Seven Eight Nine
by Elisabeth Dahl
Alan lifted the pitcher the day nurse had left on the TV tray and filled a plastic cup with water. He put the straw to his mother’s lips, but she turned away, toward the sunroom’s south-facing wall, and continued sweating silently into the rented sheets.
Alan rubbed his eyes. This was like having a newborn again. The nurses seemed to sense his mother’s needs, but he was always—well, clutching at straws.
Once, this sunroom had been his mother’s turf. At her mahogany secretary, the one now shoved into the living room to create space, she’d write notes and make phone calls. On the wicker rocker where the nurses often dozed, she’d once paged through the newspaper every night.
He turned the cotton blanket down toward his mother’s ankles in three neat folds, then pulled a rawhide chew from under her hip. The dog regularly used her as a hiding place now.
His mother stared wordlessly at the African violets Alan had been tending since moving in six months earlier, when she began a downward slide. The violets’ needs—how much water, and when, and how—were no clearer than his mother’s, and the furry green leaves had dark spots now, just like his mother’s hands.
“I can’t get the watering right,” Alan said. “Got any tips?”
His mother didn’t respond.
The terrier barked from his round brown bed, then ran to the front of the house. Alan’s twins bustled in, dropping their kindergarten backpacks in one dusty corner of the vestibule.
Andie, his ex, wrapped a loose lock of hair behind an ear. “You okay?” she asked, already halfway out the door.
Alan nodded. “The night nurse comes at 8.”
He fed the kids, then started them on Toy Story. Back in the sunroom, his mother’s eyes were closed again. He rested a hand on her wide, heavy knee. Her legs had been saplings once—tapered and narrow, ending in slingback heels. Once she’d had a neatly set bob and five different church hats, kept on rotation. Now she had dandelion fluff that a hat would cloak completely.
Alan washed the dishes, saving the pizza slice Lena hadn’t finished, the peas Kyle had chased around the plate. He looked out the kitchen window, toward the east, where the darkening had begun.
The twins ran in. “Can we talk to Grandma?” Lena asked.
Alan wiped his hands on a dishtowel. “Sure. But remember, she may not respond.”
The kids perched on the hospital bed. “If you need to go,” Lena said, “just count to ten and go!”
“To infinity and beyond!” Kyle exclaimed.
His mother didn’t stir.
“Want to hear a joke?” Lena asked. “Why was six afraid of seven?”
Alan leaned against the opening to the sunroom, looking at the girl’s cheek. It curved the way the earth did, at the horizon.
“Because seven eight nine,” Lena proclaimed.
His mother opened her eyes. “Ten,” she said clearly.
Baltimore native Elisabeth Dahl is the author-illustrator of “Genie Wishes,” a novel for children (Abrams/Amulet, 2013). She writes for both children and adults. Her stories, poems, and essays have appeared at NPR.org, in Johns Hopkins Magazine, at Baltimore Fishbowl, and in other outlets.