They call Charlotte Malloy “Speedy” at the Home. She uses her walker as if she’s piloting a power lawn mower and has to hang on for dear life, crabbing along behind it, trying to get somewhere when there’s nowhere to go any more.
“Would you like to get some ice cream?” I ask.
“Yes. I’d like that,” she replies, glad for a future that will at least have ice cream.
Until the last two months when she turned vaguer, she’d look at the people who were trying to keep up with her and declare, “This is my daughter,” waving an airy hand in my direction.
“So you’re her mother?” another resident used to ask me. Patting my own graying hair, I’d wonder how I could look older than my 93-year-old mother, but even if the crinkled and loony resident who’d asked the question is still capable of asking it, and she probably isn’t—all the residents are deteriorating, questions go a-moldering every day—Charlotte Malloy wouldn’t hear it now any more than she did then. She scoots down the hallway, the blue walker sticky with something splotched across the plastic seat, what looks like chocolate crusting one handle bar, rosary beads dangling, old greeting cards stuffed in the basket. People call out, “Hello, Charlotte.” “Have a nice ride.” She rarely answers them. She’s concentrating.
“What a beautiful car,” she says, as if she’s never seen the red PT Cruiser before, “I get to ride in it?”
“Yes,” I reply, opening the door and at the same time trying to help her pivot into position to climb into the passenger seat.
“I get to ride in the front?” she asks happily.
“That’s right,” I say.
“Do you want me to get in here?” she asks, suddenly aware that getting in is going to be a challenge, one she can no longer strategize to meet.
“Yes,” I say. I reach out and take her hands, supporting her as she stands haltingly, swaying, but mostly I just watch her struggle while I try to tell her what to do. “Here now, sit down. Bring your leg around. First your left leg. Sit. Now your right leg. That’s right. You’ve got it. That’s good.” I’m not getting any better at giving instructions in basic motor skills. I wonder what I’ll do when it gets harder, when she’s weaker and even more baffled by the movements of her own limbs, when she can’t clamber up onto the seat any more.
Charlotte Malloy smiles her tentative maybe-grin, but it won’t be many miles before she forgets to smile, forgets she’s almost happy, just forgets.
It’s not that my mother was ever a sparkling conversationalist, but now that her eyes go empty almost as soon as the car starts, our expeditions are especially quiet, even though I do try. For the first few minutes, I talk about the traffic and the weather, then ask her if she did her morning exercises. “Yes,” she says proudly. “I always do.” She flexes a bicep; until a few months ago she bragged that she was muscular because she dug sugar beets as a child nearly nine decades ago. I tell her things, as many as I can think of, anything that might have some resonance. I don’t know how much she hears and understands. She acts as if she remembers my sister, her other daughter, when I talk about her. As if her other daughter’s husband is someone she recalls being annoyed by, but even three years ago she had to ask who that unhappy looking man at the other end of the table was. Alzheimers can take years, sometimes decades. But who’s counting?
For a very long time, I didn’t think it was Alzheimers that addled my mother. No one, including the doctor, ever said the word. Years into the disease and nearly as many after a diagnosis was made, I saw his note about it, but my aunt reported that he wasn’t much of a doctor and since she was a retired nurse, I believed her and doubted everything he’d ever scribbled. Besides, my aunt lived near my mother in California; she knew things. I was thousands of miles away in Vermont. It wasn’t until my aunt began to be afraid of the responsibility of watching over her and I began to feel guilty for having left her to her own diminishing devices, that I came to California to be near her.
For me, but surely not for my mother, the dementia began a decade ago on the telephone when she repeated herself once, twice, even three times a call. Since she’d never been very interesting, I assumed it was the same chitchat admixed with old age. After a few years, she began to do peculiar things, for example, wandering into the garage at her condo in the middle of the night and falling face first onto the concrete floor. She was pleased with the attention that brought her, describing how she exhibited her black eyes and purple cheeks at coffee hour after church. It wasn’t until Charlotte Malloy went out driving at 3 a.m. and rammed her ’87 Pontiac into her neighbor’s closed garage, that she and everyone else began planning for her residence in an institution for “assisted living.” Someone, perhaps her inadequate doctor, called what she was doing “sundowning.” Whatever it was, the acting out seemed to happen after the sun had gone down, and I thought I understood it better when I discovered on a visit that the loud, brutal sounds of all-night television rent the bedroom from dusk to dawn. She apparently didn’t want to be alone at night, and televised mayhem kept her close to the world beyond her condo. It wasn’t, most of it, a world she had much to do with anymore. She could feel it being torn from her grasp.
Glancing over at the shrunken gray woman next to me, checking her seatbelt, I drive out into the neighborhood. As always, I head for the places I’ve found for her-places to spark her flagging interest. We drive past Lombardi’s and she reads the sign aloud: “Barbecued Oysters.” She’s still literate, though she’s never been a big reader of anything but the Reader’s Digest and the morning newspaper. Not advertising. She never liked being told what to do. She still fights the aides at the Home when they try to give her showers, and she threw her false teeth across the room at one poor woman just last week.
“Do you really think you’d like some?” I ask about the oysters, doubting that a woman who’s spent a lifetime eating American cheese on white bread would. “Yes, I think so,” she replies, but forgets the conversation in the next moment.
We drive the same road we’ve driven countless times, I, dutifully noting the roses, the sheep, the horses, and finally, the emu. My mother doesn’t really relate to the big bird anymore. She used to be amused watching me feed 12-grain bread to the creature who grabbed at my fingers with its big bill, almost catching them, almost gobbling them down, one more treat stuffed down its long willowy throat. The emu has been missing a partner for months and I wish aloud, as I do every time we’re here, that the owners, whoever they are, would buy it a mate. I wish my mother cared about its loneliness. But the fact is, she may not have cared ten, twenty-five, even seventy years ago. The emu would have struck her as just silly, and she was never that until now when Alzheimers has made her off and on dotty, and about many more things than emus.
For a while sheep were important. When she was six years old, Charlotte, whose last name then was Eckhart, lived in a Colorado town called Hillrose, where her Pop took care of sheep. She remembered them. Even I remembered them, or remembered how my grandfather remembered them as we sat in the back yard together, and he described trying to push and pull the bawling creatures into the barn in a snowstorm. How they stood there stiffly like wet wooly statues, content to freeze to death. Dumb sheep. His pale blue eyes teared with laughter. Then he went back into the house, and fell asleep in front of the test pattern on the TV. But the sheep mattered then, and they still matter, they still live in my memory, though much less now in hers.
Over the last year, my mother rehearsed again and again a memory of the white horse she rode with her brother, Clarence, to the school bus. He was a good big brother, she said. That was all she had to say about Clarence, and I had never known her to be interested in horses, not her father’s workhorses when I was a kid, not the Kentucky Derby winners she never placed a bet on, and certainly not the horses that graze in pastures on our afternoon drives through the countryside. But now, because of Clarence and that decades-ago dead horse, she talks about climbing aboard the white carousel horse at the local Applebees Restaurant. She laughs about it but I can’t tell if that’s because the idea is patently ridiculous—there’s no room for her on this horse and nowhere to ride. Maybe it’s just horses on the brain. When I play a Mozart CD for us both, to calm us, to focus us, to make a light where there is none—she announces that Cecilia Bartoli just sang “Stop the horses! Stop the horses!” Odd, of the memories left to her, that a white horse should be so important. Not much else from the farm-apparently no recollections of her mother, my grandma, nor of the things that I remember—the Ladies Aid piecing a quilt around the dining room table, bathing on Saturday nights in a tin tub in the kitchen, the smell of wet feathers when my grandmother plucked chickens at the base of the churning windmill-and lately, not even of the most dramatic event of her young life—being shot at the age of four years.
The shooting was more prominent in her mind six months ago, prompted perhaps by the rediscovery of a newspaper article she’d scrapbooked years before about two babysitting teenagers dragging a loaded shotgun through the screen door one evening at the farm. She was wounded, her three-year-old brother was killed. “I’m afraid of guns,” she declared. When, at about the same time a urinary tract infection sent her to the hospital for a brief stay, she not only refused to eat—her usual recourse when every other weapon had been taken from her—she informed anyone who would listen that she could shoot them. Would shoot them. Nevertheless, what she about the actual event was mostly the attention she got afterwards. It was the long train ride to a Denver hospital, the being special, that stayed with her. But now that may be gone too. So many things gone.
For months she expected us to run into Uncle Fred on our excursions into the countryside. Despite myself, I began to look for him too, perhaps walking towards us on the side of the highway, ambling along with nothing special in mind, until Charlotte Malloy would call out, “Stop the car. That’s him. There he is, Uncle Fred,” As we spin to a stop, the chubby old man, his worsted trousers held up by suspenders, would laugh with delight. “Charlie, sweetie pie,” he says. “How pretty you look.” Only he says it in German: “Schnuckiputzi! Du bist sehr shon,” and smiles in a droll, good-natured way as he walks over to stand next to the passenger’s window I’ve rolled down so that they can have a good talk, since they haven’t seen each other for nearly a century. His eyes twinkle, his breath smells of warm beer, he reaches up to his ear and pulls out a nickel and she laughs with pleasure.
“Have you come to take me home?” my mother asks, hoping that he will and that, once there, he’ll stay a while and play his accordion.
“You go with your daughter now,” he answers, wary of making promises he can’t keep. “I’ll try to come later, liebchen.”
How extraordinary to be missing almost everything from early childhood to age 93, to have to try to knit together your most distant past and your present, with almost nothing left for in-between. On second thought, I don’t really know how much is left of her middle life. At that same hospital, when an orderly-in-training told us that he’d been in the Coast Guard, she rose up from her bed in the ER almost angrily, and declared, “My husband was in the Navy.” That’s all. Not much to hang the whole life—between on, but more than I’d thought.
Still, most of that in-between time does seem to be missing. If her daughters have gray hair, and if she knows she’s very old but feels very young because the memory she can still touch is about a horse she used to ride to school with her brother, how does she make sense of anything? I suppose she may no longer have the facility to try. Understanding is probably a high function and mostly what my mother has left are low ones: hunger, the taste of coffee, bowel movements, the briefest caress of cool air on her cheek, a glimpse of clouds scuttling across the sky, a few seconds’ pride because her nails are painted red and her hair has been curled.
I drive to the chickens next, a front yard of pretty banties with feathery pantaloons and odd hairdos. “Can you see the white ones shuffling, the brown rooster spreading his wings?” She nods and smiles the smile she always smiles now-it’s pretty much the only way she has of making a connection with me. It’s not at all clear that she really sees the chickens, or that she sees much of anything any more. Her eyes don’t focus on most of the visual delights I’ve collected for her fancy. Oliver Sacks says that the present is always a remembered present, chickens are informed by our past experience of chickens. What she sees must be very flat by now, dimensionless. A few weeks ago she remembered that she’d been afraid of chickens when she was a child. Afraid when they pecked at her bare legs, when they flew up into her face when she tried to feed them. Now the chickens are too dull to focus on.
“Country or city?” I ask. “Which would you like today?”
“I don’t care,” she says. I pull out onto the road; Cecilia Bartoli sings; my mother begins to nod off.
I drive as I always have, doing what I want to do, no matter my mother. At the junction where the road divides, kids waiting for their ride to school in the morning or executives waiting for a car pool have piled up eccentric stone sculptures-or so I suppose since they’re there, rock totems, randomly arranged. Reading the rocks, I choose to turn right, towards the country. The road climbs through an avenue of eucalyptus, noble of aspect but careless, limbs splayed and leaves papering the ground, their scent thick, clotting. Up the hill is a herd of Holsteins, the cows—I say aloud as I always do and despite the fact that my mother’s eyes are closed now, her head bobbing, her breathing superficial but measured—with the best view of any in Petaluma. When the car reaches the very top of the hill Cecilia takes a flying leap up the scale and the hills spread out, the farm ponds sparkle, while the chicken factory, coming up on the right, stinks as usual. There’s nothing to be seen except the chicken houses; the chickens suffer inside, I assume, but as long as the suffering is hidden it can be tolerated.
At the horse ranch below, flocks of starlings chatter all at once but never in unison, and the Shetland ponies ignore me and my lightly snoring mother. Why, I wonder aloud, again and as I do every time I drive by, would anyone want one? They look sturdy but no one but the smallest child could ride on them, and where would she go? The ponies’ coats are shaggy like dried out kitchen mops, and I can’t imagine hugging one. Perhaps they’re collectibles. Perhaps rich men make collections of them for their rich children, lively substitutes for stuffed animals, suitable for hugging once they’ve been given baths and curried with stiff-bristled brushes. Hugging, it seems to me, is problematic anyway, although I have friends who do it all the time. And there are people in my mother’s institution who make a practice of hugging my mother. It’s something I can’t imagine doing. I can’t remember, even as a child, hugging Charlotte Eckhart Malloy. Or, for that matter, being hugged by her.
Charlotte Eckhart grew up a shy uncomfortable farm girl in a German immigrant family where people didn’t generally hug other people—or perhaps they did, some of them, despite her apologies for the influence of her cold family on her own disposition. Charlotte’s cousin, her sister, her sister-in-law…. I could make quite a list of hugging relatives. Nevertheless, it’s also true that Charlotte Eckhart grew up without much of a sense of self-worth, even though she was a valedictorian and cute as a button. Quite what any of this has to do with my reluctance to hug her I can’t say. I can’t fathom how it happened, and why I don’t have a mother I can make myself want to touch, especially now that she’s tiny and helpless and, some of the time, even sweet natured. I look over at her—her head is bowed nearly into her lap—and turn onto a road I haven’t tried before, heading towards the ocean but not really intending to go there. The notion of my mother sleeping through the magnificent rumble and heave of the Pacific is not an inspiring one.
It’s entirely possible that Charlotte Eckhart Malloy once hugged her children. Hard to say. I remember the evening, I was probably eight years old, when I made the pronouncement: I was too old to say the word “mommy’ and from now on would use only “mother.” I was too grown up to kiss or hug anyone goodnight, so that too would end. If there had been warm embraces before then, I can’t remember them. Certainly, from then on, my rare hugs with my mother were straight-armed. Nor were there any warm embraces from her, not ever. The prohibition became so much a part of us both that, even now, when she’s no longer quite herself but someone else, it’s immutable.
She stirs, opens her eyes, and smiles at me. Again, that smile that demands a smile in return, that links us for a moment, and then disappears utterly. Cecilia is singing Alma grande e nobil core, an aria I don’t know from an opera I know even less. “I’ve got us lost,” I tell her. She looks around, I guess, to see what lost looks like, but it isn’t all that much different from anywhere else. “She said ‘get out of here and don’t come back,’” she says, translating from Cecilia again.
“We’ll do that,” I say, smiling back at my mother, taking the instruction to heart. “As soon as I figure out how.”
I take a turn onto still another road. I’m heading west to the sea. What the hell, it’s good to be looking forward to the landscape opening up, the Pacific rising up at the end of it, silver and glinting; very, very big; enlightening. Charlotte Malloy starts to sing along with Cecilia in a small high voice. An indifferent alto until a month ago, now she’s an off-key soprano and entirely pleased by it. I’m not; my mother’s wayward squeak hurts, but then again it doesn’t really matter because Cecilia Bartoli’s trill still dominates the car. It wasn’t that long ago that Charlotte Eckard Malloy turned to me and asked, “Mozart?” Even now, she pipes along softly, not wanting, I think, to interrupt the music too badly. No one listening to her who hadn’t known her before would ever dream that she’d been musical, that she’d played the piano for eighty years, that she’d practiced for hours every evening for most of those years, that she’d accompanied countless weddings, funerals and Sunday morning worship services. She’d never played by ear, but one day, having lost the ability to transfer the music on the page to her hands on the keys, she tried playing without the sheet music I’d brought her, and between remembering “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “How Great Thou Art” and having a feeling for chords and melody she’d forgotten she had, she managed to play a whole raft of songs. Not well, never well. Never Chopin again. But most people couldn’t hear how bad it sounded and if they could, what did it matter, it was amazing that a 93-year-old woman in the throes of dementia could play at all. Unfailingly, they applauded.
We’re heading due north now, and I still don’t know where we are or where we’ll end up. Pasture unrolls in every direction, and there’s fog off on the western horizon. Sheep are congregating in informal clusters; on a far hillside, black Angus amble in a long loose line toward a barn and an early dinner. A white pickup truck passes us—a guy in a baseball hat who’s working a job, a guy who knows where he is and where he’s going, passing two elderly women rambling down the road in a PT Cruiser, wondering vaguely why we’re out here when there’s work to be done on a weekday afternoon. I take another left and go west again.
A flying cloud dims the sun and the world turns soft and dun. Suddenly there are more cars heading to I don’t know where because I’ve just come from there and there didn’t seem to be much, but it must mean we’re close to the highway to Bodega Bay, and at the next junction I turn left again and I know where we are. Soon the water will appear, just a bay, but an ocean bay with gulls, pelicans and sea lions. Charlotte Eckhart is asleep again. Cecilia is singing the last aria on this CD. I brace myself for the changeover. When my mother wakes up again, Frank Sinatra will be crooning Cole Porter. His is a voice you could lie down in, but only if you wanted to be ravished by a man. I don’t, but I’m not so sure about my mother. I’d never heard her say a word about sex until she turned demented and eighty-nine and fell in love with Harold who, I thought, looked like a frog. That was when I was still in Vermont. “He doesn’t want to get married,” my mother said on the phone, “he wants to ‘shack up,’ but I just wasn’t raised that way.” Every night, after several martinis each, they lay on his bed and necked. I was startled; I’d thought the woman was asexual, and here she was almost doing it. Sadly, the poor man died after a few months of martinis and heavy breathing and she’s long since forgotten him. A photograph of them together sits on her bedside table, but she doesn’t remember and as far as she’s concerned he’s the same man she married, the man who was in the Navy, even if he looks different in that picture. Apparently, her husband sometimes looked like a frog.
“I don’t trust that man,” Charlotte says. She’s awake again.
“Frank?” I ask. “But do you like his singing?”
“It turns my stomach upside down,” she says.
She’s become a sexual being at the same time as she’s become a little girl. She comments when a waiter is good-looking and makes a face when a man is bald. I smile and nod about Frank Sinatra. I came out to my mother sexually years ago, and after some drama, we made a tacit agreement to keep quiet about the subject. She accepted my partners, or at least she behaved pleasantly around them. She even pinched Jean’s cheeks. She never pinches mine. Now, I think, is not the time to come out to my mother again.
“There’s the ocean,” I say. She strains to see it, and does, but has no comment. She likes the ocean, or at least she did a few months ago. “Blue skies, smiling at me, Nothing but blue skies do I see,” Charlotte and Frank Sinatra sing together. I drive by The Tides where Charlotte doesn’t remember celebrating two birthdays, but seems interested in hearing about it. “We’ll get some ice cream and sit and watch the waves for a while,” I tell her. “I’d like some ice cream,” she says.
Far above the rolling, rollicking waves, the crashing of surf, the laughter of young people running from the cold sea as it moves in for high tide, a dog barking, we sit on the edge of the world, eating Dove bars. I’ve turned off the music so that the only sounds are those going on in real life. Two men walk by in wet suits, and my mother eyes them, incredulous at their skin-tight black rubber covering. Their bulging groins. I try to explain but she loses interest way before I’ve finished the description: “warm and dry in wet suits, surfing, riding the waves, the higher the better, strong young men on shiny boards.”
Next to us, a years-old green Chevy is parked, and a black woman younger than either of us, sits and contemplates the sea. Her lips are moving. I can just hear her. She’s praying: “God, Lord Jesus, Holy Spirit, forgive me, forgive us all….” How long has she been here, looking out, pleading with God? But it’s an appropriate place to pray, it seems to me. If there is a God and God hears prayers, surely this is where it will happen. My mother doesn’t seem to see her even after I’ve pointed her out twice. It’s enough to take in the scene in front of us and eat ice cream at the same time. No one should have to do more than that.
The question is, what does Charlotte see when she looks out at that broad expanse of water? After all, there may be no oceans left in her memory bank-she grew up on the Colorado plains and that’s what she remembers best. “Where the deer and the antelope play.” Probably her first notion, her little girl notion of the sea, was “By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea….” No compelling description in that song, no thundering surf, no hints of immortality.
“I can’t go on this way, Lord. Help me, Lord,” says the woman in the next car.
What’s been remembered in songs is what my mother remembers best. She still knows all the words to “Georgie, Georgie, puddin’ and pie, Kissed the girls and made them cry.” Her cousin, George used to dance and sing with her in the basement when they were both teenagers. While the separator cranked out cream and rows of canned fruit clinked softly together, they danced around the floor like people in the movies even though the movies were still mostly silent then and the tunes were played on a piano or, in this case, in the basement on a ukulele. My question is how much has the song become the scaffolding for that memory when most of what else there was to know about George has withered away? Of course, she’ll get worse, and the rest of George will disappear, probably including the song that helped to frame him.
“There has to be a way. Help me, Lord,” says the woman.
And if you think about it, so will I. There’s not much of me left where my mother is concerned now, perhaps almost none. It no longer matters that I never gave her grandchildren, and that I scared her with my lesbian defiance. Now all that’s left of me is some scraps of memory clinging to the bare bones of her past. She never paid much attention to who I was before. Just as much as was morally necessary. Soon, even that will be gone. No me. Just someone who drives a red car and buys her ice cream, someone she can keep at bay with a confiding smile.
She’s half child, half old woman, and her middle years, the years of my life, are mostly gone. I’m no longer an essential part of her identity, and yet, even in her absence, she’s still part of mine. I miss her. I miss the woman I wanted to be proud of me, who, despite all, was a touching point in my life, who helped to form its geography. She’s almost gone and part of me is gone with her.
“Help me, oh Lord,” says the woman next to us, her voice rising above the splash of the surf.
My mother has almost finished her Dove bar. I point out where some chocolate has dropped to the blue skirt she’s wearing, and she dutifully rubs it off. She smiles at me again. “She’s still praying,” I say, nodding towards the other car. Charlotte looks out the window at the black woman-not someone who takes care of her, not a memory, she’s hard to identify. We both look at her now, and she looks back at us, but not really, because she’s looking through us at the long shining shoreline, the birds lifting on the wind, the dancing water. She raises something black to her mouth, maybe she’s on lunch break and it’s a sandwich on dark rye. Maybe she’s going to put on lipstick before she sets off again on her troubled life.
“I don’t like guns,” Charlotte Eckhart wails. “I don’t like them.”
I see a gun, or what could be a gun. I think that’s what I see.
Then there’s a shot. And I know, at least, that there’s no rascally gunman on the horizon shooting at gulls. The sound’s not like that. But it could be a shot muffled in the woman’s mouth. I don’t see it, but what if the woman’s skull has exploded inside the green Chevy? She’s no longer visible. Where is she?
Tears are coursing down Charlotte’s cheeks. “No guns.”
“No, of course not,” I say, reaching out and touching her carefully, at the same time looking frantically around for someone, anyone who might have seen what just happened—if something did. “I’ll be right back,” I say. “I have to tell someone.”
The men in the wet suits look at me, a wild-looking old woman with tearing eyes. They’d heard something too, but what?
“Please, my mother’s hysterical. I can’t leave her. I think the woman in the green car has shot herself. Please help.”
Reluctantly, they follow me to the green car. I can hear them behind me mumbling about old ladies with addled minds. They peer into the green car; they knock on the door. I get back into our car and lock the doors. Charlotte’s trembling now, and I put my arms around her clumsily. But maybe she’s not the one who’s shaking. Maybe it’s me. I feel a bad case of claustrophobia coming on.
“No guns. I don’t like them. Let’s get away from the guns,” she says.
“We were witnesses. We have to stay,” I say dully. There are too many people around us now, blocking my view of the green car. I can’t tell if the driver and prayer of prayers is still there, and alive. I don’t want to stay; I don’t want to hug Charlotte any more. But she’s still crying, and repeating “No guns” as if it were a mantra. And so I stroke the coarse thinning hair and act like a loving daughter, all the time feeling so strange, so awkward, waiting as people gather in small murmuring groups around us, waiting for the emergency trucks, the police. Like a movie, only in movies they cut from action to action and no one has to wait.
Finally, a policeman arrives, and the crowd turns to watch as he leans into the green car. All I can see are the rear ends of people in shorts, chubby and in assorted colors, a tee-shirt advertising peace and another the NRA, a San Francisco Giants cap, a sun-burned back. Charlotte doesn’t seem to get tired of her recitation, not even when the cop comes over to us at last and stands by the car, notebook at the ready. I turn the ignition key in the lock to open the car window:
“I have to get my mother back to her residence. What we, what I, saw can be summed up in a few sentences,” I say. Charlotte looks at the policeman and smiles her disingenuous smile.
“I need statements from each of you, your name, your phone number. Won’t take but a few minutes.”
“She’s not quite right,” I say softly. “Alzheimers.”
The cop nods sagely.
I tell him what I’ve seen. The prayer, the gun, the shot. My address and phone number. “Is she okay? The woman in the green car?” I ask.
“She’ll be okay,” he shrugs. “Don’t you worry yourself about her.” He walks around to the other side of the car. “Mrs. Malloy? Can I ask you a few questions?”
“Did you see what happened? Did you see someone shoot themselves?”
“I hate guns. I was shot once.” She smiles at him again, confiding, almost flirting.
“Yes,” he says, turning condescending, “I understand. You’re upset. Did you see the woman in that car try to shoot herself?”
“I could shoot you, you know. I could do it.”
I heave a great sigh. “Mother, you don’t want to shoot the policeman. Just answer his question.”
She rears back in her seat and glares at me. “I could shoot you too,” she says.
“I’m afraid the gun has made an impression on her that the woman hasn’t,” I say, hoping he’ll understand and send us on our way.
“Is she telling the truth? She really has been shot?”
“Ninety years ago, yes.”
He smiles. “Thank you ma’am.”
“We can go?”
“Yes. Go home now, ladies. Everything’s fine. Everything’s all right.”
I pull the car out of the parking lot slowly, through the still gathering crowd. People look at us curiously, the two old women who started the pandemonium. Some of them, I can tell, are envious. They think we know something they don’t. They want to ask questions: did the woman in the green car really shoot a gun? Did she look at you when she did? Did you think she might shoot you first? Was she crying? Did her skull explode—where did all the pieces go?
Or, are they laughing at us? Two old ladies and nothing working quite right except for their imaginations?
My face is burning. Did she shoot herself? Or did I just make a fool of myself?
I drive quickly, seriously, not looking at my mother at all until we’re heading inland again. “Are you okay?” I finally ask.
“Yes,” she says, smiling broadly. I hand her a piece of kleenex. She blows her nose, then turns a minute to look out the window before her eyes turn flat and dull. The rest of the way home she sleeps.