The following is among the 16 essays, personal reflections and short stories from the recent collection, Outer Voices Inner Lives.
My wife Jackie and I teeter-totter, arm in arm, through a few inches of unshoveled snow before stepping over a dead Christmas tree to get to our car. We missed the city’s curbside tree pick-up by over a month. Between us, we’re 161years old, me and my Jackie. The maneuvers to get down the walk and over the tree take a few minutes.
We’re both wearing puffy down parkas, the kind with fake fur around the hoods. The coats cost a fortune when they were new, got donated to the Survival Center because the fashion of encasing yourself in four bushels of airy feathers went out of style when new synthetic fibers came along. I try not to care about being out of fashion, but can’t seem to stop.
When we reach the car, I flap my hand at Jackie. “You could at least drag the tree away from the curb.”
Jackie winces. Her right hip still hurts from falling off a folding chair while pushing poker chips across a table. She gambles when she’s depressed. Losing makes her more depressed. There’s a cycle here. I give her my serves-you-right-to-suffer grin. We stand there, hanging on to the door handles, thinking our separate thoughts while we catch our breath.
I think about being old and poor. And queer. I love that the young ones have rehabilitated that word, queer. Poor, I’m afraid, is a word beyond a face lift. Poverty has always been the third woman in our marriage. We consummated our three-way lesbian alliance decades ago. We lived beyond our means and worked shitty jobs without putting a single penny toward retirement. Who knew gay marriage would become a reality? We thought the whole business of IRAs and 401Ks were a pathetic middle-class scam. Even a simple savings account was too bourgeois for us. We were too unconventional to be bothered by the unlikely fact of old age; we were radical. We flaunted being poor like it was some sexy illicit arrangement and worked nights while we got liberal arts degrees. This made Jackie a fairly well-spoken fork lift operator and me a failed novelist. We borrowed what we could and paid as little attention as possible to the bills.
But poverty is a fishwife who gets louder when ignored and meaner in old age. If it weren’t for poverty shrieking “Where’s the milk money?” Jackie could skim off a hundred bucks once in a while and I’d never know. For us, a hundred dollars is a week’s worth of groceries, ironic, because the grocery store is where she usually gambles. Lottery tickets: a dollar, five dollars, ten dollars a pop. Hate the lottery. At least when she finds a poker game that welcomes a not-so-little old lady she exercises her mind.
People suppose your thinking slows when you’re old. Sometimes my mind spins like tires stuck in a muddy field. Now, while I’m hanging on to the car’s door handle, my thoughts move like an old dog circling back on its tail. I want to concentrate on a way to get her to get rid of the tree, but looking at Jackie through the little clouds my breath forms in the February air as she unlocks The Bucket, our once gold, now faded to tan, 1992 Buick, distracts me. How did Jackie get so old? The calendar, the mirror, and our joints, scream, “You’re old!” I look at her all day, every day, and elderly is still a shock.
Eighty is too old to fathom. I can’t even grasp that The Bucket is eighteen.
Jackie opens the door on the driver’s side and says, “All the time, you’re mad at me.”
I ruminate on her statement. It’s impossible to talk and persuade The Bucket’s door to open at the same time. When we’re both inside I say, “I’m only mad when you lose.”
“Grilled cheese, frozen pizza, pre-washed salad in a bag with a can of tuna dumped on top.” She refers to the fact that I am a lazy cook.
“Bad cook and a mediocre housekeeper, that’s me. Lousy home and car repair person and mediocre luggage carrier, that’s you,” I say. We divided those chores fifty years ago.
We have our good points. They just haven’t shown up yet today.
“I don’t lose on purpose.” She would sound mad to someone who doesn’t know her, but I recognize her tone as regret camouflaged as irritation. At least she’s talking. Yesterday she didn’t say ten words.
The dead pine needles and snow stuck to my ankles make the inside of the car smell clean. I shake them off and bide my time, waiting until after Jackie buckles her seat belt and sticks the screwdriver into the hole where the car’s shift should be before I continue harping on the tree. As always, she sucks in a lung full of air and sits quietly for a second after successful screwdriver insertion. When the screwdriver is in the hole, I say, “You said you’d dump the tree last weekend.”
She closes her eyes as if this is going to make me, and the fishwife speaking through me, hold our tongues. When she opens them I say, “Surprise, still here.”
It’s after the early morning traffic and before the lunch traffic: 9 a.m. is show time for The Bucket. But even for old ladies, a few inches of fluffy snow with none in the forecast is a mild February day in New England. The suspense of whether or not the car is going to start; now that’s exciting. We lean forward, exaggerating the curves of our spines. The screwdriver engages the clutch immediately and the Buick slides into first gear. We pull down the hoods of our parkas and exchange satisfied nods.
After we have a couple of miles under our wheels my head starts shaking. Jackie slows down to five miles an hour and grabs my chin with her right hand to steady my bobble-head. We’ve been conserving house and car fuel, haven’t been for a drive in a couple of days. No wonder Jackie’s been blue, with nothing to do but watch my head wobble in a cold house.
She’s got that cocky look she gets when she knows she’s won me over. I pull at the stubble on my face. This always gets me feeling kindly toward my wife, who calls the little plot of hair that developed on my chin my soul patch. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the fact that Jackie is my wife.
“It’s just money,” I say, tired of being stuck in the worry rut of losing the house. “You’re a handsome old lady.” She is: meaty, cropped grey hair, steel blue eyes with droopy lids, dignified in her butch way. I’ve always loved her swagger. She can’t do the walk any more, but the facial expression is about the same as it was half a century ago. Butchy girls fare well, looks-wise, in old age. Compared to Jackie I’m a pretty woman, at least I’ve been told I’m good looking plenty of times, not recently, but in my day.
I fluff my hair. It bounces back into shape. The shape I don’t mind, the white I don’t mind, but the cotton candy texture, bah. I miss thick hair. I miss décolletage, my own. My cleavage was a life force, insistent, a horizontal turn on my slit of a smile. Who cares if it’s more fantasy than true; I like to think I was known for my impudent slit of a smile. My smile and my décolletage were the first things Jackie noticed about me. “You have lovely teeth,” she said, addressing my cleavage.
She always cracked me up, cracked me open. She infuriated me right from the start, too.
I look down at the fraying polyester quilting that covers my breasts. No wonder I live in the past. If I weed out the arguments, the money woes, the gambling, her womanizing, and my obsessive flirting, it’s all me and Jackie, screwing around, having a good time. Poverty is welcome to stay the mistress in my dreams as long as my dreams stay in our past. Why not? Poor and young, I can translate in my mind, romanticize. Poor and old? Who wants to daydream about poor and old?
Jackie catches me looking in the mirror. “You’re all right.” She grins.
Damn if my thighs don’t catch a ghost of the ache this statement used to bring on. It was the first thing she said to me at my brother’s wedding in 1950. It means thank you or nice tits or I love you. I pat her leg, well below public viewing range.
Jackie squirms. To Jackie the inside of a moving car is a public place. Instead of saying she hates public shows of affection, she says, “I hate X-Mass.” But she likes sacrilege. The Blessed Virgin she calls Bloodless Mary, blasphemes the entire Holy Family. Lots of names for Jesus: Stigmata Man, Parthenogenesis Boy, The Inconceivable. Joseph she calls Castrato.
Still, a few years ago she started kneeling before bed, her lips moving silently. Maybe she prays to win when she gambles. I never ask. Our days are long and the house is small. A little privacy is not too much to ask of someone who loves you.
She pulls her head back sharply, a sign that her hip is hurting.
“Tell you what,” I say. “If we get rid of the tree this morning and the Social Security checks are in the mailbox when we get back, I’ll buy a nice fat chicken with a dollar off coupon and roast it with those tiny red potatoes.” Our company meal. When did we last have company?
She squeezes my hand, right there in the Buick, and turns around in the Langley’s driveway. They moved twenty years ago, but it’s still the Langley’s driveway to us.
An hour later, with the help of Ramon and TJ, neighborhood boys who never seem to be in school, but always dribbling a basketball in our driveway, the tree is strapped to the roof of The Bucket. TJ slaps the hood and says, “For real, you ladies need ‘a leave the handsome young TJ this car when you kick it.”
“Shit.” Ramon makes an ugly face at the car. “Leave me the screwdriver.”
They’re still grabbing their skinny sides, laughing, laughing harder because this time Jackie says “Fuck,” and needs several tries before the screwdriver fits correctly in the hole.
If poverty is female, you can’t prove it by the number of poor young guys in our neighborhood.
Jackie drives slowly down a dirt road to the dump. We head toward a shack with smoke curling out the chimney. I hug my handbag. Getting rid of stuff makes me optimistic. She squints and The Bucket’s belly scrapes the ground as the plowed road becomes a channel of frozen tire ruts. We park next to a sign near the shack that reads, “Honk if You Need Help.”
Jackie doesn’t honk. She gets out of the car and limps toward the shack. My parka is blue, hers is maroon. A hairy guy, also in a parka (but his is green and grease-stained, with what might be real matted fur on the hood), comes around the tar-papered building.
He glances at the tree. “Got a sticker, buddy?”
Jackie lights up a stale cigarette without answering. She quit except for special occasions, like dumps and outside of funeral homes. She inhales, looking at him side-ways until he recognizes her and says, “Jackie? Jesus. Sorry. Been awhile.”
“Thom.” She nods hello. Maybe his name is Dick or Harry but it said Thom on a hat he used to wear. He was young when he wore that hat, younger than we were. Not young any more, but still younger than we are.
I get out of the car, because even though Jackie is the gambler, she won’t play the poor-old-lady card. Our sticker has run out. It costs twenty-five bucks for a new one.
“Regina.” He scratches his woolly beard and leans on the “Smoking Prohibited” sign.
I blush because it’s come to this: A thrill that the dump guy remembers my name. “We’re a little short on cash.” I can’t decide if I should smile, appeal to his possible love for his mother, or just look needy.
He looks around, not another soul in sight. “Five bucks. I’ll help you dump it.”
“We’ll manage.” Jackie could pass for a strong seventy when she takes her wide legged stance and looks you in the eye. “Thanks, just the same.”
She pulls four singles out of her wallet. I dig in my handbag for change.
“Keep it.” Thom holds up a hand. “But, I’ll take a Marlboro.”
“Can you believe this?” Jackie’s says as Thom opens the gate to allow The Bucket entrance. She’s been trying to figure an angle to roam around unescorted in this dump for years.
“He thinks we’ll unload the tree and come right back like good little old ladies.”
Jackie snorts. I didn’t realize how worried I was about her state of mind until the relief of that snort. We drive to a fork and turn right, as Thom instructed, taking in acre after acre of his back yard. Everywhere we look—heaps of trash. I need new glasses. A thin layer of new white snow covers the dump, making things even harder to recognize, but Jackie identifies the heaps for me. “Tires. Appliances. Appliance doors. Compressed cars.”
The pile of compressed cars is taller than our house. Shiny blue-black crows, smudges of black against the snow, flit from heap to heap. Seagulls squawk, a sound so prevalent it becomes background noise. I don’t have to ask why Jackie stops alongside the remains of an industrial-sized freezer whose huge door has been ripped off. The view is great. From this vantage point the waste is endless, dune after dune of white blanketed stuff as far as the eye can see. Used-up stuff, huddled in the cold, tucked in for the winter.
We both get out the passenger’s side, to avoid the slick road, which has been plowed but not sanded. We stand in the snow. Except for the cawing of the crows, squawking seagulls, and the occasional flapping of paper, plastic, and wings, the place is eerily quiet. The early morning sun bounces off every piece of dented chrome and broken glass that manages to stick out of the snow, even the corrugated cardboard shines.
“The Starship Enterprise crash landed on a deserted planet,” she says in voice-over mode. “A world with its own rules of beauty.”
I pat the sides of my parka with my puffy-gloved hands, feeling fondness for it. My feet are warm and my ankles doing fine in my quilted boots. There is another-worldliness here. I half expect the robots, shackled laborers, or ogres who maintain this place to appear from behind one of the trash heaps.
“THIS PLACE IS A DUMP. IF YOU WANT TO PLAY – FIND A PLAYGROUND.” I read the message, painted in block letters on a piece of plywood propped next to the freezer.
“Look.” Air curls out of Jackie’s nostrils. She points.
I follow her gaze between the piles of rotting boards and wooden skids to a gigantic circle of… “What is that?”
“Frozen garbage. They dig a big hole, fill it with trash, and bury it. Must be too cold to work now, probably stay uncovered till spring.”
I take my glasses out of my purse even though they will give me only a few seconds of improved eyesight before the heat of my breath hits the cold and crystallizes on the lenses. “A lake,” I say. A frozen lake of garbage filled with the unsorted stuff of kitchen cans and dumpsters. There’s a road to the lake, but it’s covered with snow. “How come there’s no snow on the lake?”
“Melted. Makes its own heat like a compost pile.” Jackie studies the horizon like she might be asked to manage the operation some time soon. “Biggest dump in the Northeast.”
“How do you know these things?” I’m always amazed at the vast difference in the facts we’ve accumulated in such connected lives. She shrugs. I can see by her focused squint that she plans to walk the thousand feet to get a better look.
I say, “You’re an old lady with a bad hip. Snow is dangerous.”
She nods as if considering the information that snow and ice are hazardous to old women with bad hips. But it’s clear that she’s going, and, since she’s going, I’m going, too. I circle the lake with my eyes. The garbage swells in the middle. Through my foggy glasses the giant swell reminds me of an animal on its back, belly up. “The underbelly of the material afterworld, alive and exposed, vulnerable,” I say.
She rolls her eyes, but smiles.
I lean my head on her shoulder and coo, “If you break your neck, I’ll bitch about taking care of you ‘til the day you die.”
She kisses the top of my head and bends with difficulty to pick up a metal rod that looks related to the freezer. She sticks the bar in the snow. It’s the perfect height for a cane, even takes a right angle at one end so she has a grip of sorts.
She offers me her arm. We plod. The few inches of snow is stabilizing, firm enough to help steady our ankles, not so deep we can’t walk, fluffy enough that it might soften a fall. One step at a time, we reach a huge mustard-colored piece of equipment, a rusty bulldozer, poised near the edge of the frozen pit of rubbish.
I’m ready to sit down or lie down. Several crows flap up nervously and land again in the same spot not five feet from us.
Her cheeks are red with exertion and cold, but she looks pretty chipper. She pats the rubber tracks banding the tires of the bulldozer. “Hello, dinosaur,” she says.
The big inert machine does look like a sleeping giant that probably doesn’t want to be woken. The big shovel of its mouth rests on the ground and is loaded down with frozen dirt. An area in front of the machine is already covered over with earth.
“Years from now, people won’t know this dump existed. It will be a retirement home for kids who are in nursery school now,” she says. When we first met Jackie claimed a whole section of Boston was built on a dump. We were stoned at the time and I didn’t believe her, but it turns out she was right. She looks up four tons of backhoe to stare longingly at the driver’s seat, high above us inside the open cab.
“Oh no, absolutely not,” I say. “Too dangerous.”
“The world is full of danger. Old age. Winter.” She rubs her hip distractedly. “Old and used-up are not relevant here. That’s the whole point.”
It’s unreasonable, two elderly women standing in snow in thirty degrees, arguing about climbing into a bulldozer, but, we only made sixty years together because we’re both unreasonable. This is the closest to happy Jackie’s been in months. Still, it’s my job to keep her from killing herself and leaving me to carry on with only one Social Security check. “Another Tonka toy you can’t play with. If I could hoist you up there I would, my love.”
“Shame to waste an opportunity.” She steps back and considers the step up to the cab, which is at least three feet from the ground.
“The last time your foot was raised that high was in water aerobics sometime in the late nineties,” I say.
She sits on the step. Then, remembering who she is, out of habit and manners, with a wince, she stands back up, offering me her seat.
“Just scoot over,” I say. “We can both fit.”
She struggles to sit back down, which surprises me. Down is usually easy. It’s up that’s the problem. I squeeze in next to her on the surprisingly generous and almost comfortable step. She leans forward with her hands on her knees, huffing. I tap my handbag, waiting for her breathing to settle down and worrying about the journey back to the car.
“Christ,” she says, looking up. Her lower lip quivers. A shadow passes over us. A very large powerful looking bird, moving with slow heavy wing beats, flies by us, circling.
“Honey, it’s just a hawk,” I say.
She’s not someone who sees omens in wildlife, still Jackie looks terrified.
“A hawk if you respect it, a buzzard if you don’t,” I say, trying to get her to smile, but she grabs my arm with a tenuous grip and slides off the seat to the ground in slow motion. She lands on her butt, seated in the snow.
What is happening?
“It’s a bird, just a bird,” I repeat, trying to convince myself that the strange look in her eye has been brought on by some sudden belief in avian angels of death. I sit next to her and pull at the back of her parka, which got bunched up when she slid off the seat of the dozer. She’s too heavy to move. I give up and cradle her head between my hands.
Her face is a whole new shade of Caucasian. I pull down her hood to get a better look. Her lips are bright red against her too-white skin. Her mouth is not right. I take off my glove so I can feel her face and the pulse on her neck. I don’t know what a good pulse feels like, so I settle for present.
“You’re going to be okay,” I say.
She gives me patronizing look. How dare she? I take off her glove, feel her clammy hand. The right side of her sagging mouth infuriates me. This is not happening. I refuse for this to be happening. A bead of sweat forms above her top lip. “Can you talk? Say something, Jackie.”
She smiles at me sheepishly. “Don’t be mad at me.” Her voice is raspy, but otherwise deathly calm.
I pull the cell phone out of my pocket and flip it open. I’ve only used the thing once when I mimicked the fucking Elder Care demonstration by pretending to press the correct buttons to alert the EMS team. “Shit.” My fingers are arthritic. The keyboard is small.
“A button…On the side.” Jackie is paying attention.
I press every button. The screen stays black. “I’ve got to go get help.” I pull her hood tight around her face. “Nobody dies. Not yet.”
“Lucky break,” she says. “Must be my heart.”
“Lucky break?” Oh, she makes me angry at the worst times. I look down the road. Have we been here an hour?
“Sorry.” She stops for a long moment, then looks me in the eye, all love and tenderness. “You’ve forgiven me.” Her words are jagged, rising and falling on the wrong syllables, like the words of our friend Marvin when he was on a ventilator. “For a lot worse.” She takes my hand.
I know what she wants, but it’s too hard. She’s not Marvin. She’s my Jackie and she’s staying right here with me. She’ll be okay with a little cajoling, a little encouragement. “Thom will come,” I say. “Just let’s relax, save our energy. We can make you feel better. We can get help, there’s help out there. I’m not so tired. I can do all the paperwork. I don’t mind waiting in the Senior Housing Office or Elder Care. SSI, we’ve barely looked into SSI. And those ads on TV…” I don’t know what ads I mean, but have a vague notion that I’ve seen ads that claim to help poor old people. And churches, churches help people. And Casa Latino, we’re not Spanish, but we’re in the neighborhood, they’d point us in the right direction, maybe. I’m talking a mile a minute, pulling out every social service agency and kindly friend or neighbor we’ve ever known.
She waits patiently, her eyes closed, whispering, “I don’t crochet,” when I mention The Council on Aging.
Her body is collapsing, her head into her shoulders, her shoulders into her chest. She strokes my hand weakly, comforting me, pulling her head back, using up precious energy, looking at me like there’s really something to see.
“Hang on, baby. Rest. I’ll get Thom. You’ll go to the hospital.” There are things to live for. There is me and my Jackie. “You’ve still got roast chicken, you still love to drive.”
“Don’t leave, Regina.” Her words come in a loose string, unraveling. “You’ll be sad about it for the rest of your life.”
“Our life. And me god damn you, you’ve got me.”
Her arm somehow is around me now. She says in a faltering pant, “We could try yoga.”
I laugh, hysterical. My cackle cuts the air like an ice pick. She coughs and sputters.
I move her arm and pull her in so she’s leaning on me and we can see each other’s faces without much effort. “Shh, my darling,” I say. She cries softly. I cry harder. We lock eyes and stop blubbering abruptly.
Her words stop. Her breathing stops. I don’t breathe either, until she takes a sharp inhale. She is not dead. “Tell me a dirty story.” Her words are wheezy, breathy in a bad way that scares me.
I’m disoriented, like I’m the one who’s had the stroke or heart attack or whatever has happened to Jackie. She hasn’t asked for a dirty story since we were in our thirties. Back then, she still had the wanderlust that made her seek out jobs hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away; Detroit, where she tried to get a job at GM while I stayed home in the little house on Market Street in Northampton, Massachusetts, working nights in a paper mill; Florida where she made decent money helping relocate the residents of Saint Mary’s Cemetery to make room for a mall. Being us, we squandered half her paycheck on phone sex. She craved my voice giving her the audio version of sex we’d actually had. That was so sweet.
I must have said some of this out loud because she coughs out, “Sweet? No. It was good, our sex.” Her chest heaves. I shush her. “Keep talking,” she whispers.
But I can’t. I need my wits about me to figure out how to get us out of this predicament. Old ladies don’t die in dumps. Homeless men die in dumps.
She lifts her head an inch off my shoulder and says, “I’m sorry about Lorraine.”
This statement orients me.
“Fuck, Lorraine,” we say in unison. I pull Jackie to me. Our puffy jackets stop me from holding her as close as I want to hold her. One or both of us has said, “Fuck Lorraine,” whenever one or both of us does something really stupid ever since I found out that Jackie had had sex with another woman named Loraine in a construction site trailer in western Pennsylvania.
Jackie tries to laugh, but it pains her. I kiss her face all over. Her skin feels cold on my lips, already. No, no, I mustn’t think, already. “I’ll laugh for you, baby,” I say stupidly, tears running down my face. She says something I almost catch. She lets her head go slack on my shoulder. I unzip the top few inches of her parka and slip my hand inside the neck of her bulky sweater. She keeps whispering, but her words are too mumbled and soft to understand. Her breast is warm. I put my ear close to her mouth.
“You’re alright,” she whispers and keeps whispering.
Words I understand and words I don’t.
“Will we?” she says. “The newspaper?” I can’t tell from her mouth if she’s smiling, but her eyes seem to be laughing at the irony of her precious privacy being violated at the last possible moment.
“Oh yes, we’ll make the papers, honey.” I wipe drool off the side of her mouth. “I’ll play your birthday in the lottery and win a lot of money.” Her eyes are closed. Her mouth twitches, sounds spill out. “Shh, my love, yes, yes, you’re all right.” Yes, my Jackie is right, I must hold on tight and keep talking. “We’re all right.”
Sally Bellerose is author of The Girls Club, Bywater Books, winner of many awards including an NEA Fellowship. Her current project Fishwives features old women behaving badly. The title story appears in this anthology and won first place in 2012 Saints and Sinners fiction contest. An excerpt from the novel-in-progress also appeared in BLOOM Literary Magazine. Bellerose writes about class, sex, illness, absurdity, and growing old. http://sallybellerose.wordpress.com
Fishwives appeared in Saints and Sinners Fiction from the Festival 2011, edited by Amie M. Evans and Paul J. Willis, as well as Queer Mojo, 2011. Fishwives also won the Saints and Sinners Short Fiction Award in 2011.