Author / Speaker
A SHORT INTRODUCTION
People search. These searches are often very complicated. Perhaps we think only complicated things are worth pursuing. Perhaps, though, it is not a very complicated world at all. Today, a man says, I was standing in the driveway, and I noticed how the sunlight fell across my tennis shoe.
Not so very long ago, a baby is born. Marissa. Latin meaning, “Of the Sea.” Happy Hebrew meaning, “Wished-for Child.” The new parents receive many gifts, among them a red velvet pillow stitched with the words, A Child is a Joy Forever. That night, in the dark hospital room with its various glowings, Marissa’s mother sits at the window, pillow and child in her lap.
She searches the stars. She knows this will not last forever. But at this moment, the stars are prettier than ever.
In the small room with the broken-handled drawers and the faeries trailing pixie dust on the wall, Mother and Father stand in the dark beside her bed. Beneath the blanket, Marissa is cocooned in her own warmth. The wool blanket itches her chin. She probes the new hole with her tongue tip, and her heart gallops.
She watches her shadow-parents. Her tongue tip stays where the tooth once was. It makes her voice sound funny, the words fuzzy around the edges.
“When I grow up, I’m going to be the tooth fairy,” she says, and her shadow-parents laugh.
She loves the sound of their breathing. Not quite the same time. Mother breathes faster.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asks her parents.
Her father laughs again. Her mother is quiet. Suddenly, the room is like someone hiding. In a moment of wild panic, Marissa thinks her parents have stopped breathing. Then her mother makes a small noise, like the one Mr. Ketchum makes when his wife spoons him too much chicken noodle soup.
She cannot see her mother’s face, but her happiness dies a little.
They walk the rise and fall sidewalk, their cozy family, bundled against the night. The air shocks their bare skin pleasantly. Ice puddles the sidewalk like shiny candle wax. All three of them take penguin steps. The street lights are perfectly spaced. In and out, in and out, light and shadow, light and shadow, like perfect winking; winking out or winking on, Marissa can’t tell. When she squints, the lamps go blurry, strange whorlings at their edges.
Father whispers to Mother.
“A child sees icebergs in the street lamps.”
Her mother looks at the ground.
“What happened?” her mother asks.
Her father stops taking penguin steps.
There is a bully in her third grade class. He treats everyone rudely. On the playground, he pushes a boy off the tire swing. Then he sits on him, ladling wood chips into the boy’s hair.
In the classroom, their teacher holds a meeting. Everyone sits cross-legged on the carpet. One by one, they say what bothers them about the boy. When Marissa’s turn comes, she stands.
“How do you think it would make you feel if you had to sit and listen to people saying bad things about you?” she says. “Maybe if you heard those things, you’d be bad too.”
Her mother and father don’t hear this. She has her own life now.
Her father sits in a chair, head bent to the computer on his lap. He wears his Sunday night face. Marissa watches from the doorway. When he dips his head, she sees skin under his hair.
“How come there are two play days and five work days? How come there aren’t five play days and two work days?” she asks.
Her father doesn’t lift his head. His fingers tap clicks.
“That’s just the way it is, sweetheart.”
Outside the stars glitter. The stars don’t know what night it is.
Marissa wonders why her mother is holding the pillow. When her mother motions to her, Marissa stops wondering. The warmth from her mother’s body is like heat from a fire.
Her mother’s breaths tickle her ear.
“Always see the stars,” her mother whispers.
The wind off the ocean makes the umbrellas pop. Music plays and gulls cry. Out in the waves, people laugh and shout. When the waves rear up and crumble forward, young and old throw themselves into the soupy mayhem, hoping for a tumbling ride.
Squatting beneath the summer sun, Marissa slowly sweeps her hand over sand and broken shells. The shadow of her hand’s passing is like a strange bird.
“Does everything have shadows?” she asks.
Her father’s face is very serious.
“Yes,” he says.
Jack has been her friend since kindergarten. He lives two doors away. Fifteen sidewalk squares. Seven seconds from her door to his. Five, without cars in the driveway. Four, if you trust Jack’s watch.
They have walked to school together every day for six years. In the beginning, they stooped for acorns, broken crayons and stick bits shaped like animals, stuffing them deep into their pockets; placing them carefully in their desks for safe keeping. Walking home, they negotiated. Sometimes prizes changed pockets.
Now Marissa notices Jack’s shoulders are square, and when their hands touch, sometimes she wants to look away.
She lies in bed, textbooks scattered about her. Dust motes drift in the slanting light, falling across pages she should be studying. The midterm is tomorrow. She doesn’t see the books. She lies on her back. There’s a poster on the ceiling, her roommate’s favorite band, wearing nothing but socks where socks are now oddly required. But her eyes see only the midnight picnic. She feels his gentle movements. She hears the aspen leaves softly applauding their sighs.
Marissa sings softly, so no one in the dormitory hallway will hear. The words stick a little on her tongue, her mouth still gummy from the champagne that loosened her in ways she wanted to be loosened.
Daddy, there’s a boy outside, his name is Casey. He wants to carry my books for me . . .
The bodice is suffocating. When Marissa looks down, she sees cleavage she doesn’t have. Her father stands silent beside her. On the other side of the moat-like doors, she hears coughs and murmurings. She thinks of Jack and Casey, and the few others who made her heart sing. The man on the other side of the doors knows of some of these suitors, but not all. She knows she is right in choosing this man, and when the first organ chord strikes, her heart leaps. But in that moment, staring at the doors swinging slowly wide, she is not certain what emotion makes her heart race. Owen, she may whisper. Til’ death do us part. As every eye swings toward her, she thinks of her mother. Organ sound beats against her like a current. She braces. Stepping forward, she vows to hear the laughter instead of the tears.
At dinner, Marissa leans close so that none of the elegantly dressed diners can hear.
She sings softly to Owen.
“Daddy, there’s a boy outside…”
She’s had more than she usually drinks, one glass of wine for each year of marriage. Silverware makes lullaby chimes, and the waiters make pant-leg rustles. The waiters are dark-haired and handsome. Mysteriously Mediterranean. She entertains a fantasy or two.
The boy she chose, his hair already thinning, sits beside her, their legs touching under the table, his hand under her silk slip, finger making goosebump circles on the inside of her thigh.
Above, in the public world, her mother and father smile. There are toasts, and exclamations regarding the impossible passing of time.
When they come home, she falls asleep on the couch with her mouth open.
Owen sits by the window, looking at the stars.
She watches the two of them, crouched on the jetty, their knotty spines bowed to the shadowed mysteries between the rocks, bright red buckets by their side. Owen snores on the blanket beside her. The hair that was on his head has gone to his nose and ears. Looking across the sand toward the jetty, Marissa smiles. She was once a collector.
Two sons. She wanted a daughter. Daughters sit soft and still in your lap like velvet pillows. Daughters stay close to home. First Marcus, then Seamus. She couldn’t be happier.
Bunching a fist, she pushes herself up off the blanket. She wobbles, warding off bright spots and dizziness – probably dehydration – and makes her squeaking way across the sand, hotter and hotter beneath her feet. The last few steps before she reaches the savior jetty are an unbecoming jig.
Standing on the jetty, she listens to the sea moving among the rocks, making its gurgling probings. She loves the sea. It breathes life. It washes her clean. Makes her feel young again. Feels like a part of her. A soul mate without complications. Of the Sea.
She watches Marcus and Seamus. They are oblivious to her presence. Their bowed spines are so fragile, like the sticks she once picked up. A sense of dread crawls across her, an invisible cloud ushering cold. Always shadows. Even on penny bright days.
In the cozy room with the stenciled trains running their four-wall loop, there are many bedtime discussions, straining attempts to fathom countless mysteries, and one’s place in a very big world.
Marcus, dozy with onrushing sleep, says, “We’re like toys to you guys. You know how you move a toy’s arms and legs? You guys make us do things.”
What if the puppeteer has no idea either?
There are other nighttime matters. Marcus is asleep. He is like his father, already breathing softly as his head lowers to the pillow. But Seamus is her son. Eternally restless. Sitting downstairs with a book in her lap, Marissa hears him fidgeting. First, audible moans and calculated bumpings. Finally, a call making a beeline down the stairs to her ears.
“Mommy, my back itches.”
She rises wearily. She is wrung out. Twisted to the last drop. Always something to do. A sink is clogged. The freezer door doesn’t shut. The garage is a disaster. Owen did not come upstairs to say goodnight. Things are not good at work. He is in the den, doing whatever it is he does to try to make things better. So many uncertainties in this uncertain world.
She sits on the edge of the bed. It feels as if her body will keep on collapsing; through the mattress, through the bed frame, through two floors, into the clotty earth. She stares at the trains making their silent, dogged way. Paint has chipped away. The caboose is detached, and the locomotive’s cow catcher is more suction cup than prow. They won’t be long for trains anyhow.
She runs her fingernails lightly over Seamus’s pale back, smooth as fresh snow. Marcus breathes evenly in the bed behind her. Her fingers run up and down, up and down; mother’s automatic pilot. Succumbing to the soft-breathed hush, she may doze herself.
After a time, she rises and tip toes for the door.
Her jaw clenches. She turns slowly, mustering patience.
Seamus is sitting up in bed. His arms are spread wide.
“Paycheck,” he says.
It is the gentlest kiss she has ever received. Of this one thing, she is absolutely certain.
They make love to the music of rain. Owen falls asleep within minutes of release. She listens to his stutter step snores. She rises, slips on her nightgown, and carefully negotiates the dark stairs with their minefield of toys and never-read magazines waiting to go somewhere.
The living room is strangely foreign in the dark. As if she’s a burglar in someone else’s home. The rain patters steadily. Why is she always restless? Even her thoughts flit about. If she knew why, it probably wouldn’t help. Knowing doesn’t change some things.
The rain is a siren call. She opens the front door, and steps out to the porch. The neighborhood is dark. Still, she turns off the porch light so no one will see her.
Standing just back from the dripping eaves, she feels the cool breath of the rain. She thinks of other lovers, while the still-warmth of her husband seeps down her thigh.
The four of them sit at the dinner table. The phone rings. They don’t answer the phone at dinner, but four forks pause, and four sets of ears listen as a friend leaves a message, apologizing for some delay. We’re just busy and tired like everyone else, the friend says.
After dinner, Marissa surprises herself, ignoring the dishes and walking out to the front yard. The grass is spongy under her feet. Silver moonlight freezes the world. The dark homes with their steeply slanted roofs and warm light windows. The curbside oak, the knots on its limbs like woody blisters, the rope hanging limp from the thickest limb. Car windshields shimmer. It is the loveliest rendering of the mundane.
Slipping out of her shoes, she squeezes the dewy grass between her toes. Her toes respond with the dexterity of stubby fingers. For some reason, this makes her happy. She can’t remember the last time she stood beneath the stars. This makes her sad.
Her mother dies first. Her father passes two months later. Marissa allows herself a wry adult smile. At the end, there was closeness.
Only child, the putting away of lives falls to her. She sets three boxes out on the porch for the Salvation Army. Turning away, she notices one box isn’t completely closed. She chastises herself as she bends – every single thing doesn’t have to be just so. Tucking the errant flap, she sees the pillow. The stitching is frayed. The velvet is faded. A dime-size gray stain sits, like punctuation, precisely above the “i” in “child.” Her hand trembles as she opens the box.
A Child is a Joy Forever.
She is no longer a child, and her parents are past feeling joy. She steps inside, and shuts the door. The furniture is gone. Only the Grandfather Clock remains. No one wants a ten-foot Grandfather Clock.
The emptiness looks wrong. The clock ticks, and there is the scent of must. In the not-empty-at-all house, she hugs the pillow and cries a little girl’s tears.
Marcus is in the front yard, swinging a bat at imaginary fastballs, sending every one out of the park. His jaw is set. His swings cleave the air. An elderly neighbor, walking his dog, stops.
“Quite a swing you’ve got there, Marcus. Would you like to play professional baseball?”
“No,” says Marcus, “I’d rather play with my Dad.”
“Ah,” says the neighbor, who will take this secret to his grave.
Marissa moves about their living room. Doing things. Seamus stands beside the Grandfather Clock. He watches her, but not really. He is listening. His head is cocked slightly, so that the thick, brown hair that always hangs in his eyes is off to one side. The positioning gives him a jaunty, piratical air.
She starts to speak, then stops herself. She knows he is listening to the clock’s inner turnings, his own imagination turning too. Mothers don’t play favorites, but she has a soft spot for her youngest son. He is sensitive. Just like the great grandfather who came to New York in steerage, a man whose nose was broken eight times, but whose spirit never followed suit. She loved her grandfather, with his dockworker’s hands, and his pianist’s fingers and soul. She knows her grandfather would love his bright-eyed namesake. She has told Seamus this.
She also chose the name because it belonged to the Nobel prize-winning poet, an ethereal wordsmith and fellow Irishman who made miracles of little, every day things. One day she will tell Seamus this too, though she will never tell him about the freckled college boy who read her Seamus Heaney’s poems. Freckles everywhere, idly traced on afternoons when the books were swept off the bed.
But this day is the one that matters now, and there are so many things to do. Sometimes she is so tired of it all, she wonders if it is worth it. She bends to gather up a spread of newspapers, just like she did yesterday. Today is soon yesterday’s news.
Rising, she sees her youngest son’s nose wrinkle, the way it always does when he is puzzling something out.
“Does a Grandfather Clock start out as a little boy clock?”
She puts down the newspapers. She takes him up in her arms, squeezing him so hard he grunts. She is surprised by his weight and the deepness of his laugh.
Marissa pins Owen’s boxers on the line beside her slip. Her hand shakes as she affixes the clothespins. You cannot take back the complaints. Complaints do not make things right. Complaint starts with the same letter as communication, but that is their only similarity.
That afternoon, she is waiting in the checkout line. A magazine cover, garnished with yet another sylvan beauty, informs her of things she must know. “What a Man’s Underwear Tells You About Him.” He needs to buy new underwear. Marissa means “Of the Sea,” and “Wished-for child.” It also means “bitter.”
The man in line behind her is equally startled by her proclamation. He regards her first with mild alarm, then with hesitation, then with a hint of apology.
“I’m sorry,” he says, reaching to retract three cans of stewed tomatoes that have encroached upon the orange baton of checkout divider.
“No, no,” she says quickly. “It’s me, not you.”
In her nervous embarrassment, she nearly laughs.
It’s me, not you.
The tritest, and most overused, of outs.
On the drive home, she repeats it over and over.
They vacation at the beach. The boys find a rubber ball in the cottage’s loamy front yard. The ball is so chipped and gouged it bounces funny.
Someone’s discarded ball becomes the centerpiece of their vacation. For hours, her three boys play three-square in the dirt drive now carefully swept, the world pinched to laughter and the smell of pine and baking sand. One morning, the ball takes a particularly funny bounce. It flies past grasping hands, and makes a few ascending bounds as it descends the gravelly hill; the final loft sees it disappear into an impenetrable thicket of Beach Plum, Bearberry and ivy.
Marissa fixes everyone sweet tea, but it doesn’t matter. Owen excuses himself, leaving her to mend the disappointment.
Thirty minutes later, Owen returns with the ball. His face and arms are crisscrossed with scratches.
Marcus and Seamus dance about the kitchen. Marissa laughs, almost crying.
“That was sweet,” she whispers.
“I had the time,” Owen says.
He has the bluest eyes.
The way he looks down, mildly embarrassed, tells her she was right to marry this man.
Midnight phone calls don’t always come at midnight. They come as easily on a bright summer afternoon.
We have the results of your test. We’d like you to come in.
They stand together in the grass in their shoes. Marissa likes their next door neighbor. He’s funny, and handsome in a big-nosed fashion, and he always makes her smile. This morning, his eyes are sober. He looks at the dying oak. The rope hangs from the thickest limb. Even this limb is brittle and flaking.
“The city called,” he says. “They’re going to cut it down.” He looks at his watch. “I’d better get to work.”
He takes a few steps and turns.
She notices that his eyes are very dark.
“You know how you never think about things ending?” he says. “But it all comes to an end. There’s a last time they’ll ride on your knee, but you don’t know it then. A lot of things happen like that.”
Marissa watches him drive off. The neighborhood is quiet. She reaches out. The rope is brittle and flaking too. The boys no longer ride on her knee, or swing. She tugs the rope once, as if this is any kind of test. Then she grips it, feeling its coarseness bite her palms, and she swings out into the street, shoulders pulling, the toes of her good shoes scuffing across the macadam, weightlessness in her heart.
Two days later the tree is gone.
She watches Owen standing in the driveway, but she cannot feel the thing inside him. It has weight and appetite. It has blindsided them all.
At dinner, Owen looks up from his untouched plate.
The blue eyes see none of them.
“Today I was standing in the driveway, and I noticed how the sunlight fell across my tennis shoe.”
The boys fidget, embarrassed. Her crocodile tears don’t help.
From somewhere, Marcus produces a handkerchief.
She stares at the handkerchief, hanging from Marcus’s hand like a wilted flower.
“You own a handkerchief?”
Her voice rises an octave with incredulity.
Everyone laughs. Owen too.
“He watched an old James Bond movie,” Seamus says. “Women love handkerchiefs.”
That night in bed, Owen says, “Boys and girls.”
They both think about this.
“It felt good to laugh,” Owen says.
She kisses him full on the mouth.
“Let’s do it again,” she says. “It was your handkerchief.”
“I gave it to him.”
“My father gave me my first handkerchief when I was his age.”
She looks at him. Mysterious and blue-eyed. After a certain number of years, it’s the rare story that remains untold.
“I never saw your father with a handkerchief in his life,” she says.
“That’s because he had his sleeve. But it’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.”
Laughing does feel good.
Lying beside him, she rests her head on his shoulder.
“You always knew how to make me laugh,” she says.
“I always liked to hear you laugh.”
She goes to the high school track. She ran when she was young. She does not remember any effort. She just ran. Through spring flowers, and the dry scrape of fall leaves and winter flurries. A doe, unencumbered.
Now, each foot fall, sends a hammer strike up her legs. Cold air and effort build a bonfire in her lungs.
She refuses to stop. In the distance, through the bare trees, she sees the brick hospital where her husband lies. The wind herds Fall’s last leaves in circles.
She runs her own circles. Round and round. The next morning, she can barely walk down the stairs.
Owen wants water. She wants to run screaming. She hates the hallways that smell of floor wax and rubbing alcohol. She hates the fluorescent glow that makes everyone look dead. She hates the way Owen’s pajama bottoms ride up his flaking shins. She hates that no one ever turns them down. She hates that you can’t even get your own damn glass of water.
Stepping into the hallway, she finds a nurse. Smiling makes her feel like a liar and a cadaver.
She waits outside the door. It is a little easier to breathe out of the room. When the nurse returns quickly with the water, Marissa tries to hide her disappointment.
She steps up next to the bed.
She holds the flimsy paper cup very still, before it slips through her hands and falls to the floor.
A week after the funeral, she rises suddenly from the kitchen table.
Marcus and Seamus look up at her, with equal parts surprise and trepidation.
“Come with me,” she says.
She does not wait for them. Behind her, she hears their chairs slide back.
They leave their spaghetti steaming on their plates, and follow their mother out the front door.
On the lawn, they step to either side of their mother.
Marissa takes their hands.
“Look,” she says.
Light spills from neighboring windows, and the street lights steal additional darkness, but they are still there.
Holding hands, they stare up at the stars.
One evening, she looks up from the book she is reading. The house is quiet. Just the Grandfather Clock. It is Friday night. Marcus and Seamus are at the high school football game.
Her eyes wander to the hardwood floor. It was new the day she and Owen moved in. They had looked down at their reflections in the sheen, blurry and not quite recognizable, like the ghosts of someone else.
Every scratch and scuff, some trivial act, trivial no more.
She takes Seamus on a campus visit. Her little boy. He walks beside her, but not too close. He has blue eyes and square shoulders. Summer’s sun has turned his mop of hair sandy brown.
She sees the way the coeds eye him. She remembers the aspen, the soft press of grass, the rise of her hips and her heart.
That it is someone else’s turn gives her a small pang.
Marcus is paying bills. He sits on the couch, computer on his lap. It’s not Sunday, but Marcus has a Sunday face on. Marissa doesn’t see this often. Marcus has his own family now. She drives over when she is needed, and when she is asked. She isn’t asked as often as she would like, but it is okay. She remembers how it was with her own parents.
Seamus lives on the other side of the country. Just the thought of it makes her chest constrict. Very rarely does she see Seamus’s Sunday face, but she can tell from his phone calls that he has one too. She chides them both. Don’t be so serious. They make promises, and they laugh, but she does not miss that their laughs are different. No longer do they vault up from their bellies to burst wildly into the light of day. They crawl up self-consciously, and die quickly.
She talks to them on the phone. When she hangs up, the house whispers stories. Some are happy. Some are sad. Both deposit something leaden in her stomach. When her sons sound distracted and serious on the phone, she wants to call them back.
Don't miss your chance, she wants to tell them.
There is so much news. She struggles to keep up. She wants to remain part of the world, but she forgets things almost as soon as she reads them. Sitting in the kitchen, accompanied by the hum of the stainless steel refrigerator (a gift from Marcus), she goes back and carefully reads the sentences again and again. She still can’t let things go.
One morning, she reads a newspaper article about a cellist who wanders the streets playing Tchaikovsky as his city is bombed. A reporter asks the cellist, Aren’t you crazy to be doing this? The cellist replies, Aren’t these people crazy to be shelling while Tchaikovsky plays?
She only had to read this once.
She still drives. She knows she should take a test, but she puts it off. She drives to the fabric store, working hard to stay between the lines. It is knee-shaking relief to get out of the car.
In the fabric store, with its high rise rows of everything and then some, Marissa encounters a young woman she barely remembers. The woman kindly asks after her, and then the woman tells her a little of her own life. It is a good life, and this makes Marissa happy. Standing amidst colorful bolts and cloth stacked like Dr. Seuss pancakes, Marissa fears she smiles a little too dreamily, but her smile only seems to please and encourage the half-familiar woman.
Concluding, the woman says, “Our lives are so perfect. I keep waiting for something bad to happen to us.”
Don’t! she wants to scream.
“Oh,” she says instead.
To help and be useful, she walks her neighbors’ six-year-old daughter to the elementary school around the corner. Both of Kaci’s parents leave for work early. Every school day, Marissa sits in the living room watching the Grandfather Clock. At seven-thirty five, she rises, takes her sweater from the hook and walks out the door. Kaci waits a nose length behind her own door. If Marissa listens carefully, she can hear the girl’s steady breaths behind the door, like a greyhound waiting. They have a secret password. When Marissa whispers the password, Kaci opens the door, smiling the smile that always makes her ache a little.
They walk to school with a young man and his son. The son is also six. Marissa likes the young man. He laughs often, and he listens carefully. She sees how he bends to take offerings from his son’s hand – fragile sticks, pieces of playing cards, stained pennies - and places them carefully in his pockets, steadfastly vowing they will be on the kitchen table when the boy comes home. She wonders how the young man treats his wife. She wonders if they have heard aspen leaves softly applauding.
Sometimes, the memories relive themselves right in front of her. Sometimes, they seem to belong to another person’s life. Both make her smile. One morning, returning from school, Marissa stops midway across the lawn. Holding her arms out at her sides -- she does not want to be picked up off her own front lawn -- she cautiously uses her feet to pry off her loafers.
The grass beneath her feet is as brittle and listless as her toes.
Only her heart squeezes, but it squeezes with joy.
She sits on a bench in the warm sun. It is a popular park. It’s why she comes. Families picnic, and men play softball, and pairs of young women briskly push strollers. Everyone is laughing and having fun, but sometimes, when they step out of the limelight, she sees how their faces go slack, and they look a little like lost children standing on a street corner they suddenly don’t recognize.
She watches a homeless man shamble across the grass, and place a folded card in the nook of a tree. The card rests in the nook like a Lilliputian tent. The man claps his hands and laughs. There is real joy in the laugh. She is a little jealous. He is crazy, but he is certain in his actions.
After he leaves, she resists the urge to go over and pick up the note. It is not her business. Plus, it is too high in the tree.
Marcus comes over every Monday and Wednesday evening. She has told him she can see the horizon. Dirty pool that worked. Seamus lives across the country, but he knows without being told, and so he leaves his work and family more often than he should to fly across the country to sit and listen and smile.
When her sons visit, all the colors come out. They tell her about their lives, but mostly they let her talk. She talks about them. They are mildly embarrassed, but something wise also rises in their faces, for they are fathers.
When they ask her why she is smiling, she smiles wider, as if she would ever give a different answer.
“We rarely missed a chance to see the stars,” she says.
This exchange is performed countless times, yet her boys always smile too.
It is her gift to them.
She watches the television news at the kitchen table. It is too hard for her to follow newsprint. Still, she walks out to the driveway each morning. Untouched newspapers are stacked inside paper bags in the garage. She pays a neighborhood boy to take them out and put them in the recycling bin.
The news anchors chatter -- wars in foreign countries, economic troubles at home, an election filled with bitter spite -- but what she hears are small singsong voices at a school assembly. May there always be blue skies, may there always be sunshine, may there always be Momma and Papa. May there always be me.
She smiles happily and hums along.
The woman in the room next to hers is ninety-seven. The woman cannot stand. To keep her active, the woman’s daughter brings her walnuts. From her room, Marissa hears the crack of walnuts splintering.
One day as she walks past her door, the woman calls out to her.
“Come in,” the woman says. “Sit with the nutcracker.”
The woman’s room is identical to hers, except for the photographs on the bedside table, and a blanket embroidered with sheep jumping over a picket fence.
“Here,” says the woman, handing her the nutcracker. “Try.”
At first, the nutcracker slips about the walnuts as if they are greased. They are hard to crack even without all the sliding. But the woman shows her how to find the seam, and her grip remains strong. Soon, she is cracking walnuts with machine-like precision.
“Like popcorn popping,” her new friend says, and they are both proud.
The woman takes the nutcracker back. She cracks a walnut and a sly smile.
“My husband said I was born a ball breaker,” she says. “I think of him when I do this.”
It is funny, but Marissa knows not to laugh. Her new friend cries quietly, meticulously gathering the shards in her lap.
Late at night, Marissa listens to the woman cracking walnuts. She tries to hear the laughter instead of the tears.
She smiles, but her hands tremble. They always tremble.
Maybe the long-ago running is rescuing her, but she is not infirm. She does not want to be removed from the world, so Marissa walks the hallway. It is not a long hallway by anyone’s standards, but it is long enough by her standards. She walks its length, up and back, as many times as she can. There is a window at each end. When she reaches the window, she leans on the sill, feeling the wood’s rough edges beneath her hands. The windows are always shut and locked, as if anyone on this floor could muster enough energy to open them and jump out. The ceiling lights, round globes etched with interweaving vines, are perfectly spaced. At night, she passes beneath them; in and out, in and out, light and shadow, light and shadow. They remind her of something she wishes she could remember.
One night, she passes an open door. In the small puddle of light, a priest stands beside the bed. Marissa takes a few more steps. She stops, and conducts a losing debate with her conscience.
Leaning guiltily against the wall just outside the door, she hears the priest speak softly.
“How are you feeling, Fiona? Not too good? Are you having any pain? Yes? Well, when we get to heaven, we get new minds and bodies.” Murmuring. “Yes, Fiona,” the priest says a little bit too loudly, “that is good.”
Marissa presses so hard against the wall, she wonders if she will be able to push away.
Fiona is a young girl’s name. How can it be the name of that mummified thing?
Overhead, the TV blares. She sits at the window, looking out at the stars. They are very pretty. They comfort her, and make her smile. They remind her of things she cannot quite recall. The attendants place her chair just so every night. They come into her room to perform unnecessary tasks. Her contentment is contagious. Like a mother’s caress.
Not long ago, an old woman died. She died easily, in a small room with few things. A mini fridge with two plums, a book of poems by an Irish poet, a nutcracker, a threadbare pillow. Two men gathered up her things. When they finished, they stood together looking at the narrow bed, already made for another.
They hugged, and then the older man went home to his family.
In the parking lot, the younger man sat behind the wheel. He had a plane to catch. He was running late. It was a holiday Sunday. The security lines would be hell.
Reaching over, he picked up the velvet pillow on the seat beside him. Unfastening the seat belt, he got out of the car and looked up at the stars.
The stars swam, but he smiled.