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Volume 3, Issue 1
Spring 2007:

Between the Dream and Here

Vicky Fish

Cell 2 Soul. 2007 Spring; 3(1):a3

Martha dreamt that she was wearing her shawl made of one thousand Hail Marys. But Martha was young, climbing an apple tree in her parents' orchard with her long hair waving down her back like sunlit water. The shawl, a dusky mauve color, was tied around her waist like she was a gypsy girl. She looked down at her best friend Kate, standing under the tree with her arms around herself. Martha called her chicken and climbed higher and higher until there was just sky in her hands.

Martha is ninety four years old and lies like a bag of bones in her lazy-boy recliner. When she awakes, she whispers, "Water, Consuela, bring me water." She's so thirsty it's as if she really climbed that tree on a hot summer day. She can hear Consuela humming in the kitchen and water running in the sink. She pulls the mauve prayer shawl, a gift from the women's fellowship group at the church, tight around her bony shoulders.

"Good morning, dear! Buenas dias, Mrs. Waterman!" Consuela comes in the living room.

Martha pats Consuela's fat brown hand as she takes the glass of water.

She looks around and feels somehow stuck between the dream and here, this room. The sun felt strong and Kate's face was there, at the end of her outstretched hand. Things look familiar - the beige phone on the side table, the blue afghan in her lap, the "little people" stuck to the table with glue because they kept falling off and Mary and Jesus should not be on the green carpet. None of this is foreign yet she can't place herself in it. And these hands — her hands sitting in her lap, the skin falling into the bone, the blue veins like rivers and her wedding bands, platinum channel set with diamonds and sapphire, loose between her knuckles where they used to fit snug on her smooth skin. These can't be hers.

Martha sips her water and sets the glass on the table. She closes her eyes again and tries to return to the warm vagueness of her nap. Distantly the phone rings.

Consuela pokes her head around the door frame separating the kitchen from the living room,

"It's Melissa on the phone — you wanna talk to her?" Martha pictures Melissa pushing the intercom button on her office phone with a red fingernail and instructing her secretary to dial up Martha. In her mind's eye Melissa is tapping her leather boots and spiraling a pencil between her fingers. Martha turns away from Consuela, who is shaking the phone at her. No, she shakes her head, No No No.

No, she won't talk to Melissa, at least not now. Her elbow hurts from when she fell out of bed on it a week ago. Whenever her granddaughter calls the family has had a meeting and has some issues they'd like to discuss with Martha, about her health, about her living situation, because "we care about you, granny."

Melissa has been chosen as the family spokesperson. She lives the closest to Martha, but Martha believes that Melissa would have been the chosen one no matter where she lived. Martha's only son, Raymond, is a good man, but Martha knows he is not strong enough to face her creeping decrepitude. But Melissa, well, sometimes Martha believes that the child who would curl up in her lap and play with Martha's earrings and the gold bangle she always wore was kidnapped by aliens and replaced with the Harvard lawyer who could stare down a bear.

Consuela brings her oatmeal drizzled with maple syrup sitting in a pool of milk. Just the way she likes it.

"We gonna weigh you after breakfast, Mrs. Waterman, the doctor say so. Eat this up. And then we gonna call your granddaughter back, she say it very very important."

Martha does as Consuela says with the oatmeal. Her arm feels shaky and a little milk dribbles off the spoon on to her pink pajama top. Consuela, kneeling by her chair, carefully dabs it off, "What, you need a bib now?" Martha rolls her eyes at her.

"What we gonna to do today, Mrs. Waterman?"

The only scheduled activities Martha has anymore are the doctor and the beauty parlor, but not today. She knows if she sat in her chair all day and listened to music or a book on tape that would be fine with Consuela, but Consuela loves a bit of fun and Martha tries to please.

"My toes. Why don't you do my toes today?" The warm oatmeal slides down easily; she's hungry.

"I was hoping you'd say that! I just happen to have some nail polish in the back of my car." Consuela flicks open the curtains of the picture window.

This news does not surprise Martha. Though she's never ridden in the back of Consuela's bright blue Ford Escort, anything and everything the two of them have ever needed in the five months since Consuela has been looking after Martha seems to be in the back of that car. A curling iron, a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips, size eight circular knitting needles, Elmer's glue. Sometimes, Martha feels like Mary Poppins herself has come to stay.

Martha lifts the bowl off her lap and hands it to Consuela. A flickering of sun and shadow in the middle of the room catches her eye and Consuela says,

"Hey! Looka that fat grouse in the tree!"

Her neck hurts to turn it, as if it is hardening a little each day, all those little bones that connect the top of her spine to her head. A fat grouse, indeed two, are weighing down the branches of the crab apple tree as they feast on the berries. It was their sudden arrival in the tree, with the sun behind them that caused shadows to fly around the room. Martha turns her head back and closes her eyes for a minute.

"Let's start with a bath and getting some clothes on you, Mrs. Waterman."

Consuela helps her into the wheel chair and they roll into the bathroom. The first time Consuela wedged her hands under Martha's knees and around her waist to ease her into the shower, Martha felt humiliated. Now she is long past worrying what Consuela thinks about her naked, wasted body.

Consuela hangs Martha's shawl and pink pajamas on the hook on the back of the bathroom door. She holds her own hand under the spray and then declares, "It's ready for you now, princess." As the hot water melts her shoulders, Consuela tells her a story about an "old, fat ham" she used to care for. He was so heavy that, "His peepee was as tiny as a new born baby's. But, you get him in the shower and it grow like a stalk of corn and I'm the sun. And, I know enough about men — they ALL got the sleeping animal in them. My mama told me never wake up the sleeping animal. So I turn that water on cold. You know that never happen again." Martha, her eyes closed to the steam, laughs and hangs onto the bars. Consuela hums and the mirror fogs up and Martha suddenly worries what would happen if Consuela went away or if they made her leave her home. Martha starts to cry, hot silent tears.

"Okay, now, Mrs. Waterman," Consuela says as she pries Martha's fingers from the metal hand rails. "Wow, you as strong as a baby when they grip your finger, but Consuela got you now."

Consuela helps Martha into soft camel colored pants and a light blue cashmere sweater with tiny buttons. She wants to look nice every day, no matter that she will put on slippers and wrap herself in a shawl because she is always cold now.

Sometimes when Melissa drops by she'll say with surprise,

"Granny, don't you look lovely! If I were you though I'd stay in my jammies all day; that would be so much more comfortable."

The day she doesn't get out of her pajamas is the day she has given up, has decided to join Richard in heaven or wherever he went off to in 1989. Martha has very little to be vain about anymore; but she can still present herself through her attire. She used to be vain about her hair, long and shiny like a Breck girl. And she was vain about her slim ankles and artistic looking hands. She knew her eyes could speak worlds, or so people said. But now, when she receives compliments they usually pertain bodily functions — oh, aren't you a wonder to still be able to hear so well! Are those your real teeth; now isn't that fantastic.

Martha settles back in her chair to watch the Premium Shoppers Network with the adorable morning host Lisa. Her credit card is tucked under the phone. Martha loves watching PSN. The hostesses are spunky and full of enthusiasm, and first she watched just for the company. But one day, a deal on a forty-four piece, dishwasher safe set of plastic storage containers had her dialing in to order. Martha gave the plastic-ware to her next door neighbor, a tired looking mother with three young children who nonetheless sometimes shoveled Martha's walk or brought in her mail.

Martha enjoys being generous and seeing other people's pleasure and surprise when she gives them something. Francine from the church who drops by on her rounds of the shut-ins loved the bright pink beach bag Martha gave her last summer. Raymond's wife, Alicia, called immediately to thank her for the 350 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets in pale violet. Melissa was even a little flustered she was so pleased when Martha presented her just a month ago with a Diamonique drop earrings in 14k gold. She did admonish Martha, calling out to her while she admired herself in the bathroom mirror, not to spend all her money on shopping.

Maybe she'll find something today for Consuela, like a pretty shawl or a piece of luggage with wheels. Something pretty or something she can really use.

It had been Melissa who had found Consuela for her, one of three women presented to Martha for her ultimate approval. Melissa had experience hiring secretaries, law clerks, cleaning help and nannies, so, after the family gathered round Martha on a Monday evening to implore her to get help, Melissa volunteered to take charge.

"We can't sleep at night worrying about you," Melissa spoke and everyone nodded, "and I'm going to find you someone with top references and don't worry about the cost." Everyone nodded again. Melissa had that effect on people.

Consuela knocked at the front door while turning the knob and letting herself in.

"Hello! It's Consuela here for the interview!"

Melissa greeted her and then led her to the kitchen and the boot tray and coat rack near the back door saying, "We're not quite ready for you yet, Mrs. Gomez, have a seat in the kitchen." Melissa could put you in your place.

"A little pushy?" Melissa mouthed to Martha when she came back into the living room.

Martha could hear Consuela humming and walking softly about the kitchen; she liked her immediately.

Out of the corner of her eye, Martha sees the grouse have left the crab apples to the little chickadees. How they keep warm on a winter day is a miracle. Martha is glad for the puddle of sun in her lap, though she is slightly chilled and her arm throbs.

Consuela brings a waft of cold air in with her as she places the mail that has just fetched from the mailbox on her table.

"I got it!" Consuela dangles a little cosmetic bag in front of her.

"Good. I hope you have pink in there; red toenails would be unseemly on someone of my age," Martha says. She allows Consuela to take off her slippers and then she closes her eyes while Consuela buffs her feet with a pumice stone, smoothes cream that smells like the ocean on them, puts cotton balls between her toes and paints the nails magenta. Consuela's hands are always warm. It feels heavenly to be touched.

"You know you can call Melissa while your toes dry, Mrs. Waterman." Consuela screws on the top of the polish.

"She's really tightening the screws on me to move into a nursing home." Martha squints down at her sinfully pink toenails.

"She loves you so much, you know, and you lucky you got her."

Martha knows she is lucky to have family that cares, but it also feels as if Raymond and Alicia and Melissa are conspiring against her. It makes her acutely aware of how alone she feels. At some point in her life Martha realized that life was about gathering everything in to her and holding on as tight as she could because it was all going to come to this, being alone. But she'd prayed and schemed all her life to hold it off until the very last second.

Consuela is speaking to Martha about one her five sisters back in Columbia. She often talks about the relatives she left behind. And Martha can always hear the missing in her voice, way deep in the back like tears, though Consuela's words sketch family feuds and petty rivalries more than anything else. Martha closes her eyes.

"Well, if you gonna be sleepin' beauty, I'll go do errands." Consuela's knees crack as she stands up. "You need new bandages for that arm and I'm gonna go to the grocery. I'll be back to get your supper before I go home tonight, ok?" She puts the mail in Martha's hands before she gathers her things and shuts the door behind her.

An uneasy quiet settles upon the house. Martha remembers the peace she used to feel when Richard left for work and Raymond for school. Martha would hold a cup of coffee between her hands and rest her hips against the kitchen counter, letting herself melt into the middle of the hush. All that clamored for her attention — household chores, clothes to wash and wring out, volunteer activities with the Ladies Guild — she let go of for a few minutes while the coffee warmed her palms and the silence hummed with promise.

Martha fumbles to open the letters with a silver opener and wonders about Consuela's other life, her husband who works at Jake's Auto body, her high school son who gets all A's. She wonders what Consuela is sad about and afraid of and if she ever gets to enjoy silence. She'll ask her these things.

Everyone wants money, and Martha sets these requests aside to consider later. A bright flyer from a new Chinese restaurant in town makes good reading. Her stomach starts to feel hollow when she reads about the Moo Shu pork and the sautéed shrimp and scallions. She is supposed to be on healthy diet, bland and tasteless is more like it, but Consuela will often splash real salad dressing over the greens or hand Martha the salt shaker when she makes a face. Martha picks up a pen next to her phone and circles all the yummy dishes before she sets aside the flyer; maybe she'll convince Consuela to order Chinese tonight. The rest of the mail goes into the recycling bag next to her chair.

Martha turns to page four of the paper to read the obituaries. She always reads every word; it is the least she can do and it's what she will want.

Kate Olmstead Briggs, of Chicago, Formerly of Campton, NH

Martha feels a tight knot in her chest, feeling panicky and guilty, as if her dream earlier in the day has some how brought on this news of Kate. Kate, too chicken to climb trees, a cohort in mud bathing. Kate with the perfect pigtails and sharp brown eyes. Kate with whom Martha made up a secret language, set a corner of the kitchen on fire, lay in the cemetery after school wondering about all the dead people. Kate her most memorable childhood friend. Dead at the age of 94. In lieu of flowers donations could be sent to Family and Child Services of Chicago.

For the second time that day, Martha's eyes are hot with tears. Suddenly she misses Kate terribly, Kate whom she hasn't seen for eighty-two years but who seems as real and alive and young as she did then. How odd that she dreamt of her and now this. It could be an omen. Martha drops the paper and places her face in her hands and begins to weep. She is afraid and wishes Consuela would hurry and return.

The light has slid off her lap and lies against the far wall near the fichus tree. The room is dim and blurry.

Martha wakes up to the sound of the back door closing and the clicking of heels and the sharpness of lights being snapped on.

"Granny!" Melissa kneels by her chair, the endearing freckles on her nose close enough to touch, and Martha is glad to see her, for the creeping fear did not dissipate with sleep.

"What time is it?" Martha notices that Melissa's hair, in a twist of some sort, is coming undone and wisps are loose about her face.

"Four-thirty. I put the kettle on for tea." Melissa gets up and takes off her high heels and yawns as she heads back to the kitchen. Martha admires her strong and graceful posture and tries to sit up a little straighter in her chair. She can feel herself stiffening a little in Melissa's presence, though her granddaughter's tiredness softens her a tiny bit. She gathers the fallen newspaper and tries to fold it while Melissa brings in the tea.

Melissa puts a mug for Martha on the side table.

"Consuela made coconut macaroons yesterday, you might find them on the counter." Martha picks up her tea and a bit sloshes on her afghan; she hopes that Melissa doesn't notice the tremor in her arm.

"Ooh, I feel fat. I'm trying to lose the last five pounds now that I'm done nursing." Melissa sits on the couch, unzips her skirt a couple inches and pulls her creamy silk blouse free of the waistband.

"I was hoping you'd bring the baby." Martha feels love akin to pain every time she sees Noah. Not just beautiful, but innocent and pure and wrapped up, for Martha, in her own death. What she will miss.

Melissa starts talking about the baby, how he tips over when he sits. She has a lovely dimple on her right cheek, just like Raymond, and Martha sees it deepen as she talks.

"Let's see that arm, Gran." Melissa unclips her hair from its twist and barrettes it back before coming to Martha's side. Martha sips her tea. Melissa forgot to put in sugar. She has so much on her mind, Martha shouldn't blame her for not remembering how she takes her tea, but somehow this looms as an offense. Consuela would not have forgotten. Melissa takes Martha's mug, sets it aside and kneels down.

"Oh, it's fine. Consuela's been taking good care of it." Martha clasps her hand around opposite wrist, holding her sweater down so Melissa can't pull it up.

"I told Dad I'd call him tonight with the details." Melissa slips a finger under Martha's and pries, gently, her hand off. She rolls up the soft blue cashmere with her cool fingers. Martha holds her breath as Melissa peels back the adhesive tape and gauze.

"You poor thing, that is terrible looking." They both survey the purple and green bruise spreading out around the cut.

"It is hardly life threatening." Martha yanks her arm back and pulls the shawl around it.

Melissa stands up abruptly and Martha braces herself.

"I just can't do it all," Melissa says, waving her hand to take in the room and Martha.

Martha's hand itches to slap her. "Good Lord girl, this is not about you!" she says.

The back door bangs open and Martha can see Consuela edging in with full arms.

"It's Consuela! With Chinese!"

Martha looks at spot on the table where the flyer for the new Chinese restaurant was; Consuela must have come back from her errands while she was sleeping and taken it off to the restaurant to order.

Dishes clink and silverware rattles and the smell of shrimp and spices warms up the room. Martha's mouth begins to water.

"Granny's arm looks terrible." Martha can hear Melissa's conspiratorial whisper even though they are in the kitchen. Really, she is rather vain about her hearing and hates being with the old people who completely garble what's being said.

"The doctor says she's gonna live." On a tray Consuela brings a plate heaped with steaming rice and shiny bright food. Much more than she can eat and Consuela knows that. Consuela places the tray on Martha's lap with a wink.

Consuela settles into the couch with her own plate of food. Melissa stands in the middle of the room with her arms tight around her.

"Helpa youself, Melissa." Consuela chuckles as she stabs a piece of chicken with water chestnuts.

"Consuela, she can't eat that, it'll kill her." Melissa turns to Consuela and crosses her arms in front of her chest.

"She gonna die anyway, dear, I say die happy!"

"Did you at least ask for it without MSG? That stuff is toxic."

Martha wonders if she should take Melissa on her lap and pat her hair and let her play with her bracelets; she looks like a girl with the weight of the world on her thin shoulders.

Martha nibbles a bit of shrimp off the end of her fork, grateful for small things like her own teeth and a tongue that still yearns for flavorful things. She closes her eyes to savor the taste and hears Melissa sigh.

"Oh for Christ' sake, you two," Melissa says. She slumps off to the kitchen, shirt tails dangling.

Martha looks at Consuela who is heartily engaged with the food on her plate and doesn't look up. She wonders what Melissa is doing in the kitchen. Buttoning up her shearling coat? Standing at the sink plotting how to get Martha to move out? Martha is feeling full, a little goes a long way for her now, but she feels good and warm inside. With Consuela she is not alone.

Melissa comes back to the doorway, a saucer size plate balanced on one palm. With her fingers she picks up a piece of shrimp and nibbles it. Consuela looks at Martha and nods and winks.

"I saw that Consuela," Melissa says.

"What? What?" Consuela pretends innocence.

"Come sit with us for heaven's sake, Melissa," Martha waggles her hand at floor next to her chair.

Melissa hesitates and licks some sauce off her fingers.

"I have to get home soon, to the baby. And nothing's been resolved." She looks right into Martha's eyes. Martha is drawn in and feels like she can see down into Melissa's heart — like she can see those little chambers where all Melissa's loves and responsibilities lie.

Oh dear lord she will miss those eyes, that heart.

"Just for a moment, sit with me."

Melissa puts her saucer back in the kitchen and comes and sits down on the floor near Martha. She leans back against the chair, so close that Martha can reach out and touch her if she wants.

Consuela gets up, "I'm thirsty. Anybody else want water? Wine? Beer?" She heads toward the kitchen.

Melissa shivers and Martha pulls her shawl of one thousand Hail Marys from around her shoulders and drapes it over Melissa. Melissa takes her hand and presses it against her own warm cheek. A rush of love expands in Martha's chest and she prays that this moment will go on and on, with her palm against Melissa's face, with the scratching of the crab apple against the black window and the whoosh of the heat coming on and the sound of Consuela singing in the kitchen while the water runs.

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