A feeble breeze ventured into the house through the front screen door. By the time it made its way across the room to Dolly in her chair, it had lost much of its freshness, but she still appreciated it. There was a daytime talk show on TV, but even though the volume was turned way up, Dolly couldn’t make sense of it. The people on screen passed a microphone around, laughed, shouted, cheered, murmured through tears – which made Dolly cry too – and then the show went to commercial and Dolly remembered that she needed to weed her garden. She stood up with great effort and walked into the kitchen, pausing by the back door to grip the edge of the counter with her hand to steady herself before making an attempt at the back steps. The kitchen was a mess and the bulbs in the ceiling light fixture had burnt out long ago, but Dolly never used the kitchen after sundown anyway. She only really needed the can opener for peaches or tuna a couple of times a day and the sink for a few glasses of tap water.
From the living room, Dolly heard the host of the talk show welcoming viewers back to the program so she let go of the counter and went back to her chair, lowering herself into it and settling back. The garden had been her second husband Gerald’s project, although the weeding had often fallen to Dolly. When Gerald left her, whenever that had been, the garden had gone with him. Dolly hadn’t weeded anything for decades and she was proud of that fact. She was glad to be rid of that garden and she didn’t miss Gerald anymore either. Someone had told Dolly that Gerald died in a canoeing accident a few years after he left her. Who was it who told her that? It was probably Janine. Gerald was Janine’s father, after all. It would make sense that she would know if and when he died in a canoeing accident.
Dolly heard a thump and a light scraping noise above her head. She looked up and frowned. She hadn’t been to the top floor of her house in at least five years, maybe ten. “Gerald?” she called. “Is that you?” Gerald was so clumsy. Where had he been the last few days? Then she remembered: he’d been canoeing down the Runoff River since last week. Well, he should have called the second he got back. She’d been so worried that he’d get hurt, even though there didn’t seem to be much risk in a little canoeing trip, especially with all those other people around. Still, Dolly was glad he’d died doing something he loved, even if he had hurt her when he walked out on her so he could, how did he put it? “See what else is going on.”
Dolly sighed. As nice as it was to just sit in the chair and relax, she really needed to weed the garden. There was no use putting it off anymore. Gerald hardly cared about the garden, even though it was his project, but Dolly thought that as long as she was stuck with it, she might as well do her best to make it successful. She was about to stand up again when she heard a knock at the screen door. She turned her head and peered across the dark room through the screen door to the figure on the other side. The bright afternoon sunlight outside contrasting with the dimness of Dolly’s house reduced whoever was knocking to a thin, black shape with long, fine, blonde hair glowing around a small head cocked to one side. “Hello?” The voice was young and girlish. “Mrs. Amalont? Are you home?”
“Yes,” said Dolly from her chair. “I’m here. What do you want?”
The girl cupped her hands around her eyes and pressed her nose against the screen. “I can’t see you,” she said. “It’s too bright out here.”
“What is it that you want?” asked Dolly. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” said the girl. “Nothing’s wrong. My name is Kaycie Birsheld. I just live, like six houses down from here. My mom is friends with your daughter Janine. We go to the same church as your daughter.”
“Oh, I see,” said Dolly. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Kaycie. Tell your mother I said ‘hi.’”
“OK,” said Kaycie. “I will. But how are you doing? Is there something I can do for you?”
“I’m doing very well, thank you. I can’t think of anything that I need help with. It was nice of you to ask, though.”
Kaycie dropped her hands to her sides and stood up straight, taking a step back from the door. She hesitated and then said, “Well, you just let me know if you need anything, all right Mrs. Amalont?”
“I sure will,” said Dolly. “Have a nice day.”
“Bye!” said Kaycie, her tone cheerful. Dolly heard her trot down the wooden front steps and she was gone.
Time passed. Dolly wasn’t sure how much, but it didn’t seem like a lot. But, really, no amount of time seemed like a lot to her anymore. Well, sometimes the nights dragged. She wasn’t sure if she ever really slept. Sometimes it felt as if she’d been lying on her bed in the dark for days and then she’d get up to use the bathroom and only two hours would have passed since she’d lay down. She figured she must sleep sometimes because everyone does, but she couldn’t say when it was happening. She didn’t remember the last time she’d experienced the sensation of waking up.
Dolly blinked at the TV. The news was on. That meant it was either five o’clock or 11 o’clock. No, it was still light out, so it was only five. What day, though?
There was a knock at the door and Dolly jolted in her chair, startled. She turned her head to look and saw a familiar figure standing outside her screen door. Why was the figure familiar?
The voice was familiar too. How? Who was it?
“It’s Kaycie again. Kaycie Birsheld. I was hear earlier today. Remember?”
“Of course I remember,” said Dolly, sounding irritable. It irritated her when people doubted her ability to remember things. She remembered more things than a girl Kaycie’s age had experienced in her entire life.
“Can I come in?” asked Kaycie.
“What for?” asked Dolly.
“Just to visit for a little bit,” said Kaycie. “To get to know you a little bit.”
Dolly was silent for a long time. Then she said, “I guess that’d be fine. The door’s not locked.”
Kaycie opened the screen door and stepped into the living room, which was even dimmer now that the sun had moved farther to the West side of the house. Most of the light in the room came from the TV, which Dolly muted with the remote. “Do you want me to turn on a light for you?” asked Kaycie.
“No, no,” said Dolly. “Just sit down.”
“OK,” said Kaycie, looking around for a seat free of old magazines and catalogues and wadded-up towels and scarves. “Where should I sit?”
“Oh, anywhere,” said Dolly. “Just clear yourself a spot. It’s all junk. Just throw it on the floor. I’ve been meaning to throw it out.”
“Do you want me to throw some of it out for you?” asked Kaycie as she shifted a heap of clutter off of one portion of the couch and sat down on the very front edge of the cushion.
“No, no, I’ll do it myself,” said Dolly. “I have to sort through it first.” She paused. “I’m not a hoarder. I know you’re thinking that.”
“I wasn’t!” said Kaycie, sounding guilty.
“I’m just messy,” said Dolly. “I always have been. My husbands hated it. Both of them.”
“Oh,” said Kaycie. “You’ve had two husbands?” Dolly recognized her tone as that of someone trying to sound interested.
“Yes,” said Dolly. “They’re both dead.” She knew it was the kind of flat statement that young people constantly feared old people might say.
“I’m sorry,” said Kaycie.
Dolly didn’t acknowledge Kaycie’s sympathy. “Do you have a boyfriend?” asked Dolly.
“Yes,” said Kaycie. “Well, kind of. My parents say he’s not, but I say he is.”
“Mmm,” said Dolly. She could tell Kaycie wanted her to press for more details, but Dolly could not have been less interested in the intricacies of Kaycie’s romantic entanglements.
“I wouldn’t say we’re in love,” said Kaycie. “But I definitely think we could be at some point in the future, you know?”
“I guess I don’t know,” said Dolly.
“Oh,” said Kaycie.
“You don’t need to explain it,” said Dolly. “It sounds fun.”
Kaycie made a face at the word “fun” and then quickly reconstructed her expression of shallow pleasantness. “I’ll bet you had some exciting romances in your day, Mrs. Amalont.”
“No, I wasn’t an attractive girl,” said Dolly. “I had two husbands, but neither of them was a real prize. I just knew I couldn’t do better.”
“Oh,” said Kaycie. Dolly could tell that Kaycie was struggling to determine if it would be more or less polite to contradict her in this situation. “So what are your hobbies?” asked Kaycie.
“The garden,” said Dolly. “But it isn’t really a hobby. More like a chore.”
“Oh, you have a garden?” asked Kaycie. “What do you grow?”
Dolly said nothing. She could feel her mind gathering itself together, she could feel chronologies falling into place, clarity shining a harsh light on everything. “No, no, I don’t have a garden anymore,” she finally said. “I used to. When my husband Gerald was still around.” She paused again. It had been 35 years since Gerald had left her. 28 years since he died in the canoeing accident, found floating face down in the river right by the bank where they’d stopped to camp for the night, his bare right foot wedged sideways in an empty Styrofoam cooler, a small bluegill clenched in his hand that, when they pried his hand open, they discovered was still alive and threw back into the water. “I never enjoyed working in the garden,” said Dolly. “But having fresh peppers was nice.”
“I don’t like spicy food,” said Kaycie.
“They were sweet peppers,” said Dolly. “It was nice of you to visit. Tell your mother I said, ‘hi.’”
“Oh,” said Kaycie, taken aback. “OK, I will.” She stood. “Anything I can do for you before-”
Dolly unmuted the TV.
Dolly assumed that the conversation had gone poorly enough to scare Kaycie away for good, but the next afternoon, just as Dolly finished eating half a can of peaches and had resigned herself to finally giving the garden the weeding it so desperately needed, Kaycie was back, giving the screen door a cheerful knock and calling out, “Hello? Mrs. Amalont? It’s me, Kaycie. Just dropping by to say ‘hi’ again.”
“All right,” said Dolly from her chair. “Thanks for dropping by.” She meant it to be dismissive, but Kaycie took it as an invitation to come inside again. She opened the screen door and walked right over to the spot she’d cleared on the couch the previous day. Some of the clutter had avalanched down onto her seat, but Kaycie moved it to the floor and sat down. “Isn’t it a nice day?” she asked.
Dolly kept her eyes on the TV. Why was the volume so low? When had that happened? She must have turned the volume down when she prayed before eating her tuna and then forgotten to turn it back up. Where was the remote? She looked around on the floor by her chair for it but couldn’t see it.
“Are you looking for something?” asked Kaycie, beginning to stand. “Can I help you find it?”
“No, no, no,” said Dolly. “I’m not looking for anything.”
“Are you sure?” asked Kaycie. “Were you looking for the remote?”
“No,” said Dolly.
“Because the remote is over here,” said Kaycie. She held it up in her hand.
Dolly regarded Kaycie coolly, but inside she felt a spike of panic. How could the remote have gotten over by the couch? She had no recollection of having moved from her chair since using the remote to turn down the volume. “I wasn’t looking for that,” said Dolly.
Kaycie seemed willing to press the subject further, but she was interrupted by a few light thumping sounds from upstairs. Her eyes widened but Dolly didn’t react. “Did you hear that?” asked Kaycie. “Is someone upstairs?”
Dolly’s first impulse was to tell Kaycie that it was just Gerald, back from his canoe trip, but she knew that wasn’t true, Gerald was dead and had been for years. “Oh, no, it’s nothing,” said Dolly. “I hear that all the time.”
“But what is it?” asked Kaycie.
“I never go upstairs,” said Dolly. “I’m sure it’s just animals. Squirrels or raccoons or cats. They get in through the attic, I think.”
“You need someone to take care of that for you,” said Kaycie. “Pest control or someone like that. The animals might be ruining your things up there.”
“No,” said Dolly. “No. No one else needs to come over. No one needs to go up there. Whoever is up there is just fine.”
“Whoever?” said Kaycie. “I thought you said it was just animals!” She stood up, looking up at the ceiling in alarm.
“It is animals,” said Dolly, getting heated. “I know that it’s animals because-” She stopped. Then, in a calmer tone, she said, “Young lady, I don’t have to explain things to you. This is my home. I never asked you to come here, but you keep coming and I don’t know why. Stay out of my business. Please leave and don’t come over here anymore.”
“You think I wanted to come here?” asked Kaycie, her face hardening. “You’ve made it obvious right from the beginning that you don’t want my company. I don’t want to be here either, and that’s why my mom’s making me come over here to visit you as punishment for dating my boyfriend. My mom believes in ‘constructive punishments,’ so here I am.”
“I don’t care about any of that,” said Dolly. “Not any of it. Get out of my house now. Please!”
Kaycie turned and stalked out of the house, letting the screen door swing closed with a clap behind her as she stamped down the porch steps. The TV remote was still across the room on the couch. Dolly didn’t feel like making the trek to retrieve it at the moment. Maybe later. Maybe after she weeded the garden.
That night, Dolly decided to go to bed shortly after one in the morning. She got up out of her chair, left the muted TV on since she couldn’t find the remote, and made her way down the hall to her bedroom, pressing her right hand against the wall the whole way. She found the bed in the dark and without bothering to change clothes or pull down the covers, she lowered her aching body down onto it and lay down on her back, settling her head on the pillow with a sigh. She closed her eyes.
There were crickets outside her window, or maybe in the closet, or maybe they weren’t crickets, maybe they were some other kind of noisy insect. The noise the insect made reminded Dolly of crickets. She and Gerald used to have crickets outside of their bedroom window in the summer, she remembered. Gerald used to tell her that the only time he liked her snoring was during the summer because it drowned out the crickets. That had been in this house, actually. In this bedroom. In this bed. These exact same crickets. Right on cue, Dolly heard Gerald bumbling around upstairs, just home from the canoe trip, probably trying to put his custom made paddle in the upstairs closet without waking her, but failing, of course. Well, she was already awake, but if she’d been sleeping, Gerald’s bumbling definitely would have awoken her. The house was silent for a minute and Dolly’s mind drifted toward the girl who kept visiting her, whatever her name was. She didn’t dislike the girl. Well, if she did, it wasn’t personal. She just resented anyone who made her talk, who forced her to organize her thoughts and then pick over them for errors and inconsistencies. She hated to think with that kind of deliberation.
The scraping upstairs resumed, then stopped again. Then Dolly heard footsteps on the stairs, descending one at a time. Gerald was always so heavy-footed, plus the stairs creaked horribly. The noise was comically loud for someone trying sneak downstairs without disturbing her. The footsteps stopped at the bottom of the stairs, Dolly heard some confused shuffling, and the light in the hallway clicked on. Dolly didn’t remember the last time that light had been used. She was surprised it still worked.
“Gerald?” she called. “Just come to bed. I’m awake now. You don’t have to tip-toe.” She heard nothing for a long moment. Then the footsteps came slowly down the hall and a man stopped in the doorway to the bedroom. Dolly could see him clearly but she could tell he was having trouble seeing her. He squinted and took a hesitant step into the bedroom. The man didn’t look like Gerald. He wore tight gray pants and boots and a white t-shirt with a long series of symbols printed on it. Who did he look like? Dolly realized she was probably remembering Gerald’s appearance wrong. She did get mixed up sometimes, just like everyone.
“It’s all right,” said Dolly. “I wasn’t asleep.”
“Do you have a car?” asked Gerald. “I need it. I need to take it. I’m sick, ma’am.”
Dolly gathered her strength and sat up on the edge of the bed, her feet not quite touching the floor. “You’re sick? Get in bed, Gerald, I’ll get you some food. You just need to lie down.” She scooted forward until her toes touched the floor and then she gradually shifted her weight off of the bed and stood.
Gerald gave Dolly a long, appraising look. “I’m not Gerald,” he said. “I need your car. Where are the keys?”
“Not Gerald?” Dolly stared at the man, trying to make sense of his claim. “Step back into the light,” she said.
The man paused, then complied. Who was he? He was young by Dolly’s standards. Maybe in his forties. His hair had been cut unevenly. He seemed so familiar yet his facial features appeared to blur or shift subtly whenever Dolly felt she was on the verge of recognizing him. Then the realization struck her and tears filled her eyes. “You’re not Gerald.” Her voice broke. “You’re…you’re…my first husband,” and the fact that she couldn’t remember his name made Dolly feel just terrible.
First Janine was angry with Dolly, then she was overcome with pity, then she was angry again, then she tried to pull herself together but that just led to more crying which she seemed to think she was concealing from Dolly, but was not. Dolly found it all irritating and wondered how long it would be before Janine left. There really wasn’t anything for Janine to do beyond asking the same questions over and over. Janine knelt by Dolly’s chair and held on to Dolly’s right forearm with both hands.
“So you let him have the car,” said Janine.
“My car,” said Dolly.
“You let him take the car. What else, mom? Try to remember.”
“I don’t know,” said Dolly. “Some money. He was sick, Janine.”
“How much money?”
“I gave him some canned peaches too,” said Dolly. She didn’t know why Janine was so worked up over the car. Dolly hadn’t driven it in years. She’d hadn’t expected it to start, but it had.
“Try again to remember what he looked like,” said Janine, her tone starting to slip back toward anger.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Dolly. “I already told you. I can’t picture him. It was so late at night, Janine.”
“You didn’t recognize him at all?” asked Janine. “You’re sure you never saw him before?”
Dolly was quiet. She knew she couldn’t explain it to her daughter. Janine would want everything to line up perfectly, she would want one thought to flow naturally and believably into the next thought, and if Dolly tried to do that, her entire delicate construction of the previous night’s events would collapse. Besides, Janine had never liked it when Dolly talked about her first husband.
“Mom, I’m trying to help you,” said Janine. “But you have to make an effort. You have to let me. You were robbed by a stranger in the middle of the night in your own home.”
“Go home, Janine,” said Dolly. “There’s nothing you can do about it now. I’m tired.”
“Fine,” said Janine, standing up and wiping her eyes with both hands. “I can’t make you remember. I can’t make you tell me. But we might need to have a serious talk about what to do next. We can’t risk this kind of thing happening again.”
“It won’t,” said Dolly. “He’s gone for good this time. And I only had one car.”
After Janine left, Dolly was finally able to relax. The TV was on but it was a sitcom and she didn’t feel like making the effort to follow the plot. Dolly’s thoughts grew soft and thin so that there were wide, dark gaps between them and she was pleasantly surprised to realize she was falling asleep.
Dolly awoke to the sound of Kaycie knocking on the screen door and calling her name. “Mrs. Amalont? Mrs. Amalont?”
“I’m here,” said Dolly. “Come on in, Kaycie.”
Kaycie opened the door and stepped into the house. “Mrs. Amalont, I heard what happened and I am so, so, so sorry. I’m so sorry that happened to you and I’m sorry for what I said to you the other day. That was a terrible thing to say and I heard what happened and I remembered the noise from upstairs and I remembered what I said to you and I felt so guilty because something horrible could have happened to you and that would have been the last thing I said to you.”
“You don’t have to stand there in the middle of the room,” said Dolly. “Sit down.” She gestured to the spot on the couch that was still more or less clear.
“I don’t want to bother you,” said Kaycie. “I just wanted to come by and apologize.”
Dolly nodded. “Thank you for that.”
“Unless you want me to stay?” said Kaycie.
“No, no, it’s OK,” said Dolly. “We just don’t have anything to say to each other. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that.”
“That’s not true,” said Kaycie. “I’m interested in hearing about your life. Like, what it was like when you were a little girl, how everything has changed, places you’ve been, if you ever saw any famous people…”
“Oh, I can’t remember any of that,” said Dolly. “Ask Janine about that stuff if you really want to know. I can’t even remember my first husband’s name. Not even his last name and that was my last name for a while. Can you believe that? If he walked into this room right now I probably wouldn’t recognize him.”
“I’m sure you would,” said Kaycie, edging toward the door, clearly eager to leave despite any insistence otherwise.
“Bye, Kaycie,” said Dolly. “I’ll call your mom if I need you to help me with something.”
“Good,” said Kaycie, breaking into a wide, relieved grin, her childish guilt vanishing just that quickly. Dolly would never call and she could tell Kaycie knew it.
After Kaycie was gone, Dolly sat back in her chair and decided she wasn’t getting up again until dinner time, which was whenever she decided she was hungry. If Gerald wanted a garden, he could weed it himself.