by C. McKane
“You’re too beautiful for words to describe.”
Skin taut and itchy against the rough nightgown she tried to twist towards the deep voice. Whoever he was, the man was blind. She couldn’t remember the last time she bathed, let alone got her hair set. If Mother was here, her Chanel Quilted 2.55 would be emptied of all cosmetics in seconds and there’d be no stopping the frenzied makeover. No sense in correcting him, though. Mama always said take a compliment like it was a Violet Mint.
She didn’t feel the need to answer; it took too much effort. Besides, the constant beeping to her right reminded her of that old jazz riff, some man used to play for her, and she couldn’t remember how it started. She sang along warbling over the commotion of people coming into the plain, pale room. When the big woman in baby blue fixed the machine and it stopped, she kept on singing. Didn’t stop when the woman started asking redundant questions either. Why did the lady need to know her name or what day it was? It was on the white board across from her twin bed in legible, albeit pitiful penmanship.
“Babe, eat something. Please, for me.”
She didn’t want to eat the food on the tray. Looked worse than her first attempt to cook for her husband. Thick, beige gruel reminded her of the Cream of Wheat Mama would make every Wednesday. Alexandra could never forget when the Ross boy came to stay with them for the summer. His aunt was the housekeeper back then and he started a fire in the kitchen trying to cook porridge one morning.
Mama told him he didn’t have to help at all after that. Alexandra cornered him outside beneath the cockspur hawthorn where he was dabbing aloe on his burnt chin and tried to get him to admit it was on purpose.
“Did not, Miss Alex. Stove is just different from mine back home,” the tall, blonde boy denied, but his twisted smile was sure suspicious.
She detested when people were too lazy to pronounce her whole name but found she didn’t mind when the Ross boy did it. After spending the summer playing and swimming with the older boy, Alex didn’t care if he did start the fire to get out of chores. Just wished it worked for her too.
Alex, poked at the thick gruel in front of her again, now cooler and more glue-like than before. ‘Ross would probably want me to eat this too’, she thought, ‘even if he told me jokes the whole time and sang some of those racy jazz tunes he knew I wasn’t supposed to hear.’
“Mr. Ross, your wife is gonna need round the clock care. We have a case worker comin’ in later today to help you understand your options.”
There shouldn’t be anyone in their house. Alex doesn’t want strangers inside. It wasn’t safe; they could steal something or hurt her family. She’d never let that happen again.
Alex forgets a lot, but nothing could erase September 8, 1964. If she’d been a strict mother and not coddled her youngest and only son, he would have been at school that day. Instead, he was home when those two teens on a bad trip broke into the house. If only she was there, instead of walking to the market before the girls got out of school, she could have stopped it or at least been with him. He was only eight.
“Babe, babe it’s okay. You’re safe. No one is hurting you. What do you need? What can I do?”
Alex didn’t know why her throat was sore, or why someone was holding her hands so tight her skin felt hot and angry so she asked, “can you let me go?”
“No, Alex, I can’t do that.” The man shuffled closer, how she couldn’t figure, and produced a flimsy comb. “But let me take care of your hair. If your Mama saw it now!”
Alex couldn’t help but agree and found herself nodding off as he gently straightened her hair. It had gotten so thin and short, like the rest of her. The man sounded like Steve and probably chewed the same pack of wintergreen gum because he smelled the same too.
Though, Steve would offer to go to the store and buy more eggs. She needed at least a dozen for the deviled eggs she promised to bring to dinner. Her Steve used to do all the shopping even if he could never bring a loaf of bread home unscathed. After September 8, 1964, Steve offered to do so many things.
“Dad, you can’t do this anymore! She isn’t going to get any better.”
That girl came around like clockwork, always messing with the knickknacks and perfume bottles on the dresser. But the room was clean and airy, and most important, home. Alex didn’t mind when that girl came or her sister, they were familiar and made her feel safe even if they worried too much.
“Carolyn, we’re fine. She eats for me twice a day and drinks those milkshakes you bring over. I’m not letting your mother go somewhere they’ll be unkind to her. She wants to stay at home, so this is where we’ll be.”
Alex respected a strong, constant man and when he agreed to let those two women come in and care for the house, she loved his humility even more. Because regardless of his humble upbringing, the Ross boy was not the best at cooking and cleaning. The girls, women now based on the signs age stamped upon them, would clean and bring hot meals. Sometimes they’d bring their blonde and golden grandchildren with them and Alex wondered if her little boy would have had grandchildren that looked like their great-grandfather too.
“Alex, you’re too beautiful for words to describe.”
She felt the linens, not as crisp as when she washed them and opened her eyes to see Steve’s tired, but beloved face next to her own. When was the last time she replied? She couldn’t remember.
“Where are your glasses, Ross?”
Her husband smiled so big it made deep grooves in his cheeks and the old burn scar from the summer they met still made his chin dimple funny. When did he get so old? Life had scarred them both and sometimes Alex didn’t think she could ever recover. But she always did with the Ross boy by her side.
“Steve, I love you too.”