Bess’s grandmother leans a sharp elbow into the worn armrest of her recliner, her chin pointed away from the kitchen chair where Bess sits, signing the contract for Ray, the homecare aid. Her grandmother has lived in the cottage at the nursing home for five years. The cottage lets retirees live independently but connected to the lodge and the cafeteria and the dorms where the older, less-resourceful people live. She doesn’t want to go there.
Outside the cottage, a small slab of patio is littered with sunflower seed shells. Petals of white azalea blossoms, knocked free by the recent rains, cover the concrete like wet sheets fallen from laundry lines. Bess tells her grandmother what time to expect Ray in the morning.
“Who is Ray?” her grandmother pulls the oak lever to recline her feet. Outside, squirrels busy themselves at the bird feeder. The feeder was there when her grandmother moved in, installed by a resident long moved into the lodge or gone. The squirrels split dry corn kernels open with sharp teeth. Birds, perched in the trees, wait their turn at what the squirrels discard into the pine straw beneath.
Bess folds the contract back into the white envelope delivered by Ray. Over lunch, it rained so hard she thought they’d all wash away—the nursing home built in the 1960s. The bird feeder. The battered foxgloves grown in the courtyard garden outside the cafeteria, where Bess wheels her grandmother back and forth to meals twice a day from the nursing home’s hospital wing. This is her grandmother’s first time back in the cottage since the pneumonia set in. Without oxygen, her memory worsened. Bess worries about bringing her back to live here alone. If Ray will be enough. If a biblical flood could wash everything into mud tomorrow.
Today, while the residents ate potato salad and white rolls, tornado warnings flashed on television. Her grandmother ignored them, asking Bess who is Ray over and over.
“Ray will dispense your medicine and wash your clothes twice a week.”
“I don’t need Ray.” But could Bess stay a week longer? Could her son come? Could Bess’s mother?
Two blue jays land on the feeder, the only birds big enough to bully the squirrels. Their feathers are dark, almost black save for the shock of blue striping their tails. Her grandmother used to get cardinals. Robins. Sparrows and blue birds. Warblers. She’d been gone a month in the hospital wing and without seed at the feeder, the birds didn’t come. They’d forgotten about the bird feeder until Bess filled it again, today. The jays are bulky and knock the seeds off the ledge where they will furrow down into the wet soil beneath the pine straw of the forested floor.
Her grandmother chose this cottage because of the forest out back. It rises over a slope off the patio and disappears back into thickets and trees. A resident, long ago, planted iris bulbs along the perimeter, domesticating it. If one doesn’t push through the oak saplings and daffodil shoots and ivy they’d never know that a few hundred yards back runs a fence along the property line, keeping the forest divided, the residents contained. Bears can’t wander across. No deer. Since arriving, Bess has seen box turtles. King snakes. Feral cats and toads that leaped at Bess’s feet when she took a load of her grandmother’s wash from the laundry room after dark. Her grandmother doesn’t want to leave these things to go live in the lodge, away from the woods with views only of mowed courtyards and fountains and pansies and hedges. They have wasp problems, over there. Not enough predators. Bess picked a ladybug off the concrete yesterday and placed it on the stem of a pansy, hoping to save it from wasps. Hoping for aphids. Hoping the red bead of an insect wouldn’t bite her for the effort.
Her grandmother tells Bess she’s come home today. Bess reminds her, “Tomorrow.” Her grandmother nods her head, oh yes. Bess tells her again that Ray is coming to help her. She asks who Ray is, says she doesn’t need help to take her medication. She doesn’t want a man to help wash her clothes. She doesn’t want a stranger inside of her home.
Bess wheels her grandmother outside the cottage, back to the hospital wing. The rubber wheels of the chair and the soles of Bess’s shoes crunch the small shells of garden snails out to eat begonias after the rain. She avoids the worms, stranded on the sidewalk to escape their drowning. Along the cottage’s sidewall, yellow and white honeysuckle flowers line branches like molars on a jaw line.
Bess’s grandmother grew up in a wooded town on an old train stop two hours south of here. She had a sleeping porch for hot nights and pecan trees in the backyard. When Bess was little, she picked wild strawberries in the yard. Her grandmother had a birdfeeder there, too. Cardinals. Bobwhites whistling as they stalked the grass. Spiders hiding under the screened-in, stilted porch.
After her grandfather died, the porch began to lean away from the house and deeper into the dirt, the rusted nails lengthening into sunlight again, millimeter by millimeter. Her grandmother didn’t bother to fix the porch, just continued to let it pull free from the house and sink into the yard.
Her grandmother is prying loose, too. She leans further from the tethers of what she once knew: the names of birds. Bess’s name, exchanged for her mother’s, long dead. She is leaning, popping nails out of the house of her life and sinking into the suctioning soil of age. Into the pine brush. Into the soft mud of a forest that is shrinking, shrinking from shortened fencing, all that was wild left locked out on the opposite side.