Esther of the Hearts

Sarah jerked awake on the couch, the dream still swimming in her mind. Or was it a visitation? Where was she? She looked around, face damp with sweat. Of course…long underwear, down sleeping bag, heat on full blast. Minnesota. She sat up and turned on the lamp, shook her head. Another dream about Esther. Every night since she’d died. At home and now here. She didn’t even know the woman and she missed her.

Sarah pulled back the dusty curtains and peeked out the window into the front yard. Almost daylight and a new snow on the ground in a lattice pattern like the finely crocheted white afghan she’d found last night in one of the bedrooms. She could almost see the chill in the air. She was in some kind of weird time/weather warp trapped inside that house like a hibernating bear. How would she ever get through all of Esther’s stuff?

The third day, when she couldn’t stay in the house a moment longer, Sarah bundled up and walked around the corner to Caribou Coffee, a small cafe adjacent to a bagel bakery. Oak paneling covered the walls; the floors were turquoise cement and the tables and chairs were varnished oak. Glass mugs stacked behind the counter sparkled in the track lighting and reminded her of a department store houseware section. After so many hours in Esther’s disaster of a house, it was a relief to be in such an uncluttered space.

The woman at the counter smiled. “This isn’t really your kind of weather, is it?” Sarah looked down at her outfit. It was November, and according to the locals the last few days had been a “dry cold.” Twenty degrees, but dry. Freezing was freezing, if you asked Sarah. Now it was snowing and every time she went out, she stuffed herself into a down jacket, ear warmers and mittens, while everyone else wore flannel shirts and jeans, no hats, no earmuffs. Sarah hadn’t been east of the Rockies in almost thirty years, since before her second birthday. The last time she ever saw Aunt Esther. The only time.

Sarah handed the woman money. “Have you worked here long? Did you know my aunt?”

The woman pointed to a guy in the back room. “He might know, he’s been here a long time. Longer than me, anyway.”

“She used to come in here a lot, I think,” Sarah said. All over Esther’s house were napkins, coffee mugs and T-shirts with the Caribou Coffee logo—a crooked patch of turquoise bordered in black, a lone black reindeer with huge antlers gallivanting across it. She shivered. Probably looking for its herd.

“Who?” the man said, handing Sarah a mug.

“My aunt. Her name was Esther. She died last week.” Sarah spoke slowly, as if yanking the words hand over hand on a pulley from deep inside her. It was the first time she’d said it out loud. “Did you know her?” Sarah didn’t even know her, why did she feel like crying?

“She came in here a lot.” He spoke formally and wouldn’t look at her. “We were sorry to hear about that.” Sarah had hoped for some small detail, some remnant of her aunt’s life, something like, “Oh, your Aunt Esther, we all loved her so much, she was so cute, she always put two chocolate kisses in her coffee and waited for them to melt, stirring the whole time, and then she’d always say ‘Now it’s cool enough to drink’ as she started sipping.” But he didn’t offer anything at all. Maybe Esther was just a bothersome old lady. Or worse, an anonymous old woman with no personality.

Sarah sat down at a table by the window and stared out at the street. She wasn’t going to pump Mr. Coffee Maker for information. He obviously had a problem with death, or with old people, or maybe he didn’t like the way Esther came in and asked for samples and hardly ever bought anything. Esther’s neighbor had told Sarah that the first morning, after barging her way into the house and telling story after story about the strange men who came and went at Esther’s over the past seventeen years. There were dozens, to hear her talk. All the neighbor cared about was property values. That sneer on her face when she talked about the piles of trash outside told the whole story. She was probably the one who called the Health Department and tried to get the place condemned. Not one thought of helping Esther.

On the way back from the Caribou, Sarah looked at the neighborhood for the first time. An upscale enclave of houses built in the twenties, most of them two-story on huge lots. A nice place to live. Of course, Esther’s house was the dog on the block, its yellow paint and white trim peeling; it almost sagged a little. Supposedly, Edina was the place to live these days. If you made it to Edina, you’d made it, was how the neighbor put it. Yuppie heaven, was how Sarah thought of it. How did Esther ever end up in Edina?

The phone was ringing when Sarah walked into the house. A tinkly sound like crystal wind chimes you’d hear on the porch of a haunted house in a science-fiction movie when something ominous was about to happen. The first time the phone rang after she’d gotten there, she couldn’t find it, had to trace the tinkling through the piles of furniture and junk and finally found it on the built-in bookshelf in the living room. Dayton’s Department Store calling about Esther’s past due bill. After that, she ignored the phone half the time, only picked it up if she felt like it. She was tired of dealing with things. If everyone would just leave her alone, she could sort through Esther’s stuff and get out of there.

Sarah sighed and picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

“This is Jerome Holtzman, I’m one of Esther’s renters, I just wanna say I’m gonna file a claim against the estate, I’ve been down at the court all day trying to find out what my rights are.” He didn’t pause to breathe while he was talking. Sarah could hear him huffing like an asthmatic. “I’ve been to Legal Aid, Esther owed me a damage deposit, two months’ rent I gave her in the beginning, the cops had no right to lock me out last week.”

“I’m Sarah, Esther’s niece.” She knew this guy would go on and on if she didn’t interrupt him, one of those guys who threw words at you like bricks to break you down. You gave them anything just so they’d shut up. And he didn’t say one thing about being sorry that Esther died. Didn’t offer to come help clean up the Mt. Olympus dump in her house, either. “Let me give you the name of the attorney who will be handling the estate,” Sarah said. “You can make your claim with him.”

“I took Esther to a lawyer to do a will a couple of weeks before she died,” Holtzman said. “She never said she had a niece.”

“Where exactly is the will?”

“She put it in one of those plastic tubs in her bedroom,” he said. Sarah sat down on the couch. There were a million of those tubs in that room, under the piles of clothes, high up on the closet shelf. And three other bedrooms to sort through. And the upstairs. It would take months to get to all of it.

“I need to come and get my stuff, they didn’t let me take nothing with me, I lived upstairs, you know, the cops had no right to lock me out of the house, I paid rent, I took care of Esther for ten years, that’s my business, besides the mowing lawns and snow blowing I do on the side, taking care of sick old women.

“She was only really sick just the last few weeks. We took her to the hospital a couple of times the last few days, she was up all night coughing for three or four nights, it was pretty gross, they said she had a heart attack, on the front porch, she was waiting for Mo to pick her up and take her to the doctor.”

Sarah tuned him out, wondering why no one had called sooner, when Esther first got sick. The conservator had her phone number. But they waited until Esther dropped dead on her front porch. Maybe she could have seen her one last time before she died.

“Who’s Mo?” Sarah said.

“He lived there, too, the cops wouldn’t let him take nothing either, I saw him yesterday, he’s staying down at the Harbor Light Center.”

She knew how to deal with this character. Give him strict limits. The same way she did at the law firm back home when those creeps called from county jail wanting her boss to bail them out. They always had a scam—some weird story or other. This guy was probably a criminal, too. She could smell it.

“I’ll be here at one o’clock on Wednesday,” Sarah said. “You can move your things out then. Tell Mo to call me.”

“I don’t have no place to take it, I’m living out of my car since Esther died, I can’t find anyone to help me.”

“Please make some kind of arrangements. Good-bye.” She hung up. Lucky for him he had a car to live in. She’d noticed there weren’t any transients on the streets like in L.A. They’d die here in one night. She shivered and looked up on the bookshelf at the photo of Esther she’d found in a kitchen drawer. Bright blue eyes, white hair, a few missing teeth. Did that guy really take care of you? Sarah asked. Esther’s clear eyes stared back.

Sarah headed straight up the stairs to Holtzman’s room. She hadn’t even been up there yet. It was dark and warm, the nicest place in the house, clean and uncluttered, like a monk’s room. You could tell Esther never went up there. An answering machine sat on a small table next to the mattress on the floor showing forty-five messages. Forty-five in less than a week. Jesus. Sarah sat down on the bed and pushed the retrieval button.

“Jerome, are you there? Please pick up the phone.” Shaky voice, the voice of an old woman. Esther’s voice? “Jerome, honey, I thought you were coming back to get me. Jerome, are you there? The angel isn’t running today. Please come and get me up at Donald’s.” Click. Beep. Did she mean the bus wasn’t running? Did he ever show up that day?

“Hey, Jay, this is Wayne. Call me back.” Click. Beep. The voice was low and husky, the guy sounded sick with the flu. Drunk, maybe.

“Hey, Jay, this is Wayne. Call me back.” Click. Beep.

“Jay, this is Danita. Come hit me up.” Danita’s voice was high-pitched and manic. Minnesota accent. She sounded like a speed freak.

“Jay, this is Danita. How come you didn’t call me back? Jay, I’m worried about you. Are you there?” Maybe she was his girlfriend.

“This is Wayne, Jay. Hey, man, call me back. I’m pretty hard up.” Wayne sounded mad.

“Jay, this is Danita. Are you okay? You haven’t picked up your messages for days. If you don’t call me back, I’m coming over there to check on you. Please call me back.”

There were at least ten more messages from Wayne and about the same from Danita. And a lot of hang-ups. No one ever left a phone number. The last message was: “Jay, this is Danita. Oh, Jay, I’m so sorry, I heard about Esther. I’m so sorry, Jay. If there’s anything I can do, please call.” Click. Beep.

Sarah snooped around Holtzman’s room some more. Dresser drawers full of nicely folded socks and shorts. An intricately carved cedar chest in the corner of the room, next to the mattress on the floor.  She lay down and stared at three rosaries hanging from nails in the wall above the bed, making the corner look almost like a shrine. He could have all of it. She wouldn’t quibble. She had enough to deal with. He probably stole it all, anyway.

The next morning after walking to the Caribou for her morning caffeine fix, Sarah went to work in Esther’s bedroom, using one huge garbage bag for the trash and one for the give-away things. She sorted through the fortress of clothes surrounding Esther’s bed. Used clothes, but clean and nicely stacked up. They didn’t even smell bad since they were out in the room, not stuck in some closet. Or maybe she was so used to the mildew stink from the basement she didn’t notice any more. Boxes were piled next to the dresser filled with twisted and tied white grocery bags—Esther’s daily life in little bundles. The dream Sarah had the first night flashed through her mind. Esther was still in the house. She haunted it. Maybe she’d explain a few more things before she left for good.

Sarah stooped and looked out the bedroom window at the sky. Snow came down in lumpy white flakes, a wet snow that would surely stick if it didn’t turn to rain. When it hit the windowpane, the inside heat made it melt and run down the glass in rivulets. She could feel Esther sitting there next to her, staring out the window, hoping the snow would stay.

Sarah went through each of the grocery bags, like a detective sifting through evidence looking for clues to a murder. She found three AA sobriety coins, for years two, three and four. Esther was in the program? Maybe she had more in common with Esther than she thought. Probably one of the weirdoes who lived with her.

She’d found a brand-new Alcoholics Anonymous book on a table in her parents’ house the day after her father died last year. She was so happy imagining him walking some kind of spiritual path at the end and had asked her mom about it. “Was Dad going to AA?”

“No, I don’t think so, honey,” her mom said. She wouldn’t have known anyway. Sarah’s dad kept plenty of secrets during his life, the biggest one being his crazy sister. He’d practically kept Esther in a closet for forty years.

She found dozens of decks of cards, free for the advertising that was printed on them. She opened each box to make sure nothing else was inside. The Queen of Hearts was usually the top card on the deck. There were shoe boxes filled with all sorts of heart-shaped costume jewelry. A rhinestone heart pin. A pair of clip-on gold earrings in the shape of hearts. A pink heart pendant on a fake gold chain. She fingered the smooth molded plastic. Maybe Esther lived with strange men and collected a lot of stupid junk, but she sure gathered a lot of hearts. That was more than Sarah could say for herself.

She opened the top drawer of Esther’s dresser and pulled out a birthday card with flowers on the front, handwriting inside “To Esther, Queen of the Hearts. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Happy Birthday. Love, Richard.” There were scraps of paper with shaky writing on them, names of places to get free clothes—the Indian Center, Tuesday and Thursday; The Steeple People, Saturday 1-5 p.m. It didn’t make any sense. She was bringing in almost two thousand dollars a month. The house was paid for, according to the bank. Esther must’ve given away a lot of her money. She didn’t spend it on clothes, that was certain.

There was no will anywhere. Sarah knew that Holtzman character was a spin doctor. She went through plastic tubs full of sewing notions and rancid candy bars until she couldn’t take it any more. She heard her mother’s voice saying “a bargain’s not a bargain unless you need it.” When Sarah opened the second closet door and a shoe box full of ugly costume jewelry fell off the shelf and scattered all over, she lost it. She stood in the one square foot patch of clear space on Esther’s bedroom floor and ranted to the empty house: “This is nuts! No, I’m fucking nuts! What am I doing here? I’m wasting my time!”

Did she really think she would find something that explained Esther? Why didn’t she just pay someone to come and rake the place out, rent dumpsters, take it all away. “What a bunch of fucking junk! I’m getting out of here!” Sarah screamed so loud, she was gasping like she’d just run up and down the stairs. She stormed out to the back stairway, bundled up and stomped down to the Caribou.

A man sat at a corner table near the window, writing in a notebook. He looked up at Sarah, smiled and went back to his writing. Writing in a cafe, how cliché, she thought.

“Could I have just a little taste of that cappuccino?” Sarah pointed up to the wooden menu on the wall above the counter. The woman frowned at her, the same woman she’d asked about Esther the day before.

“I guess so,” the woman said, turning.

“Wait,” Sarah said. “Just get me a mocha, okay? Decaf.” Sarah shook her head. What was she doing, begging for a sample? She was turning into Esther. She should just pack up and leave, go back where she belonged. Back to L.A. and the Starbucks down the street where they knew what she liked and gave it to her automatically. When summer came, she could go alone to the beach and read Kingsolver novels. No one was forcing her to stay there on that polar ice cap and sort through Esther’s junk.

Sarah paid for the mocha and sat down in the opposite corner from the man, the only other person in the cafe. She tried to give herself a pep talk about pacing herself, taking breaks, working only two hours at a time. She felt crazy talking to herself like that, a habit she’d picked up from years of living with no one except her cat, Hollywood. She thought of him, gray and soft and congenial, the best friend she’d ever had. Independent and self-contained, just like her. Charming and even tempered, too. Hah. What a joke. She couldn’t believe how emotional she was in Minnesota. Yelling one minute, crying the next.

Sarah enjoyed her own company and couldn’t imagine living otherwise. Until recently, when she felt loonier every day, starting when the National Bank wrote that they were getting a conservator appointed for Esther. Her dad had written them a letter before he died naming Sarah as last living relative. He was the one who set up the trust for Esther to begin with all those years ago. And now she was dead. Sarah wondered how much money was left.

She couldn’t stop her racing thoughts. Shut up! she admonished herself. Stop thinking so much. Easy does it, first things first. She needed a meeting. That’s what it was. She needed less caffeine, more AA. She’d call when she got home, back to Esther’s house, she meant. Find out where the nearest meeting was. Sarah loved the anonymity of out-of-town meetings, rarely went to AA at home anymore. All those movie stars hogging the hour with their “deepest issues.” They all acted as if Sarah was being dishonest if she didn’t cry at least once a week. Prying and gossiping. Enough, already. If they wanted to turn the meeting into a soap-opera set, that was their problem.

Sarah warmed her hands over the cup and tried to relax, picked up The City Pages from the window seat beside her. An ad on page three said the Wallflowers were playing in Minneapolis that night. Sarah smiled. Dylan’s little boy trying to make it big in the north country, the same as his dad did thirty-some years ago.

“Oh, so you know how to smile.” The man spoke from his corner. Sarah looked up from the newspaper. He was about forty or so, with bushy eyebrows and curly brown hair down over his ears. What a line. People had been saying that to her her whole life. If the Great Writer only knew what she’d been through the past few weeks, he’d be surprised she was still breathing, let alone smiling.

“Once in a great while,” she said.

“I’m Richard.” He had a Minnesota, almost Canadian, accent. He wore a flannel shirt and jeans. No earmuffs, no jacket.

“I’m Sarah. Freezing. From California,” she said, looking down at her clothes.

“Your last name is Freezing?” His eyebrows lifted.

“No.” She smiled.

“Oh, I get it. Some people freeze here all winter, no matter how much heat’s on. What’re you doing out here?”

“My aunt died. I’m cleaning out her house.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” He looked away. Sarah took a deep breath. This guy showed more compassion in three words than Holtzman did in a fifteen-minute phone conversation. Maybe there was hope for the men in the world, yet.

“I’m the only one left,” she said. “My father died last year. My mom’s still alive, but she and Esther hated each other. Well, Esther was a little crazy.” The words tripped out of her mouth, chasing each other like the wind chased tumbleweeds in the canyons back home. She sipped her coffee and looked down at the table.


“Yes.” Sarah looked up. “Esther Nordstrom. Do you know her? I mean, did you?” Maybe the Great Writer could give her some insight. “She used to come in here a lot.”

“I used to live in Esther’s house! I can’t believe this.” He looked down at the floor then back up at Sarah. “Around the corner on Sunnyside, right?”

“What!” Sarah said. The birthday card. Richard.

“I moved out years ago. After I was sober a year,” he said. “After many attempts to stay sober.” He looked down at his hands, lost in thought. “Listen.” He looked up at Sarah. “If Esther didn’t go to heaven, no one ever will.”

His AA coins. And what a great thing to say about Esther. The next thing he’d say was he didn’t know Esther had a niece. Everyone thought she was an impostor. Maybe it was true. She didn’t even know her. Sarah got up and put on her jacket.

“Gotta go. Too much to do.” She hurried out the door, bumping into the doorjamb, and practically ran around the corner back to the house.

The next morning, as she packed up the umpteenth box of dishes in the dining room, the phone rang. “I hope I didn’t offend you yesterday, you took off pretty quick. Are you okay?”

“Who is this?”


“I have a lot of work to do.”

“I wanted to offer to help. Cleaning out the house, I mean. I can’t imagine one person doing it alone.”

“One of the other tenants is coming over at one o’clock.”

“I could come over right now. I work in the afternoon, driving a cab. I’ll only stay as long as you want me to.”

“Maybe you know him, Jay Holtzman?”

“I’m not sure he’d be very happy to see me. We lived there at the same time for a while. I tried to help him get clean at one point, but he got all involved in the life again. Couldn’t I come over right now?”

“No, that won’t work.”

“Why don’t I call you in the morning, then.

“Well, I’m not sure.”

“Listen, Sarah.”


“Esther was a great person. A little crazy, but an angel to those of us who lived there. We called her Queen of the Hearts. I just wanted you to know that.”

“That’s very nice of you. Good-bye.”

That night, Sarah had another dream. Esther shuffling in the Mall of America, a white plastic Walgreen’s bag in her hand. She’s all bundled up in sweaters and a heavy wool coat, a scarf around her head. Crowds of people swirl around her, swallowing her stooped figure. She appears again at an ATM, inserts her card, enters her number and withdraws cash. She tucks two twenty-dollar bills into her skirt pocket and heads outside to the bus stop. The bus arrives, Esther climbs on slowly and sits down near a young woman with an infant in her arms. They talk the whole trip to Edina. When Esther gets off at France & 44th, she tells the girl, “You take care of that beautiful baby, now, honey,” and presses a twenty-dollar bill into her hand. Esther walks across the street into the SuperValu. The sample lady who works there on Tuesdays is frying tiny slices of sausage in an electric frying pan. Esther chats with the lady while the sausage sizzles and then eats her fill before she walks home.

The phone woke Sarah up the next morning. Richard again. “Sarah, I could come over and help now. I mean, if you’re comfortable with that.”

“I’m just on my way out the door.” She stuck the phone between her ear and shoulder and sat up on the couch. “I’ve got to get some coffee or I won’t be able to function.”

“I’ll pick up some mochas on my way over. I’m not very far from there.”

“Jay never made it yesterday. I waited here for two hours. Really pissed me off. I’m tempted to just put all his stuff outside and forget about it. The forecast’s for snow and sleet.”

“Yeah, Jay was pretty unreliable when he was using. Like most of us.”

“How many of you guys lived in this house, anyway?” Sarah asked.

“Mo lived there when I did. Jay, too. This other guy named John. I don’t know who all’s lived there in the past seven years. Oh, Tony. God, I almost forgot. Tony threw himself off a bridge into the Mississippi.” Richard’s voice trailed off.

“What?” Sarah sat up on the couch.

“I guess that house could be in a Faulkner novel or something. So many stories.” He sighed. “Tony went nuts and started attacking Esther with a knife. We had him committed. He was from Pakistan or somewhere.”

“I think there’s a photo of him on the bookshelf in the living room,” Sarah said, looking up at a picture of a man with dark skin and black eyes. She looked at the photo of Esther next to Tony. Esther winked at her. Sarah shook her head and straightened the picture.

“When they were getting ready to let him out of the psych ward, the United States was trying to deport him. That’s when he went down to the river.” His voice was sad. “Could I have that picture?”

“It means nothing to me.”

“Well, I’ll be over in a little while then.”

Sarah hung up the phone, closed her eyes. She could feel herself sliding into the mire of Esther’s life minute by minute. The mud was slippery but full of debris, like the sinkhole in their backyard in California when she was young. All the neighbor kids came over after torrential rains one winter. They dared each other to walk into it, farther and farther each time. Sarah got stuck and her dad had to pull her out. This time it was Esther holding onto the other end of the rope and tugging her through the mess.

Sarah went out to the drug store for more trash bags and wandered up and down the aisles for twenty minutes before she found them. When she started unloading her cart at the check-out counter, she had three boxes of trash bags, four bottles of shampoo at two for $2.99, and six cellophane bags of hard candy, marked two for ninety-nine cents. At the bottom was a pair of heart-shaped rhinestone earrings. Sarah looked up at the clerk in horror, abandoned the cart, and ran out to the car.

On the way back to Esther’s, she thought of her life in L.A. Her peaceful apartment. Her Hollywood. Her great job. Shopping in real stores for real things. None of this sorting through other people’s piles of junk. When she got back home, she’d go to the Museum of Art every Saturday, buy season tickets to the symphony, go to night school at UCLA and finally get her degree.

“You never really knew Esther, did you?” Richard said. They stood sorting through a mountain of clothes in one of the bedrooms.

“I only met her once. She was the family secret. The only thing I remember about her was she and my grandmother would send a Christmas box full of presents every year when I was little. It was full of broken cookies, you know, those roll out and cut kind?” Sarah tried on a navy-blue blazer. It fit just right, the same as all the women’s clothes she’d found so far, as if made for her. She hung it up in the closet. “They sent clothes, too. They were always the wrong size. Women’s instead of little girl sizes.”

“Was Esther in a car wreck or something, is that what made her kind of, you know, loony?” Richard looked at himself in the mirror wearing a camel hair overcoat he’d found in one of the piles. He preened and screwed up his face at his image in the glass, a little boy playing dress-up. “Perfect.”

“Her husband was killed in World War II,” Sarah said. “A Marine, like my dad. He died on Tarawa. They never recovered his body.” She talked too fast, the words riding down her tongue like rafts down a rough river, leaving her breathless. It reminded her of the way Holtzman talked on the phone. She stuffed clothes into a garbage bag to slow herself down. “She was never the same after that. She lived with my grandmother until Grandma died. Then my dad put her in a mental hospital.”

“Having a conversation with Esther was like being on a roller-coaster,” Richard said. “She’d start off talking about a pretty yellow and red dress she saw on a girl on the bus, and how it reminded her of one she used to have, and by the time it was over, she was riding in a Model T with her father down in Florida, and you’re going ‘now, wait a minute, what about that yellow dress?’” He looked at Sarah. “And then Esther would look straight at you and go, ‘Oh, there you are.’” He dragged a bag of clothes toward the door.

“She never had a father,” Sarah said, opening a metal cabinet. “God, look at all this food.” Plastic bags of noodles and spaghetti filled the top shelf. The bottom three shelves were full of cans of tomato sauce, green beans, soup. She picked up one of the cans. “This stuff is dated five years ago!”

“She got it free from the government.”

“She and my dad had different fathers. Esther was illegitimate. My grandmother raised her. My dad was raised by his grandparents. They took him from his mother because of Esther. His father died before he was born. I don’t think Esther ever knew my dad and she didn’t have the same father.”

Richard put his hand on Sarah’s arm. “Esther was one of the most significant women in my whole life. If she hadn’t taken me in when she did, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me.”

“You mean you got sober because you lived here?” She sat down on a stack of clothes, feeling comfortable, almost at home amidst the clothes and boxes and heaps of blankets.

“Well, just having a roof over my head where nobody wanted anything from me, for one thing. All I had to do was come and go and do what I needed to do. Esther even made my bed, for Christ’s sake.” He threw his head back and laughed, then looked at Sarah. “When I first moved in, I made it myself, and she got so mad. So I just let her do it from then on. She wouldn’t let me cook for myself, either. If I was around at mealtime, she fed me. For quite a few years.” He sat down next to Sarah on the piles.

“Why did you leave?”

“It was just time to go. You know what I mean. You’ve moved around a lot, haven’t you?” Sarah wondered how he knew that.

“I’ve got fifteen years in the program. I quit apartment-hopping at about year thirteen.”

“We’ve only got one day, now, don’t we?” he said, grinning at her.

“Smart aleck.”

“There were so many cockroaches here,” Richard said, digging his hand into another pile of clothes. “And none of us could get her to stop bringing all this stuff in. It was crazy. That’s why I moved out. Maybe I wasn’t so crazy anymore. I came back to see her, though. When I saw the police tape outside last week, I thought maybe Jay or Mo or someone had murdered Esther. I was really freaked.”

“It was a heart attack. Mo was supposed to take her to the doctor. That’s what Jay told me, anyway.”

There was a knock on the front door. A stocky dark-haired man with thick glasses stood on the porch stomping off the cold. He looked as if he hadn’t showered in days, greasy hair, rumpled clothes.

“Jerome Holtzman,” he said, offering his hand. “Call me Jay.”

“I’m Sarah,” she said, ignoring his hand and moving out of his way. She pointed at Richard. “You know Richard, I think.”

Holtzman squinted at Richard. “You’re in with Esther’s niece, now, huh?”

“We met over at the Caribou,” Richard said, frowning. “A coincidence.”

“Whatever. Tell her, Richard.” He waved his hands around and balanced on one foot, then the other. “Tell her how I took care of Esther for all those years and the cops shouldn’tve locked me out of here, all my stuff’s here, I don’t have nowhere to go, nowhere to put it, what am I s’posed to do?” He plopped down on the couch, breathing heavily.

Sarah still stood with her hand on the doorknob. Richard rolled his eyes at her. “You’re doing just fine telling her yourself, Jay,” he said.

“The police said you didn’t have a rental agreement,” Sarah said.

“I took Esther to a lawyer a few weeks ago, I told you that.”

“I haven’t found anything like a will around here.”

“She’s leaving everything to her son, but I went down to the court yesterday and they told me I can make a claim.”

Sarah fumbled in her pocket for the attorney’s business card. She’d already told him the guy’s name. She looked at Holtzman. “What did you say?”

His eyes narrowed. “You didn’t know Esther had a son?”

“No! Why isn’t he here?” She looked at Richard. He avoided her eyes.

“Oh, Donald’s in some home over in Minneapolis,” Jay said. He looked at Richard, then back at Sarah. “Didn’t you tell her, Richard? He’s a retard, I used to take her to visit him, Esther was nuts and Donald was a retard, god, what a pair, I was glad she didn’t bring him here to the house, I guess she tried that for a while and it got to be too much, that was way before my time, though, hey, you got something to eat?” He took off his glasses and wiped them on his dirty T-shirt.

Sarah sat down in the recliner. Her dad never said anything about Esther having a son. “A retard?” she said. “Down’s syndrome?”

“Yeah, whatever, I don’t know nothing about that stuff, I guess she had him late or something, back when she was on the streets, you shoulda’ heard the stories she’d tell me.”

“On the streets?” Sarah said.

“Not many people knew about Donald.” Holtzman blinked. “You’d think someone’s niece would know, though.”

Sarah looked at Richard. “You knew?”

Richard avoided her eyes, sitting down on the arm of the recliner. “I thought you knew.”

“How old is Donald?”

“Oh, about thirty or thirty-five,” Holtzman said. “I dunno, it’s hard to tell looking at a retard, you know, he’s kinda messed up now, too, like he can’t hardly move from his wheelchair now.” Jay frowned at Sarah. “Hey, you got anything to eat or not? I’m starving.”

Sarah went into the kitchen and made sandwiches, glad for something to do with her hands. She needed to think. Esther with a son? If he was thirty-five now, that meant he was born pretty soon after Grandmother died. That meant Esther was close to fifty years old when she had him. On the street?

She carried the sandwiches into the dining room. Richard and Jay sat at the table, waiting to be served. Sarah stood in the doorway, listening to Jay tell a story.

“A couple of months ago, I was giving Esther a ride to church and we was driving up 44th Street, right where that big curve is, and all of a sudden the right front wheel falls off my VW and flies onto the side of the road and up a little hill, I slam on the brakes, before I can say a word, Esther goes ‘Don’t worry, Jerome, I’ll get it,’ jumps out, pulls up her dress and runs up that hill to retrieve the wheel.”

They laughed so hard they didn’t notice Sarah was in the room. Tears streamed down both their faces.

“Esther was almost eighty years old,” Jay said, still laughing. “I was so happy that it was her with me that day, just about anyone else would have sat in that car, whining ‘What we gonna do, what we gonna do?’ but not Esther, she just jumped out and ran and got that wheel.” He stopped, noticing Sarah in the doorway. He turned to her, eyes big. “I could see those things that held up her nylons.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

“Remember how we had to go to Sebastian Joe’s every Sunday after church?” Richard said. “Sebastian Joe’s, Sebastian Joe’s, the only ice cream in the whole wide world. One of us would always have to take her. She’d always buy. ‘You fly, I’ll buy,’ she’d say.”

“Yep.” Jay nodded and wiped his eyes.

Sarah set the sandwiches on the table. “Do you need to leave your things here for a while, Jay?”

“I don’t know, man, now it’s getting dark and it’s a big mess out there, I sure could use a little more time.” His nose was still running. Sarah reached over to the sideboard and handed him a box of tissues. One of about twenty-five boxes she’d found around the house.

“How much time do you need?” she asked him.

“Could ya give me maybe a week? Maybe it’ll stop snowing, maybe I could get Wayne or Danita to help me.”

“In the meantime,” Sarah nodded at Richard, “the two of you can help me get this place cleaned out.” She put on her jacket and walked out onto the porch. The snow had stopped and the sun was going down, what Northerners called a sun anyway, a thin, white disk sliding behind leafless trees in front of the flat, colorless horizon. Sarah walked down Esther’s street, hands stuffed in her pockets. No one else was around. She could see her breath. A block down the street, she noticed a purple plastic headband on the sidewalk and picked it up. A few more blocks down, she picked up a bolt and a white Walgreen’s bag. She put her finds in the bag and twisted it into a small bundle and tied it closed. She shivered and turned around and went back, walked inside the house, stared down at the bag in her hand, and put it in one of the dresser drawers in Esther’s bedroom.

The next morning the three of them went to visit Donald. They headed up 44th Street between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun, the sky overcast and the temperature just above freezing. The lakes were only partially hardened with ice that time of year, the gray surface of the water dark, like unstreaked marble, the trees on the shore black skeletons of their spring and summer selves.

Jay couldn’t remember the name of the home, but he knew exactly how to get there. “Turn left at the next light,” he said, waving a Tootsie-Pop at Sarah. “Want one?”

“No, thanks.”

“Richard?” Jay reached over the seat to hand Richard a sucker.

“Thanks, bud.”

“Do you guys have your seat belts on?” Sarah asked them. They both nodded.

“Right. Turn right here,” Jay said.

A wooden sign in front of a three-story stone building read “Minnesota State Hospital.” It looked like a medieval castle. When they arrived, a nurse ushered them into the director’s office.

“Yes, Donald Nordstrom is a patient here,” the director said, nodding. He looked like a funeral home director, black suit, black tie, ready to sell them a casket.

“I’m Donald’s cousin, Sarah, these are my friends, Jay and Richard.” Richard took Sarah’s hand and intertwined their fingers. “They used to live with Donald’s mother. Were you aware Esther died last week?”

“No, we weren’t.” He touched the tip of his nose. “I’m so sorry. Mrs. Nordstrom was very consistent in her visits.”

“How long has he been here?”

“Let me see. It was before my time. I think since 1970. I can find out exactly, if you’d like.”

“No, that’s not necessary. May we see Donald?”

“I’m afraid it wouldn’t do much good. Donald has gotten worse over the years. I don’t know if you’re aware that Down syndromes have increased risk of heart disease. Donald’s been fighting his heart for years.” He frowned. “He’s also developed dementia. This is fairly common for Down syndrome. He’s had the best of care, but he’s almost totally bedridden now. We don’t expect his heart to last much longer. And he quit recognizing his mother last year.”

“Yeah,” Jay said. “That time I brought Esther here and he didn’t even know who she was, she cried all the way home, but she never give up seeing him.” He sniffed and wiped his nose. Sarah got a tissue out of her purse and handed it to him.

“I’d really like to see Donald,” Sarah said.

“If you insist,” the director said. He led them down a long hall with all closed doors on each side. Sarah’s heels clicking on the tile sounded like a clock ticking, wiping away years of silence.

She turned to the guys. “I’d like to go in alone.”

They nodded and stepped aside, as the director waved her into a small room. Donald was asleep in a hospital bed cranked up part way. He had a flat nose, a small head, and his hands on top of the blanket were short and stubby. He slept soundly, snoring with each breath. Sarah thought of her father on his deathbed last year. “He looks like my father,” she whispered. The director patted her on the shoulder. “We’ll take care of you, Donald,” she said. He slept on.

Sarah looked at Donald a moment longer, then walked out of his room. She looked up and down the hall. The guys were nowhere around. She felt more alone than she ever had in her whole life.

There was a crashing noise at the end of the hall. Richard appeared around the corner pushing Jay in a wheelchair, first on four wheels, then fast, in a wheelie.

“Whoops!” Richard said. The chair went out of control and hit the wall. He saw Sarah down the hall and grinned.

“Hey!” Jay said, laughing, almost falling sideways out of the chair.

Sarah looked over at the director. He had a pinched look on his face. “What on earth are they doing?” he said. “Don’t they know this is a hospital?”

“I’m sorry, sir.” Sarah put a hand over her mouth to hide her grin and coughed. “We’ll go now.” She motioned to the guys down the hall. Jay struggled out of the wheelchair and Richard parked it along the wall. They walked up to Sarah, heads down. “Go say good-bye to Donald,” she said.

Jay walked into Donald’s room, then Richard. Sarah followed to make sure they didn’t do anything stupid. “Hey, Donald,” Jay whispered. “Good-bye, buddy.” He wiped at his nose with his hand. Richard bowed in Donald’s direction and turned away.

Sarah took Jay’s hand in her left and Richard’s in her right, and they moved out of Donald’s room together as if on a magic carpet. Sarah felt light as gauze, sliding down the hall past the wheelchair and floating out the front door into the gray winter. Wherever that carpet was taking her, for some reason she was willing to go. She was a little out of breath when they got to the parking lot.

Sarah started the car and backed out. “I’m hungry,” Richard said. “Let’s stop somewhere. You fly, I’ll buy.”

“Esther used to make something,” Jay said. “What was it, Richard, it was great, noodles and meat and sauce and cheese, some of that weird kind of cheese, what was it called?”

“Lasagna.” Richard said. “Ricotta cheese.”

“La -zag-na,” Jay said. “That’s how Esther used to say it.”

“La-zag-na, yeah, Esther’s specialty,” Richard said.

“I know how to make that,” Sarah said, nodding. “I could do that.” She wouldn’t have to worry about finding a recipe in Esther’s house. All those dozens of cookbooks in the cupboards above the refrigerator. They’d have to get groceries on the way home. She shook her head at the picture of the three of them shopping for food together. No. She’d drop the guys off and go back out to the store. They could sort through more stuff while she made dinner. She would set the dining room table with Esther’s mismatched dishes and they’d sit there together and eat. Just like a family.

Sarah turned left on Sunnyside and headed down the street toward home.

That night, she dreamed of Esther again.

Esther sits in a hospital day room, slumped in a gray chair at a beat-up plastic table, a Librium look on her face. She’s wearing baggy cotton pants and a sweater so big she has to keep pushing the sleeves up out of her way while she plays solitaire, over and over, never winning, not even knowing how to cheat when necessary.

Sarah walks over to Esther and quietly introduces herself, carefully pulls a chair right up next to her and stares down at the cards on the table.

She watches Esther play. Esther never shuffles the cards before she starts a new game. She always uses the same deck in the same order as she used before. The King of Hearts makes a quiet slap-sliding sound as she places him in a blank space on the table. It sounds like the rustle of a crinoline petticoat Esther might have worn under her homemade party dress back when she was still married.

Sarah takes Esther’s hand with the Queen of Hearts in it and places it right on top of that King. Shows her how to cheat. Then she shows Esther how to take the cards she has left after going through them all and put the last one on top of the pile. Start over.

Esther turns to Sarah and says, “It doesn't really matter if you cheat when you're playing against yourself, does it? And starting over is the most important thing, right?”

Sarah looks at her and nods. Esther winks.

About the Author

Liza Porter

Liza Porter's manuscript Bruce Springsteen Sang to Me was finalist for 2019 Cleveland State University Essay Collection competition, the 2018 Faulkner Society Faulkner-Wisdom Narrative Nonfiction Book Award, and the Santa Fe Writers Workshop nonfiction book award. She is founding director of the Other Voices Women’s Reading Series at Antigone Books in Tucson, Arizona. Three of Porter’s essays have been listed as Notable Essays in Best American Essays.