The Keeper

A daughter’s desperate attempt to save her father from the ravages of MS. || Originally published in Oyster River Pages.

Announcing the plane’s descent, the pilot said the lightning was miles away, but the brilliant synapses lighting the night sky looked close enough to strike. That remote possibility briefly distracted Julia from her fear that someone would find out about the bees.  She’d even kept it from her husband, who thought she was visiting her parents because she wanted to.  Of course, few visits actually happened that way.  For the past twenty years, it was usually an emergency that brought her in, but this trip was supposed to be different, a secret trip she and her father had arranged.  That’s why the bees were in her tote, in a jar, stowed under her seat now.   If her mother found out, she’d put an end to it, might even call the police.  The beekeeper she’d bought them from, a man with backyard hives, had shown her how to pull a bee out with tweezers, get it to sting, though she hardly imagined they needed provoking.  She’d surely been stung enough as a child.  Midnight, her plane was just touching down now, her plan to take a cab to her parents’, not far from the Ft. Lauderdale airport.  She figured they’d both be asleep, and then next morning she could greet her mother.  Later, when her mother napped, she’d pull the jar out, see if her father still wanted to go through with it.   But as she stepped into the empty terminal, she heard someone call her name, a very tall gaunt man in white shorts.  She recognized him right away, even though it had been a long time since she’d seen him, his coarse hair gray now.  He and his wife Lettie had lived next door to them in New York where she’d grown up, and she’d spent summers swimming in their backyard pool.  Now, as he limped toward her, she saw where his leg should have been was a peg and then a prosthetic foot in a white sneaker.   Like her parents, Abe and Letty had come south to retire.  So her mother had told her.

“I recognized you right away, Julia.  You look exactly the same.  Like a French doll.”  Both Abe and her mother were diabetic, and warm summer nights he’d sometimes gather the neighborhood kids on his front stoop lecturing about the dangers of sugar, of blindness, of limb loss.  Now he guided her over to a row of empty seats.   “Julia, I have something to tell you,” he said.

Sitting against a wall of dark windows, Julia slid the tote between her ankles.  In the air-conditioned chill of the airport, it felt warm, the bees beating their wings against the jar.   Then she looked over her shoulder at her plane, huge wings barely visible, and out beyond it to the blue-lit runway.  “There’s a storm out there,” she said.  “I saw it, on the way in.”

Abe chuckled.  “In Florida there’s always a storm out there.”  He placed his hand on hers.  “It’s your father.”

She looked down at the tote again, wondering what he’d done, after all she’d gone through.   “Is he dead?”   What else that would bring an old, one-legged man she hadn’t seen in nearly thirty years to the airport at midnight?  And it wasn’t like her father hadn’t tried it before.

“Disappeared.  This morning.  In the car.  He took all the pills—the ones your mother hides—and most of the money.   Your grandparents are there.  They’re pretty mad.  There’s a note too.”  He handed her an envelope.  “It’s addressed to you.”

She recognized her father’s failing hand, her name.  But the flap was torn open.

“Your mother.  She couldn’t wait.  You can imagine how upset she was.  There was a wad of cash in there too.”

Julia pulled out a pink piece of paper.  It was folded in half.   At the top it said Auntie Pastas, her parents’ favorite take-out.  At the bottom, beneath the pasta choices, her father had scribbled I did the best I can.  Don’t tell your mother.  Dad

They were all lodged there in the living room, her tiny grandmother perched on her father’s reclining chair, feet dangling in the air, her mother’s dog, a grizzled, half-blind German shepherd, beneath them, then her grandfather standing stiffly behind her like a cardboard cut-out puffing on a cigar.  And finally her mother in a white night gown on the small floral couch, a balled-up tissue to her nose.

Julia put the tote down and then sat on the couch.   “How are you, Mom?”  She leaned over her to kiss her on the cheek.

Her grandfather pulled his cigar out of his mouth.   “Your mother can’t talk.”

“That crazy dog ate her bridge.”  Her grandmother, leaning forward, tried to pet the culprit.  “Good poochie.  Good poochie.”

“The bridge,” her grandfather said, “is the least of your mother’s troubles.”

“And your mother’s walker,” her grandmother said, “for cripe’s sake it’s in the trunk of the car.  Your crazy father.  How’s your mother supposed to get around?”

Julia peered at her grandparents.  As a child they’d been her favorites.  Family visits to their house in Queens, hours playing on their backyard swing, watching March of the Wooden Soldiers while holiday dinner cooked, all the Mountain Dew she wanted, and when she went to college her grandmother knitted her sweaters—and they’d never been mean to her.   But lately she’d come to realize they’d had a hand in how her mother was, their philosophy—make your bed and lie in it—cruel.

“Julia,” her grandfather said, “what are you going to do?”

“Have you called the police, grandpa?” she asked, though she knew that nobody would.

Her grandfather took his cigar out of his mouth.  “We don’t have time for that.  Your mother’s a sick woman.  What’s she going to do for money?”

Her mother looked up as if she suddenly realized she was being spoken about, mumbling resolutely, “I am not a sick woman.”  Sniffing, she dabbed her eyes with a tissue.  “I can take care of myself.”

Her grandfather shook his head.  “Your mother doesn’t know what she’s saying, Julia. What are you going to do?”

Julia sighed.  “I don’t know, grandpa.”  She let her eyes roam the room—the pink walls, white-tile floor, the boys in sailor suits, girls in pinafores, her mother’s unfortunate doll collection, their glassy eyes staring back at her.  Then she looked down at her tote.   See, I have bees, she was tempted to say.  Excellent housekeepers, they patch damaged walls, disposing of anything unnecessary, even their dead kin, chucking them out the front door.  And yet, they’re sensitive creatures.  They feel pain.  That’s what the beekeeper had told her, a man who took daily stings to his arthritic hands.

Her mother placed her hand on Julia’s.  “Every time you come it’s something.”

Julia peered at her mother’s hand.  It was pale and puffy.  Every morning before school, eating her cereal, she had to watch the needle, her mother trying to inject herself in her arm or abdomen, and then during dinner her mother would flick her cigarette ash into her half-eaten food.  Capillary blood, tiny vessels growing around her heart, was the only thing keeping her alive, according to the cardiologist, all the stents, the bypasses, fleeting fixes.

“And now your mother might lose her foot,” her grandfather said.  “Those sores have to be cleaned.”

Julia looked down at her mother’s feet, pale and puffy too, one swaddled in gauze.  “I thought those had healed up.”

The next morning, her mother still in bed, Julia unwrapped the gauze.  The wound on her mother’s heel, quarter-sized, seemed the most worrisome, a small planet of concentric circles, the calloused perimeter rusty from old betadine, the inner ring, red and scabby, and the center, a circle of milky pink tissue an inch deep.  Julia laid a damp washcloth over it, not because she was squeamish—she’d spent too much time in her parents’ hospital rooms for that—but because she was afraid any friction might aggravate the wound.  That’s how she’d come to deal with her parents’ crises.  She’d moved cross country after college, built a far-away life, only flying in to do what she had to do to keep her parents alive, to keep them from killing each other.   And she’d stopped asking her mother to change, to build a life of her own as her mother once had before she’d gotten too ill, working as a secretary to the district manager of Maidenform, a lingerie company.  But her grandfather was right—she was too ill now.  So was her father.

“It doesn’t look too bad,” Julia said.  She assumed her father had been bathing the foot daily, but maybe it had become too much for him, MS attacking not only his legs but his hands, his left one now limp, useless, a dead fish.   Soon he’d have to get a little monkey, she’d tried to joke with him over the phone.  She’d read how they could be trained like service dogs, and it made her chuckle to herself, a chattering  monkey perched on his chest pushing a straw in his mouth.  But her father, doing his own reading, hadn’t laughed.  He didn’t want a monkey—he wanted bees.

Julia took the washcloth off and then with a fresh one started cleaning the smaller wounds, blood blisters on the backs of her mother’s toes.  Then she started working the washcloth up her mother’s instep and then down to the soles, to the balls of her feet, all the healthy tissue at risk of infection too.  Then Julia looked up at her mother.  “Does it hurt?”

Her mother lifted her head off the pillow.  “What did he say about me?  Does he plan to bring the money back or let me rot here by myself?”  Apparently her mother had heard the phone ring earlier.  In angry mode now, she seemed to be managing just fine sans bridge.  Her father too, despite his failing body, had apparently somehow managed to rob the bank account, shuffling stiffly in with his cane, she assumed, since it was gone, making his get-away in the car.  Of course he wouldn’t tell her where.  “Well?” her mother lifted her head again.  “Aren’t you going to tell me?”  But before Julia could answer, the dog came scrambling in, barking, stopping short at the sliding glass door.  Its bad eye, cataract ridden, looked like a white marble.   “What’s she barking at?” her mother asked.

“Ducks.  Muscovy,” Julia said.

Three large ones were pressing their faces to the glass.

“I hate them,” her mother said.  “They’re hideous.  All that red skin hanging off their faces.  Shoo them away.”

Julia looked back at the ducks again, their shiny dark eyes.  “I think they’re beautiful in their own way.  What have you got against them anyway?”

The phone rang.

“Don’t move,” Julia said.  “I still have to wrap your foot.”  She went into the kitchen.

“I don’t know who she is.  She isn’t the woman I married.  She’s not.  Who is she?  Tell me,” her father said in a low, harsh rush as he had this morning.  Julia looked back at her mother.  She was rolling toward the nightstand.

“Is she?” her father asked.  “Am I right?  Look at her,” he said and then hung up before her mother could get to the receiver.

The next night Abe and Letty came over.   Following Julia into the kitchen, Letty said, “Don’t you worry.  I know where everything is.  I’ll pry your mother out of bed.”   Then she opened a cabinet and started scooping coffee into a filter.  Short and round as a tomato, she looked the same, just grayer.   As a small child Julia had spent many afternoons in her kitchen, her mother telling stories over coffee.  But the stories weren’t always true; well, they started out true, but then her mother made things up.  As a teenager it made her furious, her mother sneaking into her bedroom, reading her diary.   It wasn’t until she was older she understood why her mother did that.  Letty nodded to the front door now.  “Now scoot.  Before it’s too late.”

Julia cut across the lawn.  It was a warm, humid night.  The crickets were chirping loudly.  Turning the key, she pushed the gate open.  The small fenced pool glowed blue.  After dropping her towel on a chaise, she stepped into the water and then peered up at the night sky, the moon full, a fat golden globe hanging between two palms, the biggest she’d ever seen, a Florida moon, cratered and scarred.   And for a moment she forgot herself, her parents, the bees she carried.  With outstretched arms, she split the water, quietly stroking to the other side.  Though she wasn’t a strong swimmer—had in fact nearly drowned in Abe and Letty’s pool as a child—it felt good to move her body after a day of flying and up all night with her mother who, in a fit of hysteria, kept getting out of bed, pulling off the gauze, trying to get down the hallway to the front door.

Now in the center of the pool, Julia turned over on her back, floating.  Somewhere a baby was crying; then came a loud splash, maybe a gator dropping into a nearby canal.  She turned over on her stomach, peering down to the bottom of the pool.  That’s where she’d lain, at the bottom of Abe and Letty’s pool, having dove in head first, on her belly, the blow stunning her.  Once the pain had worn off though, she’d simply rested there and would have stayed had her body not lifted her to the surface.

Julia climbed out, wrapped herself in a towel, and walked over to the fence.  On the other side was a road, no cars on it.  Last time she’d been here they’d razed a plot of land across the street, one that had been heavily treed, in the branches birds suspended crucifixion-style, wings outstretched, long thin necks reaching skyward.  Now all Julia could see was the faint round beam of a flashlight maybe from a security guard watching over the plot.

Back at her mother’s house Julia showered and then sat down at the dining room table.  The room smelled of coffee.  Only her mother and Letty were there now.  Her mother, in a floral housecoat and terry slippers, had combed her hair, put on a little lipstick.  A steaming cup of coffee sat in front of them.  Letty got up and brought the pot in, but Julia waved her hand.   “No thank you.”   She couldn’t stand the stuff anymore, the bitterness.  When Letty came back in she started talking.  “As I was saying.  None of it matters.  Money.  Jewelry.  After I had my surgery I lost interest.”

Julia looked at her mother.  Stone-faced, she sat staring down into her coffee, lips clenched.  “Mom,” Julia said, “are you listening?”

“See my scars?”  Letty turned her head left and right as if she were showing off a new pair of earrings.  A pair of pink parallel lines, short stepless ladders, ran up both sides of her neck, where the carotid arteries ran.  Julia had seen such scars before here in the supermarket aisles, Florida full of people cut open.

“The point is,” Letty said, “we’ve been lying to ourselves for a long time.  We’ve abused our bodies.  And we have to stop.  We have to start taking care of ourselves.”

Julia’s mother looked up, her eyes teary now, lip quivering.  “How am I supposed to live without a husband?”

Letty reached across the table for her mother’s hand.  “That’s just it.  It’s not easy.  You should have seen Abe’s stump.  It was horrible.  I had to dress it.  You’re a sick woman, and your husband is a sick man.”

The phone rang.

“If that’s your father, I’m not taking him back,” her mother said, suddenly dry-eyed.

Julia went into the kitchen and picked up.

“If you put your mother on, I’m going to hang up.  Get me a drink.  Get me my pills.  Get my insulin.  Take the dog out.  Let the dog in.  I can’t take it anymore.”

“Dad.  The bees,” she whispered.  “I have them here.  If you don’t come home soon, they’re going to die.”

There was a silence.  Julia assumed her father had hung up, but then she heard his  voice again.  “I don’t want to fight anymore.  I’m so tired.  The car’s at the airport.”

The next morning Julia took a taxi to the airport.  At the short-term parking she gazed across rows and rows of cars, realizing it could several hours if not days, and she might not even find the car.  For all she knew he’d made the whole thing up, was out of his mind.  But after traversing several rows, she couldn’t believe it—she spotted the burgundy Elite parked crooked across two white lines, and to her astonishment she saw through the window all the money in the back on the floor.   She lifted the door handle.  Not even locked!  And fortunately her mother still had a spare key.  After stuffing the money into a garbage bag she’d brought, she drove the car back to her mother’s, marveling at her luck.   Her grandparents would be pleased.

When she got back, her mother was sitting up in bed combing the hair of one of those girl dolls, a rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed one.  “This is you,” she said.

“I have brown hair, Mom.”  She studied her mother’s face.  It was different now, color in it.  “You must be feeling better.”

“Your father’s flying back tomorrow.  He’s at your aunt’s in Chicago.  You can go home now.”

“Is he?  And you’re taking him back just like that?  Don’t you even want to know about the money?”

Her mother stopped combing and sighed.  “It’s my life, Julia.”

“That’s the problem, Mom.  It’s never been your life.”  She dropped the bag on the bed.

Her mother sat the doll on the nightstand and frowned.  “Now why are you so morose?  What have we done to you that’s so bad?”

Julia walked out of the room.  She should have known better.   All the times she’d tried getting even, when she’d been in high school, making up diary entries about this or that, a torrid love affair, a possible pregnancy, an older boyfriend she planned to run away with, a high school drop-out, bank robber extraordinaire, the sort of stuff she knew her mother would eat up, but nothing ever came of it.  Her mother just kept reading.

Julia went into the garage and got her tote.  Then she went out the front door and around back.  Kneeling down, she unzipped it and pulled out the jar.  The bees, sitting atop a piece of wax paper placed over a layer of honey, were as she left them.  The wax paper, the beekeeper had explained, kept them from drowning while the small round hole at the center allowed them to feed on it.  Of course, she hadn’t told the keeper why she wanted the bees, hadn’t told him she’d planned to sting her father, the venom bringing her father’s body back to life.   Possibly the keeper had already guessed it, had been selling jars to the desperate for a long time.  Julia loosened the lid.  Then she looked up.  The trio back, they were waddling across the stiff grass toward her.  Then she took the lid off, expecting the bees, finally free, to zoom out.  But they just stayed put, so she turned the jar over, shaking it a little, and one finally flew out, landing on her arm.  And before she could brush it off, it stung her.  Soon a small welt rose and burned, and she had the urge to run inside, crying to her mother as she’d done as a child when her mother, young, untouched by disease, could heal her wound with a Band-aid and soothing words.  But the blinds to her mother’s sliding door were closed now.  And the truth was she’d cleaned up her own scraped knees.  And the Muscovy knew it.  Gathered around her now, they peered at her with dark, sentient eyes, the flesh of their unfortunate throats quivering as they shifted their round bulk, their ungainly bodies, from one webbed foot to another.