Beam me up, I thought.
No such luck.
After I'd changed into my uniform, Mrs. Jackson took me over to meet the new inmate.
"Mr. Savage," said Mrs. Jackson. "This is Stella. She'll be cleaning your room." Mr. Savage bobbed his head at me. They were all polite when they first arrived. Once he'd gotten used to the place he'd be pinching my butt and hissing dirty jokes in my ear along with the rest of them.
"I'm so glad you've decided to join us, Mr. Savage," I recited. "If you need anything, please don't hesitate to call. We pride ourselves on prompt and courteous service."
Mrs. Jackson beamed at me. It had taken her hours of hard work to get The Speech crammed down my throat. The fact that the janitorial staff was never needed for "prompt and courteous service" meant nothing to her. Neither did the Emancipation Proclamation or the Bill of Rights.
"You can call me Clarence," he said. I expected that. While Mrs. Jackson always insisted that we address everyone by their family names so as to "preserve an atmosphere of propriety," nobody else followed her example, especially not towards the staff. I was always plain old Stella right from the get go.
That morning I went about my normal routine. Cleaning up the public rooms came first, since most of the old folks slept in. I guess there isn't much point to getting up early when all you're doing is dying. I always started with the chapel. I enjoyed the quiet. There wasn't much of that at home. Best of all it was cool. Hector was too cheap to put in central air, so my room was an oven in the summer even with the window unit, which hardly worked anyway. I liked to sit in the front pew for a few moments before I got on with my rounds, just to gather my thoughts. After the chapel was clean, I moved on to the public bathrooms, the dining room, the rec room, and the TV room. By then most of the old folks were tottering about, so I could start on their bedrooms.
When I got to Mr. Savage's room I banged on his door and waited. On my very first day of work at Shady Grove, Mrs. Jackson told me to always knock real hard and call out their names. She said we needed to respect the "members' personal space." I was much more concerned with my own. Some of the men had an uncanny way of popping up stark naked when you came in to clean. I hoped Mr. Savage wasn't going to be one of those.
"Mr. Savage!" I hollered. I began counting to thirty before I turned the key. That would give him plenty of time to come to the door if he was still in there. I was pretty sure he wouldn't be, since Mrs. Jackson liked to take her new "members" for a tour of Shady Grove the day after they arrived. She liked to tell them all about the "estate" and how it had been in her family for generations and all that la-de-dah. So it just about knocked my socks off when the door opened smack in my face. I hadn't even made it to five.
"I can hear just fine," he said. He was wearing a pair of khakis and a green plaid shirt buttoned all the way to the top.
"I'm sorry," I apologized. "Some of the members..."
"I understand," he said. "You can come in."
I peeked into his room. It was neat as a pin.
"I'll only be a minute," I said. Maybe less. His room was already so clean I probably wouldn't have to do much more than mop. I waited a moment for Clarence to go away, but he just stood there holding the door open. As I angled past him I noticed that he didn't smell like a shut-in. Old people, when they've been housebound for a while, start to smell musty. Clarence smelled like a man who worked with his hands. Clean and sharp. He watched me as I mopped the linoleum, which made me nervous.
"Y'all are gonna love it here. Everybody's real friendly, and nice. And when the weather cools off all y'all can take a walk in the old pecan grove." I tend to rattle on when I get nervous. "Y'all can even send some pecans home to your loved ones next Christmas. Everybody does." I took a breath. Clarence was looking at me funny. I noticed his eyes were a clear gray.
"All y'all?" he said. His face was round and pleasant when he smiled, but my feathers had been ruffled.
"You aren't from around here, are you?" I said, real careful.
His face got serious again. "No," he said. "I'm from Maine."
I'd already taken him for a Yankee. His skin was too smooth for a Texan, even a transplanted one. Old Texans don't have wrinkles, they have ruts. Still, my jaw dropped. Maine was on the other side of the world. I couldn't imagine a farther place.
"How on earth did you get down here?" The question just fell out of my mouth. Then I realized I'd forgotten my manners, so I had to apologize again.
"No, no," he said. "That's a good question. We Yankees find Texas fascinating. It's the lure of the Old West."
Having lived in Texas my whole life, I didn't see anything luring about the West, old or new. But I had a Texan's pride in my state, which is to say, knee-jerk. The only real requirement for graduation in Texas is to remember the Alamo, which we did every spring, regardless of the fact that most of my classmates would likely have been fighting on the other side.
"See y'all tomorrow," I said. His smell stayed with me all day. Like Christmas.
By the time I got home, Mama and Hector had made up and were watching TV on one of the pink velveteen couches. Mama has three of them. With Mama, everything is either too many or too much. Hector had one beefy, tattooed arm draped around her and the other wrapped around a six-pack. The two of them were drunk as two skunks courting in Kentucky.
"Yo, mamacita," said Hector.
I hate it when he calls me that. In spite of appearances, and a lot of effort on his part, Hector doesn't have a drop of Spanish blood in him. Mama, on the other hand, is a direct descendant of Don Quixote.
Hector tried to grab my butt when I walked by, but I was ready for him. My purse has a five-pound mini barbell in it. Mama never shifted her fake eyelashes from the screen.
"That's disgusting!" she said. Some idiot was chowing down on a plate of worms. She took a swig of beer.
"There's spaghetti," she said.
Somehow, I managed to get back to my room without having to hit Hector again. The house was a classic "shotgun" with one long central hall going from front to back. It was a simple design, but whoever built it hadn't been sober long enough to read a blueprint. There wasn't a ninety-degree angle in the place, and all the doors swung the wrong way; out instead of in. If you weren't careful, you could brain someone, not that anybody around here had any.
I switched on the window unit, but all it did was bitch and moan. Just like an eighth grade boyfriend: all jaw and no action. I appreciated the racket. It blocked out the noises Hector and Mama would be making later on.
That night I dreamed about the Titanic again. I especially like the part where it goes down.
I liked Clarence. He never asked questions like didn't I have a boyfriend, and how many boyfriends had I had, and he never, ever treated me like a servant. At first I couldn't resist boasting. I'd heard Texas described a lot of ways, but never, to my knowledge, had anybody ever called it "fascinating." As far as I was concerned, Texas was nothing more than a giant griddle, flat as a pancake and hotter than Hades. Of course, I never let on. The fact that he thought it was interesting made me feel good, like I was special too, somehow. And Clarence was a good listener. When he sat down and cocked an ear at me, it made me stand up tall. In fact, I got so high and mighty it took a couple of weeks for me to realize I didn't know a thing about him, which was not the normal run of events. Usually, after two or three days I could recite an inmate's life story by heart.
"What's Maine like?" I asked.
"The interior is mostly woods," he said. "But I grew up on the coast. In my younger days, I was a lobsterman," he added. "Later on, I built boats."
I should have guessed. That clean, sharp smell was sawdust. I could see him in a workshop, sawing something. Although, I have to say, I couldn't imagine Clarence pulling those big ugly red things out of the water. With those evil-looking claws grabbing at you, how in creation did you get the hook out? You probably had to bash 'em upside the head with a hammer, which I couldn't see neat-and-tidy Clarence doing. Anyway, Clarence didn't smell like the fishing type. Fishermen drank.
"I've never seen the ocean," I said.
This time it was his turn to look surprised.
"Well," he said. "It's big."
I knew what he was talking about. Texas is big.
"I know all about big," I told him. "I could drive all day and never even make it out of this county."
Clarence pulled on his chin and thought about that for a while. I could tell I'd impressed him.
"Ayuh," he said. "I had a car like that once."
Well, I just about popped my panties laughing.
"That's a very old joke," he said, shaking his head. "You must have heard it before."
I hadn't, but I didn't want to be shown up by quiet Clarence. Besides, I really had seen big bodies of water. My entire 10th grade class had taken a field trip to the capital, and on the way back we'd stopped for a picnic on Lake Travis. I told him about it.
"The ocean is a lot bigger," he said.
"Well, that may be," I admitted. "But I'll bet you dimes to dollars you couldn't swim across Lake Travis."
Now it was his turn to laugh, though I didn't know why.
"You won that bet," he said. "I couldn't swim across a bathtub."
I gave him a skeptical look. I was beginning to get the suspicion that he had been pulling my leg all along. "You said you caught lobsters."
"I did," he said. "Lobstermen can't swim. The water off the coast of Maine is so cold, if you fell overboard you'd be dead in ten minutes."
He swirled his tea, making the ice cubes clink against the sides of the glass. "It's like ice," he said.
"That sounds real good," I told him. "I'd like that."
It was May, and the heat was just revving up. You couldn't fry an egg on the sidewalk yet, but you could probably poach one. Every morning I would arrive at work just itching to get Clarence into a conversation about that big old ice bath. I swear it made me feel cooler just to hear him talk about it. I'd lean up against the wall for a few minutes after I'd mopped (there never was anything else to do in Clarence's room), and I swear I could feel that cool sea breeze blowing right over me. He had a way of telling stories that would make me fall down laughing, though I could never remember how he did it afterwards. He would just sit in his chair, pulling his chin. Maybe it was because he'd made me laugh so much that I forgot my manners one day.
"How come you don't have any pictures on your dresser?" I asked him. Everybody else at Shady Grove had scads of family photos propped up on just about every surface. That's why it never took me any time to clean up Clarence's room. There was nothing to dust.
Clarence didn't answer me. So I just stood there like a moron until it dawned on me that I was way out of line. Stupid me. I'd forgotten Rule Number One: Staff is Not Permitted to Make Personal Inquiries of Members.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I shouldn't have asked."
Clarence still didn't say anything. He looked out the window to where the crape myrtles were blooming. Crape myrtles are perfect for this climate. They bloom all summer long and don't mind the heat. I imagine that's why Mrs. Jackson's illustrious ancestors had planted them everywhere. On second thought, it was the gardeners who had planted them. My illustrious ancestors.
I was almost through the door when Clarence finally said something.
"My wife died a year ago last March," he said. "We didn't have any children."
Now, I felt terrible. "Oh, I am sorry," I said again. This time I meant it. Clarence looked so forlorn. All of a sudden I wanted to go over and hug him. Instead, I stood in the doorway like a fool, holding a mop and a bucket in my hands. Clarence shook his head and sighed.
"She was from Texas," he said.
I stood there for a bit, trying to think of something to say that would cheer him up. "Did she say all y'all?" I asked. "Like me?"
Clarence looked me straight in the eye. "Just like you."
Hector and Mama were going at it full blast when I got home. She was calling him an hijo de puta, which is the only thing she can say in Spanish, and he was yelling about somebody named Frank. I heard some thumps and crying. But it was 101 degrees and after spending an hour on the interstate, getting passed by suits yakking on their cell phones inside Audis that had frickin' frost on the windows, I was in no mood to call the police. So I went to my room and turned on the AC as loud as it would go. I also turned on the radio for good measure. Then I stretched out on the bed, praying for world peace, for a sea of ice, for anything but this. I lay there for a while with my ears cocked, just in case things got really nasty. Then, in spite of the heat, Willie Nelson, and the sound of dishes flying around the kitchen, I fell asleep.
What woke me up was the quiet. The whole world was dead. I looked over at my clock and saw nothing. Outage. In the summer, with all of Texas trying to reinvent Alaska, the power frequently goes out. I got up and went to the window. There were lights on in some of the houses. Maybe it was just a blown fuse. I threw on a robe, since I wasn't wearing much, and tried to remember where the fuse box was. Or did we have switches?
My door wouldn't open.
I shoved and pushed and kicked, but it wouldn't budge. Something heavy was blocking it. Finally I started yelling, but nobody heard me; Mama and Hector were probably out cold. Eventually, my brains woke up. I went back to the window and pushed out the AC unit. Even though it didn't work, the thing still weighed a ton - kind of like Hector. Then I climbed out the window and hopped onto the lawn.
When I came around to the front of the house, I saw the door hanging open. Hector's car was gone, so he must have stormed off after tonight's fight, leaving the front door wide open.
Total idiot, I thought. Don't y'all come back now.
The house was pitch black, but I knew it well enough to find what I needed. Neither Mama nor Hector had gotten around to opening any of the drawers in the kitchen, except, of course, for the one that had the bottle opener in it, so the flashlight was still where I'd put it when we moved in last year.
The kitchen was a wreck. But, that was to be expected. I hadn't gone in there for a while, so there'd been plenty of time for TV dinner trays and dirty dishes to pile up. The cans were having a pow-wow on the floor with some broken plates and there was a bunch of empty bottles on the table. It looked like Hector and Mama had graduated to the hard stuff last night. Or maybe it had been that way all week. I hadn't been keeping track.
I walked out of the kitchen and headed down the hallway to the back of the house. There was something heaped in front of my door.
"Mama," I said. I shook her as hard as I could. When I tried to lift her, Mama's head snapped back like a broken doll.
I called 911.
When the ambulance arrived, I still hadn't been able to wake her. I hadn't even thought about the fuses, so I had to lead the medics through the house with my flashlight. I was glad they couldn't see most of it. But what they couldn't see they could smell. They took Mama straight to the detox unit of the hospital.
The doctor who finally came out to see me looked harried. It was 4 AM.
"She'll need to stay here for a couple of weeks," he said, glancing at her chart. "Are you a relative?"
I said yes.
"Good," he said. "You'll have to sign some forms."
"Will she be all right?" I asked.
The doctor finally took a good look at me. "You aren't a minor, are you?"
"No," I said. "I turned eighteen last August." And if we'd been in China, that would have been God's honest truth.
"Good," said the doctor. "Go to the main desk. They'll have the papers ready."
He hadn't answered my question. After I'd signed everything, the nurse told me that I should probably take a couple weeks off work. It might help Mama to have someone there for support. I asked her if Mama was going to be all right.
"That depends," she said.
There wasn't much I could say to that.
I called in sick and told Mrs. Jackson I needed some time off. She grumped about unreliable help, but didn't say I was fired. Thank god for small favors. Then I went back to bed, but I couldn't sleep. I felt like I needed to talk to somebody. I got into the car and drove to work, hoping that Mrs. Jackson wouldn't catch me on the premises. I'd have a hard time explaining my miraculous recovery from the plague.
Clarence looked so happy to see me, I felt like bawling.
"I thought you were sick," he said.
"No, my mother's not well." I said. "I'm going to have to take care of her for a couple of weeks."
Clarence waved me into his room and shut the door. He pulled up a chair for me, and then sat on the edge of his bed.
"Is there anything I can do?" he said softly.
I just looked at him, sitting there in his green plaid shirt. Even first thing in the morning his eyes were clear and bright. He didn't look like the sort of person who had ever gotten falling down drunk, or tried to pinch his step-daughter's butt, or carted his mother off to detox. He looked like... Maine.
"No," I said. "It's nothing I can't handle."
Clarence sighed and nodded. He knew I was in over my head. And what made me love him is that he didn't call me out on it. He respected my decision to keep my problems to myself. And I knew that whenever I wanted to talk, he'd be there. In the end that was all I really needed. Just knowing Clarence was there was enough.
We sat for a moment. Then Clarence got up and took something out of the top drawer of his dresser. He handed me a little box.
"Open it," he said. "I was going to save it for Christmas, but now seems to be a good time."
Inside the box was a rusty-looking thing with five points, like a star. The top of it was covered with tiny pimples. I didn't want to know what was on the bottom. It looked like something one of those weirdos on TV might eat if you offered him enough money.
"It's a starfish," he said.
It didn't look even remotely like a fish. But, then again, lobsters don't look like anything you'd want to put in your mouth either.
"Did you used to catch these things, too?" I asked.
"There's a note," he said. "Underneath."
I lifted up one corner of the starfish with tip of my fingernail and saw a small square of paper. A star for Stella, it said.
"Umm," I mumbled. I wasn't good at getting gifts.
"Make a wish," he said. "It's a star."
"I don't have anything to wish for," I lied.
Clarence looked down at me. "Follow your dreams, Stella," he said. "While you still have them." He held out his hand for me to shake, and I realized he'd never touched me before.
"Y'all come back now," he said.
"Ayuh," I replied. "I'll send you a post card."
When I came back to work, I was excited about seeing Clarence again. Hector had disappeared and Mama seemed to be doing much better without him. She had lost that gray haggard look, and she'd even whipped up a batch of chicken fried steak on her first night home. But with Mama it was hard to get hopeful. Within a month or two she'd probably be slugging it out with her next Hector, or maybe the same one. Anyhow, I was glad for the peace and quiet, even if it was temporary. I'd bought Clarence a big Stetson, just for laughs. I knew he wouldn't be caught dead in it.
It was early, so I put on my uniform and started on my rounds. The chapel was quiet, as always, but this morning it was filled with flowers. There was a casket on the dais.
Oh, no, I thought. Mrs. Perkins has finally died. Delia Perkins was in her nineties and as fragile as a china teacup. We all expected her to go any minute.
I walked over to the casket and peered inside. Lying within the pale satin interior was a man in a suit and tie. He looked familiar.
"Is that really you?" I said. Some idiot had put glasses on his face.
"Oh, Clarence," I whispered. "I bet you never wore glasses a day in your life."
At all once, I had to sit down. I must have sat in the front pew for an hour. That's about how long it takes me to make a decision. On my way out I gave Mrs. Jackson my notice. She didn't look at all surprised. "You can't count on young people nowadays," she said.
When the chapel was opened for the service, the glasses Mrs. Jackson had placed on Clarence were missing. On his head he wore a big, black Stetson hat. A note was tucked into the hatband: Gone fishin'.
On Christmas Eve, a post card arrived at Shady Grove Estate addressed to a Mr. Clarence Savage. A box was kept in the main office for letters and cards such as these. In her spare time Mrs. Jackson would sit at her desk and inspect them for return addresses. She liked to write the letters of condolence herself. It gave Shady Grove that genteel touch for which it was so famous. She held the card a moment in her hand, automatically looking at the picture. Inappropriately, given the time of year, it was a photograph of waves crashing violently against dark, jagged rocks.
"Not very Holiday-like," she murmured. Mrs. Jackson turned the card over. It was postmarked Southwest Harbor, Maine. There was no return address.
"Dear Clarence," she read. "You were right. It's bigger than Lake Travis. Wish y'all were here.