It's Okay Because

I hate housecleaning! You spend your entire Saturday morning dusting and mopping and by Sunday evening the place looks just the same as when you started. So I guess I was looking for an excuse to get out of it, and when I took the trash out and saw the neighbor across the street was having a cookout I wandered over uninvited.

Sadie was sitting in an old rusty metal lawn chair that had once been painted pale green; the chair was pulled back near the front porch to take advantage of the shade it provided. Her youngest girl Sylvia was noisily whacking the grill against the driveway in an attempt to knock loose the remains of previous meals. The middle girl, Cynthia, had spread an old plastic tablecloth over a couple of cardboard boxes and was wiping it off with a damp cloth.

I say "girls", but they're in their 50's and Sadie looks every bit of her 85 years. Some older folks lose interest in eating, while for others it's one of the few pleasures they have left. Sadie was one of the latter, a heavy and shapeless old woman dressed in faded stretch (or is that stretched?) pants and muumuu style blouse. She kept her white hair cut in a short and fluffy style, though you could see lots of pink scalp through it. The girls all took after their mother; all were beyond chubby and seemed unaware that their clothing choices accentuated it.

"Hi Carol Jean," Sadie greeted me as I walked up. "Saw you takin' out the trash; why don't you come sit a spell and rest up. There's sodas in the cooler over yonder."

"Thanks, that sounds good. How've you been?" I headed to the ice-chest under the big elm tree as I listened to her usual litany of aches and pains. I couldn't really blame her; at 43 I wasn't in as good shape as when I'd been a kid, so I could easily understand that someone twice my age would have complaints. They gave her a good excuse to sit while the girls did all the work.

I was surprised to find brand-name pop in the ice-chest rather than the usual cheap stuff. I grabbed one, wiped the cold water off and rubbed it on my cheeks and the back of my neck. It was already getting hot, though it was only mid-April.

I walked back to the porch and plopped down on the edge where I could chat. Sadie's catalog of ailments had wound down so I asked, "Where's Sara today? Isn't that her car by the curb?" Sara's the oldest girl.

"Oh, she's in there asleep," Sadie replied, pointing toward the house. "She's been down to the church, they needed the kitchen cleaned after some big supper they had last night. She said to wake her when it's time to eat. You might's well join us Carol Jean, there'll be plenty of food."

As if to underscore that remark Cynthia called through the screen door demanding that somebody open it. I jumped up and held it for her as she carried a big plate of raw veggies and a bowl of potato chips out to the makeshift table.

I'd been hoping for an invitation. Sadie's family is loud and boisterous, but they're good-hearted people, if a bit lazy. Personally I figured Sara was using her nap as an excuse to get out of the preparations, although she'd certainly eat more than her fair share.

"Well, I'd like to Sadie, but I hate to horn in," I hedged. Didn't want to sound too eager. "Besides, I don't have anything to bring."

"Oh, now, don't you worry about that!" Sadie said with a wink. "It's okay because you can help the girls in the kitchen."

"Okay, deal!" I said. "Whose birthday are we celebrating, anyway?"

"Birthday?" Sadie asked, perplexed. "Ain't no one's birthday. We're just celebratin' life."

"Well, good for you," I told her, smiling. "That's always a good cause."

"Yep. We've all got money comin' in now, not a lot, but we can make it."

"Oh?" I asked disingenuously. "I didn't know you guys had money trouble, I'm sorry to hear that." Translation: "Give me the scoop!"

"Well, you know I've got my Social Security, been gettin' that for twenty years now," she began. "This here house ain't much, but it's paid fer. Just seems like it costs more ever year to pay for them utilities, though."

She wasn't kidding about the house. This was an old neighborhood, but Sadie's house was the worst on the block. The paint was mostly peeled off the outside, the screen-door hung crooked on its hinges, and there were patches of missing shingles on the roof.

"I thought you got a cost of living raise every year," I said.

Sadie snorted. "Hmphf! One or two percent; it ain't enough to make no never mind. How do they expect an old lady to get by?"

"But look on the bright side, Sadie. You've got money coming in," I told her.

"Well, it's okay because the girls have all moved in with me," she said. "They can help out with the bills."

"Now I'm confused," I admitted. "I thought you said everyone had income now so I'd think they could take care of themselves."

She snorted again. "Them girls never could take care a themselves. Always runnin' home to Mama ever time they have a problem. But at least they've all got money comin' in, that don't always happen. Sara's gettin' alimony after that SOB left her."

"Her divorce was finally granted!" I said.

"Yep. And Cynthia, she's gettin' disability after that axy-dent at work where she hurt her leg."

"Really?" I asked. "I didn't think she was hurt that badly."

"Well, she was, I guess. Else why would they be a-payin' her?" Sadie replied matter-of-factly. "And Sylvia got fired but she's gettin' unemployment. Ain't none of us gettin' much, but together we'll get by."

"Wow, I've been out of touch," I said. "I didn't realize it'd been so long, I'll have to come over more often so I can keep up with things."

"It's okay because you got a job to keep you busy," Sadie said. "Besides, this all just happened a couple weeks ago. That's why we decided to have a party."

Sylvia walked towards the porch. "Mama, watch that chicken on the grill while I go make up the burgers," she hollered as she went up the steps, not even looking at Sadie.

Sadie just nodded, but I realized it was time for me to get busy. "You need some help, Sylvia?"

Sylvia had already gone into the house, but stepped back outside at my question. A fan inside was blowing her long straight-as-a-string dishwater-blonde hair around her face and she pulled a strand away from her mouth before replying. "Sure, Carol Jean. You can chop the onions."

She held the door open for me as I scrambled up from my perch. It was dim in the house, especially after the bright sunshine outside. I stumbled over a cardboard box just to the left of the doorway and nearly fell. Sylvia had walked ahead of me but looked back to see what had happened.

"You all right?" she asked. "Sorry, that's some of my stuff, I ain't had time to put it anywhere."

"I thought your mother said you'd been here two weeks," I commented dryly.

"Well, yeah, but there's nowhere to put it," she replied.

"What about in your bedroom?" I asked as I bent down to move the box away from the immediate vicinity of the front door so no one else would trip.

"What bedroom?" Sylvia asked. "Sara and Cynthia are sharin' the spare bedroom. You'd think they were ten years old again, fightin' over every little thing. And you don't think Mama would let me sleep with her, do you? Just because it's her house she thinks she rates a room to herself."

I looked around the living room and realized that Sylvia must be bunking on the couch. More boxes were stacked around it; one was open and I could see clothing in it, like she just pulled out whatever was on top each morning. "I guess it's only temporary. I'm sorry about your job."

"It was a lousy job, anyways," Sylvia said as we went into the kitchen. "Got laid off about a month back. I been looking for work - you have to when you're on unemployment – but I ain't found anything yet. It's okay because I'd been there nearly a year and I needed a rest."

The tiny kitchen was a mess, dirty dishes filling the sink while food for the party was spread out on the counters. Sylvia pointed to a cutting board piled with radish tops and handed me an onion.

"There's a knife in the sink somewhere," she said airily. "So anyways, the rent come due and the landlord wouldn't give me a break. He told me I didn't never pay on time and he was tired of excuses, he wanted me out of the apartment toot-sweet. Can you imagine?"

I dumped the radish remains in the overflowing trash can, located a knife and began washing it and the cutting board as well. "Whose turn is it to do dishes?" I asked. "You'd think they'd take care of it before a party. It's not your landlord's fault you lost your job; he's in business to make money."

Sylvia was busy adding a variety of spices, apparently at random, to the hamburger meat. "It's Sara's turn," she replied. "But she probably won't do it. She thinks it's more important to clean that blasted church than help out here. The guy made money offa me, 'cause he wouldn't give me back my deposit. He said I'd torn the place up so bad I was lucky he didn't sue me."

"Can't get blood out of a turnip," I quoted. "What'd you do with your furniture?" I scraped the onions onto the meat.

"Oh, it's in the garage," she said. "The other day Mama bumped into the dinette and the leg come right off, dumped everything on top onto the floor. I told her to be careful because that leg was loose. Grab one a them bell peppers and chop it up too."

Apparently the apartment wasn't the only thing Sylvia'd torn up. How hard is it to tighten the screws on a table leg? I'd started in on the pepper when Cynthia came in. She's a red-head with short hair so curly it looks like a rusty Brillo pad sitting on top of her head.

"When you're done with that you can clean up those green onions," Cynthia told me. "And then, lessee, the red onions need to be sliced and the tomatoes, too."

"Would you take out the trash please, Cynthia?" I asked. "There's no more room for this goop."

"I ain't got time to take out the trash," Cynthia replied as she looked in the fridge. "You can do it before you do the onions and tomatoes if you want. I gotta get the eggs peeled and devil 'em. Oh, and chop me up some a that celery so I can get the cheese spread in it."

" I'm sorry to hear you were hurt so badly in that accident. Looks like you're getting around all right." I managed to balance the pepper innards on top of the trash. What did they think I was, their maid?

Cynthia winked at me. "That's what the lawyer was for, he made it sound way worse than it really was. The company, they didn't want no lawsuit so it was easier for them just to pay up."

I chuckled a little uncomfortably at the questionable ethics. "I'd have thought that would let you spend more time with your husband; I know you told me he wanted that."

"He wanted a lot of things!" Cynthia remarked. "It only took about a month of spending 24/7 with him before I packed up my clothes and left. He could keep that lousy apartment, too. It's okay because now I don't have as much housework."

If the two front rooms were any indication, no one was doing any housework. I added the green pepper chunks to Sylvia's mixture and she began kneading it. "If the onion and tomato is for the burgers, I think I'll start on the celery. That'll keep in water until you're ready for it, Cynthia."

"Hey, chop me up some of that, and I'll add it to the meat," Sylvia commanded.

"You can't have it, it's for the or-derves," Cynthia snapped at her sister.

"Big deal, all you're gonna do is squirt Cheez Whiz in it," Sylvia said sarcastically. "I hate Cheez Whiz. Besides, there's more in the fridge. Carol Jean, look and see."

And she complained about Cynthia fighting with Sara? I'd never seen them act like this before; maybe living together wasn't such a good idea. "I'm busy," I told her. "Why don't you check."

"My hands are all greasy," Sylvia replied shortly.

We spent the next ten minutes working in silence. It made me uncomfortable, and I tried to make small talk but evidently they weren't willing to come out of their snit, and over such a little thing, too. Sylvia pattied up the meat while Cynthia peeled eggs and I sliced veggies.

Sylvia grabbed up the platter of burgers and waltzed out without a word, but I could hear her yell from the front yard. "Mama, I told you to watch this chicken! You shoulda turned it five minutes ago, it's burnt." Sadie's voice had a whiney quality, but I couldn't hear what she said.

Cynthia stuck the bowl of peeled eggs in the fridge; from her curses I deduced she'd had to re-arrange things to make it fit. "I need a smoke," she muttered. "I'll finish that up later."

Like it or not, I decided I'd rather wash a few plates than risk someone rinsing them off and calling it good enough. I was elbow-deep in soapy water when Sara wandered in, yawning. Her hair's shoulder length, but I have no idea what color she was born with because as long as I've known her she's dyed it black. It doesn't suite her fair coloring which makes it look fake.

"I thought Sylvia was gonna do those," she said as she sat down at the kitchen table and began munching celery sticks.

"She seemed to think it was your job," I told her. "Your mother told me the divorce had gone through, congrats."

"Yeah, but I lost the house," Sara replied between crunches. "That piddly clerical job didn't pay enough so's I could make the mortgage payments and it got repossessed."

"Once you had the alimony coming in, wasn't that enough to make the difference?"

"Oh, I quit that job," she said. "Sittin' at that desk all day long hurt my back."

"Well, that certainly explains why you're living here!" I said. Personally I'd always thought Sara should take better care of herself. For instance getting a little exercise would help her back more than getting out of the office. "So I guess you're looking for another job. What kind of work are you looking for?"

"Not right now. I mean, he's gotta pay me for the next three years so I've got plenty of time," Sara said sagely. "I gave away all the furniture and stuff, just so he couldn't have 'em," she added.

That seemed a little odd to me, like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. "Wouldn't it have been cheaper to put it in storage?" I asked in surprise. "You'll need when you find a new place."

"It's okay because I can buy new stuff when I find another place."

Cynthia breezed in and took one look at the celery in her sister's hand, then grabbed up the big plastic cup I'd put the celery in earlier. "You ate it all!" she accused. "Now what am I supposed to do with the Cheez Whiz?"

Sara deliberately stuck the last piece in her mouth. "Well it was just sittin' here, how was I supposed to know you were gonna do something with it? You was outside wastin' time."

"I was tryin' to find the fly strips, they're out in force today," Cynthia retorted. "All I could find was a citronella candle – you think that'll help?"

"No, and it'll stink up the place," Sara said. "I don't wanna eat with that awful smell floatin' around."

"Fine. I'll look in the garage, if I can get past Sylvia's junk," Cynthia said. She walked out the back door, slamming it behind her. A minute later I heard muffled curses and the sound of several objects hitting the garage floor.

I dried my hands and sat down at the table with Sara. "What's going on here?" I asked.

"Nothin', apparently," she replied. "I thought we was gonna eat at noon, and here it is nearly one o'clock and nothin's ready. What've they been doin' all this time?" She punctuated her statement with a large yawn.

"I know it's not really my business," I began, "but you guys are fighting like cats and dogs. What's the problem?"

"They're jealous, that's all," she replied.

"Who? And jealous of what?"

"My dear sisters," she said, her tone dripping with sarcasm. "I moved in with Mama first, and now here they both come after me. They didn't want me to have no time with her by myself."

"That's silly!" I told her. "It's just bad timing, that's all. Cynthia's marriage has been rocky for years, and Sylvia certainly didn't choose to get fired. You all ought to be happy you've got someplace to go, and work together to help each other get back on your feet again."

"I was the oldest, I always had to look after them two." Sara was looking down at the table, as if remembering the past. "I never got to spend any time with Mama because they was always around."

"Don't you imagine they felt the same way?" I asked.

She looked up at me, her eyes begging me to understand. "We didn't none of us get much time with Mama," she said accusingly. "After Daddy left she'd find herself another man and dump us off with Grandma while she went off with him for months on end."

I hadn't heard that story before, and began to understand some of what was going on here. No wonder the girls' marriages had failed, they'd never had a good example to follow. Sylvia at least had been smart enough not to even try. "But she always came back for you, didn't she?"

"Yeah, until the next man come around," she admitted grudgingly.

"Well, seems to me now you've all got plenty of time to spend with your mother. You should be enjoying it instead of fighting."

"Tell them that!" Sara said. "It ain't me."

Sylvia banged open the screen door and called, "Carol Jean? Oh, Sara, you finally decided to get up. You gotta come hold the plate for me, I got burgers ready to come off the grill."

The rest of the afternoon went much the same. We didn't eat until 2:00; by that time the hot food was cold, and the cold food hot. I was almost sorry I'd joined the party, yet at the same time I was worried because something didn't feel right with these women.

* * *

In spite of my resolve to keep up with Sadie and the girls, I got busy at work and kept telling myself I'd walk across the street to chat tomorrow. Two weeks later I was jolted out of my complaisance when an ambulance whizzed down the street, lights flashing and siren blaring. It stopped in front of Sadie's house. I wanted to help but knew I'd just be in the way and besides, I was late for work as it was.

I tried calling her house during my coffee break, but I got that funky tone and a canned message, "The number you have dialed is no longer in service." It had been awhile since we'd traded numbers. Yet when I tried Directory Assistance I got the same number. I called the nearest hospital, but when I said I wasn't a relative the snooty woman refused to even tell me if any of the four women had been admitted.

So as soon as I got home that evening I locked the car and headed over to Sadie's house. I thought it was odd that all four cars were there. I hoped it didn't mean there was no point in anyone visiting at the hospital.

Sylvia answered the door when I knocked. "Hi, Carol Jean. Come on in."

I stepped inside carefully, just in case there was another box in the way. Maybe someone had tripped over it and broken their leg or hit their head on the coffee table. The TV was blaring and I could see someone move past the kitchen doorway but couldn't tell who it was.

"I saw the ambulance this morning, Sylvia," I said. "I was worried, what happened?"

Sylvia gestured to a ratty recliner as she plopped down on the couch. "Siddown. It was for Mama, she fell in the tub this morning."

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" I said as I sat gingerly on the edge of the chair. There was something sticky-looking all down its back. "Is she all right?"

Cynthia poked her head around the doorframe and yelled, "Syl, where's the rest of that roast chicken we had last night?"

Sylvia's attention had been caught by the television set and she laughed uproariously at some punch line.

"Hi, Cynthia," I called out. "I just heard about the accident. Is your mother all right?"

"Sylvia! What happened to the chicken?" Cynthia persisted as if I weren't there.

"I heard you the first time!" Sylvia snapped. "I et it for lunch."

"The whole thing?" Cynthia asked in surprise. "I was gonna use it for a casserole for dinner. I told you that last night."

"I was hungry," she replied calmly, her attention still captured by the sit-com. "It's okay because there's money in Mama's purse so we can order pizza."

"Ladies!" I said sharply. They both turned to look at me as if they were surprised to find me in the house.

"How is your mother? Is she hurt? Is she in the hospital?

"Oh, yeah, she'll be there for a few days," Cynthia said.

"She busted her pelvis" Sylvia explained. "They got her on pain meds but the doc, he said the only thing to do was keep her in bed until it heals on its own."

"Ouch, that sounds really painful," I said. "Imagine not being able to walk around for weeks. I guess Sara's up there with her now."

"Nah, she was there all morning, it wore her out, she's asleep," Cynthia told me.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" I asked. "Anything she'd like me to bring her?"

"I'll tell her you asked," Sylvia said. "She's so whacked out on them pills right now she don't know come 'ere from sic 'em, so no point in goin' to see her."

"I, uh, tried to call you guys this morning but it didn't go through." Now that I looked I could see the phone on the end table was half-buried under unopened mail.

"Cynthia won't stop calling her daughter in Dallas but she won't give me the money for the bill." This was from Sara who'd apparently been woken by the commotion.

"You're the one what's supposed to pay the phone bill," Cynthia retorted.

"Yeah, but I ain't payin' for your long-distance calls," Sara said in a harsh voice. "Did someone mention pizza?"

"So what, you just didn't pay any of the bill?" Sylvia asked. Obviously the phone had been cut off for lack of payment.

"It's okay because my girl's sent me a cell phone," Cynthia said. "Find me a piece of paper and I'll give you the number, Carol Jean. 'Course it's a 214 area code so it's a long-distance call. You want to stay and have some pizza with us?"

I tore the corner off the front page of a tabloid on the coffee table and Cynthia wrote down the number. "Thanks. I think I'll pass on the pizza, though."

As I walked back to my house I wondered again what had happened to this family. Maybe Sara had been right and they'd all given up trying to take care of themselves and expected family to take care of them instead. It didn't seem to be working.

* * *

I waited a couple of days before visiting Sadie at the hospital. She was glad to see me, though the girls had been right about the pain meds making her confused. I didn't have the heart to ask if they'd even been there that day. Sadie kept rambling on about going home, and I kept reassuring her that she needed to stay here for awhile. I asked her what the doctor had said, but she didn't seem to know.

I stopped at the nurses' station on my way out, told them Sadie was my aunt and asked what her prognosis was. The nurse on duty remarked that she was glad that Sadie had had a visitor, which confirmed my fear. She shook her head sadly and told me that Sadie would be bedridden for several weeks, but that her insurance company refused to pay for further hospital care and she'd be sent home tomorrow. The girls would have to take care of her, which didn't fill me with confidence.

I'd assumed one of the girls would call and let me know when Sadie was home. When they didn't, I dug Cynthia's cell number out of the bottom of my purse and called. It went straight to voice mail so I left a message.

Two days later I still hadn't heard anything, so I set out across the street to see for myself how Sadie was doing. I noticed that her car was gone from its usual spot in the drive, figured one of the girls had taken it on an errand to keep its battery charged or something mechanical like that.

Sara answered my knock this time. "Hi, Sara. Is your mother home from the hospital?"

"Yeah, Carol Jean, come on in," she said. "Mama's in the bedroom." She led the way.

"I tried calling, but Cynthia didn't answer the cell phone," I commented as I walked.

From inside the darkened second bedroom I heard Cynthia's voice. "That's 'cause I couldn't find the charger. Sylvia put it up somewhere and I only found it this morning. She's just mad because I won't let her use it."

I peered inside the room and saw Cynthia sitting at a PC, her face lit by the glow of the screen. "Playing Solitaire?" I inquired.

"Shoot no, ain't got time for games," she replied. She clicked on something, studied the screen for a few seconds, and clicked on something else. "That one's going up today, I bought five shares."

"Shares. Are you talking about stock?" I asked in amazement. "I thought you were broke, where'd you get the money to invest?"

"It's a myth that you have to be rich to invest in the stock market," Cynthia said with assurance. "You can buy a few shares here and there and then sell 'em at a profit."

"You mean day-trading?" I asked. "Isn't that risky?"

"Only if you don't know what you're doing," she replied, clicking on something else.

Beside me Sara muttered, "She doesn't. She's lost money every day."

"I heard that!" Cynthia snapped. "I'm still learning, I'll get the hang of it in a few weeks."

"Well get offa there," Sara ordered. "Carol Jean can stay with Mama for a bit and I need you to take me up to the church."

"Oh, I can only stay a minute," I said quickly. "Gotta get home and fix supper. Why don't you wait 'til Sylvia gets home and she can take you."

"She's gone out to the casino," Cynthia said. "She likes that one way outside a town, so she has to stay 'til she makes enough to pay for the gas back. If we're lucky she won't come home 'til tomorrow. It's okay because it leaves more food for us."

Sara whispered in my ear this time. "Don't tell Mama she took her car. Mama don't like no one else drivin' it, but Sylvia's won't start."

I nodded in agreement, then turned to go into Sadie's bedroom. "Hi, Sadie, it's Carol Jean. How are you feeling?"

"Hi there," Sadie said in a feeble voice. All I could see was a lump under the covers and her head on the pillow.

"It's so dark in here I can't see anything, let me turn on the light so I can see you," I told her.

"No!" she said. "The light hurts my eyes. Come over here and sit beside the bed so we can talk."

I moved closer and spied a hard-back chair next to the bed. It occurred to me that sitting on the bed itself probably jostled her around and caused her pain. The room was overly warm, and I detected the faint unpleasant odor of unwashed body. Out in the hall I heard Sara and Sylvia arguing. Sara was whining that she'd be too tired to drive herself home after working at the church.

Sadie rolled her eyes and whispered, "She always was lazy, always wanted someone else to do everythin' fer her. Makes me wonder how much cleanin' she actually does up there; I think she just uses it as an excuse to get outta here myself."

"It's all for a good cause," I said in a reassuring tone. "There's nothing wrong with her wanting to have a little time to herself, either. How are you feeling?"

"It hurts," she said plaintively. "Even with them pills. They make my mind feel all fuzzy-like."

I patter her shoulder, carefully. "They're supposed to do that," I said with a smile I didn't quite feel. "They keep you from wanting to move around so you don't hurt so badly. Are the girls taking good care of you?"

"Well, they must be a-workin', because I feel like I could just lay here forever," she said. She smiled a little. "The girls don't let me want for nothing'. They feed me and keep me company, that's all I want right now. As long as I don't try to move I'm fine." I heard the front door slam and a car start up outside.

"It won't be forever, just a few weeks," I told her. "You'll be up and around before you know it. Sounds like the girls left, can I get you anything?"

Sadie asked for a cup of tea, but when I brought it to her she said she didn't feel strong enough to hold the cup. She wouldn't even try, made no effort to pull her arm out from under the covers. I held the cup to her lips and wiped her chin when she dribbled. She seemed appreciative, but fell asleep soon afterward.

I felt a little awkward wandering around the house with no one else there, and wondered what was keeping Cynthia. I pulled my phone out of my purse and tried her cell phone; I heard it ring in the spare bedroom. What's the point of having a portable phone if you don't take it with you? I sat on the couch and turned on the TV; apparently they'd managed to keep the cable bill paid.

I checked on Sadie several times, but she was sleeping like a log. Eventually I decided if I was stuck baby-sitting I deserved to be fed so I ate some leftovers from the fridge. I felt a little guilty about it until the clock rolled around to 9 pm and no one had shown up yet. I eyed Cynthia's couch dubiously, it didn't look comfortable but I couldn't in good conscience leave Sadie alone in the house.

Cynthia showed up about thirty minutes later, acting as if nothing was wrong.

"Where have you been?" I asked. "It's nearly 10:00."

"I've just been gone an hour," she insisted. "It's okay because I ran some errands while I was out. I need to carry stuff in from the car."

"Cynthia, if you need someone to help watch your mother I'd appreciate it if you'd ask first instead of running off and leaving me here," I said, doing my best to curb my irritation.

"Oh, yeah, didja give her her pills?"

"I gave her a cup of tea and she fell asleep. I've been sitting here for hours without knowing where you were. I didn't know when she was supposed to have them or how many or anything else. You'll have to do it yourself. I'm going home, I have my own chores to take care of."

"Okay," was all Cynthia said.

* * *

The whole thing had left such a bad taste in my mouth that it was another two weeks before I decided I really ought to look in on Sadie again. I told myself that that evening had been a fluke, that with the three sisters living in the house surely someone was always there to take care of Sadie. It wasn't like any of them had to go to work.

I noticed Sylvia's car had been moved to a spot along the curb, and assumed that meant she'd gotten the starter fixed. But as I walked by it I saw a big chalk mark on the left rear tire. That meant the police had realized it hadn't moved in awhile, and I wondered how long it would take them to ticket it for being inoperable.

Sylvia was the only one home today. The place was just as cluttered as before. The odor was worse, too; of course I could've just been smelling over-ripe garbage or the lingering aroma of last night's dinner. She seemed comfortable with me having the run of the house, as she immediately went back into the second bedroom. I followed her, intending to ask how her mother was really doing. I thought perhaps there would be things they wouldn't have told Sadie. Sylvia was playing poker on the computer and made it clear she didn't want to be interrupted further. I wondered if she were playing for fun or money.

The lights were still off in Sadie's bedroom so I made my way to the chair in the gloom. "Sadie, are you awake?" I called softly.

Her eyes opened slowly, as if she had trouble focusing. "Yeah. Carol Jean? Is that you?"

"Yeah, it's me," I said. "I'm sorry I haven't been to visit in awhile. How are you doing? Feeling better?"

"You was just here t'other day," she said weakly. Indeed, it didn't look like she'd moved at all. The covers were still pulled up to her chin.

"You've been sleeping a lot, I'm sure." I tried to make myself sound cheery. "Have the girls been taking good care of you?"

"I think so," she replied. "I remember them feeding me and I ain't hungry. Just don't feel like movin', it hurts to move."

"It's a pretty day out, want me to open the windows so you can get a little fresh air?" I realized that the curtains had been drawn, it was really dark in there. The rank body-odor stink was almost palpable, but I guess she was used to that. "It's hot in here, a little breeze will make you feel better."

"No," Sadie's voice was nearly a wail. "I like it just fine. But I am a little cold, could you put another blanket over me?"

I found one in the top of the closet and spread it gently over her. Was it my imagination or was she losing weight? The lump of her body under the covers looked smaller. She probably hadn't been eating much, which would work to her advantage when she was ready to start walking again. I smoothed the hair away from her face and told her I'd be back later. She smiled happily and seemed to drift back to sleep. Looked like she'd lost some hair, too; I could see more scalp and there was hair on the pillow.

I pulled the door shut on my way out and walked into the spare bedroom. "Sylvia, I need to talk to you right now."

She mumbled, "In a minute."

I was angry, they seemed to be ignoring Sadie and not taking care of her after all. I walked to the wall socket and put my fingers around the plug to one of the cords coming from the back of the computer, though I wasn't exactly sure what it might shut off. "Now!" I said.

Sylvia looked at me in surprise. "Okay, geez, what's the rush?" She clicked on something and then turned to look at me. I stayed put, ready to unplug if she turned back to the PC.

"You've been giving your mother too many pain pills," I accused. "She doesn't know what day it is, and it doesn't look like she's moved in two weeks!"

"She hasn't had a pill in a week," she said. "We ran out and cain't afford more 'til the first of the month. It's okay because the doctor said she's not supposed to move."

"That's a week away," I said. I couldn't believe they'd let her lie there in pain. "I could loan you the money," I said hesitantly. If I did I probably wouldn't ever see it again – and wasn't sure if they'd buy pills or pizza with it.

"She's fine, Carol Jean," Sylvia said. "She's just got to rest and let that bone knit."

"She needs to see a doctor, Sylvia. She probably needs to be in the hospital. I'm worried about her."

"Maybe so, but we ain't got the money for it," she explained. That was probably true, but I thought I saw a hint of fear on her face. "Mama wouldn't want to live in one a them nursin' homes, she'd want to be with family. We'll take care of her."

I decided not to press the issue; we were all on the same side here, afraid Sadie was dying. "Tell you what, why don't I sit with her so you can get out of the house for awhile."

"I'm fine, maybe another day," Sylvia replied. Did no one in this family know how to say 'Thank you'?

* * *

Bright and early the next morning Sara rang my doorbell. "I need you to stay with Mama so's I can go to church," she announced.

"Where's your sisters?" I asked. "I was getting ready to go to services myself."

"I guess Sylvia's still at the casino, she ain't been home since yestiddy afternoon. Cynthia said she was goin' to Walmart an hour ago and she ain't answerin' her phone. I need to hurry or I'll be late."

Apparently 'please' was another word this family had never heard. For a moment I was torn – what made Sara think she was more entitled to go to church than I was? But I decided this would be a good opportunity for me to help Sadie; I had a plan. And as far as I'm concerned helping the sick is just as good a form of worship as sitting in a church.

"Gimme just a minute, Sara," I told her. "You go on back to the house and I'll close up here and come on over."

Sara looked a little confused. "But you gotta drive me."

I peered around her shoulder towards Sadie's house. "Oh for Heaven's sake, Sara. I know you said Sylvia's car wasn't running, but Cynthia's is in the drive, take it."

"Brakes are out," she said matter-of-factly. "She took mine – I told her not to! - that's why I need a ride."

I sighed, loudly so she could see how irritated I was. "All right, you go tell your mother I'll be there in a few minutes. You'll have to get a ride back, though."

Back at the house I let myself in with the key Sara had given me and looked around. The place was a dump. Wrinkled clothes had been tossed on top of Sylvia's cardboard boxes, and the coffee table was full of dirty dishes. The pile of unopened mail had grown large enough that it had slithered off the end table onto the floor beside it.

The first thing I did was to open up all the curtains and throw open the windows. It was hot in the house and that odd odor made it hard to breathe; I couldn't define it, but it couldn't be entirely explained by lack of cleanliness. The bright sunlight streaming in made the mess more noticeable, but it also made the place look cheerier.

I'd packed my own provisions this time rather than risk food poisoning in that kitchen. Good thing, because it was worse than ever. I opened the window above the sink and propped the back door open. I spotted a can of air freshener on top of the fridge and used it liberally, then took it into the living room and sprayed there too.

There was a small window above the bathtub, but it was stuck and I couldn't get it open. You really don't want me to describe the mess in there. I contented myself with more air freshener and went into the spare bedroom.

It was no wonder Sara and Cynthia fought over what belonged to whom; it looked to me like everything they both owned had been thrown on the floor. I had to whack the window frames with my fists, but managed to get both windows open. I added yet more air freshener, though it hadn't seemed to help yet.

Finally I entered Sadie's bedroom. I called her name but she didn't answer. In the light filtering through from the other room I could see the familiar lump under the covers. The smell was worse in here, but I still couldn't place it. It was rank and earthy, reminded me of digging for worms when Dad used to take me fishing. I went through my routine of opening windows and spraying, hoping it would wake Sadie, but it didn't. I could see the slow rise and fall of her chest under the covers, but her face remained slack in sleep.

I rooted around the room until I'd located a clean nightgown and set of sheets. I felt sure the bed hadn't been changed in weeks and thought it would do Sadie a world of good to feel clean. I realized a sponge bath would be in order, and I'd better do that before I changed the linens. I went back to the kitchen to look for a big bowl, but all I could find that looked clean was a Dutch oven pushed to the back of a cabinet. I filled it with warm soapy water and tossed in an old dishtowel. I assumed it was clean simply because it was obvious no one had been washing dishes.

Back in Sadie's room I set the pan on the chair beside the bed and considered whether to wake her. She'd be able to help me a little and, never having done this before, I'd probably need it. I shook her shoulder gently and called her name, but she gave no sign of waking. Maybe it would be better this way, undressing her and moving her around could hurt her.

I grabbed the edge of the covers with both hands and flipped the blankets to the other side of the bed. Then I just stood there and stared. Poor Sadie was lying there naked. I simply couldn't believe the girls would treat their mother that way. Sadie's body was a pale, shapeless form; doubtless loose skin from losing weight and slack muscles from lack of exercise made it look worse than it really was.

The smell was almost overpowering now, so I wrung out the rag and began gently wiping her torso. She wiggled a bit at that and muttered something I couldn't make out, but she didn't wake up so I continued. When I'd washed everything I could reach I took hold of her hand so I could move her arm away from her side.

It wouldn't budge. I pulled harder, thinking it was just dead weight because she was asleep. But I still couldn't move her arm. I looked a little closer and realized I couldn't see a gap between arm and body. I'd thought it was just the flab oozing downwards from gravity. I tried to slip my hand between the two so I could loosen the arm – but it wouldn't go.

I jerked my hand back and stood up. What was going on here? Maybe she was twisted a little to that side, lying on her own arm. I walked around to the other side of the bed to deal with that arm first. Maybe then I could get her to roll a little in her sleep. I couldn't move that arm, nor feel a space there either. I took a deep breath and tried her leg. Both of them slid toward me across the sheet.

My heart was thudding in my chest; I didn't understand, and it scared me. I stood at the foot of the bed and looked more closely at Sadie's feet. 'Foot' was more like it. Her legs appeared to be fused together. I lifted the foot and slipped my hand underneath. All I felt was smooth skin from one side to the other.

I dropped her legs and backed away, breathing hard. No wonder Sylvia hadn't wanted to take her mother to the doctor! There was something really weird going on here. They wouldn't put her in a nursing home, they'd make a freak show of her. I couldn't let that happen. Whatever this was, she didn't deserve to be poked and prodded in some sterile and isolated environment.

Sadie was shivering now, and I remembered she'd complained of being cold even with a blanket over her. I wasn't sure what to do. I supposed I ought to rinse off the soap, yet now I didn't want to touch her. Or what was left of her. I picked up the pan and carried it to the kitchen, dumped the soapy water and refilled it.

I didn't even want to touch the rag I'd used, so I got another one and made sure it was big enough to wad up so my hand wouldn't accidentally touch her skin. If it was still skin. I went back in the bedroom and hastily wiped her down, then pulled the covers back over her before the warm water could evaporate and cool her down again. She wiggled a little as if getting comfortable and then settled down.

I was just about to leave when she opened her eyes and looked at me. "Hungry," she mumbled, though I could barely understand her. I wasn't at all sure what to do. I looked around in confusion, and saw an open can of chicken broth on the nightstand; there was a turkey baster sticking out of the top. Apparently that was what the girls had been feeding her.

I sucked up some broth and touched the tip of the baster to her lips. She opened her mouth for all the world like a little baby bird waiting to be fed. I squirted some broth in her mouth and she swallowed, then opened again. She took all the broth and opened for more, but seemed to understand when I told her there wasn't any. She closed her eyes and went back to sleep.

I grabbed the pan and raced out of there. Suddenly I felt filthy and wanted to wash my hands. What if this was contagious? I scrubbed my hands with soap and hot water at the kitchen sink. I felt better, but it wasn't enough. I wished one of the girls would show up so I could go home, but I couldn't bring myself to leave Sadie alone.

If I was going to have to stay here, I'd clean. Lord knows there were plenty of places for bacteria to grow and getting rid of them might help. Sadie might recover if I got rid of the bugs. At least it would give me something to do, something to think about instead of what I'd discovered.

By the time Cynthia came home a couple hours later I'd become a woman with a mission. The kitchen was spotless and the washing machine was churning on its second load, though I'd discovered I needed to prop open the side door in the garage because the drain was clogged. The overflowing water had soaked most of Sylvia's furniture, which didn't appear to me to be much of a loss.

Cynthia's comment was, "You didn't have to do this, Carol Jean." She dropped an armload of bulging plastic bags on the kitchen table and didn't appreciate my demand that she put things away immediately. When I told her my theory she just said, "Huh." I'm not sure whether she was referring to my finding out about her mother, or its possible cause. She sat down on the couch and turned the TV on and didn't seem the least bit worried that I was cleaning her room.

Sylvia showed up an hour later, looking like something the cat dragged in. She mumbled something about a man buying her drinks and disappeared into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. If she noticed the much-improved state of the house she didn't say anything about it, nor did she ask about her mother. Cynthia shot her a dirty look for going into 'her' room, without apparently realizing that she was occupying her sister's 'bed'.

Sara breezed in just before suppertime. She was upset that she'd had to stay at the church all afternoon helping with some social event before anyone offered to take her home. At least she followed me from room to room and chatted with me, though she didn't offer to help. When I told her my theory she thought about it for a minute and then asked, "If that's true, why ain't it happened to any of the rest of us?"

Damn, she had a point. Had I done all this work for nothing? No, surely all of them would benefit from a clean house, but I realized they'd gotten me to be their maid after all. I informed Sara in no uncertain terms that she would help me change Sadie's bed, and she reluctantly agreed. I gathered that she hadn't peeked under the covers in several days as she seemed shocked at the state Sadie was in. "It's gotten worse," was all she said.

Clearly it affected her; as soon as we had Sadie settled she ran into the kitchen for a new can of broth. As I dragged out the bundle of soiled sheets Sara was sitting in the chair by the bed, tenderly feeding Sadie with the turkey baster and talking softly to her.

* * *

I made it a point to stop by every couple of days. Sara was almost always sitting in her mother's room, talking or reading to her. Sadie was getting worse, and after my initial reluctance I was curious now, had to lift the covers and see what was happening. It took a couple of months before the change was complete.

Her body had shrunk a little more, and there was no longer any indication of arms or legs, or even bones. Her shoulders had narrowed and her neck widened – in fact, it looked more like some large worm rather than a human body. There was still a faint suggestion of a human face and though she made sounds they weren't coherent speech. There really wasn't much need as the only thing she seemed to want was food. The rest of the time she seemed content to lie there under the covers in the warm, dark room.

The girls continued to fight like cats and dogs. I took a strong stand with them, effectively becoming the mother-figure they seemed to need. I don't think it occurred to any of us that I was younger; I took charge and they accepted it. At first I tried sitting them down and explaining why each was partially right in their arguments, but quickly realized that they couldn't see that there even was another side to the issue. Surprisingly (or maybe not) the best resolution was simply to send them to their rooms like they were naughty children.

Similarly, I first nagged them about keeping the place clean and then resorted to ordering them to do chores. They'd shoot me dirty looks behind my back, but reluctantly did what I'd told them to. They'd come knock on my door asking for advice though they rarely took it, especially if it required any effort on their part.

When the city hauled Sylvia's car away she was frantic, but finally accepted that she didn't have the money to pay the impound fees and forgot all about it. I suggested they sell the other two cars for a few hundred bucks and use the money to fix up the one remaining car, nominally Sadie's. They whined about the time and effort it would take; you'd have thought I'd asked them to build a rocketship and fly to the moon. So I took the initiative; I might as well not have bothered because they fought over that, too; one would stay out for hours just so the others couldn't go anywhere.

I thought about it a great deal, and believed I'd figured it out. The girls were all in bad shape because they didn't want to have to work at doing anything to help themselves. And where did they learn this behavior? Why, from their mother of course! Sadie had behaved that same way. She'd been a little better at disguising it and had certainly played on their guilt in getting them to do things for her.

The broken pelvis had been the catalyst. Now she really couldn't do anything for herself and she'd wanted it to continue forever. My best guess was that it was a case of mind over matter, the emotional change having become a physical one. Effectively she'd turned herself into some kind of helpless larva, waited on hand and foot. That's what she'd wanted all her life, so she was perfectly happy with the situation.

* * *

It was getting on towards Labor Day and I suggested we have another front-yard BBQ. The girls seemed excited and even did their chores without being reminded. When I came over Monday morning the house was clean and supplies had been bought. I got Sara and Cynthia started on veggies and burgers, and looked around for Sylvia.

"She's in with Mama," Sara volunteered.

"Well, Mama doesn't need to be watched every minute," I said. "I need her help out here." I marched into Sadie's bedroom ready to lay into Sylvia.

I'd expected to see her sitting in the chair, but she was in the bed with the covers pulled up to her chin. "Sylvia, what's wrong? Are you sick?" I asked.

She turned her head toward me and said weakly, "Not exactly."

"What's the matter?" I asked. "Is the party getting you down? I know that party back in April was the last really fun time you had with your mother."

"I was thinkin' about that," she replied, "but it's the money."

"What money? What are you talking about?" I asked. Then it dawned on me. "Did you lose a lot of money at the casino?"

"Lost every penny I had with me," she said. "Barely had the gas to get home."

"So you start fresh and don't go back there ever again."

She shook her head, the most movement I'd seen so far. "I'm busted. Thought I'd make it back with the on-line poker but I lost there too and they took everything in my bank account, but it wasn't enough. And I can't make it up because I ran out of unemployment."

No wonder she'd tried to win big at the tables – it was either that or actually get a job. I patted her shoulder and told her, "I know things look bad, but they'll get better. You stay here and rest, and come on out in awhile."

Sylvia didn't join the party that day and when I checked on the girls a few days later she was still in bed with her mother. I intended to pull her out of bed and get her back to her life, though how I'd convince her to go back to work was another matter. In the back of my mind I think I knew what was coming, but it shocked me all the same.

When I pulled back the covers I could see that Sylvia had begun the change too. It was happening faster this time, though whether it was because she was in close physical contact with the changed Sadie or simply because Sylvia had been so depressed I'm not sure. She was already at the stage of having no arms or legs.

She saw the look on my face and told me, "It's okay because now I don't hafta sleep on the couch."

By the end of September Sylvia's change was complete. She and Sadie looked like two grubs lying there in the bed. I could tell them apart because the few bits of hair left on Sadie's head were snow-white, while Sylvia's was dirty-blonde. Sylvia would wiggle closer to Sadie, who immediately squirmed away. It seemed that even at this stage they couldn't comfort each other.

Sara and Cynthia didn't seem too upset at this turn of events. They seemed to view it as less work they'd have to do picking up after her. At my insistence they bestirred themselves to pull Sylvia's furniture onto the driveway and have a garage sale in the hope of making a few bucks, though it was in such bad shape they ended up giving most of it away. I tried to play mediator when they fought over her clothes, but decided it wasn't worth the effort.

* * *

Another month passed without any mishaps, and remarkably few fights. Guess I should've known it was too good to be true. Three days before everything had been fine (well, as fine as possible under the circumstances) but on my next visit I knew something was wrong the moment Sara let me into the house. That rank earthy smell was stronger, and the house was in disarray.

"It's Cynthia, isn't it?" I asked, dreading to hear the answer.

"Yup," Sara replied. "Come see for yerself."

She led the way to the bedroom and I could see a third lump under the covers. Cynthia's head was on the pillow, her body lying still under the blanket.

"Cynthia, honey, what happened?"

She opened her eyes to look at me, but didn't move her head. "Margins," she said quietly.

"Margins?" I asked. "What are you talking about?"

"We needed money, so I started buying stock on margin."

"You didn't!" I said it before I thought, realizing a moment too late that she didn't need to be told it'd been a bad idea.

"Thought I knew what I was doing, but it got outta hand," she muttered. "Stocks went down and I had to pay; had to sell everything. It's all gone, ain't got nothin' left."

"Then the worst is over," I told her. "Come on and get up and get some fresh air. The world will look better tomorrow."

She closed her eyes and said, "It's okay because my leg don't hurt no more since I ain't walkin' on it. Hungry."

I looked at Sara and she just shook her head and began feeding Cynthia. The covers writhed and Sadie and Sylvia poked their heads out, mouths open, begging for food. Sara patiently squirted broth into all three mouths until the can was empty and she had to open another.

This time I expected Cynthia's change to happen faster, and it did. Within two weeks there were three caterpillars tangled up in the bed; wisps of white, blonde, and red hair being the only obvious difference. Sara seemed to take it in stride, feeding them three times a day and continuing to talk to them. The wiggling forms did seem to respond to their names, but quickly lost interest if the attention didn't result in food.

Again for awhile things went reasonably well. I often had to 'remind' Sara to pick things up or do dishes, but with just her living there the house didn't get that messy. She'd long since given up helping out at the church, even when I offered to stay with the family. We'd learned that the larva could be left alone for several hours (as long as they were well fed first) but Sara seemed to have lost interest in going out. She seemed to feel that her job was to stay with them and take care of them. What else could she do?

I got sick at Christmas time, a bad case of strep throat. I didn't want to give it to Sara, and wasn't at all sure what it would do to the grubs. It was ten days before I felt well enough to bundle up and cross the street to Sadie's house.

I knew right away something was wrong. The house was usually dark, but somehow it seemed too quiet. I knocked on the door but got no response. Had I infected Sara before I knew I was sick? She'd put the car in the garage after Sylvia's stuff had been cleared out, so I couldn't tell if she'd gone somewhere. I let myself in with my key.

I flipped the light switch by the door, but nothing happened. The wiring was old, maybe it'd shorted out. But when I tried a lamp it didn't work either. I called Sara's name but got no reply. Maybe she'd gone to the grocery store, probably needed more broth.

I took my coat off and walked into the kitchen. It was tidy, not even a cereal bowl in the sink. There were three cases of broth on the table, so that wasn't it. There was a receipt on top, dated yesterday evening. It dawned on me that it was cold in the house. I checked the thermostat; it was set at 80 but the heater didn't seem to be working. The power must be off.

I ran into the bedroom to check on the larvae. Even in the dim light I could see four lumps in the bed. Sara had joined the nest of siblings. She must've been there since yesterday, which meant they were all hungry.

I had to dig through the kitchen drawer to find an old mechanical can opener, but I got the can open and ran in to feed the family. Sara seemed to rouse a bit afterwards, she opened her eyes and tried to speak. Her voice was weak and I had to strain to understand her.

"I knew you'd come," she whispered.

Money was the problem once again. She hadn't wanted to worry me by telling me that her ex-husband had quit sending the alimony checks. Apparently that happened about the time of Sylvia's change. She figured since it was just her and Cynthia they wouldn't need as much and could get by. But then Cynthia had changed too. A letter had come demanding Cynthia get a checkup to confirm she was still unable to work, and of course she couldn't do that. So that check had stopped coming as well.

The electric company had shut off service for non-payment, and she knew I was sick and couldn't help. She said she'd waited as long as she could, but she was lonely and afraid and didn't know what else to do.

At first I thought it was my own fault. I'd taken care of things for them all instead of making them stand on their own two feet. I sat by the bed for two hours, thinking about it. The pace of the change had accelerated in each case, meaning that Sara's would be complete in days. Would I have to keep on taking care of them? What would happen if I didn't?

Eventually I realized that they'd used me – and I'd allowed it. They'd each given up and reverted to some simple form that required nothing but that somebody else take care of it. I had no idea how it had worked, but they'd all gotten their wish. After all my work and caring, they'd happily allowed me to take over their very lives without a 'please' or 'thank you'.

Suddenly I was angry. Angry at them all for being so weak, lazy, and unwilling to try to make their lives better. Angry at them for always wanting the easy way out. Angry at them for assuming I would take care of them and once again they wouldn't have to do anything to help themselves.

I stood up and addressed the room. "Ladies, I've had it," I announced in a firm, loud voice. "I'm walking out of here, and I'm not ever coming back. I'm tired of being used. I've watched you all turn your lives over to someone else in the hope that they love you enough to make your life easy. You all wanted to come home to Mama, but you never understood that she didn't want to be responsible for herself, let alone you."

I could see the grubs moving around under the blanket, crawling over Sara's body and coming together in a wiggling knot as if seeking assurance that the others would help. Sara never moved.

"The truth is, I love you enough to let you be responsible for yourselves," I continued. "Each of you has a decision to make. You did this to yourselves, and you can un-do it if you want to. You can change back into human beings who are willing to do whatever it takes to build a life for yourselves, or you can lie there in that safe, comfortable, easy nest you've built until you die. It's up to you now. Goodbye."

As I walked out of the room I heard Sara say, "It's okay because now I can be with Mama."

27