“Divorce her,” Nicole pleaded to her husband. “You’ve divorced the two mothers of your children. Breaking away from Sally should be easy by comparison. You deserve a little peace.”
“She’s old.” Adam fiddled with his wedding ring, removing and replacing the incised gold band. “She doesn’t have anybody else.”
“Age doesn’t have anything to do with it and you know it—she’s always been this way. And of course she doesn’t have anybody else. Not because you’re an only child, but because she’s . . . impossible.” When Nicole was trying to explain this mother-son relationship to her therapist, she said, “Sally comes into the room and I can read the Cartesian variation playing in Adam’s head: ‘I cringe, therefore I am’.”
“Give it a rest, please, Nicole.”
She knew he meant Give me a rest. Her voice softened, “Divorce her, Adam, so I won’t have to divorce you.” Adam understood her words not as a threat but a genuine expression of fear. True, Sally had aimed poisonous barbs at all her daughtersin-law, but it was the undercutting of her son that had proved fatal to his marriages.
He stopped by his mother’s house each Sunday morning to help with her bills, balance her checkbook, replace light bulbs, and eat a slab of the Entenmann’s coffeecake she forced on him. Under the guise of reminiscing, Sally seized these opportunities to rake up his past, reminding him of the performance award he had won at Juilliard or the patent lawyer his first wife had left him for.
After one of these visits with his mother, Adam might plunge into a dry spell of anywhere from a single day to several months when he didn’t try to create music, periods when he didn’t trust himself to have anything left worth offering. Nicole would point to his successes, but, when he was in these spells, such praise only confirmed that his achievements were relegated to the past. Eventually he would return to the piano, but these episodes of doubt weakened him. Nicole feared the effects to be cumulative. That’s why she felt unrepentantly relieved when Adam finally agreed his mother had to be sent to a nursing home.
Neither illness nor senility had captured Sally, but infirmity had taken hold. She had trouble with stairs, with lifting pans and turning off faucets, with putting on her shoes. And the house reflected her limitations.
Sally kept multiple cigarettes going simultaneously. Adam had given up trying to get her to quit. She boasted her lungs would probably collapse if they received a higher ratio of oxygen than was customary. Her idea of doing something healthful in the way of smoking was to switch to mentholated brands when she had a cough or sore throat.
Sally didn’t abandon her smokes promiscuously; it just took her too long to navigate from the table to the stove to go without a drag, and she couldn’t manage carrying a cigarette and the coffee pot at the same time. The day had to come when she left a lit cigarette in the living room while she enjoyed another in the bathroom. Just as she’d finished her business in there, the phone rang—someone trying to sell her burial insurance—and she never made it back to the living room. Six hours later, after the firefighters had left and the neighbors had tracked Adam down at a recording session, he arrived to chauffeur Sally and a few necessities back to their house until “a suitable arrangement” could be made. This didn’t require nearly as much time as Sally anticipated because Nicole had been scouting nursing homes for over a year.
Sally tried refusing to go.
Nicole didn’t want to inflict needless pain, but she wasn’t going to avoid the necessary. “You can’t stay alone,” she said crisply.
But Sally had already stopped insisting she be allowed to return home. She could see even Adam was unmovable on that score. “I could stay here.” There was nothing of the supplicant about her as she said this. If anything, a steely glint shone in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Nicole said, equally flint-hearted, “you know that’s not possible.”
A room became available at one of the better “assisted living” residences a few days before Mother’s Day. Adam and Nicole decided to take Sally for a Mother’s Day brunch to the café at the art museum and then on to the nursing home from there. The director said the staff preferred morning admissions but he made an exception in their case.
Sally dressed for the occasion. She wore a bright pink shift with Eiffel Towers careening across the fabric at all angles. Nicole imagined she looked like the kind of hallucination produced by a mind in the throes of delirium tremens—an Erector Set–encrusted, Pepto Bismol–coated elephant. As often happened, Nicole had to restrain herself from asking her mother-in-law where (in God’s name) she had purchased her outfit.
At the end of the meal, after Sally read her card and unwrapped the box holding the hand-painted silk shawl, she asked, eyes blinking either in incredulity or from the smoke of her cigarette (which both the waiter and café hostess had asked her to extinguish), “This the latest thing in geriatric wear—no snaps, no buttons, no shape?”
“Do you like it?” Adam asked rhetorically, his left eye twitching rapidly.
“We bought it from the artist,” Nicole interceded.
“Is that so? I guess that makes this what they call ‘wearable art’? In my day wearable art was a sandwich board. I predict the next new craze will be ‘flushable art.’ You heard it here.” She waved her cigarette grandly in the air above her head, like a Fourth of July sparkler.
“I’m sorry you don’t like it.” Nicole shouldered the liability.
“I didn’t say that. Did I say that?” she turned to her son, seeking acknowledgment that his wife was trying to put words in her mouth. “I was just hoping for something a little more personal from my only son for Mother’s Day.”
Like a garter belt? Nicole bit the inside of her cheek to keep from snapping. Sally had the knack of getting her to conceive thoughts that were totally out of character.
“Like a song from my famous composer son,” Sally corrected as if Nicole had spoken aloud. “One little sheet of sheet music.”
Adam winced. “Hardly famous.” He wasn’t aware that he was chewing on his tongue.
“False modesty is so unbecoming,” his mother smiled flirtatiously. “The women in my bridge group were always telling me about concerts they go to where they hear your music. They’re always congratulating me.”
“How tedious for you,” Nicole said tonelessly and turned away to avoid the look Adam sent in her direction.
“How about a ditty for your mother? Hum a few bars of your latest.”
Adam, who belonged to the New Music Circle and composed primarily avant-garde chamber music, sat paralyzed by the word “ditty.”
“How about the check?” Nicole said loud enough for the hovering waiter to overhear. With one hand he presented their bill, already totaled, while with the other he whisked Sally’s bread plateaway, with its hash of crumbs and butter and ash and still smoldering butt.
Nicole had reserved space for her mother-in-law at a facility with the jaunty air and overstuffed chairs of a country club. Sally moved into a private room in Briarcliff’s “ambulatory” division. Residents were encouraged to participate in classes and activities. “Every Tuesday evening there’s a live concert in the lounge,” Nicole told Adam. “Mostly guest performers, but sometimes one of the residents. There’s a woman who used to teach violin at the conservatory and she plays occasionally. You should get on the schedule. Your mother can show you off to her new neighbors.”
Nicole was happier than she could recall, but she refrained from saying so. The same was true for Adam, though he, too, kept any unseemly jubilation to himself. The only one clearly unsatisfied with the new arrangement was Sally, and she wasted no time in letting everyone know exactly how she felt.
“I’m afraid your mother isn’t very pleased to be staying with us,” the young social director apologized to Nicole. “I thought she’d settle in by now.”
“My husband’s mother,” Nicole corrected. She touched the social director’s arm confidingly. “My mother-in-law has never been the cheerful sort, but I’m afraid my husband still takes responsibility for her moods.”
“I understand,” the young woman said, agreeing to the conspiracy. “I’ve learned from this job that some people make the best of a situation and others take the same situation and make the worst of it. We mustn’t let your husband blame himself for that.”
As long as Sally was complaining, Nicole was serene. Complaints from Sally were to be expected. At last their lives were reasonably predictable.
Because there were no long lists of real and invented household chores to attend to, Adam now made all his visits to his mother on the fly. On the way to the dentist. Before a meeting. Between rehearsals. There was never enough time for Sally to rummage in his past, stick her probing hands into his memories. When Sally would raise her voice like a hatchet above his head, cursing the place—the food, the employees, the “inmates”—Adam would cock his head sympathetically and urge his mother to “give it time,” as he eased himself out of her presence, backing away as though she were royalty or a carrier of some dread disease.
But Nicole grew wary when, several months into her sojourn at Briarcliff, Sally became unusually quiet. “Maybe she’s starting to feel at home,” Adam said with uncharacteristic optimism. Nicole decided not to probe. Let sleeping bitches lie, she told herself, amazed at the intemperate thoughts Sally could provoke in her otherwise temperate brain. Then came the visit from Mrs. Archibald Spencer Hunt.
Mrs. Hunt would have made an ideal mother-in-law. Nicole knew her as the secretary of the Historical Society board. Soft-spoken, rail thin, and not at all inquisitive, she was thorough in her recording of minutes and genial when they had worked together on the capital campaign committee. And she had never, within Nicole’s sight, committed a fashion offense, except the occasional mixing of plaids the American aristocracy was strangely prone to.
Nicole was distressed by Mrs. Hunt’s distress. “Are you sure?” she asked delicately.
“I saw them,” Mrs. Hunt said, her voice tremulous.
Nicole drove to Briarcliff that afternoon. She found Sally in her room watching Wheel of Fortune, a fiercely chewed plastic pen dangling from the corner of her mouth. After a long silence Nicole blurted, “Mrs. Archibald Hunt came over this morning.”
“Oh? I expect she’s lonely.” Sally’s eyes remained fixed on Vanna White.
Nicole jabbed the power button on the television set. “She was very upset.” She steeled herself to continue. “She says you’re having an affair with her husband.”
“Archie? Well, I suppose I am.”
“My God.” She had, of course, believed Mrs. Hunt, but she had expected Sally to deny it. “How could you, Sally?”
“You insert tab A into slot B. Haven’t you and Adam figured it out yet?”
“The man has Alzheimer’s.”
“He’s not competent.”
“You won’t hear any complaints from me.”
“Then don’t you think about it.” She slapped her palm on the arm of her La-ZBoy emphatically, in support of closing the subject.
“You realize this is like rape. He’s not responsible. I’m sure it’s against the law.”
“So, sue me.”
Nicole grappled with herself. “Try for a moment to imagine how Mrs. Hunt feels.”
“You try imagining how Archie felt when she dumped him here.”
“This is a perfectly lovely place. He’s very lucky they’ll accept people like that.”
“I’ll tell him you said so.”
“I’ll have to tell Adam.”
“Is that what you do with Adam? Talk dirty to him?”
Sally had tricked her husband into marrying her. Not by the common ruse of pretending to be pregnant with his child, but by pretending to be impregnated by his music.
A secretary in the chemistry department, she had been taken to a campus concert by one of the graduate students. They sat in the seventh row, where Sally was mesmerized by the young pianist’s balletic hands, their authoritativeness and grace. She was particularly taken with his hand-over-hand flourishes, their suggestion of eternal motion.
She had no idea what piece he had played or if he had played well. She hadn’t looked at the program except to scan the soloists’ biographical notes in search of his name. Van Dillen. Van, she imagined herself breathing as those fingers played on the buttons of her dress. “Van,” she sighed under cover of applause. It was the name of a leading man: Van Heflin. Van Johnson. And even a leading pianist, she reminded herself: Van Cliburn. It wasn’t until they were applying for the marriage license that she learned he’d been born George VanDillen. George was the name of her uncle who was a vendor at the baseball stadium. She went into City Hall with a Van and emerged with a George, so, in a way, he had tricked her into marrying him, too.
At the party following the concert, Sally had introduced herself with a gushing “You are magnificent.” Van was seduced by her use of the present tense. She seemed able to detect an artistry that persisted beyond his performance. That evening Sally was wearing a jade chiffon sheath strained enticingly across her hourglass shape, setting off her hazel eyes and chestnut hair, but it was her praise Van succumbed to.
It wasn’t long before they realized the marriage had been a mistake, a union of oil and water, of fire and ice, but by that time Sally had become pregnant with Adam.
“Some people live in harmony,” Van said, trying for perspective, “some in discord. Our performance is in counterpoint.” He wanted her to relax with him into resignation.
“Spare me, maestro,” she had said, the rage beginning to accumulate. “This isn’t a prelude, this is my life.”
There had been no trickery with Archie Hunt, just an honest exchange of bodily fluids, such as they had remaining to them. He had wandered into her room, despite her closed door, and unzipped his pants, releasing his penis, which was startlingly rosy and firm in contrast to the body it was attached to.
“God!” Sally had exclaimed involuntarily.
“Where?” Archie asked anxiously, turning to examine the four corners of the room.
Sally crossed in front of him to close the door and he smiled and said, “Geneva,” as he patted her behind with his free hand. She didn’t know if he was recalling a place or a person.
“Well, buster,” she sighed, “what are we going to do with you?” when the answer struck her as self-evident. He continued to smile as she took him by the hand and led him to the bed.
Afterward, she congratulated herself on her decades of continued masturbation, keeping her hand in the game, so to speak.
On their first anniversary, Sally, already pregnant but not yet “showing,” tried to shove her marriage off its unswerving trajectory. While Van was practicing at the piano, Sally was equally busy in the bedroom, drawing part of a keyboard along her left flank with an eyeliner pencil. She outlined the ivory keys and filled in the black and then waited for a lull in the next room before summoning her husband.
“Happy anniversary,” she purred like a starlet when he appeared at the door. She threw off the sheet covering her opulent body. “Play me.” She hadn’t known what to expect. That had been her chief incentive.
He seemed frozen at first, but then edged toward her. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, he lowered his left hand to execute a chord.
“Go on,” she encouraged.
“There aren’t enough keys,” he apologized.
“Play me,” she urged softly.
“Silly,” he said and bent to kiss her on the nose before extricating himself.
At the age of forty-seven Van suffered a cerebral aneurysm that left him paralyzed on one side. As much as she had come to hate her rival, that much she had to pity her husband who could no longer retreat into his playing. He was as bereft as she had been throughout their marriage. In contrast to the tight control he had always displayed as a performer and as a husband, he was subject to crying fits. She told the doctors, without malice, that if they found a way to let him go it would be a mercy. She would never know if it was this suggestion or the pneumonia that had finally done him in.
Van had died early but not soon enough to permit closeness to grow between his wife and his son. The club the Dillen men had formed would never admit Sally. It wasn’t just music they shared but a sensibility. As they cultivated refinement, Sally grew more coarse, flesh thickening, voice roughened by years of tobacco use, discourse bordering on the crude.
She supposed there had been an ample number of ideal mates out there for her husband had he been free. Long before her arrival at the nursing home, she fixed on the notion that any one of Adam’s proper, prissy wives would have served Van perfectly.
There might have been some joy for her in the grandchildren, but those haughty bitches had clutched their offspring to them, circling the wagons against her, the ignoble savage. And Adam had tacitly approved.
She would never forgive him. She’d made him pay, week after week, for that ultimate disloyalty. She had carried him in her body. She had even stopped smoking for the duration of the pregnancy decades before it became a moral imperative. She had changed his diapers, washed his clothes, clipped his nails, wiped his nose, prepared his meals, gone on school field trips. Motherhood had been a thankless job.
The first time Sally had taken notice of Archie was at the most memorable of the Tuesday evening musicales. She had started attending these because she was restless after dinner, and she would shuffle out midway through for the same reason.
This night she picked up a copy of the program, a folded sheet of paper printed with the names of the performers from the Marymount School and the two pieces they would play. She studied the first title, “Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. It had been a continuing source of surprise and perverse gratification that, despite years of exposure, no printed name of a classical work evoked notes in her head. She couldn’t conjure up the opening bars of Beethoven’s Ninth, not by looking at the words on paper, though popular song titles brought entire melodies rushing in.
The first notes of the piece sounded and Archie’s clear, strong tenor along with them: “Hello muddah, hello faddah. Here. I. Am. At. Camp Grenada. Camp is ver-y en-ter-taining. Andtheysaywe’llhavesomefunifitstopsraining.” The doorman materialized at Archie’s elbow, half-lifting him out of his chair, propelling him from the lounge even as he sang.
Sally wondered if his performance wasn’t the precise antidote to all the Dillen concerts she’d sat through.
The flustered girls laboring on their instruments were too young to be familiar with the Allan Sherman burlesque, but the residents were captive to the absent Archie now, hearing the notes as lumbering and oafishly comic. Those who still had their wits about them flushed guiltily.
When Adam and Nicole popped in together, Sally could tell at once that Nicole hadn’t said anything about Archie. Her daughter-in-law’s fear of rocking the boat suited Sally just fine.
She asked Adam to buy her one of those boxy little sound systems with a radio and tape and CD players. She mentioned that her friend Archie really perked up when he was listening to music. Nicole squirmed but Adam was visibly pleased by this sign of adjustment to life at Briarcliff. He promised to make the purchase later that same day.
When he stepped out of the room to consult one of the nursing staff about Nicole’s suspicion that his mother was developing Parkinson’s, Sally took the opportunity to stoke her daughter-in-law’s inbred uneasiness. “You know,” she said sweetly, “you’d better watch out for that cross-eyed little social director. I think she’s got a notion to throw her hat in the running for Mrs. Adam Dillen number four.”
The sound system provided welcome assistance in curbing Archie’s roaming. Keeping an eye on him turned out to be a full-time occupation. Sally didn’t want Archie trying to diddle someone else, and possessiveness amounted to only a fraction of the reason. Mostly she was afraid he’d be locked up or restrained or sedated if he ambled into the wrong room. Not that every female was a sexual target. Even with Sally he had to be reminded of the function of a stiffened penis.
Archie was just as likely to wander into one of the men’s bedrooms. When word went round that Mr. Avouris’s teeth had disappeared from the glass next to his bed, Sally checked the pocket of Archie’s robe and found the dentures, along with a stray pair of harlequin reading glasses. She deposited the teeth in the basin of the drinking water fountain in the hallway off the lounge and tucked the glasses behind one of the pillows on an overladen loveseat. As she’d surmised, the quest to determine the identity of a culprit was dropped with the discovery of the “misplaced” objects.
At first she resented the visits of the superior Mrs. A. Spencer Hunt. On those occasions, Sally would roost in the far corner of the lounge, flipping newspaper or magazine pages while craning to keep her eyes on the door to Archie’s room. Jealous of the time husband and wife spent on the other side of that closed door, she eventually reconciled herself to those visits as they usually had a calming effect on Archie. And apparently, Mrs. Hunt, like Nicole, had elected to keep Archie and Sally’s trysts to herself, though this decision must have been extremely trying for her in the face of the staff’s exuberant praise of Sally’s solicitude toward her husband.
“How Van would have admired her,” Sally mused aloud to Archie, who blinked vacantly back. “Such genteel stoicism.”
Mrs. A.S.H. and Sally’s daughters-in-law had so much in common. After all, it had been Archie’s wife and Adam’s latest who’d deposited them in this sterile, smoke-free environment.
Sally had been required to quit cold turkey. That was hard, and no one gave her credit for it. You could say that Archie was her substitute for cigarettes. But there was more to it than profound physical craving. She comforted him and protected him and, while he didn’t say much of anything, he never said anything to hurt her.
When asked by admirers of her husband what instrument she played, Sally had invariably drawled, “Second fiddle.” Years later, responding to the same hollow question posed by devotees of her son, she’d bark, “Instrument? Me? I’m the harpy.” Wouldn’t it surprise all the worshippers of those two divinities who, with their elongated fingers, could stroke passion from a cold keyboard that it was with Archie—whose mind had absconded with his memory and his manners—that she had stumbled upon something like love?
She hummed the opening bars to an old Gershwin standard—“How Long Has This Been Going On?”—and was rewarded by Archie’s plaintive, “I could cry / salty tears / Where have I been / all these years?” She took one closed fist in both her hands and, unfurling it, pressed his palm to her cheek. “It doesn’t matter where we’ve been, sweetie,” she said. “We’re here now.”
Margaret Hermes’s novel, The Opposite of Chance, is scheduled for release by Delphinium Books on March 16, 2021. The novel’s unusual structure follows Betsy as she backpacks solo across Europe in 1981 with the alternating chapters being told from the perspective of the people the young woman encounters.
Hermes’s story collection, Relative Strangers (Carolina Wren/Blair), was chosen by Jill McCorkle as winner of the Bakwin Book Award and given a special second place award in the 2012 Balcones Fiction Prize competition. Dozens of other stories have appeared in magazines and journals such as The Missouri Review, the Laurel Review, and The Literary Review. Several have also won or been finalists in competitions (Glimmer Train, River Styx, and others).
Her published/performed work includes a mystery novel, The Phoenix Nest, and book and lyrics for a stage adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fable, The Birthday of the Infanta.
When not writing, Hermes concentrates her energies on environmental issues.
This piece was originally published in TLR’s Lives of the Saints issue.