“Are you sure they’re not here in your room?” I called at a mock-whisper.
“I’m sure!” Marvin followed me into the room, the door creaking behind him. “It’ll be a big wad. It’s a lot of keys. I looked in every drawer, but maybe your eyes are better.” He stood over me, absentmindedly wringing his age-wrinkled hands.
“I don’t see them here either,” I said with undue cheer. I made a show of searching the carpet around the furniture, crawling on all fours, patting the ugly commercial grade carpet.
Liv spoke up from the bedside where she’d been eyeing me, humped over her four-footed walking cane and draped with a dirty pink robe. “I sure hope they’re here, but they’re probably in his car. He always forgets them.”
Marvin doesn’t have a car, and the keys don’t exist. It’s after midnight, and this is the third time this hour they’ve marched out of their room, determined to find these keys “so they can drive home and check on the children.”
On the dresser are a horde of mismatched frames displaying folks I assume to be family.
“Hey,” I grasped for a distraction, “Who are all these people in your pictures?”
“Family.” Marvin said, briefly pausing his fruitless search.
“Maybe you can tell me about them?” I lifted a portrait of two children, a small boy and a baby. I held it out to him. “Who are these children?”
Marvin lowered himself onto the edge of the rumpled bed that took up most of the small, stuffy room. Hands shaking, he took the frame from me, held it in both hands, and stared down at it for a long silence.
Finally, he spoke.
“There’s that little boy.”
I grasped for a helpful response. “He’s cute. What’s his name?”
Marvin’s eyebrows scrunched together, and he hunched further over the trembling frame. “Li-iv,” he called slowly, drawing out his wife’s name into two syllables. “Li-iv, come here and… come and tell me this boy’s name.”
Liv moved her cane in small steps ahead of her, taking several steps to cross the small space. She leaned close, gave the portrait a hard stare, then looked up.
“I don’t remember.” She said it with no expression at all, face blank, voice flat.
Marvin tapped at the face under the glass with a yellowed nail. “Well, I don’t remember either.” He tapped faster.
“They’re your grandchildren, right?”
“Yes. My grandchildren.” Still tapping.
“They’re beautiful,” I said, regretting bringing us here. “You must be very proud.”
Marvin’s eyes glazed over as he continued staring, tapping. He didn’t look up at me. “Not too proud, I guess,” he stopped tapping. “Guess not, if I can’t even remember their names.”
I took the picture from his hands, searching for another topic, hoping to hit on a memory to lighten the sadness.
“You have daughters, right? How many?”
I went to the dresser and found a family photo. As I reached for it, Marvin answered.
“We have daughters, yes.” His voice cracked, “but they’re all deceased.”
They’re not. I met their oldest, Martha, a few days ago. I scanned the photos for her face, finding a younger version of the woman who hired me the day before to keep an eye on her parents overnight this week, until they could be moved from “Assisted Living” to “Memory Care.” They had another living daughter, too: Hannah. A caregiver here told me earlier about her visit this morning.
“This is Martha, right?” I pointed to the face I recognized.
“Oh, yes! That’s Martha!” His eyes finally met mine. He began to smile. “She’s not dead…”
“No sir! I met her the other day!” I chirped, cringing at my own voice.
“Oh, you met her?”
“What about Hannah?”
“I don’t know Hannah… She’s your other daughter, right?”
His face fell, and his eyes glazed over again. “You know, I just don’t remember.” He shook his head.
I tried again. “Well, what about a picture of Liv? Have you got a picture of your wife over here?” I turned back to the dresser and found a photo of a youthful, smiling Liv, wearing a dramatic wide-brimmed hat, a white feather boa around her neck and shoulders. “I found one! This is her, right?”
Marvin sat up straighter and took the picture from me. He chuckled to himself, tracing the scrollwork on the frame with his shaking finger, and tapped at the glass again. “This is her all right, but I don’t know about all this she’s wearing!” His eyes sparkled as he looked at the portrait of his wife.
Liv had moved back to the corner near the door. All this time, she had been taking packets of artificial sweetener from the pockets of her robe, shuffling them, replacing them, and repeating the process. Hearing her name in our conversation, she picked her way across the room. Parking her cane near Marvin’s knee, she bent over dramatically, nose nearly touching the picture on his lap, and squinted hard for a full ten seconds.
She straightened up, and shook her head solemnly.
“That’s not me.” She said decisively. Case closed. She sniffed, and began pulled the yellow packets from her pocket again.
“Yes, honey,” Marvin insisted, “that’s you!” He nodding now, looking down at the picture, then back up at Liv.
“It’s not me.” She whispered to a handful of packets, “Maybe it’s my
I took the picture and made a show of scrutinizing it.
“Hmm… That’s you, I think, Liv. Let me see… This lady has a lovely smile. I know. Let me hold this up next to you, Liv, and you smile just like that, and then we’ll see,” I said.
Liv widened her eyes at me like I had lost my mind. She glared at the picture, then back at me. I held the frame up next to her puckered face anyway.
Suddenly, she grinned.
Marvin rocked back with laughter and slapped his knee.
“See, Liv, that’s you!” He took the photo frame back from me and beamed, tracing the outline of the hat. “That’s your crazy black hat with all those wavy lines on it! But I don’t know where you got that thing around your neck!”
“I’m really thirsty, guys, so I think I’m going to head out now.” I edged toward the door, trying to excuse myself without bringing the mood back down.
Marvin’s eyebrows shot up as if I’d said something unheard of. “You’re thirsty?! And where did you get that sunburn?” he added, as if the topics were related.
“You noticed that?” I laughed? It’s so dark in here!”
“I saw that white part by your neck where you’re not burnt,” he said.
I told him my grandparents lived on the lake, and I’d gotten burned visiting them.
He looked at me, waiting for more story, but I didn’t know what else to say.
“Well, I’ll be heading out now…” I trailed, taking another step toward the door.
Liv jabbed the rubber knobs of her cane out in front of my feet as I tried to pass her. “Is this my walking stick?” she demanded.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure it is.” I said.
“Liv,” Marvin snapped.” “Yes, it’s your stick.” Then he grinned at me again and winked. “But I don’t see how it makes much difference since you never walk!”
Liv turned to him, her expression blank. She fumbled one hand into a pocket, then pulled it out, triumphantly waving a single sweetener packet without joy. She glanced at me, then stared toward her husband.
I held my breath.
Then Liv chuckled, meeting Marvin’s eyes. “Want some sugar?” she cackled, before turning to wink at me.
Marvin studied her a moment, as if seriously considering the question, before suddenly laughing. “It’d be better than anything you’ve got these days!” he cracked.
Finally, the two of them laughing together, I relaxed and laughed with them as I closed the last step to the door. “I’ll be heading out now,” I said yet again. “Have a nice night, y’all.”
“Thank you, sweetie,” Marvin said, his eyes dull again, that fast. “We’ll certainly try.”
Caitlin Butler is a writer and editor from Georgia currently living in South Carolina before embarking on her next big life change. She has a B.A. in English from USC Aiken and works as a marketing copywriter at a firm in Augusta. Her previous work has been published in Broken Ink Magazine, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and presented at conferences in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The Blue Ridge Mountains are always calling, and she’s happiest when she can answer. Connect with her on Twitter: @CaitiJo