by Nancy Ford Dugan
I was showing my driver’s license to my mother to prove I was her daughter when I looked out the window and saw two guys maneuvering a body with a plaid sheet over its face into an SUV.
“Don’t be silly. You’re not Sally,” said my mother.
“Then who am I?” I asked, rattled by the plaid sheet and the loss of identity.
My mother flipped her newly pink nails at me, loosening the yellow foam finger separator that fails to prevent her smudging my handiwork week after week. “Sally brings me watermelon and does my nails. They look very professional when she does them.”
“Do you see that I am here and have just polished your nails, à la Sally? Does this not prove I am your daughter?” My mother looked at me as if I were being impossible. And dense. It’s not credit I’m looking for here. Credit for the manicure, the watermelon, the homemade cookies, the blueberry muffins, the body lotion I lug up on the train every weekend. I’d like her to know who I am.
But things have shifted. I think she thinks I’m her older sister, dead for decades and reinforcing my notion that I’m not aging well. The dead sister, when alive, was chubby and full-faced; she didn’t have the gaunt, sucked-in cheeks I do, according to my recent photo on the company portal at work. Vampire-like, yes; sweet and well fed, no. My point is, we don’t look alike, so how is it that Mom is confusing us?
Meanwhile, I’m wondering, who is it under the plaid sheet, and is it proper etiquette to ask? I find it very disturbing. I’ve got stuff to do before the sheet is over my head. Okay, mainly errands, but still.
It’s the plaid that sticks in my craw, frankly. It’s vivid, cheerful, ready for a picnic. There’s just no dignity in it, not somber or sober. Doesn’t it blare to the deceased that people are happy they’re gone? Not just happy, festive. And is it standard operating procedure to pull a sheet over someone’s head even when they don’t leave via an ambulance? And where is the frigging ambulance? Can you just saunter out of a facility with a body with a sheet over its head? What kind of place is this? Aren’t there security checks? And why are the two guys escorting the plaid-sheet person out the back door, into the parking lot? If all was aboveboard, wouldn’t they depart through the automated front door? Wouldn’t that be easier? Although I can imagine it might upset the steady stream of relatives who use that entrance to visit their loved ones.
“Where we going now?” Mom asks.
“Oh, let’s just take a stroll,” I say, trying to sound casual. I don’t let on about the activity out the window and try to block her view, though her cataracts don’t let much in anymore. I put her foot up on the leg rest and push her out into the hall. I’m really doing inventory. A bed check. Maybe if I can tell who’s missing from the building, I can figure out the poor soul under the sheet. They’re very circumspect in this place, only letting on that someone has literally left the building with a tasteful rose in a vase at the nurses’ station placed in front of a Plexiglas stand that contains a typed-up piece of paper with the name of the recently deceased. Every weekend as the elevator doors open, I sneak a peek at the latest name and I swallow hard, knowing that someday…
OK, Vera at 105 years of age is fine next door, U.S. Open tennis blaring from her TV at a decibel level they could hear in Spain. Sarah is calling out “Help me, help me,” as usual. I feel guilty walking by her room, but the nurses reprimand me if I try to help her. George is pacing up the hall with that “where am I look?” in his eyes. Joe is annoyed in his wheelchair and looking like Popeye. So everyone seems accounted for in this particular hallway.
“Let’s look at the fish,” says Mom, spotting the oversized tank.
“Okay,” I say, neck craning around as other families, nurses, residents go by. Everyone seems calm, no panic associated with a nonstandard tragedy, like a kidnapping. Although technically is it really kidnapping if the sheet is over the face? Does kidnapping only apply to the living? I should have gone to law school.
Lilly comes by with Mom’s meds. Mom makes a sour face as she swallows the spoon-fed vanilla pudding they hide them in.
“So how are you?” I ask Lilly, looking for signs that things may be askance. And wondering if they are the right meds. I should have gone to med school.
“Just fine, thanks.” She smiles. They’re giving me nothing here. Or are they oblivious? Either way, is that good? I understand the privacy issue. This is America. But how do I know if that person under the sheet wanted to leave in the irregular manner I witnessed? Should I be calling the police? Mom’s father was a chief of police. He’d know what to do. And that sheet. Where was the respect? Plaid? Please.
“Do you and your mom want your lunch trays on the porch today?” asks Lilly.
“Sounds good,” I say and notice folks are heading for the lunchroom where Mom eats when I’m not visiting.
“Mom, let’s take a look at the other end of the hall.”
“Oh, sure,” she says. I start humming “Let it Snow” even though it’s August, and she joins in, happy to be moving, waving at the folks we pass. “La la la la la la la la la…” I check the lunchroom for candidates. Nothing fishy there. I’m relieved, of course. But also stymied.
Out on the porch, we have company. Jennifer is feeding her mom, Ella, and Carol is sitting with her mom whose name I can never remember and after all these years it’s too embarrassing to ask. All the moms are chilly and wearing pink sweaters in the humidity and heat. The middle-aged daughters have their frizzing hair up in clips and are wearing minimal, non-pink fabrics to cover their sticky bodies.
“How was your trip up from the city?” asks Jennifer.
“No problem, thanks. Ella, you look beautiful.” Ella lifts her head slightly my way and gives her customary beguiling smile.
“Oh, I am dying in this heat. No breeze this week, ladies,” says Carol. “Anybody want some homemade rolls?” Then she starts to tell us some story about her recent travels.
I feel guilty that I don’t bring up as much homemade food as the local daughters. I bake the cookies every Friday night but buy the fruit and muffins in the city before jumping on the train Saturday morning. But, I rationalize, I am the only one with a corporate job, and I do live two hours away. But then Jennifer is an emergency room doctor (a fact I find calming whenever she is around) and pressed for time too. She kayaks whenever she can and is kind. I’m nothing like her, but we bond every week at lunch with our moms.
I consider telling them about the plaid sheet but worry the moms may hear, even if it’s a safe bet that their hearing aids are all malfunctioning. I combine some pureed roast beef, carrots, and mashed potatoes onto a spoon and try to convince Mom to take some. “This looks good,” I say, overly gleeful.
“You’re such a salesman,” says Mom, clamping her lips and resisting the spoon.
“Just a little bit,” I say.
Mom starts to sing “Just a Little Bit of Luck” from “My Fair Lady.”
She takes some.
After a while, Mom takes pity on me in the heat and says she’ll have her homemade dessert cookie inside in the air-conditioned Rec room. God bless her. We have the room all to ourselves.
“You know, whoever you are,” Mom says, “you obviously have feelings for me. You come to see me all the time, bring me things…cookies.” She’s staring at the bulletin board across the room. It’s peppered with colorful cut-up paper flowers local school kids have made. Mom’s concentrating, best she can, trying to solve the puzzle of who I am.
I wrap my arm around her. “I do have feelings for you, Mom. And most of them are positive!” We both laugh. Loud. Nurses come running we laugh so loud, a foreign sound in this place. “You guys okay?” asks Lily.
“Yes,” I say. “We’re laughing.” As Lilly backs out of the room, I turn to Mom and say, “We’re the Hogan Girls. Always up to something.” Mom’s eyes are tearing from her laughter. She tells me maybe we should pipe down.
Back in Mom’s room, I ask, “Should we call Ryan and sing “Happy Birthday” to him?”
“Sure,” she says, choking a little on the nectar-thickened cranberry juice that is supposed to help her swallow. Ryan, who lives on the opposite coast, is her oldest son, my older brother or maybe my nephew. I’m still rattled. Am I me or Mom’s sister? I’m having a Faye Dunaway “Chinatown” moment. I give Mom a copy of the newspaper funnies as I dial oversized numbers on the disability-friendly phone. I quietly fill Ryan in on the goings-on outside Mom’s window.
“You’re too young to turn into that old broad on ‘Murder She Wrote,’” says Ryan.
“I resent your calling her an old broad. She has many fine stage and film credits. At the same time, I admit I’m pleased you don’t think I’m as old as she is.”
“You’ve got a good thirty years to go. At least. Why do you care so much who’s under that sheet?”
“Someone has to. What if they come for Mom?”
“Oh, please,” says Ryan. “This isn’t ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ for Christ’s sake. No one‘s going to take Mom.” He’s using that voice he uses when he thinks I’m being impossible. And dense.
“How do you know that for sure? And if the sheet is plaid for Mom, she’ll haunt us from the grave with immense disappointment, let me tell you. I think I should call the police.”
I’m whispering so Mom can enjoy eying the funnies. She’s staring at the same frame of “Peanuts” or “Charlie Brown” or whatever they call it now. But she seems content.
“You’re not going to call the police. You’re going to sit there and feed your mother another cookie, hang out with her awhile, and then hop on the train back to the city.”
“But what about the plaid person?”
“Apparently they’re dead. And hopefully, their loved ones are with them, even if they have a bad taste in sheet selection. It may sound harsh, and I hate to say it, but the important thing is it’s not Mom on the gurney or whatever they used to carry them out. Look, you can’t correct or change what’s happened.”
I consider this as I straighten the tangled phone cord. “I can only imagine their day-to-day bed linens.”
Ryan snorts with what could possibly be considered mild amusement. “Maybe they’re Scottish. Did you think of that? And it’s their family tartan,” he says.
I sigh and say, “Mom, Ryan is ready for his song.” She looks up from the funnies, and her big blue eyes are eager. We share the phone and belt out our number. She ends it with “and many more” and seems pleased.
“Thank you. That was fabulous,” says Ryan to both of us over the phone. “Perfect pitch.”
“Of course. What did you expect?” says Mom. She looks at me with a smile. “We’re the Hogan girls.” And she blows me a kiss.
So maybe Ryan’s right. I’m no Angela Lansbury and can’t solve the plaid mystery.
But I do know a good thing when I see it.
Like right now when Mom’s happy. And there’s no sheet in sight.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing