“What’s wrong with Grandma?” Jane’s son Max asked over lunch at the downtown diner. In front of him, a heaped plate of fried chicken, a buttery mound of whipped potatoes, and a fragile stack of crisp green beans, all smothered in pan gravy flecked with pepper. The dark-haired waitress gave him a nod, hoping he might notice her backside, which he did not. Fried chicken trumps ass, Jane thought, bending over her plate to hide her smirk. Her meal? Caesar salad with grilled chicken breast, dressing on the side.
“Grandma’s just getting old,” Jane told him, feeling an ache in her hip bones as she sat in the booth. Too many dog walks. Too much sitting in front of the computer at the library’s request unit. Books and more books until she couldn’t stand it or up. What did her husband call out to her as she lurched from bed, first thing? “Bride of Frankenstein goes to the bathroom.”
Jane speared a white-ish hunk of romaine. “That’s what happens.”
“But she says she doesn’t have any fingerprints,” Max said. His eyes, dark and shiny, hair short and perfect on his head, the shape of which Jane can still feel under her palm. “How is that possible? I mean, is it?”
“Has to be. She was born like that. Smooth-fingered.”
“So that’s the first thing,” Max said.
“The first what?” Jane tried to ignore the fact that this is a conversation Max might later have with his older brother Zac, one about her and her eventual breaking down into dust.
“The first thing to go wrong.”
There were a lot of things going wrong in her mother Gert’s life. Fingerprints weren’t the first thing, though maybe at birth, they were. Gert came prepackaged wrong. But didn’t they all?
Those fingerprints, though. Last time Jane and Gert flew back into the country from Ireland, the US Customs officials held her in a Plexiglas office, allowing Jane to sit next to her. Their questions, “Where have you been?” and “What do you do?” echoed in the still cubed chamber. This, Jane had thought, is what the baboon feels. This is what the hamster knows.
“Listen,” Gert had told the Homeland security guy, the Border Patrol person, the Customs agent. “My first job was at a military lab. Couldn’t pass a security check back in 1960. Took them months to get it right,” she said. “My left pinky never fully cleared. That has to be in a database somewhere. You people keep all that information right? Big brother, right?”
Jane nudged her with one knee
The truth squad surveyed Gert, 78, short, swimming in her size 4 pants, all bones under her fluttery aquamarine colored synthetics. Her hair—thin and wispy and styled by a 9 hour transatlantic flight—flew up and over her head disc-like, a mesmerizing metallic lenticular cloud.
“Damn cow-lick,” Gert always said.
“That’s one busy cow,” Jane joked once, and the good news is that they both laughed.
Finally, after walking in and out of the cube, the officials freed them into the San Francisco fog.
“Things go wrong with everyone,” Jane said to Max now, hearing a lightness in her voice she did not feel. Max was being too critical, but then, so was she, especially when a couple weeks later, all Gert’s electrical and electronic items and gadgets started to malfunction.
“What is wrong with my mother?” Jane asked after returning home from an emergency internet-fixing visit at Gert’s.
Her husband Dom looked up at her over his New York Times. “What do you mean?”
“When did she get so, well, stupid?” Jane plopped down her bag full of various computer gizmos she’d imagined would be needed. All that had been wrong was an errant, un-plugged plug. “How is it possible that nothing works? Suddenly? She didn’t used to be like that.”
“Black thumb,” Dom said.
“Sounds like some kind of rot.” Jane sat down with him at the kitchen table. Her mother had been able to send out one SOS email before her entire house was plunged into radio silence.
“Nothing is working!” came the email.
“Kind of is,” Dom said. “But with anything using electricity. It all falls apart the moment your mother walks in the room.”
“It does not,” Jane said.
“Yes, it does. Has for years.”
“Not years,” Jane said, but yes, it was years. “It seems worse now.”
“There’s just less in between. She’s not working. You grew up. Our kids grew up. What’s left to break?”
Jane stared at her husband, dark and focused on the bad news in front of him, the world a nasty stream of black and white.
“She should be a secret weapon,” Jane said. “Countries could hire her.”
Dom put down his paper. “She’d be useful during emergencies. ‘Look up in the sky! Aliens!’ And the spaceships would all fall to the earth.” Dom was getting excited, but he taught third-graders, so that wasn’t too hard to manage. “Colonization averted.”
Jane thought of all sorts of other useful times when electricity should go out: war raids, unruly parties (a police tactic), earthquakes, fires. Gert Trainer: a human protection against strikes and flares and unwanted drug use.
But as the year went on, it became clear to Jane that there wasn’t any real use for her mother’s troubles. No matter how well the manual was written or how new the appliance, phone, card key, or television set was, nothing worked. There were calls to technicians, the goon squad—or whatever the nerds in the vans were called—Jane herself. Dom sometimes went over to try to help. Sometimes even Jane’s ex-husband Bill, who lived twenty miles away from Gert, helped out with pruning the tentacled grapefruit tree, the overblown pyracantha bush. Max and Zac made routine visits and ended up replacing light bulbs, swapping out doorbells, resetting their grandmother’s phone, remote, clock, water sprinkler system. They showed her how to log into her computer, again. They instructed her how to adjust her car’s air conditioning unit.
“It must be difficult,” Dom said one night as they sat in silence outside on the patio, each with a glass of wine in hand. “Too see her lose it.”
Jane let herself feel his concern with reaction. Without defense. “It really is funny, except it’s us. For someone else, I’d laugh all day.”
In the fall, it was Gert’s oven. She’d decided she wanted to host Thanksgiving, after a twenty-year hiatus of all things holiday, traveling instead to Jane’s for turkey, standing rib roast, baked ham with juniper berries instead of pineapple rings. Of course this was all Jane’s fault because earlier in the year, she had facilitated an entire kitchen renovation, the old kitchen an outdated white tile and dark cupboard concoction from the 80s, complete with a window box greenhouse box that jutted into the small back patio, all sharp metal corners.
But the oven.
“I can’t use any of the shelves. They fall out,” Gert said on the phone. “And how do I turn it on?”
“Is there a button. An ‘on’ switch?”
“You must think I’m an idiot,” Get said.
“Mom,” Jane said. “Look. I’m sorry. But is there an on switch?”
There was a silence and then muffled fumblings. A click. A pause. A click.
“I see it,” Gert said, the subject now closed. “So when are you going to bring over the turkey?”
“We’re bringing over the turkey,” Jane said, flatly.
“Also,” Gert said. “I don’t have a potato smasher. And your stuffing.”
“I can do a salad,” Gert said.
You don’t need an oven for that, Jane thought, agreeing to everything her mother said. How many more Thanksgivings would there be anyway? At least with Gert.
After the oven discussion, there was an issue with the central heating thermostat. Gert called up the company that happily sent out a technician (and charged a 75 dollar service fee) to explain exactly how to turn down the heat (The down arrow. Click, click), a lesson Gert soon forgot.
“I just leave it at 70,” she said. “I don’t care.”
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Jane had been over five times to help with cords and plugs and various devices (the clock radio Gert still listened to). Sometimes when Jane arrived, everything was on, a blare of Rush Limbaugh from the now constantly on radio and classical music from the TV’s music selections. The heater pumping air, the irrigation dousing the camellias despite the ongoing drought (“What are they going to do? Turn off my water?” Gert asked. “I’m elderly. That would be abuse.”). One visit, her mother was huddled on the corner of her couch, one light on, reading a paperback.
“My Kindle died,” she said, as if in light, comfortable mourning. “And no one can fix it.”
“Let me see,” Jane said, looking around the tidy family area. How many times had she been in this room? With kids and husbands and other family members? There seemed no evidence of all that time, now that Gert had redecorated. All that old furniture with the cat hair and coffee stains and crumbs from birthday cakes gone.
“Never mind,” Gert said. “I bought a new one. It’s coming tomorrow.”
Gert was a Prime member, everything coming right to her door, enough so that she barely had to leave her house. And that was a good thing, as she didn’t understand the controls on her car.
On her next visit, Jane found her mother beating her television remote control to death against her buffet table.
“Goddamn fucking thing,” Gert said with each pound. With a crack, the plastic flew open, exposing its innards and ejecting the battery, which spun out and onto the dining room floor, twirling in a silver glint. “I don’t know what’s happening!”
After that incident, Dom bought Gert a universal remote, but that one didn’t work either. Jane found it under the living room couch. Eventually, Gert had to use the on/off switch, old school.
“What’s going on with Grandma?” Jane’s older son Zac asked as they drove home together from Gert’s house, bagged Thanksgiving leftovers snug in the cargo holders in the back of the Subaru. Dom was asleep in the passenger’s seat, hands on clasp on his full belly.
“What do you mean?” Jane glanced back at him in the rearview mirror.
“I don’t know,” Zac said. “It’s like—“
“She’s half not there,” Max finished for his brother. “Like a light. On. Then off. Then on.”
Jane clutched the steering wheel, a pain accompanied by breathlessness beating in her lungs. Her mother had never been the one with the answers, or, at least the answers Jane had wanted. Pain and upset were solved by half a valium (“She’s only ten!” her father had whispered). The neighbor ladies had often been the voices of reason, conferring with Gert about all number of Jane’s childhood calamities—bad grades, bullying boys, a terrible haircut (Gert-given as Jane sat on one of the tall kitchen stools. The solution? By consensus, Dippity-Do on Jane’s bangs until they grew out long enough the lie flat).
But Gert was not one to go to in times of dread and terror. Not when Jane crashed the car the day after her sixteenth birthday or flunked out of physiology (she refused to cut open a formaldehyded cat on ethical and moral grounds). Her father was for those exigencies, but then he died. Jane was left to figure out badly everything until she was older and somewhat wiser, Gert wide-eyed in the face of a first-sex experience gone very bloody and several rejections from colleges before an acceptance rolled in. Eventually, she’d left Gert’s home and forgotten that her mother navigated the world’s water as if she were a pirate with two bad eyes, patches on both, only the parrot left to caw its bad advice in her one good ear.
By Christmas, it was clear Gert was more off than on, Zac’s pronouncement true. One stormy late December afternoon, there had been an intervention Gert believed was just a family visit—Jane, her sister Ruth flown in from Vancouver, Zac and Max and Dom. Even Bill came, sitting on the couch, his arms folded.
“How about a drink!” Gert said, and that’s when Jane brought up the empty Ambien and Vicodin bottles she’d found in the master bathroom trash, this after Max admitted to slipping his grandmother four pot chocolate cookies that she ate in two days.
“So I guess a bourbon is out?” Gert asked. The lights flickered. Max and Nick found the candles. The storm picked up, blew leaves and small branches against the windows, the house, detritus spinning on top the roof. When the heat shut off, Bill built a fire.
“I’ll take that bourbon,” Dom said.
“You know where it is,” Gert said.
Apparently Gert knew where it was, too, only one an amber inch swishing in the big bottle. Amazon might not deliver alcohol, but apparently BevMo did.
By Easter, Gert was living in an assisted living community, only a half-mile from her condo.
“Don’t you dare sell my home,” Gert said.
“Max is going to move in. You’re close to his school,” Jane said. “He can fix it up and paint. Get everything working.”
For a second, her mother looked at her, her eyes wide-open, pupils dilated, as if Gert were looking into the vast darkness of everything. Her grandson, Max. The condo. Even Jane herself and all her forty-seven years. All and everything deep mysteries Gert could not grasp or remember. Jane watched her mother’s mouth form questions, the words in her mouth, on her lips. Jane saw the “Why?” and “How?”
Jane wanted to agree, to lean close and look with her mother into that dark thing neither of them would ever understand. But just as she pressed into the softness of her mother’s ear, Gert snapped to, pushing Jane away with one thin hand. “God. Boys and bathrooms,” she said. “Make sure you get a cleaning woman.”
“Tell us what your mother needs,” Mrs. Ryan, the director of the facility, asked on Gert’s first day. “Answer the question: What does she really want?”
Jane glanced into Gert’s suite. Amidst boxes and opened suitcases, her mother was bent over the open maw of a cardboard box stuffed with knickknacks, pulling out one after the other. Tentatively, she unwrapped the objects—a blue porcelain unicorn, gilt-framed photo, antique teacup—and stared at each before placing it on the table, it seemed, into a line of memory. The unicorn from her childhood in Iowa City, a gift from her physician father. The frame filled with the rose of her own mother’s youthful face. The teacup from a store Gert volunteered at during Jane’s childhood, in the time before her husband’s death.
What did a woman like that want? Hope, maybe. Reassurance. Proof that nothing would get worse, a static plain of sameness until it was all over. And then, just like that. A quick brisk slap into dying.
But until then, Jane told Mrs. Ryan. A radio for her talk shows. A coffee pot for her coffee. Electronics that worked. For now, that would do.
For a couple of months, Jane believed things were getting better. Gert stopped complaining. They had a tech guy on call at the compound, for goodness sake, a young man named Scott, who visited Gert’s suite a few times the first week, but then the electricity and electronics all hummed away, doing her bidding. She went to the pool for daily water aerobics. She ate dinner in the common dining room, sitting with “a bunch of gals.” Without Gert having to know how or why, the sprinklers came on at night, watering the wide swaths of green lawn and bunches of rhododendron and Daphne, the drought now officially over. The heat and air were programed by a maintenance man. No need for the garage door opener or even her car, Max coming to drive it back to the condo one afternoon. Whatever didn’t make sense button and switch and monitor wise, someone figured it out. On and off, on and off.
Jane began to breathe, driving to the library without imagining her mother trussed with wires, dressed like a terrible technological turkey. For the first time in months, Jane could sit still in her family room on the old couch, watching television with Dom without picturing her mother bashing remotes to death, falling as she attempted one last smash against a sharp dresser drawer. When she visited Gert, they strolled around the pond in the back of the property, Gert alert and tended to in her hat and clean tennis shoes, her sleeves buttoned at her wrists, her face slathered in sun screen, enough that she looked slightly vampire-ish. This period of time was similar to those short years when Jane thought her mother was at least partially in charge, Gert the one with the spending change when they were at the pool, Jane and her friends eating warm Abba-Zabbas and Milky Way bars after swim workout. Gert was the one there after school. Who made meatloaf, mac and cheese, goulash for dinner every day of the week. She might not have known all the answers, but there was comfort in what she had to offer.
When Jane’s father died, Jane felt his three-quarters of the family burden fall to her. His decisions and pronouncements. In the years to come, she took over the yard work and some of the bill management. Eventually, Gert gave her the rest, including all the cooking. Now the facility was in charge.
One day, though, Mrs. Ryan called. Gert had gone missing.
“But it’s fine, dear!” the woman said, cavalier, officious.
“How can losing my mother be any kind of fine?” Jane’s body had gone still, her feet anonymous, her fingers light as air.
“We found her in a trice. Down by the lake.”
“By the lake? Alone? Without an attendant?” Jane asked, realizing she meant, “Without me?”
“Yes, that’s right.” Mrs. Ryan’s manner was efficient and clipped, though Jane heard something under the woman’s words as well, something like, “Please don’t sue us.”
“So we have a suggestion about her care if this continues.”
Which meant, Jane knew, more money. More care, more expense.
“Where did you think you were going?” Jane asked Gert later that afternoon.
“Where do you think?” Gert asked. “The pool.”
Gert gave her a roll of eye, sharp shrug of shoulder. “The pool. Time for workout.”
They were at the lake for this conversation, two Canada geese spinning in a quiet duo in the middle, a whorl of ripple around them. “This pool?”
“Don’t try to get out of your workout.” Her mother gave her that look, the one that had been the same since Jane could remember: flat, hard eyes, stern mouth, still features. The one that looked at her over Jane’s report card. The one that came in the car, Gert spinning her head when Jane teased Ruth.
“Of course,” Jane said.
They walked some more, though a time zone Jane didn’t recognize passing through. “It’s dinner time,” Gert said, a glance over her shoulder at the facility building. “And I don’t want to sit by Barbara Vromm.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Jane asked, unable to pull up a Barbara. Not from childhood or from now.
“Can’t stand the way she chews.” Her mother barked a throaty laugh. “Like a cow!”
Just like that, it wasn’t 1970 but 2015. Presto.
One day in mid-summer, Jane went to Target to buy supplies for her mother, things the facility staff thought might be useful. Playing cards with big faces and numbers, thick markers for drawing (an occupational therapy idea), an extra pillow for scooching under her knees at night. The store seemed enormous, a warm, yellow and red cave smelling faintly of corn popped in too-hot oil and air conditioning. Whoosh went the automatic doors behind Jane, the air static with fluorescent lights and the sounds of a hundred cash registers beeping all at once. Jane hadn’t been in Target since packing Zac off to college, her basket then filled with bedding, towels, and a long lamp that swung its purple shade from the cart like a shaggy giraffe head.
Max never needed packing off—his college the local community one—and now he had moved into Gert’s, everything—bedding, towels, and lamps—provided. Maybe one day, she would find herself here, buying him flatware and sad thin china. But for now, it was Gert’s turn.
Up and down the aisles. The wheel on her basket squeaked. What did her mother really need? What could Jane buy that would stop the holes that were opening up inside Gert’s head like wells? What would stop the way the past was taking over Gert like a virus? How to stop the inevitable decline of not only her mind and personality but her body?
Not water filters or Saranwrap. Not stacks of post-it notes or pink ballerina flats with slippy heels made in Malaysia. Up and down the aisles. Jane kept her eye riveted on the shelves. Something would do. Something. Up and down. Up, and then down the large aisle that dissected the store in two, a swath of linoleum as wide as a lane of city traffic. Right and then left, rounding the whole store. Past electronics (nothing needed there. Not anymore.), past furniture. A left at housewares. Down past toys and clothing. The big front door opened and closed. People lined up at customer service. Jane ignored faux leather purses and belts. No earrings or bras. No paper or books. Her mother had been disappearing since the start, just like everyone, moving from wholeness to invisibility. First her fingerprints. Now the rest. And nothing could answer the question of her mother but Jane’s heart, the true well here, the open hole of love and tenderness widening, deepening, wanting to be filled with a time when this wasn’t the time. Wanting a safer place, back when she was little, long before her father died, sitting on the stairs overlooking the pool, pushed tight between two friends, all of them laughing as they ate their sticky, melting candy. Down below in the mid-heat of day, her mother in her beach chair, laughing with her friends. Her arms long and tan, the sun reflecting yellow off her Sea and Skied arms, slick and shiny and beautiful.
Jane stopped dead in the aisle, listening. Waiting. And there it was, still, all these years later. Her mother’s laughter. High and arch and free, sailing up and over the summer water.