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ELDERS.

Monday/Wednesday/Friday

Guadalupe, 7:35 a.m.

The trailer was small, even as trailers go. On one end, Guadalupe lived and slept in a single cramped bedroom. On the other, her son's room, a smell like sweat and incense and carpentry breathing from the crack beneath his closed door. Holy, ugly smells. He was never home when I was there, and I'd met him only once. He'd taken an array of fruit down from a bowl on top of the refrigerator and lined them up on the counter. "Mango," he said, pointing with the end of a knife. "Very important."

In the living room, he kept his porno tapes in plain sight because his mother was blind. An unlikely pair of roommates; if they weren't related, it could've been a comedy.

I prepared her mango slices on a white plate, helped her pivot on her single leg from bed to the toilet chair that sat in the middle of her room. Her other leg, amputated just below the knee was always dressed in a single white sock and looked, against the sheet or dangling from the edge of the toilet chair, like a baby's foot.

She knew very little English but would greet me in the mornings with "Jesus loves you," repeating it as I moved about the room, gathering stale pieces of laundry. She listened for hours to an audiobook of the Bible in Spanish, a tape player on her bedside table with huge braille buttons. Sometimes while she slept, I would try on the brightly colored accessories that hung in her closet--yellow scarves and purple hats, church things. They smelled clean and old, like attics in expensive houses.

We greeted the day together. I was always clumsy about waking her up, hand on the tininess of her arm while her blind eyes blinked open, milky and juniper-colored. I think I loved her, at least a little, but it's hard to say. I loved that even someone who spent all their days in bed could try to be good, could open wide her pink mouth to tell me I was loved by the same person she loved, Jesucristo, and so we could be connected that way at least. I've always been sentimental early in the morning.

I'm not sure she ever knew my name. Certainly she never knew what I looked like, maybe putting together a picture based on my height and the texture of my voice. I hoped she gave me brown hair, intelligent eyes.

She did know my hands well enough though. Daily I'd peel off her sweaty nightshirt, squeeze a blue washcloth so warm soapy water ran down the gourd-like shape of her.I kept my fingernails trimmed as we'd been instructed in training. Sometimes, she'd sing while I brushed her hair, parted it neatly, braided it long all the way down to her waist. Her hair was thin and tame in my hands, a gray that wanted to be silver.

Sometimes I brought her mango from the kitchen, and she demanded something else. I'd bring an assortment of fruits, and she'd feel them all with her hands, sniff them disdainfully like a cat, deem them all unworthy. Once, angry, I thought about stealing her yellow scarf, knowing it would never be missed, thinking, "She never goes anywhere anyway" and "She can't be long for this world"--a horrible thought, guiltily settling the scarf back among all the pretty things she never wore.

I silently asked for her forgiveness while I watched her eat slices of pineapple I'd brought. Her hands, so dainty as she ate, made me think of embroidery.

9:20 a.m.

I liked the long, solitary drives between clients, how I could privately reset between homes and whatever they held inside them. I'd play the radio so loud it almost hurt, smoke as many cigarettes as I could fit into the commute. I'd find places in my hometown and outside it I'd never known--an old cemetery behind the Wendy's where a few Civil War dead were buried, a water tower they kept repainting in spite of almost nightly fresh graffiti, a farm at one end of a long gravel drive that sold canned peaches, collie puppies, packets of seeds.

If I arrived too early at a client's house, I'd often circle back out into the countryside, park in an empty field, and read in the idling car, sun blazing through the windshield to fight the air conditioning. Books left in the passenger seat would slip from their bindings, glue loosening in the heat; one book, appropriately called First Light, came apart in my hands toward the end of a particularly hot day, pages flapping around inside the car that I never bothered to regather. Later, as I drove, stray pages would escape through the open windows, stirring up into tiny cyclones above the blacktop that I'd watch in the rearview mirror, wondering if I'd ever know how that story ended.

Geneva, 9:40 a.m.

Geneva lived on the eighth floor of a vast public housing complex, and her apartment was crowded with things that she was always telling me would be mine when she died--sewing machines, a broken microwave, tangled windchimes, a guitar-less guitar case, a coffee-stained lace counterpane she claimed was "worth something," a pair of chinchilla stoles that were bald in places from cigarette burns.

She always promised these things to me after fighting on the phone with her two children.

"That's it!" she'd shout, flinging the receiver back into its cradle. "I've had it with those little shits. I've half a mind to leave it all to you."

I didn't want any of her things, and in training we'd been strictly instructed not to accept gifts from clients, but I knew it was all for show, made her feel in control. By the following day, she'd forget all about it.

She shouted everything. She was going deaf and missed the sound of her own voice. I also had to shout to be heard, and so when I'd take her grocery shopping, our exchanges echoed around us, the surrounding world overhearing every word, politely trying not to listen and failing. She'd yell to me down the length of an aisle, an impossibly loud, earthquake voice, "WHERE ARE THE PEE PADS?"

Her floors were lined wall-to-wall with blue-and-white quilted pee pads that somehow, magically, her toy poodle would often manage to miss.

The world, she mostly hated. But that poodle, she loved. Maybe she liked that she could hear it bark, its constant yap shrill enough to crack glass. Like many of the things in her apartment, the dog's once-white fur had turned an oily earwax color, and it smelled like milk left out on a humid day. Its name was Butch, but she sometimes called it Samson, sometimes Remus, which I learned were the names of the two preceding Butches, one of which met its end when her ex-husband accidentally stepped on it. This story was told often, and that fatal footstep was deemed "an accident" depending on her mood.

I never quite knew what was real with her, her stories stretching and fluctuating, and I liked collecting the different versions of events, like a movie that changes every time you watch it. Sometimes her husband left her by going down to the drugstore for a pack of cigarettes, never returning. Sometimes he robbed the drugstore and became an outlaw. Sometimes she was a costume mistress at the Grand Ole Opry, and was friendly with Minnie Pearl. Sometimes Minnie Pearl pulled her out on stage to help her sing the harmonies on "Little Trouble in Town."

She liked to sing hymns around the house, the rousing, boisterous ones like "Onward Christian Soldier" and "Come Ye Saints, Look Here and Wonder." I asked her once if she was a churchgoer. We were smoking cherry-flavored cigarillos together on her balcony, and she'd pointed to a spot in the air where she claimed she'd had a vision of "our lord and savior" hovering above the dirty courtyard.

"You know what was funny," she yelled. "He was only four feet tall."

"I had no idea," I said. "Never thought of Jesus as a small man."

"Well, that's where you're wrong."

We were silent, smoking. "Who needs church when you've seen the real thing?" she said finally. That was all she ever offered on the subject of religion.

While I cleaned, gathering up the soiled pee pads and stuffing them into trash bags, she'd sit in her recliner and watch whatever was on TV. Once, when I was still wearing yellow rubber gloves and reeking of Pinesol, she waved me over to sit on the ottoman and watch the last few minutes of Escape from Alcatraz.

"This way," she told me, "if they ever put me in a nursing home, I'll know how to escape."

The world, she mostly hated. But she loved me, loved taking my elbow as we crossed the Walmart parking lot together, shouting happily into my ear "PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU'RE MY GRANDKID," loved to string plastic beads into bracelets that I'd keep in my glove compartment, slip onto my wrist before I entered her apartment building. "There's just no bullshit in you," she told me once, and "You're a good girl," she told me often. It felt good to be loved by someone who didn't love easily.

On my last day of work, we took pictures together with her Polaroid, taped them up on her fridge. She called me a week later and left a booming message on my answering machine: "I've had it with those ungrateful brats," she shrieked. "I'm putting you in the will!"

Her voice was angry but somehow joyous. That was the last I heard from her.

12:15 p.m.

In the cemetery behind Wendy's, I'd eat my lunch, sitting on the low stone benches, pulling apples and smashed sandwiches out of a paper sack, a chocolate frosty turning to cool soup in its yellow cup beside me. I ate fast, not because I was in a hurry, but because birds roosted in the trees overhead, their purple shit occasionally staining the pages of the book in my lap.

"A little shit never hurt anybody," the woman who trained us would have said.

Her name was Mary, and at the beginning of the summer, a class of ten potential "homemakers" (as we were so quaintly called) met every day for two weeks in a brick office building beside the railroad tracks. She'd pause when the freight trains passed through town, seeming to hold her breath, puffing out her cheeks comically until the horn and clatter stopped echoing, and she'd pick up where she left off:

"These people like to talk about their faith, about the people they love and who love them. They like to tell their stories. You'll need to listen. Listening is a big part of your job description. They'll almost always surprise you with something. Being surprised on a daily basis is a big part of your job description. It won't always be easy. Some days, you'll be tired and cranky, and you'll say to yourself: 'Why can't Martha just shut the hell up?' But you have to remember: When you leave a home, you'll move off into the rest of your day. They stay. They wait for you to come back the next day. Some of these people will see no other face but yours in the space of a week."

Cheryl Lynn, 12:45 p.m.

By noon, the day seemed to hurt in places, like a tongue feeling at a sore inner cheek. The heat was saliva, and it broke you down--ducking in and out of air-conditioned spaces like trying to keep out of a downpour. But there was no rain--only the afternoon threat of thunder, far-off heat lightning, Cheryl Lynn turning up the volume on her television so the voices on the Weather Channel could tell her what was going on out there. The screen showed one of those temperature maps of the country, all orange and red and yellow.

"It's hot as hell everywhere," she said matter-of-factly. "Ain't nothing to do about it."

Bored, she switched to Matlock. Bored again, she switched to a Lifetime movie called Too Young to be a Dad, settling finally on a cooking show where hands moved greasily over the bodies of plucked chickens.

We shared the space of the room--a ripe, tinny smell, like canned vegetables. A cat that made my nose run nestled against my thigh. At 1:15, Cheryl Lynn woke up hungry in her easy chair. The cooking show had made her crave fried chicken. I told her I've never made fried chicken before.

"That's OK. I'll eat it even if it's bad," she promised.

She yelled instructions while I banged around in the kitchen: "Crumble old bread with your hands and mix in the seasoning." The drumsticks seemed awkward and unwieldy in the pan. I kept sneezing into the crook of my elbow.

I brought the chicken finally and, as promised, she ate it. I did not watch her eat--watched Matlock instead, watched the cat licking itself, watched my own hands in my lap sticky with crumbs and chicken oils. I got up to wash them, grabbed a handful of napkins and two cans of soda, and returning to the living room, I caught sight of her: face in hands, shoulders shaking, beginning to sob the way amateur actors cry in high school plays--high-pitched and forceful.

"Shit," I said, standing there with the napkins and soda. Then: "What's wrong, Cheryl Lynn?"

She lowered her hands. She'd smeared chicken grease and snot all over her face.

"I miss my husband," she told me when I handed her a napkin. Then, the same thing she'd said about the weather earlier: "Ain't nothing to be done about it."

2:45 p.m.

Another drive. The steering wheel loose and easy in my hands. I tried not to carry them with me into the hot closeness of the car, their worries, thinking of the spaces that held them, not moving from bed or chair or sofa for days on end while I moved with such ease, lucky, speeding through yellow lights and spinning, almost reckless, out onto the blacktop with the radio hammering against me--light and heat everywhere, a golden film of pollen on everything.

I knew only what pieces of their lives they chose to share, but they read their audience well, caught onto what interested me. I wrote a lot of it down in a little clothbound notebook, limp from the humidity, parking in shaded culs-de-sac and scribbling melodramatic observations like: What could be lonelier than trying to communicate? I tried to keep meticulous track of each of their lives, worried they might somehow blur together. I felt sort of guilty about it, like I was spying, describing Cheryl Lynn's face all mucked with chicken crumbs and tears. By the end of the summer, I'd broken a lot of the rules printed in bold on a handout we'd been given in training.

#1. Never eat with clients--Ava refused to pick up her fork unless I sat down with her, fixed myself a plate. "I don't like to eat alone," she told me. "People shouldn't have to eat alone."

#2. Never accept gifts from clients--The pink and blue and white beads Geneva so carefully strung onto loops of plastic twine, hands shaking and beads scattering across the tabletop.

#3. Never administer medicine of any kind, including pills, topical creams, or enemas--Adrianna's nurse only came once a week; her son's job kept him away twenty-eight days at a time. She had a sore place below her left buttock that she was too stiff and sore to reach herself, a bottle of prescribed ointment. If not me, then who?

#4. Never photograph your clients or allow them to take pictures of you--Yellow disposable cameras on kitchen countertops and trying to do a good job of saying goodbye. "My memory's not good, and I don't want to forget you, sweetie." Holding the camera out at arm's length to take selfies--grinning young face beside grinning old face. It was hard to see the harm in that.

Mr. Cox, 3:15 p.m.

Always stretched to his full length on the couch, cane beside him on the floor, he napped through reruns oi Arthur or Clifford the Big Red Dog while in the bedroom I stripped his bed, replaced a set of black silk sheets with a set of red silk sheets, edging smutty magazines back under the bed with the side of my foot.

I'd run the vacuum, exploring the house that way, room by room. I once opened a closed door to find a room with mirrored walls, a single barber's chair in the center of the floor, hair in piles and drifts across the floor. I paused on the threshold, feeling I'd come upon something somehow secret, sacred, a world not meant for me.

"You mind sweeping up in there?" Mr. Cox called from his place on the couch.

The hair trembled in the dustpan, seeming to breathe. I carefully lowered myself into the barber's chair, spun in an arc to watch in the mirror: a sweaty face, also spinning.

It was a mystery. I never saw anyone leaving or entering the house, never, at any time, even saw Mr. Cox stand up from the couch, but regularly, new piles of hair would appear, soft and billowy, beneath the chair.

One week, Mr. Cox's power got shut off, and I did all my cleaning in the hot dark--the black sheets billowing in the dim room, finding the shadowy corners of the room with the bristles of a broom, bumping against things softly, trying to force sight by squinting, and opening the door of the mirrored room and waiting for my eyes to adjust in order to see the tufts of hair, little darker patches of darkness, like sleeping animals.

During that week, Mr. Cox kept very still on the couch, sweat dewing his forehead, sparkling in the darkness where stripes of light fell slantwise through the lowered blinds. He stared at the blank TV screen, at the space where, if the electricity came back, Arthur or Clifford would suddenly appear.

Toward the end of the week, Mr. Cox asked me to clean out all the spoiled food from the refrigerator. The fridge door sucking open, a dead smell breathed itself out into the kitchen, and I pulled the collar of my shirt up to cover my nose and mouth. Looking over to where Mr. Cox was staring at the blank TV screen, I had to tell myself, "If you don't do this for him, no one else will."

With gloved hands, I began pulling out moist cartons and tossing them, beginning to realize with an uneasy feeling, that the walls of the refrigerator had a hazy, mottled look, like fingers of seagrass moving underwater. Swiping with a sponge and examining it beneath the beam of a flashlight, I saw what appeared to be grains of white rice. Then, a sick lurch, the rice moved.

I didn't tell Mr. Cox about the maggots. I don't think he even thanked me when I left. But that's how it went sometimes: You do what you do unseen, and afterward you feel nothing, just drained and numb.

Later, I told people dramatically, "I don't believe in hell, but if I did, I think it would be something like that: just wiping forever at swarms of maggots, while an old man stares at a blank TV screen."

Saturday/Sunday

Adrianna, 10:30 a.m.

A Jehovah's Witness, she kept my car well-stuffed with pamphlets and crumpled issues of The Watchtower. She was one of those vast women who moved like noiseless ships. She wore pinafore aprons over house dresses as if nothing had changed since the 50s. She liked reality television though: Wife Swap and Sixteen and Pregnant. She spoke about herself as if sharing gossip, told me that watermelon and artichokes are good aphrodisiacs, that singing is good exercise for the lungs.

She lived in a sunny duplex with a flower garden out front. Sometimes I'd arrive and find her beautiful son, John, on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table. Adrianna had six children that all lived elsewhere and John, the youngest at twenty-seven, was the only one who lived and worked close by. He was a soft-spoken towboat pilot who spent a month at a time out on the river, would come home smelling like good mud and wet air. I was sort of in love with him, quietly brought him dishes of watermelon, washed his shirts.

Driving across town to the Kroger, Adrianna would talk in a flood about the Catholic orphanage where she spent most of her childhood--how the nuns wouldn't let them shower naked, their drenched underwear chafing all day beneath their clothes, drying like plaster around their legs. She told me about the End Times, Jesus coming with a sword to wipe out all the unbelievers, giving the earth over to the Jehovah's Witnesses and heaven to every other denomination.

"But I just can't believe those nuns will be in heaven," she said.

She invited me constantly to go to church with her. I'd always ask shyly if John would be there, then, depending on her reply, would tell her I'd think about it.

She spoke so lovingly of the apocalypse that there was something almost comforting about it. After I left, I sent her a postcard with an image of a clocktower on it, and she wrote me back, just the once, to say, "He wants you in his Kingdom, and I hope you'll find your way to Him. Time is running out."

12:30 p.m.

The weekends felt sleepy and slow, and I drove with less urgency, letting the road unspool easily beneath the car, listening to some soft-spoken program on NPR. Mostly my clients didn't want me to do much cleaning on the weekends. They'd watch me dusting their tchotchkes, clinking around in corner hutches and say, finally, "Sit down you're giving me a headache."

Sometimes I'd take piles of their laundry to the local laundromat, huge blue and gray comforters I'd stuff into the front-loading machines. In my memory I was always the only person in there, treating myself from the vending machines while the dryers whirred hugely. I'd sit in stray sunbeams reading giant gluey novels with cracked spines, drowsily propping my chin on my hand, dreamy, sedate. I might think of my friends beering on some lakeshore and briefly wish I were elsewhere, then think, "No. Really, this is fine."

Ava, 1:45 p.m.

Ava loved soap operas, tried to fill me in on the storylines, but I never seemed to know what was going on. She loved fresh produce and lived in Amish country, so we'd drive out to the farms together where, at roadside stands, she'd weigh tomatoes in her hand.

Sometimes her friends would come over in the afternoon to chainsmoke and play cards. I think they liked pinochle best but settled for gin rummy when I was there since it's all I knew how to play. We sat heavily in our chairs, the women gossiping and reminiscing about being "long-legged farm brats," falling out of fruit trees when they were young. A rich, fragrant tobacco fog hovered above the card table like a visitation, and we ate fresh bread with thick hunks of braunschweiger, a log of cheese on the tabletop growing smaller, a glossy pitcher of iced tea with cupfuls of sugar poured in, sitting still undissolved at the bottom like sand in a tidepool.

If we were alone, she'd talk about her son. He was only thirty years old but had suffered a massive stroke and could no longer speak. He used to play the piano at their church and would record songs in the back room of her house, but now his hands were heavy and unresponsive.

"The doctor says it's fifty-fifty whether he talks again, but no more piano either way. No chance."

She talked about her own story as if it were one of the soap operas she loved, her shrewish, conniving daughter-in-law who would tell Ava, "Richard doesn't want you constantly visiting. It worries him and disrupts his routine."

"What routine?" Ava would say. "He sits in a chair and drools all day."

Once, putting the groceries away, she bent down to put a carton of eggs in the fridge and cried out in pain, her knees creaking and the eggs slipping from her grip. I stooped to wipe up the yolky splatter, and she leaned, wincing, against the counter.

"You know what I pray?" she asked me. I shook my head.

"I pray every single day that the pain will be exactly as much as I can take. And no more."

3:30 p.m.

Between clients, I sometimes stopped for ice cream or gas station slushies. Greeting my clients with sugary helios, my tongue blue in my mouth.

It's strange to think I was nineteen that summer, pretending wisdom beyond my years by spending long hours listening to aging voices. In training, they'd told us things like, "You are essential to these people," made us feel chosen and elect, almost as if we'd heard a calling, responded to it, as if sharing a routine with someone could be its own religion.

Barb, 3:50 p.m.

Barb was the only one, out of all of them, that I actually dreaded. At sixty-two, she was also the youngest. She wore hurried makeup, charcoal smudges beneath her eyes and garish pink smears clumping in the cleft above her upper lip. She dyed her hair a chemical red, and from the moment I entered the house to the moment I left, she talked ceaselessly about every wrong ever done to her by another human being: ex-husbands and their new wives, the sister whose funeral she'd refused to attend, her deadbeat slob of a father, her manipulative whore of a mother "who'd always favored Jenny over me." She sat all day, in the crusty dark of her house, and stewed, chewing the lipstick from her lips, reapplying more.

Her house was filled floor to ceiling with newspapers and sofa cushions and empty water bottles and things she'd bought herself at garage sales and then forgotten: toasters, baseball caps, snowball kitten jigsaw puzzles, manicure kits. She'd boarded up the windows "so the neighbors can't look in," she said, then painted over the boards: a dark, military brown. She claimed the man who lived across the street kept a camera trained on her house.

"What on earth for?" I asked.

"Surveillance," she said hissily, as if this explained everything.

She made me realize that people who refuse to engage in conversation, who will talk about themselves without care for the listener, hold great power. She clung to that power; it was the only one she had left. I never felt I was helping her by listening. I couldn't escape by cleaning; she followed me into the rooms and stood over me while I worked. She told me about her glory days as a hand model, about the rich husband who'd bought her furs that his mistress had later broken into her house to steal. There were a lot of stories of stealing. Her son had once broken into her house with his girlfriend while she slept upstairs and "robbed her blind."

"He even unscrewed the light bulbs from all the lamps," she said. "And took those."

Once, driving her into town to pay her water bill, she'd demanded I pull over next to a chainlink fence bordering a trailer park. Pointing at a group of children playing, her long red fingernail quivering, she said, "You see that kid?"

"Yeah," I said, afraid.

"That kid looks just like my son."

I said nothing.

"I'll bet his whore lives here."

Driving away, I realized that, when she spoke, I was actually afraid of what she was going to say. Years later, long after I quit working for the agency, I'd still sometimes drive down her street and feel an ugly chill when I passed the brown bulk of her house, caught sight of a small frothy-haired figure standing on tiptoe and peering over her fence to see if the neighbors were spying.

5:45 p.m.

I thought a lot on those drives about what I'd be like when I was old. A part of me wanted to be wild and crotchety like Geneva, the sort to reinvent my past freely, the kind of old lady you might expect to start snowball fights with adolescents in parking lots. I liked the idea of having a regular crew of visitors, like Ava, feasting and smoking cartons of Pall Malls and talking shit. But it felt more likely that I'd be solitary, surrounded by stacks of books loose in their bindings. If I prayed anything that summer, I think it was that I not become a Barb, paranoid and resentful, wearing the carpets down with worried pacing and never feeling safe in the ugly little fortress I'd made of my house. The future still felt open like that--like clothes you could try on to see how they fit, like settling Guadalupe's hats on my head, turning to look from different angles, pleased and sort of shocked by the sight of my own face.

Mr. and Mrs. Wright, 6:00 p.m.

Mr. and Mrs. Wright lived in a small, tidy house in Murphysboro, and my entire job there consisted of holding Mrs. Wright's hand, the slim feathery weight of it in my palm, while she watched old episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show on PBS. This calmed her.

On my first night there, Mr. Wright, a tall, slim, dapper man, impossibly calm, showed me the heavy links of chain looped around the door handle.

"I just don't want you to be shocked," he said. "It's for her safety. Sometimes, she tries to wander off."

For a couple of weeks, I simply sat beside her on the sofa, brought her orange juice which she swallowed neatly, and held her hand while dancers' skirts swirled on the TV, a calm in the whole soft air of the house. Mr. Wright might grab a few minutes of easy sleep in the bedroom while Mrs. Wright, always alert and gentle, watched the up and down of Lawrence Welk's white baton, the sheen of the orchestra. Sometimes, she would bring my hand to her lips, kiss it with a tidy little peck, never taking her eyes from the screen.

"Sometimes, she might be confused about who you are," Mr. Wright had told me early on. "It's best, we've found, to just go along with it."

I was always in awe of them. How kind and affectionate they were to one another--always cooing "darling" and "sweetie," seeming to relish the nearness of one another, Mrs. Wright always reaching her arms out to him when he moved past her chair, leaning over to say to me while he was still in earshot, "I'm a lucky woman."

There was only once that Mr. Wright greeted me at the door, slowly unlooping the chain, and said, "She's having a difficult time today." She'd refused to take her medicine, and while we sat together on the couch, she seemed nervous, fluttering, not watching the screen but following Mr. Wright with narrow eyes while he busied himself in the kitchen, organizing pills in their little plastic many-doored containers.

She turned to me every now and then, "Sissy," she whispered. "We gotta get out of here."

I squeezed her hand, tried to direct her attention back to the screen.

"You see that man in there," she said, pointing to her husband. "That's a bad man."

"That's Joe," I said softly. "That's your husband."

"He's a bastard!" she shrieked.

Mr. Wright peered in from the kitchen. "Now, Judy," he said. "You're all right."

She pulled on my arm, leaned over to whisper directly into my ear, "You ever been raped, Sissy?" I stared at her blankly in horror. "You will if you stick around here," she said, and reading my horrified expression as solidarity, she tried to yank me to my feet while lunging toward the front door, fumbling frantically with the chain.

"Let me out of here, you filthy old man!" her hands bruising against the heavy chain, and I watched Mr. Wright slowly cross the room toward her, very carefully unwind the chain. She watched him without speaking, already pacified a little by the promise of freedom. He motioned for me to stand beside her, and his hands trembled as he opened the door. "Hold her hand," he said to me. We walked out to the driveway, and I helped her into the back seat of their 1971 Lincoln Continental and fastened her seatbelt for her. I climbed in beside her, holding tight to her hand, and she sat very quietly, peering out the window as we backed down the drive.

We drove slowly alongside a span of wheat fields, and I watched her face relax as we passed distant farmhouses, birds spiraling up from endless telephone lines. She looked out, and Mr. Wright, at first driving in silence, watched her face in the rearview mirror gradually soften more and more. Her grip on my hand loosened a little, and Mr. Wright began naming the places we drove past. "That's where Bobby and Marlene live," he said or "There used to be a school there, remember?" She said nothing but watched the landscape flow past, breathing calm and steady. Finally, turning into an empty parking lot, he pointed toward a chapel with a white steeple.

"That's the church where we were married," he said. "Fifty-three years ago." Mrs. Wright blinked, still holding my hand, her face soft and smiling.

At the time, my daily role, my task, my bread-and-butter was caregiving, but what I did for a living wasn't real care--entering a life for three hours at a time, making a sandwich, vacuuming. Real care was constant action, the daily choice that, even if your loved one is screaming that she hates you, even if she's afraid and shrinks from your touch and screams that you're filthy and evil, that you will wait patiently for the lucid moments when she knows who you are, and kisses your palm, and calls you "darling," tells you how lucky she is. Real care was presence, the constancy of a shared life, of sometimes realizing the horror in your life, but that, in spite of it, you're still somehow OK.

Mr. Wright turned to look at the two of us, leaning together in the backseat. "What do you say, Judy? Ready to go home?"

She nodded, and we all seemed to breathe with relief, soothed in the loose air of the car as dusk gathered around us. We drove back, the three of us drowsing over the dim roads. Mr. Wright switching the headlights on, and Mrs. Wright's head lowering onto my shoulder.
COPYRIGHT 2019 Boulevard: Journal of Contemporary Writing
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Title Annotation:non-fiction
Author:Branum, Renee
Publication:Boulevard
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2019
Words:6755
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