Wheel­ers

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Alex Pugs­ley

My mother’s maiden name is Wheeler — in her early roles, she’s cred­ited as MaryMar­garet Wheeler — and the Wheeler fam­ily ethos, as my fa­ther would tell you, from time to time pos­sessed ev­ery­one in our house­hold. For my fa­ther and I lived in a house of girls and women. Imag­ine a back hall of scuffed fig­ure skates, rub­ber boots, bal­let slip­pers, mis­matched high heels, a bro­ken flip-flop. Pic­ture a sec­ond floor where dance rou­tines are re­hearsed at all hours of the morn­ing, doors are per­versely slammed, sweaters are il­lic­itly bor­rowed only to be re­turned “com­pletely reek­ing of fuck­ing cig­a­rettes.” My four sis­ters com­peted for clothes, friends, time in the bath­room, nights with the car. They com­peted to be heard. There were skir­mishes, schemes, hor­monal swings, un­bur­den­ing emo­tion­al­ity. Nights could be loud. When I was young, I tried to make con­nec­tions be­tween all fac­tions — I let them give me man­i­cures, I let them put my hair in braids — only to later ex­plode in sur­vival­ist anger. My Sis­ters Talk­ing: “Re­mem­ber when you ripped off your Tarzan py­ja­mas? What a psy­cho!” “Mom’s right. You need ther­apy.” “You know when you mooned me and Faith? We saw your balls and they looked shrimpy. In your face! And fuck off, be­cause I ac­tu­ally don’t talk about other peo­ple.” How to re­spond? The un­sta­ble spin of fem­i­nine non-logic can over­whelm a sin­gle guy, and after the age of twelve,

I vowed to never again take any­one’s side or get sucked into any ar­gu­ment. My mother presided over these histri­on­ics from afar and sel­dom in­ter­vened. When in­dif­fer­ence was fu­tile, she could com­mit to the scene with the full force of her per­son­al­ity, and in these mo­ments, the fe­male mem­bers of my fam­ily seemed united in a sin­gle­ness of lu­nacy. It was ram­pant in the house and halls and pro­voked in me a con­fu­sion of sym­pa­thy so ab­so­lute, I had no idea where their con­tra­dic­tions ended and my own in­sta­bil­i­ties be­gan. So with such Sturm und Toll­heit loom­ing over­head, I can tell you most of what fol­lows oc­curred some thirty years ago on a slushy late De­cem­ber af­ter­noon when my mother be­gan the pro­ceed­ings sound asleep in a full bath­tub in the house on Dun­ve­gan Drive. For the sec­ond time in an hour, Katie, my youngest sis­ter, called to my mother that she was wanted on the tele­phone. But this in­for­ma­tion did not re­ally in­fil­trate my mother’s dreaming brain. She lay in the bath­wa­ter, her head at an awk­ward an­gle, her mouth a smidge above the water’s sur­face. Katie, on the other side of the door, stood lis­ten­ing for some kind of re­sponse or move­ment, but, hear­ing none, re­turned to the stair­case. It was only when Katie’s foot­falls faded from the door­way that my mother stirred, eye­lashes flut­ter­ing, el­bow twitch­ing, fi­nally awak­en­ing. “Who’s there?” She pushed her­self into a sit­ting po­si­tion, a pink mesh sponge slip­ping from her shoul­der. In an­other sec­ond, the swirl of her dreams would dis­si­pate and her full iden­tity would re­turn to her, bring­ing with it all the con­cerns, per­plex­i­ties, and div­ina­tions that are free-float­ing on any given day. “Ditsy?” She stood up, bath­wa­ter rins­ing from her, and reached for an orange beach towel draped over an­earby ra­di­a­tor. She sniffed the towel, feel­ing where it was damp from ear­lier use, and quickly swabbed her shoul­ders, arms, legs. She called a sec­ond time and stepped out of the tub, care­ful to avoid the de­bris on the fringed bath mat at her feet, de­bris she seemed sur­prised to see. Which was: a three-pack of minia­ture Henkell Trocken cham­pagnes, a red Lego brick, and a water-warped pa­per­back copy of Anne’s House of Dreams. The first item had been lib­er­ated ear­lier that af­ter­noon from a re­union lun­cheon for Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity’s School of Nurs­ing, class of 1955. It was a de­gree my mother aban­doned to go into act­ing, but she’d been con­vinced to crash the re­union by two of her class­mates. The Lego piece be­longed to my mother’s first and, at the mo­ment, only grand­son. The book had been hers since child­hood. Frown­ing a half mo­ment, she picked up the Lego piece and pa­per­back, brought them to the sink, and placed them on a built-in tiled shelf. Why this frown? The whirligig of my mother’s likes and dis­likes, and where it might spin on a given day, was some­thing few could fig­ure or pre­dict, and what was ob­sess­ing her on this win­ter af­ter­noon was any­one’s guess. It could be the re­minder of be­ing a grand­mother at fifty, or the me­mory of a ring­ing tele­phone, or Nep­tune Theatre’s cur­rent sea­son, or some the­atri­cals still to be played. Which­ever — with sud­den com­pul­sion, as if she felt the present scene needed fresh en­ergy — she turned away from the sink and reached into the tub to pull out its rub­ber plug. She took a plaid bathrobe, not her own, from a two-pronged hook on the back of the bath­room door and, thread­ing her arms through the sleeves, walked out into the hall­way. Fad­ing be­hind her in the bath­room was a sense of fra­grant vapours —the down-drain­ing water redo­lent of Pears Trans­par­ent Soap, laven­der bath oil, and the ev­ery­day as­sorted ef­flu­ence of an adult wo­man’s metabolism. “Hello?” she said, tight­en­ing the bathrobe’s belt. “Where are you? Ditsy?”

My four sis­ters — Carolyn, Bonnie, Faith, and Katie — went by the fam­ily nick­names of Itsy, Bitsy, Titsy, and Ditsy, al­though my fa­ther of­ten changed that third ap­pel­la­tion to Mitsy, es­pe­cially in for­mal cor­re­spon­dence. My mother did not al­ways care for for­mal­ity — nor did she stand on cer­e­mony. “Ditsy,” she called down. “Who was on the phone?”

“Nan.”

“She prob­a­bly wants to know when she’s get­ting picked up. Not that I haven’t told her three times.”

“No. She said she’s not com­ing. And the real es­tate lady called for Dad.”

“Not com­ing? She com­plains and com­plains she’s not in­vited, then when she is in­vited, she’s not com­ing?”

“She said she’s sick.”

“Sick?”

My ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Eve­lyn Anne Wheeler, known to us as Nan, was spend­ing her first win­ter in Nova Sco­tia in some time. She and my grand­fa­ther, known to us as Dompa, had win­tered in Sara­sota, but with my grand­fa­ther dy­ing of con­ges­tive heart fail­ure three years be­fore and my grand­mother suf­fer­ing a small cere­bral hem­or­rhage at the Trim­ing­ham’s per­fume counter in Ber­muda — after which she’d been on a more or less con­stant stroke watch — my mother de­cided it best to move her back to Hal­i­fax and into Saint Vin­cent’s Guest House.

“With Nan,” said my mother, “it’s al­ways a lit­tle more com­pli­cated. She likes to play head games, you know. And she likes to be in con­trol.”

“She was us­ing her Big Whis­per Voice.” “And after get­ting me to give up my hair ap­point­ment for her?” My mother came down the stairs, her hand slid­ing along the ban­is­ter. Framed on the walls around her were posters for pro­duc­tions of Death­trap, Chap­ter Two, and other plays she’d acted in. “Imag­ine,” she said. “Think­ing you can get a hair ap­point­ment the week be­fore Christ­mas. But you know Nan. It’s all about her hair. She’s on the phone, it’s about her hair. She’s open­ing a bot­tle of wine, it’s about her hair. She’s down at Emer­gency, it’s about her hair.” At the front door, my mother stooped to gather the day’s mail. “Maybe it’s bet­ter she’s not com­ing. I mean, Nan’s a won­der­ful wo­man. No, she is. Un­til that third drink. Third drink and she’s pee­ing on the floor.”

Stand­ing up, my mother stared through a glass panel in the front door and con­sid­ered the house un­der con­struc­tion across the street. It was ver­ti­cally com­posed, made with red cedar and so­lar pan­els, and very un­fin­ished. Not only was it out of style with the street’s other houses, but its in­com­plete­ness — the lot dis­or­dered with back­hoe tracks, cin­der blocks, and twoby-fours — gave the place a raw, de­fec­tive qual­ity. “That mess of a house,” said my mother, with fresh aware­ness of nui­sance.

My four sis­ters com­peted for clothes, friends, time in the bath­room, nights with the car. They com­peted to be heard.

“It just looks like shit. Bring­ing prop­erty val­ues down, my God.”

There was, I should say, a For Sale sign on our house. For four years there’d been a For Sale sign on our house. Some eons ear­lier, my par­ents had di­vorced, only to re­unify. But com­pli­ca­tions — fa­mil­ial and fi­nan­cial — per­sisted. The ma­te­rial take­aways were an enor­mous short-term debt and my mother’s wish to move to a smaller, cheaper house. But to avoid fur­ther tribu­la­tion, she wasn’t go­ing to buy un­til she sold. “I wake up in the mid­dle of the night,” she said, sort­ing through the mail, “and I have vi­sions of that For Sale sign blow­ing in the wind for the next twenty years. By then, the roof’s fallen in, the win­dows bro­ken. No one’s buy­ing houses right now. No one.” Turn­ing from the front door, she said, “Did Carolyn show up with the salmon? Ditsy, where are you?”

My sis­ter Katie lay watch­ing tele­vi­sion in the liv­ing room, her head some­what acutely propped up by a base­board, her feet in striped toe socks. Katie was four­teen, but a very young four­teen, and, un­like my sis­ter Faith, who at fif­teen was drinking and dat­ing her way through mul­ti­ple so­cial cir­cles, Katie dwelled in a pro­tracted teeny­bop­per­dom. She was slim, quick, “coltish,” as the hero­ines were de­scribed in the YA books she daily de­mol­ished, and for the past months, she’d been try­ing out a se­ries of ob­ses­sions. Her lat­est fas­ci­na­tion had be­gun with my mother’s ap­pear­ance in a re­vival of The Ginger­bread Lady, con­tin­ued through re­peated view­ings of The Sun­shine Boys, and had re­cently re­sulted in her com­mit­ment to a di­alect I’ll call Generic New York Wise­crack. Which is why, when my mother took a step into the liv­ing room, Katie, with­out shift­ing her gaze from the tele­vi­sion, sim­ply said, “Hey, Ma. Din­ner’s when?”

“Guests are in­vited for seven. Kids can eat any time. Did Itsy bring the salmon?” “She went to the cat clinic.”

“Cat clinic?”

“Cat clinic, bird clinic. Who am I — Mar­cus Welby?”

“Ditsy? Enough.” My mother crossed to the tele­vi­sion and was about to switch it off when she rec­og­nized some­one on­screen. “Is that Wal­ter Matthau? Christ, he’s look­ing old. Kather­ine Mckee” — my mother faced Katie — “look at me. Where’d she put it? The kitchen or the base­ment fridge?”

“I’m four­teen years old! I should know where the fish is?” “The salmon, Ditsy.”

“Fish, salmon. You’re go­ing to nit­pick?” Katie rolled onto her stom­ach. “Adults get salmon. Kids get what?”

“Shep­herd’s pie.”

Katie nod­ded, ju­di­cious. “Is the shep­herd fresh?”

“Ditsy” — my mother shook her head — “I for­bid you to watch any more Neil Si­mon. You’re cut off. Did she drop it off or not?” “Yes. Kitchen fridge.”

My mother flipped the mail on a hall ra­di­a­tor and re­turned to the stairs. “I’m go­ing to get dressed. If Nan calls again, Ditsy, let me know.”

Get­ting up to press rewind, Katie shrugged. “The thing about salmon,” she said to her­self. “It’s not funny. Pick­erel. Pick­erel is funny. Kip­pers is funny. But salmon?”

Not four sec­onds later, the front door swung open and my fa­ther en­tered the house car­ry­ing a box of Per­rier. Plas­tic bags con­tain­ing bot­tles of wine were hang­ing from his wrists and a red Twiz­zler licorice dan­gled from his mouth. With­out tak­ing off his shoes, he car­ried his pur­chases to the kitchen and eased them onto the kitchen ta­ble. “Bitsy, Ditsy?” he said. “Which one are you? Could one of you crap-artist kids help with the gro­ceries?”

Katie came to the door­sill and looked in. “Out of left field it comes run­ning with the cra­zi­est ques­tions.”

“Christ,” said my fa­ther, trip­ping over an empty milk car­ton. “Could we have one day in this house when there isn’t an open garbage bag on the floor?” He glanced at Katie. “Peanut? Go find your mother. She’s got a dozen peo­ple com­ing over for din­ner.” “Find her your­self. She’s up­stairs.” My mother, now wear­ing a full slip over tea-stained sweat­pants, ap­peared at the stair top and gazed down at my fa­ther with — what would be called in the stage di­rec­tions — an amused air of dis­tant sus­pi­cion.

“There she is,” said my fa­ther, beam­ing. “Look at you twist­ing your hair, you get more and more beau­ti­ful ev­ery day. How about some kisses?”

“Did you re­mem­ber the Cam­pari?” “Cam­pari? Who drinks Cam­pari?”

“I don’t drink it, ge­nius. But your es­teemed col­league Roz We­in­feld, newly ap­pointed to the bench, drinks it, and she’s the rea­son we’re hav­ing this din­ner. Re­mem­ber? It was the one thing I asked you to get.”

My fa­ther con­sid­ered this with nar­row­ing eyes, the Twiz­zler dangling from his lips. “All right, Lit­tle Miss Mums.” He shifted the licorice to the other side of his mouth, like a back­room bookie re­ar­rang­ing a cigar. “Make a list and we’ll get Baby-boy to get it. Be­cause, God knows, what­ever Mumsy needs, Mumsy gets.”

“It’s what­ever Lola wants, Lola gets.” The line in ques­tion was from the mu­si­cal Damn Yan­kees and, for my par­ents, an­other in­stal­ment in a never-end­ing game of name-that-quote. Both had strut­ted and fret­ted some time upon the stage and had within their imag­i­na­tions a num­ber of dra­matic parts. So the evening might see vari­a­tions on Elyot and Amanda, Nathan and Ade­laide, Ge­orge and Martha. My par­ents moved within a se­ries of per­sonas, but to what ex­tent they were us­ing these per­sonas and to what ex­tent the per­sonas were us­ing them was not al­ways easy to es­tab­lish.

“Some days I hate that god­damn law firm,” said my mother, mus­ing. “Do you ever won­der what it’s done to us?”

“As fun as that sounds, Mumsy, won­der­ing what might’ve been, do you mind ter­ri­bly if we stick to the here and now? You might want to get dressed.”

“Oh, Mckee. You’ve lost the plot. You’ve lost the plot, kid.”

“Sure, sure,” said my fa­ther. “You con­tain mul­ti­tudes, Mums. Now would you mind con­tain­ing din­ner?” He smiled again. “And I bet­ter get some kisses around here or there’s go­ing to be real trouble.”

Just then, Katie bumped open the front door and traipsed in with four bags of gro­ceries. As she moved past my fa­ther, he snatched at her shirt­tail. “When I met her,

She was in­com­pre­hen­si­ble— a pos­si­ble nar­cis­sist, a per­pet­ual ac­tress, a charmer, a drinker, a Fury.

Ditsy, she was noth­ing. She had half a de­gree and two dirty jokes.”

“Dad! Don’t stretch my shirt! And that lady called you back.”

“Just a sec­ond, Peanut. I’m try­ing to tell you some­thing about your hor­ri­ble mother.”

My mother ar­rived at the bot­tom of the stairs and, push­ing shut the front door, said to him, “Quit ter­ror­iz­ing the chil­dren, would you, dar­ling?” Am­bling into the kitchen, she whis­pered over her shoul­der, “And fuck the firm.”

“You’re a ter­ri­ble per­son.” He was star­ing at her as if this re­mark were per­haps the ab­so­lute zenith of her ir­ra­tional­ity. “You’re a ter­ri­ble per­son.”

“Hon­estly, Ste­wart. Why do you talk? Why do you even open your mouth? Some lawyer.” She opened the re­frig­er­a­tor and searched for the ru­moured salmon. “You want to tell me where you’ve been the last hour? The Hal­i­fax Club?”

“For your in­for­ma­tion, I was tak­ing dis­cov­ery on a case.”

My mother whirled around. “Ste­wart. Tell me it’s not Gre­gor Burr.”

“Well,” said my fa­ther in a more deco­rous tone, “I’m not at lib­erty to dis­cuss it.”

“Gre­gor Burr?” She sighed. “I per­son­ally can’t stand him. What kind of guy who, when he’s elected Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, starts mess­ing around with teenagers? He’s a god­damn sleaze. And such a ten­den­tious son of a bitch. He could be a role model for the youth of this prov­ince, and in­stead, he’s as­sault­ing high-school girls in the stair­well of the Lord Nel­son Ho­tel. Why can’t he go to a pros­ti­tute like a nor­mal per­son?”

“Do you hear what you’re say­ing?” “Don’t give me that rise-above-it bull­shit. Why are you al­ways de­fend­ing the bad guy?”

“That’s yet to be de­ter­mined, my dear.” “That’s not what I heard.”

“And what did you hear, Mary-mar­garet Wheeler, pray tell?”

“Well, ass­hole, what I heard was a dif­fer­ent story. Like the city hasn’t heard ad­if­fer­ent story.”

“That’s enough of this talk, thank you.” “Oh, I’m not al­lowed to say any­thing?”

“No, you can say what­ever you like. You can print it in the pa­per, if you like. But if the peo­ple you de­scribe take your re­marks to be defam­a­tory, you may be forced to prove what you al­lege in a court of law.” My mother tilted her head, unim­pressed. “This isn’t all my do­ing, Mums. It’s just we have some­thing here called the rule of law — ”

“I’m fa­mil­iar with the fuck­ing rule of law, Ste­wart. I’m also fa­mil­iar with this man’s his­tory. He stuck his tongue down Cait­lyn Jes­sup’s throat. Marge Mclean, he pinned her up against a car in the Sobeys park­ing lot. Marge Mclean! I mean, how drunk do you have to be? And Bev Noonan, hemuck­led onto her at the bar con­ven­tion, lift­ing up her dress at the coat check. And God knows how many more there are.”

“Those are not the sort of sto­ries you want to re­peat.”

“Why? Be­cause they hap­pen to be true? And from what I’ve heard about this teenager, he fi­nally went too far. It’s tan­ta­mount to rap­ing her.”

“Mackie — ”

“Well, what would you call it? The teenager said pen­e­tra­tion, and the RCMP iden­ti­fied the se­men on her skirt as his.” My mother looked at my fa­ther, se­vere. “Did he ad­mit it?”

“I can’t re­peat what’s said in cam­era. You know that.”

“Ian Pul­sifer tells Connie — ”

“How would you know that?”

“She told me!”

“Ex­actly. Look, I can’t dis­cuss the facts of a case with you. Or what a client says in dis­cov­ery. You know I can’t. And that’s fi­nal.”

These ar­gu­ments, sound as they may have been, did not have a wholly per­sua­sive ef­fect on my mother. “Lis­ten,” she said. “I ap­plaud Tiggy for stand­ing by him but come on, Ste­wart. Ev­ery­body knows what this man’s like. Ev­ery sin­gle per­son in the Con­ser­va­tive Party knows what he’s like, and they’re all let­ting him get away with it. That’s what makes me so sick. It’s like with an al­co­holic. They’re en­ablers. If some­one doesn’t say, ‘No, this isn’t right,’ then who’s to stop him? He ob­vi­ously can’t stop him­self. But they won’t say any­thing, be­cause ev­ery­thing’s go­ing so well up in Ot­tawa right now. Yeah, well, stick around.” My mother sat­u­rated her next word with con­tempt. “Men. Puh. There ought to be a revo­lu­tion.”

“I feel it’s un­der­way.”

My mother glanced at my fa­ther be­fore look­ing up to­ward what, in a theatre, would be the first row of the bal­cony. “When the hurly-burly’s done,” she said, “we’ll look back and won­der what we’ve done on this Earth. And what will we say? That’s the sixty-four-thou­sand-dol­lar ques­tion, Ste­wart. What’ll we say then?”

Be­fore my fa­ther could an­swer, the door­bell rang.

Dodie Rum­boldt was a sweet, dith­ery wo­man who dropped by our house for the flim­si­est of rea­sons. She wor­ried about ev­ery­thing and lived in a tizzy of wors­en­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties. My mother was loyal to her be­cause they’d grown up next door to each other in Truro. “Dodie Rum­boldt has wanted to be my best friend for fortysix years,” she said on her way to the door, see­ing who it was. Dodie, A S elected Oral His­tory: “She was al­ways big, you know? I mean, big. I never knew her when she didn’t look like a tent com­ing to­ward you. And her wardrobe went pur­ple for a while. She was one of those ladies in pur­ple. Like you don’t know how much weight she’s gained be­cause you’re dis­tracted by all the pur­ple? Let me tell you some­thing. You’re not fool­ing the cheap seats. Then she got a boyfriend. Did won­ders for her. She lost over a hun­dred and fifty pounds. Jog­ging with weights. Eating right. Looked great. But now? She’s gone too far. Can’t stop. Some thin. Scared skinny. She’s go­ing to give her­self a ner­vous break­down. Well, her mother’s had ter­ri­ble Alzheimer’s. Her mother’s in Saint Vin­cent’s on the third floor, just out of it. Not much fun hav­ing a mother whose me­mory’s gone. But Dodie and her fa­ther have been bricks. Vis­it­ing ev­ery day. Ev­ery day one of them’s gone to see her.”

The door­bell rang again. Com­pos­ing her face into a smile, and with a very con­vinc­ing demon­stra­tion of calm, my mother opened the door.

“It’s Dad,” said Dodie, putting a hand to her throat. “First it was his heart. Now it’s his hip. He fell do­ing the snow blower. They have him at the hospi­tal, and I think they’re go­ing to keep him overnight. You just never know if this one’s — ”

“Oh, Dodie,” said my mother. “His hip? I’m sure he’ll be fine. He’s had a re­place­ment be­fore, hasn’t he?”

Dodie nod­ded. “I could just feel some­thing was go­ing to hap­pen this month. All month I could feel it. My mind’s just been rac­ing. I mean, I know life’s what hap­pens when you’re do­ing some­thing else, but this?” She pressed her lips to­gether. “I’ve been down at the hospi­tal all af­ter­noon. I just left.”

“Was he awake when you left? Were you able to talk to him?”

Dodie was nod­ding again when she spied Katie in the din­ing room. Katie had her hands full of sil­ver­ware and was set­ting four­teen places for din­ner. “Oh?” said Dodie. “Mackie, you have com­pany com­ing. I should go.”

“Don’t be silly. Wouldn’t dream of it. You stay for sup­per.”

“But I’m not dressed for it.”

“We’ll find you some­thing. You come talk to me. Ever peel a potato?”

“Well,” said Dodie, with a sur­prised gig­gle, as if this might be the third fun­ni­est thing she’s heard in her life. “I might’ve peeled one or two.”

And so the evening, for some min­utes, ad­vanced with­out fur­ther ruckus, my youngest sis­ter set­ting the ta­ble, my fa­ther shav­ing in the up­stairs bath­room, and me ris­ing from the base­ment, while my mother sat Dodie down with a glass of white wine at the kitchen ta­ble. Which is where Dodie learned of my mother’s plans to poach a salmon in the dish­washer. “I have never heard of any­thing like that,” said Dodie, watch­ing my mother driz­zle two large fil­lets with white wine, lemon juice, and but­ter. “In tin­foil? On a wash cy­cle? Mackie, hon­estly, I’ve never.” My­mother, hold­ing in but­tery hands a bot­tle of Chardon­nay, was pour­ing her­self a glass of wine when the tele­phone jin­gled. She glanced into the din­ing room and with a look in­di­cated that Katie should an­swer it. Katie walked to the kitchen and shyly picked up the re­ceiver. “Hello?” After a mo­ment, she covered the mouth­piece to say, “It’s the real es­tate lady again.” She held out the re­ceiver to my mother, who was wip­ing her hands with a blue J-cloth. Which is when my fa­ther en­tered and, with a nim­ble two-step, filched the re­ceiver from Katie’s fin­gers.

“What are you do­ing?” My mother turned to Dodie. “What is he do­ing?”

“Sh, Mumsy,” said my fa­ther. “Go have an olive.”

“An olive? Give me that phone.” My fa­ther turned his back to the room, ef­fec­tively block­ing all ac­cess to the tele­phone.

De­cid­ing on an­other course of ac­tion, my mother grabbed her glass of wine and was on her way to the hall ex­ten­sion when my fa­ther, after sev­eral curt, some­what in­audi­ble, but mostly pro­fes­sional-sound­ing, in­struc­tions, re­placed the re­ceiver.

With glar­ing eyes, my mother reap­peared. “What did she say? What did you tell her?” “There’s an of­fer.”

“The cou­ple from Ver­mont?”

My fa­ther nod­ded.

“I knew it.”

“They made an of­fer this morn­ing and — ” “What is it?”

“It ex­pires tonight at six o’clock.” My mother glanced at the clock on the stove­top. It showed two min­utes to six. “How much?”

“Well, I sug­gested — ”

“I don’t care what you sug­gested! I want to know what the of­fer is.”

“Three sev­enty-two.”

“Take it.”

“I said we’d only con­sider bids over three eighty.”

“You did not. You did not — ” She stud­ied him. “Ste­wart, are you out of your mind? This house, need I re­mind you, has been on the mar­ket for four fuck­ing years! We get one of­fer in four years, and you think you’re John Ken­neth Gal­braith? Call her back this in­stant. No — just — move. I’ll call her.”

“You will do noth­ing of the sort,” said my fa­ther, dis­con­nect­ing the tele­phone.

From some­where in­side my mother burst a howl — a melis­matic mix­ture of cry­ing and laugh­ter — and with a vi­cious spin of her wrist she flung her wine­glass at the win­dow. After it smashed against the win­dowsill, she stared at my fa­ther, livid. “Why would you do that with­out talk­ing to

My grand­mother drank. Liquor was a magic fun­da­men­tal to her spir­its.

me? When you know I’ve been out of my mind with worry. Why would you do that?”

“Mumsy, you’re be­hav­ing badly.” My fa­ther felt his neck, above his shirt col­lar, for shards of bro­ken glass, then ex­tended his hand to­ward Dodie, who was still sit­ting at the kitchen ta­ble, her eyes wide with panic. “Dodie, I’m sorry to say your friend’s gone berserk.”

“Ste­wart,” said my mother. “I have met some jack­asses in my life — ”

“Beau­ti­ful, you love me. You wouldn’t change a thing.”

“I’ve got news for you” — in the back hall, my mother grabbed a ski jacket and guided her feet into two rub­ber boots — “if I had to live my life over again, I’d do it alone.”

“Per­for­mance to fol­low. Ap­plause, ap­plause. Fan­fare, trum­pets, exe­unt omnes.”

“No. Just mine.” She raised her voice. “Aubrey! Get your coat — ”

“Mackie?”

“Be­cause I’m leav­ing. I’ve had it. I’m through. My nerves can’t take it.”

“Sure, sure, Mums.”

“Ste­wart” — my mother’s voice weak­ened with a note of frailty — “why would you do that? With­out talk­ing to me? Why?”

My fa­ther reached for her hand. But she shud­dered away from him, fiercely blink­ing her eyes, and marched into the hall­way. “Don’t touch me!”

Silent on the stairs, Katie and I watched our mother zip up the ski jacket, yank open the front door, and charge out­side into the sleet and snow.

To me she was in­com­pre­hen­si­ble — a pos­si­ble nar­cis­sist, a per­pet­u­alac­tress, a charmer, a drinker, a Fury. “Your mother’s larger than life, kid,” my fa­ther would say. “She’s some­thing else, a sin­gu­lar sen­sa­tion, and one of the great un­solved mys­ter­ies of mar­itime his­tory.” My­mother was twenty when she quit nurs­ing and went into the theatre, and, very ar­guably, her life from that point be­came one long un­fin­ished per­for­mance. She started as an in­genue of shaky self-es­teem. Feel­ings of ner­vous­ness and shy defiance were use­ful for some roles — Miss Julie, Juliet, Ophe­lia — but fur­ther vi­tal­i­ties were needed. a few di­gres­sions: my mother holds the record for most ap­pear­ances in pro­duc­tions at Nep­tune Theatre and ring­ing the walls of the ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fice on the sec­ond floor is a suc­ces­sion of her head­shots. Not only do these form a year-by-year pho­to­graphic bi­og­ra­phy of my mother but they also show­case a sort of folk his­tory of com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy and pe­riod hair­styles. Around the time of her Medium Wavy Shag, she and my fa­ther di­vorced. Dur­ing the years of their es­trange­ment, many were the con­ver­sa­tions among my sis­ters re­gard­ing how my par­ents’ nights were spent — won­der­ing who got to­gether with whom and for how long. “All Dad’s friends have crushes on Mom, you dink. Don’t you want to know who she was with?” I knew my mother cul­ti­vated friend­ships with Art Col­lege types, sculp­tors in ca­ble-knit sweaters, pot­ters with ker­chiefs and man­dolins, and she dwelled for a time in a Volk­swa­gen van with a man named Elkin Duck­worth. This was a New Brunswick ac­tor, ef­fem­i­nately gay, the lead in a cel­e­brated local pro­duc­tion of God­spell, and af­ter­ward known to us as Je­sus of Monc­ton. Their re­la­tion­ship, my mother main­tained, was a love af­fair in all ways but sex­ual. She and Elkin took a cabaret to BAM , Stras­berg on Fif­teenth Street, and acid on Hal­loween, be­fore he trans­mi­grated to Laurel Canyon and she re­turned to take cus­tody of my two younger sis­ters. From Amer­ica, she ar­rived su­per­charged. She’d been rad­i­cal­ized. My mother lived less than three months in New York, but for the rest of her life, au­di­tion­ing for roles in Hal­i­fax’s two-and-a-half pro­fes­sional stages, she rather car­ried her­self as if she were only three steps away from walk­ing on­stage at the Lyceum Theatre in mid­town Man­hat­tan. The ex­pec­ta­tions of the Hal­i­fax au­di­ence were ir­rel­e­vant now. In her

time away, she’d gained ac­cess to a more pri­mor­dial emo­tional life. She’d learned to “go there,” to trade and traf­fic in her emo­tions, emo­tions all the more po­tent if she ac­tu­ally be­lieved in them. And be­lieve in them she did. There was con­flict in her act­ing now, vul­ner­a­bil­ity al­ter­nat­ing with im­pa­tient su­pe­ri­or­ity, and the fric­tion be­tween the two sparked true fris­son. She was cel­e­brated. She was pro­filed. She ac­quired groupies. There was a den­tal hy­gien­ist — known to us as Stalker Don Walker — who did not miss an open­ing night in twenty-three years. (Dur­ing my teeth clean­ings, he had the some­what ex­as­per­at­ing habit of ask­ing about my mother’s shows when his soap-scented fin­gers were far in­side my mouth.) Don­ald’s com­pan­ion was the Dart­mouth ac­tor Bran­don Mer­ri­hew, known as Un­cle Brandy. On­stage, he was Jimmy to my mother’s Evy, Sir Toby to her Maria, and off­stage, he was her pal and drinksy con­fi­dante. Brandy was en­am­oured of, bor­der­line ob­sessed with, my mother, and his hol­i­day com­pli­ments were so ef­fu­sive as to veer into a de­men­tia of over­flat­tery. His re­marks after my mother’s turn in Street­car: “There she is! Noth­ing re­ally as­tounds me but you, Mary-mar­garet, you as­tound me. You con­found me. You wear the crown for me. When I saw you on­stage, I said to Don­ald, ‘There is magic in the world. That Mackie Mckee has done it again.’ No one can touch you, can they? Not then. Not now. Not ever. Re­ally, Mackie. Hail to thee, blithe spirit.” Emo­tive dis­tur­bance and ev­i­den­tiary emo­tion­al­ity — these were her new vi­tal­i­ties, but such Method did not be­long to my fa­ther’s process. So­ci­etal and prac­ti­cal ex­i­gen­cies played their parts in my fa­ther’s flight from play­house to court­room, but he con­tained mul­ti­tudes all his own. And he would learn it was not re­ally in his pro­fes­sional in­ter­ests to be emo­tion­ally open or emo­tion­ally un­con­tained. The prac­tice of law, which was to be his call­ing and pre­vail­ing vo­ca­tion, de­manded he think first, strate­gize sec­ond, emote never. It ac­tu­ally took me years to fig­ure out I was raised within these two mighty monar­chies and, di­gres­sions done, now might be the time to check in with the sub­ject that was me.

There in the mov­ing car, be­side my mother, very much in the pas­sen­ger seat, sits the lurk­ing fig­ure that is Me at Nine­teen. This Aubrey Mckee seems a far­away in­car­na­tion, a gorky kid be­set with con­tra­dic­tion and com­pul­sion and greatly in­com­plete. A growth spurt has sent me over six feet but left me awk­ward, pim­ply — I am known to my sis­ters as Tree­top and Pizza Face — and my sig­na­ture has not sta­bi­lized in years, the cap­i­tal K of my sur­name lurch­ing wildly ahead of the fi­nal two letters. As ear­lier ex­plained, it is my tac­tic, in these Walpur­gis­nächten, to keep calm and fol­low the ex­am­ple of my old­est sis­ter. For Carolyn is the sane si­b­ling in a cri­sis, supremely self-con­trolled and largely aloof from fam­ily pol­i­tics. So, as my mother ful­mi­nates, I sup­press All Feel­ing and mutely stare at a soft­cover ac­tor’s copy of Hedda Gabler, pub­lished by Drama­tists Play Ser­vices, which has been left in the slush of the plas­tic floor liner.

“Why is he do­ing this?” My mother punches at the steer­ing wheel. “A month ago, he was will­ing to drop the price to three fifty but now he wants to play tough guy? I would’ve of­fered three sev­enty-nine to let them know we’re will­ing to budge. No one knows. No one knows what I have to put up with. Do up your seat belt, please.” She checks the rear-view mir­ror and swings up Ju­bilee Road. “Your fa­ther acts like ev­ery­thing’s fine. This un­founded op­ti­mism he has, think­ing ev­ery­thing’s go­ing to work

out. Well, un­less you take steps to make sure things work out, I want to tell you, they don’t. Do up your seat belt, Aubrey.”

I grab care­lessly at the seat belt, but the re­trac­tor pulls it from my fin­gers, the metal latch smack­ing against the win­dow. My mother does not ap­pear to no­tice and seems only dis­posed to stare out the wind­shield. The evening, I feel, has be­come for her a pri­mal as­ser­tion of self, and de­spite her ques­tions, I do not think there is a part for me in her one-per­son show. I do up the seat belt and peer out the win­dow. Fog is ev­ery­where in the city, the fall­ing snow has changed to wet­ting sleet, and my win­dow re­flec­tion is smeared with mois­ture.

“We owe three hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars! I was al­ways taught to live within your means. Your fa­ther spends it as soon as he gets it.” Speed­ing into the in­ter­sec­tion with Ox­ford Street, she turns sharply left, our tires slip­ping side­ways on the paint of the wet cross­walk. “I’m fifty years old. I’m too old to be in debt. I say drop the price and rent a place. I don’t care where we live. But your fa­ther wants the right ad­dress. Maybe he needs it to have the con­fi­dence to win cases but — Je­sus — who’s this ass­hole?” My mother squints into the rear-view mir­ror, where the re­flec­tion of high beams from an up­com­ing ve­hi­cle has be­gun to blind her. “For the love of Pete.” She pulls over to al­low this ve­hi­cle, an am­bu­lance, to pass. After it has gone by, its ro­tat­ing light flash­ing on my mother’s cheek, she checks over her shoul­der and swerves back into the lane.

I am still study­ing my re­flec­tion in the rainy win­dow, the Christ­mas lights of St. Thomas Aquinas shim­mer­ing out­side, when some­where in my me­mory shim­mers a scene from four years be­fore, when my fam­ily is split and I am wan­der­ing smashed on Kempt Road, and I see my fa­ther in­side a brightly lit Harvey’s restau­rant. He is alone at a booth, his ta­ble covered with case briefs, le­gal pads, an orange cheese­burger wrap­per. As I teeter out­side, a stranger ex­its the front doors, and with this airstream, the wrap­per breezes off the ta­ble, but my fa­ther does not no­tice, so ab­sorbed is he in his prepa­ra­tions. He has this day ninety-two files in var­i­ous stages of dis­cov­ery, de­vel­op­ment, and trial, and he seems so soli­tary, eating by him­self at ten o’clock on a Fri­day night, when once we’d eaten to­gether as a fam­ily, and Icon­sider the ideals he once pur­sued — a life where his wife wasn’t run­ning off, where his fam­ily life was se­cure, where he could man­age ev­ery­thing through dili­gence and force of will — and I think to wave hello to him, im­pul­sively, ab­surdly ex­ces­sively, in a way we some­times had, but as the doors re­close and within their glass my scruffy re­flec­tion ap­pears, I am too ashamed to say hello and have him see me fall-down drunk — and all of this is get­ting close to the crux of my feel­ings of what-the-fuck pow­er­less­ness re­gard­ing my fa­ther and mother and sis­ters and me, and so, re­turn­ing to the scene-in-progress, and side­bar­ring for amo­ment my in­stinct to punch a fist through the wind­shield, I twist in the car to ask where, ex­actly, we are go­ing.

My mother sighs, sens­ing a change in my man­ner, and asks, “Do you have the list your fa­ther gave you?”

I say I left it at the house.

“Well — ” She rubs the bridge of her nose. “Can you re­mem­ber what’s on it? The Cam­pari, Gouda, the what-was-it?” She glances at me, ir­ri­tated. “I don’t have time for one of your moods, Aubrey. If you’re go­ing to be like this, I can stop the car and you can get out. In fact, here, I’ll do it my­self.”

She spins the steer­ing wheel, be­gin­ning a very un­sta­ble U-turn — which sends me into the arm­rest of the door — the car com­ing to a skid­ding stop on the other side of the street. She gets out, steps over a rain­melt­ing snow­bank, and slides to­ward a pay­phone be­side the Ox­ford Theatre. As she in­serts a quar­ter and di­als, I be­come aware that her getup — ski jacket, full slip, sweat­pants, rub­ber boots — is not quite suit­able for pub­lic walk­a­bout. I am think­ing again of Evy from The Ginger­bread Lady and her last-chance strug­gle with what she calls this “hu­man be­ing busi­ness” when my mother hangs up the phone, her face grim with new in­for­ma­tion. “It’s Nan.” She stands very still, the fall­ing sleet flu­o­res­cent in the lights of the theatre mar­quee. “Saint Vin­cent’s called to ask if we picked her up.” She makes a flut­tery sigh. “No one knows where she is.”

My mother lived the first years of her life in an or­phan­age. My grand­mother had be­come preg­nant be­fore she and my grand­fa­ther were mar­ried, and the stigma of be­ing an un­wed mother, in those days, was such that she chose to give her first-born away. “It’s not as if she was a preg­nant teenager,” my mother re­called later. “She was twenty- four, for Christ’s sake. But Nan grew up in the De­pres­sion. In that era, re­spectabil­ity was the most im­por­tant thing. Re­spectabil­ity, se­cu­rity, ap­pear­ances.” After my grand­mother’s fig­ure re­cov­ered, after she’d en­tered prop­erly into wed­lock, and after she’d given birth to a le­git­i­mate daugh­ter, my grand­fa­ther pre­vailed upon her to re­pos­sess the first, and so my mother, at thirty-one months, ro­tated back into the Wheeler mé­nage. “Dompa loved Nan. But so did ev­ery­body else. So did half the city. And in those days, you didn’t get di­vorced. What you did was ar­gue. And drink. Their mar­riage was like a lot from those years, I guess. And dur­ing the war, that was a party ev­ery night. Up at the Of­fi­cer’s Club.” My grand­mother drank. Liquor was a magic fun­da­men­tal to her spir­its. Dip­so­ma­nia was ev­ery­where in the years of my child­hood, in all wa­ters, some­one or an­other was al­ways slosh­ing to­ward the end of the line, and you learned from an early age not to take it per­son­ally. At fam­ily din­ners, you’d see her sneak away from the ta­ble and tot­ter into a hall­way, only to later re­join the room, talk­a­tive, flirt­some, hi­lar­i­ous. She was then at ease with her­self, and her var­i­ous en­er­gies ex­pressed them­selves in sweet­ness and light and con­ta­gious un­pre­dictabil­ity. She let you op­er­ate the electric ice crusher for her crème de men­thes. She sent you a cheque on Labour Day. She grabbed your hand and sang high har­mony on “Happy Birth­day.” But over the years, there was a grad­ual run­ning down, and as­pects of her be­hav­iour — the mono­ma­nia, the sug­ges­tion of paranoid self-in­volve­ment, a drift to­ward delu­sion — seemed to darken ev­ery scene and fam­ily oc­ca­sion. My fa­ther, whose pref­er­ence was to speak well of ev­ery­one, con­ceded that his mother-in-law had be­come “a bit of a loose puck.”

“After Dompa died,” my mother ex­plained, “things took a turn.” My grand­mother be­came quite close with a wid­ower in Tampa, but when he couldn’t com­mit, she fo­cused her at­ten­tions — briefly — on a tennis in­struc­tor, after which she made a move to Ber­muda. “You should’ve seen her in Ber­muda! Now Nan’s a good-look­ing wo­man — big bo­som, long legs — but there are age-ap­pro­pri­ate clothes, you know? Your fa­ther and I ar­rive in Ber­muda and here’s Nan tricked out like a Ve­gas show­girl. Sev­enty-three years old in hot pants and

a lace-up tube top with match­ing head­band?” My grand­mother’s bach­e­lorette ad­ven­tures re­sulted in some con­fu­sion and real in­fir­mity, so she’d been re­lo­cated, not with­out protest, to Hal­i­fax. “Here’s the thing with Nan. All she wants is a man. She doesn’t care what kind. She just wants some­one to make her feel spe­cial. Well, her par­ents spoiled her. Her hus­band spoiled her. Her boyfriends spoiled her. But when there’s no one left to spoil her, what’s she go­ing to do then?”

When we ar­rived at Saint Vin­cent’s, the am­bu­lance that had passed us was flash­ing in the park­ing lot, a paramedic load­ing through its back doors some­one strapped to a wheel­ing stretcher. “Good God,” said my mother, as the am­bu­lance rolled on to Wind­sor Street, its siren sound­ing. “Who do you sup­pose it is?” My mother walked across the yel­low painted lines of the park­ing lot, her face set in a pen­sive frown, as if there were two or three plot twists still to be en­dured. In­side, we moved into the hall­way, past the re­cep­tion desk, and there, at the end of the hall, as if only a few beats be­hind cue, my grand­mother ap­peared, frail and quiv­ery and check­ing be­hind her, as though per­se­cu­tion might arise from some new quar­ter. Sum­mon­ing her strength, she be­gan to walk very evenly, with chin held high and a frozen smile — the ex­pres­sion of a vis­it­ing head of state — and she stared at a point in the hall­way ahead of a heavy-set el­derly wo­man in a Lind­say tar­tan dress. Though I vaguely re­called this sec­ond res­i­dent as a fam­ily ac­quain­tance, I saw that, for the mo­ment, my grand­mother was choos­ing not to favour her with recog­ni­tion.

My mother, sens­ing some­thing very un­fin­ished about this in­ter­ac­tion, but re­as­sured to see my grand­mother among the quick, was about to greet both women when my grand­mother — spot­ting my mother — stum­bled for her and grabbed her hand, as if on the verge of com­plete col­lapse.

“Oh Mackie,” she said, her voice shak­ing. “There’s been the most hor­ri­ble ac­ci­dent.” She took a stagey sort of breath. “It’s Dolly Hol­li­bone. We were com­ing out of the ser­vice and this lit­tle boy came roar­ing around the cor­ner — some peo­ple here don’t care who their chil­dren knock into — well this boy banged right into Dolly and her glasses went fly­ing and she fell and — crack — she’s bro­ken her wrist. The am­bu­lance just came and took her away.”

My mother, while lis­ten­ing closely, was also not­ing my grand­mother’s slightly over­done ap­pear­ance. Her bouf­fant curls and blond highlights had been newly main­tained, and she was wear­ing hoop ear­rings, bur­gundy lip­stick, a low- cut bur­gundy dress, and match­ing sling­back high heels. “You look aw­fully nice, Mum. What ser­vice was it? I see you got your hair done.”

“This? Same thing I al­ways do.” My grand­mother sniffed. “It just breaks your heart. Here she was, all set to go to her grand­daugh­ter’s con­cert, and Dolly ends up be­ing taken to the hospi­tal!”

My mother nod­ded and asked, “Was that Elsy Horne in the tar­tan dress?”

“Life’s full of sur­prises, I sup­pose,” said my grand­mother, her face twitch­ing with worry. “But my God, that could have hap­pened to any­body.”

As my grand­mother talked, with­out par­tic­u­larly de­cid­ing to, we’d trav­elled down the hall to­ward the el­e­va­tors. Step­ping into the near­est car, my grand­mother re­sumed her ear­lier, im­pe­ri­ous man­ner, and I saw she was per­form­ing in her imag­i­na­tion an en­tirely dif­fer­ent drama from many of Saint Vin­cent’s other res­i­dents, one of whom, in an in­side- out turtle­neck

sweater, shuf­fled to­ward us look­ing fully be­wil­dered.

“He lives in the Twi­light Zone, that one.” My grand­mother pushed at the close-door but­ton. “Some­times you can get a straight an­swer out of him. Other times? Jab­ber­wock.” She shook off a shiver. “And homely? Imag­ine hav­ing to kiss that ev­ery night.”

Taped in­side the el­e­va­tor was a va­ri­ety of colour pho­to­copies. These an­nounced Jazzer­cise ses­sions, Christ­mas car­olling, prayer groups. I was read­ing a bul­letin about a memo­rial ser­vice when my grand­mother said, “That’s what Dolly dragged me to this af­ter­noon. I didn’t mind go­ing to funer­als when they only hap­pened once in a while. But this place?” She made a pained smile, as if there were fur­ther de­tails to be di­vulged. “And do you know what hymn they chose? Mackie, you won’t be­lieve what hymn they chose. ‘They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high and they left me there on a cross to die.’” She smirked at us, as if her own dis­may had just been won­der­fully val­i­dated. “I mean, it’s the tack­i­est, most go­daw­ful hymn you can imag­ine. For a fu­neral?”

My grand­mother sat at her dress­ing ta­ble reap­ply­ing her mas­cara, the ta­ble sur­face busy with poin­set­tias, an eye­lash curler, a slim rouge brush, a sil­ver hand mir­ror, a square-bot­tomed de­canter of bour­bon, two cut-glass tum­blers, an un­opened box of Thank You notes, and, in a pine frame, a photograph of my grand­fa­ther, the print so dis­lodged most of the im­age was lost within its mat­ting. A smell of flo­ral per­fume per­vaded the en­vi­ron­ment, seem­ingly drenched into ev­ery­thing from the padded coat hang­ers in the closet to the em­broi­dered linen doilies on the dress­ing ta­ble to the white lace col­lar of my grand­mother’s bur­gundy dress. A tele­vi­sion in an­other res­i­dent’s room was loudly tuned at the mo­ment to a Christ­mas spe­cial where a tenor was qua­ver­ing through “O Holy Night.”

“I used to know the name of that song,” said my grand­mother. “Is that Andy Wil­liams?”

My mother, after a brief frown — for my grand­mother’s fail­ure to re­mem­ber afavourite Christ­mas carol was an­other of the day’s mys­ter­ies — sat on the bed and, fol­low­ing a mo­ment of pri­vate de­lib­er­a­tion, gaily leaned into the room. “So, my dear, how are things in Glocca Morra?”

“Well,” said my grand­mother. “Seven­ty­four isn’t sixty-four, I want to tell you. I’ve got three more years and then my looks are re­ally go­ing to go.” She reached for the de­canter of bour­bon and, with a slight palsy in her right hand, poured her­self a drink. “Now nor­mally I wouldn’t take a drop of hard liquor — ”

“No,” said my mother. “Just a forty­ouncer.”

“But my nerves to­day are shot. Put ev­ery­one in such a state, what hap­pened to Dolly.” She raised the glass, a bit er­rat­i­cally, spilling a dew­drop on her wrist. “Cheers, my dears.”

For the past few min­utes, my grand­mother had af­fected a mood of play­ful de­tach­ment, but, as she smiled and over­sniffed some mois­ture in a clogged nos­tril, the rest of the room be­gan to sense the mood’s es­sen­tial fal­sity. My mother was about to say some­thing, prob­a­bly to in­quire after Saint Vin­cent’s rea­sons for think­ing my grand­mother miss­ing, when foot­steps ap­proached in the hall­way.

My grand­mother turned and di­rected a ra­di­ant smile to­ward the door­way. When this vis­i­tor, an el­derly lady in bi­fo­cals, hob­bled past, it was clear this was not who my grand­mother was ex­pect­ing and she re­acted with a se­ries of mi­cro-ex­pres­sions —

a spasm of an­noy­ance, a flinch of pain, and, fi­nally, a slow-build­ing pout, as if she were con­cerned a con­spir­acy was be­ing some­where set up against her.

“Who’s that?” asked my mother. “Joyce,” my grand­mother replied, firmly, clutch­ing her glass of bour­bon. “Her daugh­ter, Mary-lou, she sings with St. Martin’sin-the-fields. She won a Bafty — she won a Bafter — she won an award. Her mother’s a Mor­row. Well” — my grand­mother in­clined her head — “was. All the old fam­i­lies are gone. The Mairs, the Mor­rows. They hardly ex­ist any­more. Oh, peo­ple used to care about each other. But it’s all seg­mented now.”

“Who are you kid­ding? You never cared about any­body. You couldn’t wait to get away.”

“Well,” said my grand­mother, bit­ter. “I still can’t.” She stared at her jew­elled wrist­watch as if she feared it might be bro­ken. “I’ve got to get out of this place. I’ve got to.”

“And go where? Back to Florida?”

“How am I go­ing to do that? I have no money.”

“What about Dompa’s pen­sion?”

“Ha! I drank that away.”

“Well,” said my mother, reach­ing for some­thing on the floor. “As long as it didn’t go to waste.” She picked up a fold of toi­let pa­per. It was vivid with a smear of lip­stick where some­one had blot­ted their lips. “You’re look­ing pretty good, Mum, for some­one who’s sup­posed to be sick — ” “I called to say I wasn’t com­ing.”

“So why get your hair done?”

“For the — the ser­vice.”

“Mmm-hmm. This is the real world. The one I have to live in. Hoop ear­rings and high heels? For a fu­neral? Some­thing’s go­ing on.”

Nan’s at­ten­tion was drawn again to the door­way, where a loom­ing shadow pre­ceded the ap­pear­ance of the wo­man in the Lind­say tar­tan dress. For some min­utes, this wo­man had been lurk­ing like Ham­let’s ghost — a rather portly, slow-mov­ing Ham­let’s ghost — and she now looked in and fixed my grand­mother with a dis­taste­ful, vin­dic­tive stare.

“She’s al­ways got some­thing up her skirt, that one,” whis­pered my grand­mother, go­ing to the door. “Mak­ing a big to-do. I’d just as soon trip her.”

A few mur­murs passed be­tween the two women be­fore my grand­mother care­lessly swung the door shut.

“That was Elsy Horne,” said my mother. “Dodie’s god­mother. What’d she want?”

“I have no idea.” My grand­mother flipped her hair. “The Catholics, they’re al­ways gang­ing up on peo­ple. Think­ing their way is the best be­cause it’s the old­est. Well, let me tell you, I was in Rome once and I’m so glad I’m not Catholic. All that blood.”

“What’d you say to her? Be­cause you said some­thing.”

“I don’t know,” said my grand­mother, reach­ing for the de­canter of bour­bon. “Go screw your­self and your dis­pen­sa­tion from the Pope.” She re­filled her glass. “Oh, she gives me the pip, that Elsy Horne.”

My mother was frown­ing. It was the day’s stark­est frown, a sort of in­tri­cacy of thought­ful­ness, but in an­other mo­ment, all frowns would van­ish as the pieces of the play for her came to­gether. “Oh, Mum.” She stared at my grand­mother with real help­less­ness. “You did not. Tell me you didn’t. Tell me you’re not car­ry­ing on with Dodie’s fa­ther.”

Mois­ture came un­bid­den to my grand­mother’s eye­lids. An­other com­mo­tion of ex­pres­sions be­gan to form in her face but none re­ally seemed to take. It was all some­how ter­ri­ble to see.

“That’s who you were ex­pect­ing? But he didn’t come to­day, did he?” My mother rose off the bed. “Mother. Look at me. His wife’s up­stairs. She’s right up­stairs. What in the name of God were you think­ing?”

My grand­mother was star­ing at us, but star­ing with­out any recog­ni­tion. At­tempt­ing to speak, her mouth be­gan to form words but no sounds were com­ing out and in­stead she made a sim­per­ing, crooked smile. Push­ing on the dress­ing ta­ble, she sud­denly started out of her chair, went over on a high heel, and top­pled to the floor. She lay where she’d fallen, shiv­er­ing.

My mother knelt be­side her and felt for a pulse. At this touch, my grand­mother screamed, as if she’d been stabbed with a let­ter-opener, and clutched at the foot of the dress­ing ta­ble. There was real mad­ness in her eyes, a sort of feral cun­ning that showed no idea but re­sis­tance.

“Aubrey” — my mother stood up — “I’m go­ing to tell the duty nurse to call a doc­tor. Stay with Nan. And” — she looked at my grand­mother’s wrist­watch — “it’s six forty. Re­mem­ber that time.” She opened the door and fled in rub­ber boots down the hall.

My grand­mother’s face was pale be­neath smears of rouge, her eyes gleam­ing with tears, her lower lip drib­bling a gos­samer line of phlegm. I was aware of a smell of raw urine — there was a damp­en­ing in her bur­gundy dress — and when I got down be­side her, she made me un­der­stand she wished to be taken to the bath­room. We rose to a hunch­backed, stand­ing po­si­tion, and Iguided her to the bath­room, her hand fee­bly shoot­ing for and grab­bing the di­ag­o­nal safety bar on the wall be­side the toi­let. After a few side-to-side lever­ag­ing move­ments, I was able to re­move from the crum­ples of her dress and panty­hose her in­con­ti­nence pad, the ab­sorbent lin­ing of which was thor­oughly soaked through. She pulled up her dress, es­tab­lished her­self on the toi­let, and waved me out of the room. I closed the bath­room door and went to the hall­way, wip­ing my hands on my jeans. I scanned the hall. See­ing no one, and mind­ful of my mother’s di­rec­tion to stay put, I went back and opened the bath­room door, star­tled to see my grand­mother sit­ting naked on the floor be­side the toi­let, a moist bit of fe­ces mys­te­ri­ously bal­anced in the groove of her col­lar­bone. The bur­gundy dress, panty­hose, foam-cupped brassiere, and high heels were dis­carded on the tile floor. She sat stricken with fright, vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and — what was worse — an ab­so­lute con­fu­sion as to where she was and what was hap­pen­ing. Which was when my mother re­turned. Flick­ing the dirt from my grand­mother’s shoul­der, she said, “Let’s get you to the bed, Mum.” I helped heave my grand­mother off the floor. A flush of sweat had risen all over her, mak­ing her skin slip­pery, and I dug my fin­gers tightly into the wat­tles of her un­der­arm to make sure she didn’t slide away from us. We stag­gered across the room and bumpily low­ered her to the bed.

Scarcely con­scious, mak­ing no ef­fort to con­ceal her naked­ness, my grand­mother sprawled on the bed­spread, a hoop ear­ring bend­ing un­der her cheek.

“Aubrey,” said my mother, watch­ing her. “Go see what’s tak­ing so long.”

My sprint­ing steps in the hall over­lapped with a sec­ond shriek from my grand­mother and, swiv­el­ling around, I saw, framed in the prosce­nium of the door­way, both women ly­ing on the bed, my mother look­ing alertly into my grand­mother’s eyes. “You be strong, Mum. Doc­tor’s com­ing any minute. You squeeze my hand. Just like that. That’s it. You hold on now. I’m right here.”

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