Onyx Publications
  • The Caregiver

    Written By: Kendall Klym

    © 2021 by Kendall Klym

Kneeling on a boat cushion in the middle of the garden, Patrice seizes the bottom end of a butternut squash. Like a chiropractor adjusting a patient’s neck, she twists and pulls. When her method fails, she grabs the vine. Prickly spines dig into her slender fingers as she jerks the squash with her other hand. When the butternut breaks free, she drops it and rubs her hand. Normally she wears garden gloves, but not today; it’s too hot—unusually so for September in Connecticut. Ever since she turned forty-five, both heat and cold seem to bother her more. Patrice places the tawny, vase-shaped vegetable in a supermarket bag. With a clean cloth she keeps in her hip pocket, she wipes the condensation from her eyeglasses and inspects the rest of the patch: two ready to pick and one still immature, probably because of the drought.

Glimpsing the shadow of a large bird passing over the back lawn, she looks up to spot a hawk. The bird disappears behind a towering catalpa, its bean pods swinging in the breeze. She grabs the other ripe butternut, reaches for the pruning shears, and cuts its cord-like vine. The squash rolls into her hands, and the raptor returns and utters a cry. Taking another look at the immature squash, she notices an indentation along its flared bottom and thinks of a beat-up trumpet her eighty-five-year-old mother keeps on her mantle. She decides to let the vegetable ripen. Gathering her garden tools and the bag of squash, she hurries into the house to check the oven. She has two hours to finish making her mother’s favorite: roast turkey with gravy, baked butternut squash, and garden salad with fresh plum tomatoes. Added into her estimate are five minutes to pack up the food and another ten to reach the three-story Queen Anne Victorian her mother will never give up.

            Mother and daughter sit at the same round table in the same house Patrice lived in from the time she was released from the preemie ward until she left home for college. It’s been a decade since Jim left her for a bigger woman—one who could produce babies—and two years since her father died in his sleep. This Sunday Patrice has gone all out to get her mother in a good mood for a serious talk. Despite the heat spell, her mother wears a sage-green buttonless wool jacket, sleeves dangling from the shoulders in a style reminiscent of the 1950s. Insistent upon being addressed by strangers as Mrs. Ruby Trask, Patrice’s mother lives by a strict schedule. Every night at 8:45, she douses her face with regenerative cream—the same brand she’s used since the 1980s. Then she goes to bed. At 6:45 a.m., after completing her morning ablutions, she organizes her long, once-blond hair in a tight bun on the back of her head. Thanks to an elliptical bicycle she rides five times a week for ten-minute intervals, Ruby’s legs remain svelte and fit. Other than a couple of bruises hidden beneath her knee-length skirt, she shows no sign that she fell three times last month.

            “How’s the turkey?” asks Patrice.

            “It’s excellent, but if I had known that’s what you were making, I’d’ve given you my recipe for gravy.”

            Patrice lets out a sigh. “I followed your recipe—filed under the G’s in your Rolodex.”

            “How much flour did you use?”

            “A quarter of a cup, just like the recipe says.”

            “Did you use Queen Guinevere?”

            “What are you talking about?”

            Ruby folds her arms. “Get with it, Dear. Queen Guinevere has less gluten than your normal flour. Gravy ends up smoother. Exclusive at the King Arthur store in White River Junction. If you have time, maybe we can get up to Vermont before the weather turns. King Arthur has everything you could want—exclusive flours, unusual extracts, all kinds of things for the kitchen.”

            “Let’s do it. I’ll work it into my schedule. But you know, Mom, you’ve brought up an important point. I wish I could spend more time with you, but with my job, I can’t give you anywhere near as much as you deserve.”

As Patrice speaks, Ruby’s expression grows tense, her pursed-lipped frown forming fan-shaped wrinkles across her mouth. When mother and daughter lock eyes, Ruby pushes her chair backward, its legs screeching along the polished beechwood floor. After three attempts, during which she swings her body forward and back, she stands up.

“I’m going to the bathroom now—by myself with no need for a cane, walker, wheelchair, or nurse. And when I return, I’d like for us to change the subject. I have no intention of spending your father’s hard-earned pension on a maid or servant or whatever they call them now, in case that’s what you’re leading up to, and, if I know you, it most certainly is. And next time, if you have something to say, just say it. Don’t butter me up with food, which, I must admit, was delicious, except for the gravy.”

            Patrice bows her head. When the room goes silent, her gaze rises to her mother’s diminished figure, the senescent curvature of her spine like a comma without a sentence. In silence, Ruby is weak. That’s why she likes to get upset. When her body rebels against her wishes, she relies on adrenaline borne out of agitation. Of course the theory belongs to Patrice and Patrice alone, for getting Ruby Trask to go to the doctor is virtually impossible. The urge to scream makes Patrice’s mouth vibrate. When she opens it, nothing comes out.

Ruby walks slowly toward the bathroom, her hands trembling by her sides. When she speaks, there’s a slight tremor in her voice. “Don’t beat around the bush. I didn’t raise you to be that way.”

In the midst of the shame Patrice feels for not being forthright, she realizes that she shares her mother’s convictions. Just last week, when an English major came into the Dean’s Office to insinuate that his Twenty-first Century Lit professor assigned too much reading, Patrice said, in her best assistant dean’s voice: “Spell out your complaint. You didn’t complete three semesters of rhetoric and composition not to know how to state an argument.” The student ended up admitting his complaint was weak. Patrice looks up to her mother, no matter how much the woman gets on her nerves. Ruby Trask is intelligent, brutally honest, and unyielding with her ideals. She’s as elegant and salty a New Englander as you’ll find in the twenty-first century. Even the tremor in her voice, more frequent as time passes, is stylish in a Katharine Hepburn sort of way. Adrenaline or some other holed-up power makes her appear decades younger when she speaks.

Nine months away from her forty-sixth birthday, Patrice suddenly feels old. Her stomach makes an obscene sound, and she frowns. Maybe the gravy wasn’t so good after all. While her mother takes her time in the bathroom, Patrice considers wrapping up the leftovers and leaving the house—aborting her plan and heading home. It was presumptuous to line up three caregiver candidates and invite them to her mother’s, especially on a Sunday afternoon. The first should arrive in less than half an hour. She tries to imagine the look on her mother’s face when she tells her who’s coming and why. The thought makes her shudder. She stands and walks to the kitchen. When she casts her eyes on a leftover turkey leg lying in its drippings, she pictures her mother falling, calling out to an empty house, and dying in a pool of blood.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she says to an empty room. “A nice dramatic exit. Should have been a soap opera star instead of getting married and having a kid so late in life.”

Despite the love Patrice feels for her mother, along with the love she knows her mother feels for her, the two have never been close. She used to put the blame on the generation gap, but now she’s not so sure. Despite Ruby’s calculable behavior, she sometimes has moments of unpredictability. It’s as if her personality has a safety catch; someone gets too close, and she does something weird to establish distance. For instance, she had never liked indoor plants. Then a couple months ago, when she had the flu, she gained a sudden interest. Lying in bed with a hot-water bottle by her feet, she spent two days reading home-and-garden catalogues, while Patrice waited on her. A couple days later, a big barrel-shaped blob full of spines was delivered to the house. She put it by her bed and told her daughter to go home. Now she loves cactus and can’t wait to buy more. Every time she gets a new acquisition, she places it by an expensive antique she doesn’t want anyone to touch.

Patrice’s thoughts shift back to more than thirty years ago, when she came home from day camp to find her mother gone. Ruby’s disappearance lasted only a few days, during which father and daughter were well provided for, thanks to mother’s carefully labeled homemade meals stacked in the freezer, along with a calendar and heating instructions taped to the refrigerator. Never was there an explanation for where Ruby had gone or why she had left so suddenly, and Patrice was forbidden to ask. Her father had said: “It has nothing to do with you. We’re not getting a divorce, so there’s no need to worry.”

Patrice leaves the kitchen, walks past the bathroom, and takes a seat on the peach candytuft sofa. She cradles a pillow and thinks of Grendel, the Airedale her mother got rid of, after it tore up a bolster from the couch in the library. Ruby returns, red lipstick reapplied with precision. She sits in a straight-back walnut side chair—the same seat she had taken to inspect her only child’s report cards, which were often “quite disappointing.”

  Patrice leans forward and reaches a hand toward her mother. “I didn’t come here to argue, but if you want direct, that’s what you’ll get. Last Christmas, you presented me with a piece of paper saying you want to die in this house, not at the hospital or anywhere else. I took that statement seriously—so much so, that I helped you get a DNR order from the doctor, which means that when you stop breathing in this three-story tribute to yesteryear, the paramedics are obliged to refrain from bringing you back to life. Now that I have power of attorney, it’s my responsibility to make sure you’re taken care of.”

            Ruby slides her tongue across her teeth, removing a splotch of lipstick from her central incisors. “You don’t need to rehash our Christmas discussion. I may be ancient, but I still have my memory, and I can take care of myself.”

            “As far as I’m concerned,” says Patrice, “when you fall three times in a period of thirty days, you cannot take care of yourself.”

            “So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that you told me a few minutes ago not to beat around the bush. So, here’s the scoop: I’ve taken advantage of my position at the college to find a student caregiver—I’m the one who’s paying with my own money, so don’t talk to me about expenses. I’ve narrowed it down to three candidates—all with high grades and no criminal record or university infractions. The first should be here in fifteen minutes for an interview. Your job is to pick one, even if you like none of them. I happen to know each of these hard-working students, so don’t give me a look that says, ‘You’re going to let a stranger rob me out of house and home.’ These are good kids studying a variety of subjects, from museum studies to music. The position will offer hands-on experience, as well as college credit. As a former music teacher, you’ve always advocated for experiential learning, so you should be all for it.”

Ruby clears her throat. “Well, then, I guess there’s nothing left to say. The Queen has spoken.”

For the next ten minutes, mother and daughter sit in silence. Neither looks at the other. In the hall behind the parlor, the Swedish Mora clock passes the time with its metallic ticking. When the tall and stately antique utters its two-note chime, Patrice recalls her mother’s last fall. To wind up a Mora, you open the lower door and pull a metal lever, releasing the upper door to the clock face. Failing to realize her strength, Ruby pulled the lever hard enough to cause the clock to tip. Though she caught the Mora and righted it, the sudden burst of movement upset her balance, and she crashed to the floor. Patrice gets teary-eyed every time she envisions her mother splayed across the floor, maimed by Scandinavian design. As it is, she lay there for hours before a neighbor found her and called 911.

“I counted the seconds and minutes,” she had said. “Then I closed my eyes and traced my grandmother’s journey from Stockholm to Stonington. How she’d managed to bring such a bulky item onto a crowded boat I’ll never know.”

How Ruby managed to fall without breaking a hip or anything else, Patrice will never know. But she’s more than thankful. Her friends have suggested her mother go into assisted living. If things don’t work out with a caregiver, Patrice doesn’t know what she’ll do.

            The first two candidates—both women—don’t make it past five minutes, before Ruby dismisses them. All that’s left is Drift Mickelsby, tall and slender, with thick golden eyebrows like miniature crescent moons pasted across his forehead. He wears a plain white button-down shirt and a pair of jeans. A museum studies major in his junior year, Drift is the only candidate who took off his shoes when entering the house. When he introduces himself, he refers to Ruby as Mrs. Trask.

“I know my first name sounds a bit strange,” he says, “but it makes sense, if you refer to the fourteenth century definition of the word drift, which means a being driven: someone with great motivation.”

            Ruby raises her eyebrows and nods. “Very interesting. Now why don’t you take a seat.” 

            Patrice escorts him to a ladder-back chair between the couch and coffee table. When he sits, he turns to face an eighteenth-century German rococo wine cooler designed in the shape of a stork. “Quite a conversation piece,” he says, “my name, that is.”

            Holding Drift’s résumé, Patrice begins to read out loud, starting with his experience nursing his grandmother for two years before she died.

Ruby interrupts. “What are your aspirations at the university?”

            “I’m mostly interested in acquisitions; I want to curate at a museum—art-and-history combo, not in a big city.”

            Ruby nods. “Who irons your shirts?”

            “Excuse me?”

            Patrice turns to Drift. “You don’t need to answer that or any other inappropriate question. Despite Mrs. Trask’s lucidity at eighty-five, she’s never understood the concept of personal space. Though I’m sure she meant no offence.”

            Drift relaxes his posture. “None taken, I assure you.”

            “It’s amazing,” says Ruby, “how a daughter can refer to her mother in the third person right in front of her and fail to understand that she, herself, has said something offensive.”

            “Sorry, Mom, but . . .”

            This time Drift interrupts. “Nobody irons my shirts.”

            “I can tell,” says Ruby. “If you’re going to work for me, and I’d very much like it if you would, you’ll need to dress more formally. Pressed shirt, dress pants, and a tie. Is that understood?”

            Drift nods, while Patrice shakes her head.

            “Mom, he hasn’t even accepted the job yet.”

            “Well, if someone would let me finish offering it, maybe he would.” Ruby turns to Drift. “Bring over a few shirts, and I’ll be glad to iron them. Despite my daughter’s prognostications of dementia, paralysis, and God knows what else, I am still fully capable of doing a little work. It gives me energy and a sense of purpose. By the way, the person who will pay you is I, not that sour-faced woman sitting on the sofa shaking her head. That’s $15 an hour for six hours a day, three days a week. We can agree on a settled day and time for you to receive remuneration. I only deal in cash. On a regular basis, you’ll escort me to the supermarket; wind the clocks; cook food; wash dishes; pick me up, if I fall; and tell me what it’s like to be in college in the twenty-first century. Any odd jobs around the house you should be open to complete. And that includes washing windows. I like to be able to see out, especially if there’s snow or freezing rain. Bring a pair of old clothes you can change into for tasks that make you dirty. You’ll shower in the bathroom in the basement. We can work around your schedule, in terms of specific hours. Take it or leave it.”

            Before Drift can respond, Patrice suggests he think it over and offers to escort him to the door. Just as she begins to say something about her mother’s personality, he walks to the mantle and stands before the beat-up trumpet.

            “This looks like it has a story.”

            “I used to play it, when I was in a band,” says Ruby, her tone light and almost girlish. “Back in the early fifties, when I was a lot younger than you.”

            Drift says he appreciates vintage music, and Ruby tells him she toured with a five-piece band when she was only seventeen.

            “I’m not sure how good I was, but dating the bandleader did help with being hired. We were supposed to marry, but he got this other girl pregnant, so that was that.”

            “You never told me . . .” says Patrice.

            “I never told you a lot of things,” says Ruby.

            On his way out of the room, Drift trips on the edge of a large antique rug. Instead of falling, he catches himself in a huddled position, his right hand on his stomach. “Sorry about that. Guess I was a little careless.”

            “The rug,” says Ruby, “will be your first task, that is, if you take the job.”

Drift cocks his head sideways. “Oh, I’ll take it. Don’t worry about that.”

“Are you sure?” asks Patrice.

Drift nods, and Ruby winks back at him.

“I’ve got some adhesive in the basement,” she says, “but you’ll have to be very careful. This is one of my most prized possessions: an antique from Persia. What you’re standing on is a hunting scene, in which the female aristocracy performed tasks we normally associate with men.”

            Drift smiles. “Such scenes were first depicted around 500 BCE,” he says. “Pazyryk rugs—the ones with the hunting scenes—are nowhere near as old but definitely worth preserving.”

He asks how to get to the basement, but Ruby says it can wait.

Drift gazes at the scene, in which a slender woman wearing an azure headdress aims a golden bow and arrow at a leaping deer. “She almost got me,” he says.

            By the end of the second week of October, Ruby convinces Drift to drive her antique Mercedes to the King Arthur Baking Company in White River Junction, Vermont. The two plan to leave at 6 a.m. sharp and return in time for a late dinner, already prepared and waiting to be heated. Ruby tells Patrice of their itinerary and says she can have Sunday off from seeing her mother.

            “I said I’d take you there,” says Patrice.

            “Now you don’t have to.”

            “Mom, don’t you think you’re overdoing it with Drift?”

            “Don’t you think, dear daughter, that you’re acting like an overprotective mother?”

            Patrice insists on accompanying the two, and Ruby concedes without argument. Despite Drift’s age—twenty-seven, according to his student info file—he drives like a grandmother. Never missing a turn signal, he keeps to the speed limit. On the interstate, he remains in the right lane and maintains a three-car distance from the vehicle in front. If someone tailgates, he takes his foot off the accelerator and lets them pass. He uses both hands on the wheel and never takes his eyes off the road, even while he’s talking. Before they reach the Massachusetts line, Patrice learns about an altercation he and her mother had at the Stop and Shop. Apparently someone tried to push in front of Ruby at the deli counter, and Drift intervened. After that, Ruby started calling him Lancelot.

Patrice utters a groan and takes a deep breath. Then she peeks in the cooler sitting on the floor of the back seat. Neatly wrapped in waxed paper and fold-over sandwich bags are three watercress and farmer’s cheese sandwiches on marble rye, along with a bag of seedless green grapes. She’s never liked watercress, and farmer’s cheese makes her gag, unless she has ample liquids to wash it down. She thought her mother knew this.

When they stop for gas, Patrice buys a chicken sandwich and slips it in the cooler, while her mother sleeps and Drift fills the tank. Five minutes before they reach their destination, Drift starts humming Chattanooga Choo Choo. Ruby opens her eyes and joins him.

The trio enters King Arthur, with its exposed wooden beams and plethora of wicker baskets. “The whole way up here, I pictured a mock castle, not this,” says Drift.

“Most shoppers make their purchases online,” says Patrice. “They don’t see the store, nor do they care how it looks.”

Ruby clears her throat. “I’ll have you know that King Arthur is a major tourist destination. Just look at the crowd. In the parking lot, I saw cars from six different states. People care very much about this place.”

In the flour section, Ruby fails to find Queen Guinevere, even with the help of her two companions. She signals a bored-looking twenty-something, who says the brand was discontinued in 2015.

Ruby rolls her eyes.

“I guess people didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a bag of flour,” says the clerk, caressing her green-tipped pigtails.

Before Ruby can respond, the clerk rushes to the opposite end of the store.

In the midst of choosing a substitute flour, Ruby starts to shiver. She puts her hand on Drift’s arm. “Lancelot, May I trouble you to fetch my green wool?”

Drift takes a bow. “Of course, my Dear Guinevere.”

“You know the one.”

“I do, and all I can say is that once you put on your Tippi Hedren special, you’ll be the talk of the town.”

Ruby chuckles. “Just as long as we don’t get attacked by birds.”

The door chimes as Drift steps outside. Patrice glares at her mother. “What are you two blathering about?”

“He thinks that when I wear my green wool, I resemble the actress who played Melanie Daniels in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. That I doubt, but he’s right about the jacket—a replica of the one worn in the movie by Tippi Hedren. I had it custom made the year your father died. Been in the closet until you saw me wear it for our special turkey dinner.”

Patrice lets out a sigh. “Well, aren’t we just full of surprises.”

A hurried customer passes by, and Ruby leans on the edge of a wooden shelf. Slightly out of breath, she takes Patrice’s arm, and they head to the flavorings section. When mother says she can’t read the small print, daughter takes off her glasses and lists the ingredients. After selecting extracts, they check out. Drift searches his phone for a picnic spot and suggests a park on the Connecticut River. Mother and daughter agree. Drift talks about his grandmother during the short drive to the park. She was a little like Ruby, he says. The weather is unseasonably warm and partly sunny.

            With a picnic table just a few feet from their parking space, Drift has little trouble helping Ruby to her seat. During the meal, she speaks infrequently. When everyone is finished, she asks for a chance to rest her eyes. Drift sits with her, while Patrice strolls to the edge of the river, which is considerably narrower this far north. Despite the time of year, the grass is still green, and some of the leaves on the maples have yet to change color. Patrice bends down, dipping her hand into the water—not that cold. A group of kayakers passes by, and one of them waves. She nods without looking. Across the river in New Hampshire, she notices what looks like a field of pumpkins. For some reason she can’t focus, but she sees something big and orange on the ground. She remembers the time she went trick-or-treating in a bright orange UNICEF box—a costume her father had constructed out of cardboard. The two painted it together. She wonders what her father would think of Drift. Not the jealous type, he never seemed to mind when her mother swooned over some movie star or musician, though he never indulged in analogous behavior. Patrice reaches to adjust her glasses and realizes she’s not wearing them. As she hurries back to the car, she sees the outline of Drift helping her mother into the passenger seat. A sudden breeze rustles Patrice’s bangs, and she shudders. After commenting on her forgetfulness, she searches the car, while Drift calls King Arthur.

            “I don’t mean to sound nasty,” says Ruby, “but how could you walk around without seeing and not notice until now?”

            “That’s a good question,” says Patrice, “and I really don’t know the answer. Today has been strange, right from the start.”

            Before Ruby can respond, Drift says her glasses were found and will be waiting at checkout.

            On their way back to King Arthur, Drift’s driving becomes erratic. Instead of easing the car to a stoplight, he slams the breaks. He apologizes several times, and both mother and daughter say it’s all right.

Barely a block past the light, Patrice notices Drift leaning forward, his upper body hunched over the steering wheel. “Are you in pain?”

He stops the car. “I’m really sorry, but my stomach is acting up.”

            “You think it was the sandwich?” asks Ruby.

            “No. It’s something else. I’ve had it before, but not like this.”

            “We need to go to the ER,” says Patrice. “I can take us.”

            “No you can’t,” says Ruby. “Not without glasses. This is my car, and I will do the driving.”

            With a bit of a struggle, Patrice helps Drift into the back and her mother into the driver’s seat.

            “You’re pretty strong,” says Drift, his voice weak and tremulous.

            “She certainly is,” says Ruby, “especially for her size. Now I don’t want either of you to talk. I need to concentrate, and Drift, you need to conserve your energy.”

Unlike Drift, Ruby drives more like a teenager, exceeding the speed limit and changing lanes to pass other cars. Patrice has never seen her mother drive so fast.

            Drift staggers into the ER, Patrice using all her strength to keep him upright. Ruby walks slowly behind.

Despite questions about where it hurts, Drift remains vague. “Stomach and abdomen,” he says, refusing to elaborate.

A minute later, when he lets out a scream that causes a toddler to start screeching, a nurse comes with a wheelchair and rushes him down the hall.

The hospital is small, and only a handful of people populate the waiting room. Mother and daughter sit silently as a janitor mops the floor, ammonia and vinegar permeating the air. Every so often, a loud buzzer rouses the person at the front desk. She picks up a receiver, utters a few lazy words, and then returns to a state of repose. People come and go. A bearded man with a plethora of tattoos puts Halloween decorations on the windowsill. Ruby glares at the plastic pumpkins, paper witches, and spongy ghosts. Tattoo Man walks up to a teen-age girl sitting alone with her arm wrapped in a bloody rag and asks her to move to a different seat. When she’s out of the way, he sprays fake cobwebs between the chairs and the wall. Patrice shakes her head, and Ruby invites the girl to sit next to her. The girl moves to the opposite end of the waiting room. Patrice rummages through her purse, pulls out a pack of gum, and offers her mother a stick. Both chew for a while before anyone speaks.

“There are things you know about Drift that you haven’t told me,” says Patrice.

“Keep your voice down,” whispers Ruby. “He asked me not to say anything, so I’m not going to. I happen to be someone who honors people’s wishes.”

Patrice stands up and fold her arms. “I know you do, Mom, but isn’t this taking it a little far? I mean, he could have died with his little secret or whatever it is you’re not telling me. And speaking of secrets, what’s with the two of you? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’ve fallen for a college kid.”

“Sit down. That, dear daughter, was low—even for you.”

Patrice clunks into her chair. “I’m sorry; I guess the day has finally gotten to me.”

Ruby tells Patrice that Drift was in a car accident a year ago. “He had an operation that made him impotent. His girlfriend left when she found out, and he’s learned to look at life differently. In addition to being his employer, I’m his friend; that’s it. Sure, I find him attractive, and he finds me fun to talk to. Nothing wrong with that.”

“No, I guess not, but what about his health?”

 “Sometimes he has pains in various parts of his body, but they usually pass. I have no idea what’s going on now, so the last thing I need is for you to come after me.”

“I didn’t mean to, but I wish you had filled me in a little sooner. I mean, what was I supposed to think, with you calling him Lancelot and him calling you Guinevere?”

“You can think what you want. I really don’t care.”

Patrice slaps her hands on her lap. “Don’t be like that.”

“Don’t tell me how to be. When I did that to you growing up, you didn’t like it, and I stopped. Well, I don’t like it, either.”

An elderly man sitting on the opposite end of the room clears his throat loudly, and mother and daughter stop talking. A few minutes go by, and a heavyset woman in scrubs appears. She asks if Patrice is Drift’s mother.

“Who are you?” asks Ruby.

“I’m Dr. Coolidge, the attending physician.”

 Ruby introduces herself and tells the doctor that Drift is an unmarried orphan with no children. “His only living relative died a year ago. My daughter and I are as close to family as you’re going to get. So whatever you have to say, say it.”

The doctor says Drift has a case of acute appendicitis. “I just wanted to touch base before the procedure. We’ll let you know as soon as we’re finished.”

When the doctor leaves, Patrice offers to pick up dinner.

“I appreciate it, but no thanks. If it were you on the operating table, I’d be throwing up with or without food.”

Patrice clasps her mother’s hand, and Ruby responds with a squeeze. The two sit hand in hand, and a nurse calls for the girl with the bloody arm. An empty cup sits on the floor where the old man had been sitting.

“Mom, where did you go the time you left Dad and me a bunch of homemade frozen dinners?”

“I went to see an old friend, dying of cancer.”

“So why did you have to keep it a secret?”

“Because you were so sensitive. I didn’t think you’d understand. You’re still the same way, you know. Your reactions are over the top. I remember the time you got nettles on your ankle walking through the woods. The way you screamed, it was as if you needed an amputation. Your father had a theory about your sensitivity. He said it was a result of your premature birth. I’m not so sure. Needless to say, we both did our best to shelter you from harm, but sometimes life just happens.”

Patrice gets up and fills two plastic cups with water from a dispenser. When she and her mother are finished drinking, she throws away the cups, along with the one left by the elderly man.

“By the way, Mom, why do you keepthat old trumpet on the mantel? “Are you still in love with the bandleader who dumped you for his pregnant girlfriend?”

Ruby chuckles. “He was the old friend I went to see when you were a kid. Died of colon cancer. No, I was not in love with him—not when I went to see him or any time before. When he and I were an item, I was in love with the idea of playing trumpet in a band.”

“So why didn’t you continue?”

“First of all, I wasn’t that good. Then, when we were on tour in Kansas, we played a club that served alcohol illegally. At one time, Kansas was a dry state. Anyway, the club got raided. We ran, and the police fired shots. I was the last to get out of there. One of the shots ricocheted off the trumpet, which I was holding against my ribs. That was the end of my career in the music business. I keep the trumpet because it saved my life, and it reminds me of my wilder days, before Dad and you. Looking at it makes me feel young, a little irresponsible—the way Melanie Daniels was in The Birds. That’s why I had a replica made of the jacket Tippi Hedren wore when her character drove all the way from San Francisco to Bodega Bay to play a practical joke on a man she liked.”

Patrice gives her mother a hug. “Do you think Drift’ll pull through?”

“I don’t know. From what he’s told me, the accident really messed him up. When it comes to his body, even a simple surgery is going to be a higher risk.”

Patrice takes a deep breath. “Are you afraid to die?”

“No, not at all. I’m more afraid of living, especially if things get bad for me.”

“I won’t let that happen.”

Ruby puts her arm around her daughter. “Thanks for your reassurance, but I don’t think it’s up to you.”

Patrice kisses her mother on the cheek.

“The only thing keeping me here,” says Ruby, “is you. You know I never pestered you about not being able to have children, and I’m not sorry you couldn’t. You have a wonderful career that might never have happened, if things were different. And even though we get on each other’s nerves, I can’t imagine not being able to see you, talk to you, find out what’s going on in your life.”

Patrice wipes the tears from her eyes and turns to face Ruby. “You know, Mom, if Drift survives, it’ll be the first time Guinevere saved Lancelot.”