MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

One Thousand Words

Mary J. Breen

Agatha didn’t recognize the woman standing on her front porch in a Blue Jays ball cap and sunglasses.

“Hi, Agatha! I’m Millie Naylor.” Her voice was loud and cheery. “I live down at the end of the street, and Carol,” she motioned towards the house next door, “she told me your name.”

Agatha stared at her, her slippered foot propping open the screen door.

“Well, anyways,” Millie went on, “our minister said that we should sometimes reach out to strangers, so I thought I’d just drop in and see how you are.”

“I’m fine. Thank you very much.” Agatha took a step back and the screen snapped shut.

“Wait, wait,” Millie said. “I know we can’t be too careful, but I’m not selling anything. In fact I brought you something—a little present.” She lifted her tote bag to show that it held something heavy.

“I guess you’d better come in then. I like to keep these doors shut. Keeps out the heat.”

Agatha made room for Millie to step past her into the hall. She double-locked the wooden door, and turned back to find Millie holding a huge pink candle with both hands. Agatha took it without a word, and shuffled down the hall towards the kitchen. Millie watched her set it on the table beside the ketchup, and then turn back holding a large brown mug. “I was just having my tea. Charles and I always have some midmorning, winter or summer. Some people say not to have hot drinks on a hot day, but I find—I suppose you’d like some too.”

“Well, yes, thanks. I’d like that very much.” This was exactly what Millie had in mind: a little chat so she could find out if Agatha would like a regular visitor from the church. Millie called after her, “It’s gonna look grand on your table, that candle.”

“Sit down on the couch in there, and I’ll bring another mug.”

The living room was so dark that Millie thought it best to wait in the hall until Agatha returned. Beside her on the wall was a framed black and white photo. It appeared to be an ordinary aerial view of a farm—a house, some trees, a barn, outbuildings, and a plowed field—until she noticed that there seemed to be circles drawn in the freshly tilled earth. Agatha was back with two mugs. Millie pointed to the circles. “What are these? Those, you know, crop circles you hear about?”

“No, no. This is something different. I can tell you about it,” Agatha said. She handed Millie a mug, switched on a dim table light in the corner, and trudged over to a worn red plaid recliner. Millie followed her past the coffee table to a spot at the end of the couch. On the table between them was a tarnished aluminum tray holding an old teapot, milk and sugar, a spoon, and two cookies.

“Charles and I have tea in here every morning.”

“That’s very nice,” Millie said. She checked her watch. “I’ll have to leave by about eleven to get to my doctor’s appointment, so, yes, tell me about that picture.” She smiled brightly, determined to look interested.

Agatha sat forward, refilled her cup, and then signalled Millie to hold out hers. The tea was as dark as coffee. As if reading Millie´s mind, Agatha said, “Been brewing a while.” She took a cookie and offered Millie the other.

“Oatmeal?" Millie said. "Lovely. My favourite.”

“Mother’s recipe, but less butter. Charles and I have to be careful.”

“Well, yes, shouldn’t we all?” Millie took a sip, winced, and took a quick bite of her cookie. “Well, um, nice little house you have, Agatha. How long’ve you and your husband been here?”

“My husband?” Agatha frowned. “Oh, you mean Charles. He’s not my husband; he’s my brother.”

“Oh, I see.” Millie looked about. “And Charles, is he retired too?”

“No, no. Charles never worked. He’s just down visiting our sister.” She took a sip of tea. “That picture you were looking at. Mother used to have it hanging in her front hall, and now Charles likes having it in ours, can’t think why. Mother wanted everyone to ask about it, and if they didn’t, she told them anyway.”

The room was hot and breathless, the smell of stale cigarette smoke overlaid with an odd, sweet cinnamon smell. The air-conditioner in the window broke the silence as it clicked on and then off before it did any good. And so there they sat: two frizzy-grey-haired women in too-tight tee shirts, too-tight fluorescent blue shorts, and thick white running shoes, one smiling brightly and the other staring ahead, chin up, ready for battle.

On the end table beside her was a limp African violet, and for an awful moment, Millie thought she was seeing a dead mouse lying behind it, but it was just a leaf, dusty and crumpled with its outstretched stem behind it. She smiled back at Agatha to apologize for her mistake, but Agatha was busy reaching up to switch on the floor lamp. The yellow light made her look more aggrieved.

“Ooh!” Millie suddenly winced. “Sorry. My sciatica again. It’s just killing me.” She hoisted herself up a little and grimaced. “Hurts like the devil, right down the back of my leg. That’s why I need to see the doctor.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Agatha said. She took another sip of tea. “I’ll tell you about that photograph now.” She stopped to take a deep breath and closed her eyes. Millie almost expected her to say, Once upon a time....

“It was May the 8th, 1972 at our farm down in The County, north of Bloomfield.” She stopped to take a sip of tea. “Lorraine and me, we were both married already, and Charles was staying with me here in Toronto. He’d been in art school, but—you see, our Charles is a very, very good artist. Very talented. Ever since he was a kid. Won lots of prizes in school. He’s still got a big folder of drawings up in his room, but he won’t let me hang any down here. I even got him some frames at the dollar store, but nope. Too shy. Which is silly as no one important ever comes here anyways.” She popped the last of her cookie into her mouth.

“Charles had decided that he was going to go to Art College, but there was no way Dad was going to pay for that! But then, lo and behold, he won a scholarship so that meant he could go there for free, and that was the he and the she of it. Nothing would do but he was going. Sid—he was my husband—and me were living out in Parkdale, so we said Charles could come and live with us, and go to his Art College if that’s what he wanted. Our flat had an extra room. Mother and Dad weren’t too happy about the whole thing, but there you are.”

“That was real nice of you to take him in, real charitable,” Millie jumped in, “but of course people did that kind of thing back then. Brought old parents to live with them rather than putting them in nursing homes.” It was a pleasure to have staunched the flow of Agatha’s raspy voice.

“Well, yes, and of course Charles was the only son and Mother’s favourite, so we all had to do what we could.”

“But still—” Millie heard a soft click, and the smell of fake cinnamon wafted by.

“Yes, my Sid was a kind person. But,” she paused and took a breath, “well, that very fall, Sid was killed. A fire at the varnish factory. November 15th. Closed casket. Only been married a year and a half.”

“Oh, you poor thing!” Millie said. The air conditioner switched on and then off again. Millie reached for her cap and flapped it in front of her face.

“Where was I?” Agatha said. “Right. Charles began going to his blessed Art College, but pretty soon, well, problems started. He was always high-strung, but before long he was just a bundle of nerves, worrying about every little thing. First he was afraid of getting lost, not finding the right classrooms and the right workshops. Then he started being sure his art wasn’t very good after all, especially after some idiot teacher gave a higher mark to a student who’d made a sculpture out of marshmallows instead of clay. Then his stomach started acting up. It might have helped if he’d made some friends there, but the other students were real different from him. Only friend he had was a young priest he’d met at our church, but then he was transferred to some place up north, and that seemed to make Charles worse.”

Millie jumped in. “Too bad there was no one for him to talk to, eh? Some kind of counsellor. They—”

“Nobody did that kind of thing back then. We all thought he just needed time to get used to things. Besides, Mother wouldn’t have allowed any strangers to get involved, that’s for sure. And she was right. We don’t need other people meddling in our family business.” She reached for the teapot and refilled her mug again without a glance towards Millie.

“I went there with him one time when he had to drop off some drawings to his teacher, and you should’ve seen those other students! Girls with dresses no better than nightgowns. And no brassieres. And the boys had long hair and headbands like Indians used to wear, and scruffy jeans with patches all over them. Some were even barefoot! All except for Charles. I always made sure he had a nice suit, and a shirt and tie.” She stopped to catch her breath.

“Times sure have changed,” Millie laughed. “Here I am traipsing around in shorts and a tee shirt! Not so many years ago I’d have worn a dress and nylons, July heat or not, especially if I was going to see the doctor!”

“Well, not back then we didn’t. Anyways, a few weeks later, Charles got a bad case of the flu, and after a week in bed, he was worrying about being behind in his schoolwork. And then,” she paused, “that’s when my Sid was killed, and of course I couldn’t help Charles just then, and that was the end of Art College for that term. And he never went back. To tell you the truth, I think he was relieved. So Charles and me, we just stayed on together while Mother kept on saying all he needed was a good rest. A couple years later, Mother gave us some of the money she’d got from selling the farm, and we bought this little house.” She took a deep breath. “Charles’s never gone much of anywhere since then.”

“Dear, dear. Poor lad,” Millie said. “It must have been hard on him to have no friends. Friends are so important. Ah,” she said quickly, “I wonder if you know about something called Secret Pals. You might like it; Charles might too! I’ve got a really good Pal this year, best one ever. There’s a group at St. Margaret’s you could join.” She rushed to explain that members each draw a name, and then send cards to their Secret Pals for every occasion throughout the year. “So far, I’ve got cards for Valentine’s, my birthday, get-well (when I broke my wrist), St. Patrick’s Day, sympathy (when Buster my parakeet died), Easter, even Mother’s Day, even though I don’t have kids. That one said, You’ve been like a mother to me, which I thought was very nice.” She continued counting them off on her fingers. “I’ll bet she doesn’t forget Friendship Day or Thanksgiving either, and of course Christmas. Makes me feel real good getting these cards, being remembered.”

“I see,” Agatha said. “Well, back to that picture. It was a nice spring day, and Dad was out cultivating. Twelve o’clock noon came, and he was due back for his dinner.”

Millie thought Agatha could at least show some polite interest in the Secret Pals.

“So, when Dad didn’t come in and the biscuits were getting hard, Mother went off to find him.” She stopped to drain the last of the tea from the pot. Just then, the sound of Irish fiddlers started up, and Agatha quickly reached into the pocket of her shorts. For the first time, Millie saw her smile. “My phone. Charles put this on for me. Probably him. Calls me every single day. You wouldn’t believe the things he does for me.” She put the phone to her ear. “Hello.... Oh.... Yes, this is her.” Her voice turned louder and sharper. “Yes, I remember you. Do you want something?” She sat up straighter, her eyes narrowing. “No, Charles is not here. He’s away.... No, no, he’s fine. Nothing to worry about.” Agatha scowled as she held the phone out so Millie could hear how loud the caller’s voice was. “He’s out of town.” Agatha rolled her eyes. “I see. Leaving early, are you?... Tomorrow. I see.... Your cell phone number. OK.” She paused as if to get pen and paper. “Alright, go ahead.” She waited staring at her shoes and tapping the chair armrest while she listened to the number. “Right. Thank you very much.” She hung up and put the phone on the coffee table. “That was that Tara, the ridiculous girl who works at the corner store. She’s got a crush on Charles.”

Millie started to speak, and Agatha waved a dismissive hand. “I know what I´m doing so don´t bother saying anything. I’m protecting Charles from the likes of her. You know what she said just now? ‘Give him my love.’ She’s 22 and he’s 59! Charles doesn’t know this, but she’s already got a boyfriend. I saw her at the drugstore with a ratty-looking fellow with those disgusting tattoos down both his arms, kissing him, right there in front of the shampoos!” She sniffed. “They didn’t notice me. I was in there looking for the dandruff kind for Charles. He has a terrible problem with it. We tried—” She stopped. “Anyways, last week was the last straw. When Charles came home from buying his cigarettes—he never goes further than the corner store—he told me Miss Troublemaker had suggested they run away together. He was grinning away like a kid at Christmas. That’s when I called Lorraine and told her I was bringing him down for a visit.” Agatha yanked hard on her tee shirt, pulling it down over her stomach, and wriggled back into her recliner.

Millie dabbed at her brow with a Kleenex, and stayed quiet. The air conditioner clicked on and off.

“I’m not going to let that girl break his heart. Besides, he’s helping Lorraine pack so she can move into her new condo. She broke her arm during the winter, and it’s still not good.”

“The poor dear!” Millie said, glad of something else to talk about. “Breaks are so painful. When I broke my wrist I thought I’d—” She flexed it back and forth, checking that it still moved as it should.

“I met her, this Tara,” Agatha went on. “About a month ago. Face-to-face at Loblaw’s. We go there, Charles and me, around nine-thirty on a Saturday night to do our big food shop because that’s when there’s no crowds or anything. Sometimes Charles stays in the car, and sometimes he feels up to coming in with me. But that night, wouldn’t you know, she was there too, buying things for a party she was off to. Anyways, she spotted Charles standing by the freezer waiting for me to get us a couple frozen dinners.” She leaned forward to pass on her advice. “Always get the ones right at the bottom. They’re the best because they’re the coldest. Good shoppers know this kind of thing.”

Millie looked at her watch. “I really should—”

Agatha’s voice had taken on a scolding tone. “Those big open freezers—the ones like caskets—I can barely reach all the way to the bottom. Anyways, when I straightened up, there they were, Charles and her, talking away. Then this Tara started gushing on about how much she’d always wanted to meet me. I just said hello, and told her we had more shopping to do, but apparently Charles had told her what I was doing, because on the way home he told me Tara says I’m wrong, that the ones at the bottom may be the coldest, but they’re also the oldest because the stores don’t clear them out very often. She thinks she’s so smart, but we haven’t had a bad one yet.”

“You know, Agatha, I don’t know this girl, but maybe she’s just, don’t you think, being nice to Charles?”

“And when is leading someone on nice? Giving someone false hope?”

“Well, they probably just talk, you know. It sounds like he doesn’t get to chat with very many people. Except you, of course.”

Agatha drained her mug, and put it on the tray. “The whole problem with that girl began when Charles drew a picture of her. He’s especially good at drawing faces—you know—portraits. Every portrait he’s ever done makes the person look better than they do in real life. The pictures still look like the person, the same but happier somehow,” she paused to think, “like nothing bad ever happened to them.” A little light came into her eyes. “Charles did a very nice one of me years ago, a year or so after Sid was killed.” She smiled a sad smile. “I still have it. Anyways, there was a photograph of Tara in, you know, that local paper, the free one we all get; maybe you saw it. It was an article about the corner store where she works, how it looked in the 1920s, and the 1970s, and now. Charles decided to use it to do a very nice pencil sketch of her. I gather she was thrilled to death with it.”

“Ah, well,” Millie said, “I think it’s kinda sweet. Does he still draw a lot?”

Agatha’s head snapped up. “Charles is not simple, you know.” Millie started to protest, but Agatha went on. “He’s just, well, a bit tense. And vulnerable. That’s what his doctor said back when he first had his problems, you know, at the Art College. Vulnerable. That’s the right way to think about it. Easily hurt. So, we live together now, and I look after him, and he looks after me. We do perfectly fine. He’s such a great help; still gets things ready for our supper every single night, just like he did when I was working. The vegetables peeled in pots of water just waiting to be turned on. Chops all ready to go in the pan. Everything ready. Helps me with the dishes afterwards too. He still keeps the house nice and clean, and does the yard too. Back when I was working, he even made me a lunch every morning, handed it to me in a paper bag, all packed and ready as I headed out.” Agatha’s eyes were fixed on a point high up on the wall as if she were all alone in the room.

The Irish fiddlers started up again. Agatha grabbed for the phone. “Charles? Charles!” she shouted, as if she’d been awaiting the kidnapper’s call. “How are you, dear?” She reached up and patted her hair, and the tiny diamond of her ring briefly caught the light. “No, no. Just having a little visit with—um—Mollie, is it?” She looked up and Millie whispered Millie. “Oh yeah, Millie. So, how are you managing?... Oh, good, that’s good. Now don’t overdo things.... Tara?” The edge came back into her voice. “No, no she didn’t.... I see.... Moving to Barrie is she? Well, I guess she’ll be gone by the time you return.”

She gave Millie a pointed look. “So, what have you two been doing today?... A drawing of Sandy?” The edge returned. “Who’s Sandy?... Oh, I see. The cleaning woman’s little girl. I see.... Going to Picton are you? OK then, Charles, off you go, dear. Thanks for calling. Bye-bye.”

She stretched back so she could swing her legs up onto the footrest again. “I’m going to have him stay down there until next week. Lorraine’s happy to have him, and this Tara will forget all about him by then.” She took a deep breath. “Ever been down there to Prince Edward County?”

“No, I haven’t, but I just wanted to say that I think it’s nice that this girl is so friendly, and makes him feel wanted. Everybody needs to feel wanted.”

“I make him feel wanted!” Agatha said quickly, pushing herself up a little straighter. “We manage. Of course he couldn’t do without me.”

“You know, Agatha,” Millie sat forward, “maybe one of those therapists could help him, help him be less afraid. Or maybe there’s something he could take for it. My friend’s son started taking some new medication, and—”

Agatha broke in. “Don’t you worry about us. You don’t know him like I do. And besides, what good would it do? Just give him false hope. He’s happy, you know. He reads a lot. I get him books at the library, and every evening, I sit in this chair right here, and he sits right there where you are, and we watch TV together.” Her face softened. “Best thing of all is when we can pull the drapes and lock the door, and be on our own, just the two of us. Just us and nobody else.”

Millie dabbed at her brow again. “Agatha,” she said gently, “um, don’t you think ... I know I don’t know Charles, but, don’t you think maybe you don’t have to worry about Tara? I hope you don’t mind me saying, but she probably doesn’t want to marry an older man who can’t go further than the corner store. I think she’s just trying to be nice. We all deserve a few dreams.”

“Dreams! And when did they ever help?”

Millie edged herself towards the front of the couch and picked up her purse. “Well, I should be off, Agatha. Thanks for the tea.”

“I’ll just finish my story before you go,” Agatha said. “Where was I? Right. It was long past twelve, and Mother was off to find Dad when he didn’t show up for his dinner. So, when she got to the top of the little rise out back, she could see that he’d nearly finished the plowing. She saw the rows of straight furrows, and then she saw those circles cutting into them, wider and wider circles—those ones you were looking at. Mother soon realized that they could only have been made by Dad’s cultivator, and she could see that they trailed off into a little grove of old lilacs over by the road. That’s when she spotted a bit of red. At first she thought Dad had stopped to have a little nap, but when she got closer, she saw he’d driven right smack into the bushes, and there he was slumped over the wheel, hanging on for dear life. Except by then poor Dad was dead. The lilacs were just coming into flower, and Mother could never abide a lilac again.”

The air conditioner switched on, and Millie raised her voice to speak over it. “Oh, how sad! But, then, how on earth did that photo—?”

“I’m coming to that.” The unit switched off again. “A few weeks later, a man came to the house, one of those people who used to fly over farms taking pictures. He was very good at his job. I saw one he took of our neighbours’ measly little place and he made it look like a Texas ranch! The thing is he just happened to have taken that picture on the day Dad died! Mother was thunderstruck. There it all was: Dad’s straight and true furrows and that spiral leading off to the lilac bushes.

“Well, Mother took one look at the picture, and decided it was the next best thing to a miracle. She thought that picture said it all, that that was what God Himself must have seen as He prepared to welcome her Francis home. Ever after that she’d tell anyone who came to visit, ‘See this? It’s a picture straight from God.’” Agatha rolled her eyes. “Of course it was just a picture taken by an ordinary man flying by in an ordinary airplane, and nothing more.”

“That’s a very nice story, Agatha. Very nice. But don’t you think your mother, she just wanted to believe—”

“Exactly, she just wanted to believe in make-believe. Right up until she died that picture was all she talked about: God had sent a special picture just for her. Yeah, right.”

Millie got to her feet, grimacing as she straightened up. Agatha wasn’t finished so she launched herself out of her chair, and followed Millie, her voice more defiant. “Mother always was a dreamer, you know, forever telling me and Lorraine that we were such pretty girls, but we knew how we looked: we had mirrors! I’m as plain as a barn door, and Lorraine isn’t much better. Now Charles, he was the looker. But like I said, she was a dreamer. She was always saying things like: Every cloud has a silver lining and It’s an ill wind that blows no good. Why can’t people admit that things don’t always work out, and there’s no point pretending they do?”

Millie kept walking, past the photo of the farm, and on to the front door, and Agatha kept talking. “It’s very easy for Mother and you to say ‘We all need our dreams’—like you and your Secret Pals-pretend-friends rigmarole, like Mother with her picture straight from God! Fairy tales are exactly what we don’t need.” Her voice dropped, catching a little. “What we all need is to face reality. It’s what Charles needs too—to face his day-to-day life. He isn’t going to have a girlfriend, and I’m not going to start pretending that he will. And I’m not going to have another husband either, so, if we’re lucky, Charles and I are going to see out our days right here in this house, together. It suits us both just fine.”

Agatha reached past Millie and unlocked the door. Millie said good-bye but didn’t say anything about another visit.

After she locked both doors, Agatha plodded up the stairs to her bedroom. She opened the drawer of her bedside table, and removed a tattered album that had been her mother’s. Photographs was printed in gold on the torn construction paper black cover, and the pages were tied together with shoelace cord. At the back, Agatha had put three things: a snapshot taken at her wedding, a photo of Sid’s bowling team huddled around a trophy grinning their heads off, and the drawing Charles had done of her so long ago. As always, she felt her heart break a little seeing the effort Charles had made to give her an imaginary moment when she was thin and beautiful and happy.