The Things We Keep - Sally Hepworth



Fifteen months ago …

No one trusts anything I say. If I point out, for example, that the toast is burning or that it’s time for the six o’clock news, people marvel. How about that? It is time for the six o’clock news. Well done, Anna. Maybe if I were eighty-eight instead of thirty-eight, I wouldn’t care. Then again, maybe I would. As a new resident of Rosalind House, an assisted-living facility for senior citizens, I’m having a new appreciation for the hardships of the elderly.

“Anna, this is Bert,” someone says as a man slopes by on his walker. I’ve been introduced to half a dozen people who look more or less like Bert: old, ashen, hunched-over. We’re on wicker lawn chairs in the streaming sunshine, and I know Jack brought me out here to make us both feel better. Yes, you’re checking into an old folks’ home, but look, it has a garden!

I wave to Bert, but my gaze is fixed across the lawn, where my five-year-old nephew, Ethan, is having coins pulled out of his ears by a man in a navy and red striped dressing gown. My mood lifts. Ethan always jokes that he’s my favorite nephew, and even though I deny it in public, it’s true. He’s the youngest of Jack’s boys, and definitely the best one.

Once, when he was four, I took him for a spin on my motorcycle. I didn’t even bother asking Brayden or Hank; I knew they’d just say it was dangerous and then tattle to their mother. As far as I know, Ethan never tattled. Brayden and Hank know what’s wrong with me—I can tell from the way they constantly glance at their mother when they talk to me. But Ethan either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. I really don’t mind which one.

“And this is Clara.”

Clara wanders toward us with remarkable speed (compared to the others). She’s probably in her eighties—but portly, more robust looking than the rest. With a cloud of fluffy yellow-gray hair, she reminds me of a newborn chick.

“I’ve been looking forward to meetin’ you,” she says, then gives me a whiskery kiss. A burst of fragrance fills my airspace. Normally I don’t like to be kissed, yet from her, the gesture feels oddly natural. And these days, I make a point of respecting people who are natural around me. “If you need anything at all, you let me know, honey,” she says, then wanders off toward a huge oak tree. When she gets there, she kisses the man in the navy and red striped dressing gown full on the mouth in a way that feels vaguely territorial, like she’s staking her claim.

Beside me, Jack is talking to Eric, the center’s manager—a paunchy, red-faced man with a thick Tom Selleck mustache and a titter of a laugh that, by rights, should belong to a female in her eighties. Every time I hear it (which is a lot, he seems to chortle at the end of every sentence), I jerk around, looking for a ladies’ auxiliary group giggling over its knitting. He and Jack talk, and I listen without really hearing. “We do a lot of activities … we’ll keep her active … twenty-four-hour care and security … experience with dementia … the best possible place for her…”

Blah, blah, blah. Eric has a certain desperate-to-please manner about him that, a few years ago, Jack and I would have exchanged a look over, but today Jack is eating it up. He’s happily oblivious to Eric’s false laugh, his too-tight chinos, his gaze that wanders to the right (and vaguely near my chest), every few moments. Eric’s only redeeming quality so far is that when we arrived, he asked my advice on an old knee injury that had been giving him some trouble (probably because he hoped I’d offer to give it a rub). He needed a doctor, not a paramedic, and I explained this, but I appreciated him asking. These days, the most interesting conversations I have are about my favorite color or type of food. I like it when people remember that I’m a person, not just a person with Alzheimer’s.

Jack seems to have forgotten that. Ever since I went to live with him and Helen, he’s stopped being my brother and started being my dad, which is beyond annoying. He thinks I don’t hear when he and Helen whisper about me in the kitchen. That I don’t notice them exchanging a look whenever I offer to walk the boys to