Caretaking

Winsome gets off the three train at Saratoga and Livonia, already late. Walking quickly past the dilapidated public park already filled with crackheads at this early hour, she ignores truant teenagers playing handball, and heads for the nearest bodega. Standing in front of the wire rack of snacks, she looks with eyes askance at the rows of cheese curls, corn chips, and pretzels. Despite the recent warnings of Mrs. McAllister’s niece, Winsome contemplates the prohibited snacks. Bristling now, thinking of the niece, Winsome grabs four bags embossed with owls and throws a dollar onto the counter to procure the forbidden bounty.

The niece had arrived unannounced, on a rare visit, just after Winsome had opened a bag for Mrs. McAllister. The young woman had walked into the apartment looking like so many of the women Winsome saw getting off the subway in Manhattan, dressed in business suits with socks and sneakers, heading for offices where they traded their Nikes for dark pumps. Women with degrees, not certificates. Winsome sensed the hurry in her, catching it in the way she’d stared above Mrs. McAllister’s head at the clock on the wall and glanced a kiss across her aunt’s cheek, lips barely touching skin. The niece saw the chips and snatched the bag away, slapping her aunt’s hand as if she was a naughty child.

“Winsome, please don’t give her any more of this junk, even though she asks for it.”

Entering Mrs. McAllister’s apartment with her own key, Winsome steps lightly, as if in a museum, or a mausoleum. The stillness, broken only by the faint sounds coming from the TV in the back bedroom, touches something solemn in her.

Winsome demurred, making no promises, seeing little harm. Mrs. McAllister always reimbursed her. If the niece was that concerned, let her visit her aunt more often. If Winsome had wanted to be that responsible, she would have become a schoolteacher. Her mother wants her to — thinks she will change her mind after another year of bedpans and walkers — but Winsome doesn’t like children enough to be with them all day. They are too dirty, nasty and sticky for her. She despises their propensity to stick their fingers into things, especially their noses. She prefers being a home attendant, taking care of the old and infirm who make fewer demands. She has no desire to educate the future leaders of the world.

Ernest meets her on the corner of Riverdale and Amboy in front of his uncle’s Laundromat.

“You late.” He unhooks his change belt and hands it to another man inside.

“The woman can hardly get out of the bed. Where she going?”

“Be nice,” he says, falling into step with her.

As they walk the remaining two blocks to Mrs. McAllister’s apartment, he casually maneuvers her so that he is closest to the curb. Winsome pretends not to notice, but it is part of what makes her prefer him.

Entering Mrs. McAllister’s apartment with her own key, Winsome steps lightly, as if in a museum, or a mausoleum. The stillness, broken only by the faint sounds coming from the TV in the back bedroom, touches something solemn in her.

“It’s Winsome, ma’am,” she calls out, leading Ernest by the hand into the living room, where she peels off her coat and drops it on the hi-riser.

He whispers, “What if she comes out?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll hear her.” Mrs. McAllister never came as far as the kitchen, and she couldn’t help but make noise. Walking was difficult for the old woman since the stroke. It took Mrs. McAllister a full ten minutes to make it down the hallway to the bathroom, her dead foot dragging along while she walk-limped.

Lying on a queen-sized bed, naked except for a blanket draped over and tucked under one arm, toga-like, Mrs. McAllister is nearly motionless. With the television positioned directly in front of her, she stares into the screen. For the entire four hours Winsome is with her each day, Mrs. McAllister will remain that way, moving only to use the bathroom or switch movies out of the VCR.

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