••• The International Writers Magazine: Life Fiction
Mrs. Havermill isn't as fast as she used to be
Morning comes too early for her tastes. She feels as if she hasn’t slept at all, as if her eyes only just closed one moment and the next they’re open again but it’s nine hours later. She doesn’t feel refreshed, doesn’t think she has dreamed or if she has she can’t remember any of them.
If she stops to think—but that doesn’t happen. There’s far too much in her head, things from when she was a little girl all the way up to yesterday, and if she stops to think about anything then who knows where her mind will end up. She doesn’t know. But she awakes hopeful that today will be a good day, a special day, with a minimum of family-based drama. That would be the best gift of all. Christmas, she finds, has become much more contentious than it used to be.
Rising is an issue. It takes a lot longer than it used to. Everything aches. Sleep doesn’t make it any better. She can no longer stand up perfectly straight, the osteoporosis is so bad, and when it rains every joint in her body seizes up from the arthritis. Hardly anything’s her original parts either. Both knees, both hips, and an ankle have been replaced. There’s a plate in her left wrist put there winter before last after she slipped on the ice on her front walk going after the mail, breaking her wrist. But a long rise time is built into her morning routine. She sits and then stands carefully. It would be a fine day, she thinks, if she were to fall and break a rib.
She starts toward the kitchen. The trip from her bedside to the counter where the coffee pot sits is about forty feet and takes her down a short hallway and through her living room. It takes her a little less than two minutes to make the trip. She knows this, knows she used to be faster, but she doesn’t care. Most of her days are wide open, so there isn’t a point in rushing. The coffee pot she programs the night before, so by the time she gets there it’s already brewed. She pours herself a mug and goes back into the living room, to her favorite comfy chair, another minute on her feet. She sets the mug on the small table next to the chair, and she reclines slightly and turns the television on. She has only just made herself comfortable when the phone rings. It’s a few seconds after she picks up before the synapses fire enough for her to say, “Hello.”
Her son is on the other end. Glenn Junior. She hadn’t wanted to call him that, had wanted to give him his own name, his own identity, but her husband vetoed that. Glenn is a good name, he’d said, a solid name, my name, don’t you think my name is solid, Eileen, don’t you think I’m solid? Glenn Junior turned out to be something less than solid as the day is long. He almost never called her himself. Usually he made his wife do it. Hearing him on the phone now made her happy, though. You’re still coming today, aren’t you dear? she says, I’ve already started on lunch. He is still coming. She didn’t have to start on lunch, he says, he and Lexy and the kids are bringing the ham and a few sides and a salad, she shouldn’t trouble herself. If you’re sure, dear, she says. He’s sure. She wonders if he knows she hasn’t started anything yet. Best not to tell him. Might make him angry, and with his temper—best to play this game this way. They say their goodbyes and hang up, and she tries to remember where her coffee is at.
A time passes: she doesn’t know quite how long. This is what she has noticed about retirement: time is more abstract now. She knows of fellow retirees whose days are filled. Some have returned to work. Some have occupied themselves with long-unfulfilled projects of fancy, building birdhouses, learning to dance. That is not her. When she went back to work after Glenn Junior was old enough to mind himself and Glenn Senior was gone period, she worked hard. Her work, excepting her son, was her life. When the work ended, she told herself while she was working, she would relax. Read. Garden. Fill her hours with quiet contemplation and the occasional visit from her son and his family. This is what she has done, and the hours of the day don’t mean what they once did.
Vacuum, she thinks. Wipe the counters, she thinks. Tidy, she thinks. That was supposed to be next. She stands up and goes to the closet where the cleaning materials are. In the minute and a half it takes her to get there, she thinks: It will be good to see them all again. What a darling Lexy is, and so good for him. They look after each other well. That’s what a good marriage is: two people who look after each other well. And she’s certainly done her part, more than. And Glenn Glenn is probably half a head taller than he was the last time I saw him. He takes after his father like that. I just wish he wasn’t picking up all of the character traits as well. And little Molly is just the most darling little girl. Polite, too. Says please and thank you and Mother may I. She’ll be a heartbreaker when she’s—wait. Where am I? What was I doing? I’m in front of the storage closet—oh, right. Cleaning. Let’s see…
Eileen gets the vacuum out and plugs it in. This is not without its difficulties. Anything between waist- and shoulder-level is not an issue, but lower things like power outlets are problematic. She doesn’t bend too well. Her back is largely inflexible, and bending at the knees not an easy task. The doctors assured her when they were preparing her for surgery that she would notice a marked improvement in her mobility afterwards. She completed all of her physical therapy dutifully; Lexy, bless her, took some time off of work to shuttle her back and forth. (Glenn Junior declined to help, even though he had more vacation time built up and his job pays slightly less than Lexy’s. Eileen remembers hearing one side of an argument on the topic via an overheard phone call.) But the advertised marked improvement never came. She could walk and bend much the same as she had before, but no better. The vacuum, though, affords her something to lean against, something to help take the pressure off her back and knees and hips and ankles.
Rarely does clean-up take less than an hour. Everything is thoroughly cleaned. The vacuum stays at one point for two or three seconds at a stretch, giving it more time to pull dirt and whatnot from the shag carpet. With so little dirt accumulating between cleanings, however, it’s difficult to the untrained eye to tell what’s just been cleaned. She knows, though. She can tell. She doesn’t miss a square inch of exposed carpet either. The counters in the kitchen are handled in much the same fashion, each swipe of the sponge taking several seconds to get from one side to the other, every portion of the counter receiving some cleaner. Glenn Junior has said a few times that her counters are clean enough to eat off of, though he’s never tried to do that himself. Perhaps today, she thinks, but she knows better. When she’s finished, the counters are the pristine white of tofu.
Making herself ready comes next. This part she takes seriously, and the time she spends doing it, she considers well spent. The shower has a removable hand-held head; Glenn Junior had it installed around the time of her first hip replacement, when the family was told standing in the shower for her would be a chore. There’s a bench seat in there as well, and all of her extra needs—soap and shampoo and such—are at arm level. Her shower today, as it has for as long as she can remember, takes fifteen minutes. It would be shorter but she shampoos her hair twice, deliberately. She is proud of her hair, in no small part because it has not grayed, and she fears that if she cared for it less it would be. No one has bothered to tell her otherwise.
In the bedroom afterwards, she dresses—a simple floral-print dress that stops somewhere mid-shin, the way her father would approve of—and does her make-up. She has a proper vanity in one corner of her bedroom, and a stool that is more comfortable than it looks. Glenn Senior made them both himself—he made most of the wood furnishings in the home—but the original stool had no padding on it, something Glenn Junior, or more specifically Lexy, corrected at the same time the bench seat and removable shower head were put in. All these years later the seat has not lost its plump. Granted, enough padding was installed that it was going to be comfortable for a good long while anyway, but it hasn’t shown any signs of breaking down yet, and because of that the vanity stool has become one of her favorite places in the house. Mrs. Havermill only weighs ninety pounds soaking wet; when she sits on the stool, it doesn’t even sigh.
Layering of make-up is not something she does. She doesn’t think she needs to. All her life she’s been told she’s pretty, and while she doesn’t completely agree—she’s much too modest for that—she doesn’t think she needs to pile make-up on her face to look good or even passable. Her skin is clear, something she attributes to a reasonably healthy diet and the lack of any harmful vices. A light blush and maybe some eyeliner is all she does. She doesn’t like seeing women who are basically all make-up. The last time she was at the senior center she saw a couple of women who were a base of white away from looking like clowns.
Later, when everyone has left, she will reflect on this morning, on its quiet, its calm, and think how nice it was. She has forgotten that this morning is, in every respect except for the phone call and impending family visit, identical to the morning of the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. Those days, as this one, she had her coffee, she vacuumed, she showered, dressed, and sat at her vanity. Last evening, and the evenings before that, she reflected on the morning, their quiet, their calm, and thought how nice it was. This happens every day. She is unaware of this.
— ◊ —
In what seems like no time, Glenn Junior and his family are there. It seems like no time because it was: the process of showering, dressing, and making herself up takes two hours total, including the commute time. She was only in her comfy chair for five minutes when the door opened. They let themselves in; Glenn Junior has had a key since Glenn Senior passed away, and he is well aware that if he were to knock and wait it would be upwards of five minutes before she answers the door. In summer they wouldn’t mind so much, but it’s Christmas Day, fifteen degrees out and six inches of snow on the ground, so entering unannounced—which she’s used to anyway—causes no drama.
She smiles as the children come through first, shouting “Grandma! Grandma!” as they run toward her. Glenn Glenn jumps on her lap and hugs her so tight she may burst, while Molly grabs her arm from where it sits on the armrest and squeezes like a human blood pressure machine. Lexy is through next, covered casserole in hands, and she scolds the children gently, “Now, now, children, not so rough on her, she’s not so strong, you know.” Mrs. Havermill sees Glenn Junior nod from the doorway and disappear back outside, probably going after more food. Glenn Glenn has started rattling off what Santa brought him for Christmas in that breathless way that eight-year-olds do, fast enough that she can’t keep up; she thinks she hears him say “toy train set” but she isn’t sure. Molly is, as she usually is, drowned out by her older brother but she seems content just holding on to her grandmother’s arm. The children are carrying no food, and in the rush of her grandson’s words she struggles to remember why—ah, yes. At Thanksgiving, Glenn Glenn dropped the dish with the hot buttered corn in it. It took two times with a rented carpet shampoo machine to get all the butter out.
Now Glenn Junior comes back in, two dishes stacked one atop the other. Lexy heads back outside, and as Glenn Junior passes by he tells Glenn Glenn to get off his grandmother and come and help. The boy does with a promise of, “I’ll be right back, Grandma,” and is out the front door as fast as he came through it. Molly squeezes her arm a little harder and says a faint something that she doesn’t quite catch. She smiles at the girl and tries to remember the last time she heard the girl’s voice. Was it Thanksgiving? Over the summer holiday? This time last year? She can’t recall. She pats Molly on the shoulder, guessing but not knowing that this little bit of emotional nourishment is more than she’s gotten all day, thanks to Glenn Glenn, and is more than she usually receives.
The door opens again. The cold makes Molly shiver. She lets go of her grandmother and runs off toward the bedroom, probably to sit on the vanity stool. Glenn Glenn is carrying a vegetable platter with plastic wrap on. “Look, Grandma,” he says on his way past her. Glenn Junior, carrying two more casseroles, closes the front door with a foot and stamps the snow from his boots. It’s then she notices that Glenn Glenn didn’t do the same, and tracked snow some three feet into the center of the living room. Glenn Junior grunts an apology as he goes by her and a second later the room is quiet again. All of the noise is contained in the kitchen, most of it coming from Glenn Glenn. She takes a moment to savor it. She loves her family, truly, but every now and again she thinks it’d be nicer if they—Glenn Glenn particularly—were at half volume. Ah, well. The boy will grow out of it. He’ll be sullen in no time. Glenn Junior was moody as all get out as a teenager, and Glenn Glenn is just showing off for Grandma.
As soon as Glenn Glenn hits her lap again he’s back to talking about his Christmas gifts, how cool they all are, what all of the special features are. He speaks so fast his words seem to blend together. There are syllables in his words somewhere, but where exactly is hard to say. Glenn Glenn speaks for a minute before Lexy re-enters the room and tells him to get off his grandmother and go and sit on the couch. He does with a sneer on his face that he thinks she doesn’t notice, and no sooner does he get there than he complains about what’s on the television. Mrs. Havermill turned it on in the few minutes between getting ready and their arrival, but can’t honestly say she’s given it any attention. It came on to a wildlife special, Tigers of the African Veldt, which is still playing. Apparently it doesn’t meet Glenn Glenn’s approval because nobody’s dying or getting cut up and no athletes are involved. What he doesn’t know is that two minutes after the channel is changed, which will happen shortly, graphic footage of an adult male tiger attacking and killing a male cub will be shown. Had he seen it, Glenn Glenn would have been amazed, but with his complaining Mrs. Havermill is considering shutting the thing off.
Sitting next to her son, Lexy tells Glenn Glenn to be quiet again. He does, and the next thing said comes from the television: “The tigress bears three cubs, two females and a male.” Mrs. Havermill is lost in thought for a moment. She and Glenn had but one child, Glenn Junior, and lost two others in utero, both girls. She thinks from time to time how things would have been different had those children survived. How would they have been treated? Would I have raised them well? More people for the holidays, anyway, and somewhere in the middle of that thought she realizes that Lexy has asked her something. Mrs. Havermill mutters an apology. “I said, how are you feeling today?” Oh, pretty good, hips are feeling much better today but the knees still don’t like the cold. “Have you thought any more about what we talked about at Thanksgiving? The people at the facility are really good. They can help you manage your pain a little better.” She’s heard this before. She’s not in much pain, she says, which is more or less true; the problem is not pain, the problem is age, and no doctor can reverse that. Besides, my Glenn wouldn’t like it if I left this house, she says.
Further discussion is lost to the sudden appearance and accompanying blare of football on the television. Glenn Junior is in the other recliner—how did that happen? He isn’t known for his stealth—and has the remote control in his hands. Both women look at him while Glenn Glenn cheers at the sight of twenty-two heavily-padded college students running into each other, not knowing or caring much who the teams are. Lexy sighs; she’s not much into sports. Mrs. Havermill just looks at him, at the way he is sitting in the chair, his posture, how his arms sit on the armrests, the slightly cocked way he holds the can of beer he’s drinking. She sees this and thinks, That’s my Glenn, every bit of him, identical down to the DNA.
A moment later, Molly reenters the room. Her grandmother is the only one to notice this, and that only because she was looking in the general direction of the kitchen. Molly is carrying a small glass of orange juice, which she sips from as she takes a seat on the floor in front of her grandmother, so close that the older woman can braid the child’s hair. Glenn Glenn is the next one to notice the glass of juice, although he doesn’t do that until the next commercial break five minutes later. In the interim, Molly sits quietly, sipping, pretending to pay attention to the game but more focused on a wicker basket halfway between her and the television. The basket contains an array of magazines, National Geographic, Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, none of which the five-year-old can understand or truly appreciate but all of which hold more intrigue to her than the twenty-two heavily-padded college students running into each other on the television. Mrs. Havermill knows the girl wants to pick up one of the magazines and flip through it. She also knows what will happen after that: Glenn Junior will tell Molly to leave the magazines alone, Glenn Glenn will make a snide comment and go after the juice, Molly will run for cover, probably into the bedroom, and Lexy will sit passively watching this happen. Knowing this, she is silently wishing Molly would just reach for a magazine, partly to just get the scene over with—it would happen at some point anyway—and partly because it would amuse her more than the football game, which doesn’t.
Someone on the field calls time out, the network cuts to commercial, and Molly reaches for the basket. She pulls out the magazine on top, the previous month’s National Geographic, sits back in front of her grandmother, and flips the magazine open. “Dad,” Glenn Glenn says, “Molly’s gotten into the magazines again. And she’s got some juice.” The boy leans forward but he’s moved less than six inches when Lexy puts an arm in front of him. He stops, casts a glance at his mother that is distinctly lacking in fear, and sits back into the sofa. “That’s not fair,” he says. “Molly gets away with everything because she’s a girl.” Molly has paid none of this any attention, engrossed instead by an article about the bald eagle. Her grandmother watches all of this intently, marveling at how much she misread the situation.
The oven timer goes off just then. “Let’s eat,” Glenn Junior says, and stands up. Glenn Glenn bounces off the sofa and runs into the dining room before anyone else can even get up. Lexy scurries after her son, Molly close behind. Mrs. Havermill struggles to rise from her comfy chair; by the time she does, Glenn Junior has already gone into the dining room too. She is alone. This doesn’t surprise her. She starts the commute to the kitchen and gets maybe a third of the way there when Lexy reappears. Glenn Junior has taken over the turkey carving duties, and she has come to help Mrs. Havermill. Lexy takes her by the arm and elbow. Better balanced and supported, she can move quicker. When she is seated thirty seconds later, Glenn Junior has already started eating and Glenn Glenn is serving himself. Molly is sitting patiently. Mrs. Havermill frowns and sits at the head of the table. She doesn’t like sitting there—that spot was Glenn’s.
As the meal progresses, three things becomes more evident: one, that Glenn Junior’s iron-fisted control over his family is still in place; two, that Glenn Glenn, following his father’s example, has quashed Molly’s spirit to the point where the girl is afraid to do anything at all; and three, Lexy knows both of these things. The second point is illustrated almost as soon as grace is over. Molly and Glenn Glenn are seated next to each other, opposite their mother. Near the center of the table is a basket of rolls. Molly takes one and puts it on her plate but as she’s reaching for the butter Glenn Glenn takes the roll, licks it, and puts it back with a laugh. Molly starts crying. Glenn Junior slams his knife down. “You will not cry at the dinner table, young lady. Or would you like to be disciplined again?” Glenn Glenn laughs longer. Lexy throws Glenn Junior a scowl. He looks in her direction with a challenging sneer and returns to his turkey. Mrs. Havermill frowns and says nothing, and wonders how Molly manages to eat anything aside from what the boy doesn’t like, like broccoli.
She will reflect on all of this again later, when they’re gone, with some sadness. What she doesn’t know, can’t possibly know, is that Molly will eventually be a senator. Glenn Glenn will not finish high school, and will struggle to support himself as an adult. Had she known this then, she would have smiled. At the moment she says nothing, and swallows a pill.
— ◊ —
Soon, the meal is done. Molly manages to eat something, timing her bites to her brother’s so that he would be occupied. Lexy’s scowl, while it lightened slightly, does not entirely go away. Neither Glenn Junior nor Glenn Glenn says anything else. Glenn Junior leaves the table as soon as he finishes and goes back into the living room to watch the football. Glenn Glenn follows suit a minute later. Mrs. Havermill is barely halfway through her plate. Molly starts eating more then, but Mrs. Havermill can see clearly now the puffiness around the girl’s eyes. She must cry a lot, Mrs. Havermill thinks. Poor girl.
“How would it be,” Lexy says then, “if I left? Just walked out. Took Molly, packed up our troubles, and left. He’s your son, I know, but he’s just—terrible. I don’t recognize him anymore. And he lets Glenn Glenn get away with anything. Won’t discipline him at all. Won’t hear of it. Doesn’t defend Molly. Doesn’t let me defend her. And I— think I’ve had enough. I really do. The kind, generous man I married is just—gone now, and I— I—”
Eileen thinks for a moment, about what Lexy is saying, about whether or not Glenn Junior had always been that way. She hadn’t disciplined him much growing up either, she knows this. A lot of it she had written off to boys being boys but—was it really? Glenn never did any disciplining. Usually he just laughed whenever Glenn Junior did anything wrong, wrote off his bad grades to hyperactivity, something that was perfectly normal and to be expected. When any punishments needed to be handed out, though, he wasn’t around, and when he was he countermanded anything Eileen did. She thinks about this for a long moment, then she puts her hand on top of Lexy’s, and tries to fill her with calm.
“Use the back door. I’ll send out Molly.” She squeezes. A tear goes down Lexy’s face. “Go. Out the back door.”
She gives Lexy a hug—a slight one; she isn’t all that strong—and goes back into the living room. Glenn Glenn has taken her comfy chair. Molly has the sofa to herself. Glenn Junior is back in the recliner he had been in earlier. She sits down next to Molly and whispers into her ear to go into the kitchen, quickly. Molly jumps up and runs into the next room. Mrs. Havermill rises, goes over in front of her comfy chair, and stands there in front of it. Glenn Glenn tilts to one side and then the other. “Jeez, Grandma, you’re blocking the view of the television.” She doesn’t move, looking down on him and frowning a little. “What? You move your feet, you lose your seat. Everybody knows that.” Her frown grows slightly. “Dad, I think Grandma’s having an issue or something. She won’t move.”
Eileen smiles as the sound of a motor starting came from outside. Glenn Junior sat up quickly. “What the hell?” He scans the room and a look of shock comes onto his face. “Lexy?” He runs to the front door and flings it open. “Goddammit!” Glenn Glenn stands up and squeezes around his grandmother to get to the front door. She sits down in her comfy chair, picks up the remote, and changes the channel back to the wildlife program. From outside the cursing grows fainter and fainter; she guesses Glenn Junior was chasing after the minivan. A couple of minutes later he comes back inside, breathing hard, his face red from the cold and the exertion, holding an icicle in his hand like a shiv.
“Do you know anything about this?” he says to Glenn Glenn. The boy shakes his head and backs away from his father, a frightened look on his face. “What about you?” he says to his mother. “Do you know what this is about?” She smiles. Glenn Junior kneels down in front of her. “I said,” he says, his mouth barely opening, “do you know what this is about?” She keeps smiling. She saw this anger in him as a child and caved. Now, she wasn’t going to. He grabs her by the arms. “Do you think this is funny?” Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Glenn Glenn scamper to the nearest thing to higher ground he can find: the sofa.
“This is funny.” The smile, if anything, widens. “And sad. I thought I raised you better than this. Turns out I didn’t. You have no idea how disappointing that is.” Glenn Junior lets go of her then and storms out the front door. Glenn Glenn still has the terrified look on his face. “You should catch up to him.” The boy was gone a moment later. She stands up and walks to the door. By the time she gets there, they are out of sight. She closes it, and the sound of the latch catching is the most satisfying sounds she’s heard since her youth.
One day later, a delivery man shows up at Mrs. Havermill’s front door with a bouquet of flowers. The card reads: “Thank you, thank you, thank you. We’ll be in touch as soon as we’re safe. Lexy and Molly.” In time, Lexy will remarry and Molly comes to regard her new stepfather as more of a father than her real one. They only see Glenn Junior once more in their lives, at a child support hearing held before Lexy remarried. He will glower at the pair of them but neither one will care.
But that day, after everyone is gone, Mrs. Havermill does little else. She sits in front of the television and learns more about the Tigers of the African Veldt, about how they were dying out due to encroachment by humans onto their land and climate change shrinking the space where food could be found. She feels sad about this too, because tigers deserve better. Everyone deserves better. But she is no help in their survival, nor they hers, so she does nothing but mourn for a moment and then consider—
Eileen Havermill never gets that far. It is ten days before she is discovered. The mailbox gets full to overflowing and the mailman, meaning well, comes to her front door to see if there was a note or anything. It opens when he knocks, and both the sight and smell of her makes him gag. What was unmistakable, though, was the smile on her face, happy, inviting, warm.
© Peter Barlow March 2017
Bio: Peter Barlow’s work has appeared in Rosebud, The MacGuffin, The Homestead Review, The Louisiana Review, Underground Voices, and Per Contra. He received his MFA Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He is an adjunct professor of English at University of Detroit-Mercy.
email: barlow.submit at gmail.com
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