“Linny! Watch out!”
“It’s all right, Mom. There’s half a block of clear road.”
Lindsey’s grateful to be nudged out of the Nick memory as her mother Opal clutches the armrest on the passenger side of the Subaru, as if pulling out of the clinic parking lot is a death-defying road race.
“Who’s clearing the road? Should we stop?”
“Easy, Mom. We’re fine.” She has to raise her voice for Opal now. Her mother’s gotten so frail and tremulous, how did it happen? Was it gradual, and Lindsey didn’t notice until suddenly Mom’s this birdlike gray-haired old lady whose bones might snap if you give her a real hug? She’s afraid to be alone, and Dad at eighty-five is still barreling along oblivious to anyone else’s needs. What is it this time? Off on a fishing trip, and they can’t let Opal drive.
“No wonder I was feeling such pain, Doctor says it’s my arthritis. He upped my ibuprofen by 500 milligrams.” Opal’s smiling, pleased with the attention.
Lindsey bites her lip, trying not to be exasperated with the way her mother, a former nurse, still worships “Doctor” and lives for these visits when she can trot out her lists of minutely calibrated symptoms, confer about dosages.
“I told Doctor he needs to get a decent office nurse. These new gals, and they even have men now, they’re just incompetent. They don’t go through the kind of training we had. Why, during the war we were practically running the ward and studying for exams, and we’d never leave a patient sitting there without….”
Lindsey nods and makes the proper agreeable noises. She’s heard these stories so many times she could recite them verbatim, Opal’s voice receding to a background drone as she navigates town traffic and heads onto the county roads, dark clouds lowering into an early twilight.
She comes out of autopilot with a start as Opal grips the door frame and cries out, “You’re going too fast! It’s hard to spot the driveway.”
“Mom, it’s okay.” I’ve only made this drive hundreds of times. “I’m going the speed limit.” She slows for the turn.
Down the long oak-lined drive through the hay field and into the big empty house where yapping Bingo awaits. Lindsey gets Opal settled in with the terrier and dinner and her new meds. She prays Arlen hasn’t given her another gun after Fran and Joanie confiscated the pistol she was keeping in her bedside drawer, ready to fend off burglars and rapists she was sure lurked behind every tree. She’d always tried to scare Lindsey into ladylike safe behavior with tales of pirate slavers and sexual predators.
“So when’s Dad coming back from his fishing trip?”
“Two more days. I’m paying Skip to come out and sleep here while Arlen’s gone.”
Lindsey bites her lip again and wonders when her youngest nephew is going to get a steady job, cut back on the beer. Maybe she better call and remind him to give Opal a buzz before he heads over, so he doesn’t get met at the door with a shot of mace to the face.
She blows out a breath. “You’re so isolated out here in the county, Mom, and Dad’s gone all the time. Why don’t you think about one of those assisted-living condos in town? We could visit more often. You’d make new friends.”
“You know Arlen would never give up his shop and the garden.”
“Then leave him here! All he does is yell at you all the time, anyway.” And push you around.
“Don’t you start that again!” Opal pulls her crocheted afghan tighter around her shoulders. “That’s just Arlen. I don’t want to be alone. He’s not so bad—he doesn’t drink, and he’s a good provider.”
Lindsey closes her eyes, a hot flash igniting at the base of her spine, flames roaring up into her face as sweat breaks out. Blackness, red sparks sweeping over her.
She was six years old, pain flaring over her bare backside and legs after Dad broke the heavy stick beating on her for daring to correct him when he screamed at her about leaving the hose running and she wasn’t even the one who did it. She was trying not to cry as her mom dabbed salve on the bruises.
“Mom, please! Please take us away! I hate him! Why is he so mean?”
“Shush, now, they’re only spankings. He doesn’t mean those things he says, he just gets upset when the bosses give him a hard time. And don’t you go bad-mouthing your dad to people. He works hard, he doesn’t drink. He’s a good provider.”
Lindsey, swaying now eyes-closed in her parents’ overheated, echoing empty home, swallows and takes a deep breath. Is it too late to talk to her mom about her life, her choices? How does Opal hold onto her pieces of identity—the former nurse in charge of the hospital cardiac unit, shouted down and mocked viciously by her husband, disassembled bit by bit over the years, until she’s given all her strength away?
Lindsey gives Opal a careful hug, eyes still prickling. How did Linny learn at six to seal off the tears, and now at fifty-two any little thing just sets her off like that faucet she can’t shut? She rips off her sweater and fans herself with her T-shirt as another wave of the nauseating hot flash blazes through her along with a surge of helpless love for her mother. She remembers Mom young and vital and pretty, always singing.
Lindsey can’t tell Opal how grateful she is to her: It was the final straw with Nick, running to barricade herself behind the locked bathroom door as he stormed through the house breaking furniture and she huddled with her face in her hands. Looking up, she saw herself in the mirror becoming her mother.
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