فصل 05

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CHAPTER 5

Avery

“I’ll only be a little while,” I tell Ian, Leslie’s intern, as he parks under the nursing home portico.

He stops halfway out the driver’s side door. “Oh…okay. I’ll just sit here and take care of some email, I guess.” He seems disappointed that no escort is needed. I feel his curious gaze following me as I exit the car and make my way through the lobby.

The director is waiting in her office. Grandma Judy’s bracelet lies on her desk. The dragonflies’ gemstone eyes glitter as I slip the lost treasure back onto my wrist.

We chat a bit about the day’s event before the director apologizes for my trouble. “We’ve had quite a time with Mrs. Crandall,” she admits. “Poor thing. For the most part, she doesn’t speak to anyone. She just…wanders the halls and the grounds until lockup at night. Then she stays in her room, unless the volunteers are here to play the piano. She does seem to love music, but even at the sing-alongs, we can’t persuade her to engage with the other residents. Grief and a change of location can often be more than the mind and body can handle.”

Immediately, I imagine someone saying the same thing about Grandma Judy. My heart aches for this poor woman, May. “I hope she isn’t upset. I’m sure she didn’t take the bracelet on purpose. I would’ve let her keep it, except it’s been in the family for so long.”

“Oh, goodness, no. It’s best that she gives it back. One of the things our residents sometimes have difficulty accepting is that many of their belongings haven’t come here with them. They tend to see things around the facility and think someone has made off with their possessions. We return heisted goods quite often. Mrs. Crandall is still adjusting to leaving her house. She’s confused and unsettled right now, but it’s natural.”

“I know that’s a hard transition.” My grandmother’s estate on Lagniappe Street is still closed up with everything inside it. We haven’t been ready to decide what should happen to a lifetime of mementos and countless family heirlooms. Eventually, the house will pass down to the next generation, as it always has. Hopefully, one of my sisters will move in, and most of the antiques can stay. “Does Mrs. Crandall have family who come to visit?” I purposely don’t mention the story about the dead sister. I already feel guilty talking about this woman as if she’s some sort of…case study. She’s a person, like Grandma Judy.

The director shakes her head, frowning. “No one locally. Her son passed away years ago. She has grandchildren, but it’s a remarried and blended family, and none of them live nearby, so it’s complicated. They’re doing their best, and to be honest, Mrs. Crandall hasn’t been making it any easier. She was taken to a facility closer to her home to begin with, and she tried to run away. The family moved her here thinking that a bit of distance might help. She has attempted to leave us three times in two weeks. Some amount of disorientation and difficulty isn’t unusual for new residents. Hopefully, she’ll improve once she has adjusted a bit. I’d hate to see her transferred to the Alzheimer’s Unit, but…” She clamps her lips over the sentence, apparently realizing that she’s not supposed to be telling me all of this.

“I’m so sorry.” I can’t help feeling as if I’ve made a bad situation worse. “Could I see her…just to tell her thank you for returning my bracelet?”

“She didn’t return it…exactly. The nurse found her with it.”

“I’d at least like to tell her I appreciate having it back.” Mostly, I’m just concerned that the director seems so…clinical about all of this. What if I’ve stirred up trouble for May? “The bracelet was one of my grandmother’s favorites.” I look down at the ornately fashioned golden dragonflies with their garnet eyes and multicolored spines.

“We don’t restrict our residents’ visitors here, but it might be better if you didn’t. Mrs. Crandall most likely wouldn’t speak with you anyway. We’ll let her know the bracelet was returned and everything is fine.”

We end the conversation with a bit of pleasant chatter about the birthday party earlier, and then we part at her office door. On the way back to the entrance, I pass a hallway sign with names and room numbers neatly arranged in metal slots.

MAY CRANDALL, 107. I turn the corner.

Room 107 lies at the end of the hall. The door is open. The bed in the front half of the room is empty. The curtain in the middle has been drawn. I step in, whisper, “Hello? Mrs. Crandall?” The air smells stale, and the lights are off, but I hear the raspy sound of someone breathing. “Mrs. Crandall?” Another step, and I can see feet protruding from the blankets on the other bed. The feet are shrunken and curled. As if they haven’t borne weight in a long time. That must not be her.

I study the area that is undoubtedly Mrs. Crandall’s. It’s small and bland and somewhat depressing. While Grandma Judy’s new mini-apartment is outfitted with a sofa, a chair, and a game table, and adorned with as many favorite photos as we could fit, this room looks as if its occupant has no intention of staying. Only one personal item sits on the bedside table—a photo frame with a faded, dusty velvet stand on the back.

I know I shouldn’t be nosy, but I can still see May looking up at me with her robin’s-egg-blue eyes, seeming to need something. Desperately. What if she’s tried to run away from this place because someone is mistreating her? As a federal prosecutor, you can’t help being aware of horrible elder-abuse cases. When federal crimes such as telemarketing fraud, identity theft, and the pilfering of Social Security checks are involved, the cases fall under our jurisdiction. There are too many instances where young people are just waiting to get their hands on the older folks’ money. Mrs. Crandall may have perfectly wonderful grandkids, but it’s hard to imagine why they would leave her alone here in this condition instead of moving her to someplace where one of them could monitor her care.

I just want to be sure, I tell myself. There is, inbred in me, the Stafford sense of duty. It makes me feel responsible for the well-being of strangers, especially those who are helpless and marginalized. Charities are my mother’s full-time, unofficial second job.

The ornate frame is turned toward the wall, unfortunately. It was molded from the sort of pearlescent ivory celluloid that would have matched ladies’ powder jars and brushes, combs, and buttonhooks back in the thirties and forties. Even leaning over, I can’t see the photo.

Finally, I just do it. I turn the frame. Sepia-toned and bleached white around the edges, the image is a snapshot of a young couple on the shore of a lake or pond. The man wears a battered fedora and holds a fishing pole. His face is difficult to make out—dark eyes, dark hair. He’s handsome, and the way he stands with one foot propped on a fallen log, his slim shoulders cocked back, speaks of confidence—defiance almost. It’s as if he’s challenging the photographer to capture him.

The woman is pregnant. The wind catches her floral dress, outlining a stomach that seems too large to be carried on her long, thin legs. Her thick blond hair hangs in long spirals almost to her waist. The front of it is pulled up in a bedraggled bow, like a little girl’s. That’s the first thing that strikes me about her—she looks like a teenager dressed up for a role in a school play. The Grapes of Wrath maybe.

The second thing that strikes me is that she reminds me of my grandmother. I blink, lean closer, think of the photos we carefully hung in Grandma Judy’s room not long ago. There’s one in particular—an image from her high-school graduation trip. She’s sitting on a pier at Coney Island, smiling for the camera.

I’m probably just imagining the resemblance. Judging by the clothing, this photo is too old to be of Grandma Judy. My always-fashionable grandmother would never have been dressed that way, but right now all I can think as I peer through the glass is That could be her. I also see the resemblance to my niece Courtney and, of course, to me.

I whip out my cellphone and try to get its camera to focus in the dim light.

The camera’s crosshairs weave in and out. I snap a photo. It’s blurry. I shift toward the bed, try again. For some reason, turning on the lamp feels like stepping over the line, and if I use the camera flash, it’ll just glare off the glass. But I want a photo. Maybe my father can tell me if he recognizes these people…or maybe, once I get home and look again, I’ll realize I’m overthinking the resemblance. The picture is old, and it’s not that clear.

“It’s rude to invade someone’s space without being invited.”

I jerk upright before the camera snaps again. And the phone slips loose. It tumbles end over end, and I’m like a cartoon character moving in slow motion, grasping at air.

May Crandall makes her way through the door while I retrieve my phone from under the bed. “I’m so sorry. I just…” There is no good explanation for this. None.

“What are you up to exactly?” When I turn, she draws away, surprised. Her chin turtles into her neck, then slowly pokes out again. “You came back.” Her visual sweep takes in the picture frame, telling me that she knows it’s been moved. “Are you one of them?”

“Them?”

“These people.” A hand flits through the air, indicating the nursing home staff. She cranes closer. “They’ve got me in prison here.”

I think of the story Leslie told me—the house, the dead sister’s body. Maybe there’s more than just grief and disorientation involved here. I really know nothing about this woman.

“I see you have my bracelet.” She points at my wrist.

The director’s words come to mind. For the most part, she doesn’t speak to anyone. She just…wanders the halls and the grounds….

But she’s talking to me.

I catch myself pulling the dragonfly bracelet close, holding a hand over it, pinning it against my chest. “I’m sorry. The bracelet was mine. It must have slipped off when you held my wrist earlier…today…at the birthday party?”

She blinks at me as if she hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about. Maybe she’s forgotten the party already?

“Did you have one like it?” I ask.

“A party? No, of course not.” Her resentment boils just below the surface, potent and acidic.

Maybe the nursing home director has underestimated this woman’s problems? I’ve heard that dementia and Alzheimer’s can manifest in paranoia and agitation; I’ve just never experienced that behavior. Grandma Judy is confused and sometimes frustrated with herself, but she’s as sweet and kindhearted as ever. “Actually, I meant, did you have a bracelet like this?”

“Why, yes, I did…until they gave it to you.”

“No. I was wearing it when I came here this morning. It was a gift from my grandmother. It was one of her favorites. Otherwise, I would’ve…” I stop before saying, Otherwise, I would’ve let you keep it. It seems like it would be disrespectful, as if I’d be treating her like a child.

She stares long at me. Suddenly, she seems completely lucid, acute even. “Perhaps I could meet your grandmother, and we can iron this out. Does she live nearby?”

There’s an abrupt change in the atmosphere of the room. I feel it, and it has nothing to do with the vent kicking on overhead. She wants something from me. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible. I wish it were, but it’s not.” In truth, I would never expose my sweet grandmother to this strange, bitter woman. The more she talks, the easier it is to imagine her holing up with her sister’s body.

“Is she gone then?” Suddenly, she seems crestfallen, vulnerable.

“No. But she’s had to move out of her house and into a care facility.”

“Recently?”

“About a month ago.”

“Oh…oh, what a shame. Is she happy there, at least?” A beseeching, desperate look follows the words, and I’m hit with a penetrating sadness for May. What has her life been like? Where are the friends, the neighbors, the co-workers…the people who should be coming to see her now, out of duty if nothing else? Grandma Judy has at least one visitor per day, sometimes two or three.

“I think she is. To tell you the truth, she was lonely in her home. Now that she’s at the facility, she has people to talk to, and there are games days and parties she can attend. They do craft projects, and there’s a library with plenty of books.” No doubt, they offer some of those options here. Maybe I can gain a little mileage with May Crandall—encourage her to give her new life an honest try and stop battling the staff. The shift in our conversation is leading me to suspect that she’s not as addled as she’s been pretending to be.

She smoothly ignores my implication and changes the subject. “I believe I knew her. Your grandmother. We shared bridge club, I think.” She points the knuckle of a bent, craggy finger in my direction. “You favor her quite a bit.”

“People say so. Yes. I have her hair. My sisters don’t, but I do.”

“And her eyes.” Things turn intimate. She looks through me to the very marrow of my bones.

What is happening here?

“I—I’ll ask her about you when I see her. But she may not remember. She has good days and bad days.”

“Don’t we all, though?” May’s lips twitch upward, and I catch myself chuckling nervously.

Shifting, I hit the bedside lamp with my elbow, then catch it, knocking the frame this time. I grab it before it can fall, hold it, and try to resist taking a closer look.

“They’re always bumping that. The girls here.”

“I could put it over on the dresser.”

“I want it close to me.”

“Oh…okay.” I wish I could sneak a new phone photo. At this angle, there’s no glare, and the face looks even more like my grandmother’s. Could it be her…maybe dressed up for a play? She was president of the drama club in prep school. “I was wondering about this, actually, when you came in.” Now that we’re on friendlier terms, it seems permissible to ask. “The woman in the picture reminds me of my grandmother, a little.”

My phone buzzes, still on silent from the town hall forum. I’m reminded that I’ve left Ian waiting in the car all this time. The message is from my mother, though. She wants me to call her.

“Same hair,” May Crandall agrees blandly. “But that’s not so uncommon.”

“No, I suppose not.” She doesn’t offer any more information. Reluctantly, I put the frame back on the nightstand.

May watches my phone as it buzzes a second time, my mother’s text message demanding acknowledgment. I know better than to leave it unanswered.

“It was lovely meeting you.” I attempt to excuse myself.

“Do you have to go?”

“I’m afraid I do. But I’ll ask my grandmother if she recognizes your name.”

She moistens her lips, emits a small cluck as they part. “You’ll come back, and I’ll share the story of the photo then.” Pivoting with surprising agility and without using her cane, she starts toward the door, adding, “Perhaps.”

She’s gone before I can answer.

I grab a better shot of the picture, then hurry off.

In the lobby, Ian is scrolling through emails on his cellphone. Apparently, he gave up on waiting in the car.

“Sorry that took so long,” I say.

“Oh, hey, no problem at all. It gave me the chance to sort my inbox.”

The nursing home director walks by and frowns, probably wondering why I’m still here. If I weren’t a Stafford, she’d undoubtedly stop and ask questions. As it is, she pointedly looks away and moves on. Even after two months back in South Carolina, it’s still strange, getting the rock-star treatment just because of my family name. In Maryland, I often knew people for months before they even realized my father was a senator. It was nice having the chance to prove myself as myself.

Ian and I proceed to the car, and we’re quickly bogged down in road construction traffic, so I use the time to call my mother. There will be no getting answers from her at home, with the DAR meeting being hosted there. After it’s over, she’ll be busy making sure every china plate and punch glass is back in its rightful place. That’s Honeybee. She’s an organizational whiz.

She also never forgets a name.

“Do we know a May Crandall?” I ask after she has requested that I “happen by” the DAR gathering so as to make an appearance, shake hands, and score a few points with all the right wives. Get the women, and you’ve got the vote, my father always says. Only foolish men underestimate their power.

“I don’t think so,” my mother muses. “Crandall…Crandall…”

“May Crandall. She’s around Grandma Judy’s age. Maybe they played bridge together?”

“Oh, goodness, no. The women Grandma Judy played bridge with are friends.” By friends, she means long-term acquaintances of the family with ties that are generations old for the most part. People of our social circle. “Lois Heartstein, Dot Greeley, Mini Clarkson…they’re all people you already know.”

“Okay.” Perhaps May Crandall really is just an addled old woman with a headful of jumbled memories that bear only a partial resemblance to reality. That doesn’t explain the photo on the nightstand, though.

“Why?”

“No real reason. I met her today at the nursing home.”

“Well, how sweet. That was kind of you to chat with her. Those people get so very lonely. She probably just knows of us, Avery. Many people do.”

I cringe and hope Ian can’t hear my mother’s end of the conversation. It’s embarrassing.

The question of the photograph still nibbles at the corner of my brain. “Who’s going by to see Grandma Judy tonight?”

“I was planning to. After the DAR meeting, if it’s not too late.” Mom sighs. “Your father won’t be able to.” Unfailingly, Honeybee holds down the family responsibilities when Dad’s job prevents him from doing so.

“Why don’t you stay home and rest after the meeting?” I suggest. “I’ll go.”

“But you’re coming by the meeting first?” Mom presses. “Bitsy is back from her trip to Lake Tahoe. She’s dying to see you.”

Suddenly, I have the horrible, desperate feeling a wild animal must experience when the door swings shut on a cage. No wonder my mother wants me to come by her DAR get-together. Bitsy is back in town. Given the party attendees, I can count on a multipronged interrogation about whether Elliot and I have set a wedding date, selected china and silver patterns, talked about a venue and season—indoor, outdoor, winter, spring.

We’re not in any rush. We’re both really busy right now. We’re just waiting to see what feels right isn’t what Bitsy wants to hear. Once she and the DAR ladies have me cornered, they won’t let me go until they’ve used every tool in their arsenal to get the answers they’re after.

I have a sinking feeling I might not be making it by Magnolia Manor this evening to ask Grandma Judy about the photo after all.

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