AN UNWELCOME IMAGE

By Francine Paino

 

 

Edie Morcan stopped next to the rocks in the strip between the sidewalk and the street. The heavy shopping bag in her left hand sent a message up her arm that said keeping walking, but the red silk scarf in the store window caught her eye.

“Red is not your color,” her mother always said. “You disappear behind it.”

Edie loved red anyway. She raised her eyes. The face peering back jolted her. For the first time she realized that she looked exactly like her mother, even down to the pattern of her greying hair.

She reached down for the nearest rock.

Edie walked home in a trance. As soon as she opened the front door the pounding of her mother’s cane greeted her. It punctuated the unrelenting buzzer. Thunk, thunk.  If I had thrown that rock I’d be in jail now. Then what would she have done?

“Edie, Edie. Where are you? I’m hungry.”

“Coming mother.” Edie sighed, deposited the heavy shopping bag on the kitchen table and hurried to her mother’s room. As soon as she opened the door her nose wrinkled at the musty smell that persisted in spite of her best efforts to keep the room clean and aired out.

“It’s one o’clock. You know I like to eat by half-past-noon. Where were you?”

“Running errands. You know. The drugstore, the post office, getting your brand of coffee.”

Her mother scowled. The mean look on her face was the familiar forerunner to what was coming.  “You should have gone earlier. Now help me out of this chair. I need to use the bathroom.”

Edie lowered her head and helped her mother out of the recliner, then returned to the kitchen to put away groceries. 

She heard her mother’s approach. Thunk, thunk, d-r-a-g-g-g. It sang its retribution as if Edie was the cause of Mrs. Morcan’s two strokes. The rhythm of the cane and the dragging foot brought hairs up on Edie’s arms. 

“I want a cheese sandwich for lunch with a cup of tea,” Mrs. Morcan ordered.

“Mother, would you like to sit at the table? It will take but a minute to prepare.”

“No. I’m going to watch my shows. Hurry up. I’ve waited long enough.”

Edie prepared lunch. The TV in her mother’s lair reached her ears but the shrill question was louder: “What’s taking you so long?”

Arrange the tray the way she likes it, Edie reminded herself:  Favorite doily. Good thing I remembered to buy more this morning. Knife, fork, spoon and teaspoon – even if she doesn’t need them. Good china sandwich plate, matching cup and saucer, sugar, lemon on its own little dish, creamer in its own china jug and a separate little plate for the tea bag. Edie looked over the tray to be sure everything was properly placed.  She carried it into the bedroom and set it on the little table next to the recliner, then stood back and waited while her mother scanned the tray.

“Harrumph.”

Relieved that there were no complaints, Edie turned to leave. She looked forward to a few hours of peace and quiet – but not yet.

“You are a homely thing. Forty-one years old, no skills, no attributes, no interests and no husband, but who would marry you anyway?”

Edie’s step faltered; she knew better than to answer.

The old woman kept talking. “When I was young, I had men eating out of my hand, especially your father.”  She continued matter-of-factly “When I found out I was pregnant I wanted to abort but ‘No,’ said he. ‘Let’s have a child.’ That was one of the few battles I ever lost with him, so here you are, a useless pain in my butt all your life.”

Edie’s mother never cussed; she considered that unladylike. “Then I wanted to send you to boarding school but again he refused. Ugh! The man was a fool, but he made money.”

The cane with its brass eagle’s head stood in the corner. I could smash her face to a pulp.  Instead Edie walked out of the room. Tears streamed down her face.  She wanted to abort me. That was a new little gem. Why am I surprised? Her hands trembled as she put away the shopping and pulled out chicken cutlets for dinner. She’s right. I am nothing. I have been her servant for twenty-four years.

When Edie was a child her mother had a constant stream of lady friends, bridge and gardening clubs. She hired sitters for those days. When luncheons were held at the Morcan house, Mrs. Morcan laid out the dresses she wanted Edie to wear. The sitters received detailed instructions about when to bring the child out to greet her guests. Heaven help the sitter who didn’t perform the choreographed episode exactly as planned – she was fired. Heaven help Edie if she forgot how to greet her mother’s guests – “Good morning Mrs. Whoever. I’m Edith Morcan. I hope you have a lovely afternoon.”

Edie’s father was a self-employed accountant and often worked into the night. When he was home, there was either silence between her parents or the sound of angry, muffled words from their bedroom. Her memories of her father were bittersweet and often brought her to tears. She missed him terribly.

Her father lavished affection on her. He was the parent who took her out for ice-cream or to a museum or a movie.  His death was sudden and unexpected. Heart attack, they said. He was fifty-seven when he died and Edie was seventeen. 

Her dad wanted Edie to go away to college, against her mother’s wishes.

“She needs to become a proficient home maker if she’s ever to find a husband,” was her mother’s acerbic reply. “Besides, her marks aren’t good enough for a decent school.”

Any remaining thoughts of going away ended the day her father’s will was probated. Mrs. Morcan had a stroke after hearing the shocking details of the will. That’s when Edie became her full-time servant. At that point, Edie lost contact with the few friends she had. Upon graduation from high school her friends left for colleges or got married and had their own families.

Now, here she was, forty-one years-old and alone; she wept at the thought. That night, lying in bed jumbled images of her past life went around in her head until she fell into a fitful sleep.

Thunk, thunk. Edie’s eyes flew open. The cane hit the floor; the buzzer penetrated her sleep and frayed her nerves. The digital clock said two. She sat up and listened.

Silence.

Without making a sound, Edie got out of bed and walked to her mother’s bedroom and listened. The rough, rhythmic snore left no question that her mother was asleep. Edie opened the door.  

On the dresser were pictures of Mrs. Morcan as a young woman, all of them before Edie’s birth; there were none of Edie or her father. Her mother was beautiful once. Edie looked at the face of wickedness in the bed, snuffling and snoring like a farmyard pig. She closed the door and returned to her own bed. At daylight she got up filled with a new resolve.

The buzzer, the cane, and Mrs. Morcan’s vicious words peppered Edie as she started her daily tasks. After helping her mother into the bathtub filled with bubbles, Edie stripped the bed, opened the windows to let in fresh spring air before remaking it with clean sheets, all the while ignoring the yells and demands coming from the bathroom. When the room was refreshed and ready, Edie made a quick phone call then helped her mother out of the tub, dried her and got her back into her room.

“It’s freezing in here. How many times must I tell you not to open my windows?” Edie didn’t reply. She placed a clean quilt over her mother’s legs, went to the kitchen and brought back the breakfast tray.

“I’m going out.” Edie talked fast, afraid she’d lose her nerve. “Be back by lunch.”

“You did your errands yesterday, where do you think you’re going?”

“I forgot the salad.” 

“Liar,” her mother yelled but Edie walked out the front door. 

She stopped briefly at Dr. Andresol’s office then headed to her intended destination: the library’s computer bank. Her research didn’t take long. The information she wanted was easily accessible.  

At noon she returned to a quiet house. Maybe she’s napping. Edie opened the bedroom door. Her mother sat, arms folded, eyes glaring. “So, you came back. Where were you?”

“It’s a beautiful day. The air is crisp and dry. I walked all over town, picked up the salad and came home.”

“Get my lunch,” was all her mother said but Edie could see the question in her eyes.

Summer followed spring. The seasons changed but the harangues stayed the same. Edie bided her time. 

“Make me a martini,” her mother snapped, knowing this was against doctor’s orders.

“You aren’t supposed to drink alcohol with your medications.”

“Shut up and give me a drink. I’ll skip my medication tonight,” Mrs. Morcan snarled. Edie gave the usual arguments against having the drink which fueled her mother’s determination.

“How am I supposed to tolerate the sight of you without a drink?” Enough, Edie thought. She made the martini with a new recipe and carried it to her mother.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Veal Parmigiana. You like that.”

“Veal? Did you find money in the street? We can’t afford veal thanks to your father leaving most of his money to charity and only a small stipend to support me.”

“I know but it was on sale. It’s a nice treat.” Edie left and returned with the dinner tray.

Mrs. Morcan sipped the martini and made a face. “Too much lemon in here.”

“Do you want me to dilute it for you?” Edie asked, setting down the tray of food.

“Harrumph.”

“Maybe you should eat while the food is hot and not finish that.” She pointed to the martini.  

Her mother glared defiantly, drained her glass and held it out for her daughter to take before she attacked the veal with gusto. Within an hour she was fast asleep.   

What a loathsome carcass. Edie poked her mother’s arm. No response. It was safe to search the desk and files in her mother’s room. It didn’t take long to locate the papers.

The next morning the buzzer rang non-stop. Edie was awake and ready. She ran to her mother’s room. “Are you okay?”

“How could you let me sleep in this chair all night?” her mother screamed at her. “Run my bath. My head is killing me and so is my back. You miserable excuse for a daughter.” She tried to push herself out of the chair but faltered. Edie reached out to steady her. 

“I’ll settle you in the bath but I’m calling Dr. Andresol. I hope you’re not coming down with a cold or something.”

“If I am, then you brought it in here. How else would I get it?”

Later in the day, Dr. Andresol sat in the kitchen with Edie. “There’s nothing wrong with her other than she shouldn’t have had a martini last night. Even when she skips a dose these medications have a cumulative effect. I think a good night’s sleep is all she needs.” The doctor paused. “Did the sleeping pills I prescribed help you?”

“Yes. All the difference in the world. Thank you.”

“I know she’s difficult. Why don’t you get someone in to help? You need a break.”

“The one time I suggested that she threw a fit. Anyway, it would cost more that we could afford.” Edie smiled. “I’ll be okay.”

At the door, Dr. Andresol squeezed her shoulder. “She’s lucky to have a daughter like you.”

“Thank you doctor.”

Yes. She’s lucky all right.

Soon after the martini incident, Edie bought a large plastic planter. She sneaked into the house and set it in her own bathroom. Her mother never went in there. A few days later, she pushed a heavy bag of potting soil through her bedroom window at the back of the house.

Summer melted into fall and winter followed. A dismal Christmas passed.

Thunk, thunk, the sound of the cane and the irritating buzzer never stopped. The calmer Edie became the more irate her mother grew but the routines, the cane and the buzzer never changed.

Mornings were filled with heavy lifting: getting her mother in and out of the tub, cleaning the house, changing the bed linens and serving meals, all to the beat of her Mrs. Morcan’s constant tirades. Occasionally Edie broke up half-doses of the sleeping pills and mashed them in her mother’s lunch.

“Thank you Dr. Andresol,” she dared to whisper aloud.

In those peaceful afternoon hours Edie spent time in her bathroom nurturing the plant that grew in the warm, moist atmosphere. It required careful attention and as per the warning she always wore heavy gloves to feed and water it. Worried that it wasn’t getting enough light, Edie kept the bathroom lights on all day.

Within a few weeks the greenish berries turned a rich black color. The instructions said the berries were to be gently squeezed into a closed container.  Can’t have these juices squirting all over the place.  It’s such a pretty plant. She was almost sorry it would soon be destroyed.

* * *

The March wind howled outside. Grey light filtered into the window. Edie opened her eyes. The house was silent. No cane, no buzzer, no screaming. She walked to her mother’s room.

Mrs. Morcan lay on her back, eyes closed, mouth hanging open. Her chest didn’t move. Edie held a mirror under her nose. There was no vapor. She wet a tissue and wiped away the whitish dribble at the corner of her mother’s mouth, then picked up the dinner tray and went to the kitchen. Using protective gloves, she washed, dried and put away the dishes and the glass, washed the tray and placed it on its rack.  She checked her mother once more then called the police and Dr. Andresol.

“I’m sorry my dear, but she’s gone,” the doctor said.

“I did my best to care for her.”

“You did. She was lucky to have you.”

The Medical Examiner called the doctor to the hallway. Edie stayed in the kitchen and offered the policewoman and an EMS technician coffee. A few tears squeezed out from under her eyelids.

“Can we do anything for you?” the officer asked. She shook her head.

Dr. Andresol walked into the kitchen, followed by the M.E. “He asked if you want an autopsy.”

“If he feels it’s necessary,” she answered, her heart skipping a beat. The Medical Examiner stepped up.

“As long as Dr. Andresol signs the death certificate I don’t think an autopsy necessary on a seventy-eight year-old woman with a history of cardiovascular disease and strokes – unless you want it done.”

“What do you think, Dr. Andresol?”

The doctor looked at her and smiled. “I’ll sign the death certificate.”

Relief flooded her. She had checked the state laws on deaths at home. If the person’s physician was in attendance and there was a history of illness, autopsies were not always required.

Edie returned home in the dark. One night of viewing for appearances sake was enough since there was no one else to mourn her mother. Almost done. Mother’s cremation is tomorrow. She turned on lights in the kitchen and poured a glass of wine but thought better of it. I need to take care of business.   

Pulling on her heavy gloves, she yanked the plant out by its roots and placed it in a doubled plastic bag then soaked it with the recommended herbicide. The dirt was thrown into another doubled lawn and leaf bag and for good measure she poured herbicide there too. In went the planter, broken into small pieces. Edie looked at the dreaded buzzer waiting its turn. She slammed the hammer on it over and over and threw the shattered instrument into the bag.

After everything was done she scrubbed her bathroom from top to bottom then discarded the gloves she wore. For safety she used another pair to tape the bags and put them in the trunk of her car. Tomorrow they will be gone too. 

 

* * *

Spring arrived with the smell of new growths and fresh, balmy air. Edie stopped in front of the store window and admired a red silk shawl. A nice looking brunette with a stylish haircut smiled back at her. She was pleased with her new look. The shawl was expensive, but she didn’t care, the feel of the cashmere was luxurious. Edie went home with her new purchase and copies of the completed deed transfer in her hand.

“Put it on the market immediately,” she told the real-estate agent. The sooner it’s sold the better.

She hung up the phone and turned to the fancy shopping bag on the kitchen table, lifted the shawl out of its tissue paper and wrapped it around her shoulders, caressing the wool and admiring herself in the mirror.

In spite of the warm air, Edie made a fire in the living room fireplace, something her mother never allowed. Taking a glass of wine, she sat on the couch and stared into the flames. Visions of a little apartment in another town and a new life danced in her head. She didn’t remember ever feeling so relaxed. Her face muscles pulled into a smile. A soothing pre-sleep twilight descended like a velvet blanket.

In spite of the fire there was a sudden chill in the air. Edie snuggled deep into the new shawl. Still smiling she leaned her head back on the cushions. Her eyelids closed.

Thunk, thunk, d-r-a-g-g-g, echoed through the house.



Francine Paino’s previous credits include a humorous essay, “Supermarket Nightmare,” published in the  February, 2015 edition of Funny Times.  In  2011 “To Live and Die for Dance,” a YA mystery novel won recognition in the Purple Dragonfly Book Contest, the Hollywood Book Festival and the Millennium Book Contest, and “Ivan’s Double Life,” a short mystery story won First Place in California’s Foster City Writers’ Contest in 1997.
Copyright 2015 Francine Paino. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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