When the notice from the IRS arrived, Glynis hid it. Now she couldn’t find it. She could tell her daughter Patty was wondering if she’d made the whole thing up.
“Why in the world did you hide it?” Patty said.
“I thought someone might come into the house.” The need to conceal it had made complete sense last night, the darkness full of villains eager to take advantage of an old woman. She’d been convinced it mustn’t fall into the wrong hands. Now, in bright daylight, her fear seemed silly.
“You’re not silly, mom. We’ll find it.” Patty’s tone was kind, but brittle.
While Patty went upstairs to search, Glynis sat on the couch. Anxiety exhausted her. Just a few feet away, on the other side of the sliding glass door, birds were pecking up the birdseed she’d scattered across the deck—sparrows, mostly. How she loved them. Bright and busy, they sprang about on their twiggy, black feet. IRS notices arrived, were lost, but the birds’ obliviousness put that in perspective. The world wasn’t coming to an end. She felt strongly that if it were, the birds would know, would rise up and fly away as high and as fast as they could. As a child, Glynis had had dreams in which she flew.
Patty marched into the living room holding a plastic bag. “Five years,” she said. “In a dresser drawer?”
Well, she hadn’t known what to do with his ashes, her poor, dead husband. And she’d forgotten they were there.
“Don’t you want to scatter them?” said Patty. “At the beach, maybe?”
“Your father never liked the beach,” said Glynis, alarmed.
“He liked the dresser drawer?”
“Take them,” said Glynis. What was the point of arguing? After all, the ashes weren’t him. “I’m sure you’ll find a good place.”
But Patty dropped the bag onto the kitchen table. “We should go. We’re going to be late.”
She had come to drive Glynis to the doctor because of an embarrassing ailment. Her private parts itched; she had the runs. Yesterday, taking a shower, she’d realized why. Fruit flies everywhere; they’d laid eggs in her vagina.
“That’s impossible,” said Patty, as she backed the car out of the driveway.
“They fly up when I’m on the shower chair and go inside me.”
“Mom! You’re not a piece of fruit!”
“I know what I know,” she said, angry. “I’ve seen their wriggling eggs in the drain.” She wouldn’t be bullied away from the truth. If she’d learned one thing in her life it was there was no use sugarcoating horror.
“You’ve been eating ice cream,” Patty said, accusatory.
“A little,” she admitted.
“You’re lactose intolerant! That’s why you have the runs.”
“Think what you want,” said Glynis, rattled by the thought that her daughter might be right. But ice cream didn’t explain the itching. She looked out the window as they sped along. A blur of trees. A squirrel racing along a utility wire. A long, tall fence with a crow perched at one end. She waved to it.
And as Patty hurried her across the parking lot to the medical clinic, a crow, it had to be the very same one, bobbed its head and called to Glynis from atop a telephone pole.
“Isn’t it wonderful that he recognizes me,” she said to her daughter. She fed the crows, too.
“Watch where you’re going, mom.” Patty grabbed her arm.
In the examining room, Glynis wilted under the doctor’s skeptical gaze as she explained the itching, the fruit flies.
“That’s physically impossible,” said the doctor. She was a short black-haired woman who looked about twelve years old. “How long has this been going on?” she asked, looking not at Glynis but at Patty.
“At least a year,” Glynis said.
“A week,” said Patty, sounding exasperated.
Glynis flushed. The examining room, like a prison cell, had no windows to gaze out, only a laminated illustration of a human heart on the far wall, the arteries like blue rubber tubes.
“Does she live alone?” the doctor asked her daughter, as if Glynis were a child or simply not there.
“Yes, but I’m five minutes away,” said Patty.
“It’s pinworms!” Glynis suddenly realized.
“Will it hurt to test for pinworms?” Patty asked.
The doctor shrugged. “No.”
Glynis closed her eyes and tried to savor this small victory, but unfortunately the pinworm examination required her to remove her underpants, and then, to endure the uncomfortable prodding of the doctor’s rubber-gloved fingers. “I think it’s a yeast infection. But if you want, you can pick up some Pin-X. It shouldn’t hurt her.”
Next the doctor tapped her elbows and knees, told her to roll her eyes and stick out her tongue. She asked: “What day is it?” “What year?” “Who is the president?” “How old are you?” The flurry of questions flustering. Yes, she had trouble remembering things but wasn’t that normal as you got older? The older you were, the fuller your brain. She was eighty-three.
“I’m referring you to a neurologist,” the doctor said. She scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to Patty.
Patty was alarmingly silent as they walked back to the car.
“I’m sorry to be so much trouble,” said Glynis.
“You’re no trouble at all,” Patty said. Which was, of course, untrue.
Glynis replied with another lie, also intended to comfort. “You know, I’m not afraid to die, dear.”
Patty’s grip on her elbow tightened as she helped Glynis into the passenger seat. She said, “Well, Mom, I’d like it if you stuck around for a little while longer at least.”
A relief to hear because actually Glynis was frightened much of the time. Things rushed at her out of nowhere—people, cars, animals—reckless and fast. Memories rushed toward her, too: her youngest child having a tantrum in the middle of town while men gathered around and made bets on how long it would last; her oldest, the one here driving too fast along the freeway, who’d had colic for three months; her dead husband, who’d bought Glynis her first banana split.
She wanted ice cream.
“You had quite the lungs as a baby,” she said to Patty. “I thought you might grow up to be an opera singer.”
Back at the house, Patty threw the ice cream away.
“Such a waste,” said Glynis, bereft.
“I’m sorry. I’ll buy you soy ice cream.”
“I don’t like it.”
Her husband’s ashes sat next to Patty’s purse. Glynis wished she’d never found them. He’d been disturbed; she could feel his stony disapproval from inside the plastic bag.
While her daughter searched the kitchen cupboards, still looking for the notice from the IRS, Glynis picked up the plastic bag of ashes and returned to the living room couch. As she sat, the birds fluttered up and away. They settled back quickly though, when they saw that it was Glynis.
She heard Patty, in the kitchen, shout, “Crap!”
“Are you all right?” she called out.
Who would have thought she’d end up like this, dead husband in her lap and worms in her vagina? She’d arrived at the edge of a cliff, unwittingly and unintentionally, and turn and turn about, there was no place else to go, no firm ground, and no possibility of retreat. The thought of falling put her stomach in a knot. She twisted open the plastic bag, tossed a little in the air, and watched the grainy dust had once been her husband sift down.
The sparrows flew up. So small, so ordinary—brown, with streaks of tan and cream and black. Ash-colored. They gave her tremendous comfort somehow. They did.
About the Author: A Bay Area native, Rosaleen Bertolino's awards include a Marin Arts Council Individual Artist Grant and an Honorable Mention for the James D. Phelan Award. Her stories have appeared in West Marin Review, Euphony, Prick of the Spindle, Southern California Review, The MacGuffin, and many others. She is currently at work on two collections of short stories. Find out more about Rosaleen Bertolino here.