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"Through the Hourglass"
by Jane Fried

from Enchantments: The Many Facets of Magic
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“These damn legs might as well be two fat salamis.”

Dot was transferring from her bed to her wheelchair with no help from Gloria, her favorite aide at the nursing home.
“Those salamis get you from bed to chair to toilet,” Gloria said. “Praise the Lord for that, Dot.”

“Oh, I praise the Lord, all right.” Dot let herself drop the last few inches into the wheelchair. “You should have heard me praise the Lord last night in bed when it took me a half hour to turn over onto my stomach.”

Gloria cradled Dot’s arm a while before she put the blood pressure cuff on. “Pressure’s good, Dot. You been laying off those oyster crackers Irving gives you?”

“Irving hardly remembers to get the spoon to his mouth these days, much less to give me those crackers.”

Dot followed this with a one-beat laugh, coming from somewhere between anger and wistfulness. “Jesus, I miss Irving’s jokes. He could do a half-hour of Henny Youngman without taking a breath.”
“Things change, people change. Life moves along.”

“Well, I’m gonna move along to our three-star dining room,” Dot said, releasing the breaks on her wheelchair, “and have myself some nice, cold scrambled eggs, and that troubled water they call coffee.”

Dot wheeled herself over to the other bed in the room where a thin woman with long, white hair lay, eyes open and blank looking like a marble statue laid on its back before being crated for a trip to a distant museum. Dot took her hand. “Margaret, I’m going to breakfast. Gloria’s here. Your breakfast will be coming soon. I’ll see you in a while.”

Knowing there would be no answer, Dot squeezed the still hand before letting go and wheeling herself toward the door.

“See you later, Gloria,” she called back.

“Enjoy the cuisine, Dot.”

“Mercy, madame, and I do mean ‘mercy.’”

Dot wheeled her chair into the hallway, saying good morning to those who’d notice and even to some who wouldn’t. At the elevator, she pressed the button and relaxed for the five- to ten-minute wait. She thought of her husband Jeff, who had broken his leg trying to shingle the garage roof, sliding and falling into the bed of his pickup. One night, two weeks after the accident, Dot was about used up taking care of him and their three kids, pleased that she’d managed to make a nice dinner for them, when he suggested that the meatloaf would be even better with a tad more onion. She thanked him warmly as she felt her backbone turn into a steel rod. When Jeff was finishing his dinner, the baby in the swing and the other two off playing, Dot took his crutches, put them in the bedroom, came back and bellowed cowboy songs for almost an hour while she cleaned up, washed the dishes, swept the floor, put the baby down, and gave the boys a bath. Finished with that, she picked up her guitar, sat right next to Jeff and sang some more.

Jeff hated cowboy songs, but he loved Dot. Although he swore at her a couple of times, Dot felt the pleasure he took in her retribution. Her steel spine melted. They made it to the bedroom and, for the rest of their life together, the sight of a man with a cast on his leg tickled their mouths into half-smiles of remembered pleasure.

The elevator binged and Dot started her day. Down on the first floor, walkers, wheelchairs, and a handful of device-free people were slowly filing through the lobby into the dining room. Dot took a few minutes to go to the large foyer in the front of the building to check the weather. It had rained the previous two days, but this morning, light burst through the door, a joyous assault on her sun-starved eyes.

Looking out onto the street, Dot saw a tall, skinny young man with a large, pointed nose and wiry blond hair that stuck up all over his head. Lit by the sun, his hair looked like the glowing circle around a candle burning in the dark. He opened the front door, smiled at Dot and nodded as he said hello.

“Hello,” Dot smiled. Ichabod Crane, she thought.

“Nice to have the sun back,” Ichabod said.

“Yes, it sure feels good.” Who could he possibly be visiting? she thought.

“Well, enjoy,” Ichabod said before he headed into the darker lobby.

“Oh, I’m doing that.” Dot tried to imagine what it would be like to have a grandson who looked like Ichabod.


After breakfast with Irving and Bess, her fast-fading tablemates, Dot went back up to Margaret and read her the Daily News for a while. Margaret was a New York City Socialist and Dot was an upstate Republican who thought people didn’t work hard enough these days. She and Margaret had waged fervent political battles for three years, coming close to pulling hair the day Reagan beat Carter in 1980. It was the best thing going at the nursing home for both of them. When Margaret had stopped talking, the director had arranged to give Dot a verbal roommate, but Dot didn’t want to lose Margaret—that dear, loopy, hot-tempered woman who dreamed of us all joining hands in good work and sharing Earth’s bounty


When Daily News time ended, Dot went back downstairs to the foyer for her morning sit. The building’s façade had been renovated last year, and two new glass double doors let in whatever outside light was to be had. Dot took her morning sun or cloud or rain there, but the sun was what she craved. Like an old dog, she searched for a spot of warm yellow light to settle into. At her house upstate in Pawling, Dot had managed a bit of time outside every day. Even when snow had covered the ground, she’d go out with a blanket and, if it were above thirty-five degrees, she would lie out in the sun in shirtsleeves. Now, in New York City, she could look out onto a little concrete park where parents and nannies brought their toddlers. She got to know the kids’ faces, gave them names, and tried to picture the apartments where they lived, the families they belonged to.

Sometimes she saw a nursing-home resident out there in a wheelchair. She didn’t want to be one of them. She couldn’t bring herself to sit on the periphery of the park, even though she’d get to hear the children’s voices, hear how their mothers or sitters talked to them. Sometimes she’d go for a roll on the sidewalk as if she had a destination, but she’d never cross over to the little park in the square. And she couldn’t go very far on her roll. Her arms tired so fast, she worried she might get stranded and have to depend on kind strangers to get her back home—God forbid.

Dot had always taken care of herself and, from her earliest memories, had taken care of two younger brothers and a baby sister. Her father had been a drunk. When her raging mother would go looking for him, Dot, maybe five or six years old, was in charge. One time, the baby screamed so hard for so long, Dot climbed over the crib rail and lay down holding little Sarah until the small, squirming body relaxed and fell asleep.

When Dot was seven, she’d been adopted by a good couple, the Markeys. She never learned what happened to the rest of her family. Dot’s new mother had been kind. She’d understood kids and went slow and gentle with Dot. Her new father had meant well, Dot realized when she was an adult, but had overwhelmed her on her first day at their house, picking her up and trying to put Dot on his knee. She’d fought like a feral cat and never felt at ease with him. But she always said she wouldn’t have amounted to anything without her new parents. They’d made sure she went to school, ate well, played outdoors, and got enough sleep. They had delighted in Dot’s handiness with cooking, sewing, cleaning, and even fixing things. She’d been comforted and strengthened by being able to do so many things to help them.

Dot didn’t like needing help. Even now, weak legs getting weaker all the time, she could still get into her chair and dress herself, even if it did take forever. She couldn’t quite get on the shower bench alone, but required the aide to leave her when she still had a johnny on so she could disrobe and shower in private. The aide handed her a fresh johnny through the curtain when Dot was finished. Exhausted by the effort of bathing, Dot was pushed back to her room to rest before she put her clothes on. She dreaded the day when she could no longer wash and dress herself.

But she was prepared. Each weeknight the nurse brought Dot a sleeping pill and, since Dot was a lucid and dependable lady, didn’t pay much attention as Dot swallowed it. Sometimes Dot managed to pocket one of them in her cheek and retrieve it when the nurse was gone. She stuffed the pills into a pair of bundled wool socks in her locked drawer. She had thirty-three. Her goal was forty. Forty pills and a shot of whiskey would do nicely. On Friday and Saturday nights, instead of a sleeping pill, Dot got a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey, prescribed by her Hungarian lady doctor. Dot’s daughter, Jeanie, started seeing Dr. Lanska when she first got to the city after college, and it was Dr. Lanska who saw Jeanie through the first and second bouts with breast cancer. She even came to Jeanie’s memorial service at Judson Church.

Dot had stayed with her youngest child for Jeanie’s last six months, holding her, bathing her, singing sweet cowboy songs to her, watching in disbelief as her baby’s body melted away. Dot couldn’t let Jeanie go. She didn’t want to go on living, so she ended the life she knew and started a different one, here in the city in Jeanie’s apartment. Jeff had been gone for three years already. The boys were out West, Ricky still a bachelor, Doug with his second family.

When Jeanie died, they came East and helped Dot sell the house. Dot took her clothes, photos, and some old letters. She made do, met some women through her upstairs neighbor, took art classes at the settlement house, and volunteered at the St. Vincent’s Hospital three days a week. It was a life until her legs gave out.


“Margaret, you’re gonna love this. Reagan spoke against the nuclear freeze to a bunch of evangelicals yesterday. He talked about the godless Soviet Union and called it an evil empire. You always said he thought the presidency was one big Hollywood movie.”

Margaret made a soft monotone sound. Dot looked at the small white face, eyes now ringed in pink, eyes that used to bug with outrage as she’d cursed that nebbish of an actor. “Hah!” Dot said. “Okay, maybe you’re right. I just hope his movie has a happy ending. The columnists are gonna have a ball with this one. Let’s go right to the editorial.”

Before Dot could search the editorial page, Sonia, the nursing home director, walked into the room with Ichabod. Dot raised her eyes up to the pink face and yellow blaze of hair, an image that, she now realized, had hovered in her consciousness since their meeting that morning.

“Sorry to interrupt, Dot,” Sonia began,“I just wanted to introduce Noah Ross to you. He’s a new volunteer and would like to meet with some of the residents to see what activities they might be interested in. Noah, this is Dot Satterfield.”

“Nice to see you again, Mrs. Satterfield,” he said as he offered his hand.

Dot put her hand into Ichabod’s and gave it the firm shake her adoptive father had taught her to give. “Welcome to our humble abode. This is Margaret Goldman.”

“Hello, Mrs. Goldman,” Noah said, looking at Margaret with a sweetness so long absent from Dot’s experience that she thought of it as old-fashioned.

He’s got class, Dot thought. You wouldn’t expect it to look at him.

Dot was not often impressed with the volunteers at the nursing home. They didn’t last very long—not like Dot and her St. Vincent’s co-workers who volunteered for years and showed up faithfully. She understood that a nursing home was more depressing than a hospital with its drama and rush of personnel and visitors, its coffee shop and gift shop, its patients who would go home. Still, volunteer work was work: You made a commitment and did a good job.
“Do you mind if I come back to talk later, maybe after lunch?” Ichabod said.

“I’m busy right after lunch. Two would be okay.” From one to two every weekday was sacred time for Dot.

“Thanks. I’ll see you then, Mrs. Satterfield. See you later, Mrs. Goldman.” Sonia waved her goodbye as she left. And then Noah, to get out the door, performed a two-step swivel like a great white heron doing tai chi.

Dot’s eyes popped. “Well, Margaret, what do you make of that? Young Ichabod volunteering in a nursing home. Must be twenty, twenty-five. Long drink of water with yellow steel wool on his head. Quite a beak too. Let’s see how long he lasts...”

*     *     *

Could Young Ichabod be just what Dot needs to rethink the forty-pills theory? If only she could have the music back in here life again...

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