Linda Barnhart

You can only make things right with some people in your dreams. I had this happen the other night. A woman I fell out with, hadn’t seen in years, she looked me up, (in the dream) dropped by my apartment. We sat around drinking coffee, talking about the crap we used to pull and what had come between us – a man. What else? In the morning I woke up feeling calm, at peace, as if everything had been settled with the two of us. Now I’m waiting for this to happen with my mother.

She had a few strange ideas, some real doozies, my mum, like Americans bathe too much. No, she wasn’t from Europe. Western Pennsylvania. Her whole family worked in a brewery out there.

“That’s what perfume’s for,” she’d say. Anything in an amethyst bottle would do. And if it had the name of a dead movie star on it – better yet. As a parent she had some issues. The woman could hold a grudge up close and under her like an egg that was never going to hatch. But I don’t know where I’d be without her. She schooled me in the art of survival and I don’t mean stockpiling rice and shooting guns. It was more of an apprenticeship, a gateway to this life I’ve been leading – swindling churches.

I’ve been through them all. Methodists, Episcopalians – easy pickings, especially the Episcopalians, Lutherans sometimes, but depending on the area, they can be hard to read. You hit that wall of Teutonic resistance. Presbyterians are more work but not as difficult as the Baptists. Lately they’ve tightened the spigots on the hand-outs. There are companies that offer seminars on how not to fall prey to people like me. But if you can’t go in the front door, try the back, I always say. They might need a church secretary or a cleaning woman and then you can skim. My last gig was office manager for a faith based drug rehab center. I secured the position by telling them my daughter had a rare blood disorder, Myelodysplastic Syndrome and needed a bone marrow transplant. My net, from a combination of handouts and old fashioned embezzling, was seventy-four grand. I disappeared 3 counties north and across the Susquehanna after that one but I’m back on home turf again.

I think religion is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, devotion to ritual with no real proof of results. But hey, I’m not knocking it. I could say the same thing about dieting. Do I believe in God? I don’t know. Maybe. With what I’ve been through, believe me, I could go either way. But I get it. I do. I understand. A pastor, a priest is somebody to unload with and the best part – they can’t tell a single soul. Second best thing – it’s free. If you’re an atheist you’ve got two choices, a psychiatrist or a lawyer, both way beyond expensive.

I swim Tuesday and Saturday afternoons at a place called Evergreen. It used to be resort in the old days where people would travel to soak in the mineral springs, hike and breathe country air unpolluted by smokestacks. When it closed, after the Second World War, the county took it over and made it into a nursing home. There’s supposed to be a fee for family members to use the pool but nobody has ever asked me for identification. I’ve memorized a few names from the Alzheimer’s unit so if they card me, I’m Melvin Rohrbach’s granddaughter. At nine thousand a month they can give a kid deprived of an inheritance a side or a breaststroke now and then.

Before my swims, I like to wander the halls, if for nothing else – to make sure Melvin’s still with us. I read the name tags and peer into their self-contained worlds, earthly belongings reduced to a wall of cheap plaques singing the praises of mothers and fathers and a few stuffed animals. One lady has a bear that belts out a Whitney Houston song.

I am not a strong swimmer, just decent. I like how the silk of the water drapes my skin better than the finest cloth. The mineral content makes it buoyant; it’s really soft water. I feel as light as a duckling. It’s like letting go and not letting go at the same time.

I usually have the place to myself except for one old gal, regal, if desiccated, in her red Speedo and white rubber bathing cap. She completes ten or so laps – the Australian crawl – then wraps herself in a huge turquoise colored towel and retreats to a chaise for a snooze. Her name is Fern, that’s the extent of my knowledge. I don’t know if she’s a resident or a wife, sister or friend.

Today Fern appears to be asleep when I exit the pool. There’s a plaid tote next to her with a paper and power drink protruding. I’m tempted to make off with it just for the hell of it and I begin drifting slowly toward her like an iceberg when she opens her eyes. There’s something wrong with one of them. It’s milky and smaller, too small for her large dense face the way a whale’s eyes are. My guess is she’s blind in the
whale eye, an accident perhaps.

“Good swim?” I chirp and pivot, not waiting for the answer.

Tonight I’m going to a contra dance. I think it’s kind of like square dancing but minus the cowboy hats and checked skirts. Preston, a guy from meeting, asked me. Yes, I’m branching out. He’s my first Quaker. I’ve been visiting for six weeks now and I can tell Preston’s got a crush. When he asked me to the dance, I said, “I don’t dance.”

“Why not?’ he asked.

“I was raised by amputees.”

I could tell he didn’t know what to make of this. “Just kidding.”

This guy kills me. He’s sweet, a widower. That’s so quaint. I didn’t know anybody even bothered to get married anymore. But then, he’s older, mid-forties. I wonder what my mother would have made of him. She’d probably have said he wasn’t much of a challenge.

I survived the hoedown. It was actually pretty strenuous exercise. Embarrassingly enough, I worked up quite lather and after a while, like exercise, it got monotonous. Preston enjoyed himself though. He knows his way around a Do Si Do. He’s a farmer, a tomato farmer. But he doesn’t grow those bright red fake things they sell at the supermarket. His are organic and heirloom, mottled bulb shaped things, yellow, green and purple. They remind me of somebody’s face after a good beating. He sells them by the truckload to fancy restaurants as far away as Baltimore and New York. Personally I don’t care for tomatoes. They give me ulcers. However I won’t share this with Preston.

“Well I think you’re an heirloom,” I told him after the dance when he handed me a bag of them along with a bizarre cauliflower he called a Romanesco.

“It’s actually an edible flower,” he said of the lime green mass that resembled a succulent or cactus.

“It’s far too cool to eat. Like something from outer space.”

“Tastes more like broccoli,” he replied. I was touched and truth be told, I don’t think I can bear to cook it. I laid it to rest in my produce drawer, on top of a bag of romaine.

Preston isn’t handsome. He’s got a plain honest face, nothing stands out except his ears. To me he looks like a farmer, a tomato farmer. He pulled me aside after my third visit to meeting and gave me a few pointers. “Stand up when you give a message. And don’t worry about sounding like you know what you’re talking about. Be yourself.” I couldn’t help but smile at this for a couple of reasons. But it scared me too. It was something I hadn’t felt before, a sense that I wasn’t looking forward to disappointing him.

The first time I disappeared was after the accident. My mother and I went to a movie, then out for Mexican, drank margaritas out of goldfish bowls – never seen them that big. We left and I wrapped my fingers around the wheel and her silver Mustang around a string of picnic tables at a rest stop halfway down South Mountain. I was wearing a belt. She was thrown clear. God it was loud…until it wasn’t. The headlamps lit up a curtain of hillside like a stage. I clawed my way out thinking I’d gone deaf until the buzzing began. Mosquitos. The tiniest of sounds, that’s what snapped me to attention.

“Go,” she mouthed through bloody lips. And that’s what I did, plunging down into a mat of sumac, grapevine and bittersweet, flaying my shins and calves. When I got down to the valley, I could hear the sirens, one, two, three, four, five of them. I broke down and cried like an immigrant leaving the homeland.

Hitching a ride in an old Saab station wagon, I told the driver that my boyfriend had pushed me out of his car. “No, I’m not going to the cops,” I said and had him drop me a couple of blocks from a friend’s house, a guy my mother used to hang out with. We had a casual passionate affiliation for the next six months. He was full of himself, teaching me how to break into cars and make fake IDs, until I showed him it was a whole lot easier to just rip people off by stealing their mail and using a laptop.

When I mentioned earlier I hoped to make things right with my mother in a dream, it’s not because she’s dead or I don’t know where she is. I do.

* * *

I can’t get a bead on this Quaker thing. Usually I have a clear sense of direction by now. Know how I want the game to play out. The people are cold fish and I’ve told Preston as much. He said, “That’s their way of making sure you decide for yourself.”

“Decide what?”

“What to make of us.”

I thought in lieu of an institutional hit perhaps he was well fixed enough to open a vein, to set me up for a stretch but now I’m not sure. His farm hasn’t seen a can of paint in ages. He doesn’t own a dishwasher or microwave. Some of his clothes look expensive but they’re worn and mended. What’s more – he’s getting to me, wearing me down like the softly cupped steps in his rickety house. He’s turning me ever so carefully as if I’m a piece of hardwood on a lathe. And me, I’m a hunter who’s got the deer in the sights but can’t pull the trigger.

When Preston calls to invite me to dinner, I tell him, “I don’t feel well.”

“I’ll call you later,” he says.

“No, I’ll call you sometime.”

I jump in the car and take off for Evergreen. I park in the visitors’ spaces. Funny, they’re never in short supply. There are four wings, surprise – each named for a type of evergreen – the Cypress, the Juniper, the Spruce and the Redwood. Cypress and Juniper are in the front of the complex, the original brick mansion that once housed the health resort. The lobby could hold its own with a European cathedral or castle. They say an artist came all the way from Holland to paint the mythological creatures on the ceiling. Spruce and Redwood were added in the 1960’s along with a corridor of administrative offices and connected to the pool which was once free standing.

I’ve got my duffle at my hip, swimsuit, towel, shampoo but first I’m making a detour to the Redwood wing. There’s somebody there I check in on from time to time. According to staff, she has no relatives or official visitors. She can’t see or hear you, at least I don’t think so. She’s been like this for three and a half years. Her name is Brenda Wilton. She’s my mother.

The nurses and CNA’s are talking reality TV at their station as I pass. It’s two o’clock and as still as a place like this gets. I enter the room and stand over her. Her face has changed and not just from the lacerations suffered in the wreck. It’s filled out and expanded. Her cheekbones are gone, her skin marble white. A lady from across the hall pushes her walker to the threshold to nose.

“Sssss,” I hiss at her like a snake and she leans back as if she might lose her balance before rotating the wheels in the opposite direction. I’ve brought one of Preston’s fancy tomatoes, it’s yellow and, I believe, called a Golden Girl. I place it on her chest before I leave because that’s how I want to remember her – as a golden girl.

In my bathing suit and ready for a dip, I enter the swim area. Good, it’s empty. Then I glimpse Fern over in a corner of the pool face down. I leap into the water, grasping for her shoulders just as she rears up at me like a startled seal or geriatric mermaid. She wrenches free, spitting water in my face, her eyes, even the whale eye, wide with indignation. I step away and she falls back, floating again, staring up at the ceiling. I swim to the opposite end to do the same, luxuriating in the buoyant warmth, waiting to be reborn.


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