Fire and Ice

“Esther is the spice of life.”

Mama told me and I believed her. But Mama went to her grave a long time ago and Harold died three years ago. My son George moved to the other side of the world where the kookaburra laughs and the dildos play, or some such, and I’ve become nothing more than my daughter Charlotte’s biggest headache.

And now I’ve gone and blown up the pie plate—Pyrex shrapnel in my thigh. Got my hand over the wound so it doesn’t look so bad, but that idiot homecare girl keeps shrieking into the telephone anyhow, and it isn’t helping my concentration. But I shouldn’t blame her. They sent a girl to do a woman’s work. She doesn’t know anything. Probably thinks I’m some dementia case. Of course she does. Even Charlotte does, and Charlotte’s a doctor. Serves me right for being happy she got into medical school. The older I get, the more she sees me as a patient. She thinks I can’t string two words together. I’ll say this: silence is a gift. I don’t want to hear any more babbling in my ear. Ever. Not even my own. Had a lifetime of it.

“Mother! What did you do?”

Of course I don’t answer her. I don’t want to listen either, and Charlotte is going to talk my head off now for the rest of the afternoon.

Charlotte, to the homecare girl, as she’s wrapping my leg: “What happened?”

The girl, mewling like a kitten: “I went upstairs to get the dirty laundry and she must have gone into the kitchen and put a glass pie plate on the stove. The element was on high.”

Charlotte: “What was in the pie plate?”

Girl: “Nothing.”

Charlotte frowns.

Girl: “When I came down the stairs with the laundry, I saw the plate on the red hot element and I panicked.”

She admits it was her fault.

Charlotte: “You didn’t take it off the element straight away?”

Girl, sobbing: “Yes.”

Charlotte tells me not to worry; she’ll take me to the hospital and I’ll probably stay one night for observation. But Charlotte doesn’t realize that I can read between the lines: she wants me in a nursing home, has for two years now, and she wants to win this time. She knows she can now that I’ve gone and nearly shot my leg off with a pie plate. Not to mention I’m 87 years young. Stupidgoddamnhomecaregirl. Never wanted her in the first place.

Why is the room spinning like a top? I’m in the center of all things, and all things are whirling around me. I’m going to vomit. No, I already did that. They gave me something…Charlotte did, or someone. I’m drugged. I’ve lived through two world wars, the deaths of my first born, my husband, my parents, most of my brothers and sisters, my home town, and my best friend, and they knock me out for a bit of glass. Why can’t Charlotte understand how precious every moment of waking is? That’s why I don’t sleep. It’s not because I can’t, but because I don’t want to. I’ve tried to tell her.

I don’t know how I did it, but I won. I’m home. No homecare girl. No Charlotte. Just me tucked up in my bed. Of course someone got me home, undressed me, and put me here. Probably Charlotte. But I’m home and that’s all that matters. And the room isn’t spinning. And it’s my room. That’s all that matters.

I don’t know what time it is, but it’s dark outside. I must have slept. The drugs haven’t left my system or I’d never have gone down again.

What’s that sound?

I hear something scraping above me, but there’s nothing above me except the ceiling, and the attic above that. And there’s nothing creepy about the attic. It isn’t old enough. Harold and me bought the house brand new; its memories are our memories—or mine, since Harold’s dead.

There it is again. There’s definitely something up there—probably a squirrel or two. Maybe mice. Hope not a rat.

Please let the light not be burnt out. The light at the top of the stairs. There’s a switch right here…where is it? There. Light. Good God, these stairs are steep. Nope. Can’t make it. Not with this bandaged leg.

That can’t be a squirrel making noises like that! What the hell’s taken up residence in my attic? I’ve got to check. I can’t ask Charlotte to do it or she’ll say I’ve no business living in a house I can’t manage. She should manage her mouth a little better. I can do it. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other.

And now I’m at the top. I better not fall down the stairs or Charlotte will win and I’ll be in a nursing home—lock stock and bottom of the barrel. Unless I’m dead.

I open the attic door and, can you believe it? Serpents. Golden serpents…two of them. Emerald eyes on the left, sapphire eyes on the right. And men! My God, there are dozens of men. Women too, but who cares? Milling about like they haven’t a care in the world. Like The Great Gatsby. Like nobody’s business. Like they don’t know they’re in my poky house. With drinks in their hands. And I go right inside. Right past those gleaming serpents.

Men are looking at me. I’m sure of it. Beautiful, juicy men.

There’s a floor-to-ceiling mirror–it’s a wedding present from long ago–only it isn’t. It’s much bigger and shinier. Clearer. And I’m clearer too. You can see what I looked like when I was a girl, only better because now I know how beautiful I was. If I had known then, I wouldn’t have settled for Harold. And then Ruby wouldn’t have been born and died…but there’s no point dwelling.

My dress is white, lacy in all the right places. Naughty. Good God! I’m wearing a naughty dress. Exquisite. And who’s this? Some dame come to pretend she knows me because I’m gleaming like a virgin jewel and every man wants to wear me.

Dame: “I heard you were coming, Esther.” Dame takes my hand, puts a drink in the other. “I’m surprised you made it. Jack said you had trouble on the stairs.”

Me, in my new sultry voice: “Stairs I can handle. Why don’t you introduce me to this Jack character.”

Dame throws back her head and laughs. Laughter catches in her throat. Her neck’s white as ice.

Jack arrives as if he’s heard us. He’s gorgeous and he knows it. But I don’t mind. I’m not going to marry the guy. He fingers my sleeve. I’m not kidding! And I nearly orgasm. What the hell? It’s never been that easy before.

Me to Jack: “You been hiding in my attic all this time? If only I’d known.”

Jack kisses the back of my neck. I vibrate like a wind-up. He doesn’t say anything, but I’m sure he noticed.

Dame: “Save some for me, darling.”

Then I hear it. The Glenn Miller Orchestra. “Blueberry Hill”! Jack takes me by the elbow for a dance but Dame ***2, blonde with great globular breasts, butts in.

Dame #2: “He’s mine.”

First Dame links arms with me: “Jack’s a scoundrel. Good thing you married Harold.”

I want to ask how she knows Harold, but there’s a line of men wanting to dance with me. I go to the nearest and melt into his arms. I’m light-headed, light-bodied. Our lips meet and then someone cuts in. This repeats over and over until I’m limp with exhaustion, but happy. The music doesn’t stop. I’m the girl in red shoes—you know, the one from the fairy tale. The one who can’t stop.

First Dame rescues me and we walk arm in arm. We pass a fountain and I stop to admire my reflection in the pool below. My white dress sparkles like snow. My hair is the deep auburn of my twenties, not the flame of childhood or the white of middle age. My eyes look so bright that I cry. First Dame leans in to kiss my cheek. I know her. She’s the girl I always wanted for my best friend. And now she’s here, and she adores me. Jack sneaks up and kisses my neck. Wraps his arms around my waist. Flames lick my thighs.

I look down and see that the serpents have formed a ring around me on the floor, head to tail, tail to head. There’s a commotion a few yards away. First Dame and Jack leave me abruptly. They melt into the growing crowd.

I step over the serpents and swish past the first circle of glamorous people staring at something on the floor. I’m a fish swimming downstream. No one can stop me. Then I see it. The hole in the floor. I hear someone crying.

We are all watching a woman one floor below. She cries, “Ma!” and wails like a child. It’s rather embarrassing. A few people laugh. I’m so preoccupied with the fluttering in my nether region that I fail to realize, for several minutes, that the crying woman is Charlotte. She is leaning over my bed, and I am lying there stiff as a board, white as a sheet. Humiliating, really, to see oneself as a lifeless thing.

First Dame to me: “Isn’t that your daughter?”

Me: “Yes.”

First Dame: “You’re dead.”

Me: “I know.”

First Dame: “She really loves you.”

And now I see it. Charlotte loves me, needs me still. And I love her. I look for the attic door, but the air is dense, the music is loud and I’m confused. Jack takes my arm and pulls me against his chest. Our lips meet.

Jack: “So good.”

Me: “I need to see my daughter.”

Jack: “No, you don’t.”

Me: “Help me find the door.”

Jack: “Can’t.”

Me: “Please.”

Jack: “There is no door.”

First Dame appears: “Time to go, honey.”

Me: “Where?”

She takes my hand, and, I swear, she skips like a girl. I skip, too. We skip along a path, through trees, toward a horizon I recognize. She’s the best friend I dreamed about when I was still flame-haired. And I know I’ll love her forever. She knows it, too. And forever is a very long time.