The corner store is raided. I am stealing candy bars by the handful, licorice by the roll. The clerk offers a plastic bag. “No thanks,” I say to her.
Layne gave me a twenty to, in her words, “Get her through the next round of liquid food, and maybe to have some normal-looking poop for once.” I spend the whole thing and march into the sunshine.
Back at the house, she’s got her legs bent upwards. “By God, if you didn’t get me rosebuds, I’m going to get up and go over there myself.”
I give her a bar of white chocolate. She nibbles on it. Her teeth look smaller than they used to, although that’s not possible; it’s just that her gums have shrunk, making the teeth seem longer.
“What are you looking at?” she asks, as though she doesn’t know. A machine is beeping next to her. A button on the headboard is bright red, with a big white exclamation mark through it. Makes me laugh. “Tell me about your dumb-ass new job. Sounds really stupid.”
“I don’t want to bore you to death…” I tell her.
She smiles, “I can’t imagine a more painful way to go.”
“Here, have a rosebud. I didn’t forget. Job’s simple. I get paid to cuddle people. Go to their houses and sit with them for a while and just cuddle. Ninety bucks an hour!” She closes her eyes for a moment and everything stops. I look at the machine. It’s still making noises. It’s still chugging along. I close my eyes too, and when I open them, she’s looking at me, trying to laugh. “There’s no sex or anything like that. Clients are heavily screened. I went through three weeks of training.”
“You cuddle for a living?” she says. “And you had to have training for it? That sounds about right… Do mom and dad know?”
“No, and don’t tell them. Money’s good. Best job I’ve had in ages, all right?”
For a second, her eyes widen so much that I remember her back then, before, when she had hair and there weren’t wrinkles of skin hanging from her jawbones. “Well, I’m glad I held on this long. Doc said I wouldn’t see the spring, but showed him. Next time he’s over, I’m going to tell him it had nothing to do with wanting winter to end. I’m gonna tell him that I stuck around to hear that my brother is a professional cuddler.”
I get up and head to the door. “Got an appointment soon.”
“Can’t stay a bit longer?”
“Have to be on time.”
I left the candy within reach, yellow and red wrappers everywhere. She’s been taking bites out of different pieces, never finishing anything. Even when Layne was okay, back in the before, she never finished anything. “Can you open the window for me?” she asks. I do that. “Slide me that book over there?” I do it. “Maybe untangle my colostomy bag? It feels a little backed up.” And she laughs. She finally manages it.
At the door, she inhales. She has to draw a big breath whenever she wants to say something. “Maybe you could cuddle with me?” There’s no smile this time. “For a while. That would be nice. I could pay you. Be your client.”
The room has that smell. The window is flushing it over me. “Later,” I tell her. And she nods.
Downstairs, Becky is scribbling on paper. “She dead yet?”
“Becky…” I kneel next to her. She is drawing the winter, big flakes and roofs gathering snow. There are markers next to her suggesting that she is going to finish it off with Christmas. “I left some candy upstairs with her.”
“She’s not supposed to eat that. Neither am I.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ll see you later, Becky,” I tell her, rising.
She looks up. “I’m pretty sure you said she’d be fine. You were going to find some good people to fix her up. That’s what you said. Now you’re giving her candy. I don’t think that’s going to do it.”
“She wanted some…”
“I want some too.” Becky is scratching away at the drawing. It’s not Christmas on the paper, it’s a time before that. It’s summer, and it’s two years ago, and it’s further back than even that. It’s a mess, I think to myself. It’s just a mess of scribbles and snowflakes, and it doesn’t mean anything at all. “Sugar will make her worse. But it doesn’t matter now, does it?”
“Becky, you need to talk to your dad…”
“Sure, Uncle Jim, I’ll do that. Just as soon as he gets home. Should be in a few minutes.”
“I have to go now. See you, Becky. I’ll be back for dinner.” She puts her head down. Shrugs. Keeps scribbling.
Outside, it’s spring. Makes me laugh. The bus driver gives me a transfer. I put my knees as high as I can on the seat in front of me. There’s an old man sitting there. Keeps nodding his head as though he’s listening to music. On the street, on the sidewalks, there’s a few snowbanks left. But not many.
The appointment’s on the east end. It takes an hour to get there. The house is huge, all glass at the front, holding up a mass of red brick. A driveway of stone curls towards the wooden doors. I ring the doorbell and practice Layne’s eulogy. She works on it with me all the time. Makes me promise that I have to get people to laugh. That I have to end it off crying, if I can, because unless I laugh – she says – I am the type of person that never cries.
“Hi Mrs. Doyle,” I tell the old woman. “Great to see you again!”
“Jim, Jim, Jim,” she says. Puts her hands on her head, as though I’m doing her a favour by being here, as though she wasn’t expecting me to show up. I call the service and tell them that I’ve started the appointment. She leads me through the house to the back room. There’s more glass here, overlooking a garden and a pond. A big fish sloshes around in the water. A squirrel bumps around in the trees overhead. We sit on a red round chair.
“Edith,” she whispers, as she leans closer to me. It’s like she’s going to kiss me. Her chin rests on my shoulder. “Please call me that.”
“Yes, okay. How are you today?”
“I enjoyed the last time so much,” she says. She must be eighty, living in a house this big. Makes me laugh. From the smell of her, it seems like she just showered. That she got ready for me. A narrow, bony arm crosses my chest and takes my other shoulder. She is hugging me now, from the side. I stare at the pond, and at the big fish that keeps cresting the surface as though it is trying to jump into the sky. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Is this position okay?” I ask her. “Do you want to sit like this for a while?”
“I think so. You don’t need to speak.”
Her nose is nuzzling my neck. It’s cold and sharp, feels like it might cut me. She’s whispering, but it’s not my name, and it’s not to me. Her hand is on my cheek. One second, I feel that I might be her son; the next, her husband. After that, a friend. An old lover. A mother. A sister.
I sit straight up. I don’t move. Edith is not exactly crying, but she is not laughing either. I sit there, staring out the window. Under a tree, there’s a hint of snow. Maybe if the shadows are just right, I think, maybe if everything goes well and it gets lucky, maybe it will get all the way through the spring. Maybe even the summer. By October, I think – if it can make it that far – it will be all right for another whole year. Edith’s arms tighten. She whispers. It makes me laugh. It just does.