the writing disorder


New Fiction


by Marc Simon

      We pull up on Millerdale Street, and the first thing I notice, my Honeylocust tree is gone. There’s nothing but a flat stump. Now why would anyone take down a perfectly good tree without asking me first? The City of Pittsburgh planted that tree in our front yard 40 years ago when we moved here from the apartment on Negley Avenue, after I had Randy, my second boy. Randy and my oldest, James, played Tarzan of the Apes up in the branches, screaming like banshees. It’s a wonder they didn’t fall and break their heads open. All us neighborhood ladies used to sit out on summer nights under that tree, talking about this, that and the other thing, slapping at our arms with flyswatters to keep the mosquitoes away.
      I pay the cab driver and wheel my little suitcase up the front walk. It’s quiet on the street. My lawn looks green and neat. James or Randy must have come by to cut it. It’s been a rainy April. The crocuses came up good. My daffodils and tulips are ready to open.
      The front door is locked. Now that’s funny. In all the years I lived in this house I never locked my door. No need to. All us neighbors looked out for each other.
      I put my key in the lock, but it doesn’t turn. It could be it’s the wrong key, the one for the apartment. I keep all my keys on a red elastic coil around my wrist. At Sunset Towers you need one key for your apartment, one for your mailbox and another one for the storage locker. They all look the same, those keys. Anyone could get confused.
      I try them all but nothing works. Arlene Lennon, my neighbor from across the street has an extra key to my house. She doesn’t work, so she’s home all day. Her husband never let her drive a car. I don’t know why. I haven’t taken my car out of the garage since the boys moved me up to Sunset Towers. The battery is probably dead by now. My late husband Al always said run a car at least once a week or the battery goes bad. It’s a good thing Al taught me to drive before he had his heart attack; otherwise I couldn’t get around on my own. Taking a cab everywhere would cost an arm and a leg. It was fourteen dollars plus tip from Sunset Towers to here.
      I hope Arlene has some coffee on. Not that her coffee is any good—all she makes is instant—but I could use a cup right now. I haven’t had one since early this morning, after that mouse ran out of my cabinet. Could have been a rat, the size of it.
      I’m about to go to Arlene’s when my front door swings open. There’s a tall young woman with red hair standing there. She comes out on the porch and says, “Can I help you, ma’am?”
      This is a shock. I say, “What are you doing in my house?”
      “Your house?”
      “That’s what I said.”
      “Wait a minute, ma’am—are you lost or something?”
      “Lost? I’ve lived here for 40 years.”
      Al and I paid $17,500 for this house on the GI loan in 1949. We were married in 1946, after he came back from the war in Germany. Before that, I worked as a bookkeeper at the Edgar Thompson Steel Works for Mr. Walter T. Kelly from 1941 to 1945. Al was the second boy I dated. He popped the question at Rainbow Gardens, a very nice dance hall in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. They tore it down years ago. Al had a good job grinding eyeglass lenses for Shields Optical. I still get his pension plus my Social Security.
      “Well I can tell you, you don’t live here now.”
      This woman claims says she bought the house three months ago. Which is ridiculous. I didn’t sell it to her. Maybe my boys had a hand in this somehow. “Hold on a second,” I say, “I need to call my sons about this. Maybe I could borrow your telephone.”

      “Your sons? Wait—what’s your name?”
      “Lila Gross. What’s yours?”
      “Maggie Wolfe.” She looks at me again, like somehow she knows me now. She says I can come in and use her phone. In the middle of my living room there’s a baby in a playpen. She’s a cute little thing, lying there so peaceful. Her hair is red. Both my boys had blonde hair until they were five, and it was so fine it pained me to get it cut, but Al said he didn’t want them looking like girls. Now my older boy James is almost as gray as I am. He’s the worrier of the two. For some reason, Randy shaves his head. I think he’s going bald and doesn’t want anyone to know it, but I tell him, what’s the difference. You can’t fight nature.
      Over to the right is a dark wood desk with a stack of folders and a computer. “You must be doing some work.”
      She folds her arms across her chest. “So, you’re related to James and Randy Gross.”
      “Of course I am, I’m their mother. You know them?”
      She smiles kind of sideways. “Yes, I know them. Listen, why don’t you just wait here a second, all right? I’ll get the cordless and you make your call.”
      James is my older boy. He’s 51 now, divorced, no children. His wife was flighty and had a quick temper, but then James does, too, so I can’t put it all on her. Randy never did marry. Don’t ask me why. It pains me to think I’ll never have a sweet little grandchild like this one here.
      Besides the playpen, my living room is all changed around. There’s a sofa on one side and a matching loveseat on the other, with a stone and glass coffee table in the middle. It has a pretty floral arrangement with purple and white African violets around a philodendron. I have to keep artificial flowers in the apartment because I don’t get enough light for real plants.
      I’m picking the dead leaves off the philodendron when Maggie comes back with the telephone. She says, “Here, Mrs. Gross.”
      “Call me Lila. The only people that call me Mrs. Gross are my doctors. You have a trash can for these leaves?”
      “I’ll take them.” Her manicure is nice. Up at Sunset Towers they have a Russian woman that comes in twice a week to do nails. You can’t understand a word she says. She charges seven dollars, and that’s about all it’s worth, the way she slops on the polish. But you can’t complain to her since, as I say, she doesn’t speak the language.
      “That’s a lovely wedding ring you have, Maggie.”
      “Uh, thanks.”
      “After my husband Al died, I just couldn’t wear my rings anymore. It didn’t feel right. I had the engagement ring made into a diamond pendant.” I should have packed it before I left. I look at my little suitcase and wonder what else I forgot. I feel woozy all of a sudden.
      She leans toward me. “Are you all right?”
      “Oh yes, I’m fine.”
      She looks as if she doesn’t believe me. “Lila, why did you come here today?”
      “To tell you the truth, Maggie, I don’t have much use for Sunset Towers. That’s the place my boys found for me. Just a lot of older people sitting around, trying to figure out what to do with themselves. Half of them don’t understand what you say to them. The other half is hard of hearing. They give you a nametag to wear. As if you don’t know your own name. I don’t know where mine is but I never wore it anyway. It wasn’t my idea to move up there, but when I fell down the basement stairs James told me I was too old to be running up and down the steps all day.
      “Anyway, this morning, I was getting a box of corn flakes when a mouse ran out of the cabinet. It could have been a rat, the size of it. It went right for my bad ankle. I can still feel its fur rubbing against my skin. Then it shot into my bedroom.”
      “Did you call maintenance?”
      “What can they do? Anyway, I had to get out of there after that. You’re supposed to sign out, but I didn’t tell anybody I was leaving, not even Sally Jessowitz. She would blab it all over the place. I’m not saying she isn’t nice, but sometimes with her you can’t get a word in edgewise. You know how some people go on and on.” Maggie laughs for a second. “Did I say something funny?”
      “Yes. I mean no.”
      “Of course, there’s no rats in this house. The basement is dry as a bone. I keep the boys’ school papers and family photo albums down there. I could show you some pictures.” I start for the kitchen.
      Maggie says, “Lila, hold on a minute. You need to call your sons.”
      “I want to show you those pictures.”
      You have to go through the dining room and kitchen to get to the basement. I stop at the top of the stairs. “I must have been up and down these steps a million times. I don’t know how I fell. I was carrying a basket of whites and the next thing I know, I was flat on my back at the bottom.”
      Maggie says, “You’re lucky you didn’t break your neck.”
      I touch her arm. “That’s just what my boys said. My ankle got twisted up under me. They kept me in the hospital for four days. Four days for a twisted ankle? I said wrap it up and let me be on my way, but they had to do their tests. They even took some kind of X-ray of my head. Now why would they do that? I fell on my ankle.”
      We’re halfway down the steps. Maggie’s got a hold of my elbow. She says, “There’s that dripping noise again. It drives me crazy.”
      “That? Come on, I’ll show you.” Behind the furnace there’s a plastic bucket that hangs off the drain valve. It’s ready to spill over. I explain to her that you have to empty the overflow every week, or else you’ll get water on the floor.
      She looks surprised. “I didn’t even know it was there.”
      “Also, it’s time to change the batteries in the smoke detectors. I do it every April when it’s Daylight Savings Time, so I don’t forget. My husband Al used to take care of all this.”
      “Mine, too.”
      “What? Did something happen to him?”
      She frowns. “You could say that.”
      “He didn’t have a heart attack, did he?”
      “The bastard walked out on me a month before Nora was born.”
      You could have knocked me over with a feather.
       “He left me, just like that, in the middle of the night, without a word or a note or anything.”
      I say, “You poor girl.”
      She takes some clothes out of the washer and puts them in the dryer. “We were together for eight years, married for five. We hardly ever fought. That should have been a clue. But I thought everything was fine, you know? If someone had said to me, ‘Maggie, are you happy?’ I would have said, ‘Well, yeah, sure.’ Stupid girl.
      “So a couple of years ago, we decide to have a baby and then buy a house, live like real adults, and everything is hectic and scary and exhausting, but sweet, too, and I thought, we can really do this, but now it’s all turned to shit.”
      “Don’t say that, Maggie.”
      “What the hell did I ever do to deserve this? I’m not a shrew. I’m not a bitch. I’m nice, goddamn it. Nice. Maybe that’s my problem. But you know what the worst part is? Sometimes at night, I miss him so much I ache all over. It pisses me off, but I can’t help it.” She looks at me. “Christ, I can’t believe I’m telling you this.”
      “It’s all right. It’s good to get it off your chest.” I give her a hug, and she hugs me back. We stand there with our arms around each other. It makes me wish I had had a daughter like her. After a few seconds we let go. I think she’s a little embarrassed.
      We’re back in the kitchen when the baby starts crying and the phone starts ringing all at once. She runs into the living room. I hear her say, “Maggie Wolfe … Arthur, how are you? Listen, can I put you on hold for one second?” Then she yells, “Lila, could you come in here, please?”
      I head back into the living room as fast as my bad ankle will let me. The baby’s bawling her eyes out. She could be hungry or wet, or both, even. Maggie hoists her up on her hip. She says, “Can you mind her a minute?”
      It’s been a long time since I held a baby, but she fits right in the crook of my arm, as if she were meant to be there. She has the bluest eyes. I know people always say that, but she does. I could look into a baby’s eyes forever. I rock her softly and say, “Hi, little Nora, I’m your Aunt Lila.” Right away she calms down.
      Maggie looks at her computer and says, “No, I’m fine, Arthur. Thanks for holding. Listen, I need the cost basis for that Class A Enterprise Fund you sold last year ... cost basis … it’s O.K., your advisor will know … yes, ASAP … thanks, you too.” She takes the baby. My arm feels warm where I held her, but I know it won’t last. “Look, Lila, you can see I have my hands full right now. I need you to call one of your boys to take you home.”
      I say, “But I am home.”
      “But you’re not.” She points all around her. “ Look, I’m sorry, but you don’t own this house anymore. Do you understand? Your sons sold it to me on your behalf. They have power of attorney.”
      She’s wrong there. “Attorney? I don’t know what you mean by that. James is a high school teacher and Randy fixes cars. He owns his own garage. He takes care of mine for me. I don’t know if it will start. The battery may be dead.”
      “Lila, what I’m telling you is, they sold your house to me, in your name.”
      “They can do that without asking me?”
      “They must have explained this to you.”
      I remember the day the boys moved me up to Sunset Towers. They got the furniture set up in half an hour. The place is so small, there are only so many ways you can arrange it. They told me how much I was going to enjoy it there. I said to them, well exactly what I am supposed to do with myself all day. Randy said something about arts and crafts and shopping trips, and James said that I should just relax and enjoy life now, and that they would take care of the house. I thought they meant they’d mow the lawn and such.
      Maggie tugs my arm and says, “Lila?”
      “I thought the reason they got me that apartment up there was just because I hurt my ankle falling down the steps, that it was just a place to stay until I got better, not for good.”
      “You understand now?”
      I look out the front window. “You never did tell me what happened to my Honeylocust tree. The city planted it for us.”
      “We had to have it taken down. It was rotting from the inside.”
      “Is that right? Funny, I never noticed. I guess I’m getting old. But if had to be done, it had to be done. I wouldn’t want the tree to suffer.” I get a little teary. “Look, Maggie, I don’t mind if you and the baby live here. You take the master bedroom. I could take the spare, or if you don’t want me going up and down the stairs, I’ll sleep on the pullout sofa.”
      “It’s a queen size. The sheets are in the linen closet. Does the baby sleep through the night yet? It won’t bother me to get up to feed her, I’m a light sleeper. Unless you’re nursing.”
      She looks away, and for a second I think she’s getting mad at me. But then she puts her arm around my shoulders and kisses me on my cheek. Her voice is a little shaky when holds out the telephone. “Call your sons.”
      I feel shaky, too. I need some air. I get up and go out the front door, pulling my suitcase behind me. It looks like rain. I wonder where that cab is.

Marc Simon’s short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines, including The Wilderness House Review, The Shine, Flashquake and Poetica Magazine. His first novel, The Leap Year Boy will be published this December, and his one-act play, Sex After Death is a winner in the Naples Players Readers Theater new plays competition and will be staged in December as well.

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