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Jul/Aug 2017 Fiction

PROCEED WITH CAUTION

by Marlene Olin

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream


Their house was a cauldron of female hormones: the monthly sanitary supplies, the makeup, the histrionics. Two generations of mother hens taking care of their sibling miscreants. Cheryl and her sister Dara, Cheryl's mother Audrey and her sister Lettie. Every day was a nightmare.

"Dara takes after your father," Audrey used to say. "And your grandfather, may he rot in Hell, was a loon just like your Aunt Lettie."

There was always a cigarette between Audrey's fingers, a curl of smoke following her from room to room. No matter where she went, the smell lingered—on her hair, her clothes, in her car.

And that laugh. Guttural and sharp, Audrey's laugh was more like a squawk. Just the thought of it made Cheryl wince.

"The past is never past," said Audrey. "No matter what you do, the stains don't rub out. No matter where you go, the bad stuff always sticks."

Audrey was only 60 when she got sick, but the emphysema left its mark. Like a well-traveled passport, her cheeks were stamped with wrinkles, her skin a sepia brown. And the whole time she went downhill, the dog lay in her lap. How she loved that damn dog.

"Little Bitty would never survive without me," she'd rasp. Then Audrey would tug out her oxygen tubes, take a drag, and stick them back in. "I'm gonna outlive this dog if it kills me."

Audrey's lips were dried and shrunken, and the dog would cock up its head and lick the cracks. The Pekingese with its ugly, punched-in face had trouble breathing, too. Cheryl could still see her mother's spindly fingers running through its filthy coat, could still picture the way that dog's hair swept the floor, mopping up crumbs and dirt. But despite Audrey's intentions, perhaps to spite them, the dog survived long after she'd gone.

 

Looking back, each decision in Cheryl's life was predicated on wiping the slate clean. She went to college, got a teaching degree, earned enough money to buy nice clothes and a small condo. She wanted a life free of encumbrances—no children, no pets, no obligations. And when she met Doug, he slipped into her world seamlessly.

Like Cheryl, he taught English at the adult education center. The women in Cheryl's family resembled crows on a power line. Thick black hair. Big-breasted and small hipped. Doug looked like the cover of a Beach Boy CD. Blond hair, tanned, blue eyes. They spent weekdays at her apartment, commuted together, pooled their resources to buy a boat. And on the weekends, they'd sail from Miami to Key West with the wind on their backs and their cares left behind.

Sure there were glitches. Cheryl loved nothing better that a thick, juicy T-bone while Doug was a vegetarian. Doug liked deep sea diving; Cheryl preferred snorkeling. But five years flew by, and still they were together. In a few months, she'd be turning forty. Time, she had realized, tugged like an underwater current. It was easier to glide with the tide.

They were in their kitchen. Cheryl, as usual, was microwaving two dinners. A black bean burrito for Doug, some sort of chicken tetrazzini concoction for herself. On the oven door loomed a rectangle with bright red letters: PEOPLE WITH HEART CONDITIONS MUST STAND FIVE FEET AWAY!

"I was thinking," said Doug. "If we stay in Idaho, we can save a little money."A fan of travel brochures was spread across the Formica table. "My hair guy always stays in Idaho. It's a 45-minute bus ride, tops."

For their Christmas holiday, they had decided to treat themselves to a ski vacation in Jackson Hole. It was already October. The airplane tickets were purchased. The only thing left to do was pick the hotel. Cheryl had imagined scenes from SKI! Magazine. A crackling fireplace. A down comforter on a large brass bed. Sitting in a stuffy bus wrapped in two layers of thermal underwear didn't fit the picture. The what-ifs and maybes were lined up in her head when her cell phone rang.

The screen lit up with vaguely familiar name. Cheryl felt her stomach flip. She swiped the screen and heard a booming voice.

"Is this Cheryl? Is this Lettie Wilner's niece? This is her super. You know. The guy in the front office at Century Village."

Cheryl remembered a large black man watching TV, his huge, sneakered feet plopped on a desk. She and Doug had spent a whole day moving her aunt's things into the apartment.

"Lettie got lost again," boomed the voice. "Found her wandering the complex in her nightie. Gonna need a chip in her ear pretty soon."

Cheryl listened while the man unleashed a torrent of complaints. Lettie nearly burned down the building. Lettie stopped up the plumbing. When she closed her eyes, Cheryl could see the images in Technicolor with Dolby Sound.

"So what are you saying?" asked Cheryl.

The super seemed to have her on speakerphone. Like a thunderbolt from the heavens, the words bounced off the walls and rattled her teeth. "What I'm saying is that we're an adult community. We're not in the business of babysitting the residents."

Cheryl envisioned Lettie in baby doll pajamas with a big satin bow bobby-pinned to her head. Her aunt had always prided herself on being different. Clothes from thrift shops. Oddball hats. Kabuki makeup. She cultivated her eccentricity, waving and curling her hair like an old time movie star's. And that voice! A cross between a lisp and a little girl whisper, it always drove Cheryl's mother to distraction. But now Lettie was taking wacky to a whole new level.

Cheryl shut the phone, got up from her chair, and dumped her dinner into the garbage. Even then she had an inkling a door was closing. Grabbing her fork, she ran the tines over her plate.

"My aunt's being evicted. They think she has dementia. They think she's losing her mind."

"How can they tell?" asked Doug.

She looked at him. A small smile worked the corners of his mouth.

"Really?" said Cheryl. "You think this is funny. Really?"

The next day Cheryl called in sick, drove up to Broward County, and found her aunt's belongings piled on the curb. Her forest green Barcalounger was parked on the sidewalk with Lettie still in it. A tall, bronze reading lamp with a tassled shade stood by her side, its unplugged cord coiling on the grass. Her aunt held a newspaper, her chin rising and falling as she scanned the lines.

"They're gonna douse uth with insecticide," said Lettie. "Spway it from the sky. If you ask me, I'd wather take my chances with that mothquito."

The old woman was wearing a chenille bathrobe the color of lemons. She had dyed her now-white hair jet black. Cheryl gently folded the newspaper and grabbed her aunt's chin. Two large brown paper bags next to her were packed with clothes and medications. A bottle of powdered laxative lay on the ground. CONTENTS, said the label, MAY SETTLE DURING SHIPPING.

"Do you know who I am, Lettie?"

The old woman placed her hand on Cheryl's forehead as if she were checking her temperature. "Are you ill or just plain stupid? " asked Lettie. "Of course I know who you are."

Cheryl loaded whatever fit in her Honda and bribed a handyman to haul the rest to the landfill. Then she grabbed her aunt's elbow and steered her towards the car. The old woman backed up like a truck in reverse, easing her ass slowly into the front seat.

"You're gonna stay with me until we find you another place," said Cheryl. "I have a guest bedroom. Remember my guest bedroom?"

"It's about time you wescued me from this hornet's nest," said Lettie.

"You microwaved your shoes?"

"They were wet!" said Lettie.

"You flushed a head of lettuce!"

"The disposal wouldn't work. They needed to fix the disposal!"

By now it was late afternoon, the roads filled with rush hour traffic. Drivers were jockeying for position, pressing down on their horns, squeezing between bumpers. Cheryl needed an assessment, a grasp on the potholes and detours that lay ahead. She spoke loudly, asking Lettie the same short and to-the-point questions she asked her students.

"Do you know what day it is, Lettie? What country are we living in? Do you know what a fire hazard is, Lettie? Can you tell me the names of your parents?"

Overhead, a neon signed blinked SLIPPERY WHEN WET. In the backseat, her aunt was gazing out the window.

"Good grief! Have you losth your hearing?" yelled Lettie. "Your mother, if you recollect, was almost deaf in the end. Those cancer sticks clogged every last artery she had."

Friends. Maybe her aunt had some friends she could live with.

"Do you have anybody I can call, Lettie?" Cheryl imagined a cute little house in some God forsaken neighborhood. Whatever was the name of that movie with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? The one with the two crazy old ladies?

"How the men flocked to our door," Lettie sniffed. "The women... not so much."

The old woman's mind seemed to oscillate between two different poles. At times Lettie seemed stuck in the 1980's. The four of them living in their old house in Kendall. Kotex napkins. Dippity-dooed pin curls. The shower cap hair dryer with its caterpillar hose. Then for a few short minutes, she'd re-surface and know where she was, who she was.

That night Cheryl tucked Lettie in, sat by her bed, read her a magazine, pulled a tattered quilt over her bony chest. A cotton nightgown two sizes too big kept sliding off Lettie's shoulders. The skin on her arms hung in folds, her breasts lay flattened on her chest. Everything about Lettie seem deflated, like someone had sucked out the youth and beauty and left behind layers of corrugated skin. Just when her eyes were fluttering, a shaky hand grabbed Cheryl's wrist.

"Thank you, thweetheart," she whispered. "You're a good girl. You've always been the best."

Doug was waiting in the kitchen when Cheryl was through. It had been the longest day of her life. The cleaning. The schlepping. The unpacking. She opened up the refrigerator and searched the shelves for a late night snack. Other than a bottle of wine and two hunks of questionable cheese, nothing was there.

Next she opened the cabinet doors and searched the pantry. Granola bars. Coconut water. Crackers made from hemp. In the rear of a shelf she finally found something remotely appealing. She glanced at the cookies' ingredients. Ground oats. Rice flour. Agave. Then in big block letters: THIS MAY CONTAIN NUTS.

"Lettie's a picky eater," said Cheryl. "We'll have to buy some soft stuff. Yogurt. Eggs. Jell-o."

Doug pretended to skim through the mail. "We should make a separate list. A Lettie list, don't you think? That way we can keep her expenses separate."

The deal they had made five years ago was simple. Cheryl would pay the mortgage and the condo maintenance fees just like she always had. Doug would live rent-free as long as he paid for utilities and food. That Cheryl bore the brunt of the burden was a subject neither of them brought up.

CAUTION, blared the coffeemaker. THIS APPLIANCE MAY BE HOT AFTER HEATING.

Cheryl felt a hot flash work its way from her neck up. "You know this is just temporary. There must be places where she can go, people like herself she can be with."

In her naiveté, Cheryl imagined that her aunt would be gone in a week or two. Never did she dream that Lettie would still be living with them by Thanksgiving.

 

Their students were mostly immigrants from Latin American countries who knew nothing about the holiday. Each year the faculty hosted a potluck party for the entire school. A long table in the cafeteria was decorated with gourds and tiny pumpkins. A decapitated turkey sat primly on a platter with its elbows tucked in. Lettie, resplendent in an orange silk shirt, orange lipstick, and orange earrings, was propped on a chair next to it.

"How nice that you brought your mother," said the friendly Haitian teacher.

Whatever was her name, thought Cheryl. Angeline? Madeline? Roseline? "Lettie's my aunt." Then Cheryl steered her out of earshot. "I've been trying to find an assisted living facility, but it's harder than I thought."

"Those places smell like pees," replied the Haitian teacher in a lovely Caribbean lilt. "Sheet and pees and vomeet."

The principal was a generation older than most of the staff. Juan Castillo—balding, bulbous, a road map of veins traversing his nose—joined the conversation.

"We Cuban families take care of our own. Three, four generations. Living together. Taking care of each other."

The three of them glanced at Lettie. There was a red-stained moustache over her mouth. She had located a cornucopia-shaped gelatin mold and was shoveling in large spoonfuls. They watched as she dipped the spoon into the mold, aimed for her mouth, then back again into the mold. On the wall above her a fire extinguisher read: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS.

"Then again," said Castillo, "maybe you could find a nice group home."

 

As Christmas approached, Cheryl had conflicted feelings. It was nice to have family around during the holidays. Together she and Lettie strung popcorn on a tree and mailed cards to distant cousins. But it was risky leaving Lettie alone. Cheryl hid the knives and unplugged the appliances. The ski trip was coming up in a matter of weeks. Then what would she do?

They were watching TV in their small living room. Lettie seemed to live on Pacific Standard Time. Breakfast was at five, lunch at ten, supper at four. By nine o'clock at night she was snoring in her bed. Doug had one hand around Cheryl's shoulder while the other was wrapped around the remote control.

IF YOU HAVE AN ERECTION FOR MORE THAN FOUR HOURS, blurted the screen, PLEASE CONSULT A PHYSICIAN.

"I called the hotel today," said Doug. "They said I could change the room from a king to two doubles. So Larry Wilcox offered to take your place. Isn't that great? I mean I'm bummed out that you're not coming, but this way your deposit won't be a total loss. You know what I mean?"

The room had been a 50-50 expense. Cheryl thought wistfully of snow crystals on a windowpane, a mug of steaming cider, that crackling fireplace. Then she imagined taking a red-hot poker and clobbering Doug repeatedly on the head.

"Will Larry reimburse me for my half?" asked Cheryl.

"No use crying over spilt milk, honeybuns," said Doug.

He squinted at the television and changed the channel. ANY RESEMBLANCE TO ACTUAL PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD IS UNINTENTIONAL shot up on the screen.

 

Doug's week in Jackson Hole came and went. And after spending seven days straight with her aunt, Cheryl was more convinced than ever that Lettie had to move on. Sure she tried temporary stopgaps. She went to a home health store and bought a chair for the shower. She bought a walker and stuck two tennis balls on the front feet like the AARP magazine advised. But she was always one step behind. She never imagined the ways her aunt could get into trouble.

Lettie stored stockings in the refrigerator and cottage cheese in her nightstand. One day she sprayed the entire house with hairspray thinking it was room deodorizer. Cheryl came home from a Pilates class to find her aunt sitting in a toxic cloud, choking and coughing over the fumes. Cheryl picked up the offending can, held it front of her aunt's face, and felt her blood pressure spike.

WARNING: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE.

"Does this look like Febreze, Lettie? Or do you see a lady on this can with perfectly coiffed hair?"

Be patient, everyone told her. You'll find the perfect place. But Cheryl couldn't bear putting her aunt in an institution. A day before Doug was due back from his vacation, Cheryl turned to her last resort. She called her sister. The phone rang five times before anyone answered.

"This is the Wilner household."

Her niece's voice, when she heard it, was remarkably like Lettie's. Dara's little girl must be nine, ten years old by now, thought Cheryl. Dara wasn't sure who the father was, but clearly the gene pool had been re-jiggered. The child's skin was the color of coffee ice cream, her hair an explosion of ringlets.

Cheryl dug in her purse for some aspirin. TAKE AS DIRECTED read the bottle.

"Is Mommy home, Riley? It's your aunt Cheryl."

She pictured two little feet scampering down a hallway. Cheryl found an emery board and filed her nails. Next she unearthed a bottle of nail polish. She was blowing her fingers dry when her sister finally picked up. MAY BE HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED said the label.

"Thanks for the Christmas gifts," said Dara. "Riley loved the pjs, didn't you Riley?"

Her sister was slurring her words, talking into the phone one minute and into the air the next. Cheryl had mailed a large box of presents for her niece weeks ago.

"Jesus, Dara. I called to ask you for help with Lettie. But you've been drinking, haven't you?"

"You know how the holidays are," said Dara. "Besides, I've got Riley to take care of me." Then her voice faded out once more as she turned and spoke to the air. "Don't I, baby?"

Her sister's apartment in Dania was 30 miles away. It would take Cheryl at least 45 minutes to get there. Somehow a rewind button had been pushed. The conversation was achingly familiar.

"I want you to throw the bottles away, Dara. Do you hear me? It's time to grow up. It's time to be an adult. Do you hear me?"

Against her better judgment, Cheryl stayed home. The consequences were worse than she even dreamed. Hours before Doug's flight landed, Cheryl got the call. She was sitting in the living room with Lettie playing Scrabble. BE CAREFUL, said the box. PIECES CAN GO MISSING.

On the other end of the line, a woman was shouting. There was noise in the background. An elevator pinging. A loudspeaker blaring.

"This is the Emergency Room at Hollywood Memorial Hospital. Do you by any chance have a sister by the name of Dara Wilner?"

The voice washed over her. There was a car accident. Her sister was in surgery. Was it possible for her to come? Her pulse pounding, her chest sweating, Cheryl processed every other word.

"My niece. The little girl. Is the little girl okay?"

She was put on hold for five long minutes. Finally, Riley spoke into the phone. "I'm hungry and I'm sleepy, Aunt Cheryl. I'm not sure where I'm supposed to sleep."

Thinking back, Cheryl had no remembrance of driving to the hospital. She loaded her aunt into the backseat of her car, found the emergency room, located the waiting area. When they got there, Riley was curled up on a sofa. Just the sight of her of little body made Cheryl's heart lurch. A pair of flip flops. A stained Strawberry Shortcake T-shirt. A tattered pair of shorts. Cheryl avoided seeing her sister as much as possible. The child was collateral damage in their tortured relationship.

"She doesn't look like uth, does she?" said Lettie.

A smile bubbled across the child's lips. Riley seemed oblivious to her surroundings. Ambulances screeched by the entranceway. Nurses wheeling gurneys zoomed through the halls. Somewhere, someone was crying.

"She's probably exhausted," said Cheryl. She tilted her head from side to side and closely appraised her niece. Then she turned to Lettie and maneuvered her aunt's ass into a chair. "You're right. She doesn't look like us. She looks happy."

An hour later, Dara was out of surgery. She got off easy, said the surgeon. The air bag only broke her wrist. She'll be able to leave the hospital in two days, they told her. You'll be given a list of instructions.

By dusk, the three of them were on their way back to the condo. Cheryl parked her aunt once more into the back seat and put her niece in the front. A gentle drizzle had turned into a downpour. Cheryl drove slowly, glancing at the child every few minutes. Her niece was fiddling with the radio, singing along to songs she knew, tapping her feet on the dashboard. It had been years since they were together, yet Riley hadn't missed a beat. In fact, all three of them were chatting like long lost friends, finishing each others' sentences.

"I suppose I should go to the supermarket tomorrow," said Cheryl.

"I do all the cooking," said Riley. "I'd be more than happy to share my recipes."

"Do you clean?" asked Lettie. "Your mother, if I recollect, always left a puddle of dirty panties on the floor."

"And a pile of dirty dishes in the sink," said Riley. Then the child examined her nails as if she were contemplating her next manicure. "Good lord. That woman drives me to distraction."

Cheryl glanced once more at her niece. The child bore no resemblance, yet... this was a road she'd been down before. She looked out her window. OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR, said the sticker, APPEAR CLOSER THAN THEY ARE.

By the time they exited the expressway, it was nearly dark. Rain was still pelting the hood, but a shimmer of color peeked through the clouds. They were making their way down a crowded six-lane street when it happened. A tiny white ball of fur whizzed in front of them. Cheryl slammed on the brakes as the car lurched forward, then quickly rolled back.

Her first instinct had been to throw out her arm and protect the child. Her second was to check the backseat and make sure Lettie was okay. But the two of them were busy staring outside. A kitten not much bigger than Cheryl's fist was stranded on the median, unsure of which way to turn.

"We've got to help it!" cried Riley.

"Jethus," said Lettie. "That cat's gonna be a goner soon."

Cheryl peeked over her shoulder. If she acted quickly, she could pull the car near the curb. She took a deep breath and yanked the steering wheel hard to the left. The windshield wipers were sweeping back and forth, the radio was blaring, and all around her cars were honking. The hazard lights! Which ones were the hazard lights?

She pushed open the car door with one hand while the other hand searched inside her purse for the umbrella. Two, three, four tries, and the piece of shit umbrella didn't open. In ten different languages INSTRUCTIONS ARE INCLUDED was written on the handle. But there were no instructions. After she smashed the umbrella on the ground, there was no handle, either. Then, waving her arms like a maniac, she walked in front of one vehicle after another. Water splashed up to her knees. Rivulets were coursing down her face. Finally she reached the cat.

Hunched like a wet rat, the poor thing was shivering. Cheryl looked around her. A street lamp glowed in the haze, projecting a nimbus of light. She took a deep breath, bent her knees, and scooped it up. The cat struggled in her grasp and clamped its little teeth onto her thumb.

But Cheryl was not to be stopped. Lightning flashed while rain nearly blinded her. People rolled down their windows and cursed. The moment was biblical. The moment was Daniel fighting the lions, Joshua tumbling the walls, Samson wrestling the pillars. She sprinted across the highway and got back inside the car. Then she stuck the goddamn kitten inside her purse.

"Now what?" said Cheryl.

"Can we take it home?" asked Riley.

"Do cats get wabies?" asked Lettie.

Doug was probably allergic. Was he allergic? Cheryl reached for her cell phone.

"Here," she said to Riley, "Google emergency vets in South Miami."

Why, thought Cheryl, did her life play in a continual loop? She'd find a nice place. There must be a nice place. A nice little home for homeless kitties with satin cushions on the floor and an endless supply of plump mice.

The child swiped the screen. "I think I found something," said Riley. Up. Down. Right. Left. Her little fingers never stopped moving. "This guy comes to your house. Any time. Any place. The MOBILE VET. Just dial 1-800-CRITTER.

By the time they pulled up to Cheryl's building, a van with a WE PAUSE FOR PAWS bumper sticker was sitting in the parking lot. And when they opened the front door of Cheryl's condo, a man in surgical greens was sitting at the kitchen table with Doug.

Doug's tan was deeper, his hair blonder. The imprint of his ski goggles made him look like a raccoon in reverse. Eating a huge bowl of cereal, he waved his spoon. "Cheryl, meet Dr. Ken. Dr. Ken, meet Cheryl."

The three of them paraded into the small room with Riley leading the way. Lettie tapped the floor with her walker while Cheryl trailed behind. Her clothes were soaked, her sneakers waterlogged. They squished as she walked.

"I found this kitten on U.S. 1," said Cheryl. She grabbed the handles to her purse and pulled it open. "Be careful. It's vicious."

Sitting by the vet's side was what looked like a gym bag. He extracted a pair of gloves and dipped his hands inside Cheryl's purse. Instantly the animal transformed. The kitten's tongue lapped his wrist. It tucked its little head into the crook of his arm.

"You got any milk?" asked the vet.

Cheryl opened the refrigerator and peeked inside. The milk carton felt empty. She turned it upside down and shook it. KEEP CARTON UPRIGHT! was stamped across the bottom. She shook and shook and shook but only a dribble came out. Then she glanced at Doug. He was finishing his cereal—chin up, elbows out, holding the bowl to his lips.

"The feral ones take a while to settle down," the vet was saying, "but with a little TLC, this guy'll do just fine."

"He likes me!" shouted Riley. "I think he likes me!"

"They're a lot cleaner than dogs," said Lettie.

"Do cats like sailing?" asked Doug. Then he threw back his head and sneezed.

For the next half hour, they all sat at the table while the kitten was examined. Then finally the vet laid out Cheryl's options. If she brought the kitten to Animal Control, they'd most likely put him down. If she shelled out $100, he'd deworm the cat and give it all its vaccinations. For $200, he'd come back in a month and make sure it was neutered and declawed.

"Wow," said Doug.

Cheryl could see the ledger in his head flipping pages.

"That's a lot of money. Wow."

It made absolutely no sense. Cheryl hated cats almost as much as she hated kids. She had a picture in her head of what her life should look like, and now it was erased. If only there had been warnings, a disclaimer, a money back guarantee! Instead, an old lady and a lonely child were sitting by her side. And in two day's time, her alcoholic sister would be joining them.

AVOID LEAVING UNATTENDED!

Dr. Ken was busy packing his up his bag. When he was through, he wrote up an invoice and gave it to Cheryl. "So what do you think? Plan A or Plan B?"

MUST BE 18 YEARS AND OLDER TO PLAY!

She looked around. Doug was shaking his head and mumbling wow wow wow. Her aunt was nibbling an organic cookie. Her niece had fallen asleep with her head on the table. The kitten was pacing the floor by her feet, his little pink ears twitching, his anime eyes watching her watching him.

 

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