There was an old woman and a nurse in a room. The old woman sat in a chair holding a cane. There was a tray in front of her with a plate nearly full. The nurse bent over and wiped her face with a napkin. The nurse believed when old women talked about their lives it’s a sign they’re about to die. Miss Macintosh started doing that, and it was making the nurse anxious.
“How about you eat some of your peas?” coaxed the nurse.
“I had a dream about my brother, and I remember when he died. We were living on Spruce Street, and it was just before my thirteenth birthday. He was three years older than me, and golly, did he like fast cars! My father was an engineer for a medical parts company, and he was sad, I remember, and I didn’t know why until I got older. My mother was anxious; she was trying to decide whether to go back to school because she was afraid my brother and I would outgrow her. She volunteered at the library, and Josh and I were honor roll students. Josh was an end on the football team, and only a senior had more catches. My father enjoyed working in his garden, and strangers would compliment how lovely it was. He wasn’t around much, and when he was, he was quiet. When I got older, I figured out he had a friendship with a lady a couple of houses down.”
She smiled sadly.
“It was on a Sunday morning at two o’clock, I saw the blue lights flashing in our driveway.”
The nurse handed her a glass and a pill. She swallowed the pill and smiled. The nurse took the glass back.
“I always felt warm going into my brother’s room. He had posters of sports cars, and team banners, hanging from his ceiling and on his walls. There was a model of the three-masted ship on his dresser, and baseball bats against the wall, and oh yes, a guitar too. His bed cover had a New York Jets logo on it. He had a couple of model planes hanging from the ceiling, and good gracious – that empty fish tank. I remember the open dictionary on his desk; my father forbade him to have a computer in his room. After the cruiser in our driveway, the room became forbidding to me. My father would avoid it, my mother would stand in the doorway like in some kind of prayer, and I would close the door.”
“Miss Macintosh, the sun is out. Would you like me to raise the shade?”
“Thank-you, Evelyn. I would enjoy the warmth.”
The nurse pulled the shade, and sunlight filled the room. Miss Macintosh raised her face to the sunlight. She closed her eyes, and let the sun warm her face. The nurse stood and watched her. She opened her eyes; she was momentarily confused.
“You were remembering your brother,” prompted the nurse.
“Oh yes. Where was I? That’s right. After his death the house became still. We spoke to each other only to meet a need. Josh’s friends came by to pay their respects, and they sat lined up on the couch, silent, until they left silent. After a week, no one came anymore. I turned thirteen, I remember, and my mom talked about hearing Josh from the yard. Father Patterson came to the house to offer succor. My father was absent, and I could hear my mother’s voice from Josh’s room. She spent a lot of time in there, and I would close the door only to have her open it again. I heard a vacuum sometimes. The funny part was when my father was at home she wouldn’t go in there. I said to my friend Curtis one day walking home from school…” ‘My mom is weird since my brother died. She like goes into his room, and talks to him, but she doesn’t do it when my dad is around.’
‘Crazy,’ was Curtis’s comment, ‘Maybe there’s something in there that makes her feel better.’
“I thought Curtis was onto something. I waited until mom was in the basement doing laundry and I snuck into the room. There were the team banners, and the photographs, and the empty fish tank, and I remembered how excited we were when we got fish.”
Miss Macintosh laughed as she talked.
“There were two of them – the first died two days later, and the second lived till four. Father gave Josh and me a lecture on responsibility, and we felt guilty.”
‘What are you doing?’
“It was my mother and there was a funny look in her eyes.”
‘Josh is in this room and you are not to violate him by being in here. Please leave.’
“I ran from the room in terror to my room, and cried hard.”
The nurse removed the tray.
“In the days that followed, I was distracted at school bad enough so Miss Phillips noticed it, and sent me to see Mrs. Prescott, the school nurse, who was about a million years old.”
“Oh sure, Abigail Prescott I knew her. Wonderful nurse.”
“I was scared to death, I can tell you. Mrs. Prescott closed the door, and I sat on an exam table, and she sat behind her desk. I remember she looked at me for a long moment before she asked,” ‘Would you like to hear a story about your brother?’
“She caught me off guard, and I didn’t know what to say. I nodded my head not knowing what else to do, and she asked,” ‘You sure?’
“I nodded again.”
‘There was a dance last spring, and the Lewis girl was there – you know Madeline Lewis?’
‘None of the boys would go near her, and I’ll never forget how your brother walked across that empty dance floor in front of everybody, and asked her to dance. I watched the reaction of the other kids, and I know your brother was teased unmercifully. That kind of courage is impossible to forget.’
“I didn’t know what to say to her, and we sat in silence, and I remember I could hear talking from the hall. Finally I whispered,” ‘My mom.’
‘Say again, honey? My hearing is not so good.’
‘I know, Betsy, I know.’
“I felt like she understood without me having to say anymore, and I wondered how she was able to do that.”
‘I want you to go back to class and finish out your day. I’m going to visit your mother, but that’s a secret between you and me, okay?’
“I don’t know exactly what she did, but I know I felt better.”
“I need to take your blood pressure,” said the nurse.
Miss Macintosh was silent until the nurse was done.
“It was sometime later Mrs. Prescott told me how she sat in the teacher’s lounge, one day, reading, and inadvertently overheard the Home Ec teacher and the industrial arts teacher, sitting on a couch on the other side of the room, talking. She heard the name Mrs. Cheever, who everybody knew was separated from her husband, and then, she heard my father’s name, and couldn’t help paying closer attention. The Home Ec teacher was telling the industrial arts teacher she saw them at a restaurant around midnight, and thought it odd for my father to be out at that time of night with a woman who was not his wife.”
Miss Macintosh thought for a moment, and leaned on her cane; stood upright, walked to the lavatory, and closed the door behind her. She came back out again, blinked her eyes, and sat in her chair.
“There was a time I saw candlelight coming from the doorway, and I looked in, and saw my mother on her knees with her head bowed. I tiptoed to my room, and lay down on my bed, and thought about Mrs. Prescott, and how she knew more than she said. I must have fallen asleep, for the next I knew, I was awakened by something hovering over me.”
‘Josh sends his love,’ said a voice.
‘Mom, is that you?’
‘I saw Josh; he sends his love.’
‘Mom you’re scaring me.’
‘No, honey, it’s all right.’
‘Go to bed, Mom.’
‘Josh needs a haircut.’
‘Is Dad home?’
‘Your father is a very important man. I hope you know that, Betsy.’
‘You see how much he works?’
“We heard the front door open.”
‘Good night, honey.’
“I felt a kiss on my forehead, and lay in the dark until the dark of sleep.”
“Then one day, Mrs. Prescott sent home a note with me. My mom sighed, ‘Oh God,’ when she read it, and answered, ‘Tell her, I guess so.’ The next morning, I stopped at Mrs. Prescott’s doorway, and said, ‘yes’ to a smiling Mrs. Prescott looking over the rims of her glasses. I got home from school that day, and my mom had the tea ready at three-thirty when Mrs. Prescott drove into the driveway. I stood by the doorway and said hello before going into my room. Mrs. Prescott told me what happened. She said she sat in a straight-backed chair, and my mom sat on the couch, and she talked about the golf tournament that weekend.”
‘I didn’t think Phil Sheridan was that good of a golfer,’ she commented.
‘Oh Gracious, I always thought he was a duffer,’ my mom said in a loud voice, ‘Sugar?’
‘These are Irish biscuits; quite good.’
‘Does Mr. Macintosh still play?’
‘Oh Mercy, no, he’s much too busy.
‘Does Josh play?’
“My mom gasped.”
‘He dabbled in it before giving it up.’
‘That’s right, football?’
‘Yes, that’s right. Several colleges are looking at him.’
‘Didn’t I read his obituary?’
“My mom looked at the floor. Then, she explained,”
‘My son Josh is away for a visit; I expect him back next week.’
“Mrs. Prescott told me she felt sad. She bowed her head, and began to speak,”
‘It was the summer of 1965 that my son, Benjamin, went with his room-mate to Alabama to help with voter registration. The boys had two weeks because his room-mate, whose name was Hanson, had to come back north for football practice; he was a big boy who wasn’t afraid of much. They lived with Negro families. They were walking a girl down a country road one night when a pickup truck drove slowly by them and stopped. Four boys got out stinking of whisky and approached them. They had grins on their faces as they said the most lewd things to the girl. One of the boys reached out to grab her, and Benjamin’s room-mate grabbed him by the throat and squeezed until he took back his hand. The other boys backed slowly away, and they got into the pick-up and drove slowly away. Two nights later Benjamin disappeared. The sheriff said he thought Benjamin must have gotten homesick. My husband and I along with the Hanson family appealed to The Department of Justice to investigate what happened. They found Benjamin in a shallow grave with his throat slashed. A couple of weeks later, they arrested two brothers named Gowrie who were acquitted by an all – white grand jury a month later. The two brothers lived out their natural lives in peace and quiet. I had experienced an evil more powerful than a mother’s love for her son; I was humbled and helpless. I was left with a knowledge most people don’t have, and everyday I dedicate myself to the healing of my fellow man.’ Mrs. Prescott painfully smiled. The only sound was the wind in the leaves.
‘Would you care for a biscuit?’ asked my mom.
‘No, no, thank-you,’ answered the nurse, ‘I want you to know I know what you’re going through.’
‘Josh is visiting his uncle in Minnesota, and will be back next week.’
‘Perhaps I’ll come by to say hello.’
‘Oh, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. Josh will be tired from his travels so I don’t want to plan any activities for him, maybe later on. Are you sure you wouldn’t want to try a biscuit?’
‘No, no thank-you,’ answered Mrs. Prescott as she got up to leave.”
Miss Macintosh stopped talking and looked at her nurse.
“Do you want to lie down and rest for awhile? There’s no need to go back to these memories, is there?”
“Yes, yes, I must tell the story.”
The nurse knew then.
“I guess Mrs. Prescott was being told by a number of people that my father and Mrs. Cheever were being seen together at times and places when and where they shouldn’t have been. She told me how she saw Mrs. Cheever across the aisle in church one Sunday morning. Mrs. Cheever had her head tilted back, and her eyes closed like she was in some kind of reverie. Mrs. Prescott told me she felt disapproval. She said she thought, ‘Poor Mrs. Macintosh can’t distinguish between what’s real, and what’s not, and this one is pretending to be something she’s certainly not.’ Father Patterson came to the pulpit and invoked a prayer. Mrs. Prescott said she tried minding her own business, but couldn’t resist the temptation to observe Mrs. Cheever who was praying very devoutly. ‘I don’t believe her,’ thought Mrs. Prescott. Next came a hymn which Mrs. Cheever sang with gusto while looking to her left and right. ‘Oh, she’s looking to see if others notice,’ thought Mrs. Prescott. Father Patterson began his sermon. His theme was being faithful. ‘Humph!’ spouted Mrs. Prescott. After the sermon was a prayer and final hymn executed by Mrs. Cheever with fervor. After the service, there was a social in the basement, and the congregants gathered for coffee and doughnuts. After a few minutes, Father Patterson came into the room, and Mrs. Cheever, urgently, came to stand by his side. ‘My Gracious, the woman is shameless,’ thought Mrs. Prescott. She watched as Mrs. Cheever wrote a check for the church’s restoration fund, and when she handed it to Father Patterson, he beamed.”
‘I wonder if he knows how she carries on,’ thought Mrs. Prescott. She sighed, put down her coffee, and headed for the door.”
They listened to a siren in the distance.
“Could you get me my sweater, dear?” The nurse went to the closet and took out a sweater, and put it over Miss Macintosh’s shoulder.
“Thank – you, dear. I saw Mrs. Prescott again when Sabrina Sterling wrote a bad word on my paper and Miss Phillips saw it, and pointed,” ‘You write that?’
‘No,’ I answered.
‘That is your paper.’
‘I want to start this project so I want you to go see Mrs. Prescott, and sort it out with her.’
I was embarrassed, and looked down at the floor. She went to her desk, and gave me a pass. I left the room, not looking up, and Mrs. Prescott was surprised to see me. She left me to go talk to Miss Phillips. She came back in and closed the door.
‘So what happened Betsy?’
‘Sabrina wrote a bad word on my paper.’
‘She’s mad at me because I’m friends with Curtis.’
‘Oh, Sabrina Coates or Sterling?’
‘You didn’t write it?’
‘All right, Betsy. I’m going to send you back to class, and I will talk with Miss Phillips.’
‘I don’t want to go back.’
‘Nobody likes me.’
‘That’s not true. I like you.’
‘I mean kids don’t like me.’
‘Oh, I don’t think that’s true.’
‘Sabrina was trying to get me into trouble.’
‘Have I told you you are in trouble? So I guess it didn’t work, did it?’
“I didn’t know what to say to that. Then, she said,”
‘Sometimes Betsy when people are mean to us the best thing to do is to let them know they don’t bother us.’
‘Is it true a man killed your son?’
“I remember poor Mrs. Prescott jerked her head back liked I’d slapped her in the face.”
‘Yes Betsy, a man killed my son,’ she whispered.
“I remembered hearing voices passing in the hallway.”
‘That’s what Curtis told me.’
The nurse folded a blanket from the bed, and went to the closet.
‘The world can be a cruel place, Betsy. My job as an adult is to teach you in the face of cruelty you have to be brave. You have to believe life can be better than it sometimes is, and when you get to be old like I am, you will know, it’s the only way to live that makes any sense. Do understand that, Betsy?’
‘I think so.’
‘I hope you will think about it in the days to come.’
‘Your son was brave and it didn’t make any sense.’
“I remembered Mrs. Prescott smiled sadly, and she said,”
‘You’re right, Betsy. Benjamin is with me always and the courage with which he lived inspires me to make the world better than it is. He’s not here in body but in spirit.’
‘That’s like mom and Josh. Mom talks to Josh all the time.’
“I remember she looked at me not knowing what to say, and I couldn’t figure out why. It was only when I was older I realized being in denial, and dying helping others isn’t exactly the same.”
“Isn’t it more about how they lived…?” asked the nurse over her shoulder.
She spun around when she heard the cane hit the floor.
Header photograph: By Clément Bardot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons – Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama, USA.