Even after she died, there were certain smells that still made Jeanette recoil. A person’s scalp after a few days without a shower. A room with a bedpan.
She had worked in a nursing home for many years. She quit when her own mother became ill.
Jeanette converted the dining room of her house into a bedroom. It was the only semi-private room on the first floor, and stairs had become impossible. Jeanette rented a hospital bed from a medical supply company.
This is an ugly story.
Life is full of ugly stories. You might as well get used to it.
It’s raining right now.
The sky is gray, or would be if it weren’t dark already. It’s been gray all day—the rain slopping down outside—just outside the windows of the dining room where Jeanette’s mother lived during the last months of her life. (Or years. These things have a way of dragging on.)
Jeanette was a good daughter.
A dutiful daughter.
So, the smell of rain. After her mother died, Jeanette got sick. She spent several months in and out of the hospital. One morning, she was on her way outside, and she was feeling okay. Hurt, fragile, but okay—and even though it was a rainy, dreary day, she was happy to be breathing fresh air for the first time in a few days. She wanted to go home, to take a shower and wash her hair, put on clean clothes—to sit in her armchair with a cup of hot cocoa and a warm blanket.
The orderly pushed her wheelchair outside. There was the smell of the rain. (The smell of the chocolate, the warm fabric.)
Even after she died, she could still remember them.
Jeanette’s adopted sister had been shaken as a baby and lost her sight. Although she was blind, people always said she had more sense than both her brothers put together.
People said? Their mother said.
She never had anything good to say about the boys. Frick and Frack, she used to call them, with derision.
Jeanette was the youngest, born long after her mother was told she would never have another biological child. Jeanette was a good-natured baby with big blue eyes and dimples. Aren’t you lucky, everyone said.
Everyone? Yes, everyone. The doctor, Aunt Ethel, the neighbors.
By the time Jeanette was born, though, her mother had fallen too deeply in love with the blind girl—this exceptional blind girl—and no one else could measure up. (And also, it should be said, she was in love with herself. She loved being the mother of the blind girl.)
This girl could quote an enormous number of things from memory and do complicated math problems in her head. Aren’t you lucky, everyone said. To be related to the blind girl.
When Jeanette was still quite young, the blind girl drowned in a pond behind the house. No one called them lucky anymore, and her mother’s reign over the family abruptly ended. For more than a year, she drank too much and spent most mornings in bed.
That summer, when she was bored, Jeanette sometimes tiptoed in and walked around the room, looking at her mother’s bells and figurines. Her father had mostly stopped coming home, and the maid left at two.
Jeanette froze when her mother opened her eyes. Why are you in here? her mother asked.
There’s no more milk.
Ask those good-for-nothings, Frick and Frack, her mother said, but all the venom had gone out of her.
After her mother’s death, Jeanette retrieved the table and chairs from the garage and moved them back into her dining room. She set up her typewriter at one end of the table, with a ream of paper and a cup full of pens and pencils, facing the window.
The morning sun shone in.
This was in the months before her diagnosis, when she just thought she’d let herself get run down.
She didn’t have the energy, yet, to return to work, so she decided to write letters. It seemed important to say what she needed to say. Upstairs were the address book, the envelopes and stamps.
In the hospital, when she decided to refuse the radiation, one of the doctors said, Do you want my two cents?
I’ll just take one, Jeanette said, if you don’t mind. Two is usually too many.
The doctor smiled. Touché.
In life, Jeanette sat at the typewriter and looked outside. Sometimes she typed, but most of the time, she sat with her fingers laced on the table in front of her and stared mindlessly at the swimming pool surrounded by flowers. This view. The trees, the sky. These had been the last things her mother ever saw in this world.
The doctor touched her hand. Jeanette, exhausted, lying in a hospital bed, felt a spark of attraction between them. That hand on her hand, the briefest moment of contact—but she was reminded in that instant that she was still a living being. Skin, nerve endings. It was a shock to feel desire, again, after all that time.
In another life, she might have been strong and healthy and filled with longing; they might have kissed; the doctor might have lain on top of her and unbuttoned her blouse.
She remembered this, too, after her death—the feeling of lying under another person, and she thought of it often as she lay on her back in the swimming pool, under the clear blue sky, with the sun overhead. If she had risen from the water and walked toward her old house she might have seen through the window a typewriter on a dining room table, or any number of things, but there was nothing there for her any longer, and so instead she closed her eyes and returned to dreaming.
Leah Browning’s “Three Stories” appears in Flock 24.