On Becoming an Evil Witch
Mother is eighty-five and starting to notice that fact. Last month she ordered a walker for herself, the kind with wheels and a fold-down seat. Mother calls it her hot rod. She won't sit down and let herself be pushed, though, since she says that's for old people. Mother takes longer than she would like at rest stops, apologizing for the delay, but I say that's fine. Back in the car, Husband's grimace could break the windshield. Mother wonders aloud why her joints don't work like they used to. I know she's been losing herself in small pieces, and accepting the change with a reasonable amount of grace. Last summer, seven years after my dad passed away, she conceded to sell the house and get an apartment, but she refused to go into assisted living. It, too, is for old people.
On the drive to the mountain resort, Husband is testy about traffic and the price of gas. After we arrive he is testy about the price of lodging since I requested a cabin with a ramp for Mother. She says she can manage steps, but she can't do them easily, and the last thing I want on my vacation is a broken hip, either hers or mine.
Mother sits on the bed cracking her knuckles and watching a show about tornadoes on the Weather Channel, while I squint at the informational pamphlet we picked up at the front desk. It lists a number of trails that wander down by the river or wind into the mountains. More importantly, the maps indicate which trails are paved and therefore Mother-accessible.
“It's a lovely resort,” says Mother.
“It's highway robbery,” says Husband. He's turned on his laptop, probably intending to surf the Web and uncover important world events he's missed during the past four hours.
“It was very well-recommended in the guide book,” says Mother. “And everyone needs an outing from time to time.”
“Could have stayed home and slept on a more comfortable bed,” says Husband.
“Yes, you could have,” says Mother.
I had problems reading the road map on the drive, which made Husband more testy, but he doesn't have other emotional settings lately. I'm less concerned about that than I am with my vision. The world is going yellow and a bit out of focus, thus the map-reading difficulty. I know I should do something about it, but I don't want cataract surgery. That would mean some doctor poking around my eyes with lasers, and I'm too worried about something going wrong. I'd rather have my current level of vision than none, even if I have to hold things four inches from my face.
“The bathroom hasn't been cleaned in a month,” Husband yells. “It's like someone washed their boots in the bathtub.”
He stomps back into the bedroom with a giant's footfalls. I pad to the bathroom door and expect to see a mountain range of mud in the tub, but there's only a bare sprinkling of dirt like pixie dust. Still, I don't mind an excuse to leave the room and return to the hospitality cabin. It has wooden floors covered with faded rag rugs, free weak coffee, and the battered old desk, laptop computer, and mug of pens they call a reception area. Stationed behind said desk are Mrs. Claus and a stripper. At least that was my impression of them when we checked in. The young woman wears a tight leopard-print skirt and black tube top, a sandal dangling off one foot as she perches on a stool behind Mrs. Claus. The older lady wears a white blouse and long denim skirt, her gray hair pulled back in a bun. They're both amicable and smell slightly of pot, not that it's any of my business since this is Colorado.
“I'm sorry,” I say, “but I think our bathroom needs to be tided up a bit. My husband found dirt in the tub.” I give them a shrug of solidarity as if to say What is it about these men anyway? but Mrs. Claus is quick to apologize and the stripper rummages in the back room for cleaning supplies.
“Sometimes housekeeping does a rush job during busy season,” the stripper says as she follows me back to the cabin.
I nod, assuming that housekeeping is likely staffed by people who aren't paid enough to care, but I've never cared much about a spotless house, either. My friend Don who drives the Bookmobile in the afternoon and vacuums the library every evening reminds me that cleaning is not everyone's forte, which makes me feel less guilty.
“Hello, hello,” the stripper says when we walk into the cabin, nodding at Mother and Husband who are still perched on their separate beds. “Sorry about the mess. I'll get that tidied right up.”
Husband glances up at the stripper, grunts, and returns his attention to the laptop. I know what he's thinking—what kind of woman cleans a bathroom in a leopard print miniskirt? I think it's cute, at least on her.
“I can get that,” I tell the stripper, taking the spray bottle and paper towels from her when we enter the bathroom.
“You don't have to do that, hon,” she says when I spray the bathroom mirror.
I smile, always amused when young women call me “Hon.”
“It's easier with two on the job,” I say. I've also been in the car with Mother and Husband all day, and it's nice to talk with someone else.
“You chose a great weekend,” the stripper says, like this reflects on our good taste or clairvoyance. “It's supposed to be lovely weather.”
“Great,” I say, wiping out the sink and hoping that means I can take long walks, possibly alone or with Mother, because, well, I need time to think.
The stripper disappears from my view in the bathroom mirror as she cleans the bottom of the tub, then she stands up and spritzes the tiled tub wall. I watch her wipe it in sweeping motions like she's casting a spell. Peace and good humor to all who shower here.
The bathroom smells sanitized after a short twenty minutes, so the stripper nods good-bye and tells us to have a lovely evening.
Mother waves from the bed. “You do the same.”
“You shouldn't help the help clean the bathroom,” Husband says. “That's how they earn their paychecks, and why this place is so damn expensive.”
“I never minded cleaning mirrors,” I say.
“You always were a bit of an odd duck that way,” says Mother.
She teased me about wiping down the bathroom mirror every day when I was in high school. It wasn't vanity, I just couldn't stand water droplet specks on the glass. Husband grunts. I suggest it's time for dinner. He needs to do something other than peruse the Internet, which he does enough at home. We walk to the restaurant next to the resort—really it's just crossing the parking lot—but Mother meanders with her wheeled walker, and Husband has lost patience with her, and me. He strides ahead to reserve our table, grumbling that by the time we get there he'll be done with his salad.
Mother has noticed how closely I'm holding print to my eyes, and takes the opportunity to say I need cataract surgery.
“I don't want anyone sticking lasers near my retinas,” I say.
“Oh, don't worry so much about it,” she says. “I had the procedure on both eyes years ago and everything looked much brighter afterward. It's just one of those things about growing up.”
Don also had cataract surgery three years ago and assured me that it's no big deal, but I don't need my face to come into focus in any mirror so I can see the wrinkles I'd rather forget. I also can't see water spots as well. Blurriness has benefits. When Mother and I slide into the restaurant booth across from my silent spouse, I remember that he is just as hazy as the rest of the world. I take off my glasses to enhance that effect.
I'd hoped that Husband would decide to opt out of this trip, considering it a waste of money, or allowing ladies' time for me and Mother, but he's too suspicious not to chaperone. Perhaps he thinks I'd leave Mother at a rest stop and have a wild time. I'm already getting the third degree at home, and sixty-four-year old women should not have to deal with such things. I've stayed late at the library a few times, but Husband used to work late at least three nights a week before he retired. With more space in his schedule, he can accuse me of plotting.
“You're having an affair,” he said three days ago.
“I am not,” I said, rolling my eyes to emphasize the absurdity of his statement. “You can read my e-mail and text messages if you want.”
I didn't think he'd take me up on it, but he did, which suggests the kind of person he's become in the past eighteen months. My colleagues have hinted that I might want to retire soon—forty years on the job should be enough for anyone—but I just want one more year. And maybe a year after that.
I order lasagna, hoping to drown my sorrows in ample amounts of cheese.
Mother orders chicken pot pie and says, “It tastes like the kind my mother used to make.”
Husband orders steak and pronounces it too dry.
“We should have dessert,” says Mother.
“For five dollars you could buy a whole pie,” says Husband.
“But the rules are different when you're on vacation,” I say.
Mother and I order pie a la mode. Husband refuses and, I suspect, pouts. Happily I can't see him that well. After dinner I ask Husband if he would like to take a walk. Exercise might improve his mood, and during a stroll I could let him know that if he insists on being an ogre, he can stay in our room at mealtimes and eat in front of the television.
“There are probably deer ticks in the forest,” Husband says, stalking back to the cabin.
Mother and I find a graveled path near the river, and I imagine fairies spying on us from between the trees. If they lived anywhere it would be here, in a mountain glen at sunset. As Mother's walker crunches contentedly I peer through the woods to the hospitality cabin, nestled comfortably like the seven dwarfs' cottage, or Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother's house, or the gingerbread home owned by Hansel and Gretel's witch. I remind myself that anything can happen in forests.
I don't know what became of Husband's old retirement plans, the ones he talked about seven years ago when he said we'd go to Japan for a month. Now he says tickets are too expensive and we have to consider the high cost of nursing home care.
“Why not go to Japan so we'll have something interesting to think about while we're eating canned peas and waiting for the nurse to bring our noontime medications?” I say. He harrumphs and returns to web browsing for the latest international conspiracies, a task that has become his second career. The airlines are likely part of the massive plot.
“You're a librarian,” he says, “you should appreciate all the research I'm doing.”
“You need to check the credibility of your sources,” I say under my breath.
He “investigates” the “truth” behind the containment facilities the government is building under the Denver airport, where the feds are hiding the aliens, and how the rich are plotting to take over the world.
“We'll be so absorbed looking at our tablets and cell phones, we won't notice when they assume power and turn us into mindless drones. Just look at the signs.” Husband pokes a finger at his computer screen. “This is more than just coincidence.”
When the massive worldwide conspiracy happens, he won't notice because he'll be too busy researching other conspiracy theories. I think that's one of Murphy's Laws. Now that he's started collecting bottled water and canned goods in the basement, I wonder if Husband will try to get me to hole up there someday whether we need to or not, but I am fairly certain that he'll find a reason to justify cutting himself off from all of doomed humanity.
Maybe Husband is under an evil spell. That idea is more attractive than thinking he's gone crazy on his own accord, since I'd prefer an outside supernatural influence. I could go on a quest for a potion or serum and bring the old Husband back. That would be easier than dissolving his Superman dreams of saving the world and exposing evil plots, followed by a resounding “I told you so.” Then again, I don't think Superman would hunker down in his basement with bottled water and canned goods.
Nine o'clock and Mother has gone to find a vending machine and buy soda. Husband has returned to the car to look for his jacket. I sit on the bed and squint at maps, wondering which hike we should take tomorrow and if Mother and I could walk a little ways into the mountains. When he returns from the car, Husband has his jacket in one hand, and a can of lemon-lime soda in the other.
“Your mother is smoking a joint with the front desk help,” he says.
“Really?” I say, sitting up and trying not to smile.
“Is she turning into a pot head?” Husband says like this is my fault.
“I'll find out,” I say.
Husband sits on the bed and turns on the TV so he can yell at news anchors and claim they're blind idiots and missing the goddamned point. Husband and I used to have actual conversations about the news, during the years when we both came home at five-thirty and dinner was at six-thirty, followed by the news at seven. Husband was a cheerful person then, even when he was tired or stressed. That Husband liked crosswords and buying oddly flavored cookies from Asian markets and trying to tickle me under my arms. I don't know when the change began, when the red flecks started gathering at the edges of his eyes. I didn't go to bed with one man and wake up with another, though it felt like it at the time.
I find Mother and company lounging on the deck behind the hospitality cabin, all holding joints, wreathed by the strong grassy odor of pot. I inhale a little too deeply.
Mrs. Claus has hitched her skirt up to her knees to rest her feet on another chair. She smiles at me and says, “It's time for evening medication.”
“He was just over here ranting at us,” says Mother, nodding toward our cabin, “but he's an old stick in the mud. I reminded him this is legal, and he just stomped away.” Mother glares at me with narrowed eyes like she expects a second lecture. “You don't think I'm capable of doing anything interesting. I just want a little freedom.”
“Give me a hit as long as I'm here,” I say.
“You can have a joint all your own,” says the stripper, rolling another one for me.
Mother nods appreciatively, like she didn't know I had it in me
“Librarians aren't as straight-laced at you think,” I say. “The young ones in our department have some great tattoos. One of my co-workers has the logo for the National Book Depository on her ankle.”
“You'd look good with a tattoo,” says the stripper, handing me the joint. “Something small. Maybe on your shoulder.”
“I don't know,” I say with a little smile.
“Afraid what the husband would say?” says Mother.
“No,” I say, though he wouldn't like it if I got a tattoo, which makes the idea more palatable.
I haven't smoked a joint in over forty years. The first time I worried that Mother would find out even though I was two hours away from home at college, but now it's me and Mother and the stripper and Mrs. Claus and the shimmering dusk. On the second puff I can see every particle of dust illuminated in the light from the cabin. Pixie dust. Fairy dust. The world new and shimmering, hazy and clear, like the moment in a dream when you realize you can control everything in this sparse reality.
The woods are full of nattily dressed wolves wearing bowler hats and bow ties to compliment their simpering expressions. I see their eyes glint yellow, but I'm not afraid. We'll outsmart them, we young women in old woman masks. Skin disguises reality. I stare intently at my arm to see what's underneath, but it doesn't work. Maybe I have to give this new sight a little more to come to full effect. Mother and Mrs. Claus and the stripper glow brilliant peach, lit from the inside, bright-eyed and wise.
Husband will not be pleased with us—I already know the opening of his what-the-hell-do-you-think-you're-doing lecture—but I can touch his words and let them float away like so many night moths. The other three women are more powerful than me, perhaps they can see the person lurking under his skin. Enchantments of his sort happen all the time in fairy tales—frogs and bears and goats unzip themselves to reveal a handsome young man. I don't care about the handsome part, just want to know if Husband could end the spell, cast off some husk, be a different self. For all my staring I still can't tell.
I've been trying to talk less with Don at work, but it's difficult. He's always vacuuming in the evening and cleaning the bathrooms while I do odds and ends at the circulation desk. We should not chat for as long as we do after everyone else has gone home, but I don't feel like talking with Husband since he's under an evil spell. Don and I linger in the employee break room, sitting side by side on the couch, eating the crumbs of whatever baked good someone brought in that day, until one of us notices the time and says they have to leave. We hug. For a long moment. Don is careful to keep an appropriate amount of space between our bodies. His gaze often drifts to my wedding ring.
Don is a widower, while I have simply lost my original husband. I started chatting with Don because I needed to explain Husband to someone, discuss alternate theories on how he'd become enchanted. I don't know if this new Husband would be upset if I left. He determines the trajectory of all our conversations, sorely wanting to save humanity in the only way a tax account knows how, by looking for loopholes and devils dwelling in details. I imagine the only reason he'd fight a divorce would be that he'd miss an opportunity to show me how wrong I'd been about his theories.
When Don sees me with my nose inches from the computer screen, he shakes his head and reminds me about cataract surgery.
“I'll do it if you come along to drive me home,” I told him last week.
“It's a deal,” he said.
I haven't scheduled an appointment. If I do, and Don makes good on his promise, I know I'll get a divorce.
I've been to Don's house once, when Husband was at a convention with other paranoid and possibly bewitched people. If Husband wanted to be with them in his free time, I could be with Don. I noted the pictures of his wife on the mantel, a sweet-looking plump woman who died from a sudden heart attack. If I moved into Don's house, I wouldn't want him to take those pictures down. She'd always be watching me, but that would be her right.
I'd feel differently about this visit if you were a divorcee, her eyes seemed to suggest as she peered at me.
Well, yes, I would, too, I thought to her in response. I should leave Husband, but now that he has accused me of fooling around, divorce is more difficult. I am another conspiracy theory, and I don't want to prove he's right.
Don and I didn't do anything of note during our not-quite-a-date. We watched a movie and ate microwave popcorn and talked about how doctors used to make a fuss over margarine being better for us than butter, but that turned out not to be true. It was a boring and lovely evening. Don kissed me on the cheek when I left. I was giddy on the drive home, feeling sixteen years old, an idiot transformed by the odd spell of brain chemicals, the jolt that caused normal people to make awful decisions and follow the object of their affection. I was scared to call it love. That enchantment didn't last forever—eventually you started to notice your beloved's snorts and tongue clicks, the endearments became annoying, and the more time passed, the more difficult it was to maintain the spell both ways. That's why witches were famous for giving people love potions to take most of the messiness and guesswork out of the equation. The closest I'd come to casting any spell was through cataracts and chocolate, rendering the world sweet and hazy. Maybe that was enough.
While Husband was gone I could think nice thoughts about him. Still smitten by the cheek kiss, I became philosophical and managed to carve him into someone slightly noble. Superheroes and princes were guys who saved the day, solitary creatures who bound out alone to battle bad guys and dragons. That was the path Husband had chosen, and since he was sixty-six and perhaps taking some sort of life inventory, he had to make his mark while he still could. He had to find evildoers and prove they were doing evil. He had to be someone more significant than a number-cruncher.
In the morning I find Mrs. Claus in the hospitality cabin. She's brewing weak coffee and offers a cup to me. I've brought my travel mug, let her fill it with caramel-colored liquid, and we stand on the back deck awaiting sunrise. That happens late in the mountains, where you must be patient for the golden ball to poke itself above the peaks.
“Are you having a good time?” she asks, a simple question with a simple answer that I consider too deeply.
“Yes,” I say. I've been enjoying my strolls in the woods, and wondering if it would be evil of me to leave Husband in his forest, fighting the battles he's always wanted to find.
Mrs. Claus nods. “Want to go wading in the stream?”
“What?” I say. “Isn't it cold?”
“Colder than the bed of a jilted bride,” she says a bit too cheerfully.
I contemplate my shoes and socks and the long skirt I put on this morning. I contemplate the stream, which is clear and must be frigid. I consider the polar bear dips people take around New Year's in icy lakes, a shock to the senses. I always thought those people were crazy, but now I imitate Mrs. Claus who is taking off her shoes and socks and hiking up her skirt.
Water that cold deserves a shriek, and maniacal laughter, followed by another shriek. I hope Husband or Mother will come out of the cabin and see what's happening—I can't imagine they don't hear us—but they stay tucked inside. Mrs. Claus and I are left to our laughter, splashing and kicking and finally freezing ourselves out of the stream when we can't take the chill any longer. The coffee is still too weak, but somehow tastes better.
After breakfast Mother says she wants to walk the trails along the river. Husband grunts good-bye. Mother and I don't talk as we stroll, enjoying the sun as I look for a spot to take pictures. When I can no longer see the resort cabins or hear the swishing of cars on the road, Mother asks about my young man friend.
“My what?” I say.
“Your young man friend,” she says. “The man I saw you with in the library that once.” Mother is in two book clubs that meet at the library once a month, and she makes a point to wave at me behind the circulation desk when she's around.
“That was probably Don,” I say. “He's a friend, and he's not that young.”
“You're running around,” she says. “Or thinking about it. Don't kid yourself, honey.”
“Mother!” I say, wanting to deny everything, tell her everything, and wondering if it's really that obvious. But we're not running around, just kind of meandering in a certain direction.
“I had cataract surgery,” Mother says. “My eyes are better than yours. You have a reasonable retirement account, and you won't stop working anytime soon. Might as well have a bit of fun.”
I open my mouth. I close my mouth. I have nothing to add.
“Someone has to say it,” says Mother. “Why not the old lady? People don't give us credit for having been young and already thinking all the thoughts you're thinking now.”
I have a fantasy that someday I'll come home and the enchantment will be broken, Husband will have decided the conspiracy theory obsession is a load of hooey, and he'll book plane tickets to Japan instead of drawing more red circles on his map of the world. But I know this will not happen.
“You seem happier now,” says Mother. “It's not like this is bad.”
It just stinks that I can't hide it from anyone. Husband is suspicious because of my working late—a classic sign of fooling around—and Mother knows me too well, including the fact that I'm not content in my marriage. There is no story to tell.
When we return to the resort it's just before lunch. Mrs. Claus and the stripper are enjoying a late morning joint. They offer one to Mother and me, and of course I accept. In the clarity of the moment I wonder if I should retire from the library and buying a dilapidated cottage so I can be an old crone with a garden, and everyone would assume I'm some kind of witch. I don't know if I'd rather be an evil witch or a plain old witch, though evil witches would be more decisive about divorcing their husbands, or they'd skip the legalities and turn them into newts. But Husband does not deserve to be a newt. He deserves a fairy tale of his own. In that mythical space, I like him again. He casts off the current skin to reveal an older, grayer, and ultimately kinder person, his calculator like a shield, pen like a proverbial sword, defending the world from all the evils he wants to manifest, while I live in my cabin in the woods, stories diverged and seeking new endings.
The next morning I skip the weak coffee and walk down by the river to watch the sunrise.
Don has not mentioned the word “divorce,” but I assume he would prefer if I called a lawyer and started in on the whole unromantic business. Husband and I have no children. Don has two kids and four grandkids. Their pictures are in the living room. I'd like to meet them someday, but I don't know how Don would introduce me.
This is my friend the witch. She has some relationship problems.
When I dream up the real ending to fairy tales, what happened to Snow White's prince and Cinderella's prince and Sleeping Beauty's prince after ten or twenty or thirty years, the result is never good. They shed their first skins and became far less charming people. Power-hungry kings who sent young men to war to expand the palace coffers. Philanderers who slept around with ladies-in-waiting. Pointlessly brave men who died in jousting tournaments trying to prove their strength and mettle. There was no permanent happily-ever-after.
Perhaps this is why I'm evil. I can't imagine a happy ending, though I know they happen, at least in theory. Maybe the king gets older and stays charming, but in a pot-belled-middle-aged-guy kind of way. The queen develops laugh lines and wrinkles. They have a few relationship bumps but pretty much love each other until somebody dies. This is the story of people like Don and my mother, who live happily ever after until they become widows and widowers, and then they go on.
I finish my coffee and want breakfast, preferably something bad for me, so I walk to the restaurant next door. I hold the menu four inches from my face so I can read the options for biscuit sandwiches. You can order them with fried eggs or scrambled, bacon or sausage, American or cheddar cheese. I order three biscuits, one each for Husband and Mother and me, then I wait for the order and finger my cell phone in my pocket.
My opthalmologist is not one of my contacts, but the number is in my phone's memory because I dialed it once then chickened out and didn't leave a message. This time I talk.
Don's number is not one of my contacts, but I have it memorized. I tell his voice mail that the opthalmologist should be returning my call, and his job is to make sure I follow through with the appointment. I close my phone. I set it to vibrate. The sandwiches are bagged and ready. I compliment the host on their promptness, leave an ample tip, and walk back to our cabin waiting for my phone to buzz even though I won't answer it yet.
Husband is in the shower when I return, so Mother and I eat on the front porch. Mother pronounces the sandwich delightful and decadent, fitting for a weekend vacation. The old Husband loved these kinds of breakfasts, though the new Husband might think they're too fattening. He has to consider his cholesterol if he wants to save the world. But that's okay. Mother and I can share the extra sandwich, and that will be one kind of happily-ever-after.
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