Fiction

Moon x Cross, photograph by Elsa Lichman

Lucky Bud

Winifred swallowed the pill and nodded goodnight to her daughter Nell. Though she’d not swallowed any before, she knew the medicine would take effect rapidly. Several weeks ago, she’d figured out how to hold a pill inside her cheek, then later spit it into a tissue, where by now she’d collected a handful, stashed at the back of the drawer. Two nights earlier, she heard both daughters talking in hushed voices after Jean and Little Winnie arrived from Wisconsin. She held herself still as a cadaver when they peeked in on her to avoid raising Nell’s suspicions. Now, she wriggled herself up to sitting, then rested against the pillows.

 

Though her husband, Bud, had been dead for years, her communication with him had never faltered.

    Doesn’t Nell have any sense, talking in front of Winnie about suffocation and paralysis?  Lou Gehrig’s disease is brutal, nothing a child should hear.  And Jean, always deferring to her older sister’s opinions until she’s out of earshot.  Jean wouldn’t give her the time of day if she weren’t here in Florida, away from that husband of hers and the other family.  She thinks she’s above Nell and her brood, thinks that she’s an intellectual because of a few years at Madison.  The minute she’d hooked Jack and conceived Boo, she never went to another class.  Her mother-in-law doesn’t think too much of her, either– thinks she’s a country dimwit.  Why, during the reception, that woman came up to me and asked if Jean knew how to fix herself so they could finish college and get a start!  The gall of that lady to speak with me that way.

      Winifred reached toward the bedside table, straining to uncurl her fingers. She grasped the knob, but the drawer didn’t budge.  She leaned against the pillows, her head already spinning.

     Nell came in with my tray this morning with about as much affection as a diner waitress. I’ve told her I prefer coffee, but for some reason she gives me tea and that awful excuse for bread that makes me gag.  She’s let my slurred speech become an excuse for ignoring my requests.  “What?” she says, not even trying to understand.  It’s no wonder I’ve gone “downhill.” Who wouldn’t?  Stuck in this bleak closet of a room.  Nell claims that it hurts her back to lift me.  Danny came by after work last week, carried me to the living room.

    She recalled the visits Danny made, years ago, on the way home from school. Young Danny at the wicker table, a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, hair askew, shirt untucked, remnants of lunch on his cheek.  She and Bud knew that Nell wasn’t up to dealing with this boy, who needed more attention than the other children.

      He is so grown up now, you wouldn’t recognize him.  And I didn’t recognize the house.  Nell hadn’t wasted any time tossing her ragtag pieces and redecorating with my furniture.  You’d think she might have consulted me, given all the years I had decorated Milwaukee’s finest homes.  If the Depression and War hadn’t foiled my career plans in New York, well who knows, I might have decorated for the Rockefellers.  It’s not out of the question.  Our furniture won’t last five years in this place.  Neither daughter cares for her home the way I did.  Jean has bought some nice pieces, proudly paying full price as if money grew on trees, then letting the pets and children destroy them.  I’ve had to bite my tongue.  Each of my pieces had a story, came from the best manufacturers.  I’ve still got the old maple bureau in here with me.  You recall the chest with fluted sliding doors?  It was a perfect place to store my collection of porcelain butter chip plates.  Who would have thought that trip to the antique shop in Watertown would be the beginning of a late-life hobby!  I must have had a hundred by the time I packed them up to move to Florida.

    Blinking in the darkness, she tugged again at the drawer knob and cursed her useless fingers.     

      Funny how I never really unpacked them again. They were stored away with all the other things until we found the right house. Then you died. Everything changed overnight.  I let Emily tell me what to do, always the big sister, and she made a lot of decisions for me in those blurry days, saying things were different in Florida.  Boxes disappeared, things were sold, given away to Catholic Relief.  Emily had about as much sentimentality as a second-hand wringer-washer.  She spent her extra hours making rosaries. Remember?  She even got the grandchildren to make them when they came to visit, sitting on the braided rug in front of the TV.  They might have spent the day at the beach, but they were going to do something useful at night.  Emily’s prerogative. Where is she now when I need her?

    Winifred pawed desperately at the knob, finally opening the drawer enough to reach the tissue.  She paused, her chest heaving with a ragged, phlegmy rattle.

      I guess I never really accepted God as Emily had. You’d think she worked for the Pope now, the way she volunteers at St. Claire’s. Practically runs the place. Oh, I loved singing in the choir all right, and the flower arranging gave me so much pleasure. My Sundays in June and July were glorious with all the purple and white phlox, the day lilies, the peonies. I encouraged Jean to help me. She cultivated a perennial garden of sorts, painted watercolors of her own bouquets, but she always had some excuse about Saturdays being too unpredictable to promise me any help with cutting flowers. She never once accepted my invitation, and well, like you, Bud, she rarely attended mass anyway. I guess neither one of us inspired our daughters to embrace the church. Sometimes Winnie helped me arrange the bouquets for the altar. One Saturday, she over-filled the vases, soaking the red carpet that led down to the communion rail. I’ll bet Father Graves heard about a few wet knees that night after the five o’clock mass. I wonder who will do the arrangements for my funeral?

      Winifred pulled her gnarled hands together at her breast to calm her racing heart. Winnie, her granddaughter and namesake, was the recipient of her affection and attention, unlike her own daughters who knew her as strict, demanding, and short-tempered. She and Winnie shared afternoons baking cookies, sewing dresses, arranging tea parties with her friend, Susan, and even a spring break visit to Florida when she had saved her babysitting money.      

    Did I tell you? Winnie came and sat with me this morning after Nell told her that it was too hard to move me out to the lanai. It was a balmy morning for December. I could hear Nell and Jean laughing, their cigarette smoke drifting in through the screens. I heard them switch from coffee to beer, heard the cans fizzle, and I heard the back door bang a dozen times. Nell claims she can’t help slamming it when she hauls laundry out to the line. Winnie read the paper to me, chattered about her friends and part-time job at Minnette’s Bakery. I never cared much for that place, especially after that time Hans tried to sell me day-old bread early one morning. Of course, I could tell the hard, cold loaf wasn’t fresh! Did he think I was a fool? Winnie’s no fool.  She sees right through her mother.     

      Dear girl tried to give me a manicure this morning. It took me awhile to tell her what I wanted. You’d think they were all deaf. She kept asking me, what man? What man? Not a man, I told her, man-i-cure. I extended my useless fingers, and she finally understood. You’d think Nell would take better care of me, given her training. She ought to be ashamed of herself for letting me go this way, though I guess it shouldn’t surprise me, seeing the frump she’s become. If she would just tuck in her shirt and stop smoking, I’m sure she could attract a new husband, maybe even a doctor from the hospital. 

  Poor Winnie had a hard time. I closed my eyes, embarrassed to see the yellowed nails.  Must have dozed off. I recall hearing Danny and Jim, their voices drifted in from the lanai. I haven’t seen Jim in ages. He doesn’t get down to Florida very often.

      Rousing herself, she reached for the crumpled tissue and picked at it with bent fingers to separate the pills. Isolating one, she lifted it toward her lips and sucked it in. Fighting a powerful gag reflex, she willed herself to keep it on her tongue. She clasped the glass of water, tipped it toward her mouth, then sipped enough to swallow. When she was confident it had gone down, she inhaled gulps of air, only to be repulsed by the dank, wet-brick odor of her decaying body.  She longed for French milled soap, Stickley furniture polish, a fresh pot of coffee.     

    I had a nice place on the eighth floor. You’d have been amazed at how I made it work, though it was just a studio apartment. If it hadn’t been for that large window, I’d have suffocated.  The bureau and desk fit at one end, with the TV placed on the corner, so I could watch from the chair or the bed. I’m embarrassed to admit how much TV I watched. I sandwiched your armchair and ottoman in the opposite corner. Your old chair comforted me, Bud, doing my crossword puzzle in the afternoon light. Your acorn dish, too, filled with jellybeans. The older grandchildren always asked before helping themselves, as if you were still here.

     She squinted at the crack of light beneath the door. No one took candy from Bud without asking, and he didn’t permit himself many treats, either, after swearing off alcohol to save their marriage and return home.        

    It was the only way I’d take you back, remember?

    A couple of jellybeans in the afternoon, and little Julie, the youngest grandchild, innocent of crabby old men who put all their waking energy into staying sober. One day she crawled onto his lap and pulled his tie. Instead of anger, he smiled, the dimple flowering on his cheek where it had been hiding for years. He melted a little that afternoon, and during the short time that remained of his life, he opened a pathway to his heart for Winifred as well.

    She jerked herself from drowsiness. Reaching for the tissue, she attempted to separate the remaining pills. After sucking a few into her mouth, she took several slow sips of water.  Fighting a powerful urge to cough, she eventually moved the wedge down her throat, then collapsed upon the pillows.

    Bud, remember, rising before dawn, playing solitaire at the wicker table with a strong cup of coffee at your elbow? The early morning newscasters’ voices, soothing in their sameness.  You cracked your three-minute-egg, poured the runny contents over toast. You never let go of your morning habits, like the coffee counter at ten o’clock at the back of Kerr Drugs, cleanly shaven, smelling of soap, Old Spice. I waited for you to leave before I vacuumed, made the beds, fluffed the pillows. I know you enjoyed your men. I’d heard your low chuckle from behind the counter if I happened to run an errand while you were there. I knew I wasn’t welcome. Those smiles and laughs were never shared with me.

      Her head spun, her chest rose and fell with labored breaths, but a faint inner voice called Winifred back to the table, to the water, to the pills that remained. Turning awkwardly, she bumped her hand against the sharp edge of the opened drawer and recoiled from the pain, her knuckle burning deep inside the swollen tissue. Jarred awake, eyes wide, Winifred fought the urge to cry out. She leaned down, sucked in several more pills. With both hands, she grasped the glass and tipped it against her mouth. Water streamed down her chin, soaking her nightgown.  Nausea engulfed her as she struggled to swallow. She pressed a curled hand over her mouth to keep from vomiting, the sound of her deep chest breathing recalling waves upon the shore.

      Bud, remember the afternoons at Anna María Island? I swam. You, beneath the umbrella, watching the regulars, the old leathery ones. The beach refreshed your soul, like iced coffee after hours of gardening, refreshed mine. Remember the popcorn for the gulls, with the grandchildren? Remember the back roads? The eagles’ nest high in the trees? Nell said some developer bought the land. I never went back.

    Winifred pursed her lips against the burning reflux from the dissolving pills. Spasms gripped her. She wished she’d eaten more during the day.

      Winnie made me lunch. Soup. I slouched in the chair, my back aching. Up too long. Not enough exercise, any exercise since coming to Nell’s. A year ago, after gardening, couldn’t walk, couldn’t straighten up. My legs heavy, back rigid. Old age? Bud, I never gave in to that, not like Alice, who turned herself into an invalid after her 75th. Shut herself down, just like that.  Infuriates Emily when her church volunteers don’t show up. Our own mother, 103 years old.  Couldn’t be trusted alone, but physically fit ‘til her last. Unlatched door. Poor thing. Probably didn’t hear the train coming.     

    Sounds from the hall outside the bedroom door jolted Winifred into alertness. She nudged the drawer closed with the back of her arm, then joined her curled hands at her throat, pushing against the acid bubbling up into her mouth. Pinching her lips together, she fell back upon the pillows, her eyes rolling with vertigo.      

    I was so hungry. Winnie balanced a tray on my lap. I focused on the spoon, Bud, gripped it, lifted it to my lips. Hard not to dribble down my chin. You know, I despise messiness.  Messiness! Worse than the disease. I accepted this, how I would die, took comfort, it was settled.  Seeing myself deteriorate, intolerable. Intolerable. I prefer to go hungry… than to soil…myself.  Awful soup. Winnie diluted the soup. New soups, just heat, no water. I bought them when I couldn’t turn on the water anymore. Bud, I couldn’t even turn on the water. You know, I would never have spent extra money for such a luxury, if, I…soups.

      Winifred sank into a swirling abyss of disappointment, misunderstandings, and the narcotic effect of the pills. Deep sleepiness called her to let go, but in her ears, a faint tinnitus, like a distant alarm, reminded her to swallow the rest, hide the evidence of her decision.  Handicapped. Drugged. Confused. Was she reaching for the drawer? Moving toward the pills? Toward the water? 

      I tried to tell Winnie no water. She shook her head at me. I said, soup! No water. Where was Nell? Jean? Help me! Why won’t they help me? Winnie brought me a glass of water. Bud, a glass of water. A glass of water, and she saw tears. My tears, my tears. Not what I wanted, not what I wanted. Damn the girls! Damn Lou Gehrig’s disease! Damn! Damn! Damn!

Only 24 hours. Jean gave me only 24 hours. Jack on a business trip. Had to rush home. Last sunset from blue to pink and orange, and red and blue and pink and orange, and orange and purple and streaks. Beautiful. Goodbye. Goodbye, Bud. Lucky Bud. No humiliation, deterioration, alienation. You just fell on the floor. Bumped your head, broke your glasses. Time to call for help? Drag yourself to the phone? Our choice in the end? Must I wait until I suffocate in front of them? I ached for you, dying alone, vulnerable. I know now. Blessing, blessing.  Blessing. Lucky Bud, lucky Bud! Don’t want anyone to know, know what I’m doing, know what I’m doing, what I’m doing…doing…doing.

 

Author's Comment

While this story is a work of fiction, my maternal grandmother contracted and died from ALS.  Her sudden death, after a visit with her in Florida, left me with many questions.

September 12
by Andrea Carter Brown
  On 9/11, Andrea Carter Brown was a resident of downtown Manhattan living just a block from the World Trade Center. September 12 chronicles her up close and all too personal experience of the attack, but, even more, the continuing horror and eventual healing of the months and years afterward. September 12 won the 2022 IPPY Silver Medal in Poetry, the James Dickey Prize from Five Points, the River Styx International Poetry Prize, the Puddinghouse Press Chapbook Competition, The MacGuffin National Poet Hunt, and is cited in the Library of Congress Online Research Guide to the Poetry of 9/11. “A more haunting memorial to 9/11 than this book will be hard to find. Reading September 12 is a wrenching but restorative experience you won't soon forget".  — Martha Collins, poet, author of Casualty Reports and Blue Front "... detail by detail, we watch the process of innocence captured by absolutely unpredicted trauma, and how the experience lives on and on, through shock and terror, through the kindness of strangers, through the heart of a beloved, through grief and elegy, through normality that will never again be normal."  — Alicia Ostriker, New York State Poet Laureate "This brave book documents great loss, but also hard-won psychic resilience in poems of astonishing beauty and wisdom. September 12 is necessary poetry." — Cynthia Hogue, Poetry Editor, Persimmon Tree
Available from Amazon and Word Works.

Bios

Louise Dolan, retired from teaching at North Carolina State University, writes fiction and creative nonfiction, with recent publications in Persimmon Tree, The Rush Literary Magazine, Pinnacle Literary Magazine, miniMag Literary Magazine, and Fiction on the Web, UK. She is polishing a collection of short stories and has a novel in progress about her Lithuanian ancestors. When not caring for grandchildren, she writes with a view of the garden, beloved birds, and barely tolerated squirrels, fitting in walks to clear her head at the coast.

Elsa Lichman, MSW, retired after 43 years as a social worker. In retirement she turned to the arts: she became a newspaper columnist, poet. solo singer, choral singer, and photographer. Her love of nature has taken her on many magical adventures.

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