Dress Rehearsal - Andrea Chesman

Violet wakes with a start as Poppy bursts through her grandmother's front door and peeks around the foyer into the living room. "How's the Crankster this morning? Ready to help me with my costume?"


Violet's hand involuntarily clutches at her chest.


"Sorry, Gran. Didn't think you'd be asleep at this hour. You didn't have one of your spells, did you?"


"I wasn't asleep. I was just resting." She eyes her granddaughter sternly, taking in her outfit, a multicolored layering of scarves and shirts and vests. "I knew you were coming. Late as usual. And you know I don't like to be called that, young lady."


"Yes, you do, Grandcrank. You love it because you know that I know that you know that you aren't as cranky as some people think."


"I know that you—oh, never mind!"


Poppy laughs, not the least bit chastised. "Hey, you know what?"


"No what?" Violet smooths her hair behind her ears and feels for the glasses that rest on her ever-diminishing chest by a chain.


"I've been thinking of more girl flower names. Obviously, Iris, Rose, Jasmine--way too common. What do you think of Artemisia? Don't you think that's a good one? When I have a daughter, I'm going to name her Artemisia."


Violet snorted. "I guess that's better than mugwort--the common name..."


“'What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'.”


"Alright now, you can't play Juliet in blue jeans. Help me up, and we'll get that costume started." Violet holds out a hand to Poppy, who helps her rise from her chair. Her feet have gone numb, her legs ache. "Go make me a cup of tea; I'm moving slow this morning."


"You mean today."


"What?"


"You're moving slow today. 'Tis the afternoon and the moon doth rise."


"Yes. I said that. Now move along."


Poppy bounces away, her long red hair swinging, while Violet slowly, slowly creaks her way to the dining room, trying unsuccessfully to lift her feet. The schluss, schluss sound of her shuffling slippers annoys her, as does the sight of the new sewing machine sitting on the polished oak table. It was given to her last Christmas by her daughters. Did they think a new machine would compensate for her twisted, arthritic fingers? Did they not understand that if you can't use scissors, you can't sew?


Violet settles herself onto one of the cushioned dining room chairs as Poppy comes dancing in, singing about needing one more dance.


"What's that, sweetheart?"


"Nothing, Crankster. Just a song they're going to play at the dance scene, mixing modern and old-fashioned together. You wanna dance with me?" Poppy laughs and shimmies as she sets down the mug with Violet's tea.


"Coaster, please! And no dancing. Sewing. Let's get started."


Under Violet's watchful eye, Poppy lays out the tissue-thin pattern pieces on the emerald green fabric covering the dining room table. When all the pattern pieces are arranged and pinned, Poppy cuts into the fabric. And, though Violet continuously admonishes Poppy to focus on the work at hand, Poppy talks nonstop about the play, how cute Romeo is, how much time rehearsals are taking, how her mother is too strict.


"Did you go to dances with Grandad when you were my age?"


"I expect I did."


"Did you make your own dresses? What did you wear?"


"I made all my own clothes."


"Gran! Details!"


"Oh, child. Who can remember? I do remember full skirts...petticoats...dancing in the gym... Your grandfather—he was the best dancer in the whole school. Son of a dairy farmer, but he could dance. We danced the jitterbug in those days. He could swing me around like I didn't weigh a thing. Sometimes it felt...it felt...like we were flying."


"Flying. I love flying. I dream about flying. Did you know then—when you were in high school—that you were going to marry him?"


"You dream about flying? I dream about swimming."


"Swimming? Like at a lake? Are you wearing a bathing suit?"


"No, swimming like traveling, like flying. How'd we get on this subject?"


Poppy doesn't answer. When she looks up from the fabric, Violet is staring off into space. "Gran! Are you still awake?"


"What, dear?"


"You keep disappearing."


"I'm not disappearing. I am quietly encouraging you to focus on your work."


"I was asking you about Grandad. How did he propose?"


"And I was trying to remember. Pay attention to what you're doing."


"Then talk to me."


"Poppy, it was so long ago." Violet shakes her head. "So very long ago."


Violet doesn't so much as disappear as get lost in her thoughts. She misses Ray so much, his calm steady presence when there was trouble, his quiet humor and sly mischief when life was sailing smooth. The nights are particularly long and lonely, but she doesn't dare admit this or her daughters will insist she move in with one of them, or sell the house and move into some sort of senior incarceration, where everyone is just waiting to die.


Over the next two weeks, the costume slowly takes shape. There is a loose-fitting white gown with a square neckline and long puffed sleeves, to serve as both a nightgown for the balcony scene and an undergarment for the green, empire waist tunic that she'll wear on top for the dance scene. Poppy is ecstatic when she puts on the finished costume and twirls around for her grandmother. She makes a beautiful Juliet.


"Oh, Gran, you are the best."


Violet doesn't answer. She's asleep in her chair. Poppy changes back into her jeans and is about to let herself out of the house when Violet opens her eyes and draws in a very deep breath, which sets off coughing.


"Gran! Are you okay? Should I call Mom?"


"Goodness gracious, don't call Daisy! That's all I need. Now, help me up, Poppy. I want to give you something."


Violet slowly totters to the table by the front door where her black leather purse sits. She reaches in and retrieves her car keys, which she presses into Poppy's hands. "Here, sweetheart. My car. It's yours."


"Seriously? This is okay with my folks?"


"Shut your mouth, Poppy, or the mosquitoes will fly in."


"Really?"


"Well, it is early for mosquitoes..."


"Gran! Are you really and truly giving me your Honda?"


"Really and truly. And don't worry about your parents. I'll take care of them. The truth is my eyes aren't what they used to be. Or my reflexes. All I ask is that you take me shopping when I need it." Her smile is almost as broad as Poppy's. It's a relief to be done with the car, with driving, with the worry of blacking out at the wheel. There was that near miss....


"Oh, Gran! You're the best! Oh! Can I drive it now? My friends are going to freak out!" Poppy flings her arms around her little grandmother. "Don't worry. I'll drive you wherever and whenever! I promise. Oh! This is so cool."


Violet is swimming. The water is heavier than she remembers, the streets unfamiliar—tall buildings, factories with clouded windows. She isn't afraid, not really. But her arms are so tired, so tired of pushing against the heavy water. There is something she needs to do. Something important. She needs to—


She needs to answer the damn phone. How long has it been ringing? Where is she? The kitchen. Why is she on the floor? This won't do, she thinks, this won't do at all.


She lies there pondering how to get up. She rolls to her side and scrabbles her way to sitting up. Now what? How did she manage last time? And the time before that? She rolls so she is on her hands and knees, rear end high in the air. Let no one find me here, she silently beseeches the powers that be. Lifting one hand up, she feels for the curved metal table leg and pulls herself up onto her knees. Then placing her hands on the vinyl chair seat, she pushes herself up into a standing position. Dizzy? No, steady. She smooths her blouse, tucks it into her trousers. A cup of tea, she thinks, will set me to rights.


No sooner does she set a tea bag into a mug when the kitchen door bursts open and her daughter Daisy charges into the room. "Mom! Are you okay? Why didn't you answer the phone?"


"Did you call, dear?" She pours hot water from the kettle into her mug.


"Yes, I called. I called three times!"


"Well, I must have been in the garden." She stirs a teaspoon of sugar into the tea.


"It's raining, Mom. You weren't out in the rain."


"Well, then I must have been in the bathroom." She stirs in another teaspoon of sugar. "Would you like a cup of tea?"


"Mom! I have a life! I can't come running over all the time. You have to answer my calls. I left you a message on the answering machine. Why didn't you call me after you got out of the bathroom?"


Violet shrugs. "I guess I didn't notice the blinking light." She looks at Daisy with wide-eyed innocence. Daisy sits down heavily in a chair across from Violet, still wearing her raincoat and underneath the raincoat, sweatpants and a torn t-shirt. Her long strawberry-blonde hair is gathered up in a messy sort of bun.


"In my day a person didn't go out of the house looking like such a mess. Are those your painting clothes under that coat?"


Daisy ignores the criticism; she's heard it all before. "I can't believe you didn't ask me whether I wanted you to give our 17-year-old daughter her own car!"


"You're angry about that? You're the one who's been saying I'm too old to drive."


"Don't you dare make this about me! Poppy's going to be furious with me when I take the car away from her!"


"Then don't take it away." Violet stirs another spoon of sugar into her tea. Was that two or three teaspoons now? She takes a cautious sip.


"What's with the band-aid on your hand?"


"Oh, that. It's nothing. I banged it and the skin sliced open. All those years working in the field with your dad—my skin is fragile."


Violet feels Daisy's eyes on her and looks up when Daisy says, "You know I have to take that car away. From Poppy. She's not ready. She can't afford to keep a car on the road with the price of gas, not to mention the insurance."


"I'll pay for it. I'll pay for it all. And she'll take me shopping when I need it."


There is suspicion in Daisy's eyes. She looks around the kitchen but, of course, everything is in order. Violet would never leave dirty dishes in the sink or crumbs on the counter, scuff marks on the floor. Still Daisy isn't mollified. "Did you give her the car because you've been having spells?"


"I don't know what you are talking about."


"Yes, you do. Poppy told me you've been having spells or something. Not that I have any idea what a spell is exactly."


"I still don't know what you are talking about."


"Maybe I should take you to the doctor."


"You are not taking me to any doctors." Violet stirs her tea with enough force to cause a wave to slosh onto the table.


"Did you give her the car just to piss me off?"


"Oh, for goodness sakes, Daisy. You've been mad at me ever since the doctor whacked you on your backside...I gave Poppy the car because I hardly use it anymore, and it can help her out. Help you out. This way you don't have to drive her everywhere. You've got enough to do with the boys—always going to soccer or hockey or what have you. Poppy's a good girl. She's responsible enough. End of story."


"Until you need to go somewhere during the day, when Poppy's at school. Did you think about that?"


"Where would I go? I don't go anywhere anymore, except for funerals and I've lost my taste for them. There's been too many. Too many...." Violet takes another sip of tea.


Daisy stands, looks in the refrigerator. Violet keeps it spotless and she knows that all Daisy will see is a quart of milk, just opened, a bottle of orange juice, a carton of eggs, three missing, and a couple of covered plastic containers.


Violet can't contain her annoyance. "Do you want to check my cupboards, too? What are you looking for?"


"I just want to know that you're eating okay. Are you?" Daisy sits down and reaches for her mother's hand.


"Of course I am, Daisy." She pats her daughter's hand with her free hand, then gently disentangles herself. "You really don't have to worry about me. Yes, I am old. Yes, I don't have the energy I used to." She shrugged her shoulders. "The lucky ones get old. The unlucky ones die too soon – like your father. Simple as that."


The two sit in silence for a minute, each thinking about Ray, Daisy's father. Daisy is the first to break the silence. "Have you visited Annette recently?"


Violet shudders. "I can't bear that nursing home. I hate everything about it. There's always moaning and crying from the people in bed. And there's some woman in a wheelchair begging everyone she sees to take her home. She grabbed hold of me the last time...I can't go...I can't go anymore. Annette doesn't recognize me anyways."


"She was your best friend."


"That was a long time ago, Daisy."


Silence fills the space between the two. "Well, if everything is okay here—"


"Wait, Daisy. I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me you'll never send me to a nursing home to die. Or a hospital either. I want to die in my own bed."


"Mom! Of course, I'm not going to leave you in a nursing home. Anyhow you are doing fine for someone—"


"Someone as ancient as me?"


"Someone who is enjoying her golden years. Which you are. Or should be." "And no hospitals. I don't want any hospitals."


"Mom! You're too cranky to get sick. The germs'd be too scared to come near you." "Promise me I'll die in my own bed."


"I can't promise you that, Mom. What if you are out walking and lightning strikes you dead? What if a truck plows into your front room, a tree falls on the roof when you are in the kitchen?"


"I swear you are as foolish as your daughter."


"I'm the foolish one? I'm not the one who gave a teenager a car so she can run around with her wild friends." Daisy stands up. "Well, I suppose what's done is done. I don't know what's up with you, Ma. Just ...just...call me if you need anything. And...and...don't overdo it. Okay?"


Violet watches her leave. With a sigh, she picks up her mug and dumps out the overly sweet tea. She watches Daisy back out of the driveway. Her change-of-life baby, Daisy was a hard one, always fussy, always on the lookout for a slight. Her sisters were easier to handle, yet Daisy is the one who lives nearby.


Violet looks in her cupboard and thinks about supper. Like most nights, she decides on a plate of crackers and cheese and settles herself in her recliner to watch a little TV while she eats. She will sleep there, too. The stairs to her bedroom are just too steep.


The "spells"—what else could she call them?—happen more and more frequently. One moment Violet will be housecleaning, or gardening, or even watching TV, and the next minute—or really some time later—she'll be on the floor, slumped over a table, sprawled on the grass outside. She takes pride in the fact she has figured out a way to get up from the floor, though doing it outside is a bit of a challenge.


She thinks the spells are actually dress rehearsals for her death. And, she likes to think her death will come when she is dressed, so she begins taking sponge baths. No way does she want an ambulance crew to find her naked in the shower. Likewise, she keeps the house neat as a pin.


She knows there is something wrong with her heart and thinks it must have broken when Ray died. She is quite eager to learn if she will meet up with Ray again—and her mother and sisters. It's an interesting concept—having an afterlife—and while she doesn't quite believe in it, she enjoys planning it in her head, what she will say, what she will apologize for. Certainly, she doesn't want to show up in her naked old body or look at theirs.


Daisy takes her to mass on Sundays—whether she believes or not, Violet thinks, but does not say. She spends the time in her head, thinking about Ray, thinking about her childhood. She used to sit in this same pew with her mother and sisters, longing to shed the scratchy petticoat and tight shoes she wore. Then she goes home with Daisy and stays for dinner. In this way, she maintains the illusion that she loves her grandsons as much as she loves Poppy, but she does not. They are a noisy, messy bunch, husband Mike included, always punching each other and yelling. Well, maybe not Mike when it comes to the punching, but he always has a game playing loudly on the TV.


Violet is swimming. She is on a stretch of river in the countryside. She lets the current take her through the woods, and then the channel narrows and the rock walls loom above her head. She is swimming, but she is falling, too. The river is rushing down a mountain. As soon as that thought takes form, she knows she is near a dam, at the edge of the dam....


She opens her eyes to an unfamiliar room. Her head pulses to a persistent thrumming sound. There are lights directly in her eyes, something squeezing her hand.


"Oh, Mom. I thought I lost you."


"Poppy?"


"It's me, Daisy. You're going to be okay."


"Where am I? Where's Poppy? We were...we were...what happened?"


"Poppy's outside in the hall. You're in the hospital, intensive care. Your heart stopped. You were in the car with Poppy. And you just stopped talking, stopped moving. She had the good sense to take you straight to the hospital. And you're going to be fine. They put in a pacemaker."


"Where?"


"Mom. Listen to me carefully. You are at Porter Hospital in Middlebury. The doctors will take good care of you."


"No. The pacemaker. Where did they put it?"


"It's in your chest, Mom. It will keep your heart beating steady."


Violet closes her eyes. She wants to go back to her dream. A nurse shakes her arm. "Stay awake for a bit, dear. I know you're groggy. But we need you to stay awake. Would you like a drink of water?"


Violet shakes her head, no, and closes her eyes.


"Mom," Daisy's voice has a note of pleading, "it's going to be fine. You're going to be fine. And I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere."


Violet opens her eyes and looks at Daisy. "How long will that thing keep going? That thing in my chest?"


Daisy squeezes her hand. "By the time you got to the hospital your heart had stopped beating, but they got it going again. And now you don't have to worry about it anymore. You'll be up and about, probably even get to see Poppy in that play, see her graduate high school and all the wonderful things that come next."


"How long?"


"I hope a long, long time."


Violet doesn't answer but tears begin to stream down her cheeks. She turns her head away.


"It's going to be okay. Mom, why are you crying?"


All those dress rehearsals were for nothing. Now she has a long wait in front of her. A long, long wait.

Andrea Chesman is the author of more than twenty cookbooks, mostly focusing on preparing food from the garden and homestead. Her fiction has appeared online in The Bangalore Review, Write Launch, Green Mountains Review, Fresh Ink, and in print in The Offbeat, and the anthology Twisted, published by Medusa's Laugh Press, which nominated her short story for a Pushcart Prize. She has a story forthcoming in Blue Lake Review. She lives in an old farmhouse in Vermont, where Robert Frost used to take his meals when he lived in the cottage across the street.

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