The Last Visit
Marlene S. Molinoff
Marlene S. Molinoff
Marlene S. Molinoff is a short fiction writer living part of the year in Philadelphia and part on Kiawah Island in South Carolina. Many of her stories are about the countless choices people make either by will or by chance. A former university literature teacher and creative strategist for the pharmaceutical industry, she is an avid traveler who has trekked to Everest Base Camp, dived with sharks off the coast of Australia, and photographed animals in Kenya and the Galapagos. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Forge and The Alembic. She has a BA from Barnard College, an MA from Tufts University, and a PhD from George Washington University in English Literature and a Certificate in Business Administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Rebecca is dying. There's not much they can do about the pain other than knock her out with morphine and rob her of what time she has left of consciousness. Not yet. She still craves hearing the voice of her own thoughts. Rarely has she had anyone else worth listening to. She winces from the stab of pain, like shattered glass deep inside her, and pushes a button to give herself more drug. As everything blurs, she struggles to focus on the floor nurse in the harsh light of the doorway.
"Al's here again. What should I tell him?"
"Tell him to go away."
"He's your husband. He really wants to see you."
"Tell him I've had enough of him. To leave me in peace."
The nurse lingers, her expression saying more than she does. Then she pulls the door shut. Rebecca hears her clogs in the corridor and shudders at another disapproval. He is pitiful. Maybe she should make up some excuse. Write a note and ask the nurse to take it to him.
She pictures him in the bright hallway, his bumbling fingers playing with the package of store-bought rugelach he's brought, hoping she'll eat something. She's hated those hands for years, the swollen knuckles, reddened and chapped hard from the frost as he takes the eggs from the coops every morning. Like hers, they're cut and scarred. Only, hers are tiny; his, huge and blundering. He tries to be gentle, but they're not the hands of a man capable of giving pleasure to a woman. Blunt instruments. Long ago she banished him from her bed. Let him go elsewhere to satisfy himself. She couldn't stomach it. Most men would have complained. Insisted. He simply accepted it as his fate, another sign that she's too good for him.
Enough! Why waste time thinking about him? She turns on the reading light and reaches for the book on her nightstand, George Eliot's Middlemarch. She's read it before. It's always been one of her favorites. But now, she's hungry to go back over the same ground. Dorothea Brooke's squelched idealism, her burial in a marriage to an older man who can't see her, gives Rebecca comfort. Other women before her suffered years of misery. She's not the only one. Though for her, there'll be no reprieve.
Her eyes heavy, she fights to stay awake, knowing Al is out there ready to intrude. He's determined. He'll wait in the family area near the nurses' station for as long as it takes to see her. He's finished his chores, and he's tired. But he'll wait, hoping she'll give in. She won't. Not tonight. But she knows one of the nurses will let him in to see her when they think she's asleep. They're kind to him. At her expense.
She wishes she could have more patience for Al. She knows he has no idea why she's refusing to let him in. Maybe she should say she's afraid for him to see her this way. She hasn't cared about her appearance in years, going around in old boots and dirty dungarees, her thin hair greasy and uncombed. He'd probably believe that though. Right now, he's thinking she's angry. He must be worried sick, wondering why. He's worked hard, done whatever she's told him to do. He's known from the start she's better at taking care of the important things, so he's let her do it. He's handled the dirty stuff. Cleaning the coops, shoveling the shit. All of it. Never complained about running the same egg delivery route every week in the old truck. But he must know in his heart she's had the rougher time. Stuck out there on the farm with nothing to do but hard work. Day after day. Year after year. He must've seen how bored she was. Felt her resentment.
Children would've helped. She imagines she'd feel differently if they had kids. But she knew when they married that they were much too old. At first, she made the best of it. She decorated the family farmhouse—put up curtains and ordered new furniture. She made it into a comfortable home. She baked and sewed in those days. He'd come back to a house filled with wonderful smells, and they'd sit together in the kitchen and eat a home-cooked meal.
That was twenty years ago, and for all these years, until very recently, she's cared for him like a child.Occasionally, she'd be cross—snap at him or refuse to talk—but mostly, things were peaceful. Until she got this cancer. Then she'd lost all patience. Said some ugly things. "You're dumb as an ox." She actually said that to him, though he took care of her as well as he could. He tried to cook for her when she was tired, drove her to her doctors, to her treatments, watched over her as she grew frail and more tired. Tried his best. She knows that. So why is she so mad? It isn't only with him. She's fed up with all of it.
# # #
Rebecca jerks awake. She's drifted off to sleep. How long this time? She's aware of darkness beyond the slats of the blinds. Her mouth is dry, but she's still holding the book. Maybe it hasn't been long. She sighs, wondering whether Al is lurking outside the room. She can't expect him to understand that the charade is over.
"You have a visitor." It's the nurse again. The tall one with the incriminating stare. Of course. It's the sound of the door opening that has startled her awake.
"I told you before."
"It's not him. A college kid. She says she's your niece. Myra."
"Myra? Here? Send her in, please." Rebecca perks up. "No, wait! Give me a minute." She presses a button to elevate the head of her bed. She runs her fingers through her hair, puts the book back on the night table, takes a sip of water, and composes herself.
"Aunt Rebecca!" It's Myra's voice.She's always called her aunt, the way her parents taught her, even though there's no real relation between the two families. Rebecca thinks for a split second of Maurice, Myra's father. Did he send her? Then Myra sails in, her eyes glowing, like his used to. She comes right to the bed, kisses Rebecca's cheek, and smiles. No look of shock to betray any fear of touching a dying woman. She's tough for a kid her age.
"I was afraid you didn't want any visitors. I ran into Uncle Al in the parking lot. But I took a chance. I won't stay long. You're probably tired."
"I'm not tired at all. I'm happy to see you. Come. Sit next to me so I can look at you." She taps the sheet beside her.
Myra takes Rebecca's hand. "It's nice to be with you."
"It's nice for me too. I've been lying here thinking about the people I'd like to see. There aren't so many. I'm glad you've come. Are you home from school for the weekend?" Myra nods and Rebecca continues. "I've never been one to beat around the bush. So I hope you won't mind my telling you that this will probably be our last visit." Myra starts to object, so she keeps talking, patting her hand. "Please, Myra. I know you know. Let's not waste the time we have. Tell me something about yourself—what you're doing and what your plans are. I've always thought you were the kind of daughter I'd have wanted. So come on. Tell me what you're up to."
Instead of answering, Myra blurts out, "I will, but—why are you refusing to see Uncle Al?"
"So he's gotten to you too."
"He looks so sad. He says he doesn't know what he's done. How he can fix it."
"There's nothing he can fix.That's the point. Nothing he can do. It's not what he's done. It's who he is." She stops herself, then smiles at Myra and softens her tone. "Please try to understand. Al's a nice man. A good man. But he's a simpleton. And I just can't stand to hear his gibberish anymore." She crosses her arms over her chest.
Seconds pass. Rebecca can see that she's made it worse. The poor child has no idea how to react. "Look. When Al and I got together, it was another time. If you didn't marry by a certain age, you were declared an old maid, a family burden. That's what happened to me." She remembers how worried her family was that she wouldn't have the means to take care of herself. She was in her late forties. Her parents were gone, and she was living at home with her brother and sister-in-law and their kids. She was in the way. She'd run out of options.
"I thought you had a job. That's what my father told me."
"In the beginning. Then I got blacklisted. That's when my family stepped in and said I had to get married. My cousin Murray even found the right sucker. Al was so sweet and naive. He never knew what hit him. He was tricked into it from the start."
Myra looks shocked, so Rebecca tries to reassure her. "It worked out all right for everybody. His family was worried about him too. He was barely able to take care of himself." She'd run the farm for him, cooked, and cleaned. Given him directions about what to do, where to go. But now it was over. She was dying. He'd have to learn to fend for himself.
"I never knew. I don't know what to say."
"There's nothing to say. He'll be fine. He's still got family." She smiles, wondering whether Myra will open up to her in spite of the awkwardness, hoping she will. "Come on," she says."Enough about Al and me. I'd love to hear about you. What your life's like." She sits back to listen.
# # #
She must have nodded off. Myra's gone. She vaguely remembers her leaving. How much later is it? She settles into the pillows and reprises the visit, enjoying the ambitions her "niece" has shared and picturing the man Myra thinks she loves. She sees herself as a young woman. She wasn't pretty, not like Myra, but she'd had her dreams too. She closes her eyes and reaches deep into the past.
The man she's seeing is Myra's father. Maurice. He's so handsome—thin and wiry, not tall, but quite a bit taller than she, with deep-set black eyes and bushy eyebrows already flecked with gray at a young age. They're in his big car. He's driving her home after a rally or party meeting, and he's driving really fast. He's watching the road,and she's watching him, thinking, He's not married either. They're a bit older than the rest of their crowd. A lone wolf—that's what her friends call him. His hair's long. It's dark and wavy and, like his brows, heavily flecked with silver. His skin's dark too; his feet and hands are long and thin. He looks strong, his body sinewy with muscle beneath the Chinese-laundered white shirt he's wearing, even though he came to the meeting straight from work.
She thinks back to how they'd taken to each other right away. They joked about being atheists who turned their backs on the traditions of their families. The only difference being that she was homegrown, born in America to immigrant parents, while he was an immigrant himself. He had a heavy accent, a slightly off-center nose that had been broken years ago when he served in the Russian army, and a deep furrow between his brows. He didn't say much in the meetings, but afterward, when they were driving home, he'd open up and share ideas that were strikingly similar to hers. He lived a few blocks north of her in Amway, a factory town not far from New York City. He'd come up to her after one of the meetings, introduced himself, and said that Willie—her cousin, who was one of his buddies—had pointed her out and told him she lived in the same town. He asked if he could drive her home.
She'd already sensed something between them. She'd catch him looking at her. But she was sure nothing would come of it. Like the other men, he went for the pretty girls. And even after they were friends, she knew that with her drab reddish hair and freckles, her squat figure and gap-toothed smile, she didn't stand a chance. A few years later she heard that he had married Vivey, that lady lawyer he'd been so infatuated with. Myra is their daughter.
Maybe he did send her tonight. She hadn't seen Maurice for a couple of years before she got sick, but he remained friends with her cousin Willie—he'd even been Willie's business partner at one point—so they kept up with each other. When the kids were small, he'd bring his family to the farm to visit, and they'd always catch a few minutes to talk alone. She'd make the excuse that she had to check the coops, and he'd walk out with her.
"So? Nu? How's it going?" he'd ask her. He seemed to care about her.
She never gave him the satisfaction of admitting what a disaster her marriage was. "I'm fine. Busy getting by. Making ends meet." Then she'd ask how things were going for him. She'd wonder how his marriage to Vivey had turned out.
She drifts back to a much earlier time, to that one night, years before Al, before any of this. Maurice had showed up at her rooming house late. He'd been drinking. She knew she shouldn't invite him up, but she did. He was desperate to talk. She could see that.
"Thanks, Rivka. You're OK." He was slurring and, with his heavy accent, it was hard to decipher exactly what he was saying.
She offered him a cup of coffee from the hot plate and some cake she had on hand, and he'd taken both greedily.
"What's wrong? I've never seen you like this."
"Vivey dumped me. She wants someone with more of a future. Her sister introduced her to a lawyer friend, and she's started seeing him."
"Jeez, I'm sorry, Maurrie." That was the nickname she'd given him. "I could tell you were really falling for her." She looked away, not wanting him to see the secret pleasure she was taking in the news. They were sitting at the small table in the kitchen area of her room, and she moved now to the foot of the bed, the only other place to sit.
If she intended for him to join her, she wasn't aware of it. But he did. Before she knew it, his head was in her lap, and she was staring into his eyes. She couldn't believe the wild sadness in them, the depth of it. She felt for the moment that she was drowning, as she stroked his hair and tried her best to comfort him.
He reached up and drew her face closer. She could smell the alcohol on his breath, but also something stronger,something pungent and male. She tried to sit up, but he held her there until they were breathing the same air. He got up and turned off the lights. Returning to where she sat, he took her wrists and pulled her straight up until she was facing him, their bodies touching. His arms felt strong around her as he lifted her onto the bed. She remembered thinking that she didn't mind if he pretended he was making love to Vivey. Whatever this was, it was enough for her.
When he left, she wondered what he'd be like the next time they met, if he'd acknowledge what had happened. She was crushed. He said nothing about it, looking down when she tried to meet his eyes. And he'd driven her home less frequently, only when the weather was bad or the meeting ran late and she asked, afraid she'd missed the last bus.
These are the images she's left with as she closes her eyes.
# # #
With a start, she forces herself to wake again, and her thoughts return to Myra. The girl had confided that she was in love with a young man who wrote poetry and wanted to come with her to Russia, to give up his own fellowship and live with her while she did her research for her own. "Part of me wants him to come," she'd said, "but the bigger part wants freedom."
She pictures Myra driving home, embarrassed by her confession and trying to make sense of what she's learned about Rebecca's life. Struggling with it. Perhaps she's remembering the summer about ten years ago when she and her sister spent a week on the farm with her and Al. The girls had shared the guest room with cozy chintz comforters and gotten up each morning to hot chocolate, homemade biscuits with butter and jam, and, of course, fresh eggs. They followed her around all morning as she collected the eggs, fed the chickens, tended new chicks, and cleaned the house. In the afternoons they baked, made dinner, and sewed together. She remembers being so happy for their company. She'd chat with them about this and that as they went about their chores. But whenever Al appeared—she can see it clearly now—she'd send him off with a sharp order to clean the coops, shovel the hay, or drive somewhere to pick up or deliver something. She was never nasty—she's sure she wasn't—but her orders would have been direct and simple, and off he'd go again, alone, while they'd remain with her. In the evenings, after supper, she'd read with them in their room, leaving him in the parlor to fall asleep in front of the TV.
After all these years, she's finally told someone what it's cost her, being married to Al, living with him on that farm. At first, she's relieved. Then, she thinks about Al—what it's cost him. Poor bastard. He's suffered too. Oh, God, of course she should agree to see him. It's not his fault. None of it. But he makes her skin crawl.
The door cracks open. Al is staring in at her, but he doesn't dare enter. She stares back. They're like nocturnal animals caught in each other's gaze—the one a pursuer, the other injured and weary.
"Come in, Al," she says. "It's all right. I just didn't want you to see me this way."
"You look good tonight, Becka. A little stronger." He puts a pastry box on the side table. "For later. When you have a little appetite."
She follows the box with her eyes.
"Farm's running good. Everybody on the route's asking for you."
"You're doing great. Tell them I said thanks."
He leans over her, places his rough hand on her forehead. "Well, good night then. Sleep tight."
She looks up into his guileless face. It's weathered by age rather than marked by assertion or personal force. But the concern and tenderness she reads in it are real.
"Goodnight," she echoes, closing her eyes.
She hears Al leave. She's already wondering what Myra will make of what she told her tonight. Should she be sorry about it? It's an ugly story, and she's elevated it to truth by saying it aloud. Maybe she should have softened it. Will Myra take it to her father to unravel, or keep it to herself? Will it encourage her to think about other secrets from her childhood she hasn't understood? Selfishly, Rebecca hopes it will. As she gives in to sleep, she thinks it's even possible that her story may, in some small way, help Myra live her own life without the burden of regret.