My daughter never smiles any more. It’s a shame because she always had such lovely teeth. I blame her lack of humor on that crazy job. Teresa calls it a position and claims she needs to work. “Give up the maid and you can afford to stay home,” I suggest. “She’s not worth whatever you’re paying her.” While my daughter furthers her career—Teresa’s words, not mine—the maid and I spend our days watching TV. “Those women in love with each other are called lisbons,” I explain during Jerry Springer. The maid smiles, but I’m not sure she believes me. Later she fixes lunch. What she calls cooking, I call warming up.
This isn’t the first maid Teresa has employed, but the first since I’ve been here. The last one would let the phone ring five times before she got around to answering it. I know because I was on the other end of the line. At the sound of the beep we’d both hang up. Getting through to Teresa didn’t matter then because I knew eventually we’d connect, even when she was traveling. As for the first maid, I never met her and still don’t know her name. To this day Teresa denies the woman ever existed.
The house belongs to my daughter and she has all the say-so. I keep asking, “How much longer before I go home?” The look on her face says she wants me out as much as I want to leave. I’m only here until my apartment gets new paint and carpeting. Teresa’s idea, not mine. I came to dinner one Sunday, for the chicken and risotto I once taught her to make. After we cleaned up more dishes than she needed to dirty, Teresa refused to take me home. I grabbed my pocketbook and ran outside. Such a scene my daughter caused that rainy day: Teresa prying my fingers from the car door and me screaming for help. Decent neighbors would’ve called the police. Teresa’s did nothing. To pacify her and because we were both rain-soaked, I agreed to a temporary visit.
The next day she followed me into the bathroom, handed me a plastic grocery bag, and said, “Your Depends go in here.” After she left, I shredded the smelly thing into the toilet and flushed. I did it my way until Teresa called in a plumber. Now we do it her way.
The bedroom I’m using until I go home has mahogany furniture just like mine. I sleep at the edge of the double bed and only use one pillow. “You’re welcome to sleep with me,” I tell Teresa after the first week. “There’s plenty of room for both of us.”
“I have my own room down the hall,” she says, almost smiling.
“But that man sleeps there,” I reply, not wanting to believe what my ears just heard.
“Mother!” She gives me that look again. “That man is my husband. You know David.”
Of course I know David. He was such a boy when Teresa married him. Their wedding picture sits on the round table in Teresa’s family room and I have another one at home. The man she’s sleeping with now has gray hair and a mustache, a handyman of sorts who cuts the grass and eats dinner with us because Teresa has a good heart, even though she’s holding me against my will. Tough love she calls it, whatever that means. Anyway, about this man, I call him Tom, not because he goes by Tom but because I like the name and it’s easy to remember. Just saying Tom gets his dander up, which pleases me to no end. For a handyman, he shows no concern for safety, always following me around to plug in what I’ve unplugged. He insists his name is David but I know better. And so should Teresa.
On Saturday evening a younger Tom comes over with some Joan girl I don’t care to know. Don’t ask me why; maybe it’s because we’ve never been properly introduced. Teresa and the handyman she’s sleeping with are dressed to the nines and hiding their usual crankiness. “We’ll be back before midnight,” she tells the younger Tom, which means I’m stuck with him and the girl who’s flashing a fancy ring. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they were married because she sits at one end of the couch and he’s at the other. Instead of my Angela Lansbury reruns, we watch baseball and they help themselves to Teresa’s soda and snacks without asking. No wonder my daughter has to keep working.
I bring up these concerns to Teresa during my sponge bath the next morning. “You know that couple who came over last night? I thought they’d never leave and just for spite they didn’t. At eleven-thirty I finally gave up and went to bed. You might want to check the silverware.” The trace of a smile almost cracks one corner of her mouth. If that’s all it takes to amuse Teresa, maybe this Tom should come over more often.
Other Toms come and go, young bucks who smell of aftershave when they lean over to kiss my cheek or pat my shoulder. Sometimes both, if I let them. They all make a stop at the refrigerator, leaving the door wide open to chill Teresa’s entire kitchen so they can raid her leftovers, behavior I no longer question since such wasteful extravagance seems to comfort my daughter. In fact, she actually encourages it.
“A special day would do wonders for you,” Teresa announces one morning while scrambling my eggs. “Halleluiah!” I all but shout, thinking she means just the two of us. Instead, my daughter hurries off to work and I get Maggie the Maid. Again. Maggie’s not her real name, but that’s what I call her now. The real Maggie’s my sister. We don’t get together any more. Poor Sis, she’s younger but I was always healthier. Anyway, Maggie the Maid and I start out at the beauty parlor. I let the operator wrap me in plastic. I let her fuss over me in silly baby talk. But when she pulls out those pointy scissors, I let out a scream and tear off that silly cape. Maggie rolls her eyes, a sure sign Teresa will hear about the idiotic operator, so as soon as we get outside, I suggest an ice cream stop. My treat. That evening Teresa cuts my hair.
The weather’s been dry as a bone but today it’s raining so hard I’m glad to stay inside. Maggie and I eat the lunch she takes credit for preparing: chicken vegetable soup my daughter made from scratch last night. To my surprise Teresa comes home from work in the early afternoon. “We have a doctor’s appointment,” she tells me. She doesn’t say what kind of doctor and I don’t ask what’s wrong with her. Maggie tags along, although we don’t need her since Teresa takes the wheel and I sit up front to help navigate. We drive forever, rain pounding the windshield and Teresa hunched over, her brow so furrowed it adds ten more years she could do without. I leave my daughter alone. She has enough worries, what with her job and now health problems. Maybe she’s going through the change, not that I would ever ask.
By the time we arrive at the doctor’s office, I tell Teresa I’m ready to go home. She sighs and talks the nurse into getting us in right away. We follow her into the examining room and leave Maggie behind to read Soap Opera Digest.
“Why me?” I ask Teresa when we’re alone. “I only came along to keep you company.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she argues. “You’re the one who’s bleeding.”
“Don’t be absurd. I gave that up years ago.”
We go at it, back and forth. Teresa screws up her face, she raises her voice, to me her mother. She refuses to budge from her chair. Testa dura I call her; she knows I mean hard head. Lord knows she’s heard those two words often enough. Neither one of us are on the table when the doctor waltzes in. He’s old enough to be my son, the musician who always made his father and me proud. Teresa too.
“Don’t get so upset,” the doctor tells her. “My grandmother was the same way.”
So get on the table and let’s get this over, I want to tell Teresa, but hold my tongue. She turns her back to me and goes head-to-head with the doctor. He says something about not being able to help if he can’t examine the patient. I smile at him. He winks at me. We both shrug because Teresa won’t give in. Her face is beet red when we leave, a vein in her forehead pounding. She stomps through the rain and Maggie holds an umbrella over my head as we hurry to the car. During our ride home the only sounds come from the steady swish of windshield wipers and Maggie turning pages from the digest she has pilfered. Teresa keeps her teeth clenched and eyes on the road. When she was young, I taught my daughter to hold her tears, a lesson she never forgot and one I now regret. I try to smooth things over with a chuckle. “Well, I don’t know about you, Teresa, but in spite of the poor weather I certainly had a nice afternoon.”
Time passes and my daughter doesn’t seem any worse but one day I wake up in the hospital. Teresa’s hovering over me, her sweaty palms warming my cold hands. A snotty female who calls herself a doctor pokes around me and then pulls back the sheet. “Holy bejeebers!” she mutters under her breath, as if she’s never seen a fallen uterus before. Years ago I chose not to have mine tied and have since learned to live with the constant reminder between my legs. More white coats gather to gawk and shout questions as if I’m deaf. When they don’t like my answers, they look to Teresa for better ones. According to Doctor Smarty Pants, something else has fallen out and needs immediate fixing. “Over my dead body,” I tell Teresa in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.
Teresa leaves with the doctors. It occurs to me she might not come back so I get up, yank the needle out of my arm, and ditch the skimpy wrap barely covering my private parts. I take four steps into the hallway and everybody comes running. It’s a hospital, for crying out loud. You’d think these people would be used to blood gushing from a patient’s arm.
Lord, does this humiliation ever end. I’m back in bed, a prisoner under the threat of restrains if I attempt another escape. Teresa won’t leave me alone and now she’s brought in Gina. My daughter, her daughter, and me. For years we made quite a team, shopping for bargains and poking around antiques and eating on the cheap. And then Teresa and Gina got too old for me. They don’t know how to have fun anymore. Instead they have careers. They pull up chairs beside my bed. They talk in low whispers and wait for me to make the wrong move. I introduce them to a new game. We play my way. I keep my hands under the covers, to pick at the tape holding the patch that covers the hole I made in my arm when I yanked out the needle. Every so often they hop up, to lift the sheet and wag their fingers and bawl me out for upsetting them. When we’re not playing the game, we argue and reminisce and talk like carefree schoolgirls at a slumber party. I don’t remember doing this before, not even when Teresa and Gina were at their best.
“What time is it?” Gina asks when daylight breaks.
“Five o’clock,” Teresa says. “What time did you get here yesterday?”
“Three in the afternoon. After fourteen hours Grandma still hasn’t closed her eyes.”
“And neither have you or your mother,” I remind Gina. “Now will you please let me get some sleep.”
After breakfast who should come in but my son the musician. I call him Tom because it’s easy to remember and he doesn’t seem to mind. Teresa and Gina kiss me goodbye and go home. Or maybe to work, they don’t say and I don’t ask. With Tom I play a different game. “Let’s go for a walk,” I say, knowing he’ll get tired of pushing the contraption attached to my good arm, the one without the patch covering the hole. As soon as we get to the lounge, he sits down to read the paper and I mosey on to the nearest elevator where I run into Doctor Smarty Pants. She clucks her tongue, grabs the contraption, and rattles me back to my cell. My red-faced Tom follows in our wake. After a supper of bland applesauce and rubbery Jell-O, Tom leaves when Teresa comes back for the night shift, this time without Gina. We watch Angela solve another murder and then switch off the TV.
“You can sleep with me,” I tell Teresa.
“No, no,” she says, stretching her arms overhead. “The recliner’s fine.”
In the moonlit room we test our wills, each waiting for the other to give in first. As soon as Teresa’s head rolls to the side, I crawl over the bed railing and hit the floor with a thud. My daughter jumps up and the no-nonsense nurse comes running. She gives both of us a nasty bawling out.
Although I spend the next few days fighting mad, Teresa eventually wins the surgery battle. My pooper gets pushed back where it belongs, the uterus they leave alone. I won’t share the embarrassing details since I’ve already purged them from my mind. After the longest ten days of my life—Teresa says the same about hers—she brings me home. I’m starting to think of Teresa’s home as mine too, although it will never take the place of my real home, the one I shared with my husband Tom before he died.
Teresa and I sit in the living room that no one ever uses and drink chamomile tea from china cups I gave her years ago. My daughter is quiet again so I get up and check out a photograph hanging on the wall. There’s Teresa, showing off those perfect teeth I never see anymore, and David is beaming. I wonder whatever happened to him. Gina has on that checkered pinafore dress I bought at a sidewalk sale. She’s the only girl, surrounded by four little boys dressed in their Sunday best. I know I loved them but I can’t remember their names. “Tom, Tom, Tom, and Tom,” I say, pointing to each boy.
This time Teresa doesn’t argue, which makes me think I finally got through to her. I turn, hoping for the best and she doesn’t disappoint me. My daughter is smiling through her tears.
“Tom” first appeared in the 2006 Fall issue of The MacGuffin
and later in the 2009 February issue of Literary Mama,
which nominated “Tom” for Dzanc Books Best of the Web 2010.
“Tom” can be found in A Collection of Givers and Takers
By Loretta Giacoletto