There was a clamoring above her, followed by rough voices. It was very distracting. She stood in the center of the narrow landing between the first and second floors, where she’d paused to catch her breath. A dime-store watercolor hung slightly crooked on the wall in front of her. It was a prairie scene with gray-green hills, a tornado in the distance. No place she’d ever been, and the dreary landscape made her tired. She was on her way to check her mail. Or had she just returned from checking it? Her studio apartment was a half-flight up and she wanted very much to sit down in her big padded rocking chair. She was very tired—from either going to or coming from checking her mail.
Two men in gray jumpsuits and large plastic gas masks appeared on the landing above her, carrying a bulky crate. They were advancing down on her quickly. Was she under arrest? But it felt more like another dime store painting, as opposed to an attack. “’Scuse us, ma’am, coming through,” one of them said.
She now carried two great and corresponding packages in her mind. First, the decision about which direction she should go to get out of their way. (She had no mail in her hands, which meant one of two things: that she had not yet checked her mail, or that she had checked it but had received nothing, which was often the case—no one even sent her bills anymore.) The second was a package of thought she did not wish to open: doubt that there were men with gas masks at all.
The men slowed as they neared. They titled their crate carefully, but between her and the banister, there wasn’t room to pass. Something fragile-sounding clinked around as they leveled their load. “Careful,” the man in back said to the man in front. He was two stairs taller than the other.
“Is there a problem?” she asked. “Are there roaches again? I cannot allow those in my apartment. Which floor has them?”
“Ma’am, can you move?” the man in back said, his voice muffled by the gas mask but clearly annoyed.
“I live here and will stand where I choose,” she said. “Now tell me which apartment is infested. Is it 2R? I always thought they were unkempt. They travel to Thailand. They could easily have brought bugs back in their luggage.”
The man carrying the front of the crate lifted his mask and smiled at her. “We’re sorry, ma’am, but that’s confidential information. We can get your info, though, and come by tomorrow if you—”
“Claire.” It was the man holding the back of the crate. “Claire Bishop.”
Claire strained her neck forward and peered at him. “Who wants to know?”
The mask glanced to the right and left as if looking for the one who wanted to know.
“Let’s get this to the van,” the front man said.
The man who knew her name puffed into his mask. “Just give me a minute.”
“Let’s shake a leg,” the first one said.
“I said give me a minute.”
The man in back must have been the boss because the other, grumbling, obliged. They backed up and set the crate on the second floor landing. The first man huffed off past Claire and down the stairs, but only as far as the front door. From where she stood, Claire could see the bottom half of him, framed by the glass, still within hearing distance.
The masked man walked down and stood very close to Claire on the landing, bouncing from one foot to the other. His breath came loud and thick from the plastic. “How the hell are you?”
Claire took a step back from him. “Take that off if you’re going to talk to me.”
He cracked his neck several times as if preparing to jump into a boxing ring. “All right,” he said finally. She squinted at his red, sweaty face, creased from the rubber. He was a middle-aged man with graying hair and a skinny moustache that wrapped itself around his mouth. He was handsome enough. But he was no one she knew.
He gave her a crackling grin, which made her pat at her thinning, gray curls. “It’s me. Jill,” he said, putting his hands up as in, ta-da, or, you caught me.
She didn’t know anyone who went by Jill, certainly no men. “Oh? Of course. Jill. How have you been these days?”
“It’s been a long stretch.”
“A very long time indeed.” Claire smiled vaguely. She had been rehearsing this lie of recognition for a year now with strangers on the street. Just because they were strangers to her did not mean she was a stranger to them, which was difficult to reconcile. She was a terrible liar, but she always had a few vague phrases at the ready. Luckily, she had very few friends left whom she could insult with her forgetfulness. “A very long time,” Claire said.
“I’ve thought about you,” the man said, examining a speck on the wall beside him with great scrutiny. “I never forgot.” He scratched at the speck with his fingernail.
“Well, neither have I.”
“How could I?” He searched her face, and she didn’t know what to put on it for him. Had they been lovers? He was much younger, but she wouldn’t put it past herself. She closed her eyes and sucked in her bottom lip, searching in that black pit of memory—it was like groping with the claw in those toy machines children fed quarters to in grocery store entranceways. They never got the toy. The searching was painful, physically. She felt the tears only when they were nearing her chin, and her face grew terribly hot. She wanted to cry and to sleep. She wanted this man to leave her alone and to stop demanding memory from her like she was a soap dispenser. She opened her eyes.
He was looking at her with such horror you’d think she’d dropped dead at his feet.
“They’re just tears,” she said angrily. “It’s nothing to do with you. I have a condition.”
Ever since she went to the doctor with the first signs, she’d been a wreck. As if her diagnosis had added another symptom to the catalogue: lachrymation, as her doctor referred to it. Once again she was reading about her own condition and future ailments in textbooks, her own favorite subject; not that she needed to study up, having witnessed her mother’s descent. And it was a descent—a plummeting, a gaining of momentum down the rabbit hole that did not end with anything quite so magical as Wonderland, but did contain the ringing words, “Off with her head.”
“Oh, that’s, okay, good. Good.” The man laughed awkwardly. “Could we talk? I’ll walk you upstairs. Do you live upstairs?”
“I was about to check my mail.” She looked downstairs toward the mail slots. But she was too exhausted; it didn’t matter what order it happened in. “2L.” She gestured up.
“Let me take care of that crate. I’ll be back in a flash. Vince over there will take it to headquarters. They won’t miss me. Vince, let’s get this thing in the van, what are you wasting time for?”
Vince jogged back up to the crate. She watched them converse for a moment in angry whispers, Vince saying he wasn’t getting paid enough for this bullshit and you better get another customer out of this. Both of them grimaced some more and that was that. Claire flattened herself along the wall as they passed with the crate and went outside.
In the gloomy watercolor, the tornado seemed to have moved closer to the foreground.
Was she supposed to wait for him? She needed to sit and rest and hide from the man. She could go up to her apartment and shut the door and pretend she didn’t hear him knocking. But it would be nice to be helped up the stairs.
She stayed as she was, pinned against the wall, for what seemed like many minutes, still as a statue. If he didn’t hurry up she might become one. What kind of statue would she become? Something Victorian, both arms intact. Revered by tourists and cleaned when shat upon. To be a monument to a war would be nice enough, if it was the right war. Or to be trapped behind the eyes of a Madonna figure. What a hoot it would be to have people pray at her sandaled, limestone feet.
At the bottom of the stairs, the too-bright sun adhered itself to the man’s face like a jellyfish, and Claire had to look away. Her eyes were terribly sensitive lately. He walked up to the landing, darker now, carrying his gas mask under his arm—just in case, she supposed. He smiled softly. Her feet felt frighteningly light with him practically lifting her up the stairs, as if her arms were handles and her body a worn grocery bag, too many holes and leaks to count.
As they made their way slowly up the last steps, he muttered her name and soft phrases about how good it was to see her. Claire let him go on. And why shouldn’t she allow someone to regard her with joy even if she didn’t know this man from Adam.
“And in the same neighborhood, no less,” he went on. “Just down the block. Do you miss it? Your old apartment? You should think about getting a ground floor room, not that it’s my business. So you don’t have to walk up the stairs by yourself.” He shook his head. “You remember what a mess we made of the den? Me and the guys sleeping on the floor.”
“Yes. Unbelievable,” she agreed emphatically.
“All these years,” he mumbled.
“Yes, years, I was going to say that. You took the words plumb out of my mouth.” She wondered if she’d known him before or after her mother passed.
He laughed again at something she didn’t catch. What a nice man, with a nice laugh, who had apparently slept on her floor? With other men? Claire found that hard to believe, but she often felt like she’d been cast at the end of a play, an understudy to the real actress who’d been reported suddenly missing, and she hadn’t had the chance to read the script and catch up with the other players. At other times, she was aware of the prior scenes, having watched the first three acts from the wings before being thrust on stage, the script ripped from her trembling fingers—but she was never the original actor.
“I loved that apartment,” the man was saying. “Even after…”
They had reached her door. Claire dug into the pockets of her long, purple cardigan for her key ring. “And I enjoyed having you there, of course. They were good times,” Claire said. She thought herself very convincing. She was about to lift her key to the lock, but then the man stepped between her and the door. He peered too closely at her face, frowning, wrinkling up his forehead. He leaned back and let out a quick, cold laugh.
“What is it? Let me by,” she said.
“As soon as you’re honest with me.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Come on, you don’t remember me. Do you? You don’t remember a thing.”
“Don’t take it personally. My mind’s not quite what it used to be. The condition.”
“The condition. And what would that be exactly?”
“A memory condition.”
He hesitated, “Oh,” and stepped aside.
Claire fumbled with the key ring enough that he steadied her hand, sorted through the half dozen keys, and lifted out the correct one.
“How did you know which key?” Claire demanded.
He only held the key out to her.
“I can do it,” she said curtly. He let her. And as she opened the door to her apartment, she knew all at once. She was not walking into her shameful one-room box of mold, the only place she could afford in the neighborhood—she was walking into her old hallway, those beautiful white moldings around the doorframes, the den with the double doors and sleeping bags spread across the carpet where Jill and the boys were snoring well past noon, or drafting slogans and planning protests during Vietnam. Anarchists in PJs.
“Jill,” she whispered. She turned to him in the doorway and dropped her keys at his feet, but did not bend down to pick them up. The door banged open against the hallway wall, where there was a dent the shape of a knob that deepened each time she came home.
Jill grinned sheepishly.
Claire tried to laugh. “I’m sorry. It’s what happens when you get old.”
“To some of us.”
They stood there, pressed close together on the threshold, and she tried to hurry her shock along to catch up to his. But she was too late. The look on his face was no longer surprise. It was pity.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “So what if I can’t recognize my neighbors half the time? They’re dimwits anyway. But I recognize you. Only a few minutes off.”
He reached his hand toward her, but seemed to change his mind. He looked down at the keys on the ground.
“Look at me making you stand here like a dummy,” Claire said. “Come inside.” He bent down and picked up her keys without a word. “Would you like some tea? Or? I don’t know what I have, but you can look. I’m going to sit down for a minute. I just need a minute.”
He helped her to her chair and she didn’t grumble about it. His hand on her arm felt comforting. A thief’s hands touching her skin. He’d left with her painting, without a word. How could she forget that part?
Jill sat in the old wicker chair across from her and set his gas mask on the coffee table, beside the newspaper and the letter to the editor she’d been composing all week about how lately the weather hadn’t seemed to change as it should and the bees were getting confused. The daybed, unmade, was behind him in the corner. None of her furniture matched, most of it she’d found on the sidewalk—people were always leaving perfectly good couches and bureaus right in her way so she paid the gutter boys a few dollars to carry them upstairs. It was all very embarrassing, but only until she forgot that it was embarrassing. And Jill didn’t seem to notice anyway; he was only looking at her.
He clapped his hands on his knees. She glanced at his fingers—no ring. “Thirty years,” he said. “Christ. Thirty-three? Thirty-five. I’m not a math guy.”
“You’re asking me?” she said. “Go get yourself some tea.”
“Do you want some?”
“I don’t want any, either.” He kept staring at her so severely the wrinkles around his eyes seemed to vanish. His expression had moved away from pity into some other place and it was making her blush.
“What’s that sound?” he asked, glancing toward the window; he must have known she needed a respite from that look.
“I hardly hear it anymore.” She opened her ears and listened to the buzzing. The sound came and went to her like the ticking of a clock; a sound that vanishes when not thought of. “I’ll show you.”
“You don’t have to get up.”
“I want to.” She was steadier on her feet now, but even so, he kept his hand on her lower back as they walked to the window. She felt his warmth through her cardigan—because it was covered in little moth holes. How embarrassing. Why couldn’t she throw something away when it was worn out? Did she think she would never again run into someone whose opinion mattered to her? They hadn’t all died off like her bees.
Claire loosed the window screen and tapped gently on the hive that lived on her fire escape. “These are my honey bees. A top bar hive. Only the best.”
Jill took a step back and grinned. “You? A beekeeper?”
“Why not? No reason to be scared. They won’t sting you. And if they do, you’ll live. You just need a little baking soda and water.”
“I’m not scared,” Jill said. He sounded as young as when she’d seen him last.
“Thirty-five years,” Claire whispered.
“You’ve had them thirty-five years?”
She closed the screen. “No, two. But I had the first hive for five years before I lost them. A young man was moving out and couldn’t keep them anymore so he asked if I wanted them. He was very handsome. I couldn’t say no. It’s not difficult to harvest the honey. One of the kids from the green market comes by and helps me once a month. They all know me as the old bee lady. And you should see me in my beekeeper’s veil.” She laughed quietly. “I spoil these ones. They don’t need much attention, but I like to give it to them anyway.”
“You sell your honey at the market?” Jill asked, surprised.
“I mostly give it away. I could make a profit, but it’s more fun to see people’s faces when you throw a jar of honey at them. I bet you’ve never had honey thrown at you before. Put it in your tea. Or just have a spoonful. It’s the best you’ve had, I guarantee.”
“Is it legal?”
“No. But it’s organic.”
“I think I will have that tea now.”
Claire let him put the kettle on while she sat in the rocker and rested her eyes, having some fun with the flickering blues and yellows on the insides of her lids. Jill stayed behind her in the kitchen while the water boiled. Perhaps he needed a moment to process. It’s not every day you see an old friend and find out they’ve turned into a beekeeper.
* * * *
Claire had fallen. It was a year ago, on Sullivan Street, or so she thought, and when she looked behind her, she saw there was nothing she could have tripped on. At the hospital, she received four stitches on her left knee. She was not afraid, and the young man stitching her up smelled of a sweet, women’s soap. He checked her ears for any infection or swelling that could have impacted her balance. As he scanned her chart, he said, “I see your mother had—”
“Well it’s not that,” Claire interjected. “It certainly is not that. It will happen, you can bet. But not yet.”
“All the same, I think we’ll get you set up with a few appointments. Just basic tests. Memory and skill-sets,” he said nonchalantly. “Do you live alone, Claire?”
“Do you have someone who might go with you to these tests? This is all a just-in-case.”
“My memory is fine. It must be vertigo. Have you thought of that?”
“Knowing early on—there will be more options for you.”
“Something must be wrong with your ear contraption.”
He tapped his papers straight, scanned her chart. “What street did you say you fell on?”
“But the ambulance picked you up on Mercer.”
“It was Sullivan. I know. I used to live there.”
The doctor shifted but his white coat seemed to stay perfectly still. He smiled pitifully and lit up her ears again with his instrument. “I’ll take another look. Could be an infection, yet.”
* * * *
When the kettle whistled, Claire called out behind her, “What have you been doing all these years?”
“Stealing art,” Jill called back.
He brought their tea on a tray with a jar of the good stuff, and set it on the coffee table beside his gas mask. Quite the still-life.
“I like three big spoonfuls,” she said, spilling them into her cup slowly and watching the honey dissolve. “But I’m partial. Plus, I don’t have to watch my figure anymore.” He sat directly facing her and watched her pour the honey into his cup, pity smudging his features. She refused herself permission to ask what was wrong. “Have you kept in touch with your old friends?” she asked. “What happened to Lawrence?”
“How long do you have…?” he said, his voice deeper.
“How long do I have for what?”
“You’re as tough as I remember, Claire. You’re going to make me say it? How long do you have? Until the Alzheimer’s—”
“Could carry on a few years like this. It’s manageable. Or who knows, they might find me in the gutter next week, lost on my way to the hair salon.”
“That’s not funny.”
“No, it isn’t. It will only get worse. That’s what they keep repeating at these Monday night groups. In case I dragged in some hope stuck to the bottom of my shoe.”
Jill blew on his tea in response, watching her above the rim of his mug.
“Stop looking at me like that. It’s not as bad as I make it sound. I feel very lucky. The doctors say I should feel very lucky.”
“You don’t have to feel what they tell you to.”
“So you’re still the anarchist. Well, thank you. But you should try it sometime, feeling lucky.”
“Do you have someone? Who takes care of you?” Jill asked, looking at his big hands holding his little mug.
“I still know how to use the toilet.”
“I mean if things get worse. You know what I mean.”
“My bees will take care of me.” Claire grimaced.
“I’m being serious.”
“So am I. Everything will fall into place.” Claire turned her face toward the hive. “My first colony ran away, those ingrates. Two winters ago. I had them for five good years, and then they just disappeared. Isn’t that strange? I was hurt by it. It felt like they’d run away from me.”
Jill blew on his tea.
“Drink your tea,” Claire said.
He took a sip and tried, but not very hard, to smile at her.
She sighed. “A few years, I’ll be like my mother. I took care of her at her worst. Or right before.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Why would you? It got so I couldn’t do it anymore. She needed a nurse around all the time. I wasn’t strong enough.”
“I bet you were plenty strong,” Jill said.
“I mean I couldn’t physically lift her in order to clean her off when she messed the bed. She wanted to die. And she figured out how. She starved herself.”
With his cup to his lips, Jill said, barely audibly, “Don’t get any funny ideas now.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Like what? Like finally offing myself?”
“Don’t say that.”
“My mother said it. She made it very clear she wanted to die and I wouldn’t let her. She asked for help and I pretended not to hear. And it was the one desire of hers I respected. What do you think of that? What would you do if someone asked you to help them die?”
Jill stared out the window. “Where do you think the bees went when they disappeared?”
But Claire wasn’t about to let up. He’d put himself in this position, showing up without warning, wanting to make amends. Revealing himself as her last best hope.
“I wasn’t brave enough when my mother asked,” Claire said.
“Could they have just move into another hive?”
“You might have been brave enough, if it was your mother.”
“Or they probably died in the cold,” Jill said.
“Look at me.”
Jill looked at her. “What are we talking about here? Brave enough for what? This is nonsense.”
Claire tried to stand. But the stupid chair was too saggy to provide her any leverage and she stumbled back down in the process. “I’m very tired. It’s time you go.”
“Already? Can I come by again?” He stood up, then sat back down. “We could talk more. There’s still a ton we didn’t talk about.” He scanned the mostly empty walls as if for a topic. “Like Lawrence. And the boys. Guess they’re not boys anymore. Lawrence and—oh, man, did I really forget his name?” Jill kept on.
How much money did you get for it, Claire didn’t ask. Did it go to the cause? “Carlos,” she reminded him.
“Now I’m being corrected by a woman with Alzheimer’s. Or, sorry, too soon to joke.”
“Stop that. Stop saying you’re sorry.”
He nodded. “I lost touch with them.”
“Bird—he died. Didn’t you hear? After he got back.”
“How?” Claire probed, but she knew the answer.
Jill stood again, tossing his gas mask up and down. “He was in a lot of pain, mentally, so. It wasn’t that long ago. I hadn’t seen him in years. I had to read about it in the paper.”
He couldn’t even say the word suicide. What good was he to her?
“I wish I’d seen him,” he said, meeting her eyes.
“It’s all right,” Claire said. She didn’t blame him, not for anything.
He shrugged. “I should let you rest. But I’ll stop by again. If that’s okay.”
She said softly, “Let yourself out.”
When the door shut behind him, the bees buzzed loudly in her defense. She thought about sending them after, to keep an eye on him.
* * * *
Jill came by again. And again, Claire did not recognize him until they were in her doorway.
As they stood at her window admiring the top-bar hive, again for the first time, Jill asked, “Do you want some tea? Are you hungry?”
“Oh, yes,” Claire said. “For one thing, I don’t have to cook for myself anymore. They bring food to my door. Isn’t that nice?”
Jill laughed. “What program treats you like a queen like that?”
He had a nice laugh. Claire stared at him, and laughed, too. “Yes.”
“No,” Jill said. “Who brings food to your door?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
Jill waddled around with his hands in his pockets, not looking at her. “I’m not much of a cook. But I don’t make a bad pasta. Do you like pasta?”
Claire frowned, then laughed again, unsure of what he wanted her to say.
“I want to help,” Jill said. “I can. Money, or whatever.”
Claire tried to think about this a moment, but there was a cloud in the way. She couldn’t see around it, or through it. She could not kill it. Finally, she landed on a simple phrase that might satisfy him. It was such work to satisfy him. “Good for you,” she said with a smile.
From THE SUICIDE OF CLAIRE BISHOP. Used with permission of Dzanc. Copyright © 2015 by Carmiel Banasky.