Claire found the dropped note outside the front door. Sara’s writing. Must have migrated from inside. Please, it said. Nothing more. A request or a reminder. Remember to please someone. A shy, short-circuited desire. Please… An unfinished thought. An entreaty too bold. A thwarted attempt. Please. She stared, held the lined and crumpled paper in her hand: one word, not written to her, but calling her back to action. She took the new key on the tobacco-smelling keyring and unlocked the door. The living room held the heat of yesterday’s afternoon sun. Stuffy. She left the door ajar.
Claire sifted and sorted and tossed and tore through Sara’s stuff. The landlord had made it difficult for her. He wouldn’t return her calls, and only yesterday told her when he would be available to give her the new key. Then he was forty-five minutes late. Now hemmed between a stack of boxes she had filled and garbage bags she had stuffed, Claire’s hands touched baggies of buttons, spools of ribbons, cylinders of rubberbanded pencils: a collection for a history museum or art camp. A light breeze blew in. What do you do with a jewelry box full of maple leaf wings? Sara had thrown out nothing in her fifty years living here, and yet, Sara herself had been thrown out. Claire heard and had come, furious. What kind of person would evict an elderly lady? Claire wasn’t family, only a former colleague. She didn’t know Sara well; they had nodded in the halls, chatted over coffee in the school’s café. She certainly had never visited her apartment before this disaster, but suddenly Claire became Sara’s caretaker because no one else would. Someone had to be responsible. She first tried but couldn’t reach the seventy-two-year-old daughter. The fifty-year-old granddaughter was useless, bouncing from one man’s apartment to another (so Sara said). A leak in the ceiling, stains on the walls, paint peeled in patches, cracked at the sills. No men, anywhere. Dust snakes lined the perimeter. Stacks, cornucopias, and neat arrangements. The mementos were organized in tidy piles, oddly; there were just so many. Claire found her covered elastic from yesterday and twisted it into her hair. Butterfly flutter of fingers to free the strands caught. Shedding hair like leaves this fall; it was even beginning to change color too, auburn going blond before silver. At fifty-nine, she was on the edge of silver and felt it.
A rap on the curtainless front window glass brought Claire to the apartment’s front door, which she opened to a stranger: a woman, older, rounder, smiling. Straight or straightened straw hair. Brown eyes and eyebrows lined in pencil. Geometric print synthetic blouse tucked into plain pants. Camel cardigan of pima cotton that hung down long and bunched at the rear.
“I thought so,” said the woman.
“And you are?” asked Claire.
“I’m Canada Johnson.” She stuck her hand out and was greeted by stale air, then a small gust. Claire felt Canada was looking for something, but she couldn’t tell what it was.
“Sara isn’t here anymore. Do you know her?”
“I met her in a coffee shop once,” said the woman.
“I ran into her, really. Please, may I come in a minute?” The woman did not feel an answer was necessary, but she looked right and left before she crossed the threshold. She pushed her way between two stacks of boxes, waved a pile of hangers off of the nearest ottoman, sat down heavily and breathed deeply.
“Smells like camphor, old paper, turpentine.”
“She was a painter, went to art school, then got a job there.” Claire watched, waited, smelling only rust and mold.
“I could tell she didn’t look well.” Canada Johnson traced a crooked line on a vase of dusty flowers with a wrinkled finger. “I assume you’re a friend of hers.”
“She’s fine. May I ask you to state your business?” Claire said, hackles up, eyebrows up. Canada seemed in no hurry to speak. She picked up a sketchbook from a pile and began thumbing through it. Trees and nests drawn in the Arts & Crafts style. Over the woman’s shoulder, Claire could see some of the pages were dated: 1942. She wanted to snatch the book away. But whose was it, now? Sara may or may not want it, still. Claire clutched the back of a wooden dining chair.
“Now, don’t be angry. I had my reasons. I knew what I was doing and I meant well. It was me who called social services and the landlord.”
“Oh, it was you who got her evicted.” Claire crossed her arms, the baggie of buttons still in her hand. Claire put the baggie down and picked up a sketchbook for herself. Here was a well-rendered sketch of the gates of the cemetery down the street. Late 1920s style. A scrap of yellowed tracing paper fell out, lined and lettered. She bent to pick it up. “waiting______for you.” Waiting for mother? lover? friend? a deity? for someone to call the landlord?
“You have to agree: she’s quite old. Shouldn’t be living by herself. I used to be a nurse. She wasn’t looking as good as she used to, not dressing as well, not taking care of herself. And—I found out—she refused to pay the rent.”
“Let me show you something,” said Claire. She balanced the sketchbook atop a pile of stacked paintings and led the woman past a tarpaper patch covering a hole in the plaster and into the dog-eared kitchen. The sink had fallen off the wall and was holding on desperately by one bracket and the drainage pipe. The refrigerator was unplugged because a fuse had blown, and no one had ever fixed it. Chilly in here.
“Terrible,” said the former nurse. “Couldn’t take care of her place, either.”
“I don’t think you understand,” said Claire. “She stopped paying rent because the landlord refused to fix anything. She hadn’t had power in half of her apartment for thirty years. She finally decided she was tired of it. She had the right to withhold payment, and the landlord should have done something. I should call a lawyer, but she doesn’t want me to.”
“I don’t think you understand,” said Canada Johnson. “I’ve seen the other side.” Her voice got lower. “I’ve changed bags and bedpans and bandages. I knew a woman who ran into a sharp corner and didn’t even know she was injured. Came in dripping blood and wondered why. Her legs were bloated; the wound was on her shin—a huge gash, nearly infected. Said she didn’t pay much attention to her feet: they were too far away. Old lady Sara needed care she couldn’t get living here.” She paused a moment. “My own mother…” She didn’t finish the sentence. She looked sincere. Close to earnest. Maybe tears. It seemed a little much. But Claire’s mother was alive, in her early eighties, so she didn’t know what it felt like to have a mother slip away. It was hard to imagine.
“She didn’t even know me at the end. Should have contacted me earlier. What I did here was a favor,” the woman concluded.
Claire exploded. “What you did? Ruining a life that was still working? Making a ninety-three-year-old woman move? She got along. And I’ve seen her: she dresses perfectly well. She told me her life was fine, she just wanted the landlord to make some repairs.”
“It’s better this way. Look at this place! It should be razed to the ground.”
“Why are you here? For praise?”
“Don’t hate me.”
“I don’t know you.”
Claire opened a cupboard, took out another garbage bag, and started loading it frantically with expired cans as if she were on a heist. The bag felt oily. Labels fell off the cans as she touched them. Some were mouse-nibbled, the paste licked away. She could feel the woman watching her, feel the eyes turning away, prying elsewhere. The woman leaned on the crumbling counter.
“She’ll be better off.”
“Who gave you the right to decide that?” Claire closed her eyes, gasped, suddenly feeling she was falling down a hole. Nurse Johnson didn’t seem to notice; she had opened a small drawer and was fingering the arrangements of acorns and leaves inside. She closed the drawer and looked at Claire.
“Everyone deserves to be cared for.” The woman picked a porcelain pig out of the tile soap niche and turned it over. “I’m sure you are finding some interesting things. She probably doesn’t remember, herself. That’s why you’re really here, isn’t it?”
“Are you kidding me? There must be fifty years of receipts here. Didn’t you see all the rubberbands? The empty jars? The lamps from who-knows-where? The furniture looks like it was bought from Goodwill in the 1960s, but it was her home. She lived here. She was comfortable. Can you imagine having to leave your home suddenly, never minding what it looked like? And then not being able to get back to it? The landlord changed the lock and I have to ask him for the key every time I come here to work. At first, he wouldn’t let me in, and he said he would send everything to the dump. Her art is here—you’ve seen it. The value is to her, not to me. I’m trying to salvage her home. I’m clearing the place out as a favor to Sara.”
“I did a favor, too,” the woman insisted. “But you don’t think so, do you?”
She looked around again.
Claire tried to keep her hands moving, even though they were shaking. Tried to stare forward to push the dizziness away.
“I’ll stop wasting your time and let you go,” said Claire. Canada pushed off from the counter and bits of grit and tile scattered to the warped linoleum floor. Claire led her through the knee-high piles and escorted her out the open door, down the corridor and to the top of the peeling wooden stairs. She watched as the stairs creaked and sagged even lower under Canada’s departing weight.
About the author:
Alisa Golden writes, makes art, teaches bookmaking at California College of the Arts, and is the author of five instructional books on making books. She is the editor of Star 82 Review, and her work has been published in several magazines including 100 Word Story, The Monthly, NANO Fiction, andFlash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, among others. She lives in the one-square-mile city of Albany, California, but has a crush on New York. Read more of her work here.
Bio photo by Jim Hair