Women on the Run

Women on the Run

by Janet Campbell Hale


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Distributed by the University of Nebraska Press for the University of Idaho Press

Janet Campbell Hale's spare, honest writing and unique realism create haunting worlds reflecting the difficulties of the women's lives in her stories - women on the run. These six stories focus on the transition of cultural roots and a loss of sense of community: women who find themselves involved in one night stands leading to pregnancy in an era preceding abortion, substance abuse or gambling in an effort to flee a harsh life of poverty, and the bitter rejection felt by the aged in a society no longer respecting extended family ties.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780893012175
Publisher: Caxton Press
Publication date: 01/01/1999
Pages: 178
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.63(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Janet Campbell Hale is a member of the Coeur d'Alene tribe of northern Idaho and is also of Cree and Kootenay descent. Hale is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley where she studied law for two years. She has an M.A. in English from the University of California at Davis.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A person has to watch her step when she is an inmate of an old people's home. Especially if her mind happens to be clear. Especially if she loathes the so-called home and resents the son who brought her to Oakland, California, who insisted, after his father died three years ago, that she live with him. "Come home with us, Ma," he said. "You can't live all alone out in the country. We love you. We would love having you. Let us look after you." (She was grief-stricken at the time; after all, she and Sam, who were married some fifty odd years, were as close as two people could be.) Her mind was clouded when she agreed to leave Idaho and its harsh climate for sunny California, when she agreed to leave her home and everything that had ever meant anything to her, even her dog. At the time it seemed the rational thing to do.

    She was old, after all, at seventy-six. (Now she was three years older.) And it was true that the winters were hard and she didn't know how she would manage without Sam. And then there was the case a year or two before of the old widow who was beaten to death by a gang of teenagers. The girl who testified against the others in exchange for immunity told how they knocked at the old woman's door and asked to use her telephone. Their car had broken down, they told her, and they needed to call a tow truck. The old woman let them in and, turning her back to them, said, "The phone is in here. Just follow me." One of the girls stabbed the old woman in the back, but she braced herself in a doorway and didn't fall. The girl pulled the knife out of the first wound and stabbed her again.This time she fell and the other girls began kicking her and pounding her with their fists as she, realizing now what was happening, began to pray: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." She was dead before she could finish her prayer.

    That heinous crime had occurred in the next county less than a hundred miles from Claire's home. They did it, the one who testified said, because they wanted to see what it felt like to kill someone, and they had decided, some weeks before, that their victim would be either a young child or an elderly person. The weekend before they'd gone to Northtown Mall in Spokane hoping to find a child who was not being watched carefully whom they could lure away. No luck there. They didn't know the old woman who became their victim, whose name was Mrs. Olson, but their school bus passed her house twice a day on school days. They'd seen her working in her garden and sitting on her front porch. They'd never seen anyone else with her and figured she must live alone. Elderly widows who live alone aren't unusual.

    "Remember poor Mrs. Olson," Claire's son, Ozzie, had said, and that was enough, finally, to make up her mind. But Maybelle never wanted her mother-in-law in her home. After she found Claire's journal, she wanted her out.

    Claire began keeping a journal about a month after she first came to her son's home. She was used to Sam, to telling him her most intimate thoughts, telling him what she had seen or heard and what her impressions were. Without Sam she found her thoughts floating away before she got a good look at them. At first her journals were a substitute for the good company she was used to. She talked to her journal, that is, to herself, rather than to no one at all. The journal-writing gave her a sense of control. Her life otherwise was so much out of her control now that she'd become dependent upon her son and his wife.

    Maybelle had gone into her room, she said, to give it a more thorough cleaning than Claire was obviously capable of giving it. And she found the journals right there in the top dresser drawer in ten brightly colored spiral notebooks. Claire's writing was, according to Maybelle, "Full of bitching and pissing and moaning." (Maybelle was not the most refined woman in the Bay Area.) "She doesn't like our house. She called our walls Pepto Bismol pink. She doesn't like California. It's too crowded and she misses the seasons. Hah! What an ingrate your mother is! After we opened our home to her." Maybelle issued an ultimatum to Ozzie: "Either she goes or I go!" Of course Claire was the one who went.

    "I was a fool to have listened to you, Ozzie," she said to her son on the drive to Loma Vista. "I would prefer returning to my own home."

    "Don't start in, Ma. You know you can't live alone. You need someone to look after you full time now. Remember poor Mrs. Olson."

    Ozzie, the eldest of her three boys, was no spring chicken himself. His hairline receded just a bit and he had a double chin and a pot belly. A high school and college football player, he had gone to fat in middle age. He was a grandfather himself now. "It's okay, Ozzie. I'll be better off in the home." She was never that fond of Maybelle, and no doubt Maybelle knew. She wondered why Ozzie hadn't married a girl from back home or one of the girls who was his college classmate instead of a brassy blond white girl who worked at a hamburger stand near the UCLA campus. But then who was she to question Ozzie's odd choice?

    Now, firmly ensconced at Loma Vista, Claire knew better than to rock the boat in any way. She kept no journal as there was even less privacy than at Ozzie's. She tried to keep quiet and cause no stir, to be as unobtrusive as she could be. She didn't want anyone to know how she felt. She could end up like one or the other of the McIvers.

    Henry and Martha McIver were the only married couple she ever encountered at Loma Vista. Mr. McIver didn't try to hide his anger. "We were doing just fine, Martha and me, on our own. Our son just got tired of waiting for us to pass away and decided to put us here and grab control of our house and land, while he's still young enough to enjoy it. We were fine. Our grandson came every other Saturday to help with the yard work and any heavy lifting we needed to have done. True, my driver's license was revoked last year because my vision and reflexes aren't that good anymore, but we don't need to drive. Our neighbors give us lifts into town. The supermarket delivers for seniors. Sonny Boy has another thing coming if he thinks he can get away with this!" McIver's lawyer paid him a couple of visits at the home (he was going to sue the son and he was going to sue Loma Vista Nursing Home, he said, for false imprisonment).

    But the thing was, McIver was eighty-nine, and no matter how lucid of mind or spry of body, no court would rule in his favor ... no court would agree with him that he would be fine living on his own. And then there was Martha. Though "only" eighty, Martha, beginning shortly after the birth of their only child, frequently suffered from depression and now began to show signs of senility.

    One day their grandson told Henry he worried about them. His father was worried, too, that the old people couldn't manage on their own anymore. To set his mind at ease, Henry confided in the young man.

    "No need to worry none about us. None at all. See, your grandmother and I know we're getting on and it might come to our not being able to manage. We made a pact. If the going gets too rough and it appears we can't handle it anymore, well, keep it to yourself now, don't mention it to your dad, but we decided we're going to check out together. Not some hideous way, now, so don't be afraid of any 'grisly finds' but easy-like. Get in our car in the garage and start the motor. Take some pills. Just go to sleep. Something real easy-like. So don't worry about us." The grandson did tell their son. All in all, it didn't seem likely to Claire that any judge would find in Henry's and Martha's favor.

    "And when we get out of here, one of the first things I'm going to do is sue this damned place for false imprisonment!" Henry said.

    Martha didn't carry on like Henry. (Didn't "bitch" as Maybelle would say.) She paced the floor and wrung her hands and refused to eat. She hyperventilated, and then they made her take deep, slow breaths into a paper bag.

    "The poor dear," Mrs. Lacey, one of the attendants told Claire. "He's got her all upset with his rantin' and ravin'. He's got some attitude that one. Well, I'll let you in on a little secret, Miz LaFromme, he ain't gonna be kept here much longer, the old coot. We're gettin' rid of 'im! See how he likes them apples!" And they did get rid of him, striking in the middle of the night with no warning.

    "They came into our room and told him he was run down and needed a vitamin shot," Martha told Claire the morning following her husband's abduction. "He said no he didn't want a shot of anything, and they were nuts if they thought he believed for one split second that they had vitamins there. He was no fool. They held him down and forced it on him, him cussing them out all the while."

    "Get the hell away from me, you bloody gorillas," Claire had heard him yell, no doubt at the Santos brothers. The burly Santoses' arms were all covered with thick black hair. Of course old McIver had no hope of fighting them off. They sedated him and then carried him away on a stretcher.

    "When I asked them where they were taking my husband they just said, 'Someplace else.' I don't know how I'll live without him."

    "Oh, you'll do just fine without that cantankerous old bugger," Mrs. Lacey, who was in Claire's room making beds, said. Claire wanted to say something smart like, "Who asked you, you old bugger?" but she didn't dare say a word. Matilda, her roommate who died recently, sometimes talked back to them and she suffered for it. They wouldn't answer her when she clicked the red button that lit a light at the desk signaling she needed assistance. They often didn't bring her meal tray until last when the food was cold. And if she spoke to them they would ignore her as if she were invisible and inaudible. They wrote reports and stuck them in her file and gave them to her children to read when they visited, and Matilda's children would confront her as though she were a bad little girl. "So you've been giving them a hard time here. Shame on you! When are you going to straighten yourself up and act right?" they'd demand and Matilda, her face flushed, would look down at the floor.

    Claire knew better than to speak her mind at Loma Vista. She took comfort in thinking they—Mrs. Lacey, the Santos Brothers, and the mean head nurse—would be old themselves one day. Mrs. Lacey and the head nurse were already middle-aged. They were not creating good karma for their old ages. They would suffer for their meanness to the helpless elderly under their care. But Claire wouldn't be around to see it.

    At night Martha cried in her sleep making odd yowling sounds, like a cougar.

    "Good Lord Almighty," Mrs. Sullivan, Claire's new roommate, said when she heard. "What on earth is that? Sounds like a damned banshee!"

    "That's just poor Martha in the next room crying in her sleep. She can't help it."

    "Can't help it, eh? We'll see about that! I'm talking to the management. It's outrageous. Medicare and my son and daughter aren't paying out good money so that I will be kept awake by shrieking. Poor little Martha isn't going to get away with it."

    After that night the yowling stopped. Claire wondered how Martha controlled herself. Maybe, she thought, Martha kept herself awake all night. They were all fearful, or should be (including Mrs. Sullivan, though she didn't realize it yet), of rocking the boat. They were, after all, powerless, and it didn't pay to make waves.

    Four days after McIver's abduction, Martha somehow made it past all the watchful eyes on floors one, two, and three to the roof. Claire wondered whether Martha dove off the roof, then, as soon as she arrived, or did she take in the view for a minute or two (but she would have been wary of being caught), did she hesitate before taking the leap, did she have to work up her nerve? Or was it easy for her ... did she have the heart for it? Did she do it with surety that that was the right thing, the only reasonable thing to do? Martha jumped. Or dove. Or stepped off the roof into the air.

    Claire happened to be standing at her window looking out at that moment. She saw Martha pass her window. It was very, very sudden and there was no scream; she made no sound of any kind. Claire saw the body hit the ground and heard the "thud" it made upon impact.

    Later, after the ambulance took the corpse away, Claire snuck out into the courtyard. She knelt on the grass beside the spot where Martha had landed. Such a small person, yet she had left an impression on the ground. The grass lay flattened. Claire pressed the palm of her hand into the impression. "Now you're free, Martha dear," she whispered.

    "Hey, you crazy old bat, what do you think you're doing," Mrs. Lacey grabbed her roughly by the arm and pulled her to her feet. It reminded her of the nuns when she was a little girl back on the reservation and forced to go to Catholic mission school. The nuns treated children like that, grabbing, manhandling, scolding. She never dreamed she would spend her old age in the same way she had spent most of her childhood, under lock and key, keeping her guard up at all times, being rudely spoken to and physically abused. Mrs. Lacey pulled and pushed, all the while scolding. "You know better than that Miz LaFromme. You know good and well you're not allowed outside without supervision. I'm going to have to file a report on you now. And, of course, your son will be told. We'll tell your son you're not to be trusted, you sneaky little thing, you damned old weasel you. Just about had me fooled, but you're like all the rest. Can't trust a one of ya' damned coots."

    That was when she first heard her own voice whispering: "You've got to get out of this place. If it's the last thing you ever do." Yes. But how? Probably every inmate of Loma Vista had heard at one time or another that same voice in their head, their own voice saying the same thing. Did anyone ever succeed in running away, she wondered? "You've got to get out of this place!" it said again, no longer a mere whisper, but with conviction.

    "Yes," she agreed silently. "Yes."

    Ozzie visited her every first Sunday of the month. When he came again she brought the subject up.

    "I wish I had never let you talk me into leaving home, son. I would have been all right. I had Mike. You know Mike is a good dog." Mike was their young Doberman whom Sam had trained to attack anyone who might threaten them. But he could be gentle, too. She'd given Mike to her nephew, Joe Whitehawk, and his little boy, Billy, when she left Idaho.

    "Don't start in, Ma. We've been over this a dozen times. No old lady can live out in the country all alone."

    "Well, some do."

    "And some are found dead in their houses."

    "Everyone dies. Better to die in my own house I would think than ..."

    "Ma! That's enough! You must have someone to look after you. That's all there is to it."

    She thought of telling him about the death of her last roommate, before Mrs. Sullivan. Matilda—Mrs. Krenshaw—who had shared Claire's room for two years.

    The last night of her life Matilda took very ill. Claire went over and touched her forehead. "You're burning up!" she said. Matilda shivered so hard her sheet and blanket slipped off. Her eyes rolled back. "I'm going to get help, Matilda." Her friend opened her eyes a moment and seemed to focus on Claire's face.

    "You can't go home in this storm, Grace," Matilda said. "I'll tell the boys to bed your horses down and I'll get you some bedding." Matilda was delirious. Claire hated to leave her and clicked first Matilda's red button, and then, when the staff didn't respond, her own. Still they didn't answer and did not appear. She replaced the blanket and sheet, covering her friend though she knew they would be shivered off again right away.

    Claire walked to the desk and told them Mrs. Krenshaw was seriously ill. They acted as though they hadn't heard her. She thought of calling an ambulance but knew there would be big trouble for both Matilda and herself if she dared do that.

    Claire stayed by Matilda's side. She soaked washcloths in cold water and put them on Matilda's forehead and replaced them when they warmed with fresh cold ones. She wished she had aspirin to give her. That would bring the fever down, but they weren't allowed to have any sort of medications at Loma Vista except for what was doled out by the staff several times a day. "Don't leave me, Grace. I'm frightened," Matilda said reaching out. Claire took her hand and held it, patted it. She knew Grace was Matilda's sister who had died in childbirth many, many years ago.

    "Don't worry. I'm here. I won't leave. I'm right here." About three A.M., when Matilda hadn't spoken for an hour, Claire heard the death raffle. She wondered why it was called that. It was more like a gurgle than a rattle. Anyway she knew what it meant. Matilda opened her eyes and looked at Claire. Claire felt that Matilda recognized her this time. Then she closed her eyes and was gone.

    Claire went to the front desk and told the fat, freckle-faced, red-haired black nurse on duty that Mrs. Krenshaw had passed away. "We don't have time for that now," she said, irritated that Claire was bugging her. She'd been reading a book, which Claire could tell by the cover illustration of an extremely handsome man embracing a very attractive young woman in a low-cut gown was a cheap romance. Maybelle, her daughter-in-law, devoured such books. "Go back to bed!"

    Just before they brought the breakfast trays, around seven o'clock, the Santos brothers finally came and got Mrs. Krenshaw's dead body and took it away. That's how they looked after old people at Loma Vista Nursing Home.

    "Look, Granny Claire," Buddy, Ozzie's grandson, said holding up a new crayon drawing, "do you like it?" Buddy, who was eight, usually came with Ozzie. Her tupiya. The one bright spot in all of this was that she had gotten to know her tupiya. Buddy, who was very fair-skinned, had dark brown curly hair and large grey-hazel eyes. No one would ever take him for an Indian. It didn't matter. He was her dear tupiya.


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Toni Morrison

Janet Campbell Hale's gists are genuine and deeply felt.

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