a short story by Maura Devereux
About the Author
Maura Devereux has written a novel entitled The Sorrows and a short story collection, Pathophilia. She has degrees in Journalism and Humanities from the University of Colorado at Boulder and contributes journalism and criticism on a range of topics.
Her fiction has appeared previously in collectedstories (2000), as well as in Exquisite Corpse.She lives and works in San Francisco.
MORE SHORT STORIES
“Love and Activated Charcoal“
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The spiders must be coming for the ants. The ants are in my housedress. I can’t kill all of them. I have killed some of them, and their blotches dot my elbows and arms. The spiders are big, and I’m not afraid of them. They are more interesting to watch than the ants. They are following the ants to the big carcass. Tom Brokaw is in the other room, saying that concern is growing about some war. There have been so many wars. It is not America’s war, or Tom Brokaw’s war. I didn’t expect him to be on already, but it is reassuring that the important matters of the world continue without me. They always have. It’s me who needs the world, not the other way around. When I can walk, I wipe up armies of ants with a wet rag. I wash them down the drain. They are moving dirt.
Brokaw does not work on the weekend. I think I have heard him two or three times. Was it two times or three times? I can’t remember. I am too far from the set to hear well. I can’t see it at all. I just know he’s there. His habits are familiar to me. If he is talking about the cost of highways, today is Wednesday.
I have been here almost three days.
I don’t know when the police will arrive.
It has happened before. Many parts of me don’t work well. I get by. I am not so far that I can’t cook and clean for myself. I am capable of the everyday. If I don’t do it, who will? It takes all my time and all my will, but I have nothing else to save that for. All my things are heavier, but I can still move them from place to place. I just have to rest sometimes. I know how to do it. If something gets too heavy, I brace it against me, as a woman always does. Right on the shelf of the hip. Young women hold all their burdens on that jut of hip. It is where I held my baby boy. But I am not a young woman now, and my body is not at my service. I can’t trust it anymore. All my limber joints now offer no assurance they’ll hold me together. That’s what happened this time. Out came my leg, and down in a heap I went. And here I am still, crumpled on the ground like a string puppet. I can do nothing now but wait.
The police came the last time, five years ago. I was missed at bridge, and my partners called. Dora and Beatrice will not call now because they both have passed. That is what I get for being the baby of the group. They broke down the door and left the place wide open when they took me to the hospital. Maybe it was God that kept them from robbing me blind while that door was open. I don’t know who will call now, who will miss me. I have called the police to stop a bad smell before. Maybe some neighbor will call them to stop the smell of me.
If I could move, I would. Don’t think I haven’t tried. I know I cannot do it. My body simply doesn’t work any more, you see. Have you any idea what a dead leg weighs? These arms aren’t so great, either. Worse now – they’re torn and purple with bruising. I can only fill the teapot halfway on the best of days. I’m just small, sure. I’m skinny. Always had that figure. Still, it would be like asking a mouse to move an elephant. And I don’t even mention the pain. The phone is on the wall in the kitchen. I have thought of trying 50 times, and 50 times, I have chosen not to inflict the suffering on myself. Last time, they came.
Can you believe I lived by this body? That it could do marvelous things once? The memory of this is only in my mind. It is nowhere in my body. I don’t know the body I must have once had, the body that was what a body should be. No. The only body I know is this body now, this body I do not trust, this body I must constantly watch over and worry for. I have been to doctors, and I know their lists. They will ask me about every part and function I have. I can tell them that my chest does not hurt as much as it sometimes does. I have been breathing okay because the doctor gave me that medicine that makes me urinate so much. You wouldn’t think the two things would be so connected but they are. I can breathe all right as long as I piddle all day. What a meat machine I am! I don’t breathe like a person is supposed to, but it has stopped bothering me. I wheeze if I try to walk to the end of the driveway. Everybody smoked in the old days, especially dancers. Kept the figure. My chest is not so bad, and my stomach is not worse than always. I don’t want to bother myself with food, and I always feel bloated anyway, because of the crap. I have medicines for that. Sometimes I take them, but they never empty me. It is an animal business always to be getting rid of shit. I don’t like it in me, and I don’t like it outside, and now, it is the last thing I can attend to for myself. Same with the bladder. I try not to eat or drink because it makes me shit and piss. I never say those words out loud, but I know they are the right words to use. Shit and piss.
How mortified I was to discuss these in front of my son. My bachelor son. Franklin. I took such effort to preserve my modesty. A man can be so conflicted about his mother’s body. Those people were never sensitive to that, the health workers and social workers and case workers. See how they preserve their own dignity? For them, it is all just work. I was right to be embarrassed, of course. And I was right to want to hide myself from Franklin. If he were a man I could be proud of, I would be strong for him. I would be his strong and brave and beautiful forever mama. But he is not that man. He is spiteful and selfish. And since he is, I am happy he abandoned me. What is he to me now? In his big city? What is he but another futility? Futility and a waste.
It occurs to me to try to move again. It has been a long time and maybe things will be different this time. But there…no, it will not work. Now, I am worse than before. I have taxed my neck and shoulder. I am glad about it. I get satisfaction when I know I am right.
I had the helpers, for a while, that the hospital arranged. They were so diligent to check on me right after the fall. They had nurses and therapists and helpers from the hospital come check on me for a few weeks. That was how I wanted it. I wanted the hospital to pay anonymous women to attend to me. Best to have a professional to change those blue diaper pads. That was certainly not something for Franklin to do. Heavens. He had his own life. He always had some plan or another, some idea to make him a big man in the world. Such self-confidence in a young man can be contagious. He should not be left to wipe up an old woman.
Just because a girl is paid, do not believe she cares.
The nurses stopped coming before I was strong, so I took my little money and hired girls from the church that Beatrice went to. I didn’t go to the church, I never did, but they let me use the services, and that was good of them. The social workers helped me with a plan, they said, for long-term care. I liked that girl I had. Her name was Milla. She was pretty and not too bright. I thought that made her honest. But she was so young, in the house with my bachelor son. I was in the way, and she was young and pretty. He said he paid her. I sure hope he did. I wonder that he had even that much honor.
The stories will start soon. The games come first, and then the stories. I used to like the game shows because I used to know the answers. That husband I had would get angry when I watched the games because I said the answers out loud. I did it on purpose, to show him I knew more than him. I did, too. Know more than him. He met me as a dancer and never wanted to know what I might have going on upstairs. All I had to remind him of that was the game shows. Game shows, and the help I was with Franklin’s homework. I was, too. Help. I always wanted to do his homework with him. It helped me keep learning. It was another chance for me.
After the games come the stories. You know what I mean by stories. There are funny stories and there are sad stories. Serials. I know which ones will be tonight because I have had to hear about them a hundred and a thousand times since I’ve been down. I can’t change the channel. I almost never do, anyway, but now that I can’t, well, it’s almost as bad as the thirst. The stories tonight will be about love. That’s what they are always about. Brokaw talks about guns and then come the stories of the pretty things and love. I watch them anyway. I think they’re silly but I watch them. Who else is my company but those pretty things on TV? I always wonder what they must think, the people in the stories, of the fact that everyone watches their business. They must be too busy having all that fun, all that love, to think about who they’re keeping company. They are most ungracious for all the invitations.
All the stories are about the search for companions. The stories never show the end and why would they? In the end, a few have loyalty. Most have loathing. If you left it to me, I’d tell the whole story in the end. In the TV stories, it’s all beginnings. Just finding company. What they won’t go through on the TV for the sake of company. For the sake of their needs. That was what we used to call it. Needs. Bea used to tell me that even sometimes the gentlemen she danced with from the church had needs. I was in the way of needs. The needs always pass, with or without fulfillment. I’d like to tell that to the silly pretty things. Your needs and wants will mean nothing in the end. All you will have is your own sorry self.
The next day, when I am up and the nurses have come and gone again, it is only my pride that I will have to myself. I will be glad I’ve kept my pride. It sounds false; but if not my pride, what do I have? I stopped taking the helpers after Milla. I do not need the intrusion of any petty betrayal. I would rather take my chances and see how I do than leave myself at the mercy of their rough hands. Dora had horror stories of the evils perpetrated on the weak. For every good helper, there was a cheat and a thief. When your body is weak, they know and they’ll hurt you. I have become a carnival mark. I have preferred to manage instead.
I have just remembered that I am cold. I have such conflicting miseries. I have cold and hunger and thirst. I have a foul paste forming inside my mouth, and I cannot see through my eyes. My body’s own wastes are corroding my skin and how it burns. And the smell – I can’t even describe it. Of course it offends me! But what am I supposed to do? I can’t help but do what I have to do. I have made a toilet of my dress but what else can I do? That is what the ants have come for, I am sure. My whole flesh and substance are allowed them now.
The sun has already gone down, but I had the lights on when I fell. I don’t like to wait for the dark to turn lights on. Sometimes they’re hard to find. I have slept from time to time since I’ve been down, but it is not time in my schedule to sleep yet. I haven’t slept well for years. It’s not something I do well. How much easier that would make it. If I’m down here much longer, I might not wake up if I go to sleep. That sounds fine. I would love to sleep like that. I haven’t done it yet, though, and I don’t expect I’ll be that lucky tonight. Maybe the lights and the noise will keep them awake next door. Maybe that’s when they’ll call. Maybe three nights in a row will be too much. Is it three? I can hear them running the dishwasher next door, as they do after dinner. They are home. They worked today, and they will work tomorrow. The mechanics of the gyrating water put me back in the world. I am privy to this sound, this routine of sound. I am still in the world.
I suppose I can state to myself that there is a chance they will not come to get me. Last time, they had been here by this point. I was stronger then, too. This might be the end. I thought more about it last time, and it wasn’t. The end. That’s why I haven’t thought so much about it yet. But my mind functions fine, and my mind reminds me that, if they don’t come, there can be only one result. Still. It is inconceivable even now that I will die. Inconceivable, simply because I have not done it yet.
I would have thought the pain would subside by now, or become something tolerable and boring like pleasure becomes. It has not. What I have is a pain that will not cease to amaze me with its vigor. I have avoided discussing the pain in my hip because it is such a mighty thing. Unrelenting is this pain, a squeezing and throbbing at its lowest ebb. If I shrug or wriggle to free some part of me from a lesser misery, it rips me insistently and makes me want to scream. How can I not scream? I am rent. Literally. My bones and my flesh are torn apart. How is someone supposed to live through that? I have always been so good with pain. Notoriously good with pain. You had to be. You let them see your pain, and you were washed up. That’s showbiz. But I can see I was right and good not to make a fuss because I know there was never pain like this before. I haven’t wanted to scream in my life. I screamed when I fell, though. Blue bloody murder. I thought I screamed for hours but nobody came. I screamed after I woke up in the night and realized I was on the linoleum floor and that I would not be able to get up by myself, and thank God for the light or I would not have even known I was in my own house. I screamed the first day or two, but they didn’t hear me. When I try to scream now, it comes out like a bleat, like a sheep would bleat, and I can barely hear it myself. It’s like a nightmare I used to have. The power of the pain within me is the greatest I have ever felt, and nothing I can do can bring the pain out of me in a scream. I am afraid to hear that sound come out of me, not helping me. It might be a sound of hell. I don’t even think about hell, really, but I’m starting to think this might be part of it.
It would be a proper dancer’s death, if I died by my hip.
It was a lifetime ago, so long ago that I remember it like someone else’s life. Like some movie I saw once. But these hips on me were a gold mine once. They couldn’t get enough of a girl with my va-va-voom, let me tell you. They paid good money when I put on something skimpy and shook it all around. I didn’t even have to take my clothes off – it was a different world in those days. It was classy and sly. The men loved a tease. I was partial to satin and shine and boy, did I know how to move. Side, and side, and double time, two three four! A girl could make a good living and even more friends, especially among the men. I only married one when I got old enough to marry, when the new girls started getting the attention and my suitors married good women instead. Otherwise, I would never have stopped. Six, seven, eight. I could shake my hips faster than a belly dancer, beads jangling everywhere, all motion and flash. Me. When the men come to pick me up, as they will any minute now, I will see the faces of those men who came to me and dreamed of me. They never change, men. I’m only sorry that I didn’t get a better one while I still had the choice, but I didn’t want to choose until I really had to. I told the ambulance boys about it last time, my dancing. What a hit I was! Shaking it. Free and loose and shaking it. I shouldn’t wonder why I can’t keep everything from popping out all over.
If only I could remember the pleasure in my body when I danced. It’s something I see in a memory, but my body only knows pain. Well, I guess I’ll dance for God in heaven.
Oh, yes, I’ve even called on God. I panicked after the first fall and spent most of the time talking to Him. To the Him I always doubted. I was not one of the good women of God; wasn’t I a woman of sin? Ah, and so little of that, even, after the first. I thought it might be the grace of this God that saved me after my first fall. I thought it might be my little warning from Him that I’d better start praying for the next time. And I did that, some. I went to the church sometimes, until the ladies passed and then it didn’t make much sense. It was such trouble to go. But I tried God to get me off the floor days ago, and He hasn’t done anything. No sign that He’ll help me. No nice young men to hold me in their arms, and no end to the pain. I don’t know what side He’s on. If He was on my side, He’d help me up. If He wanted me with Him, He’d take me. All He has done is leave me here. If He’s testing me, there’s no use. I haven’t the strength to believe now. I haven’t the mind for a conversion. I haven’t been a hurtful person. If that’s not good enough for Him, I can’t help it now. I don’t know any prayers because I never talked to God. Bea said that it didn’t matter, that I could talk to Him like I would talk to anyone, even in my head, and He would hear. I can’t believe that’s true. I feel a fool, begging of a stranger at this stage. I feel more a fool for begging for the end to a pain that doesn’t end.
The stories are ending, and after the news will be the coarse comedians. It is nighttime, and everyone will be asleep. No one will send for me before the morning. I will make a pillow of my filthy hand and try to sleep. I will take solace and take my rest, as I have done for the nights of 83 years. Tonight is not different. I am still in the world.
“Hip” Copyright ©2004 by Maura Devereux.
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