Martin did call me, after a fashion. Every few days my phone would ring at some random time -- usually in the evening after he’d put Grace to bed, but sometimes he could call while he was on his lunch break -- and for ten or fifteen minutes I would sling sarcasms and bandy words about and play the game with aplomb. Then he would ring off suddenly, and I would sink slowly back into daily life with Emma. One evening, desperate with boredom, I tried to call him. But Grace had not gone down willingly that night, and the wail of her tantrum sliced through the conversation. He called later and apologized, but I didn’t intrude on him after that.
One morning I was startled awake by the phone shrilling in my ear. When I picked it up and looked at the time, I was informed that the hour was 6 am.
“Martin,” I groaned, “for the love of...”
“What would you like from Rio de Janeiro?” he asked cheerily. “I fly out this morning.”
“I thought you weren’t traveling anymore,”
“I’d like to cut back more, but duty calls.”
“I don’t know the first thing about Rio,” I said groggily, “and at this hour I certainly can’t think of anything I want from there. Have a safe trip.”
“Any last words? We’re boarding in a minute.” And he began to sing, “Send me a kiss by wire...”
“Martin, go away.”
“I will, and I’ll drop by and see you at 3:00 on Friday afternoon.”
The week dragged by. On Friday I took Emma shopping, dusted the library, and made cookies. I put my hair up. I took it down. I changed my shirt. Emma became flustered and trailed me around the house until I sat her down at the table for a snack. And at 2:59, Martin strolled in the door and presented himself in the kitchen.
“You could knock!” I cried.
“I told you I was coming,” he said as he dropped into a chair, as if to suggest that such advance planning acquitted him of all need to announce his arrival. “Emma, you’re a sight for sore eyes. May I never see another Brazilian beach beauty as long as I live.”
“The call of duty must be harsh.”
“And I haven’t showed you what I bought.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a package wrapped in brown paper. Opening it dramatically, he pulled out a cheap plastic statue of Rio de Janeiro’s most recognizable landmark, Christ the Redeemer with his arms outstretched. I took it and examined it with growing incredulity
“You went to Rio and bought me this?”
“Of course not,” he said smoothly, swiping it from me and handing it to Aunt Emma, who crowed with delight. “You told me you didn’t want anything, and I respect a woman who speaks her mind.”
“How fortunate for me, then, as your taste in souvenirs seems to run to garish religious statuary and tattoos.”
He was silent for a moment. “That is harsh, Emma.”
I was discomfited. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know we were playing for keeps.”
“Neither did I,” he responded, flashing me a smile, but his gray eyes were guarded.
Aunt Emma was pleased to see Martin again, but after he left she was troubled. Her jumbled memories of a man in the house seemed to make her anxious. She became convinced that Howard was somehow present, moving her things or taking her books. Often this was only expressed in mumblings and shufflings, but one morning she refused to take her anti-depressant and accused me of keeping Howard from her, of hiding him so I could have him to myself. It took several hours for her anger and sorrow to simmer down enough that I could slip her pill past her in a bowl of applesauce. Then she slept, drained by her emotion.
I told Martin about it that evening on the phone.
“And where are you hiding Howard these days?” he inquired.
“Nowhere,” I sighed. “I don’t want him. He’s caused me nothing but grief.”
“But she’s happy when I’m there?”
“Yes, probably because you flatter her so inordinately.”
“Grace is at her grandparents’ this weekend,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ll come over tomorrow after work, then.”
“Hi, hon!” Emma cried happily from her seat at the table the next afternoon, and I looked around the refrigerator door to see Martin entering the kitchen.
“Aunt Emma!” he exclaimed, dropping a kiss upon her forehead. She simpered.
“Did you see this young man?” she asked me. “He’s a nice one.”
“I see him,” I replied. Withdrawing back into the fridge, I inquired of him,“Does it ever occur to you to knock?”
“You could lock the door if you don’t want people charging in.”
“You’d better go do it yourself, or I might go off with the next nice guy who wanders through the kitchen.”
“Oh, you have big plans for tonight?” He came up behind me and leaned his chin on my shoulder, peering at the shelf I was emptying. It held a mass of jars containing various shades and quantities of watery brown liquid. “Do nice guys often pass through the kitchen? Were you expecting someone in particular? Should I feel nervous?”
“I think you take it very much for granted that the answer is ‘no’.” I straightened and shook him off.
He lounged in a chair. “If I thought the answer was yes, I’d already be camped out in front of your door with my Louisville Slugger to fight off all comers. Isn’t that right, Aunt Emma?” She simpered.
I rolled my eyes. “If you really want to know, I’m making coffee for Emma tonight.”
“And then what?”
“There’s no ‘then’. Making Emma’s coffee takes a while.”
“How long can it take to make coffee?”
“You have no idea, Martin, how particular Emma is about the coffee.”
“I don’t have any idea, no.”
“Then you’re welcome to come and help, since you seem so intrigued.”
“I will,” he said. “I’m dying to see what kind of assistance you need to make coffee for such a sweet old lady.”
“Fine.” I pushed a jar at him. “Start pouring this stuff down the sink.”
“What is it?”
“The last batch of coffee.”
“What, this jar?”
“All the jars.”
He took the item in question and stood regarding it with something less than enchantment.
“Why, Martin, you seem daunted!” I teased. “How hard can it be to make coffee for a sweet old lady?”
“I would like to know,” he said, beginning to empty and wash out the assembled jars, “a bit more about this process. How exactly does one make this coffee?”
“Ah, now you come to it. Move over.” I nudged him aside so I could fill the huge reservoir of the old metal percolator. “First we make one urn of coffee.”
“One Grecian Urn,” he recited. “Got it. Where did she find this old thing?”
“From a church basement, probably. Pay attention! We will open this drawer and place a jar in it. When it’s settled, we drag the percolator over to the edge of the counter. We center the spout over the jar. We fill the jar halfway. Do not fill it all the way! That would be wrong.”
“Because the rest of the jar is filled with water.”
“And why do you have to put the jar in the drawer?”
I turned to Emma. “Emma, why do we have to put the jar in the drawer to fill it?”
“The coffee gets hot, honey,” she warned. “Don’t you get burned, now,”
“We put the now-filled jar on the bottom shelf of the fridge,” I continued. “We do this eight times.”
“So, eight jars of watered-down coffee.” Martin shrugged. “That’s a little odd, but not all that Byzantine."
“We’re not finished yet.” I hefted the percolator back onto the counter and filled the filter basket with grounds. “Next we take one of those jars and pour half of it into another jar. Both of those jars are filled with water.”
“Again. Those jars go on the second shelf up. Then we take a mug and fill it a quarter full of the quarter coffee solution. To that we add half and half. This cup resides on the third shelf. That is what she drinks, unless she chooses that morning to pour half of it into another mug and water that down. In that case, you will have guessed, that topped-off mug is promoted to the fourth shelf. The fourth shelf represents the highest achievement of coffee. The apotheosis.”
Martin stared at me. “That’s disgusting.”
“Couldn’t you just make her a fresh quarter-cup of coffee each morning?”
“It’s a sixteenth-cup, but yes. I’d be happy to do that. She prefers her system.”
The percolator was bubbling. I dried the outsides of the jars and lined them up. Martin was still appalled.
“Emma, are you really going to make her this coffee that might sit in the fridge for weeks before she drinks it?”
“I don’t force it on her. This is how she wants it.”
He appealed to Emma. “Aunt Emma, what if I brought you a nice new coffee maker? They have ones now that make as little coffee as you want, and it’s always fresh.”
She patted his hand. “Honey, don’t you fuss with my coffee. That old thing makes it better than anything else. The new machines don’t do it right.”
He crossed to me and spoke urgently. “She could get sick. Emma, you’re responsible for her. You shouldn’t let her push you around like this.”
“Martin,” I said irritably. “Do I give you parenting advice? This is how she’s been making the coffee for years and she hasn’t gotten sick yet. Emma doesn’t remember everything, but she is attached to this routine, and if I alter one thing, believe me when I tell you that she knows.”
“If it bothers you, you don’t have to stay,” I said firmly. He took a deep breath and changed tacks almost instantly.
“All right!” He clapped his hands. “Let’s make coffee the Emma way.”
Aunt Emma was always pleased on coffee-making occasions. She hovered around us, inspecting and exhorting. Martin had given up his crusade and was in tearing spirits. He jollied Aunt Emma around, and she retorted and demurred. They were getting along famously. The old percolator gurgled and sighed and reluctantly yielded up half-jar after half-jar of sludgy coffee. I handed them to Martin, who finished filling them at the sink. After six jars were completed I started ferrying them to the fridge.
“No no no!” Aunt Emma suddenly cried. “That’s not the right way.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, shuffling the contents of the lower shelves.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, shuffling the contents of the lower shelves.
“He’s not doing it right,” she complained. I looked around. Martin was holding the jar under the percolator spout by its mouth and was letting the coffee drip into it.
“I’m only filling it halfway, Aunt Emma,” he said soothingly. “See, there’s still plenty of room.”
“No!” fretted Emma. She tried to yank the drawer open, and Martin had to do some quick maneuvering to keep from himself from being burned by the streaming coffee as she pulled it against the jar.
“Emma, stop!” I exclaimed.
“He didn’t do it the right way. That’s not the safe way.”
“Martin wasn’t going to burn himself,” I told her. “See, he was holding the top of the jar. The coffee never even touches it.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Emma,” said Martin contritely. “I’ll do it the right way next time.”
“You have to put the jar in the drawer,” she insisted.
“I tell you what, Aunt Emma,” I announced. “It’s almost your bedtime anyway. How about you get yourself all ready for bed, and we’ll finish up in here. Then you don’t have to worry about it.” I guided her down the hall to the bathroom. “Here, you get ready, and I’ll come tuck you in when it’s time.”
In the kitchen, Martin had stepped away from the whole set-up. “I’m afraid to touch anything now,” he said.
I rubbed my temples. “It’s not your fault. It’s really a silly thing for her to pick at, but it seems to upset her if everything isn’t done just so. She must have been burned once when she was doing it herself.”
Martin took another jar and started filling it. “I guess it doesn’t matter now. She’s not here, so let’s get it done quickly.”
“No no NO!” came a shrill voice from the doorway. There was Emma, who had snuck back into the kitchen. “You’re doing it all wrong!” Martin jostled guiltily and nearly burned himself for the second time.
“Emma, did you finish in the bathroom?” I interrogated.
“Give me that jar!” she ordered. “You’ve messed it all up.” She wanted to wrestle Martin into pouring the coffee down the sink, but I took hold of her elbow and escorted her down the hall again. In the bathroom, Emma sullenly went through her evening routine, muttering and scolding. She seemed convinced that Howard was at the bottom of it all. But she didn’t fight me, and finally I had her in bed with the lights out.
“You sleep well, Emma,” I sweetly commanded.
“You tell Howard he can get out,” she demanded, sitting in her bed. “He’s nothing but trouble, you hear me?”
I shut the door.
Martin and I finished the coffee in silence. He made no comment even when the last weak mug was laid on the shelf. Then we moved into the living room. I flopped in the corner of the couch and let my head fall limply on the cushion. He held down the other end, feet up on the table, gazing blankly at the dark screen of the television.
“Is it like this often?” he asked.
“She has her moments,” I replied, eyes closed. “It’s usually fairly quiet here. We go for days or even weeks without any problems, but then something little will set her off. Her memories are always in flux, so I’ve tried to learn her routine and keep life predictable to give her something to hold onto.”
We listened to the last wheezes of the percolator and the drip of the bathroom sink.
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you earlier,” said Martin heavily. “Of course you know best what Emma needs. And you’re right: nothing grates on me more than having people question my parenting or point out everything I’m doing wrong or start giving me precious advice. No wonder you were annoyed with me.”
“I guess we’re doing different things. You were right: Emma is my responsibility. But she’s not a child like Grace who needs to be formed and guided; she’s an adult, and it seems that the best thing I can do for her is to let her have her way in harmless things and leave her some dignity." I shifted a throw pillow from behind my back and toyed with the fringe. "You didn’t know her before she had Alzheimers’, but I remember when she was different: so cool and elegant and successful. She knew what she wanted, and she knew how to get it. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Even now, when she’s sick and her mind is failing, that Emma is still there. Sometimes I can catch a glimpse of her for a moment.”
I felt his hand brush the hair off my forehead. “Do you think...,” he asked, “Would she stay asleep if we went out and got coffee? I need something to wash away the memory of the Grecian Urn.”
I opened my eyes and turned my head toward him. “I’d like nothing better.”
Before we even dragged ourselves off the couch, an angry wizened figure appeared before us, eyes snapping and toothless gums chattering.
“That Howard was sneaking around and bothering my stuff again. I heard him talking out here! He’s in my library again, but I told him to leave my books alone,” and she stamped her foot. “I’m going to call the police.”
I climbed over the shocked Martin and reached the phone first. “Here, Emma, I’ll call them.” I pressed buttons while I surreptitiously unplugged the cord from the phone jack. “Do you want to talk to them yourself?”
She took the phone and put it to her ear. “They hung up,” she shouted, banging the phone against the receiver. “I’ll find that Howard myself. I’ll get them back.” The receiver banged repeatedly.
“Emma.” I took her gently by the shoulders. “Emma, listen to me. Howard is dead. He died years ago. You divorced him a long time before that.”
Her cloudy eyes widened and pooled. “No,” she objected. “No no no no no.” And the tears spilled down her cheeks. I held her as she wept out all her pent-up anger and frustration. Then, for the third time that night, I walked her down the hallway. This time she settled quietly in her bed and fell asleep before I left the room.
Martin was still sitting bolt upright. I stood in the doorway of the hall and looked at him, and he at me.
“Howard was her ex-husband?” he asked.
“Yes. There’s a picture of him in a book in the library.” I fetched China Court and handed it to him as I dropped back on the couch. He opened it and found the inscription.
“This sounds like the sort of book you’d understand. She gave it to him?”
“He gave it to her.”
“That’s right. It’s the Jane Eyre handwriting.” He paged through the book until the photograph of Howard. Taking it out, he studied it.
“How long were they married?”
“Five years, I think.”
“Why did they get divorced?”
“It sounds like he was stealing her books, but I don’t know.”
He placed the book on the table by the couch. “Shall I go out and get us coffee, then? Or do you want me to stay here while you go?”
I buried my head in his shoulder. “I can’t take any more coffee tonight,” I faltered. “Let’s just sit here for a while.” He put his arm around me. We sank quietly back against the couch and he stroked my hair while I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and tried to empty my mind of everything except the faint scent of bay rum.