Say When | Deep South Magazine – Southern Food, Travel & Lit

Say When

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Say When

by Caralyn Davis

The bray of the ringer was so loud that the phone cord vibrated in a spasm barely visible to the naked eye. One ring, two rings. A third. Lura watched the phone from the comfort of her second-hand sofa late on Saturday afternoon. A fourth bell sounded, followed by a hiccup of stillness, a pause just long enough for Lura to hope for a hang-up. Then the answering machine kicked in, and a voice rasped out, “Hello? Lura! Lura Lee Biddix!”

“Shut up, for God’s sake,” Lura told the machine as she spun down the volume control to transform the speaker’s words into a low buzz. She forced herself upright, pushing against a debilitating combination of dread and arthritic knees, and headed into the kitchen for a glass of water. Lura stood at the sink and swished the water against her teeth and tongue to clean her mouth. It didn’t work. She felt coated in grime. She spit into the sink and patted her lips dry with a paper towel.

Listening to the message was pointless. Lura knew the caller was her next-door neighbor Sadie Tedder. Sadie saying: “I need cream for my coffee,” or “I need pastries for breakfast,” or “I need a load of clothes washed,” or “I need to borrow $2,000.”

Lura had staged a revolt. For a solid week, she’d answered Sadie’s every request with a polite “I’m sorry. I can’t help you.” Sadie was undeterred. She not only kept asking, she laid siege, calling 12 times on Tuesday alone. She appeared unable to accept Lura’s liberation. Lura was a little iffy on it herself. Ill-placed compassion had woven patterns, now rent, into Lura’s life. The spaces that remained were crowded with unknowns. Change, therefore, required a certain fortitude, and Lura had been denied the peace to find it. She wasn’t exactly sure how often Sadie had called in the past three days. She’d lost count when she stopped answering the phone, but the whole house vibrated in a shrill stew from the rings bouncing off the walls and leaving their ghosts to echo.

As a result of the telephone embargo, Nathan Coates had knocked on Lura’s door this morning at 9 sharp, bleary-eyed and worried because he’d been unable to reach her all week while he was working in Atlanta. He was Lura’s favorite neighbor. While most people in their late 30s would be too busy texting and posting on Facebook to bother with a 62-year-old neighbor lady, Nathan took the time to talk to Lura on the phone several days a week, and they also went out to eat a few times a month. News of the break with Sadie didn’t faze Nathan. Lura’s transportation consisted of her feet and the Asheville city bus, so he’d bustled her into his truck and driven her across town to Wal-Mart to buy an answering machine to screen her calls, without once suggesting that she get a cell phone, voice mail, or other high-tech accoutrements.

Now Lura was re-connected to the outside world. However, the added steps of waiting for Sadie to leave a message, and then ignoring and erasing that message, burrowed new tunnels of doubt into her defenses. Not with regard to Sadie. The bridge was burned, the chicken was plucked, call it what you will, Lura was finished with Sadie.  Her hesitation centered on an innocent bystander, Sadie’s 97-year-old mother Myra Wilson.

Sadie had moved in with Myra soon after Lura bought the one-bedroom bungalow next door about 15 years earlier. Sadie and her mother both had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, one from smoking, the other from age, so they’d decided to combine households.

Lura and the other two women were widows. That commonality had created an initial bond of general pleasantries when Sadie was visiting her mother every day, and Sadie’s change of address had launched a regular round of neighborly activities. They played Scrabble or cards on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Sadie making cracks about everything from the lying, heathenish ways of politicians to the sorry state of her Chevrolet Impala, which deposited rotting mufflers, door handles, and other parts along the roadside. Sometimes they watched TV together, or they listened to old Carter Family records Myra’s husband had left behind or Sadie’s collection of albums by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Such entertainments had ground to a stop as Sadie’s illnesses piled up. For years, Sadie’s every phone call had come with a need attached. Those needs had an exponential quality that put Lura in mind of some Tribbles she’d seen on an old episode of “Star Trek.” They looked like furry grapefruit, and they purred to boot. Yet half a dozen of those seemingly innocuous creatures multiplied to the point where they ate the grain destined to feed an entire planet.

Lura walked back to the sofa and picked up her paperback. Reading was a chore. Her thoughts wandered between each sentence. She was biding time, waiting for the next call. She darted a glare at the answering machine.

“Why can’t you leave me be?” she said, averting her eyes from the blinking light.

Lura shook her head. She looked at the book in her hands: a mystery, she loved a good mystery, she could focus, she could read, she could put Sadie out of her mind.

Sadie had several useful tools for getting her way. Stooped, fragile Myra came first in her arsenal. Lura wasn’t a complete pushover. She’d tried to break free in the past. Sadie always brought her to heel with a quick “This is for Mother, Lura,” or a wistful “I hope I don’t have to put Mother in a facility. That would kill her, you know.”

“What can I do?” was the only possible reply Lura could make, with the occasional addition of an under-the-breath “you pest of a woman.”

Sadie’s own appearance had come in handy on occasion too, emanating a helpless despair that wound tendrils of pity around the unwary and the kind-hearted. Her hair was a mushroom cap — the mutated, flattened remnants of a beehive hairdo that had suffered a structural collapse. Lacking style or color, her clothes were dull, shapeless things fashioned from double-knit polyester, the slimy kind that had been everywhere in the ’70s but now took some effort to find even at the Goodwill on Patton Avenue. Her most striking feature, however, was a portable tank with a long tangle of clear plastic hose, which carried oxygen to her diseased lungs.

Sadie swore she started smoking at the age of six, picking up her father’s cigarette butts from the ashtrays scattered around the house. These days most visitors didn’t take kindly to her smoking when the home health agency had plastered “Flammable: No Smoking” warning stickers throughout the house. So Sadie did her smoking in secret. The cigarette smell clung to her, underlying an oppressive deodorized powder scent more typical of the frail elderly like Myra than a woman who had yet to reach 65.

When the COPD had first been diagnosed, Sadie went for the odd walk and stopped eating country ham to reduce her sodium intake. She also tried to quit smoking in fits and starts, aided by patches, then gums, pills, and even hypnotism. Going on oxygen had given Sadie permission to give up. Chained to the oxygen tank, she sat around the house, eating whatever she wanted, and if anyone suggested that Sadie quit smoking, she would reply, “It’s too late. I’m going to die, and I deserve to be comfortable.” Then she’d chastise Myra for letting her smoke in the first place.

Lura theorized that, in Sadie’s twisted brain, smoking had become a winning lottery ticket. With all prospects for managing her disease off the table, Sadie was free to complain incessantly — her once-sparkling humor lobotomized — and to use the COPD as an excuse to never get off her ass. Three Sundays past at about 8:30 in the morning, Lura was getting ready for Sunday school when Sadie phoned.

“Lura? It’s Sadie. Mother needs orange juice for breakfast. Can you come over?”

“I’m on my way to church now. I can walk by the store on the way home and pick some up,” Lura had replied. “Myra can have juice for lunch.”

“No, we’ve got juice. The problem is, I slept so poorly I can’t catch my breath, and Mother can’t carry the juice with her walker. It’s a bother, but her heart’s set.”

Lura had dropped her Bible on the sofa, walked out of her home, crossed the yard, and used her key to go in Sadie’s front door, through the living room, and into the kitchen. She covered the two feet from the cupboard to the refrigerator and then went, juice in hand, another foot and a half to the kitchen table. She set the glass in front of Myra.

Sadie reached across the table and guzzled the juice while Lura stood and watched.

“Just what I needed,” said Sadie. “Can you pour a glass for Mother?”

“I’m fine with my coffee,” said Myra.

Sadie never considered the possibility that Lura might feel like cold snot. Lura had quit her own three-pack-a-day habit the same day she came home from the hospital after a triple bypass. She couldn’t sleep through the night without taking painkillers before bed, and running a marathon couldn’t tire her out much worse than her blood pressure medication. Despite all that, she worked five days a week as an administrative assistant at a downtown law firm and still kept her house and yard spotless.

The phone rang. Lura’s stomach clenched. She put her book down and walked to the bedroom to avoid any trace of Sadie’s voice. She dusted her bedroom suite and then went back to the sofa. The light on the answering machine was blinking double-time.

“I’m not your maid,” said Lura. The light, a bright red beacon, seemed to demand a response. “I don’t have to come running every time you ring a bell.”

Lura had been glad to lend a hand in a pinch when Sadie first started asking for favors. She was a Methodist, after all. A true Wesleyan, not one of those God-fearing “toe the line or He’ll smite you but good” types who had taken her church hostage over the last few years. Those people often glossed over the single verse in the Bible that Lura believed was the literal truth: God is love. So she tried to love, and help those who needed aid. Lura had to give credit where due. The smiters, as she called those misguided church folk, did things for Sadie and Myra too. However, their contributions tended to coincide with seasonal events rather than the chores of daily life: Easter baskets, end-of-summer yard clean-up, Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas poinsettias and plates of sugar cookies.

A loud rapping startled Lura. A moment of worry dissolved under the knowledge that Sadie hadn’t negotiated the 30 feet between their houses in more than five years. She went to the entry and pushed open the door to see Nathan standing on the porch. A foot taller than Lura and black-haired to her premature white, Nathan smiled a lot and offered to mow her lawn or drive her to the grocery store. Lura considered that a nice change of pace even if she wouldn’t impose. Some of those smiters hated Nathan because he was gay. They called him everything from an abomination to a pederast. Of course, they never bothered to get to know him. Lura figured that nobody that nice could be headed for hell.

“Hi, L Square,” he said.

“You’re a silly man, calling me that.”

“Want to go to supper? I’m getting hungry, and I need some company.”

“I could eat a little something, but come in for a spell,” Lura said, ushering Nathan into the living room. “I’m hiding out from Sadie.”

Nathan sank into a green armchair, while Lura returned to the sofa. “Spill, Lura Lee, what’d she do? I was too brain-dead to ask you this morning. What evil has she wrought?”

“She’s just about stalking me,” Lura said. “I gave the house key back and told her not to call unless there was an emergency.”

“Good. Make a clean break.”

The phone began to ring.

“Sadie’s definition of emergency might not be overly strict,” Nathan said, laughing.

“She thinks I’ll cave,” replied Lura. She spoke a little louder to talk over the ringing. She was determined to ignore it. Nathan played along.

The ringing stopped and a murmur started as the machine switched on.

“Well, you know Sadie was in the hospital for three weeks last month,” Lura said. “It was hard on me and Sue watching after Myra constantly, and hard on Myra too.”

“You have a job. You can’t be her keeper. Who’s Sue again?”

“That aide from the state, the redhead. Well, come to find out, Sadie stopped taking her medicine on purpose so she could take a rest in the hospital.”

“Couldn’t that have killed her?” Nathan asked.

“I don’t think Sadie planned that far ahead,” Lura said. “She wanted a rest and damn everything else. After she dropped that news, I told her maybe it was time for Myra to go in a nursing home, and that woman said, ‘She can’t leave. The state won’t pay for Sue to come unless Mother’s here. Who’d take care of me?’”

“Selfish witch,” Nathan said. “The first time I met her, Sadie tricked me into helping her. An emergency, she said. Her entire life’s an emergency. She’s a liar and a user, Lura.”

“The stories I could tell! Still, her mother …”

“Come on, Mrs. Wilson is almost 100,” Nathan said. “You’ve helped her stay in her home a long time, but those two have run you ragged. You’ve got to be strong. Sadie’ll keep at you.”

Lura glanced at the answering machine. The red light blinked fast enough to keep time with a newborn’s heart.

“I know,” she said. “I’m fair to starvin’. Let’s go to dinner.”

“I’m ready, woman,” said Nathan, rising to his feet.

No more than three steps off the front porch, a cry of “Lura! Lura!” stopped them. To Lura’s left, Sadie was speeding across the lawn, her front door flung wide behind her. Sadie was dressed in a blouse and slacks, but she wore a housecoat as a jacket and had slippers on her feet. One hand lugged the oxygen tank, the other was held out in a beckoning gesture reminiscent of how Sadie used to get the attention of servers at Morrison’s Cafeteria for a coffee re-fill.

Lura heard Nathan breathe, “Oh Lord, what now?”

Sadie marched to a stop in front of Lura. “Can we talk? Tell me what I’ve done to upset you.”

“Sadie, I won’t discuss it again.”

Sadie reached out and clawed her fingers into the top of Lura’s forearm, using her thumb to pressure the underside. Lura could feel bruises forming.

“Lura, I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry, really.”

“I already said what you did when I gave you your key.” Lura spoke in the same patient, firm tone that she’d employed as a Sunday school teacher guiding toddlers who were trying to learn right from wrong.

“Mother will miss you if you don’t come by.” Sadie let her eyes tear up.

“Sadie, I’ve called the preacher and the social worker. They’re going to talk to Myra about going in the nursing home. I’ll be happy to visit her there.”

“You’re trying to kill me!” Sadie yelled. While her voice was a loud screech, her face lacked real anger. It was merciless, intent on its prey.

All these years, and I end up a murderer instead of a Good Samaritan, Lura thought. If she opened her mouth, Lura estimated the odds were 50-50 that she’d scream herself silly.

“You want me dead,” said Sadie, “so you can get Mother’s money!”

The urge to scream disappeared. Lura felt sucked dry.

“Myra’s Social Security check will go to the home, not to me — or you for that matter,” she said.

“Liar. You’re a no-good murdering thief!”

Nathan had been standing beside Lura on the walk. At that, he moved right up between the two women. Sadie went quiet as Nathan touched her. Finger by finger, Nathan peeled her hand off of Lura.  He didn’t say a word.

Sadie and Lura watched Nathan. Lura could hear an SUV driving down the street and birds chirping in the small grove of trees three houses down. But right there in her front yard, the world was frozen. The only movement was Nathan prying each finger loose. The only sound was Sadie’s breathing: heavy, harsh, just shy of a sob.

Nathan held Sadie’s hand for a moment. Lura was in awe. From a distance, a person might think he was preparing to kiss Sadie’s hand instead of immobilizing her fingers. Then Nathan let go and, ignoring Sadie’s burgeoning frown, smiled down at Lura.

Sadie stared at Nathan. Her hand fisted and headed toward his jaw before stopping abruptly mid-swing. The fist loosened and dissolved into an age-spotted hand, which wavered directionless in the air before falling to Sadie’s side. She reached into her housecoat pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

“You’ll have to excuse us, Sadie,” Nathan said. “We’re late for dinner.”

Nathan offered Lura his arm. “Shall we, Mrs. Biddix?”

“Lura! This is nonsense.” The oxygen tank slipped in Sadie’s grasp, its end clanging on the concrete.

Lura beamed at Nathan. “Why, thank you, kind sir.”

They went down the walk arm in arm.

“Lura!”

“She’ll try to weasel her way into your good graces again,” Nathan said.

“Let her. I’m done.”

“Lura! You bitch!”

Lura heard the rasp and click of the lighter, followed by a wordless, barking shout. She stumbled, losing hold of Nathan’s arm. This time the world kept moving, but Lura began to freeze. A stroke. That’s what it was. She couldn’t tell Nathan – lips and limbs were dragging to a stop. She pictured herself turning around. If she could do that one simple thing, the stroke would transform into clumsiness and instead she’d see Sadie lying curled on the walk, one cheek digging into the concrete; the oxygen tank rolling in the grass; and Nathan pulling out his cell phone and calling 911 as they ran back.

Sadie would breathe in labored pants interspersed with a whining moan. The visible side of her mouth and nose would be covered in blisters, some already breaking and weeping, and shiny bits of melted oxygen tubing would cling to her face. A peculiar stench would fill the air.

Lura would do her best to ignore the vomit rising in her throat. She’d kneel down, pushing aside the remains of the forgotten cigarette pack and lighter. She would put her hand on Sadie’s forehead and gaze into her pain-glazed eye.

“Take a rest,” she’d say. “You’ve inhaled the flames.”

Lura didn’t wish Sadie ill. She didn’t want revenge or retribution or karmic justice. Lura imagined Sadie’s destruction so she wouldn’t witness her own unfolding, so she wouldn’t see her future: dribbling and wheelchair-bound, trapped in a nursing home with instant mashed potatoes, pudding, and Sadie and Myra.

Lura was lying on the path where she’d fallen. She couldn’t speak or move her right arm or leg. Nathan was by her side, his cell phone at his ear. With his free hand, he picked up her left hand and held it in a strong, warm grasp.

“You’ll be OK, Lura,” he said. “The ambulance is coming.”

Sadie stood over Lura. Her cigarette dangled between two fingers, dropping clumps of ash across Lura’s jeans in random splotches. The ash was dirty white, like plowed snow that’s overdue to melt.

END

Caralyn Davis is a fiction and nonfiction writer living in Asheville, North Carolina, but originally hails from Albany, Georgia. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in MonkeybicycleThe Drum, Side B Literary Magazine (2011 Dual Publication Award winner) and Relief Journal. She is a student in the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

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