By L B Gschwandtner
At South Lake Living all the patients were sedated and in bed by eight-thirty, seven days a week. Except for the night aide who sat at the front desk watching a tiny TV, no one stirred until six when the morning staff came on duty and got everyone up to pee.
But not tonight. Tonight Maybelle palmed her pills.
Got them goddam pills right here. I’ll stuff them down her throat, she comes after me.
She slipped out of bed, stepped into her walking shoes and pulled up her knee highs. In the half darkness, as she reached out to the vinyl armchair they had placed next to her bed and plucked her cotton housedress off the arm, old lady DeFino opened her eyes.
“May?” She squinted from the bed across the room. Old lady De Fino couldn’t see past her own hand without her glasses. “Where you going?”
“Shhh.” Maybelle pulled the dress down and snapped the front closed. The dress had two big pockets in front. They bulged a little. She shuffled over to the door. “I’m goin’ out.”
“Whaddya mean you’re goin’ out? If you gotta go you’re supposed to call the night girl.”
“Shut up DeFino. Go back to sleep.”
“Yeah. You’re right. I need my beauty rest.” She rolled over and started snoring almost immediately.
Yeah, you just sleep the rest of your life away, princess.
Maybelle’s plan was simple.
All I gotta do is sneak halfway down the hall, duck into the empty room by the fire stairs where that crazy Marinelli kid pulled the overhead light cord down and caved in the ceiling trying to hang herself last week. Nineteen years old and already nothing to live for. Not me.
She would make some racket by tossing a wastebasket against the steel fireproof door by the bathrooms at the end of the hall. Then out the front door while the night girl was investigating the noise. From there she could hitch a bus to town, get off at the stop two blocks from her house and walk the rest of the way. Simple. If she could just toss the wastebasket far enough.
She shuffled out the door and hugged the wall to keep steady.
Her plan went without a hitch. The night girl was slow witted. She even walked out the fireproof door to see if anyone was there. This gave Maybelle some extra time to lift a walker at the front door. She chose the new kind with wheels in front.
The night air was mild. That was the best part of living in Florida. The nights. Days were too hot for Maybelle. But Harold had insisted they sell everything and come down here. Whatever Harold wanted he always got. Forty-two years of Harold getting what he wanted. Now Lake Shore. He had put her there.
Maybelle reached into her pocket and pulled out bus fare. She sat on the bench and soon a bus pulled up.
“Need some help with your walker, Gramma?”
“Yes. That would be very nice of you, young man.” Maybelle smiled up at the bus driver.
I could club you with it you son of a snake.
Two blocks from her house she got off. The driver followed her down the steps holding the walker and set it up for her on the sidewalk.
“Thank you, young man.”
“You be good now, granny. Get yourself right home because these are mean streets after dark.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I lived here forty years and I seen plenty.” Maybelle took hold of the rubber coated walker handles and started rolling the two blocks toward her house. It was a lie. They had only come here five years ago.
Goddam lousy buses. Give me a pain up my butt.
It took a long time for her to push her way to the house. The lights were on in the living room. She could see the flicker of the TV against a wall in the den. There was a car in the driveway.
Is that my old Chevy? She rolled over closer to it. Yeah. He’s still driving my car. Used to take that car to the beach. Probably still has sand in the back seat. Took me to South Lake in that car. Wouldn’t let me drive.
Maybelle rubbed her arm remembering other hospital visits. The suspicious looks the doctors and nurses gave her. The questions, always the questions. And yet she never told. Not anyone. She still didn’t know why. Yes, sure, she was ashamed. But it was something else. She was waiting.
Now it was time.
She knew where he kept the gun.
“We have to have one for protection,” Harold had said.
“I don’t want one in the house.”
“Well look who’s making decisions. Look who’s telling me what she wants and what she don’t want.” Then he had slapped her hard. She had tried to shield her face but he pulled her head back by the hair and sneered at her.
“Please don’t. Please, Hal.”
“Shut up. If I want a gun I’ll get a gun. And if I want to keep it loaded, I’ll keep it loaded. And if I say we need it, then we need it. You got that?”
“What? I can’t hear you.”
“That’s better. Now go clean yourself up. You look a mess. You hear me?”
The gun was in the drawer next to the kitchen silver under where the toaster sat on the counter. All she had to do was unlock the back door, go down a short hall, open the drawer and get the gun. Then a few short steps and she would be outside the den where he always watched the TV. He liked it loud.
The light by the back door was out. Maybelle felt inside her pocket for the key. When she pulled it out she tried to fit it into the lock but she couldn’t see where it was so she felt around with her index finger until she located the slot under the doorknob. Then she began scratching around to get it to fit.
Christ a-mighty what the hell’s wrong with this thing?
She pushed and turned it upside down and jiggled the key until she finally felt it slide in and turned it until the tumblers gave. In a few seconds she was inside the door. She pushed the walker ahead of her in the narrow hall, leaving the door open behind her.
The kitchen light was on and the room was just as she remembered it. Except the toaster was gone.
“Just like him.” She muttered it under her breath.
“The minute I’m gone he does exactly what he wants. Couldn’t wait to get me outta the way. I loved that toaster. That toaster was the pride of my kitchen. He couldn’t even leave me that.”
She went over to the drawer and pulled it open.
Feeling past the rubber bands and flat unused baggies and paper napkins from the deli, she felt around at the back of the drawer but there was nothing much there. And no gun.
She began pulling open all the drawers one by one, pushing the walker down one wall and then along the other, leaving the drawers open as she went. She found cooking utensils, a rolling pin, a drawer full of kitchen knives, can openers, wooden spoons, a tea strainer, beaters from an electric mixer, but still no gun. She exhausted all the drawers in a short time and then began on the lower cabinets, the ones that were easy for her to reach. Her knee highs started to slip down her calves as she stomped around, the walker bumping against the small table set against one corner of the room.
Now how’m I gonna get to those top cabinets?
She pulled a chair out from the side of the table.
I could stand on that.
The walker was in the way. She pushed it away from the table and yanked at the chair. It fell over with a loud thud.
Maybelle looked up from where she was bending over picking up the chair. There was Harold standing in the hall just beyond the doorway. She could see his eyebrows raised in surprise. He wasn’t wearing his glasses. His baggy pants hung loosely from suspenders that were old and stretched.
“May? Is that you? What’re you doing here?” He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an old pair of glasses.
“Don’t come near me, you nicklesworth of spit.”
“May? Are you okay?”
“Stay right where you are.”
“Calm down now, May.”
“Look who’s telling me what to do. Mr. Big Shot. Mr. Calm Down May.” She mimicked his voice.
Harold started toward where she stood at the other side of the table.
“Get away from me.” She reached into the nearest drawer and grabbed the rolling pin she had seen a few minutes before, during her search for the gun.
“May, how’d you get here?”
“Wouldn’t you just like to know. Then what would you do to me?”
“Do they know you’re gone? I gotta call over there. They must be worried to death.” Hal took a step into the room and reached over for the only phone in the small house, a pale blue wall phone.
“Oh no you don’t, chicken turd.”
Maybelle brought the rolling pin down on the phone with a force that broke the plastic case exposing the jumble of thin, multi-colored wires. One more bash at it and the thing split open and fell to the floor.
“That’s what I’ll do to you, too.” She moved to the next drawer and lifted out the big carving knife they had bought from the slaughterhouse sale when it shut down and auctioned off its tools. It had cost them five bucks. The blade was a full fourteen inches long and curved from years of carving steer flesh and hacking at bone. Its point was as defined as a fencing sword’s. The razor-sharp carving edge of the blade shone silver in the fluorescent kitchen light. Maybelle held it at shoulder level, her hand gripping the heavy wooden handle that had been molded over years of use into the shape of the beef slaughterer’s hand.
“May, put that down. There’s no reason to get mad.” Harold backed up to the doorway watching Maybelle, his eyes narrowed, his glasses far down his nose, the few hairs left on his head hanging off to one side.
“Shut up. Just shut up. You ain’t gonna get the chance to do nothing else to me. I stood it long enough. Now it’s my turn. You ain’t gonna send me off to no more hospitals. I’m gonna take care of you now. It’s my turn.” She was screaming and waving the knife.
“May, can’t we talk this over?” Harold backed into the hallway as Maybelle flicked the upper cabinets open with the point of the knife. She waved it around the shelves pulling whatever the knife touched down onto the counter. Soon the floor was strewn with broken plates and bowls and glasses. The crashing went on until Maybelle hit something that sounded different. She poked with the knife and out fell the gun with a thud.
She looked at it. Hal came back to the doorway.
“May, please, don’t. I’m begging you. We can work this out.”
Maybelle looked over at him as if he was not there at all. Her expression had shifted so quickly that it seemed as if someone else had entered the room. Her shoulders slumped and she leaned against the walker for support.
“It’s okay, May. You’re gonna be fine. The doctor said so. Please just sit down for a minute and we can work this out.”
Harold slowly approached where Maybelle was standing. He spoke in a soothing voice. He didn’t have much time. But it was difficult for him to move quickly these days. He was older by five years. She was still physically the stronger of the two. If he could just get that gun, he could leave the house and go for help.
The shift came so fast he didn’t see it at all.
“Oh no you don’t, mister.” She grabbed the gun with her left hand, pointed it at him, still holding the knife in her right.
“You ain’t such a big shot when I got this in my hand. Are you husband? Huh, are you? Answer me.” She wobbled a little and holding the knife placed it on the walker handle.
“No, May. I’m not a big shot at all. Just your husband who’s always cared for you and loved you and tried to do what’s right for you.”
“Shut up. Just shut the hell up.” Maybelle pushed at the walker with her foot. It spun to the side a little. She steadied herself against it.
“May, please put the gun down. Let’s go into the living room and have a cold drink.”
“You’d like that wouldn’t you, huh? A cold drink. What d’you want to do, throw it at me? Like you did at the fair that time. Throw it all over me so I look like a fool in front of everyone? That’s what you want? Loving husband, my ass.”
“May, that’s not what I want. You know that. I never wanted anything but for you to be happy.”
“Happy? Living with you?” She pushed the walker out of the way and started forward toward where he stood, the gun in one hand, the knife in the other.
Harold backed away.
“Please, May. Please don’t do this. I got a weak heart now. I can’t stand this kinda thing no more.”
“You can’t stand it? Ha. That’s a good one you piss ass. What about me all them years? What about all them times you made me go to the hospital and I couldn’t tell nobody nothing, huh? What about all that? You got a weak heart? What d’you think I got?”
“Aw, May, all them times at the hospitals was all for you. You know that. Don’t you remember? Like that time at the fair? When you knocked all them sodas over and got all wet with soda pop and cut yourself up on all that glass?”
He backed down the hall until he was near the living room. She followed him, pushing the walker again, the gun pointed at his chest. He watched her until he got to the living room and then he sank back against the wall, his hand going to his throat.
“Shut up, you. I remember you threw cold water all over me and then you hurt me. You always hurt me.”
“May, I gotta sit down. I don’t feel so good.”
“Yeah that’s right. You sit. Sit right down on the sofa. The sofa I bought and had delivered and chose the slip cover for. You sit on the sofa right there while I take and shoot you through your bastard heart.”
“Oh God, May, don’t say that please.” He fell back onto the couch hugging the armrest.
“Yeah. That’s right. Now I’m gonna shoot you through your weak, coward heart.”
She aimed the gun and walked so close to him she could smell the sweat from his body and see the fine beads on his forehead. She watched his hands shake. He held them up in front of his face to hide her from his view. He was crying now. Sobbing softly with his chin down on his chest.
And then he heard the click.
And another. And a third. And fourth, fifth, sixth and then she just clicked and clicked but nothing happened.
Then Harold remembered. After they had taken Maybelle to South Lake, how he had emptied the gun and thrown away all the bullets. The gun she had said they needed for protection.
The clicking stopped.
The shift happened again almost imperceptibly. Maybelle dropped the gun on the floor. She looked at her hand for a moment as if it wasn’t attached to her own body. She held it up and examined it.
Harold stood up and walked toward the door.
“Where you going, Hal?” Her voice was quiet, almost sweet.
Harold turned to face her. He saw the change. The doctor had explained it to him. By then it was too late to do anything. All those years. All that abuse. He couldn’t live with it anymore. He had to let them take her. He came over and put his arms around her.
“It’s all right now, May,” he whispered it. “Everything’s all right now. It’s over.”
“Can I stay with you now, Hal?”
“Sure you can, May. Sure you can.”
“Do you still love me, Hal?”
“Sure, May. Sure I do. Just like always.”
And he did. Even after all those terrible years, love stayed alive in him. Love and sadness. And even some hope that they could be two old people together.
“Do I have to go back there?”
“Oh, May, let’s not talk about it now. Let’s have us a nice evening and just not talk about any of it. Let’s just be normal for this one evening. Just a normal married couple with no worries and no place to go and nothing we have to do.”
“Okay, Hal. Whatever you say.”
He held her in his arms and swayed back and forth as if he were holding a baby. He hummed a little to her.
And then it happened. All at once without warning. Silently. Swiftly.
She plunged the knife into his stomach so far it hit his backbone and she could feel it lodge there. She pulled it out and with tremendous force shoved it into his chest as he doubled over toward her. She twisted it against his chest plate until she heard a crack then she sliced downward with that slaughtering blade and blood poured out of his chest as she wrenched an artery. The spurting cascaded over her flowered dress. She pulled the knife up over her head once more and delivered the last blow straight through his skull and watched as part of his brain poured out through his mouth and onto the floor and lay there like an inert pile of animal entrails left behind as the carcass is hoisted onto a hook.
She stepped back and let the body that had been her husband slump onto the dull green carpet that now glistened scarlet.
Maybelle walked back to the kitchen and threw the knife onto the floor. She pushed the walker out the open kitchen door and onto the driveway. She turned on the hose that was coiled at the corner of her house. She looked up at the night sky as she waited for the water to flow.
Maybe Hal was right. Maybe Florida is a good place to retire. You sure couldn’t do this in winter back in New Jersey.
She pointed the hose straight up and let the spray shower her down like summer rain.