Two people came through the double glass doors of a twelve-story brick building and walked along the chain link fence to the parking lot. The tall, gray-haired man guided the short, white-haired woman by her elbow, urging her into a more energetic pace. Their heads were canted forward at the same watchful thrust, and anyone looking at them would have guessed correctly they were mother and son. The man was a solid six feet, not fat, but bullish in the shoulders and chest, and the woman, probably tall when she was younger, was now stooped and hollowed. The son’s tailored suit and expensive, well-made shoes reported success in the world, and his impatient pace, while the never-slowing lanes of traffic whizzed by the fence, suggested deadlines and engagements. Poor men stop to look at their environment; wealthy men pass through it on their way to somewhere else.
Though the old woman no longer had the same large body as her son, her face still had the vigor of opposition, evident in the stubborn, demanding chin. Leaning on her cane, hobbling beside him, she argued loudly, “I told you we can’t go yet. I didn’t say goodbye to my friend.”
He didn’t slow down, but he turned his head to say, “Gloria?”
“I have to say goodbye to her. She won’t know where I’ve gone.” “You’ve said goodbye to her five or six times already. All right? Okay? You’re done with saying goodbye to Gloria.”
She stopped, “I’m not done,” but the man kept going. “And what if I don’t like this new place?” she shouted.
He had reached the car. “What’s there not to like? It’s very nice.” (He had never actually seen it.) “They have animals. It’s in the country.”
Now she reached the car too. “But the people. Are they friendly?”
“What are they like?”
“They’re like you. They’re old.”
“But I have to be back at five thirty. For dinner.”
“No, we’re leaving. Remember? This is your last day in Buffalo, your last day at The Meadows. And god help me, here’s your final goodbye.”
He forced her around to get a last look at the enormous structure on one of the city’s busiest highways. The Meadows was a brick building built in the seventies that blighted the entire block with its tall, institutional facade and apron of black parking lots. “Goodbye Meadows,” he said, as though to a child, not bothering to hide his exasperation.
“Goodbye Meadows,” she repeated in a pure, obedient tone.
Sylvia Fleming hadn’t been in a car in many years. Within the fortress, a resident’s every need had been taken care of, and the few times it had been necessary to venture into the outside world, The Meadows provided a van which picked up and delivered residents to the garage in the basement so their feet never touched the earth and their lungs never breathed anything but interior air. Like many other people who lived there, Sylvia hadn’t worn anything but slippers since the day she entered. She didn’t own a pair of shoes anymore and earlier that morning, John’s brief glance at her flaking, bluish feet with their thick, raptor-like toenails had been enough to dissuade him from any attempt to take her to a store and purchase more ground-appropriate footwear.
Once they got on the interstate, he waited for her to fall asleep, but she stayed awake the entire time, making conversation.
“I don’t know, Mom. Mary moved to California. She and I are separated. A year ago, remember?”
“Right. I’m so mixed up I don’t know if I’m coming or going. By the way, no one asked me if I wanted to move.”
“Look, for the last time: You can’t stay there any longer. The Meadows has already rented your apartment to someone else.”
“Who told them they could do that? I happen to live there.”
“You did live there and now you’re moving away.”
He could see her staring at the complicated structure of bridges and ramps, the pillars that held up the massive swaths of concrete that loomed over the flat, industrial landscape of western New York, moving millions of cars in an infinite combination of directions. “It cost a lot, didn’t it? I was running out of money.”
“You’re right. This new place is cheaper. By half.”
“How’s your friend?”
“Your friend from work who came with you once.”
“Bentley? That was a long time ago. But actually, he’s the one who discovered this new place. It’s called Flora and Fauna.”
“That’s nice. Like The Meadows.”
“Not really. This place is out in the country. It’s much smaller. They have a garden and chickens and I think the food will be better.”
“So how’s Mary? Why didn’t she come with you?”
A month ago, when the report came that Mrs. Fleming’s mental and physical deterioration required a greater level of care than The Meadows could offer, they recommended The Orchards, their sister institution where each resident had a room rather than an apartment, and access to nursing and hygiene staff twenty-four hours a day. John had been tempted to say yes. It would have meant The Meadows movers and The Meadows van would have done the relocation and his only job would have been to sign a check. But something had made him pause. He wanted to do right for his mother, a person he had once loved, or at least, looking at the childhood photographs, it appeared he must have. Now he felt a mixture of guilt and duty, so he assigned the matter to Bentley. Two days later, Bentley put him on the phone with a woman named Rose Curtain. She was a registered nurse and she operated a home in the southern tier of New York State that provided just the level of care his mother needed. When he asked about vacancies, Ms. Curtain had said, “We’re not a large place. We never have more than three, and last week, well, our dear ninety-eight-year-old Arnie climbed the hill and his beautiful, south facing room is available.”
“Arnie climbed the hill?”
The Meadows had phoned again and requested that Mrs. Fleming be removed by the end of the month. “Deteriorating hygiene,” the officious caller informed him, “is the first sign the resident needs more extensive oversight. And the reports show that Mrs. Fleming…” But seeing Bentley step into his office, John ended the phone call. “So who is Rose Curtain?”
His employee stopped in the center of the room. “Rose? Well, very reliable. Very dependable. You would be satisfied, and I think your mother would be happy.”
“But who is she? How do you know about her place?”
Before answering, Bentley looked at the carpet. Then he looked up, and if John had hoped to see anything but the usual expression, he was disappointed. Bentley was never combative, nor arrogant, nor even mildly self-assured. His manner was apologetic, as though by his mere presence he might intrude. If John were given to wondering, which he wasn’t, he might have wondered if the many hours Bentley sat at his desk absorbing the shadowless blue of the computer screen had sucked all that was robust out of his body. His skin was the color and texture of eggshell. His hair was never anything but unwashed, and the mole on his neck sprouted a whisker. Though he had solid brown eyes, they were so unquestioning as to be without depth. Bentley was a quiet sufferer, just as he was a quiet accomplisher, and he had, over the years, earned John’s admiration. Lucky Cow, the company John had bought as a young man out of business school and grown from a small cheese-making business into a corporation with national distribution and universal name recognition, reflected not only the economic aggressiveness of John Fleming, but the inventive genius of Bentley Tomes.
Bentley knew cows. He knew cheese. That was his world. But when John saw that the business would not grow as he had envisioned unless it had broader appeal, he had developed a new division. Lucky Cow moved into the processed line and that line grew steadily while the line of natural products stayed flat. His business sense told him to drop it, and from that point on, he let demand dictate the direction the company took. As it turned out, Bentley, the farm boy, was willing to accept these changes and soon had learned his way around the world of food science. He hired the people who knew how to make a commodity that tasted like cheese, looked like cheese, smelled like cheese, but was made entirely out of soybeans. And now, pressured by the demands of the stockholders, a noisy crowd who had no patience with the volatility of a major ingredient that was dependent on weather and soil and other variables, Bentley had found the people who could create a commodity with the same CRA, cheese recognition attributes, but none of the unpredictability of actual food. They were considering inert materials. Still being tested were wood pulp derivatives mixed with coagulants. But could you get the public to eat a food that wasn’t a food at all?
It was Bentley who finessed that question. One ounce of Lucky Cow cheese product would satisfy the daily adult requirements of seven essential vitamins and minerals.
“Which ones?” John asked. “Because calcium, these days, is very popular.”
There was a mystery at the center of Lucky Cow. Mary had identified it one night in the midst of an argument and her succinct, biting description stayed with him long after she had left. Why do I think you don’t care? Because the guy you put all of your trust in, the guy you depend on, you haven’t even bothered to get to know. I know him better than you do. Because you’re incurious. People don’t interest you, John Fleming, only things. Accumulated things.
Some of that was not true. They had worked together thirty years, and John actually did know something about Bentley. He was not married. He did not have a girlfriend. Two facts. Both were understandable, given his behavior. Bentley was not a sexual being. There: a third fact. And yet, he was always sympathetic to John’s ongoing problems with Mary and his children and the various women he’d been involved with since she left. Maybe he was willing to listen because he didn’t have a personal life of his own. Maybe he was a closet something or other. If so, matter closed. John did not need to know any more about it, but now, watching him figure out how to answer the question about Rose, it came to him that perhaps Bentley was simply a virgin.
He stayed at his spot in the middle of the carpet, hands in his pockets. “We went to school together. My family’s dairy farm was next to her family’s dairy farm. Now she raises heifers.”
“She was your girlfriend?”
John saw a blush fill his employee’s cheeks even as he glanced down at his shoes, and then, sheepishly, back up at John. Bentley was wearing the same tan pants and tan jacket he always wore and the redness of his face with the worn and stained outfit made him appear even more scrappy. Several years ago, John had tucked a hefty Christmas bonus into a card with a note, Go treat yourself. He’d scribbled the name of “his man” at the only decent gentleman’s clothiers in Erie, where the corporate headquarters of Lucky Cow, because of financial advantages in the state of Pennsylvania, had relocated eleven years ago. But it didn’t change. The same perma-press jacket and slacks.
“In high school,” Bentley said. “But her father surprised us in the hayloft and she was sent away to a boarding school.”
“How awful,” John said, seeing everything a little too clearly. Bentley, in his awkward, forthright manner, attempting to ravage the girl next door, while all the little rustles and squeals that come with private acts alerting the murderous father. The pulling out, the terror, the slinking away. It would have wounded him for life.
Or maybe there hadn’t even been the chance for fucking. That was worse. To be surprised just when they were working up to it, to have the farmer stop it so violently that the shrunken, guilty prick stayed shrunken and guilty forever. Either way it was sad.
“On your recommendation we’ll check it out. I’ll pick my mother up on Saturday.” But that was a lie. There was no time to check it out; he’d have to move his mother right in, unless, of course, the place simply wasn’t safe. “Any of your family still in the area?”
“All gone.” Bentley’s voice was without emotion, his skin back to its normal whitish tone. He had no more to say, and so, with characteristic awkwardness, he turned and went out the door. John watched the worn heels of Bentley’s shoes, the baggy backside of his trousers pass into the hallway. It occurred to him that the horror of that night in his friend’s adolescence might explain everything. But insights of this nature, revealing private things, made John uncomfortable. Automatically, his fingers started to move across the keyboard. Toneless clicks filled the room and hundreds of exquisitely neutral numbers crossed the computer’s face.
The road was so empty and the odor of urine rising from his mother’s seat so sharp, that his foot had pressed the accelerator to the floor. The black Mercedes shot through the lush, green landscape like a stone fired with a boys sure aim from his slingshot.
The sign for Flora and Fauna was tiny, but he saw it just in time and made the turn. He pulled up in front of a farmhouse flanked by dilapidated outbuildings. Sylvia sat in the car, waiting until John came around to open her door. Then she unbuckled her seatbelt, set her cane on the ground, and very slowly placed one slippered foot next to it. The other followed, whereupon John leaned in and hoisted his mother onto her feet. Real ground. True air. She sniffed it. “I remember this,” she said.
They faced the house. The clapboard needed painting; the porch needed repair. There was an old barn and a field next to it with cows.
“What’s that?” Sylvia asked when a shrill bird-like sound startled them both.
“I believe it’s a chicken, they cackle.”
A small, white dog ran towards them, its tail wagging.
“But John, we forgot to get my things.”
“No, Mom, everything’s been taken care of. The movers came after we left and packed it all up. I’ve seen to everything.”
“No one asked me. Not once. Do you realize that? And I have to go to the bathroom. Fast.”’
But after three hours, Sylvia’s bathroom announcements no longer created the urgency they had at first. “Not a problem. I’m sure someone here can help you.” John took his mother’s elbow and pulled her across the rough, uneven grass. The screen door was closed, the cool breath of an empty hallway coming through it. He rapped on the doorframe. “Hello?”
“You’re here already!” a voice sang from deep in the interior. “Just a second! I’ll be right there!”
“I don’t have those pads or those disposable…” his mother remarked in a loud voice.
“You’re fine.” At each of the four rest areas, he’d guided her as far as the door of the Women’s and then dutifully waited outside to guide her back. Beyond that, he had no wish for information. “I’m sure she’ll have them.”
Color splashed across the screen and a woman with a mass of red hair and a wide, unrehearsed smile pushed it open. Bosom leading—she had the imperiousness common to large-chested women, people like his ex-wife—she stepped barefoot onto the porch and clapped her hands together.
“You’ve arrived, Sylvia Fleming! How very good of you to come on such a beautiful day!” She pulled his mother into her body for a hug. “And John Fleming.”
She was about to hug John too, but he stepped away and put out his hand.
“I’ve seen you before,” Sylvia said.
“My name is Rose. I bet you’re tired and thirsty. I bet you’d like to see your room.”
“What we need, I believe, is a bathroom,” John whispered.
“But first, I’ll show you the bathroom and help you get settled.”
“I’ve been here before,” Sylvia announced as Rose, holding her hand, stopping to slip her feet into a pair of rubber sandals that were waiting inside the door, led his mother down the hallway. She moved at the old woman’s pace so patiently there might not have been such a thing as time or other places to get to.
The floors glimmered and on a shelf he saw a vase of garden flowers.
“I know you.”
“Yes, you do. I’m Rose.”
“I was so rushed I didn’t bring any pads or any of those disposable….”
“Don’t you worry. I have everything you need. This is the bathroom. Let me show you.”
When the door shut behind them, John found himself alone in the hallway, eavesdropping as they chattered comfortably. “Exactly,” Rose was saying, “they go back in here. So you’ll always know where they are.”
“I remember. John brought me to your house before, because I remember that they go in there.”
“I’m glad it feels familiar. Then you won’t have to be nervous about moving in with us.”
“Oh no, I’m not nervous. I know you and I know this place. But The Meadows is where I live and I want to get back there because they’re going to wonder where I am.” She added in a polite tone, “You’ve been very kind to let me use your bathroom.”
Sylvia came out first and pronounced it a very nice place. “I would come here if I didn’t already have an apartment somewhere else.”
“Good, let me show you the bedroom.”
Rose took them to the end of the hallway and when she opened a door, a blaze of yellow light fell across the floorboards. “It gets the afternoon sun so this is where I keep my plants.”
They stepped into a large room filled with greenery. It had a single bed, a reading chair, and an enormous birdcage where a bird of many colors eyed them warily. “Sammy! Sammy!” it shrieked.
His mother hobbled up to it and said, “I’m Sylvia. Can you say Sylvia?”
“That’s Maurice. He loves Sammy and he’s always hoping that when the door opens it’s going to be her.”
“You’ll have to learn to say Sylvia,” his mother chided, clucking at Maurice as though she were familiar with the ways one made friends with parrots. “He knows me. See, we’ve been roommates before.”
The bed was covered with a soft blue quilt. Tiers of houseplants were arranged in front of the windows. It would be like sleeping in a terrarium, John thought.
“Dinner’s at five thirty. I really must get back.”
“Mom, we’ve been through this. You’re done with The Meadows. They kicked you out.”
“What do you mean? They didn’t kick me out.” She straightened herself up and in a queenly tone corrected him: “I am a resident.”
“You need more care. And you’ll get more care here. And that’s final. You have to get it into your head. This is your new place.” He couldn’t help it. Even though he knew very well that she wasn’t being dense on purpose, it had been a long day and all he really wanted was to have everything settled.
“There’s Sammy,” Rose said, slipping her hand into his mother’s. “Can you see her over there? She comes every afternoon to help me.”
Rose pointed out the window, and in the distance behind the barn, John saw something moving. But it wasn’t a person.
“She’s a senior in high school. She lives nearby and it’s faster coming over the hill,” Rose said.
As they watched, the movement took on definition and though he found it hard to believe at first, he realized as the object approached that it was indeed what it had seemed: a girl with long hair whipping about was galloping towards them on a brown horse.
“I know I’ve been here before,” Sylvia said in a soft and amazed voice. “I’ve seen that hill. I’ve seen that rider.”
They watched her dismount and lead the horse into the barn.
“Sam does the evening rounds, although right now you’re our only resident.”
“This room is very pretty,” Sylvia said. “I like it. I like the view. There’s so much to look at.”
John consulted his watch. They’d been there an hour and it was clear that the place would be fine. He clasped his mother’s hand and said, “I have to go now,” his voice thick with a sorrow that had nothing to do with this leave-taking.
“Drive carefully.” She was practiced in the routine of goodbye. She waited for the touch of his lips to her forehead and then made the remembered motherly remarks. “Don’t worry about me. And next time, bring Mary.”
The lake was only a few miles north of the highway. But there was no evidence of a huge body of water just beyond the hills. Just as well. His mind, empty of the usual “to do” list, watched the beautiful, black machine eat up the miles while his memory snagged itself on a conversation.
You’re nothing but a robot, she had said to him in the early hours of the day they had decided to separate. You don’t take anything into consideration except money. Money’s the ultimate goal.
“Go ahead,” he’d said sarcastically. “Don’t hold back. Now that you’re telling me what you really think, why not unburden yourself?”
Okay John. Then what about doing good? What about making a quality product? What about contributing to people’s health and well-being? Well, why go on. I won’t waste my breath.
He remembered how beautiful she had appeared at that moment, how wise and womanly and sad. But she couldn’t blame him for economics. “Numbers don’t lie. And I’m a good businessman because I understand growth. For your information, growth is necessary for a healthy business.” He’d finished with the brand of humility he’d learned at the therapist’s. “I’m good at growth. I’m not good at other things.”
That was not entirely true. As he knew all too well, growth was aggression. There were businesses that could plateau and still have healthy balance sheets, but he was too ambitious for that. He’d re-invented the entire cheese landscape and now Lucky Cow was not just a company any longer, but a force. Each time he altered the product it received national attention without even a full-scale advertising campaign and instead of TMS, targeted market saturation, they had BMS, bulk saturation. Now BMS drove the corporation. Lucky Cow altered packaging or ingredients continuously, simply to gain attention.
The therapist suggested that he and Mary spend a Saturday together every month and for a while, it seemed to be working. On a Saturday in June, Mary had wanted to explore the lake. They’d found a hidden path that took them to a small cove with a protected beach. The water was cold, invigorating. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she cried, dancing about with the simple pleasure of nakedness. He splashed out quickly; it was too cold. But he found a rock to sit on, and watched her play in the water while he rubbed himself dry with his shirt. When she came out, rinsed and glistening, they had moved in concert. He caught a stink of something on the wind, but it was from another cove, so he put it out of his mind, and together, following the lead of their bodies, they dropped down to the sand. But then he felt insects biting his legs, tiny pinpricks of pain, over and over. Sand fleas. He slapped them away until she took his hand and murmured softly, holding his hand to her mouth, her breast, stroking him, kissing him, opening herself. But it started again and finally, he couldn’t stand it, he jumped up.
Yes, it was too abrupt, but he couldn’t help it, they were annoying him.
Back in the car, Mary’s eyes were wet. She was pressed against the door, as far away from him as possible. He couldn’t think of the right thing to say, so he nosed the car along the curve of the lake and let it find the one lane blacktop, so unused there were weeds along the edge. It took them to a cove they had never visited. They discovered a hotel that seemed to operate mostly as a restaurant. The elegant, old-fashioned structure was three stories high, with a gingerbread porch cantilevered over the rocks. The tables were filled, the diners dressed as though for a party, women sparkling with jewelry and perfume, white-coated waiters balancing platters heaped with some kind of fish. They found a table on the outer edge, and in the spirit of the party they ordered it too. Smelt. The breaded, crispy, tiny fish, heaped on a silver platter, came with a dipping sauce. Mary was famished. She looked errant, disturbed, laughing too loudly, eating the fish with her fingers, dozens disappearing at once. He nibbled carefully, preferring the beer and celery to creatures that had been dragged from the oily bottom of a polluted lake.
Yes, he knew exactly what his mistakes were. Hadn’t they talked about it endlessly? But no amount of hushed dinner-time talk, her greasy fingers lifting the fish to her mouth, her laughter hanging on a precipice where it might at any moment dissolve into tears, could alter the fact that an army of small, stinging insects had attacked his legs and not hers. What was he supposed to do? He said he was sorry but apparently his timing was off. The time for sorry had been earlier. Well he didn’t understand then and he didn’t understand now how an intelligent adult woman could be so undone by such a tiny thing. Fleas! It was their last outing.
The phone rang. “How’d it go?” the familiar voice asked.
John was tempted to hedge a bit just out of habit. But why? Bentley was his friend. “It’s a nice place. I think she’ll get good care.”
“Great.” Bentley paused, taking a moment before revealing the real reason for the call. “What did you think of Rose?”
“Rose is remarkable. She’s everything you said. It’ll be a nice change from The Meadows. My God, now I realize what a horror that place was.”
“Do you think…” but Bentley hesitated and John could see him casting his eyes downwards. “Well, would it be all right, John, if I go there once to visit your mother? Do you think she’ll remember me?”
“Absolutely. She’ll be happy to see you. I guarantee it.”
“Good. I think I’d like to do that. It would give me a chance to say hello to Rose.”
“I’m getting into traffic,” John said, understanding as soon as the opportunity had passed that he should have suggested they go there together.
But Bentley, who was used to non-engagement, simply went on. “Okay, just listen. The tests are done. We know what to use. It’s not straw dust; it’s not wood pulp. Too much texture. Get this. It’s water. Plain, ordinary water. With seven essential vitamins and minerals, plus the oils and coagulants and stabilizers and flavorings. You know, the list.”
Water, John thought, coming into the city, weaving the Mercedes through the ribbons of traffic and then braking suddenly when the line slowed. On a beautiful summer day when he’d seen a girl galloping her horse down a hill, water, that plain and forthright, almost spiritual substance, seemed exactly right.
*Megen Staffel, “Leaving The Meadows” from The Exit Coach. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.