by Mollie McNeil
Despite her daughter-in-law giving her the stink eye, Muriel remained composed, holding her fork high as she swallowed the last bite of Claire’s too rich beef bourguignon. She resisted yawning while the strangers on either side of her prattled on about a school fund-raiser, and instead watched her son, Tom, flashing his whitened smile and smoothly refilling his guests’ wineglasses with a quick twist of his wrist. Tom was a dentist, good with his hands, and always seemed to know just how much novocaine was needed in any situation. Muriel cleared the table before excusing herself from the party, hugged her son happy birthday, and exited the room, she hoped, before anyone noticed her mounting irritation. Why couldn’t Claire just throw a backyard picnic for Tom instead of these tiresome sit-down affairs? A grinding headache had descended on her. Plus her shoes pinched. She slipped them off in the dim hallway and headed toward the bathroom in search of aspirin.
Padding down the hall, she noticed that her grandson’s door was cracked open. She peeked in. Peter was sleeping soundly, one striped pajama leg thrown out of the covers. Muriel tiptoed into the room and slipped into the chair next to his bed. She stroked his hair as she listened to him breathe and smelled his soapy skin. He was probably exhausted from the day. She certainly was.
The original plan that morning had been to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, but once they got there, the wind had kicked up and rain clouds had arrived, so she suggested they explore the rocks underneath and search for cormorant nests instead. Muriel’s fifth-grade science class had loved this activity years ago. But by the time they finished looking around the shore and climbed back up to the bridge, it was drizzling. Eager nine-year-old Peter insisted on walking part of the bridge before going home, and shot off ahead of his grandmother before she could direct him to the car. Yanking up her coat collar, Muriel followed behind him, admiring his determination while shaking her head at the rain. Moments later Peter, panting, came trotting back up to her.
“There’s a girl over there.”
“Oh?” Muriel smiled at him.
He pointed to a figure in dark jeans standing on the ledge just over the pedestrian guardrail, right behind the “No Trespassing” sign.
“What’s she doing on the wrong side?” Peter asked.
Muriel reached for her grandson’s hand.
“Back to the car, Peter. Now.”
Bent at the knees, the slim young woman nervously rubbed her thighs while eyeing the roiling gray waves below. She looked skittish as a cat ready to spring. Peter pushed away his grandmother’s hand.
“No! She could get blown right off—”
He ran back over to the girl while Muriel froze in place, remembering Daniel. Her husband had taken his life differently twenty-five years ago, taken it in an unlit garage. Muriel let the rain pummel her as she gripped the steel handrail. While Peter spoke to the girl, Muriel wondered what he could be saying to keep her listening. A sudden dash to the call box right now might spook her. Muriel tried to think of something other than Daniel sliding the cool barrel of the gun into his mouth. She closed her eyes and pictured a brown pelican, floating and bobbing below her, unperturbed by the ragged surf and wet weather.
Through the roar of wind and traffic, Muriel could not make out what Peter was saying to the young woman, but he was nothing if not persistent. Muriel herself could never resist his entreaties. She loved his concerned questions about other people’s well-being; his open, trusting face; his ocean-colored eyes. He asked about his grandfather once and wanted to know what depression was. Peter’s a natural psychologist. What do they call that? Emotional intelligence. Muriel kept still while the two of them talked, and prayed for another person to come by and help. But the bridge was empty of pedestrians in the storm. Muriel stuffed her hands in her coat pockets and clenched and unclenched them as she pictured a seagull. A grebe. A loon.
After a while, Peter slipped his fingers into his shirt pocket and pulled from it a pale, speckled cormorant egg, luminous against the black sky. He cradled the smooth shell in his hands and then offered it to her, pushing it through the chain-link fence. Instead of ignoring him and letting it fall, she took it and put it in her own pocket. Something seemed to shift. Peter talked to her in a more animated fashion, coaxing now. Had they been there for minutes or for hours? Muriel had lost all sense of time. Eventually, the young woman hooked her fingers into the chain-link fence, climbed over it, and dropped safely to the other side.
Relief coursed through Muriel’s body, along with waves of amazement at her grandson. How did Peter know to stay there? What to say? If only she hadn’t abandoned Daniel. Her husband’s struggles had intensified so much over the years, she felt it was wrong for teenage Tom to be living under the weight of his father’s anger and sadness. When Daniel refused treatment, Muriel found an apartment, and the week after they moved out, he shot himself.
But this moment today was a triumph. Wiping rain and sweat from her face, she hustled over to the emergency call box and pressed the silver button. Life felt raw and newly precious to Muriel just then. The events of the day continued to feel important as she sat by Peter, watching him sleep, touching his curls, until Claire whipped her head around the door and startled Muriel. Claire handed her the shoes she had left in the hall.
“What are you doing in here? Peter really needs to sleep now.”
“Not a thing,” Muriel said defensively, clasping the shoes in one hand while pulling the sheet over her grandson’s wayward leg and smoothing it down with the other. “Not doing a thing.” Peter stirred, murmured something, and flipped over.
Claire slit her eyes toward Muriel. “Just like today, I suppose.” She let out an exasperated huff. “Not doing a thing to protect Peter from that desperate girl.”
Muriel stood up. The warmth in the room had evaporated. So very Claire not to empathize with the real victim. “Peter made a fine decision.” She waggled her finger at Claire. “He saved a life.”
Claire crumpled Muriel’s hand with her own and leaned into her face. Claire’s breath was hot and her cheeks flushed. “For God’s sake, Muriel, he’s nine years old.”
Claire then turned and left the room before Muriel could respond. Very Claire to not wait for an explanation. Miss Know-Everything-All-Already. Muriel’s head throbbed with a new intensity. She closed Peter’s door softly behind her and walked into the guest bathroom. The shelves held ridiculous little soaps tied up in ribbons, potpourri, and scented candles. No aspirin. Nothing useful. Muriel sat down on the toilet seat and rubbed her temples. Maybe it was the new stroke medicine that made her feel so weird. Chickadee. Warbler. Finch. She’d have to sneak by the guests in the living room to search the other bathroom.
Of course, she had no interest in going back to the party. Even after boatloads of liquor, nobody ever pulled out a guitar or danced or cracked jokes. Claire worked in the development office of Peter’s fancy school, and Muriel had nothing to add to her discussions of themed alumni parties or art auctions. And the whole notion of a school with interviews for kindergarteners or six-year-olds studying Mandarin after school turned her stomach. Kids that age should be chasing squirrels, not prepping for college. She hoped Claire’s traditional background wouldn’t keep her grandson from having any fun at all.
Muriel sighed, pushed off from the toilet seat, and decided to search the master bathroom. Claire’s family had weak hearts, so she regularly swallowed aspirin to loosen up her blood. Too bad it didn’t loosen up her parenting style as well.
Muriel crept past the living room and walked into Tom and Claire’s bedroom. She felt embarrassed to be in there; the walls were painted in varying shades of peaches and pinks, and the bed had a shiny silk cover. The curtains had tassels, the chairs dripped with throws, and the king-size bed was piled with candy-colored pillows. Muriel was not a shopper herself, but she could sense Claire’s pleasure in it. Muriel hoped Tom felt pampered by this overdecorated bedroom.
The master bathroom was not large, but it did have his-and-her medicine cabinets. Muriel pulled open the closest one—it was full of prescription pills for Tom: Prozac and Vicodin—clearly her son had demons lurking behind his hospitable demeanor and professional grin. After his father’s suicide, Tom threw himself into studying. Muriel had been proud of her studious son, but his desire to be a dentist mystified her. If he could do anything, why choose digging around people’s mouths? Maybe that’s why he had so many parties—to make up for causing pain in others all day. Of course, Claire knew how to throw an elegant affair and make it look easy. She was organized, well-dressed, and articulate. She knew the right thing to say in any social situation, unlike Muriel herself.
Muriel imagined Claire as a fifth-grader, one of those girls whose arm shot up first after every question, who wore neat braids and had perfect penmanship. The good girl the other kids secretly wanted to trip up. “Miss Priss,” that’s what Muriel called her privately. Muriel had just opened Claire’s medicine cabinet and was scanning the shelves, when she heard movement in the room next door. The bedroom door banged closed.
“C’mon honey, it’s been a long day…” said Tom.
“You’re not listening! She put Peter in danger…” said Claire.
Muriel considered flushing the toilet so they would know she was in there, but she was curious to hear their conversation too. Miss Priss’s shelves were tidy, of course, and well stocked with expensive containers from Whole Foods—vitamins, calcium powder, fish oil capsules and, finally, a large bottle of aspirin. No toxic prescriptions for her.
“It’s really not the right time to discuss this.”
“So if she takes Peter to, say, the Empire State Building tomorrow, then it would be the right time?”
“She made a mistake. She’s sorry.”
“You should’ve heard her a minute ago. She was proud! Next she’ll be volunteering Peter for a suicide prevention hotline.”
“She isn’t herself. Look, she’s just had a stroke.”
“Exactly! So she should not be taking Peter out places.”
“She loves doing stuff with Peter. And he loves it too. Have some compassion.”
“You’re going to lecture me about compassion, when she’s living with us?”
“She’ll settle down.”
“She’s scaring me.”
“You always defend her.”
“She’s my mother.”
Muriel began to sweat. Blue Jay. Nuthatch. Creeper. She’d come out of the bathroom right now and announce she’d be moving out just as soon as the doctors okayed it. San Francisco was too cold for her, she’d say, when in truth, it brought up hard memories living in the city where Daniel was always moody. She much preferred her old apartment in the East Bay. She missed her Wednesday “stitch and bitch” knitting group that met near Telegraph Avenue, and she missed ambling along the bay shoreline, sea whipping her hair, coming upon herons stalking gophers in the grass. And although she hated to leave her grandson, she knew that raising him was really Claire and Tom’s job, not hers, and she didn’t want to strain their marriage. Muriel put her hand on the doorknob, resolved to face them, but stopped suddenly when she heard another voice in the room—Claire’s best friend, Karen.
“Sorry to interrupt—but your guests want to say good-bye.”
“Thanks, Karen. I’m just going to them.” The door clicked shut, and Claire started to cry.
“Oh dear. Is it Muriel again?”
Muriel pressed her ear against the bathroom door.
“Let me guess. Did she buy Peter another scorpion?”
Peter loved that scorpion! Every child deserved a pet. And it almost never stung him.
Claire blew her nose.
“Did she take him down Telegraph for a tattoo? Or maybe picked him up a baby-sized bong?”
“Bunch of freaks and nuts living across the bay…” Karen continued as Claire cleared her throat.
“Muriel took Peter to the bridge and let him talk to a girl who wanted to jump.”
“What? Why didn’t she call the police?”
“What does Tom say?”
“He has spent his life rationalizing her behavior—even forgiving her for leaving his father. I don’t think he can see her decline. It’s too painful. It brings everything else up.”
“Would he consider a nurse?”
“We don’t have the space for that.” Claire lowered her voice. “I’ve tried to be patient with her, but the hardest thing is that Tom still wants his mother to watch Peter. I’ve been feeling so desperate that I’m starting to look at homes.”
“Some of those places are pretty nice.”
“Hamilton House has an opening immediately. It would just be a matter of Tom signing the papers and committing.”
Muriel pulled back from the door. Committing me? She squeezed her teeth and tried urgently to focus on a bird. She willed one bird, any bird, to come to her, to stop the rushing in her ears. She swallowed against her tightening throat. Warehouse me? Without my consent? The voices in the next room seemed far away.
At the thought of being forced into a rest home…no discussion…no Peter…something cracked inside Muriel. She went wobbly and then collapsed on the plush bathroom carpet. She blinked at the ceiling. A flood of dark birds streamed in the bathroom window. Blue-black grackles, dozens of them, flapping their glossy wings surveyed the room with small, fierce eyes and descended—crowding the toilet tank, gathering above the mirrors, edging the bathtub, lining the curtain rod. More and more flew in and landed. They rustled their feathers impatiently as they gripped the light fixtures and clutched at the faucets. They surrounded the sinks, digging their talons into the soaps and towels and striking their beaks against the countertops.
Muriel had been vigilant for years—careful to keep the birds at bay, only letting one or two fly across her mind’s eye at a time. She had taught herself to accept them, in moderation, and use them to soothe herself. But this time she could not stem the flow of these birds coming one after the next. Agitated and querulous, they began to squabble, beat their wings angrily, and lift off from the towel racks and return again to push and peck at each other.
“How will you convince Tom?”
“When I was collecting her medical records, I found that she had spent some time in a mental institution years ago. She’s never really been quite right…”
The grackles beat their wings faster and circled the ceiling. But being so numerous in such a close space, they began to slap against the walls, ricochet off the mirrors, and tear into the shower curtain. Through a blur of wheeling black feathers and angry caws, Muriel pulled herself up from the floor by the sink, furious. Claire’s the one who is all mixed up. Muriel backhanded a bird off the sink. Peter’s heroic act will stay with him his whole life. Recalling the stupor Vicodin once put her in, Muriel snatched the pills from Paul’s shelf. Miss Priss is a tad too high-strung. Muriel flipped the cap off of Claire’s aspirin and dumped the tablets down the sink drain. Then she filled the aspirin bottle with the round Vicodin tablets and put it back on Claire’s shelf. Muriel would have an unencumbered talk with Tom once Claire had gone to bed. Surely, he could be reasoned with without Miss Priss butting in. Satisfied, she slid back down to the floor and curled into a ball while the birds whirled riotously above her.
Soon there was knocking and Tom’s voice piped up in the bedroom.
“Claire, come on out please. The guests are going.”
“She’ll be there in a sec,” said Karen. The door shut once again.
“I probably sound like a monster. I do care for Muriel. I just can’t depend on her. And I worry about Peter.”
“You have good reason to be upset. Now go wash your face. Your mascara’s a mess.”
Muriel stumbled to her feet. Wash your face! She considered pulling the shower curtain around her or cramming herself under the sink, but neither would hide her, so she lunged for the window. Fortunately, it was at ground level. She shoved it open, swung both legs over the sill, and sunk her shoeless feet into the soft dirt of the backyard. Hearing the bathroom door open, she ducked down and wedged herself under a juniper bush so she couldn’t be spotted from the window. The earth felt cold and unyielding and the branches scratchy, but the grackles did not follow her outside. Their awful racket and thrashing around the bathroom ceased altogether.
Water gurgled from the bathroom taps, and the medicine cabinet snapped open. Would she take several aspirin? As Claire’s glass clinked on the countertop, Muriel had a flash. Claire was a big social drinker, and she had been tossing back the cocktails since five o’clock. Opiates and hard liquor. Isn’t that what bumps off rockers and pop stars? She had wanted to slow Claire down a bit, trip her up, not kill her.
The birds had flown away, and Muriel could think clearly now. Claire was acting as stupidly as Muriel had twenty-five years ago when she wanted to protect Tom from Daniel. Calmer now, Muriel reasoned that Tom would never force her into an institution against her will, and she would convince him that she could manage in her own place. Claire would bring Peter to visit. Muriel chuckled to herself when she realized that Claire, fiercely protective of her son, was in fact not so very different from herself.
Muriel had no time to lose if she wanted to fix things. She would get Claire’s stomach pumped pronto. Muriel tried to kick her leg out from under the bush and lift herself up. Something was very wrong. Her body was rigid; her left arm was useless and her left leg numb. She couldn’t move them at all. As a shadow leaked over the edge of her eye and dimmed her vision, Muriel sputtered and tried to shout “Claire!” But only a slurring sound, a “Cl! Cl!” would come. She tried to wriggle out from under the bush, but her body would not comply.
Claire’s heels clattered unevenly toward the bathroom window. She slid the window down, and then, with a click, she locked it.
Mollie McNeil’s writing has been published or is forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Jet Fuel Review, Penmen Review, Ragazine, The Blue Lake Review, and The Diverse Arts Project.