What Moving On Means
Jean stands in the doorway. She watches her daughter pick up old packets of insulin, toothpicks, and a pair of yellow plastic corn skewers from the kitchen floor.
Save those skewers, Jean says. They may come in handy where I’m going.
Kate looks up at Jean and her face is flushed red with the August heat, as if she’s just been running. What? Where?
But she places them carefully into Jean’s hand, one small concession.
There are used needles mixed in with the silverware, Ben says, picking one up carefully and holding it up to the light. He stands in front of an open drawer, his beard dark and impressive in profile. Jean remembers the day he and Kate got married, when Ben still looked like a boy. That too was a day in August.
Sometimes I forget, says Jean.
Kate reaches over and opens the cabinet under the sink, releasing a swell of plastic bags. She pulls out five bottles of Drano and lines them up on the floor.
I’ll see what needs to be done in the living room, Jean says and picks up a packet of peanut butter crackers from the counter. She feels safer carrying snacks around since her blood sugar’s undependable. It has been since she was eleven, since the day she passed out in class and they rushed her to the hospital. Fifty years then, fifty years of her life.
Jean stands at the front window of her split-level and watches a neighbor girl ride her bike fiercely, wobbling with the effort. Jean’s eyes follow her until she’s out of sight, beyond the view from the wide picture window. She can’t see the fields but knows they are there, bordering the town on every side.
It’s the flattest place in the country, Richard told her the first time they drove through. Not Iowa, not Nebraska, but here.
This was where he could get a congregation and so they moved from Cincinnati. Jean remembers how her skirts fell just below the knee in those days, as was stylish. She made them all herself. I used to do many things myself, she thinks, running her finger down the windowpane.
Jean remembers the best time she and Richard had together, a church trip to Moscow, Russia in 1978. She had tea with women who were silently Christian, and there were such hopes for peace. These women are just like us, Jean thought. She remembers Richard awkwardly putting back a shot of vodka, laughing with the men. Somewhere in the house there are pictures from that trip, maybe in the linen closet or in the wooden chest at the bottom of her bed, she can’t remember where.
She looks down and there on the windowsill are three five-packs of Hanes for Her underwear, which she bought last week at a Marshall’s clearance for just $3.59 each. She picks out one pack to take with her, the multi-coloreds, and sets them on the windowsill with the crackers and corn skewers. Then she goes to find a bag for her things. Her old white purse will do fine, and there it is in the hall closet on the top of the pile.
It’s a great deal of work to keep up the house, and Jean can accept that it’s too much for her, that she can’t keep doing it. The rooms are filling with items bought on sale. She dips in and out of the world, that’s what it feels like to her, in and out of where they say she’s supposed to be.
Kate is in the bathroom, loading plastic bottles of shampoo into a cardboard box.
Someone will appreciate these, she says to Jean.
But she is angry. She got those bottles for ninety cents each, tearing coupons out of a whole stack of Walgreens flyers. She’ll live long enough yet to wash her hair thousands of times. Jean has been to Kate and Ben’s apartment in Cincinnati, and she knows how it is empty. The furniture is clean-lined and simple, blinds dustless, bottles of shampoo and cleaner expensive and small.
My life is big, Jean thinks, and feels light-headed. Her blood sugar is getting low. She looks down at her hands for the crackers, but it seems she put them down.
It isn’t moving that’s the problem. Jean stares at her open palms. It’s where you’re moving me to, it’s the nursing home idea.
Assisted living, Kate says. You won’t have to cook. You’ll still have your own room. Someone can help you with your shots.
If she could do anything, Jean would go on a one-year mission trip through United Methodist Women. She would meet women who spoke not a word of English, and they’d communicate through laughter and exaggerated gestures. They would give each other gifts of skirts and bracelets. Some of her purchases have been made with this end in mind.
When Kate’s back is turned, Jean grabs a bottle of Suave 2 in 1 from the counter and heads for the living room.
Last fall Jean found comforters on sale at Kohls, clear sturdy bags packed full of rose patterns and bursting gladiolas. She notices them now, stacked up by the front door. Just twelve dollars for a blanket that could keep her warm all winter and make her bedroom look like a display in a home show, spring in the midst of Ohio winter with the late morning sun shining in. She bought more pillows than her couch could hold, silvery ones for two dollars each at Walmart, part of the Martha Stewart collection and on sale because no one wanted these pillows come spring. Christmas tinsel pillows, they were called. But she loves how they look in the summer, shiny and cool against the mint green upholstery. She picks up one pillow and presses it into her cheek, breathes against it. So much that she can’t take with her.
When she’s not in the world, Jean forgets about stoves left on and insulin and time. She couldn’t tell you when the garbage truck comes or when winter comes or the day that Richard left, the date or the way his voice sounded as he lied his way out the door. He came back to get his things and he was honest then, honest with a moving truck that rumbled in the driveway and called the neighbors out into their yards. All he took, though, was his clothing and the antique dining room set that had belonged to his mother.
You’ll want your chair, Jean had said.
No, I won’t, Richard said and drove away.
That’s a dress for a movie star, Jean—the first compliment he gave her. She remembers walking the edge of Tremont Park while cicadas screamed. Jean was in her first year of teaching. She was working then; she was able to work for six years. Then she stayed home with Kate. Then she was home by herself, but never bored. There were always things to do and read, like the copies of The Upper Room she must remember to bring with her. She pictures Ben throwing them in the recycling bin and is suddenly angry with him. She could scream right now, which she never does, but she could.
It’ll be okay, Jean, she says. She presses her cheek into the pillow and feels its coolness, sees bright silver in the corner of her eye.
Jean watches Kate go through her box of saved mail.
Mom, this is junk mail, Kate says, looking down at the urgent letters from Teach Tolerance, Greenpeace, Give a Cow, Working Assets and the Nature Conservancy.
Jean picks up a letter from Amnesty International and takes out the plastic window decal.
They’re good causes, Jean says. I’m still reading.
Kate’s eyes look the same as they had at the doctor’s the day before.
Mild brain damage, the young doctor said to Kate though Jean was there. Sustained over many years. Then he looked at her. Mrs. James, you’ve been too careful.
I didn’t want my blood sugar getting too high, Jean said. High’s worse than low they’ve always told me. I was trying to save my kidneys.
Oh, Mom, Kate says now, reaching out for her. For a minute, they hold hands across the mail. Then Jean hears Ben pull up with the moving truck, the familiar rumble of loss.
The items fit neatly in the large white purse, and Jean stands by the window quietly arranging them – underwear, corn skewers, crackers, shampoo, decal. She is pleased to notice some tissues already at the bottom of the bag. Just her insulin and needles still to pack, then, and a bottle of water.
A sparrow hopping over the lawn catches Jean’s eye, a comforting darting brown against green. When it flies out of sight, she knows it is time to go. She is out the door with her purse gripped tightly, making her way down the front walk.
Jean doesn’t look back, doesn’t turn around even once. No one seems to be following. There are no footsteps, no calls of Mom, what are you doing, Mother, come back, Ben, get her! Jean makes a sharp left onto the sidewalk, past the truck in her own drive, past houses shut up against the heat. The only sounds are air conditioners humming and the creak of a rusty sprinkler, soft fall of water on grass. When her road ends Jean turns right onto Newton Street, a main thoroughfare. In the distance she can make out the highway, the place where the town ends.
Jean takes a bite of a peanut butter cracker that she finds in her hand and lets the rest of it crumble to the sidewalk. They want to put her in a home for old people, no one her age there, she will never remarry. She is only 61. She remembers where her mother lived and how even though the home was nice and clean with new furniture, it wasn’t independent, wasn’t living.
Jean doesn’t want to remarry. She wants to go see Russia after the Cold War and tour churches and ruins in Armenia, where Christianity took hold in ancient times. She passes a Lutheran church with a tall white steeple, a church she has been to only once many years ago for an inter-congregational potluck. She remembers its basement, damp with lime-green walls, and a table of food, including her own sliced vegetable tray.
Jean wants to travel around the world, carrying small packets of Kleenex to use as toilet paper and meeting with lonely missionaries’ wives. She will wear her favorite Guatemalan skirt and work in the fields with women whose sweat beads in hard-earned wrinkles; they will smile their brown eyes at her and Jean will squint green ones back, friendly, thick with their own lines. She imagines herself worshipping in ancient churches, bathing naked in rivers, sitting by fires with new friends.
A station wagon honks its horn in front of the library and Jean realizes she has stopped walking. She would like to get an iced tea at Norty’s Cafe but has forgotten to bring money. Just a couple of dimes in the bottom of the purse and not even a bottle of water. Nothing to do but keep going, she thinks and watches her bright white tennies, just $2.99 from the Walgreens clearance bin, as they start to move again.
Her husband left her. It was years ago now, many years. She has had a whole life since, of caring for the house and the people at her church. She has dusted and vacuumed every Saturday and paid almost all the bills. Nothing is as broken as her daughter seems to think.
Mom, where did he go? she demanded at sixteen. Tell me. You tell me.
Richard saying no to the blue chair and walking out of the door. The sound of the truck starting up, and the clumsy way he backed out of the drive, disappeared toward the woman he’d counseled at church. Jean stood by the window and stared out at the lawn, vivid green, a patch of color in her eyes.
Jean’s daughter cried for weeks after her father left, maybe for years. And now she is tall with a delicate frown. She wears soft gray shirts and her eyes flash, often with impatience but sometimes with humor. Jean pictures Kate in the house, perhaps just now realizing that her mother is gone and checking in all the rooms, pushing open the sliding glass door to the backyard and squinting into the heat, beginning to call out.
Jean pauses at an intersection to take a Kleenex from her bag and wipe the sweat from her forehead.
They treat me like a child, she says out loud. A college student on a skateboard glances at her and moves on through the green light.
Jean zips her purse back up and starts across the street. She thinks of last night, how they sat on the patio after dinner and she told her daughter the truth in the dark.
I won’t be able to walk to my church any longer. I will no longer have my life.
This isn’t easy for me, either, is what Kate said, and she covered her eyes with a pale hand. We just don’t know what else.
Ben got up from his chair and put his arm around his wife. He cleared his throat as if he wanted to speak.
No one listens, Jean said.
I am listening. This is what her daughter said, what her daughter thinks is true.
Jean has come to the end of the town, to the place where Newton Street turns into a thin country road and the highway crosses it on a concrete overpass. Jean knows how to get past the highway on foot, down just a little where she can slip between the concrete pilings and the weeds. They are thicker than they look and brambles catch at her slacks; one foot slips into a patch of mud; the traffic roaring overhead sounds as if it will fall through and crush her. But Jean makes it to the other side. She stands there in the tall grass breathing hard and dangling her purse by its strap, then dropping it. Her lungs are shallow, blood sugar so low she can hardly feel her hands, her tongue.
But your chair, she whispers.
Jean’s body feels light and empty as she faces the open plain. A truck blares past on the highway behind her and then there’s no sound at all, just squares of plowed earth going on forever, farmhouses and fields covering the country’s flattest stretch of land.
Julie Gard‘s book publications include Home Studies (New Rivers Press, 2015), which was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, Scrap: On Louise Nevelson (Ravenna Press, 2018), and two chapbooks. Her essays, poems, and stories have appeared in Gertrude, Fourth River, Clackamas Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Ekphrasis, and Blackbox Manifold, among other journals and anthologies. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota and teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.