ALISHA MUGHAL - WHITE AFTERNOONS
Alisha Mughal has had stories appear in Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, Eunoia Review, and Noble / Gas Qtrly. She has a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Toronto. She currently resides and writes in Markham, Ontario.
“She’ll come today,” thought Bette Shivers as she placed her tall glass of lemonade, filled to the brim with more ice than ade, onto the seat of the porch swing, then eased herself down next to it, slow so as to not rock the swing, so as to not tip the glass over. Then, as soon as she had settled down with her back straight against the back of the swing, she remembered the napkin. She slowly took out from one of the two large square pockets on her oversized knit cardigan a white square of napkin and placed it under the glass, on top of the dark ring the glass had already sweated off onto the wooden seat. Pleased with herself finally, she looked out before her through squinting eyes onto the sprawling green of the yard beyond the veranda, drowned in and almost snuffed out by the white light of the blazing afternoon sun. The walkway etched into the lush green lawn and filled with white gravel, which she had always thought was a bad idea, was simply scintillating. Shadows there were few, save for those that lay pooled at the bases of the dogwood trees like extravagant, billowing gowns made of the night sky just shrugged off, and save for the one in which she sat sheltered – the white light streaming through the railing did not reach her where she sat poised as a sepulchre, leaving her alone and feeling cool, even in her knit cardigan – on the veranda. She felt breezy and clean and strong enough to weather the wait. The wait for her sister.
“She’ll come today,” thought Bette with a confident nod. “Joan absolutely will come today.”
When Joan had first showed up at Bette’s door that cold Monday morning in November – Nick had just left for work and Bette was busy clearing up the breakfast things – with her arms full of a brown and white Borzoi puppy, Bette was unsurprised. Taking one look at Joan, Bette knew exactly why she had come.
“Hi sis, you’re looking lovely” Joan said, her small eyes open wide and her lips parted in a broad I-love-you-so-much-will-you-help-me? grin. She shrugged a shrug that proffered up the yawning puppy at her bosom. “I just adopted him yesterday,” she said, the hyenic grin still plastered on her face, her eyes still widened as if her own act of acquisition surprised her.
Bette looked down at the puppy, at his deep almond eyes that looked like lychee seeds. He blinked once, twice, then yawned violently, exerting himself so much he made a little cry, then nestled his face into the interstice between Joan’s left arm and breast. Bette looked up at Joan’s face, at her eyes frozen in a look of pathetic supplication by that sycophantic grin.
“Listen,” Joan said, taking a step toward Bette, “I don’t have anyone to take care of him today and I can’t miss work. You know how my boss gets,” she said with a laugh. Bette crossed her arms and waited for it to come. “I was wondering,” Joan continued in a voice that had become slightly higher than before, had slipped so swiftly into that familiar solicitous lilt that Bette loathed. “Could you take care of him today?” She paused, then quickly added, “I promise it’ll just be for today – or,” she paused again, thinking, and then continued, “at least until I find some place that will take care of him.”
Bette looked down at the puppy again and knew that he would be hell to take care of. He would probably hate her, he would bite, and she would never be able to raise her voice high enough to catch his attention, or summon it confidently from the anxious uncertainty that had already begun to churn deep inside of her, like molten lava, at the prospect of taking care of something that was silent – those judgemental eyes! She knew she lacked the sternness to make him really listen to her commands. But she also knew that she had no choice but to acquiesce. Bette knew that Joan did not have anyone else she could leave the puppy with, and Joan of course could not leave work. Bette, looking at the puppy’s lively brown eyes, knew that she could not allow Joan to leave him in a cage all day. And so, having never before in her life taken care of a dog, she took the soft, warm creature into her arms. He smelled sweet and reminded her of warm milk. She took him inside while Joan brought all his things in; his toys, treats, blankets, poop bags.
“His name is Marx,” Joan said with her hands on her hips, standing above him lying on a cushion Bette had placed for him on the ground.
“As in Karl?” Bette asked, non-nonplussed. Joan had always accrued great pleasure from irritating the conservative sensibilities of the folk who made up their community – people striving to live out their lives in as quiet and frictionless a manner as possible, people for whom whatever was loud and strange was anathema. And so Joan loved to be loud and strange; she loved to puncture the poor folk’s facile and oftentimes myopic ideas of what is with tiny pins. Most all Bette’s neighbours would hear the name Marx and think of a raging, fiery monster.
Joan nodded egregiously with a mischievous shadow playing in her eyes. Bette asked her if she wanted some coffee, but Joan declined, saying she would pick some up on her way to the office. After giving Bette instructions for Marx’s care, instructions that she herself had received from the animal shelter, and handing her an abbreviated version on the shelter’s letterhead, Joan left Bette panicking internally with the sleeping Borzoi puppy at her feet. Bette sat down on the floor across from the puppy and waited.
And so it went on for two years: Joan would bring Marx over every weekday morning and leave him with Bette on her way to work. And Bette really had no choice but to take care of Marx all this time without a word of protest, for she had realized early on that this deed fell under an agreement that had been established tacitly between Joan and herself long ago. Bette would take care of Marx for as long as Joan needed her to; Bette would do whatever it was that Joan needed her to do for as long as Joan needed her to do it, for if Bette declined, if Bette complained, she would be punished by Joan, and Bette thought herself no longer capable of surviving Joan’s punishment: the silent treatment.
As they grew older, Bette found that she couldn’t do without speaking to Joan at least once a week. Joan knew her best, and would help her think through any problem, big or small. Bette needed to speak to Joan, and she had found that the best way to ensure that she could was to make herself as amenable as possible; she must never disagree with Joan. Of course Bette noticed right away when Joan’s appeals for assistance started to become more frequent and increasingly demanding of her. But Bette didn’t know what she would do now if confronted by Joan’s silence. So Bette always acquiesced.
Besides, this time Bette found that it wasn’t all that bad. She assimilated puppy care swiftly into her daily schedule. Nick would leave for work, she would clean up, then Joan would arrive with Marx. Bette mostly just left Marx on his own, except for when he needed to do his business, then she would let him out into the backyard, or, when he got a bit older, she would take him on walks. All other times Marx slept or played with his toys, and Bette found that she just needed to make sure he didn’t tear up her various cushions, or chew on the wooden legs of tables and chairs. She could get a decent amount of reading done in between maniacally screaming NO every time Marx began to squat in preparation of a poop and hauling him outside, and pulling him away from furniture legs he decided he wanted to consume. Bette had always been a very slow and obsessive reader, but because she now had less time for herself and had to keep one eye on Marx at all times, she found that she no longer lingered on every word. She was slightly relieved that she could no longer indulge her fear of having misread or skipped over a word by re-reading single sentences again and again.
And it wasn’t all chasing Marx around with breaks for reading in between. There would be times, right before Marx fell into a nap filled with gleeful dreams of running after balls and barking at birds, that would be precious. He would lie languidly on his back or side and dreamily lick whatever was nearest him – cushions, the carpet beneath him, a table’s or chair’s leg, or even Bette’s socked foot if she was sitting near enough to him, which she liked to do when he was sleepy. She would watch his tongue, thin and veiny as a leaf and pink as a camellia japonica, moving fervently and smoothly over surfaces with a certain fluidity, moulding itself to the contours of whatever it touched. She was mesmerised by his beautiful tongue whose quick movements she found melodic.
And Bette was deliriously happy to find that Marx, even though he seldom obeyed her, didn’t absolutely despise her, as she had expected he would. “After all,” she had thought, “he isn’t my dog.” But when she sat down on the floor, Marx would come into her lap and settle down for a nap between her legs. And these silent, warm moments she looked forward to with the rapture of a convict just granted pardon.
But there was a thought gnawing at this equanimity that Bette had wrought for herself during this time. She often found herself in a bad mood on the mornings before Joan showed up with Marx, a mood that she soon determined was a deep hatred toward Joan. Joan was not looking for a place that would take care of Marx, Bette figured this out after the first year. Joan simply expected that Bette would take care of Marx indefinitely. Bette sometimes thought with vitriolic sarcasm that she had gotten a free dog out of Joan. She hated her sister for taking her for granted and for leaving her uncertain as to when Marx would be taken away from her. But, of course, she couldn’t say anything, even if she sometimes wondered derisively why Joan got a dog if she didn’t have the time for him, and often muttered with a shake of her head that Joan didn’t deserve a dog.
Bette hated Joan moreover because of the way Marx would run away from her as soon as Joan rang the doorbell in the evenings. After taking care of Marx all day, he would run away from her as if she had never been there, as if he didn’t know her, and to Joan, whom he hardly saw. All day, every day with Bette, Marx would look forward to Joan. This all made Bette livid. This hatred that Bette felt toward Joan would come to her in waves, hot waves that washed over her like an arid wind on a scorching day that leaves one with nothing but dust-filled eyes and a sense of absolute desolation. She would stagnate in her hatred when it came over her. But when she would see Marx, when Marx would crawl into her lap for a nap, the hatred would ebb and she would feel blooming in her a brilliant love, a kind of love she had never before felt toward a living thing. But the hatred was ineradicable; like the sea it was always there, always ready to flow, even while she loved.
And so Bette wondered at her hatred and her love and how it could be that she could feel both so purely and intensely and almost simultaneously. This hatred that she felt alongside her glowing love made her feel dirty. She felt that her hatred sullied her love, stultified it. Bette felt the force of her hatred, she knew the nasty thoughts it drove her to, and all this made her love seem a travesty. “How can I love if I hate so ferociously?” wondered Bette. And so it was that, to make herself clean again, Bette struggled with herself every day to think only of Marx, she dove with the whole of her being into loving Marx and tried not to think too much of her sister.
And it started to work, this not thinking about her sister. Bette focused her energy on taking care of Marx and she began to feel herself getting her equanimity back. That is, until Joan stopped bringing Marx over. She called Bette one Saturday morning to tell her that she had moved in with a boyfriend and had found a doggy daycare that was closer to her and less out of the way for her than Bette’s home. Joan would not need Bette’s help anymore. And Bette was okay with this – that Joan had found someone else to look after Marx during the day was absolutely fine. Bette was glad to have her days to herself again. What did not sit well with Bette, however, was that Joan had not thanked her. For two years Bette had done the right thing for Joan, but then, when she didn’t need Bette anymore, she took Marx away, without even thanking Bette. Bette just wanted Joan to come over and say “Thank you.”
“And she will come,” Bette said to herself with a doleful nod, taking a sip of lemonade and squinting into the distance. “She’ll come today. She’ll come and she’ll thank me.”
When they were kids, Bette would sometimes disagree with Joan. The intricacies of a game, certain rules, were hotly debated. Every time that Bette disagreed with Joan, or told Joan that she was wrong about something, Joan would stop talking to Bette. In the beginning, the silent treatment would last until dinnertime, but then it got to be that Joan would spend whole days not talking to Bette. Then, when Joan was thirteen and Bette fourteen, Bette found Joan with cigarettes. Joan had implored Bette to not tell their parents, whom they both knew would deliver a punishment whose severity would unfairly outweigh Joan’s crime’s badness. Bette did not agree, she told Joan straight away that she couldn’t keep such a grievous secret. Joan didn’t speak to Bette then, she didn’t speak to Bette for two months, two long months that Bette knew Joan spent with bated breath waiting for the punishment to befall her, and two interminable months that Bette spent in agony without her sister to talk to.
But Bette didn’t end up telling. She couldn’t find the courage in herself to go to her parents, whom her imagination conjured up as two darkly-cloaked figures looming above her with their arms behind their backs, mouths turned down at the corners, brows furrowed, and eyes staring at her dry and forbidding as the Sahara.
Then one night, lying in her bed teetering precariously on that unbearable precipice above the calm blackness of sleep, she heard bare feet slapping on the asphalt outside, running, then creeping through the house and up toward her room. Joan peaked her head in, whispered Bette’s name, then came into the room, closing the door noiselessly behind her.
“I just wanted to thank you for not telling on me, and to tell you that you were right about the cigarettes. I knew you were right, but I just didn’t want to listen to you. But now I know, and I’m never going to touch them again.” Joan, sweating and out of breath, her face streaked with dirt and tears, had come to thank Bette. Joan had come of herself, of her own volition, to thank Bette for this right thing that Bette had done for her.
Bette did not ask Joan what had happened, she was just glad that Joan was speaking to her again and that Joan had thanked her. That night Bette slept better than a freshly-bathed baby wrapped in clean linen, sleeping a milky sleep in the embrace of her mother sat next to a crackling fire on a snowy, silent night.
Joan had taken two months but she had, in the end, eventually, thanked Bette. And Bette was certain that now, too, Joan would realize that she had done right by her for two long years, and would come to thank her for taking care of Marx.
Bette downed the remainder of her watery lemonade and placed the clinking glass on the now translucent napkin next to her on the porch swing. Her gaze was focused on the far end of the gravel path, on the hazy figure slowly growing, coming forward with something colourful in its hands. As the figure drew closer it coalesced into the shape of a woman, and Bette saw that what she carried was a bouquet of pink and white lilies – Bette’s favourite flower.
“Joan, is that you?” mumbled Bette. Her throat was dry and she was swallowing hard against the sob that threatened to break through and bring with it the inevitable deluge of tears. But it couldn’t be Joan. This woman approaching had red hair. Joan had always had black hair. “Maybe she had it coloured?” wondered Bette. Then she shook her head. It wasn’t Joan, saw Bette. It wasn’t Joan at all. As the woman climbed the steps to the veranda and smiled at her, Bette looked away, fixing her eyes back onto the far end of the white shimmering pathway, waiting for Joan to come.
As Zara Diaz came out the front door and onto the veranda of Pleasant Pastures Home for Seniors, she looked to her right and saw that Mrs. Shivers was still sitting on the porch swing with her glass of melting ice cubes and her eyes fixed onto some point in the distance straight before her. Her mouth twitched every now and then, and she desultorily let out a grumble or a hum, nodded or shook her head.
Zara smiled at Mrs. Shivers but again received no response. She looked down and left the old woman in what she had learned from her mother was Mrs. Shivers’s usual spot. Zara’s mother was Mrs. Shivers’s neighbour at Pleasant Pastures and had told Zara her story, which she had learned through an acquaintance formed when Mrs. Shivers first arrived at the home. But the acquaintance dissolved gradually as Mrs. Shivers crept further into her mind and seemed more and more preoccupied with some thought, seemed always, sitting in a corner with a tall glass of ice and lemonade, to be trying to figure something out or to remember something with eyebrows furrowed. Sometimes at the end of the day and after a long while of thinking she seemed, slapping her hand onto her thigh, triumphant, grinning with a new-found and arduously-earned conviction in a certain idea, in the way a detective might after discovering the piece of evidence that would connect the frayed elements of the crime.
“The poor old woman,” Zara thought every time she saw Mrs. Shivers. Her husband had died of a heart attack about ten years ago and they had had no children. When she had become so ill she couldn’t take care of herself, her sister had taken her into custody and had devoted her life to caring for her. Mrs. Shivers had been left at the home by her sister about three years ago. It had only been a temporary thing, just until the sister and her husband returned from their summer tour of Europe. But their plane crashed and they did not survive, and Mrs. Shivers was left at the home – she had nowhere else to go. Zara’s mother said that Mrs. Shivers hardly ever spoke coherently anymore, and when she did it would always be about Marx. Most all the other residents left her alone, fearing her on account of her communism.
Based off what her mother had told her, Zara felt deeply sorry for Mrs. Shivers, left all alone in the world. As she made the laborious journey down the gravel walkway that she hated no end, her eyes watering in the luminous, sizzling light of the white afternoon, she resolved that the next time she came to visit her mother she would bring some flowers for Mrs. Shivers, too. And this idea made Zara feel proud of herself.
“I bet Mrs. Shivers would like that very much,” she mused, her mind already moving on to the prospect of getting back home and to her dog Theo. “Theo would be itching for a walk,” she thought. “He’d have so much fun playing in this bright afternoon.”
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