Past Life by Maisy Card
Irene decided not to mention her mother’s death to Betty when she went into work that morning. For one thing, Betty already had no regard for professional boundaries, as Irene had learned over the past year, while working as her home health aide. And for another, Betty was obsessed with the dead; she had undergone past life regression therapy on a weekly basis for ten years. The old woman was scheduled for a session that day, and Irene was afraid that if she mentioned her mother, Betty would insist on conducting a séance or putting her into a hypnotic trance, so she could speak to her mother’s ghost. As soon as Irene heard Dr. Ingram’s car pull into the driveway, she told Betty she needed to go up to the attic to dust.
“But I need you, Irene,” Betty said. “I need you to make sure my guys don’t get me in trouble.” That was what she called the people Dr. Ingram convinced her she used to be and could become again for an afternoon, “her guys.”
“Make Dr. Ingram earn him money,” Irene said and turned and hurried upstairs. A month ago she’d found a check made out to Dr. Ingram that Betty had left on the coffee table. She paid him $120 an hour for his sessions, while Irene made $8.50. That morning, $8.50 was not nearly enough for Irene to listen to all of Betty’s made up stories about the transcendent lives and deaths of strangers.
Irene was eager to busy her mind with her work. Most of the time, she approached domestic work for Betty and her own family with visible resentment. In Jamaica she’d always had servants after all, helpers who took care of her more diligently than her own mother. It was the servants who made sure that she and her little brother were fed every day and walked to school. Though she was grateful to them, she had never once aspired to become them. No one had told her that in America, “home health aide,” to many people, was just another way to say “maid.” But that day, she filled her mind by making a list of every chore she could possibly accomplish within the next seven and a half hours.
While dusting upstairs, she thought about how there was really no need for therapy to help Betty remember her past life. The attic was a museum for her first daughter Lucy’s childhood artifacts—ruined toys had been stowed in every closet and corner. They sat on the shelves of an antique china cabinet, in place of the plates. Betty had kept every one of her daughter’s baby dolls, with their dented heads and torn out hair, their filthy crayon-stained faces, as if she thought that one day that abusive child might come back for them.
Looking at the dolls made Irene need a cigarette, a habit that she’d managed to cut down to only a few times a month. She’d smoked heavily during her first six months in America. Growing up, Irene had never seen a woman smoke before. Her mother had always told her that smoking was only for “bar women and bulldaggers.” She now kept an emergency pack hidden in the attic, behind a ratty brown teddy bear with one black button eye missing. The bear was an alien amongst the attic’s plastic and porcelain doll society.
She knelt with her head out the window, her elbows resting on the windowsill as she smoked. It wasn’t to hide the smell. Since her knee surgery, Betty rarely made it all the way up to the attic anymore. Irene just couldn’t stand the thought of all those vacant little eyes staring at her. If she accidentally met a pair, she couldn’t keep her gaze for more than a few seconds.
She inhaled and exhaled deeply so that she coughed; she did so on purpose, as if hoping the smoke could stir and expel something she could feel blocked within her. She could not yet feel her mother’s absence from the world. She hadn’t seen Vera in two years; she had moved further and further from Jamaica—first to Miami and then to Brooklyn—so that she wouldn’t have to, until it had become normal not to think of her.
Irene looked at her watch and realized that the session was well under way by now. Usually, Dr. Ingram had a recorder set up in the dining room with one of his grad students simultaneously transcribing. Irene usually helped the students pack up the equipment when it was all over and then listened from a distance as they mocked Betty’s impressions of the dead.
“Them take you for fool, Betty,” Irene said after each session, but she paid no attention to Irene’s advice. Whenever Betty found Irene reading a book during her lunch break, she always said, “oh look at you, Irene,” in the same tone that she used to speak to her cat Ruffles when he fell asleep on his back, exposing his furry belly, almost like a person.
After her therapy Betty usually didn’t respond to her own name. She walked around the house studying her keepsakes, as if seeing them for the first time. She believed she was channeling a personality from one of her past lives.
In one life, Dr. Ingram let Betty believe that she’d been an Incan girl ritually sacrificed at the top of a volcano, in order to appease the gods—in another she had been a little boy who walked ten miles home alone after getting struck by lightning, just to say goodbye to his mother. Betty could describe their last moments in excruciating detail.
Irene heard the noise of Dr. Ingram packing up his equipment and watched from the window as he walked to the driveway and dumped his briefcase in his car. Irene quickly withdrew into the room, and after she heard Dr. Ingram’s Lexus SUV pull out of the driveway, she threw her cigarette butt against the china cabinet glass and watched it bounce off, its ashes scattering all over the floor. The eyes of the little blonde dolls behind the glass suddenly appeared wide and frightened. She began slowly walking down to the living room.
Sometimes Irene joked to her husband that Lucy’s ghost still haunted the house. It seemed that no matter how thoroughly she cleaned each day, she inexplicably returned to a mess only a child could make—Cheerios spilled on the floor and crushed under-foot, marker stained walls, and wads of dirty, wet paper towels left in the middle of the room. They weren’t messes she could see Betty making. Except for the days when she had her therapy, the woman spent 90 percent of her time asleep, like a cat.
Irene found Betty in the living room, rubbing her liver-spotted hands across the television screen, trying to touch the people on the other side. She stood and watched her silently from the hallway. It’s not always a good thing for you to have your feet so firmly planted on the ground, Betty once told her. But as she looked at Betty now, pretending to be in awe of the television screen, she knew the real reason that the old lady wanted to erase herself so desperately, why she needed to pretend to be somebody else. In this life, she would always be the woman who went to take a phone call for five minutes, and let her little girl drown in the swimming pool. Those five minutes would be the entire duration of her real life.
“Who even has a backyard swimming pool in Brooklyn?” Mavis, Betty’s youngest daughter had once said, when she and her sister Ethel, along with Irene, had boxed up all of Lucy’s things while Betty was at a physical therapy appointment. Later, Betty had threatened to cut them both out of the will, and they’d put everything back as it was.
It was easy to see from the way Ethel and Mavis barely called--and how when they did they asked Irene to report quickly on their mother’s condition, declining her offer to put her on the phone--that Betty had not been a good mother. When Irene watched Betty with her daughters she was similar to her own mother, self-involved and distant, though Vera had been much worse.
After Irene’s father died, Vera began to disappear and reappear without notice, or she would stay in bed for weeks at time with the windows shuttered. She barely spoke or asked them questions, except in front of company. Irene knew she’d be slapped if she questioned why her mother hadn’t come home one night--Vera was more protective of her secrets than she was of her own children.
Betty showed little interest in Mavis and Ethel lives or in her grandchildren. She talked at them endlessly about her own spiritual and psychic progress--her sessions with Dr. Ingram, her lucid dreams, her relief in knowing that the soul never truly dies. Though she never spoke about Lucy, somehow, everything managed to be about Lucy, Ethel once told Irene. Betty would fly into a rage if they mentioned Lucy as children, as if they weren't good enough to even speak her name. She was their mother, but they couldn’t stand her. Only on holidays did they bring Betty to their own homes, and last Passover they had paid Irene overtime to accompany her to a Seder at Ethel’s, mainly to silence her if she tried to speak.
“Who are you this time?” Irene asked, walking into the room, but Betty was too busy pretending, to answer. “Tell me your name,” Irene said again. She couldn’t seem to stop herself from shouting.
Betty cringed at the sound of her voice and crouched behind the loveseat. Irene walked over to her and knelt on the couch cushions, looking down at the top of Betty’s head, the sparse white fluff that barely covered her pink scalp.
“Come now, me have work to do,” Irene said. “I can’t play with you for too long, Betty. You don’t pay me enough. Let we get through this.” She put her hand under Betty’s chin and made her look up at her. “Now, what is your name?”
“Well Elias, you want a tuna fish sandwich or chicken soup for lunch?”
“I want you to take your bloody hands off me,” she said. “You’re hurting my neck.” Irene thought it was a decent attempt at a British accent. Betty had even managed to sound younger, somehow removing a bit of the gravel from her voice. Irene let go of Betty’s chin.
“If you want to play games, then you get no lunch.” Irene hadn’t meant to hurt her neck, but she figured Betty wouldn’t tell the agency on her. Otherwise, she would have to admit she had been pretending. When she was through playing a character, she rarely admitted any memories.
“Me will get back to my work then. You can finish playing your game. If I don’t see you again, it was nice to meet you.”
Elias went back to discovering the TV, and Irene went down to the basement to start the laundry. The light bulb had blown out, but Irene wasn’t in the mood to replace it. It was overcast outside, so she was in the near dark unloading the laundry--the only light coming from a tiny rectangular window and a flashlight--when she heard feet on the stairs.
“You Betty now?” She shouted.
Neither Betty nor Elias replied. She listened as the feet moved across the basement’s concrete floor. Betty dragged her right foot, the one with the bad knee, behind her when she walked. These footsteps seemed more pronounced.
“Whose house is this?” Betty asked. “Where’s the cook?’
Irene could only see the white of Betty’s eyes and her hair, so bright they made her look like her head was floating.
“Is what you need the cook for?” Irene said, kissing her teeth. “You did have your chance for lunch, madam, and now it gone.”
“I’ve got to turn the roast. The cook will butcher me if I let the roast burn,” she said.
“Ah, so you one servant this time!”
“What time is it?” Betty said.
“If you are a servant, you need to help me with this laundry.”
“I’ve got to turn the roast.”
“The cook--him find someone else. Come help me with these clothes. You look like strong man,” Irene said. “How old are you, Elias?”
“Good. Elias, you have work to do. Pass me that basket full of clothes,” she said pointing down at Betty’s feet. “It should be easy for a strong boy man you.” She watched as Betty struggled to lift the basket. She managed to pick it up a few inches off the ground before her knees buckled and she had to allow the thing to fall out of her arms.
“I’m weak,” Betty said, staring at her two hands. “I must be sick.”
“More true-true words never been spoken.”
Irene bent down and started transferring the laundry from the floor to the washing machine.
“What’s that smell?” Betty asked.
“Piss. Them don’t piss where you come from?”
Betty covered her nose with her hand.
“Our missus can’t hold her pee pee, and she too proud to wear grownup pampers, so is I who have to wash for her every single day.”
Betty didn’t reply. Irene couldn’t see her expression--the sky had turned a deep gray, the sun was completely hidden behind rain clouds, leaving the room too dark--but Irene hoped that her words had cut Betty. She hoped that she was finally through for the day, and would go to bed early.
“You back to being Betty now?” Irene asked.
“The roast…If I get in trouble, I’ll tell them it was you...you black bitch.”
She was taken aback. Betty had never insulted her before, no matter who she was pretending to be. She wondered if she was paying Irene back for the basket or for her neck.
Irene could see nothing and couldn’t fold and hold the flashlight at the same time. She would have to change the bulb. She was tempted to run upstairs and close the door, leaving Betty alone in the cold dark basement, but she grabbed Betty’s hand and started to lead her toward the stairs.
“I need you to get out of my way, Elias.”
“I told you to take your hands off me,” said Betty. Irene pulled Betty’s arm; she knew she was being rougher than usual, and so Betty had to let her lead her upstairs and sit her down on the couch. Irene saw that Betty had a cobweb in her hair from the basement. She began plucking it out, but then Betty slapped her hand away.
“Alright,” Irene said, feeling the acrimony rise. Once, when she was six, her mother had been in bed, catatonic for nearly a week. After shouting at Vera for hours brought no response, Irene became so frustrated that she poured the contents of Vera’s chimmy--her chamber pot--over her head. It had taken both Bernard, their yard boy, and Louisa, their maid at the time, to pry Vera’s hands from around Irene’s neck. The marks took weeks to fade, but still she thought about them, she knew that Vera’s anger had never matched her own.
Irene found herself running to the attic and pulling one of Lucy’s dolls out of the China Cabinet—an especially ugly bald one, missing both of its eyes. She brought it downstairs and placed it on Betty’s lap.
“Go ahead and pretend you don’t remember you let her die,” Irene said. Betty looked down at the doll and batted it off her lap in disgust. Irene picked it up and tried to make her hold it, but Betty fought, flailing her arms wildly at Irene, until she managed to slap it out of her hands and onto the floor again.
“I don’t play with no bloody dolls!” she shouted as Elias.
Irene stared at Betty, shocked that she wouldn’t give up, but then she noticed the old lady’s bottom lip quivering slightly. Emboldened, she continued in an even calmer voice:
“It was you. You should have been watching her. You should have been a better mother.”
“I don’t have to listen to you, you damn witch,” she said, swallowing a sob quickly. She turned her back to Irene and buried her face into the couch; Irene knew she’d won.
She left the room feeling equally proud, equally ashamed of herself. She would prepare Betty’s lunch. If she didn’t eat it, they couldn’t say it was her fault. When Irene came back into the living room with the sandwich, Betty was still lying on the sofa with her back to her. Shemoved closer and peered over Betty’s shoulder. This time her knees were drawn up, tucked into her stomach, a position that Irene knew must have been painful for her. She was sucking her thumb noisily, a streak of dried tears and snot still visible on her face. The doll was pressed against her chest and Betty’s eyes were closed. Irene knew that she had gone way too far.
She sat in an armchair next to her, staring at Betty’s back until she began to snore.
When Betty passed it would be Irene, not her daughters who found her. If Betty woke now, as Betty, and not someone else, Irene knew that she would look around the room, frightened, and call out to her. She got up from the chair and tried to shake Betty awake so she could apologize. She wanted to tell her that her mother was dead, and that she wished that she could cry—she feared that she couldn’t—but Betty wouldn’t stir, and Irene was afraid she would hurt her again if she shook too hard.
Staring at Betty’s sleeping back, Irene decided that the only way to atone was by going back into the kitchen to prepare Betty’s dinner for that night.
In the middle of chopping vegetables, she heard the sound of a child laughing, and when she went back into the living room, she found that it was Betty, still asleep in the same position. She would pause for a moment, mumble, and laugh again, having a funny conversation with someone in her dream.
She had suspected that sometimes, when Betty was alone, she pretended to be Lucy--that it was Lucy who she wished could possess her all along. Those other souls were just practice. Irene watched her for a few minutes and then went back to the kitchen.
As she looked into the backyard, she thought about how the same year she poured the chamber pot on Vera, she had awoken weeks before in the middle of the night to the sound of laughter. She had looked out the kitchen window where she saw her mother running naked, Vera’s body illuminated every few moments by the light of a lantern, then fading away into the darkness. Their yard boy, Bernard, was chasing her, and when he finally caught her, he pushed her body down onto the dirt, and they made love by the lantern light. She had never heard her mother laugh like that in her presence, and she never would again.
But that is how Irene’s husband found her that night--standing in their backyard, completely naked, alone, and laughing.
“You was laughing like some madwoman,” he told her after. “Me did ‘fraid the neighbors would wake up and see you.” He’d had to drag her inside and hold her under cold water to wake her up. “You was sleepwalking,” he said, looking down at her as she sat on the edge of tub drying herself off. He hovered over her, tensely, as if preparing himself in case she tried to run off and he had to catch her. She didn’t tell him that she’d been awake the whole time—as she imagined her mother laying in her coffin, as she peeled off her clothes, as she stood feeling the chilly air on her skin, and as the loud fits of laughter exploded from her, puncturing the serenity of the night like shrapnel. She’d felt like someone else was taking over, and she had just let it happen.
© Maisy Card, 2016
Maisy Card was born on the island of Jamaica and raised in Jamaica, Queens. Both locales are featured prominently in her short stories. Maisy attained an MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College and an MLS at Rutgers University. Her fiction has been published by the Ampersand Review and the Sycamore Review. She currently lives in New Jersey, where she works as a Bookmobile Librarian and is completing a collection of stories.
Past Life was read by Frances Uku for Borders & Boundaries on 1st June 2016