This is the second part of the story Wisp. The parts in order are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. To read Part One: Grace, click here. It will open in a new window. This story contains some mild language and a couple mentions of sexuality. As always, feedback is welcome.
“Breathe, just breathe.” The man’s voice broke through the wavy glass that seemed to surround Pearl. No, not glass. Plastic, over her mouth and nose. Forced oxygen. Yes, now she remembered. She had felt herself losing her balance in her kitchen. She had pressed the medi-alert button that hung around her neck — “Help at the Touch of a Finger!” — before falling and cracking her head on the sink. Stupid, really.
She gripped the edge of the stretcher with one hand and reached up to feel the lump on her forehead with the other. Rough gauze grazed her fingertips.
“You’re okay now, Mrs. Alexander. We’re just going to take you to the hospital, get you checked out.”
She nodded as much as the apparatus and stretcher would allow. She was glad it wasn’t more; her head ached when she moved it, and nausea gripped her stomach and bowels.
It was the damn medication. If she took it, then she did nothing but throw up. If she didn’t take it, then her gait became stiff; falling was a foregone conclusion.
They bumped her into the back of the ambulance — did they have to be so damn rough? — and it was only when they were driving off that she had a chance to wonder if she had on clean underwear and if she had left the patio door open or not.
The stove was off, of that she was certain; she hadn’t yet filled the kettle with water. She had, however, removed the lemons from the refrigerator. She had cut one into perfect, circular, thin slices and put them in a Tupperware bowl. They would go into the punch bowl for the weekly bridge game. The other lemon she had cut into wedges for tea. It was then she remembered that she hadn’t yet put the kettle on. The smart thing to do would have been to start the kettle first, then cut the lemon while waiting for the water to boil. But she had never been clever. She was nothing but a stupid old woman. The wedges, eight equal parts, were still sitting on the counter, where they would dry out, the pulp becoming whitish and flaky, the skin growing leathery, and the juice evaporating. No matter how much she would squeeze it, it would remain stubbornly dry, shriveled.
She closed her eyes. She just wanted to sleep for a bit, forget about lemons.
“Are you still with us, Mrs. Alexander?”
Of course she was. What did the jackass think? “I’m so tired,” she whimpered.
“We’re almost there. Is there someone you want us to call?”
“My daughter. Her number is in my purse.” Did she have her purse? Probably not. They wouldn’t have thought to get it. That meant she didn’t have her keys either. Did they lock the door of the apartment? A colored family had just moved in down the hall. She would be damned lucky if she had anything left in her apartment when she got back. She made a mental note of the things to check for when she returned: the wall safe, her jewelry, the crystal.
“I can tell you the number,” she said. She waited for the paramedic to poise his pencil. “Her name is Kay.” She watched him jot it down, bold large strokes, the number following the colon that followed the name.
Darkness closed in over her, and although she could hear the paramedic ask if she was okay, she didn’t answer. Let him wonder if she had died or not.
When her eyes fluttered open again, Eddie, her youngest son, was leaning over her. She turned her head and saw Kay sitting in the visitor’s chair, talking on a cell phone.
“Mom? Are you okay?”
Her nostrils flared as Eddie’s breath reached her, his words riding the fumes of Jack Daniels as though it were an amusement ride gone beserk. His clothes held the smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke. A cobweb, thick and dusty, clung to his hair. He must have been crawling in a cellar, rewiring it. How he hadn’t yet burned down someone’s house, she would never know, because he was a drunk, plain and simple. “Did you come from work?” she asked.
“Yeah. Kay called and said you had had an accident.”
Kay snapped her cell phone shut. She took a drink from her water bottle, expensive and lemon-flavored, and came over to the bed. “Del is on his way.”
Irritation coiled in her mind. She hadn’t wanted all of them crowding around her. She had wanted only Kay.
“You weren’t working with Del?” she asked Eddie.
“No. He was working in the office today.”
“Did you ask him about a raise?”
“He’s not going to give me a raise, Mom. He’s got too much other stuff to spend his money on. He just keeps telling me that when I get licensed, he’ll give me more money.”
“Well, I don’t know why he’s waiting,” she snapped.
“Because he doesn’t think I do a good enough job. Even though I do all the work.”
She agreed with him even though she knew this wasn’t true, and she suspected that Del carried a huge insurance policy on his alcoholic brother, but it still annoyed her. Del was her oldest child, the product of a young marriage. Her parents had finally forced her to leave her husband when he had been arrested for exposing himself to a group of schoolchildren. The question of whether he had ever sexually abused school-aged Del or not lodged in her mind, a cramp in the soft tissue. Perhaps that would explain why Del was . . . well, the way he was. It didn’t matter that he owned his own business or had his own family. It didn’t matter that he had given Eddie a job when no one else would. It didn’t matter, because she knew how wrong Del was and how she should never have had him. She should have given him up for adoption when she left his father. Pearl’s mother, the old, bitter bitch, had tried to talk her into doing just that. It wasn’t love that made her keep him, though; it was fear of loneliness.
“How did court go?” she asked.
Eddie shrugged, and Pearl could almost see the lie forming. “The judge didn’t like me. He said I’d been drinking.”
“Had you?” Kay asked.
“Shut up!” he threw over his shoulder to his younger sister. “He said he’d give me three weeks to comply with the court order.”
“Well, why are you still drinking then?”
He whipped around on her, the anger that always raged near the surface exploding. “Why don’t you mind your own business?”
Her lip curled, but she simply held up her hand in dismissal and shook her head. Then she turned all that withering contemptuousness on Pearl.
“The doctor said you stopped taking your medication, Pearl,” Kay said. “Why would you do that?”
Pearl hated the fact that her daughter called her by her first name. It was as though she had become Kay’s child, as though Kay wanted to deny the thirty-five-year relationship between them. “Because it was making me so sick. I kept throwing up. If I throw up one more time, I’m just going to slit my throat.”
“The doctor said you also stopped your physical therapy.”
Pearl knew it had been a mistake to name Kay as a guardian, able to know all her medical and financial decisions, but the truth was, she just wasn’t capable of doing it all herself any more. Her brain was becoming a stranger, vaguely familiar, somewhat threatening. “It wasn’t helping.”
“The last time I talked with you, you said it was.”
“Well, it was, but I just didn’t want to go. The therapist is too rough. And no one will take me.”
“But it was helping you walk. Are you still going to your Parkinson’s group?”
What had she told Kay about that group? She didn’t remember. “The last time I went, that woman who mumbles talked the entire time. I couldn’t understand a word she said, the fool. It was a complete waste of two hours.”
“Kay, leave her alone,” Eddie said. “She doesn’t need you badgering her.”
“Apparently, someone needs to. And my god! How much do you drink on the job?”
“Leave me alone!”
Stop bickering! Pearl wanted to say. It made her head hurt, made her feel that they weren’t paying enough attention to her. After all, she was the one in the hospital.
“Eddie, why don’t you go back to work? I don’t need you both here.” It was always best when she could deal with her children one-on-one. That way the attention wasn’t divided between her and someone else.
Eddie bent over the bed and kissed Pearl, who held her breath until he was away. “I’ll talk to the doctor and tell her to call me when you’re released. I’ll come and pick you up.”
Kay waited until he left and then pulled the chair closer to the bed. “He’s going to burn down someone’s house one of these days,” she said, echoing Pearl’s earlier sentiment. Why couldn’t Kay see that they always agreed?
“Del should have never hired him.”
Kay snorted, a particularly ugly sound. “Yes, because Eddie was so much better off sleeping in his car and never showering.”
“Del doesn’t treat him right. He never has.”
“Let’s not get into it right now. I need to talk to you about your will and where I can find all the papers.”
“Of course.” The truth was, she had been thinking quite a bit about her money and the disposition of her effects. “As far as I’m concerned, liquidate the entire estate. I want everything divided up between the two of you.”
“You mean the three of us.”
“No. Just the two of you — you and Eddie. The two of you are the ones I consider my real children. Del just caused me too much trouble when he was a teenager.”
Kay paused a moment before writing it down. Pearl could see her mind working out the details and how she would try to get around them when the time came. Let her try.
“Next, Eddie borrowed five thousand dollars from me and hasn’t paid it back. I want that amount subtracted from his share.” He had borrowed the money to enter rehab. What a waste that had been; she could still smell the fumes that lingered in the room.
She looked over at the door. A colored priest, older than any of her children, even Del, had looked in.
“I heard you had just been admitted. I’m Father Washington. When I’m on call, I try to check in with everyone to see if they need anything?”
“No,” she said, unable and unwilling to keep the acerbic tone at bay.
“Pearl! Don’t be rude.”
“Well, I didn’t ask him to come.”
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” the priest said. “I’ll go.”
“Stay a moment, Father,” Kay said. “I need a witness to my mother’s wishes. I apologize for her rudeness.”
The priest nodded, an almost subservient move as he lingered at the foot of the bed, but Pearl wasn’t fooled. They always thought they were better than everyone else, all their talk of sin and of having to behave in a certain manner. She remembered her uncle and all of his religious talk, his pious posturings. Did he know that his son wouldn’t let her play with him and his friends unless she performed oral sex on each of them? Of course she did it; she wanted to play with the big kids. She remembered sneaking lemons off the trees in the fields and squeezing them into her mouth afterwards. It cut through the thick ejaculate that coated her throat and left her with a bitter taste in her mouth. The acidity eventually ate away the enamel on her teeth, and she had to have constant dental work; she had dentures fitted for her while she was only in her thirties.
She turned back to Kay. “Figure out what the interest would have been on five-thousand dollars and deduct that as well.”
Again, the hesitation on Kay’s part.
“I’m not a bank, Kay.” Kay wrote it down, but Pearl didn’t miss the slight glance toward the silent priest. He had that dusty look that older black men got, as though he had been walking down dirt roads instead of tiled hallways. “I want you to have those parts that were deducted from him.”
“What about charities?”
“The Parkinson’s group has been very good to you.”
“No. None of them came to see me the last time I was in the hospital. And I went to Edith’s birthday party, and no one said anything to me. I was there for two hours, and none of them came over to talk to me.”
Kay finished writing and passed the pen to Pearl. She gripped the pen even though it was hard for her to do. Her signature held the telltale shake of the Parkinson’s victim. Kay took the pen and pad and passed it to the dusty-colored priest. Pearl watched him sign his name as witness, hating that he saw her shaky signature, as though that defined her, as though it made him better than her.
He left soon after, urging her to send for him if she needed anything at all. Damn priests, acting as though they cared about her.
Kay folded the paper and put it in her satchel. “I’ll go file these and then I’ll be back later to see how you are.”
“And take a check with you to the Henry and Green Crematorium. I want them paid off as soon as possible.”
“Do you want me to get you anything before I go?”
“Maybe a cup of tea.”
Kay went to find it and brought it back moments later. Th water was lukewarm, but Pearl placed the teabag in the cup and poured water over it. The tremor made her splash some over the side of the cup. She was so tired, and she could sense the blackness beyond waiting for her. Close now, so close. In the end, it was all she had ever really wanted. The blackness was all she had ever embraced.
She picked up the lemon wedge from the edge of the saucer. She licked it once, feeling the bite on her tongue and the pucker that had become as familiar to her as her own face.
As tightly as her palsied hands would let her, she squeezed the lemon into the cup.
* * *