Thursday, March 13, 2008

SHUT-INS by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

It's hard to get used to the centenarians; their faces are no more lined than someone in a really bad mood; they can rise from chairs as fast as the newly retired; they don't like it when I let myself in or suggest in any way that there is something they cannot do for themselves.

Sweet Millie has just finished reading Chekov's plays—for a third time. Though I drive the bookmobile, I haven't read anything more meaningful than the backs of cereal boxes since I arrived in Betty's Cove.

"Do you know where I was when this play was written?" she asks.

Millie’s hands, gripping the white book, remind me of tissue paper my grandma wrapped presents in, pink and delicate.

"I was entering the world, honey."

The date on that Chekov volume is 1904. One hundred years ago.

"The world has changed a lot since then, eh?"

"Out there it has," she says, pointing through her window at the sparkling harbor. Millie's husband died nearly thirty years ago. Her only daughter died last year at the age of eighty. Eighty!

"Oona," she says after I have declined tea and made sure she got the nicer copy of Madame Bovary, "Do you know that unmarried women live longer?"

The sun-dappled water outside her window is hypnotic. I have come to imagine that the inside of my husband Robert's head is like this placid flush of water, an eternal cove off the ocean where he rows in circles, waiting to awake.

"I didn't know that, Millie." I find myself saying her name often; I like the feeling of it in my mouth. For someone who is used to having people tilt their heads curiously at me when I offer mine, these wonderful hundred year-old names are a pleasure.

"My daughter was married five times. Can you imagine so many weddings? I only went to three—the three men I liked the most," says Millie, her delicate salon-given white curls jiggling. "She lived her whole life serving those men."

I’ve edged my way nearly out the front door, which is when Millie gets talkative. If not for the sunrises and sunsets, I think she would have no sense of time.

"Maybe you could stay here in Nova Scotia," she says then, braiding her fingers together. "It would be good for your peace-of-mind."

"It's worth a thought, Millie." One thought, which I’ve had many times over: I can't stay here much longer. Even if Robert himself were to die in my absence, we can't afford a stable-manager permanently; I'm using up our savings paying the temporary one. I miss the horses, anyway.

"See you next Saturday!"

Millie smiles at me and I close her door behind me, comforted by the bite of fishy-salt air in my nose. My sister, Lulu who has no love for him, not even now that he is as harmless as a baby, refers to him as "dope-on-a-rope." Sometimes, I even laugh. He's fed by IV and stomach tube. Some tired night nurse gets the task of moving his limbs around to stave off permanent atrophy. The cranky doctor calls me every week to report that his stats are all the same. His brain activity indicates that he could snap out of his coma any second. Or not.

Lulu convinced me to join her up here where she’s studying the unusually high numbers of centenarians in Betty's Cove, Halifax on a federal grant. I took the fine job of delivering books to the shut-ins rather than sitting around all day, hypnotized by the water's suggestion that I dive in, never to resurface. Lulu hates it when I call them the shut-ins, but this is what they call themselves.

It only took three days of him lying there, immobile and pale, for me to realize that I had rarely gotten to take such a close look at my husband's face and body. He was always in motion, taking some new horse out or working in the stables with such determined action that I didn't dare try to get close to him. And of course, there were all those other times when I did nothing but try to get away from his fists or the sheer bulk of his body which, when thrust against me, had the force of two men. He was good at knocking me down, and only because my fear kept me on the plump side did I keep from breaking ribs or wrists or any of the other delicate bones that are Lulu and my heritage.

Robert has a funky oblong mole at the top of his right temple for instance, just under the hairline so you can barely see it. Like a target.

Hedda always wants to know about my family—so I’ve gotten good at lying. She's one of the few centenarians whose memory really is in decline.

Today her little dome is capped in Lucille Ball style copper waves. She has an entire closet of wigs, at least thirty. She likes to show them off, as if she made them herself. She wears her husband's boots and three layers of thick socks to make them stay on. This would, perhaps, seem funny to some, but to me it makes perfect sense, and though she has to hobble around her house in those heavy shoes, I think I would do the same thing.

"Honey, how many sisters do you have?" She beckons me to open the wig cabinet.

"Just one," I say, though Lulu is ambitious enough for three sisters. As I open it, mannequin heads spill out, bonking into things, the wigs in a tussle on the floor.

"Oh dear," she says, wringing her tiny fingers. "I have been getting so clumsy."

I pat her shoulder kindly, thinking, you don't know clumsy. Clumsy is a man who grew up with horses, who worked with them all of his thirty-six years, standing on the mounting stool one year ago, throwing his muscular leg over Dorsey, a tall, chestnut stallion, a gesture he has made thousands upon thousands of times. Except this time he has thrown back too many shots of whiskey and has just finished shouting, "I won’t bring more of your fucked up genes into the world.” I’m red-eyed and sore at two spots above my breasts where he grabbed my shoulders and shook me for emphasis.

Not watching what he is doing, concentrating too much energy on shooting me a nasty glare, he doesn't notice Dorsey catch sight of his mortal enemy Pal, another macho stallion. If he had been paying attention to the horse and not glaring at me, Robert would not have been half-on when Dorsey bucked at Pal. He would not have fallen backwards in a twist, would not have hit the new wooden fence behind him, would not be in coma.

Hedda pinches my cheek. "You must not have slept well either, eh?" she says, calling me back.

Hedda requested The Death of Ivan Iliyich, which we had to get on interlibrary loan since the last copy of it made its way into the harbor when the reader "was taken up by God" according to the Betty's Cove librarian. Lulu clarified for me: "Mr. Watson had a heart attack."

"All of us girls started to go bald at the age of forty-five. Such a curse," Hedda says.

"Yes, that's what you said," I remind her. I don't mean to get impatient with her, but in the month I've been shepherding books around she's told me the same ten or fifteen facts about her life over and over again.

"Your sisters don't have this trouble," she laments, forgetting I have only one and gripping a strand of my long non-descript hair. Hairdressers are kind to me, they tell me it's "dark blonde" but I know dishwater when I see it, and no matter what Lulu-of-the-golden-curls says, it didn't take Robert to make me believe this.

"Your wigs are lovely, though.”

Hedda smiles like a little girl who has just gotten a kitten. She pats her hair.

"They are, aren't they? Willard was ashamed that I had no hair, but I told him ‘Willard, I may not have any hair but I'm the prettiest thing you've ever had walking at your side, now aren't I?’ And Willard never could argue with me there. His girlfriend before me had moles covering her face and a mustache that she had to bleach twice a week."

The girlfriend gets slightly more repugnant each time Hedda tells it, reinventing her past to suit her.

I am too tired to really get to know the centenarians, though I realize that each one of these people is like a library unto themselves. There are wars and family secrets, traditions passed down and special remedies I could learn if I only asked. But I ask only the things that help my sister in her work: their history of disease, how many siblings they had, how many children, and I am working up to asking them if there are any benefits to living so long.

Lulu is a corpse at the end of the day just like our father used to be, except she doesn't help it along with a bottle of red wine.

"Nothing new from Hedda," I tell her. "She's starting to repeat herself more and more."

Lulu shakes her head as if I have been a very bad research assistant. I know she's not really relying on me, that she'll go back for any information she doesn't get, but I do like to feel useful.

"Hedda is one-hundred and four—the oldest."

"Do you think it's their diet, the ocean air?" I ask.

Lulu bites her lip. She is always careful about saying what she thinks unless she has the hard facts to back it up. But I can tell she's worn down by something, maybe having me around.

"You know what I think? I think the women live longer up here because their husbands died," she says.

"That’s cynical! Are you and Lars fighting?"

"Lars and I only do two things: fight and fuck.”

My forty year-old sister suddenly looks eighteen again, or maybe I'm just flashing back to when she left home, me just barely fourteen, alone with daddy and his fits and mother, who took pills first just to sleep and then for good.

"You know, Oona, you could just take a pillow to his face and it would all be over. Done."

"Lu you don't mean that."

"Tell me Mom wasn't happier after Daddy died? Tell me we weren't all happier!"

"You were," I say.

My sister shakes her head. She has always walked a fine line with me. She can't get too angry at me; that was Daddy's job. She has to protect me, even from herself.

"Oona, what if he wakes up and goes right back to being his old bastard self!"

I stand up and back out of the room the way I used to back away from our father, leaving Lulu to weather the first blows.

“Coward!” she cries out. Though I hate her for saying it, oh how right she is.

I leave the cottage to the sound of her frustrated groan. I walk to the docks and listen to the wind through the sails, things rattling and banging, the water splishing at the bottoms of the boats. It would be so easy to drown. You wouldn't even have to try, just open up your mouth and swallow too much water. It would be easy to finish it off for Robert, for me. A pillow over his face. He probably wouldn't even buck or kick.

The thing is, Lulu doesn't realize that I'm not waiting for Robert to wake up. And if he does, I'm not waiting for him to have one of those change-of-personality situations.

It's just nice to be in control for a change.

People always want to know how a nice girl gets hooked up with a bad boy. They always think the fault lies in the abuser because he's the easiest one to pin down, what with all his fits of rage and his physicality. They want to believe in innocence and evil the way I want to believe that just because you live to be a hundred years old, you are wiser than the rest of us.

One month is not long enough to get attached. But Hedda's death still hurts because it is so sudden.

Hedda's niece from Miami is holding two wigs, sitting on her bed. Hedda's niece herself is seventy years old, and I realize she is coveting the wigs, not just admiring them.

"I don't suppose you'd like to read a copy of Great Expectations while you're here?" I ask.

The niece adjusts her glasses and sticks her finger in her ear.

"I'm sorry," she says. "This hearing aid is on the fritz. Must be the salt air. What did you say?"

"Books. Do you want a book to read? I'm here with the bookmobile. I used to deliver to Hedda."

The niece shakes her badly-dyed orange hair. "Oh god, no, my glaucoma makes reading a chore. Do you know where the funeral home is? I've only been up here once and I get so lost."

"I don't live here.”

"Oh," she says. "Well…" she tries to push up from the bed but fails.

Accustomed to letting the likes of Hedda and Millie help themselves I am surprised when the woman glares at me.

"Can you please give me a hand?"

I help her up and she shuffles out of the room calling after someone named Maury.

I am left with Dickens and a bed full of wigs. I have a very strong urge to hear Robert's voice, the tender way he clucked to the horses as he went to feed or groom them. He was wonderful with animals, it figures. A bunch of rangy goats, a handful of barn-fed cats and even one lonely lop-eared bunny are waiting for me back in Oregon. So is the silence, the dread of flat moments. No more highs and lows, just stillness and all the books I planned to read, now waiting for me, without excuses.

I lie back on Hedda's bed, but the smell of the comforter is sharp and fetid, reminding me of the physicality of her death. I hurry out and return to my sister's cottage. To my surprise she isn't bent over books or charts. She is stretched out on the ratty chaise lounge on the tiny deck. Her long blonde hair, usually up in a ratty frizz atop her head is down around her shoulders. She has rolled up her pant legs to let the weak sunlight dust them.

"Hedda passed," I say.

Lulu frowns but doesn't move. She tilts her head up to the sun. "One hundred and four," she says, in a tone of reverence. "That gives me sixty-four more years to live if I'm so lucky," she says.

"That doesn't sound like very much time all of a sudden," I say.

Lulu looks at me like I'm nuts, but then, I'm used to that.

"I'm going home, Lu."

"I'm surprised you stayed this long."

It's stupid to be offended, but I am. "Why?"

She crooks a pale eyebrow up at me.

"Come on Oona; I don't feel like doing this sister dance. We know how we are."

"Well maybe I don't know. Maybe you just assume I know."

Seagulls circle us and then scoot down to the water in the harbor. I'll miss this water.

"You are a glutton for punishment. You're terrified of being alone. And I prefer it that way.”

I don’t remind her that Robert is still alive.

"Do you really think unmarried women live longer?" I ask.

"Well," she says, stretching her arms overhead, "I guess I'll be the first to know."

"Hedda wore her husband's boots, you know. All the time. With layers of socks to make them fit."

Lulu frowns at this withheld detail. I knew she wouldn’t understand.

"So maybe the key is having lost a husband," she says.

"Or maybe it's having had one at all," I counter.

Lulu grimaces. "Right,” she says, all sarcasm.

"Will you feel gratified when you isolate the ingredient or gene or habit that makes these people live longer?"

The bark of seagulls sounds startlingly like horses whinnying.

"Sure," she says. "But most of science is about the pursuit of things, not the finding of them."

Usually I’m the resigned one. It’s amusing that for the first time in years, I feel hopeful.

"Well, I guess I should let the library know I'm leaving.”

She mumbles okay and I turn away from her to face the harbor, shaped like a horse-shoe, thinking it will be a long time before I see her again. She won’t miss me, not much. Not the way Robert missed me if I went to a horse show for a weekend. He would throw me to the bed with fierce passion if I was gone for more than a day and make love to me until our bodies were bruised and satiated.

I turn back to look at her, She is clutching her sides as if they hurt from laughing too hard.

“I’m not going home to go back to the way it was,” I say.

She waves her long fingers as if shooing off a small child. “You don’t have to justify it to me.”

She’s right. So I don’t tell her that what I look forward to most is riding Dorsey, the horse that set me free.


SHUT-INS earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Competition.


Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of two books for writers, Make a Scene, and with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life. She is a contributing editor and columnist for Writer's Digest magazine and a regular book reviewer for NPR-affiliate KQED Radio. She holds an MFA in creative writing and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars.