A short story
“Do you know Aimee Rothstein is dying?”
My heart flutters as if tickled. Or maybe it is only the lamb nuzzling my palm as it searches for food.
“Cancer,” Penny says. “Bone cancer, they’re thinking. How old do you figure she is, anyway? I’m guessing she’s around our age.”
Aimee Rothstein dying. The news can’t be trusted. Does it fit with my impressions of Aimee, the few times I’ve met her before? No, the diagnosis is not in sync with my concept of any young mother. No we all look life in the eye, unblinking, while dressing our babies, feeding them, planning their next days and years.
The lamb gives up and returns to its own mother, a sloe-eyed ewe. Deprived of the comforting moistness of the animal’s breath on my skin, I step away from the pen and search for the children. Penny’s son is standing near a vending machine that will not give up its feed, while my daughter edges too close to a ram standing on the other side of the gate.
“Shoshie, move away!” I cry, throwing up my hands to ward off an assault.
It’s a futile gesture, but I get my daughter’s attention.
My glance lingers until Shoshanna steps back. Only then do I call out to Penny, “How do you know?”
“Her husband phoned school the other day to talk with the principal. I took the call,” she fires back. As she rummages in her purse to find more quarters for the feeder, she adds, “He started weeping, Sarah. Then he told me the whole story. It’s so sad.”
“You shouldn’t gossip,” I scold. “I don’t know Aimee well enough to hear this news.”
Penny’s eyes go wide. “I just assumed Shoshie and her daughter were in the same kindergarten class.”
“It’s a big school,” I remind her. “And no, we hardly know them at all.”
It is startling to see Aimee Rothstein in the park a week later, as I guess I’d expected illness to hide her away. Yet here she is, looking much the same as ever as she sits on a bench in a red cape, the hood falling in scalloped folds across both shoulders. An elderly woman wearing a gray woolen coat tries to cope with Aimee’s daughter on the swings nearby.
I briefly hope Penny has exaggerated Aimee’s story. Since hearing the news, I have found myself imagining the horror of calculating days leading to death in the same way most people count down to birthdays. And then my thoughts always veer off onto one shameful, unutterable truth, Thank God it’s not me.
I notice Aimee’s child is acting particularly rotten to the elderly woman. With each swing, she kicks at pebbles under her feet and throws dust. Yet imagine what the child’s going through daily, and forgive, I remind myself. A wind comes up, clanging a red sign tacked to the fence that lists SAFETY RULES. Useful warnings if you know how to read. But what about my own daughter Shoshie, struggling with her phonics? And what about this Rothstein girl? Aimee’s daughter had to constantly hear adults whispering about, in slightly hysterical tones. All these strange words had to be knocking like wind chimes over her head: malignancy, terminal, radiation. No child could begin to guess why such fierce winds were blowing, or from which direction.
Shoshie had abandoned me at least fifteen minutes ago for her friends at the Tower, but now I need her.
“Shoshie?” When I crook my finger, my daughter pivots from the Tower’s second level to the ground, and reluctantly comes over.
“Isn’t that girl in your class?”
Shoshie eyes her then declares, “No.”
“But she’s in kindergarten too, right?”
Shoshie shrugs, begins to rub at her nose.
“Don’t pick,” I say. “Here.” I retrieve a crumpled tissue from my coat pocket and hand it to her. Then I add, “She must be in the afternoon class,” I say. “You should invite her to play fort. C’mon.”
As we walk over, Aimee Rothstein glances at me in a curious way.
“Hi. I think our girls might know each other from school.”
“Your daughter is in Mrs. Harrison’s class?” Aimee asks.
“No,” I say. “She goes in the morning. But we’ve seen you around, maybe at the library reading program? Anyway, my daughter wanted to come over and say hi. Shoshie.” I squint up my eyes to prompt. “Can you say hi to —?”
“Emma,” Aimee offers. “That’s her Grandma Lyla with her.”
“Emma, of course,” I say, nodding to Lyla at the same time. “Do you want to play with Shoshie and her friends, Emma? They’re building a fort by the Tower.”
Emma’s ready to accept my invitation. She shoves off the swing, then moves a few steps away from her grandmother’s oversized shadow in the dirt. With Aimee’s nod, our children run to the Tower together. I smile too then ask, “Does your daughter take a dance class at the Academy?”
“That’s where I’ve seen you before,” I lie. “Well, it’s great to meet you. Maybe they’ll be in dance together next term.”
Aimee tucks one lip under the other, doesn’t respond.
“You know,” I continue, as casually as if I’d just come up with the idea. “Why don’t our girls get to know each other before the new season starts? How about a play date at my house? Your daughter’s welcome any time.”
Aimee doesn’t reply, but her mouth goes small. I can guess what she’s worried about, recompense, and so I say, “We’ll just try it one time and see how it goes. You’d be helping me out. I don’t think my daughter will know anyone else in dance next year.”
Aimee’s breath comes fast, and I wonder how much her illness has already advanced. Yet then she reaches for her purse and says, “It’s a very nice offer. Let’s exchange numbers.”
When the bell rings, a barking Beardsley gets to the door first. He’s followed by my daughter, dancing barefoot in her anticipation. Both have to wait for me to turn the lock and then Beardsley wedges his nose up onto the screen, terrifying Emma and Grandma Lyla.
“Down Beardsley,” I scold. As I pull him back by the collar, I try to explain, “He’s harmless, really, useless as a guard dog. He mostly patrols for squirrels.”
Still, Grandma doesn’t take her eyes off our St. Bernard as she steps into the hall with her charge. Emma looks as if she’s confronted yet another wolf in this strange forest. I force a laugh to calm everyone down.
“Do you like costumes, Emma?” I ask as Shoshie pushes past me to smother her newfound friend in a hug. “Shoshie has plenty.”
Emma nods and they head upstairs, ready for a session of make-believe to see if the friendship will prove real and true. I’m left behind with Grandma, who demands in the heavily accented words of someone whose first language is presumably not English, “What time you want me back?”
My glance falls to the car keys she’s holding. Truthfully, I’m relieved not to have to play hostess, even if this nervous visitor deserves all my attention and concern. More than likely, this woman will be burying her own child soon; laying out clothes for her funeral much as she did when sending her off to school decades ago. That’s her cursed fate and a reality so unbearable that, this close, I find myself full of irrational superstitions. No I’m not proud of these thoughts, but I’m normally lousy with the elderly and so terrified to invite into my home this sad-eyed woman who carries about her smells of old age and imminent tragedy.
“Let’s say two o’clock?” I say. “That will give the children some time together.”
Still eyeing the dog, Grandma Lyla backs down our bricked walkway. I latch the screen, release my hold on Beardsley. Upstairs, I can hear my daughter chattering, “You be the witch and I’ll be the princess.”
“You girls okay?”
In reply, I hear a clicking of play heels, then Shoshie’s face appearing behind stair railings. Her red-brown hair is twisted in a messy bun and she is wearing her pink princess gown.
“You let Emma wear whatever costume she wants, witch or princess,” I instruct. “ Now, are you girls hungry for a snack or do you want to wait?”
There is a rustle of netted skirts and then a blonde-haired witch comes alongside my daughter. Emma’s chosen the darker costume, but I’m guessing she’s the cherubic one when it comes to coloring and temperament. Still she seems so unsteady in her black sequined getup and inch-high play shoes, I warn, “No heels on the stairs, Emma. It’s not safe.”
Even as I say the words, practically trill them, the girl’s lips start to scrunch up with worry she’s done something wrong.
“Well, aren’t you hungry?” I ask, making a joke. It works. Emma’s face relaxes even if her tongue continues to poke about in her cheek.
“I had lunch,” she informs me.
“Okay. I’ll just make snacks. Go play.”
The girls kalump-kalump back to Shoshie’s room. When I leave the chilled hallway, Beardsley trots obediently behind. As I push open the door leading to the kitchen, I’m feeling proud and why not admit it, if only to myself? My offer to watch Emma has to be of real comfort to Aimee while she’s struggling. In this house, we will nurture through normalcy, a routine playdate — and no hint of hushed conversations, tears being wiped on sleeves whenever a child enters a room. None of that for Emma today.
I open the refrigerator and retrieve a milk carton, give a brief sniff to make sure the milk is fresh. Yes, today, I’d done it right. I’d helped people and not in my usual ineffectual ways of being charitable, surrendering to phone solicitors or signing up for fundraisers that offered up hefty tax deductions as incentives.
I reach into the pantry and then rush a bit while I spread peanut butter and jelly onto crackers, not sure how long everyone’s amiable moods will last. I pour milk into two Sippy cups and set them on the table.
As I head upstairs, I notice Shoshie has closed her bedroom door against all intruders, mainly me. Behind the door, I can hear her cry out, “Scribble Scrabble!”, and Emma’s laughter in response, a sweet baa-baa riff.
“Girls, snacks,” I repeat and push on the door. As I do, my glance shifts to the child-size mezuzah we’d hung on Shoshie’s doorframe, a gift from her baby-naming, and again, I think a bit irrationally, yes see, Emma safe’s here.
They are on Shoshie’s bed. My daughter stands in full princess regalia, holding a marker in her left hand. Emma sits cross-legged near the pillow, markers held in both fists. Lines of blue, green and yellow trail out along the sheets. What they’ve drawn is not clear. But to me, the lines look like chalk marks used to sketch victims’ bodies at crime scenes and so, of course, I scream.
Shoshi just glares, furious that I’ve walked in and ruined their fun. Emma, however, launches into a volley of tears and wails. Downstairs, Beardsley barks in nervous accompaniment.
“Emma, don’t. It’s okay,” I mumble.
I close my eyes, scribble scrabble all those lines from sight. Remind myself about non-toxic markers, how they’re made to erase with a sponge.
“All right. It’s time for a snack. I think we need a break,” I announce. Using the door knob for balance, I turn to leave. Behind me, I hear one last loud sniff from our guest and Shoshie’s bell-toned reassurances. “It’s okay. Don’t cry.”
She needs to cry, I think. Let her cry, Shoshie. The sheets are probably a total loss but all this is fixable. In her home, nothing is fixable anymore. So have pity.
I return to the kitchen and glance at the clock in an entirely different mood than moments ago. It’s not even twelve-thirty. I have an hour and a half more to go on this play date. The girls trail in a few minutes later, back in their clothes. I can tell Shoshie’s already forgotten the incident upstairs, but Emma hesitates when she notices my gaze upon her.
“Here, Emma, sit,” I say softly and pull out a chair at the table. The girl eyes the plate of crackers then pretends to be fascinated by the lamp hanging overhead. One, two, three, I watch her mouth as she counts the bulbs.
“Emma, is anything wrong?”
“I don’t like peanut butter and jelly,” Emma whispers to Shoshie, avoiding me altogether.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Is there anything else I can get you —?”
Beardsley has found his way under the table and my daughter pries open a cracker sandwich, offers it to him.
“Ahh, you’re so gross!” she screams as the dog’s tongue licks her palm.
For the first time since she’s entered the kitchen, I hear Emma laugh, that baa-baa riff. I’m startled into action. Maybe this play date can be saved, after all.
I grab the dog’s collar. Showtime, Beardsley.
“Do you want to pet him?” I offer. “He’s really gentle.”
It’s not so much an invitation as a bribe and Emma squints, rightly suspecting my intentions. Still she rises from her chair and holds out her hand. I grab her palm, lay it on the brown furry tufts between his ears.
“This is his favorite spot,” I confide. “But he can’t get to it himself. He loves when someone helps.”
Scritch, scritch. Emma’s fingers start to move and Beardsley pants his appreciation. His jowls pool with saliva and then he can’t help himself; he starts to drip.
Shoshie bursts out laughing. With a smile, I release the dog and pull a tissue from my jeans pocket.
“Let’s make a potion,” I say. “Dog drool’s the first thing we’ll need. Come here, sweetie.”
I pivot the dog’s massive jaw into my hand, and wipe. Startled, he backs off with a growl. Emma steps back and not willing to lose the moment to her fear, I retrieve another tissue, turn to my daughter.
Shoshie takes the tissue, snorts like an elephant at a watering hole.
“We’ll grease down a bowl with dog’s drool and kid’s snot,” I cackle in my best witch’s imitation. I drop both tissues on the counter, rummage through cabinets. “And what else, what else?”
I open my refrigerator and see items I’ve let sit for days, even weeks, past their labeled expiration dates. A pint of grape tomatoes, paunchy in their skins, a browning head of lettuce. Two slightly cracked hard-boiled eggs, a quart of milk.
“Here. I’ve got smelly eggs, leaking tomatoes, rotting skull lettuce.”
Both girls start to giggle, enchanted with my sorcerer’s turn. Not even a costume nearby to help in the transformation, so they’re impressed.
“And how about some nice, sour milk to blend it all together?”
“No! No milk!”
I turn to see Emma’s tongue working her cheek like a thermometer.
“My Grandma says sour milk makes you sick. If it’s bad, throw it out!”
Sick, that word. How fast noises in the room fly away with that word.
Emma’s eyes move frantically, to find Beardsley. But no longer the center of attention, he’s left the room. It’s Shoshie who comes over to dab with her finger at a few milk drops pitched into the table slats.
“How does milk get sour anyway?” my daughter asks.
“You don’t know when it happens!” Emma shrieks before I can reply. She tries to control herself, as if someone has warned her not to behave this badly in someone else’s home. Still her fingers clench, her cheeks purple in anger.
“You can’t see anything! But it makes you real sick if you drink it. You could die!”
You could die. It is a phrase she understands beyond all other words that swirl lazy as dust motes in the air. She’s found them in her mother’s closets, under her bed.
Between lavender-scented sheets that, despite all their washings, can’t hide the stink of illness.
I look at the milk already poured into pink plastic cups, focus on its whiteness in contrast, how pure, how clean. And I am surprised by this child’s fierce insistence that the world only gives us something else: decay, decay.
“You’re right, you wouldn’t want to drink milk that’s gone sour,” I manage. “It doesn’t taste good. But milk’s not bad when it turns. It’s just…different.”
I take a glass from the cabinet and set it on the counter, start to pour until this new milk’s almost rimming the top, threatening to spill. I pick it up carefully and move to the girls at the table.
“It’s not sour. I was just playing before. Really, this milk is fresh from the refrigerator. You don’t have to be afraid that it’s going to change so fast you won’t know.”
Shoshie leans in, interested, but Emma’s face doesn’t give over a clue that she hears anything I’m saying.
“Come and taste it, you’ll see.”
My daughter inches forward, yet Emma’s glances stubbornly sweep about, frantic to unearth landmines buried in this kitchen. Sour or not? Death or not? And what is there to trust, after all, when only the unknowable can be counted on in this room, in our words, in the very air?
“Come here, Emma,” I repeat, my tone rock-steady. “Take a sip.”
Her gaze shifts to mine, over the glass. When she blinks, an eyelash falls to her cheek. We are so close this is what I see, and I am nearly distracted.
But then I can feel her breath, wet, on my knuckles as her lips touch the rim.
Michele Merens is a Puffin Grant winner for her full-length play “The Lion’s Den.” She is also a member of the Dramatist’s Guild.