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[Fiction] Painted Ladies by Victoria Waddle

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

The ghost leaning over Carly’s mother could easily be her father, checking back in on the material world. Substantial, it curls over and around the wide, hunched woman in the wheelchair, a gray miasma. Like her father, it positions itself to appear both threatening and protective.

Carly’s ophthalmologist told her she might see these shadow figures for a few days after a simple eye procedure. Dr. Chin had zapped a laser hole near the top of each of Carly’s irises to relieve pressure and prevent narrow-angle glaucoma. The procedure itself was no more painful than the light snap of a rubber band. It is this aftermath, the ghosts in mirrors and shower doors, that’s driving her crazy. Even her mother’s Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix, Mischief, moves with a shimmering phantom.

“Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, is my patron saint,” Carly’s mother says, clickety-clacking her teeth over and again while reaching for the lunch plate Carly brings to the dining table.

“All right then, grandmother of God,” Carly replies, her old joke worn thin now that her mother repeats this information on an endless loop. Her mother laughs because, for her, it is fresh. She can’t remember ever hearing it.

“Anne means ‘grace.’” Her mother remembers this, though nothing of her current state is available to her. Her ninety-year-old mind holds no address, phone number, or medical alerts. She stares at the pills Carly has placed in her palm, shrugs, and tosses them upward to her mouth. One misses and rolls away. Carly kneels on the floor to retrieve it, her knee cracking loudly when she stands.

“Mom, please don’t click your teeth.”

“I’m not.”

Bringing a glass of chardonnay along with her own lunch, Carly sits across from her mother. She thinks of her daily glasses of wine—the one at lunch and the two at dinner—as high-calorie medication. Before she moved her mother into her home three years ago, Carly wasn’t much for drinking. Maybe four drinks in a season. Now, her own aging body easily produces weight from the added calories. Her general practitioner has gently suggested self-care. “Have a seltzer with lime,” he says. “Take a walk each afternoon.”

“Why didn’t I think of that?” Carly says.

The caretaker will be here in an hour to watch Anne while Carly visits the assisted living facility. When she’d called her sister Ellen back East two months ago to say, “I can’t take it anymore,” Ellen calmly suggested that, among the three daughters, they could finance any part of their mother’s care that wasn’t covered by her Social Security or insurance.

“It’s past time,” Ellen said.

Anne had delivered three girls but named none of them Mary. Named none after even lesser saints; all were cut off from the religious mysteries right at birth. Carly now believes this was purposeful, the first instance in which their mother indicated to her girls they were ordinary beings. Not that this was a slight. Anne’s own sense of being extraordinary had left her bitter when the truth dawned on her. Better, she told her girls, to know the facts of life right away.

Her stomach upset, Carly leaves her mother alone at the table, leans over the sink, and pats cool water on her face, swigs a mouthful of Pepto Bismol. Soon, Anne will need to be changed. Carly wonders if she can forgo the routine, leave it to the caretaker while she tours the memory care home.

When Carly returns, Anne is feeding Mischief from the table. The bloated, black-and-tan dog is trying to inhale half a ham sandwich. Mischief gags and begins to choke. Anne puts her hands to her face and starts to cry. Carly picks up the dog and attempts a canine version of the Heimlich maneuver, hoping she is pushing in and up at the right spot. Mischief vomits on the wood-plank floor. While Carly goes to the kitchen to get cleaning supplies, Anne bends over and gives the dog the second half of her sandwich.

After snatching the greater part of the sandwich from Mischief’s mouth, Carly picks the dog up and carries her to the bedroom. As she sets her on the floor, Mischief nips her. Carly doesn’t blame the dog but closes her fingers around her muzzle, applies a light pressure and a firm “no.” She thinks the dog will bite her again, having also aged into bad behaviors. Instead, the Pomchi scurries into her bed in the corner of the room.

As Carly returns, her mother is using her fork to fling salad off her plate onto the floor. Attempting stealth, her mother looks at the ceiling, her equivalent of a cartoon character’s whistling and feigning ignorance.

“That damn dog is in the bedroom, so don’t throw any more food on the floor, do you hear me?”

Anne narrows her eyes and smirks, defiant.

“And she doesn’t eat salad. Now the dressing is all over the floor. Who do you think has to clean that up? Stop overfeeding that dog!”

Anne smirks again.

“Do you want Mischief to die?” Carly smacks the table. Anne starts to cry afresh.

When the caretaker comes, dressed in a lilac scrub top and stretchy, black slacks, a ghost radiating at her back, Anne whispers, “Do you think she knows how fat she is?”

“Please, Mom, I’m begging you. Don’t talk to her like that. She’s very nice to care for others. Nobody wants this job.”

“I know that,” Anne says.

“Then behave.”

Carly and the caretaker, Diwata, exchange a few pleasantries and instructions. Carly turns her head toward her mother’s chair. I’ll get you Dad’s picture, and you can tell Diwata about him.”

This is the best way Carly knows to get her mother focused. Anne can talk about the photo, watch some Turner Classics, and fall asleep in her chair.

“Who’s Diwata?” Anne asks.

Thankfully, Diwata, who has been here numerous times, smiles and shrugs. “Your father could do anything.” She laughs.

“Except keep his pants zipped,” Carly says, and Diwata chuckles with her. Anne has forgotten all the drama of her life, her humiliation at the affairs of her husband, how she, fear paralyzing her into inaction, used the classic Psychology 101 script, always responding by turning her anger toward the girls. Now she has her dead saint, a man no one in the household ever crossed.

As Carly leaves for the train station, Anne is enumerating her deceased husband’s virtues as Diwata nods: He was a lawyer who passed the bar on his first try, a star athlete, a whiz with numbers, and he always won at gambling, except, of course, when someone at the table mentioned he was taking their grocery money.

Public transportation in Southern California is sparse outside of the Los Angeles city center, and Carly is lucky to have a Metrolink station within walking distance. Normally she walks the mile and a half just fine. Today her knee aches. Perhaps she twisted it a bit as she bent to the floor earlier. But she can’t drive, not with her eyesight what it is. She just manages to catch the train and takes out her iPhone as the scene of dilapidated houses, dirt yards, and chain link fences hurries by.

Carly googles, for the millionth time, “research on dementia, how close to a cure?” Have they found one since last week? No. Next: “gentle suicide.” This for herself, in case of being diagnosed with memory loss. She and her sisters have talked over and over about not wanting their kids to do what they are having to do. But they never come up with a viable solution. Their own adult children tell them, “No worries. We have a plan to drop the three of you in the desert,” and laugh at the absurdity of it.

When the train horn blasts ten miles from her house, Carly stands and holds her phone out to check the time. As she steps toward the platform, she sees a shadow on the floor of the car, takes a stumbling misstep, and fumbles the phone. It’s headed for the gap when she kicks up, connects with her foot while feeling a twinge in her knee, and launches it forward to the concrete platform.

A woman says, “Nice shot,” and picks up the phone to hand it to her.

“Gooooooooaal!” a man shouts. The three of them are momentarily glued together in a silly pleasure.

Carly meets with the social worker and the staff of the memory care facility she and her sisters have picked out. She truthfully enumerates all of her mother’s issues and habits, even the scatological, though she fears this will lead to a rejection of her placement. A small, white mutt with beige spots is in the front office. The administrator tells her it’s good for the patients to have visits from Tiger.

“Tiger?” Carly asks.

The woman smiles and shrugs. “That was his name when we got him. He’s a rescue.” And then, “Your mother’s issues aren’t anything we haven’t seen before.”

Carly is both relieved and ridden with guilt at the thought that someone else will take over what she believes is her duty.

As they tour the facility, Carly thinks the elegant dining room will impress her mother. Her own attention is to the pleated straws, which bend to the lips of the residents, a reminder of all the hospital visits of her life. But they work well enough, and people drink their own iced tea without assistance.

The heat presses on the tour group as they turn the corner to the exterior corridor. At their approach, a sliding glass door opens automatically. A caretaker pushes a wheelchair-bound resident through, and turning again, they all arrive at the space between the interior corridor and the outdoors, which holds the elevator. It is cooler than outside, but moist, reminding Carly of childhood trips to Disneyland, back when the altered atmosphere that accompanied the entrance to a ride electrified her in an anticipatory pleasure. There had been the heat rising from the park pavement, then the long wait in line under the scorching sun, and finally the transition into the close, dense cool of darkness that would lead to the thrill of Peter Pan in flight, the fright of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, or the topsy-turvy world of Alice in Wonderland. All imaginary, all temporary.

A few days later, Carly catches her mother feeding chocolates to Mischief. When Anne sees her, she says, “I’m not feeding the dog,” and tosses the bonbon to the floor. Mischief jumps to it.

“How can you not remember anything and still be so damned sneaky?” Carly asks. “Where did that chocolate come from?”

Anne makes her usual smirk as Carly lifts the candy box. “Merry Christmas from Ida” is written on a colorful tag. So it had been in the room for four months. Carly had put it in an unused drawer and forgotten about it. Chocolate upset her mother’s digestion, and she hadn’t wanted to deal with it.

“Mischief’s double her healthy weight,” Carly says. “It puts stress on her joints. Next time I go to the vet, I’m taking you, so you can be the one who gets lectured about it. I’m telling you, you’re going to kill that dog.”

This, of course, is exactly what happens.

The following day, Carly wakes early to have an hour to herself before dealing with her mother’s morning ablutions. She wonders if a six-fifteen glass of wine would put her in alcoholic range. She forgoes it. She peeks into the guest bedroom, where she keeps Mischief’s bed, and finds it empty. She searches and finds the dog on the kitchen floor next to her water bowl, looking as if she is stretching, her four legs straight and stiff, her eyes open, the ghost that surrounded her a few days ago now merely an aura. The dog had farted out a wet poo when she left the living.

“Oh, no,” Carly whispers. She’d like to sit down and cry, but she has maybe forty-five minutes before her mother stirs. If she calls someone to pick up the dog, enough time will have passed that her mother will be awake. Or the sound of the doorbell will alert her.

Carly holds her hand against the hall closet door as she opens it, hoping to hush the “pop” it will make. Her mother is snoring loudly in the next room, but she is never sure what will wake her. Digging through piles of worn linens—numerous, old, useless—she sees bright colors and pulls out a beach towel, gently shakes out the green and purple fish. No holes. Good enough.

After wrapping Mischief and cleaning the floor, Carly sets the dog in the backyard, goes to the garage, pulls a shovel off the tool storage rack, and returns to dig.

A wood-plank fence surrounds the thousand square feet behind the house. Half of the yard is a small patio; the other half is grass. Carly leaves the door open so she can hear when her mother begins to stir. Her back immediately reminds her that she, too, is getting old. She hasn’t done any gardening in ten years, and as she steps on the shovel and pushes into the dirt with her tennis shoe, her muscles quiver. She stomps on the shovel, and her knee lets her know this is a mistake, and it better be the last in the series she has made over a few days. Sing the pain electric to the bone. She’s less than a foot deep when she thinks she hears her mother.

“Just a minute,” she calls. She picks up the bundle of dog and, unable to properly bury her just now, leans into the blooming lemonade berry bush along the fence, which now presses into her face. A thin branch pricks her cheek, drawing a blood drop. Carly pushes the bundle as far back as she can. She laces her fingers in Mischief’s fur, still silky soft, then stands up and blows her a kiss, feels tears welling despite Mischief not being a particular favorite of hers.

“Oh, no,” she hears her mother say. Afraid that Anne is missing the dog, Carly scurries into her mother’s bedroom.

Anne is sitting up in bed, her left hand holding a turd in a tissue. She is clearly looking for a place to hide it.

“Stop it!” Carly yells, much too loud for the space between them. “Stop it right now.” She runs to the bathroom to fetch the box of disposable gloves.

“Shut up!” Anne screams.

“You shut up!” Carly screams back. “You need to shut the fuck up!” She rushes the gloves on and grabs the tissue. “When did you decide you were a monkey?”

Anne sobs. Carly shakes.

Carly actually has a general answer to her question. Ten years of incontinence, five of those requiring help with diaper changes, assistance in bathing. This collecting and hiding emissions occurring in the past few months. After five years of playing the camel, this is the straw that breaks Carly’s back.

When Carly has her mother out of the shower, the linens changed, and the washing machine humming, Anne says she’s hungry. Breakfast usually comes first, but Anne doesn’t remember that—or whether she ate breakfast already or why she needed a shower. From nowhere, the memory of a lifelong friend, now dead, occurs to Anne. “She never calls,” she says.

In a need to confess, Carly texts her sister Gloria. “I told Mom to shut the fuck up.”

“No worries,” Gloria texts back. “In two minutes, she won’t remember.”

Carly adds a note about the death of the dog.

Anne seems to have forgotten Mischief now that she is not underfoot. Carly can’t deal with any more tears this morning and says nothing to remind her. She pours herself a glass of wine.

During a breakfast of French toast soaked in syrup and butter, Carly’s mother says, “My name is Anne. After the mother of the Virgin Mary. It means ‘grace.’”

Carly can’t bring herself to please her mother with the joke about being God’s grandmother. “Yes, I know. Could you try not to click your teeth?”

“I’m not.”

“Just—please try.”

“Where’s Joe?” her mother asks.

“He went to live with his girlfriend twenty years ago. I got the house, the kids, and now I have you.”

“Oh,” Anne hangs her head and looks inconsolable. “That’s very sad. I liked him.”

Carly gets up to pour another serving into the wineglass, and the glass slides smoothly on the counter away from her. She follows it with the wine bottle, stops it with her other hand before it hits the ledge and falls into the kitchen sink. Is there a ghost here after all? But no, just a lot of water spilled on the kitchen counter, making it friction-free. She decides the wine is not a good idea.

“I’m not hungry, I’m done,” Anne says. She brings a piece of French toast to her mouth and takes another bite.

“Please don’t eat with your hands, the syrup will make them sticky,” Carly says, not expecting her mother to pay any attention.

When her mother goes down for a nap, Carly puts a baby monitor on the patio table because she can’t manage a repeat of this morning. She goes back to the lemonade berry bush and kneels, again reaching until her face is pressed into the twigs, searching. She doesn’t feel anything, so she brings herself in line with the ground as if she might be putting her ear down to listen for hoofbeats. She peers under the bushes. Some feet away from her, the fish appear to be tangled in another bush. She reaches out and pulls the empty towel toward her.

Wasn’t Mischief clearly dead? Where could she have gone? Grabbing the baby monitor, Carly moves to the front yard and sits on a bench. An elderly man bent over a walker makes his way down the street. After greeting him, Carly asks, “You haven’t seen any little dogs running around, have you?”

“Nope. Coyote, though. Right back there.” He points to the direction he came from.

“Walking around in broad daylight like he owns the place.” The man shakes his head. “Middle of the day.”

“Shit,” Carly mumbles as he shuffles away. “Shit, shit, shit.” Why hadn’t she imagined something wild at the heart of the neighborhood?

She pulls out her phone. Some Facebook friend has posted an article on sea squirts. Carly has never seen one. Intrigued by the subtitle “eats its own brain,” she clicks.

The sea squirt appears to absorb itself, beginning with all its tadpole-like parts. Off with the tail. It absorbs gills and replaces them with intake and exit siphons because, ultimately, all it needs to do is bring water and food into its body. No more eye, no more spine. Finally, it goes for its not-quite-brain because it’s found a rock to attach itself to.

That’s it. I’ve had it. Life is crap. But before she can get up, a gray, undulating cloud comes over the trees beyond the parkway across from the house. Her eyes are mostly better now that she is days out from the laser procedure. Yet, how can this be anything but another shadow ghost, like those she has been seeing?

The inexplicable cloud curves, swirls, and turns in its dance, moves closer and swoops down once it passes the houses across the street. It breaks into particles as it closes in on her.

“Oh, wow,” she says and hurries inside to wake her mother.

Another week passes. Carly’s vision is now quite normal. She readies her mother for the trip in the car. As she searches the top of the dresser for her mother’s special-event, clip-on, faux-pearl earrings, she sees once again her father’s ticking watch. She has cared for it, replaced batteries as a favor to her mother. Now she drops it over her wrist and fastens it. Much too large, it has to be pushed several inches up her forearm. A talisman for strength as she commits…what? She isn’t sure. An infraction or a betrayal, but she must go through with it and go through with it now.

When they arrive at Anne’s new home, Carly finds a handicapped parking space so she can get her mother back into the wheelchair and up the elevator. Anne tries to lift herself from the car but shakes so hard Carly finally puts her hands in her underarms and lifts. Anne screams that she can damn well do it by herself. A bolt shoots up Carly’s back.

Once in the wheelchair, Anne forgets she is mad. Though Carly has already moved most of Anne’s belongings, she asks her mother to hold an overnight bag in her lap. “I’m going to spend the night with you,” she says.

“How fun. Like a sleepover,” Anne says in childlike delight, oblivious to the nightly sleepovers of the last three years.

In the elevator corridor, Carly feels giddy, starts to jog as she pushes the wheelchair, then runs.

“E-ticket!” Anne hollers, and for a moment, Carly thinks of her first impression of the hallway, wonders if Anne could be experiencing the same anticipation.

As they make their way into the elevator, a caretaker comes down the hall with a resident. Carly tries to push her mother’s wheelchair into the elevator with one hand while holding the door with the other. The door starts to close on her arm, and though it will open again, she pulls back by instinct. The door catches her father’s too-loose watch and pulls it away. It sails through the gap to the floor below.

The caretaker peers down the crevice. “If someone paid you a million dollars, you wouldn’t have been able to do that on purpose,” she says.

Many residents have decorated their hallway doors with wreaths that get dusty and then dirty. They post signs proclaiming their virtuosity at virtue. A common one is, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” All the decor is loud, multicolored. There are small hall tables holding trees full of birds’ nests.

Anne points at a wreath. “They had someone die.”

“No, Mom, it’s a seasonal decoration.”

“I don’t think so.” Anne gives her a partial eye roll, as if fully acknowledging her daughter’s ignorance of the wreath’s social signal would be too rude.

When they arrive at the office, Tiger is lying in a little bed. He gets up to greet them.

“Mischief?” Anne asks.

Carly is caught off guard. She looks at short-haired Tiger: his spots perhaps more copper than she had seen when her eyes weren’t quite right, but his mostly white coat is a far cry from Mischief’s long, silky black and tan. And then there is his penis, diminutive but visible.

She’d like to straight-up lie for the pleasure it would give her mother on a difficult day, to say, “Yes, it is,” and assuage her conscience by saying it’s a metaphor for life, isn’t it? All is mischief. But the lesson about lying, imprinted with a belt buckle, is too hard earned to be discarded at this late stage. Instead, she tries on the sort of evasion her mother is famous for.

“Well, how about that?” Carly says.

Her mother grins, and the answer seems right.

Carly knows she needs a story to tell her sisters and her friends about this transition, and she’s sorry to lose the “life is mischief” one. She does have last week, how a day went from horrifying to amazing. That’s the one she decides to tell.

She had run into the house to wake her mother, cajoled her against her will to get into the wheelchair and be taken outside. Butterflies, painted ladies, were descending on the neighborhood in the millions.

“Look, Mom. Have you ever seen anything like it?” Carly was sixty, and she had not. She’d read about this current migration, the sheer astonishment at the numbers, but had never imagined her baptism in the black and orange river.

On and on they came, rearranging the patterns of sunlight with their multitudes, cloaking Carly and her mother in silent velvet, heading straight toward them and then flitting upward, a few misjudging, soft brushes against their cheeks and arms, ravishing Carly with wonder.

The spell was broken when Carly heard not awe but fear in her mother’s voice. “There are so many coming so close,” she quavered, as if the butterflies had alighted from a zombie movie.

Whether it is the failure of her own memory or simply a fact, Carly sees her mother as having always been beyond the lure of beauty, kept in place for ninety years by dread. Carly now understands that life injures the timid and the bold equally. What a terrible price her mother has paid for the belief that maintaining a facade would secure her safety.

To tell the tale of butterflies, using her mother’s exact words but without her mother’s tone, is to acknowledge Carly’s truth, a thing she hopes to remember when her own mind flutters.

Victoria has been published in literary journals and anthologies, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and included in Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. She is the managing editor for the journal Inlandia: A Literary Journey and contributes articles to Southern California News Group’s “Literary Journeys,” which celebrates writers and their work. A collection of her short fiction, Acts of Contrition, is scheduled for publication by Los Nietos Press in March 2021.


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