There was no way Alice had fit all that into one suitcase. Gretchen accepted the coffee but waved off questions about her sore throat. She rocked thoughtfully as Alice fretted about her being too ill for the clinic visit later in the day. “Mom? You’re looming.”
Alice dropped down next to the sleepy cat with an approving look at her handiwork. “When did you say the Recluse was coming back?” Alice asked.
“I’d rather hear about these…relics you’ve hauled 3,000 miles. He’s coming back tomorrow.” Alice had nothing to worry about, she’d barely have a minute to herself.
“We have to go today, you know. I can’t stay.”
“Yes, yes.” It was Genetic Reparative Therapy (GRT) Orientation Day, fine, whatever.
Alice went to refill her cup. “I was going through some boxes of you kids’ old junk. Did I tell you I was cleaning the attic?” Alice shouted over the sink’s running water.
“The attic’s your idea of a getaway, isn’t it? I’m always shocked when you actually get out here.” Yelling made her throat feel better.
Alice yelled back, “The attic gets me away from your father.”
The bleakness was nothing new. She asked if there were anything Alice could do about it as her mother sank back again on the couch.
“We could probably get divorced or do something. But I shouldn’t be talking to you about this, anyway.” Her sigh was weak but audible.
“If you’re not happy, that’s a big thing,” Gretchen said.
Alice rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ll tell you this: His little sausage hobby has made me feel as if I’m living with Death himself, in his little basement kingdom, where he scrupulously – “ Alice’s hands clutched the air – “makes use of every little scrap that might get wasted, and the worst part of it is –“
“The wurst?” Gretchen tried to lighten things up.
Alice coughed a dry laugh. “The vurst part is, I now dislike sausage.”
“Yeah, that’s the worst, all right,” Gretchen said. “You need a therapist like nobody’s business.”
“Probably. But it’s not going to happen,” Alice said.
“You need to come to terms with Death,” Gretchen said. “Get some marriage counseling.”
“You mean, with your father?”
“Yeah, marriage counseling typically involves two people. Sometimes the two people are even married to each other.”
“We’re not going for marriage counseling. I see enough of him as it is.”
“How do you expect anything to get better?”
“I think you have your own little grimnesses. Not wanting a little gene fixing up? Acting like your life couldn’t be better?”
Alice pointed at her.
“What are you clearing out, anyway? You’re not throwing away my childhood, are you?”
“How can I throw away something that hasn’t ended, dear?”
Alice looked for somewhere to put her cup down, settled for the floor, and neatly changed the subject by picking up the first relic. “Do you remember her? I got her for you when you were still a baby.” It was a red-haired baby doll in a scrap of white cotton shirt.
Gretchen sat up. “I do! Mrs. Allman caught me rocking her and I felt like an idiot.”
“When was this?”
“I was…four? She asked me about ‘my baby’ and all I could think was, ‘Do you really think I think this a baby?’ Then she asks me if it had a name and I couldn’t come up with even one that sounded right.”
“Are you sure this was when you were four? Because I don’t remember you being neurotic. At that age.”
“I said ‘Dolly’ and I swear to you, at the time, it was the most embarrassing moment of my life.”
Alice’s eyes widened. “My god, I had no idea you were such a damaged child. Really.”
“They do say a child’s strongest influence is her parent of the same gender. Mom.”
“She was a lovely doll,” Alice said, looking to Gretchen’s left, the side where memories are.
“And yet she was the catalyst for an early trauma. How is old Dolly?”
“What do you think?” Alice brandished Dolly like a triumphant warrior with a severed head. “Look at her. Faded, hanging in there. I feel we have much in common.”
Gretchen felt the old resistance to the doll’s charms. “I wonder how Mrs. Allman is. Throw her this way.”
“I’m not throwing her.” After handing the doll to Gretchen, Alice sat back down. “I suspect Mrs. Allman has long since gone to the big dollhouse in the sky.”
“We may never know, given we moved away about 30 years ago.” Gretchen’s free hand touched the rubbery infant in its tatters on her lap. Nope, Dolly felt as stiff and awkward as she always had. “You should give Dolly to Tornado. Take a picture of her in his mouth and send it to me.”
“I’m putting her on your bed for the next time you come home.”
“Give her to the Rooster.” The Rooster was Alice’s only grandchild, son of Derek and Brigid.
“The Rooster has Bernard, his cat, now. He won’t even notice a doll.”
“Well, let’s move on to the next.”
Alice tossed her the second gift, a dark blue paperback that landed on top of Dolly in Gretchen’s lap, making her gasp with laughter and ask, “Where did you find this?” But it was the third, the final gift, that made her sit back and say, “Oh good god.”
Grattan Street in San Francisco’s Cole Valley was a quiet place by city standards. It ran a mere few blocks between Belvedere and Stanyan, which meant three lengths of tall trees shading shingled family homes and small apartment buildings like the one in which Gretchen and the Recluse lived. The Upper Haight was only five or six blocks to the north but its waves of human traffic never even came close to flooding this far in.
Coming out in the early morning (and late afternoon) through the building’s red-painted gate, covered by its masses of night-blooming jasmine, one’s view might be drawn upward to the dark pines on Tank Hill just blocks away with cascades of rolling fog across their tops, a silent train of white gliding by. These diurnal events turned their railroad apartment’s coziness to something dark and narrow, its shortcomings (no central heat or laundry, sketchy appliances, worn linoleum) closer to down-and-out than down-at-heel charm.
After having deposited her gifts and refilled Gretchen’s cup once more, Alice went out mid-morning to replenish the household coffee supply. It can be assumed she noted the current lack of fog as she exited the gate, and regretted missing the earlier spectacle; its quiet drama was a deep, wordless pleasure. Alice truly enjoyed a city neighborhood where she could walk around and do small chores. The tiny Connecticut town she lived in was still, she reminded Gretchen, too cheap for sidewalks though the dirt pathways in the numerous colonial graveyards did make for interesting shortcuts in the nicer weather.
Alone in the morning quiet, Gretchen was reading the dark-blue paperback and the traffic and shouts, the pines and fog, the dim hallway and jasmine were forgotten. If Gretchen were to close her eyes and try to imagine the scene from some random angle, she would have seen a high-backed, bottle green velvet rocker sidled up against the wall-mounted radiator, the 19th-century gloom of a room lit by two undressed windows on this gray day, books unmoored from shelves and adrift on tables; she would have sensed the rumor of sweetness from the spears of purple hyacinths potted on the coffee table, called to duty as Alice’s favorite flower; the hum of the refrigerator in the next room and Phoenicia’s delicate adenoidal snore from the couch; herself, a crimson-robed Gretchen with mashed fair hair, droopy socks on feet lightly brushing the floorboards, and a chest that rose and fell with each breath, an extra blurt of effort on her part, and one that, on every third beat or so, sounded as a snort of sorts of satisfaction, though whether from the pleasure of the text or the breath was unclear. Her hands have already been described. Now their service was to largely lie underneath the volume on her lap, slightly, only slightly, more sophisticated instruments than the bony wrist-stalks from which they bloomed. Her fingers were as weak as petals (are petals weak?), their regressive contractures defying nature by moving to bud from flower. The right hand had not grown into bud as swiftly as the left and its index petal (not itself so weak, more a member of the hyacinth’s waxy-stiff brigade, named for Apollo’s beloved discus-thrower, fatally brained by the same, and immortalized as metal to the petal) turned the pages deftly enough without needing to enlist the long-enfolded thumb. This right-left strength asymmetry was echoed in Gretchen’s eyes, now aimed at the page. But the unflinching gaze of truth beheld: only the right had perfect vision. The left was a near-sighted weakling. The right did most of the work and allowed Gretchen the illusion that she saw well out of both eyes (until she closed the right one or relied on peripheral vision). Taken together with the myriad other demonstrations of right-hemisphere dominance in Gretchen’s body, it was of no surprise that her crimson-robed figure would be altogether bent, fundamentally skewed, subtly to the right. Might makes right. Droit morale.
None of this was of particular notice to Gretchen, except when pages, needing to be turned, stuck, rousing her momentarily from the deep sleep of her concentration. A good sleeper and a good reader, Gretchen could be woken any number of times and fall back into her previous state almost immediately. Thus the Recluse’s stride into the living-room made Gretchen yelp, and Phoenicia sit up, wide-eyed.
It was the strange phenomenon of the Recluse. How such a tall man, reasonably muscular, could soundlessly traverse their long creaking hallway floor was a mystery typical of him. Of course, he was prone to disappearing, as well, but that was an altogether different brand of puzzle.
Still in the room’s doorway, he dumped his red duffel bag on the floor and let out a big breath, smiling over crossed arms at the haphazard Gretchen in her rocking chair.
“I see you haven’t moved since I left,” he said.
Sensible people who have lived together for a period of time may sometimes greet each other as warily as do strangers only because people living together may become accustomed, and sometimes overly sensitized, to strangenesses of mood that good sense would meet with caution. These sensible yet sensitive people are careful. Responding carelessly to a strange mood can lead to a fight that could have been avoided by temporarily treating the loved one as if he were a new acquaintance or a dog of unknown reputation. The prescribed amount and duration of distance is inversely proportionate to the depth and duration of the closeness of relation.
Gretchen’s math skills were poor. In addition to that deficit, she was not always sensible regarding the Recluse. Today, she sensed a preoccupation and, with her typical carelessness, was about to address it head-on when the Recluse’s attention latched onto one of Alice’s gifts and, following his glance, she was distracted.
They were looking upon the oddest and bulkiest of the three items. Despite giving a first impression of being in the medieval torture-garment family, its molded plastic parts dated it as a modern medical contraption, likely designed to be worn. It sat leaning back on the couch, propped stiffly against the cushion, and effortlessly shoving Gretchen into the memory of being jacketed within it, or one of its predecessors.
“Proust got a cookie,” Gretchen said. “I got this.”
The non-cookie thing was a Milwaukee back-brace, used to treat scoliosis, aka curvature of the spine, which Gretchen had been treated for with such braces from the age of four until thirteen, when the increasing severity of her scoliosis meant abandoning the brace in favor of a spinal fusion surgery. Though each wearer’s Milwaukee brace was unique, they all included a thin metal collar and plastic chin rest that connected to erector set-type metal bars running down, front and back, to a snugly fitting plastic girdle that ended at the lower hips. Gretchen had worn it every day and night under her clothes and above an oversized t-shirt to protect her skin. Like all her braces, this one’s neck-ring had dingy white moleskin still covering much of it, wrapped around it by Alice decades before to keep the metal parts from pulling her daughter’s hair. Though not quite visible from her chair, she knew there was a shiny screw-piece on the back of the neck-ring that Alice had fastened and unfastened each time she put the brace on her daughter or took it off. That was one fastening; the other was a stout leather buckle at the waist, relic of a pre-Velcro age. Both fastenings were in the back; the wearer depended on another to get in or out.
Judging by its size, Gretchen guessed she’d worn this one when she was around eleven. Hard to say, harder to remember how many there’d actually been. A brace had to fit exactly. All had been fashioned by first making a plaster-cast mold of her torso, which guided the craftsman in the hospital’s brace shop. Each finished brace had strategically placed pads to press on certain vertebrae, to prevent further curvature before strength-building exercises did their work. The placement of this brace’s four leather pads were her curvature’s individual code. They’d been like stubborn hands molding her, or trying to. Technically, the brace had failed (in medical lingo, she’d failed the treatment) because she’d ended up needing the fusion but it had been far from complete failure. She’d reached most of her growth before the surgery. And – far more important to Gretchen – the “failure” took the brace out of her life when she was thirteen, rather than the predicted twenty-two.
The Recluse leaned over it, one finger touching the chin-rest. Phoenicia stretched out and curled up against it before going back to sleep.
The Recluse was musing, “I cannot believe you wore this thing,” when Alice pushed through the front door with a cautious hello.
Gretchen peered down the hall. “Mom, you can see me right here.”
“Are you alive?”
“No. Now think carefully about what that answer must mean for you.”
“I’m better off. Oh, hello.” Alice stood on her tiptoes to hug the Recluse. “My goodness, I see you’re meeting the past.” The Recluse made a horrified face and Alice laughed, patting his arm.
Turning to Gretchen, Alice asked, “How are you feeling?”
Gretchen waved off the Recluse’s questioning look. “My throat’s better but I want to nap before I get dressed.”
“Stop!” Alice shouted, both hands in the air. Gretchen froze, mid-rock. The Recluse became a statue, eyes darting.
Alice stooped in front of Gretchen and plucked the feckless Dolly from the rocker’s destructive path. The expression she directed toward her daughter was meaningful. The Recluse raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t know what it is between you and that doll,” Gretchen said, starting to rise from the chair. She paused midway, bent at the waist, both hands pushing on the armrests, and glumly watching her book, the one Alice had brought, slide to the floor.
“We have to leave about two, I’d guess,” Alice said. She and the Recluse began discussing routes and he said he’d drive them if they could cab it back. Gretchen made for her room, being extra careful not to fall over her own feet, as she wasn’t wearing her orthotics. All she needed was for Alice to witness a fall.
The three of them ended up in Gretchen’s tiny bedroom, leaving Dolly, the brace, and the book unattended.
“Only two competing caretakers are left,” Gretchen said as they stood at the foot of her bed. “Which one of you has what it takes to take care of genetically unrepaired me?”
Gretchen had sleep apnea and had used a machine to back up her breathing since her mid-twenties, almost 10 years ago. Lying down, her breaths were too shallow and infrequent for her body to fall asleep without the support and, if she somehow did, she wouldn’t exhale. That would be very bad.
The plastic mask fit over her nose, and was connected to a fabric cap, the thing all held together with four Velcro straps. Coming out of the center of the mask was a plastic hose like a vacuum cleaner’s that connected the headgear to the boxy machine next to her bed. It made her look like a deep-sea diver. Her brother Derek called her machine, known to the uninitiated as a Bi-PAP S/T, the Breathe-Easy 3000.
“Please, Alice,” the Recluse said. “I insist.”
“I don’t know,” Alice said. “You’ve been away…’
Gretchen, with an elaborate display of ham-handed effort, put the cap over her hair, the plastic hose and mask dangling off to the side. She looked like an elephant putting her trunk on. The Recluse went to sit next to her, and centered the cap on her head. “What’s your mother going to think?” he clucked. He started to ease the mask over her nose. “Hey, hey, turn the machine on first so I get some air coming in while you’re fastening it.” He flipped the switch. A low whoosh filled the room.
He turned to look at Alice. “I do know what I’m doing,” he said.
The machine, set on a ten-second timed interval, pumped eighteen pounds’ pressure of room air up Gretchen’s nose, and in the following lull, sucked it back out in the form of carbon dioxide, protecting her from both oxygen deprivation and carbon dioxide narcosis while she slept. Carbon dioxide narcosis was what killed people who had hypothermia. Or who put plastic bags over their heads.
Gretchen had to time her speaking for the machine’s down-beat. “Don’t believe a word he says,” she said. “He’s a liar, and what’s more – ,” she was interrupted by a burp of air shooting up her nose down into her chest, forcing her to breathe deeply. “You people have no idea how good that feels,” she said when it was over. It also made her even sleepier, that rhythm.
She swung her legs back under the covers and lay down, asleep almost instantly. Her eyes opened once, and she said something garbled to Alice about towels. Alice said, “Tell me later.”
The Recluse and Alice were leaving the room when a voice, seemingly steeped in the Lower East Side, sighed to itself, “Oy, that a simple breath should make me feel like a girl again.” Alice said quietly to the Recluse, “Mark my words, she’ll be asking for a pastrami sandwich by the end of the day.”
But Gretchen was not yet quite asleep and her attention drifted back up to the ceiling like a balloon, and she imagined she was watching these two people walk down the hallway; the Recluse’s head would have to seem much closer, wouldn’t it, him being so much taller than her mother. She saw them walk by the book, oblivious to it lying by the chair. Their conversation interested her less. She presumed they would talk about her and GRT, and that they were relieved to have these topics to occupy them, and in much of this she was right. Before she fell properly asleep she half-dreamed, half-remembered years of childhood as great, sweeping, floating chunks; jagged above the surface but of vast and invisible goodness under the waterline. Dolly and the brace floated in full view, as Sentiment and Hardship generally do.
“I’m glad you’re back early,” Alice said. “So you can go with us.” This was true but it didn’t mean she was completely won over by the Recluse. Every time she visited — this was the fourth time – she enjoyed his company but she was troubled by his ambiguous line of work. Alice didn’t love her job as a teacher after twenty-plus years but she would have been mortified to be known as someone who didn’t work hard. The Recluse didn’t seem to work – or to want anything. Except to meditate.
“I care about Gretchen very much,” he said. The sound of the Breathe Easy wafted down the hall like a winged Hoover Upright where Gretchen slept. “But I’m not sure what I could bring to the appointment.” He noted the time and mentioned they could give her another thirty minutes.
Alice remembered Derek’s nickname for his sister’s boyfriend: the Recliner. “Don’t you want to hear what they have to say?” She folded her arms, thinking.
“How does she look to you?” he asked.
Alice and the Recluse had compared notes before. “She’s lost ground. Weight, muscle really. It’s progressive and its progressing.” she said. Why is my daughter working full-time when you’re not? If you care about her why won’t you come with us?
The Recluse mused, “I can’t believe how lucky she is that that clinic tracked her down.”
“How much has she talked to you about it?” Alice asked.
“She said she had some doubts about it but then she said the appointment would be okay, so I thought, Great.” He got up to get a glass of water at the sink. “Anything I should know?”
“She’s definitely thinking about not doing it.”
He sat down again, his face somehow more impassive than before. “Well, one step at a time. And you probably want to be getting ready to go yourself.” He stood up. “I’ve got a backseat to clear out.”
She gave him a cheery smile and said, “Oh, don’t go crazy. I can move things aside.”
He assured her it was no trouble and, more quickly and quietly than Alice at first realized, disappeared out the front door.
That left Alice sitting at the table, wondering if it was time to wake up her daughter, when a crease-faced Gretchen sat down. “I’m awake.”
“Is the machine still on?”
“Yeah, I wanted to sneak up on you.”
“How charming. Are you well?”
“Yes.” Her throat felt fine. “Where’s the boy?”
“Cleaning the car.”
This made Gretchen laugh. She blinked several times and rubbed her face. “Of the bookcases and boxes of books laying around the house, why did you bring Ritual Magic?”
Alice shrugged. “I have no idea. Except I remember you reading it. It was an easy size to pack. Does it really matter to you?”
Gretchen raised both arms in the air — stretching? making the sign of the Kabbalistic cross? — and said, “Fifteen minutes with it today and I’m suddenly eleven years old again.”
Alice made a predictably dry comment about the predictability of Gretchen’s eleven year oldness while, forlorn, Dolly and the Milwaukee watched from, respectively, the side table and the floor next to the couch. A book had beaten them. But the brace clung to hope that the clinic visit would cause a last-minute upset.
There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe is an unpublished coming-of-middle-age crip lit novel. Within the broader realm of literature featuring characters with disabilities — #DisLit and memoir — #CripLit presents an understanding of disability using the lens of the social model. It eschews disability as a narrative device and shortcut for conveying sentimentality, heroism, and disaster to readers.