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Nan’s first floor apartment is at the end of a long bare hallway. She stands in her doorway and waves me in. I can’t understand why she is not shattered by the effort. She has withered since the last time I worked with her in our writing class. We hug. I hold a bundle of cool sticks in my arms.
The apartment is featureless, except for two finely woven sisal knots hanging on the white wall above the couch. I remember her telling the writing circle that her family was helping her move into an apartment. It would be easier to keep up than the house. The kids would hang on to the house, maybe rent it out for a while, till she could return home.
We sit on the couch. I look around. There is a small old model tv, two shelves of books, an oxygen tank with mask, a glass-doored cabinet with stacks of china in it, a dining room table piled with file folders, and two dining room chairs set to look out the patio window. I want to run.
“My voice is a little raspy,” Nan says. “Nothing serious. The radiation treatments and the feeding tube while I was in the hospital.” I don’t ask questions. This is not a hospice call. I am here to witness her write.
She tells me she is concerned she may not have enough time to complete her book. There is a co-writer. He is an extension of her soul. His work is in the files on the dining room table. Her stories come from four decades of nursing. She coughs, coughs, coughs again. “The membrane around my lungs is torn. It will take time to heal,” she says.
She offers tea. “Maybe a glass of water, it’s a hot day.” The light is brassy in the northern window. I nod. She goes again to the kitchen and brings us water.
“Let’s begin,” she says. “Do you have a prompt for me?”
I nod. It’s a small lie. I can barely think. I sit with her death, in a room featureless save for two sisal knots hanging on the wall. The room is quiet. She waits. I look up at the knots. “Only I know the story of the sisal knots. It must be told,” I say. She bends over her notebook and smiles. I look away. The movement of her pen over the page is a steady whisper. “I hope you’ll write too,” she says. I take a checkbook and pen out of my purse, and begin on the back side of a check:
It must be told. This morning I stopped at the recycle bin in the mall so I could dump a bag of empty juice and salsa bottles. There had been a blizzard a couple days earlier. A blue Sentra sat in a parking space near the bin. The paint was rust-splotched, the front fender bent in. A fan was duct taped just above the passenger window. The mall plow had piled a four foot tall berm across the back of the car. I wondered who had customized the car. I wondered who had plowed it in.
I remembered when I’d been a young divorced mom two thousand miles — and fifty years — distant. My three kids and I had lived on Welfare in a ghetto apartment. I’d made four loaves of bread from surplus flour, oatmeal and lard. The kids were at Headstart and kindergarten. It was almost time to walk to the school to pick them up for our lunch of home-baked bread and peanut butter. I’d closed the blinds on the first floor apartment. Creepy guys used the alleyway to deal dope. I pulled on my coat and opened the front door. In the three hours since the kids had gone to school, the snow had piled three feet high outside the door. The landlord, as usual, had done nothing.
I pulled the bag of bottles off the back seat and walked to the recycle bin. I slammed each bottle, one at a time, through the hole into the bin. “This one’s for the landlord. This one’s for my ex. This one’s for every pious fuck who grouses about lazy women on Welfare. This one’s for every dope dealer — street or corporate — then and now. This one’s for cancer.”
I check my watch. “I’m not ready to stop,” Nan says. “There is so much left to tell.”