A short story by Rachel Kirkwood
The only one of the family home that morning was Cathy. It was one of those strange days where the sun’s rays looked like a small opening to heaven, emerging through a blanket of dark clouds. She knew it would rain, but for the few moments before it did, the light poured in through every window. The shower caddy was full of products that no one had used in years: her father’s fine-tooth combs, her niece’s bubblegum-scented shampoo, and a bar of dried-out, unscented soap.
By the time she had gotten out of the shower, the hot rain had begun to fall, and she went to wipe the condensation off of the mirror with her towel. The first thing she noticed in the clear streak in the mirror was the creases between her brows and just below her eyes, where wrinkles had formed from years of laughter. Her reflection looked back at her, their eyes glued to each other, as she reached for her toothbrush with her right hand and the sink faucet with her left. Before she could find either, her fingers touched something small and metal. Her eyes were forced to detach from the mirror to look at her hands running across the counter, the valleys of wrinkles that littered her skin more prominent in the pale morning light. In her right hand, she now held a hairpin that she had failed to notice sitting on the white-tiled vanity when she had entered the shower.
Her fingers gripped the pin harder, carefully bringing it closer to her aging eyes. As it came into focus, a silvery strand of hair revealed itself, stuck perpendicular inside the clip. She let out an involuntary sigh and through her lips slipped the words “mom’s hair,” as if needing to explain her astonishment to her mirrored self. She gingerly placed it in the middle of the white tiles. On the barren vanity, whose shelves and drawers had been cleared out long ago, the dense, brassy, metal clip sat in contrast with the rest of the room, which now seemed hollowed out and devoid of color. She went to the kitchen to search for a bag or box that could hold it securely. This may be her mother’s final heirloom to give, she thought.
The kitchen’s linoleum floor was sticky, and her clean feet pulled against it, making a soft ripping sound with each step. The drawer under where her mother’s phonebook always sat opened with some resistance; it had been coated with so many layers of off-white paint that it didn’t fit correctly in its socket anymore. Where she was expecting a plethora of organized storage bags, she found only two loose gallon-sized Ziploc bags.
She stepped lightly as she walked back across the kitchen, trying to keep the freshly-cleaned bottoms of her bare feet smooth. The gallon-sized bag was much too large for its contents – a small hair clip and a strand of a dead woman’s hair. The treasure would drown in the emptiness of the plastic, she thought, like one girl in a four-bedroom house. Her busy mind ceased its murmuring the second she returned to the vanity; the clip was gone. She visualized herself, less than three minutes ago, placing it in the middle of the pearly countertop. She remembered the contrast of the dark brass against the white tile. Her hands began to crawl through every fiber of the bathmat and in and out of each cabinet. She found only rusting pipes and a wet, hard floor. In a puddle of her own bath water, skin cold against the unwelcoming flooring, she began to cry.
About three hours later, she returned from the market with enough groceries to fill the dated refrigerator for the first time in years. The paper bags she carried home were filled so full that they threatened to rip, but no one was around to hear her complain about her shoulder pain, so she kept quiet. Sliding a rotisserie chicken onto the bottom shelf, she suddenly remembered the pin she had spent hours trying to forget. Leaving the refrigerator door open, lights on and internal fan humming, her neck craned towards the bathroom. She thought to herself how crazy she must seem and then remembered there was no one there to notice. Walking towards the light blue bathroom, her pupils contracted in response to the bright sunlight that shone through the window by the mirror. The door was halfway open, but she thought she might have left it that way. Pushing it all the way open, she saw it from feet away: the tiny scrap of metal, smack-dab in the middle of the white-tiled counter. She could feel her heartbeat in between her ears as she picked it up to find the shiny hair sitting perpendicular to the brass.
That afternoon she drove to see her father. The building he lived in was filled with paisley carpeting and beige furniture skins, which all seemed to hold the stench of aged coffee breath. The archways and mahogany tables gave the space a manufactured elegance and familiarity. The same set-up was copied and pasted throughout this national chain of nursing homes. It seemed like the people were too: a few women with red lipstick sprinkling their front teeth, a tall man with a much-too-short walker, someone from the fourth floor constantly cradling a plastic doll.
That morning was the first time in years she had been awake before her father. His sleeping frame sported a generic, white, cotton t-shirt and she was surprised by the measly circumference of his biceps and forearms. His papery skin was wrapped around his veins so delicately she could almost see the blood coursing through them and worried that if she touched him, she might leave a bruise. He sat up quickly, as if he had just realized he overslept his alarm by five hours.
He began rambling with an inflection and tone she had only ever heard from behind the doors of his home office. For the first time, this stream of consciousness seemed to need validation: her validation. Her ears perked up as if just realizing she would be tested on the material.
“There was a market, Cathy. You would have loved it. You had to stumble down a long pathway from the villa. It was made of cobblestone, so, you know I had to watch my feet. But once you got there it was all open air and white tents and women who looked like your mother ten years ago, selling fruit. We have to go back, you and me. I liked it even more than Naples. Do you remember Naples?” He paused for a second, but barely waited for a response. “Verona…Italy,” he sighed, and a pleasant smile dashed across his face. Watching the square rug go out of focus, Cathy unintentionally smiled too. Snap out of it, she thought to herself, and blinked back into reality.
Reminding him of his dementia was her least favorite responsibility and probably a key reason she hadn’t visited in months. She spoke as if she was reading a script: “While these fantasies are nice, and we would love them to be true –”. He cut her off. “I know. I know they are not. You tell me. The nurses tell me. Your brothers tell me. I know,” he spoke quickly and firmly.
His voice softened. “I’ve had dreams before. I mean, I’ve had them all my life, but, nothing like this. I feel like I die every morning. There’s another world and it’s going on without me. I travel a lot there. One day I’m in Spain and the other in Thailand. Some days I’m the President of the United States during a nuclear war; your brother will tell you, that was a bad one. He drove me all the way to the Los Angeles Airport so I could get on a plane to Cheyenne Mountain. Sometimes I’m home, instead of this god-awful place, with you kids instead of the nurses. Every time I come back here it feels like a dream. I’m just waiting for it end so that I can come back to reality: to Italy, to Cheyenne Mountain, back home.”
Cathy’s mind was frustratingly blank. After a moment, she broke the silence: “Maybe it is real to you. There isn’t much research about dementia. I don’t know, Dad. Maybe in some way you really are in Italy, or Thailand, or back home.” They looked at each other for a minute, communicating an understanding that words couldn’t quite convey, before he changed the subject, asking, “How is the house?” She listed the things in need of repair: paint to spackle and floorboards to replace. She thought of the clip and the mysterious return of it. The room filled with dead air for a moment, and she clasped her hands together in her lap. She hesitated for a moment, before murmuring, “I think Mom is haunting me.” Then, she recounted the events of her morning. She waited for a logical response from her father, an atheist and a scientist. To her surprise, he sat quietly through the entire story, looking up at the popcorn ceiling above his bed. When she finished, he turned his head to rest sideways on the pillow in order to look into her eyes. He responded, “Maybe I am haunting you.”
She quickly scoffed; the claim was ridiculous. It was compulsory that she dismiss it. The two were silent for a full hour after that. She considered his proposal and his stubbornness about the realness of his daydreams, grasping the brass hair clip in her right palm the whole time.