An ice cream parlor with wrought iron chairs and tables had recently opened at Northland, an open-air mall located just across the border from Detroit. Sylvia, a widow in her sixties, had read about the place and told her younger sister Lottie about it. They'd decided to go there after Lottie's first appointment with Dr. B. Since then, if only for the cheer of the red and white striped walls, the two had stopped in even if Lottie could only swallow a few sips of her float.
Sylvia rested a hand on her sister's back to guide her around the pile of autumn leaves that had collected near the shop’s glassy entrance. A black woman who worked there held the door for them and greeted them with a cheery smile. Sylvia wished the woman would sit with them. Then they wouldn't have to discuss Dr. B's latest pronouncement, but before Sylvia could muster the words, the woman walked towards the counter, leaving the sisters on their own. Sylvia walked them to a table a ways off from the rumble of the freezer chests and helped Lottie settle into the heavy chair.
Sylvia couldn’t believe this haggard, old woman sitting across from her was her brash little sister. Then she noticed something odd about Lottie, and leaning forward, whispered, “Your wig’s askew.” Both sisters had silvered prematurely, and when Lottie’s hair started to fall out, they'd discussed what color wig to get her. Lottie had wanted a red one but Sylvia, a stickler for the truth, insisted it should match her real hair. Lottie didn't really care and treated the wig like a baseball cap.
With an open palm Lottie bopped the bottom of the curl and the wig slid to the other side of her head giving her the jaunty look of Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.
“Now you’ve really messed it up,” Sylvia said, and seeing the woman’s back was turned, reached across the table to adjust Lottie's wig. “There. Better.”
Lottie grinned. Without eyebrows to balance her long lips, she looked a little goofy.
Sylvia sniffed. “You do it on purpose, just to drive me crazy.”
“You make it so easy.”
Sylvia shook her finger at her. “To think they let you teach children.”
“Stop, they’ll think I’m your daughter,” Lottie said, her bald brow wrinkling as she snorted.
The woman came over, pad in hand, ready to take their order. Sylvia asked for the usual: a root beer float and a peppermint stick sundae with hot fudge.
On a snowy January morning four months later, Sylvia pushed Lottie's wheelchair into Dr. B.s office. Though not yet sixty, Lottie looked ancient and befuddled, the buoyant wig at odds with her sallow complexion. They'd just loosened their scarves when the nurse called them back. Sylvia was pleased. She’d complained to the doctor about making Lottie wait over an hour to see him. He'd apologized, but Sylvia sensed nothing would change, and she took her complaint to the office manager who said she'd schedule Lottie herself. The triumph was bittersweet; it meant she knew how sick her sister was.
Sylvia wheeled Lottie into the doctor's wood paneled office where his associate, a young, balding man, sat on a small sofa. He stared into space without acknowledging their entrance, plucking at the corner of a Manilla folder. Sylvia parked Lottie facing the doctor’s desk and settled into the cushioned chair next to her.
Dr. B., a compact, energetic man, came in, rounded the desk and sat in a black office chair. Dr. B., considered Detroit’s top oncologist in 1980, had a complicated Polish surname which for everyone's sake he’d reduced to a single letter. His heavily accented English added to the luster of his medical brilliance; Sylvia felt sure Dr. B. would cure her sister.
He opened the thick folder he'd carried in. “A physical exam isn’t necessary, the blood work should tell all," he said scanning the top page.
Lottie had been almost peppy lately, so Sylvia thought he'd say that the experimental treatment was working.
Instead he said, “I wish I had better news for you,” and began a polysyllabic discourse that Sylvia knew she should listen to as his voice swept over her like classical music, difficult to parse or keep track of. Then Dr. B held out a thick envelope which Sylvia took from him.
“My group compiled this. It lists home nursing groups, phone numbers, and other useful information. Any questions?”
Sylvia set the envelope on her sister's lap and waited for her to speak, but Lottie looked as gray as gravel.
The young associate, thinking they needed a translation, jumped in, saying, "He means it’s the ninth inning of the ball game. We’ll give her all the pain relief she needs."
Then Lottie jerked to attention and twisted around in her chair to face him. His little mouth stretched into a hesitant smile.
“I’m dying, and you're talking ball games?"
The man's lips parted like two halves of a peach.
“Syl, get me out of here. It’s time for the witch doctors.”
Obedient to the bone, Sylvia pushed her sister into the hall as Dr. B.’s associate followed waving slips of paper.
“These prescriptions should help. Call if you need anything.”
“Like heroin?” Lottie said.
Undaunted, Lottie whipped her hands in the air as though conducting an orchestra. “Hurry Syl, I haven’t a moment to lose."
Sylvia pushed her sister past the receptionist—why schedule another appointment—and paused just long enough to button their coats before leaving the office.
The wind crossing the eight-lane highway made Lottie’s long purple coat billow and flap as Sylvia muscled the chair back to the car. She was glad she’d listened to her daughter Abby's suggestion about working out after Marty's death. At the time she never thought her sister would need her strength.
The wind dropped once they turned onto the side street. At the car Sylvia watched Lottie push herself out of the chair and onto the car's seat, her once curvy legs now mere sticks. If Marty were alive, Sylvia thought, he'd suggest getting another opinion.
In the aftermath of trying to bring Marty back, the emergency room doctor had assured her that Marty had had a good death. At the time she was furious and wanted to report the doctor to the medical board, but three years later, having gone through the ups and downs of Lottie’s illness, she began to see the wisdom of his words. Marty hadn't suffered. He’d been holding a mug of coffee and then the mug spilled. It had been that quick.
After starting the car, Sylvia turned the heater on high.
“Men are so attached to their sports metaphors, like they're Tarot cards or something with answers to everything,” Lottie said.
Sylvia wished it were so; she needed a playbook for what lay ahead.
“I want a root beer float.”
Sylvia nodded. Ice cream made everything better.
At the shop they ordered the usual, and the woman, who had seemed preoccupied, placed their orders on the wrong side of the table. After she walked away, Sylvia pulled the sundae to her and slid the glass to Lottie’s side. While she did, Lottie ripped the paper tip off her straw, raised the straw to her lips and shot a puff of air into it. The white casing sailed over the table and nicked Sylvia in the throat.
“What is wrong with you?" Sylvia said, her fingers at her neck.
Lottie shrugged, and then poked the straw into the vanilla ice cream. The white ball bobbed, and brown liquid slopped over the sides of the glass.
Mopping up the liquid, Sylvia complained, “You’re such a slob, there’s no taking you anywhere.”
Lottie bent her head and slurped her drink. Sylvia knew she did it to annoy her.
Without looking up, she said, “Promise you won’t let me suffer, Syl, promise.”
Heat pressed at the back of Sylvia's eyes. Her sister had walked back from worse than this, and Sylvia felt sure she'd do it again. Plus, she was never quite sure when Lottie was joking. After the bank foreclosed on the house—no one suspected Sol had a gambling problem—she’d cracked jokes like peanuts, dropping the shells on the floor. She’d called Sol the one-armed bandit instead of cursing him out, and Sylvia didn’t know if she should laugh, or what. Even now, Lottie would probably let him move in after he was released from prison. Marty would never have that kind of gall. Thinking of Marty, she quietly said, “What about a second opinion?”
Lottie rolled her eyes. “Oh sure, see another guy who orders more tests, then tells me what inning I'm in? Forget it. Let's just go to Toronto instead,” she said and shrugged. Then lowered her head to sip her drink.
Sylvia eyed the fake part in Lottie’s wig. When Lottie finally filed for divorce which Sylvia had pressed her to do fearing they’d garnish Lottie’s wages to pay off Sol’s debt, they’d taken off for Toronto. At the art museum they'd seen Henry Moore's monumental statues of women which made them feel better about their own bellies, walked in and out of shops along York Street, and lunched in a restaurant high above the city. Feeling very cosmopolitan, they'd ordered a bottle of wine and finished it. Then a bus boy had to walk Sylvia out to the elevator because she'd forgotten how to walk. Lottie had followed behind, filling the hall with raucous laughter. Inside the elevator, Sylvia had slid down the elevator's metal wall until her butt rested on the backs of her heels while a Muzak version of “What’s it all about, Alfie” played. Then when the doors opened, the bus boy had to haul her upright. It was too humiliating to think about what happened on the cab ride to their hotel.
Sylvia parked on Lottie's driveway. Her sister had fallen asleep, her head tilted to her left, the pale, tender skin of her neck free of the purple scarf. She was so still, Sylvia leaned over before she saw a lozenge-shaped pulse flashing with a soothing regularity. Still, the associate's words nasty as yellow jackets swarmed in her mind. She tried escaping them through activity. She left the car, pulled the chair out of the back seat, trotted around to the passenger side, but she couldn’t avoid the repetition of associate's phrase, ‘bottom of the ninth.’”
She tapped on the window and Lottie's head rolled towards it. Her eyes, as if streaked with glue, seemed too difficult to open, one lid slower to rise than the other. Then she winked. That was Lottie.
While Sylvia hung their coats in the closet, Lottie had shifted from the wheelchair to an upholstered one. Sylvia, about to pick up a magazine, noticed her sister's mouth was stretched long and thin.
Lottie nodded. “If only pain were like bubble gum.”
“Then I could crack it and spit it out,” she said, and tugged down on her wig.
Sylvia laughed. “Did you just make that up?”
Lottie's eyes flicked upward. “Get me one of those magic pills, will you?”
Sylvia stood on Lottie's front porch, really just a cement slab, and lit a cigarette. Even the rain couldn't drive her inside. She was tired and wanted to stay home for a few hours but Waldorf, the night nurse, had phoned saying the doctor had called in pain meds for Lottie and she had to go get them. Sylvia held the white paper bags in one hand and lifted the cigarette with the other. She wanted to wallow in a bath without feeling she had to rush to get out and dress. She was worn out, yet felt she had to spend every possible moment with Lottie. She unlocked the door and stepped inside.
The smell of illness greeted her like smoke from a camp fire. She turned to leave, and then turned back. Lottie was in pain, she needed the medication. “Mrs. Waldorf?”
A big-busted woman in a gray uniform appeared. She pressed a finger to her protruding lips. The woman always made Sylvia feel as though she’d done something wrong.
Sylvia held up the pharmacy bags.
Waldorf’s heavy gate made the lamps rattle as she crossed the room. She took the bags and examined their labels. “Feed her, then give her this one,” she said, putting the designated bag in the front.
Waldorf’s brusque manner gave Lottie something else to talk about. They often compared the kindness of Mrs. Munoz, who came in the afternoons, to Mrs. Waldorf's sharpness. Sylvia hated that her sister spent her nights with Waldorf. She recycled the well-worn argument she had with herself about feeling she should be the one to stay with Lottie versus the need to sleep in her own bed.
In the kitchen Sylvia emptied the pharmacy bags onto the faux marble topped table. Three plastic bottles rolled out. She had to put on her glasses to read their labels: Milltown, a barbiturate with a chemical name, and a multi-vitamin. A vitamin?
Mrs. Waldorf, wearing a puffy, beige coat, lumbered into the kitchen. “I’ll be going,” she said, not bothering to hide her yawn.
Sylvia held up the bottle and shook it. The sound of rattling pills fed her ire. “Vitamins? Really? The latest cure for cancer?”
Mrs. Waldorf's eyes shrank deeper into their baggy flesh. “She’s not eating much, so the doctor ordered them. Hardly unusual.”
Sylvia turned towards the counter and lined up the new medicine bottles with the others. As she did, she reminded herself that the woman showed up every night; if Dr. B. couldn't stop the cancer from spreading through Lottie's bones, how could she expect Waldorf to do it?
"I'm sorry," Sylvia said turning to face the woman.
Waldorf sniffed, and then pointed to the notebook on the table. “Write everything,” she said, raising a thick brow for emphasis.
The woman just irritated her. Sylvia couldn't imagine there'd been a Mr. Waldorf, or how he’d lived with her. Then again, it was a mystery how any marriage lasted. Her own had been a mix of harried days and quiet nights that seemed sweeter in retrospect. Now she'd trade anything to have Marty back annoying her.
Opening the notebook Sylvia read that Waldorf had given Lottie pain pills at eleven and three and then at four. The 3 a.m. pill hadn’t worked, and Waldorf had waited an entire hour to give her another. There were lists of Lottie peeing and pooping and vomiting, without any mention of how Lottie's eyebrows, which had commented with such humor on life, now barely etched a line in her forehead, or how much her students had loved her, or the resilience she'd shown when Sol left her destitute.
Chewing the inside of her cheek, Sylvia rolled the sliding door shut, closing off the kitchen from the little hall that led to Lottie’s room. Leaning against the hall wall were two metal oxygen canisters. She didn't want to blow the house up, but she had to smoke and she wasn’t going out in the rain to do it. Using the silver lighter Marty had given her she lit a cigarette, and with half-closed eyes, inhaled the first, delicious drag. She took a second pull and a fast third one before dousing the cigarette under the tap. A plume of smoked sailed over the leggy poinsettia plant that sat behind the sink. As the smoke sank over the leaves, so did her rebellion. Time to face Lottie.
After the brightness of the kitchen light, Sylvia’s eyes were slow to adjust in the bedroom’s dimness. “I’m here, sweetie.”
The figure in the bed shifted. Lottie’s once handsome body had shrunk to a series of small bumps under the blankets: shoulders, ribs, pelvis and knees.
“Feeling better?” Why did she say that? The words burst out of her and she hated herself for saying it. Of course, Lottie wasn’t feeling better; she was never going to feel better.
A gurgling came from the bed.
“Are you laughing?” More idiocy, but Sylvia wanted her sister to sit up and demand a root beer float. Instead, one of Lottie’s claw-like hands groped the air.
“Let me help you,” Sylvia said, and slipped a hand under her sister’s skeletal back.
Light as Lottie had become, she was inert and difficult to move. “Hold your horses, sister,” Sylvia said, and bent her knees to gain more leverage in order to slide the bolster under Lottie's shoulders.
“Water,” Lottie whispered. A fetid smell gushed out with the word.
Sylvia held the glass out. Lottie roused herself and reached for it. She sipped and then lowered the glass until it rested on the sheet. When it started to tilt, Sylvia thought with dismay, she’d forgotten about it.
Sylvia set the glass on a coaster that said Viva Toronto! Then pulled the shade up a foot before sitting on the edge of the bed. The pale light shone on Lottie’s face and Sylvia saw the outline of her jawbone through the withered skin.
Sylvia popped off the bed and hurried to the kitchen. There she shook out one of the new pills into her palm. It was white and round, about the same size as an aspirin. Good, she thought, Lottie should be able to swallow it. Lottie groaned, but Sylvia's heart didn't race the way it used to, she'd become inured to her sister's pain; she'd had to. Waldorf had said food first, so she fried an egg and slid it onto a plate.
Carrying it to Lottie, she paused at the threshold of her room. Lottie’s head had tipped back on the bolster, her chin pointed upwards and her lips drawn back exposing the shafts of her teeth. Sylvia felt like a moth behind glass. She tried to say her sister's name but couldn’t get the word past her throat. Then the steam rising off the plate cleared and she saw Lottie's chest move and knew she still had her.
After a few spoons of egg, Sylvia gave Lottie a pill.
“I’ll sit here and read,” she said, and settled onto the vacant side of the double bed. She pushed a pillow up against the zebra-striped headboard and held up the book. "It's a new bio on Marie Antoinette.”
“I know how it ends,” Lottie said, and swiped her hand across her throat. “I hear it's fast."
Sylvia ignored Lottie's gallows humor. “Royal life sounds awful. It says they had to do everything in public: Eat, dress, have sex."
Soon, Lottie was making tiny whistling sounds, and Sylvia set the book down. She gazed at the wrecked face of her lovely sister and thought about the day their parents had taken them to visit friends who had a lake house. Both had worn their new summer dresses. Sylvia, proud of hers, sat still in the back seat so the fabric wouldn't wrinkle while Lottie, like a puppy, stuck her head out the window, the wind knotting her curls. When they’d arrived, they'd gone down to the lake. As the adults talked, Lottie took off her shoes and socks and waded into the water. When the brown water reached the hem of her dress, Sylvia had called her name. Lottie had gazed back over her shoulder. “Your dress,” Sylvia said. But Sylvia didn’t care about the dress, what bothered her was how her sister had walked into the murky waters without any thought of stopping.
Lottie coughed and woke up. Sylvia stroked her arm. "I'm here, I’m here,” she said.
“Can’t do this Syl. Get a gun," she said, her pointer finger bobbling by her ear.
Sylvia pulled back her hand. This kind of talk made her head fuzzy. She suggested calling the doctor, though she doubted Dr. B.’s associate had much to offer.
Lottie snorted at the suggestion. "Pay Sol. He’ll do it."
Oh no, Sylvia thought, she's forgotten he's in jail. "You can't leave me," she pleaded.
"I already have."
A pot of pink geraniums wrapped in shiny paper sat in a pool of water on the dining room table. It must have been delivered after she’d left, and neither nurse had thought to take the flowers to Lottie where they might have cheered her up. Strangers.
In the kitchen Mrs. Waldorf lifted the spiral bound notebook.
"I know," Sylvia said, rolling her eyes like a teen.
Clear tubing fed into Lottie's nostrils soundlessly supplying her with oxygen. She was on her back but seemed to be trying to roll to her side. The skin on Lottie’s arm had grown so thin, its translucence acted as a window revealing the blue veins that swam beneath it.
“Another pillow? Are you in pain?”
“Leave me alone,” she muttered, her top lip stuck to her front teeth.
Sylvia wanted a cigarette. She perched on a wooden chest opposite the bed and caught the inside of her cheek between her teeth. She'd been so happy that morning at the Salvation Army when she spotted the chest. A parade of yellow ducklings crossed the lid, and Sylvia, pregnant with Abby, thought it so ridiculously sweet she'd bought it. But when Abby reached high school, she hated anything that hinted of her childhood, and Lottie took it and painted it black.
“Not living well,” Sylvia conceded. “Pain pill?
“I gotta go.”
“You need the bed pan?”
Lottie exhaled, and her head rolled towards her sister.
Sylvia avoided her eyes, studying the weave of the blanket instead.
Sylvia held the glass under her sister’s face, tilting the straw so it slipped in between her lips. As Lottie drank, Sylvia thought, Why not? Who could fault me for helping her? But she wasn't a doctor; she didn't know how many pills it took. And, what if Lottie couldn’t swallow enough pills to do the job, yet enough to alert the nurses, or worse the police? Then Lottie’s head moved, and the straw, clinging to her lips, dribbled water across her chest and bed linen.
“Lottie,” she scolded, easing the straw out from between her cracked lips. She dabbed her sister's bird-like chest with a clump of tissues. This was useless. The doctor's stupid phrase buzzed in her head. Why should Lottie suffer? Marty hadn't. Sylvia had to smoke.
In the kitchen she lit up, exhaling into the poinsettias while trying to think logically like Marty. Lottie said she’d already left, and Sylvia knew she wasn’t kidding. She turned and leaned against the counter. On the table lay the notebook with its yellow image of Bill Bird on the cover. In it the nurses noted every medication they gave Lottie. If they checked the prescription bottle, they’d see fewer pills in it, and, if the meds weren’t recorded in the notebook, they’d questioned where they'd gone. But would they say anything? She doubted Munoz would, but Waldorf was a stickler. Sylvia inhaled with such force her cigarette flattened.
Then it came to her. She could swap the real pills with aspirin. Sylvia dropped the cigarette into a mug of coffee and heard it sizzle as she left the room.
In the bathroom’s medicine chest, she found a bottle of cheap aspirin and shook one into her palm. A number was on one side and imprinted on the other was the word aspirin. She pressed the tablet between her thumb and forefinger wondering if she could file off the word without cracking the pill?
Resolve building, she carried the bottle to the kitchen. She set the pills side by the side. The prescription tablet had a white, glossy surface with black numbers printed on it and matched the size of the aspirin. From the drawer under the counter she took an emery board and filed the word aspirin. In a few swipes it disappeared.
Would anyone notice? If they checked, they’d see. And, she was a terrible liar. If pressed, she couldn't hide what she'd done, and then they'd arrest her and throw her in jail like Sol. She had to talk to Marty and reached for the phone as though he were in his office, but he wasn't; her arm fell to her side. On the shelf in front of her stood the red coffee grinder; it could blast those pills to powder in seconds. She picked it up and removed its clear plastic lid—the pungent scent of coffee filled her nose. Coffee made everything better.
She turned on the tap and held the kettle under the spout. As the water ran, she remembered how Lottie had once pushed a box up to the wire fence that ran along the back of the church. She was going to play in the church yard and wanted Sylvia to come with her. She'd said it wasn’t much of a drop, but Sylvia, scared she'd hurt herself, had said no, and Lottie had smacked her, calling her a baby. Sylvia had run off. But she wasn’t a baby, she was the elder; it was time for her to take charge.
Leaving the water to boil, she went to her sister. Lottie lay on her side, her eyes open if unfocused. Sylvia knelt by the side of the bed and took her hand. It wasn’t the defiant hand of a tomboy who leapt off walls; the veins had lost their snap from the chemo or low blood pressure or dehydration. Sylvia had become a whiz at supplying reasons for the side-effects her sister suffered. This hand couldn’t hold a glass yet maybe it could bless her. An odd thought, but what she was about to do called for a blessing. She lay her forehead on the knob of Lottie’s hand and closed her eyes. Lottie's moldy stink filled her nostrils. Was there any justification for taking such a step? Was this an act of love? Would Lottie's Lottie-ness migrate inside of her and fill her up her? Lottie's hand jerked. Sylvia opened her eyes and met her sister's cloudy, amber ones.
“Syl, you promised.”
“But you’ll be gone.”
The kettle hissed.
“I don’t want you to go.”
Lottie uncurled her fingers; they wavered as she tried to stretch them long.
Sylvia understood; Lottie wanted it but couldn’t do it herself.
The kettle whistled yet Sylvia couldn’t move from her sister's side.
"You can do this," Lottie whispered.
Sylvia wasn't so sure. She pushed herself upright and headed for the kitchen. No time for coffee she thought and turned off the burner. Then she spilled about twenty pain pills into the grinder, capped it and pushed down on the lid, triggering the motor. After a count of five, she lifted her hand and removed the top. A swirl of smoke rose; beneath it lay a white pile. What’s it all about Alfie, played in her head as she dumped the powder into a tall glass and poured the root beer over it. It fizzed up and nearly overran the rim. She stopped it by tapping on the bubbles with the spoon and the liquid settled, and then she added a scoop of vanilla ice cream and stirred. She slipped a red-striped straw into the glass. Sunlight shone on the drink giving it a festive look.
Sylvia checked the clock on the stove. After ten; she’d wasted so much time dithering. If they were going to do this, Lottie had to swallow the stuff well before Munoz arrived at four. Sylvia shut her eyes and asked for help. She wasn't sure who she was asking. She squeezed her eyes tighter until purple waves filled them, but no voice came to her. What did she expect? She wasn't Joan of Arc. When she opened her eyes, the head of foam on the drink had sunk.
Standing in the doorway of Lottie’s room, she held up the glass. “Your favorite.” Lottie's fingers flickered.
“Are you sure? Are you really, really sure?”
Her response was pitched so low, Sylvia had to repeat the question.
“Yes. Yes!” she said, then sank deeper into the bed, that small exertion exhausting her.
Sylvia set the glass on the bedside table. Then crawled up from the bottom of the bed taking care not to bump Lottie. Her pain threshold simmered just under her skin and even the lightest, most loving touch triggered it. She moved as close to Lottie’s delicate frame as she dared, and then reached across her for the float. “I put your favorite straw in it.”
Lottie seemed to nod.
"This is really it."
Lottie gazed at her with the trusting eyes of a baby.
Sylvia bent the straw, so Lottie could drink from it. As she swallowed, her amber eyes stayed on Sylvia's.
“Slow down, kid," she said. "You don’t have to drink it all at once,” and started to pull the glass away, but Lottie's eyes tightened, so she left the glass where it was.
When Lottie had finished most of it, her lips opened, and the straw bobbed free of her mouth. Then she burped. A mischievous glint, like a comet, shot through her faded eyes.
She was still there.
“Thank you,” Lottie mumbled, her face as unlined as the day she’d walked into the lake.
Panicked, Sylvia said in a rush, “Remember when you slapped me because I was too scared to jump into the churchyard? Well dammit, Lottie, I jumped. I jumped!” She wanted Lottie to congratulate her. But Lottie, already drawn under by the eddy of the drug, only tilted her chin towards her, the skin of her eyelids flickering as she struggled to raise them.
Hoping Lottie could hear her, she said, "It's okay honey. I know you know," and curled an arm over her sister's chest, cradling her as she hadn't been able to do for months. Lying next to her, Sylvia watched the rise and fall of her sister's chest, praying the meds wouldn't work and Lottie would stay with her.