Taking Care

Submitted into Contest #148 in response to: Write a story involving a noise complaint. ... view prompt

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Friendship Sad Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

Her withered hands curled around the frosty beer bottle looked to me like the cover of a rock album. One Last Drink with the Devil, it would be called, and filled with Led-Zeppelin-esque songs about death and alcoholism.

Mrs. Chambers had her dry lips pursed as she studied my apartment. I took a reluctant look around as well, trying to see my place from her perspective. The trippy posters on the wall would tell her that I smoke weed. The secondhand everything probably says that I’m a hippy, or unemployed, or both. The admittedly excessive amount of handle bottles would suggest that I’m a lush, instead of the truth, which is that I throw a lot of parties. Which brings us full circle to the entire reason she’s here in the first place: I throw too many parties.

“Sorry I didn’t have…tea…” I said, planting my hands on my kitchen counter.

She looked at me with an unexpectedly sharp gaze. She laughed. “I drink beer, Mila. You don’t have to treat me like some geriatric patient.”

So, ignore the obvious. Got it.

“Well, maybe you can come to my next party, then,” I joked in a light voice. “We can avoid all this.”

She set her beer down with a thunk. “It’s just disrespectful to have such loud gatherings past ten. Ten at latest. I don’t know how you got the landlord to turn a blind eye to it, but it’s become a big problem for me. Me and everyone.” At my kitchen table, she tried to sit up straighter, but it’s safe to guess that her spine was permanently bent that way.

I struggled to find something to say to her. I didn’t want to reveal that Mr. Pearson, our landlord, was actually being bribed with free drinks from my bar. “Listen, I really do understand what you’re saying. It’s rude. But I have a right to…” I trailed off. Hearing myself try to rationalize my actions was just reminding me that my actions were anything but rational. I lifted my shoulders, like that would help my case, feeling like a twelve-year-old standing in front of the school principal.

Mrs. Chambers squinted at me. “Why don’t you just have your events somewhere else? Do none of your friends have a house?”

As if my twenty-something year old friends owned real estate.

God, all I wanted was for this woman to leave me alone so I could go to sleep. Last night, I worked an overnight and didn’t sleep much when I got home. Then this morning I had to deal with yet another issue with the realtor. Ironically, the house that his woman would obviously rather me move into was not selling very well. What did I even expect of a 100 year old home with lead pipes?

“I’ll stop throwing parties,” I said suddenly, surprising us both.

She recovered first, leaned forward, and said, “You’re giving up already? So soon?”

My eyebrows drew together in confusion. “What do you want me to do? Keep arguing with an eighty—”

“Watch it.”

“Sorry. Sorry.” I raked my fingers through my hair. “I’ve just been dealing with some—”

“What?” she interrupted with her eyes trained on me.

I glanced up hesitantly. I rubbed my arm. “My grandmother just died—”

“When?” she asked.

God, this was giving me flashbacks. “Two months ago,” I replied with a sigh.

“That’s when you moved in,” she noted, narrowing her eyes. “Did you live with her?”

“Yes. I did. I took care of her for two years,” I said, tripping over my own words. I don’t know why I was telling her this. Maybe I was trying to play the pity card. “You sort of remind me of her, actually.”

Mrs. Chambers pursed her lips again. “Really? How so?”

“You’re both…young souls.” I mean, that’s one way to say, “pushy and loud.”

She smiled, content with this, and raised the amber bottle to her lips. “Do you miss her?”

This question made me stall out. It was obviously a courtesy ask, but it was a question I posed to myself all the time, and something I was never able to answer. Our relationship, especially those last two years, was just too complicated. At times, when I was living with her, it was like looking into a mirror of my future self. We were way too alike, and it was haunting to wake up and be faced with a dying, decrepit version of me. Then there was all of the uncomfortable, upsetting side effects of living with an old lady: bathroom accidents, difficulty showering, her exponential memory loss. It was all bad, all hard, for both of us. 

“Yes,” I finally answered. It was the only verdict I ever let myself reach.

The old lady tilted her head sympathetically. “And how did she deal with all this noise?”

I drank from my bottle, then began to laugh. “You know, when I was taking care of her, I never did any of this. I had no social life.”

She made a sound, a cross between a scoff and a self-satisfied grunt. “Well, I get it now. You’re reliving your youth.”

It was my turn to scoff. “I’m only twenty.”

Staring pointedly at the liquor, she responded, “Still, there’s nothing like being eighteen and free. I remember when I got out of high school. The feeling of having no responsibilities, no one to please except yourself. It’s unparalleled.” I turned my gaze to the counter, fixating on a marinara stain. “And you never got that.”

“Is there anything else you need from me?” I asked Mrs. Chambers, suddenly desperate to move her out of my home.

She coiled her hands together idly. “No,” she began, but my experience with the elderly taught me that she was going to continue the conversation. “I’m very sorry about your grandmother. You know, I lost my grandchild…about five years ago. He committed suicide.”

I tried to swallow, but my throat felt like it had a mound of cotton stuffed into it. “I’m so sorry.”

We stared at each other for a long moment, her eyes wet and unfocused, mine flitting nervously around her face. What a pair we made, both missing what the other one was. Our loss was loud in the space between us, way harder to ignore than any late-night party I’ve ever thrown.


~~~


It was a rare, content afternoon for me. That meant that I was not sad or dissatisfied with my station in life, I was reading a book, and I was comfortable. Lying on a mound of pillows with my feet propped up on my headboard, the window wide open in front of me, it was the perfect moment.

A steady stream of fresh-smelling air wafted in. It began to rain, a light, consistent patter. I smiled as I listened to it: this was my favorite weather.

Then I heard my name called, in Grandma Hazel’s croaky voice. I rolled off of my bed and crossed the short distance to her room, where she was sitting on her blue corduroy recliner with a crossword puzzle in her hands.

“Do you hear the rain?” she asked as outside, it was pouring harder and harder. She pointed up, her face frozen with wide eyes and an open-mouthed smile.

“Yeah, it’s crazy,” I replied, leaning against her doorframe. “Super loud.”

She nodded, her mouth closing into a small smile. She tilted her head back as she listened. We heard a deep growl of thunder and watched as her windows were briefly illuminated by a crack of lightening. “One sec,” I mumbled, and ran into my room to shut the window. As I did, she started talking like I was still there.

“—grandfather, he hated storms. He would get so scared,” I heard her say as I approached the doorframe again.

“You’re not scared, are you?” I asked, now worried that I’d have to spend the night sitting with her. It was a fleeting concern, embedded with guilt.

“No, not me. Are you?”

“No, I love this weather,” I replied.

“Ok, good. I was going to say, we’d have a big problem, then,” she said in an overly sarcastic tone.

I gave a little laugh, even though the joke landed flat between us. It was important to me that even with her declining mental state, she wouldn’t ever feel dumbed down. She always loved feeling clever, and I knew that recently, she’d been experiencing a loss of mental aptitude. She stopped being able to translate her thoughts perfectly into speech, started repeating lines of conversation, and had been forgetting things in mere hours.

I ventured farther into the room and sat on the spare dining room chair parked in front of her. “So, what would he do during this type of weather?”

“Oh, he’d always need me by him. Hazel, Hazel, come here, lay down next to me.” She grinned, looking down at her lap. “He was a mess. I couldn’t do anything the whole day, he needed me right there next to him the whole time.”

I smiled a bit, thinking of the two of them curled up together while the sky cried all around them. From what she’s told me about their relationship, it was not without hardship, and began as an arranged marriage. They sparred constantly for sixty years, but still, his death changed her irreversibly.

She changed everything about the house—the paint on the wall, the configuration of furniture, the floor tiles, the bathroom, the roof. Even the yellow stucco outside was changed to a generic brown vinyl. I couldn’t imagine, at that point, loving someone so much that you weren’t able to occupy their space without them.

“There’d be thunder, and he’d squeeze my hand so tight. Martin, you’re hurting me, and he’d say, Sorry, sorry. But he couldn’t help it.” She whimpered with downturned eyes, mocking what I assumed was his fearful expression. “If he could fit beneath the bed, he would have hidden there.” She laughed.

“That’s kind of sweet, though,” I said softly. “How much he needed you.” She gazed at me with liquidy eyes, not hearing me, so I repeated myself louder.

“I heard what you said,” she muttered, picking at her nailbeds. “It wasn’t bad. It’s nice to feel wanted. It’s nice to know that someone wants you around.”

My smile widened. I stared out the window, watching for more lightening, searching my heart for a reply.

“That’s why I like having you around, Mila.”

My eyes snapped to her face, but she had already turned her attention back to Jeopardy!. It was rare for her to say something mushy like that to me. My lips trembled just slightly before I got a grip. I swallowed, then said, “I like being here, too. I need you. Always will.”

She looked at me with a small smile, patted my hand, and kept watching her show.


~~~


Mrs. Chambers and I sat on the couch, fresh beers in hand. Her head, every so often, shook back and forth very quickly like a bobblehead. In my time as a caretaker, I’d seen so many older people with that tic. I wondered if Mrs. Chambers had a disease, like all the shaky cancer patients I’d seen while taking my grandmother to her chemotherapy sessions. It could have been anything, however—a side effect of medication, too much caffeine, or just run-of-the-mill anxiety.

It's funny how I couldn’t seem to turn off the Mayo Clinic database that seemed ingrained in me now. Years of frantic research, jumping on any little symptom that she displayed. Years of panic and preservation, apparently amounting to nothing at all.

“My grandson…he was in college at the time. His master’s program.”

“What was he going for?” I asked in a whisper.

“Environmental science.” We both stared straight ahead of us, watching the Grateful Dead bears dance across a tapestry. “He had so much potential. He could have helped the entire world. I just…I never understood it. What could possibly be so hard that he had to…”

I chewed on my lip, tasting my artificial cherry lip balm. “There could be…a multitude of reasons. Probably a lot of little things, built up over time.”

“No,” she said firmly. I glanced at her. “I’ll tell you what happened. Things got hard, and he quit. He could have stayed and made it better, talked to someone, but instead he quit, he just left.” My eyebrows lowered as I watched her expression harden. “He left his parents…God…his poor parents.” Her throat caught. A tear fell from her eye. “My daughter, he left her. Do you know how much that hurts a parent? When their child doesn’t even tell them that something is wrong, and then they just leave? Forever…”

My head felt heavy all of a sudden. I tipped it back. “So, you’re angry,” I stated, intending to expand on that. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Perhaps,” she whispered. “My husband stopped talking to my daughter after it happened. He blamed her for everything. Maybe I’m trying not to do the same.”

“So instead, you’re blaming your grandson.” I snuck a glance at her profile. “I get it. I really do. It’s not like there’s a correct reaction that type of thing.”

Mrs. Chambers frowned deeply, her jowls wrinkling.

I cleared my throat. “I’ve, uh, dealt with some mental health issues, too, in the…in the past. It’s not simple. It’s really, really hard to think straight with depression. Lots of brain fog and confusion.”

She looked away from the bears and met my gaze. “Honey, so have I. So has everyone. It’s normal, it’s part of life.”

“But why does it have to be?” I said in a near-whisper. "You don't have to accept that as the way things are. That's what my grandma did, too, and it didn't help. It never helps." I got up from the couch, itching for another beer. Admittedly, I’d have something a tad stronger if she wasn’t there.

I heard the couch creak as she heaved herself up, too. “I have a question, Mila. Why don’t you live with your parents? I know why I live here, and it’s because I didn’t have any other option. But why you?”

I turned around with my freshly cracked beer and found her right behind me. I jumped, then sighed, rubbing my eye. “I couldn’t…I tried to live in her house. It was left to me, so I intended to use it. But…it was just horrible. I never expected to feel so broken and sad living alone there, but I did. It was like…on one hand, it felt like there was something perpetually missing. I always felt like she belonged there with me, like I couldn’t do it on my own. And on the other hand, I felt like I was replacing her. Getting ready to build a long, studious life in that house. And I can never be her. I can never do what she did. Do you know how much she did every day? She cooked, cleaned, took her kids to school, and then she went and helped out her husband’s business, which she persuaded him to start in the first place. She was so smart and driven, and she fell into this place where she was always taken for granted and never appreciated enough.”

I faltered. I was getting that stiff, sore feeling in my throat that came with tears. “I didn’t appreciate her enough. I don’t deserve her house. I can’t ever…I didn’t do enough for her! I should have done so much more, and now she’s gone, and I’ll never be able to fix that.”

Mrs. Chambers’ expression was not exactly sympathetic, but still she hugged me with the type of maternal love that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel in quite a while.

“If you ever need someone to talk to, Mila, knock on my door. You need someone right now. Someone to take care of you.”

The buildup of tears finally tumbled down my cheeks, dropping onto her soft chenille sweater. “Well, if you’re ever missing your grandson, you can visit me. I’d really love to be there for you.”

Against my chest, Mrs. Chambers began to shake slightly. I hugged her tighter, and together we cried.

Two half-pieces making a whole.


June 02, 2022 20:21

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2 comments

Todd Johnson
22:10 Jun 08, 2022

So many wonderful details in this: “I chewed on my lip, tasting my artificial cherry lip balm” and “Her head, every so often, shook back and forth very quickly like a bobblehead. In my time as a caretaker, I’d seen so many older people with that tic. I wondered if Mrs. Chambers had a disease” are so real, and along with the spot-on dialogue, makes these characters come vividly to life. This was a truly touching piece, full of loss and complicated emotions we often feel as death draws near to those we love, or at least—tragically in some case...

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Nina Thompson
15:39 Jun 09, 2022

Thank you so much for this kind comment, Todd! I really appreciate the support!

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