Inspired by Alan Sillitoe, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” 1959
He had cupped one hand above his eyes, and pressed it against the glass in a clear spot between the beveled border and the lead-seamed stained glass. When he saw her advancing through the hallway’s gloom, he dropped his hand and stepped back. Clearly, she thought, Steven had warned him she might not answer the door, although she was always at home. No use, she would have to let him in.
“Hi, Mrs. Mercer.” He offered a cautious smile. “I’m Everett Gower, pastor at the Plains of Hope Church.”
“I know who you are,” she told him briskly, although the croak in her voice made her sound a good deal more uncertain than she had intended. She stood back to let him pass into the hall, but, as he was half-way through, lost her grip on the heavy oak door so that it hit him on the shoulder and upper arm. “So sorry,” she said, although, of course, she wasn’t. She saw no reason to put up with his visit, except that here she was, putting up with it.
The kitchen, where she took him, had once been filled with sunlight when the children were little and Reuben was alive. Now the dying elms crowded out most of the light, and the tall stocks of pink or blue hollyhocks that used to nod and wink at her above the window sills and that her father had planted when she was a child had, without good light, long ago died out. Puzzled, she noticed that his eyes had widened, turned in the direction of his gaze and saw that a burner on the gas stove was blazing away.
“I turned that on just as I heard your ring at the door,” she said, trying not to sound defensive. In fact, she had no memory of turning it on, but if she couldn’t explain that flame burning away without even a kettle on it, Steven would have the city on her in a minute and would force her into signing that damn power of attorney, and she would be finished. Hurriedly, which, she recognized, was actually glacially slowly, she pulled the – thank god it was full, although who had filled it? And when? – kettle over the flame. She now kept the few utensils and dishes – a plate, a bowl, two cups, a water glass – she used all the time on the counter within easy reach.
She carried the pair of saucerless cups to the table where Pastor What’s-his-name was sitting with a hint of tension in his shoulders and a self-righteous smile on his mouth. His eyes were tiny, light blue, and hard, his pupils so contracted they had virtually disappeared. Where the hell had the teapot gone? But she gritted her teeth and took it from the pastor who had found it on the table behind the pile of books and greasy art magazines, carried it to the counter, dropped in a teabag and poured the not-yet-boiling water in. She could feel the assault of his grimace behind her. When she turned with the full pot, he leaped up, took it from her, and filled both teacups, not waiting for any semblance of steeping. Therefore, he was as eager as she was to get this – whatever it is – over with.
“Steven sent you.”
“He’s a good son; he’s concerned about you.” He glanced around the room and up at the cobwebs in the corners, where the dark-beamed ceiling met the crumbling once-white plaster walls, then over to the stove, and, without speaking, at the same moment as she realized that again she hadn’t turned off the burner, he jumped up, in two strides was at the stove, cut the flame and was back at the table again, fixing on her once more, comically, that hyper-intense pale blue gaze of his.
“What a bore you are,” she said, though pleasantly.
“He said you would be angry.”
“He wants my property; he wants me to sign a power of attorney. How Christian is that?” The pastor’s left cheek did a minute, quick dance; she could feel him wanting to draw back. Good.
“He wants your well-being, as we all do,” he responded, his voice soft, leaning closer to her, “Although he did say you would say that, even that you believe that.”
“Do you know what this place is worth? If not the house, at least this large lot in this truly refined and elegant area?” She could hear herself hissing. How she mourned the dead fruit trees in the small orchard at the back of the yard near where a fishpond had once been. Never mind. She didn’t believe herself that this was all that Steven wanted, but it seemed easier to defend herself with this claim. “I’m told a couple of million.” There, case closed. She managed to push her chair back an inch or two, enough that she could get herself to a standing position without falling or taking the hand he proffered.
“I don’t like you,” she told him. “I think it is diabolical of you to come here and try to coerce an old woman into doing something so profound, so inalterable that she does not want to do, purely for your own reasons.” Her word-choice delighted her as mostly she couldn’t think of words when she wanted them. She knew what they were but, slippery fish, they swam cunningly just beyond her grasp. “I will stay here; I will die here in my own house where I was,” she was about to say ‘born’ but she hadn’t been born here, but then, who would remember that? It was nearly a hundred years ago and she could say anything she damn well pleased. “Born!” she said. “Where I gave birth to my three children,” also not true, “Where I was married,” sort of true, and only with her second husband, the reception had been in the back garden when it was splendid with flowers, “Where my mother died,” true, “and where I lived my whole life.” Except for her years in art school in the east of the country, and the few she spent in New York, and the five or so when she had lived in Europe with her first husband, Piers. And then there were those years after a heart attack felled her second husband, Reuben, her children’s father, when she had had to go out to schools across the country to teach and earn some money, her own practice as an artist not having made her a penny until lately – stuff she had done as a young woman mostly – when she no longer cared about money and didn’t need it anyway. Except to pay the taxes on this monstrous abode of hers. She must not ever forget to pay the taxes. Steven probably made a fair-size donation to the church.
“I want you to leave now.” His expression didn’t change; he simply stood as if he had been planning to all along, for a brief second rested one hand lightly on her shoulder, walked out of the room, and down the hall. She struggled to her feet again and followed him, bumping against the wall – she had a tendency these days to wander a bit to the right. When it wasn’t to the left.
At the door, he said, “You phone me if you need anything. The church is here to help. And Steven and your daughters have your best interests at heart. They are not trying to steal from you or to mistreat you. They want you to be comfortable and safe in your last years.” She wanted to slam the door while he was still standing in it, but it was too heavy and while she was wrestling with it, he had stepped out onto the wide verandah, about to go, then quickly turned back again. “A power of attorney –,” but she managed to get the door shut on the rest of his sentence, then pulled back the filthy – even she recognized that the damn thing was filthy – sheer curtain that covered the narrow window beside the door with its bevelled and stained glass for which a collector had offered her a small fortune not so long ago, and watched Reverend Gower trot down the front steps, and then the straight-as-an-arrow path to the gate which he opened carefully, and shut with even more care, then went round his car, pausing at the driver’s door to look up to the front of her house where she stood gazing out at him, then got in and drove away. She hoped he had seen the finger.
She went back to the kitchen, the single room in which she now lived, to the darkest corner where, on the counter in plain view, except for the shadows, she kept her scotch. Somewhere there should be a glass. She found it in the sink, rinsed it vaguely, and, not bothering to dry it, poured in a good dollop of booze.
The next thing she knew her middle daughter Karen was standing in the kitchen, staring straight at her with an expression of mild horror while a second woman, a stranger in professional dress (navy jacket, white blouse, tailored tan slacks) stood beside Karen, gazing around with undisguised interest at Grace’s arrangements.
“Who is she?” Grace demanded, although she knew perfectly well: social worker, probably the Mrs. Crowley on whom she had hung up at least three times and for whom she had twice refused to open the door. “Go away, both of you. Right now!” This tone had subdued her children, even as late as into their teens. When neither woman moved, she cast about for some other weapon in her sadly shrunken arsenal: don’t answer the door, don’t answer the phone, scream louder at people than they are screaming at you, cut them dead with your scintillating wit, recite your rights, then recite them again. She could see that she was moving toward the end of possibilities. She would not budge. She would not.
“Mother, where are you manners? Take Mrs. Crowley into the front room while I do a little tidy ̶ while I make some tea.”
“I loathe tea,” Grace said. “Would you like a drink?” she asked Mrs. Crowley, but the scotch bottle seemed to have disappeared. Mrs. Crowley bestirred herself.
“I think it is time we had at least a conversation,” she said. For once Grace didn’t detect unctuousness, or the superciliousness that she had long ago discovered was the voice used mostly to address the old: the old as stubborn, offensive in their very existence, newly stupid, ineffective and always helpless, too close to death to be bothered with except as packages to be bathed and humped around in wheelchairs.
“At just what point did I stop being a human being?” she inquired. Karen said quickly, “Mother! No one said –,” Grace had managed to get to her feet, Karen apparently not having noticed what she was trying to do and therefore, not helping, and Mrs. Crowley watching her again with that expression of neutral interest, as if they were not two people standing a few feet apart in the same room, but that Grace was only a bloody – what was that? hologram – as if Grace was only an electronic projection of her former self.
“Have you been smoking again?” Karen asked, trying but failing to sound neutral as Mrs. Crowley seemed to do with such ease.
“I never stopped,” Grace said. She was moving past the two women toward the door into the hall. She found that, although she always fumed at being told what to do by people less than half her age, she was curious to see what her front parlour looked like these days. It had been months, maybe even longer, since she had last seen it. She felt as though she were visiting childhood friends, filled with curiosity to see what time had done to them, but hugely disappointed to discover they were still the same bloody people.
Somebody had covered the furniture with old sheets. She tried to throw off the one covering the brocade love seat but lost her balance and would have fallen if Mrs. Crowley – “Please call me Toni,” – hadn’t caught her.
“Never mind. Let’s just sit.” The woman plunked herself down on the sheet-covered parlour chair across from Grace, set her overly-large purse on the rug, opened it and pulled out some sort of electronic gizmo – an electronic notebook, it would seem. Although Grace’s hearing wasn’t at all good, she could hear crashes and bangs coming from the kitchen and the clashing and ding of pots. This meant that Karen was furious at the mess and was letting her know.
“She wants me to move immediately into a nursing home – a – an ‘”assisted living place,”’ whatever that is.”
Mrs. Crowley said, “I expect you know perfectly well what that is.” She smiled at Grace as if Grace’s tactics amused her. She went on, “I deal exclusively with the old and while all the usual applies, I find it kind of fun to watch you all use the same dodges when it suits you: I’m old, you can’t expect me to know that; I’m old, you do it – here she switched tones – Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I can’t look after myself.” In spite of herself, Grace laughed.
“Well, you can hardly blame us,” she said. “We have so few options left.”
“You still have your brain.”
“Of course, I do, although my children think I’m far gone into senility.”
“Children often confuse perceptual difficulties and the new slowness of mental organization for a damaged brain.”
“Also, any sense one maintains of one’s right to autonomy.” She huffed this out furiously.
“They do want you to move, and I am pretty convinced, now that I’ve met all three of them, that they really do have your welfare at heart. They really do not believe you to be capable any longer of taking care of yourself. They are truly afraid for you.”
“I notice you didn’t say, “’They love you.”’
“Don’t you believe they do?”
“Actually, no. They used to, but that dwindled and died as the years of my recalcitrance extended themselves until you find me now – as I am. Just a bloody, old nuisance. And they are bound by now-worthless family ties to keep an eye on me. This does not include caring about what I want.”
“That’s a harsh judgement on your own children.”
“They cannot even begin to imagine themselves old,” Grace said, and heard the querulousness in her own voice, heard even the edge of despair, which served only to further infuriate her.
“They believe that when their time comes they will manage things much better,” Mrs. Crowley suggested. “That they will never find themselves in this position.”
“What, you mean alive? And with a will? When she gets finished in there I won’t be able to find a damn thing. I need a cigarette.”
“And that’s another thing. They think you will burn the house down with yourself in it.”
“And still I want a cigarette.” She fumbled around in the pocket of the apron she seemed, inexplicably, to be wearing, and lo and behold, found a squashed pack of cigarettes and a small box of matches. It was like magic, and she held them up to show Mrs. Crowley. Mrs. Crowley leaned forward to help her light a match and held it to the end of the cigarette as Grace puffed on it.
“You want me to agree to leave.”
“In lieu of that, to agree to a home care worker coming in each day to make sure you are safe and have had a hot meal. Or Meals on Wheels could come every day. Maybe that would be better. But first and foremost, why do you refuse to move to a safer, warmer, more comfortable place?”
“I can’t believe you are even asking me that question. I was born here and have lived here almost all my life.” Her cigarette seemed to have gone out, in fact, had disappeared, but there was a scattering of ash on her apron’s lap.
“No,” Mrs. Crowley said. “That’s a fiction, although you have lived here many, many years, even when you were a child. But frankly, between you and me, I don’t quite believe that’s what the obsessiveness is all about.” Grace studied her carefully.
“I had certainly never imagined that you might be interesting.”
“Are you afraid of dying?”
“Of course, but then, also, not a bit.”
“I mean that if you move, you’ll die.”
“There’s no question about that.”
“Is it – I think I’m getting it – is it just that old question of making your own decisions about your own life?”
“Wow!” Grace said. “I bet you went to graduate school.” There was a silence. A thin stream of smoke from a newly-materialized ashtray curled upward beside Mrs. Crowley’s elbow. Hmm. So that’s what had happened to her cigarette. She considered lighting a second one, just to show that she could, but it seemed too much trouble. “And also, they want me – Steven especially – to sign a power of attorney document. So he can sell this place out from under me and force me into moving.”
“He will have to go to court to get that from you if you refuse to give it,” Mrs. Crowley said. She sighed. “He needs lawyers and doctors to certify your inability to look after yourself …” She let her voice trail away. “He will do it, you know. I suspect the very fact of your extreme age will guarantee his success. He has been holding off in hope that you will consent on your own to a move and a sale.” Grace said, “I wish for a drink. I need a drink.”
“Not wise, under the circumstances,” Toni said.
“I hurt all over,” Grace said, that querulous note returning to her voice. But it was true. “They’ll give me strong drugs for the aches and pains, but I can’t have a goddamn drink? What’s the matter with them? Do they think my heart might stop?” She had been yelling. She knew this because there was Karen standing in the door, carrying a tray with the teapot and teacups on it.
“Mom,” she said. “Please.”
“It’s all right, Karen,” Toni said. “We are doing fine.” She wanted to tell them both to get out right now, but her mouth was suddenly parched for tea, so she held back the stream of invective she had been hoarding.
“There is also the route of getting the house condemned. City inspectors and all that.” Just as Karen set down the tray on the small table between them, Grace realized her apron was on fire, and already Toni had pushed past Karen, nearly knocking her over, and had grabbed at the apron, tearing it off Grace, rolling it into a ball and stomping on it.
“You see!” Karen shouted. “Mother? Do you see?”
Having tidied the parlour, taken away the tea things, and seen her settled with a small salad and a chicken sandwich on white bread at her kitchen table from which Karen had cleared away the mayonnaise jar, the ketchup bottle, the jar of mouldy raisin chutney, the raspberry jam and saucer of honey, the leftover bread crusts from a day or two before, the stack of old magazines, and whatever else had been sitting there within handy reach, they prepared to leave.
“Susan will come by in the morning on her way to work,” Karen said. “She’ll get you a hot breakfast. By the way, the grocer left your box of supplies on the verandah. I brought it in and put the things away. And…” Grace’s heart sped up, pattering away lightly low in her throat. “And Mrs. Crowley and I are getting in a home-care worker to give you a bath.” She held up a hand shoulder-high, palm first. “Mother, you smell of urine. A bath and clean clothes.”
“Just how do you propose I get upstairs to the bathroom?” (She used the toilet off the kitchen and, as far as she could remember, bathed in the kitchen sink.)
“She will bathe you down here in the kitchen where it is warm. I’ve brought some clean clothes for you.” Not waiting for her to wind herself up to rage again, they both said a cheery, “See you soon,” and were gone.
She was amazed to find herself hungry, but the sandwich was delicious and she savoured every bite, although it was, of course, too much food for her. Then she lay down on the sofa, which had become her bed, wedged into the corner of the room and on which, years before, the family dog and occasional cat usually slept. There, she fell asleep.
She must have been dreaming, because a voice had been shouting in her ear, “Watch out! Pay attention!” She opened her eyes and saw that the room had darkened; it was twilight, she must have slept all afternoon. On a previous visit, Karen or Susan or possibly even Steven had moved a standing lamp to the end of the couch where she placed her head and now, sitting up, she clicked it on and studied the room in which she found herself. Still the kitchen, no flame burning on the stove, no smoke rising from anywhere that she could see, no tap gushing water, and on the table only one pretty little mouse chewing away at the remains of her sandwich.
She could see Reuben sitting across the room from her, in the shadows in the corner where an old wooden kitchen chair remained that she had once used to stand on when she needed to reach things high in the cupboard. She couldn’t quite make out his face, but it was him all right, wearing his baggy, dirt-smudged, denim pants, that he used when he gardened and his faded plaid flannel shirt over a worn-out blue dress shirt. She had always liked him best in that outfit for some reason. So masculine, so earthy, or something.
“What do you want?” she inquired, as if she were annoyed by his constant neediness.
“The rhododendrons need cutting,” he said. “And somebody should fertilize the rose bushes.”
“Those bushes are dead,” she said, and then, maybe a trifle plaintively, “Aren’t they?” The chair creaked as he stood. Now she could see his face; how lined it was, how cheerful his expression. “My girl,” he said, tenderly. They both laughed. Then he was gone.
Once she had seen a bird that way: some bird she didn’t recognize, in fact doubted even existed so strange was it, and when she glanced down for an instant to see where her feet were, the bird had vanished, just as Reuben had vanished, but both had left behind the same absence. Not as when things just weren’t where you thought they were – your car keys, your glass of gin, your hairbrush – but when the absence itself becomes a thing. Very well, the bird, the man, both had come from another reality and when they had gone back to it, the space between the two realities didn’t close right away. You could still see it. How wonderful that was. What unexpected, vast hope that gave her.
But, oh, dear, Grace thought. Something is definitely up. A voice inside her head said, They will now turn off your gas and electricity and your water. They will say it is because your house is unsafe. They will take you out when the wrecking crew arrives. There is no bloody way I am leaving until they haul me out as the house comes down around me. It occurred to her that her mother, exquisitely brought up as she was, would be angry with her for making a spectacle of herself. For giving up her dignity.
Steven, she knew it, would be along soon, probably as soon as she was bathed and in clean clothes. He would bring that lawyer again; he would bring documents for her to sign and if she refused, and they all knew she would, he would return with the lawyer again and two medical doctors and they would take everything away from her.
“I am clinging to my very soul right now,” she cried, raising a fist and looking up to the dingy ceiling where cobwebs hung down and dead flies stuck to years-old flypaper turned in the golden light from the lamp. How beautiful they were, transparent columns of light, her ceiling a glinting, shimmering speckled garden. “I am clinging to my very soul.” Whispered, this time.
“Mother,” Steven had said patiently to her. “You cannot fall again; your bones are too fragile; if you fall again, you will …”
“You bring death with you,” she said. He had begun to cry. I have come this; I have made my children cry; I have made my son cry.
It was very dark outside now, probably past midnight, and the dawn would bring her end. That was what Reuben’s visit was all about; it was to tell her she had reached the end of choice. She could feel her heart squeezing and releasing in her chest. Was it her imagination, or was it weaker and slower than usual? Well, why not? she asked herself. I’ll soon be one hundred years.
By using the chair on one side of her knees and the thin wooden column of the lamp on the other, she managed to stand. The back of her skirt felt warm and she recognized that she had wet herself. She would not say, again.
She was so very stiff from lying down all the afternoon, but by pulling herself along from piece of furniture to piece of furniture, she made it to the sink, which she grasped and held onto, thinking she would perhaps boil the kettle again and make herself a nice, hot cup of tea. But Reuben had returned, not that she could see him, but she could feel him around her, warm and loving as he had usually been, or was at his best. Scrabbling about on the counter she found the stack of magazines that Karen must have forgotten to take with her. She pulled the stack toward her, fumbled in her pocket, and when she found what she wanted, knocked the magazine on top of the pile over toward the sink. It fell half in and half out, spreading its pages awkwardly. She pulled two pages off, the ones that had refused to lie down neatly, and with her other hand, opened her package of matches and extracted one. This, she saw at once, would fail; she would only fall down or do some other such stupid thing of the kind she had found herself doing over and over again the last few months. Or was it years?
But somehow or other the burner was on, the blue and yellow flames warming her and lighting up even the dark corner where previously, Reuben had sat. She sighed, gazing into the darkness out the window one more time, although she could see only the wrinkled visage of a very old woman, and then put the magazine’s pages to the fire. When they caught and flamed high in her hand, she managed to reach up and over to the grimy curtains that framed the window, pushed the flame toward them, and waited. In a moment, the cheery red and orange flames had chased each other up the cloth and now, the bent and stained ceiling panels were beginning to smoke.
Satisfied, she found the bottle of scotch – how had it gotten there – poured herself a drink, and sat down on her sofa to savour it while black smoke began to roll down from the ceiling and the fire grew, all the while, noisier and noisier, whistling and crackling and whooshing in a satisfying way.