When her mother’s mind deteriorated, Martha began making things up. Her mother suffered from Stage Five Alzheimer’s. She was getting worse. Martha had gotten books. She talked with the doctor. Not much was known about the disease. She read the same information again and again. Facts came to her as she rode the bus or plucked faxes from the machine at work or tried to sleep. Patients have problems thinking, planning and remembering. They become disoriented to time and place. They develop poor judgment.
Mrs. Fainsend got night terrors. Some people call it “sun-downing.” The brain equates encroaching darkness with death. There is more confusion at night. There is panic and sometimes shouting. One evening three weeks ago, her mother had stood in the middle of the living room and just oooooo-ed, tears on her cheeks, waving her hands in front of her, as if clearing a bad smell. When someone has Alzheimer’s, they’re like a human antenna, and their reception is spotty. There were times of day when her mother’s mind was clearer. In the late morning, Martha would take out old pictures of their house in Minnesota.
“Look, Mom. Here’s Dad filling the pool with the hose for Gloria and me. Remember how you used to heat the kettle for us because the water was so cold? Look, that’s you in the kitchen on my birthday. Remember that avocado apron?”
“There’s your father,” her mother said. “There’s Paul.”
“Right, Mom. Dad’s name was Paul.”
But it would be only a small window of time. She would fade as afternoon wore on. Martha missed this time during the week because of her job. Instead, Janis, her mother’s home health aid, would take out the photo albums and both of them would sit and flip through someone else’s life.
Martha met Hector at the community center one Saturday at a support group for elderly caregivers. Like most Florida buildings, it was mercilessly air-conditioned. He sidled up to her during the break. She stood in front of the silver urn, sipping coffee with non-dairy creamer curdling in it. They gravitated to one another the way two people standing alone will. They smiled and said hello at the same time. Hector was Cuban and had a receding hairline, skinny arms and a large paunch.
“I thought this was Estranged Fathers,” he said. “By the time things got started and I figured out I was in the wrong place, I was too embarrassed to leave.”
She laughed. “How are you enjoying Care-Giving for the Elderly, so far?”
“I think I’d rather be estranged.”
“For me, that depends on who I was estranged from.”
“I’m estranged from two families. I’m going to need extra-credit once I find my class.”
“You’re not going to stay to find out what happens?”
Hector shrugged. She felt as if she had said too much. She was asking him to stay. But she liked him. A friendly but expectant silence fell.
He began telling her about why he was going to support group. He had had two families at the same time: one in South Miami and one west of the city. He met a woman while he was married. Things progressed. The fact that he was married to someone else never came up. He sold industrial engine parts to marinas and spent most of his time driving around the north and west coasts anyway. He split time between the two families. He had two boys by one wife, a boy and a girl by the other. Things went on like this for years. He loved both women and their children, especially his little girl. She was three. Two months ago, his first wife found out about his other family, when a medical bill was delivered to the wrong house. He tried to cover by saying there were probably a hundred Hector Garcia’s in the greater Miami area, maybe a thousand. Now, he had no families.
Martha didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Hector spoke earnestly of his daughter and wanting to reconcile with her mother so he could see her.
“Hector, I’m going to get a cup of coffee after this. Would you like to come with me?” They stood there a moment, her invitation between them.
“Actually, Hector,” she said, “I’m going to get a gin martini big enough to dunk my head in, maybe two of them, then pop mint after mint on the bus ride home so my mother’s nurse won’t smell liquor on my breath. It would be nice to have someone to talk with.”
Hector drove them to a bar called Aces High in a shopping plaza. There was a supermarket on one side and a button store on the other. This became their ritual every Saturday.
The afflicted develop obsessive anxieties. They cannot be reassured. Mrs. Fainsend worried about taxes. Had Martha paid them yet? Perhaps Martha didn’t understand the particulars of some of her stocks, and there was the pension. She didn’t want anyone to get in trouble. Did Martha know about the trust her father had set up for the house? Had she filed her own taxes? They can take you to jail, you know. They can come for you.
Hearing your name called in the middle of the night in a dark house is horrible. Not being able to excise a choking dread from someone you love is horrible. Being privy, over and over, to the intimate moment when someone realizes they are losing their mind is horrible. These are just a few of the little surprises in store for us, Martha thought, and there are enough to last the rest of your life.
So Martha began making things up. A new reality. A whole set of shared experiences she and her mother had never shared. Sometimes Martha whispered while she waited for her to sleep. She’d sit in the chair by her bedside and look out at the Spanish moss on the tree outside. In the moonlight, it looked like seaweed still glistening with saltwater.
Remember the garter snake that lived in the basement?
Remember the Jensen girl from down the street who stole my bike?
Remember the night the cat had her kittens? Remember their little blind eyes and the sounds they made and how you cried and cried?
“Yes,” Martha’s mother, who could not remember, would murmur.
It was the sound of Martha’s voice, the inflection people use when they speak about the past. It was the assertion that their life together had been rich and varied. It was her daughter’s insistence, like a spell– remember, remember, remember.
Martha’s older sister, Gloria, lived in Minnesota with her family. She had taken over their parents’ house when they moved to Florida. Their father died of a heart attack only six months later. It was Martha who noticed the change in her mother at the funeral. She misplaced things. She was moody, aggressive. She had trouble following the careful notes Martha laid out for her concerning the arrangements. Gloria had shrugged it off, saying she was just upset. Martha decided to stay with their mother while she grieved. Gloria had gone home with her family.
Their mother got worse. She wandered. She tried to leave the house in her nightgown. She had trouble handling money. She forgot things. Martha flew home to Minnesota and collected her belongings. She found work in Florida at a medical insurance company. She got a home aid nurse for her mother. Incidentally, the medical insurance at a medical insurance company wasn’t that great. In the beginning, Gloria sent checks to help with the cost. Then, the time between checks lengthened. Finally, they stopped altogether. Martha sold her mother’s car to help pay for her care. She took the bus to work. Janis, a nice woman from St. Thomas, would look Martha in the eye and calculate the weekly bill slightly in Martha’s favor. Once a month, she would stay late on a Friday night so that Martha could go out, meet people. But care for her mother was still expensive. Martha thought that they may have a year or two before their money ran out.
As patients deteriorate, brain mass decreases until basic functions like breathing and heartbeat cease. Alzheimer’s is fatal. At Stage Seven, you cannot talk, sit up, smile, hold your head erect, or control your bowels in any way. Your reflexes become abnormal. Your muscles become rigid. You cannot swallow. What begins with forgetting whether you locked the house, ends with you shitting yourself and drooling uncontrollably. This is your brain. This is your brain with Alzheimer’s. Martha thought about this as she sat through support group and listened to people “come to terms with the disease.”
Plaques. Tangles. Beta-amyloids. This protein. That protein. The sum of what was known about the disease: chemicals in your body revolt. No why. No what for. Not even really how.
Protein fragments clump together in the brain, clutching and wrestling and choking nerves. Did you know plaques can trigger the body’s immune system to help them kill the brain cells they are attacking? Did you know that patients become so disoriented they put on winter clothing in summer, that even their destroyed logic supersedes their senses? Did you know you must leave food out in plain sight or sufferers will forget they are hungry and starve? Martha asked Hector all this over cocktails one Saturday. No, he said. He didn’t know that.
Janis met Martha at the door one Friday after work. “Your mother ain’t talked all day,” she said in her soft Caribbean accent. She came out onto the front steps, arms folded, and let the screen close behind her.
Janis looked down at her, her lips a thin line. “All day. Maybe she wanna talk wit’ you. I think she know what I’m sayin.’ She look at me like she understand. No word, though.”
Was this how it happened? One day she comes home from work, and her mother has stopped speaking.
“Gonna go in, collect my things. Next week, I stay,” Janis said.
Martha remained on the steps. Insects buzzed in the trees as the sun set.
A few years ago, they had returned from the doctor’s where her mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mrs. Fainsend sat at the kitchen table and bit her thumbnail while they watched the funeral of President Reagan on television. “I hope I won’t talk too much,” she said, while Martha made them sandwiches.
“I hope I can keep quiet.”
Martha went inside. Her mother sat in her green chair. She looked up without recognition. Martha smiled and kissed her cheek. Then, she locked herself in the bathroom, sat on the toilet and cried.
At first, you need to help your loved one wipe themselves. Then, you find that their urges become unpredictable. You have to watch for signs of agitation or discomfort. For this reason, it’s a good idea to know where the bathroom is at the mall and the movies and the drugstore. There may be accidents. Don’t become upset, because the sufferer will probably be ashamed. It’s a good idea to have a change of clothes on hand, just in case. Eventually, you break down and get diapers.
It began with a bag of frozen peas down her pants. “I have to get a few things. Can you wait?” Martha said to Hector, the day after her mother stopped speaking, and after the bar.
It was a humid August afternoon and the sun was as hot and bright as a new penny left on the dashboard. They walked next door. She felt dilated, full and flushed from the gin. The grocery store seemed new, filled with things she had never looked at the same way.
Martha found herself in the frozen food section. She peered through the glass at the specimens inside. Everything was white, clean, well-lit, temperature-controlled, individually-wrapped-for-her-convenience, microwave-ready, re-sealable-pouched and special-spill-proof-lidded. She stopped in front of the case that held the vegetables and opened the door. The freezer exhaled foggy breath. The sweat under her arms and between her breasts cooled. She picked up a plastic sack. Clumps of icy peas crumbled and crackled between her fingers. Without a glance over her shoulder, she tucked the peas into the waistband of her Bermuda shorts. The cold had a strange effect on her stomach, her intestines, and her bladder. Everything tingled slightly. She went to find Hector. He was in Baking Needs.
“I don’t know what you do with some of these things. Look. This is brewer’s yeast.” Hector held out a jar the size of a coffee can. “I don’t know what it is. It says right on it, but I still don’t know.” He was a little drunk.
“Come on. We’re leaving.” Martha took his wrist and pulled him from the aisle.
He had thick curly black hair on the backs of his hands. “Hey, what’d we come in here for?”
“I’ve got it.”
They cut through an empty check-out lane. Swoosh, swoosh, and they were through the doors, out into a muggy afternoon smelling of boiled vegetables. The seam-sealer in the pavement was tacky under their feet. The white lines on the hot top were iridescent in the sun. The air rising from the ground warped and quivered and made Martha think of fever. The package of peas slid down. Her crotch bulged. Soon, they’d slip out a pant leg. She felt the urge to urinate. Her bowels felt fluttery.
While octogenarians in white visors and BluBlockers trudged past, Martha would give birth to her prize as she soiled herself, as in a real, live, honest-to-God delivery. What would she do then?
She imagined waddling back in to the market she had just robbed and throwing her underwear in the trash of a windowless, fart-redolent, restroom in its dark interior, while Hector stood outside in the parking lot and held her peas. Martha giggled. She walked between two cars and slipped the bag from her shorts.
“Are you okay?” Hector asked. “You look a little—Did you just steal those?”
“Yes,” she said. She scanned the lot for his pickup.
“What’s the matter with you? You gotta steal now?”
“No,” she said. She couldn’t concentrate. Her head felt light. She felt guilty, foolish, sick, aroused, anxious, exhilarated and exhausted. “There’s your truck,” she said.
“If you need money, I can help you.”
“I don’t need money from you.”
“Then why do you steal stuff?”
It was because her meager paycheck went to buying pills that, at best, slowed her mother’s illness. It was because her mother was now adrift inside herself and no spoken word, no written message, would ever again reach, or be sent by, her. It was because Martha was too gutless to hold a pillow over her mother’s face while she told her the made-up story of their lives together.
She stopped, a gold sedan between them. He knit his heavy eyebrows, not in accusation, but concern.
“Because taking something that doesn’t belong to you feels good.” She sighed. “Think about all the lab-rat times when you don’t burp because someone might hear you. Or you answer the phone because it rings. Do we even think about it anymore? What about taxes? Does anything seem crazier than sending money to some office somewhere just because we all agreed to? No one sends a receipt saying you bought school books for third-graders or paid to have the grass cut twice on the median of some highway. We believe we do stuff because it’s fair, but who says? You said you wouldn’t see your daughter because the court said her mother was the only one allowed to see her. Why? Don’t you love your daughter? Why is it all right for us not to get what we want?”
Hector put his hand on the roof of the car, then jerked it away from the hot metal. “This gets you to steal peas?”
Martha pressed her hand to her forehead. “I could have said I took ‘em because I damn well felt like it. For once, that’s reason enough, Hector.”
“What was all that stuff about taxes? People are gonna think you’re loony.” He smiled at her. “But maybe you’re on to something there.”
Now this became their Saturday ritual. They stopped going to the bar. Sometimes they would shoplift in tandem. Sometimes they would shoplift alone. Sometimes it was a little of both. Hector would drift by and breathe, “Turkey baster, aisle four” on the back of her neck and she would shiver.
It wasn’t sexual. It was more complicated.
Martha began collecting facts, this time about shoplifting. She and Hector would trade them, back and forth, while they sat in his truck’s cab, with an avalanche of pilfered items tucked behind the seats.
“You can fit six bottles of aspirin in the sleeve of a sweatshirt,” she said.
“Tuck chicken legs in the small of your back. They fit flush against the curve of your spine,” he said.
“A canned ham will not fit in an average-sized purse.”
“When shoplifting, purchase something small, rather than nothing, so as not to arouse suspicion.”
“Take two items off the shelf. Steal one, carry the other around. Dump it in another aisle, in case anyone is watching.”
“If wearing pants, tuck tubes of toothpaste in your socks.”
“Do not steal cantaloupe.”
Saturday after Saturday, they compiled the almanac. Mrs. Fainsend never said another word. Hector remained estranged from his daughter.
Martha had Hector over to dinner. She introduced him to her mother. Mrs. Fainsend stared at him and seemed frightened. After they ate, she left Hector in the kitchen and helped her mother to bed. When she was down, Martha sat with her in the chair. They looked at one another.
“Remember Daddy breaking up my cradle for firewood in the backyard once I was older?”
“Remember the little homeless girl who pulled my hair in the city?”
“Remember letting go of my hand when the wave hit us on the beach in California?”
“What are you telling her that stuff for?” Hector stood in the doorway. The hall light outlined him in yellow. His face was blue in the dark. Martha kissed her hand, then stroked her mother’s cheek. She moved past Hector down the hall and into the kitchen. They sat at the table. She poured them the last of the wine. “She likes it. It soothes her.”
“That stuff really happen to you? Why’d the little girl pull your hair?”
“None of it happened. Mom can’t remember anyway, but she likes to hear that I do, that there are a whole bunch of small memories I want to hold up for her to look at.”
“Why don’t you tell her real stuff?”
“Because real memories don’t come out in neat packages like fake ones do. Try it. Tell me about your daughter.”
“I think I know what you mean.”
“Why can’t you tell me about her?”
“Because her scalp smells a certain way. I remember when her mama was pregnant with her and I tried to imagine what she’d look like. She cries different when she wants something and when she’s hurt. There’s too much to her to talk about the way we do when we make rules about you-know-what at the supermarket.” Hector whispered the last part. Martha realized it was because he didn’t want her mother to hear.
Martha walked Hector out, and by the door of his pickup, he tried to kiss her.
“Stop it. Don’t,” she said.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that you’re like a beautiful, sad flower–”
“Oh, shut up,” she hissed. “The last thing I’m like is a flower. Don’t you know me at all? I’m like a Styrofoam cup that won’t decompose in a field of weeds. I’m like a wad of grass clippings in the gutter that won’t wash into the sewer during a rainstorm. I’m like a traffic cone that fell off a truck on the highway that people have to drive around. But I’m not a flower, never a flower.”
“Christ. Besides, what are you trying to do, colonize Florida? Meet another woman and set up shop? You can have another kid you don’t visit. Your kids can have their own support group with you in common: Children of Hector meets Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can–”
He took her hand. Martha burst into tears. Moths ticked against the light over the front door. Crickets creaked in the bushes. The street was dark and silent. She leaned on his truck with her free hand while she sobbed. He let her.
In early September, the weather cooled slightly. Four tropical storms downgraded to tropical depressions before washing over Miami. Martha had enough money to pay Janis for one more month. Then she would have to let her go. Then she would have to quit her job and stay home with her mother. Then they would wait for the lights and water to go off.
It poured Saturday. Wind blew the rain sideways. Palm fronds skidded across wet pavement. People wore yellow slickers over shorts. In the market, Hector and Martha had their finest moment. Martha stood next to a woman in Pet Care with hair the color of a nicotine stain. Hector drifted by her and slipped two flea collars into the woman’s beach bag. “Liberdad,” Martha heard him say, like a blessing, as he passed the woman. Martha had sunscreen and batteries in her pockets. She had flank steak in her waistband. She wore a souvenir T-shirt from aisle three. Every pocket, elastic and fold that could bear weight, did.
Martha was filling her purse and a plastic sack with wax beans in Produce. She glanced up. In the next row, a man in a Dolphins jersey was looking at her. There was no way he could see what she was doing. Her hands were hidden by the crates of vegetables. Still, she followed their rule:
If you think you are being watched, walk away.
She spun the bag of beans to twist the neck and tossed them in her basket. She met Hector in Books and Magazines.
“Six boxes of soup mix, a bunch of carrots, two sticks of anti-perspirant, and a sleeve of chewing gum in the crack of my ass,” he said.
They both giggled as he thumbed through People, and she, Time.
“I’ll meet you at the car,” she said. “I gotta wait in line.”
Martha and the checkout girl smiled at one another as she unloaded onto the conveyor belt.
“I like your shirt,” the girl said. “We carry ones just like it, I think.”
“Thanks,” Martha said. “I actually got this one here.”
“You got it all figured out, then.” She winked and handed Martha her change. “Try and stay dry out there.”
Martha gathered her bags and moved through the doors. Hector stood in front of the button shop, the collar of his jacket flapping in his face. He shrugged against the wind. A hand fell on Martha’s shoulder.
“Ma’am, did you find everything you need?”
Remember when I dropped my lollipop in a mail-slot at the post office? You made the men climb through the carts, sifting through letters till they found it.
Remember when we ran out of gas on the highway and Daddy had to come get us? It was Gloria and you and I and our breath made frost on the car windows.
Remember when someone stole the Blatners’ youngest boy? You woke me up and held me. I was sleepy and your arms crushed me and I could feel your tears on my back.
Some supermarkets and department stores employ plainclothes security. Martha had seen something about this on “Dateline.” They dress like patrons. Beware the shopper who pays attention to his or her surroundings. Beware the shopper who acknowledges other people. Beware the man in the football jersey with only creamed corn in his cart.
“Yes, thank you, I did.” Martha half turned. She and the Dolphin’s fan blocked the exit. A line began to back up in the vestibule. The automatic door tried to shut, then jerked open, again and again.
“Would you come with me, ma’am?” He was tugging her back inside.
She looked out at Hector. “Would you let go, please?”
“Let go!” She wrenched her arm free. People behind them grumbled. Eyes pleading, her gaze bore into Hector. He took a step towards her. Martha glanced back at the man clutching her. He had been following her gaze. He looked at the stout Cuban man in the yellow rain slicker and the silk shirt bulging oddly in places.
Martha dropped her bags and pulled up her sweatshirt: Flap-flank steak, a pound-and-a-half on the ground; Piff-pea pods on the pavement; Slap-salami sandwich meat.
From every part of her, she pulled parsnips and beef jerky and trash bags and oven mitts, and tossed them on the ground. A plastic bottle of mouthwash skittered to rest at the feet of a toddler. He howled and clawed at his mother’s legs. The security guard crouched, gathering the items in his arms. Martha kept her eyes on Hector. He pulled on his hood, turned and stepped out into the rain.
“That should take us through October,” Hector said, after Janis closed her purse.
“What she do at night?” Janis said.
“I’m going to be here awhile.”
“Until Miss Fainsend’s back from counseling. Thirty days. I know you spoke with her.”
“Ain’t you got your own place?”
“Yes, I do.”
Janis couldn’t seem to think of any other reason why Hector shouldn’t stay. She packed her things. “I be here tomorrow, seven sharp.”
When she was gone, Hector made Mrs. Fainsend tomato soup and toast. “Can you feed yourself?” he asked. She looked at him. He poured the soup into a mug and waved it under her nose. She looked at him again, this time, expectantly.
“Here we go,” he said and picked up her spoon. “Your daughter, Martha, is a friend of mine, you know. She told me about the lake house you visited when they were kids. She said the bedrooms smelled like pine needles, and she and her sister caught frogs out back.”
Mrs. Fainsend dribbled some soup. He wiped it. “She said she learned to ride a bike before a thunderstorm. When you called her in, she was afraid she would forget how when she went back out.”
Mrs. Fainsend moaned pleasantly and worked her mouth.
“Martha said there was a garden in the yard, out by the woods. She said you two planted it together.”