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“I NEED TO PISH,” she says, and hoists herself from the recliner. She grabs hold of the handle on her walker, and swivels around. Her tush plops down on the seat with a thud. Then she scoots to the bathroom, using her heels to propel forward.
Once she sits on the toilet, I make haste to tidy her room. I remove the dead flowers from the vase on the windowsill. The rotten, slimy stems are so stinky, I put them back in the vase. I realize it’s a job that requires the sink. I hide the vase so she won’t argue with me about the fact they’re dead. I shake the crumbs from her towel bib, smooth the wrinkles from the sheepskin on her chair, and with a tissue pull the hairs from her comb.
I hunt for the week’s menu, so we can talk about alternative choices. For those days when pork is the entree. Underneath the menu is something so familiar, that at first it doesn’t hit me. She’s always collected coupons in piles. Always planning, always plotting. Which days are better? Who had the really good buys this week? And how to get there. Take the bus and transfer downtown or figure out a way to connive me into driving her? My heart aches at the sight of them and I hear her flush. So, into my purse they go. After all, she can’t use them now. And where did they come from?
As usual, her walker gets stuck in the bathroom doorway as she backs out. What does she do when I’m not here?
“I need a birthday card for that guy down the hall,” she says.
“That guy that gives me his newspaper.”
So that’s where they came from.
“His birthday’s today. I don’t have any way to get him a card.”
“Look in here.” I set a box of cards, envelopes and newspaper clippings on her lap. “There’s probably one in there.”
“You pick one for me.”
“Just a minute,” I holler from the bathroom as I recoil from the vase water that I’ve just poured into the sink.
There’s no use answering. I squirt a dollop of Enchanted Nights hand soap into the vase and swirl it around. It smells almost worse than the foul flower water. The liquid soap is one of the many items I’ve brought from her house.
“What are you throwing away in there?”
I CAN'T BELIEVE it’s been over a year since I found her sitting on the floor in front of her bathroom. I had to shove two fold-up shopping carts and a kitchen chair away from the door after I unlocked it.
“I’ve never been hospitalized and I’ll be ninety-five on my next birthday,” she told the ambulance driver from the stretcher.
“Can you tell me who the president is, Ma’am?” he asked her.
“Well, it’s Barack Obama! You voted for him, didn’t you?”
I glanced at the small circle of neighbors that had gathered on her grass.
“They’re all Republicans,” she’d always said of them.
At the emergency room, they explained that her hip was fractured and told her she would have to stay.
“Oh no. I’ve never been hospitalized.” She pointed at me. “I’ve told her over and over they’ll have to carry me out.”
“Aunt Dorothy, they just did.”
“They just did what?”
“Carried you out of your house.”
The hip has gotten worse since then. After a few months of walking to the assisted living dining room and beauty shop with her purple walker, her hip and legs stopped working. Now she’s in a wheelchair or on the seat of the walker. Every few weeks she needs her medication adjusted because somebody in the family or one of the residents is out to get her. First it was my oldest daughter.
“She’s giving all my stuff to the poor without even asking me.”
Then it was my son.
“He only visits with me at lunch so he can steal milk. He zipped ten or twelve cartons into his jacket last time he was here.”
Then it was my husband.
“He shipped my cedar chest off somewhere, so I’ll never find it.”
Then it was other residents from the assisted living wing.
“They stole my Star of David necklace. You know why? They hate Jews. One of them even told me I was going to Hell.”
MEANWHILE, back at her house, I tossed out boxes of matzah from 1995. Tam Tam crackers from 1998. Jars of marinated artichokes from a store that closed in 2000. Garbage bag upon garbage bag of expired food. Wooden boxes of fancy tea bags, collections of cocoa, Hebrew letter pasta, liqueurs from a trip to Puerto Rico in the seventies, and twenty-two boxes of Jello Instant Pudding from Revco, another store long closed. There seemed to be no end. One thing I didn’t find were her treasured Frango Mints which she always stocked up on, whenever they were on sale at Macy’s. And before it was Macy’s at Marshall Field’s, and of course before that when it was Hudson’s. Back when a woman named Maxine played a grand piano in the center of the store. One day we walked into the store and Maxine switched in the middle of “Satin Doll,” to “Misty,” which was Aunt Dorothy’s favorite.
“Wow,” I said. “Do you hear what she’s playing?”
“That’s because she saw me,” Aunt Dorothy said. “She does that every time.”
I always knew about the fifteen cardboard wardrobes in the basement that she never unpacked when she moved here in 1990. I had begged off her few remaining vintage items ten years before. She had given away clothes from several decades and never stopped regretting it when she realized I would have worn them. I also knew about the three large bedroom closets with sliding doors that were packed so tightly, not a hanger would slide. She admitted readily to the hundreds of purses, shoes, and bedroom slippers. What I didn’t know was that another ten wardrobes had been added in the basement. Several had collapsed from the weight of the clothing on cheap rods. I also didn’t know that all of the hangers in the upstairs closets held three to five items each. Not one turquoise top on a hanger, but three or four. Three different white skirts, four gold sparkly tops, five beige camisoles. And if by luck, a whole ensemble made it to fourth mark-down, she bought it all. Skirt, top, slacks, and jacket.
Aunt Dorothy never got married. She worked as a secretary and took care of her mother. After Grandma died, shopping became even more important. And she didn’t have to be sneaky about it any more. How many times, she asked me to distract Grandma while she snuck shopping bags and packages in through the side door.
Her little ranch house needed attention. Cleaning and cooking had been Grandma’s job. Aunt Dorothy had different priorities. She’d often tell me, “I can’t clean the house. I just had my hair done, so I don’t want it to get dusty.”
We pulled up the soiled baby-blue carpet, and decided to have the floors refinished. So the upstairs closets needed to be emptied. Hundreds of upstairs clothes joined thousands of basement clothes, at least half of them still bearing tags from the stores. After hanging rods with chains from the ceiling for the upstairs clothes, I sorted other items into departments. Shoes, purses, sweaters, luggage, linens, Hanukah decorations, Christmas decorations (“they were for the office”), housewares, novelties, and books. The two giant garbage bags of used pantyhose and nylon stockings were in a department all their own. Crafts. I donated them to my art teacher friend.
Back in 1990, the movers had told me, “Your aunt has more stuff than a family of ten.” That was twenty-four years of shopping ago.
“I GUESS there aren’t any birthday cards in here,” I say. “Here’s a nice one that says I’m glad you’re my friend. How ‘bout I just write happy birthday on it?”
“Okay, I guess that’s all right.”
I was pleasantly surprised because I wasn’t used to her letting me off that easy. Maybe she just wanted me to take off so she could eat the Hershey Kisses I’d brought her.
After shaving her whiskers and changing the batteries in her hearing aids, I decide to make my exit. I pick up the laundry basket from her closet floor. “I need to go so I can do your laundry, but I’ll be back soon, and I’ll bring Shayna.”
“Has she been a good girl?”
I tell her yes, even though her precious Himalayan cat pooped on the carpet twice when I was out of town, and has started to jump on the counter and lick butter every chance she gets.
We kiss on the lips, even though there are crumbs in the corners of her mouth, that I forgot to wipe off during her shave. And I know she feels slighted when someone only kisses her cheek.
“I love you.”
“I love you too. What would I do without you?” she asks.
I slide into the front seat of my car, unzip my purse and take out the stashed bundle. There they are in all their useless to Aunt Dorothy glory. Fifty cents off one roll of Scotch Heavy Duty Shipping and Packaging tape. One dollar off any three Nabisco Cookie or Cracker Products. Seventy five cents off any two Dole Jarred Fruit. A Fifteen percent off Kohl’s Yes Pass. An Extra twenty-five percent off JC Penney Family and Friend Event. And then the king daddy of them all: An Extra twenty percent off Wow Pass to Macy’s. Macy’s was worth taking the bus downtown and transferring. Some of the other stores had “better buys,” but only Macy’s had Frango Mints.
Before I take my usual left turn out of the parking lot, I glance down at the coupons on the passenger seat. I should go grocery shopping, or weed my garden. Not to mention the laundry. But instead, I turn right and head to Macy’s for one last good buy.
Sheila Solomon Shotwell has been published in Lilith, Zeek, Psoriasis Advance, and West Michigan Blues over the past two years. She is currently seeking a publisher for her young-adult novel, Gone Before Spring. A freelance actor, she teaches improv, mostly to at-risk kids.