She wakes. It’s dark. She reaches to turn on the light, and it’s not there. Her hand sweeps the air. She tries again. No lamp. No nightstand. She gets to one elbow and hears her glasses rattle down the side of the bed.
She pushes back the bedding, swings her feet to the floor, and gets down on her knees to feel for the glasses. Knocks into a temple piece and grabs it. The switch to the ceiling light is over by the doorway, but then the glare makes her shade her eyes; she hates overhead lights. She and Edgar always disagreed about this. He liked those fluorescent fixtures with the tubes, and she’s always liked lamps with yellowing paper shades on tables. He got to have his fluorescents out in the shed.
Her nightstand really is missing, and so is Edgar’s. That’s where she keeps the Murano glass frame from their honeymoon in Venice. With the photo somebody snapped at their wedding, she in shocking red and he in thrift-store tux. They were flower children. Carefree. Careless. They had their wedding on the beach with a crowd of people and two rented horses and red ribbons snapping in the wind. No Mendelsohn, no love-honor-and-obey.
She put the photo on Edgar’s nightstand because it’s all that remains of him on that side of the bed; he left her for another woman. And then he got old and died. She lost him twice. After mourning what was ended by the divorce and fearing for whatever would or wouldn’t come next—after that, she didn’t expect his death would matter, but it was a violent loss.
She leaves the bedroom and goes down the hall to the living room. Shadows from the streetlight blanket the furniture. At the front window, the table is missing, the table he made for her. She crosses to stand in the empty place on the floor. There was a table here, wasn’t there? Unless he took it with him. Or she gave it away. And what about the desk with the pigeonholes, in the dining room, with the date of her fortieth birthday chiseled into the front.
Gone. The chair, too. She’s in a Hitchcock film.
She goes to the wall of photos by the breakfast table. A few remain, ones she doesn’t care that much about. She touches the empty picture hangers, as if they might explain. Missing are her mother and father, her dogs, trips to Istanbul and Bangkok. It’s like her life has been erased, deleted. Somebody broke in. Or she did this herself. You learn over time that the things you accuse people of are sure to be the things you did yourself.
She can’t pretend her memory is one-hundred percent. There was that first visit to the doctor, before her niece and the specialists got involved. She told him she’d been forgetting things and getting confused driving places in the car. He was dismissive. He said, What else can you expect, at your age? Those were his words. How dare you, she wanted to say. Like she was too old to fix, some broken-down vacuum cleaner. She remembers staring at the eye chart on the wall, the glass case with the jar of cotton balls, feeling a flooding rage. She didn’t end up saying anything. She got off the examining table and pulled on her sweater and opened the door and went right past the receptionist and out to the elevator in the hall. Except she had to go back to get her purse. She’d never done anything like that before, walked out on somebody. Maybe there are benefits to her age. She told Della about it, and they got to laughing. They laughed until they hurt. At your age. Makes her laugh now, remembering. She needs to call Della. She’s got her number somewhere.
She wanders through the house. The dime store dish where she keeps her keys. Who would take that? A lamp she’s had since college. The house has been looted. The rug in the hall. She’s not going to panic. When it gets light, she’ll call her niece. No windows open. No drawers spilled on the floor the way they do.
And the door to the guest room is closed. Someone is in there; she’s sure of it. There’s something in that room she doesn’t want to know about. She’s being childish; she should open the door and go in and find out.
Instead, she escapes to the backyard. The air is cool and dark and fresh and alive. She steps out onto the porch and down the worn wooden steps. Wet grass on her bare feet. She ducks under the clothesline. The flowering plum tree glows white against the still-dark of the dawning sky that shelters remnants of the night’s brilliance. A black emptiness where the shed blots out the sky, the shed that was Edgar’s workshop. But then it was hers; after he left, she took classes at the community college and learned to use the table saw and the drill press and the sander and the Skil saw and the router. You don’t have to be helpless.
A breeze lifts the hem of her nightgown. The cold on her skin feels good. Her niece would fuss, tell her to wrap up. She can’t think of her niece’s name right now. It will come. If you wait, these things do. She sits in the garden swing that hangs from the limb of the big oak. The seat is making her nightgown wet. She doesn’t care. Out here, nothing’s been erased.
The movement of the swing is calming, familiar. Her mind stops spinning and misplaced pieces slot back into place. Which is good except they are pieces she’d rather not have remembered. There’s no avoiding them now. Clarity of mind doesn’t always bring good news.
Everything is changing again; she’s leaving this house and going to HappyLand. That’s what she calls it. The place has some tiresome name she doesn’t want to remember. She won’t be outside at dawn in her nightgown after today. There’s a door at the place where you have to ask to get out.
She comes here mornings, first thing, to be alone, to think. She always has. They used to have a routine. After he was up and dressed, Edgar would bring her coffee, and he would sit on the bench right over there by the trunk of the tree, one arm stretched along the top of the wooden backrest. She would sway in the swing, her toes in the dirt, sipping her coffee, and he would lean back, looking up into the branches. Watching dawn turn to day. Once, a bluebird flitted right down to land on Edgar’s arm. The bird gripped his sleeve, examining him with one bright eye and then the other. The image often comes to mind, just when she’s rinsing her toothbrush in the sink in the bathroom, water swirling into the drain. Memory makes peculiar associations.
The horizon glows red through the tiny new leaves of the alders. Red sky at morning.
A few times recently, she has walked to town and not managed to make it home before somebody found her going the wrong direction. She rode home in a patrol car, which might have been thrilling. She asked if the officer would operate the siren and run the stoplights. He would not. She’d have made her way if they hadn’t been so quick to hunt her down. Bad luck. Her niece did what she had to do. It’s embarrassing, having her out wandering around; she understands that. Once you are certified delusional, everything you do matches people’s expectations. Making jokes is the worst. People think it’s you being nuts if you aren’t consistently logical. Except Della. She needs to call Della.
Her niece took her to HappyLand to visit. Everybody was trying hard. The grand tour: TV and piano and ficus and posters of kittens and puppies. Not inspiring. An interview with the director, tea and Oreos on a tray. She offended the man. She asked if it would be possible to please not refer to her as “the loved one.” She told him it was patronizing, insulting. She should have kept her mouth shut. Memory care, assisted living, secured exits, enhanced safety measures—hateful language. You spend your life worrying you might die too young, but the problem may be the opposite.
Her niece—Olivia is her name—is doing her very best. You can’t take care of your loony aunt twenty-four hours a day and have a life.
That’s what’s happened to her things. They loaded up her niece’s husband’s truck. Now she remembers. The nightstand, the table, the desk, the rug, the photos. Took them over to the tedious little room at HappyLand. The car is in the garage. She could escape. Give them a run for their money. A last hurrah. She’s not dead yet.
She feels like she’s betrayed the things she’s leaving behind. The not-chosen things. She’s always felt that way about the fur-lined gloves and dish drainers that went to Goodwill; things that were given-up on, abandoned. They went out and bought her an appalling wardrobe. Loose shirts and pull-on pants. Her beautiful dresses and suits, not that she wears them a lot. Learning to lose. What if you don’t feel like singing oldies? She won’t have oatmeal with windfall apples from the pasture. Little things. But right now, she’s fine. Think about now.
She gets up from the swing. Day is winning. She steps around pockets of winter-worn leaf debris to look in the windows of the shed. It’s too dark to see inside. She goes to the door and lifts the latch. Turns on the light. The table saw, the benches, chisels hung in a graduated row; Edgar was very tidy, and she’s tried to keep it that way. The pieces of a frame for her mirror are laid out on the worktable. They’ve been there some time. It’s not too late to cut the miters. The project is close to finished. Now or never.
She’s not dressed for it. Let it go. There’s sawdust on the floor; somebody else will sweep it into bags. Her niece won’t want to talk to her about that; her niece will want her to move on. But Della will find out for her. Della is her secret weapon. Della will persuade them to let her out for little expeditions. At your age. She laughs again, the kind of laugh that’s just a puff of air.
The light from her bedroom shines through the forsythia branches. Beyond the glass, her rumpled abandoned bed. Next window over, the guest room with the nightlight in the outlet by the bed, glowing blue. She goes closer. Of course, it’s her niece who’s there. Olivia. Keeping watch.
A log rolls under her foot. Grabbing for the window sill, her knuckles bang on the glass. She dodges to the side, hides, doesn’t want to be seen peering in the window. Then decides she’s being ridiculous; it’s her house and her niece. She finds secure footing. She can see into the room. Olivia has opened her eyes. She sits up on the far side of the bed, tilts her head and rubs her neck. Then she stands abruptly, grabs her robe. Rushes from the room. She appears in the next-door, bright-lighted window. Stops, leans on the doorframe, despair in her shoulders. She enters the room and throws back the bedding. She even pulls open the closet door. Stares at the window a moment.
I’m right here, can’t you see me?
But her niece sees no farther than her own reflection and touches her sleep-snarled hair. Poor Olivia and her hair; she rarely has success with it. The girl yanks on the tie of her robe, runs out into the hall.
The windows are like television sets, people in their boxes. Or like how, off season, the town keeps the life-sized plaster Nativity figures that go on the courthouse lawn in the damp basement of the old jail. It’s not a good place for them, and they are deteriorating. Joseph’s lost one arm. It fell off last year. And the lamb is mildewed. You can’t lock things away and expect them to be fine.
She wanders back toward the swing and the ripening dawn. Soon the fledgling sun will appear at the horizon and lift to a new day’s flight. Every day, it happens earlier. You can see the shed now and the stakes for the tomato plants and the bench wrapped around the trunk of the tree where Edgar used to sit. She can’t yet see the lilac blossoms over by the fence, but she can smell them. The bluebird only stayed an instant, that time; she blinked, and it was gone.