Little Stranger
Excerpted from novel Enter This City
 

Walk me, stay. The words came into her mind that first day at Oak Park when she’d put herself in the dark supply closet. How embarrassing that was. When George found her there, she’d thought—stay!—as he opened the door. But he’d squeezed in and leaned over the back of the wheelchair and said, very gently, “You don’t want to live in here, do you Ma?” and she’d clamped her mouth shut and looked down at her hands on the rubber handles of the wheelchair. Nothing to be said to nothing.

Now on the days walking is difficult, CeCe’s mind taps and drags in rhythm with her feet, walk-me-stay-walk-me-stay, as she moves from bed to chair, from chair to hall, from hall to garden, from garden to lake. “A beautiful garden, a beautiful lake,” someone is always saying—a nurse, a physical therapist. Yes, beautiful, she nods, but in most cases doesn’t think enough of the speaker to reply. After all, she won’t be staying long at the residential outpost of Oak Park’s Institute for Clinical Research, even though it’s already been two months, even though they’d delivered and arranged far more of her furniture in her ground floor room than she’d expected necessary for an impermanent living situation. No, she won’t stay much longer. She won’t let them keep her. She is getting better. Walk me—at the oddest times, the plaint loops and insists upon her sanity (binding her to sanity, or rasping sanity from her, hard to say) and its sound is odd, too: the hush of a child standing on toes to whisper in her ear. Any pleasure she takes in the beautiful garden, the beautiful lake is overwhelmed by this trundling subvocalization that does and does not belong to her.

The sorrow of it is that the Astrasyn had been working. And then! To have so much of her progress clapped away by pneumonia. It’s the pneumonia has set her back. She’d been getting stronger and better. Three weeks on the drug and her limbs shook less. When she stepped, the pins and needles still rushed up her legs, but not as often and not as hot. A few times she felt the muscles of her legs connected one to the next. The fourth week on the drug her neck had uncoiled. Like magic, one morning she’d awoken and sat up and saw in the mirror that her head and neck rose straight out of her body like a new flower in a vase. And then, was it later that day, or the next? Then came the fever and she fell out of time and place. Fever, pushed her tumbling through the dark sky into that long nightmare where no one believed in what she feared and no one could reach her. She is recovering well, the doctor reminds her, reminded her just this morning. But she’s still weak. Breathless over nothing. George doesn’t even know. Doesn’t know, doesn’t care. 

Dr. Adams, who is now her primary physician—the dismal young resident evidently dispatched elsewhere—says her treatment is more or less back on course. But to have gathered this second illness to herself, to be moved by any passing current like a frail curtain—oh, how demoralizing. She wouldn’t have contracted pneumonia outside Oak Park, she is convinced. It’s the hospital bed and the doctors that are responsible for her needing the hospital bed and the doctors. When they visit her room, it takes a great rousing of deceitful gusto to hide how much she hates them, and as she listens and smiles, she can feel her bitterness shrinking and tightening her features into her head like bright screws. To be so agreeable fatigues the soul. And yet, as soon as they leave she wishes them back. Out the window—nothing of interest. It’s still morning. The nurse has already come and gone. The sky is undecided, the color of weak tea. It’s hot, not even close to lunchtime. She’s sitting at the round table where she now eats all her meals. There’s an outdated Time magazine in front of her, its pages thinned and fluttered. She’s read all of it already. First only the parts she was interested in, then the rest. She wishes she had a newspaper. “Today’s paper,” she says, and her voice being heard by no one in the empty room sounds strange and frightens her. No, she thinks. No, no. Self-pity is for the younger generation. For the younger generation there is self-pity and a sea of eight-cornered plastic devices. She will not feel sorry for herself. And she will forgive her daughter. It’s time. Patricia. Forgive her for moving so far away. She will write Patricia a letter. It will take courage. Forgive Patricia for living on the West Coast. For calling her only twice a year for twenty years and even now, sending that terrible gift of the stuffed sheep with the wimple and nothing else. Forgive Pat for not allowing her more time to get used to Lotta. Just a little more time. Lotta. Anyone would need a moment to adjust to that Brazilian giant with the sneakers and the men’s crew cut and the men’s thin, gold-wire glasses and the custom men’s dress shirts from London and the pretentiously outmoded black and white camera slung like a gun against her crushed and prodigious bosom. She will force herself to love Lotta. She will say to people: I love Lotta. Our dear Lotta is a very prominent architect! Patricia must be due to have the baby very soon. So old to be having a child. But! It’s the birth of a grandchild can mend a family. She’ll forgive Patricia and Patricia will forgive her. The Astrasyn will cure her and she’ll leave Oak Park, and once she is settled back at home—home, how she misses home—they’ll visit her and bring their new baby boy—it should be a boy. She hopes it’s a boy, because isn’t it livelier when lesbians have boys? Pat and Lotta and the boy will visit her all the time. And when they’re not visiting? There are so many books she hasn’t read. She’s never read Anna Karenina. She’s never read The Magic Mountain or Churchill’s letters to Clementine. Once, before they stopped speaking, Patricia told her to read Coetzee’s Disgrace. She hasn’t forgotten. She hasn’t read it, but she hasn’t forgotten. She’ll read in her garden by the sea. She’ll do some of the gardening herself. She’ll give Esme a raise. She’ll buy Esme a little house. Why not? Maybe she’ll give Esme George’s house, to teach him a lesson. She’ll take trips into New York to see her old friends and go to the theater.  Rejoin a board or two. She’ll take trips to the places she hasn’t been since she was a girl and trips to places she’s never been. She’s never been to Egypt. The corrections she will make. She’d like to take the Queen Mary across the ocean one last time, though she expects it’s not what it used to be, but rather a synthetically carpeted casino inhabited by the kind of tourist who wabbles about the deck clinging to his baseball hat and a sandwich, its stuffed lettuces flapping in the headwind. Yes, she’ll be open-minded. She is open-minded! When winter comes she’ll stay at home and have fires built in the living room. She’ll huddle the chairs around the fire. She recognizes now that the chairs, as she currently has them arranged, are too far away from each other. She’ll lean over a warm rum to listen with great appreciation to whomever is to be her company. She will, she will—she will stand by a tree in a snow-covered field, and she will set off across the field making a footprint, her hands thrust deep in the pockets of her coat. She’s not had the balance to walk with her hands the pockets of her coat in a very long time. She wants to let winter into her lungs. She wants to hear winter under her shoe and she wants to stand inside the bright made by the snow and not be dying and not be dead. 

She can’t bear to write Patricia just this moment. What she needs now, first, is to exercise. She gazes at her new walking stick. It leans beside the door. The gardener made it. He cut a branch not far from her window and made it smooth and level. Those first days she was recovering from the pneumonia (“we still haven’t connected with your son. Is there anyone else you’d like us to try?”) she’d discovered that the gardener had made it a part of his day to check on her by passing her window and waving. She suspects it’s because she’d asked him for help that one time. He seems to now feel a minor responsibility for her welfare now, as if somehow by doing her one favor he owes her another. She’s come into the habit of raising her hand up—hello—when he appears. Often she goes out into the garden to sit on the bench even when she’s tired, hoping he’ll be by. The other day she’d called to him from the bench, Where are you from? surprising herself. She’d learned he’s from Yemen. He’d told her he “has a son and a daughter, this high, and this high,” and that he flies back twice a year to see them.

“I also have a son and a daughter, this high, and this high,” she’d said, raising her twitchy hand as far as it would go above her head. He’d looked down at her then—right into her eyes and said, “I’ll make you a stick,” and the way her heart knocked it was almost as if she’d fallen in love.

She doesn’t see him out the window. A few days now she’s listened to them pruning the trees in the woods across the lake with a buzz saw, too far for her to walk. Nothing left but to go find Dotty. She gropes her way past the wheelchair, folded up and leaned against the wall. Not today! Today she’s steady, though she’s aware of its presence even when she doesn’t want it, like it’s a person waiting for her to make conversation. She rejects the walker, too, with its ironic horror that is the addition of bright green tennis balls to its feet. She takes the stick. Today’s a good day—she ejects herself into the hall. Is there anything in all the world more dreadful than a hospital’s hall? For some time there’s nothing on the walls but crenulated air vents and the bar to steady one’s hand. On her left she passes an open door from which she hears an unusual commotion, and as she hobbles by, she sees a large man with a sparse white beard flung on the wave of seizure. Someone inside the room closes the door and she’s alone again. She’s never seen that before. More closed doors—145, 147, 149, the numbers shuttling away from her for what seems an eternity, until she reaches the stupid little gym with the wall of glass. She waves to the two women who walk a steep incline on the treadmills behind the glass, who she’s seen walking there all the days before. She reaches the bulletin board where the activities sheets are posted along with the names of the physical therapists, their smiling photos, and one or two salient details—“Did you know Inez also plays the ukulele?”—pinned beside. Down, down, down the hall. It reminds her of the Advent calendars she’d keep on the mantel at Christmas when her children were young, for each time she takes her constitutional a different door is open, though instead of chocolates or angels an unfamiliar dilapidation is revealed. The ones still lumped under the sheets like gray octopi mid-morning—that can’t be good. An ashen and tatter-faced man shuffles towards her, escorting a mobile I.V. gingerly along the corridor, watching the rod and bag as if it’s a spirit companion he still can’t believe has chosen to walk the earth beside him. He doesn’t change his course, and she is obliged to step out of his way. Waterghosts is how she thinks of the I.V.s, and this is another unlikely and persistent phrase that loops her thoughts. She wonders how the mind’s underground stream—when the bucket is lowered, she’s no longer so sure what will be pulled back up. The man with the I.V. enters a door someone’s opened from the inside (she sees what must be a visitor’s pocketbook, hanging on a chair), and as he crosses the threshold, he guides the creature ahead of him with a look of both intimacy and awe.

Down to Dotty’s room.

“Come for a walk?” she asks.

“I’m tired.” Dotty says, a look of slurred contentment blanding her face. “Let’s play cards.”

And where does time go? For now it is a different day, another day, and they are still or again playing cards in Dotty’s room as if no time has passed, as if no other experience has intervened. The humidity’s climbed. In the distance is a shabby racket of thunder. As far as CeCe’s concerned, Dotty is excessively sensitive to heat and they are playing with the air conditioning on and the window closed. Dotty in the recliner. As they play, black-winged clouds roll high above the lake, churning inwards and bringing sideways sheets of rain. They are playing gin.

“And,” Dotty continues, moving on from an elaborate oral diagram of the politics and allegiances of her church back home. “God bore me without a dime’s respect for the knocking side of a closed door, and you know there’s no other way you and I would have become friends here, you hiding in your room like that, so unhealthy. Otto and I were in Mexico last year and this red spider, biggest you’ve ever seen, like a baby’s fist in the bed. I went straight through across the garden to the main house, we were in one of the guest houses, it was the dead of night and—”

“Your discard.”

“Oh, yes. Have you been to Mexico?”

“Once.”

“Then you know what I’m talking about. So beautiful!”

They have become friends, CeCe realizes, with a disagreeable twining of mortification and gratitude. It seems she’s always known the upcurved scrap of Dotty’s brow and the black puddle of Dotty’s little mouth opening and closing. How many times already have they double-caned it down the lawn to the water, CeCe stealthily scanning the landscape for her friend from Yemen, this woman like a small bundle of white rags flapping right along?

Dotty uses her good hand to pull a card from the fan she’s arranged in the waxwork of her stroke arm, and drops a two of spades.

“Yes, we have so much in common,” CeCe says. Better than talking to the wheelchair or the wall. Onward and upward. 

“Our friends, this couple we’ve known forever, they call us—my husband and me—Dotto because his name is Otto and my name is Dotty, all the way back from when there was Deano and Dingo and names like that going around in the popular—”

“A dingo is a dog,” CeCe says, not much paying attention. The gardener’s not outside. Dotty is saying that Otto is in charge of the Spanish language division of Greetmarktm Greeting Cards and would you believe it, the market’s bigger there than the English language division and she can get CeCe as many gift cards she wants for free, but in Spanish, and cucumbers are chilly even when they’re room temperature, and she’s hoping Otto will bring his famous chef salad tomorrow; she can’t get enough of it, and isn’t it great he’s doing such a good job cooking on his own while she’s away, and so sweet visiting her almost every other day. 

No gardener. The rain, of course. But the blimp that harasses her sanity is there, floating above the horizon in a bath of light, far beyond the storm. Floating as it does every weekend, she’s discovered, moseying a small circle for the day. The blimp is silver with a red circle containing a logo she can’t make out but has been told is the name of a brewing company inside a picture of a silver can of beer. She hates it. It hardly moves. Bull’s-eye, sky-cow, cow in the sky.   

“Isn’t that pretty there, from the football stadium. Watch your cards!”

Her fingers have slackened without her noticing. Her hand is trembling. Now that Dotty’s brought the situation to her attention she can feel the jerking sting that connects the tip of her index finger to the inside of her shoulder socket. The Jack, Queen, King of Diamonds she’d organized at the left corner of the fan loosen and slide over her shuddering thumb onto the table. She scoops them back up and switches hands. It’s awkward, like playing from inside a mirror.

“I don’t think there is a football stadium around here,” she says.

“Oh no? Let’s keep going, I’ll pretend I didn’t see. So, the spider—my Fernanda—that’s my honorary Mexican granddaughter—we do a house stay in Mexico every year because that’s where so many of the greeting cards go and we need to stay familiar, even the oldest traditions change a little here and there—she was in the Christmas pageant—two feet high and wearing a beard and a sheet and carrying an urn that was supposed to be holding the myrrh and it nearly toppled her each step she took to baby Jesus. They have a special day for the Three Kings in Mexico. The children leave their shoes out at night and find presents tucked into the toe in the morning. Otto’s done a whole line of cards called ‘What’s in your shoes piquenia?’  “Wouldn’t it be nice if we woke up one day here and had presents in our shoes?”

How is it that even in front of this prattling and vacuous woman she feels so very ashamed to have lost control of her hands? How can she endure another moment of this chatter—the chatter of her only companion, the chatter of her failing nervous system? Her head’s shaking now too, as if it’s decided to agree with Dotty’s adorable fantasy without deferring to the mind within—she’ll not have it.

“If I woke up here and there was a present in my shoe,” CeCe says, trying, and mostly succeeding, to keep the anger from her voice, “I would consider myself terrorized, and I would look for a way to commit suicide before the arrival of breakfast.” The trembling has ebbed. “Gin.”

“Well, will you look at that. When I get the shakes Otto calls me his hummingbird. Can you shuffle, d’you think?”

“Yes, I’ll try.”

“Otto and I were in Chiapas this past winter and we slept in a cabana in the jungle near Pelenque. The Mayan ruins? We needed a guide in there and the man we contracted, oh, no. He tried to get us interested in all his other kinds of tours, which, you will not believe this, were sex tours, nightclubs and services and some kind of interactive theater and various other—and I was beside myself, but we really were stuck with this man for three days; we couldn’t get along without him. But Otto and me, we always say he redeemed himself in the end, because on the last day he made us wait for hours under a dense part of the canopy near the waterfall you can stand under and not get wet because there’s a little cave, and we were so fed up with him we didn’t know where he’d gone, but then the giant hummingbird appeared. Incredible. Shiny and green and as big as your head. Oh, not really, but bigger than we’d ever seen. I got sick only a few months later, so the hummingbird was still fresh on our eyes, and dear Otto took to calling me hummingbird. Every other day he isn’t here I miss Otto passionately. It’s very strong. You know?” 

Maybe Dotty will die instead of me, she thinks.

“Do you think,” CeCe ventures cautiously, for they’ve never discussed it. “Do you think the Astrasyn is having any effect on us?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Dotty says. “How would I know?” And then to CeCe’s surprise, Dotty’s voice rises to a shout. “I can’t tell!” she cries, and chucks her cards onto the table. 

“I ask only because I’ve noticed you look much stronger lately,” CeCe says, quickly and untruthfully. “Much stronger. And more color, pinker.” She pats Dotty’s hand.

“Really?” Dotty asks.

“Really,” she says.

If Dotty dies it will be easier for her because Dotty believes in God and Dotty has a husband. God will hold her spirit and Otto will hold her hand.

They begin to talk about old habits they’ve given up.

CeCe says, “When I was a girl, I was an excellent swimmer.”

When she was very young, she’d had an instructor who wore a floral bathing cap and would tread water with a cigarette puffing out her mouth, all while holding an umbrella to keep the cancerous effects of the sun off her skin—an elegant and rakish feat of synchronization CeCe had much admired her. She remembers many Sundays dangling over the mica-speckled concrete lip of an aquamarine pool. If the instructor wasn’t present, there’d be a strange woman sitting uncomfortably in a maid’s costume on the edge of a deck chair, disobeying one rule (sitting) to obey another (watching this pale and imperious child). She remembers knowing it was all her fault, the strange woman’s discomfort, and this was too shameful to bear. So guilty she felt, she’d refuse to speak to or look at the woman in question.

“Or was I a poor swimmer? I can’t remember now.”

“I forget all kinds of things,” Dotty says. “But not like that.” 

She can see the mica spark and the dull starch of her caretaker’s hem and the lines on the bottom of the pool susurrating under the shifting chlorine. And she can see herself! Bobbing in a little blue cap. But it’s so far down the shuttle end of the telescope she can’t remember how the tiny amber filament of her old self might have performed the free stroke.

CeCe returns to her room and lies down on the bed. She’ll close her eyes for just a moment. She wants to be awake when they bring lunch. Just a few minutes—and. In her dream, she’s little Fernanda of Mexico and she’s also a nurse. She’s in a great hurry to get dressed for work. With a gathering desperation she searches the room for her white puffy nurse shoes—she will be fired by Dr. Milton if she is late for rounds one more time. She can’t make rounds barefoot and she won’t survive the pilgrimage to Jesus over the hot sand either. The shoes must go under her robes, her costume for the pageant. She is the King that carries the myrrh. She is sure she remembers setting them neatly beside the bed. They must be under the bed, under the bed, yes, she knows it. Carefully she bends and ducks her stiff old head through the hanging blankets, but the shoes are already gone. But they were there, she knows. And she’s not surprised to find the red sands of the great desert under the bed. She sets out across it, scouring the shimmering landscape for her shoes. The myrrh has a reddish brown sap that makes her hands sticky and drips onto her legs and her fired feet in the hot red sand, and for a flash her father’s hog gum trees are in the dream and she is his nurse, whispering some kind of filthy deal to him in the dark, then ushering little unsuspecting Fernanda into his room. The shoes must be in the closet. She rushes to the closet. They were there, but they are gone. God. She realizes. God is moving her shoes. God is playing a mean game with her, hiding them, moving them just as she’s about to—now on the windowsill, now buried in the red sand, now on a shelf too high for little Fernanda to reach. A naughty God. Delinquent bastard. What a jerk.

And then, like a gift from the past, her son. The Newest Wife is by his side. They’re leaning over her, calling her from sleep. She decides—she pretends she can’t be woken. She watches through her eyelashes as they bend upright and confer. “Go get someone,” Iris whispers. “She looks alright to me,” George says. “Why don’t we get some lunch and come back later?” From the side of her eye she watches as her son turns to leave the room, a grown man of entirely average appearance in khakis and a pink button down, not overweight but getting a little fat under the skin, liver-pale, a man of average height, with a high receding line of light hair caught in a travel-wisp. They must have driven with the windows rolled down before they hit the rain. How pleasant for them. George might as well be a stranger except that pigeoned, narrow walk he’s had from the very first, despite her corrections. And Iris, wearing something ugly.

“Wait!” CeCe says, “Stay here. I’m awake.” 

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