Sarah Haufrect
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Problems of Living

    Edith should have known something was the matter. She awoke to her dog persistently barking, roughing up the sheets before jumping down off the bed, the faint pitter-patter of Valentine’s nails chipping away at the last blissful moments of sleep. Those claws needed a trim, but getting to the vet was a project and Edith didn’t have the strength anymore to hold her down without help. Refusing to move her head from the pillow, Edith heard Valentine pawing fiercely at the glass of the sliding door that looked out onto the backyard, and if the chitter of nails against the wood flooring hadn’t fully roused her, this would have done the trick. Unable to fall back asleep, she reached out for her glasses to see what had riled up the gosh darn dog so much. That's when she saw her roommate's body. Jill was face down in the backyard, barefoot, her body loosely curled on the concrete patio. At least there’s no blood this time, Edith thought. Not that she could see anyway. 

    Getting out of bed didn’t come easy anymore, hadn’t for a long time. Could she manage it alone? Her caretaker Monica should have arrived already, would arrive any minute, bringing in the paper along with a coffee, maybe even a pink box with a half-dozen plus an apple fritter. That would make Valentine so happy. She always licked at Monica’s legs during the hot months when she might arrive wearing shorts, but Edith came ready with pieces of fruit from her favorite donut as a distraction. This was Edith and Monica’s bond. Then Monica went about each morning to help Edith prop her old sagging body higher up on the mattress, before swinging her legs around to hang on the side of the bed. Her legs couldn’t reach the ground. At one point they may have before the slow shortening of her spine, but it had been decades.

    Now Edith had to wait, to watch little Valentine suffer, scratching and panting. The glass on the door might get damaged from her razor-like nails and then she’d have to bother Wade, her unofficial handyman. And that would be a whole other ordeal. Even if her roommate could, in fact, be dead by the looks of it, she knew it wasn’t likely. No, not likely at all. But from this distance, Edith couldn’t tell if Jill was breathing. Her body rested too far out on the patio. Edith didn’t know Jill terribly well, but in a very short time, six months give or take, she’d figured out that Jill liked to entertain death, to sit with it, to dine with it, and to ask it questions like a guest at a party and then bid death farewell and send it on its way until next time.

    The last time Jill flirted with death, a month or so ago, Edith dialed 9-1-1 immediately while Monica searched for a pulse, and in the time it took for the operator to get the required information to send an ambulance and for the paramedics to arrive with sirens blaring down the street ten minutes later, infuriating every dog in the neighborhood, Jill had already come to, snarling at Edith when she said the paramedics had arrived to help, like she’d been ratted out, practically throwing Edith’s small first-aid kit at the uniformed men when they walked through the door. Monica swept up the remnants of an empty bottle of tequila and scurried away in tears like she’d done something wrong. Jill apologized later when the booze and whatever else had left her system, but Edith wasn’t going to make that mistake again until she’d run out of other options. She could try her daughter this time, but she never answered the phone, and she didn’t want to call with bad news again, especially something like this. No one, not other women, not even women with troubles of their own, took much pity on a woman felled repeatedly by her own inner weaknesses and not the weaknesses of others.

    Edith reached for the handset of the telephone resting on the pillow beside her and dialed the large square buttons on the cradle. It 
took a few rings before Monica answered.

    “Hi, Edith,” Monica said, her voice crackling and hollow, probably on speakerphone. 

    “Darling, how are you this morning?” Edith asked. No need to ruin Monica’s morning right this second with news of her roommate’s fall. What if hearing the news about Jill startled Monica so much that she caused a car accident? Best to put it off just for the moment.

    “Oh fine. Pulling into the lot at Donut King. Bit of a late start. What’s the matter?” she said. Edith only called when something was the matter, but she didn’t appreciate Monica pointing this out so plainly. And if Monica was just parking now, she may have to wait in a line, then pay, then face the city’s relentless morning traffic. It could be ten whole minutes, even more, before she arrived. She should have let her know she would be so late. Edith never found patience to come naturally. She wanted to scold Monica for letting her down.

    Edith’s lips moved without sound other than the soft click her tongue made against the top of her mouth but kept the words she wanted to say inside her. She paused, ground her teeth together and finally responded.

    “Well, that’s fine, dear. I’ll see you soon.”

    She hung up the phone. Also, they were probably out of apple fritters by now. 

    Edith reached her hands underneath the covers and made sure her nightgown wouldn’t get caught on anything, wouldn’t snag on a book or something she’d forgotten to clean up underneath the sheets. And for these very situations Monica had given her a cane that leaned against her bedside. It was dark purple with a multi-colored flower pattern, tacky, garish even, but Edith hadn’t hired the girl for her taste. She was such a sweet, thoughtful girl with what sounded to Edith like a nice little life thirty miles outside Los Angeles where mortgages still came cheap and a family to return to each night. The gas alone must be costing her a fortune, but Edith scrimped on the little things so she could afford more important things and she paid the girl twice the minimum wage along with a Christmas bonus.

    Some girls have all the luck, don’t they? Monica had youth, beauty, a husband to help pay the bills, and a boss like Edith, one who treated her with respect and gave her more than a fair wage. Edith tried not to remind her of this good fortune, but when Monica ignored her chores to send those silly texting messages with her impossibly little handheld phone that cost God knows what while she let Edith’s clothes fresh from the dryer sit in the cold air and wrinkle, Edith bristled and often lost her temper.

    Edith had never been good at hiding her feelings. Or rather, Edith’s feelings never felt small enough that they could be contained in a body that had become so withered and feeble. 

    Edith reached for the cane. What a wonder that such a slender, weightless piece of metal could carry so much of her old bulk, but it did. She wriggled her lower half to the sloped edge of the mattress. Her belly felt like a sand-filled balloon as it fell downward with a jiggling slump. Her feet hit the floor and her arms were shaky as she steadied herself. She leaned, letting gravity work its magic again. And when the leaning buckled her hip bone, she shuffled her feet as high as she could lift them. She thought about words a lot more and how there were so many ways to use the same words to mean different things. How high her feet could go, a high from smoking joints, her joints really hurt. Word association. She did that lately. It gave her mind something to do instead of wander to the places it shouldn’t go.

    She reached out to grab the arm of her motorized wheelchair near where Valentine had plunked her fluffy body down to scratch her ear with her back paw. The wheels had been locked into place and it held her up as she steadied herself on it, letting her cane drop to the floor. She couldn’t remember the last time she had done this entirely on her own and she felt victorious.

    For a moment she was almost glad that Jill had passed out in the backyard because she craved this feeling of accomplishment. But, of course, she didn’t want harm to come to her roommate. Because then, Edith would need to find another one, and what a hassle that would be. Jill would most likely be fine, at least as fine as Jill could be, and now she could get to her. She settled herself in and unlocked the wheels on her chair and turned on the motor. 

    How on earth did her roommate ever get from the front of the house and into the backyard in that condition, anyway? It seemed to Edith like quite a journey since the room where Jill slept, the farthest room in the whole house from the yard, lay down a long hallway that barely fit her wheelchair and made her sad. All that extra house had only brought more trouble. She thought it might be different with Jill. Oh, well. 

    Edith loved the home she and Roy bought back in 1968 as a small ranch house with two bedrooms and one bathroom, before all the changes made it something else entirely. But by the time their daughter turned a year old, Roy couldn’t take the crying any longer. “If that little girl keeps carrying on during the night,” he'd said. “I’m gonna make sure she’s far enough away that I can’t hear her.”

    These words still haunted Edith as if the additional hallway, bath, and bedroom had absorbed Roy’s feelings on a structural level. Edith knew Roy wasn’t going to make a good father because he’d been a lousy husband, even in the early years, but he was a damn good carpenter and he provided. He’d get home from working on someone else’s house, eat dinner and start back on his own home until bed. Roy liked quiet over conversation which never suited Edith well. And one day nine years later, he left to work on someone else’s home and never came back. Edith had left his dinner on a plate in the kitchen, covered by a paper towel for three days—she planned to throw it at him when he finally returned—before she tossed it in the dumpster and opened up the Yellow Pages to find a lawyer. Now all she had was this damned house and an unconscious roommate.

    She propelled herself towards the sliding door. A wet smudge appeared on the glass where her dog’s little nose had squashed up against it. Edith couldn’t lean too far out of her chair to touch the glass with anything but her fingers and feet. She huffed to see if her breath could reach the glass. It’s the little things like that, the boundaries she faced when trying to perform insignificant motions that drove her crazy. She couldn’t reach the back shelves in the freezer. She couldn’t drink from a drinking fountain. She could barely touch herself for pleasure. She couldn’t even get close enough to a sliding glass door to make it fog up with the heat of her own breath. At least she could still light up a cigarette, and boy, could she go for one now, though she tried to wait until at least noon on weekdays.

    She looked long and hard at Jill’s body through the window. The way she slumped down on the ground resembled a puppet dropped from its strings. One side of her face resting on the pavement had swollen, bloated and wide. Edith wished she could slide open the door and head straight out there, but the floor was so low that the wheels of her chair wouldn’t make it carrying all those extra pounds she’d gained over the years. If she tried to hop it like those drivers at the monster truck rallies on TV, she would fly right out onto the pavement. Edith laughed thinking of that scene. Two old ladies flat on their faces, broken-boned and barefoot. Her daughter would really laugh then. Maybe Edith could call her today when she had this whole mess cleaned up and it would be a story of victory. Maybe leave her a message. No. Don’t be silly. Her daughter would see right through that.

    Edith poked at her seat controls, the chair’s mechanical whir filling her ears as she started to move. The path from her bedroom to the kitchen, first through the sitting room and into the parlor before making a sharp left to the dining room, felt perilous without Monica following closely behind, but she needed to get down the ramp Wade had constructed, bless his heart, to see up close what terrible thing had become of Jill.

    Edith kept trying to reason out what on earth had happened. Considering Jill was always dithering about with a frantic persona— ping-ponging around the room as she spoke, fixing this and that, squaring off coasters on tables, looking for some unnamed thing she claimed to have lost— Edith concluded she’d tripped, simple as that. Sure. And Edith suspected that Jill’s busybody nature, in addition to keeping her thin, functioned as good cover for the habits Jill didn’t want others to notice.

    When, however, Jill came to a standstill and her wholeness no longer blurred, Edith noticed changes in Jill’s appearance, wounds. She could spot the bruises and cuts, the little latex cream-colored tabs sneaking out from under Jill’s shirtsleeve or the edge of her ankle sock. Edith has noticed this the very first Sunday they spent together.

    “Honey, you’re bleeding,” Edith had said.

    When Jill had leaned against the kitchen counter, minding a pot of coffee gurgling away, a tiny red dot seeped up through her pink polo shirt near the armpit. 

    “Bad bug bite,” Jill had said. “Last night I was scratching the hell out of it. You ought to call an exterminator.”

    And Edith went on to catch sight of blood on her roommate’s body over and over. Jill used the bug excuse until Edith paid Wade to spray everything down. Then Jill started coming up with new reasons, her clumsiness, her thin skin, a bad run-in with some pruning shears at the gardens where she was a volunteer. But there’d been blood spots on the back of one of her turtlenecks and below the thigh of a pair of denim jeans. Jill did laundry often. Took lots of showers. It never stopped.

    Edith asked Jill once why she hadn't stayed with other family, with children.

    "I had a daughter," Jill had said, "but not anymore."

    Hearing this, Edith decided to leave well-enough alone. She resisted her usual urge to pry. If asked, Edith most certainly wouldn’t want to answer questions about her own daughter and why she never came to visit. The answers felt so far away. Instead, she shared something about herself with Jill, something she had never shared with anyone in her entire life. 

    “You know,” Edith continued, “if you ever want to talk to someone, there’s a place just around the corner, the long brick building with the blue roof. I went there when I was having a hard time.”

    She didn’t want to tell her the name of the facility because she found it intimidating: The Benjamin Rush Center for Problems of Living. She didn’t want Jill to be insulted and the sign wasn’t located on the front of the building but on the side. So maybe she wouldn’t see it if she walked in the front. “It’s a good place,” Edith told her. “They don’t give you a bunch of pills that make things blurry like doctors. The people want to be helpful. You can go a few times and they don’t even bill you.” 

    The center had been open when Edith and Roy moved to the neighborhood and she figured it would long outlast her because, just like the big foreboding name said, living always came with problems, no matter who you were or where you came from. 

    These days when Monica drove Edith to the pharmacy or the market and took her by the center, she couldn’t help but look out the passenger-side window at people sleeping on the corner in tents. She tried not to stare but it simply broke her heart, so Edith would shut her eyes and whisper a prayer to St. Benedict to watch over them. With Jill taking the front bedroom and Wade keeping his trailer in the driveway because he was just always here, Edith felt like she was doing her part saving them from that street corner as long as they paid their meager rent on time. Maybe her daughter would never understand, but God Almighty sure would.

    She kept a sitting room outside her own bedroom filled with all of her keepsakes, her daughter’s childhood dolls, her wedding photos (Roy be damned, but she looked so pretty in that dress, and he wasn’t going to take that from her), the Native American headdresses from the New Mexico trips with her Church, the old Remington typewriter that her boss let her take home when she retired since they were all taking up space in the storage room when the computers replaced them. The couch was covered in sheer plastic because there was never anyone siting in the sitting room.

    As her chair moved through the room, she put out her hand, letting a finger run across the front of the couch to hear the crinkling, leathery whisper of the plastic, which reminded her of the sound the body bags made on all those detective shows on TV. Was Edith about to walk into a crime scene, like a detective? She liked that idea, but she couldn’t very well actually walk into anything anymore, not with these rickety unused legs. 

    She drove her chair to the parlor room, where Edith’s prodigious collection of houseplants did most of the living. Jill had claimed she liked gardening and had even volunteered at a local arboretum, pulling weeds and trimming dead branches. Jill always said getting involved somewhere was important, too.

    “To meet people, make friends,” Jill had said.

    She would leave the house early on Thursday and Saturday mornings and be gone all day. Sometimes she’d brought home flowers freshly picked, small boxes of herbs and one time a bag of crab apples. She’d never brought home any friends. 

    Valentine wiggled past her wheelchair, and she swiped at her little butt.
    “This is all your fault,” she said.

    If only Valentine hadn’t immediately warmed up to Jill. The minute she’d walked in the door, Valentine went belly up, tail wagging away, when Jill crouched down and scratched behind her ears. The smile from that strange woman, at that moment, Edith had thought, was bright as a light bulb.

    “She never rolls over for strangers.”

    “Funny,” Jill had said, sitting down to pet the dog and pretzeling her legs, putting Valentine’s head in her lap. “Neither do I.”

    Looking at Jill’s body now Edith knew just what to do. She plucked a few leaves off her spider plants and set them down in her lap. Edith maneuvered around the dining-room table and looked out the window for Monica’s minivan, but it was still just Wade’s trailer in the driveway. She made it into the kitchen, rumbling onto the linoleum and saw the back door at the end of the narrow galley was wide open. That made sense given what she knew and what she expected to find outside. The sight of it, though, the big bright rectangle letting in the bleak morning, the sky hitting the half-green grass at the edge of the patio and past it all Jill’s skinny leg jutting into view, made the reality of it hit her. It finally hit her like a smack to her face: if something bad were to happen, Edith paid the only person who would care, and Monica couldn’t even show up on time when she really needed her. 

    Edith paused her forward movement and grabbed her lighter and the pack of Marlboro Lights off the kitchen table and lit one up, took a long drag off it, then headed out the back. 

    The outdoor ramp was rickety but still held up. She motored over to her roommate’s body and gave her a long look. Edith took one of the stringy dead leaves she’d plucked in the sitting room and tried to use it like a long feather to tickle her feet, but it couldn’t reach. So, Edith stretched out her arm holding the slender brown leaf that had let her down as a tickling instrument, and dropped it, watched it float down and touch one of the toes on Jill’s bare left foot. Nothing.  

    “Yoo-hoo,” she said softly. And then a little louder, “Jill baby, are you still in there?” 

    In the morning brightness it was hard to tell whether Jill’s right foot was covered with small slender scars or merely the wrinkles that come with time. Edith put her chair in reverse momentarily, and then circled around to where Jill’s left arm and hand were splayed on the ground. 

    For a split second, Edith had a terrible thought. She made this whole brave journey for nothing. She couldn’t save her roommate. If Jill was still alive it would only last until the next time and the time after that. Jill had never taken Edith’s advice to talk to someone at the Benjamin Rush Center for Problems of Living, or if she had, she’d never told her or said a word of thanks. Edith felt robbed of something akin to dignity and a fury rose up inside her. Edith hated, more than anything on God’s green earth, to feel powerless. So, she did the only thing left she could think of. 

    She put the controls in reverse and then floored it, taking her chair and all of her weight she rolled right over one of her roommate’s fingers to see if it would break. The instant her wheelchair ran over Jill’s finger she hoped to hear a piercing scream, but there was nothing, only silence.

    In the screen door’s reflection, she saw Valentine staring her down from the outdoor ramp as if she’d seen what Edith had done. A shiver ran through her body like a bolt of electricity. Valentine would forgive her, must forgive her this sin, because dogs understood shame, they always knew when something was the matter. 

    She should go back inside and call an ambulance. She knew it with every aching bone and joint in her body, but she couldn’t tear herself away now. She couldn’t leave Jill’s side. She remained frozen in the spot where her worst behaviors had clawed their way back. The worst version of herself had reentered the world and now Edith had to keep watch over her too. She had to stay right there, smoking in silence, helpless. It was the only thing her body could do. 

    She heard the distinct sound of a keychain as it chimed and splashed on the side table by the front door.
    “Edith! I got the very last apple fritter,” Monica called out, the timbre of her voice like music, the front door slamming triumphantly, “like they were saving it just for you.” 

    Edith wanted more than anything to be limber again, to sit on the floor, to cradle Jill’s head and scratch behind Jill’s ear, to hold her in her lap like Jill had done with Valentine that first day she walked through the door, just like a fallen angel.

    She wanted to go back to church. She felt the urge to call her daughter and say she was sorry, so sorry, for the way she had blamed her for everything. She wanted to call Roy, that sorry fucker of a husband, and tell him that he was forgiven and even though he was six feet underground or burned down to ash that he could come home now. Right this instant.

    She needed to bring someone flowers. She’d cut them herself from her own garden with her own two hands. She’d bring everyone flowers herself. Everyone.

    She wanted to give and give and give and never stop.

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Sarah Haufrect was born and raised in Los Angeles, but when she tells people this and they don’t believe her, she takes it as the highest compliment. Her writing has been published by Berkeley Poetry ReviewInvisible CityL’Esprit Literary ReviewMade in L.A. Vol. 5Pigeon PagesPsychology Today, and Salon, among others. Her essays, stories, poems and other creative work can be found at