Read an Excerpt
from Part One
Like their father, Anna Robison's three daughters loved to remember. They were around most of each day now that Ike was sick, and sometimes Anna thought of them as sort of a committee, hammering out an agreed upon version of their common history. Except that they rarely agreed. Their stories varied widely in the most basic details, and none of the three could be convinced of anything. As Anna put down the butter dish and surveyed the table (ivory plates, mats she'd crocheted herself, ice-filled water glasses), the discussion jangled around her.
"It wasn't that way at all," caroled Helen, the eldest, the blondest, the one who had inherited Ike's stature and commanding manner, bringing salad from the kitchen. I met him at a USO dance, and two weeks later he introduced Claire and Geo. I remember it distinctly!" Cutting across contradiction, she continued, "Are we ready, Mother? It's a shame that Christine..."
Christine, Helen's daughter, was due to arrive from Chicago at any minute.
Claire, the second child and Helen's lifelong challenger, seemed by contrast normally brownhaired, conventionally hazel-eyed. She pulled out her chair with an air of immovable conviction.
"He married Vida Deacon. Don't you remember her, Claire?" Helen sat down in her own place, on the other side of the table.
"I knew Geo for three weeks before that USO dance, Helen. I met him through Dennis Somebody, that fellow whose plane got shot down the last day of the war."
"Claire! You're wrong!" Helen lifted her hands and pitched her voice high in the I-won't-say-another-word range. That Geo had been Claire's husband for twenty-five years, which somehow certified her version of the meeting, was not alluded to. To Susanna, the youngest, Anna passed scalloped potatoes. Susanna, who was a little overweight, received them reverently, then said, "Remember Daddy used to say that that guy had the biggest feet and the smallest chin in six counties?"
"Bobby had a perfectly normal chin," said Helen. "You're thinking of Bob Lowe, who had those freckles too. Even on his eyelids." These Anna could recall. In the folds of his ears as well. Bob Lowe was the most freckled person Anna ever knew. Ike had turned so many of the incidents in Anna's life into tales that usually she tried to avoid recollection, but fragments, like the fall of light or the shape of someone's cheek, often occurred to her, as Bob Lowe, freckled into the very eaves of his ears, did now.
"Is that Daddy?" said Claire.
The women at the table hushed, their forks suspended in air and their eyebrows lifted, but no call came again.
"Mother, you really..."
Anna stared doggedly at her plate. Claire and Susanna were at her about this ten times a day wouldn't she please move Ike into the living room or the dining room. But Anna would not, and dared not mention the idea to Ike. Such an illness, an illness that meant displacement of furniture and attention to the minutiae of her daily routine, was sure to be a final illness. Silence fell around the table again, not a listening silence, but a worried one.
"Do you know that story about Uncle Abel and the bull, Mother? Christine spoke of it over the phone the other night, and I didn't recall it all exactly." Of all her daughters, Anna thought Helen had the only interesting voice, musical but with a hollow quality that made it both strong and fragile. Although her clear, effortless tones were always cheering and alluring, they were never convincing. She sat in an upright, perching posture, and her eyes or hands often strayed after the cigarettes she had given up five years before. Anna wondered if she realized this habit.
"I do," said Susanna. "Daddy told me himself. You were living on the ranch, weren't you, Mother?"
Anna nodded. And the lupines were in bloom. They spread in a great azure triangle behind the house, stiff, coneshaped, vibrating against the green of the back paddock.
Susanna went on. "Uncle Abel was castrating a bull that he'd tied to the fence post."
"I can't believe he just tied the animal to a fence post, Susanna," said Claire.
A quick snip, Abel always said. He was a huge and terribly impatient man who wouldn't have the vet, or even the neighbors, on the ranch to help. Anna nodded.
"It's true," declared Susanna. "That's how it started to get loose. It was tossing its head and the loop in the rope fell out, and Uncle Abel looked up and saw the bull with its head turned, peering at him."
Anna had sometimes wondered if Abel had been afraid or merely angry. He had such a large head and gruff manner that she could never imagine him afraid, only transported into a higher degree of fury.
"Then it started to bellow."
"Yes," said Anna. Desperate bellowing that the Big Horns to the west threw back at them.
"Daddy was coming out the door. He saw what was happening, grabbed the ax from the chopping block, and flung it across the backyard, and struck the bull exactly between the ears. Dropped it in its tracks."
"Hatchet," said Anna. "It was the hatchet."
"Daddy said ax. Anyway, then he said, 'First and ten.'"
"He did say something funny. I can't remember what it was."
Anna had followed him out of the house, Helen in her arms. June colors in the mountains, especially vivid in the silence that followed the death of the bull. The animal lay in a black heap, on the ground, his bide still glistening with health, and Abel stood behind, the shears dangling from one hand, his mouth agape, red blood across the indigo front of his new overalls. And blood covered the bead of the bull like a bandanna trailing in the dust. Helen had said her newest word, "Bye? Bye-bye?"
This time they all heard it "Mother! Mother!" in a thin, demanding voice. "I'll go, " said Claire. She scraped her chair back and threw her napkin on the table. Ike would not be glad to see her, Anna knew. He preferred to keep his illness private between husband and wife. Her calves hurt so, though, and her heels too, that she welcomed a few moments of preparation. If Ike really wanted something, he would want it from her alone. Anna and the others ate without speaking until Claire returned. Sure enough. "He wouldn't tell me," she reported. "He just said, 'Where's Mother?'"
"He generally does." Anna could not suppress a small scowl. In spite of Helen, Claire, and Susanna, she felt tired to death by dinner every evening. The staircase creaked under her weight, and she pulled herself up the last two or three steps with the bannister. He was already calling out, "Mother? Mother?"
"Yes Ike?" It was only since the onset of these latest problems that she'd begun to feel comfortable with his given name again. For most of their married lives they'd addressed each other as the children did. Sometimes, recently, he too called her Anna. Maybe it was a bad sign. He'd put on a shirt, and was now propped against the wall at the head of the bed, fingering Winesburg, Ohio. He loved Winesburg, Ohio. He looked at her without speaking, waiting for her to ask him if he needed to go to the bathroom. She did not want to ask, but did anyway. He nodded. It annoyed her that after all these years he couldn't bring himself to speak of going to the bathroom. In the hospital, the nurses had had a terrible time with him, and finally had to give in. He would use a bedpan only when Anna was there to help him. She didn't see how he could tolerate the discomfort, but it was something she could not ask about. He threw off the covers and pivoted his feet to the floor and his slippers. "Is Christine here yet?"
"It's getting late, don't you think?"
"She'll be all right."
"Is he coming with her?"
Ike was ashamed that he couldn't ever remember Todd's name, though Christine bad been married for a year and a half. Anna shook her head. She'd answered this question repeatedly for the last three days. "He's got to work, Ike." This was a good sign. If the boy were to skip work, it would mean that something urgent was bringing him to his grandfather-in-law, but nothing was. The boy was safely at his job. Anna held out her arms, and Ike took them.
As always, she left him standing in the middle of the bathroom, then went out and closed the door. She had, of course, never told him that she could hear his labored steps over to the bowl, and then his grunts and exhalations as be lowered himself upon it. Fortunately the sink and the bathtub were within reach, so that once finished, he could stand, wash and dry his bands, then call for her. On his bad days she waited, anxious, for the loud thump of a fall, but it never came. Outside the door, she was breathless herself. Though Ike had grown terribly thin, be topped her by seven inches, and it was not easy to support him, even as far as the bathroom.
Claire met her at the bottom of the stairs. "Does he want any dinner, Mother? I'll be glad to make up a tray."
Anna shook her head. "He's going to read his book for a while. We can take something up to him later."
"Maybe he'd like to come downstairs."
"He said not."
They had finished. Helen was fumbling in her purse. Susanna pressed her finger onto the last crumb on her plate and put it to her tongue. Hardened potatoes, scattered succotash, and the partially eaten pork chop at her place repelled Anna so completely that when Claire, seeing her distaste, offered to warm them, she could not regain her appetite.
"I'll make coffee then," said Helen, swallowing the last of her water. "I wonder where Christine is, I really do. She was supposed to leave by eight this morning, which would have gotten her here hours ago."
"Helen, don't you realize that kids never know when they're going to do anything? You've got to ask them their plans, then give them three days either way, in case something comes up!" Claire's twin sons had been home for Christmas.
Susanna followed Helen into the kitchen with a stack of plates. When Claire shifted into her sister's place beside Anna, Anna knew that a scenario had been planned in her absence.
"Mother, listen!" Claire leaned forward energetically, causing Anna to wince involuntarily for the water glasses, but Claire pushed them out of her way. "Susanna and I have mentioned it, and Helen agrees. You've got to bring Daddy downstairs! What if he were to call you, and you didn't hear him? His voice isn't that strong anymore!"
"I generally hear him fine, Claire."
"Mother, be sensible! Anything could happen! He could fall and be unable to call out, for instance. Please, let us move the dining-room table out back just for a little while, and put him in here."
"But then maybe I wouldn't hear him at night, Claire."
"This is the best way. It's more important that I be nearby in the night."
Claire took a deep breath. Obviously they had foreseen this argument and discussed it. "You could move into the living room." Her glance at Anna as she said this was nothing so much as furtive. Anna sat back in her chair. The house was very neat now that Ike spent most of his time upstairs. Since his illness she had shampooed the rug and made a slipcover for his old chair. The magazines were stacked and put away, the tabletops were clear of everything except their allotted knickknacks. If she moved Ike down here, and worse, if she moved down here herself, furniture would be pushed to the wall and new furniture introduced; nothing would have a place of its own; she'd always be stepping on things or rummaging for them among a million other things; there would be nowhere to sit down, nowhere to get away. The place would never be clean again. And worst of all, everything about their recent problems would be as open and vulnerable as Ike's white sheets. He would hate that. In a flash she realized that she would, too, although she had always championed candor in the face of his secretiveness. She looked at Claire, who was now peering at her. It was hard to deny logical and self-confident Claire, whose hardships and griefs never seemed to have thrown any doubt upon the efficacy of logic and confidence.
Anna cast around for excuses. At last she said, "Claire, I could never get him upstairs to the bathroom." Claire continued to look at her searchingly. "And you know, or you should know, that your father would never use a bedpan, especially in the dining room." Anna could not help feeling a little triumphant at dredging up this insuperable difficulty, but Claire smiled. Yes, Ike was peculiar. She sat up and arranged some pieces of silver on the placemat before her. At last she brought it out. "Then, Mother, you've got to get Daddy a nurse. He deserves it, and you do, too."
Anna opened her mouth.
"Mother, if Medicare won't pay for it, we three will." Susanna was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, and Helen, craning her neck, came up behind her. Anna glanced at Claire and saw her give the briefest notion of a shrug. The other two sprang to the table as if choreographed. "Mother, it really is best," exclaimed Susanna. "You've got a third bedroom right across from Daddy's room. It would be just like having somebody for a boarder, except that she'd be helping you instead of you taking care of her. You're seventy-two years old now, and you just can't be running up and down the stairs all day."
"Don't use my age against me."
"She's not using it against you," said Claire. "Nothing is against you. This is for you."
Anna looked at Helen and saw that Helen was looking around the room. After a moment, her eyes met Anna's and her eyebrows lifted. She said, "Mother doesn't want to be invaded, Claire. I understand that." She would go no further, though, and Anna felt as if she were being accused of mere house pride. Her arthritic shoulder began to throb. Telling her to embrace the nurse idea? To show her interfering daughters to the door? She had lived all her married life with relatives Ike's brother, her children and grandchildren, for ten years her own sister but all of them had pursued their own lives, and she had never felt observed by them. Now these daughters wanted to introduce a stranger whose whole life would be to observe. She didn't want her marriage to end as a topic of someone else's conversation. End? Well, it wasn't about to end, anyway, but that wasn't the point.
Helen sighed with audible resignation. "I go along with them, Mother. Daddy deserves it. It should be easier for him than it is."
"Nothing will ever be easy for your father."
Helen waved her hand, dismissing the remark.
Susanna, always practical, offered to find the nurse herself. "You won't have to budge, Mother, really. You can have any kind you like small and silent, large and jolly, young, old, any kind."
"How about none at all?"
Each of them, in a gesture supremely characteristic of Ike, pursed her lips. They were thinking how stubborn she was, and Ike, she knew, had taught them to think this way. Her eyes filled with tears.
"Mother, please?" pressed Claire.
"Let's talk about it tomorrow," suggested Helen. The others nodded, and Anna did, too. "We can ask Daddy what he thinks." This they wouldn't do. Ike had only likes and dislikes. Anna, though, with her self-doubts and her wish to do the elusive Right Thing, was the chink in the family armor. "Will you promise you'll talk about it tomorrow, Mother? Really?" Anna sighed and nodded again. Helen got up and went to the front window. "Maybe that's Christine," now, she said.
Copyright © 1991 by Jane Smiley