How Do You Do, by Christine Schutt

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From the 2022 edition of the literary annual NOON, which will be published this month.

The four-poster double bed from the redbrick house took up most of the new bedroom, and Mother took up most of the old bed, lying across it, loose and lascivious. I had to press against the wall to get around to the far side of the bed for my own space from which to visit her. Another woman sat in a club chair I didn’t recognize, but which took up the other side. We were introduced. She was a new friend, a new admirer of Mother’s—I should have been paying attention, but I was flummoxed to think the bed, the chair, the dresser were all that was left of the old house I grew up in. Also, more to the point, I didn’t like Mother’s ardent new acquaintances.

I liked the old friends, the courtesy aunts of our youth, but my brother had told me they didn’t come around anymore, or rarely. This new woman, Ann, I think, was visibly disappointed by my intrusion; because of me, whatever intimacy that might have caught fire at Mother’s bedside was extinguished.

Two o’clock in the afternoon and Mother half-dressed for something dressy: a drapey navy blouse, unbuttoned, and navy hose that smudged her sex and made her long legs look dirty.

All of her attention was on me.

“What are you wearing?” she asked.

Ann stood up and introduced herself. This time I heard the name, surely a nickname, Zan.

Mother looked to Zan and then to me again, all the while touching herself lightly until I pulled the sheet over her legs.

“What?”

“You look as if you were dressing to go out,” I said.

“What?”

“The pretty blouse, nylons. Were you going out?”

Mother looked at Zan. “Were we?” she asked, and she made deliberate laughing sounds, but she was not exactly laughing, which confused Zan—and me. After a while, Mother said, yes, they had thought about it, lunch, but I already knew what lunch meant, a restaurant somewhere with a bar.

Would Mother drink in front of Zan? How much did Zan know?

I let Mother drink every time. I’d do so again.

“You don’t look too mobile,” I said to her.

She said, “I’m not. I’ve had a fright. Something’s happening to me”—a familiar phrase auguring ill. “I can’t read anymore.” She appeared astonished. She said, “Literally. I literally cannot read a page. I can make out the letters, but the sentences make no sense, the page is a kind of blank to me, and I love to read.” She said, “Zan will tell you. She’s had to read to me!” Mother clenched and unclenched her hands.

“I have no memory of what happened yesterday or the year before. It’s as if the back door to where the old events are stored is shut to me. I’m locked out of everything that’s happened.” She went on with her kind of hand-wringing, pulling on her crooked digits.

I hadn’t seen her in months. I had only just arrived and gone from airport to hotel to here, her new home. My brother had found it, this room with a bathroom and somewhere a closet. Ivy Manor, so-called, semi-independent living in a building attached to a nursing part by an underground chute, or so Ted had described it. Here the unable old were simply scrolled into pneumatic tubes that hurtled toward a room with furnishings on casters.

Mother had grown up in a house with a library, but perhaps she had forgotten as much.

“Maybe the books you’re trying to read are just bad?” I suggested.

She frowned, and from under the sheet she brought out a romance novel with Cardinal Wolsey and a philandering husband, debt and danger.

“The heroine triumphs, I assume.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“A lot of characters, I bet.”

“Impossible,” she said. “Zan finds it hard to read, too. Don’t you?”

Zan appeared uncertain.

Mother said, “At least Zan can read, but the sentences are long and it’s easy to lose track . . . ”

“I’m not so bad.”

“You’re not,” Mother said. “I’m the one. The marks on the page make as much sense as mouse poop to me. And I drift off.”

“We’ve tried,” Zan said, “but things come up, don’t they?”

Mother looked at me and asked was I going anywhere, and I saw I had not taken off my coat, and I felt compelled to explain I had only just arrived, bags at the hotel, room not ready.

“Remember the way I came in? I’m grimy!” I said—too vehement. Mother was alarmed, which annoyed Zan, who pointed to a door I had taken for a closet.

“Sal’s got a nice bathroom,” Zan said.

“How do you know?” Mother asked. “And don’t call me Sal, please.”

The Zans in Mother’s life learned to give way to her—accepted the charges or else called my brother. They knew where the keys were kept and the overnight suitcase; they knew what to pack for whatever came next. A list of her meds and emergency numbers, her address book and calendar. Her end-of-life directives.

But this Zan was a new acquaintance.

This Zan had yet to learn my mother expected formality even if she was fingering her twat.

Zan looked at her lap, embarrassed.

“About your reading problem,” I said to Mother.

She said, “There isn’t a cure.”

She said my room was probably ready by now, and I should go back to the hotel, unpack, and bathe. “You’ll feel better. Order room service. The food’s not very good here.”

Zan offered to drop me off on her way home, and I accepted the ride.

“Out of your way, isn’t it?” Mother asked.

“Not so much,” Zan said, but when she asked about their next date, Mother looked at me, and in the most unfriendly voice said, “My daughter is here.”

I felt sorry for Zan then, but not so much as to be particularly friendly.

That night I lay on a bed as big as the room I was in, and I thought of where my mother lay on an equally large bed in an even smaller room where she said it harshly again and again—My daughter is here. My daughter is here.

Years after her death, I still feel sorry for myself, but not so much as to be particularly consoled.


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