“Celeste will have to reinvent herself now that Frank’s gone,” Marcus said to Maggie, whose thick kinks of black hair actually blocked her partner’s words, not only now but for most of their twenty-year partnership.
Maggie drew on her cigarette and blew it out the open patio door. Marcus followed suit. The two had never once considered stopping the habit, not even when their son Rubio lived with them. He had moved to California years ago to work as movie sound editor, and had always been a vocal anti-smoker. No matter. Maggie’s father had smoked right up until the last morning of his life, fifteen days ago. He was ninety-one. He had finished his morning espresso, smoked his first and last cigarette of the day, and called it a life. He died right in his living room. Massive heart attack. Maggie and Marcus gazed across the open concept bungalow into their living room.
The Celeste in question, Maggie’s ninety-year-old mother, dressed in black from head to toe, sat on the white chenille sofa, watching television, or rather just staring vacantly in its direction. Beautiful actors in well-appointed settings argued back and forth, their passions vehemently fraudulent. Celeste no longer had much truck for soap operas. To think she had followed the same story for almost fifty years.
“Celeste,” Marcus said, “Can I get you something? A soda?”
She looked over and smiled as if to say she was fine.
“She can get it herself, if she needs something,” Maggie insisted. “She needs to move around more, she used to always be in motion.”
“It’s only been two weeks, Mags.”
“She has to move on. We all have to move on. She just sits there all day. We’re stuck in this house as long as she’s here. I wanted to go away this summer. I really did. And so did you. We need it. We deserve it. But we can’t go anywhere.”
“What about the Sand Banks?”
“You know she hates cottages, and the beach. She’d rather just sit there all day watching television. I’m sick of it.”
Celeste’s hearing had declined over the years; but, as it had always been nothing short of supernatural, she could still clearly hear her daughter and Marcus discussing her fate. She knew they were thinking of sending her to a home. They didn’t want her here and they wouldn’t let her go back to her house. Maggie had decided she couldn’t take care of herself anymore. There had been signs of slippage long before Frank died. The incident with the gas stove was one, when she’d let an unignited burner fill the house with gas. She liked to keep her windows tightly shut for no good reason, so the danger had been amplified. Luckily a neighbour had smelled the gas and called the fire department, averting catastrophe.
“She’s not helping herself,” Marcus said.
“No, she isn’t,” Maggie said, giving a final suck to her cigarette and throwing it out the patio door. Guinness, Maggie’s nimble coal-black cat, slipped inside.
Other things, too. Celeste had stopped bathing. She smelled bad. She and Frank had barely been eating for a year. Maggie had found tons of food hidden all over the house. Celeste could never explain it. Getting old was terrible. But more than anything, it was unsafe.
Guinness appeared in the living room. Celeste did not like cats. She particularly did not like Guinness and he knew this. As he neared the sofa, he dropped something on the rug, and stopped to lick his paw. Celeste took no notice of him. After a moment, he moved closer.
Celeste’s eyes lit up.
“Frank,” she said, looking left and right, “is that you? Is that you, Frank?”
Maggie looked at Marcus.
“See what I mean?” she said.
Marcus nodded. What can you do? The old gal had lost it.
“Ma,” Maggie said, “what’s going on?”
Celeste looked over, her face ashen against her black lace collars. She smiled. Her shoulders shook as though she were containing a laugh, but then tears fell from her eyes.
Guinness leaped up on the sofa. He held something in his mouth.
Maggie and Marcus froze.
Celeste turned to Guinness.
Guinness dropped a baby black squirrel by Celeste’s thigh. The little kit was stunned but intact and alive.
“Frank,” Celeste whispered, “Frank, I knew you were still here.”
Guinness studied her with his yellow eyes.
Maggie elbowed Marcus.
“Frank” Celeste said to the wriggling kit, “What have they done to you? What the hell have they done to you?”