Peggy opened a book: The Sot-Weed Factor, sliding her finger over a random line from the book:
“Man’s lot? He is by mindless lust engendered and by mindless wrench expelled from the Eden of the womb to the motley, mindless world. He is Chance’s fool, the toy of aimless Nature—a mayfly flitting down the winds of Chaos!”
She liked the quote, but only partially understood it. She pulled the book to her face. It smelled old; how many fingers had turned the pages, how many mouths hung in awe over its words, how many tears had fallen over its pages?
Ink and tears.
She marveled over the time the author must’ve worked, pictured him bent over an old typewriter banging keys, a cigarette in his mouth, and a bottle of bourbon on his wooden desk. They all drink, don’t they? Authors, that is.
She went down another aisle. Self-help books. Psychologists—or the-rapist—on the covers smiling with glasses covering their eyes. Old men. A few women, but the women were pretty and did not have glasses on. Women had to be pretty for someone to listen; Peggy knew that.
Another aisle. Books on the human body, the bodies of gazelles, stingrays, and a book about a woman who lived with deer for ten years. Peggy squinted her eyes at the woman on the cover who wore a real cowgirl hat, and boots for rugged terrain.
Some kid ran down the aisle she was on with a frazzled father behind him.
“Sorry, ma’am,” the man wheezed, his hair a jet black.
Peggy wished he would chase her down an aisle, walk her down an aisle, or just kiss her over wine. She bit her lip, pushing her pelvis against one of the books poking off the shelf. She was that desperate. No one she wanted had wanted her. She was an old maid, thirty a week ago, unmarried, and no bastard children to chase in libraries. A virgin against her will.
She walked down another aisle to get a better look at the man. He was walking away with the little boy in his arms. Embarrassed probably. She could walk fast, catch up to him, and pretend to trip. Would he help her up?
She didn’t try. It felt pathetic, and she figured it wouldn’t work. Maybe if she had smaller hips, and a curtsy in her smile, but neither. Besides, he was probably an idiot, she told herself. Otherwise, he could control a toddler.
She went down another aisle. Cassette tapes. She marveled over them. They were all secure in shiny new cases. She picked one up.
You are Enough.
She said the words, whispered them, and they stuck in her throat like honey. She said them again.
You are Enough.
She cradled the tape like an infant to the counter. At home, she fed her mom dinner and tucked her in bed, all the time, wanting to hear the words on the tape; the mystery luring her. She pulled a new cassette player from the entertainment center and dusted it off. It had never been used.
“Honey, I need a glass of water,” her mother feebly called.
Peggy sighed but went to her mother’s side with a smile. “Yes, Mama.”
She pulled a clean glass from the cupboard and filled it with water, and three ice cubes just as her mother preferred. Handing it to her mother, she said, “now sleep, Mama.”
Peggy went quietly with the cassette player in one hand, and the tape in her pocket into the yard. Her mother—before losing a lung—used to garden but now the yard was all grown, but under a harvest moon, moonflowers elegantly bloomed. Their white faces were enchanting. Peggy put the tape inside and pressed play.
“You are the captain of YOUR ship! Take the wheel! Do not let anyone get in the way! You are Awesome! You are enough! No,” the man on the tape screamed, “YOU ARE MORE THAN ENOUGH. You are the best!”
Peggy repeated the words: I am MORE than enough. I am the Best!
She listened to both sides, soaking in the words like a sponge. She went to stand after sitting for two hours, finding her body stiff. She kicked one leg out, then the other to wake them up. She then rubbed the sore spot in her back with a fisted hand.
She put the player up, then her body in bed. She couldn’t sleep though. Her mind was spinning. She was ready to do what the tape said. Cut sugar from your diet. Exercise every day, stand in the mirror, and tell yourself how great you are! She sat up, nearly jumping out of bed, then jogged into the kitchen and wrote out her goal plan—just as the tape had suggested.
1) Get married. Have a child—5 years (guy from library?)
2) Have family home—5 years
3) Lose weight—1 month to 1 year
4) Get a job (someone else will have to care for Mama—1 month to 6 months
Peggy had only slept a few hours but had more bounce in her step than before. She returned tape one, picked up tape two, and used the money she took from her mother’s bag to buy a smaller cassette player with headphones, and her first pack of cigarettes; ones she bought for energy. She sat outside the pharmacy. Smoked one cigarette, and then another, picking up the habit easily. She soaked up the warm air as the man on the tape rattled in her ear:
“You must love yourself! No one can love you better than yourself!”
She then tilted her eyes to the sun. The tape had said this would increase her levels of serotonin. She imagined her brain manufacturing the little neurotransmitter, making them a dime a dozen. A smile formed on her lips. She ran back inside the pharmacy and bought a tube of red lipstick. She applied it to pale, trembling lips.
When she arrived at her mother’s house, she spotted her sister’s car in the driveway.
Her sister ran out of the house. “Peggy, where have you been? Mama nearly died getting out of bed trying to get food and water.”
Peggy forced a smile. “I had to run some errands. I told her when I was coming back, and she was fed and all before I left.”
Her sister shook her head. “Peggy, you promised us you’d care for her. You got free room and board, and Rich and I paid for your caregiving certificate, and—”
“—I am taking care of her. I just had a few things to do.”
“It’s almost one o’clock though. She said you left early this morning!”
Peggy sighed, walking in the door. Her nephew and niece were bouncing around on the furniture. Her mother was in the bedroom, consoled by her brother-in-law, who half-heartedly patted the old woman’s back. He looked to the ground as Peggy walked in the room, and then he ducked out. Peggy envied his ability to slide like water over the family terrain.
Peggy’s sister was behind her, then at the old woman’s side. “Mama, Peggy’s here now and she won’t do this again. Will you?”
Peggy nodded, remembering the man on the tape who warned against people expecting too much. He called them time wasters. Peggy looked at her sister and mother in this new light.
When they left, her mother sat in the bed, and in between puffs of oxygen, whined. She had always been a sensitive woman who cried a lot. Before Peggy would console her, but now that she resented her as an obstacle, as a time-waster, she refused.
Peggy looked at her mother apathetically. “Stop bubbling like a child! I’ll bring dinner when it’s done!”
She then put the headphones over her ears. She turned the volume so high; she could hear the man screaming in her ear: “Stop taking care of everyone BUT yourself! Learn to say NO!”
She could see her mother from the peripheral of her eye dragging her walker and cord to the front room. Peggy ignored her, pulling a casserole from the oven. She smiled at her mother with a cigarette in her mouth.
She then saw the old woman crawl back to her room, defeated, the cord dragging behind her.
Peggy made her mother a dinner tray complete with a cookie for dessert. Peggy would have fruit. Her new slim figure was only a few apples away, she thought.
Her mother took the tray. “Peggy, those cigarettes are making it hard for me to breathe. There can’t be cigarettes around my oxygen tank. Sweetie, you know that…sweetie…what is…?”
Peggy couldn’t hear her mother, could only see her lips moving. She listened instead to the man on the tape.
“What are YOUR dreams?”
That night Peggy began rummaging through the old woman’s papers until she found her mother’s insurance policy. She practiced the woman’s signature over and over, and then reworked the will to read that all her mother’s inheritance—not large but big enough to give her a start—to go solely to her because she had been the caretaker.
She then sat outside, smoking two cigarettes with coffee, then exercised to a Jane Fonda tape. Finally, she fell asleep with the man still in her ear.
“YOU are so wonderful. You are capable!”
Peggy opened the bay window in her mother’s room. Her mother sat up in bed. “Sweetie, what are you doing?”
“We need sunlight in this house.”
Peggy smiled at the sun running across her mother’s bed. It sliced her mother’s face, scrunched in a helpless scowl. “Sweetie, I called for you all night. I… think…. oh dear…” Her mother began to cry.
Peggy rolled her eyes. “Mother, what is it? I have a lot of work to do today, so whatever it is, tell me!”
“I wet myself.”
Peggy yanked the covers off her mother. Peggy gritted her teeth. “Dammit. I’m picking up diapers and you’re wearing them. No more of this.”
“Why are you treating me so badly?”
Peggy rolled her mother onto the mat, and wheeled her to the washroom, spraying her with chilly water. Her mother screamed, but Peggy just covered her ears with the headphones, the volume turned up.
“Are you wasting time helping others when YOU have GOALS to accomplish?”
Peggy situated her mother back in the bed. “Now please stop getting in the way!”
Peggy went into the garden, pulling weeds violently and picking up sticks, throwing them in the neighbor’s yard. The tape said to do something outside every day. She didn’t particularly like gardening, but it was something to do outside. She then gave her mother a slab of potted meat with stale crackers and left to get the third tape.
She had more money from her mother’s cash box and would buy herself more lipstick, a dress, and perfume, too. These things would help secure goal #1, she thought, smiling.
As Peggy returned home, her sister Donna and her sister’s terrible children were back at the house. Donna moved a cushion on the couch as if to look for something. “Peggy what the Sam Hill is going on?”
One of Donna’s kids, a four-year-old boy, poked his finger in the birdcage and got pecked. “Mama!”
Donna patted him. “Son, leave the bird alone.” Then she turned to Peggy. “What the heck is going on here? Mama called me in tears. Says you are treating her badly, and twice I have come here, and you aren’t here. What is going on? Do I need to hire a nurse?”
Peggy smiled, the lipstick showing on her teeth. “Nothing that I’m aware of. Was just about to get Mama her dinner when you walked in. But since you’re here, you can do it. I’m sure y’all want to spend the time together?”
Donna cocked her head and squinted her eyes. “Why are you acting like this? Something’s off with you…what’s going on here?”
Peggy sighed. “You are here. Do you see something going on?”
Donna nearly dropped her son, her face going pale. “Peggy, you agreed to take care of Mama in exchange for help. We’ve all been helping you. Then suddenly you stop caring for her. I need to know—and now, what the hell is going on?”
Peggy straightened her spine. “Would you and the children like to stay for dinner? There will be enough for everyone.”
Donna stared at Peggy for a long time, as if to search her face for a clue, then disappeared into their mother’s room with the children. Peggy put her ear to the door but could only hear her mother crying and Donna’s children acting up.
Peggy shrugged her shoulders, put tape three on, and busied herself cooking dinner. The man screamed in her ear:
“Take the wheel of your ship! Is there something that You need to do to make YOUR dreams a reality? Do it! Do you!”
Donna finally came out of the room, her children tagging behind her. “Do you have Mama’s food ready?”
Peggy pulled down the earphones.
Donna sighed, looking over the tray of beef tips, peas, and potatoes. Peach pie for dessert.
Peggy smiled. “Is this acceptable?”
Donna grabbed the tray. “You better snap out of whatever cloud you’re on or you’re gonna be out on your ass!”
Peggy laughed. “A hot bath calls my name. See yourself out after you feed Mama.”
On that note, Peggy turned her heel, then swiveled back around like a ballet dancer. “Oh, and please have a pleasant night.
“Take the wheel! Stop waiting!”
Peggy lay in bed until the moon peeked in the sky. This was planned. The house was quiet when she crawled out of bed, slipping her feet into warm slippers.
She tiptoed to her mother’s room where she could hear the old woman snoring. The room was pitch black. Peggy turned the small flashlight she held ON. She shifted a pillow under her arm.
She slipped the flashlight in her skirt pocket, so it would shine on the floor. The old woman coughed, then opened her eyes. Peggy could see the white of her mother’s eyes.
“Who goes there?” The old woman said but Peggy rushed her, holding the pillow over the woman’s face.
She held the pillow snug enough to make breathing hard. The old woman kept shifting her head back and forth, so Peggy used her arms to fence in her head, holding the pillow snugger. Peggy felt an ache in her back forming, and she wondered how long she could stay bent, but she knew she couldn’t stop until the woman died, and finally, after several fits, the woman gave up.
Peggy held the pillow over her mother still, wanting to make sure. Waited until the ache in her back was unbearable and then she shifted upward with a moan, rubbing her back with a fisted hand.
She picked up the pillow, left the room, and sat in the living room, waiting until sunrise. She would discover the body at sunrise, she planned.
“Poor Mama…well, at least she died peacefully in her sleep,” she rehearsed to the pillow.
Peggy and Donna sat across from the lawyer. Donna’s knuckles were white, rolling over each other as the lawyer once again explained that her mother’s assets would go solely to Peggy.
Peggy touched her sister’s hand. “I was her caregiver.”
“But we paid you. I and Rich are still paying off—”
Peggy smiled. “—I deserved it!”
Donna’s mouth dropped. “Who have you become?”
Peggy stood up. “I am more than enough! I’m the best!”
“You’re batshit crazy is what you are. You need a damn therapist!”
“Speak for yourself,” Peggy said, exiting the lawyer’s office. She heard her sister screaming from behind her.
“You are not my sister anymore. You will never see me, Rich, or the kids again!”
Peggy sat at the new breakfast table. The house smelled of fresh paint, new light fixtures hung from the ceilings. Her dress was new and starched.
She walked to her bedroom where a new floor-length mirror stood. Peggy pointed at the image in the mirror.
“You don’t need anyone! Just you! Be you! Do you! You are more than enough! You are the best!”
The words echoed as if she were in an empty cell. She sat on the bed. Everything was so quiet that she could still hear her words vibrating, bouncing off the walls, and contemporary furniture.
She hung her head, mumbling the mantras from the tape to no one listening.