Eight cakes stared at Clara Mae from her kitchen table: one peanut butter, two frosted chocolate, one coconut, a couple with pecans, a pineapple upside-down, and, of course, Angel Food. There was also a pecan pie. Everybody has too many pecans lying around this time of year. They were cakes baked with mourning; Clara Mae wished just one had been a casserole.
The pineapple upside-down cake had been Dan’s favorite. (He didn’t too much care for frosting.) When he was a kid she had to keep an eye out for him on holidays or he’d eat all the maraschino cherries from the center of the pineapple rings. Miss Debbie from the Baptist Center brought this one, but she hadn’t known the significance. Such an ugly cake, Dan had once said, so pretty turned on its head. She looked at her reflection in the mirrored folding door that divided the kitchen from the den. Clara Mae had not fared so well, she thought to herself, her life turned upside-down. Her short curly hair, styled only by hands running through with worry, stood up in a frizzy puff of dull black. Her narrow eyes—that her Mama always told her were “almond”—after days and nights of endless crying were barely there, more slits between swollen lids.
She had buried Dan earlier in the day; took the comforting, company, and cakes by afternoon; was left alone with her thoughts by evening. It was not the first child Clara Mae had buried at Cannon Creek Cemetery. A stillborn—her first—in 1954. Jimmy, sixteen—just got his driver’s license that day—in ’74. And now her Dan.
It wasn’t right for a mother to outlive her child.
And Clara had dragged him back here, too. City work ain’t reliable, Dan. What you gonna do when the paycheck doesn’t come? Got him the job at Kountry Korner. Clara Mae had worked there for years, its under-the-table pay and borderline expired food supported the family where her husband didn’t. She worked the early shift; Dan worked the evenings. He worried from the beginning about her working the store late, even thought she’d closed for years. She told him she was a big girl; she could take care of herself. But Dan had gone back to the boss, and there was no changing the schedules.
Should’ve been me.
Wish it had.
She shook her head, trying to snap herself out of it. Was Dancing with the Stars on yet? She looped two fingers under the wicker handle of her sewing kit and headed down the stairs.
“Hey, grab me another beer, would ya?” her husband Gerald called out as her foot hit the bottom floor landing. Seems like he always waits until I’m at the bottom. So she backtracked up the stairs, grabbed a Miller High Life—bottle, not a can—and went back down to Gerald’s room. Originally she had decorated it as a study, with family photos and Precious Moments figurines bookending shelves of scrapbooks, yearbooks, and Mary Higgins Clark novels. But for years it has been Gerald’s cocoon—littered with empty cans of Nehi Grape, piles of bottle caps, dirty boxers. Endless crusted plates and bowls that Clara Mae was forever picking up. An old gun rack. These days Gerald spent his waking hours in a desk chair he’d found on the side of the road; it was khaki faux-leather with edges that looked like an animal clawed it. He’d long since broken the reclining mechanism in the chair, so it couldn’t offer support; it was in a permanent state of recline.
And so, it seemed, was her husband.
He’d be parked in front of their computer posting on message boards about his father in the Korean War or crappie fishing or deer hunting—that he never does anymore—or looking at dirty pictures or playing some game about WWI where he said dumb things into a headset.
Lately his grieving had been funneled into the computer: chatting on a support site for parents of children who have died, obsessively Googling news stories about Dan’s passing, or posting to Dan’s “Memorial” Facebook Page. Clara Mae didn’t think it was right for people to see all your business, but she’d learned a long time ago to let Gerald alone. And she knew he was hurting. They all were. Clara handed him his beer.
“Aunt Etta says they were sorry they couldn’t make the funeral,” Gerald said, eyes not leaving the screen.
“Mmmhm,” Clara said. She turned quickly, leaving for the living room La-Z-Boy.
“Kathy just changed her status to ‘widowed.’ Sad,” Gerald called from the other room.
Clara Mae winced as she settled into her favorite chair. Was it unfair to think her daughter-in-law seemed a little proud of that? That she enjoyed the attention, the pity?
She removed a D hook from its sleeve. The TV glowed with an unusually slim daughter-of-somebody swinging around in a foxtrot. Her dress appeared conservative, white and floor-length, but was in fact completely backless—revealing everything just above the rump. Clara Mae’s stiff fingers crocheted with mechanical precision, pulling through tiny stitch after tiny stitch on the winter hat she was making for Jennie. The dancer twirled on the arm of her tuxedoed partner, and the audience cheered wildly. Such a nice young lady. Should cover herself up, was her last thought before drifting off into the dreamless sleep of the emotionally exhausted.
The next day, Clara was on her way to Brownsville. No rest for the weary. The signs passed her window in a blur as she drove down Highway 11: Jack’s, Hardee’s, a big red diner, Sonic. A handful of strip malls. A Food Lion. An illegible Chinese restaurant. A church for foreigners. Past that church there was nothing for 60 miles, until you reach the Casket Warehouse. So you had better make sure you’ve peed.
It was Thursday, her regular day off, and the day Clara would go to visit Mama in The Home. Mama was staying at “Brownsville Extended Care and Rehabilitation,” but everyone just called it The Home. Mama had not wanted to be in a Home, she had wanted to be in her home. The Extended Care facility was technically a temporary arrangement, originally because they thought temporary was all they would need, later to get Mama to sign the papers, and now more to assuage her own guilt as the months had drifted into multiple years. Likely Mama would never leave the twin bed in room 231.
She wasn’t looking forward to today’s visit. She hadn’t told Mama about Dan.
She wasn’t sure she should. Mama was old and ailing. She rarely spoke coherently or even moved much anymore. When she did speak, she didn’t always remember who Clara was. Telling her the news would probably just bring her sadness without meaning, tears in no particular direction. Many of Clara’s visits ended this way, a word or smell or a simple goodbye triggering flashes of remembrance of tragedies past in her addled mind. As Mama’s slight, thin-robed frame shuttered in soft, chocking sobs, Clara Mae would be ushered away by nearby nurses. And she was always ashamed of the relief she felt when they did.
She pulled up to the side entrance and waited to be buzzed in. It was after 11:30, so Clara Mae headed straight to the cafeteria. As she pushed through the heavy double doors, she saw the familiar sites for a Thursday: a single nurse manning the nurses’ station, a line of wheelchairs five deep in the guest waiting room as residents tried to get a better view of The Price Is Right, a nurse struggling to help another resident to the handicapped bathroom. One of the ones parked at the back of the Price Is Right line reached a hand out for her as she passed, and she tried not to look back.
She could immediately pick out the table for the dementia ward; each woman cradled a baby doll at the table, rocking and feeding and burping, singing or humming or talking to them in soothing tones. “Doll Therapy,” the Center called it. The dolls were realistic enough to fool from a distance, except when some of the residents neglected the baby’s clothes—plastic limbs dangling from soft cloth torsos. To the patients, these were their babies: their flesh and blood, their charge, their responsibility. The women did not eat before their babies were fed, didn’t sleep before the dolls were rocked and laid in their cribs. There’s something about women: as all of the memories flake away, as more of the-person-she-was becomes lost, the more that what remains is the DNA of “caretaker.” Even for those who were childless, the hard-wiring of the women’s brains all faded to the same instinctive routine of mothering.
Secretly, Clara Mae thought it was creepy.
The nurses had chosen the dolls that had realistic-fashioned faces in different expressions; their skin-like molded plastic smelled of baby powder. The table was sea of synchronized faces imitating emotion, frozen in mid-coo or cry or smile.
All of the dolls, that is, except for Mama’s.
Mama had come to the Center with her doll. She had collected dolls, and while growing up Clara Mae had to share a room with two siblings, the dolls had a room all to themselves. Princesses, ballet dancers, rows and rows of Barbies and babies, all original and still in the packaging, lined up on wobbly aluminum shelving so tight you could barely walk through. The collection was all scattered now, broken out amongst the living family by who bought it or remembered it or demanded it, each doll waiting in an attic or basement or closet for the day that she passed to be opened by the family like a morbid Christmas morning.
The doll Mama carried now never had a package. It was a buckskin body with no detailing, two flat khaki cutouts like gingerbread men stuffed and hand-stitched together with thick thread along the edges. But where the body was non-descript, the face was detailed, an intricate modeling of an infant’s face—but small, shriveled.
Like an old man. Or a shrunken head.
Clara Mae thought real babies often looked like old men—with their gummy frowns and lined foreheads—so the doll was unpleasant, but uncanny. Its eyes were squinted closed as its mouth opened to reveal an undulating tongue with no teeth, only lip.
Even as a child, Clara Mae had been afraid of it. Mama’s doll room was padlocked, and this doll—THE doll—was on the very top shelf on the other side of the room, but it seemed to Clara that whenever she tried to sneak a glimpse in the room that it was there, in her line of sight, looking back. At first Clara Mae was resentful of the padlock, thinking it was there just to keep her out, as if she was not grown enough to be careful around her mother’s precious dolls. But as she grew, she got the idea that the padlock was to keep something in. At night the kids heard running behind that door, swift-shuffling tiny foot patters punctuated by clawing. Just squirrels in the attic, Mama had said. Clara wasn’t so sure.
Mama was cradling her doll against the arm of her wheelchair, feeding her from a small plastic bottle that appeared to empty when turned upside-down. In front of her sat an untouched cafeteria tray with chicken and dumplings and Jell-O. Oxygen tubes dangled from her nostrils, and her hair wound around her neck and down her shoulder: thin, French-braided, but as black as when she was fifteen. Her toothless mouth turned to frown as she stroked her baby’s cheek.
“Mama, it’s Clara. Your daughter.” Clara put a hand on her shoulder, but Mama did not move; she stayed focused on the baby.
“Your mother’s not been speaking today,” one of the nurses whispered to Clara, stating a fact more than concerned. “Not eating, either. Just fussing over her baby.”
Mama was bouncing the doll’s backside with her knee in an attempt to rock him, comfort him, as if the inanimate object was actually full-tantrum. She looked like she was trying to get the bottle in his mouth but couldn’t. She wasn’t speaking, but the huff she expressed under her breath was the sound of true frustration, one any new mother would recognize.
Miss Gertrude was sitting next to Mama at the table. She was born Gertrude Van Patten, of the Atlanta Van Pattens, who 50 years ago were some of the richest folks in the South. Gertrude’s daddy, Oscar Van Patten, had owned a string of steel, texile and fabric mills in the Bible Belt. Poor management and a global economy had caused most of the mills to close their doors, and the family was now bankrupt. Gertrude was as unprepared for becoming destitute as she was becoming elderly, ending up at a run-in-the-mill home. Gertrude hadn’t spoken the whole time Mama had shared a room with her, though she did make frequent weird noises with her mouth—clicking of the tongue, tuneless hum. But the two seemed friendly, comforted by one another, connected in some way.
Miss Gertrude was not eating, either. While Mama sat swaying, rocking her baby, Miss Gertrude was rocking herself, staring at Mama, imitating. Miss Gertrude’s doll was dangling half-off the table, her food uneaten.
Clara Mae made an attempt to get her Mama to take some food, but she refused. Her neck was turning red, skin splotchy, a vein in her forehead becoming visible. Clara Mae was about to call for a nurse, but before she could, her mother stood up.
So piercing it stopped the room. So piercing all of nurses, who knew they should help, seemed frozen. Tears were streaming down her face, urine down her legs as she screamed; the sound was high-pitched but steady—she didn’t take a breath in. She was holding the doll out as far away from her as possible, but her eyes still locked into his, unblinking as she screamed.
Is she handing it to me? Clara thought, and awkwardly lifted the doll from Mama’s hands.
Once she had, Mama slumped into her wheelchair, drained of color. Her head fell to one side, a bit of foam and drool leaking from her mouth. Her eyes stayed open, but they were void. Then, for the first time in a decade, Miss Gertrude spoke.
“The baby is hungry,” Miss Gertrude said. “The baby needs to eat again. He done ate his mommy. Now he’s gonna eat you.”
She said it flatly—just a statement of fact. She was looking past Clara, head nodding slightly, humming a little mhmm, yep, uh-huh affirmation, as if she had said, “We’re having meatloaf in the cafeteria tonight. Mhmm, yep, uh-huh, meatloaf.” The nurses had snapped out of their paralysis, taking Mama’s vitals and peering into her irises with a tiny light, but still finding nothing.
Through a chorus of assurances—she’ll be fine and just a temporary setback and back to herself in no time—Clara Mae waited until Mama, vein opened to a drip of clear sedation, was resting in her room before she left the plastic-wrapped slice of pineapple upside-down cake from her purse with the afternoon nurse, in case she turned around.
Clara Mae punched the exit code into the keypad at the side door through a fog of tears. She threw her things in the backseat, slumped over the steering wheel and wept again. As she drove home she had to pull over and cover the old doll with some junk mail. Even then she kept thinking she saw it there in the rearview mirror, looking back at her.