by Christine C. Heuner
John used to say that we were millionaires, but now we might lose the house. Tommy, our oldest, and his wife, Ashleigh, plan to buy us out. We told Tommy that he, Ashleigh, Emily, and Troy could just sell their house, pay off our balloon loan (whatever that is), and live with us while we pay him back, but Tommy wants to own it free and clear and have his say-so. He said, “Dad, you haven’t fixed a f—ing thing in this house in over forty years.” Well, that’s true. John denied it up and down, but it is true. Raccoons and squirrels ate into the house through the roof and missing shingles. We had to call West Pest.
Our first plan was to move into Tommy and Ashleigh’s house, but we’re eighty, and there’s no way John and I could climb all those stairs. Truthfully, Tommy and Ashleigh have something to gain from the move, too. Their taxes are almost twelve thousand. (John says ours are eight). And if we moved in with them, they’d have to renovate and that meant even higher taxes. That’s how they explained it to me. It made sense, sort of. I don’t understand why making your house better costs more in taxes.
Also, we live in a good school district. Ashleigh told Tommy that if they buy our house they can take the kids out of private school. More money for vacations, she said.
Sometimes, I get upset. All my friends have a nest egg with eggs still in the nest. Well, soon our nest will belong to Tommy and Ashleigh. I thought we could sell the house before we lost it and move to an apartment or one of those elder places, but John would have none of it. He said, “I’ve lived here almost all my life; I might as well die here.”
Before Tommy decided to sell, John would call him every night after The Wheel, pushing him about the house, asking Tommy what to do next like Tommy was God Almighty. It got so bad John said, “I took care of you. It’s your turn to take care of me.”
I wanted to say, “it’s not right.” Tommy has been there for us, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, having us over for dinner. It’s more than Maryann and Paul have ever done for us.
Tommy owes us nothing.
. . .
Just after Tommy and Ashleigh sell their house, we have to clean out ours. I find pocketbooks and clothes with the tags still on them–Dotty and I used to go shopping every day–and I offer them to Ashleigh and Emily, but they don’t want them. The clothes wouldn’t fit them anyway. I am not a small woman.
So John has to get rid of his stuff, too. He saved and saved and saved things, thinking they’d be worth something someday. We find an antique dealer who wants to penny-pinch. John moves stuff to the “keep” pile when he doesn’t get the price he expects. Ashleigh says to him, “We’ve all made sacrifices,” and what can we do? What’s hardest for John, I think, is just knowing that no one wants his stuff. And some of that stuff like the records and cameras got damaged when the basement flooded; time yellowed his classic comics and all those National Geographic and Playboy magazines. I don’t want to know why he keeps the Playboys; he says they’re worth money, especially the Trump issue. The antique dealer says they’re a dime a dozen. He also says that about the Norman Rockwell plates, which Bradford Exchange said would be worth a mint someday, but Ashleigh checks the internet and says they’re worth forty bucks for a whole set. Well, John, who paid thirty-five a plate, won’t believe it. How is it he always bets on the wrong horse? And here I am, holding the ticket.
John wants to keep games with the pieces missing, the broken bowl he said was his mother’s, and the wreath with the bells. He and Ashleigh have a real fight over that one. I have to call her into the middle room and tell her that he isn’t acting like normal. “He’s not sleeping or eating as much,” I say.
She lets him keep the bells.
Ashleigh goes through the place like we aren’t still living here. About the hutch, she says, “There’s too much sh-t in here” and asks if we need the salt-and-pepper shakers Dotty gave me from her trip to Alaska.
She holds the big glass of sand from our trip to Hawaii for our twentieth, makes a face and asks, “What’s this for?”
I let her get rid of the china they gave us at the Trump Taj, and she lets us keep the Lennox from our wedding. She says it’s special and I like that.
She takes down all of the fake flowers, saying they’re full of dust; she brushes off a little puff as proof.
“I like the flowers,” John says in the same voice he uses to praise the ratty green carpet, broken nutcracker, and cracked slushie maker.
Ashleigh moves onto the bathroom and cleans out the drawers. She throws out one of John’s medications that expired in ‘08 (almost ten years ago); he tells her to give it back. She asks, “Why not just call the doctor for a refill?”
He says, “The doctor’s dead.”
She laughs the kind of laugh that seems like she is crying, and then she goes back to her own house to finish packing.
. . .
While cleaning out the basement, Tommy finds a clacker thingie. He brings it upstairs.
“Dad used to hit me with this piece of sh-t,” he says, whacking it loud.
Well, I really, truly don’t remember that at all. “He never hit you or Maryann or Paul.”
“He didn’t touch Maryann or Paul. He went after me.”
“Wake up, Ma! You know why he stopped hitting me? We were outside doing yardwork and the mower went over a f—ing tree root and stopped. He came at me with a stick and you know what I said? I said, ‘You can come at me now, but I’m getting bigger than you and one day I’m going to hit you back. I’ll knock your f—ing lights out.’”
God’s honest truth: John is a good man and always has been. He was a well-decorated engineer. I don’t know what all he did each day except that it involved circuits; he earned more patents than anyone else in the company. On the dining room wall, we have a huge plaque dedicated to his service. I am surprised that Ashleigh, as she takes everything off the walls, says, “This is an amazing accomplishment. We’ll put it back up after we paint.”
Ashleigh, a lawyer, is quite accomplished herself.
I get rid of huge garbage bags of stuff, but it’s the small treasures that are the hardest to lose. Ashleigh takes off the magnets and grandkids’ art projects from the fridge. She even removes the St. Jude prayer card. He’s the patron saint of lost causes; we need him now more than ever I tell her, and she says, “But it’s water damaged. I’ll get you a new one.”
. . .
As soon as our house becomes theirs in early March, Tommy and Ashleigh rip it apart, even all six of the old trees and bushes that are just about ready to bloom yellow. I think John will burst. He almost loses it when they knock down the kitchen walls and pull up the tile. They find asbestos beneath it, and someone special has to come remove it. Tommy gets angry as if John put the asbestos there himself.
When the walls are stripped to their wooden bones, the work guy finds an old hornet’s nest and one dead squirrel. He lifts it up to show us. It looks like it was flying mid-air, all its charred limbs spread out. The guy points out two thin slivers jutting from its mouth. “It was probably electrocuted,” he says.
The next time John tries to step in and offer some advice, Tommy says, “You begged me to buy this f—ing house for you. Begged. And now I’m here. You don’t see Maryann and Paul helping, do you? They took the money and ran. I’m here now. Stay out of my way.”
Tommy used to be such a good boy. When John’s father died, Tommy was about fifteen; he put money in his grandpa’s suit pocket so he wouldn’t be bankrupt in heaven.
. . .
Tommy thinks we lost all our money because we were “high rollers” at the Taj and we bailed out Maryann and Paul. Well, I’m not sure where all the money went, but we gave Tommy money for his first house. He paid us back, but the point here is that he took from the pot when it was full.
God’s honest truth: I used to love going to the Taj. The purple carpet and glittering chandelier above the escalator welcomed us like royalty. The jingling slot machines sounded like a party, and I’d sit there for hours just watching them roll and roll and roll, spinning colors and promises. We won ten thousand once, the money pouring in my cup like gold from a rainbow. We got to eat at the private dining room on the fiftieth floor where they made the special omelets and served steak and shrimp for dinner. And they gave us gifts too: sweatshirts and coats and wine and liquor and small kitchen appliances and comforter sets and the china Ashleigh took to Goodwill. I got a Michael Kors pocketbook that I found while cleaning out and gave to Ashleigh who was glad to have it. I’m glad I can give her something.
Now we go to the Sands in Bethlehem every Thursday because it’s closer and, of course, the Taj is no more. Sands is not the Taj, but it will do. Ashleigh gets annoyed that we stay up all night playing and come home in the early morning.
“Didn’t you learn your lesson?” she asks. “Plus, you could get in an accident.”
I tell her we go just for fun. There’s no traffic at that hour except for the trucks. They give us the play money on Thursday and we don’t have the money to spend now anyway.
“But we took over almost all your bills,” she says.
I tell her we have the car insurance, the burial plots, just stuff like that. I can tell that John wants to tell her to mind her own business, but he won’t do it. His courage is as brittle as his knees, which the doctor says are bone-on-bone. Plus, he knows what I know: they can throw us out anytime they want.
. . .
Ashleigh is what you call a tricky wicket. Before she moved in, she used to have us over for dinner every Sunday and buy us food from Costcos, but now it’s different. Maybe it’s all too much for her. Maybe she is worn out, but, even so, she is strong. She can lift almost anything even though she’s tiny. She comes home from Costcos with big boxes and holds them on her hip. On her shoulders, she carries bags, big and heavy like saddlebags. I say, “I don’t know how you do it.”
Ashleigh says, “I don’t either” or “Someone has to.”
John thinks she hides food in the basement. They made a kitchenette down there. I haven’t seen it because I can’t get downstairs (the sciatica), but I hear it’s nice. John says, “I heard Ashleigh tell Emily they have oranges and bananas. Why won’t she share?”
He likes an orange and banana every morning. He mostly eats very healthy.
“It’s not our food, John. We didn’t buy it.” Honestly, it’s like he’s a third grader.
“But she used to share it, Peggy.”
“Maybe she’s sick of sharing.”
He’s quiet for awhile and then asks, “Why would that be?”
“Why what?” I’m doing my word-find and don’t want to be bothered.
“Why won’t she share? I like a banana in my cereal.”
“John, for God’s sake, it’s like I said. She’s sick of it. It doesn’t make sense to me. A few oranges, bananas–how much could that cost? But you wouldn’t want your roommate eating your food, would you?”
He considers this. Then he says, “But we’re not roommates. We’re family.”
I tell him I know. I go back to my word-find until The Wheel comes on. I used to have ice cream while I watched The Wheel, but Ashleigh said that ice cream is not good for me. I said I heard that milk can help you lose weight. She laughed, not a mean kind of laugh, but, at the same time, not a good-humor type of laugh. I get the sense that Ashleigh is amused by the expanse of all I do not know.
I don’t tell Ashleigh that Dotty was dieting on her deathbed with not even a hair on her head, so what’s the point? I’ll take my cookies and ice cream, just not when Ashleigh is awake.
. . .
I know Ashleigh takes pills. I don’t know what all for. Maybe for a general kind of illness people get when the business of life gets heavy. She still goes to her Wednesday night meeting where people help each other. She’s been going for years and years. I used to watch the kids for her; she was a nervous wreck in those days, running from here to there, dropping them off at the front door after Emily’s dance class, speeding away, calling us before her return to have the kids ready to go. She’s a bit softer now.
Three times, she went to a place Tommy said was like a hospital, but he didn’t want to talk about it. I went over the house and helped with the laundry, took care of Emily and Troy for a few days until she came home again. God’s honest truth: I liked those days when I could help with something.
I still wonder where Ashleigh went, but I’ve learned it’s best not to ask. People get offended so easy. And, I don’t know, it just seems like everyone has something they want to keep close inside, a self they don’t want anyone else to see. They get scared of someone taking what’s theirs.
. . .
In May, my younger sister Adele’s husband Charles dies; he’s been sick for awhile now. Tommy tells me not to cry. For the first time, I yell. “I am sad, Tommy. Can’t you understand that? I know you don’t want me to cry. I know you don’t want us living here. You wish we were gone.” And when I say it I believe it. I know John and I have more years behind than ahead of us.
He walks away; Ashleigh comes up to me, puts her arm around me and says, “We do want you here.” She whispers it like she doesn’t want Tommy to hear or is scared to say it.
. . .
My sister Adele has been calling me every day since Charles died, punishing me with evidence of how awful life can be and is. She even tells me about her neighbor’s dog who can’t defecate. She says, “They have to send him to the vet, which may cost thousands. It’s just awful.”
And always someone at her church is dying. John, who sometimes listens in on speakerphone, says, “Well, we all have to die at some point.”
She ignores this excellent logic to talk about funeral services; she has nothing to wear but the basic black dress with the bottom seam ripped because she’s worn it so many times.
I tell Ashleigh about Adele’s doom-and-gloom. She asks how I stand it.
“Well, I do my word-finds while she’s talking.”
“Can’t you tell her to talk about something positive?”
“I did once. She said then she’d have nothing to talk about.”
Ashleigh shakes her head. “I don’t know how you do it. You’re too nice.”
“I should be tougher, like you,” I say.
She smiles and shakes her head. “No way. You wouldn’t want that.”
But maybe I do want that.
Tommy comes inside, sweaty from yardwork. He says to Ashleigh, “You could come out and offer me a drink, you know.”
“You could’ve asked,” Ashleigh says. “I can’t read your mind.”
“You’re such a help. I guess I have to get it myself.” He takes a big glass, opens the freezer, and grabs a handful of ice.
Ashleigh looks at me. I shrug and give her a smile. Troy comes into the kitchen and says, “What’s going on, guys?” He’s so sensitive he can smell conflict. He’s the best of all of us, altar-serves every week and prays before every meal: “We fold our hands, we bow our heads, we thank our God for our daily bread. Amen.”
I taught the prayer to my friends at the Women’s Club, and we say it every time we go out to eat. I’m so proud of Troy, but worried, too. You can’t help worrying.
“Nothing’s going on,” Tommy says. “I need help pulling weeds. Get your shoes on.”
Tommy goes downstairs in a huff to wake up Emily. She stays in her room all the time these days. Whenever she comes upstairs, her eyes look heavy, her hair a little dirty. If she smiles, it’s a weak one. Maybe she needs some kind of pills, too.
Last week, I asked Ashleigh if Emily was okay and she said, “We’re taking care of it.”
All I can do is say my prayers for everyone’s good health. I pray all the time, for all of us.
. . .
Church is the only time we’re really together as a family. Like I said, Troy altar-serves. Before the move, Emily used to be in the choir. Ashleigh is a Eucharistic minister so she holds the gold plate or the metal cup with fake jewels and says either “the body of Christ” or “the blood of Christ.” She gives everyone a smile, like she’s offering them a meal at her house that she’s been preparing all day.
Afterwards, we go to the Golden Corner and have coffee and pancakes and bacon and hashbrowns. Ashleigh gets her egg-white omelet with fruit. People must think that we’re a perfect family, and when my friends and people I barely know come up to us and say how wonderful it is that Troy serves every week and ask how John and I are doing, I can almost believe it myself.
They smile at Ashleigh and tell her she did a good job, which she later tells me she doesn’t understand. “I’m not really doing anything up there,” she says.
I tell her it’s important to serve, and that’s what she’s doing. “Someone has to, right?”
She smiles and says that yes, she guesses that’s true.
. . .
One day after church and breakfast on the first hot day of the season, Ashleigh does dishes with her purple gloves on, hunched over the sink. I ask her about something not at all important. She looks at me and I know she has not heard. “You look pale,” I say. “I think the stress is getting to you.” (They were back and forth from the storage locker all week).
She starts crying, wipes her nose with the purple glove, and says it’s more than that. She sits at the table beside me. “Tommy wouldn’t want me to tell you, but I’ll just say it. I had a miscarriage.”
“Oh, wow,” I say. “Dear God.”
I want to give her a tissue, but there’s nothing on the table, not even a napkin. I never have what I need when I need it.
I stand up as best as I can, hold onto the table, and put my free arm around her. She pulls away and rubs her eyes, the gloves still on her hands. They are big gloves and make her look like she’s ready to handle something hazardous.
“He blames me,” she says, curling up her legs on the chair.
That’s Tommy for you. He always blamed us for how he turned out; he said we held him back by convincing him not to join the Marines like my brother. Once I asked him, “How long are you going to blame us, Tommy?” He didn’t have an answer to that. There are always more questions than answers.
I sit back down next to Ashleigh and tell her about both of my misses. The doctor said it might be because of the Factor Five and that I should tell my kids about it because it might be part of them, too, and that’s the scariest thought: something in me I didn’t even know was there striking out to curse them. But my kids didn’t want to hear it.
“Did Dad blame you for them?” Ashleigh asks. She’s probably in her late thirties by now, but she looks like a child, her brown eyes deep and sad, her nose a little wet from where she wiped it with the glove.
“Thank God, no.” What else can I say?
She cries again and it doesn’t seem she’ll be able to stop.
Then there’s Tommy at the kitchen entrance. He’s taller than John, which makes him 6’5.” He fills the space around him. Now that he has so little hair, his eyes seem big and, when he isn’t smiling, almost mean. He isn’t smiling now, but he doesn’t look angry either.
He comes up to us, puts his arm on my shoulder. “Hey, Ma,” he says and then turns to Ashleigh. He puts his arm around her.
She shrugs him off and calls him an “a–hole.” She says, “You know what I gave up to come here? I loved that house. Our bedroom overlooked that magnolia. We had room to spare. Now, I live in a f—ing shoebox.”
“That tree was a mess, Ash. You know it. All those blooms turned brown like turds and you’d freak out whenever we tracked them in the house. Don’t shine it up–”
“And now this.” She puts her hands over her stomach. “You have the nerve to blame me.”
She swipes at the table. The plastic napkin holder stuffed with napkins and the salt shaker take flight across the room. The salt shaker cracks open like an egg.
She gets up and heads for the door, but Tommy blocks her. He puts his arms around her, bends down and kisses her hair.
“I’m sorry, Ash,” he says. “We can try again.”
She pushes him. “I don’t want to try again. I need a nap.”
Tommy lets her go. He and I look at each other for a moment. I want to ask him how it got this way. I thought Ashleigh wanted to be here, wanted the good schools and lower taxes. She told me she buried St. Joseph upside down in her front yard to help them sell the house.
Tommy leaves and I have to clean up the salt shaker myself. I throw some over my left shoulder, for good luck.
. . .
Ashleigh says luck runs out, and she’s right. Just before August, John gets sick, first just a cold, then bronchitis, then pneumonia. He wouldn’t let me or Tommy take him to the hospital, but then he got so sick he couldn’t stand up straight and Tommy said he was through with him being “f—ing stubborn” and drove him himself.
It’s hard to see John with all the tubes attached to his hand and the bruises on his arms from the blood thinners. For the first time maybe, I understand that I might have to live life without him. With the exception of Margie, all my friends’ and sisters’ husbands are dead.
The night before they release John from the hospital, I rest in the chair beside his bed and watch him sleep with this mouth open, snoring slightly, his hair in a messy froth against the mattress. I remember something: after my first miss, not long after I had Maryann, he told me I should’ve rested more. He brought home all kinds of fruits, mostly oranges, and said I needed more vitamins. “You’re not healthy enough,” he said. Well, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried for days and couldn’t really tell him why.
And I can hear that clacker. Tommy crying.
Not long after we arrive home, we’re sitting at the kitchen table and Ashleigh keeps asking John if he needs anything. He finally asks for an orange. She goes downstairs and comes up with one. She stands at the sink, peeling it.
. . .
I get sick, too, not as bad, but enough to need the antibiotics. We can’t get out to church. After mass, Ashleigh brings communion to our room, which is so cluttered with stuff she can barely get inside. (Tommy says our room smells; he sprays it every day with Lysol and says we need to get rid of more “sh-t.”)
John tries to sit up in bed, but cannot manage it. Ashleigh holds out her hand, but he won’t take it. I know what he’s thinking: how does it look, this little pint pulling him up?
“I’m embarrassed,” he says.
“Don’t be,” she says. “We all need help. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” he says with phlegm in his throat.
She pulls him to half-sitting, takes a wafer out of the little brass box, and places it on his tongue.
She comes to my side of the bed and holds up the wafer like it’s everything I could want in the world and sets it in my palm. “The body of Christ,” she says.
I cross myself, say “Amen,” take the wafer and put it on my tongue. As it becomes a sticky clump on the roof of my mouth, I think about bodies melting away through sickness and sadness. The priests say: the body dies, the spirit remains. Ashleigh once told me I have a strong spirit, stronger than she’d ever have. Well, I’m not sure I believe her, but it was nice to hear from this tough little lady.
My older sister Helen says to count your blessings and also that you never can tell where the blessings will come from. Ages ago, her little Tessy, not yet two years-old, took a seizure and passed on. Yet Helen never stopped believing in God, so I believe through her. If Ashleigh says my spirit is strong, well, maybe she can believe in God through me.
Ashleigh asks if we need anything. John asks her to turn on the TV. She clicks it on and the hazy light makes the room seem even smaller with all the boxes stacked in every corner; they block the closet and dresser. We are old, so old, and this stuff will live longer than we will. Maybe the room is a fire hazard like Tommy says, but God’s honest truth, there’s no sense in worrying about it.
. . .
The next morning, I make it out to the kitchen to get my coffee and see a St. Jude prayer card on one of the table’s placemats, trapped in shiny plastic, protected from harm.
Well, that’s Ashleigh for you.
Christine Heuner has been teaching high school English for over 18 years. She lives with her family of six in New Jersey. Other than reading and writing, she enjoys spending time with family and exercising before dawn. Her work has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and is forthcoming in Scribble. She self-published Confessions, a book of short stories.