Game of Chances

By Ann Boaden

Mrs. Larson was too busy to die.

But she did anyway.

And God said, “Did you enjoy my world?”

Mrs. Larson said, “Enjoy?”

God said, “Yes.”

Mrs. Larson said, “I—well, I mean, there’s so much to do. You can’t just sit around enjoying or you’d never get anything done. I’ve always been busy. Never wasted a minute.”

“What did you do, my child?” God asked.

“Do.” This was ridiculous. Surely God was supposed to know these things. And why was it taking her so long to remember? She said, finally, “Well, of course, my house—I mean, everybody’ll tell you how clean my house is. That takes a lot of work. Upstairs every Thursday and downstairs Friday, and not just dusting but a good wipe down with vinegar and water on all the woodwork. And deep cleaning spring and Christmas, always. Just like Mother made us. We got the strap pretty quick if we didn’t do everything just so. And now that Herbert’s gone— Well, not that he was all that much help, but at least he kept the lawn mowed and the dandelions killed and the deer out of the hostas and the shutters painted. And now I have to hire it all out, and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get reliable workers. Do a shoddy job and charge you an arm and a leg. And half the time they don’t even show up, you can wait all day and not a word of apology—”

“Martha, Martha,” said God. “You’re busy about many things.”

“That’s just it, there’s always so much to do—”

“What if you had another chance?”

Mrs. Larson blinked. “Another chance?”

“To enjoy the world. Would you take it?”

“You mean—” Mrs. Larson faltered— “you mean, I could go back—”

God said, “Yes.”

Mrs. Larson thought of all there was to do: the china cupboard she’d been planning to spruce up…the blinds to be washed…the back porch to be swept again—those yard men would come tramping in with grass cuttings all over their shoes, though if she’d told them once…

Mrs. Larson said, “Well—yes!” She almost said “Duh!” but decided she probably shouldn’t, not to God.

“There will,” God said, “be certain restrictions.”

Mrs. Larson said, “Restrictions?”

“Not on your ability to enjoy.”

Mrs. Larson said, “Oh well. That’s all right then.” That shelf paper would look so nice in the kitchen cupboard, and it’d been on sale, too. Or maybe—maybe she should start with the porch…Yes…the porch…

 

There would be certain—restrictions, the doctor explained.

Mrs. Larson sat in the wheelchair in the hospital room. The doctor sat on a chair very close to her. The doctor pronounced all her words carefully, the way you do to people who have hearing or memory impairment. But that could have been because her English was so heavily accented. Mrs. Larson thought they ought to get doctors who could speak English so you could understand it right off. Still, this one did give you all the time you needed, not like some who just dashed in for five minutes and were gone before you knew they’d been there…

She said, “Restrictions?” It was still a little hard to speak clearly. At first, it had been like having a mop head in her mouth, one of those lamb’s wool ones with edging the color of watery caramel. That was better now. But she still had to make a conscious effort first to locate and then to pronounce each word, so talking was tiring. She had to speak very carefully.

The doctor said gently, “You had quite a severe stroke. I will tell you in fact that it’s a miracle you survived. So as you continue with therapy, your activities may increase. But you must take things slowly. Your body has been through a lot. Let it recuperate.”

“But I will—” She didn’t quite know how to say it. Not, this time, because she couldn’t find the words but because what she wanted to ask scared her. Just as the refusal of her hands and legs and tongue to do what she wanted scared her. “I will be able to—do things…”

The doctor smiled and said, “We will just take it day by day. You have no pain?”

Mrs. Larson said, “No. No pain. But I just—I can’t do things. I need to do things. My house—” The doctor nodded. She was supposed to be some kind of specialist, but Mrs. Larson wasn’t at all sure about her. Besides the accent, she was so young. And so small, didn’t look more than fifteen. One of those Indian doctors who were all over the place in Illinois these days. Her skin was like milk chocolate against her white hospital coat.

She said, “You have worked very hard all your life, madam. Now you have some time to rest.” She rose and patted Mrs. Larson on the shoulder. “Just enjoy it.”

 

Enjoy it. Rest. When there was so much that needed doing—She looked down at her hands. The one was twisted outward, the fingers locked together in a wedge that looked like a duck’s head. She had no feeling in it. The other—she moved a thumb. It didn’t move very much. Both hands were the color of old plastic. You couldn’t even knit with them.

I am helpless, Mrs. Larson thought. She was very angry.

Marie didn’t enjoy her work in Homeward Angels Rehabilitation Center. Not that it would have occurred to her to consider enjoyment an option. Marie had been long accustomed to getting by and making do as dream after vague dream slid away like wavering images in a river. The idea of enjoyment had been one of the first things to go. Still, she had thought she might like working with the elderly. She’d considered being a nurse at one time. That was before—well, before a lot of what had happened had happened. But anyway there was all that science you had to take. Marie had never been very good in school.

She had been a pretty girl back then, smooth-skinned and round-faced, with generous cheeks, big doe eyes and soft slurred laughter that could break into delight like a spurt of water. Now her figure was tautened to bone and wire, her eyes were dark with unshed questions, her cheeks and her chances planed. She wasn’t bitter, just bewildered that life had turned out to be the thing it had. She sagged under her bewilderment, as if it had been a yoke she carried across her bony shoulders. Only sometimes, when she’d be stepping down off the bus after work, and she’d look up and see along the street the lights shining in the windows of houses, only then sadness would touch her, like a finger pressing a bruise. And she would wonder without words: Why have I missed all this? What went wrong?

She’d seen the glossy brochures put out by Homeward Angels, the pictures of happy old people (with their carefully applied cosmetics) smiling adoringly at the caregivers who knelt by their sides. Maybe that could happen for her, she’d thought, and she’d have something to take back to her apartment with the stain on the ceiling and the toilet with the rotted stopper that sighed exasperatedly on and off all night.

It didn’t work out that way. She basically spent her days mopping floors and old people who sometimes wailed and sometimes bit as she sponged their crinkled and spotted skin.

And then she met Mrs. Larson.

Homeward Angels was better than some nursing homes. The administration tried to see their patients as people—at least, as former people—not simply as collections of inert flesh, foul odors, and unraveling brains. Turn their chairs around to the window. Try to interest them in something outside—flowers and so forth.

Mrs. Larson was sitting in her wheelchair staring into the corner when Marie came to her room.

“Hello, Martha,” she said. “I’m Marie.”

Mrs. Larson said, “Look at that dust. Kittens in every corner. Rolling with them. Told the girl, but do they listen? Chewing gum. Had those things in her ears. Where do they get these people from?”

Marie, who’d filled out a long application and been drug-tested for her job, said, “Would you like me to turn your chair around?”

“If I just had a mop,” Mrs. Larson said. “I asked her but she wouldn’t get me one.”

Marie said, louder, “Shall I turn your chair around, Martha?”

Mrs. Larson said, “I heard you the first time. You don’t have to shout. I don’t want my chair turned around. I want a mop.”

Not maybe the most promising start. And yet…

She should have felt put down. But she didn’t. Maybe because life as she knew it was basically a put-down, and one more instance of it didn’t affect her much. Or maybe because she admired the feisty ones, the fighters and biters, the ones who refused, against all odds, to let the place shred their spirit. They reminded Marie of her grandmother.

Unlike her grandmother, though, the feisty ones at Homeward Angels were often the most aggressively delusional. This lady, this Mrs. Martha Larson, was different. Even inside that still body, twisted slightly like the contours of a shell, there was a mind clear as acid.

And so what Marie felt was not a put-down but a sudden lift of energy, a remembrance of old times. Of the small living room with the overstuffed chair and sofa the color of beets…the old black rocker…the smell of vinegar…Grandma’s house… She said, “Why? Why do you want a mop?”

Mrs. Larson looked up from the floor at her, one side of her thick neck rucked where her head leaned into it. She said, “So I can show you how to clean this place up right. You didn’t think I planned to do it?”

Marie didn’t. She said, “So if I get you a mop, will you let me turn your chair around?”

Mrs. Larson said, “Why?”

Marie said, “So’s you can see out the window.”

“I know what’s out the window,” Mrs. Larson said.

Marie said, “No turn, no mop.”

Stalemate. Silence. Mrs. Larson glared. Marie looked back at her with her big, gentle dark eyes. Then Mrs. Larson sighed. “Oh all right. Just get the mop, girl.”

The window of Mrs. Larson’s room looked out on a section of the sidewalk that ran around Homeward Angels Rehabilitation Center and then decanted onto and wound around an artificial pond ringed with flowering shrubs. The flowering was mostly over now at midsummer, but the leaves would shine sometimes when the early light struck them, as if they were covered with white blossoms. On sunny not-too-hot days, patients could be wheeled around this sidewalk, or practice their tentative rehab steps behind walkers the color of swimming pools. Big terra cotta pots of red geraniums and white petunias sat at carefully spaced intervals where the sidewalk arced into patios with wooden chairs and tables. The effect was somewhat militantly rustic.

And above all that, above and beyond it, the huge Midwestern sky bulging with clouds.

Marie said, “There. Pretty nice out there, ain’t it?”

Mrs. Larson said, “I’ve seen it.”

“Look at the flowers,” Marie said.

“I know what flowers look like,” Mrs. Larson said.

Marie said, “You’re like my grandma. She wasn’t going to like nothing just because somebody said so—She liked me okay. We got along good, me and my grandma.”

“I’m not your grandma,” Mrs. Larson said.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Marie said.

 

It was like that from then on. It became, through the long midsummer days, a competition, partly playful, partly something more, something with strength and heft and importance. Like all competitions, it had its ritual. Marie would fetch the mop or Comet or vinegar and a clean—a clean—cloth; Mrs. Larson would instruct her how to use it: In the corner, girl, get it way in the corner; give it some elbow grease, girl; that’s a scrub rag, not your great-aunt Fanny’s doily. Then Marie would turn the chair, in a smooth ceremonious arc, like a priestess approaching an altar, and she would say, “The clouds are really big today. Seem like the whole sky’s sagging down with them. And growling—the sky’s growling.”

“Get water in the basement like as not,” Mrs. Larson would say. “They ought to get a good waterproofer.”

Or:

“Look at them two big old black cats just laying out there on the sidewalk.”

“Feral cats. City’s full of them. They should get an exterminator.”

“See that one, the way he’s looking right in at us—them big yellow eyes—thinks he’s somebody. He’s not afraid of nothing.”

“Loaded with fleas and ticks. Give you some disease, rabies probably, if they scratch you.”

“I thought cats was supposed to be so clean.”

“Don’t believe everything you’re told.”

The ritual forbade any violation of power balance: Marie could not wheel the chair on the sidewalk around the building or down to the pond; Mrs. Larson could not demand more than one cleaning operation per visit.

They didn’t acknowledge any of this. Yet as they enacted it, day after day, week after week, it grew to something rich and potent and inexplicably central for each of them. Their world contracted and enlarged to it. In her therapy sessions, Mrs. Larson spoke less and less, and more perfunctorily, about going home. Marie found herself getting better at noticing: the sky, its different colors and cloud-patterns; the shade and texture of the water in the pond; the way its mechanical jets went up straight as lodgepole pines when the air was still and lashed like silver flags when the wind blew. She saw ground squirrels racing across the clipped grass, sparrows, cardinals. Once, geese went across the sky in a high wobbling arrow. She discovered she enjoyed noticing.

And she discovered how potent and insistent enjoyment is. One day she said, “The geraniums are looking really pretty this morning. They’re red as fire.”

“I’ve seen geraniums,” Mrs. Larson said.

And then Marie said something different: “But not them.”

It surprised them both into silence. Like that first stalemate weeks ago. Only this silence was deeper, full as the silence of a wood is full of things mysterious, ambiguous, of rustles, tiny ticks of water, things coming into and going out of being.

Finally Mrs. Larson said, “What?”

Marie said, “Not them. You ain’t seen them. Just those there.”

Mrs. Larson said, “All geraniums are the same.”

Marie didn’t say anything.

Mrs. Larson said, “Seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.”

“Maybe,” Marie said. “Maybe not.”

 

The next day, Marie saw the deer.

A small young doe. She had just lifted her head from drinking in the artificial pond. Marie caught her breath. “Oh look. Look at her.”

It was the end of afternoon, getting on for evening. The light was the gray-brown of dusk, and the deer was its color. A few weeks ago, Marie probably wouldn’t have seen her; she was little more, from this distance, than a thickening of that light. Still, poised, easy to miss. Only the long ears moved, their soft fur outlined trembling against the bright water, the final brightness of the day.

Marie said, “She’s so beautiful.”

Mrs. Larson said, “Deer population’s way out of hand. Those shrubs’ll be gone by morning. They should get hunters in.”

Marie felt her hands go hard on the handles of the wheelchair. She said, “No.” And then, “Look at her. Just look. You’ll never see nothing like that.”

Mrs. Larson said, “I’ve seen plenty of deer, and I can tell you, girl, they’re trouble when they get this close. Took my hostas—”

Marie said, “No you didn’t. You never saw a deer.”

It was like a slap. Mrs. Larson felt dizzied and dismantled. As if she’d had another stroke. It took her awhile to say, “You—have no right—to talk to me—like that.”

Marie said, “Maybe I do.”

Mrs. Larson said, “Turn the chair around.

She was shaking when Marie left. She watched the wedge of her hand—the pale fingers that would never unfold—stutter against the dark blanket on her knees. It was intolerable. Sass, insolence. Her with her geraniums and cats and water spouts and geese. And deer. Just the kind of head-in-the-clouds type Mrs. Larson’s mother couldn’t stand. Dreamy. Staring out the windows instead of washing them. And then acting as if she—as if she knew something Mrs. Larson didn’t…something better…

Well, I’ll report you tomorrow, girl, Mrs. Larson said in her head. You bet I will. You don’t get by with this.

Marie was shaken, too. It was strange. She was dancing inside as if she’d won a victory, and bent with sadness like grief. Marie wasn’t used to complicated emotions. Maybe that’s why she didn’t notice the van doing forty-five in a thirty-mile zone when she stepped off the bus that evening.

And God said, “Did you enjoy my world?”

Marie said, “Oh yes! Only—well, not so much for awhile. But then I met Mrs. Larson and—” She shrugged, smiled. “It was like we played this game on each other, and I got a second chance. If you know what I mean. Well—I guess you do.”

“I guess,” said God. “A game of chance?”

“Like that.” Marie hesitated.

“Or chances?” God said.

“That’s it,” Marie said. “So I just—I wondered—”

“What, my child?”

“Mrs. Larson,” Marie said. “Will she ever—get her chance—”

And God said, “That’s her story, not yours.” And then, “Some you win, some you lose. Oh my children, my children.”

That night, Mrs. Larson dreamed of a deer that had Marie’s eyes, or maybe it was Marie with a deer’s eyes, who looked at her sadly and said, You never saw a deer.

 

Ann Boaden received her doctorate in English from The University of Chicago and returned to teach literature and creative writing at her undergraduate school, Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois. Her work has appeared and/or is forthcoming in a variety of journals and anthologies, including South Dakota Review, Big Muddy, Penwood Review, Simul, Christmas on the Great Plains, The Windhover, Time of Singing, [our very own] last year’s Sediments Christmas issue, and others.

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