March 22, 1990
Phoebe was in rare form today. Going out, I saw her bent over her cart on the sidewalk, trying to wipe mud from the wheels.
"Can I take that up for you, Phoebe?" I asked. There were three bags in it, old worn plastic ones. I suspected she'd been through more Dumpsters for food. She's been complaining for weeks about missing social security checks.
"Oh." She heaved a great sigh. "Would you?"
She'd never said that before. I was pleased. "Of course," I said. "Should we get this dirt off first?"
"I think so," she croaked. "There's quite enough effluvium in there as it is." Then she held her chin at a dramatic angle like old women do and said, "Don't you think so?"
"There certainly is," I responded, bending to clean the wheels with a tissue.
She climbed the steps to hold the door open for me, and I put the cart on my shoulder. I asked about the checks she'd been waiting for, asked if she had enough food.
"Yes," she said. "Remember when I stocked up on those cans awhile back, the sale at Dominick's?"
"You were smart," I said.
"Only thing I'm having trouble with of course is meat. Few hot dogs. Some ground hamburger." She shrugged.
I was amazed that she was making so much sense.
She started talking about the checks again and about Edith, our Hungarian landlady. Then she asked whether I answer my phone in the morning.
"It depends on how late I went to bed," I said.
"See, the other day I thought I saw Edith, you know, so I went over. And it wasn't her, but she was there in the door of the next building with all her keys and everything. How late?"
"Beg your pardon?"
"Late, how late? Like two? Two-thirty?"
I realized she was talking about how late I stay up. "Like five, five-thirty."
"Oh. I see. Well anyway, do you know this theater up the street? You ever been in there? I think it's called the Left Foot. See, I think they duplicate people in there. They're in there and all seeming like other people. See them all over the place, people you think they're somebody but they're just duplicates. Know what I mean? Like that Edith. I've seen plenty of 'em, for lots of people. I've seen you." Her voice turned shrill.
"That's alarming," I said.
"But what about your checks? I'm worried about them. Why don't you let me make some phone calls?"
"I'll let you do that," she said, giving me the name of the even older woman who lives with her and their social security numbers. I was surprised at the extent of her trust.
"Phoebe, I've got a fridge full of food if you need any, OK? And I don't have a lot of money, but what I have you're welcome to. You just let me know anytime you need some money."
"I see," she said thoughtfully. "You don't use it?"
"Hell no. I never use it." I laughed.
March 24, 1990
Phoebe looked frail and tormented today. I wonder sometimes if my talking with her worsens it. I could hear the banging and screaming all day and night, much more than usual.
"Phoebe, how are you?" I said as she turned the corner with her cart behind her, a single old plastic bag in it.
She shook her head and kept shaking it, eyeing me and sighing loudly. "It's just getting worse and worse. They're everywhere, you know. I don't know why they have to pick on two old people, but they just won't leave us alone. It's terrible, and everyone just lets it happen. I try to tell people, but no. And it just keeps getting worse and worse. So if they find us dead soon--and they will--you'll be a witness."
"Phoebe," I said, frowning. "Don't talk like that."
"I'm sorry, but there's limits, you know? It's all the time now--they're everywhere. I think it's in the electricity. And shortwave radios. And now all these new, whatchacallit--laser discs, right? Right. They're in that." She shrugged and shook her head. "You coming from the gym?" she asked, nodding at my gear bag.
"Yes, I am. Just had--"
"See I used to be a ballet dancer, you know. I was strong. I mean I didn't have muscle like you do, but I was strong physically. But look at me now--look, I can hardly walk. I'm in so much pain here and here. And you should see my breasts, my left breast especially, all ulcerated and--it's terrible to look at. I'd show it to you but you'd probably throw up. And look at this, all this here. All my body's shrinking, and I don't have any muscle or any strength left. They just come and they zap it. I don't know why they pick on us, just two old ladies. Of course my mother's much older. That's my mother, you know, only I never call her mother, never have. Always Juanita or Nita. Never did call her mother. Anyway, it's even harder for her of course because she's so much older and she's going, I tell you. She can't take much more. I'm all shriveled up now in here, around here. You can't see it, but I don't have hardly any body left. It's like, you know, for a while, especially with her, they just pound on the inside of the head. Just pound and pound and pound like that until, well, it can make you, it can just about drive you--" Her voice wavered.
"Nuts, I bet," I said.
"Right. Mad. But see, that's what happened in all those discos and things. They know that now, with all the pounding noise and all those kids going crazy like that. But see, Juanita could take that because she was a little stronger than me at first. That was before, when we were living over there on Wells, but we had to move. We just had to move because they were everywhere over there and they wouldn't leave us alone. Wouldn't leave us alone. And talking all the time. I think that's part of it. It's like they want to tell us something, but what? And why do they have to kill us? If you could see my left breast. It's horrible, just horrible what they do. But it all makes sense. It's like--and they talk all the time, constantly. They talk about--they say things like perpetual motion, perpetual motion. They say that, perpetual motion, like that's what it's about. But of course everyone knows there's no such thing, right? I mean, if you've ever listened to music or anything you know there's pauses, right? But that's what they say. But it all makes sense because they make it make sense, got it all framed. Then they say, What a nice frame. See? What a nice frame. Like that."
I shook my head. "That's awful. Have you ever tried talking with anyone about it, like a doctor or somebody? Maybe they could help."
"Talk to anybody? Talk to anybody!" She threw her hands up. "Of course I've talked with everybody, don't you see? They pretend it isn't happening. Of course it's only with old people. I don't know why they don't care about old people, but they just don't. But I've talked to plenty. Even went to the FBI that one time it got so bad over on Wells, but they don't even want to hear about it, you know? But one lady cop over there, she was nice and she got us out of there. But a lot of good it did."
She shrugged again, gesturing wildly. "They just followed us! Can you believe it? A whole city, a whole world, and they have to come and find us all over again. I just can't understand it. Why, why would they pick on two old women?"
"Because you're strong enough," I said softly, to encourage her.
"Strong! Ha. You must--but they're men, don't you see? They can just--" She mimed violently.
I put my hand on her shoulder. "Men aren't stronger than women, Phoebe. You know that." I smiled. "That's just a myth."
She stared at me, annoyed. "That's crap. They've got lots more strength than we do. That's a scientific fact, and you know it. They've got more muscle and our physiology--"
"But that's just muscle. The spirit is stronger than anything physical. Much." I smiled again.
She just spit. "All that's talk. When it comes down to somebody twisting your spine and breaking your bones and grabbing your neck and doing this--no, that doesn't work. Find another one, wordy girl. No, they're just killing us, and we can't stop them."
I suddenly realized she was talking about aging. The facts of aging, made mythological by schizophrenia. The tormented beauty the mind creates is amazing--it's creativity gone awry. I shivered a bit as I stood searching her powdery white creases and eyes wild and watering behind green-tinted sunglasses. But as she spoke, no matter how exhausted she was, there was always a note of respect in her voice. For her own creations essentially.
"See, they read books," she said. "I think they're very into all the Hindu stuff, you know. All the points of the body, points of energy. I think so because they sure know what they're doing. Oh, boy. They get me here, see, in the back of the neck and right here." She draws circles around her belly and hips. "And back here of course, all along the spine. They come in through the spine mostly. But they read all the books. Of course anyone can nowadays. See, back then they didn't use to let everyone read all the medical books, but now that's all in the public domain. Anyone can get at that information, and we'll just have to take it, I guess. But I don't know how much longer we can. My whole breast is just--it's--" She stood looking down at it, drawing a sag with her hand over and over until I put my hand on hers. She smiled weakly at me and shook her head.
March 31, 1990
I made dozens of calls for Phoebe regarding the checks. The fucking government has a six-week process for tracing them, then they send forms to fill out, then they spend more time processing them.
Several days ago Phoebe told me she couldn't go to the bank because they'd knock her over with a blast of electricity but make it look like she'd fallen. Then she told me her mother hadn't eaten for three days, and I told her to call 911. "Not that serious," she insisted.
I called a thousand numbers to get someone to come out. All the mental-health places referred me to senior-citizen places. All the government offices referred me to religious or civic groups. Everyone asked, Are you a relative? And seemed relieved that I wasn't. We can't help you then, they said. I bounced all over town until I got ugly with someone and was given the number of a person who could come out the next day from an independent group of physicians who make mercy calls. I ran downstairs to tell Phoebe and found a grim paramedic telling a cop the old lady had been dead for a while.
For the past couple days I've been watching Phoebe come slowly unglued. Edith called around to arrange an inexpensive funeral--cremation. She said she would pick up the ashes and do something with them. "Call me sentimental," she said in her Hungarian-flavored English, "but I not let them flush somebody's mother down the toilet. That's what they do."
Phoebe was alternating between lucid and lost. After she found an affordable undertaker, Edith drove Phoebe to the office to fill out forms. Then Edith called me and said, "OK, I did my part. Now your turn." She'd made arrangements for the funeral director to come to Phoebe's place this morning to sign a few more papers.
Later Phoebe told me, "Oh, God, I'm so sorry. You know, when Edith was telling him to come over at ten and that you'd be there too, I tried to stop her and explain that you don't get up before noon."
I laughed. Then late last night Phoebe called me, saying she'd started worrying about whether she should have told Edith what time I get up. "I don't want her to think you're lazy or anything. I know it's just that you don't go to bed till real late."
I begged her not to worry.
Then she asked me how long I'd been working with them.
"Who?" I said.
"You know. They told me all about it. You're with them."
It was inevitable she'd think that. In a way she's right. I am part of the conspiracy, disrupting her habits as I try to find cheaper housing for her, a doctor, medicine. I've called the Department of Human Services and senior centers and neighborhood mental-health workers. I have piles of notes and phone numbers. One note with her complaints ("It's all done with remote control--the children with red trucks and toys") as well as her grocery needs (Velveeta and oat-bran Hudson Bay bread). I finally spoke with a tough-hearted, good, gruff woman at Human Services who plans to visit.
Yet everything makes such terrible sense to Phoebe that I wonder if I should interfere? Her ideas are sprinkled with pieces of lunatic clarity that are sometimes eerily psychic. "You're in with them," she said. "I know all about it. You and Mark."
"Who's Mark?" I asked.
Today she said it again, then said Mark is my brother, and I'm trying to move her out. I remember mentioning my brother, a social worker in Saint Louis who's been giving me advice on what services to call for Phoebe. But never his name. How did she make the connection? Her mind begins to frighten me.
Still, she's a gem. She said last night, "I don't know why they've chosen me. I don't have a thing to give them. I'm weak, you know? Why don't they go pick on Donald Trump or something? His poor wife. How's she gonna make it with just a few million dollars and three young kids? I don't know why they don't go after him."
April 2, 1990
Phoebe called to say it was all getting worse. Didn't I have any influence with these people? Wasn't there something one could do? I assured her there must be something.
"You know," she croaked at the end of our conversation, "no one believes me. They think I make it all up--but who could have that much imagination? Not me. And why would I make it up anyway? Just to hurt myself? That makes no sense, but that's why I didn't say a word about it to the police and those others, you know--because they'll just do what they do. They don't believe or understand, so they just make you the victim. Of their misunderstanding and everything else. But I don't make it up. Listen, I know I'm nothing special. But it seems like--I know I'm just an old lady--but it seems as though there should be somebody who could do something in this great big country, somebody who could help with this thing."
"I agree, Phoebe," I said quietly.
"I'm nothing special," she said again.
April 5, 1990
I brought Phoebe bread and meat and her favorite Dutch cigars, though right now I can barely afford groceries of my own.
"Wait a minute," she said as I started to leave. She dug through her things to find something to give me--a shamrock-stamped coffee cup. "You're Irish, aren't you? Do you drink coffee?"
"Are you kidding? That's all I do," I said, grinning.
She laughed and clutched her abdomen, saying, "I'll drink it till I'm like this." She bent over. "And then I'll have one more cup."
For a lone, persecuted woman in her 70s she sure giggles a lot. There are moments when I adore her.
April 7, 1990
I'd say one in 12 calls connects me with a human being and not a desk slug. The human beings always refer me to other human beings who are helpful, not agencies. A frail German woman came to see about helping Phoebe get into subsidized housing. She and her husband started a nonprofit organization to help poor disoriented elders get help. The woman herself is harried and poor; her English limps a bit. I wanted to ask her why she was taking the trouble to help Phoebe find housing for no fee, but I spared her.
One woman from Human Services was great, but Phoebe was savvy and didn't mention the electric people. Meanwhile the government has activated its own electric people, who are discovering that Phoebe has money in various places. Suddenly they become more aggressive.
April 11, 1990
They hauled Phoebe off. Edith has been a holy riot, phoning me at all hours. We are the two detective stooges. I told her the other night that the funeral home called me and we had to pick up Phoebe's mother's ashes. She said, "OK, am all ready. I went got red carnations. So we sprinkle old lady under nice tree in my backyard, then toss on red carnations. My Got. The things you got to do as a janitor. But anyway, am not worry about mother right now. She's not gone anyplace. It's Phoebe now to worry."
Between us we tracked down the hospital where they took Phoebe. Last night Edith called and said, "OK, am going to be in building 6:30. After I come your door, we go break free Phoebe. Seven o'clock."
I explained that I agreed with the plan but had an engagement I couldn't break. How about tomorrow?
"OK, OK." But she got impatient and went there by herself. She called me tonight. "What?" she yelled. "What, this is Russia? You know what they got? They got a nurse with a key to lock every door and even elevator behind me. Is terrible, terrible psychiatric hospital with all crazy people. I am standing in room with Phoebe, and lady I think from same room or something comes. Phoebe say, 'This is Edith.' And lady look at me, then say 'Eeeeeee.' Run away. Not so good. I am telling you, three days in that place and no cigarettes too, I am hearing voices. My Got. Then I am coming out all the locked door and elevator and is impossible like a jail. Of course I don't tell my son I am going, so when I coming out from all locked doors and some floor I get lost. Everything all white and locked, and I think, Why I don't tell my son? Now I'm here my life. I about to go crazy in there!"
I told her that wasn't so bad. I had had the electric people latch onto me. I wired money that never arrived, the cash-station machines all spit my card out, and the bank was moving decimal points around in my accounts.
We laughed like hell at ourselves, but of course it wasn't funny. Yet Phoebe's in there voluntarily--apparently they threatened her with a court action and committal if she didn't go--so Edith and I are hopeful we can spring her.
"Is two things amazing though," said Edith. "One is no smoke. So Phoebe is going crazy without cigarette. I don't blame her." Phoebe smokes two packs of slim cigars every day. "The other thing most amazing is today I see Phoebe all clothes clean and hair wash. You know something? She is beautiful blond! Most gorgeous beautiful blond! Not hair all string in wires from her head. So that is something. Terrible place in there--all locked up and crazy people and nurses not smiling. But Phoebe is beautiful blond."
April 13, 1990
Guilt punches me constantly. Poor Phoebe's locked up, and I must admire Edith's harsh justice when she suggests I did it because of my fear of fires. When I protest, she says firmly, "Well anyway, is not your reputation to care about. Is Phoebe's life." I agree with this ashamedly.
April 16, 1990
Days on the phone chasing bug-brained bureaucrats. Because I'm not a blood relative and there are supposed rights to privacy in this country, I can't reach Phoebe or get information on what's happening to her. I stop and breathe out my furies, call on all Irish charms, and manage to get her doctor's beeper number and home phone. I assault him with messages. He finally calls back, late in the evening and obviously weary. He keeps interrupting me to ask if I'm a relative. I unleash my indignation, insisting that Phoebe be allowed to leave, that she be treated humanely.
Finally he says tiredly, "She's leaving tomorrow."
"What?" I gasp. "That's great. Uh, have you given her medication for the aural hallucinations?"
"That's the least of her worries," he says. "She's full of cancer. She's being released for immediate surgery."
April 20, 1990
It has been raining all day. I went to see Phoebe and stood at the door of her room waiting while three burly nurses banged and lifted and resettled a dead-looking old lady with no teeth. I tried to see past them into the two other beds, to find Phoebe. Then I realized the old woman was her.
She had just returned from surgery. A stain of dark yellow where her left breast used to be. Her eyes rolled against morphine dreams, her lips were sucked in where her teeth should have been. One hand stuck out from under the covers, picking and clutching as though trying to pull something off her chest. I leaned over her and tried to hold her hand, but she yanked it back. She kept shuddering.
"Phoebe, it's Carol from upstairs," I kept saying into her wincing face. I dreaded seeing her eyes roll into place and snap open to hate me. I did this. I did this. I made myself stand there leaning over her twitching torment. She would have been so much happier, so much less violated if she'd been left to die alone in her own home.
Eventually I straightened up. Moved her slippers closer to the bed for no reason. She couldn't get up. She was full of IVs. On the floor were bags full of blood and pus. I watched her some more, then stepped away. I glanced at the old woman in the opposite bed. We nodded, but did not pretend to smile. I felt she too must hate me. I asked the nurse how long it would be before Phoebe came around.
"Oh, there's no telling really. Different for everybody. But probably not too long, not too long. Especially this girl. She's a live one."
"Isn't she?" I said proudly. "She's a real card, a sweetheart."
"Oh, sure she is. Mm-hmmm. She's a live one, I'm telling you. Been all over this place." She kept repeating how live Phoebe was. Just as I was turning to leave she said, "She was so live we had to strap her in. She'd just get up and walk away."
April 23, 1990
Last night at the hospital the person across from Phoebe was not the stern old woman I'd shared a nod with a few days ago but a shrimp-curled form. I tried to balance the onslaught of sensations--the dying woman sucking oxygen in the next bed, the yells of a patient down the hall, the shrimp girl in the opposite bed, whose head looked like the skin had boiled, Phoebe's spinning focus, the punching smell of the bloody pile of shit that appeared under her when the nurse lifted her, the yellow gouge where her breast had been, her body bald and assaulted when she took her gown off, the smells, the terrible dead smells of a hospital full of sterilized tools and garments and decomposing people. I tried to balance these things with some sense of spirit, some soaring detachment. The nurses shooed me from the room while they diapered Phoebe, and I wandered the halls. I found several empty single-bed rooms and stood in one. It had a picture of Jesus with his face tilted up and touched with light. And it had a window that was opened a little, showing the dusk golden rooftops and wires and other lives. I breathed in there until they let me back into Phoebe's room.
Before I left Phoebe sent me all over the room looking for matches. She told me to look in the locker next to the shrimp girl. As I bent to try to open the locker door without jostling any of the tubes of things spitting into the girl, I looked down at her. She was a monster of sorts. Skin full of blisters or warts, hairless, features unformed, limbs like flippers. She had tubes up her nose and tape over her mouth. The nurses had to change her bedding too, and when they lifted her she stayed unconscious. I was amazed by the fishlike limbs. She didn't belong to us at all. Leaving, I thought with pain about how the three of them were gasping and groaning there, sitting in their own stiff smells, while up and down the hall many single rooms were empty. The single rooms seemed at least to have spirit pouring through them.
April 25, 1990
I sat with Edith in her office and she told me how they had found out that Phoebe had quite a lot of money. They pounced on it of course. Edith complained that this is always the case. She told me tales. About old ladies who lived with 10,000 cats in a crumbling mansion. No heat or water. How no one would help them until someone found out they had money. Her stories all had the same ending: The state becomes slobberingly solicitous of their welfare. They vanish into nursing homes, away from their familiar apartments and cats and daily walks with shopping carts. They are crowded into careless places and drugged and lined up in front of televisions. They become vacant.
Edith and I have lost Phoebe to the labyrinth.
March 31, 1992
The instant the elevator doors opened I saw her. She was pushing an empty wheelchair. Her teeth were still missing, and her lips sucked in and out, her jaw twitching. She was heading right toward me.
"Phoebe. Hi. It's Carol. Remember me, from upstairs?"
"Hi. Nice to see you." She acted mechanical, pushing past me toward the elevator.
"It's nice to see you. How have you been? You look great."
She gave me a wicked glance that reminded me of the Phoebe I knew. The great old gal with a low tolerance for blarney. I followed her back onto the elevator. She was going to get a Coke, she said. We stood there. She seemed feeble and disoriented. I yelled questions into her good ear, and she mostly ignored them. Then I followed her into the only room not filled with people. There was a pop machine, and I dug up some change, asked her what pop she wanted.
"Need to get my money," she mumbled, pulling a rubber-banded, paper-wrapped change purse out of her pocket.
"I've got change, Phoebe. Is a Coke what you wanted?"
She squinted at me. The machine ate my money. An orderly came over and helped me, laughing, pummel the damned thing. Eventually it spit up two Cokes and some quarters. Phoebe thanked me skeptically. She said she meant to get some straws from upstairs, so we went back upstairs. In the elevator she started to talk more. She told me she used to live on the second floor. That's where our straws were. They've moved her all over, she complained. "I don't even know what for. They just do it."
"Do you have roommates?" I asked. "How are they?"
"Oh, I have two," she said. "And they're very nice. But over where I was before I had a roommate who was just nuts. That's all. She was nuts. Crazy. She's gone now."
Phoebe went behind the nurses' station to grab some straws, and the staff on the second floor joked with her. "Back to visit the old neighborhood, huh, Phoebe?"
"Yeah, sure," Phoebe said. She gripped our straws and looked at me for the first time very coherently. "Let's find someplace nice to sit. Quiet." We headed back downstairs, and she told me about the crazy roommate who'd get up in the middle of the night to wash her hands over and over and then count envelopes. "And she had no shame. She'd wander the place without any clothes on."
Suddenly she said, "It's that medication they give me. They've got me on this medicine, and it makes my mouth do this. I'm not doing it--the medicine does it, and I just hate it. Plus it makes me thirsty all the time. That's why I wanted a Coke. But this"--she gestured at her twitching jaw and sucking lips--"this could drive you crazy. I hate it."
"I bet. Do they have you on a lot of medication?"
"More than I care for. And that darned chemo--boy, that's just awful."
"How often do you have chemo?"
"Once a month."
"Once a month? That's not too bad."
"It's not too bad. It's just once a month too much."
I laughed. By the time we sat down Phoebe was more her old self. The vagueness had vanished. She sipped on her Coke, and we swapped stories. I told her Edith and her son bought the building next door. She told me Edith has called her a bunch and has a new granddaughter. I didn't know that. I told her about the other two granddaughters: the older girl who's very sweet and shy like her father and the younger one who's a pistol like Edith.
Phoebe seemed happy. She sipped pop through a smile. "This tastes good, doesn't it? Especially if you don't pay for it."
I laughed. That's how Phoebe always was, appreciative without gushing. I'd bought her some of the Dutch cigars she used to smoke, but she'd quit.
"Think you can give these to somebody?"
"Oh sure," she said. "These people will smoke anything."
The Korean family that runs the shop on Broadway where Phoebe used to buy her cigars told me to say hello to her. Phoebe grew brighter. Later she said the hardest thing about being there was losing her neighborhood rituals. "What do I have to live for? I've got no friends, no family. I don't have much to live for here among these people."
"Haven't you made any friends here?" I asked.
She flung one eyebrow up and the other down, pinning her eyes on me. It was the exact same look she'd given me earlier when I asked if she ever played bingo. The don't-insult-me look.
We talked about the other stops she used to make on her daily trek around the neighborhood with her grocery cart.
"Edith told me you used to go to the Treasure Island," I said.
"Of course. Haven't you been there? It's a very good store."
"I can't afford it," I said, laughing.
"But they have great sales. I'm big on sales."
I told her how the neighborhood is changing--too many sports bars. It's like Rush Street now, I told her, and she made an appropriate face. We gossiped a bit about the other tenants, but most of the people she knows are gone now. "Nobody interesting since you left," I confessed.
She sipped her pop thoughtfully. Then she turned to look at me, her eyes lucid, and slowly described every minute of her mother's dying. How her mother kept asking for cold water, and Phoebe kept bringing it to her--and then the old woman would push it away. How Phoebe kept thinking Edith could help her mother because Edith was "so lively and gay." Then Phoebe said shakily, "I really, you know, I didn't know she was going. I still don't know why she died. What she died from. I guess heart attack is the most popular excuse."
I smiled because she was enough herself that I knew her phrasing was wit, not accident. But it wasn't a heart attack.
Phoebe grew uncharacteristically nostalgic. She told stories about her mother's mother, who died a few days before her 100th birthday. She told stunning stories about her own youth, her years studying with the Russian ballet. About what strong, soulful dancers they were. It was hard, she said, "because there weren't as many balletomanes then as there are now. You couldn't find places to study it and you couldn't make a living at it. I had to do other dances, you know, in clubs and such. I didn't want to, but I had to. That's the thing. The Russians, even after Stalin, they still supported the arts. They had that much sense. More than our government. Mother Russia. So their dancers were--they were just, they had such passion. Well, so did their composers, writers." Phoebe sighed and sat back, then grinned at me. "I still love the Russian soul."
I beamed back, actively regretting my bingo mention. Then she told me about how she moved to New York and started her own advertising firm. "Then I got married and my husband died in a hurry."
I tried not to laugh so hard. She had that grin. She talked about some other things, but I asked again about her husband because she was unusually forthcoming. I'd never been able to get her to talk about her past. It turned out that he was a famous journalist and a bureau chief in Japan when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He was taken prisoner and later, in a dramatic exchange, freed for a warship. He wrote a best-seller about it. This was before Phoebe met him. He was some 20 years her senior, and she was friends with his daughter. They married, and he was shipped to Antarctica.
"Did you love him?" I asked.
"Love him?" She blinked. "Yes, in a way. With respect, great respect and fondness." She paused. "It wasn't a grand passion. Anyway, while he was stationed in Antarctica, he cracked up. Came back. And that was that."
"Yeah." She tapped her forehead. "He was never the same again. Shortly after, he had a heart attack."
She told me other stories. The detail was tender and vivid. I laid my head on my arms and listened. She described the little dog she had in New York, which she used to take into theaters with her in her coat pocket. She talked again about her mother, saying it was nice to take care of someone, to have someone else to consider. Then her eyes got crowded again, and she started to talk about the blur of those days.
"It was such a mess then. Everything. I still don't understand what happened." She got agitated. Then she started the old tests. Was I friends with them? That's what they said.
I wondered if she was talking about the electric people again. She hadn't mentioned them. I asked whom she meant, and she hedged. Edith or the people who took her away said I was working for them.
I tried very hard to explain what phone calls I had made and why I made them. How I wanted to help her and didn't realize all that would happen. Her face changed constantly while I talked. I could see her struggle to trust, not to trust. I told her how sorry I was about all of it, about her pain, about the loss of her independence.
"All those years I was independent," she said. "And lots of times I didn't want to make decisions, choices, but I had to. You get used to that. That's the hardest thing now. I can't make any decisions. They won't let me. But, uh, you can't think about it too much because it will just upset you. It just upsets you. You can't do anything about it. They just get control of your money and everything, and there's nothing you can do. I used to think about it, but it was just too hard."
"What would you like to be different, Phoebe?"
"Oh, I don't know. I don't know. I really can't think about it. There's nothing I can do. I could get a lawyer, but then all my money would go to that. So. But it's just not having any choices. You know."
She told me her mother had saved that money very carefully. Nita had wanted to take care of her, had wanted to buy her a house or something. They were very frugal. "Never even ate out," Phoebe lamented. "I would have taken her out to eat if I'd known. I could have done more things for her."
Phoebe admitted she couldn't live on her own now, couldn't shop every day and make meals like she used to.
What would be different? I asked again.
"No chemo for starters," she said, scowling.
We talked about that and about her breast cancer. Phoebe said she still wasn't sure it was cancer. She thought it was the cats. One of the cats landed on her one day and scratched. That's what it was. They just took her breast for the hell of it. She started to shrink in her chair a bit, looking suspicious.
"What ever happened to your cats?" I asked, to distract her.
"They killed them. The one died, but they said if I left the house they would kill them. And they did. I went out and came back and she was dead. They killed her." She eyeballed me. "With electricity."
Then she shifted abruptly, saying to herself, "Can't talk about that to Carol. Not to Carol."
I dropped my eyes, watched her shaking hands a moment. She pulled a foil-wrapped package from the bag of things I'd given her. Then she said graciously, "This smells good. What is it?"
"Banana bread. Homemade."
She smiled handsomely at me. "I used to make banana bread. I love it."
"I remember," I said. We caught eyes and I saw her phantoms and mistrust.
I asked if I could see her room before I left. It was Pepto-Bismol pink. Three small beds crowded together with no real attempt at privacy. One of her roommates was charming, the other stared at my smile and my offered hand without recognizing either. Phoebe told me she wanted to nap a bit before dinner. She was exhausted, she said, from doing nothing all the time--not one for games and she hated TV. I told her I would get some reading glasses for her and bring books and magazines. We walked down the hall, and she stopped herself from telling me things a few times.
"You're afraid of me," I said too softly for her to hear.
The place seemed overcrowded. Back on the elevator an old man had a tantrum because it took so long to coordinate all the wheelchairs.
Phoebe walked me to the front door and said to me pointedly, "You know, I have to tell you, when you first walked in I didn't realize you had come just to see me. I thought you were here to visit the less fortunate."
I tried to keep from crying. I knew she was saying this because she was afraid her lack of greeting might have hurt my feelings.
I took her hand. "Phoebe, I never, ever meant to hurt you."
She nodded, her lips pressed together and still for a moment. I kissed her cheek.
The sky traded rain for sunshine, sunshine for rain, the whole ride home.
Shortly after my last visit to Phoebe Edith stopped me outside the building and said Phoebe had died. Edith had already had her cremated. "Sprinkled under the same tree as Juanita. So at least she is now with her mother."
"Did they say how she died exactly?" I finally asked.
Edith took a good pull on her cigarette and pinned a sharp gaze on me. "You ask me, they killed her."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.