The daughters are here, packing up their ma’s stuff. Bobbe and Rhoda. They ain’t exactly what you think of when you think of California girls. For one thing they’re short and wide. And they ain’t blonde, not even out of the bottle. Both of them’s got dark, curly hair and puffy cheeks. Half the time I’m not even sure who’s who.
“They’re ransacking the apartment,” Carolyn says. “I mean, the daughters will inherit everything, but criminy, Violet’s not even dead yet.” Carolyn makes it her business to know what’s going on. She’s always around now, since she lost her job teaching computers to prisoners.
Last night after work, I come up the front walk and she times it to where I’m by her door when she opens up, her blue eyes wide with surprise. Her hair used to be permed, like mine, but she’s gotten to wearing a lazy ponytail and no makeup, not even liner, like it don’t matter no more. Hooking up with too many bad guys will do that to you. I’m only on my third and Jim ain’t so skanky, though I gotta say he ain’t Mister Perfect.
So Carolyn opens her door and she’s like, “Ella, I thought you were the daughters coming back. I heard them go out before. Those pirates!” She tugs at the oversized sweater—turquoise and thick as a rug—tugs it down over grass green leggings. Expensive, but she used to make good money. “Think of it,” she says. “They hijack mama, lock her up, and plunder her treasure. Thank God I’ve got no kids.”
“They put Violet there ’cause she fell,” I remind her. Carolyn can get a little carried away.
“But criminy, you said she was walking around okay.”
“Tell me about it, I been thinking of nothing else. So, yeah, she don’t remember if she ate dinner or what. Still, you don’t keep your ma in the nursing home for that.”
“Did you tell them?” Carolyn goes, like it’s all up to me.
“Don’t you remember? I told them. After they called Gary about Violet giving up the apartment.” He was so bummed he trekked all the way upstairs, which he only does to fix something that’s broken.
“You called collect?” Carolyn asks. I shake my head no and she goes, “That’s really ironic, with all their money—” Then I remember I actually called both the daughters from Violet’s. “What’d they say?” she asks.
We had this conversation already but sometimes Carolyn’s memory, it’s as bad as Violet’s, and she’s half her age, forty-something. Maybe it’s the meds—for depression and insomnia. I tell Carolyn what Bobbe said, that Woodlander’s the best nursing home in Seattle. “I shoulda said, Why don’t you two go live there if it’s so great? And eat the food. That’d be a good way to lose weight.”
Carolyn ain’t laughing. Her finger corkscrews her ponytail. “Criminy, they could put her in elder day care. They could have someone come in and cook her a nice dinner. There’s always frozen food boxes in Violet’s garbage. Did you tell them?”
“Did you tell them?” I shoot back. “I’m like the only one said anything. Gary’s too nice. No matter how loud Violet turned up her big T.V. he’d never complain.” Gary’s the manager here and he’s got AIDS. All he does now is watch his own ratty T.V. It’s teeny and the vertical hold ain’t holding. The situation’s pretty bad, so to lighten things up, I mimic how Rhoda talks, her voice sliding up and down, like a kindergarten teacher: “‘I appreciate your concern but we’ve made what we feel is the best decision for Mom.'”
Carolyn’s lips go crooked to one side. “Telling you to kiss-off. How can you even talk to the daughters now?”
“I gotta. Gary ain’t up to handling them.” I move to the door by the staircase and Carolyn moves with me. She don’t know how to let you go. “Pirates!” she screams up the stairwell, and makes with the cackle.
I’m not saying the daughters don’t have their pluses. Unless it’s some freaky luck got ’em those big summer houses on the water I seen pictures of. And good jobs in California, though I couldn’t say what exactly. “Health care professionals,” Violet said, like she was making fun. She hardly mentioned their hubbies. Usually they don’t come visiting with the daughters. Maybe they’re ashamed to be seen with them, being they’re so wide they fill up your average doorway. Still, they glide around very graceful. Violet was never big, more like a medium, but she walked real stiff and talked on the slow side, real careful. Not for being eighty-something but how she was.
The morning when I leave for work, Gary’s sweeping the pods that’s dropped from the locust trees. He’s getting real thin now but he’s still cute. He tips his head to the second story.
“Who’s getting the T.V.?” he says. “Maybe they’ll mud wrestle for it.” Gary who don’t think bad of nobody, except Carolyn minding everybody’s business, he says, “Never heard of making money before on someone you warehouse.” I’m about to ask how come but he says, “It’s a no-brainer, Ella. They get to keep her Social Security.” He explains it’s on account of her insurance pays for the nursing home and of course Violet don’t need no money where she’s at.
“I hope I die in my bed,” Gary says.
“I hope you do, too,” I say, and we hug each other. I can hardly stand it. First Violet and now Gary. They’re all the family I got.
Two days the daughters been at it. I seen the lights on late as midnight. Awesome, to sort through a whole lifetime. At least twenty-three-years’ worth, since Violet sold her house and moved into this place. I been here five.
I’m just putting away left-over spaghetti when the phone rings and it’s guess who. “This is Rhoda, downstairs. Is it okay to leave things outside the dumpster? It’s full.” Then she yells, “Bobbe, I want that! One moment, Ella.”
The first day they was here they called me about the phone numbers on Violet’s table. “Not her boyfriends’,” I said, ’cause I can never stop my smart mouth in time. One number was the newspaper’s I left out for her case she didn’t get it by six A.M. sharp. The others were the banks. I’m waiting for the daughters to ask if I know where Violet stashed the CD certificates. I could make a good guess ’cause I helped her send away once for these fake tomato soup cans that you hide your valuables in.
Then Rhoda’s back on the line. “Bobbe thinks she’s getting all of Mom’s jewelry.” Rhoda laughs. “So what’s with the dumpster—” I tell her if she’s already filled up the re-cycle there’s more bins near the side door.
“Re-cycle? Who has time? We’re only here till Monday.”
I don’t know what makes me say it. It’s out before I can stop myself. “I can help you sort the re-cycle stuff,” I tell ’em. “Then you’ll have more room.”
“I really appreciate it,” she says, not so cold like the last time she appreciated what I said.
Violet’s apartment’s one of the bigger ones here. Mine’s a studio. All the closet doors are open when I get down there. The drawers, too. Place looks like the FBI’s been combing for evidence. They’re professionals, the way they go through everything. The daughters, I mean. There’s no envelope they don’t open, no piece of paper they don’t look over before tossing. They say they gotta be careful, ’cause some of Violet’s AT&T stocks got in with the old receipts.
In real high voices they say, “Oh, here’s the letter she wrote to the editor that time,” or “Look, a letter to grandma.” The other one looks for a second, makes a Hmmp kinda noise through her nose and she tosses it. All those precious things Violet collected, and most of it going to the can. Pretty sad, huh? It makes you think. Because before they arrived I swore I wouldn’t look at ’em, not even to say hello. Then I see them putting dirty rags in with perfectly good cardboard and I just can’t stand it.
So here I am, sitting on the filthy carpet, sorting out the re-cycle from their garbage. The carpet got filthy when Violet’s eyes got bad and she couldn’t see the dirt no more. There’s stains from the coffee that sloshed over her itty-bitty cups, her hands being shaky and all.
After a while I figure out the bedroom stuff’s going to Sacramento. The other room, like an office where Violet wrote her checks until I had to keep them straight, that stuff’s going to San Diego—including Violet’s typewriter. In the living room’s the china closet with those old creamers they haven’t divvied up yet. And that 24″ T.V. A Japanese make. Only a year old. I helped Violet pick it out and we got her a remote with large buttons. She was really happy.
In the middle of the floor’s one humongous pile going to a second-hand store, near Bobbe or Rhoda, I’m not sure which. Every time they pull something out of a drawer one yells, “Hey, is this vintage?” and the other one says yes or no or, “Ella, what do you think?” And I tell ’em, “Oh that’s vintage. Definitely.” Or, “Who’s gonna buy that?” What’s funny is, I ain’t got a clue, but given where Violet’s at, what difference does it make?
After a while, they get to asking, “Ella, this something you might use?” Like I’m a re-cycle factory for chipped beer schooners or a dented ironing board. Not that I was expecting anything, though I’m the one checked on their mom practically every day for the last year. My own ma’s been dead a long time. My pop went last summer, just like that—his heart. Before I went to the funeral, which I’m still paying for, Violet hugged me for the first time. She isn’t the hugging kind. If you lean toward her, she backs up. I got the message pretty fast but she was always inviting me for tea and conversation. At the end she had a funny idea of conversation—it meant she did the talking and me the listening. But honestly, I didn’t mind.
So anything the daughters offer me that’s broken, I say, “Thanks but I got enough stuff.” Then they get the idea to drag what ain’t vintage or garbage to the lobby where they put up a sign: HELP YOURSELF. Carolyn and the other neighbors, they come out of their doors like roaches smelling food. Even Gary’s out there, pawing the pole lamp. He can’t decide on it. By the time I carry down the next load, half the first is gone, and the two guys from the basement ask me, “Anything good here, Ella?” Meanwhile they’re fingering the scarves and snow boots pretty thorough, believe me.
I don’t carry down the liquor, though, from the bar in Violet’s study. I thought it was a regular cabinet for papers until I see the daughters packing up the bottles. Then one says, “I just remembered, we can’t ship anything that’s been opened.” They turn to me. “Ella?”
I don’t see the harm. Violet’s never gonna drink none of it now and why shouldn’t it go to me as much as anyone? Still, I feel a little guilty when I say, “Okay.” To return the favor, I ask if they been to her banks, three of them. I know which ones. Turns out the daughters went on the first day they came up. They even went to an attorney, and the Internal Revenue. It’s disgusting in a way, but I kinda admire people who are determined. That’s like my worst fault, not being able to go for what I want.
Violet always knew what she wanted or didn’t want. She took hardly anything with her to Woodlander—a box I gave her with candy, only the candy’s gone now, and a picture album. Her little room’s just big enough for the single bed and dresser and a teensy closet so we sit in the lounge when I visit. The last time I see an envelope sticking out her pocket. “Who’s that from?” I ask. “I don’t remember,” she says. Turns out she didn’t even open it, a card from her niece’s daughter at college in Michigan. I’m reading the card to Violet when all of a sudden she screams, “Help me!
“What?” I say. “What?”
She starts this god-awful wail. “I gotta go. Right now!” she says.
Then I get it. “To the bathroom,” I say, and I help her down the hall to her room. The bathroom part’s got a sliding door so heavy she can’t move it, so it always stays open, I guess, but I want her to have some privacy so I slide it shut. A second later she’s hollering like she’s being tortured, like I’m the one who locked her up. Then wouldn’t you know it, I can’t get the door back open. “Hold on,” I call out. “I’m trying.” But she’s totally freaked, yelling her head off.
Some little Asian guy comes in finally and pulls the door open. And there she is, standing in front of the toilet, with her pants down to her ankles and her top not covering her privates with the little black hairs sticking out, like one of them cactuses. But this is what kills me, she keeps standing there like that, even after the guy smiles at me and says, “She your mama?”
I try to keep a different picture in my mind, like how together she used to be, real calm, and how she’d nod and say, “You can do it, Ella. I know you can.” And how we used to drink tea at her mahogany dining table, the one’s going to a grandkid.
Even though we sort through Violet’s stuff till after midnight, I set the alarm for eight. Saturdays, I usually sleep in till ten at least, unless Jim stays over. Carolyn usually sleeps in too, but when I take the magazines piled up the kazoo down to re-cycle at eight-thirty, she sticks her head out and grabs the ones going way back. “These are so valuable,” she says. “If you see any more—”
When the daughters go out for lunch, I check the dumpster for stuff that got tossed before I got involved. In the plastic bags there’s perfectly good envelopes, half-used rolls of Scotch tape, a dust pan, Band-Aids, Spic ‘n’ Span, scratch pads—you could open a Five and Dime. For now I stash it in my store room locker, ’cause it ain’t no one’s business what I re-cycle, right?
In the afternoon, I sort the stuff in Violet’s clothes closet. “Check the pockets,” the daughters say, so I check every one, in the flowery blouses, in the pants with them elastic waists, in the dresses I never seen her wear, except once. It makes me sad to touch Violet’s things. I don’t know why it don’t make the daughters sad, though. Besides lots of tissues, I find a penny, which I try to give them but they tell me to keep it for luck.
And then, guess what? I find a ring. At first I think it’s Five ‘n’ Dime junk but the daughters start screaming, “I don’t believe it!” They tell me they been looking all over for their mom’s engagement ring, which is news to me. Then one looks at the other real funny and I wonder if they thought I took it. Violet told me it got too loose on her finger so she put it away. I thought she put it in a phony soup can. Maybe she meant to and forgot.
I can’t wait to tell my honey Jim I found it, but then I realize I’ll never hear the end of it. Especially when the daughters don’t even say thank you. “Boy, it’s good you’re such a fanatic about re-cycle,” they say and get all giggly.
“Yeah,” I say, “I believe in re-cycling diamond rings.”
For some reason that makes us break up, and we look up and there’s Carolyn, with this expression on her face like, What’s going on? “I knocked,” she says, “but I guess you didn’t hear.” Her head does the big swivel, checking us out. I mean, it’s like a tornado hit, with cartons and stuff everywhere. Then Carolyn moves in on a black garbage bag laying open on its side. “You’re gonna throw that out?” She points to a plastic turntable, the kind you put spices on. The beige is scuzzy, faded and stained.
“It’s yours,” Bobbe says. The next thing we know, Carolyn practically dives into the bag and comes out with cookie cutters (she don’t bake) and an egg beater (I know for a fact she don’t cook). I guess when you see stuff for free, something comes over you.
After Carolyn goes downstairs to unload, Rhoda does this imitation of her, throwing herself into the bag, and I look with the wide eyes at Bobbe and say, ‘”You’re gonna throw that out?'” and we’re laughing so hard now, they’re holding their stomachs and I’m wiping away the tears.
That night, Bobbe and Rhoda ask me to join them for dinner. First I say no. It’s not just the money, but when they say, “Our treat,” I go, “Okay, but let me change my clothes, at least.” Which I’m glad I done ’cause the place is pretty fancy. There’s things on the menu I didn’t know people ate, like dandelion greens, and I learned me a new vegetable, jicama—it’s like turnip. Bobbe asks me to taste this weird corn meal sandwich with red peppers and a slivery kind of mushroom. “No thank you,” I say. Rhoda gets crab cakes, which I wish I ordered, only they’re nineteen fifty. Instead I get the thirteen-dollar chili, which is the spiciest thing I’ve ever had in my life and it’s all I can do to swallow.
Violet ate normal so far as I know. Before she stopped cooking, she used to fix pot roast and chicken and the best lentil soup. When I got my warehouse job, I took her to a Mongolian grill, all-you-can-eat, ’cause she helped build up my confidence to where I could go apply. At this grill you pick out meat or chicken that’s raw, and vegetables, and they sizzle them up for you real quick. Violet went for seconds and thirds. It was truly great. The only good thing I can say about Violet’s being in a nursing home is she’s getting hot meals, ’cause Violet loves to eat. That’s for sure.
“We’re gonna go see her in the morning,” Bobbe says. “I hope she knows who we are. There are some things we want to ask her—”
“What do you mean?” I say. “She’s not that bad.” I seen her three weeks ago. I’d go every week but without a car, the place is hard to get to by bus. She’s so far away, it’s like the daughters’ve taken her to California.
“Ella! I know you care, but face it, Mom’s gone downhill. She phoned me in Sacramento, five times in one night. Each time she said, ‘How’s the weather?’ She didn’t even remember talking to me the time before.”
“Yeah,” I admit, “she did that a lot, but—”
“She wasn’t eating right. Those frozen dinners, they’re not very nutritious,” Rhoda says. “I think the lack of vitamins made her memory worse.”
“I bought her vitamins plus,” I say, “but she said she didn’t need ’em.”
“Oh, I wondered where they came from. Uh oh. I already packed them.” Rhoda don’t say she’s sorry. She finishes her plate and goes for more bread sticks. Like she’s got Violet’s appetite.
“Yesterday she wanted to show us pictures of the trip she and Dad took to the forty-eight state capitals—” Bobbe rolls her eyes. “I bet you saw that album, how many times?”
“I don’t know.” Ten, twelve, I’m thinking. “If I’d try to remind her she already showed it, she acted so surprised, so I’d say, ‘The fox stole you wore, that was cool.'”
I don’t tell the daughters, the last time Violet wanted to show me the album—the day before she fell—I told her I seen it. She said, “My memory’s not so good anymore,” and she looked real depressed. I felt very bad. Maybe I should of pretended I never seen the album but I was so sick of it, see.
“Too bad she ain’t got her camera now,” I tell Bobbe. She looks at me like I’m nuts. “Like she’s on one more trip,” I say, but they don’t get it.
“She doesn’t always know she’s at Woodlander,” Bobbe says.
“I look at it as a blessing,” Rhoda says, “that she doesn’t know. They feed her, they keep her clean.”
“It’s not a life,” I say, my heart pounding ’cause I expect them to get pissed.
“She had a life,” Bobbe says. “Eighty-seven good years.”
Tonight’s the daughters’ last. The movers are coming tomorrow and they’re flying back to California. Everything’s cleaned out but the kitchen, and Bobbe says, “Ella, is there anything of Mother’s you’d like, anything special?”
What I really want is the typewriter, it’s gray with green keys. They’ve already got it in the San Diego pile, though. I used to hear Violet type on it when my windows were open in the summer. She was going to teach me but we never got around to it. I don’t have the nerve to say what I want, so I go, “A picture of her, when she was young.” I take one of her when she’s a baby, laying naked on her tummy and one where she’s got on a hat with a tall feather and this checkered suit. She was working downtown then, like me, only in an office, which is where I wanna wind up. “Thanks for the pix,” I say and try to look grateful.
At midnight Rhoda gives the rooms a once-over. “It’ll cost a fortune to move all this stuff. Do we really need the cast iron?” So that how I got me some cast iron pots and an electric hot tray (never used), and a vertical rotisserie. And this set of twenty books called the World’s Greatest Literature. I’m thinking they’d go good in the yard sale.
The kitchen’s still not done. The cabinets are crammed full of plastic bags, thousands maybe. And rubber bands and string. The re-cycle don’t take ’em so it’s all wasted, and for some reason that chokes me up. Then the daughters start clearing out the food, so I take the spaghetti and fruit cocktail, and eight frozen dinners. They’re shipping all the herbal tea to California.
“Soup, want some soup?” Bobbe asks. She stares when I don’t answer right away. There’s four cans of tomato soup, and I’m wondering if they’re real or the fake kind, but all I say is, “All right.” My heart’s going like thump thump when I run upstairs with it, in case they change their mind. I’m dying to know if my hunch is right but I don’t even shake the cans. I put the turkey and meat loaf dinners in the freezer and run down again to help.
At three-thirty A.M., Bobbe says she’s had it, she’s going to bed. She hugs me and says, “Thank you, I know you were a real friend to Mom.” Then Rhoda hugs me. “Mom lasted a lot longer outside the nursing home because of you,” she says. “I don’t know,” I say, “but she did a lot for me.” I don’t tell them she called me her “adopted daughter.”
Upstairs, I’m like half-dead. I pour myself some of Violet’s coffee liqueur which ain’t half bad, but it’ll never get me buzzed. Instead I start crying a little. Never mind that it’s the middle of the night, I call Jim, and he says, “What’re you bawling for? You gotta expect the expected.”
“I can’t help getting emotional,” I tell him. “Violet always encouraged me, like when I was going for the interview, saying I’m intelligent and a good worker—well, no one ever talked to me like that before.” It wasn’t a slap at him but it could’ve been. Then I tell him about wanting the typewriter. “If I learn to type I
could get me a better job.”
So what does Jim say? He says, “Don’t get your hopes up.” Then he says he’s got to get some shut-eye.
I’m curled up on the love seat when I get this flash of our getting married and having kids and never seeing California. Finally I make myself do it. I get the can opener and open the tomato soup. The first two cans are real, and I dump the soup into an empty yogurt carton. The third can, I hit bingo. There’s gold chains, and a diamond “V” on one of them, and men’s pocket watches and a pearl ring and one with a light blue stone that might be aquamarine. The fourth can has gold lockets and charms, ruby earrings, some locks of hair, which I figure is from the daughters.
It’s after four A.M. and I can’t just bop down, which I wish I could ’cause to tell the truth, I’m tempted. To keep the stuff, I mean. I make up my mind to stay awake, and while it gets light, I talk to myself back and forth: Keep the stuff. Don’t keep it. Violet won’t mind. Violet wanted it to go to the daughters.
The last time I saw Violet, I asked if she heard from them. “Where are they?” she asked. “California,” I said. Then she said something funny. “I just hope they get everything they want in life.” Her head was nodding like Parkinson’s. I could tell there was lots going on, inside.
Soon I hear water rushing through the pipes, so I know the daughters are up. I give ’em a chance to get dressed and I cut a swatch of my hair and mix it in the can. Then I go down and knock on the door.
“What are you doing up at this hour?” Bobbe asks.
“I was gonna make myself some soup when I went upstairs but look what I found in the cans.”
“Holy Toledo,” she says. “Rhoda! Rhoda!” she screams. Then they get really quiet, like they’ve sucked in all their oxygen. Bobbe holds up the aquamarine to the hallway light. “It’s real. It’s worth more than—” She sweeps her arm toward the living room. “And Mom, she refused to get insurance. Well, I’m speechless. I wish we could offer you something special.”
Be confident, I tell myself, which is what Violet used to say. “There is something,” I tell the daughters. I see this look on Bobbe’s face. Fear. I want to laugh but I don’t. Real calm I say, “The typewriter. She was going to teach me so I could learn to type and then I could learn the computer and then I could get a better job instead of working in the warehouse—” I see their jaws drop open but I don’t care. I keep right on. “I’d really like to have it.”
“Sure. Okay. You got it,” Rhoda says, spitting the words out, like they’re costing her.
I follow her into the living room and before I pick it up, I say, “Gary did a lot for your mom. He shopped for her every other day. He hung her drapes. He made her brownies. It’d be really nice if—”
“Sure, what do you think he’d like?” Bobbe says.
Go for it, I say to myself. “I think he’d like the T.V.,” I tell them. “His is dying. I mean, it ain’t gonna last as long as he is.”
Then Rhoda says a funny thing. She says, “I remember when you moved into this place. You were a mousy thing then. I mean, you’ve changed.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I know who to thank. Your mom, she was always building me up, complimenting me. I may even move to California now. I been thinking about it, seeing it’s the land of opportunity—”
The daughters look at each other. “Mom gave compliments?”
“Oh yeah, it made such a difference.”
Rhoda’s smiling funny, kinda sad-like. “I bet.”
I go upstairs again, lugging the typewriter, which is heavy, and my heart is like, bursting. Happy, sad, confused about what they said. I’m so excited for Gary I can’t sleep, so I wait till I think he might be up, then I go down and press my ear to his door. Another door opens. Carolyn’s. Hot pink leggings. A pink and Kelly green sweater. I’m thinking I should stop wearing such dull colors.
“What’s up?” she asks.
“Today’s the day,” I say. “The movers are coming soon.”
“Criminy. You sound so cheerful,” Carolyn says. “Like the daughters.”
“Yeah, you got it,” I say. “‘Cause in this moment, that’s where I’m at.”
* * * * *