Fiction First Place: CHAOS
City Paper’s 14th Annual Fiction Contest
Published: December 19, 2012
I wheel her into the kitchen around noon. She is still in her bathrobe, but she made me put her makeup on. “Chaos is tasty and useful too!” she shouts.
“That’s chaos,” I respond. “Can you produce chaos?”
Delighted, she reaches for her fork. “Certainly I can produce chaos. She regarded the chaos: ‘Chaos is handsome and attractive,’ she said. . . . ”
She is a demented old woman, but the quote is real. It’s funny what she remembers.
Sauerkraut today. Yesterday she wanted Thanksgiving. Today she is appalled. “What is this bullshit?” she demands, words she never used before. “What is this crap?” I place a plate in front of her. I used to kiss her on the top of her head at lunchtime. Now I just move toward the pile of mail on the table.
She alternates bites with angry muttering. Mashed potato. Bullshit. Kielbasa. Crap.
“More durable than regret,” I say, without looking up. She smiles again. “And more nourishing than regret,” she says.
“You need more help,” says Jenny. She is calling me from her office.
“More implies that I have any to begin with,” I say, and I’m instantly sorry. Jenny has been over after work most nights this week, and she’s not even blood-related. She has no reason to come here except that she loves me. But otherwise there has been no one. When I first took leave, some of my co-workers came by with casseroles and cards. A few of her church ladies dropped in, but rarely stayed long and always expected me to put out refreshments. But this wizened old thing has lasted longer than anyone would have thought, and she becomes less recognizable—and more unpleasant—with each visit.
“Go get Dashiell,” she says, from her wheelchair. I put my hand over the receiver.
“Just watch your show,” I say. Jenny is talking about some mutual friend, oblivious.
“I want Dashiell,” she says, louder now. I set down the phone. “Dashiell isn’t coming today. Watch your show. I’ll be in when it’s over.”
So many times Dashiell has died now, usually in this living room. She never remembers. I have to kill him, over and over. Today I don’t have the patience to do it. It is such a long process: break the news as gently as I can, comfort her through her sobs, and put her to bed. Sometimes it takes us all afternoon. Today I just want to listen to Jenny talk about some stupid gossip and finish the laundry.
“Allegra isn’t coming either,” she says, as her voice grows hard. “Allegra never does. Her own mother all shut up in the house and she’s off with her friends. I don’t know how I could have given birth to someone like that. Someone so cold. Do you know?” This is not a rhetorical question. She wants to hear me say it.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I say, like I do every time. “She’ll understand someday.”
“Yeah, when I’m gone!” she says. She is getting too upset and I have to find a way to calm her down before hating Allegra becomes today’s afternoon activity. But she is already too far gone. “At least I had one good child,” she says. “At least Dashiell would never treat me this way.”
Crazy old woman. She remembers short stories from decades ago, but she doesn’t remember that her son died before he was 2. I get up to try to find a courtroom show for her. On the kitchen table, Jenny is still talking.
What if what’s imagined is truer than we know? Sometimes I can lose myself in this old woman’s mind, in a world where she still reads her books in the green chair before bed. Her students call late at night in a panic over a paper that they “forgot” to turn in on time. The house is the same, but cleaner and always smelling of vanilla pipe smoke and wood polish. She pours her bourbon into a small glass, etched with her initials. These things truly happened. Some days we let ourselves believe that they still do.
Other days we pretend that Dashiell is coming up the sidewalk and that he will be joining her for lunch. We pretend that Daddy left his new wife and is going to whisk her away to the Poconos. At least, I pretend. She seems to believe in these stories as deeply as in anything that ever happened. They seem to make her happy.
I wonder if I will lose my mind too. Is it inevitable? I wonder what will make me happy when I do, the truth or a made-up story? What if all I remember is that I had lunch with Dashiell on a rainy afternoon in Waverly—wouldn’t that be pretty funny?
“Did you call the lawyer?” asks Jenny, carrying in a bag of hot food.
“She said it’s too late,” I say. “The dementia diagnosis closed the window. If I want to access her checks, I’ll have to go to court and pay a bunch of money.”
“You’re already paying a bunch of money,” Jenny says.
“Yeah, but this could take months,” I answer, ducking around the corner to retrieve the guest of honor. I wheel her up to the table and tuck a napkin into her blouse. “It’s not worth it. I’d have to get a second lawyer for her. She’d have to testify. It’s too much right now. I’d rather just keep things how they are.”
“Like perfect madness.” Jenny says, serving chicken and green beans onto two plates.
“Are you staying to eat?” I ask.
“Hell no,” she says. “I can’t do another night in the fun house, no offense. Are you sleeping here?” I shrug. It’s just easier. Jenny sighs. “Then I will see you tomorrow.”
“She’s getting worse,” says her doctor. “Not her mind. The anger. The resentment. I’m going to suggest the support group again.” Not for her. For me. Like I have two hours on a Thursday morning to talk about how she makes me feel.
For her, it’s too late for support groups. All she can do is rage until she forgets again.
Jenny waits for us outside. It takes both of us to ease those fragile bones into Jenny’s stupid little car. “You’re being too rough,” she snaps. “Are you trying to hurt me? I’m just an old woman!” I let Jenny take over and fling myself into the passenger seat.
“He won’t change my medicine,” she tells Jenny. “I told him it was making my heart race, but nobody ever believes an old woman. Just because my mind is going doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about.” She starts to cry. “Everybody thinks I’m crazy. I’m not crazy.”
“You’re not crazy,” I say. “You’re tired.” Jenny puts her hand on my knee.
“I can’t believe you do this every day,” she mutters. But it’s like having kids, honest to God. You know they won’t be this way forever. From the back seat, the tantruming has only started. “When Allegra was just 11, she told me she hoped I would die,” she says, wringing her small, old hands in her lap. “Eleven! Have you ever heard of a child hating their mother that young? And I didn’t even do anything! Allegra was possessed by real evil. That’s the only thing I can figure. I never really believed in evil, but she must have had it deep in her soul.”
I stare out the window. The city is more beautiful and green than I remember. Was there always a restaurant by Patterson Park? God, it’s been weeks since I’ve been down this way.
“When Allegra was 4, she killed our cat. She put it in the washer and turned it on. We thought it was an accident, but later on I thought, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was her evil. For so long I’ve been scared to say these things out loud, but someone needs to do something.” She begins to shout. “Someone needs to check her out. What if—you know I don’t just accuse people—but what if she tries to hurt her brother?”
“That’s enough, Marian,” says Jenny, pursing her lips. We have had this conversation at least 20 times. We had it the last time we saw the doctor. Maybe something in Jenny’s car triggered her to remember. “I’m not saying she would,” she says softly. “You want to think the best of people. But you can never really know.”
We were going to have lunch, but Jenny drives back to the house instead. She has a text from work and has to go back. Within minutes, two of us are safely inside and courtroom shows are on. Jenny is on her way downtown. I wonder if Jenny tells true or made-up stories. Probably both.
I start putting lunch together and a familiar, shameful urge overtakes me. I know it’s useless, but I want her to know. More than anything, she has to know. “Do you know my name?” I ask as I cut up leftover chicken. “I’m your daughter, Allegra. I’m all grown up. I’ve been caring for you since May.” She blinks at me. Her hands are in that familiar twist in her lap. “I came here because we’re family. I came here as soon as I heard.”
She says nothing. I feel no satisfaction. I wish I had never said anything. I always wish I had never said anything. There is no room in this place for regret.
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