By Karen Hunt
My mother stands at the kitchen window in a worn chenille housecoat and bunny slippers watching Uncle Roscoe hang up laundry on the clothesline next door. She lights a Chesterfield. Her ritual is to take a long drag, pick the tobacco off of her tongue, then blow out a small gray cloud. She’s fond of saying that if she liked cigarettes any better, she’d eat the goddamned things.
I go over and put my arm around her bony shoulders. When I was in high school, I was only an inch taller than her; twenty years later the top of her head just reaches my cheekbone. I put my face in her freshly washed hair. It smells like VO-5. She has cultivated a Lauren Bacall look since the 1940s and, though she is graying and too thin, she still looks classy.
Outside Roscoe reaches into the wicker wash basket. He brings out a large brassiere. He is a short, thin, pale man who has a peculiar way of bouncing on the balls of his feet when he walks. In his late 60s, he has a full head of suspiciously auburn hair. His rimless glasses are so out of style they are in again.
“Dolly says he’s a devil under the sheets,” my mother says.
“Oh, Lord, Mom,” I say. “Too much information.”
Mom’s black cat, Shinola, crosses Roscoe’s path. Roscoe claps his hands and hisses to chase him on his way. Shinola pauses, stretches, then hisses back before slowly walking toward our property line.
“Are you sure you can count on Roscoe to take care of Shinola while we’re gone?” I say.
“Well, if he’s dead when we return, we’ll know who did it.”
“You mean if Roscoe is dead?”
My mother laughs her goofy basso profondo laugh and moves away from the window to fill a thermos with coffee. The cigarette dangles from her mouth. She has had the dented thermos and the old percolator coffee pot for as long as I can remember. She doesn’t believe in replacing anything unless it completely wears out. Her basement is a cemetery for exhausted small appliances and chipped dishes.
“We need to leave by 7:30,” I remind her. We are preparing for a trip to Iowa City where doctors will tell my mother why she’s lost 20 pounds in six weeks and has no energy.
I wish we could go right now, before Aunt Dolly and their friend Leona show up with their overnight cases and their deviled ham sandwiches and Congo bars. I wish they were staying home so that I could have my mother to myself. But these three women, who refer to themselves as “the gals,” have traveled in a pack for over fifty years.
I stand at the window. Aunt Dolly is making her way toward our house, carrying a Tupperware container. She is wearing black pedal pushers and a sleeveless white blouse. It’s all she ever wears, even in the winter. Her thermostat is on a constant high, she claims. Dolly is barely five feet tall with a round body, large breasts, and skinny legs. My father, her brother, called her “Bird Legs.” She wears her hair in long, thick braids wrapped across the top of her head. Her hair is the same auburn shade as Roscoe’s.
My cousin Edwin follows a few steps behind, bouncing on the balls of his feet and carrying Dolly’s white Samsonite train case, which is covered in yellowing plastic, just like the furniture in her house. Edwin has never left home except when he got his education degree so he could return to Mallard and teach high school math.
Just as they reach the back door, Leona drives up in her white 1962 Cadillac. Though she’s owned the car for 25 years, it has just under 11,000 miles on it. She insisted that I drive her car instead of the one I rented at O’Hare so we would have “room to spread out.” Leona is a big-boned woman who makes her own clothes, mostly plain jumpers that hit about mid-calf, worn over snow-white t-shirts. Her gray hair is short and so thin you can see her scalp in places. She gave up wearing makeup shortly after World War II.
The gals come into the kitchen and give me perfunctory hugs. This is not their usual greeting when they haven’t seen me for six months. Aunt Dolly’s custom is to hold me at arms length and fire questions about when I’m getting married and whether I’m getting the Democrats straightened out, which she thinks I can do since I work for a Senator.
Leona, the only one I’m eye level with, usually strokes my hair like I’m her old collie dog and updates me on the woes of her three enormous sons who took over their father’s John Deere dealership about the time small farms were hitting the skids. The boys teased me unmercifully when we were kids, and I can’t say Leona’s tales of their ill-mannered children and unpleasant wives make me sad.
Today the gals are distracted. It’s as though their dials have been turned down. They move off to my mother’s bedroom to help her finish packing.
Edwin sets the train case on the kitchen table. He shakes his balding head. “Good luck,” he says. “I hope you have plenty of aspirin.”
“If it gets too bad,” I say, “I can always take a hit off Leona’s flask.”
Before we reach the edge of town, all three gals have lit up. I cough and gasp, but no one acknowledges my discomfort. I press down the buttons to open the windows. The crisp autumn air rushes in. This gets their attention.
“Well, how is this going to work?” Aunt Dolly, who is sitting next to me, says. Dolly always rides shotgun because of she tends to get car-sick.
“Here’s the deal,” I say. “We’ll do a smoke stop in an hour and then in another hour after that we’ll be in Iowa City.” There is a collective groan.
“Then I guess we’ll have to sing,” Dolly says. She pulls a pitch pipe from her black patent leather purse. “Mr. Sandman, gals.” She blows a G on the pitch pipe. They hum a chord and break into delirious three-part harmony.
The corn fields and cow pastures slip by as we glide along in the big white Caddy.
In the cavernous waiting room at the University Hospital, I distract myself with ancient People magazines and then begin to chat with a heavy-set woman named Darla. Her mother is having a hip replacement.
“Who designs these places?” I complain. “When you’re anxious and away from home, why do they think you want to feel like you’re in an airport?”
“Yeah, Jeez,” Darla says. She offers me a jellybean from a large plastic bag. I notice that I’ve bitten my fingernails down to the quick.
Through the two-story wall of windows that look out onto a patch of grass and an ornate fountain, I see Aunt Dolly and Leona sitting on a bench (or chairs) outside, chatting up other smokers. Clouds of various shades of gray are gathering in the sky. Somewhere in the bowels of the hospital my mother is being poked and prodded and X-rayed and imaged. I’m trying not to dwell on what the doctors will find. Soon enough we’ll have to deal with all that. Besides, I’ve learned denial from the best. Nobody does denial like the gals. Leona’s husband wasn’t an alcoholic, he just “liked the sauce.” My father didn’t go bankrupt, he “got himself a little overextended.” Edwin isn’t gay, he’s “shy about girls.”
I watch Dolly and Leona and think about the snapshots moldering in albums. Pictures of the gals in shorts on the hoods of Jeeps and the laps of GIs, the 8 by 10 glossies of them in action on stage.
“See those two women?” I say to Darla. “The one in the pedal pushers and the one in the jumper? They’re my mother’s best friends. In junior high, they taught themselves to sing close harmony, like the Andrew Sisters. You know, ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company C’? My mother is the alto, the one in the jumper sings mezzo, and my aunt there, in the pedal pushers, she’s the soprano. There wasn’t an event in Mallard that they didn’t sing at — wedding, funeral, church social. And then right around the time they graduated from high school, The War came. That’s how my mother always tells the story. ‘And then The War came,’ she says. The boys were all drafted so they decided to take the train to Chicago and try out for a USO tour. They lied about their ages and the next thing you know they’re on a plane heading for Hawaii. The tours took them to the Philippines and England and parts of Africa.”
Darla raises her eyebrows. “No kidding? Jeez.”
I don’t tell her the rest. That when The War ended they never again traveled the world. They went back to the little town they’d grown up in and married the boys they’d dated in high school who’d managed to survive Normandy and Saipan and Okinawa. They bought homes within shouting distance of one another and started families. And they continued to sing at weddings and funerals and church socials and amateur contests and county fairs.
I don’t tell Darla how I felt about all this. As a young child I felt proud when they sang at Mallard events; as a teen I was mortified. But even in the midst of wallowing in embarrassment, I couldn’t help but see how happy my mother was singing with her friends. She was always more relaxed and funnier when she was with Dolly and Leona.
I hated being jealous of these women, but I was. I am. I wonder if Edwin and Leona’s sons are jealous, too.
Besides having grown up together in Mallard, the husbands had no more in common than we kids did. After years of throwing us together at holidays and renting cabins on lakes in the summer, the gals finally gave up and announced that they would spend a week each year together on a vacation. The rest of us could just fend for ourselves.
“They like to go to Branson,” I tell Darla.
“Well, who doesn’t?” she says.
My mother’s hospital gown looks like it was made from an old tablecloth. Her skin looks jaundiced under the harsh fluorescent light above the bed. She sits straight up and alert, leaning against the headboard. As the doctor talks to us from the end of the bed, she works a tissue in her left hand. He is a thin Asian man who keeps flipping the papers on his clipboard. I want him to find another report there that tells us everything he’s saying is a mistake. He stops flipping and says he is very sorry and do we have any questions.
I follow him into hall to ask what I can’t bring myself to say in front of my mother: How long? How much pain? What would you do if she were your mother? He has no good answers.
Back in the room she lies in the bed blowing her nose. “Well, isn’t this the shits,” she says. I slip off my shoes and crawl onto the hard, narrow bed beside her. She puts her arm around me and I snuggle up under her chin with my arm across her chest. From childhood until I left for college, my mother would tuck me in at night and we’d lie like this for a while, chatting about our day. My throat aches from trying to hold back the tears.
“It was a nice trip, until this,” she says, stroking my hair. “I want you to promise me two things. That you’ll take care of Leona and Dolly if something happens to them. You know those boys won’t know what to do.”
“Sure, Mom,” I say.
“And no ‘Whispering Hope’ at my funeral,” she says. “I’ve never liked the damned song and I swear we’ve sung it over every old fart who ever died in Mallard.” She kisses the top of my head and we hold each other tighter.
“That might be a losing battle,” she says. “The song. The gals love that song.”
I hum the tune. She laughs.
At the Travel Lodge, Leona and Aunt Dolly are propped up on the beds watching “Wheel of Fortune.” The room is blue with smoke. From plastic cups they sip Sprite spiked with whatever Leona has in her flask. They don’t seem to comprehend what I’m telling them. Lung cancer. Oat cell. Inoperable. Radiation to shrink the tumor so we can take her home. Months, not years.
There are no hysterics. We won’t talk of any of this again.
Leona pours me a loaded Sprite and I leave. Outside a soft steady rain is falling. I lean on the balcony railing under the overhang. The hospital looms across the street like an enormous space ship. The air smells of decaying leaves and car exhaust. Tires make crackling noises on the wet road.
I’m cold, but I don’t want to go to my room. I think about my mother across the street alone. I hold my nose and down the terrible drink. Almost immediately I feel more relaxed. Everything — the cars, the rain, the people going in and out of the hospital — seems to be moving in slow motion.
I know how things will go from here on. Mom will insist that I return to my life; I’ll come back on weekends. The gals will stay with her through her treatments. They’ll put cots next to her bed at night. In the mornings, they’ll wheel her down to radiation. They’ll annoy and charm the nurses and doctors. These women are not going home until my mother does. They’ll stay with her around the clock, day in and day out, singing to her and whispering hope.