The first day was spent wondering how the old woman got into my home.
Heavens knows this neighborhood has changed in the last few years. When Todd and I moved here before the baby was born the street was quiet and the apartments were filled with people like us: Young professionals, nice people who entertained at home or attended the symphony; we washed our
cars on Saturday and worked to keep our street clean and the buildings well maintained. Oh, there were some college students at the far end of the street. They drove old, dirty cars that broke down in the middle of the street and were pushed to the curb, where sometimes they stayed for weeks, and played their music too loud, but they were decent kids and helped with the spring clean-up each year.
But then a hotel was constructed where the trolleys were once stored four blocks away, and shops filled the old parking garage. A block of old apartments was torn down to make space for the expansion at the college; a detour funneled buses and trucks and uncountable cars down our street to stall in line and fill the air with fumes, their horns and rude drivers’ voices punching like fists through the closed windows, letting in not air, but vulgar, dirty life. Our neighbor’s car was stolen and someone said the college students were selling drugs. Todd bought a gun. I tried not to let it bother me when the street would fall silent at night and a shout would slash through the air, the shouter unseen; the scratching at the windows was the wind, the thump and crash in the cellar, a cat.
I liked it before, when it was quiet. The house would grow solid and safe around me. I liked it before.
I don’t know how she got in. I check the doors very carefully before I leave the house, twisting each knob and pulling a second time to see if the dead bolt is in place. Often I checked them as I walked from room to room. I only used the side door that opened on the kitchen. There was a small pantry with two hooks for jackets in the wall on the right, a mat on the floor for boots.
But somehow she got in. I found her sitting at my kitchen table when I returned. She wore an old black dress that was torn at the hem and looked
as if it had been dragging on the ground for months, it was so tattered and dirty.
I was of course startled when I first saw her. In the darkness of the unlit room I thought she might have been Sally, my neighbor, who has a key and often let herself in and had coffee waiting for me when I came back. But it wasn’t Sally. I don’t know how she got in.
Her face was pinched, drawn to the tight line of her nose, her eyes vague as if sightless, her skin the musty color of old, dead leaves.
I don’t know why I didn’t throw her out right way. She was so tiny and thin I could have easily grabbed her by the arm and tugged her to the porch and slammed the door as she stood there bewildered and maybe hurt. But I thought she might be one of those people displaced by the construction, and I thought I must be kind. I asked some questions. I don’t know if she answered me or not. Sometimes she seemed to be mumbling and I would only catch a word or two, a phrase. Nothing she said meant anything to me.
“What is your name?” I asked. “Where do you live?”
I showed her the phone book. “Is there someone I could call?”
She talked on. “Can I call you a cab? I’ll pay the fare.”
I called the police to report that this dark, strange woman had entered my house but when the officer on the other end asked if it was an emergency, I hesitated a moment and said, “Not really,” and he said , “Please hang on.”
And so I tried. To hang on.
I don’t know how long I tried, but at some point the line was buzzing and the officer was gone.
We spent the first night staring at one another from opposite sides of the kitchen table. I must have slept in the chair.
On the second day she began to speak in earnest. Not speak really, but mumble half-out-loud as if no one else as in the room. But sometimes she pointed a long bony finger at something and spoke loudly, her face angry and eyes alive, vague no longer. Sometimes her voice was sharp, but the words made no sense.
And it came to me during the afternoon of the second day that she night have done this before: Broken into someone’s home and refused to leave. Just took up residence in a chair and talked crazy until they what? Called the police? Threw her out? I wondered if I have seen her before, maybe stumbled into her on the street corner, bumped into her in the supermarket and maybe spilled the contents of her basket on the floor and helped her picked them up. Somehow made contact in a fashion that meant more to her than it did to me.
Maybe I had seen her standing near a pillar in the subway in a long black coat with a tattered hem that scraped the ground, head pulled into a filthy cap that shaded a face so undefined by circumstance and age to be incriminating. Maybe I had put some coins in her cup.
I called my friend, Sally. The phone rang for a long time and no one picked up. I tried to hang on.
I tried to feed her. If I feed her, I thought. She will leave. The food sits
untouched even now. The milk is probably sour.
Then she stood up. She was still talking, or at least moving her mouth, but she stood up and moved around the table. I was either so fascinated or frightened, I could not move. She began opening drawers and handling what she found there. She pulled out the everyday silverware and began tossing it on the floor.
She licked some of the spoons as if tasting the metal to determine their worth.
“What are you doing?” I cried. “Stop that!”
But she would not stop.
I quickly crossed the room to where she had opened the china cabinet and was dropping dishes on the floor. I grabbed her wrist and pulled her away from the cabinet, but she slipped from my grasp and returned to her mad task. Her skin felt like paper or dry old leaves.
My mother was asleep in her hospital bed when I reached her. She had been at her home for days before anyone came to her, came to find her on the hallway floor where she had slipped. We all lived too far away. The local police called us. We arrived one by one.
I sat by her side for an entire day. He hands were fleshless, sticks with blue veins, her skin like dry paper. She died in her sleep and never knew we came.
I see her face when I sleep. It is hard and stern, unforgiving as a mask.
I reached for the old woman again, and she pushed me away. I stumbled on the chair left in the middle on the room and fell to the floor and could only watch as she poked through the cabinets of food, opened boxes and jars and dumped the contents on the floor: flour, cereal, coffee, ketchup, pickles; the cups that broke, and fork and knives, pasta and fruit juice; anything.
Then she dabbed her dirty bare feet in the sloppy mess like a child just brought in from the wilderness, and patted the sticky goo in her hands until the walls were smeared with incoherent hand prints and the rugs were stained with foot tracks that might have been the color of blood. And it came to me while I, dizzy from the spill and chaos, sat watching all this that she was blaming me for
whatever sorrow had visited her life — personal, social, cosmic, woes of the world — and all my possessions were symbols of that trouble, the things of my
civilization that made me feel whole, were so much trash in her eyes. Sitting there
I had no answer. I could not move to defend myself, as if pinned to the floor by the weight of her silent accusation. I didn’t know what to do, and wept bitterly.
On the third evening I escaped to Harvard Square. I tried not to think of her and our forced communion. I ran to the square. I reveled in the fume-filled air and the clattering traffic and the whistles and the shouted voices. I walked in the crowds pushing past the store windows, or through the plywood walkway along the construction site. I ran to the stores and to the news stand and listened to the transactions. Everyone was buying something and I bathed in the sounds.
I don’t know how she got in. She just started talking. I thought she
was trying to tell me something and tried very hard to understand. But sometimes she mumbled and sometimes she yelled and I didn’t know what she was saying; at times she would stare at me with those terrible eyes that seemed to point off
into the far corners of the room, eyes from behind a gray tangle of hair like a bad Halloween wig, and her voice would change and become soft and I would shudder at the truth she spoke.
Or what felt like truth. I cannot say — even now, after what happened — that anything she said was true or even accusatory or even real. But if truth is a sensation like fear, so be it.
I ran to the subway and stood near the turnstile for a long time trying to find the words to tell the officer about the old woman who had invaded my home two days ago and how I had become her prisoner. He looked over at me, perhaps anticipating that I was going to ask a question, but then he looked away. I couldn’t catch my breath. I grabbed my chest and then my head and the blood pounded in my ears. I must have looked crazed, yet no one stopped to speak with me or help. I would have.
Then suddenly I was calm. I knew what he would say. He would tell me to throw her out and call the police. And I would say that I had called the police, but told them nothing. I could not face explaining that to him. So I returned to my kitchen. If I had crossed the Charles River at that point I would have wandered through the city all night. They would have found me on the Turnpike incoherent alongside the road, maybe too frightened to move. The police would have shined bright lights in my eyes and the television crews and the reporters would have asked shouted questions as I was hauled away in the back of a van. There were borders I could not cross.
She had shit on the floor. The stink of it was hanging in the pantry like a hat I had forgotten. “Don’t you know what a bathroom is?” I shouted. “Not on my floor!” But it didn’t matter what I said. She just took off that old black
dress (like sin; a woolen dress a prisoner might have worn a hundred years ago), just took it off and tossed it to the floor. Then she sat, naked this time. Her dry old body was bruised and ravaged with age and maybe disease. It sickened me to look at it and I turned my head, tasting the vomit in my throat.
But her voice became louder and I forget about the discomfort as I tried to pick out words and phrases I could understand. I needed to understand. I needed some way to break through the barrier that her words had created; to connect.
An hour went by. Two. But still she sat naked and terrible wrinkled as if she had withered away inside her skin that now hung together only because it must.
I don’t know how she got in. I thought I was incredible calm when I first saw her.
On the morning of the fourth day, I slept. I had cornered her in the living room where she sat naked and talking, crazy as a loon, pointing to the ceiling as if she was alone. And I doubt now whether she was ever speaking to me, really, or if she ever knew I was there. I can see that now. But at the time I tried hard to understand what she said, to learn why she attacked me with the words, the incomprehensible spewing, as if below that ceaseless tirade there was a germ of sense, a flash of being whose humanity could be found like washing away the layers of dirt to find a child’s smiling face.
I want to believe I tried to find that. I must believe it, otherwise she was right.
I had the most wonderful dream, until the end. My daughter, my beautiful Sarah, was running in the surf, laughing and spraying water. Her voice was a singing call above the sound of the crashing waves. I was sitting in a high place, like a tower, and was just watching her run and loving her the more for being young and carefree, and enjoying the sensation of the water against her slim, young legs, the spray in her hair, the sound of her voice. I watched from a high place and she called to me: “Mommy! Mommy! Watch this!” And she dived into a spilling wave. She dived into the spilling wave.
It was then I woke up. She dived and never came back up. I stared into the swells and she never came back up. And I awoke. The recall dripped from the ceiling, the pain, the memory. I had looked it away, blocking it out living in this closed up home like a hermit, seeing no one, existing in an air-tight jar like a specimen.
She dived and did not come back. And I awoke. The truth , the horrible
truth settled in. They were both gone, my husband and my daughter . The truck had come over the hill too fast, the car slipped sideways as the brakes locked and the wheels failed to grip in the snow.
The police said Todd had no time to react, other than to hit the brakes, and
even if he had, there was no place to go. They said he tried to turn the car from the path of the truck now swerving in the road, trying to avoid the car. But neither driver had the time or the room. Their turns were like pieces of a mobile
strung inevitably together, pulled close by force. All three died in the crash.
My friends said I was brave. But they did not understand that the pain was just beneath the surface coiled like a snake: It rose one night with a vengeance. I curled in bed and cried for three days, growing weaker and more despondent until Sally brought a doctor who gave me sedatives so I could sleep.
Sitting in my ravaged kitchen, I closed my eyes when the flashback came.
I had bolted from the house in the middle of the night and sprinted through the dark Cambridge streets past startled walkers and confused cabbies, screaming and crazed. When I got to the river I almost jumped in, but instead ran madly
for the Turnpike across the bridge. If it hadn’t been for the man in the tollbooth, I would have run onto the highway. They sent me to a hospital, and after a week, sent me home.
Rebuilding. The thought was painful, as if filled with nails as it rumbled through my brain. When they finally let me out, I was calm and stayed that way. I tucked myself inside this house and let the pain settle, my face a stone mask, a barrier to all questions, sealing it in. I will never tell anyone of it again.
On the evening of the fourth day, I began to cry.
Great whooping cries, long voiceless sobs, my face in the mirror torn open at the mouth like the victim of an explosion, the screams ripped from the dead throat. I must have cried for hours. I covered the floor with tissues — scattered them like
demented flowers — until I had no more. Then I used the hem of my dress. When it became stained and wet and blotched from my tears and where I had wiped my nose, I took it off. I threw it aside like the old woman’s hateful black dress
For a moment I was embarrassed: I was as naked as she.
Then I remembered.
The morning of the first day, I had showered, and not finding any deodorant, slipped into the dress still wet, grabbed some sandals and ran to the corner store. An old woman was on the sidewalk as I banged the door shut and ran past her; the door was unlocked when I returned and she was in the kitchen.
For a long silent minute we stared as the truth of her entry into my home became clear: The door was unlocked, and for all I know open an
inviting foot or two — I didn’t look back as I ran to the store. I am the cause of my own grief. And now we sat naked, eye-to-eye, breast-to-breast, facing
an end that could only be disastrous. She had seemingly shrunk even more, her arms and legs mere bones wrapped loosely in dry, flaccid skin, breasts like withered paper, nipples like spots. And I shuddered: I was as she is. Inside, my smooth legs are bent at twisted angles, my full breasts and soft thighs, dry and barren. I need them no longer. When Todd and my Sarah died the life within me hardened day by day, as if crystal by crystal, cell by cell, my blood, my veins, my heart, became stone. We both will be dust.
When she began to cry, I screamed, “No!” “Shut up, you old woman,” I shouted. “I’m tired of you and your endless whining. I don’t want you here. Why don’t you leave? I don’t care who you are. I can’t solve your problems. I have enough of my own. Why did you come here?”
I started to cry again.
My pain, her pain.
The sad and awful lives we lead crashing in on one another as we can only watch, helpless to stop the fall. I wanted to be whole again, to rub off this sorrow like old skin and to let the new pink skin below shine through like love.
I stared at her again, my eyes hot and burning. I wanted her to leave, to act so that I did not have to break the shell I retreated into; to act so I did
not have to face the truth. I wanted her to speak rationally, with a soft voice remembered from the past. I wanted to hear wisdom and to know that her madness could be unraveled and my pain could be pulled from my aching bones.
And when did speak, she spoke only to me. Not to her demons, not to lovers and daughters and sons long gone, strangers in the park, friends called casually: Directly to me.
“I am here,” she said. Her tears had stopped, her voice became clear and soft. It was all she said.
And I fell to the floor, my arms wrapped around me, my legs pulled tight. I pulled back inside myself to filter out the darkness, my mind filled with a rising shriek. Her answer was no answer, as if there was none to be had.
On the evening of the fifth day, when I could no longer abide her presence or the spooky implication of her simple, monastic plea, I shot her.