“Eldercare” by Triss Stein is presented here in its entirety, an exclusive excerpt from Family Matters, edited by Anita Page, the third Murder New York Style mystery anthology (available September 9, 2014).
Come meet the relatives! These twenty short stories by members of the New York/Tri-State chapter will take you from the explosive excitement of the New York City Marathon to a secret cellar in Queens; from the warmth of an immigrant culture to the moneyed New York art world; from brutality and poverty to Wall Street’s privileged thugs. These urban short stories offer action-packed murder and suspense-filled mystery ranging in tone from fun to dark and from cozy to noir. No Metrocard or E-ZPass required to tour these neighborhoods.
She’s yelling at me. Not for the first time today and not even for the twentieth. And certainly not for the last.
She could yell at my big sister for once, the one who walks on water. The one who has the glamorous house on a beach in California. The one who hasn’t been home in two years and hasn’t called in two months. If she wants to yell, why not at her?
Or my older brother, the one who lives on the Jersey shore, but can’t seem to find a good day to hit the Garden State Parkway and give the old lady the thrill of his handsome face. But no. The surfing shop needs him night and day, even in the winter. She could yell at him; he has it coming.
So here I am, still on the same old beach in Brooklyn, still in the same old house where we grew up, still available for yelling.
The honest truth is, she was never sweetness and light. You think it’s just chance, both my siblings live on beaches, like where they grew up? But not THE beach where they DID grow up? They couldn’t wait to be somewhere else. Far enough so the old lady’s tongue couldn’t reach them. Even when all her brain cells were intact—or as intact as they ever were—she could skin you alive with her voice.
Right about the time I was plotting my own escape, she ended up in the hospital a couple of times, and then they said she had the big A and she was losing her brain cells, one cell at a time. They even showed me pictures.
And she wasn’t ever going to get better.
I was kind of hoping that the cells that were getting erased would be the ones that gave her the mean mouth and the vicious temper, but no such luck. They were the ones that told her how to dress herself and cook and eat. She still knew how to set a trap and spring it, with me playing the mouse. Trapped. So here I am, pushing thirty, living in my boyhood room with the Star Wars sheets on the cold twin bed. Making my own meals, cause she was never much of a cook, and now can’t be trusted near a stove. If she blew herself up, I wouldn’t mourn much. Not much, ha. Not at all, but I worry about the house. It’s a good house, brick, front and back yards, garage, three stories cause they built some bedrooms up in the attic. It’s one block from the beach. One freakin’ block. It’s worth real money. And I’ve earned it.
That’s my life. Just what I always dreamed of. Yeah.
No. My real dream is easy. Just peace and quiet and a woman. Not my mom. An actual woman. Good-natured, which Mom never was. Affectionate, ditto. Who laughs at my jokes and likes lazy weekends in bed.
I finally figured out how to meet one: Don’t tell them I live with my mother. It’s that simple. After I figured that out, I started having a few dates. Yeah, okay, I’m not anyone’s dream of Prince Charming. Not a lot of money, average looking, not a glamorous job either. In fact, a creepy one, some would say. But here is the secret: some girls aren’t holding out for Mr. Right. They’d settle for Mr. You’ll Do. Mr. Not Too Bad. Mr. Good Enough Until the Prince Shows Up. That’s good enough for me.
I dress nice, act polite, treat them to a few drinks and they’re happy to take me home. One kind lives alone and is unbuttoning my clothes before we get through the door. The other kind lives at home and invites me to Sunday dinner. Or Sabbath dinner, depending. I’m not fussy about denominations. So maybe I didn’t get to more than a few dates with most of them. For a while, I didn’t care. For a while it was fun, the one bright spot in my life.
Then I met a girl who was the whole damn package. Not young and stupid, not older and bitter. Pretty enough but not the prom queen type whose eyes don’t even see me. Laughs a lot. Tells dirty jokes. She’s got a smart mouth, a lot of hair and wears high heels; she’s a real Brooklyn girl. Knows her way around both the kitchen and the bedroom. Sometimes I go to pick her up for a date and we never even make it out the door.
I didn’t meet her at a bar, like those other girls. Not that she’s never been to one. I didn’t meet her online either. It was the old-fashioned way. I came to her aid, and ever since, she calls me Knight. And laughs when she says it. But it made me look good, not like some skeevy guy in a bar hitting on her. Not that I wasn’t. Those long legs kind of got my attention. Amber, her name is.
There’s a few nursing homes out here in Manhattan Beach. (Yeah, Manhattan Beach is in Brooklyn. I don’t know why. Down the shore from Coney Island, around the corner from Sheepshead Bay.) Maybe someone thought those ocean breezes were healthy. I go to them on a regular basis to spray for vermin. Yeah, that’s what I do for a paycheck. No one wants to see a cockroach crawling across a desk when they’re signing papers to put grandma in a home.
And there she was, in the parking lot, with a car that wouldn’t start. And there I was, with my truck and a set of jumper cables, noticing this redhead kicking her car tires, she was so pissed. She’d been visiting her aunt. We got to talking while I was giving her car a boost. Yeah. Knight in shining armor, that’s me. Kind of made up for the truck with the big sign saying Beach and Bay Bugs. She didn’t care. She just cracked a joke about it, something about beach bugs and bed bugs. I laughed.
About where I live. For the longest time I told her we couldn’t go back there cause it was an uncomfortable dump. Or it was a mess, with dirty dishes and dirty clothes scattered all over. Or I was keeping my buddy’s vicious Rottweiler. She finally put her foot down. She was wearing purple spike heels at the time, and a matching thong, which made it hard for me to ignore her demand to tell her the truth. And all she said was, “So what? It’s a nice guy who takes care of his mom. Time for me to meet her.” Well, that was never, never, not ever gonna happen. The woman of my dreams in a room with the parental unit of my nightmares? Yeah, right.
I did drive her by one time. She said, “Oooh, nice house. Bet you can see the ocean from the attic. But, hmmm. Yeah. It’s missing the woman’s touch. The trim really needs painting and did you ever think about a bigger porch in the front, with columns? We’ll look into it after I move in.”
That’s how I found out she had long-term plans. No argument from me. So she came for dinner. Her idea. She came with flowers for Mom and her dress almost reached her knees. She said it was her visiting-her-aunt dress.
I had all the food, fresh from the best clam bar on the bay, out and on plates. Figured if I poured her enough wine she’d forget about Mom. Who was I kidding? She could hold her alcohol like a sailor on leave.
“This is very nice, baby, but it’s time for me to see upstairs. Ya know? Maybe you might want a new bed before I move in. Maybe I might want to buy some fresh towels. And I gotta meet your mom. Come on!” She poked me, playfully. “Old ladies always love me. I got my aunt so I know how they are. You don’t want me to think you’re ashamed of me, do you?” She was kind of wrapping herself around me while she said it. Was I gonna tell her she couldn’t do anything she wanted?
I introduced her to my mom. She gave her the flowers, put out a hand, bent over the wheelchair to give her a kiss.
Mom rolled the chair over her foot and came right up to me and screamed, “You brought your slut into my house? Into my kitchen? That’s no way to treat your old mother. Get her out. Now. Now, you disrespectful piece of garbage.”
I wanted to tell her my honey’s sluttiness was one of my favorite qualities, but, naah, it wasn’t worth it.
Give my Amber a lot of credit. She tried. She gave Mom the flowers and was treated to a speech about being a money-wasting idiot. She crouched down by the chair so they were face to face, talked nice and sweet. Mom said, “While you’re there, scrub the floor, you lazy slob. If your housekeeping doesn’t improve I’m going to fire your ass.”
The visit went downhill from there. You think it couldn’t get worse? Ah. You don’t know my mom.
Amber wouldn’t talk to me for four days. She blocked my calls, texts, emails. Unfriended me. Took my photo down from Facebook and changed her status back to Single.
On the fifth day, late at night she sent me a text. “Here. Now. (Home).”
I decided I had my pride. I wasn’t jumping at her snapping fingers. I was still saying it while I found my car keys and speeded down Shore Parkway. I stopped saying it out loud while I was ringing her doorbell.
She grabbed me. Didn’t say a word. No one said a word for a long time. In the morning, she kissed me goodbye and said, “I’m never living with that crazy bitch. You figure it out. I’ll wait. For a while.”
Funny thing is, the solution was staring at me from my calendar. Two times a week, my appointment at the nursing home. It was a cheerful modern building, with views of the ocean from the top floor. There were shady trees, nice caretakers and patients who were completely gaga. Mom would fit right in.
Next time I was there, when I finished spraying, I stripped off my coveralls, put on chinos, a tie and a jacket, and walked right into the admission office. I smiled nicely, introduced myself and explained why I didn’t need a tour.
“So you’re one of us.” The girl at the desk smiled. “How can we help?”
I told her about Mom. I didn’t say a thing about my future plans. I was all about being worried for my dear Mom’s well-being and safety. She explained all the paperwork and off I went. I finished it in record time, turned it in and sent an email to my sister and brother.
They had an awful lot to say about the kind of people who put their mothers away in homes. I had only one thing to say back. “You’re so right. I’ll have her on a bus to you in forty-eight hours.”
I had to laugh at how fast they backpedaled. They hadn’t noticed I’m no longer the baby brother they could push around. I brought a big bunch of flowers to Amber and told her—not asked, told—that we were getting married as soon as the move was done. She didn’t say no.
Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. No beds became available in the nursing home. I would go into the admissions office and ask. They were so nice. So understanding. So anxious to help me. So willing to explain that it all depended on who left. So completely useless. There was a list and Mom wasn’t even at the top of it.
In the meantime, some nights, Amber just wasn’t interested, if you get my drift. And some nights she didn’t want to see me at all. She was having a girls’ night out. She said.
One of those nights I sat in my car outside our favorite bar and watched her walk out, laughing in that way she did when she’d been drinking all night. She didn’t leave alone that night. Didn’t leave alone the next night either. And the guy was definitely not just a friend.
I always thought I was the wise guy with no soft spots. Life with Mom made me way too hardass. Then, that night, some- thing inside, something I didn’t know I had, cracked wide open. I needed someone else. I needed her.
The people at the home never, ever said, “Rooms only become available when someone dies,” but you didn’t have to be an M.D. to figure it out. I could figure that one out and all I have is a couple of semesters at a community college.
But I also have an exterminator’s license. That allows me to have a truck full of dangerous substances. Ya think we just put the rats to sleep when you call us? Nope. That’s why we tell you to keep your pets away.
A truck full of bottles with a skull and bone sign on them and a floor of old people who don’t move or talk or know who they are. They’re already dead, they just don’t know it. I would be doing them a favor and solving my own problem at the same time. A two-for-one.
Next time I was there, I scoped it all out. Made sure I had the right floor, the one where the patients were pretty much gone already. I didn’t see any reason to hurt the ones who were still up and around, going to sing-alongs and painting class.
I noted when they brought up the lunch trays. The only time someone asked did I need any help, I just kind of held up my spray can, ducking my head, and acted like I knew where I was going. Piece of cake. A work uniform and tools are the perfect disguise. Doesn’t matter if it’s cable, plumber, window washer, plant water- ing. Exterminator, with coveralls that had the company name all across the back. That’s all anyone would see, that guy doing a job. After, no one could have even told my hair color.
Next visit, I was ready. Nervous but ready. I worked on the right floor in the morning, perfectly timed to the arrival of the lunch trays. Grabbed that minute when the kitchen staff left and the floor staff was busy. Did I help with that? Could be. I set off a few bed alarms in a few rooms and they went running.
Quick as a mouse—and I would know—I uncovered a few meals on trays, shook out my magic on the food and left. Easy- peasy. So it would be a bad night on that floor. So what? They expect patients to die. And I needed more than one, to get Mom to the top of the list.
That night, Mom was as mean and crazy as ever. As I spooned the baby food into her mouth, in between her cursing, I looked at the crummy kitchen and thought about how Amber and I would change it. She’d know just what to do. I imagined her there instead of Mom, cooking spaghetti sauce. Imagined her there wearing a big apron and not much more.
Real late that night I took her over to the beach with a blanket, a bottle of premium vodka and a baggie of weed. It added an exciting edge that pretty much everything we had in mind was illegal in a city park. Hell, no one was there to see us. There was just the night sky, the waves lapping and a big ship we could barely see, heading out to parts unknown. Amber likes all that gooey stuff to go along with the thrills. We were looking right out across the Atlantic Ocean. Next land was Spain.
I didn’t tell her my plan, just that Mom’s move would be soon. We pretty much celebrated all night long, every way we could think of, and watched the sun come up like a couple of kids after the prom. We laughed, shaking the sand out of our clothes, and got dressed under the blanket.
I walked home whistling. A quick shower to get the sand out of some awkward spots, and I was off to work. The old lady has an aide during the day, to keep her from setting her hair on fire or something equally insane. She enjoys having someone new to torture. If she napped, the aide could start packing up Mom’s stuff. I left whistling too.
I had two calls that morning. The first was the home, saying I should get Mom moved in the next twenty-four hours or I’d lose the place. Music to my ears. I got ready for the rest of my life to begin.
Call number two was Amber, sobbing. Her aunt at the nursing home died last night. Sure, she was completely gone, mentally, but she’d been a wonderful aunt before that and everyone loved her. “And she was the reason we met, remember?” Like, yeah, I did. I was never gonna forget that day. And I always thought she wasn’t on the lost-all-their-marbles floor, from the way Amber talked about her.
I felt my heart stop beating for a couple of seconds.
Through the sobs, she went on, “There’s something wrong here, honey. They aren’t telling us the truth about what happened. I know it. Two other people died at the same time. Two more! Dammit, I’m not leaving it alone until I get some answers.”
Copyright © 2014 Triss Stein. Used with permission of Glenmere Press.
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Triss Stein is a small–town girl from New York state’s dairy country who has spent most of her adult life living and working in New York City. Writing is a third career, after working as a children’s librarian and spending many years in business research. She's the author of the Erica Donato series of mysteries, Brooklyn Bones and Brooklyn Graves.