A long-time graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine, Alice Mills served as a professor of English for twenty-five years. Her most recent work can be found in the 2 River View, The Icarus Anthology, A Time for Singing Anthology, and next month, in The Shallows.
Janine watched the old lady limp down her cement walkway with the help of a cane. Dotty lived three houses down from her on a block of dirty white aluminum sided houses left almost untouched since the GM plant shut down. A faint air of decay lingered in the neighborhood, manifesting itself in the faint grey pockmarks from hail on the aluminum siding and mildewed concrete foundations. Dotty’s limp was slight; the bright yellow cane seemed almost unnecessary. Nearly ninety, a faint throb of vitality still pulsed about her. She wore a pink parachute sweat suit with green, blue, and white stripes across the front of her jacket and down the sides of her pant legs. Her white hair tufted in the wind.
Like a clown or a piece of cotton candy thought Janine as she took the final drag from her cigarette. She carefully blew the smoke away from the house and tossed the butt into an old aluminum tub on which a slightly garish Christmas theme was printed. A look of distaste passed over her face, but she quickly changed its channel to neutral. Everything about Janine was neutral, down to the beige scrubs she wore every day. She put the lid back on the bucket and went back into her house. The sunny spring day still held a hint of chill but the flowers were already beginning their sun cycles, their feathery or velvet petals scooping up the light before sundown. The stargazer lilies, in particular, opened their scarlet, pink, and white hearts wide. Daffodils wore yellow aprons and bowed their pretty bonnets.
Janine washed her hands and began to clean her kitchen. Forty –five with the bare sprinkling of gray in her short, brown hair, Janine was almost pretty. Her habitual blank face preserved her from lines from smiles or frowns. Her figure was trim enough, but even her body seemed shrouded in anonymity in its uniform of scrubs. She cultivated this blandness for the sake of her patients. She wouldn’t burden them with her emotions.
When she rented the place, there were splashes of food and god knows what all over the walls like splatter art. The landlord said the previous tenant had some palsy that caused her hands to shake whenever she picked something up. This struck Janine as odd. In her experience, the elderly shook until they steadied themselves by holding on to something. Her aunt’s hand shook until you put a cup of tea in it. Then her hand held firm. Janine had cleaned every square inch and repainted too, but nothing seemed to halt the moldering deterioration of the ninety year old house. The plaster was crumbling bit by bit. The house seemed to be gradually sifting down to nothing. She would dust, and then the next day, a new layer of the fine powder of degeneration would sit on the window sills and the floor boards.
She looked out the window from her kitchen sink to see Dotty settling in to read her mail on her front porch. Truth be told, the old lady was a misery to her. That she could see her walking several houses down was due to a storm that had finally taken the old larch that loomed half dead, half alive in the front yard down to its elemental parts. Janine had borrowed a chainsaw and cut what wood was left, stacked it neatly on the side of the house, and then fretted about the stump. The stump, like the old lady, was an eyesore.
Let the dead bury their dead kept coming to her mind. The problem with that was the dead refused to be buried! She had set fire to the stump. Chopped it, and plied it with acid. She could not afford a stump grinder, and now it looked worse, blackened and shredded as if a bomb had hit just that part of the yard. She thought to cover it with earth but a rain storm had wiped the soil clean away, leaving the raw stump with its chainsaw and burn marks a testament to her failure to obliterate it.
The kitchen now clean, Janine carefully climbed the stairs down to the basement. She had fought an all out war against the wolf spiders and won. She had poisoned the whole basement, but still they had kept creeping out of the crawl space under the house. She closed up the gaping squares in the basement that had exposed the underbelly of the house and its dirt with plywood fitted neatly into the holes. It relieved her mind. The openings had been like windows to the underworld and spiders seeped in like darkness until she had remedied it. The remaining wolf spiders were caught on glue sheets. There were so many, it looked as if there were patches of fur in the corners of the basement. She had repainted the basement floor, and now it was brighter and clean.
She had visited Dotty once. The old lady had left a loaf of zucchini bread and a card welcoming her to the neighborhood. Charmed, she went to thank her. Once in her house, well, that was more than enough. The house was rotting, but then all of the houses on the block were in decline. But it was the collection that bothered her the most. Dorothy had fifty more canes and crutches! They lined the walls.
Dotty opened a closet to show her more and the canes hung from the rod, neat in a row almost like cigarettes. Piles of them leaned against the corners of the room. In all colors and shapes, wooden candy cane shapes, floral metal canes with rubber feet and a t-shaped grip, the canes and crutches were like a disastrous game of pick-up sticks. Touch one and the rest would tumble down. She said her husband had used them and never seemed to find one that really worked for him. In the end, he just used a wheelchair. Janine had sat in the small, cramped kitchen with the brown linoleum that needed a good scrubbing. She tried not to look at it.
“He bought a cane or a walking stick wherever we went,” Dotty had said. Janine could tell it was a story she had told over and over.
“He used to say, ‘Everybody needs someone to lean on.’ Well, he used to sing it.” Dotty sang a bit of it in a high, wavery voice and then laughed at herself. “I’m not a singer like he was,” she said. Now that he was gone and her knee and hip were a touch shaky with arthritis, she used them herself.
“I feel like I am leaning on him. I feel where his hand rested, and he is with me.” She said this with a sigh. Dotty liked to choose one that suited her mood. Crutches to suit a mood. Janine snorted at the memory and took the laundry out of the dryer. She dropped a washcloth in her haste to put the load in the hamper. Stupid! Now she would have to search her house for another load to wash. Janine did not allow dirty laundry.
“Whenever we went anywhere, we would run into people using canes,” Dotty went on. “When you need one, you notice others who need them too. We called it the “Secret Cane Society”, though of course, it wasn’t a secret.” Janine tried to imagine this fraternity of cripples. She thought it was the saddest thing she had ever heard. More pathetic than sad, maybe.
Then Dorothy had asked if she had a man. Well, that was none of her business. She had had one alright. Several, actually. As if that mattered. Too complicated, she told everyone at work. Men were too much of a complication and actually, she liked to be alone. Not that she was really alone. She had her little hobbies and things. Sudoku and mystery novels. She liked tidy endings. She liked people getting caught for what they had done.
For the life of her, Janine could not figure out what that woman did all day. She obviously didn’t dust the picture frames that littered every surface of her living room. She rarely left the house, though sometimes adults with children would come. Probably her kids. And grandkids. It didn’t matter to her. None of her business, except she felt pity for her. All those canes.
She went to the pantry. She looked at the clock. Thirty seconds til two. She waited til the second hand made it to the twelve, washed her hands, and then took a lemon cookie from its Ziploc pouch. She zipped it up again and then ate the cookie, slowly, savoring the crisp, tangy sweet. She was very disciplined, she thought, with some pleasure. She rinsed the crumbs off her hands. She would never do some fool thing like collect fifty crutches and then keep them. Janine would give them to the needy. That was the right thing to do with fifty canes. Hoarding canes had to be some kind of mental problem. She didn’t explore why the collection rankled. Like all her thoughts and emotions, she accepted it as true. Legitimate. Janine did not question herself.
Janine hadn’t gone back since then nor had she made much of an effort to befriend other neighbors. Most of them were young couples with small children. Besides, she was a nurse. Her hours were hard and she had enough of people during her shifts at the hospital, caring for the patients just coming out of surgery. She watched them closely as they hovered between the anesthesia and consciousness. They never quite knew where they were for the first twenty minutes, but their bodies knew. Janine would warn them about the pain that was coming and to let her know when it did, but they just stared at her blankly.
But she watched and waited for the recognition of discomfort to hit their eyes. She knew when they were in pain almost before they did, and she stood ready with a syringe to attach to their tubes. Pain always wore the same face. Squeezing whatever opiate cocktail the doctor had ordered up into the IV was the highlight of her day. That was when her existence mattered the most to her patients. She took away pain for a living. Pain was the enemy of healing, Janine believed. She had read a study somewhere that the stress of pain could slow the healing process. That was enough for her. Ridding the world of pain was not just a job; it was a vocation.
A couple months later when the ambulance came to Dorothy’s door, Janine wasn’t surprised. She was having the third of her four allotted cigarettes for the day when the lights from the ambulance strobed in the kitchen window. The old girl had to have been pushing ninety. In the end, Dorothy didn’t make it back to the house. Janine would have gone to the funeral but she had to work. She thought about sending a condolence card but didn’t know who to make it out to. So she kept furtive watch, waited to see if the house went up for sale. Someone could probably snatch it up for fifty thousand.
She waited for a yard sale, but none came. Adults came and left again, sometimes with boxes. She heard that they were going to rent out the house. It didn’t matter. She hardly knew Dorothy. And if maybe she missed seeing the old woman limp out to her mail box, at least she was probably in a better place now. Janine could afford to think kindly of her now that she had passed. She wouldn’t let herself think about the ridiculous canes.
It came as a surprise then, when Janine opened her door to a gift. On the stoop was some kind of crutch. It was a sturdy one; the kind with four little rubber feet at the end. On top was a sturdy black handle. It was shiny, metallic red. Probably expensive. A small note was attached.
Dear Miss Janine, she read, Our mother, Dorothy, wanted everyone in the neighborhood to have one of the crutches in her collection. Our best wishes, The Parnells.
At first, tears started at the corners of her eyes. Dotty had thought of her? That sensation faded quickly, however. An irritation began to creep up on her. Then a kind of fury welled up and settled in her throat and her fists. Who was Dotty to think she needed a cane? Did she limp? No! She was a self-sufficient, disciplined individual, not a cripple. She minded her own and didn’t cause any inconvenience to anyone. She had her clean little home, her books and movies, and her lemon cookies. She got rid of pain. She knew enough about pain that she knew she would never become its victim. Wasn’t she the one who cured it in others?
She didn’t need some old lady’s crutch any more than she needed a man. She took the cane from the porch and marched straight to the trash cans. She hesitated a moment. It was a very stalwart cane. Surely it had a purpose. But then, mindful of the insult she felt, shoved it into the can, closed the lid, and went to smoke her last cigarette for the day even though it was an hour too early.
Artwork: Memento Mori by Amanda Bergloff