tara.mantel@gmail.com
 

Confessions

 
 
From The Gettysburg Review
Pushcart Prize honorable mention

1. Breath

I watch the dead, but not in the way you might think: that is, as spirits, as cold-cloud entities hovering in the corners of rooms said to be haunted, or as they appear in horror films—gray-blue zombies hobbling rancidly down abandoned urban streets or in moonlit cornfields. Rather, I watch the ni of my old and sick ones break down and lose its vitality. I watch until the ni cannot keep wrong thoughts away, until they swirl down from the mind to the soul, already hollowed, as if awaiting them. In time I watch the ni, the strong ghost, move on and up and away; sometimes this happens before my eyes—my sweetie in a bed or on a couch or even a wicker chair on some porch. When it’s over, I take the time to watch the body not breathe.

The first last breath I saw was that of a man, drawn in deeply, with gusto, and released through the top of his head. This breath was the color of a ripe cherry and I held it in my hand for exactly three seconds.

2. Secrets

I, too, move on—to the next one and the next one. I happen to have had many men, which is different from having had many women, though tissue is tissue, thin blood is thin blood. This is my career: the dead I am often around to watch during the first minute of their deaths are alive with me before that, for any number of months, sleepwalking or getting lost in walk-in pantries or softly praying or mumbling bitterroot under breaths of day-old syrup or potato.

I get my latest sweetheart, Henry, from his kitchen. He has forgotten where he left his tea, but it is on the front porch, shaded by a giant awning. I can see the tea there, half-drunk, getting cold. I guide him by the elbow, his hand dangling and weakened from the cancer, across the living room. I have just put a CD in the stereo and say with a raised voice, “Listen, Henry, it’s Ella.”

Henry stops, looking around for the sound. His eyes brighten. “A real siren,” he says.

I will dwell later on that word, siren. It has vixen in it somewhere, the fox, the sharp wit and the lies, the short gait, the hop. The Greek enchantress and the warning. It has Henry’s age all wrapped up in it, in its allusion to another era. He has also said jaunty and screwball and dapper and gumption, even cut of his jib, which I like and try out—just for fun—on my caretaker friend, Jo, and the girls in my book group.

I sit Henry down on the porch, in his cushioned wicker chair. It’s spring, petals of the earliest daffodils curling inward, already drought-ridden. Sometimes I send him out with a watering can. He says he likes to hear the crackling sound of the dirt taking in the water, which I don’t think is possible without the hearing aid he refuses to get, but here we are looking over the daffodils on his huge front porch, a porch bigger than my first remembered home. His lungs are eaten away, cancer-pocked at the tissue-laden, gas-exchanging surface, and now his spine suffers the spread and warp. What’s left of his hair is yellowed and silky. His voice is hoarse because there is little space for breath.

We live-ins—sequestered, toeing borderlines, squished by family members who hire us but never listen to us (I am the fly on the wall and they swat at me if I rub my magic wings)—have a certain definition of fun, a certain idea about humor, and this is necessary, in my view, to do the job well. Henry is my sixth employer in six years, and even though we are taught about the importance of detachment, I don’t like to say employer. The problem is that although I am the employee, I get possessive with my charges, my sweeties. Seven weeks ago Henry’s daughter Angela made him go to church. I disagreed with that—Christianity, like other diseases, having long since swept through my land—but what can I say? And so I drive him to Saint Michael’s and walk him in and wait in the car for Mass to end.

Angela also made Henry give away his rabbit to a high school kid down the road. I do not understand why Henry allows her to dictate the terms of his final months. Made him. You can talk as high as the clouds about the positive effect animals have on sick people, talk yourself ridiculous about the money you can save on doctor bills and therapy bills, but none of this can change the outlook of a self-described martyr, a daughter with an ax to grind on the subject of pets.

Henry has not been the same since his rabbit was taken away. A week ago, in fact, while getting his walking exercise around the house, he removed all pictures of her from the walls and bookshelves, and stacked them in a corner. We have been together something like a year, and still, Henry won’t tell me certain things, like even the name of this rabbit. Like the reason for his aversion to lemonade. Like the reason for his map collection, extensive enough to fill the upstairs closet, which is as big as an old-fashioned pantry, and spill out into one of the unused bedrooms. Like why it is he thinks he is being punished with lung cancer given that he’s never smoked.

Must I know these things? When the last breath leaves him, I want to have a vision to focus on—I want to see all his elements flow away from him in a foamy, gaseous release. It’s the rippling away I throw my own rock into, so I can’t say my watching is selfless; I always take my ill with me, I always choose theft. I want the secrets he would tell grandchildren in that way they wouldn’t recognize: confession disguised as a morality tale or as a casual observation or even as the early babblings that mark the onset of senility.

3. Men

My first was eighty-seven, Clayton Thompson, a weasel-eyed spitfire who ate pickled eggs out of a jar, chewed tobacco, and drank whiskey. If not whiskey, then scotch. Despite his decaying liver, there was no doctor who could set him straight, or dared to. He said, “If drinking is my life sentence, bring it on.” He was a loose cannon, a rhubarb-necked desperado with hands the size of grizzly paws. I brought him fruit that rotted away in bowls.

He mostly wanted to eat out, so I took him wherever he wanted. I called to ask the family, but he said, “To hell with them all, I don’t need no goddamned permission.” We ate at upscale Italian places, fish-fry joints, sandwich shops, and cafés with menus on blackboards. His coordination was lost to the early stages of Parkinson’s, but really it was his mouth you had to look out for: he cursed red and purple, let the fury streak his face and knot up behind his ears. He ranted about gas mileage and OPEC and the decreasing whatever and the increasing everything. His advice to me? “Fuck a lot of women.”

But his tirades required no reply and thus no participation. He could be calmed by a nod or grunt in agreement or approval, because if you approved, you were his friend, and if you were his friend, then he had nothing to convince you of, and if he had nothing to convince you of, then there was no show.

He died of a heart attack seven months after I moved in, and I call him my sweetie because his blue streaks left in me a love of silence.

The next three were all terminally ill, bedridden, toilet-prone. All fluids left them, their tiny bathrooms a chrome-barred prison. I cleaned these men and their bathrooms until I was raw, until I understood the concept of creative warfare: battles that took place in cubelike rooms and in impossible hallways and in laundry rooms with tired machines and in dresser drawers that wouldn’t stay full and in my men shamed into silence by their failing bodies. Their children came, their siblings and their friends, but my men, in their patterned pajamas, hid from them by blending into the wallpaper, into stripes and dots and miniature flower bouquets.

But they tricked me, every one. Herb Winkle, my youngest sweetie, asked me to page through a photo album filled with wartime photos—eighteen-year-olds with thin moustaches, cigarette packs rolled in shirt sleeves, parachutes ballooning down onto scrubby hills, bars lit in neon, topless women encircling yet more chrome bars. He pointed to a bald, tattooed man and said, “This man saved my life with a hairpin that”—he pointed to a naked woman hanging upside down on one of the bars—“he happened to find in his pocket a week later. Do you believe it? I was chained to a street grille in a piss-stained alley in Seoul. Because I took some asshole’s girl. Would’ve had to cut my arm off.”

Benny Lindser’s family never visited except for a daughter, once. He was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, so mostly I moved him: from the bed to the wheelchair to the toilet to the wheelchair to bed. His jaw hung slack. I talked a lot of nonsense, a lot of cheery drivel. When I ran out of drivel and patience I put the radio on—talk shows to fill the room with chatter. Benny had been a geology professor and cave spelunker. He had four ex-wives. He had a scar along his spine. He had a fear of rodents. The daughter had the answers: an inability to connect emotionally to women; the collapse of an abandoned underground coal mine in Haynes; a friend who died after contracting hantavirus. One morning I brought his oatmeal over to him, tied his bib, and went to raise the window shades. After the third shade, I felt the static slice up my body. I let the ghost rise before making phone calls, before writing 8:53 a.m. on a scrap of paper and tacking it to the kitchen bulletin board.

The only woman I took care of, Hazel Sonnenberg, sat for hours on the edge of the couch sorting her National Enquirer magazines. She drank one and a half glasses of red wine every day, and ate her eggs with ketchup. Hazel asked me the questions—how old was I, did I have children, where did I live? I said, “I live on beams and rafters, like a bat.” The real answers confounded her. I tried to explain, but she shook my replies away. With Hazel, I did not provide twenty-four-hour care, so at night I stayed with Jo or my friend Nadja to save money. Days, Hazel and I sorted magazines. Or read coupon booklets, remarking on all that was on sale. We just clipped and sorted. One day she folded up a large tampon coupon (from the “not using” pile) into a butterfly. The Pla of Playtex spanned one wing. Then she folded Grey Poupon mustard into a crane. Johnsonville brats into frog. Cool Whip into a fish. We hung them on a mobile.

Hazel started getting tired a lot. She’d say, “I have no pep.” Tests were run. She had four weeks left. In one week, almost all of her ni dissipated—I could practically see the fog whispering out through her eyes and ears. I heard that, in the hospital right before her death, she lashed out at one of the nurses and had to be restrained and given Thorazine.

The wife of Nate Claibourne, my fifth sweetie, died from breast cancer, and two years after that Nate was being fatally poisoned by his own blood. Nate told me that his wife had been a stage actress and that they first made love backstage at the Blue Moon Theater in Chicago, in a huge wooden bin filled with costumes. Her career ended a month later, and she would be pregnant for nearly nine consecutive years. He said, three weeks before he died, his brown eyes watery and faded, “I took her from the stage—I thought it was the right thing—but she was no good at being herself.”

I thought, Now is your chance to speak, watch your treasures gleam, say your peace keepsakes in this room, your haven, my presence your witches' brew.

4. Games

Months go by. Henry and I fall into playing long, nonsensical card games. The cards we use have a purple fleur-de-lis pattern on the back. They are worn and soft from his hands, from years of his skin’s oil and warmth. Angela hates these games. “Next, you’ll have him gambling,” she says. She worries about his soul, which she says is blackened from sins she’ll never utter. But I am not paid to keep Henry holy. I am here to keep him clean and fed and medicated.

There is no name for the game we play, and this is because the rules keep changing, and this is because Henry’s mind is not consistent. I pretend to strategize and then put down an ace of spades, which might be an important card in this particular game, which began as something resembling gin, but now Henry layers cards upon each other, as in solitaire.

I am tempted to reach for the book my group is reading this month, The Last Salamander, because Henry could take twenty minutes to make his move. Susan, the group’s leader and a part-time librarian, chose this title. We meet at people’s houses. Angela does not like that I get this time off, but it’s in the contract. She rolls her eyes when she shows up to relieve me. Jo says, “Remember, you’re the one doing her a favor.” I say, “If I don’t take this time off, when will I get any?”

I bake things for the meetings. Before Angela arrives, I get Henry situated on the porch with Ella or Louis playing. I make sure he has several issues of Scientific American nearby, and then cut, slice, or arrange whatever I’ve made and bring a plate of it to him.

Henry holds the index finger of his right hand up in the air, as if an idea has struck him. He says, “A very good move,” and I smile. Sometimes I get to pick a card from the “pot” and sometimes I don’t. This is okay, that the game changes colors; these games with no reason are not always entertaining, but they are lifelike, and this is what I try to remember: good plays at the end of a lifelike life.

5. Confessions

Let me tell you about the future dead and their confessions. They will all begin with an argument over whether a certain shirt should be washed. He will wear it, I will want to wash it, and he will not want to take it off. I will let the matter rest for a few minutes while I go to get tea or pills or cough drops, and when I come back, he will offer me a clue, he will blurt out an almost random thought about someone I don’t know, the person who would most appreciate it being gone or lost or long dead. So I try. I say you a lot. I nod my head, say, “I know she would understand how you feel. If only you would have known.” I say, “You were right to tell her when you did.” I say, “You did what you could.” But I have no way to measure the accuracy of what I say. I soothe in the way only a bystander to near death can: by walking my old and sick across their last street, like a child in a fifties documentary, doling out my belief and trust, professing my faith in their good intentions, derailed by time or not.

6. A Woman

There is a distant phenomenon brewing for us, a treat from the heavens, and this phenomenon corresponds to Henry’s life span.

Henry’s middle name is Halley, and one of his last wishes is to view his namesake, Halley’s comet, which he was not able to do seventy-six years ago, which was when it last appeared. I know that Henry has watched comets before, that for a period in his life he sat vigilant under the night sky keeping tabs on certain celestial endeavors—Comet West, in 1976, and Comet Kohoutek, in 1973. So lately, on his good days, he reads about a space ball several miles in diameter, tiny by sidereal standards, packed with solar debris and ice, an ancient projectile whose orbit has been altered by planetary activity and now brings us an orb with a fiery, gaseous tail.

His plan is to sit in the field beyond the yard, where the darkness is unobscured by fluorescent effluvia such as traffic signals and street lights, and wait. And how can I resist? He is very specific about what he needs: a view of the horizon, since the comet will be low in the sky; his wide-field telescope, which he thinks is in the attic; his Adirondack chair, which might be in the shed; and his wide-brimmed straw hat, which is probably lost.

I find him in bedroom closets or lost in the middle of hallways. I find him upstairs, pulling down the attic panel with its attached step ladder. I ask him what he needs so that I can get it for him. “I want,” he says, feeling the air with his fingertips, “my telescope.” His hand flies to his temple, and he squints, thinking. “My Meade telescope.”

In the attic, I stumble around boxes and pails and iron bed frames. Bug carcasses and mouse scat litter the floor. Drafting boards and collapsed tripods, white with dust, lean against the walls. I sneeze repeatedly.

“Henry, you have mice,” I say.

“What?” Henry says.

“Mice.”

I wipe my nose on my sleeve, then bend to open boxes. I grab the flashlight sitting on the ledge and shine the beam on their contents: rolls of steel and cloth tape, piles of Scientific American and National Geographic and Reader’s Digest, calibrated cylinders with metal loops on one end, large compasses with metal bracketlike appendages sticking out of them, cameras of all sizes, one box filled with cases stamped Keuffel and Esser Co. in gold lettering, several editions of the Illustrated Price Guide to Antique Surveying Instruments and Books.

Between the boxes I find more equipment, all of it covered in old sheets.

“Henry,” I say. “Can you give me a hint?”

“I think it’s in a blue case,” he says. “No, a wooden one.”

I come over to the attic door and look down at Henry. He sits, wheezing, on a rung of the step ladder.

“You have mice up here.”

His head bobbles a little. Then the creases in his neck appear, which means he’s going to speak.

“Well, they don’t eat much,” he says.

“I’ll tell Angela, she can deal with it.”

I go back and start pulling at the sheets. Eventually I find the telescope. It is indeed in a wooden carrying case, which is bulky but manageable. I climb down and close the attic panel. Henry has disappeared to the spare room, where he digs around in the closet, looking for his wide-brimmed hat. So I kneel down and rummage through the boxes and tins and rolled maps and drafting supplies.

I’m pulling at a box at the bottom of a stack and in the process knock over another. A few drafting pencils and what looks like a silver chain fall out. A locket. It’s a fine one, oval, engraved, heavy, barely rusted except along its tiny hinge. I open it quickly, and in fact there is a picture in it. I gather it in my hand, quickly, and put away the pencils and boxes.

There is no sign of the hat, so I take Henry downstairs to the porch. It’s dark; a storm is blowing in. I push him in closer to the glass-topped wicker table, where he begins wiping down the telescope case with a damp cloth.

The telescope project will busy him for days, because he will have to rest his hands and his back often. I go inside to make chamomile tea. Angela buys the stuff in bags, but I get it fresh from Nadja, who grows it and mixes it with just enough lavender. I put the kettle on, feeling the locket, smooth and magnetic, in my pocket. I lean back on the counter and fish it out. The picture is of a Native woman, unsmiling, long black hair flowing down her shoulders.

I dump a tablespoon of herbs into the infuser. This face does not match that of any on Henry’s walls. A locket: an exchange, encapsulated hope, pure youth. I decide that if Henry ever confesses anything, the confession would be of her, this anonymous woman, this portion of all that his ni comprises.

7. Provocations

Henry ignores his children’s fights. Angela seems to provoke them—she gets on the phone and yells at the brother, her husband, somebody—and then hangs up and huffs and sulks. I do not like the cut of this woman’s jib, this woman who sees only the bruises on people. The bruise on me is that I exist, and that I help her father. That I will allow him a peach if he wants a peach, that I will give him coffee if he wants coffee, that I will let him stack photos wherever he wants, that I don’t believe there is a “wrong” way to organize the cabinets.

I was hired initially because Henry began to have accidents. He’d fall, he’d forget to eat, he’d take too many pills. The son said he had slowed considerably, that he had aged more in two years than he had in the last fifteen. He got in a minor car accident that was his fault.

A month after I arrived, I found bloody tissues in the bathroom garbage can. His regular coughing had turned into near spasms that ended with a deathly choking sound. The bronchoscopy revealed a large mass growing quickly into the lumen and obstructing the airway. The cancer had already spread to his spine.

I hear a car pull up and look out the window. Angela is in the driveway taking some groceries out of the trunk of her car. I go to the front door and hold it for her.

“Hi, Nina,” she says. “Thanks.”

Her mood is not so bad today. Instead of putting the bags on the counter and unloading them, she leaves them and walks out to the porch, where Henry sits. I hear a faint “Hi, Dad.”

I don’t hear a reply.

I take advantage of the opportunity to put away the food myself, and be spared the commentary she typically has for how I have chosen to arrange the refrigerator. I see she bought oranges, which I’ve told her Henry cannot eat.
They talk out there for ten minutes. When she comes back in, I’m making coffee. I have a vase of

wildflowers on the table. She looks at them coolly.

“Our one-year anniversary,” I say.

“It’s been that long?”

This is how the relationship begins: a couch and a loveseat, the family—a son or daughter, usually—and me. The employer on a rocking chair or in a bed nearby, a representative from the placement service flipping through papers. Pictures in faded frames tracing faces up stairways and down hallways. The what to do, the what not to do, the lists and schedules of medications, the signatures, the handshakes, the contractual alliance. The smell of Old Spice and Brylcreem. The shifting glances from members of my latest family.

Angela pulls Henry’s diet chart from the clip magnet on the refrigerator.

“I’m not giving him tomatoes or citrus—the acid is too much for him,” I say.

Angela is a real estate agent. Besides yelling at people on the phone, her other interests seem to be buying jewelry and getting manicures. She wears her permed hair in a banana clip and smells of honey, and she’s always brushing herself off.

She puts the chart back. “I’m sure you know what’s best. I’ll be by on Friday.”

Friday is Henry’s next chemotherapy appointment. I see her out, then make Henry a grilled cheese sandwich. He’s got the telescope out on old towels and tries to maneuver the red strawlike attachment on a can of WD-40 into the joints. I watch him struggle with the nozzle, then put the can down, his hand shaking, and consult the manual.

Angela has provoked me. There are times when my ni sits too low in my body, in the depths of my gut, a heavy, stagnant rot. I feel it now, giving me a stomachache. I cannot go to Henry. I cannot pour him more juice. I cannot take the weakness from his hands. I cannot lead him across the street.

I am hired to know what’s best.

I sit down to watch one of those evening dramas, and as the night’s story segment unfolds, I put myself into it: how I would announce my intentions, how I would stride into rooms furnished like hotel lobbies, how I would come by the gun; these people are crazy, these people who are everyone and no one. They make me cry, and yet this universe does not contain them or any part of their scripted lives and hospitalizations and deaths and funerals. I hear their plastic speech and try not to believe a single word they say.

8. The Swimming Hole

The man whose death breath was cherry colored was not one of mine. When I was twelve, I was dropped off on a dirt road near my favorite swimming hole. I was going to meet my friends Genevieve and Ida, and off I went through the brush and thorns to a pond surrounded by cattails and reedgrass.

Genevieve stood at the pond’s edge in her hand-me-down polka-dotted suit. I skipped down the slope of matted muhly leading to the water. Jo and Nadja and Penelope were there also, already in the water, having contests to see who could do the most somersaults. They emerged laughing and holding their noses. Across the pond a young couple sunbathed, and near them a family sat having a picnic.

I’m sure we all felt as rich as I did, as rich as anybody outside the reservation borders, because we had a swimming hole to hide in and nothing to lose.

I walked. The sun warmed my face. Ahead to my left, off near the trees, the even grass line buckled. I saw the old man’s foot first, then the top of his head, covered in a green fishing hat. His eyes were half closed, but he wasn’t sleeping. Nor was he awake. I slowed and then stopped. Jo and Nadja splashed in the water, Genevieve screamed, a squirrel chirped. Then his breath: a sharp inhale, there and gone before I even turned to look at him. I saw now that he lay between two logs—his feet propped up on one, his head on the other. Behind his head, a crimson air mass, ill formed, illuminated. I thought a swarm of flying ants had risen from a nest behind the man’s head, and I considered running to him to fan them away, or to wake him up before they bit him. But there was no sound, no buzz, no hum.

I went to the man, who looked heavier than he probably was, and waved my hand over the crown of his head. My hand tingled with heat, the way the blood pricks the skin when a numbed limb revives, and that’s why I thought at first of life—that he was dreaming—instead of death. I panicked and ran to my friends.

We played at the edge of the pond for twenty minutes. I scooped up a tadpole in a handful of water. Jo buried her knees in muck. The people who had been picnicking rose, looked around, shaded their foreheads. They made their way to the slope leading to the water. I heard the woman’s cry first. Then the children, bewildered, ran in small circles. The young couple came running, and they all crowded around the heavy man, and that’s when I knew for sure that he was dead.

9. Threads

It’s dusk. Henry and I walk out to the spot he’s chosen. I carry the telescope and tripod, Henry two lawn chairs. We have done this for a week—carry out the telescope, set it up, wait for Henry to position it, settle into our chairs. And each night, when we come in, we hide the evidence. The story we tell is that Henry is refurbishing the telescope in order to sell it.

Still, Angela finds out. The other daughter and the son have called to warn me. They say they have talked to her but she has the final, contractual word.

Now Henry and I sit in the field brazenly, and Angela and the appearance of the comet compete for first sight. Henry peers through the giant Meade contraption and tells me that Newton believed that comets produced the best part of our air. I tell him that I have always only known them to be bad omens.

When I was young, the northern lights meant something too, magenta swirls that held my teenage self in adolescent vertigo, moonshine—both types—washing through us, bottle rockets exploding a few yards away, in the light of a small bonfire. On the hood of a pickup truck held together with duct tape, it was easy to cast fantasies into that black tank of a sky but harder to pin them down. We grew up, watched part of our land flood, got out, grew up more, got our hearts broken, grew up for good.

A coughing fit overtakes Henry—the ground shakes with it. I wait for the wet splat of his insides to hit the ground.

With a caretaker, you purchase a human being to administer some rules. You purchase a pair of eyes to anticipate and a pair of hands to prod and guide. You purchase a person to know another person in a way no one else will. You purchase a person’s judgment, a person’s trust.

Henry’s finger is in the air. “People once thought Atlas held up the sky. You know, Atlas.”

I nod.

“On his shoulders.” Henry bends his arms over and behind his head as if carrying a weight. “They thought Hyperion rose from the water to light the earth, and then sank under it again at night.” Henry pauses to wheeze, winded from the effort of speech. “But how did Hyperion keep burning after being under all that water? No one knew, but instead of changing their ideas, they just kept believing. This is how my daughter’s mind works.”

It was the most I had ever heard from him at one time. “She’s going to yell at me.”

Henry looks at me quickly, as if I’ve shocked him. “And what of it?” he says.

No air gets to his lungs, but it doesn’t matter.

“She hates me because she hates my sins,” he says. “And now she’s responsible for me.”

I think, You should tell her what you know.

“It’s about her mother, but she doesn’t know the whole story. She doesn’t know what the woman’s mind was capable of.”

And then there are confessions that sound all true, all sane, undisguised.

I think, You were right to not tell her.

The picture of that woman. A wife’s mind lost to jealousy? An old story. Still, would that be enough to turn a daughter so vindictive? I look through the eyepiece at a color I’ve never seen before—purple and gray, deep and dark but somehow also washed out. Light everywhere, globs of brilliance, pinprick stars, even magnified, a depth that pulls at the edges of your eyes and holds you spellbound. I sit back in my chair, dizzy and disoriented, urging myself to cast yet another fantastic vision, because I am on the pickup truck’s hood again, a girl, safe before the catastrophe, mesmerized by the power of wishing.

I watch the dead.

I shift my chair closer to Henry and do what feels like the boldest thing I have ever done. I reach for his hand—my own fingers trembling more than his—and hold it in mine. It is cool and fleshy. I turn to him, but he has nodded off, chin to chest, and can’t feel any part of me.

10. Endings

Dying fathers and mothers, dying families, dying trusts, final words, confessions, last honors, last shreds, last parents.

Henry and I play cards. I have made him a dill pickle sandwich with potato chips on the side. Sometimes he wants the potato chips on the sandwich but then forgets that he wants that and becomes confused and sometimes irritated.

I play my card, a six of hearts, and Henry grins. I have lost something, some points perhaps, I’m not sure.

Henry plays three cards, two tens and a five, lays them out one at a time, triumphant, and declares that he has won. He says, “Twenty-five is the highest score.” This is news to me, but then, if you get to make the rules, you always win. Still, he’s my favorite white man.

Angela didn’t think it was right for me to allow Henry to watch for his comet. To be “dragging him out there” every night. Without even bringing the cordless. How she got the information about the phone, I don’t know. Perhaps I’d been watched more closely than I knew.

I think, Swat me if you can!

She can, of course, and does.

She didn’t fire me in person. She called the service, which is the correct protocol. She registered her complaint, and it was done. Jo says, “Good riddance to the bitch, that ingrate,” and I’m inclined to agree, except that she’s tied to Henry, and I to him.

Henry never sees his heavenly namesake, but the comet-omen finds him. Two days after I get the call from the service, Henry doesn’t wake up. I’m almost glad—I am selfish that way, with the end of my sweeties—but I can’t deny it, his ni is intact. Finally he stirs and croaks out to me that he has pain in his chest. I barely detect a pulse. He twitches with cold and sweat. The room is humid. I remember the nasty headache he had two days ago. Pneumonia could take him down. He says there is an anchor on his chest.

Angela drives him to the doctor. It turns out to be a chest cold, but that’s bad enough. She and her son, Jeff, will take over when I’m gone.

The last tasks for me are all of my usual ones: clean, bake, make casseroles that can be frozen. Water all the plants. Wash Henry’s clothes. Revise Henry’s charts and hope they will be followed.

Ask the right questions.

Henry and I make our way, slowly, to the porch. I am angry with this comet and my slip into superstition. How did he catch this cold, is what I want to know. I say, “Henry, how did you get sick?”
“Don’t know. Never smoked.”

“No, I mean how did you get this cold.”

“Germs!” he says. “That daughter of mine brought them. She’ll kill me yet.”

I can’t tell if he really believes this. “You mean she brought you germs, on purpose?” I lower him onto the wicker couch.

“I won’t say it.”

He is tiny on the cushion, pale against the white sky. “Won’t say what?”

I sit beside him and take his hand. But that is the last I hear from Henry.

The day comes when Angela and Jeff arrive. They drag suitcases and bags from the car. I go to sit beside Henry. “Goodbye, Henry,” I say. “You’re a good man.” I don’t want Angela here for him, carrying him, tying him up on her cross.

When the confessions come, shot off with a last breath, churned up and launched at you, or layed out like a bed of nails for you to walk on in the dark, they can kill you—these altered memories, these screwball outtakes. Whatever version you get is the only one that matters.

I leave by the front door. I shake hands with Angela, who thanks me quickly. Her son looks at me once.

I check my bag. The locket shines up at me from the corner of it.

I make up some kind of ending for my favorite sweetie and never know how close I get: I know you loved her. I know you hear her, even now. You will open your palm to her, a shooting star, the night air your heavenly indigo peace.

 

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