by Kimm Brockett Stammen
“How old are you then, Maud?” asked one of the daughters as she lifted a pile of Claire’s nighties from a cardboard box and stuffed them into a drawer. As if she didn’t know perfectly well. Claire and I have been friends since we were girls, skipping down Queen Anne Hill or adventuring on the steep and squealing streetcar when we had an extra nickel.
I took out my age and polished it like one of my ruby rings. “Just like this century, I’m alive and kicking and hardly a day past ninety-two.”
The other daughter piled family photos—some of them in the silver frames I’d brought back from Prague in the fifties—unceremoniously on the floor. “Don’t you look so jaunty and spry!”
“Red wine at sundown, and keep me away from that mush and creamed corn,” I answered, and curtsied. It was Claire who taught me to curtsy: a small step back and swish-your-hem.
Claire herself sat primly on the edge of the narrow twin bed, hands folded in her lap and her toes barely reaching the floor. She gazed around vaguely at the Pepto-Bismol pink walls of Room #214.
“You’re just like always,” sighed one daughter.
“But mom isn’t,” sighed the other.
When those two were babies rolling on the floor, their blubber shaking, failing to reach some toy or other, Claire spluttered and cooed over them like a demented pigeon and brought them whatever they wanted. No matter that they both married big shot city land developers and are stolidly wealthy; they have always been defeatist, spoiled nuisances.
“So she forgets some things. I can’t remember half of the places I’ve been: Alexandria, New York, Katmandu, London…”
“Tell me again about Katmandu, Maudie.” Her eyebrows raised, the fine wrinkles vanished from Claire’s cheeks for an instant. “How you got back down the mountain without a guide, and the village with the yak butter tea.”
“Yes, my dear, but first open your housewarming gift.”
Her thin fingers fluttered in crinkling tissue paper.
“It’s embossed snakeskin, I couldn’t resist it,” I said, as she held up the evening bag.
“Oh, you darling, it’s lavender!”
“For our next late night uptown.”
“She can’t go out!” screeched the daughters.
“Pshaw. Just because she wanders a little—finally asserting herself, in my opinion—you stuff her into this place like a trussed chicken.”
They smiled their tight smiles, turned away from me and began talking to Claire in singsong voices. “It’s time to go to the dining room. Your first meal here, mom!” One squeezed her arm and steered her towards the door, the other draped a sweater over her shoulders. At the door they turned reluctantly back to me and spoke in monotone. “You are welcome to join us.”
“A party!” Claire looked at me with the familiar appeal, brows in flight, sparse lashes like exclamation marks. She always did love a get-together, with gaiety and dresses and chatter. She’d had so few in her life; after growing up on Seattle’s tallest hill she married that Carl and spent too many years twenty-three dirt-road miles from town on a farm, with these two tying her down and Carl in his sweat-underarmed flannels mucking out pig stalls.
“Perhaps.” I adjusted my red-flowered cloche hat and slipped back into the tight matching heels. “Just for appetizers.”
Around vinyl-clothed tables circled liver-spotted old coots in spectacles, dentures, walkers and wheelchairs. Our table’s centerpiece, a pop-up air freshener, didn’t cover the smell of grease and arthritis rub. The daughters fussed over Claire while I perched next to her on an oversized, paisley-splotched chair.
“Nobody cooks from scratch no more,” grumbled a withered fellow into his plate.
“Nobody knows what a spittoon is,” queruled another.
“Ha,” I said. “Nobody has the gumption to knock the head off a chicken or walk five miles in the snow or live through a world war or sew on a button and it’s the late twentieth century and all the buildings look like boxes and the country is going to hell in a hand basket. I’ve heard all this for years and so have all the young people.” I winked at the server, a chubby dark girl in a nurses’ aide smock. “Why do you think they locked you up in this place, you sniffling snouts?”
The ancients harrumphed and turned their attention back to their plates. Claire clasped her hands around the handle of the purse in her lap.
“You can set that down, dear, just for your meal.” I laid my hand on hers, but she jerked it away.
“No, this is mine!”
Strange. I drew my hand back. “Of course, my dear, of course. But here is your fork, and your food.”
Claire looked in a puzzled way at the plate in front of her. Then the dreamy haze I knew came over her eyes; she had always enjoyed meals. Her fingers loosened on the snakeskin. She stroked the tablecloth with the tips of her fingers, and then poked at a watery meat part puddled with something that might once have been potato, a pile of corn with the life smashed out of it. The corner of her mouth drew down. I had never seen her cry, in all our years, but I knew the tiny signs of unhappiness she couldn’t always suppress.
“She’s tired, poor dear,” said one of the daughters.
“It’s been an eventful day,” said the other.
“She hates it here; can’t you see that?” I yelled, my horror at the place overwhelming me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I reached past Claire under the table, clutched an edge of the tablecloth and yanked. Water glasses toppled, a plate slid into one daughter’s lap. They both jumped up, jiggling, exclaiming and glaring at me, and I stood up, understanding that the mess had committed me to action.
“Oh my bunions,” I cried. “Come, Claire, let’s get some rags and wipe that up.”
I curtsied, grabbed my dear’s hand, and together we rushed out a side door.
It was pure instinct. It was the way we’d always been, Claire and I. I led, she followed, and then we were together.
She and I used to put on our best dresses and take the streetcar downtown on Sundays. We’d get off under the wrought iron Pergola at the heart of Pioneer Square, pick our way carefully over the slippery cobblestones, then hold our skirts up above the narrow board sidewalks and walk single file—me always in front—down 2nd Ave to the Smith Tower. It went up when we were teenagers—so exciting!— and back then it was the tallest building in the city, its shimmering pale terracotta the loveliest thing we had ever seen, majestic as the possibilities of our lives. We, giggling and flirting in our feathered hats, rode its brass-clad elevators to the top. Even though she stayed on the farm and I traveled the world, Claire was with me, somehow, through all the rides of my life. She and I stood on South Washington Street, a few blocks from the tower, right outside the St. Charles Hotel, when I met my first husband. When I seduced my second I was back in Seattle, wearing a dress she made me from flour sacks; it was the thirties and even gingham was hard to come by. When I eloped with my third she crossed Puget Sound with me on a tiny mosquito fleet ferry and stood beside me at the outdoor ceremony with the growing city across the water behind us. She came even though her husband grumbled, and we both knew that everything about mine but his money would bring me misery. Luckily that last husband died quickly, and finally, after whining about it for innumerable years, so did her Carl. So has everyone else who ever knew me when I was young, as a skinned-kneed girl learning clumsily to curtsy, as a woman in my prime with dainty ankles and heart unbroken.
Everyone but Claire.
I held tight to her hand, trying door after door as we rushed down the hushed hallway. All the weight of my body slid forward and pressed into the toes of my fiery red shoes; no doubt I shouldn’t wear heels anymore, even two-inchers, but flat shoes are so frumpish.
“Yes, dear, I’m coming. But I can’t walk alongside; one of us will plop in a puddle.”
I frowned, then remembered the wood planks of Seattle’s old sidewalks; they were so narrow and near to the muck that when we were girls on our first city outings we had to walk single file.
Claire following, we tiptoed along now as fast as we could, trying the knobs of every door until one of them turned under my hand. I stumbled into a room with a hospital bed and a wizened face peeking out from the top of a sheet.
“Excuse us!” I whispered, and turned so fast I bumped into Claire and we tangled into each other in the doorway. She let out a spurt of laughter that reminded me of blue bells, popping up and growing bravely in unlikely and inconvenient places.
We hobbled down the hallway. Claire pressed a hand against her arthritic hip. I paused to rub an aching heel.
“There was an old woman, she lived in a shoe, she had so many children…” Claire sang.
“Shhh!” I whispered again. “She didn’t know what to do.”
We passed a picture window, and Claire pointed at the cherry trees outside whose blossoms flicked neon in the February afternoon gloom. A murmur of nurses approached and in desperation I wrenched one more doorknob. It opened! I shoved Claire, still singing, into some sort of closet or supply room.
“It’s appropriate,” she whispered. “You’re an old woman.”
“Speak for yourself!”
“You’ve got shoes.”
“These shoes are so tight my toes can’t live in them, let alone the rest of me.”
“You should dress for comfort,” said Claire, who had allowed her belongings to be sold at a yard sale and herself to be packed off to a home.
I wanted to slap her. “I haven’t been comfortable since I was fifty-six, and I don’t expect to be comfortable again until I’m dead. Now be quiet.”
In blackness and ammonia fumes we listened to the nurse’s chatter pass and fade. I cracked the door. The hall was empty. Behind me something clicked, a draft rippled my hem, and then I heard nothing, not even the soft whistle of air through Claire’s nose.
Claire?” I choked. Light sliced in from the other side of the closet; with cleaning supplies piled against it, I hadn’t noticed the pass-through. I stumbled around buckets and cans and into a dingy back hallway. After a jag, two stumbling steps and more dizzying turns, I caught up with her in front of a service elevator, its red and green buttons glowing.
“I always loved Christmas tree lights.” She stroked the elevator’s buttons with the tips of her fingers.
“Claire?” Her eyes were hazing over again in a way that frightened me.
She pushed the down button. The elevator opened and swallowed us, then creaked and burped us up at another hallway, darker still.
“Watch that step!” I panted. My hose snagged on rough wainscot. Hunched, we trailed our fingers along the wall and smelled the contrary dry dampness of must. Finally, twisted and wrung like rags, that place spewed us out in a lost corner of an underground parking garage. Behind us, the rust-bolted iron-and-blood-smelling security door clanged.
A delicious chill breeze kissed us and fluttered our sleeves. I straightened, hands at the small of my back, wincing at the tiny explosions of joints. I smoothed Claire’s flyaway hair, patted her hip, and straightened her thin sweater. She smiled at me sweetly, with her brows raised, expectant. We picked our way, on tiptoe again, through a gum-sticky, oil-spotted alley and finally emerged triumphant onto Queen Anne Boulevard. A bus pulled up to the curb, and we stepped inside.
The dusk was violet as the sachets my mother used to stuff at the bottom of her unmentionables drawer. The bus rumbled down the hill and past the Space Needle, which looked for all the world like a giant spittoon on a stick.
“Where’s the Smith Tower?” asked Claire, craning her neck.
“Somewhere over there, hiding behind skyscrapers.”
“The brass elevators…” Claire sighed.
“The talk of the town.”
“I can barely even tell where it is now.” Mirrored concrete monstrosities blocked our view to the south.
“There’s a bit of the tower,” I pointed. “See there, between those stolid rectangle buildings.” She stood, grabbing a bus strap, but the elegant tower of pale terra cotta slipped behind cement as the bus turned.
“Whoooee!” she swayed, one hand holding a bus strap, her new purse in the other.
“Sit down right now!” Alarmed, I tugged at her arm, but got only the sweater off her shoulder. She leaned closer to the grimy window. Pink neon flashed, “Ladies! Ladies!” and “Never less than XXX!” We had missed the downtown exits and were on the First Ave strip. Women on five-inch stilettos hugged themselves with goose bump arms.
“Carl liked me to wear tops like that,” she said, and I froze.
The only time I saw that man in anything but dungarees and checked shirts was the day they married. And Claire in a high-necked dress with pearl buttons down the front. She had looked down modestly as the minister droned. Only once had she glanced sideways at me, as I stood next to her in the stuffy church, but just as our eyes had locked her new husband reached out and clumsily kissed her.
The bus lumbered over the cobblestones of the oldest part of the city, Pioneer Square. Night had just fallen, and spotlights glowed on the refurbished and paint-gleaming Pergola. Something was going on. Revelers gushed from taverns, crowds eddied and swirled, street vendors hawked metallic and neon green beads, faces shone above circles of glow-in-the-dark necklaces.
“Oh look,” Claire pointed. “There’s a clown.”
My nose, pressed against the freezing bus window, dripped. As I groped for a tissue the bus halted, and when I looked out the window again for the clown I saw her veering along down the sidewalk.
“Claire! Claire!” I rushed out past a bookstore that used to be the scruffle-bricked old Globe Hotel. A huge bald man with rhinestones dangling from his neck stood in the middle of the road, incongruous as an oak tree, marquee lights flashing off his baubles and his shined head. He was frowning down at Claire, who, without even her sweater, looked frail and spindly. I hurried up to them, tripping on an old streetcar track embedded in the concrete. Pain shot up my leg.
“You want something for Mardi Gras?” The man put hands on his hips as Claire tangled her fingers in his dangling beads. Shivering, out of breath, I tried to tug her away.
She resisted me! The man glowered, and I felt myself not only literally but figuratively on shaky pins. Claire had never, ever, been so obstinate, so odd. I watched her warily as she took a necklace from around the man’s neck, standing on tiptoe. She turned to me and encircled my head with it. Smiling, but her ocean-wide eyes strangely bleary. Confused, I shrugged, opened my purse and paid the man.
“Don’t frighten me like that.” I tucked her sweater around her and her hand under my elbow as I steered her away through the crowd, both of us jingling like Christmas reindeer.
Saxophones and trumpets wailed. Men spilled over the sidewalk waving bottles. Claire headed towards a doorway of music and laughter, and I tried to distract her.
“London after V-E day was the most enormous party I remember,” I said.
She kept walking away from me, so I raised my voice.
“They hadn’t celebrated anything for years except the moments between bombs. Piccadilly circus was flooded with crowds, people dressed in red, white and blue, there were fireworks—Remember when I got back I wanted to take you out to a celebratory party?” I rushed after her, reaching out.
“‘Foolishness,’ Carl called it,” said Claire.
The next moment, the lavender purse dangled in my hand and I stood alone in a bustling crowd at the corner of First and Yesler, my throat tasting of acid.
A guitarist busked blues. Young people swarmed, sweating and dancing. A barefoot girl leaped on the rounded stones, bells clinking at her ankles. I tried to ask them if they’d seen Claire, but they ignored me. I stepped, with my burning red heels, onto the scatter of coins and wadded bills in the ratty guitar case.
“Did you see my Claire?”
The guitarist’s hand fell from the strings and he turned toward me the blank face of youth.
“Grey hair. A slight stoop,” I said. “Blue eyes, big as oceans. She’s lost her sweater.”
If empty between the ears, at least he was tall. He looked around, waving his pick in the direction of a place called Big Five. “There’s a grey-hair. Now get the hell off my dough.”
My pinched toes ached as I pushed through the Big Five tavern entrance, clogged by smoke and heaving, pierced bodies and guarded by an impressively bosomed bouncer with squinting, metallic blue-shadowed eyes. I glimpsed Claire at the edge of the stage, and somehow I squeezed between a lot of fat women, like linen through a wringer washer, towards her. Claire stood there, at the stage lip, staring at a line of musical instruments shiny as necklace beads. Her lips moved. All I heard was the roaring in my head and the white noise of the crowd calling for the band. Sinew and cellulite pressed me closer to her; I dropped my ear to her mouth and caught her words.
“…always wanted to play one of those.”
The band shoved through the crowd, swung legs over and hauled themselves up onto the stage. Black boots stomped, the stage shook. A thick youth with tattooed arms and a leer sat down behind a drum set and began thwacking it.
“Push me up! Push!” The command in her voice startled me and before I knew it Claire had leaned her shoulders back and pressed nearly horizontal against me, one foot on the bandstand, the other squirming and kicking. She elbowed and rolled, trying to get on the stage. The crowd surged and roiled. Her back shifted onto the bosom of a woman in purple with huge hair and smudged mascara, who snorted and pushed her with sparkling curved nails. I yelled and cried, the rubies on my reaching fingers spitting sparkles. The drummer held out a meaty hand with a grin and Claire grasped it instead of mine. A flick of muscle and she was up.
The crowd howled, the lights dimmed. The bouncer leaned back against the closed door. She caught my eye and hollered, “Twelve bucks cover.” I fumbled for the money, holding two purses, my fingers shaking and slippery on the bills. I gave them to a man with three earrings in his lip, and they flashed from hand to hand until the bouncer stuffed them in her bosom and nodded at me. “Drinks’er four clams. Yer friend seems like she already had more’n one.”
On the bandstand the band laughed while Claire pointed at a saxophone. The crowd clapped rhythmically, impatient for music.
“Come down here right now!” I called, my voice as shrill as one of her daughters’.
I poked a bartender as she snaked past in orange cycling shorts, and gasped, “G and T”. My silk blouse clung, my nose dripped, and my necklace tangled in someone else’s so that when he gyrated I nearly choked. When I untangled us, a girl from the band, in dirty jeans, was adjusting something around Claire’s neck.
“Leave her alone!” I shouted, but even I couldn’t hear myself.
The dirty jeans girl led Claire to the instruments, picked up a swan of shining brass, and attached it so that it hung around Claire’s frail neck. Staggering at the weight of the saxophone, she swayed at the stage lip with the girl at her elbow. The crowd smacked hands and howled. Beer spilled on sawdust. A seaweed-haired woman in sequins waved her arms above her head. In a maelstrom of pungent bodies, Claire put the saxophone to her mouth. The drummer raised his sticks high, grinned, whipped air, and smashed the drumheads into music.
The audience stomped with the beat; the floor shuddered as if it also were a drum’s surface. Pain from my toes zapped rhythmically up my legs. Guitars squealed. The dirty jeans girl whispered in Claire’s ear as if they’d been friends for a lifetime. The bartender pushed a half-full beer into my hand. Trying to pay, stay upright, and keep my eyes on the stage, I spilled the rest of it.
“Clumsy old hag,” the man next to me scowled, punching at his shirt with a napkin.
My face burning, I watched helplessly as the dirty jeans girl took Claire’s hands, adjusting each finger to the keys of the instrument. The bass began a throbbing riff.
“Blow!” called the crowd. A woman shimmied down the front of a scrawny man until she was practically kneeling in front of him. “Blow, blow,” they chanted. Someone grabbed me from behind with a coarse-haired forearm and spun me. I whirled blindly, slapping with my purses. A fat woman staggered back from me, blubber jiggling, holding her face. My pulse hammered faster than drumsticks.
Claire clasped her arms around the saxophone. As she closed her eyes, tears stung my own. Her chest rose. She lurched toward the instrument, attacking it with her breath. It squawked, she recoiled. I fought towards the stage. Claire steadied herself, gasped and blew again. The saxophone blared in time with the drummer’s beat and the audience went wild. They high-fived, they fell onto each other and grabbed at intimate places. Stamping feet stirred up the damp sawdust floor. Claire looked out at the audience triumphant, eyes sparkling in the unaccustomed glare of spotlights. In that moment I knew what she would look like as an angel. So dear and pure, I could not believe I had her close to me for nearly all the ninety-two years of my life. My Claire.
The ratty jeans girl held out her hands for the instrument and in an instant Claire transformed into something wild, wicked. She clutched the instrument, yelling something, violently shaking her head. The girl looked bewildered. It would have been comical except that Claire’s knuckles were white, her arms strained, hair streaming. She hunched and curled her whole body protectively around the saxophone.
In an instant my tenderness turned to terror; something was wrong, something so strange I didn’t dare name it. I don’t know how I got up onto the bandstand but I did, and fell on my hands and knees next to an amp. With its sound thumping inside me, playing the twang and spangle of my nerves, the thunder of my overflowing veins, I stood and reached out for Claire’s elbow. She yanked it away. I approached again and she kicked me.
I may have cried out. The surrounding noise was deafening, my shock at the blow—from Claire, who had never defended herself in her life, and certainly had never needed to from me—overwhelming.
The drummer signaled the band with a lift of his sticks and the music stopped. In the shock of silence I rubbed my shin. Claire swaddled the saxophone in her cotton dress, stroking the keys with the tips of her fingers.
“Claire,” I whispered. “Give it back.”
“Don’t tell me what to do!”
I stepped back from her eyes, poisonous as the words I had never heard her say. “Claire?” I took another step backwards and suddenly there was nothing at all under my feet.
Leather, sweat, alcohol, a mass of gyrating bodies and anonymous arms broke my fall. The band started up again, and as the music roared, I was carried away by the cushioning crowd. I lost sight of Claire, as, bumping and protesting, I moved like a piece of jetsam on floodwater, down a narrow passage behind the stage, around a corner and outside. It was the most disorienting thing I had ever felt, worse than wandering Shanghai without knowing the language, worse than descending the dizzying spiral staircase to the catacombs of Alexandria. Worse than Katmandu’s yak butter tea. Because the disorientation was not only of my physical body, but my soul, my history, my understanding, my world.
Then the crowd somehow receded, my pinched feet again found the ground, and darkness and cold slapped my cheeks. I whirled around on the cobblestones, looking for Claire, flinging tears from my cheeks. But the darkness had taken her, the wildness and the young people, the lights and the strangeness of the city had completely enveloped the woman I thought I’d known. I screamed her name, but people surged past and around me, and I stumbled on the unforgiving, irregular cobblestones. I stopped to take off my torturing heels. The coldness of the stone street crept upwards, entangling with the pain in my feet and legs. They were the same stones as those over which Claire and I had tripped gaily, so long ago. Weren’t they?
I began to shiver. I don’t know how long it took for the cold and the dismay and the loss to sink into my bones; for the irregular, uncontrollable shuddering to tear away parts of me and reveal a solitude much worse than death.
Suddenly Claire walked towards me. Circled by a large group of people including the bouncer, the ratty jeans girl and a frowning cop, her mouth was turned down, her sweater was askew, she still clutched the horrible saxophone to her chest like a child. Cautiously, I reached out and brushed back the gray tangles obscuring her eyes.
“Claire?” A few blossoms from a nearby cherry tree fluttered into darkness. I shivered again, with cold and more, and told her what I hadn’t believed I’d ever have to. “It’s me, Maud.”
She looked at me without recognition and put the saxophone shakily to her mouth. A mix of tears and saliva dripped on her lips and down her chin as she tried to blow. Spit and saline and the horror of her blank stare splashed my face.
The cop was stolid. “This lady here says that old lady stole the instrument.”
“Just give it back,” said the ratty jeans girl.
Neon flashed, bangles glittered on the wrists of girls strutting past. Claire, attention caught, turned to follow, and in that instant, she relaxed her hold on the instrument. The cop grabbed it, wrenching Claire’s neck as he unclasped it from its strap. She began to bawl like a wild thing.
The cop handed the saxophone to the girl. Then he turned and asked me something.
I saw his lips moving, but I couldn’t answer; just as Claire had curved her body protectively around the saxophone, I felt myself curl.
He repeated himself. “Where’s this old lady supposed to go?”
I curled around two girls in Sunday dresses, our faces and dreams and our loves and our travels, and whatever meaning could be found in our leadings and followings, our lives and our losses, the quick blossom and fade of the touch of our hands. She had known me all the days of my life; if her mind no longer held me then I was no longer held. I loved her, had always loved her, would always love her, but she wasn’t with me anymore. Clutching both my purse and hers, which was empty, the clasp flapping, I looked down the street. Between blocks of blunt 1990s cement and steel buildings, the Smith Tower’s warm pale terra cotta peeked through, still pointing, all alone, towards the sky.
“Room 214,” I said finally, and told the cop the address of that place.
He wrapped his arm around Claire and led her off, but she glanced back, eyebrows up like birds, white and high. I took a small step back and smiled at her, swishing the ruined material of my skirt against my knees in a curtsy.
Kimm Brockett Stammen’s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in Litro, december magazine, CARVE, The Greensboro Review, Pembroke, Prime Number, and many others. Her work has been nominated for Pushcart and Best Short Fiction anthologies. She holds an MFA from Spalding University. kimmbrockettstammen.wordpress.com