Thanks to Matthew Lickona, who advised just jumping into an idea and going with it.
The rejected TV dinner sat sadly in the microwave, so I pulled it out and surveyed it. A dull grisly patty reposed in a small puddle of sickly glistening gravy. The rubbery speckled lump in the top left compartment made me yearn almost fondly for the mashed potatoes the tired cafeteria workers plopped on plates in college. What had been billed as “home-style apple crumble” did at least have the virtue of crumbling, though there was little of apple or of home about it otherwise. I sighed and rummaged carefully around the knife in the drainer, poking about for a fork.A shuffling in the hall heralded Aunt Emma’s appearance in the doorway, disheveled and dusted with cracker crumbs. She stood blinking in the yellow light of the kitchen, clutching her mason jar of string.
“Hi, honey,” she croaked. “What’s cooking?” The impact of this ancient punchline sent her off into a wheeze of private mirth, which was suddenly checked as she fixed me with a beady eye.
“You’re eating my dinner.” The accusation was ridiculous after the fuss over the cheese and crackers, but Nurse Linda had told me that Emma was changeable and forgetful.
“No, Aunt Emma. You didn’t want it, remember? You had crackers and cheese. Are you still hungry?”
“That’s my dinner,” she insisted querulously.
“Of course, Emma. Here, let’s sit down.” I reached for her arm, but she jerked away from me and edged toward the sink, her fingers brushing tremulously against the counter.
“Who are you?” she challenged. “Why are you stealing my dinner?”
“It’s me,” I soothed. “It’s Emma. I’m going to stay with you, remember? Let me heat up your dinner and we’ll sit at the table together.” I was pleased at how well I was managing the situation.
Emma’s agitation rose, and she began to pluck at her house dress. “I’m Emma. Who are you? Is that you, Francine?”
“No,” I soothed, gently, taking a step toward her. “Francine was my grandmother. Do you remember? I’m your great niece, Emma. See? I’m named after you. Francine liked that.”
I had always thought of my grandmother as a sedate and dumpy woman, but older memories were stirring in Emma. “Francine was always whining. Never knew what she wanted. She married that construction guy -- probably made his life hell. He couldn’t stand up to her fuss.”
I was stung by this unfair characterization of my grandfather, who had been a civil engineer and a civil fellow. “Emma, that’s not fair. You know you always liked Grandpa Ted. You used to tell me so yourself.”
Now we returned to the central point. “Who are you?” she demanded. “How did you get in? What do you want?”
Nurse Linda’s reminder that arguing did no good returned to me in full impotent force. “It’s me, Emma.”
“How do you know my name? What are you doing here?” Before I could summon up another soft phrase, she seized the knife from the drain and clutched it at a menacing angle. I checked all movement, uncertain which of us was in more real danger.
There across the kitchen we faced each other, Emma the elder confronting Emma the younger. In the stillness, irrelevant thoughts associated and played over my mind. I arrived today. I should put Emma to bed. Tomorrow the nurse comes at 11:00. The drone of the television in the other room altered slightly as the game show ended and commercials blared in anticipation of the news. The surreal image of Emma, with cheese wedged in her false teeth and her slippers askew, threatening me with a knife, bumped up against the mundane reality of daily life and could take no hold. As if the weird nature of the situation was evident to her as well, Emma’s concentration seemed to falter and the knife wavered in her hand.
My step was little more than a glide of my foot, but Emma snapped back to me and groped at the blade of the knife with her free hand. It was a dull and aged utensil, but it was equal to the brittle skin of old age; blood welled up from a small cut on her palm. If she perceived the pain, it only sharpened her focus on me as she grasped the handle tighter and tensed as if to spring.
Distract her, Emma, I commanded. Calm her. Sing her something. The inspiration immediately drove every song I ever knew out of my memory, and for a moment both Emma and I groped for the talisman that would bring us safety. Suddenly a memory bobbed to the surface: going to church with Emma when I was young -- how old? It didn’t matter now -- Mass was over; the choir sang Salve Regina each week as a recessional.
Salve Regina, I hurled at her, desperation harshening the fine cord of the chant into a rough and splintery lifeline. Mater misericordiae. Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus exules filiae Hevae. Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
“In hoc lacrimarum valle,” she quavered, relaxing her grip on the knife.
“Eia, ergo,” I encouraged her, “Advocata nostra...” One more step and I was gently prying open her hand.
“Illos tuos, misericordes oculos,” she gently wept, “ad nos converte.”
I hummed along softly, reaching for the words as I steered her to her easy chair in front of the television. As I crept toward the bathroom to find a bandage for her hand, I left her huddled in her chair, her fingers shuffling imaginary beads in the lamp light, as she murmured, “Nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.”