My mother no longer drives and she lives in an apartment at the Assisted Living Unit now but when she moved into the Vista Retirement Community in 2008 she had a five room condo with a lake view.
For a time Elsie lived next door.
The first time I walked by her window on the way to have dinner with my mother, I didn’t see Elsie at once, saw instead the cups and saucers lined up on the inside sill, rows of cups and saucers filling the table, cups and saucers ranged across the counter behind the table. Thick crockery stamped with scenes of 19 th century rural life in the style of Currier and Ives, supermarket giveaways, not worthy of display.
I saw the dishes and the open Bible at the edge of the table where she sat before I saw Elsie, thin as a splinter in her sprigged cotton housedress.
She smiled at me, a big smile involving the whole of her little puckered face, a relief because, when I’d seen her milky blue eyes, I’d thought she was blind. I smiled back and waved, guessed she wouldn’t be able to see well enough to read the Bible, perhaps gained something from its proximity.
My mother, in her linen slacks and silk blouse, looked unusually pretty and I wondered if her soignee appearance was related to her other visitor, a nattily dressed old man who sat in the Thayer Coggin chair eating cashews from one of the sometsuke bowls my parents bought when they lived in Tokyo.
He introduced himself as Dr. Buchanan. “Not a medical doctor, no,” he said, answering a question I hadn’t asked. “A professor. Like your father.”
He smiled, showing a swath of perfect teeth, big and uniformly white. I thought of an old joke: her teeth are like stars; they come out at night.
When he held up his slushy green drink I saw a maraschino cherry glowing red at the bottom of the glass. “May I get you one of what we’re having, Cathy?”
“She doesn’t drink,” my mother said. Dr. Buchanan looked as if he’d very much like to know why not.
Outside the window the sky was a uniform pink and ducks were flying into the lake for the night.
I told them I’d seen my mother’s new neighbor.
“And what do you think of our Elsie?” Dr. Buchanan tapped his domed forehead. “The lights are on but nobody’s home.”
My mother said she’d told the social worker she never saw evidence of food preparation, no matter what time of day she walked by Elsie’s window.
A faint, rich smell of cream and sea came from my mother’s kitchen. Crab gratin, my favorite.
“She doesn’t belong here with us,” Dr. Buchanan said. “She should be in the Assisted Living Program.” His plaid bowtie was pre-tied, the knot stitched in place. My father believed a man should tie his own tie. “Or the nursing home.”
My mother looked bored, asked if I’d heard John Updike had died.
An offender at the prison where I worked told me this morning, I said, knowing my mother would be interested. A young kid, he seemed genuinely sad, said he’d loved Updike’s story, A&P. His father, he thought, might have been like that as a boy.
“I’m not familiar with that one, though I’ve read Couples of course,” Dr. Buchanan said, “but it was my understanding Updike was considered past his prime.”
My mother pulled the blinds down. “He was still writing.”
Dr. Buchanan stood. “The best part of my day, Elaine. Enjoying an aperitif with you, watching the sun set over the lake.”
“It didn’t amount to much tonight.”
After he’d gone she picked up the sometsuke bowl, showed me what was left, salt and little bits of nut. “They were for you.” And, she said, daiquiris aren’t aperitifs because they’re made with sugar syrup. Aperitifs are intended to stimulate the appetite, don’t contain added sugar. “Imagine his not knowing that.”
She took a plate of gratin over to Elsie before we ate. “I believe she’d like something hot for a change.”
She was laughing when she came back. “That Elsie. She wanted to know if I was going to make myself a new dress for the tent meeting.”
When the social worker took Elsie for the doctor’s exam required for admission to the nursing home, the doctor sent Elsie to the hospital instead.
Elsie was sitting up in bed, hair freshly combed and tied back with a ribbon, when my mother went to visit. She smiled broadly when she saw my mother, took the carnations she brought, held them to her nose and sniffed deeply. “Heavenly.”
Like visiting a friend in the maternity ward in the old days, according to my mother. Elsie became more cheerful yet when a nurse came to review the dinner menu, asked Elsie what she wanted to drink with the meal.
“Say, could I have some more of that root beer we had at lunch?”
Elsie, clasped her hands together, laughed with delight. “My. Won’t that be grand?”
A celestial discharge, Dr. Buchanan called it, when he told my mother Elsie died that night. For the best.
Later, when Dr. Buchanan could no longer care for himself, my mother went to see him every week in the nursing home, bringing him the peppermint Altoids he sucked on all the livelong day.
I praised her for her kindness.
“What else can I do? He’s so ashamed of his breath.”
That day, though, when I asked why Elsie’s kitchen was empty, and she told me what had happened, she said Dr. Buchanan was a stupid old coot.
“This makes me sad. Elsie didn’t want to die. She was just so excited about that root beer.”
Jane Snyder’s stories have appeared in X-Ray Lit, Bended Genres, and Lunate. She lives in Spokane.