Please note that this story contains swear words and references to sex.
The old lady appears as a silhouette at the centre of a diamond snow shower under the streetlight by the hospital’s entrance. Her back is crooked like a shepherd’s staff, long felt coat draped over her dowager hump, homemade toque covering her ears, one red-mittened thumb held high for a ride. A small white car approaches, its radio cranked, wipers frantically sweeping the windshield. From the driver’s seat Elizabeth Parker belts out the first number one solo hit by a Beatle since the breakup, “I really wanna show you Lord, but it won’t take long my Lord.” She opens her throat wide as the night for the first “Hallelujah.”
She recognises the hooked figure in the shimmering lightfall, wheels the radio off, then fires her half-smoked joint out the window. She taps the breaks in time to her breathing — in, out, in, out.
The diamond-dusted old lady smiles as the window rolls down, “Hello, Emily.”
“I’m not Auntie Emily, Grandma. Why won’t you wait for me? I’m only 10 minutes late.”
The old woman studies the driver, connects the dots.“Hello, Elizabeth. Did you know Mr Cosgrove passed into God’s hands tonight?”
“Groovy. In you get.” Elizabeth stares ahead at an approaching gravel truck.
Grandma lowers herself into the car. “I am glad he was not alone.” A woman of many titles — the misshapen old lady is Grandma Parker, Mrs Parker, Harriet Parker, and also the widow Mrs John Parker. Among themselves, the hospice staff call her “Saint”, and sometimes “Death Whisperer,” because when no family or friend can be found to watch over the dying, The Saint always will. “No one should die alone,” she says, and lives it.
“My mother is the only truly compassionate person left on this shit-hole planet,” Elizabeth’s otherwise appropriate father says.
Elizabeth’s perspective of differs. “Grandma’s world is as real as Walt Disney’s,” Elizabeth tells her father. “She lives in a Lawrence Welk champagne bubble fantasy. She’s drunk on denial, man.”
The old lady of multiple names, and a singular mind to be of service to others, adores Lawrence Welk, and never misses his show if she can help it. On Saturdays, she spends pre-show hours tottering from bed to bed on the hospice ward, soothing lonely, nearly dead strangers, listening to the stories of their wasted lives, empathising with their pain, holding their hand when their last breath whispers out, then sitting alone beside the empty body until it is taken away. On Saturdays Elizabeth picks the old lady up at 4:15 in order to see her home in good time for the start of the show at 5.
Elizabeth guides the old lady up five snow-clogged stairs to her front door. From across the street, a man yells, “Bitch!” A woman’s voice responds in quick succession, “You’re the sorriest excuse for a man I know. No wonder you can’t keep a job. Now what will we do?” Elizabeth looks toward the neighbour’s house at the anguished pair on their porch, knee-deep in unshoveled snow, contorted faces bent towards one another, yelling.
Grandma Parker lives alone in a tiny bungalow by the park, and has done since the last of her children married in 1952. Age, arthritis, and forgetfulness impair self-sufficiency, so to maintain her independence, Elizabeth and her father chauffeur the old lady to church to worship and the hospital to help, they buy groceries, prepare meals, pay bills, wash floors, cut grass, shovel snow, and check the oven every chance they get in case she’s been inspired to bake. They call themselves ‘Grandma’s Cinderellas.´
The father-daughter duo had the old lady’s world well under control until six months ago when the disturbing neighbours, Harold and Doreen Pepper, moved into the split-level across from Grandma — and brought peace on her street to a squelching halt. In daylight the pair are normal enough, but too often at night they morph into angry, alcohol-driven monsters, especially when Mr Pepper has been fired from yet another job. Those evenings they sit by their bay win-dow in the glow of their grotesque giant purple lava lamp and get belligerent on gin. Unless their living room curtains are closed—and they usually are not—everyone has to avert their eyes and ears, especially when the Hot Pepper Makeup-Sex finale is near crescendo.
The drama starts after their eighth gin and tonic when Madame Pepper’s frightened de-mon takes her over and she screeches insults at Monsieur Pepper, “Drink like a man, not a blind pig at a trough. Use the ashtray, you stupid fuck. Are you trying to burn the place down? Put us out on the street?” Her alcohol-infused attacks are perennially punctuated by shattering objects and followed by ear-splitting orgasms from them both. Grandma seems oblivious. Elizabeth tells her friends that “rose-coloured trifocals, multi-generational cataracts and dead hearing-aid batteries make Grandma deaf and blind to the Pepperland house of horrors on firing day.”
Inside Grandma’s house, Elizabeth installs the old lady in her TV-facing recliner, wraps an Auxiliary Hospital blanket around her knees, and places the knitting basket within reach. The old lady smiles, pats her hand.
Across the street, the Peppers beat out a background rhythm. “Loser. Loser,” Mrs Pepper taunts,”You’re half the man my father was.”
Elizabeth peeks through Grandma’s curtains, hopes the drama will end quietly and that shovelling the stairs won’t make her late for Jimmy’s. She taps the white plastic Christmas tree back to plumb. The old clock on the wall chimes. “Fifteen minutes to Lawrence Welk,” Elizabeth announces.
“Wonnerful, wonnerful,” Grandma responds.
Through the closed window Mrs Pepper’s endless chant drives her husband to bellow like an enraged bull. Peace and quiet are a long way away.
“I am glad he was not alone.”
Distracted by the pathetic human glory of the Peppers, Elizabeth has nearly forgotten. “You mean the dead dude at the hospital?”
Grandma breaks suction between her gums and false teeth, produces a slurpy sucking sound. It’s a reprimand. Elizabeth clicks on the TV, mentally adds denture adhesive to the Grandma shopping list. Across the street, an enraged diminutive Mr Pepper struggles with his front door. His explosive exit foiled by the insurmountable snow, he shouts, “Fucking winter fuck.”
“I wonder what could be keeping June?” Grandma asks almost in answer.
A few long beats into the loaded silence the Pepper’s bay window explodes in a lorry of cymbals ploughing through a forest of cyclopean chimes. Both Elizabeth and the old lady yelp, then look at each other with mouths slightly open before pressing themselves to Grandma’s un-damaged window. Further shattering the broken ice, Lawrence Welk strikes up his orchestra, “Dum, da da da da.”Champagne bubbles fill the TV screen, glittering orbs in a blue sea. “Ladies and gentlemen. It’s the Lawrence Welk Show,” announces the television to everyone, everywhere.
Not long into the show’s opening, a flashing police car pulls up to the Pepper’s house. Two officers ring approach war zone, ring the bell, and pound on the door forever. Mr Pepper stumbles to the gaping window,“ May I help you, friends?”
Eventually he is brought outside in handcuffs “It was an accident,” Mrs Pepper shrieks while clinging to her husband’s leg. One officer picks her emaciated self off as if she is a burr on a dog’s back and gently sets her swinging into the snow. She rises, strikes him, is returned into the snow, rises again to grab hold of the squad car door long enough to jam a pink-slippered foot inside. The other officer installs Mr Pepper in the squad car while his partner assists Mrs Pepper on the curb under a streetlamp. In her baby doll pyjamas and fluffy pink housecoat, the rapidly sobering Mrs Pepper folds over onto herself. The police pull away.
Grandma lowers herself back into her chair. At the window Elizabeth feels the old lady’s finger poke her sharply in the chest, briefly wonders how she did it. A current crackles between the two, the waters of a river tumbling into another, a haunted heirloom being bequeathed, a calling or a torch passing from one generation to the next. Street lamps flicker in the dark, the old lady’s shoulders lift, she nods an encouragement to her grandchild. Elizabeth places the palm of her hand at the centre of her chest, warming the sore spot. She moves through the front door to-ward the pink-clad woman crumpled on the curb, approaches her at an oblique angle, respectful and cautious, as if about to free a frightened fox from the jaws of a trap. She extends an open hand. “Come with me, Mrs Pepper." Grandma watches, the shade at the window. “This could be the start of something big,” the cheerful, chiffon-clad Lawrence Welk girls on the TV sing.
Inside Grandma’s house, Elizabeth gives Mrs Pepper a place on the sofa beneath Grandma’s thickest Auxiliary Hospital blanket. The three women sit before the TV, lulled by the accordion master’s magic and the joyful voices of his smiling disciples. Elizabeth has long found Welk and his TV show groupies contrived and irritating, but now they seem genuinely delightful and affirming. She shares a smile with the old lady, savours the newfound magic until the air shifts, the bubble bursts, and Auntie June propels herself into the room. “Happy Christmas. Sorry, dears, I had to call the police. I see you let her in again.”
“Jesus calls us to alleviate suffering,” Grandma says. “You’re blocking Mrs Pepper’s view, June. Do sit down.”
June drops onto a straight-backed chair. On the TV a quartet of blue-suited young men launch into an enthusiastic, up-tempo Dixieland number. Mrs Pepper draws an imaginary trumpet to her lips, her head wobbling awkwardly, jamming with the band. Auntie June fixes her gaze onto her own lap. When the music ends. Mrs Pepper concludes her impaired performance and drops her trumpet. “Wonnerful,” Lawrence Welk praises, beckons the next act to centre stage and two bouffanted women in stiff dresses twirl out from the wings to pirouette around a small, dark-haired man blowing into a large tuba. When the tuba toots its last, a skinny fellow in a glowing green suit steps up to the microphone and belts out a song from Grandma’s youth, an un-seemly invitation to a sweet young thing named Daisy Bell he wants to join with him on a “bicycle built for two.” Elizabeth snickers before she can stop herself. Grandma’s era was clearly not as sweet and straight as it seems.
Elizabeth senses a wash of fear, something happening to Grandma. The wings of panic beat frantically. Is it a heart attack? Elizabeth automatically reaches for the old lady, but is too slow — or the first time in memory, Grandma’s movements are quicker than hers. The old lady’s arthritic finger taps the button, turns the Lawrence Welk Show off.
The old clock ticks. Grandma clears her throat. “Father sang that song to the little girl,” she announces. “He said he had something beautiful for her. I felt bad. He took her to his room, but she did not want to see the beautiful thing. I remember hearing her cry out. She ran through the house like the devil was chasing her. Slap, slap, slap, went her feet on the floor. There was nothing we could do to help her.”
“Harriet, stop,” says June. Her voice is too loud. “Loose lips sink ships, don’t you know?”
Grandma cannot hear or is not listening. “Father called for the girl to stop, but she ran from the house, slammed the door. The police came. They found her lovely shoes and her stockings in Father’s room. They took him away. They wanted to know where our Mother was. I told them Mother went to Heaven.”
The blank-faced TV appears more dead than off. Elizabeth feels Grandma’s poke in her chest spread into an all-over ache.
“June’s mother called the police. She said Father shamed on the whole family and we would never outlive it. We carried his sin so we had to go away. She refused to take us in.
June keeps her gaze directed onto her lap.
“Dr Barnardo’s women took we four children to the orphanage. Matron was kind. She saw to it that we went to church and learned to read the Holy Bible. Then we were put on a ship to Canada. I went to work on the Bottrels farm. I was 9 years old. My job was to frighten the crows away from the cornfield.”
“That is enough, Harriet,” says June.
Elizabeth swallows between ticks of the old clock.
“Father died alone in prison, Elizabeth. Alone. With no one at his side, no one to stand with him before God.”
Mrs Pepper moans. “Harold only threw the lava lamp. Will the police let him go?” She wipes her eyes with her pink sleeve.
“A broken window isn’t the same. Your husband won’t die in prison, Mrs Pepper,” Elizabeth says, “He’ll come home. I’m sure of it.”
Once the words are out, Elizabeth’s way forward becomes clear. Before anything else, though, Cinderella duty is the priority and Grandma needs her supper. Elizabeth invites Auntie June and Mrs Pepper to share the meal, reheats yesterday’s Christmas dinner and sets the table before heading outside.
She works the powdery drifts carefully, uses the shovel to create clean walls between walkways and white-carpeted lawns, then the broom to smooth the cuts’ sharp edges. She follows with a vigorous sweep to prevent leftover snow from turning to ice. A professional will have to deal with the glass. She leaves the hideous shattered lava lamp where it landed in the Peppr’s front yard. It oozes its gross gooey purple guts into the snow, it appears to her like a discarded body part or an organ, a severed limb or a stolen kidney. An accident was possible. Maybe the police were distracted. It could happen. To anyone. It has happened. It will again. The insurance company will be the only loser.
From the Pepper’s sidewalk, Elizabeth can see the three at Grandma’s table, eating, Auntie June talking away her nerves. Elizabeth enters the Pepper’s empty house through the un-locked side door, takes a cigarette from the package on the table. She shakes a branch of the Christmas tree, shapes the fallen needles into a pile, strikes a match and puts the lit cigarette in its new nest before returning to her shovel.