by Kathryn Pritchett
Karen Young started a file called GRACIE GRACIE on her computer. GRACIE GRACIE was the return email address for Gracie Selwig and Karen’s husband had shown her how to set up the file so that every time a message from GRACIE GRACIE came into her inbox it would route it to that file and she wouldn’t have to look at it until she was ready.
Karen believed in serving the downtrodden. She really did. But GRACIE GRACIE tried her patience.
“SISTER WRIGHT CARED ABOUT ME, YOU DON’T,” was one of the first emails that Gracie sent to Karen after she agreed to take over filling out her biweekly food orders from the church welfare service. This was in response to a simple email Karen had sent to Gracie asking her if she really needed thirteen cartons of cottage cheese that week.
“WRITE TO ME IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE MY EYES ARE POOR,” was Gracie’s response. “THERE’S MICE IN MY HOUSE AND THE SUPER WON’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT AND I HAVEN’T HAD A DECENT BOWEL MOVEMENT IN THREE DAYS. I NEED LAXATIVES AND INSULIN.”
Karen loved all of God’s children. But it sure was easier to love them faraway in darkest Africa or in those countries that were behind the Iron Curtain of her youth. Loving Gracie took more saintliness than Karen currently possessed. That and caller ID.
She’d forgotten to check the caller ID screen on her bedroom phone at 6:45 that morning when Gracie called to tell her that her electric wheel chair was broken and she needed Karen to pick up her medications right now. Gracie always needed things immediately. She was like a little child that way.
But Karen had cupcakes to make for her daughter’s homeroom party and a small accounting job for a client to finish before she could run errands for Gracie. Fortunately, she knew from experience that Gracie’s demands were rarely emergencies—even the calls from the emergency room to pick her up after she’d fought with the orderlies and refused the treatment she’d demanded a few hours earlier. There was always a little wiggle room around Gracie’s demands. She told her she’d stop by later that day.
About 1:00 p.m. Karen shut down her iMac and drove over to the small CVS off Locust Avenue to pick up Gracie’s prescriptions and comparison shop laxatives. Feeling generous, she stopped by the little flower stand on the way back to her car and bought some yellow tulips, wondering if tulips were on Gracie’s approved list of flowers. Some plants gave Gracie headaches and if she brought them into the apartment she’d hear no end of it. But tulips weren’t particularly fragrant, so Karen thought they might pass muster.
She pulled into the lone parking space near Gracie’s apartment complex and tucked the tulips into the CVS bag.
“Gracie, I’m here.” She forced her voice to lilt upwards as she leaned in to the front door speaker. A long buzz and she was in the sour smelling building and headed for the elevator to take her to the third floor. The doors opened and a short parade of lavender-haired women wearing bright colors and wielding walkers emerged. A strapping repairman lugging a toolkit followed closely behind. Karen thought he looked like a member of a stage tech crew making sure that the geriatric circus would go on.
She entered the elevator, pressed the button for floor # 3 and read the bulletin board notices about the Saturday social hour and Tuesday’s trip to the library. As she turned out of the elevator on the third floor, she saw Gracie parked in her doorway. She looked like a gray-haired Betty Boop in her wheelchair—all abdomen and no neck, though a sodden hot pink hand towel was draped over her shoulders indicating where her neck should be. Most of her short hair stood on end as though it hadn’t been brushed in days, but two little spit curls swirled coquettishly on her cheeks.
“Too damn hot, today,” Gracie growled before grabbing the bag out of Karen’s hands. “Now I need you to reset the mouse trap.”
Karen didn’t do rodents. When they’d had a family of rats move into the wall of her kitchen several years back, she never saw a one of them, though her husband and son had killed almost a dozen. Once her son had stared the brazen mama rat right in the eye when he’d opened the little pantry cupboard to the left of the stove. There she was, big as a prize delicata squash, nibbling on the cheese from the sprung rattrap. Karen only heard the little rat family scurry in the kitchen walls and occasionally she’d hear the fatal snap of a trap. She always left the disposal up to the men folk.
But her generous mood continued and she thought she’d add on one more act of service. Oprah and Gayle had just been talking about SuperSizing Service last week at the end of the spring “Favorite Things” show. This was right after they’d handed out the sequined cell phone case that had a tracking device built in so you could always you’re your phone even if you left it on your table in a restaurant. Then they did a feature on charity gifts like the pink George Foreman grill that helped solve breast cancer. And then they told the audience at home how a portion of the sales of any item featured on that day’s show would be donated to Oprah’s school in Africa and Karen didn’t know whether that was the best way to solve Africa’s problems, but it seemed like if it was good enough for Oprah it was good enough for her.
By now Gracie was fishing under her bed with a red and green striped umbrella. Karen heard the familiar sickening snap of a tripped mousetrap. “Got it!” Gracie yelled, triumphantly.
Gracie lifted the umbrella up over her head and Karen saw a—thankfully—empty trap dangling from its pointed tip.
“Damn buggers took the cheese without even tripping the trap,” said Gracie. “Fill ‘er up again, would ya—there’s some moldy cheese in the fridge.”
No, no, no. Karen didn’t want to put the cheese in the trap. She didn’t want to touch any surface in Gracie’s house. Especially not the refrigerator with its assorted rancid vegetables and cartons of spoiled cottage cheese.
But channeling Oprah (and Gayle, too!) she opened the refrigerator and rustled around to find a quarter block of cheddar cheese neatly wrapped with waxed paper around the sliced end and secured with a blue rubber band.
Gracie had been right in describing it as moldy; the gray-green splotches covered the brick of cheese like sea barnacles. Had Gracie been culturing this mold just to trap her mice?
“I’ve been wondering about the tuna,” said Gracie.
“The tuna?” Karen asked as she pushed her thin blond hair behind her ears.
“Yeah, last week I ordered twenty cans but when Brother Carroll dropped off the groceries there wasn’t any tuna. The two jars of mayonnaise were there, but no tuna and what was I going to do with mayo and no tuna? You know I can’t eat anything else with these sore gums and no teeth to chew anything up that isn’t soft. But you had to give me extra milk. Four gallons! How was I going to drink FOUR GALLONS of milk?!”
“It’s like that time you sent me thirty cans of chicken noodle soup instead of the three cans I’d ordered. You knew I didn’t have room in this tiny apartment for that much soup. What were you thinking? Did you send the tuna to somebody else? Where is my tuna?”
Karen didn’t come to Gracie’s to be told she was doing a lousy job. She came to do the right thing. The good thing. The thing she was sure if she did enough she’d like doing.
Charity was the pure love of Christ. Karen had heard that time and time again, but she didn’t feel all that charitable most of the time. She was really very selfish. That was her own personal sin, she thought. All those loaves of pumpkin bread lined up on her kitchen counter to take to the sick and the needy may have looked like the calling card of a true saint, but in her heart of hearts she knew it was all a sham.
“Remember? That time? The time you sent me all that soup,” continued Gracie.
“Well we all make mistakes,” said Karen, though she knew that most of the “mistakes” in their relationship came from Gracie’s bungled orders. “It was nice of Brother Carroll to pick up the extra cases and keep them until you needed them.”
“Good thing he did cause I had the runs awful that day and if he hadn’t picked up the cases I couldn’t have gotten into the bathroom and whooeeee, then we really would have had a mess.”
Karen had had enough. She didn’t want to hear about her incompetence or Gracie’s incontinence anymore. Maybe she wasn’t Mother Teresa quite yet, but she did have her limits.
“Gracie, you can’t talk to me like this anymore. You can’t tell me what I’m doing wrong or tell me about what happens in your bathroom or swear at the bishop when you complain about his not getting back to you. You just can’t do it anymore or I won’t come here again. I won’t answer your phone calls and I won’t order your food.”
Gracie blinked at Karen through her thick, wire-rimmed glasses. Her lips flapped in and out of her toothless mouth like a traveling jellyfish. She lifted the swollen fingers of her left hand off the arm of her wheelchair and stroked the wet neck towel. Then she reached for the wheelchair controls with her right hand and before Karen could even set down the moldy cheese, Gracie rammed into her, causing the trap to go flying and Karen to go sprawling into the closet-sized bathroom. Then she slammed the door behind her and positioned the wheelchair in front of the bathroom door, effectively locking Karen in the small, pale yellow room.
“You stay in there until you say you’re sorry,” said Gracie. “I’m going out.”
Going out? Gracie claimed she couldn’t walk, but Karen had seen her leap out of the hospital wheel chairs when she’d come to pick her up from the Emergency Room after the medical personal had discharged Gracie without responding to her requests.
She’d seen her march a good half block in her bare feet, mad as hell and ready to take it out on the rescuer of the day. “Those goddamned doctors think they know what I need, they don’t know shit,” she’d start in. “They’ve never felt a day of pain in their life, I bet. I’m suing them for everything they’ve got. They’ll learn not to mess with Gracie Selwig.”
Oh yes, Karen knew how angry Gracie could be and as she pulled herself up off the ground and settled her khaki skirt back down below her knees she thought she knew how far Gracie could walk without the wheel chair. But Gracie was just crazy enough to get Paratransit to take her to another emergency room and then where would Karen be?
No one would know to look for her in Gracie’s bathroom. She pulled back the shower curtain to see if there was a vent cover she could yell through to the next room for help and found two black quivering eyes staring up at her. There in the corner of the tub was Gracie’s clever, untrapped mouse.
Karen would normally have shrieked to high heaven if she’d come across a mouse in her house. But it wouldn’t bring her husband or son running to save her so here in this small dingy bathroom cowering between the toilet and the gold-flecked laminate vanity, Karen felt unusually calm.
“No one will come if I scream,” she said to the little furry thing that shuddered in the corner of the tub.
“She’s trapped us both with that moldy cheese,” she continued. “And now she has us where she wants us, though what she’s going to do with us is anybody’s guess.”
Karen decided to lower the toilet lid and sit down. Maybe if she just breathed deeply and said a little prayer, God would figure out a way to release her from this vinyl-covered, handicap accessible prison.
“Dear Heavenly Father, I know I’m an imposter,” she started out.
“I know that I have the best intentions to serve Gracie and by serving her love Gracie, but I don’t. I think she’s a mean-spirited, lazy old hag. She manipulates anyone who comes in her path and she never says thank you. She is fat and toothless and so crude that I am morally offended by most of our conversations. “
“I try to think of her as damaged goods. I don’t think you made her this way, but I am wondering why you let life turn her into what she is. And I want to know why you put us together. Why do I have stewardship over someone so detestable?”
Her cellmate made a quick loop of the tub before curling up near the rusty drain.
“Never mind. That’s probably an answer that’s too complicated to give me by way of a still small voice in my head or a burning in my bosom. So now, I’ll just ask for you to get me out of here. Then I promise to redouble my efforts to serve this nasty, nasty woman.”
Before she could even say “Amen,” Karen was interrupted by the whir of the electric wheel chair as it backed away from the door.
She leapt to her feet and threw the door open only to find Gracie hunkered down in her chair and glaring at her.
“Damaged goods, huh. That’s what you think of me? Well, I don’t need your charity, Sister Karen holier-than-thou Young. Get out. Get out now. And take those damn tulips with you.”
“Gracie Selwig, I can’t believe you just did that to me. I could have broken my hip falling down like that,” said Karen, fuming as she lurched into the main room of the studio and faced Gracie head on. “Nevertheless, I’m sorry you heard that. Where did you go and when did you come back in the room?”
“Not long after I threw you in there. I was going to run away and leave you for good, but then my feet started hurting in the elevator and that evil sonofabitch from 315 got in on the second floor heading downstairs and I figured I’d have to wait for the Paratransit with him and then he started yammering on about how I was in violation of his restraining order against me so I came back and heard you talking to yourself in there. The walls are pretty thin here, you know.”
She spun her wheelchair around and drove over to the window where she looked out at the tattered eucalyptus tree trunks framing a sky the color of Karen’s favorite Wedgewood platter.
“Did you know I won a tap dance contest once?” Gracie said quietly. “I wore a pink satin sailor suit and my mother had set my hair in rags the night before so I had little Shirley Temple curls. The judges commented on how I looked as sweet as cotton candy when they handed over the trophy with the bronze ballet shoes set on tiptoe. I always thought that was funny that they chose ballet shoes for a tap dance competition. Guess a pair of tap shoes would just look like ordinary shoes. You wouldn’t know they were special until someone put them on and tapped in them.”
“I didn’t know you were a dancer, Gracie,” said Karen, rubbing her now throbbing hip. “I would like to have seen you tap dance.”
“Oh shit. Never tap-danced again. My folks split up and that little sailor suit got left behind in one of our moves. I kept the trophy for a while though. It moved with us to that smelly ‘seaside’ apartment in Alameda. ‘A little slice of paradise,’ Mama called it. Boy, that was a laugh. This is a better place than that. Nice view. And it’s my own. I’m not sharing it with Mama and her latest boyfriend. Got mice here, but at least there’s no cockroaches. “
“Oh my—mice—there’s one in the bathtub!” said Karen, quickly reaching behind her and slamming the door shut before her former cellmate could escape. Perhaps he’d found the dropped cheese and could enjoy a magnificent last supper. “I’ll run downstairs and have the manager come deal with the mouse,” she said.
“That would be kind of you, Karen—thank you,” said Gracie without turning around.
Karen nodded in response, feeling strangely ashamed about Gracie’s rare show of gratitude.
“And then could you run over to Fairview Grocery and get me some Raisin Bran and prunes. I’m corked up so tight I’m about to explode.”