Jenifer Rowe grew up in northern Wisconsin, about an hour’s drive from her grandparents’ small dairy farm. She holds a degree in biology from the University of California – Berkeley. These days she devotes her time to writing stories, riding horses, and teaching English as a Second Language. She is a board member of the California Writers Club – Sacramento Branch, which has supported and encouraged writers for 109 years. She lives in El Dorado Hills, California with her partner and their two dogs.
ONE LAST TIME
Mama left the house to her, and left me as her caretaker. She had it all worked out, and I never even thought to complain, nor would I. They always did fawn over her, Ma and Pap both. “Oh, that Astrid, ain’t she pretty, and no one so good at the games. Why, poor Jean is just plain lucky to be her sister,” they said, and I reckoned I was.
I still remember the day she was born, in the back bedroom with the windows all closed up against the heat. Aunt Hilda was there to help, and she sent me off to the kitchen. Ma had been crying out, but then she stopped and it got real quiet. I was watching a fly crawl toward my hand on the kitchen table, and I hoped to smite it when it got close enough, just like the Hand of God they talked about at Sunday school. But you had to be real quiet and still in order to catch a fly, so when the baby cried out and made me jump, it flew away. I was peeved, but only for a minute. I ran to the bedroom door, asking could I come in and see the baby, but Aunt Hilda jerked up my arm and pulled me away. “You need to mind yourself from now on,” she hissed at me.
After that Ma was puny all the time and took lots of naps. Pap said, “She’ll get over it,” but she just stayed that way forever, it seemed. Some days she was almost her old self, but other times she stayed in bed with the shades drawn. I learned how to cook by running back and forth from Ma’s bedroom to the stove, following her directions one step at a time until the meal was done. As the eldest, I was in charge.
Astrid grew up more athletic than I ever was, and she always brought the ribbons she won at school straight in to show Mama, proud as she could be. Such a fuss our Ma made over those ribbons! “Reminds me of my own school days,” she’d say. My papers never caused so much stir, no matter how good the grade. Pap seemed pleased with my exams, but he didn’t say much. He didn’t like to even appear as though he disagreed with Ma.
Of course, we each had our own friends in those early days. Never mind that it seemed Astrid was invited to every party; I was happier to stay home and help with things. I like to feel that I was appreciated for my contributions. Pap certainly seemed to be grateful for my efforts. He had all he could do in the fields, what with how hard it was to keep hired men on. He came in through the woodshed door at the end of each day looking like Adam molded from clay, with just his eyes showing white out of the dust that coated him.
So I kept to myself a lot, though one boy did catch my eye at last. Oh! Frankie Sorenson. I was top grade in my class, but he was right behind me, anyone could see how clever he was. Not slow and stumbling like the rest of the farm boys. We were always the last two standing in the history face-offs. I was sure he admired me for my talent, though he never said so.
Astrid was taken with horses, it was all she talked about. She got a job mucking out the stables at that fancy Greenwald place every day after school. They didn’t pay her much, but they allowed her to ride her favorite horse Cyclone. She would practice jumping with him every chance she got. She should have been home helping with our own animals, is what I thought, not leaving it all for poor Pap. But he never complained, not once.
Life went on well enough until the serious dry years came, when no matter how hard a person worked, it seemed nothing would grow and the cows wouldn’t give. Pap couldn’t keep a man on board, and so we girls had to help in the fields. By that time, Astrid and I had had all the schooling we were going to get. We still had hopes of finding husbands, though, and so did not like working in the hot sun all day, which browned our skin and roughened our hands. Astrid would duck inside whenever she could get away with it, claiming that Ma needed her. That’s how it came to be that I was the only one out in the fields with Pap that day he collapsed. I can’t see how Ma always blamed me, saying I didn’t do enough to help him. He was gone by the time I got to him.
Anyway, after that Ma seemed to grow worse, not coming out of her room at all some days. One day she wouldn’t even sit up, and she just waved away whatever food or drink we brought her. Only Astrid could get her to open her eyes and smile a bit. When I came to her with a damp cloth for her forehead, she just turned her head and sighed. That was surely a bad time, but I took care of her as best I could from then on.
On the day that Astrid fell, she’d been outside showing off, just like she always did when there was a young man around. I was busy sponging Ma when I heard my sister tell Frankie Sorenson (yes, he and none other), “Watch me, Frankie, I’m gonna jump the fence.” I glanced out the bedroom window to catch sight of him, as it had been so long. Well, he looked at her so admiring it made me want to spit. Off she took astride our mare Nella, rounding the paddock twice before coming up on the fence. The horse didn’t clear it, of course, I could have told her that old nag didn’t have the legs for it. But she didn’t ask me, and she wouldn’t have listened anyways. Not to me, no sir.
The house was filled up for a while afterwards, with Dr. Torvald coming and going, and all the church ladies bringing every kind of covered dishes. To this day the smell of cooked cabbage makes me sick. When the doctor said Astrid wouldn’t walk again, Ma let out a scream like a rabbit caught in a snare. I was the one had to shoot the horse.
I tried to be understanding, but my sister brought it on herself, and I feel bad saying so, but there it is. I took care of the both of them until Ma finally died. We’d rented out the fields and sold the cows soon after Pap died, and Ma had some money in a trust from her father, so the little bit that we had coming in did for us.
And so it’s just been Astrid and me for such a long time. Each morning I get her up, see to her washing and dressing, and sit her comfortably in her wheelchair. I push her to the breakfast table in silence (for whatever is there to say, after so many days the same?) and watch as her face falls at the sight of the stewed prunes and oatmeal I have laid out for her yet again. “Oh Jean,” she said yesterday, “wouldn’t it be nice for us to share an apple strudel some morning?” I didn’t even answer. I have enough to do day in and day out, I don‘t need to add baking to the list.
So this morning she looks at me and asks, “Can we go into town to play bingo at the church tonight?” Well, you know, I would love to get out some myself, and at first that strikes me as a fine idea. Then after I think on it for a while, I see that it wouldn’t be so smart to stir her blood up like that. Why, she might get overexcited, and then I’d just have my hands full putting her to bed again. It wouldn’t be good for her, anyone can see that. And of course, I owe it to Mama to do what is right for my sister. I’m the one she left to be in charge.
When I explain to Astrid that an evening of bingo simply is not possible, she stares straight at me with a queer expression. I don‘t know what to make of that look, I surely do not. Don’t I always wish the best for her? Haven’t I spent my whole adult life doing everything only for her? I wheel her to the front window in the morning; I wheel her to the back porch when the afternoon sun is too strong. I cover her lap with a robe when the evening chill sets in. What more could she want of me?
Well, today she tells me. “Take me upstairs,” she says, “and set me in my chair there.”
“Astrid,” says I, “you’re asking me to carry you in my arms up a full flight of stairs.” She just nods once with her mouth set in a tight line. I think it is rather much of her to ask, but I have never denied my sister anything, you can just ask anyone. So I settle her on the divan and up I go with the chair first, awkward as it is, and then I come back and gather her in my arms as softly and carefully as holding ripe peaches.
“Jean,” she says, “I haven’t been upstairs since I was fifteen years old.” I trudge up the stairs with her, and at the top I settle her in her wheelchair and turn to go. I swear that’s how it all happened. As God is my witness, I never thought what she would do next.
“Damn that woman, where’s the milk?” Norman slammed the refrigerator door in disgust, rattling the bottles inside. His robe flapped around his bare calves like flags in a breeze. “Can’t leave a man in peace,” he muttered. “Always sticking her nose in my business.”
Norman didn’t like his cleaning lady one bit. She was querulous and bossy, and her stern face matched her personality. Her name was Esther Something-or-other, no family he’d ever heard of before, and she came around every Tuesday morning at the insistence of his daughters. Norman figured he was just fine without her, but his stubborn daughters maintained that he needed some help around the house since Marie had passed on. Though he didn’t see why – so what if he let the milk spoil once in a while? True, he couldn’t read the expiration date too well any more, but was that going to kill him? And he could still handle a broom for himself, thank you very much.
His daughter Ginny had asked him why he minded a weekly cleaning so much, but the thing Norman hated most about Esther was how she put on airs. She was a constant, painful reminder of his advancing age. “I am not just your cleaning lady, I am also your caretaker,” she told him with a tight smile. Oh, boy. Just what exactly did that mean? Did she have the right to rummage through his dresser drawers, re-hang the wrinkled shirts in his closet, throw out what she thought had become dated in his refrigerator? He bristled at the thought.
So here it was, Wednesday morning and no milk, all because of her taking liberties with his household. Now he’d have to drink his coffee black while he read the morning paper. He tied his bathrobe tightly around him and opened the front door to a sight that caused him to draw in his breath.
The world greeted him with the glistening aftermath of an ice storm that had silently coated his world with beautiful hazards while he slept undisturbed. Every twig on every bare tree was transformed. The crystalline landscape sent him back instantly to an early spring day in college when classes had closed because of just such a storm. He’d spent the day in the student union at the bottom of Bascom Hill, shooting pool with his buddies and flirting with the girl at the coffee counter. Marie. She had laughed charmingly when he lied that he was the most popular man on campus. She captured him with her curly black hair and snapping eyes, and he felt like a special holiday had been declared just for them.
After that icy day, he began to call on Marie regularly. She was studying literature, which Norman thought was a waste of time, though he didn’t say so. For him, facts were what mattered. Engineering was a good solid field where a man could accomplish something. He had no use for philosophy or religion or make-believe stories. But he liked pretty girls, especially the ones who paid attention to him. And he was a gentleman, or so he declared himself. His father had told him often enough that if a man once loses his honor, he’ll never get it back. He treated Marie like she was royalty, then and always.
Smiling at the memory, he climbed back up the front steps with the paper tucked under his arm, looking forward to reading it with the aid of a magnifying glass. He was unaware of the piece of ice that clung to the bottom of his bedroom slipper, nestled secretly under his heel. As he shut the door behind him and turned to make his way to the kitchen, his foot went out beneath him and he landed in a peculiarly bent posture on the hardwood floor. He heard a loud crack. Well, aren’t you the clumsy fool, he thought as he tried to sit up. He grunted as he strained, but he could only raise his head a little off the floor.
He looked over to where the telephone sat on a desk ten feet away. Okay, he’d crawl to the phone and call for help. Simple enough. Trouble was, he couldn’t flip over. At that moment, the phone began to ring. Lying on his side, Norman drew his legs up as close to his waist as he could and tried to turn over onto his stomach with his knees under him. Nothing happened. He set his jaw and tried to push with his arms to right himself. The phone rang on. Norman lay flapping as uselessly as a trout reeled into a boat. When the phone finally stopped ringing, he relaxed his arms, sighing with a mixture of relief and frustration.
His daughters had worried about just such a thing. What if you fall, they’d asked. Who’s going to check on you? For sure it wouldn’t be either of them, living on opposite coasts with husbands, careers and children to occupy their time. It took a whole day for either of them to get here. Not what he and Marie had anticipated – the family had been close back when they were growing up, with Sunday dinners at the grandparents’ and weekend camping trips. It was still a puzzle to him how those girls could prefer to live so far away. They claimed that Wisconsin was too “provincial,” whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. Boring, was what he figured they were really saying.
Norman, you have got to get up, he told himself with clenched fists. If he didn’t get himself out of this scrape, they’d send him off to assisted-living. He had fought tooth and nail not to be packed off with all those fossils and their walkers. He couldn’t stand bingo, and he’d die of boredom. Then they’d all be sorry, for sure. Give him a Friday night at the Silver Lake Tavern instead, eating fish and drinking beer and hobnobbing with whoever came in the door. He still had his driver’s license, after all - thanks in no small part to his good buddy Dr. Bob, who’d told the sheriff that old Norm could see well enough behind the wheel.
He lay on the floor, trying to think what he ought to do. As the morning wore on, he was conscious of being thirsty, and yet he peed himself twice. The pain had grown in magnitude like a piano crescendo, causing him to vomit what little his pre-breakfast stomach held, and by now it was fully in charge. The pain was a predator gnawing at him with sharp teeth until finally he passed out. He partially regained consciousness from time to time, thinking once that he saw Marie tsk-tsk-ing about the mess on the floor. She had always taken such good care of things, never a hair out of place. He felt apologetic and tried to say so, but it was too hard and he lost the will.
She had been brighter than he was, though he would never have admitted it. Nor would she have claimed it, as good as she was about keeping the peace between them. Lately he’d been thinking how much she really was capable of doing. She’d raised their daughters with little help from him, sewing their clothes when times were tight, feeding them from the vegetable garden whose harvest she canned, even making the quilts on their beds with scraps from worn-out school dresses. And always she wrote – in secret, she thought, but he knew. She probably feared that he would laugh at her, so she kept her stories tucked away in the back of her closet. It was only after she was gone that he dared to read some of them.
The morning that Marie couldn’t remember how to make the coffee had been the beginning of the end. He knew it in that moment. She’d begun to cry when she realized the enormity of it, and as he folded her into his arms, he felt that his knees might buckle if he didn’t hold onto her. The idea of losing this bright, capable woman bit by bit, while she still stood before him, was an injustice that made him scream inwardly with rage. He had stayed alive all this time since, expressly so he could see her to the end. And he did.
Marie slowly faded from view. Had she been there? Norman didn’t know for sure. He was motionless, rooted to the spot and suspended in time, as day slowly turned to dusk. Dying now wouldn’t be so bad, he thought. He was no longer feeling too much pain, and it wouldn’t be hard to just drift off. He didn’t have much to go on for anymore without Marie, he knew that well. Just more loneliness and frailty, nothing really worth fighting for.
The putrid pool that he lay in reached his senses at least once upon regaining consciousness. “My God, do I stink,” he thought. During one such resurrection, he remembered the First Responder bracelet that he wore. Yet another indignity foisted on him by his worrying daughters. Part of him hated to do it, but he really did not want to be found dead in a puddle of piss and vomit, and so he pressed the button that sent a silent alert off to whoever watched for such things. Then he slipped away again into blessed unconsciousness.
When he swam out of his fog one last time, he saw Esther’s sober face peering down at him. She began issuing directives to the paramedics, who scraped him up off the floor and onto a gurney. He felt a wave of resentment tinged with approval that as soon as she had sent him on his way, she’d turn to cleaning the place up. Soon it would be as tidy as a motel room, and just about as welcoming. He could almost smell the disinfectant.