by Aimee LaBrie
At the age of thirty-five, Hazel finds herself living with her elderly mother in a retirement community called On Top of the World. The front of the subdivision has the name written in a golden scroll over a sun-faded globe, as if to suggest, "Here are all of the places you'll never go."
In the beginning, Hazel told herself the arrangement was only temporary. Her mother had a painful knee replacement, and now walks as if one foot is on the curb and the other in the gutter. She is doing what any good daughter would—–taking a leave of absence from her paralegal job in Philadelphia and moving down to Tampa until her mother can maneuver the grocery cart at the Publix on her own. But two weeks have turned into four, and one month into two, and in the meantime, she received a polite letter from work stating that if she doesn’t return within another week, they will be moving in a different direction (away from her).
There are moments when she and her mother are sitting down in front of Maury Povich at 4 PM with their dinner on TV trays in front of them, and Hazel wonders if maybe she hasn't fallen a bit too far from the norm. She focuses instead on the good she's doing for her mother, recalling lines from a book she read in high school, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…” She can't remember the title, but vaguely recalls that the speaker was then decapitated.
Not that death is on her mind, but it’s hard not to think about it, living in a place where the old people drop dead at an alarming rate. The main sound effect of the community is the wail of the ambulance siren. First, Mr. Baker popped off from a coronary, then Mrs. Enzmann was found prone in her front yard with the garden hose watering her petunias, and just last week Mr. Markett, whose long suffering wife has seen him degenerate from Alzheimer’s, jumped into the shallow end of community pool. Her mother, on the other hand, seems to have a new zeal for life. One of the youngest residents at age 67, she has started going back to church again, urging Hazel to join her.
“Mother, I'm an atheist,” she has reminded her, as they sit in the living room, shoving stuffed animals into clear plastic bags. The creatures are the fruits of her mother’s crochet club; six or seven of the residents who get together to make toys for the burn victims at the Shriner's Hospital. It makes them all feel noble, as if they're really doing something good. For Hazel, it's difficult to give the stuffed animals up. She's still getting the hang of crocheting and so it takes her week to finish a stuffed dog, and, by then, she's grown fond of it and doesn't want to relinquish the toy to some stranger with burns over 75 percent of her body, who probably is suffering too much to truly appreciate it anyway.
“Oh, dear, honey, I forgot to tell you,” her mother says as they are tying up the tops of the plastic bags. “The Auttersons are coming to dinner tonight with their son. What’s his name? Could he be named Lesley?” She taps vaguely at her forehead.
“I don’t know, mother!” That’s a lie, because Hazel knows exactly who Les is. Mrs. Autterson talks about her son often, gesturing at the giant photo of him she keeps on the mantelpiece, one of those cheesy corporate photos in black and white. But he does have a nice profile, despite a slightly weak chin and slicked back hair, giving him a furtive animal look, as if he might be a biter. And she certainly noticed when he came to stay with his parents. She has, in fact, taken to riding her mother's bicycle around the subdivision. It's a ridiculous contraption, three-wheels and a wicker basket between the handlebars, looks like a giant tricycle, but it's the only way she can think of running into him, short of offering to deliver a homemade pie to the Autterson's front door.
“Well, anyway, I thought it might be nice for you to be around someone your own age,” her mother says.
“I guess I don’t have anything better to do with my time!” Hazel stomps out of the room to her bathroom, slamming the door like a teen. She stares at herself in the mirror, appraising. She looks pale and puffy, the result, no doubt of gorging on left-over Easter peeps and Mountain Dew.
Hazel is no spring chicken, that's for sure, but she’s still got an okay figure and good teeth courtesy of dear old mom and the orthodontist. She imagines how her mother might describe her if she turned up missing: "Oh, let's see. Dishwater colored hair, about shoulder-length. I think at one point, she referred to it as a bob. Brownish eyes. Slightly upturned nose." Or how the morgue workers might discuss her, should her body be found on the side of the road, like a fallen deer. She imagines them standing over her, two men in white coats, while she lies naked under a sheet on a metal table. Would one of them note the delicate turn of her ankle before slicing her open from stem to stern?
She is losing some fundamental adult quality—this ability to reflect and evaluate a situation. She's like a child again. But if she left, her mother would be bereft! Who would take her to Eckerd’s to refill her arthritis prescription? Who would help her exercise her poor distressed knee, a knee that will now have a jagged scar across it forever? “Well, there goes my swimsuit modeling career,” her mother had joked.
Who would sit with her at night and help her puzzle out the questions on Jeopardy? “What is desperation, Alex?”
Everything around the house is broken or on the verge of breaking. The light bulb on the front porch needs replacing, and the ceiling fans are making these strange whirring sounds when turned above medium speed—sounds that make Hazel think that one of the blades is going to whir off unexpectedly, causing certain decapitation of her or her mother. The toilet leaks, the bathtub spigot won't stop dripping, and the dryer now has taken to getting their clothes only half-hardheartedly dry, chugging along and then coughing out the clothes still damp and wilted.
Since Hazel’s hiding out, they can't call the community super, Gerald, to fix anything, because that might raise suspicion of Hazel's still being there. She has taken to wearing certain minor disguises when she runs errands, a blue kerchief paired with large Jackie-O sunglasses, a straw hat and blonde wig on other days. So far, no one has approached her mother about it, but Hazel knows her days are numbered.
Every time she brings up the idea of leaving, her mother nods, says she understands. "Of course, you have things…" They both stare into the air as if wondering what things she might have to return to. A dead end paralegal job? A dying cactus? But Hazel does have things, she has food spoiling in the fridge and acquaintances who sometimes still forward her videos of cats misbehaving. It seems that every time Hazel makes a feint toward an exit, her mother suffers another minor mishap—a dropped water glass, a misplaced checkbook, a full blown crying jag behind the thin door of her bedroom. Until finally, Hazel relents. One more week, one more week.
But just yesterday her boss, Mark Becker, called to remind her that her leave of absence ends in one week. She has been gone so long that the picture she has of him in her mind has gone fuzzy. Dark, foxy hair and a moustache. Red suspenders She'd had a from-afar crush on him for years, but he was unhappily though dedicatedly married. She has ten unheard messages on her voice mail.
"How you doing?" asks Mark Becker, Esquire. She pictures him idly snapping his red suspenders. He has a mustache. It makes him look like a villain in an old time movie. She would like him to tie her to train tracks.
"I'm on top of the world!" she says, winding the phone cord around her arm like a bracelet.
"We'd like you back. I need some help on the Vitullos." The Vitullos’ file is bloated with evidence, a divorce that's been simmering for twenty years. Every time they get close to an agreement, one of them unearths new evidence of blame–old love letters, blurry photos, a past due electric bill.
"Let me think about it," she says.
“Do you miss work?” Her mother wants to know after she hangs up. Does she? Does she miss the days of photocopying discovery for divorce cases? Of making chatter with the other paralegals over gritty coffee? Does she miss riding home on the subway in the dark, surrounded by strangers? As she aged in Chicago, she felt herself slowly shrinking into the world of the unseen-by-men. At least here, she gets noticed by the arthritic Mr. Baker and Mr. Johnson. In the city, she has become something of a ghost.
Each morning, Hazel helps her mother with leg exercises, moving her knee up and down and around and then counter clockwise. Her mother grimaces, but she's a trooper—she's never been much of a complainer, never really been much of a talker at all. Hazel also takes her mother to the community pool, a calm place filled with elderly women doing the breaststroke sedately across the length of the pool, their hair tucked up in bright plastic bathing caps. They're like an elderly troop of Esther Williamses. Many still have distinct traces of beauty on their lined faces, and their arms are tan and strong. Many of them are widows, having had to learn how to survive on their own without the assistance of their husbands, who seemed not to have the same will to live.
When Hazel's father died five years ago, she remembers hearing her mother call for her from behind the bathroom door on the day of his funeral, using her newly-frail voice. Hazel went into the bathroom and found her mother sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, her face made up with too much rouge, her best black dress on, with a pair of panty hose crumpled in her hands.
“I need your help with these,” her mother said. She waved the panty hose.
Hazel realized that this was one of the intimacies of their marriage; this weekly Sunday ritual with her father kneeling before her mother to put on her panty hose before church. It struck her that from that moment on, he never would do so again. She pushed that thought down as best she could and bent down in front of her mother to help her with one limp foot after another. Her mother thanked her, and patted her on her arm. “You are a dear,” she said, her voice cracking. It was one of the few times in her life that she could remember her mother using such a tender word.
As soon as she could, Hazel went singing out the door, promising to return soon, promising to fulfill her daughterly duties at a later date. And now, here she is, years later, forced to make good on that promise. How much time is enough?
She leaves her mother at the library and goes to the tanning parlor. She situates herself on the tanning bed at Tans R Us in her mother's bra and underwear. It's not that she doesn't have her own a bra and underwear; it's that damn old dryer that leaves her clothes damp and smelling like mildew. She and her mother are nearly the same size, though Hazel would never think of wearing a bra like this one in real life—it's hefty, manila-colored, offering full gal coverage. Hazel remembers a time not too, too far off, when she had her own bras, pretty ones, with rosettes in the center and she wore them knowing that a man might see her naked.
The tanning bed looks like a space-age coffin with lights underneath it to illuminate the body. She lies down on the bed with her eyes shut and the warm heat thrums through her. The blond woman out front asked her how much color she wanted, and she joked, “Turn it up to skin cancer level.” The girl didn’t laugh. She just blew a giant purple bubble with her wad of gum and handed Hazel her receipt. Now, in the booth with the manufactured heat hitting her from all sides, she wiggles a little, finding it hard not to think about sex—not like she can even remember the last time she had sex.
That's not 100% true. She does remember. In fact, it's a preoccupying thought, one that comes unbidden to her at odd moments. As she pokes at a package of chicken breast in the grocery store, for instance, or when she’s brushing her teeth with the electric toothbrush, or when the old dryer starts to clunk across the floor.
George Alfonso was the last one, a married lawyer who practiced litigation and liked to joke that he would sue her if she ever told his wife about the affair. She still has nightmares about him, though in her dreams, he's changed into a doctor who always calls to deliver bad news. "I hate to tell you this, but that leg has got to come off from the knee down," he'll say in the dream. Or, "A mastectomy can be a liberating thing for some women." In real life, he saved his own bad news for just after they've had vigorous and unsatisfying sex in her studio apartment. He had one hairy leg draped over hers when he announced it was the last time he'd be seeing her. “Why did you come over here? Why did we just have sex?” she asked, sitting up.
“I wanted you to have something good to remember me by,” he explained, patting her arm.
The next day, she called his wife and described his penis in exacting detail, how it curved up at the end like a question mark, and the mole on his back in the shape of Canada. The wife demanded to know her name.
“I'm no one,” she said. “No one you would know.”
When he showed up at her apartment that night, banging on the door, she sat at the kitchen table, squinting at the Thursday crossword puzzle, wondering if she had made a mistake by asserting herself. What if he really were a nice person underneath all of that seeming horribleness?
He kept pounding until one of her neighbors came out into the hall and threatened to call the police. He gave one last feeble pound. She stood on the other side of the door. Maybe, if he said one last nice thing, she might let him in. She peered through the peephole, seeing him distorted, his head a giant blur, "I know you're in there," he said, looking up. Then he left, as they always do.
While lying on the tanning bed, Hazel focuses her attention on Les. She imagines taking him into the guest room where she’s now sleeping; the one with the twin bed. Candles, there must be candles somewhere, and then she thinks about what if one of the candles got too close to the duvet and it caught on fire and then whoosh! She and Les would be recipients of knitted woodland animals from the Shriner’s Hospital. Fine, no candles, it's too hot for candles and so she imagines instead a hot tub or a pool, with willow trees overhead. Les begins strolling toward her in black bathing trunks, but then it seems that she’s left out one of her roller skates and he trips on it, lurching forward, cracking his head on the cement lip of the pool, and blood leaks into the water in red ribbons. My God, she can't even have a sexual fantasy without it ending in destruction.
Hazel sits up in the tanning bed, dizzy. She has tremors in her stomach. It’s ridiculous, but she’s nervous about meeting this strange man who will probably turn out to have a cleft palate or a love of NASCAR.
Hazel heads to her mother's beauty shop. The lady at the counter first asks her if she wants to get her mustache removed. Hazel touches her upper lip. “Oh, yes. Fix the eyebrows too.” In the middle of it, she finds herself worrying when it will fade, or if she will have a reddish upper lip during dinner as if she's just been punched.
When she returns to the library to pick up her mother, she sees her in the new books section. Hazel watches as her mother reaches up on tiptoe to grab at a novel. When she can’t get it, she finds a step stool. Hazel considers intervening, stopping her mother, reminding her of the hurt knee. Before she can say anything, her mother climbs up on the stool, strong as a mountain goat, to snatch up the latest Nora Roberts novel.
Hazel ducks behind the nonfiction section. She waits to give her mother time to climb off the stool. Then, she pretends to walk in for the first time. Her mother gives a little start and waves, saying, "Oh, a nice man helped me with the seven day fiction."
Hazel has convinced her mother it’s time to make a big purchase, a new dryer for the tiny laundry room. The current dryer groans when you open it and, as the minutes tick by on the regular dry cycle, and the machine creeps slowly across the floor, as if attempting to escape out the back door, until it unplugs.
At Home Depot, she and her mother are debating the finer points of the Kenmore versus GE when the salesman swoops in. He is a roundish guy with a pleasant face and a short crew cut. “How can I help you ladies?” he says, with a slight bow. “Tell me what you're looking for and I will find it.”
She tries to remember how to flirt. She thinks it involves something to do with her hair, her posture. She pushes out her chest. “We’re just looking at upgrading what we have.” She smiles, wondering if she has anything between her teeth. “You know, something that’ll get the job done.”
He nods. She imagines how she must appear to him. Her hair isn’t terrible and she’s wearing a clean shirt. The salesman clasps his hands together. “Are you and your partner hoping to take something home today, or do you want to do some comparison shopping?”
With a sinking stomach, Hazel understands how he must see them. Her mother, who still buys her clothes in the juniors section at Macy’s, and Hazel, who has taken to wearing her mother's pants with the elastic bands and on occasion, even draping a forlorn cardigan over her shoulders to ward off the freezing cold of the air conditioning—the gap in their ages has shrunk somehow in wardrobe. A couple.
“We’ll take this one,” she says briskly, pointing at the nearest dryer. “We’ll figure out how to put it in ourselves.”
Her mother mews in protest, but Hazel can’t seem to stop herself. She must make her escape before she suffers further humiliation.
When Hazel gets home, she finds her own clothes, many still tucked away in the suitcase in the guest bedroom. She puts on a blue V-neck top, to show off her cleavage, and a denim skirt, worrying that it might be too matchy-matchy, too obvious, too like the little engine that could. But fuck it, she can't worry about everything. She has also changed into her own bra, the one with the black lace, though it's slightly damp, but a person only lives once.
The Auttersons show up exactly at 5 PM. She can imagine them waiting in the car until just the minute before. It's what all the retired people do. You wait for the next event in your day. The early bird special, bingo at the church, the two-for-one coupons in the Sunday circular, the next free meal at a funeral. Hazel finds that she is waiting too, measuring her days out in the same way with library books and crosswords and the occasional Internet porn search when her mother goes down for a nap.
In person, Les’ eyes are closer together than she’d thought and his hair is long in the back and crunchy-looking from some kind of gel. She should feel flattered—because he’s trying. He and his khaki shorts are making an effort. He shakes her hand, leaving it wet with sweat. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m a little nervous.” The laugh he gives sounds exactly like he's saying, "Ha Ha Ha."
During dinner, the Auttersons and her mother discuss various people from church who have died or are in the midst of dying. “Oh, that poor Mrs. Crowley!” says Mrs. Autterson. “The last time I saw her, she looked just as pale as Jesus.”
“Pale as Jesus,” Les snorts. It’s the first time he’s spoken all night. “Was Jesus notoriously pale, or are we confusing him with the Holy Ghost?”
“It's an expression, honey.” His mother says.
“I don't think these were adjectives found in the New Testament. That fatty bit of Pontius Pilot.”
“That beanpole, Joseph,” adds Hazel. Les gives her a twitch of a smile.
“These English majors,” says her mother, passing around the limp little Caesar salad for the third time. She changes the subject to Mr. O'Connor's bladder infection and the conversation patters on, but now Hazel has a bit more of Les' attention and that makes her both self-conscious and satisfied.
Les takes a sip of water. His Adam's apple bobs, and Hazel considers what it might be like to run her tongue up along it. Salty, maybe.
"So, Les, how long are you staying for?" her mother asks during a pause in the conversation.
"A week?" he says. "A week or so, depending."
"Depending on what?" her mother prods.
"Depending on if I don't hang myself in the garage before then."
Mrs. Autterson clucks her tongue. "He just has to say things like that to ruin everyone's good time."
Throughout dinner, it's Mrs. Autterson who makes conversation with Hazel, not Les, who focuses most of his attention at a spot above her head. As Hazel talks about her life, how she's helping out her mother, how she used to work in a law firm, how she's not sure when she's going to go back, she hears how it must sound to Les—how pathetic, to be living with her mother, to have no ambitions, no plan.
“Now, how long have you been here?” asks Mrs. Autterson.
“Decades?” Hazel says, taking a long gulp of wine.
“Why, just a few weeks,” overlaps her mother.
She sees that Les is looking directly at her. Finally, she has gotten his attention.
After dinner, Mr. Autterson suggests they play a couple rounds of Uno. “No, thanks, dad,” Les says. He’s sitting on his hands.
Hazel mother clears her throat. “Why don’t you show Les around the subdivision for a few minutes?”
“Around the subdivision? It would take no more than ten minutes.”
Mr. Autterson shuffles the deck again in the expert way he has, bellowing, “Come on, looking for the wild card!”
Les follows her into the kitchen. “Do you really want to see the neighborhood?” She leans her hip against the sink, unsure of what to do with her hands. The Auttersons have the same kitchen. With a few variations, the houses are all laid out with the same linoleum, same rails on the bathtubs to prevent slipping. “If I show you the dryer, do you think you might be able to help me put it in?” Every word she says seems to have some vague sexual innuendo to it. “God, that’s like the worst opening line for a porn movie.”
Something bright comes into his eyes. Oh, yes, finally, they’ve hit on something they may have in common.
They go into the garage and she thinks, maybe now, maybe this will be the moment, maybe they can clear a spot away on the hood of the Volvo and do it there, maybe he will grab her hair and push her against the wall in a forceful yet non-rapist way. Instead, they stand around looking at the bras hanging on the makeshift clothes line. He doesn't make a move toward her and Hazel isn't going to be the first one either; she's learned her lesson the last time she was alone with a man, throwing herself at him while he fended her off with the verbal equivalent of pepper spray by saying, “Oh, I think you're a nice girl and all, but…”
Les leans against her mother’s Volvo. "I've got to get out of here," he says. "Living with my parents is death."
"It's not so bad."
"Have you been to the bank? Have you stood in line behind anyone? It's like we're all on the same death train in a Truffaut film."
Oh, God, he's smarter than her. She loves that about him. He continues, "The cockroaches. I had one land on my face the other day." He looks at her. "You like it here?"
Does she? Yes, she likes things about it. She likes being needed. She should've been a nurse. Is it too late to change professions? Les is still talking–about his parents, about how depressing it is, about how as soon as he gets some money together, he's out of here.
She gestures to the dryer box. "I'd do anything to get this thing installed."
"Anything?" says Les. He actually licks his lips. He leans in toward her.
The edge of the dryer box presses into her back. “Say something nice.”
“I think…” He searches her face, as if looking for a single good feature. “I think you have beautiful eyebrows.” He brushes his finger across her forehead. He leans in and kisses her. It's a polite kiss, like you might give someone during a rehearsal for a play. He pulls away, wearing a puzzled look. "Do you smell something funny?"
"Like spoiled milk or something."
That would be her bra, she realizes. The not-quite-dry sexy bra she wore for just this purpose. Or something like it. "I don't smell anything." She pushes him back against the car, then drops to her knees, banging them painfully on the concrete. She looks up at him, and is relieved to see his eyes on her, completely, totally enthralled. "If I do this, will you do something for me?" He nods, his dear Adam's apple bobbing.
As she unzips his khaki Dockers, Mr. Autterson calls out, “Uno!”
It only takes a half an hour to move the old dryer into the garage and replace the new one. After he’s finished, Hazel takes the pineapple upside down cake out of the oven and brings into the dining room. They all look up from their cards. Her mother beams. "Now, aren’t you two a sight for sore cataracts!” she says.
Hazel takes the plates and places them carefully in front of every person, making sure they also have their own napkins and clean forks. She is the hostess with the mostest, the lady you want waiting on your table, that's for sure.
"What did you think of Lester. Lesley?" her mother asks after they leave. "He seems a little dark."
"I like dark," says Hazel. Her mother says nothing. “Mom, I think I might have to go back soon.” She braces herself–for tears, for begging, for the wringing of hands. Her mother looks back at her with watery blue eyes. “Please don't cry.”
Her mother sneezes. “I'm not crying. I'm allergic to whatever that perfume you’ve doused yourself in. No, go back if you want. I can take care of myself,” she says, grabbing at the edge of the table to haul herself up into a standing position. She wobbles, almost falls. “Whoopsie-daisy!” she says, righting herself. “See? Good as new.”
When her mother goes to bed, Hazel calls the director of the retirement community. He doesn’t answer. She leaves a message, roughening her voice up to make it sound older. "You should look into the Johnson's house. I believe they have a visitor who has out-stayed her welcome.” She pauses. “And the Auttersons. I think they’re bending the rules too.”
She hangs up the phone, a wash of relief running through her. She will be able to go and it won't be her fault. She can still be a good daughter.
She prepares for bed, imagining how Mark Becker will react when she returns. She tries out different expressions in the bathroom mirror—pursing her lips, widening her eyes—then leans in for a closer look. Her eyebrows do look good. Mark Becker, Esquire, she knows, will not notice.
In the background, the dryer hums, finally in working order again.