By Jacqueline Masumian
These days I spend most of my time looking out the window of my apartment and waiting. Waiting to see if anyone shows up across the street. And thinking Wayne might call. Though at this point, that seems unlikely.
The day I did the deed was a gloomy one. Murky clouds hovered, a dusty quilt over the neighborhood. There might have been sunshine elsewhere, but in our little section of Belltown, grayness ruled. The houses and buildings on Main Street were gray, all the trees and branches were gray, the grass was a frosty gray-green. It wasn’t the ideal day to do it, my project was meant to be a happy deed, after all, but in this case, convenience would supersede atmospheric conditions.
As I glanced over at our church that morning, the sooty stone façade a comfort, I thought about how, when I was a girl, I was so good, so well behaved. Mother used to take me to church every Sunday, and she bought me black patent leather shoes for just that occasion. At Sunday services we sang Onward Christian Soldiers almost every week, and I learned (at Mother’s urging) the words to all five verses by heart. In elementary school I was a straight A-minus student (the minus due to penmanship, which I never quite mastered, my pencil tending to slither around on the page), and I won the countywide spelling bee three straight years in a row. I was a good girl. So, naturally, when I got to be an adult, I never thought I’d do a deed that some might consider evil.
Mother used to say, “Always do your best.” So, as a child, I did my utmost to complete every task required of me, well and thoroughly. At home and at school. I breezed through high school as head of my class, and completed college in three years by putting in extra semesters in the summer months, when I could just as easily have gone off to relax at the lake with my friends. Well, classmates, actually, I’d have to say. Calling anyone in my life a friend would be stretching the truth.
Mother’s parents had named her Gertrude. She was called Gertie by them, her brothers and sisters and the people at the church. But I often wished she’d adopted the name “Trudy,” another nickname for Gertrude, a name so warm and true and promising. Of course that name would not have accurately described her. Mother was stuck in her habits, stubborn and unyielding, particularly when it came to me. Strict as a stick, I used to think as a child. Strict as a stick. The way she’d get after me if I failed to follow her rules. And, if I made a mistake—forgot to hang up a dishtowel or left the iron plugged in—I’d end up in that basement, Mother turning out the light and locking the door. The smell of mouse urine and furnace oil and rotted timbers in the dark. I’d do anything she demanded to avoid that. But even when I behaved in an exemplary fashion—mowed the patch of grass in our tiny front yard and clipped the yew bush by the front door—even then she sent me down there as a stern reminder of her power.
From my seat on the basement floor, I could hear her upstairs, her house slippers shuffling on the kitchen floor. And I could hear her talking to Christo and Christo answering back.
“Christo good boy?”
Cluck, cluck, cluck. “Christo good boy?”
Christo, the only other occupant of our house, sat every day on his perch in the corner of the kitchen, scraping his grimy beak on the wood and making loud clucking noises. A small plastic dish held his food and water. The metal tray below him was littered with piles of his putrid droppings. Mother said he deserved to be free and never put him in his cage until nighttime. She overlooked his filthy habits. He was her prize pet. But I often wondered why his foul behavior was acceptable to her, while my shortcomings and infringement of her rules were not.
I hated the stains on my cotton dress from sitting on the gritty floor; I loathed my cold wet socks. I despised waiting for hours for that line of light at the base of the kitchen door at the top of the wooden steps, the sign that dinner needed to be started, and I’d be let out.
If I’d had a father, things might have been different; there might have been another voice, a difference of opinion about my behavior and the punishment to be meted out. But I had no father. As many hours as I had spent wondering whether he had died or simply gone away, I couldn’t come up with a scenario. My thoughts on the subject got thoroughly tangled and eventually drifted into air. Mother said nothing about my father, ever, and I was afraid to ask; I sensed she was angry about him and might fly into a rage.
The discipline at home was good for me, though, leading me through my many academic successes in high school and college. When I got my first job at the tire center, the sorting of invoices and preparing of purchase orders utilized my talent for focusing on a task at hand, paying attention to detail (as the job description had required). Getting each piece of paper properly executed and filed away in the cabinet, each item perfectly aligned with the paper behind it, required a certain skill. My work was highly appreciated, I’m sure. My boss, Wayne, said little, but he had to realize that having such an orderly office, for all of my twenty-three years there, was a great boon to the business.
Even though he was gruff with me at times, shaking his head and grumbling about my slowness, I miss Wayne. After that day I did the deed, I wasn’t in the mood to go back to work at the tire center. I felt headachy, and my nerves were split, and my fingernails, always weak, began to chip and peel down to nothing. I called Wayne and told him I had the flu. I said I’d be back as soon as I could and that he should just stack up the invoices and purchase orders, and I’d spend extra hours the next weekend to get them sorted out.
But then, after a while, it became comfortable staying at home, staring out the window through my pale gauzy curtains or tidying the three little rooms of my apartment or reading mystery novels. Going back to the tire center office would be too difficult, I decided. I might let something about that day slip, and Wayne would question me and might be so disappointed at what I’d done. So I never went back. And Wayne never called to find out where I was. Which I thought was strange. Surely he realized how valuable I was to the business.
I stayed home every day and let what I’d done keep slipping in and out of my thoughts. It had been the right thing to do, but there could be consequences, and the uncertainty surrounding those consequences created a need for me to conceal myself, to stay as far away from other human beings as I could. Any person I encountered might see something in me, a strangeness, a suggestion of inappropriate behavior. Though to me what I did was entirely appropriate. Beneficial, in fact.
Several days went by until I’d gone through all the food on my shelves and, worst of all, had run out of toilet paper. I’d used up all the facial tissues (neatly disassembling their cardboard boxes and folding them flat into my recycling bin). So, I had to go out. One night, well past dark, I ventured (walking as casually as I could) to Superfoods and got everything I needed, more than I would normally buy, assuring that future trips to the outside world would be minimal. I kept my head down, especially at the register. I handed the girl exact change, forty-five dollars and thirty-seven cents, and I don’t think she even looked at me. So I was safe.
That cloudy day of the deed, I’d had no fears. “Marching as to war,” kept running through my head, the insistent rhythm of my favorite hymn urging me on. “For-ward into ba-a-tl-le, see, his banners go.” I think it may have been my most confident moment. As certain as anything in my whole life was how I felt about it. I was a soldier, doing my duty. My only fear was how long it might take for them to find her.
When I had arrived that day, Mother was in her cotton housedress, seated in her living room easy chair, the one that reclines back, with the Daily Gazette on her lap. Christo was on his filthy perch in the kitchen, blinking and clucking.
“Oh, there you are. Finally,” said Mother. I had crept in the back door rather than fussing with the temperamental lock in the front and exposing myself to the neighborhood. She looked at me. “Where are your things?”
“Later, Mother,” I said.
She had expected me to bring a suitcase, I suppose, with all my clothes and toiletries. This was the big day, the day I was supposed to assume the role of her caretaker. The doctor’s suggestion, she said. Living with cancer was an ordeal and recovering from chemo and all that came with it required someone to live in. And that would be me, of course, as there was no one else to do it. She would have no one else, despite my anticipated clumsiness and glaring inadequacies, which she would be careful to point out to me every hour of every day.
“I’m thirsty,” I said, seeing no reason to delay. “Can I get you a diet soda, Mother?” I asked, knowing how she relished it. “I’ll pour it into a glass for you, over ice.” She probably assumed I was enthusiastically launching into my new duties, because she didn’t object. She was satisfied perhaps that from here on in I’d be waiting on her, tending to her every need.
In the kitchen, I gathered up some ice, poured in the soda, and added several drops of the potion I’d made, mixing it quietly with an iced-tea spoon. I poured myself a glass of soda as well, for authenticity’s sake.
“Here you go.” I handed her the glass and watched her down the whole thing in big, slurpy sips. She made a face. “That ice is old, it’s gone bad,” she said, “Don’t serve me soda with ice ever again.”
“Maybe you should have a nap, Mother,” I said.
“Why should I have a nap?” she said in her cranky voice. She was already upset with me. “It’s the middle of the morning, and I want you to help me to the bathroom.” She lifted both her arms as though she expected me to embrace her, lift her, and guide her across the hall.
“Later, Mother,” I said, “You need a nap now.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, what are you talking about? Come on now, give me a hand. I need to get to the john. And then you can fluff up this old bed pillow behind my back.” I stared at her. She was perfectly capable of lifting herself from her chair.
“What the hell is the matter with you today?” she asked.
Remarkably, I had no misgivings, no doubts, no second-guessing. My plan would go smoothly, I was certain of it. And, in fact, in mere minutes, feeling the effects of my potion, Mother sank back into her chair, her eyes blinking shut.
I rinsed out the soda can and the glass I’d poured myself and wiped them off carefully. I retrieved Mother’s glass while she slept and washed it also. While I was at it, all the countertops needed a good scrubbing, along with the cooktop, the cabinets, the refrigerator handle and door. Without me around, Mother had become a slob. Christo, suspicious, sat on his perch, eyeing me and offering an occasional cluck.
When all was tidy, I found the orange rubber gloves beneath the sink. “Christ the Ro-yal Ma-a-ster, leads against the foe,” I sang and hummed the rest of the verse of my favorite hymn. I marched into the living room and wrenched the bed pillow from behind Mother’s back. Her head dropped to one side, so I straightened it (she was quite unconscious) and reclined the chair and pressed the pillow, which smelled of her rancid drool, squarely onto her face. I held the pillow firmly.
“Crowns and thorns may per-e-rish, kingdoms rise and wane, da-da-da-da-daa-da-dee-dee-dee-dee-deee.” I had always had a fine singing voice, and it wasn’t letting me down now. After three verses, I could feel no more resistance from Mother, no bumping or struggling, so I relaxed my grip. I withdrew the pillow and stared at her, her wretched face, her depleted body, just to make sure.
“Oh, Mother,” I said, “that’s much better, isn’t it?” Her jaw was slack. “You’re at peace now. Nothing to worry about.” I pulled her lids down over her acid blue eyes.
She did look restful, her limbs relaxed, her head back. I would have liked to lie down myself, but I had work to do.
First things first. In the drawers of the living room desk, I had set up a complete filing system for Mother—invoices, tax returns, personal papers, etc. I saw now that she had not kept up with the orderliness of the papers, invoices and fliers were strewn about or carelessly jammed into folders, but the folders themselves were pretty much as I had left them before I moved out.
What a lovely day that had been when I moved out of Mother’s house into my own place. My new apartment was only across the street, nearly within shouting distance, but it was all mine, and I could live as I pleased, all my belongings clean and tidy and organized just so, all in three beautiful rooms above the hardware store. I had fended off Mother’s entreaties and demands that I stay, saying, “I’ll be just across the street, Mother. Never fear.” Through my gauzy curtains I could see Mother’s house, watch her occasional comings and goings. But I didn’t have to look out if I didn’t want to. I could pretend Mother and Christo didn’t exist. That had been the beauty of it.
From the right hand side of the desk drawer I drew the folders I knew contained my name. Anything identifying me as daughter, next of kin, beneficiary, anything of that nature, would be destroyed and disposed of. Ripping them all and tearing them up into teeny-tiny pieces would be great fun. But for now I placed them in the leather portfolio Mother had carried to the bank each month. Her address book, also to be destroyed, fit nicely into the side pocket. With her brothers and sisters all dead, that would be the end of it. The end of our family.
The left hand drawer had a lock on it. I went to the kitchen and from the greasy pages of The Joy of Cooking I pulled the tiny key. The drawer opened easily. I took all the postage stamps and the cash. Mother had not trusted the bank with her monthly check from the government and had withdrawn it in hundred dollar bills every month. After expenses (living frugally), there was quite a handsome sum remaining, I estimated $37,000 or so. Enough for my needs. Having no job now, I felt it would perhaps carry me through until she was found, and then I would take a bus to Cleveland where I’d change my name and find a job and disappear in that big city. I put the stamps and the rubber-banded cash into the zippered compartment of the portfolio and set it by the back door.
Checking on Mother, I found her still there, blissfully peaceful in her chair. I almost expected to hear her snoring, but of course there would be no snoring now. Or ever.
The most arduous chore, but the most gratifying by far, was still ahead. From his corner perch in the kitchen Christo looked at me warily. Perhaps he sensed a change in the air for Mother, and for himself, as well. He blinked and pivoted around on his perch. His food dish was only half-full. It would be empty in a day or two. Poor Christo.
I opened the basement door all the way, the smell of urine, oil, and rot wafting up into my face. I went to Mother and tilted her recliner up, and she fell forward at the waist. A rag doll, without one bit of sensation. Her body posture looked hopeless, as though she was utterly disappointed in me.
“But, Mother, think how easy things will be now,” I said. “No doctor appointments, no tests, no needles, no chemo, no losing your hair and your appetite and feeling God-awful. We’ve killed the cancer cells, Mother. We don’t have to worry about them any more. It’s over.”
I leaned down and into her ear I sang,
“At the sign of tri-i-umph, Satan’s host doth flee; On then Christian soldiers, on to vic-to-ry! Hell’s foundations qui-i-ver, at the shout of praise; Christians lift your voi-oi-ce-e-s, loud your anthems raise.”
I hummed the refrain and additional verses as I yanked at Mother’s ankles and slid her from her chair onto the floor. Her head hit with an unfortunate thud. But, no worries; she couldn’t feel a thing. Her cotton housedress gathered up around her shoulders as I dragged her to the basement door. Positioning her just perfectly, I gave her one big shove and let gravity do the rest.
Thumpity, thumpity, thump, head over heels it took her.
The heap at the foot of the steps bothered me. It was disorderly, Mother’s arms and legs flung helter-skelter. I crept down and, edging around her, pulled and yanked until I had her sitting up against the gritty damp wall. The exact place I had so often sat myself, many years ago. I propped her up and straightened the skirt of her housedress.
The sight of her took me back. I saw myself in her, crying up “Mother?” And after several hours, the aching of my bladder would cause me to climb to the top of the stairs. “Mother, please. I have to use the bathroom. Please, Mother.” And the silence. And the seeping of the hot liquid down my legs.
I continued on with my hymn singing. “With the cross of Jesus going on before!” I sang in my finest—though, I must confess a bit wobbly—soprano.
I climbed the basement steps and went straight to the sink. Using the nasty cracked bits of soap in the dish, I scrubbed my hands again and again, and after drying them thoroughly with the dishtowel and wiping down all the counters and cupboards one more time, I threw the bits of soap, the towel, and the orange rubber gloves into the trash. My plan was to place the trash bag in a dumpster several blocks away, at the corner of Elm and Hanson, after I’d had my lunch. I’d seen enough TV shows and read enough mysteries to understand the requirement for a precise and thorough cleanup.
Taking a last look at her dismal kitchen with its torn linoleum and dusty curtains, I picked up the trash bag and the portfolio and turned to leave. I slipped out the back door and, as casually as you may, walked along the side of the house and across the street to my apartment. I stored the portfolio at the back of my bedroom closet behind a stack of shoeboxes. I’d sort and count the cash later. And tear up all the documents—the house deed, the will, my birth certificate, and so forth and so on. It will feel so satisfying to have my future tidied up in this way.
I realized I was hungry. I fixed myself a bit of lunch, tuna salad sandwich on whole wheat. As I chewed, I knew I’d done a fine thing, a truly good deed.
These days I continually stare out the gauzy curtains. And just in case I miss something, I watch the local TV news, as well. I always knew it would take a while, but no one has come as of yet. It will happen one day, though. Any day now, in fact. Maybe the mailman, maybe the bank manager or the doctor’s assistant, maybe the tax collector. Someone, but I do not know who, will eventually realize something is amiss. Maybe a person from the church. Maybe someone will realize she’s been absent a lot of Sundays. Maybe. Or not.
And all the while Mother will be rotting, decomposing naturally, in that basement. And the little grass patch will go untended, and the yew bush will become overgrown, ivy and brambles will creep up the siding and curve around the windows. And the house will come to look deserted.
Any day now someone will notice, and they’ll knock on the door to see if there are signs of life inside. Any day now. Any day.