs money.
Tom says I shouldn’t.
But she’s my daughter.
Elizabeth’s my daughter.