I stood in the doorway of Mrs. Terry’s room, wondering whether or not she was alive. I looked closer and saw her belly rise and fall. The sight of her vacant stare and diminished body lodged a stone in my stomach. Sure hope I don’t end up like this.
She must have sensed my presence because she moved her head slightly and said, “Pretty bird,” her way of saying “Hello” to everybody.
At least the room was clean and didn’t smell stale like my mother’s bedroom when she got old. Sunlight brightened the faded wallpaper—washed out pink roses against a beige background, the spring breeze moving the threadbare curtains in and out of the room. I couldn’t keep from tearing up so I slipped into her bathroom to wash my hands and get ready for our weekly routine.
I’d already said goodbye to Jenni for the afternoon. She took on the live-in aide job four years ago when I moved into Thad’s place.
I was never going to get married and have kids, just live my life and bother no one on account of the crap family I grew up in, but then I met Thad at our township’s annual yard sale. Green eyes that could slice right through to your heart and a smile that made you feel like nothing else mattered.
When I worked regular for Mrs. Terry, I roomed across the hall from her. I got by fine here at her house without a car because I could borrow hers when I needed to go further than the few blocks into town. It’s not much of a town —a bank, a diner, the post office, three chiropractors, the library and the fire department.
She lost her husband to a nasty divorce and let out her no good son’s room when she took me in as an aide. She’d kicked him out years ago when he stopped working construction, sitting around the house drinking beer and wrecking things when he got his drunk on. He came by now and then, but not much. She paid me enough to live on and she got by on her divorce money, a pension from when she worked in the post office and her social security.
I still checked in on her once a week to give Jenni a break. I never had a break when I lived here, but I figured Jenni could use it, especially now since Mrs. Terry is bedridden and needs more attention than ever. We definitely needed the money I got for coming here, not that it’s much but it also gives me a breather from Thad and the kids. My two-year-old Penny and baby boy, Jock, were probably running circles right now around their poor dad, but I knew they all could manage. And I liked knowing I could bring in money that helped keep my kids fed and clothed.
Hard to believe how much Mrs. Terry changed in the last six months. Her dementia had gotten so bad she hardly knew where she was anymore or who was with her. And I guessed that’s what bugged Arvil, her jerk of a son.
Last week when I sat in for Jenni, Mrs. Terry was lying in bed like usual and I was moving her arms and her legs around to help her circulation and make sure she didn’t get bedsores. Out of the blue he showed up and popped his head in.
“How are you, Mom?” he said.
She looked at him and gave him a weak smile.
“Pretty bird,” she said and then shifted her eyes away from him and looked at the ceiling like she was noticing it for the first time.
“How you doing, Mavis?” he said to me, all polite and nice. Like he could give a rat’s ass and like he comes to visit all the time. I hadn’t seen him in years, but I went along pretending with him.
“I’m okay, Arvil. What brings you here today?”
He wouldn’t look me in the eye and my stomach tightened.
“Checking in on Mom. Just being decent.” Then he got to the point. “Did you know she changed her will?”
I stopped working on her and looked at him like he was crazy. “Now, why would I know that?”
“I was looking through her things last week ‘cause I wanted to make sure all her papers are in order. It’s me who keeps the key to her deposit box, you know, and I saw a new will. Must’ve got it done while you were working for her regular.”
I continued stretching out and bending her legs. “Yeah, so?”
“You really don’t know nothing about it?”
“Nope.” Much as I liked Mrs. Terry, I never got involved in any of her business when I lived with her. Long as she paid me on time and didn’t make much of a fuss about my cooking and cleaning, we got on fine.
“Looks like you’re going to come into some money when she dies. She’s leaving the house to me along with the pension and bank account, but she’s got a little nest egg of some stock her daddy gave her that she never sold and she’s giving that to you, though I’m not sure she was in her right mind when she made those changes.”
I stared at him for a moment, waiting for him to give me some guff about how I didn’t deserve anything from his mom, but he just stood there looking all self-important because he knew something I didn’t.
“How much we talking about?” I picked up the body lotion on her bed stand and started massaging it into her arms and hands.
“’Bout five hundred thou,” he said in a monotone.
“You’re shitting me.” That’s half a million dollars. But I kept my cool because I wouldn’t want to jinx anything for when she died.
“No shit.” He stood in the doorway his arms folded across his chest like he was defending himself.
Silence filled the room as I massaged cream into his mom’s hands and fingers.
He abandoned his post at the doorway and tromped into the room, squeezing himself between the wall and the opposite side of the bed. He glared at me across his momma’s body, but I stood my ground.
He put his hand on his hips, like he was some kind of big shot. “Property values are going up again and even though we don’t got much land here, there’s a decent backyard and garden and the house is in good shape. Only needs a paint job, which I can do myself. Don’t know about you, but I sure would like to get my hands on that money!”
“Not while she’s in this house. Anything new or strange upsets your momma; you know that. And where do you think she’s going to live? I promised her when she was still thinking straight, that she would never have to leave her home and would die right here. She was scared about ending up in some godforsaken nursing home.”
“You don’t get what I mean. She can still die here.”
A knot tightened in my stomach. “What do you mean?”
“Well, what kind of life does she have, laying here staring at the ceiling? Needing help going to the bathroom. Can’t hardly feed herself. Can’t even read or nothing. And you know all that nursing stuff. You could help her along.”
“Help her along?” It was all I could do to keep from shouting at him. “You don’t know what life is really like for her. She still gets a kick out of seeing people even if she’s not sure who they are. Sometimes I hear her humming Broadway songs, so I know she’s happy inside. And when it’s warm enough, she likes to sit out in the garden, so she’s enjoying life in her own way. No reason to ‘help her along.’ Shame on you, Arvil.”
“Don’t kill any birds,” Mrs. Terry piped up. “Don’t kill any birds.”
I glared at him and then put a hand on Mrs. Terry’s forehead. “No birds are going to die today. Jenni put seed in the feeder yesterday, so they’re going to be around for a long time.” She smiled and closed her eyes.
“She knows something’s up,” I whispered. “So quit that nonsense.”
He gave me a pointed look. “She has no idea what we’re saying.”
“How could you even think such a thing!” I didn’t want to worry Mrs. Terry, so I kept my voice down, but I wanted to thrash him.
“Ask me, I think you’d be doing her a favor. You know how different she was when you started working for her. She didn’t like living alone, that’s all— needed help with meals and keeping the place decent. And look at her now. It’s no way to live.”
“How do you know what she wants? You never spent much time with her!”
But he had struck a nerve. I’d been wondering myself if Mrs. Terry wanted to spend the rest of her life like this. She told me when I first started working for her that she never wanted to end up “a vegetable.” I cooked and cleaned for her, but she could still take care of herself—showering and getting dressed. Drove the car and went to church every week, took a walk every morning when the weather was decent. She fell down some steps once, nothing serious, but it scared her thinking about what might have happened if she’d broken a hip or something. “Just put me out of my misery if I can’t go to the toilet or feed myself. ‘Cause then what’s the point?”
It happened to her gradual, but you could still see that light in her eyes whenever the bird feeder was swaying from all the birds gathered on it, or when she’d break into a sweet smile when she felt the sun on her face. What decent human being would want to take that away from her?
But Arvil stayed on a track that he was not going to get off of. “Look, you got two young kids and Thad’s farm is doing okay now, but what if something happened to it?”
“You threatening me?”
“Just saying. Wouldn’t you like to not have to worry about medical bills, maybe have your kids go to college? I bet there’s a lot you could do with a big windfall like that.”
Course we could use the money, but I wasn’t going to say that to Arvil. It killed me to see Thad strain every month to pay the bills and act like everything was fine, but I could see how the stress was eating away at him, taking the joy smack out of his life. I could be a real hero with that money. We could pay off the second mortgage and line of credit and still have some left over. Now that would really be something. But how could I ever go to sleep at night?
Arvil looked at me like he could read my mind. “Everybody needs money around here, who doesn’t? Think about your kids. And look at her — lying around, doing nothing. Hell, she could go on like this for another five years, maybe ten. She don’t even know me no more, and she don’t know you, neither. No reason on earth to keep her going like this!”
I did not want him to think I would ever consider such a thing but I also didn’t want to get on his bad side. Wouldn’t put it past him to set Thad’s barn on fire or the storage shed with all the snow removing and farm equipment. Some of our neighbors had told us people were stealing chickens in the middle of the night, exactly the kind of thing Arvil and his no good friends would do. I didn’t want to make a deal with the devil, but I didn’t want to piss him off either.
He looked me up and down. “You ain’t said a word. And hey, if you got the money sooner rather than later, I should have a cut, you know? It being my idea and all and me telling you about the will. You’d owe me, Mavis.” He stared hard at me, but I started massaging the cream onto Mrs. Terry’s legs and feet and kept quiet.
“Yeah, you would. Think about it,” he said and huffed out of the room.
I stayed until Jenni came back a couple hours later to make Mrs. Terry dinner and help her with her nighttime routine — going to the bathroom, giving her a sponge bath and putting her in a fresh nightgown. She wore a housedress during the day. It’s always good to get dressed in the morning, even if you aren’t going nowhere. When Mrs. Terry couldn’t dress herself any more, I told Jenni she always had to put her in clean clothes every day. No one taught me that — that’s just common sense.
I got in my rackety old car and drove back home, pushing what Arvil said out of my mind. As soon as the car rolled up the long driveway, Thad and the kids came running out, like I was royalty coming to visit. You don’t need money to feel that way, but sometimes a mom needs to feel special. It’s good to get out of the house once a week. Nice to feel appreciated. It sure would be nice not to live so hand-to-mouth, or to have the kids in old clothes from the neighbors or feel like we were really up against it if we ever had an emergency.
So here I stood, moving Mrs. Terry’s legs and arms, stretching and bending them and thinking about what that damn Arvil said last week. She was like a limp rag doll today, staring at the ceiling like I didn’t exist.
She wouldn’t understand my news if I told her. I was late this month, and was already feeling the change inside me. Hadn’t told Thad yet ‘cause I hadn’t decided what to do. So, it’d come down to this: an old empty life or a brand new one.
She’d want me to keep this baby.
Professional writer and actress Hilary S. Kayle, a Hunterdon Country resident, published two novels with the Berkley Publishing Group and currently reviews fiction for Publishers Weekly. She also interviews authors and publishing executives who appear at the annual BookExpo convention and writes up the interviews for PW’s convention newspaper, Show Daily. She just launched a new business, www.CollegeEntranceEdge.com, to help students write college application essays and shine in their college interviews.