Fiction by Robin Vigfusson

Covid afternoons

The last time Margaret had visited her mother in the nursing home, the old lady kept giving her dirty looks.   Margaret had even asked, “Why are you looking at me like that, Mom?” and her mother said, “I’m not your mom.  How could I be?  You’re an old woman.”  Margaret was seventy and her mother was eighteen years older, but that was the last straw.   
When Margaret’s sister called to tell her their mother had died from COVID, she hadn’t seen the old lady in over a year.  There were seven siblings spread out all over the country so her sister, Liz, decided on cremation.    
“That’s fine with me,” Margaret said. “Just tell me what it costs and I’ll pitch in.”
“Her Medicaid covers it, Margaret.”
Liz started sniveling over the phone and Margaret grimaced.  Like most martyrs, Liz was a ninny.  She’d truly loved that mean old woman the same as a dog loves a rotten master which was sad since it set a pattern in her dealings with men.  She’d had four husbands, each one worse than the last.   Margaret had been married twice, but knew when to quit the way her father had.  He’d deserted the family like a soldier going AWOL, even going to Canada to avoid paying child support. 
“I asked them if she suffered and they said no,” Liz sobbed into the phone. “I don’t believe them.  From what I heard, your lungs feel like they’re on fire.”
“Don’t torture yourself, Liz,” Margaret said though she knew that was Liz’s favorite pastime like one of those girls who cuts herself. “It sure kills them off fast once they catch it.”
“You talk like its culling sheep!” Liz said accusingly and Margaret restrained from saying “I’ve lost better sheep than Mom.”
A couple of days after speaking to Liz, Margaret heard from her brother, Johnny.  Margaret, Liz and Johnny had all stayed in New Jersey which was why they were still in touch, but any call from Johnny filled Margaret with dread.
He’d been a sweet child, though not the sharpest knife in the drawer.    He’d never married and lived alone in a crumbling house that he bought dirt-cheap in the state’s most desolate county. 
Margaret helped him with money from time to time so whenever his name popped up on her phone, she’d immediately think, “What’s it going to cost me, now?”
Today he was yammering about his job at Home Depot where he worked in the garden center.
“Today this bitch gives me a real hard time over how bad the selection of plants is and how expensive they are.  ‘These are a really mundane variety you have here,’ she says and when she finally does buy a goddamn hydrangea,  she gets up to the cash register and says to me real loud,  ‘Can you please pull your mask up over your nose ?’  like she wanted to embarrass me in front of the customers and I say ‘What?’ and she repeats it so I pull up the mask, then I ask her for her card, and after all her fuss about masks and being sanitary, she insists on paying in cash,  facing me down with her pudgy mitts holding a wad of dirty bills so of course I had to wash my hands right after that, then sanitize and keep going through that whole rigmarole for the rest of the day because that’s how it is when you’re dealing with the public, one right after another, loonier than the next, especially now with this virus -“
Margaret rested the phone on the coffee table because there was just so much of this she could take, although if it wasn’t COVID, he’d be obsessing about something else in the same tortured manner.  He was one of those people who only spoke in monologues.  Margaret knew there must be a name for that though she didn’t know what it was.
“You there?  Hey, Margaret!  You listening to me?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Well, what I was calling about, I saw on the news, this lady who lost her mother the same way we did.  How the nursing home wouldn’t let her visit and her mother passed on and how she’s planning on suing the nursing home and I was thinking maybe we should too, why not?”
“Sue them for what?”
“You know that place is a shithole.  They neglected her.”
Even though as Johnny said, St. Alaric’s was a shithole, the so-called ‘exclusive’ ones started to get shabby in a matter of months and all the fresh paint in the world couldn’t hide that.   The walls absorbed the smell of those rotting bodies the way old tenements reeked of every meal ever cooked, there. 
Margaret sighed. “They have an immunity clause against pandemics.   They’re not stupid.  And when was the last time you saw her, Johnny?”
She knew there was no love lost between them.   Their mother had slammed his head against the bannister on a regular basis which might even account for his mental quirks.  
“I don’t know,” he sounded flustered.  “Maybe six months ago.”
“Why don’t you take this up with Liz since she’s handling the cremation.  Bother her for a change.  That would be different.” 
Margaret knew he never called Liz because she was nearly as broke as he was.
“And why don’t you eat shit, you fucking narcissist!”
It was too bad you couldn’t slam a cellphone down like you could a phone in the old days so she just cut him off.   She was surprised he even knew the word ‘narcissist’ though he did watch the news.   There was still a good chance he didn’t know what it meant.
Johnny was hardly an isolated case.  A lot of people seemed to be losing their minds lately, but she wasn’t one of them.  The lockdown had to be hell if you were an extrovert, but she’ d always craved solitude, having been the oldest child in a large, frenzied household.  Sometimes, she’d hide out in the car reading comics, so her mother couldn’t find her.
Now, she lived alone with two Maine Coon cats and spent her time painting water colors.   She’d taught art at Seton Hall and every room of her tidy ranch house, including the kitchen, captured different epochs of her life.    At various times, she’d painted portraits or houses or animals, but now she only painted the weather and it never got monotonous.   One morning, the sky sparkled and the next day, it was grey and sick as if the whole world was under sedation.  She titled these paintings ‘Covid Afternoons’.
She was right in the middle of doing her latest when Liz called.  Margaret had converted her small dining room into a studio and through the picture window, she watched a neighbor outside hang laundry on a clothesline, the bedsheets wafting like trapped clouds.  It was lovely out and her sister’s voice sounded airy as if she was all done grieving.  She told Margaret that Johnny had spoken to her about his scheme to sue St. Alaric’s.
“He got me so wound up I called there and read them the riot act as Mom used to say.  If I’d known she was going to die I would have been there in a heartbeat, but they didn’t even call me until she was gone.”
 Her voice started trembling and Margaret inhaled.
“Cut to the chase, Liz,” she said.
“Well, she wasn’t really alone.  The last person she spoke to before the place locked down had been with her all afternoon, and they said that person wanted to talk to me.  She’d even given the staff her number for me to call if I wanted to.”
“Who was that?  One of the nurses?” Margaret asked, knowing they were trying to placate Liz.
“No, it was an actress.  They have these events in the sunroom where actors come in and serve the patients lunch.  The actors dress up like fairytale characters.  The theme that day was ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and it was the actress who played Alice.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”  As if the patients weren’t hallucinating enough, already.
“A lot of the patients love it.  They even respond to these characters more than they do the staff.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
“Anyway, I did call that woman.  Her name is Cathleen Twomey.   She’s done some tv shows like “Law and Order: SVU.”
“Good for her.”
“She told me it was really a gift being with Mom in her last hours though she didn’t know that at the time.   She said Mom was very much at peace and just one of the sweetest ladies she’d ever met.”
Now, Margaret was sure this was a ruse St. Alaric’s had set up to pacify the relatives of residents, there.  
“Mom talked about us like we were living there with her, but as children, like the kids we were, right on the bed with her.   She called us her little women and her three musketeers.”
Margaret smirked.  She sure hadn’t called them such winsome names when they were little.
“Mom did like to read.  She always read paperbacks in the bathtub and sometimes she even dropped them in the water.  Remember?”
“Yeah, I do.”   Margaret even recalled one title: ‘The Case of The Black-eyed Blonde.’
“Well, this girl said Mom just spoke about us with so much love and pride and she wanted me to know that.”
Margaret didn’t answer.
“Margaret?  Are you there?”
“Sounds like they paid her to say that.”
“Why do I tell you anything?  I’m sorry I bothered you, Margaret!”
Liz ended the call.
Margaret wasn’t sure what to make of her sister’s revelation.  Probably things merged at the end so that what you’d read was as real as anything that happened.  Maybe your whole life faded to a single impression like watching linens float against a pristine sky with all the grime washed away. 

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