When she came to visit, she brought the fleas and lice with her. It’s not like she is some kind of medieval mammal infested with the Black Plague, but she might as well be. It would be a more honorable death that way.
I should have known when the doorbell rang unexpectedly, late one April evening, in our new home, in a master planned community, that it would be her. A slow- moving storm had just covered the sidewalks and cars with a light bubbling of water which ran off the freshly waxed cars into the gutters, that did not lead into the sea.
The rain had hit hard on the neighbor’s new tin roof before the rain catchers slowly released it to the native planted garden below. Curtains were pulled back to watch the lightening illuminate the foliage which had been carefully planted along the sidewalks, and the generically placed old fashioned lamp posts which gave the false sense of community.
“Can I come in?” I glanced behind her, looking for a man, dog, bags, lit cigarette, crutches or boxes.
All things she had brought with her before. She had nothing. It was just her, soaking wet, stringy hair in her face, dirty fingernails, and a worn look on her face.
“Hold on.” I closed and locked the door behind me. I rested my back against it and thought of all the other times she had shown up at my door. No matter where we moved, she always seemed to find us, like a candle in the darkness.
The last time she found us, we were living in a historic home in downtown near the river. She just washed up one day, as though the lapping of the river deposited her, like silt, on our doorstep.
She was going to change her life. She was going to be a grandmother to my son, a mother in law and for once in her life a good mother to her only daughter. She cleaned the house while we were at work and had dinner, on platters, waiting for us. She served us, washed the dishes and gave my son his bath all while my husband and I watched TV or drank a few beers.
At night, I began to hear noises; creaking stairs, windows opening, bathwater running and scurrying across the floor. I figured it was about time for her to leave. She never stayed too long anyway but when I would creep silently to her room, she was always in bed. The afternoon when I realized she was gone, her blankets had been crumpled into a ball in the corner of the room by the window and her pillow had been stuffed into the window sill. That night, the noises continued and we moved.
Opening the door would bring submission, an unspoken admission which would shout, “I believe you again. “ Keeping it closed would just leave her sitting on my porch for all the neighbors to see.
“Go get a shower or something.” I held the door open for her. “The bathroom is over there.” I pointed to the hall.
I stopped at the linen closet which was full of Superman towels for my son and Egyptian cotton for us. I dug way into the back to find a yellow, Wal-Mart towel with a minor bleach stain and frayed edges. I last used it to clean up syrup from the kitchen floor. I rummaged in my room to find clothes I didn’t care for. I left her a pile of ugly, “fat” clothes, and a free comb my son got from picture day. I didn’t want her to get too comfortable.
When she came out of the bathroom, my clothes were wrapped around her, barely staying on, only her boney shoulders held them up. I pretended not to notice. She most likely wouldn’t stay long anyway. I showed her to her room, for the week or month, however long she decided to stick around.
I cleared some papers that had been brought home from my husband’s work. I was about to place them on the desk but changed my mind when I remembered they had social security numbers on them. I took a mental inventory of the room. The computer password must be changed, the expensive dress would be moved, the collectible snow globe would go into my closet and my picture would be hidden under my mattress.
When we lived with one of her boyfriends, Tim, in a little concrete block house with an orange tree in the backyard, she showed me a spell with a picture of Tim’s ex-girlfriend, a dirty sock, some herbs, and a few things I didn’t recognize. I dug a small hole under the tree while she chanted.
To justify her actions, she explained to me that his girlfriend had threatened to throw her into jail and what would I do if she were in jail? My mom did what any loving, concerned mother would do, cast a spell. Her spell was going to confuse his ex when she testified in court. It would only cause her mild pain, but if we needed to, we would roll out the big spells. My mom never went to jail or court for that matter.
“Why don’t you get some sleep? You look like hell.” I closed the door behind me, scratching my head, hoping she would stay hidden.
“When were you going to tell me your mom was here?” My husband glared at me from behind the bathroom door.
“Before or after I was half naked trying to log onto the computer?” He shut the door softly behind him.
“She got in late last night. I didn’t know what to do. It was raining and I don’t know. I guess I couldn’t turn her away.”
“I swear she times this shit.” He turned on the water in the sink.
“You know she won’t be here long.” I slowly pushed open the door.
I saw him by the sink, in a towel, watching himself brush his teeth in the mirror. His hair was still wet and the bathroom was humid from his early morning shower.
“I know.” He rinsed his mouth out. After he dried his face, he gave me a hug, and held me.
“I couldn’t get on the damn computer.”
“I changed the password.”
“That’s what your mom said.”
Her bedroom door opened around 9:30 after my husband had left for work. The coffee had been made and my son was at school. I was reading the newspaper by the window, where the light trickled in from the blinds. I had my coffee and spoon resting on a green placemat which my grandma had given us when we moved into this house. There were a few dirty dishes in the sink from the night before and a full garbage can. I stood up to start the dishwasher when she walked in.
“I got it.” She took the dish washing liquid and pointed at the table for me to sit down and keep reading.
The obituaries were always the first thing I read but I immediately stopped when the reason I usually read them was about to run my dishwasher for me. There were all sorts of headlines I imagined which would accompany her photo:
Woman, robs store, shot by police
Local robber nabbed by police, killed in shoot out
Prostitute runs from police, found dead
Drug dealer arrested, turns in girlfriend who shoots self
Local woman arrested in Colorado drug ring found hanging in cell
Body found, believed to be missing inmate
Somehow she escaped all these headlines and got instead: Dumb ass daughter takes in dead beat mom, AGAIN.
I scratched my leg and tried to look at her over the top of the paper without her noticing. Maybe it was her mom senses or her witch intuition but she looked right at me from over her shoulder.
“Make sure you don’t put the heated dry on.” I covered.
“You act like I’ve never had a dishwasher or mouths to feed.” She washed her hands in the sink and dried them on the dish towel hanging from the oven. I cringed. My grandma always told me not to wash or dry your dirty hands in the kitchen.
“Are you just like her, too?” She leaned her elbows on the counter and looked over the top at me.
“What?” I didn’t want to face her. I didn’t want to have to look into her eyes.
“Your grandma. She didn’t like washing hands in the sink. You made a face.”
“No.” I wouldn’t make eye contact. “Just a story I read in the paper.”
“Oh. What was it about?” She was calling my bluff.
“Some guy stole another guy’s dog and shot it and left it on their porch.”
“Man, some people are just fucking crazy. Just fucking crazy.”
Dinner was a dry roast beef she made. My son asked for cereal instead. When I poured sugar on his Rice Krispies she asked if anyone wanted seconds. My husband offered to take a little more and I’m sure it was to soften the blow of the cereal. Out of the corner of her eye she shot a glance at me and at my son and then served my husband a heaping pile of seconds.
Lying in bed later that night, my husband whispered that his stomach hurt.
“You’ll be fine.” I rolled my eyes in the dark.
“She probably tried to poison us. “
“Oh, shut up!” I jokingly punched his shoulder.
“Shhh! She might cast a spell on us if she hears us making fun of her.”
“Jason…” I scratched my arm. “She wouldn’t.”
“How do you know?” He laid flat on his back and I imagined he was staring at the ceiling.
“I don’t. I guess I really don’t know anything about her.” I rolled over on my side, unable to sleep.
I wasn’t ready for the onslaught of glances and the expected introductions which would come with picking my son up from school with her. Introducing her was a waste of time. After everyone got to know her, they loved her, wanted to have her over for dinner, she was so charming. Where had I been hiding her? Then when she disappeared I was left with the aftermath and the long explanations.
“I guess I need to meet your friends since I’m back now.” She looked into the windows of houses as we passed by while scratching her arms.
“I don’t talk to a lot of people.”
“I find that hard to believe.” She pointed to a house on the corner that had a white picket fence with yellow roses growing against it.
“Your grandma would love that.”
She was just getting geared up. She was preparing her interview personality. Ms. Charming, life of the party.
When my husband and I lived near the farmer’s market, closer to town, she showed up on the doorstep, like a delivery. There were two knocks and then she rang the doorbell, impatiently. When I answered she had a box in her hand and asked me to sign a paper which she walked out to an unmarked police car.
We were having a party the next day and inviting neighborhood and work friends. It was supposed to be an intimate gathering, a way to show off my cooking and hostess skills. We were newly married and I had read in a magazine how to have a casual dinner party with acquaintances.
“Don’t worry. I used to work for a caterer.”
The sun wasn’t even up yet and I went to the kitchen to make bread and a dessert. A light was on and she was already sitting at the table.
“I was up with the roosters.” She smiled and pointed to the oven, where the bread was already baking.
Once the guests starting arriving, I felt like a teenager whose mom wouldn’t let me walk around the mall with her friends alone.
“Daisy was such a mess this morning. Poor thing was up so early, but I got it pulled together for her.” She smiled, pulling out seats for them.
When she realized I was standing there, she bowed her head, “Oops. I guess it’s time for the hired help to leave.”
“Oh no, don’t leave. Join us!”
She entertained them all night. Telling funny stories which I’m sure she made up and listening to theirs as if she had never heard such things. Occasionally she would tell a joke which was close to crossing the line but it was just a riot when she did it. As they filtered out, they asked to see her again. They must have lunch with her one day and hear more about her. They told her where they lived and when they worked so she could come by whenever.
Later that night, after the dishes were clean, a couple of homes were burglarized. The intruder was able to lift a window, find the spare key or go through the back door, undetected.
My mom was gone the next day, leaving her fingerprints behind. The dinner guests, none the wiser, were heartbroken. We moved before they had time to figure it out.
“She loves roses.”
“You didn’t tell her I was here, did you?” She stopped walking.
“Hell no.” I coughed. I didn’t mean to word it so strongly.
“Can I meet Taylor’s teacher?” She had started walking again.
“No.” I looked ahead and saw all the parents waiting, waiting for me to make a fool out of myself again.
One of the worst things about having her around was her pity stares. Announcing you were going somewhere without her was like kicking an orphan child’s puppy. No matter what reasons you gave, her shoulders would slump; her eyes would dart to the floor, she would tuck her hair behind her ears, and sigh.
Jason, Taylor and I were going to the beach, alone, even if I had to kick her out, or come back to an empty house. I looked over my shoulder as we left and then threw up a hand and smiled.
“That was sweet.” Jason adjusted the air conditioning because Taylor was already hot and wiggling in his seat.
“I was mentally preparing myself for what would be missing by time we got back.”
“Why’d you wave then?”
“So maybe she wouldn’t steal anything.” I laughed.
“This is the longest she’s been here. Do you think she really is going to change?” Jason looked out the windshield, deep in thought.
“You never know with her. She might be gone by time we get back.” I leaned back against the head rest.
“Wishful thinking, Daisy, wishful thinking.”
The house we rented near the city park, by the ocean, was one of my favorites. It had a nice lawn with actual green grass which wasn’t burnt brown by the sun and red hibiscus bushes which rubbed lightly against the front windows when the ocean breeze floated down on our seaside street.
Saturday mornings, my husband plopped my son into the stroller and together we walked to the park, stopping for bagels on the way. The morning mist coated our arms and the sun warmed our eyes to another day. It was usually fairly empty in the morning hours except for a few surfers or beachcombers. The sand was still on the ground and there wasn’t a crying child to hear.
One morning, we were running a little behind and didn’t grab our bagel. Instead we ate granola bars and brought water. Our pace was faster than usual and the sun wasn’t out. The traffic was heavy when we tried to cross over to the beach and I had forgotten Taylor’s towel. We were off.
As Taylor slid down the bumpy slide, I heard my name and it all made sense. She was standing behind me, smile on her face and blocking the little bit of sun which was barely making its way out from behind the clouds. I felt instantly sick to my stomach. I wasn’t ready to do this all over again.
“Hey sweetie.” She held open her arms for a hug and I stared at the marks up and down her arms.
“Wha tha?” Taylor asked and pointed at my mom.
“I’m grandma.” I could see the excitement in her face as she translated him.
Jason left with Taylor and I was alone with her. I listened to her pathetic stories of plight, disorientation, set ups and bad decisions. Most of it wasn’t her fault though and she was ready to change. She was here now. She could babysit Taylor for me so I could enjoy time with my husband and she could help keep the house clean. She would be here.
After a day, she invited her boyfriend to join her at my home. He was sneaking out in the mornings and coming back while we were at work. I had noticed a few things missing here and there, nothing major. The house was always clean and she was always home.
Early one morning, Taylor had been sick, and I went to her room, which was really the Florida room, to ask her to watch him while I cleaned up his mess. I found her and the love of her life she later claimed, snorting coke. They were kicked out immediately.
A few weeks later, my house was robbed, everything of value was taken, a TV, computer, Taylor’s change jar, a few necklaces and even the washer and dryer. We were forced to move, again.
Every time I returned home, even if it was just to pick up Taylor, I expected to find the house empty, but each time, she was still there, usually at the kitchen table, reading, scratching her head. I don’t know if I had wanted her to leave or just to live up to her reputation. I didn’t want to forge a relationship with her. I really didn’t want her around but it was nice to have someone to talk to, even if she did lie.
“It’s supposed to rain tomorrow. Make sure you pack Taylor an umbrella.” She didn’t look up from the newspaper.
“I will.” I emptied out Taylor’s lunchbox and turned around to face her.
“When are you leaving?”
“I’m not.” She still didn’t look up.
“Come on. I’ve had enough of this charade. We both know you will, so why don’t you save us the trouble and tell us so we can plan our move.” I slammed my hands on the counter.
She wasn’t fazed.
“I said I’m not.”
And just like a teenager, with out of control hormones, pimples to pop, short shorts to wear and friends to impress, I yelled.
“I’m tired of this shit. I’m tired of the game. I’m tired of your ass showing up and wrecking what I have!”
She glanced over the paper at me, “I’m sorry, “and returned to reading.
I turned my back on her and in my mind it felt symbolic, like she would understand the gesture and leave.
“You want me to leave?”
Two weeks later, she was still there, flipping pancakes for Taylor’s breakfast.
“Here ya go, buddy,” She placed a pancake with chocolate chips in front of him and then handed him a glass of milk. He rubbed his legs with his shoes and smiled up at her.
“Thanks.” He hesitated not sure what to call her.
“Good morning, Daisy.” She continued cooking.
“Good Morning.” I opened the fridge to make a bowl of cereal for myself.
“I made enough for everyone.” She turned half-way around with the spatula in her hand.
After dropping Taylor off, I walked around the neighborhood, trying not to peek into windows, while I thought about what my life would be like now that she was here. Ants were scurrying into the tiny crevices which separated the sections of sidewalk and lizards were dashing into the manicured bushes which kept the elements off of the porches decorated with white rocking chairs and handmade welcome signs.
Few people were out, jogging in high end exercise clothing with their iPods strapped to their arms. A younger woman, maybe twenty, had heavy steps. Each step landed a little bit harder than the one before. Her face was strained under her trendy sunglasses and wisps of hair slipped out from behind the colorful elastic which held her ponytail.
I imagined her life. Her husband was often away on business, leaving her to care for their mini-mansion on the outskirts of the community, near the wild woods. Very Puritan-like she desired the woods but felt compelled to remain in her ornate home, her safe ornate home. Her steps reminded her of the pain he caused when his wondering eyes found another’s, when his phone calls were less frequent, and when he left more often. I imagined she would make her footsteps so heavy it would be impossible for her to run away into the woods.
My walk had led me back to my own home. It wasn’t a mini-mansion but it was cute with its yellow shutters and wrought-iron bench on the porch. I could envision my mom sitting on the bench, coffee in hand, newspaper to the side, age in her eyes, waiting for me every day to come home from my walk. She would ask me how it was and what I saw. She would fain interest in order to keep the wool over my eyes of her real plans. It was time for her to go.
The house felt cool after the heat of the sun, the dishwasher was running and the dryer beeped that it was done. I took a deep breath and walked towards the kitchen when I realized she was no longer at the table reading the paper. There was a newspaper clipping, with a note written on it, left on the bed and the pillow was left neatly on top of the freshly laundered blanket.
“Is this the article you were talking about?” She scribbled over the heading.
Man Shoots Dog Because of Rabies Outbreak
The article wasn’t even remotely related to what I had lied to her about. Thus, her point was made. On the back there was a note from her. I turned it over, scratching my leg with my other leg. It was written in between the horoscopes and hints for Bridge.
I won’t be back. Live your life.
I re-read it a hundred times, trying to find more meaning in her words while my legs kept itching. It bothered me enough to finally look down and find them covered in fleas. My legs, ankles, and even clothes had fleas on them. I looked around the bed, more fleas, the pillow, lice. The house was infested with her. I ran to the bathroom and knocked them into the toilet and checked my head in the mirror. They were everywhere.
I inspected the rest of the house and she had left a bit of herself in every room. I would have to tell my husband and scrub my child, bomb the house, wash everything in hot water, scrub the floors, throw her bedding away and never rest until every last bit of her was gone, again.
Justin got home late, after I had treated the home and Taylor’s head. Taylor fell asleep on the couch watching cartoons while I swept up all the dead fleas and lice from the bathroom floor.
“Justin, we have lice and fleas. She had them.”
He scratched his head, “What? Are you kidding?”
“But she’s gone.” I glanced over his shoulder half expecting her to walk through the door.
“I guess we have to move again.” He wrapped his arms loosely around me.
“She won’t be back this time.” I sighed and thought about a new headline for her.
Black Plaque is Back, Homeless Woman Found Dead