Short Family Stories
Gretchen’s eyebrows knitted together as she pushed against the wheels of her chair. Things that used to be easy weren’t so easy anymore. As she approached her dressing table a face appeared in the mirror that at first she didn’t recognise. Her hair had gotten longer; she touched the back of her head and smoothed the sides. When did it get so long? She wondered, but then sat back quickly in her chair, surprised. She pressed her index and middle fingers to her lips. She thought she’d said that out loud, but her lips stayed still.
Her lips, she noted, were very dry. The feel of them was like the leaves she and her sister would collect during her childhood autumns in Vermont. Armed with rakes too tall for them to be effective, they dragged clumps of dirt wrapped awkwardly with fallen leaves to the middle of the yard, their mother observed and laughed at her busy girls. Even now Gretchen could smell that crisp, clean air; an almost medicinal smell. She clenched her eyes shut as tight as she could to trap that scent, that scene in her mind. She knew she needed to, before this memory too was blown away, and like all of those beautiful coloured leaves she and her sister used to jump into, disposed of forever.
That’s what it felt like. That her brain, her memories, herself was being disposed of. One second there, like the leaves, like her sister, and the next not. It was as if there was a vindictive hoover between her ears, sucking up anything of value. Occasionally something was too heavy for the suction so it mercifully got left behind, or sometimes something spun around in the wheels for days and got spat out again. Like her daughter’s face. That came and went. ‘You’re trapped in the wheels,’ Gretchen told her once. Her daughter, trying to understand those words stared back at her and nodded as tears formed in her eyes. She patted her mother’s hand and walked away from her chair towards a man Gretchen didn’t know. She wondered then as she had many times before why her words were so hurtful and why the people who sat with her often cried.
There was a weak knock on the door, ‘Hello in there? Are you awake yet?’ A voice sang softly from the other side.
Gretchen, never sure these days if her voice would even come out or not, pushed air through her vocal chords and made a sound similar to that of a donkey. Gretchen blushed at the sound and coughed.
The door opened gingerly, but just slightly to reveal the face of a tall blonde woman with too much red lipstick on. ‘Good morning! How are we feeling today?’
Gretchen nodded and replied, ‘OK.’ She kept her fingers on her lips to see if they moved. They did, and Gretchen felt herself smile.
The blonde opened the door a little more, and for no reason Gretchen could tell, slid through the small opening sideways as if there was an obstruction on the other side. There wasn’t.
She then approached Gretchen’s chair and knelt down so their eyes were level. ‘Do you know who I am?’
The woman had a slight southern accent, which Gretchen found pleasant, but she hated that question. Most mornings her day began this way: with some stranger coming into her room and quizzing her. When did her life become like this? She wondered. When did it become a big test she had to pass?
Endless questions: ‘What is this?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where are you?’ ‘Who am I?’ To answer, Gretchen often took inventory of all the words she had left in her head and selected one at random, like picking a card out of a magician’s hand. Sometimes, if she was lucky she’d get something right. But, more and more frequently, she could tell that she was not doing a very good job.
Over the past few weeks Gretchen discovered that there was a word she could say that never made anybody cry. She promised herself she would continue to use it until it too was lost, sucked up by the hoover. She wasn’t even sure what it meant anymore, but this word never made anyone’s face twist in the way so many faces had twisted in front of her before. This word almost always brought smiles or the occasional tight-lipped nod of concern, but never any tears. Gretchen was so tired of seeing and causing tears.
Gretchen leaned forward in her chair and searched the face of the woman in front of her hard, but there was no glimmer of recognition. Inside her mind she hunted through the space for words like a child would hunt for butterflies. She swung her net through the air trying to catch the slippery, evasive words, but they were too quick. They dissolved on her tongue like aspirin before she could form them into language.
The woman’s face, so close to Gretchen’s, began to fall. She pushed herself up from the floor, so Gretchen knew she had little time before the tears began. Determined, she tore through the emptiness of her mind again and frantically pushed the first word she found purposefully past her teeth, ‘ Daw-ter.’ Gretchen heard her own voice and held her breath as she waited for the reaction.
The word struck the woman like a stone and her spine straightened. She turned to face Gretchen again and the red lipstick, like blood in the rain, spread across the woman’s face and revealed two rows of beautiful white teeth. She crouched back down, supporting herself on the chair. She looked directly into Gretchen’s eyes, still ferociously smiling. She reached out and grabbed both Gretchen’s hands and squeezed. ‘Yes, Mom it’s me.’
Her eyes, Gretchen thought to herself, are the very colour of the autumn leaves I used to collect as a child. I must try to remember that.
more by LEE ANN HILL
Photograph by Tobias