1st Place -- $250
My housekeeper expects chatter from me. She understands little of what I say, poor thing, but my noise helps her establish a rhythm for her cleaning. I cooperate by summoning up that litany of complaints an old woman can produce without effort, an ever-variable list of uncooperative doctors, ineffective medications, and pains both old and new.
Rosita parks the vacuum cleaner near the dining nook and begins to dust. I note that she has once again skipped the top shelf of my bookcase and I interrupt my chant.
"Rosita, dust the top shelf, please. I'll sneeze all week if you don't clean it thoroughly."
Rosita sighs, retreats to the kitchen and returns with the footstool. She sets it up with a clatter and clambers onto the top step. She plucks up the ceramic Christmas angel my granddaughter Sara placed on the shelf last Sunday, pauses, looks at it and looks at me.
"You believe in angels, Mrs. Francis?"
I am surprised, shocked almost. I've never heard Rosita's shy, tentative voice utter more than a work related question or a monosyllabic response to some comment of mine. Never before has she asked me a personal question. Angels? Angels, angels, angels - what do I think of angels?
Rosita takes my hesitation for incapacity and supplies her own answer. She murmurs, "Angels are for us all." She dusts carefully and puts the angel back on high. "They bring us God's love."
I decide that I can't argue with God's love and nod agreement. Rosita turns and again regards the yellow, gold and scarlet confection Sara bought to cheer me. Do angels intervene in lives, mitigate tragedies, protect innocents? Singularities might be angels. Whatever their attributes and responsibilities, I'm certain that such creatures don't wear golden halos and blank stares while pondering miracles.
Rosita climbs down, folds the stool and returns it to the kitchen. Humming to herself, perhaps reassured by my granddaughter's gaudy angel or by God's love, she continues her dusting.
I sit in my chair and ponder love. I suppose that my loves have been adequate over the years. Husband? Howard and I worked well together. We offered each other no disrespect. We became adept at concealing our needs from each other. I've noticed this trait in several long marriages. Caring for our children brought us odd, unexpected moments of intimacy, moments of honest appreciation for each other, moments of affection.
Forty years ago we took a summer trip to Yosemite. It was August, hot and still in the deep shade of pines, their scent heavy and somnolent. Howard and the children splashed and played in the Merced River not far from the Swinging Bridge. I sat in a folding chair with my toes in warm sand. Jacob, our oldest, then twelve, initiated a game of King of the Mountain by climbing atop a smooth boulder. He slipped, of course - slipped, fell and cracked his head open on ancient granite. Blood spurted from his split scalp. Howard pulled him to shore. I pressed a towel against his wound. He quivered with fear and I hugged his head to my chest. We walked that way for a hundred yards to the car. Howard drove to the Valley medical center.
Twelve stitches, a tetanus shot and Degnan's ice cream cones later, all was well again. The smile Howard and I shared over our children's once again happy chatter was perhaps our most intimate moment together. Do shared crises comprise love?
I bore three children, two sons and a difficult, contrary daughter, Christina. Christina was my rose tree, all bursts of color and thorns. She married a boy I didn't like and divorced him. Then she married a boy I truly respected and divorced him.
When she was four, we all attended one of those company picnics Howard's firm insisted upon staging. You understand the dynamics: envies and hostilities concealed beneath a veneer of sunshine and hotdogs. It was supposed to promote team building. Midway, between hot dogs and three-legged races, Christina climbed a tree, the tallest she could find. She went to the very top and, in spite of all entreaties, stayed there. Various men concluded that she needed to be rescued and called the fire department. A long red truck loaded with firemen soon arrived. As they unlimbered their ladders, I felt a tug at my skirt. I looked down. Christina smiled up at me, quite proud of her achievement.
I don't even count Christina's teen-aged peccadilloes against her, though the car wreck in Mazatalan was possibly my life's most galling crisis. Again, our marital division of labor aided us in the rescue. Howard's business experiences afforded him an understanding of and expertise in bribery, which completely eluded me. I confined myself to comforting the frightened wounded, for my mood swings between haughty contempt and abject fear helped not at all in dealing with Mexican officials. The young people's injuries weren't serious, however, and the damages, though exorbitant, were manageable. We abandoned the car. I've not crossed that border again.
I now know that I taught my children very little that matters, though they learned everything that matters from me. This is not the paradox it seems. Children aren't designed to benefit from lessons. They observe. They emulate. They finally extemporize.
What did Christina learn of love from me? Perhaps nothing.
I feel a vague irritation with myself. My life was not disreputable, far from it, but its separate parts rustle like dry leaves when my memory touches them. What precisely is adequate love? Comfortable, dependable, respectable and manageable - is love the sum of these parts?
As sometimes happens without my willing it, my mind now floats like a cloud above my life's terrain. Regrets? No smoldering ruins pass below. My humiliations? Their once leering faces are dust in shadows. My defeats? Save one, they are trivial traces on a hillside.
The one defeat, the one irreconcilable loss I suffered remains a bottomless canyon. Christina died from cancer. My thorny daughter was too quiet at the end, too gentle. And I found that I loved her, after all. The last distillation of her in my heart is love. Death is both ridiculous and mundane. Its intrusion is blunt like trucks, or boulders, or the smell of garbage. I detest blunt, rude things. Cancer? Cancer is just evil. It is evil suffering beyond understanding and solace, a black canyon.
When I was eighteen in Paris, I loved. Wild love burned like a star in my belly, scorched me from within just that one time and frightened me. His name was Martin. He wanted me to go to Istanbul with him. I said no, I had to study. That was a lie. He knew it was a lie. I never saw him again.
Today's mail rests on the oak secretary Howard and I bought when we were newly married. Rosita brought it in. I watched her sort the items by size, putting the largest magazines and fliers on the bottom with letters on top. One of the envelopes caught my eye. It was cream colored and of good quality. Something about that envelope calls to me from across the room.
There is ominous power in unopened mail. Sometimes its infinite possibilities terrify me and I ignore Time Magazine, Target ads and all the tedious bills for days. Today I must see the anonymous envelope. It is somehow significant.
Chords, after all, have resolutions. There is a great yearning for harmony in our universe. It is like the deep urge of sunflowers following the sun. Perhaps the envelope conceals some delayed affirmation. Perhaps it is the work of an angel.
I'm using the cane today, not the walker. Pride makes me choose it. I am reluctant to concede an additional degree of frailty. My couch is soft and deep. I plant the aluminum cane, push down with all of my limited might and manage to thrust myself upright. I totter, but catch myself. I breathe deeply for a minute, perhaps more. Finally, I look up.
Rosita's back is to me. She is dusting the dining table. If she sees what I'm doing, she'll rush to retrieve my mail for me. I want to make this journey on my own.
I begin. Managing life in one's eighties is much like being a general. Each sequence of actions is a campaign. I arrange my forces carefully. Right foot forward; advance cane; achieve balance, left foot forward. I acquire a rhythm and focus upon my goal. The cream-colored envelope gleams upon the secretary. I concentrate. Step follows step.
Who would write to me? Who would send me such an envelope? Someone who cares for me. Someone who values my thoughts. Someone who seeks my love, or at least my approval. I near the secretary. I reach for the envelope with my left hand. I grasp it. A snake coils about my ankles, the vacuum cleaner cord. It tugs, not a great tug, but enough to dissolve my fragile balance. I sway like a cut tree and fall.
I fall sideways and crash into the corner of the dining room wall. I feel something break in my chest and something else in my back. Pain blasts me senseless.
My mind swims up through pain. Martin and I saw Cyrano together in Paris. We went to a brasserie on the Rue des Ecoles afterwards. Poor Cyrano, struck down by a lackey with a log of wood, or a maid with a vacuum cleaner cord. No! I fight on! I fight on!
I clutch my unopened letter and watch sepia-colored light fade.
"Yeah, let's do it."
"How's she doing?"
"Not so great."
"What's she holding?"
"Bed, Bath and Beyond. I got one the other day."