It takes a long time to dress her. Her diaper and underpants, the medical socks and gloves, her wrist brace and teeth. She is slow, smearing the lipstick on her lips, rouge on her cheeks. Tucking in her blouse, pulling up her pants. They have to be pulled just so.
It is a cold winter’s day and they wrap her up. The cardigan buttoned to the top. The hat and scarf. The heavy wool coat that’s so big she seems to disappear inside. Then getting her into the SUV and hoisting the wheelchair into the back.
She’s exhausted before they even start. “Where are we going?” she asks. She likes to go in the car, but she’s worried about the bathroom. She can’t last more than 20 minutes or so. Her bones ache just from sitting. She can’t stay put for long.
“Just to the mall. To have lunch,” the daughter says.
“Oh, goody. Wings.”
They hardly take her to the mall anymore, so she is glad for the opportunity to get out. She likes being in the front seat, looking out the windshield. She watches the trees and the houses go by. She likes watching people walking on the sidewalk, pushing carriages, carrying groceries. Things she used to do.
But she begins to fidget in the car. The ride takes longer than it should. Perhaps they are driving in circles to confuse her. Or maybe it is just another mall, not the one by the house. This one is farther. They think she won’t know the difference, but she does. She can tell right away. And the parking lot is bigger and Home Depot is on the right, not the left-hand side.
She’s antsy now because she’s hungry and she’s got to go. But the wheelchair is heavy and they are slow to get her out of the car. Her son lifts her into his arms. Her daughter straightens her coat. “We should have brought a blanket,” the daughter says. “She’s going to be cold.”
The son shakes his head. “It can’t be helped.” He pushes his mother into the mall. Inside the daughter pauses in front of a jewelry cart, lifting a gold chain. She peers into Marshall’s to see if that velour warm-up suit has gone on sale. Her brother gives her an impatient look. “Quit dawdling,” he says, under his breath.
“I gotta go,” their mother says. “Now,” she shouts at them. “I’ll take her,” the daughter replies, wheeling her mother through the food court and past the double doors of the bathroom. They wait for the handicapped stall where two teenagers giggle inside. A ring of smoke rises from their stall. They stumble out, hands over their mouths.
The daughter shakes her head. With a huff she shoves her mother in, hoists her up, steadies her, yanks her pants down. The daughter can’t bear to look at her mother’s flesh. Thick and wrinkled like an elephant’s hide. The daughter listens to her tinkle—just a few drops. Never more. Then pulls her mother’s pants back up, washes her hands and takes her outside.
The brother is seated on a plastic chair in front of Pita Pan. Behind him is a cardboard cutout of Peter Pan, eating a falafel. She chuckles at this. Her son looks so forlorn in his brown parka, his body hulking and sad. “You promised me wings,” she says and her son nods.
They buy her a plate of buffalo wings which she munches on, sucking down on the bone. She gnaws on cartilage, tearing the wings apart with her crippled fingers. Her hands are veined and webbed as if she is turning into a duck. She is happy with her plate, though wishes her children would have something. They always were picky eaters.
“I want pie,” she shrieks, pointing to Pie in the Sky just down the food court. Her son groans. “Cherry,” she says. “A la mode.”
She’s stalling and they know it. But her son shuffles off and comes back with a slice of cherry pie. A small one, she notes. The daughter taps her fingers on the table, a nervous habit she’s always had. Though she sees how in a hurry they are, she eats slowly, stabbing each sugary cherry with her fork.
Before she is finished, they slip her the credit card with a five hundred dollar limit. Generous, she thinks. They give her a water bottle and a twenty dollar bill. They don’t have to explain. She knows it is time. “Shop ’til you drop, Mom,” they say with a laugh. The daughter wipes away a tear. The son shrugs, patting her hand.
It wasn’t as if they hadn’t thought about it for a long time. They’d tried other solutions. The Elderdown Grown-Up Daycare Club. The Live A Little—a place for the aging to gather. The Ladies of the Church volunteers. They’d gone down a slippery slope with a black market in Lithuanian babysitters. A former engineer from Ukraine was wiping her bottom for a while. But the costs were mounting. Social security benefits dwindled when their father died. The war depleted the rest. Long ago they’d sold the house and her car. They’d tried declaring her destitute, but the government saw through that.
Besides, this was quietly being talked about. At cocktail parties. Over Sunday barbecues. Other friends have done it. The Meads, though Susan Mead still cries. And the Robertsons. They let both parents go. Some even joke. Slam Gram, they call it. Like a slam dunk, they said.
There’s a tradition after all. The Inuits do it. When the time is right the elders head out on an ice floe, disappear into the frozen north. It is understood that when they are no longer useful they will join the totemic animals—the narwhal, the polar bear, the seal. Become one with the elements. They go willingly into the realm of the ancestors. So why not Old Navy, Banana Republic, Sears?
She’s suspected for a while. When the hair stylist stopped coming. When they let the supply of Depends get low. When they canceled the home care nurse. They took her Lifeline away, though she’d only pressed it once when she fell in the bathroom. She hadn’t asked what was going on, though she’d wanted to. She thought of saying to them, Is it time? Are you letting me go? They sit as she finishes her pie crust, saying nothing. Then the son rises and kisses his mother on the head. The daughter stifles a sob. The son bangs into the cutout of Peter Pan, which rattles back and forth. They stagger off, leaving her there. The daughter looks back once, heaves a sigh. The son takes his sister by the arm, leading her away. “Don’t look,” he whispers as they walk off.
She watches them go. They were nice children. When did they get so big, so tall? When did her son start to lose his hair, her daughter’s rear end expand? Perhaps they’re just going to the bathroom or on an errand they have to run. Don’t they know she has to go to the bathroom too? Someone has to take her after all.
They round the corner and disappear. When she can’t see them any more, she sits for a few moments, thinking. What to do, what to do? But soon she forgets why she’s here. It’s good to be out. She’s been cooped up too long. She likes the bustle of the food court, the jewelry case displays, the fake Hermes scarves with dogs on them. She sways to the piped-in holiday music. "Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening . . .” she taps out with her thumb.
It’s just after Christmas (at least they waited until then) and holiday sales are on. Prices slashed. All inventory must go. She was always a good shopper, after all. Even Howard, who had little patience for such things, said so. Great at the bargain basements. With a burst of freedom she plows ahead. Does a wheelie near the sales rack at Kohl’s. “Beep beep,” she says and people move out of her way.
The glare of the mall bothers her eyes so she pauses at the Sunglass Hut to try on some shades. She finds a cool pair and the salesman gives her a thumbs-up. “Way to go, Gram,” he says. She checks out the half price wrapping paper at Hallmark, but pickings are slim. There’s a thousand piece Dalmatian doggy puzzle at Barnes & Nobel she thinks about before moving on.
She propels herself along. At the Foot Locker she picks up a pair of running shoes. She tries on a cable stitch sweater at Knit One and wears it out of the store. She puts a down payment on a Jennifer Convertible for her daughter. She could use a sofa bed where that no good husband of hers can sleep when he comes home drunk. At Victoria’s Secret she stares at headless mannequins in see-through teddies. She fondles padded bras.
How long is it since Howard’s been gone? Four or five years? He loved to go shopping with her. He always had a list in alphabetical order. Bug spray, charcoal, doggy door. He liked those big stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot. He wasn’t afraid of all the products falling on his head the way she was. It had happened to a fellow in Kansas, she’d heard. A mountain of Sheetrock crushed him during a clearance sale.
Sometimes Howard would hide. He’d jump out from behind the Osterizers, a juicer in hand, and shout, “Surprise!” Once she lost him in ceiling fans. She’d spent hours going from bin to bin, fans turning hypnotically over her head. She ran into an old friend who asked if everything was all right. “Oh, I’m fine,” she told her friend, “but I’ve just lost my husband.” And the friend offered her condolences.
Now she giggles over that one. No, silly, she thinks, I lost him in the store. She is still laughing as she makes her way past Piercing Pagoda where a young man with tattoos, a bone through his nose and rings dangling from all over his face gives her a wave. She doesn’t blame her children. Not really. They’d tried. Done the best they could. And, as solutions go, this isn’t so bad.
At Dutch Mill Pretzels she buys a package of the cheesy kind. Then heads back to Barnes & Noble for the Dalmatian puzzle and grabs a few romance novels as well. “A little bedside reading,” she quips with the clerk, a nice young man whose name tag she can’t read. The clerk who tries to ring her up shakes his head. “Sorry, Gram,” he says, looking at her sadly. “You’ve maxed out.”
“But . . .” she protests. She bought so very little. It didn’t take long. She looks at his face, then places her bony claw on his sturdy, young hand. “It’s all right,” she tells him. He’s just doing his job.
She turns and her wheelchair gets off to a slow start. As it chugs past Petco, she knows her battery is low. A security guard eyes her as she makes her way. He speaks into his walkie-talkie as she sputters by. Her diaper is wet and her skin itches from the dampness. As she nears the food court, the mingled smell of fried noodles and cheesesteaks makes her swoon.
She’s glad she isn’t hungry yet. She’ll save the pretzels for later. She has a little cash. Enough for a jelly roll and coffee in the morning, assuming she’s still here. No one ever talks about what happens next. Is there a van that comes? Or do you just stay here? She isn’t far from where they left her and she holds out a faint hope that they’ll return. They’ll change their minds. She’s heard that sometimes they do. It’s happened before.
She finds a spot near some potted palms beneath the arching glass ceiling. A warm breeze blows from the heating vent. Closing her eyes, her mind drifts. For a moment she is in Florida. She can hear the water lap at the shore. Her children are small and Howard is with them. They are digging holes at the water’s edge. Howard stands up and gives her a wave. He’s such a big bear of a man. She runs towards him, feeling the sand beneath her toes.
A jarring noise startles her as the heater is turned off. At first she’s still warm, but then starts to feel the chill. Are there others out here? she wonders. Others like me? She listens for the creek of wheelchairs, a cry in the night. “Nurse, nurse,” she hears a man call. She calls back, “Over here. I’m here.” But no one responds.
It is dark now and a slight breeze rustles the palms. Pale moonlight filters down. The stars are out. This is what the ancients must have seen. It is a lovely night as she leans her head back to watch them.
—Mary Morris has published three volumes of short stories, including Vanishing Animals and Other Stories, which was awarded the Rome Prize in literature. She is also the author of the novels Revenge, Crossroads, The Waiting Room, The Night Sky, House Arrest, and Acts of God, as well as several travel memoirs, including Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone (Picador, 1998). She has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Creative Artists Public Service Awards.