Linda first saw the green Cadillac cruising down Birch Street on her way home from
church. That was Sunday. She wouldn’t have noticed it except that the color was sea foam
green, and, when she was seventeen, her parents had owned one just like it. Monday
morning she saw the car again and wondered if it might be Saul Portman in the driver’s
seat. He was the neighbor who owned the car now. But the Portmans were snowbirds
and wouldn’t be in town again before the spring.
She saw the car while opening the curtain in her mother’s bedroom and singing out,
“Morning Mom,” and then thinking with disgust, I had a voice once, where did that go?
The air behind the curtain felt cold.
Outside, a glass skin covered the black chokeberries and turned bare tree branches
sharp like barbed wire. She noticed the car then the wilted day lilies in a heap beside the
garden. There was an identical pile in the backyard. Later, she would have to collect them
and take them down to the street.
In the bed, Hazel groaned with her eyes still closed and slowly brushed her leg back
and forth like a dreaming dog. “Close that,” Hazel snapped, eyes still shut.
She smelled like bed pan, Vanicream, and wet wipes. Linda pulled back the sheets
and undid the front of Hazel’s nightgown.
“Oh that’s cold,” Hazel said.
Linda rubbed Hazel’s cheeks and nose with a wet cloth then washed over her arms,
where old freckles patched together, to the inside of her armpits, up and around folds of
loose skin, her sagging breasts, belly, and pelvis.
“I’ve got a cake in the oven; can you smell that?” Linda said as she scrubbed.
The Cadillac made another pass. Perhaps the driver was searching for an address.
“That’s cold,” Hazel said.
“Just smell that cake,” Linda said. “You can have some after lunch.”
“What kind is it?”
“It’s chocolate. You need to sit up,” Linda said.
“Five more minutes.”
“You need to sit up now. I’m going to wash your back,” Linda said.
She pushed down the guardrail, took Hazel’s two knobby hands and pulled her
into a seated position. Then Linda kissed one hand, where the fingers were permanently
shriveled as if positioned on the strings of a violin. Sometimes Linda used to think that
kissing would cause Hazel’s hands to open like new flowers. They never did though.
“You’re hurting me. Oh you’re hurting me,” Hazel said.
“Stop it, just stop it. I’m helping you.” Linda squeezed Hazel’s wrists not too hard, just
enough to say who’s boss.
“You’re so cold. You know that? And no wonder,” Hazel said.
Linda grabbed a brush from the nightstand and combed forcefully through Hazel’s
white curls. They were still stiff from being rolled the day before. Hazel pressed her lips,
and the deep-set lines along her chin trembled slightly. Along her jaw, skin shriveled
away from her fine bone structure and hung loose.
“That cake will be warm though. Everyone loves a good cake,” Linda said.
“Is this a special occasion?” Hazel asked, nodding slightly to the massage of the
She sure could be stately under any circumstance. Even then, sitting on the bed with
her feet dangling like a little girl’s, they could have been in the queen’s dressing room.
Hazel arranged the blue nightgown with pink elephants modestly over her legs, looked
up, and stuck out her tongue for a good while.
“It won’t be if you don’t stop putting on airs,” Linda said.
Hazel batted her eyes—only a bit of lash on her veiny eyelids and above them
her eyebrows pale, white wisps—then bent her head to scratch her nose against her
thumb. When she looked up again, it was into the mirror on the bureau past the old
photographs taped along the casing. Linda had taped them there—Hazel and Aunt
Georgie in bright blue dresses pushing prams down main street. Linda was swaddled up
in one, but you couldn’t see. The wind caught up her mother’s curly red hair and made
it wild, and those blue dresses swelled into bells. The girls in the picture could have been
Linda’s daughters now, if she’d had any.
“Oh my, look at that white hair. Will you give me some color, Lin?” Hazel said.
“The color makes your scalp itchy,” Linda said.
“Oh my,” Hazel said again. “Look at my white hair.”
The oven beeped, and Linda went into the kitchen, slipped on a pair of oven mitts
and transferred the cake into the freezer. Then she took a jar of frosting from the fridge
and put it on the counter to soften. Colorful candles from years past and preserved in
sandwich bags were laid out alongside the frosting.
“You and I are going to celebrate,” Linda said, returning to the bedroom.
“Close that door,” Hazel said.
“There’s no one here.”
“I heard someone.”
“There’s no one here, Mom. Roger’s at work. Not that he hasn’t seen all this before.”
Hazel lifted her chin and looked with a pinched vulture stare. She was capable of
so many different faces. She had grown into them. So lean in the cheeks now. Her teeth
protruded. And when disoriented, her eyes grew black and wild and she clicked her teeth
like an animal.
“He most certainly has not,” Hazel said.
Linda knelt to remove her mother’s socks. She clipped her toenails and then rinsed
“He most certainly has. Who do you think helps you to the bathroom when I’m
running errands? Now are you going to cooperate today or not?”
“Well that’s just fine. I want to celebrate today. I want to get you all dolled up and
celebrate, but you won’t let me,” Linda said.
Hazel stuck out her tongue.
“I need you to stand up so I can wash underneath. Do you need to go the
“Yes,” Hazel replied fiercely.
“Fine. Let’s do that first, and I’ll change your sheets. Can you hold my hands? I’ll
walk you to the door.”
Linda pulled Hazel up by her arms and they began the slow painful shuffle to the
“Oh. Oh,” Hazel said, grimacing with each step. Linda liked to think Hazel’s
moaning had a rhythm to it. She should have been an actress. She had a real talent for
“Now don’t go until I get you to the toilet, understand?” Linda said. She lowered her
mother onto the raised seat and sighed. The floor was wet. Spidery waterways trickled
down Hazel’s legs.
“Sometimes I think you do this on purpose,” Linda said, but Hazel wasn’t paying
attention. She leaned forward on the seat as far as she was able, trying to peer around the
“Close that door,” Hazel barked.
And Linda did. She slammed the bathroom door and marched all the way out the
back into the freezing cold, wearing nothing but her flannels and called Roger to tell
him what an ungrateful, demanding old woman lived in their spare bedroom until his
machine beeped and she had to hang up. Then she stood with the frost seeping into
her slippers and the wind moving through the fabric of her pajamas as if they weren’t
there. It was so cold. Well good. Her insides were ranting. She could stand the incessant
goosepimpling and the shocks of air indefinitely if her insides remained in this tight hot
In the yard next door, Doris Halbert shuffled out to the trashcan with her white
hair still in rollers. She waved and mouthed, “How’s your mom?” Linda shook her head.
Across the street, old Minnie Flint’s driveway filled with cars for her weekly book club
meeting. Linda had to be the youngest woman in the neighborhood by twenty years. A
few blocks away, where Arnie Howe’s little ranch had been, the skeleton of the first twostory
in the neighborhood was visible through the trees. Linda glanced at the yellowing
garden in the back of the yard. She would have to go back in and wipe the floor and
Hazel’s legs. She would have to make Hazel lunch. And of course there was the cake to
frost. The thought of the cake cheered her. This after all was a special day.