by Susie Sherrill
Ellen awakens feeling her cheeks burning with the heat of struggle. In her dream, she had been trapped underwater. She had felt the pressure on her body at great depth with no buoyancy, so she could only walk in slow motion on the bottom, trying to move to shallow water to walk onshore.
She opens her eyes to her real life and her body, made heavy by the Parkinson’s. As she lifts herself to her elbow, the strength to push herself to sitting is more than she can muster, and she falls onto her back on the bed. She turns her head to look at the clock. It is late. She has not taken her medicine.
Half an hour later, she has found a way to stand by using the ladder design of the headboard to pull herself up gradually. Now, lying back on her chaise in her dressing room off the bath, she pulls on slacks, slowly working them up to her crotch. She has to stand up to pull them to her waist. She moves her legs to the side of the chaise, holds onto the arm with both hands and pulls forward, bounces back then pulls again, getting enough momentum to lift her bottom up. Then, still holding the arm, she pulls her slacks up on one side, switches hands and pulls up the other side. She is already wearing a shirt she’s made her way into like a stretchy tunnel. She scans the room for her flats. (She can slip into them without bending over.) Then she concentrates on placing her feet, as she walks into the bathroom, her body wavering like a tight-rope walker.
She catches a movement through the door. Is that someone in the bathroom? I must have glimpsed my reflection in the mirror, she decides. She aims for the brush and watches her veined hand move spider-like to the handle and grasp it. She looks in the mirror into her own eyes. Their cerulean blue is dulled from squinting through thick moisture. Her eyes had always been her best feature; her eyes and her legs, friends had told her in high school. A line from a poem she remembered in English class that had made them laugh comes back to her: “the dear ruin.” It had seemed impossible that they, in their robust youth, would ever be ruined. She watches herself slowly bring the brush up to her head and move it up to her hair, where she rests it before initiating its slide through her straight, salted hair. Parkinson’s has manifested in her as extremely slow movement and weakness.
She weaves her way to the kitchen and looks at the coffee pot, dreading the slow process of making a cup. I’m not ready to take this on, she thinks, and lets herself be drawn toward the light in the living room. Did I take my medicine? she wonders. I must have. My mouth is all dry and chalky.
As she enters, the light splinters into lightning rays. Then what she sees is so startling her head bobbles. There is a strange man and woman sitting on the sofa. She looks again, trying to recognize the faces, searching her mind for visitors she has forgotten were coming. Clarence, at the downstairs desk, always calls to announce any guests. Am I still dreaming? They look at her with a haughty disdain. She takes a deep breath, grown hot with anxiety, to gather her courage to say,
“May I help you.”
She is startled by her own vehemence. They don’t answer but only stare at her, looking down their noses, which appear to be very long. The woman straightens her back with indignation. She is wearing a pillbox hat like her mother wore in the fifties. The man wears a gray suit. His face, stretched and thin, grows longer. His hairline seems to recede before her eyes, his mouth draws down with disapproval.
I’m being polite! She catches a vision of herself at her first tea as an adolescent. Her mother had drilled her on the Southern customs of good manners with threats of being disdained if she made a faux pas.
She feels a tremulous wave of fear spasm from her belly up to her neck. She inhales courage and thinks, looking quizzically from face to face, sees that the man—well-heeled with perfectly creased pants—and the woman—complete with hat and gloves—still seem to be paused and disapproving, waiting for her to do something. She vaguely assumes they must be neighbors she has not met. The woman tightens her lips, the man chuckles softly behind his fist.
“Do you live in the building?” she asks, in a conversational tone, but she only gets tight, patronizing smiles that make her nervous. What else can she do?
“I’m leaving,” she pronounces. Then she realizes she didn’t mean to say that so they could hear, so continues, “I have to go downstairs, if you’ll excuse me.” They don’t change their attitude and even disapprove of her walking across the room, which makes her self-conscious, and she stumbles.
Hugh is supposed to come home early, but she’s had enough. She takes the key off the chest by the door and walks to the elevator, seeing someone following her in her peripheral vision. When the automatic door opens, she trembles trying to hurry her slow movements before the door closes. As she rides to the lobby, she feels somebody standing behind her, but she dares not look around.
In the lobby, she shuffles across the marble floor to the desk where her friend, Clarence, is working. Ellen is relieved to see his smile, his cheeks rising like yeast rolls when he sees her.
“Hey, Clarence, I came down here because there’s a strange couple up in our place.”
“Couple?” he says. “Hadn’t anybody come by the desk to ask me to tell you they here. Are they people that live in the building?
“I’ve never seen them before. They’re snooty. I wouldn’t mind if you kicked them out,” she jokes.
Clarence gives a high crooning laugh and says, “Let me at ‘em, Miss Ellen.” He hunches his shoulders and punches the air like a boxer. She laughs and relaxes, the pain of her tight neck releases.
“No, really, you want me to go take a look? I will.”
“No, Hugh will be home early. He’ll know what to do. I’ll wait over here.”
In the sitting area, she picks up a magazine and pretends to read it, but a man and woman sitting across from her watch her, narrowing their eyes. She wonders why they would disapprove of her looking at a magazine. She pretends to read, turning the pages, stopping at a picture of a summer salad with figs. She feels the suction of her mouth watering and realizes she is hungry, but she’ll wait for Hugh. She nods and closes her eyes. Stern, judging faces flash behind her eyelids before she drifts off to sleep, her magazine lowering into her lap. When she awakens, the faces are gone.
Her chair faces the front double glass doors, the decorative glass wavering in the light like water. When Hugh comes striding toward the glass, his form wavers too. She thinks, It looks like he’s moving easily through water, and she remembers her dream. She wishes he’d been there to help her.
Coming inside, he is the old familiar shape of him that had first attracted her, now only a little bent forward from years of ambition. He turns toward the elevator without seeing her. She calls to him. He turns, but, as is his habit, he doesn’t change expressions with his surprise.
“Hey, what are you doing down here?” he asks.
Their eyes meet with a spark of the electric blue that had first ignited their love. Now, the spark lights with the silent understanding of this diminishment they must face together. He puts a bag he is carrying down on the marble floor. She can smell the succulent aroma of their dinner, and licks back the juices that spring to her mouth. Taking both her hands, he begins pulling her up. Her hands hold tight, her legs push hard, and momentarily she feels strong, doing her part to stand erect.
“I came down here to get away from those people up there.”
“I’ll show you, a man and a woman. I hope they’re gone.”
“Where did they come from, Ellen? Did Clarence call that they were coming up?”
“I don’t know. No. They just came in.”
He steps closer and straightens, his gaze intense, in cross-examination mode.
“Yes, they were in the living room when I walked in.”
“Should I call the police?”
“No, I think they must be neighbors. They were well dressed, but so snooty.”
“’Huh?” He cuts a glance at her.
“You’ll see.” He leads her toward the elevator.
“Don’t forget our dinner,” she reminds him.
He brightens and scoops it up.
The elevator ride is easier together. They reach their door.
“You left it unlocked?” he asks.
They go past the foyer and into the living room. Ellen sees the man and woman still sitting there, haughtily turning toward them.
“See?” Ellen whispers,
“Where?” Hugh asks, opening his hands out, but she is already introducing him.
“This is my husband, Hugh.”
“Ellen!” Hugh stares at her. She watches his face crumbling, his eyes piercing hers with fear. Then she sees fear turn to the disdain for weakness he had inherited from his father. Through the years, she had learned that he does this to protect himself, to not lose control.
“There’s nobody here!”
“What? There they are, sitting right there on the sofa.” Ellen had had years of experience standing up for herself before Hugh’s constant certainty that he is always right.
“There’s nobody here. Look!”
He turns and, with frantic determination, sits down hard right on top of the snobbish man. Ellen gasps, her hand flying to her mouth, as she looks at the strange man, who rolls his eyes up in forbearance.
Ellen stiffens, horrified at Hugh’s blunder.
“Hugh, that’s so rude.”
She can’t see the woman and goes to the side of the couch to see if she fell off when Hugh bounced on the man, but she has disappeared.
“You think that’s rude, watch this.”
Hugh jumps up and plops down where the woman was. Ellen stifles a laugh because he can’t see that the woman’s not even there. Hugh sees her and says, “Are you joking, Ellen?” A tentative smile plays on his face.
“What’s wrong with you? They’re here,” she says. “I’ve got to apologize, because now they have a reason to be offended—” but she stops to wonder at his expression.
He looks so searchingly at her with the corners of his lips turned down, reminding her of a childhood picture of him about to cry. She feels fear weaken her annoyance. Suddenly, her own thoughts disappear, he’s looking at her so intensely. She can’t think what to think, and trying leaves her empty.
“I’m going to call your doctor. Come on in the dining room. Let’s eat while I call.”
She turns to check out the mysterious pair. Both have returned to the sofa, their arms folded.
“Don’t you all have a home?” she blurts out, unable to be polite any longer.
“Don’t talk to them!” Hugh turns and grabs her arm. His thumb and forefinger meet on the underside and pinch her, bringing tears that blur her vision.
“You hurt me.” Her arm and her feelings. He had always been on her side.
“I didn’t mean to. Ellen, this is serious.” He takes her shoulders gently. “Darling, you’re seeing things.”
“Hugh, I know what I see.”
She listens to him leave a message for the doctor that his wife is having hallucinations. She feels like she’s losing her balance, though she’s sitting down. As they eat, he questions her, did she take her medicine this morning? When did she first see them? Had they spoken to her? She decided not to tell him that they were walking around them at the table even now.
After eating, he gives her the medication and helps her back into the living room, and they both become absorbed in the News. So tangled the world is, but they must understand what’s real. Then they enjoy their favorite show, House. If Hugh can’t see that couple in the room, Ellen won’t look for them. She decides to ignore them.
At bedtime, Hugh doesn’t mention the man and woman now invading their bedroom, so Ellen doesn’t either.
“We’ll be going to the doctor first thing in the morning,” he says as he helps her pull off her shirt, then embraces her roughly. She smells his familiar scent as he scrubs her cheek with his evening stubble, sending a thrill down the sides of her neck.
“The doctor will fix you up. It’s going to be all right.”
Hum, she thinks, is it all right for people to be walking around in our bedroom? She studies Hugh, thinking maybe he is the crazy one, but he’s arranging their pillows and she can’t see his eyes. Besides, she is too confused to argue. Could she no longer believe her own eyes? Was she crazy or was he?
Finally, in their bed clothes, they get into bed just like they always do, she on the left and he on the right.
“How are you feeling now?” he asks her.
She hesitates. There are people in their bedroom. How could they have any privacy?
Suddenly, she feels the mattress give. She turns her head to see the woman climbing into the bed with her clothes on. She can’t hold it back any longer.
“Get out of our bed!” she screams.
“Don’t talk to them,” Hugh tops her scream.
The man climbs in bed on top of the woman.
“There are people getting in this bed with us. Do something. Get them out!”
Hugh pleads, “Ellen, please. They are not real.”
“Well, if you don’t call the police to get them out of here, I’m going to call them myself. We deserve our privacy.”
Immediately, Hugh gets out of bed. “Come on, Ellen, come with me.” He takes her hand and leads her into the bathroom, closing the door. “Are they in here?”
She looks around, only seeing their familiar images in the mirror. She in her white cotton gown, the yoke edged with lace, and he, bare chested, in his sleeping shorts. Their eyes meet in the mirror.
“No,” she says. “They’re not here. It’s just us.”
He takes her hand and leads her into the dark dressing room to the chaise. “Then we’ll sleep here. Come here.”
He lies on his side and pats the space beside him. She understands, reading his eyes, and smiles. She fits herself perfectly in the space he has created. He pulls the afghan over them both.
“Now close your eyes. You’re safe, Ellen. I’ve got you. If you see anyone, just squeeze my arm and I’ll hold you tight, so you’ll know what’s real.”
Susie Sherrill, a therapist and writer, has published in several academic and literary journals. She is presently finishing a creative nonfiction book with her sister, Bala Chance, called “Completion.” Read her previous work in Deep South here.