Renee was having, at the age of one hundred and two, a lucid hour. The children had come and caught her in the middle of it.
Sigmund, she noted, had lost all of his hair and most of his sense. His seventieth birthday had been celebrated the previous July, so they told her. Dora at eighty had petrified into a unrepentent shrew of a woman, characteristics that had seemed, when she was twenty, to predict independence and strength. And Antoine, her middle child, moved gamely from one piece of furniture to another with his walking stick. Before his first birthday, the tottering from chair to sofa to chair had been an applauded stage of behaviour; now it just looked backward and repetitive and silly. What has happened to them all? She chewed on the question, her mouth working in tandem with her fingers that twisted and picked at the lacings of yarn in the crocheted afghan on her lap.
Vernon came to her then. He wasn’t related to her, she didn’t think. His skin was the wrong colour.
‘Miss Renee,’ he said. He was always polite, she remembered. ‘Miss Renee, here’s a nice cup of tea for you. And today, a nice bran muffin with dates in it. Now doesn’t that sound good?’
And he pulled the wheeled tray over to her chair and moved it in to cover her lap. He peeled away the ridged paper cup that clung to the bottom of the muffin. With a table knife, he split the shape in half and fiddled with the sealed butter tubs. Again he cut the muffin. Now there were four manageable pieces. Her stiff-fingered right hand shook a little as she reached to lift it while her children looked on from their perches around her in the room, waiting to see what remained on the tray when Maman was finished.
As she gnawed at the muffin quarters, she thought of some harmless questions for her brood.
What did you have for supper last night?
Do you remember the time we were in Maine on holidays, at Old Orchard Beach?
What have you done with Groucho, Sigmund? Didn’t you say last time that he was sixteen and could hardly walk any more? Not surprising. You fed him too much. Fattest bulldog I ever saw.
And Aimee, what is she doing now that Derek’s left her? (Aimee was a granddaughter, she remembered.)
But the questions mingled with the crumbs on her tongue and floated backward into the tunnel of her throat. She raised the tea mug to her lips and drank it down.
Sigmund leaned forward. ‘Maman, how was that? A good muffin? Good tea? Good. Good.’ And she wondered at his lack of originality. It hadn’t always been this way, had it? Hadn’t he, at thirty, been on the brink of something wonderful? Had the moments of early promise perhaps drifted away with his hair?
For Dora, she had few thoughts. Waste of time to even try talking with that one. Renee compressed her lips. Dora, Dora. Some folks believed that they were the world’s living authority on everything: Dora to a T.
Now it was Antoine who leaned forward. Don’t lean too far Antoine or you’ll be out of that chair and onto the floor in no time. Take up your stick, take up your stick.
He said: “Maman, is there anything I could bring for you next time? Maybe some nice little cookies for your tea? Or a plant. Would you like a pot of tulips? The stores are full of them now that Easter’s coming.”
Renee tilted her head to one side and gazed in his direction. The three silent children leaned forward in unison, expectant. Would she speak now?
“I would like to see tulips again, Antoine. Yes. But not red ones. The red ones look like hearts wobbling on the ends of green catheters.”
The children nodded and smiled as though they understood. Renee had a feeling that there would be three pots of tulips for her in a few weeks time. But no red tulips was all she could say today. Everything else had been swallowed with the muffin. She smiled a little and nodded and picked away at the afghan on her lap below the tray. They saw her eyelids flash open-close: it was the signal to say goodbye. She watched them make their various ways up and out of the naugahyde armchairs, shuffle to the doorway and turn to wave. It’s one thing to watch your children grow up; another thing to watch them grow old.
Renee sighed and surrendered her head to the high back of the chair. Good thing: that high back. Otherwise the neck would break with the weight of skull and brain and memories. Then she focused on the ceiling which spread before her staring eyes like a canvas for a life’s work, clear, except for thousands of tiny, absorbent holes. She drifted into a ceiling journey: the practice had first exploded into her mind in March, 1962. She had been sixty then and cantankerous as an old goat tied to a stake in the middle of a barren field. That winter had lasted too long to suit anyone but a penguin and as she shovelled snow from the path to the house, she had looked at the cloud ceiling above her and realized the truth: she was in hell. Hell it was: the whole world was a rubbish heap of madness. That explained the recurrence of wars, of greed, of cruelty on the planet. Four decades had flown by while she travelled the pages of Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past among others. Reading became a search for comfort, for evidence that she was right, for enlightened companionship. People couldn’t improve. They had been consigned to behave like morons here for their life-times. And then. And then? Then they died and who knows where they went afterwards. The point was: to the senses the world was a Garden of Eden, seductive and beautiful, sometimes luxurious; a place of opportunities for wealth or poverty, for good or evil, selfishness or altruism. And it was so complicated a place that people were content to take it as they found it, to label it reality and suppress questions like ‘What’s the point of all this?’ because there was too much of it to analyze. But Renee saw, as if it was standing in the flesh before her, the naked logic behind the lovely, convoluted facade: make ‘em think they’ve got paradise and turn their every effort into a syrup-drenched exercise in futility. Futility. Yes, that was the word. Worst of all, there were some who believed that the world and their life in it was all there was. Closed book, once they dropped dead. Who held out no expectation that there would ever be anything else, or anything any better. At least the ones who died with a vague idea of heaven on their minds went out hopefully.
Vernon came back.
He shifted her into a wheel chair and drove her back to the cubicle they called her room. The weak March daylight faded to evening as she struggled up onto the bed. She would not surrender herself to the sheets yet. The sheets were coarse against her thin skin and for an hour, if not longer, she would feel the soft pile of the blanket that covered the surface of the bed. Through the drawn window curtains, as though through fog, the headlights of passing cars flickered on and off, and from the corridor came sounds of dinner trolleys being wheeled along. Dishes, utensils, clattered; ascending and descending notes of the staffs’ voices rattled as they cajoled or praised her neighbours. She lay on her back with her head turned to the curtains. Her heart laughed a subterranean chuckle. Sigmund, Dora, Antoine. Billions of others. Farce and tragedy; mountains out of molehills; taking it all so seriously. A world of clowns, juggling rocks like Sisyphus, hoping to make the grade. Out of the dark a gentle snore erupted. She recognized it as her own and turned from her back to her side, curled up into the foetal position and fell away with a picture of red tulips in her mind.