The Caregiver by Bernard Grant
Bernard Grant’s short story “The Caregiver” is a quiet, commanding piece. Though the pace is contemplative and deliberate, it has a rhythm that accelerates and propels: Grant has control at the sentence level, alternating long, nuanced, clausal sentences (“The idea of seeing Brenda again, so soon, feels unbearable, plus she’s hungry, so instead of returning home, she goes to Eagan’s Westside Drive-in for a burger, which she eats on the road, while the city scrolls by—a string of bars, restaurants, and other squat, downtown buildings, a landscape that fades into Heritage Park, where people are fast-walking and jogging, some pushing strollers along the pavement encircling Capitol Lake.”) with short, blunt ones (“Brenda’s presence makes Margaret feel hyperaware of her idleness. She now second-guesses portions before she cooks. Twice she’s missed her favorite TV shows, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.”).
Part of a linked collection concerning a family and themes of emotional and physical work (see Grant’s author’s note for more on this), “The Caregiver” delivers robust, impeccably executed third-person close narration on Margaret, and realistic dialogue that does the hard work of building fully realized characters. We felt a connection to these characters immediately; they are familiar (in a good way). And in Margaret, a fairly unreliable narrator, we have a wonderfully flawed protagonist, complete with imperfections and abundant humanity. We’re delighted to open 2020 with this fine story. —CRAFT
“Can you get to Heaven with broken teeth?” Louis asks Margaret.
“Sure can,” Margaret says, as she yanks his dresser drawer, derailing the shelf and spilling clothes onto the floor. Two hours into her shift, already exhausted and dreading the ten hours ahead of her, Margaret frowns at Louis, wishing her annoyance would register. But no. He’s sitting on his bed, scratching his gray goatee. Goose bumps have sprouted on his skinny arms and flabby chest. Above him hangs a Care Bears poster, bright cartoon images that match his blanket, sheets, and pillowcases. Still bouncing, still giggling, Louis opens his mouth, touches with his tongue his yellowed teeth, some crooked, some chipped. In his scratchy voice he asks, “You saw people with broken teeth?”
“And they got to Heaven?”
“Sure did.” Margaret holds up two shirts, a polo and a tee. Louis points to the polo. Strange. He usually pointed to both, leaving her to choose. She sets the shirt beside him on the bed, picks a loose strand of her own auburn hair from her sleeve, and reaches into his dresser drawers to pick out his underwear, socks, and jeans.
“After this, Louis, you’ll come into the kitchen for meds and breakfast. Waffles and eggs okay?”
“No.” He says this slowly as if to consider the question, though he rarely eats breakfast. “Can’t get to Heaven with all that.”
“You’ll get to Heaven,” Margaret says.
She’s been providing care to Louis for twenty years, clear back to when Brenda was ten and Luke was six, and Louis, though he was the age Margaret is now, had lower intellectual abilities than either of her children. Last spring, just after his mother died—his last living relative—Louis’s vocabulary expanded, and he began to surprise Margaret with his first set of questions regarding his eligibility for Heaven.
Funded by their disability checks, Margaret works three twelve-hour day-shifts caring for Louis and his roommate, Terry, in their Westside apartment. Today is Wednesday, her second day this week. One more to go. She prefers to work three days in a row, exhausting as it is, because three shifts in a row allows her to spend four full days at home watching television in complete solitude, a routine she’s recently lost.
A few days ago, Brenda, two months shy of thirty, moved in with Margaret to save money for DUI fines. Living alone, a lifestyle that took Margaret years to adjust to, has become a wealth of self-indulgence, doing what she wants when she wants with no one to interrupt or complain. Brenda’s presence makes Margaret feel hyperaware of her idleness. She now second-guesses portions before she cooks. Twice she’s missed her favorite TV shows, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Worse is having to sneak off like a teenager to smoke a bowl. Yesterday, when she forgot to knock before opening the bathroom door, Brenda’s adolescent glare of annoyance made Margaret feel as if she’d traveled back through time, to when Roy decided to “solve his identity problem” by moving to Georgia with some black woman, leaving Margaret to spend her days in Lewis and Terry’s apartment, housekeeping for minimum wage, only to return home to housekeep for two teenagers who considered themselves grown, yet asked for money, as if Margaret still factored an allowance into her budget. As if she ever budgeted at all. Numbers were Roy’s thing.
While Louis dresses, Margaret goes to the kitchen to prepare his meds, placing his pills in a stemless wine glass on the dining table beside a bottle of Ensure. As she roots in the freezer for frozen waffles, she consoles herself: today will be an easy day. Terry’s family picked her up for her forty-third birthday and will keep her until Friday, and Louis will likely refuse his outing and spend all day in bed—his routine since his mother died. Now, branches hang bare above dry, scattered leaves. Still Louis refuses to participate in his life. But it’s her job to assist him, to present to him the necessities he doesn’t want.
Louis’s despair leaves Margaret with a great deal of downtime, which unfortunately means alone time with Julie, one in an endless rotation of twentysomething cell-phone gazers who’ve accepted the Resource position, never staying more than a few months before they decide they’d rather flip burgers, repair roads, or give college a shot. Margaret knows Julie’s type. She raised her type. Though Brenda is smart enough not to smoke. Every half hour Julie slips out to the back patio, closing the screen door behind her yet leaving the sliding glass door open, allowing smoke to drift past the nonsmoking policy, a laminated note taped to the glass.
The smell of smoke irritates Margaret as she prepares Louis’s breakfast: placing two frozen waffles into the toaster and frying an egg. The click of Louis’s walker, accompanied by his grumpy mutters, catches Margaret’s attention, and she watches him shuffle to the dining table, where he settles into his seat, and scowls at the clock on the wall while he takes his pills.
“Clock, quick going so fast,” he says, and when the toaster chimes, he points to his teeth and says, “can’t taste it.”
“You can taste it.” Margaret places the waffles and eggs on his placemat, fastens a bib to his neck just as the screen door creaks, that rickety old thing—and here comes Julie, stepping into the apartment, a lighter in hand, leaving the door open behind her. Her short, plump frame reminds Margaret of her own, and she snatches her sweatshirt from the kitchen counter and shoves her arms through the sleeves.
“What’s it taste like, Louie?” Julie asks.
“Hey now,” Margaret says.
“How do you know it tastes like shit if you can’t taste it?”
“You can’t taste shit.”
Louis smirks and says, “Shit, shit. Food tastes like shit.”
“That’s enough,” Margaret says.
Julie trudges into the living room, her blond ponytail swinging, and collapses on the couch, cracking gum and thumbing her cell phone. Slouched as she is on that couch, Julie resembles Brenda the other night, when she sat at Margaret’s dining table, nursing a bowl of ice cream and flipping the pages of a gossip magazine. Before Brenda finished college, she claimed she’d move to Texas where her father had grown up. There she’d enroll in graduate school, study visual art. Instead, she stayed in Olympia, where she’s always lived, and where she was now taking over Margaret’s home, either sleeping in Margaret’s spare room, eating Margaret’s food while reading Margaret’s magazines, or watching Margaret’s TV, a glass of cheap red in her hand. Wine she probably pilfered from Margaret’s pantry. Margaret sat down across from her daughter and gazed at the many freckles on her face.
“Tell me that’s dessert,” Margaret said after a moment.
Brenda swirled her spoon in the bowl, let the handle clank against the rim. “It’s dessert.”
“You’ve had a real dinner?”
Brenda doesn’t respond, just returns her attention to the magazine. Us Weekly. Margaret wasn’t proud to own such garbage, as Roy had called the supermarket tabloids he occasionally caught her reading, and she felt uneasy as she watched Brenda flip the pages. At least Brenda was reading. Growing up, her daughter had spent all her free time in front of the TV. If she’d had a smartphone, she’d have been stuck to it like Julie.
“Eating dessert for dinner isn’t exactly part of an adult lifestyle,” Margaret said.
Brenda carried her bowl to the sink, then leaned her back against the counter to glare at her mother, her nose obscured by shoulder-length curls. “I think it’s safe to say I got an F in the adult lifestyle,” she said, then picked up her magazine and left the kitchen.
Margaret followed Brenda to the living room, where Brenda was taking a seat on a rocking chair, a red cushion beneath her. On the coffee table beside the chair stood a stemless glass, half filled with wine and smudged with fingerprints and lipstick. The same glass of wine Margaret had seen the night before? Probably. Margaret cringed when Brenda picked up the glass and brought it to her lips. Wine sloshed up the sides and onto the table when she set the glass down. Margaret wanted to scream. She wanted to wipe the table. She wanted to sleep. She said nothing. The legs of that old coffee table had been hammered and glued together so many times over the years. Hell, the glass was so scratched that to look through it was like trying to understand her clients, trying to understand her daughter.
Most nights around this time, she’d pack a bowl, take a couple hits, set the pipe on the table, and divide her gaze between the muted television and the curls of rising smoke. Quite often, while she watched game shows, she slipped into fantasies: of hitting the million tab on Wheel of Fortune and buzzing in before other Jeopardy contestants. She grabbed the remote and unmuted the TV.
“What are you doing?” Brenda said.
Margaret turned up the volume.
“You see me reading.”
“Can I please just watch my show?”
“Since when do you watch Jeopardy?”
“Since I’ve had an entire house to myself,” she said. Kids. They move out, never call, never visit, yet will show up when in need, bewildered by any change, as if you were supposed to pause your life the moment they left, awaiting their return.
Pain pulses through Margaret’s hands. She works through it—throws out Louis’s waffles, wipes down the table and counters, loads the dishwasher, and carries Terry and Louis’s financial binders to the laptop at the desk, beside the couch. Julie is sprawled there, a throw pillow beneath her head. Lazy child. Margaret sets a binder beside the laptop, drops the other in her lap, and tells Julie there’s work to do, raising her voice to wake her. “I’ll fill out the financial documents,” she says when Julie finally sits up, wiping her lips. “But that doesn’t mean you can sleep all day. There’s plenty of other tasks. Laundry, vacuuming, feeding Louis’s fish.”
“So, you want me to do all the shit you don’t want to do?”
“I’m doing all the hard stuff. You just have to clean a little.”
Margaret lied. Documentation tasks are easy and never take long. After she puts the binder away and closes Terry and Louis’s financial spreadsheets, she has time to check her lottery tickets and price RVs she can’t afford. Retirement enters her mind. She’s been putting money away since she was Julie’s age, twentysomething. Twenty-five bucks per paycheck. Back then, when she walked into the credit union to make those measly deposits, she felt silly. Saving for a day she may never see. Now, nearly three decades later, sixty miles south of home, ten years seems an eternity to wait for retirement. Hearing Julie yawn, she realizes the girl hasn’t left the couch.
“What are you doing?” Margaret asks.
Margaret hasn’t been on a date since she started putting away for retirement. Married too young. “You think you should be paid for dating?”
“You get paid to surf the net.”
Margaret closes the laptop. “I was checking the weather, looking for a place for Louis’s outing. If I can get him out of bed.”
“So were you checking the weather or looking up a place to take Louie?”
“Both. I’ll have to train you on computer stuff, among other things.”
“Yeah. I definitely need training because I don’t see what lottery results have to do with outings. That’s way over my new-hire head.”
Margaret places her hands on her hips. “You’ve been working here, what, two days?”
“So. Louis—his name is not Louie—Louis is going through a rough time.”
“I know, I know. His mom died and he’s super old so he doesn’t have any more family. They write out his whole life in his support plan.”
Margaret bites her upper lip. She’d forgotten about support plans. She forgets all year until January when the front office sends DDD paperwork, with a paperclipped letter commanding staff to document behavioral changes.
“Since you know so much, why don’t you tell me what else is in his support plan?” Margaret says. After a moment, when she receives no response from Julie, Margaret says, “Some things aren’t in there. Some things you have to learn. You have to spend time with him, earn his trust. You didn’t know, did you, that he doesn’t like to eat, so you have to give him a protein drink with each meal. He doesn’t like to get out of bed either. Only me and a few other, older, team members can get him up to bathe and come out for breakfast and meds in the morning. That’s why I don’t mind coming in before you, and why I’m more than happy to stay after you’ve gone home.” The truth of this statement shocked Margaret. “He won’t listen to anyone like you.”
“Young, inexperienced. No one like you stays long enough to earn his trust.” Margaret hated to be so tough with these kids but as vulnerable adults, Louis and Terry are incapable of independence, unable to properly care for themselves. She points to the hall toward Louis’s room where he is, no doubt, lying in the dark on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, a pillow over his face. “After breakfast, he goes to his room and we leave him alone. We don’t bother him except to give him meds and meals.”
“Actually, all of that stuff is in his support plan. Except for the last part, about leaving him alone. In training, they said that leaving him alone, neglecting him, just feeds his depression.” Julie looks up from her phone, bites a fingernail, spits. “I thought you were taking him out.”
“I’ll try. He won’t go.”
Louis, as usual, refuses his outing and remains in bed while Margaret and Julie sit on the couch, Margaret watching game shows, Julie nodding off and complaining of boredom while staring at her phone. Every so often, Margaret reminds her that today isn’t typical—there will be constant work once Terry comes back.
“Sometimes the phone will ring twenty, thirty times a day,” Margaret tells Julie without moving her eyes from TV, coveting the cruise prize. “There’s doctor’s appointments.” What else? “Deliveries, groceries, family visits. You’re lucky Terry is out today. Enjoy the break because some days you’re dealing with serious stuff. Ever seen a seizure?” Margaret exaggerated. Some days she lounges half her shift. Though it’s true: caregiving is exhausting. Keeping track of Louis’s and Terry’s schedules. Keeping her ears alert for the suction of the refrigerator door, the rustle of kitchen drawers. Louis avoids calling attention to himself. The mild-to-moderate level of support he requires is due mostly to his fragile frame, his need for the walker he hates. Terry, though, she will eat all day if unmonitored. Not only food. She has pica, an appetite for non-nutritive substances, likes to tear cling wrap and sandwich bags between her teeth.
What scares Margaret is that any day she may hear a thud: Louis may fall while attempting to navigate the apartment without his walker or Terry may collapse during an epileptic attack. She hasn’t had one in years. Margaret believes the agency should credit her for this period of remission. First month on the job, after calling the ambulance more than a couple of times, she studied Terry’s medical records, researched treatments, and in the doctor’s office, she jotted notes, asked questions, made sure the physicians maintained the proper medications, gradually adjusting drugs and dosages when necessary. While raising Brenda and Luke, Margaret was often surprised and delighted to notice the various ways this job had prepared her for aspects of parenthood she hadn’t anticipated.
She checks the wall clock. Damn. Came in late and still she has seven hours left. The night guy complained. “We can’t do this every week,” he said this morning. “Buy an alarm clock if you can’t remember to plug in your phone before bed.” His eyes were red. He covered his bald head with a snapback and grumbled as he collected his food. “I’m getting old, too, you know. I can’t keep staying late, working fourteen, fifteen-hour shifts, waiting for you to relieve me.”
“I plugged in my phone,” Margaret said. Watching him stuff a lunch box into his duffel bag, she realized she’d rushed out of the house without packing hers. “But I dropped it earlier and didn’t realize it was broken. Toughen up, Sam. I’ve got at least a good five years on you, easy.”
Around noon, Margaret walks Terry’s and Louis’s rent checks to the leasing office. When she returns to the apartment, Louis is sitting on his rocking chair, a maroon cushion beneath him, aiming a frown at the clock hanging above the door. A zipped-up windbreaker conceals his polo. Julie stands up from the desk, closes the laptop, grins.
“I got him out of bed,” she says. “Guess how. Hide and seek. I promised him I’d play if he got up for his outing. Ready for the park, Louie?”
“Hide and seek?” Margaret says. “He’s as old as your grandfather.” Julie fucking up the day. What should have been downtime has become an outing. Now Margaret actually has to do something. She picks up a comb from the bookshelf and sweeps it through Louis’s thin hair.
“Stay awake,” Margaret tells Julie as she follows Louis’s pokey self out the front door. “I want his lunch and meds on the table before we get back.”
“You forgot the first aid kit,” Julie says, causing Margaret to pause in the doorway. “We have to take it every outing, remember?”
Margaret did forget. Having slipped into a routine—shower, meds, breakfast, documentation, game shows, outings, lunch, documentation, dinner, game shows, chores, more documentation—she forgot, as she often forgets, about support plans and first aid kits. “Of course I have a first aid kit,” she says. “In the glove box, same place you should keep yours.”
Not once in the two decades she’s devoted to this job has Margaret felt any guilt for running personal errands while on the clock. She’ll have no energy after work. Once Louis is buckled in the backseat of her station wagon, she makes her stops: an automatic car wash, the pharmacy drive-thru, where she picks up her arthritis pills. A left on Harrison and she imagines she’s retired. Cruising through town, avoiding the freeway, lengthening her time away from the apartment. Twelve hours cooped up in that apartment makes her long for her own home, whether or not she has it to herself. For a moment she imagines she’s steering an RV, furnished with everything she owns, having donated and sold excess belongings—the junk Roy and the kids left behind: the stacks of boxes crowding her garage. She only wants the essentials, the necessary household items that will fit neatly in her mobile home.
Brenda’s Jeep hoards the driveway. Piece of junk, it just lingers—as if Roy won’t leave for good. No one would buy the Jeep, so he left it to Brenda on her sixteenth birthday. Outings usually give Margaret a headache, with Louis’s repetitive questions or Terry’s cat impersonations and mindless giggles, but today’s headache came much earlier, thanks to Julie, who fortunately works eight-hour shifts.
The rearview mirror reflects Louis, unbuckled, staring down at his fingers, pulling, wiggling, interlacing them. The last time she forgot to pack her lunch—this was months ago, maybe even a year—she drove to Wally’s Sandwich Bar and left him in the car while she went inside to order takeout. When she returned with her meal, a Pesto Change-o and a bag of dill-pickle chips, the backseat was empty. For a half hour she wandered the shopping center, scanning the parking lot, peeking into the windows of various shops and restaurants, all the while trying to decide whether to call the police or the front office. Worried she’d lose her job—or go to jail, charged with neglect—she returned to his apartment, and there he was, waiting by his front door like a fugitive housecat.
“Louis,” she says, “when I get out of the car in a bit, you need to follow me inside and wait on the couch while I make a quick sandwich, okay?” He doesn’t acknowledge her. “You hear me, Louis? When I go inside, you’ll follow me. Okay?”
“Yes,” he says after a moment.
“Okay. Give me one second.” She digs into her purse, searches for her one-hitter, and remembers, with a sigh, that she broke it last night. She had been in this very spot, in her driveway, parked behind Brenda’s Jeep, when she lit the bowl, and inhaled and held in the smoke, letting the pot blur her senses, her workday transmuted into a memory so old she could have imagined it. A knock on the window, then there, facing her, was her daughter’s brown, freckled face behind the glass. Terror shook Margaret, and when she stepped out of the car, the one-hitter slid from her lap and shattered on her driveway. Her cell phone fell next, and then—jeez, was she sweating?—she dropped her purse, spilling coins and a pack of gum. Brenda helped her gather her things while saying, “This is wild. I can’t believe this.” She handed Margaret her sack of pot. “Fucking wild.”
Margaret guides Louis to the couch, makes sure he’s settled, and follows the trail of the smoke to the backyard, where she locks eyes with Brenda, who drops a cigarette onto the grass.
“I thought you were smarter than that.” Margaret should be less surprised. “All those times you came home smelling like smoke. I’d smell it in your hair and on your clothes. You’d blame it on one of your little friends, ‘Amber smokes. Mindy smokes. Not me, Mother.’”
“I never say, ‘Mother.’”
“I never trusted those little hoodlums. Especially that boy you ran around with. James or John or—”
“Gene.” A dreamy smile touches Brenda’s face.
“Pick it up. Don’t think you can just move in here and take over, ruining my furniture, burning up my backyard.”
“So dramatic,” Brenda says. She stoops to retrieve the cigarette and takes a couple quick drags, each time blowing smoke in her mother’s direction, before finally flicking the butt over the back fence.
“You’re a real class act, you know that?”
“Who raised me?”
A question Margaret sometimes asks herself. Who raised her children? She or Roy? Or did the babysitters do most of the work?
“Put it out,” she said. “You want to smoke, find your own home.”
“I’m moving out tonight. I just didn’t tell you becau…”
Brenda’s words trail off as Margaret struts back into the house, slamming the sliding door behind her. In the living room she finds Louis running his hands over the glass surface of the coffee table, making engine sounds. For a moment she just stands there, watching him, wondering what thoughts are needling his head. Surely, he misses his mother. But what else? What else besides Heaven and time, things outside of human control, concerns him? How can she improve his life? She wants to show him, somehow, that life continues without a mother, or even a family, though she isn’t sure she believes this herself.
Abruptly, Louis yanks back his hand. He doesn’t shout though, just holds out his finger, revealing a streak of blood.
“Do people who cut their fingers get to Heaven?” he asks.
Margaret wipes with her sleeve the blood he left on the table. “Yes, Louis. Of course. Come on.”
Once she’s buckled Louis into the backseat, she searches for the first aid kit, first under her seat, then in the side and middle compartments, before finding it in the glove box. She dabs ointment on Louis’s finger, wraps it with a Band-Aid. Not long after they’re back on the road her stomach grumbles, and she remembers why she went home in the first place: she’s forgotten her lunch. Twice now. The idea of seeing Brenda again, so soon, feels unbearable, plus she’s hungry, so instead of returning home, she goes to Eagan’s Westside Drive-in for a burger, which she eats on the road, while the city scrolls by—a string of bars, restaurants, and other squat, downtown buildings, a landscape that fades into Heritage Park, where people are fast-walking and jogging, some pushing strollers along the pavement encircling Capitol Lake. She rolls down her window, lets the wind beat her ear, whip her hair, while she coasts beneath I-5 to Tumwater and crosses Capitol Boulevard to enter a residential area, one-story houses on either side. Old, but nicer than she can afford.
At West Bay Park, they weave through dog walkers, strollers, joggers, and various idlers to sit on a bench near the dock to watch boats and kayaks glide over Puget Sound. Moored to the dock bob additional boats: house boats, sail boats. Gulls dip low, skim the water’s surface, crisscross overhead. A breeze hits Margaret. She reaches over to zip up Louis’s windbreaker, realizing then that it’s only while at work that she steps outside to appreciate the city she’s lived in all her adult life. No more than 50,000 people populate Olympia, yet she sees her daughter only a dozen times a year—when Brenda wants money or is between homes and needs a place to stay. Other times, grocery shopping, or simply strolling the mall alone, Margaret spots her daughter from a distance. Each time she wants to hide, because each time Brenda, usually walking with a friend or a group of friends or holding hands with some man, nods or half-smiles, if she acknowledges Margaret at all, but she never stops to speak, never alerts her company to her own mother’s presence. Not that Luke treated her any better when he lived in town, but at least he had the grace to move an hour north, to Seattle, where he’s pursuing a culinary arts degree. School gave him enough excuses, meager finances, limited free time, and so much distance—sixty miles—to ignore her, to spare her the humiliation of feeling unwanted by the people she gave birth to, the people she raised. Luke moved a year ago. Margaret has, since then, received, from him, a single email and a single postcard.
Back when she worked to support her family, work felt purposeful. Not enjoyable, really, or even pleasant, but each hour she spent each day in other people’s homes, assisting with basic life skills, as if Louis and Terry were her own children, felt meaningful, and often significant, because after she clocked out, she drove home to greet her family, the only people whose presences could make her forget whatever Terry or Louis or some foolish young coworker had done to ruin her day. At home, with her family, she forgot the regrets that plagued her during the thirty-six hours she spent with Louis and Terry: somehow wedging herself between two homes—a house where she took care of her loved ones and an apartment where she took care of her clients. At both homes she ate, shit, lounged, and slept, but neither place provided her with any space to evolve, so she often wished she’d stayed in college, like Roy, had pursued a career, like Roy, who had a work office and a home office while she only had shared spaces. These days, her checks go solely to herself. Living alone, a lifestyle that took Margaret years to adjust to, is simply that, an adjustment. She understands this now and wonders if and how she can move past resignation to reach acceptance.
“You seen people with this on their face?” Louis asks, scratching his goatee.
“Sure have,” Margaret says.
“They get to Heaven?”
“Bet they don’t.”
“They do. But once we get back I can shave it off for you. If that’s something you want.”
“Yes. You can’t get to Heaven with all that.”
“I can’t, but you can.”
For whatever reason, perhaps Louis’s absent, childlike smile, or maybe his ignorance of the difficulty of ageing, Margaret can’t help but wish for him a fuller life than she or any of her coworkers could ever give him.
Margaret is incensed but not at all surprised to find Julie asleep on the couch. With trembling hands, she slams groceries on the kitchen counter and follows a trail of sandwich bags to Terry’s bedroom. On an unmade bed Terry lies on her back, her nose penetrating a sheet of ink-black hair. Home early. Margaret should be less surprised. Terry’s family members complain. All that meowing and giggling makes their heads throb. Margaret shares their frustration but not their tendency to reject Terry, never calling and only visiting on birthdays or holidays or “if they were in the neighborhood” as if they, too, didn’t live in Olympia. Margaret offers to help Terry clean the floor, then turns on the radio, and they listen to hair metal, music Margaret can’t stand, but which inevitably sends Terry into a state of ecstasy. Once Terry’s room is marginally tidy, Margaret goes in the closet to check the laundry basket and finds it filled with dirty clothes.
“Take these out to the washer, please.”
Terry taps two fingers to her thumb. ASL: “No.”
“That wasn’t a question. Helping with laundry is something you agreed to, years ago, when they wrote up your support plan.” She’s been reminding her for years.
Terry stares at the basket a moment before picking it up, then follows Margaret to the laundry closet. While loading the washing machine, Margaret hears a thud and turns to see Louis struggling to his feet. She starts down the hall but pauses when Julie comes around the corner behind him. What Margaret notices then is that Louis reaches for Julie’s hand—he has never reached for Margaret’s—and allows Julie to help him to his bedroom while Terry stands behind them, pointing, her giggles interspersed with meows. Not ten minutes later, Margaret returns to the main room to find Julie lying on the couch, her phone raised above her head. If Margaret reports her, the way she’s reported countless of her kind in the past, slack-offs in their early-to mid-twenties, the office staff will remind her that they are adults, and that adults work problems out amongst themselves.
“How long has Terry been back?” Margaret asks.
“Her family dropped her off right after you left,” Julie says.
Margaret nods to the dining table where Louis is seated.
“Has he had lunch?” Margaret asks.
“He said he wasn’t hungry. Right, Louie? You’re not hungry?”
“Can’t taste it,” he says, touching his teeth.
“See? He refused his meds, too.”
“Can’t get to Heaven with all that medicine.”
“Go,” Margaret says.
“I’m letting you go early because if you stay here, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Once Julie has gone, Margaret wakes Louis and leads him across the hall and into the bathroom, where she directs him to sit down on the toilet. Policy requires caregivers to immediately report the mildest scratch or discoloration on any part of their clients’ bodies, whether or not that person has a history of self-harm. Many of the agency’s clients intentionally harm themselves. Since Louis is a falling risk, she’s required to check him after each shift. As always she’s relieved, though not surprised, to find his body unharmed, marked only by the age spots he’s developed since they met, similar to the discoloration she’s recently noticed on the backs of her own hands. Quietly, taking her time, she combs his beard, keeping him calm before plugging in the clippers. Despite her efforts, when she switches them on, he flinches.
She strokes his head.
Floodlights illuminate Margaret’s driveway, where a U-Haul truck is parked in place of Brenda’s Jeep. Margaret parks at the curb beside the mailbox and trudges up the lawn, her purse scraping the truck as she passes stacks of boxes and storage bins. Inside the living room, Brenda is slouched on the couch, reading a magazine and sipping wine. Margaret sits down beside her, palms her daughter’s cheek, brushes back her thick curls, exposing freckles. A minute or so goes by, then the doorbell rings, and Brenda rushes to the door.
“The neighbors offered to help,” she says before stepping outside without closing the door behind her.
Margaret follows her and stops at the porch, where a leg cramp forces her to take a seat, from where she watches the Garcias, a young married couple, help Brenda pack the U-Haul. Lugging boxes from the garage. Stacking them into the truck. Closing and locking the door. After the neighbors leave, Brenda climbs into the cab and tries the ignition. The truck chugs, struggles a bit, then quits. Margaret can’t stand the sound. She offers to take Brenda’s place behind the wheel, where she turns the key while Brenda watches, smoking and flicking ashes over remnants of Margaret’s broken one-hitter, glass shards glinting beneath moonlight. When Margaret, defeated, steps down from the cab, Brenda stubs out her cigarette in the driveway and suggests calling U-Haul in the morning. “This way I can stay another night,” she says, then snaps her gum, her smoky-sweet breath a warm contradiction on Margaret’s neck.
BERNARD GRANT’s stories and essays have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, The South Carolina Review, among others, and he has received fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw Cultural Center, Mineral School, and The University of Cincinnati where he is a doctoral student.