24 June, 2021
“The thing is,” Jacob said, “I just don’t want to be here.”
“Well, it’s not really a choice, is it?”
“Everything’s a choice.”
There was honking, and the siblings looked up to see a dozen geese coming in for a landing, wings scooped back, pressing the air behind them, webbed feet stretched wide and peddling madly. They hit feet-first, water-skiing for a second, before folding wings to bodies and looking around with their long necks. As if they’d always been there, paddling and serene.
The birds filled one end of the drainage ditch, floating in a foot or so of muddy water. They were not deterred by the fake swans that the public works department had anchored at the other end.
Ellie shivered in her jacket. Her ears, she could tell, were turning red at the tips. She thought of elves, of gnomes, of frostbite. She hated November.
“I was thinking of going to Boulder,” Jacob said, in a voice that made it sound perfectly normal.
“You can’t go to Boulder,” Ellie said, pressing her hands deeper into her pockets. They were disgusting, full of crumbs and receipts, that slippery kind of paper you weren’t supposed to recycle. She was too cold to care. She wondered vaguely where her gloves had gotten to.
“I have a ticket for tomorrow,” he said.
“She’s not dead yet.”
“I know.” Jacob walked away, stood slouched at the corner of the ditch, the water at the tips of his big brown construction boots, their laces undone. He was still wearing his work clothes, Carhartt pants and matching jacket, study of a man in working-class brown. Ellie saw how the slump of his shoulders to the right was like their father’s, how the corkscrew in his hair mirrored their little brother Davy’s, even though Davy had been dead for twenty-three years. When Jacob turned around, the sharp edge in his eyes was all their mother’s, icy blue. There was nothing else to say, so Ellie shrugged.
“Do you need a ride to the airport?”
“Nah,” he said. “I’ll take a cab.”
The next day Ellie sat hunched on a freezing cold bench, watching the geese as her ass slowly numbed. Jacob had left before she’d woken. She wasn’t surprised, not really. He’d finished the latest bridge job, and he was flush. Usually when that happened, he’d roll back into their lives, take Mom out for a fancy meal that she’d have trouble digesting, go on about it afterward like he was Midas himself. Then when Mom needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or needed someone to pick up a prescription, he’d be gone again. It was Ellie who’d step in, turn over the ancient Buick with its rattle like Mom’s when she woke in the morning. It was Ellie who would wait patiently in the parking lot of the salon until her mother came out with her hair looking almost exactly the same as when she’d gone in. If Ellie went inside to fetch her, the other little old ladies would coo from their chairs. Girls are best, they would say, smiling. Girls stick around.
A goose reared up out of the water, flapping its wings and honking, causing two others to do the same, all of them beating water and air with powerful strokes, stretching their necks, making a ruckus until, just as suddenly, they subsided.
“What was that all about?” Ellie asked, but the geese simply continued paddling.
The thing was, it wasn’t supposed to be just Ellie and Jacob. It was supposed to be Ellie and Jacob and Davy. She wasn’t supposed to have to do this alone.
Ellie’s phone buzzed and she looked down to see a text from Janelle the hospice worker that read, “She’s sleeping, take your time.” Ellie stood, stomped blood back into her feet, started walking back along the drainage ditch. She knew Janelle meant what she said, the woman was a saint, a true saint.
That’s what Ellie told everyone, thank God for hospice, they really made it all bearable, although the dirty secret was that of course they didn’t. Nothing made it bearable, but if you told people that they worried, so Ellie just repeated what she’d heard someone else say. Hospice, they’re the best. And Janelle was, she was charming and sweet and professional, but just the reminder that someone else was doing the job of sitting with her dying mother was enough to get Ellie back on her feet. She almost fell as she stepped in goose shit, slick underfoot.
Prying her boots off on the freezing glassed-in porch, trying to avoid touching the bird shit, Ellie remembered who it was she’d heard say that about hospice. Her mother, when Davy was dying. For the first time, it occurred to Ellie that mother had been lying.
What was the point of a goose, Ellie wondered the next morning. It was much colder, and the geese were tucked in on themselves. There was a skim of ice on the water in the demilitarized zone between fake swans and living geese. It wasn’t much, but it stilled the water, imposed a crystalline order. Ellie studied the geese, their necks pulled down, their feathers fluffed.
“What are you still doing here?” she asked. “Go! Go where it’s warmer!”
“I know I would!” a voice came up behind her. The speaker was a small woman her mother’s age, peering out from under a sensible red woolen cap. “If I could just fly away,” the woman said, “I sure would! But I hate to fly.”
Ellie tried to nod politely. The woman was a stranger, which was surprising because Ellie thought she knew all of her mother’s neighbors. Who else would come to this shitty half-park? It didn’t exactly have the amenities to draw a big crowd. Besides the mucky ditch filled with geese, there was a patchy-looking soccer field and a concrete path, cracked and frost-heaved. That was the extent of this suburban oasis.
“Cold day,” the woman said, putting her hands to her lower back, heaving a sigh.
“You know, I heard on the radio the other day that there are two kinds of geese. They used to all be the migratory kind, but now there are these geese that just hang around, causing a nuisance. Resident geese, they said.”
“Wow,” Ellie said, for lack of anything else.
“Maybe these are the residents,” the woman said, squinting at them. “Well, I’d better keep going! Gotta keep my heart rate up, stay on the right side of the grass!” The woman laughed as she strode away, swinging her arms. Ellie tried to remember the last time she’d seen someone power walk. Decades.
The thing was, Ellie thought as she was forced out of the house again the next day, that she didn’t particularly want to go for walks. What was the point? If she was the one who had to be here, alone, waiting for her mother’s death, then she should do it properly. Sit. Wait. But Janelle insisted, she always insisted. Hospice, Ellie decided, was an overbearing, bossy organization. They acted as if they’d patented death and all of its processes.
Janelle had informed Ellie that morning that her mother had gone into Active Dying. She’d launched a long analogy with the labor process, ending with a description of herself as a death doula and Ellie had never wanted to punch someone more. She’d refrained. One couldn’t admit to an outright hatred of hospice. One was meant to be grateful to hospice, even when they were total twats.
Not that Janelle was a twat, she really was lovely.
Ellie had a heel of bread in her pocket, plush in its plastic bag, and she fondled it as she walked towards the drainage ditch. Standing at the edge of the water, Ellie remembered that you’re not supposed to feed bread to birds. She couldn’t remember why, but she couldn’t be responsible for the mass murder of a flock of geese. Her mother would have said she was being overdramatic, but Ellie didn’t care. Every once and a while, it was healthy to believe the world revolved around you. Life was otherwise unbearable.
Ellie took out her phone and with numb fingers scrolled down for Jacob’s number.
“El? Did it happen?”
She was quiet, watching the geese. Were there fewer than the day before? She tried to count them. They wouldn’t stop moving, paddling. She thought that Davy, once, had had a stuffed goose. Or was it a duck? Yes, that was it, a stuffed white duck he’d called Peeky. Where on earth Peeky had come from, Ellie had no idea. Most of their stuffed animals had been generic, run of the mill. Bears. Monkeys. But when Davy’d gotten sick so many gifts entered their home uninvited, like anything could make a ten-year-old feel better about dying.
“Do you remember Peeky?”
Jacob was quiet. There was minor, territorial goose squabbling.
“Fucksake, Ellie, did you call just to ask that?”
Ellie shrugged. The phone had been warm in her pocket but now she could feel it pulling the heat from her ear. She hunched her shoulders against the wind.
Jacob sighed. She could hear noise behind him, talking and tinny music.
“Yeah, Peeky. I got it for him. Remember? Before he was sick, for Christmas. Because he asked Santa for a pet rabbit and I knew he’d never get one.”
“So you got him a stuffed duck?”
“Closest thing they had.”
There was a squirrel this morning, nosing around the other end of the ditch. Ellie watched it put one paw into the cold water. The squirrel pulled the paw back out, giving it an abrupt shake like a kid deciding the water was too cold. The squirrel scampered back up the bank and sat, fluffing its tail until it was perfectly curled over its head. Ellie wondered if bread made squirrels sick. Probably not, but she wouldn’t feed it. Once when Ellie was a kid, a squirrel had run right up her leg, its sharp claws digging in as she shrieked and jumped. Jacob had grabbed her with one hand and ripped the squirrel off with the other, flinging it away. He’d been her hero, then.
“Where are you?”
“Too cold. Hopped another flight.”
Ellie waited for him to ask the questions he should ask. He didn’t as she’d known he wouldn’t.
“Listen, I gotta go Ellie. I’ll call you later.”
He wouldn’t; she hung up anyway. She kneaded the bread in her pocket through the plastic bag, feeling the crumbs loosen, squishing it until there was the faint pop of plastic giving way and the mess was all over her fingers. She squished the bread, gluey under her nails, as she walked back to the house.
When Ellie got to the ditch the next day, it took her a moment to figure out what was wrong. The ice had melted, the fake swans bobbed happily, the squirrel had found a friend or a lover or a child and they were chasing each other near the swans. The geese were gone. Ellie stood, staring at the silent water, then turned and ran for home, so fast she thought her heart would burst. When she slammed open the porch door, she could hear Janelle talking quietly to her mother in the other room and she could feel from the air in the house that no, it hadn’t happened yet.
Janelle told her that people often waited to die until the ones they loved most walked out of the room. Ellie had heard this before and she thought it was bullshit; when death took you it took you. She and Jacob had been kept out of the room, but they’d been right there on the other side of the wall when Davy had gone and they’d heard everything.
Maybe this was why Janelle kept kicking her out of the house on these walks, maybe she was trying to hurry the process along so that she could move on to some other family, someone more appreciative of hospice, someone who didn’t grump around. Janelle was lovely, she was lovely, she was lovely lovely lovely.
There were no geese. There were no squirrels. There was no woman in a red hat, there was nothing. The ditch had half-frozen, a bit of liquid left at the deeper end. Ellie squatted down to see if there was anything there, in the water. What, she had no idea. Tadpoles? Water striders? There was nothing, or nothing big enough to be seen, just coils of goose shit on the bottom and the errant floating feather.
Ellie walked back and stood outside the house. It was the house they’d grown up in, the top left window hers, the top right originally the boys’ room, and then just Jacob’s. The weak afternoon sun glinted off of the row of porch windows, and the house looked blank, like they’d never thundered up and down its stairs or hung Christmas lights from the porch or left jack- o’-lanterns on its front steps so long that they rotted. Like Davy hadn’t crashed his bike into the steps one bright spring day.
That crash led to the emergency room visit that led, by accidental discovery, to everything that came after. The neighbors had planted marigolds in the porch’s window boxes that year, watered them every day while the family drove back and forth to the hospital.
Ellie remembered her father pounding down the same steps six months after Davy’s death. He’d flown south to start a new family in Miami. Ellie had dropped out of drama, out of soccer, out of friendship, out of school, out of everything to sit at home and hold her mother’s hand. No one had asked her to do that, but no one had told her not to either, so she’d thought it was her job, especially when Jacob started coming home only to sleep. Mom insisted on setting five places for family dinner. Ellie was the one who put them back where they belonged every night after dinner until the night that should have been her high school graduation. She got drunk off of Jacob’s beer. She screamed incoherent nonsense at her mother and threw up all over the porch, but the next day her mother set the table with only two plates, two forks, two knives, and two glasses.
Ellie looked back at the window of the boys’ bedroom. She tried to imagine the arc of a teenaged body leaping. Jacob had jumped two years after Davy’s death, drunk but not out of his mind, surviving intact with nothing but a bruise on the side of his ass. After that, he’d moved out for good.
The house looked so innocent now, a piece of disinterested real estate. Its shabbiness and general disrepair defied their mother, their good, sweet mother who’d rocked them and nursed them and cleaned their wounds and held Davy’s hand through everything. She wasn’t perfect, but she’d tried, and now she was dying a perfectly natural old lady death. Davy was dead, Dad was in a high-rise in Miami, and Jacob was somewhere under the desert sun, sticking quarters into a machine that would never give them back. Only Ellie was left, and she was standing outside in the street with goose shit on her boots, her fingers bare and frozen.
A cloud passed over the sun and Ellie looked up. So high that she had to squint to see them was a vee of geese. Leaving, finally. Ellie pulled the phone out of her pocket and called Jacob.
“It’s done,” she said. “She’s gone.”
“Oh thank God. I’m sorry, El.”
Ellie hung up the phone, stuck it back in her pocket. She walked across the street, shucked off her boots in the cloud of her breath on the cold porch. Inside, Janelle was sitting in Mom’s favorite plaid recliner, next to the hospital bed they’d set up in the living room.
“She’s still here,” Janelle said, “but it won’t be much longer. I’ll stay, if you’d like.”
Ellie sat on the couch, looked at the wrinkles creasing her mother’s forehead. Ellie touched the echo of them on her own forehead, briefly. She felt the restlessness building in her bones, but she crossed her arms, then her legs, then her ankles, then her fingers, binding herself to the spot.