The lady’s name was Desiree. We talked on the phone, a little about me and then a lot about the house, the neighbourhood, the city; at first it was like those job interviews where they stop asking you questions, or even giving you opportunities to speak, and end up telling you everything about the company until you leave without knowing whether they’ve hired you or not. She assumed I was connected to the university.
I said, half-truthfully, that I was getting ready to apply for grad school.
She was retired from the university, on long term disability. What had I studied?
‘Humanities,’ I said.
‘And animals,’ she said. ‘Do you like cats?’
I said my parents liked cats, but I’d lived in the dorms and then in a big shared house where the landlord wouldn’t allow pets.
‘Yes,’ she said dryly. ‘That’s the advantage of living on your own. You can do whatever you want.’ Then she told me that she was divorced, but that she’d come to think of herself as a widow, because her husband died after he left her. They’d had no children.
‘I had surgery six months ago,’ she said. ‘I’m still recuperating. I’m stuck here, so you might as well come look at the room now, if you think you want to.’
She lived in a bungalow perched on a ravine in one of the city’s greenbelts, though you couldn’t see the ravine from the street, just a suggestion of deep, bird-filled trees behind yards that blended into the dappled shade of evergreens and low-growing ivy and salal. I stepped through a cloud of hovering gnats and rang the doorbell inside the screened front porch. She was slow to answer. I could hear the humming of bees quivering in the massive rhododendron and hydrangea bushes that nearly obscured the house from the street. She answered the door wearing flannel pyjamas and wool socks, and she was slightly older than my parents, but I didn’t see this right away because she had the shiny blonde hair of a much younger woman. Her eyes were green and widely spaced, and though she smiled when she greeted me the apples of her cheeks did not lift but stayed softly in place.
The living room was chilly in the way of Pacific Northwest wooden houses that smell, permanently, of cool damp paint, which is not to say fresh paint. Through her sliding glass doors we could see the blue and white faceted slopes of Mount Rainier in the hazy distance, and smoke from neighbourhood fireplaces rising across the ravine. A black and white cat sat staring out at a flock of crows that swirled in the sky and then dropped into one of the big fir trees.
‘That’s Jeffrey, my little old fat-cat,’ she said, after showing me around. I took a seat on the hairy couch, because all four chairs at the kitchen table were taken up by buckets and bags of sunflower seeds, whole peanuts, and dry cat kibble; the table itself was covered with stacks of paper plates, bags of dinner rolls, and cases of canned cat food. The walls were panelled in oak, with built-in shelves and a ledge under the ceiling, running all around the room. Desiree kept pottery up there, a collection of dusty hand-made pieces, and among them were a few plastic bags of bird seed, held in reserve.
She offered me the second bedroom, if I wanted it, and I did, at least for the moment. My checkbook was already open on my knee. ‘What’s your last name?’ I asked, beginning to write.
‘Nakamishi,’ she said, sitting back in her reclining chair and snapping her fingers to get the attention of the cat, who jumped up onto her lap. ‘I kept my husband’s last name. He grew up here, and in the end I kept his little old house, too.’
I learned from Desiree that a person living alone can go for years and years without fully attending to the many small tasks of keeping up an older house. The enamel in the kitchen sink had been scoured through to the base metal in places, for example, and the grout in the tiny bathroom that I used had been repaired at some point with strips of white waterproof tape, now black with mildew. A sponge dipped in bleach and some caulk would have helped. But I didn’t think of that then.
She had obviously been unwell for a long time. She’d had a triple-bypass in the previous year, and the open-heart part had been no problem, she said, bruised ribs, an impressive scar, that’s all. But the site in her leg where they harvested the vein for the graft had never properly healed, and it hurt, and this was why she sat in her chair all day, looking out at the sky, and the trees, and the birds.
I had trouble understanding. A wound that wouldn’t heal? I’d never heard of such a problem, but it was more common than I knew, and, worse luck for Desiree, that open wound had twice flared up into a serious infection, a harbinger of what she called septicemia. Because of this, two health care aides – Carl and Sheila – had been hired to come regularly. I was used to living in communal households and their comings and goings didn’t trouble me, though I felt useless doing so little to help out. But Desiree turned me down when I offered. She was paying them, she said. And so Carl refilled her prescriptions, stacked logs for the wood stove, and started her car once a week to keep the battery alive, while Sheila did the laundry and the shopping and then watched TV with Desiree, sitting cross-legged on the couch in cotton tights and long tasseled skirts from India, making beaded earrings and leather bookmarks that she would sell on the weekends at the public market.
Desiree had long-standing habits that kept her busy between their visits: every morning she fed Jeffrey, and then she fed the neighbourhood cats outside, even the ones who clearly had other homes. She tossed peanuts and corn for the squirrels, and she topped off the bird feeder with seeds. Around midday she would close the kitchen blinds and open the back curtains. She was very particular about not leaving both open at the same time, otherwise birds flying in the ravine would be confused by the patch of sky beyond the kitchen window, and would expect a tunnel all the way through the house; it was terrible, she said, how even a tiny bird could shake the whole house on impact. Similar adjustments took place throughout the day, like an umbrella tilted over the squirrel feeder if it looked like rain, or fresh air on the front porch for Jeffrey if he meowed in a certain way. Later in the afternoon she’d take a handful of soft dinner rolls or stale bread out onto the deck and the smart watchful crows would come flapping out of the trees, making as much noise as possible, catching the pieces she tossed for them or sometimes landing on the railings, gripping the wood with their purplish-black claws and bouncing up and down, yammering in delight. At dusk, more cat food, for everyone. And, though she knew she shouldn’t, she’d also been feeding a family of raccoons at night. She couldn’t stop now, she said, because the mother raccoon had two babies, who came onto the deck to feed after dark. They depended on her. She also left scraps out near the trash cans for the single possum that was too shy, or too afraid of the others, to clamber up onto the deck.
‘What do possums eat?’ I asked.
‘Any old stuff I put out,’ she said, and it was true, the scraps were always gone by morning, when her feeding routine began all over again.
The restaurant where I worked had sweet-smelling cedar walls, and two fireplaces, one in the bar and one in the dining room, and a nice overall odour of smoky fish. I waited tables in the bar area for the lunch crowd and then stayed into the afternoon, when people began to trickle in for drinks before the dinner service started. At some point I would start picking up shifts in the dining room, but not right away, because the full dinner menu was expensive and I would need to speak intelligently and lovingly about seafood.
I would also need to learn about Washington state wines. I had no palate for any of these things, but I was in a good place to develop one, and then I would make a lot more money.
It was only after many weeks of living with Desiree that I began to feel the chill of her negativity. She was like someone raised thinking in a language in which there are only negative constructions to work with, and even when she spoke lightly, about something nice, there was usually a complaint implicit somewhere. Possibly I spent too much time with her in those months, but I didn’t have friends, and I didn’t have much money, which prevented me from going out and meeting people. In the evenings I watched TV with Desiree, her in the recliner, me on the couch, wrapping myself against the drafts and the loose cat hairs in a favourite old quilt I’d been dragging around since I left home. Sometimes Jeffrey was willing to curl up on my lap, and Desiree eyed this with obvious fondness (for him) and, I think, a little jealousy.
‘I don’t like this show, go ahead and find something you like,’ she’d say, holding out the remote control as if she didn’t care what we watched. And maybe she didn’t, because she talked over everything anyway. I didn’t have a TV in my room, and there were only one or two shows that I liked – The X-files, The Simpsons – but even though I watched those every week at the same times, and even though I pretty much ignored her while they were on, she was still relentless about interrupting.
Had I ever been out to Bainbridge Island? She and Victor used to go sometimes, on the ferry, except it always made her seasick.
Didn’t I think Jeffrey’s head was shaped like the head of a Siamese cat, except more handsome, because weren’t they funny-looking?
See that old pillow, over there? The faded one? Victor’s mother made it.
Did I want a glass of wine? It wasn’t her favourite, but I was welcome to it.
Once, in the middle of a programme that I’d been waiting for, she said that she wanted to show me something, in case of an emergency.
‘Can’t it wait until the commercial?’ I asked, exasperated.
‘Sure,’ she said, hesitatingly.
At the commercial break she used the handle on the side of her recliner to lever herself upright, so that I was obliged to put Jeffrey aside and follow. In the kitchen she set down her glass and opened one of the cupboards, stocked with the kinds of supplies that old people seem to have: packets for marinade and gravy, a canister of powdered milk, an open Cream of Wheat box, protected with aluminum foil and secured with a rubber band. On the middle shelf she kept bills and mail and prescriptions, and an envelope labelled JEFFREY, VETERINARY, ETC.
‘This is Jeffrey’s emergency money,’ she said. ‘I want you to know where it is, in case something happens.’ She replaced the envelope, took her glass, and went back to the chair. She poured herself more wine from the open bottle that stood, habitually, on the little table just at hand.
‘The others aren’t cat people,’ she said, meaning the aides and she closed her eyes. This was also part of her routine: watch TV, drink red wine; pass in and out of wakefulness.
‘Desiree,’ I said, gently. ‘Maybe you ought to go to bed?’
‘Not yet,’ she said, eyes still closed, her lashes dark against her cheeks. ‘I haven’t fed the outdoor critters and I’d feel awful if they went to bed hungry, out there in the dark.’
I would not have said she was drunk, exactly. The police asked me, after, if I’d often seen her drunk, and I was able to say, truthfully, that though she was usually drinking, she was very seldom intoxicated.
I tried, afterwards, to be especially patient with her, because she trusted me, and I was touched by this. But soon I had a very strong urge to wring her slender neck, because she didn’t say a word when her leg grew flushed and stiff around the open channel of her wound. Could she really not have known? She was talking about squirrels that morning: it was a shame they buried their peanuts, because she was pretty sure they couldn’t remember every single hiding place, and this was a waste, because even if they did find everything, wouldn’t the buried shells go mouldy in the meantime? She said she might as well give them more peanuts anyhow. I was in the kitchen, making tea, and then I heard her say that her leg hurt.
I knew she was supposed to visit the wound care clinic regularly, and that she’d ignored the reminder calls; this refusal to take her health seriously frustrated the aides, who of course couldn’t force her.
She tugged at the soft fabric of her pant leg, pulling it gingerly up over the tight white compression stocking, which she rolled down, slightly, with difficulty.
‘Oh, crap,’ she said, and she tried to stand up from the chair, maybe to find the antibiotics that she kept on hand for such situations, but she pitched forward and fell, and hit her forehead on the floor.
I lifted her quickly back into the chair and she was light, frail, I somehow hadn’t known she was so little under all her fleecy clothing. Her thigh was spotted with small bruises, and I got a glimpse of the wound under the disarranged dressing. I had imagined a flat pink scar, but her flesh at the margin was the colour and texture of soap, and the wound itself was a dry black crevice, shockingly deep. I had a young person’s problem-solving skills and my impulse was to put her in my car and take her to the emergency room immediately. But she told me to call 911, and they came for her in an ambulance, and that was my first introduction to the way that the elderly are obliged to live: the dependence, the danger and the enormous expense when something does happen.
Desiree was given intravenous antibiotics and kept in the hospital for three days. Afterwards the aides came daily for a while, and I felt embarrassed, as if I’d been the one who let the whole thing happen.
‘It’s not your fault,’ said Sheila. ‘It’s good you were here. We can’t do everything for her. And we’re not supposed to do anything concerned with pets, by the way.’ She was dumping food onto a paper plate for Jeffrey, who sat waiting, patiently. ‘I just buy what she puts on the list and I don’t care. But please don’t advertise to Carl what I’m doing.’
‘Don’t forget the others,’ Desiree called out, from her chair.
Sheila held back the kind of irritated sigh that I felt rising in my own chest. She looked at the table, the piles of feeding paraphernalia.
‘It’s so cold and damp outside,’ said Desiree. ‘It’s not fair to leave them hungry.’
‘I’ll do it,’ I said.
‘Thanks,’ said Sheila. ‘I don’t like going out there.’
Every morning for two weeks I stepped onto the mouldering back deck to collect the damp, dirty paper plates I’d loaded the night before with a mix of wet and dry cat food (as per Desiree’s instructions), and then I’d burn them in the wood stove. I used the garden hose to blast the assortment of water bowls, made filthy by the raccoons who kept trying to wash pieces of dry cat food, which of course kept dissolving. Squirrels would appear as I did this, skittering around the tarp-covered kindling and broken terra cotta pots, staring at me with hard, expectant eyes. They were plump and gray, with yellowish markings on their fur as though some irate neighbour had been urinating on them, and they feinted and darted at me so aggressively that I expected them to leap onto my pantlegs, and I didn’t blame Sheila for not wanting to get near them in her long thin skirts. I knew, though, that she was helping Desiree plenty, and I know that for those two weeks and more it was Sheila who secretly cleaned out Jeffrey’s litterbox, in Desiree’s private bathroom.
Desiree spent so many hours in her chair during that time that her hair held the concave impression of the headrest. Before she left, Sheila would get the comb from Desiree’s bathroom and try to fluff out the flattened curls.
‘There,’ Sheila would say, patting Desiree’s hair softly. ‘All pretty again.’
Carl, who’d been with her the longest, was less easily manipulated, and he pointed to the contents of the recycling bin with displeasure.
‘Wine doesn’t go with antibiotics,’ he said. ‘Desiree. You know that.’
‘I forget sometimes,’ she said, playfully, smiling in the way that an ageing, pretty woman smiles at a younger man. Slightly coquettish, but also mocking. Her skin was thin, but luminous and her eyes were bright and large because she’d lost even more weight.
‘There’s a reminder right on the pill bottle.’
‘I guess I was too drunk to read it,’ she said, still smiling, revolving away in her chair.
‘It’s not funny,’ he said. ‘It won’t be funny when your pills don’t work.’ He lifted the recycling bin, heavy with glass. I held the door for him, and stepped out after when he asked me to.
‘She’ll be dead soon if she doesn’t watch the leg,’ he said.
‘I’ll keep an eye on it,’ I offered, embarrassed again.
‘She has to do it herself!’ He dumped the bottles loudly. ‘This is three times,’ he said. ‘She’s pissing me off.’
‘Maybe I can remind her,’ I said. ‘I’ll ask her to check it every morning.’
‘She won’t. She acts like she doesn’t care. But hey, if the squirrels had blood poisoning, it’d be a different story,’ he said, with obvious disgust. It was Carl who lectured her about the raccoons, and who worried about rabies, and I think if he’d been less fond of her he’d have called the animal control people. We all felt it, and Carl, who’d known her longest, was the most frustrated. But he wouldn’t have left her on her own. Later, Carl was one of the few other people besides me at Desiree’s funeral.
A couple of times in those months I had driven home to my parents’ house to relax, pillage the food in their kitchen, and watch TV without interruption; usually on the way out I could be persuaded to accept a little gas money from my mother, or my father, or both. Because I had gone to college in-state this had been an intermittent habit, fine with them, fine with me, and it was still agreeable. The last time I did this was the day before my birthday, and I went home so that they could give me presents.
I was still waiting tables in the bar, and the restaurant wasn’t letting me have weekend shifts, because that’s when the money was best and those with seniority wanted to work. I finished my lunch shift on Wednesday and stopped to change my clothes before leaving.
‘I’ll be back Saturday,’ I said.
Desiree turned her chair to watch as I was leaving. ‘Sheila’s going to pick up a cake for when you get back,’ she said, with a faint smile. ‘Don’t stay away too long or you won’t get any. You know how greedy she can be.’
The day after my birthday I put off going back. I stayed with my parents another night, and I didn’t leave them until Sunday.
It was an overcast day, typical, with water in the air, water sitting in the trees, and a cold humidity against which I turned up the heat in the car. I got off the freeway and turned carefully, through the intersections and four-way stops of the neighbourhoods; the closer I got to Desiree’s house, the bigger and older the trees became, and the larger and better-established the yards. I skirted the arboretum, the park. I turned through the two big spruces on either side of Desiree’s driveway and parked. She never drove anywhere, and her car never left the garage, so it didn’t matter if I blocked the way. I got out of my car, and I just . . . it’s hard to remember exactly how I felt, because every time I have gone over this in my mind I have overlaid the actual memory, until I can’t tell which was the original gut feeling and which I have since convinced myself that I felt. I lifted the neatly packed grocery bag my mother had provided for me, shut the car door, and walked up the path to the house. But before I reached it I could hear Jeffrey yowling from inside the screened porch. He was crouched under a wooden chair, making the low, guttural sound that cats make when they feel abandoned and despondent, and he’d shat on a pair of shoes I left out. Desiree kept his carrier on the porch under a shelf but I scooped him up and shut him into it. I knew something was wrong when I turned the unlocked doorknob of the front door and opened it, slightly, to look in.
I have a vivid stamp of the room at that instant in my memory: the rectangle of light that was the sliding glass door straight ahead; the pale curtains drawn apart, moving slightly; the two red and blue Tiffany-style glass lamps lit in the corners. Desiree’s chair was reclined, as usual, its back to the door, as usual, and I saw the wavy crown of her blonde head over the top of the leather headrest. For a split-second – the brain can move quickly and slowly at the same instant – I was relieved. I swung the door fully open, but suddenly a flash of birds exploded from Desiree’s chair, frantic in the confines of the room, lifting away and battering through the open sliding glass door and pouring into the sky, splitting into two streams that converged, heaved, and then juddered into the trees, cawing. The curtains swung and shivered, and all across the fabric there were rips and claw-marks and big dark streaks of what I would later be told was blood.
I had taken up the cat carrier and swung it in a clumsy arc, tumbling the cat inside and knocking over my bag of groceries into the wet grass as I ran up the driveway, past my car. This was before the days of mobile phones and I had somehow had the surprising presence of mind to snatch the cordless telephone from the charger on the kitchen counter. I remember being both coherent and incoherent, standing in the driveway babbling, words coming too easily and too fast out of my mouth, the address, Desiree, her name, who am I? – the renter, the roommate. I said I didn’t know if she was alive or dead but please come because the back door was open and there were birds in the house.
I sat on a curb beside the spruce trees and waited. The police car arrived first, quickly, with no siren, followed by an ambulance that whooped once as it turned into Desiree’s tree-darkened street. There was a policewoman who got my coat from my car and let me sit in hers, out of direct sight of the house. The seat of my pants was soaked from the cold wet sidewalk. I sat sideways in her car with my feet outside, planted on the ground, and my hands on my knees, and my face in my hands, because I thought, a few times, that I would be sick.
‘Trust me,’ said the policewoman, and she gave me a stick that reeked of camphor, to put under my nose. In my nose. I put it in my nostrils, and it burnt me and cleared my head.
She and I jointly called my parents, and she spoke to them and agreed with my father that they should both come and take my car away. (I said I could drive. She said, You can just let your folks take you back, it’s easier for everybody.) It took them over an hour and in that time there were questions. Was Desiree sick? Did she take medications? Did she have any adult kids? Did I know about any family she might have? Any friends? It was only then I thought of the aides, and that their numbers were programmed in the phone.
‘Here,’ I said. ‘Here, call Sheila, and Carl.’
It was getting dark. From the other side of the spruces I heard a repetitive sound, a gritty click, like a match being struck again and again, and I realized, belatedly, that someone was taking photos.
‘I didn’t see her,’ I said. ‘Only the top of her head.’
‘Well,’ said the deputy. ‘She’s dead, unfortunately.’ She had spoken to others from inside the house, and then she wanted to hear from me the details of when I had come and gone. Work. Home. Driving. All that. There was a paper on a clipboard and she said, as they do on TV, that she needed a statement. And was this my cat? Was he in the carrier when I found him?
I tried to explain: something hadn’t felt right. Desiree wasn’t well, and she’d been sick lately, and maybe it was in the back of my mind that something could be wrong. The officer accepted this, though later I wondered if it had sounded odd to her, or if this kind of feeling was not altogether unusual.
Jeffrey was crouched and silent, and had peed in his carrier, a smell of hot wet straw. She said I could probably take him with me, but that I might have to give him back if a next of kin turned up and wanted him. After this I sat alone in the police car for what felt like a very long time.
Carl arrived, and, though I didn’t especially like him, I was glad to see him, and he crushed me to the front of his raincoat. I was cold, and didn’t feel well. I didn’t expect to, but when Carl squeezed me I burst into tears. He was able to tell them where to find her medications and which doctors she had been seeing. Not too much later my parents arrived, by which time it was clear that I was of no further use. Carl called his boss. My father also insisted on squeezing me, but I was more composed by then. My mother patted me in the weirdly noncommittal way that she has. They had decided that she and I would go back in their car, and he would follow us, in mine. And this was the end of my brief time of living in Seattle.
Later, my mother said I probably didn’t remember all the things I’d left in my bedroom there, and so my father made phone calls and took me back to Desiree’s house after a couple of weeks had passed. I waited outside. It felt strange, letting him go in and gather up my sheets, my toiletries. He packed everything into heavy duty trash bags and put them in the car and later I threw most of it out anyway, but at least then my possessions weren’t abandoned with Desiree’s, left behind in the damp quiet rooms. A deputy met us, and a lady from the coroner’s office, to unlock the door and let him take my belongings out of the house.
‘There were some books in the living room, and a few other loose items,’ said the lady from the coroner’s office afterwards, standing in the driveway. For all my life I will wonder about her, how she developed the calm that she had. She was slender, and she had a gentle voice. Her skin was dark and she wore a plain gold wedding band.
‘My quilt,’ I said. ‘It was on the couch.’
‘That’s right, but the couch was in the living room,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry to tell you that nothing around your friend’s chair was in the original condition, because of the disturbance to the body. Nothing from the couch or the chair or the coffee table could be salvaged, and the furniture will have to be destroyed. We have a facility for that. I don’t want to distress you, but anything left anywhere near the windows was probably not in salvageable condition, either.’
‘The birds,’ I said.
‘And other opportunistic wildlife,’ she said. ‘You’d be surprised what gets in.’
Desiree’s belongings would eventually be crated up, and later the house would be sold along with her car, and the contents of the house, everything, and the proceeds held so that if a next of kin should one day turn up . . . I don’t know who decides how to manage these things, and Desiree was no relation to me, and therefore, technically, it was none of my business.
And then, surprisingly, Sheila called me. ‘It’s been a year,’ she said, and I didn’t believe her. But it was true. Another birthday of mine had just come and gone. ‘I thought you might want to know, the auction is taking place next month.’
‘Desiree’s estate.’ And that answer, Desiree’s estate, had a sudden telescopic effect, and Desiree and her living room and her windows and the sunlight across her knuckles as she stroked Jeffrey’s fur as he lay on her lap, all of that world suddenly seemed to compact itself into an image the size of a postage stamp and to retreat down a long driveway, through a border of dense, unfamiliar trees, into a hidden place, tucked away like the afterlife of a moderately well-off woman who had died without family. I didn’t think to ask Sheila how she knew about the auction, or why she’d made it her business.
‘What about Jeffrey?’ I asked.
‘Jeffrey? I don’t know.’
My parents had become attached to Jeffrey by then, to his plumy tail circulating through the house. They’d been letting him sleep on the foot of their bed at night.
‘Who gets to keep Jeffrey?’ I said again.
‘I don’t know, ask the neighbours, I don’t know where he went.’
I said nothing, because Jeffrey was not really an asset. Was he? And keeping him was not like stealing. But I did not like Sheila’s tone, or what she was saying, or the sighing under her words that made it clear how sad she found this whole thing, by which I mean she lamented the waste of Desiree’s property in a time when those who’d helped her could have used a little help in turn. Didn’t I feel the same? Having handled the silver, having dusted the pottery, having touched the linens, nice linens, Desiree always had nice linens. All for nothing. All going to somebody who didn’t even know her, and hadn’t cared about her. Not like we did. It wasn’t, Sheila implied, about the money. But it would have been nice to have a few things to remember Desiree by. After all that time spent in the house. After all of that time spent helping her, in so many ways.
‘So I just wondered, you know,’ Sheila said. ‘The auction got me wondering if there was anything from the house that you ended up with that Desiree might have wanted us to share.’
‘I didn’t even get my quilt back,’ I said, feeling shocked. ‘It was on the couch.’
‘That’s a shame,’ said Sheila, backpedalling slightly. ‘I didn’t realize.’
You can’t always know in advance who will fall into feelings of entitlement, after a death. But there’s always someone.
She sighed again. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘Do you want to go to the preview together?’
I told her I was working an awful lot.
‘If I see anything that might be yours, I’ll call you,’ she said, but I didn’t hear from her again.
Sometimes I’m still so angry with Desiree that I’m momentarily satisfied, even momentarily glad that she’s dead. I mean, what did she expect?
And why did she get a renter? She wasn’t broke. There was a lot of money in that emergency envelope for Jeffrey. I know this because when I took the phone from it’s cradle that day I also took the envelope with his name on it.
I had no idea there would be that much – two thousand dollars, in hundred-dollar bills – and if I had, I wouldn’t have touched it. But I took the envelope and slid it into the cat carrier, awkwardly, after I called the police, while sitting there on the wet sidewalk. I argue with myself now that I didn’t know who would take the cat, or what would happen next, and Desiree had explicitly asked me to look after him if something happened . . . taking the envelope was just an impulsive action in the moment, like a reflex. Like taking the cordless phone. I was in shock, I was panicked and trying to look at anything other than the curtains, the birds, the chair. If I had stepped forward I’d have seen – what? I told a therapist that I have wondered since then whether what I see in my imaginings is worse than what I didn’t see. Probably not, she said. It’s okay that you didn’t look.
I didn’t tell her about the money. I didn’t tell anybody. I waited for a next of kin. I was going to give them, whoever turned up, all of it, the cat, the carrier, the envelope of money, stained and wrinkled from when Jeffrey peed on it. But Desiree had no next of kin, no children, no siblings, only a dead ex-husband and her own parents were of course long gone. So I did nothing.
I stayed with my parents for well over a year. My father, it turned out, had no sympathy for Desiree.
‘It wasn’t your job to stay with her all the time,’ he said. ‘She wasn’t your family. And she wasn’t your friend. A friend would not put you in that position. You leave to go see your own family – on your birthday –’
There were times when he almost choked with moral outrage on my behalf.
‘She was lonely,’ I said. ‘And she was sad.’
‘Everyone’s lonely!’ he said. ‘Everyone’s sad! I’m not surprised she didn’t have anybody else, if that’s how she treated the people who were nice to her.’
My choices were to defend her – even though I was upset with her myself – and continue to argue with my father, or to agree with him. To make him happy, I agreed with him. And I told him something I’d never told anyone before.
After she got back from those three days in the hospital, she needed her pills, and asked me to get them for her. They were sitting on her bureau, she said, but in her room I found so many prescriptions lined up that I had to ask her again what she needed, and then look at all the labels to find the right one. I reached out to move a few odds and ends out of the way, a hairbrush, some magazines, and my eye fell on a black plastic rectangular container, with a white label pasted on top. Victor Nakamishi, it said. DOB 8/27/1924 – DOD 10/14/1987. Cedars Mortuary. Just sitting there. I stood with a pill bottle in each hand, and I thought, What a horrible person she is.
‘She didn’t even get him an urn,’ I said. ‘Can you imagine?’
I wanted my father to react with scorn. In that moment I wanted him to be dismissive of her, and to push me to be dismissive, too. But instead he turned his head to look at my mother, as she was unloading the dishwasher in the kitchen, and he watched her, without speaking, for a long, uncomfortable minute.
‘Just so you know, your mother and I already have plots,’ he said finally. ‘All the information is in the safety deposit box.’
A few months later I opened the envelope and counted the money again. There were ways to rationalize it – that this was my rent, returned to me; that it was repayment for the trauma; that Jeffrey would be well looked after for the rest of his days in any case. There were no heirs to miss the money, and it was therefore not a crime. I added it to what I’d been able to save while living with my folks, and I moved to San Francisco.
I have stayed angry enough with Desiree to feel okay about this.
But I take back what I said: I am never glad that she’s dead.
Photograph by eosmaia