SCRAGGLY NAILS

For six months my father, my brother, and I had been living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment near Northwest Electrical Engineering, the Seattle company that Dad had purchased the previous year. Even though he and Mom had been staunch supporters of John F. Kennedy, and as such brought Tim and me to several Democratic fund-raisers, Dad failed to vote that November.

It was now January, and I’d returned to my sixth-grade class, still “the new girl,” after the most dismal of Christmases, with a wilted poinsettia plant as our only decoration.

Dad came back to the apartment one night at 5:00 instead of his usual 8:00 or 9:00.

I’d made Kraft macaroni and cheese with sliced-up hot dogs for dinner.

He shrugged out of his damp-from-the-rain overcoat, and ignoring my meal, said, “We’re going to have a visitor next week…she’s really special to me.” This was the most excitement I’d heard in his voice since Mom got sick.

“She?” My older brother, Tim, with an abundance of girlfriends during his partying high school days, had told me, “Dad’ll marry again before too long, Kelly.” With our father’s announcement, Tim narrowed his eyes, I’m sure considering whether Dad had already met a woman to replace our mother.

My chest tightened as I fought back an urge to gnaw at my fingernails—a new habit.

Dad used to bring spicy-smelling pink carnations to Mom before their occasional “date.” I’d see her poring over a newspaper at the kitchen table, trying to decide what movie she wanted to see after they went to their favorite Italian restaurant. Later, I’d hear hushed giggles coming through their bedroom door. The next day, no matter how tired he was from work at his very own company, Dad would be right there next to Mom at my horseback-riding lessons, intensely watching me and Bo. Later, they’d give me pointers from what they’d seen.

“Mrs. O’Donnell is from Toronto—the widow of an old professor of mine,” Dad filled us in. “I lived with them for a while, saving money to come to the States. She took care of my laundry, fed me, gave me advice. I liked her a whole lot better than him.”

Once, when I was about nine, while hauling my saddle past his office alcove, I knocked over Dad’s blue glass desk lamp. I watched that beautiful lamp as it shattered into a million pieces.

With a hurt tone, nothing like his normal measured voice, Dad said, “Mrs. O’Donnell gave me that.”

Later, Mom told me, “Something special of your father’s got ruined, and he doesn’t care about treasures the way you and I do.” She gave me a big hug, and continued, “I know you feel terrible. We’ll look for something nice to replace it.”

“She’s going to be in Vancouver visiting family,” Dad now went on. “Wants to see me and meet you two.”

“To stay overnight?” No one had come to visit us in this apartment.

“She’ll take the train to Seattle and I’ll pick her up, then bring her back to the station next morning.”

I figured Tim would be around for dinner, and then either meet up with his current honey or hang out in the bedroom he and Dad shared, watching their television. I planned to retreat to my own bedroom, but I was worried.

“Let’s make something fancy,” Dad said. “From one of Mom’s recipes.”

“Maybe we should bring in food.” Tim mopped up the last of his orange cheese sauce with a piece of bread and popped his remaining hot-dog coin into his mouth.

“You’re right. How about The Bells’ pot roast?” We ordered food from this nearby café more nights than not. “Can you set a nice table, Kelly?”

This wouldn’t be easy since Mom’s china and crystal and silver had been sold, along with most everything else, in order to pay medical bills. “Sure, Dad.” Then, trying to act casual, I said, “Where will she sleep?”

“Plenty of room in your bed.”

Dad and Tim slept in my old twins, and I’d been given my parents’ set with its queen. Dad had said, “I can buy you new furniture if this bothers you.”

The way he said it, with a catch in his voice, I knew there wasn’t an extra penny to cover the cost. “It’ll be okay.”

“You can have our television for your own,” he added, as if offering this prize would make it easier. When I wasn’t reading, I would watch any old program—even Lawrence Welk. So far, no friend from my new school had come for a spend-over. The way I felt all the time, like I didn’t have the energy to crack a smile, acted the opposite of a magnet, pushing away anyone who tried to know me.

“You’re going to like Mrs. O’Donnell. No one has ever been so kind to me…except, of course, your mother.” His face brightened in a forgotten way. This was the first time he’d said anything about Mom since the funeral service. Dad had met her while she was living with an aunt, her only living relative, soon after he arrived in Seattle. He used to joke about how a fine beauty like her, personal secretary to the president of Northwest Electrical Engineering, took pity on a Newfie far away from home.

Dreading Mrs. O’Donnell’s visit, I thought about going to stay at a friend’s house in Woodinville, even though there’d been no contact with any of those old friends since our move. That way, she could have my bedroom to herself. But Dad had said Mrs. O’Donnell wanted to meet us. Besides, at the last 4-H meetings I attended, the mothers hovered over me as they passed out cookies, acting like if I just got enough sugar, everything in my life would be fantastic. I didn’t want to go through that kind of attention again.

Pondering what to do about the troubling sleep arrangement, I momentarily considered using the front-room sofa, and she could have my bed, until I remembered we didn’t have a sofa anymore. Dad’s desk, with the replacement lamp—a pale imitation of the original—bookshelves, and an office chair, took up most of the room. A couple of tattered upholstered chairs filled the corner.

Our Woodinville house’s new owners had expressed delight at buying most of the furnishings as well as Mom’s knickknacks. They raved about her garden and the five acres where even our German shepherd Max, the cats, and my pony Bo Jangles were to remain.

Dad had told me, “You’ve outgrown Bo anyhow. We’ll find a stable where you can ride a real horse.” So far, this hadn’t happened.

“How old is she?” I imagined Mrs. O’Donnell being a witch with hairs sprouting from the mole on her nose.

“About sixty when I lived with them. Must be over eighty. Amazing. A woman that age coming all the way from Toronto.”

During her cancer, before she went to the hospital for good, Mom had stayed home in the very bed that later became mine. What if Mrs. O’Donnell died in her sleep? With me alongside of her?

That night, I stared at the ceiling, which I did every other night, this time wondering where else I could go during her visit. The clock said 1:30 when I scooped up my pillow and blanket. Passing Dad and Tim’s room, I stopped and listened to their duet of snores. Once in the bathroom, I wrapped the blanket around my shivering body and hugged the pillow close to my chest. I could curl, snail-like, in the tub, even if the shower curtain did smell of mildew. Then I thought, what if she needs to come in here? Don’t old people go to the toilet a lot at night? At least my grandma and grandpa did.

I stumbled into the front room, with stains from previous tenants on its carpet. Could I camp out beneath the kitchen table? When I was little, I’d made a tent and crept beneath it and read to my teddy bear with Mom’s flashlight. On all fours, ignoring crusty spots, I crawled under the table, rolled up in my blanket, and bunched my pillow into a mound. Every time I shifted, my knees bumped against a wooden leg. After about half an hour, I fumbled my way out and looked around.

Neither of the upholstered chairs looked comfortable, but if I pushed them together, edge to edge, they formed a cot of sorts. Satisfied that this was the best solution, I bundled up in my blanket and snuggled into a ball, trying it out for size. Not bad. I decided to sneak off here when she visited, and leave a sleeping Mrs. O’Donnell all to herself.

For the next few evenings, Dad talked about her, saying things like: “She helped many students who found themselves short of cash,” and “didn’t have any children of her own,” and “She took me to the airport…told me that I was doing exactly the right thing moving to the States and taking a position with Northwest.”

Dad’s family still lived “around the bay” in Newfoundland. When Mom was alive, we traveled back there every few years, but none of those relatives, and there were many, had ever been anywhere except St. John’s, and couldn’t figure out why Dad had left. Not one of them reminded me of him. I baked sugar cookies and decorated them with Grandma, and would tag along with Grandpa, checking in on all his buddies, me chewing on a piece of his Juicy Fruit gum while they sipped their brews.

At this time, I didn’t know when we’d ever go to Newfoundland again.

* * *

This woman, with fine lines that barely showed on her sculpted face, had sparkling silver strands woven through butter-yellow hair. Aquamarine eyes, like Mom’s birthstone ring, were emphasized by golden skin, the kind that looks lightly tanned year-round.

She held out a hand to me. It felt small and delicate in my own. As she drew away, I noticed a slight scrape. Her fingernails were oval and painted pale petal pink.

“The Christmas-card photos didn’t do justice to your good-looking children, Carl.” She smiled at me. “You must take after your mother, with that thick, dark hair and those big brown eyes.”

During the presidential campaign, I’d wondered if Mom, whose cheeks no longer flushed with pleasure but rather were sunken and pale, had been as lovely as pregnant Jackie when she was expecting me.

Mrs. O’Donnell turned to Tim. “You’re so much like your father at this age. Every bit as tall.”

Tim showed more interest in her than I would have expected, uncharacteristically cutting a phone conversation short. During our meal, he asked many questions about the professor, and finally said, “I want to be an engineer.” This was news to me. Hanging out with his girlfriend-of-the-moment seemed to be all he ever thought about. Dad also registered surprise, sitting straighter in his chair and focusing on my brother.

Continuing with the memories, Mrs. O’Donnell said to Dad, “You were always a favorite of George’s.”

“I never realized that.” Dad shifted his attention to her.

“He was a hard one to know—like many engineers, so immersed in his work that he seldom showed his feelings. Still, he often praised you as the best student he’d seen in years.”

By dessert, which was raspberry sherbet, Mrs. O’Donnell said, “How about you, Kelly, what are your interests?”

“Reading, I guess.”

“What do you like to read?”

“Anything to do with horses.”

“I used to ride. Have you ever had one of your own?”

“A pony. He’s at home.”

“Maybe someday you’ll have another.”

“Maybe…”

“What about your 4-H? It was mentioned often in Christmas letters.”

“I don’t participate anymore.”

She paused, maybe not knowing what else to say, then turned back to Dad and Tim.

This was fine with me. Picking at my scraggly nails, I waited until enough time had passed so that I could go to my room. As it turned out, Tim stayed with them, asking more questions about engineering. I left my door open, so Mrs. O’Donnell wouldn’t have to knock, and thought about watching my television, but decided to read My Friend Flicka for about the fifth time instead.

Upon hearing them make good-night sounds, I shut my light off and turned toward the wall, wanting her to find me “asleep” when she crawled in. I dozed a bit while she used the bathroom, yet the minute my mattress moved with weight from her body, I became alert, like Bo when he sniffed something new in the air.

“Are you awake?” she whispered.

I didn’t say a thing, keeping my eyes tightly closed, but smelling her faintly sweet night cream. She rolled away from me, and after a short while her breath came evenly. I hoped it wouldn’t stop before my escape. She might be different from the witch I’d envisioned; still, she was ancient. Up close, her neck sagged into deep lines, and her hands that had felt so delicate, despite the well-groomed nails and polish, looked twisted and lumpy, like claws.

Several long minutes passed while I waited to make sure she was sound asleep before I quietly stole out to the front room.

The chairs-made-into-a-cot proved to be less than adequate. As I thrashed around, they slid apart, dumping my rear on the floor. I stood three times to shove them back together. Eventually, I sat up in one chair, chewing at my nails and picturing our old house, imagining someone else sleeping in my room, fretting about my pets getting attached to the new kids. My mind was so busy reliving a gallop with Bo, Max running along next to us, happily barking, that I didn’t hear her come in.

“Hard night?”

Huddled there with my eyes wide open, I couldn’t pretend. “Can’t sleep.”

“Would you like some cocoa?”

At least we had milk and Hershey’s syrup in the refrigerator. “That’d taste good.”

We sat together at the table with only Dad’s desk lamp on for illumination, drinking our cocoa, talking about my new school.

“Have you made any friends?”

“Nope.”

“Sometimes it takes a while.”

“There are some nice girls…it’s me.”

“When I was your age, my mother got sick.”

“Did she die?”

“Not right away, but she endured so much pain it was as if she’d left me.”

I didn’t know anyone else who had lost a mother. “My mom was sick for all of fifth grade,” I said. “One day she drove me to a 4-H meeting and everything seemed normal, and the next day she didn’t even look like herself.”

“Everything about my mother changed too.” The desk lamp flickered. “She became this wasted-away person with hollow eyes and shrunken skin.”

“I didn’t want to be in the same room with her.” I’d never said anything like this to anyone.

“It was hard to kiss her cheek. There was a smell—like a soggy, forgotten garden—the smell of death, I’ve come to realize. At the end, her hands continually smoothed the silky top of a blanket. I wanted to say ‘Be still!’ And then she was.”

“How long did it take for you to quit feeling bad?”

“I still mourn for her, but I quit feeling ashamed. I was a child and I’d never been around anyone who died.”

We sipped our cocoa for several quiet moments.

“I miss her so much…the way she used to be.” It felt sad, but also good, to say it.

Mrs. O’Donnell reached out and took my hand. In a minute or so, she started to examine my messed-up fingernails. “Tomorrow, I’m going to give you a manicure, and I’ll leave my polish here.” Her aquamarine eyes glistened as she went on. “It’s late. Please come to your room. I promise…I won’t die tonight.”

“How’d you know?”

“I would’ve felt exactly the same way.”

* * *

She rubbed my back with her twisted, lumpy hands, and for the first time since we’d moved to this apartment, the bed didn’t seem haunted. Soon my body relaxed, my breathing evened, and I drifted off.

  Published by Cactus Heart

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