The mother needed to be winterized—that much was clear, yet the family had not prepared. Surprising, as the family was quite responsible. Each member had a savings account, each called home when late, and none left his or her keys in the door. Occasionally the older daughter might land at collections; sometimes the younger neglected an obligatory family dinner, often the father forgot where he was going or why, but overall the family was reliable. Life meant hunker down, prepare.
Preparation took different forms. The older daughter avoided opening her mail or watched porn. The younger kept track of everything in the refrigerator, to whom it belonged and when it expired. The father sold things. The mother gathered their vapor trails as they faded, aligning slips of cloud in her able hands.
Before the mother stopped speaking, she told the story of the father’s most memorable sale.
“I found out I was pregnant.”
“How did you find out?” The older daughter, then the only daughter, imagined a telegram.
“The doctor. There’s a test that you take.” At this the older daughter became distracted, wondering if the test was multiple choice or fill in the blank. She had to ask the mother to repeat the next part. The mother obliged, even though their guests, one of the father’s graduate students and his dewy young wife, grew fidgety.
“I said, right away your father and I discussed moving to a bigger house in a better neighborhood. One minute I sat on the edge of the bathtub, him behind me in the doorway, and the next, he stood on the front lawn shaking a fat man’s hand.”
“How did he get downstairs without you hearing?” The father, a small man, nonetheless made footfalls louder than anyone the older daughter knew.
“That’s not the amazing part,” the mother said.
“Say the amazing part!”
“The amazing part is the reason he was shaking the fat man’s hand.”
“Say the reason!”
“He’d sold the fat man our house. Right out from under us.”
The older daughter pictured a curvaceous old house; somehow in each telling it remained bright blue, the color of the blazer worn by the female newscaster on the six o’clock news. The older daughter imagined the house sliding from under the mother’s feet—in the vision, always bare—and floating down the street, not the way a balloon floats, ever upward, shivering and twisting, finally fading in the wind, but like a set wheeled offstage. Except the blue house didn’t wheel; it skidded a few feet above the ground. Toilet paper trailed from the second floor bathroom window. A cat leapt yowling to its death.
“Really Dad?” the older daughter said, doing her part, “You did?”
“Sold the dining room table too,” the father responded. The older daughter envisioned the father, smiling and satisfied, an Ed McMahon check tucked under his arm.
“I liked that table,” the mother said, but by then the father had led his student halfway up the jagged staircase to his office. The older daughter didn’t notice either. She eyed the graduate student’s young wife; the way her amethyst earrings brushed her soft cheeks, the arched perfection of her carefully plucked brows. By the time the younger daughter was born, the mother’s wistfulness was too faint to be perceived, so the younger daughter couldn’t be faulted for failing to spot it.
“It should have been me.” Weeping, the father took the older daughter aside. He sniffled, smoking and adjusting his bowler hat. “I was prepared. I’ve never taken anything from your mother. I earn the money, I give it to her and when I want to buy something I sell my own things. There’s a drawer full of cash. You need to know where to find it.”
“Of course it should have been him,” the older daughter told the guy in tech support she was fucking.
“Who?” he asked, still reeling from the thing she had done to his perineum.
“Big bird.” She handed him his clothes. “Ronald Reagan. You should go. I have to drive back to Shoreline in the morning.”
“What’s in Shoreline?”
“My numb mother.”
“Your what?” He slid his feet into still-laced shoes, socks forgotten beside the bed.
“Nothing. My summer home.” She shut the door behind him.
The mother had been going slowly numb for six months before she stopped speaking. She’d given the family daily updates, but they hadn’t paid attention.
“It’s the funniest thing,” she told the younger daughter, “I can’t feel my feet. They’re like blocks of cement.”
“Hold on,” said the younger daughter, “I’m trying to parallel park.”
The mother tucked the receiver against her neck and addressed a birthday card to her college roommate.
“Okay, I’m back,” said the younger daughter, “Do you think I should major in history?”
“I have no feeling below my knees,” the mother confided in the older daughter, who leaned against the kitchen counter slowly peeling a banana.
“How many people did you sleep with before you got married?” the older daughter asked.
“Hm. Maybe thirty?” The mother hesitated, trying to remember.
The older daughter broke off a chunk of banana.
“Do you regret it?” she asked.
“Well, regret…” The mother spread her hands.
“Do you wish you had done things differently?” The older daughter tossed the chunk in her mouth.
“If you want my honest answer-”
The older daughter swallowed. “Maybe I should get a dog,” she said.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, honey.” The mother dropped into a chair.
“I’m completely numb from the waist down,” the mother told the father. She ducked as a barn owl abandoned its roost in his beard.
“Numb?” the father said, panicking. “But you’re walking!”
The owl spread its accordion wings and flapped awkwardly across the father’s study.
“I’m walking,” said the mother, “But only by memory.”
She watched as the owl flung itself at the gleaming front window. Normally she would have stood to open it.
“How can this be?” The father ran a shaky hand through his wild, thinning hair. “I have a book to finish writing. I have classes to teach. I have a family to support. I can’t do any of that if you’re numb!”
The owl hooted mournfully and careened back to the father’s beard.
At seven a.m. the older daughter was still drunk enough to answer her cell phone on the first ring. Usually she checked caller I.D.
“She’s not talking!” The father’s ragged voice leapt at her ear.
“Wait a minute.” The older daughter rustled through her bag, searching for her sunglasses.
“In the night she tried to walk and she fell!”
“Give me a second.” She scanned the street for her car.
“She told me last night even her armpits were numb.”
“Wait, please.” The older daughter plucked a ticket from her windshield and tossed her bag onto the passenger seat. An unfamiliar green silk thong slithered to the floor.
“But I had so many term papers to grade! What could I have done?”
“Where is she now?”
“She’s at the hospital. She’s not talking. We need you at home.”
Outside the hospital the father cornered the younger daughter’s boyfriend. “I want you to know that if something happens to me, I have cash for the girls. They’ll be taken care of. Everyone will.” The father looked past the boyfriend, who shuffled his feet and sucked on his cigarette.
“Hey.” The boyfriend moved to the left to catch the father’s eye. “Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
“I pulled my back trying to lift her. How could I have done more?”
“I’m sure you-”
“This isn’t about me!”
The boyfriend flicked his cigarette into the street and glanced nervously behind him. “Do you have any mouthwash?” he asked.
The family gathered at the foot of the mother’s bed.
“Mom,” said the older daughter, “What can we do?”
The mother gestured for the wipe board at her side. Her wrists blossomed purple and blue.
“She’s moving,” said the younger daughter. “I thought she couldn’t move.”
“She can’t move her legs,” the nurse explained.
“Can she feel her hands?” the older daughter asked.
“No, but she can use them.” The nurse adjusted the bag holding the mother’s urine.
“Is her whole body turning that color?” The younger daughter indicated the mother’s midnight wrists.
“She’s bruised from the IV,” said the nurse. “We couldn’t find a vein.”
The father wandered to the window and moaned.
The mother showed the family the wipe board. “I’m hungry,” it said.
“What do you want to eat?” the older daughter asked.
“Chocolate Almond Hershey Bar,” the mother wrote.
The nurse nodded approvingly. “She’s listening to her body. She knows what it needs.”
“I’m on it.” The older daughter escaped into the hall.
The father sat at the mother’s bedside, clutching her purple hand. “What could I have done?” he asked her. “I had all of those papers to grade.”
The mother closed her eyes and grimaced. Her catheter hurt.
Outside in the hallway the younger daughter sagged against her boyfriend’s chest. “Did you call all those ads I circled?” she asked.
“Not yet.” He rubbed her shoulders.
“Your lease is up in ten days.”
“I’ll find something.”
“Not if you don’t look.”
“I’ll call tomorrow.” He kneaded his knuckles along her spine.
“And what about the job?”
“I didn’t get the chance.” The boyfriend noticed the older daughter leaving the room opposite the mother’s. Their eyes met and she touched a finger to her lips.
“The job is perfect for you,” the younger daughter persisted. “Why didn’t you call?”
“I like the coffee shop.” He ran his fingers lightly down her arms, smoothing the soft dark hairs.
“How do you expect to live on a barista’s salary?”
Across the hallway, a dazed candy striper emerged behind the older sister.
“I’ll figure something out.” The boyfriend kissed the top of the younger daughter’s head.
“Where were you?” the younger daughter asked as the older daughter joined them.
“Gift shop.” The older daughter brandished a folded paper bag. “Chocolate bar.”
“Oh.” The younger daughter stepped away from her boyfriend. “We should get back in there.”
The boyfriend held the door to the mother’s room open, lowering his eyes as the candy striper adjusted her skirt. The younger daughter whirled to face her boyfriend.
“You smell like smoke,” she said.
“Give me another minute with her!” the father commanded. The mother’s face remained carefully blank, eyes still closed.
“Mom,” said the older daughter, “Do you want dad to go?”
The mother gestured for her wipe board. “Please take him home,” she wrote.
“Come on Dad. We need to go.” The older daughter set the chocolate on the mother’s chest.
“I’ll ring for the nurse and she’ll feed you.”
The younger daughter’s boyfriend steered the father into the hall.
The father cautioned the older daughter to be careful driving back to the city. He told her to watch the road and concentrate. He made her promise to call him when she arrived. She called from her garage.
“I think you should have stayed,” he told her.
“I have work in the morning, Dad.”
“But your mother.”
“She’s not going anywhere,” the older daughter wanted to say. “We’re in this for the long haul,” she said instead. “I can’t be there every minute. Promise me you’ll eat.”
“I’m eating right now,” lied the father. “Dried fruit for energy. Don’t worry, I’m prepared.”
The father left a message on the younger daughter’s cell phone.
“My friends are wonderful,” wrote the mother when the older daughter next visited. “Look at the flowers they sent.”
The older daughter glanced past the open door where two nurses stood, pointing at her and whispering. She looked at the vibrant bouquets that lined the wall opposite the mother’s bed.
“Look closer,” wrote the mother.
The daughter crossed the room and brushed a pink lily with the tip of one finger. She glanced at the mother.
“A little to the left,” the mother wrote.
To the left of the lily, next to a terracotta planter brimming with daisies, a cream colored envelope was propped.
“Put it in your pocket,” wrote the mother. The daughter kept her eyes on the daisies.
“They’re beautiful,” she said.
The father left another message for the younger daughter. She deleted it without listening and labeled a cardboard box “Kitchen,” even though she was in the bathroom. She crossed it out, wrote “Bathroom,” and decided it was time to leave. She locked the apartment door behind her, convinced she could hear cockroaches congregating in her wake. Her boyfriend picked up his cell phone after half a ring.
“I packed up your bathroom,” she told him, adjusting her rear-view mirror. “Even though I just finished my shift at the restaurant and I have a paper to write.”
“You didn’t have to do that.” She heard the coffeehouse clattering and murmuring in the background.
“If I didn’t do it, who would?”
“It’d get done.” He listened to her silence. “Will I see you tonight?”
“I should go to the hospital.”
“Jesus Christ, my dad is trying to call through. I gotta pick up.” She clicked her phone closed and threw it in her purse.
The older daughter answered the phone when the father called.
“Am I asking too much?” he pleaded.
“What do you mean?” she said dully, abandoning her computer. The woman on the screen continued to writhe and moan as the older daughter headed for the garage.
“I don’t think I’m asking for anything I don’t deserve. I don’t know if I can keep it together. Is it wrong to ask for a little help from the family?”
The economy size bottle of Tums was still on the cold cement floor where she’d flung it after the father’s last call. She popped open the top and dumped a few tablets into her palm.
“I know this isn’t about me, it’s about your mother. Don’t think I don’t know that. But I have my process. I never take anything from the family. I’ve done my best to support us all of these years.”
She crunched a pill between her teeth and let it dissolve on her tongue like berry-flavored chalk.
“What are you asking for, Dad?”
“Just lunch. Just a walk or a cup of Chai with the daughter I have who lives in the same city with me. I’m worried about her. I talked to her boyfriend and told him she’ll be taken care of.”
“Taken care of?”
“I have cash in a drawer and your mother’s hands.”
“Dad, what about mom’s hands?”
“I just hate to see them like that.”
“We all do, Dad.” Her head began to throb.
“You’re such a complicated person,” he told her, “and you’re so generous. Don’t think I don’t worry about you. I do. But there’s no one to talk to about it now that your mother is numb. Just a cup of chai.” The older daughter extracted two fuzzy Advil from of her pocket. She swallowed them, dry.
“Why are you worried, Dad?”
“This isn’t about me, I know that. But I have to earn the money, I have to teach my classes. If I could just take a walk with my daughter. I need that right now.”
“She’s busy, Dad,” the older daughter said.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure.” She shifted uncomfortably against the garage wall. She needed to go back to the computer; she was wet and unfinished.
“Does she hate me? Do you think she hates me?”
“Of course she doesn’t hate you, but she doesn’t owe you anything either.”
“Just a Popsicle!” the father said, “That’s all I’m asking.”
“Just like you have your process, she has hers,” said the older daughter. She couldn’t follow the father’s logic. Each day grew colder than the last; Popsicles were a summer food.
“I know that. But I just want to share a Popsicle. And to do that, I have to go through the damn FBI!”
The older daughter thought longingly of the woman on her computer screen. All of her orifices stuffed full, she was occupied and complete.
“We’re all doing our best, Dad. I need to say goodbye now, there’s a call on the other line.” From the phone on its way to her pocket, she heard the father’s voice, small and metallic.
“The season is changing,” he said. “The hospital told me I could keep her hands.”
“What’s that, Dad?” the older daughter asked, phone back at her ear. Though the father did not respond, she felt certain he was there.
“He liked the dinners you made him. He says they’re good cold.”
“He could heat them, Mom.” The older daughter dropped several chocolate chips into the mother’s mouth. “They’d taste better that way.”
“If it’s all the same, I prefer he not use the stove.”
“He accused me of challenging him,” the younger daughter told her boyfriend. “Do you have to smoke that in here?” Her boyfriend swung his legs to the floor and shuffled to the window ledge.
“What do you mean, challenging him?” He strained to keep the smoke in his lungs, then leaned out the window and exhaled. “Like challenging his authority?” he said in a gust.
“I assume so.” The younger daughter shivered and buttoned her cardigan. “But he just said ‘challenging his position.’ He’s at odds with his surroundings now. He may believe our family is a pride of lions. It’s just like that time he filled our house with water. I’d never seen him so happy. He was grading a stack of bluebooks when it happened, and they were all destroyed. I remember the dog paddling past as the water rose higher. Dad just sat there and grinned.” She shivered again.
Her boyfriend closed the window and offered her a blanket.
“No, thank you,” she said.
The next time the older daughter came to visit, the father had scrawled a note on the mother’s hospital door. The older daughter leaned in to read it. “Winterization in Progress,” it read.
“Does that mean we can’t see her?” the older daughter asked the nurse.
The nurse shook her head. “That’s not what it means.” She pursed her lips and led the older daughter inside.
“I know you’re busy, but I think you better get down here,” the older daughter told the younger daughter. She was calling from the lounge. She couldn’t abide the mother’s airless room.
“I have a mid-term this evening,” the younger daughter said, apprehensive. “Can’t it wait?”
The light in the lounge was dim, and the older daughter reached to spread open the blinds. Her fingers met something cold and solid, and she shook and flexed them, surprised at the sudden blunt pain. The blinds were inaccessible, lodged between two layers of window glass. She sighed into the phone and her breath echoed back at her.
“I don’t think it can.”
“He did this to her,” the younger daughter said, didn’t ask. She stood with her back to the mother’s bed.
“He’s been mumbling about winterizing for days,” said the older daughter. “I thought he meant the house and the garden.”
“He mentioned my car,” the younger daughter volunteered.
“Obviously there was spill-over. I don’t know why I’m surprised.” The older daughter turned to the mother.
“Mom, can you hear me?”
The mother made no response. Her ears had been sealed off from the rest of her body.
“He’s always been concerned about heating expenses,” the older daughter remarked.
“She can’t see her flowers!” the younger daughter said. “He caulked shut her eyes.”
The older daughter shook her head hard, and her amethyst earrings pinged against the stems of her glasses. “He said he’d take care of things. This must have been what he meant.” She looked again at the mother. “At least her skin will stay smooth.”
The mother was swathed in plastic sheeting, the seams of which had been capably sealed.
“He must have used his heat gun,” the older daughter said. “She’s completely air-tight!”
The younger daughter absentmindedly opened a drawer. “Her chocolate is gone,” she observed. “What if she’s hungry?” She stared at the mother’s tight lips. The older daughter touched her arm.
“The nurse said this morning’s x-ray showed all of her organs are covered in drop cloths. She won’t eat again until spring.”
The younger daughter nodded. “When did he do this?”
“They think in the night.”
“How do they know?”
“The security cameras caught a man in a bowler hat leaving her room, dusty, they said, and smiling. There were flakes of plaster on his hands.”
The younger daughter moved toward the door. “I’ve got to get back to school.”
“I know.” The older daughter took a last look behind her. The mother’s wipe board, swabbed clean and glossy, was propped near her flowers. Outside the window a tree dropped a leaf, maybe its last.
In the hall, the older daughter turned to the younger daughter. “I guess I’m in charge of Dad,” she said.
“I’d help,” said the younger daughter, “but I have so much studying to do.”
“It’s not your job,” said the older daughter, “I have the paperwork. She left him to me.” She showed the younger daughter the slashed-open envelope and watched her walk away.
Inside the hospital room, the mother’s hair released a sigh.
“What was that?” The older daughter flagged a passing nurse.
“What was what?” the nurse asked. She leaned closer and the older daughter caught a whiff of gardenia.
“I heard a sound from her room.”
“What was it like?” the nurse inquired sweetly.
“Like wind or sand and gravel.”
The nurse nodded in recognition. “That’s just the sound of her settling.” She reached out and gently touched the older daughter’s arm. “You look tired,” she said. “Let me walk you to your car.”
They paused at the nurse’s station and the older daughter searched her bag for her car keys. As she shuffled the bag’s contents, the envelope gaped open and a slip of paper fluttered to the floor. The mother’s signature scrawled at the bottom. “In case of winterization,” the heading read.
A few weeks before the mother’s admission to the hospital, the older daughter had stopped by to ask for money.
“Remember when dad sold the house out from under you?” she happened to say. “I always thought our cat fell out the window. I thought the house sailed sideways. I thought it was curvaceous and blue.”
The mother paused. She laughed and leaned back in her chair, her hands like a hammock supporting her head.
“You got most of it right,” she responded. “Except the house rose in place like a helicopter hovering. It shook and shuddered until the ivy lost it grip. I’d just finished painting it the color of dandelions. I’m not surprised you pictured it otherwise; from then on, your father painted all our homes blue.”