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  • Writer's pictureMarie Smysor Watson

Useful for So Many Things

Tomorrow I'll be taking two-thirds of my children (and their father!) to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. We're having a wonderful memory-making trip, BUT the pull of the familiar is always strong and the thought of the vast ocean got me thinking of home. I guess you can take the woman out of the prairie, but you can't take the prairie out of her!

Jeeeeaaaan, I NEED you!

The old woman’s voice was thin and reedy, like the tall grasses that grew at the edge of her woods, the grass the lawnmower man didn’t bother to cut for whatever reason. Marcie’s voice, by contrast, was booming. Marcie had been told so many times to Quiet down! over the years that she’d become self-conscious of talking at all. It wasn’t like she was trying to be loud. Sometimes she’d just get excited making a point, or laughing over a joke, or keeping up with a conversation that her voice would rise, louder and louder, just like Gabriel’s trumpet, her father used to say. She hadn’t spoken to her father in years, but those words still rose like the smell of the pig slop he made her carry out to their pen every morning.

But no matter how loud she was, or how many times she called I’m coming! the old woman kept calling. Jean, Jean! I NEED you!

Marcie had often wondered who Jean was, but once when she asked her, the old woman became sullen. I don’t know anyone named Jean, she said coldly, you must have misheard me. And then she wouldn’t finish her supper because it was too salty, or so she said, but Marcie never put any salt on the old woman’s food because she had high blood pressure but wouldn’t take her pills. Marcie wasn’t a doctor, only an in-home helper, but she knew enough about old people and their pills to know that much.

Oh, Jean, what took you so long? the old woman said. Marcie didn’t answer, as she said the very same thing every time she awoke during the night, but pulled gently against the spotted hands raised up from the sheets. She settled the old woman into a sitting position, and then one-two-three, heaved her to standing. Click went the brakes on the push-scooter, and the old woman trundled herself into the bathroom. She always kicked the door shut behind her, a swift and seamless move for a woman her age. She told Marcie once that she’d spent a lifetime of being watched in the bathroom, first by her eight children and then by her husband and lastly by her cat, and she didn’t need an audience anymore. Marcie was glad for that. She’d lived alone her entire life after the farm and she never had to share a private space with anyone.

(Also, she didn’t like cats, so she was glad the cat had gone on its way to the merry mousing grounds in the sky before she began to work there).

Marcie stacked her pillows back up and then sat on the edge of her bed. It would be a while. The old woman was slow in the bathroom, but then she was slow at most things, as she was very old. Marcie had plenty of patience for it all. She did not have children and no close relatives save the father she never spoke to, so she had nothing to balance her time against. It meant so little to her, time, it might as well have been nuclear fusion or quantum physics. She had no use for any of it.

Tiny splashing sounds echoed from the bathroom and Marcie smiled. This meant the old woman actually was using the bathroom for its intended purpose, instead of just sitting there. The moon shone through the uncovered window. Heavy drapes hung at either side like useless pigtails because the old woman never wanted them closed. I like to see what’s coming, she said, and Marcie thought this was as good of a reason as any. Sometimes, when she was sitting and waiting and the night was a clear one, she might see animals move about. Coyotes and raccoons and opossums and foxes and owls and every other kind of night creature, all moving in stark relief against the purple shadows of the yard and the prairie meadow beyond. But most often she saw deer.

Toilet paper, Jean! came the voice through the door. The old woman used an excessive amount of toilet paper for each bathroom visit. Honestly, Marcie wondered how the old woman never clogged the toilet, but then she had been conditioned by her father to ration toilet paper like there was a national shortage of it. Being a man, he didn’t understand why Marcie needed to use enough to choke a horse, or so he complained.

Marcie got toilet paper from the hall closet and handed it to her around the door. She would have to put in the spindle later she knew, as the old woman would just drop it on the floor next to the toilet. This was okay too. It gave her something to remember throughout the long night of waiting. She sat back down on the edge of the bed. Through the window, she saw three deer that stood at the edge of the yard. The first one, the one in front, stepped tentatively onto the mowed grass as if he were crossing a threshold. He looked around and then moved into the yard, emboldened, closing in on the azalea bushes the old woman was so proud of. They were a deep pink, the color of a true Illinois sunset just right before it fades to twilight, but Marcie did not like them very much. They seemed proud, haughty even, although logically she knew that flowers weren’t conditioned to make her feel bad about herself. She preferred the wild grasses and prairie plants that grew in the meadow, down to the edge of the pond. They were simple; they belonged.

Now they all three closed in on the azaleas and their heads bent and they grazed, despite the small bars of soap that the old woman had asked her to tie all over the bushes (Soap is useful for so many things besides keeping you clean, the old woman had said slyly) and Marcie was suddenly stricken with a horrible shame because she didn’t know whether the deer were fawns or yearlings or full-grown does. In all of her years growing up on a farm at the edge of the thick woods, she never learned to tell them apart. And now, living alone, she would probably never know.

The middle deer, the biggest, straightened its neck and Marcie could just make out its ears quivering in the dusk. It looked over its shoulder, back towards the woods. Maybe it was a small doe? Marcie grasped at the memory of deer hunting with her father, the waiting and the cold and the heat of his man’s leg pressed strong against hers, crowded as they were together in tight space, in the thick of it, still waiting. And the bloodless quiet of the drive home, no deer, and her father never asking her to go again. You smell like a woman, he said on the drive home, his mouth twisted under his heavy mustache, and Marcie understood it was not a compliment.

There was a loud clanking from the bathroom and Marcie jumped up and in two steps she was in the bathroom. The old woman was splayed back against the toilet and Marcie had a thought of death but it was so quick because then the woman’s eyes came open and Marcie understood that she had fallen asleep, upright, on the toilet.

Oh Jean, you’re here, thank you. I’m getting so old, she said, but her tone was neither proud nor sorrowful, only full of wonder. And Marcie lifted her up off the toilet, because she was a good-sized woman and tall, but also because she had grown up on a farm and she knew how to use her muscles to her advantage, and the memory was bone deep. The old woman held onto her walker and Marcie pulled up her underwear for her and settled her threadbare nightgown over her loose, small body.

She followed the old woman out of the en suite bathroom and into the dark bedroom. She clicked off the lights behind her, a force of habit from a childhood of never enough.

Leave the lights on! the old woman snapped. Marcie quickly flipped them back on. How the old woman could sleep with the light from the moon and the light from the bathroom fighting against each other in her room was beyond Marcie. She needed it to be completely dark when she slept. Probably why she always slept so poorly, if it all.

She settled the old woman into her bed, propping her up with her stack of pillows. It took five of them, but finally, she was satisfied. Marcie pulled at the chain on the ceiling fan, one two three, and it began to whir quietly at its lowest speed.

Thank you, Marcie, the old woman said, snuggling into the down comforter she used for every season. You’re welcome, Marcie whispered, and even her whispers were loud and she winced at the sound, braying in the quiet room, but the old woman was already asleep.

The light from the bathroom cast Marcie’s silhouette onto the window. It was big, her reflection, but not so big as to be unattractive, Marcie thought with kindness. Beyond that, in the yard, Marcie could just make out a shape. It was big, probably bigger than her if she was standing next to it, shoulder to shoulder. The points on its head stabbed at the stars.

A buck, Marcie thought, as the old woman snored softly. At least thirteen points she counted, but maybe more. It was so dark, and the light from the bathroom was so bright, but it was a buck, she knew that much at least, even if she didn’t know anything else about deer - how to identify them or how to keep them from eating your precious flowers or how to let them come to you, unaware, without them smelling you first.

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