“Polly is dyin’,” Ma said to us. “I'd been waiting to tell you, but ... I wanted you boys to know.”
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She said this to my older brother Luke and I while we were sitting in a corner of McDonald’s, eating hamburgers. Ma was sitting right in front of the No Smoking sign, and her hands were shaking as she lit one of her Virginia Slims.
Luke and I looked at each other. He spoke first. “Has she got the cancer?”
Ma stared at the tabletop for a minute and let the smoke drift over her shoulder. Then she nodded. “Yeah. That’s what she got, cancer in her tummy.”
“But why can’t the doctors save her?” I smushed a French fry onto the table with my thumb and then scraped it up and ate it. “Why can’t they give her medicine or somethin’?”
“Chemo-therapeutic,” Luke said knowingly, cutting me off.
“Chemotherapy,” Ma corrected. “Well ... they coulda done it. Polly didn't want none a' that, though.”
"But why?" I blurted indignantly. "If the doctors can save her, why won't she let 'em?" It was the craziest thing I'd ever heard.
Ma shook her head. "Oh Lenny, it's just ...it's just hard for some people like us to understand. Polly is a proud woman." Her lower lip wiggled like a worm and she clamped her hand to her mouth, to stifle a sob that was threatening to escape.
“Ma…” Luke reached over and patted our mother’s hand. “Oh, hey Ma.”
“I’m sorry boys,” Ma said in a high, tear-choked voice. “I just can't get used to the idea that ... ya know, that she won't be around. I feel like I miss her already. Anyhow, I just wanted you two to know. You‘re big boys now.” She balled up her fist and pressed her knuckles to her nose. The ashes on her cigarette were long and slightly curved, and I thought for a minute they‘d fall into her food, but she flicked them onto the floor before they did.
I nudged the bun off the remaining half of my burger and drove my finger right through the center of it.
Polly Hamm was Ma’s best friend, despite the fact that she was nearly thirty years older than Ma. They had lived next to each other since way before I was born, in the Cherry Hill trailer park. The story was that one time, when Luke was a baby and I wasn't even born, Polly heard lots of yelling coming from our trailer and knocked on the door. Ma came out with her lip all puffed and looking like a raw hot dog. Daddy was right behind, and shouted at Polly to mind her own business.
Polly marched back to her house right then and came back minutes later with her shotgun. She told Daddy that if he ever touched Ma again she'd sort him out good. My father laughed at that; to him she was just a crazy, wild-haired biddy talking trash. But he never did hurt our mother again.
Not too long after the shotgun incident, Daddy left for good. Before he did, he told half the trailer park that Ma and Polly were in love. It wasn't true, not love like that. I think he was just jealous that they had such a good time together.
Polly was like a grandmother to us. She liked having us around, because she never had any of her own kids. Her husband, Joe Hamm, died in the second world war and there was no other man after that who could love her like Joe could, or at least that’s what she said.
When we got home that afternoon, we went right to Polly’s trailer.
“Carrie, is that you sweetie?” a voice called when Luke rapped on the door.
He pushed it open an inch and then called inside. “Naw, it’s Luke and Lenny!”
“Oh! Well come right on in.”
Polly’s trailer was warm, baked piping hot from the sun. Everything was a burnt orange inside; the shag rug, the rust-colored wall panels, the tweed soft with its pumpkin afghan.
“In here, sweethearts, in the bedroom.”
We followed her voice into the back, where she lay propped up in her twin-sized bed surrounded by pillows. Her hair was as orange as the rest of her house and it sat in a nest of curls on top of her skull. Her face looked thinner than it had when I’d seen her days before; the papery skin covering it reminded me of a piñata. I felt frightened; for a moment I envisioned Polly dangling from the ceiling, being pelted by children with sticks, and candy spilling from her mouth.
The shades were drawn and they danced in the fluttering light of the television set. Luke and I stood at the door, unsure of where to go.
“I’m watching my stories; I always watch my stories in the afternoon.” She pointed to the t.v. with one long fingernail. “See this guy, Trent, he’s fooling around on Elsa. Elsa’s his wife. He’s carrying on with Mindy, who is the town tramp. Now if you ask me, Mindy has got nothing on Elsa as far as looks go, so I personally think Trent needs to have his head examined.”
My brother and I stared at the screen and nodded politely.
“These programs have gone downhill,” she claimed, sighing. “Used to be full of twists and turns and oohs and ahhs. Now I know how they’ll end. I always know.” She shuffled beneath the covers, over to the far edge of the bed, and patted the covers. “Sit down, boys. Take a load off.”
We did as we were told, and sunk into the soft mattress toward each other, so that our thighs were touching. Polly lifted the remote control and turned the volume down on the television.
“So your Ma told you about old Polly, huh?”
I saw Luke look all around the room so he didn’t have to look at her. I shifted uncomfortably on the bed and the springs made a creaking sound.
She didn’t wait for us to respond. “Yeah, I got cancer. And I got it good.” Polly took a pack of cigarettes off of her nightstand and popped one into her mouth. I noticed the fine lines that spread out from her lips; they moved like tiny wires when she talked. “Luke, light my smoke, will you?”
Luke snatched a pack of matches off the nightstand and fumbled with them briefly before producing a flame. Polly closed her eyes tightly and pursed her lips around the cigarette. She looked as if she were waiting to be kissed.
“The way I see it, God has got plans for ‘ol Polly. He put this sickness into my body for a reason. Yes he did. He’s gonna snatch me up like a little rag doll and take me into his hands.”
The first whiff of smoke stung my nostrils and burned my eyes. Tears sprung forth and Polly must have noticed, because she said, “Aw, Lenny ,dear heart. It’s ok to be sad.” She put her hand over mine and squeezed. Her palm was warm and dry and crackly like tissue paper.
“I was sad too, at first. Then the other night, I asked Him, I says, ‘Lord, why, why are you doin’ this to me? Ain’t I been a good woman all these years? Ain’t I gone to Blessed Baptist church up the road, even in nasty weather? And have I not prided myself on forgoing curse words and gossip talk, to the best of my abilities?”
Polly glanced at us and paused, so we both nodded, yes, she has done all of those things.
“And you know what he said to me?”
I shook my head, because she was looking straight at me with her liquid transparent eyes.
“He said, ‘Polly, it’s your time and I’m calling you home’. And that was that. End of discussion. He wouldn‘t talk to me no more after that.”
Luke gave me a sidelong curious glance. I shrugged and scraped at a scab on my knee.
“But Polly …” Luke’s face was sort of scrunched up. “Aren’t you scared a’ dyin’?”
She exhaled a delicate plume of smoke and stared up at the ceiling. “No, sweetness, I ain’t. I will walk into his warm embrace. I will be brave.” She nodded her head for a long time, and we were silent.
I didn’t see Polly again until after Luke and I returned from two weeks of summer baseball camp. It had grown hotter in those two weeks, and when Ma picked us up at Camp Ogunquit , she looked tired and sad.
In the car ride on the way home, Ma told us that Polly was going downhill fast.
“She’s on lots of pills right now,” she explained. “Mostly just to keep her outta pain. She so thin …”
“But it’s only been two weeks,” I said from the backseat of our station wagon. The backs of my legs were melting into the red vinyl and I winced as I peeled them apart.
Ma didn‘t respond to what I‘d said. “I’ve gotta go to work tomorrow. You boys need to stick around in case she needs anything. Stay ‘round home. Peek in on her a few times. I‘ll go and see her right after I get off work.”
“And most of all, boys, don't go gettin' her all excited about nothin'. She needs her rest.”
Ma went to work the next morning and left us a note. Her number at work. The number for the hospital. A scrawled “Love you” at the bottom near a smear of grease.
Luke and I made ourselves pancakes and sprawled out on the couch to watch television.
“D’ya think Polly's gone crazy?” Luke asked me during a commercial, propping my head up on the pillow.
He frowned. “Well seems like, if she wanted to, she could let the doctors save her life.”
“Do you think she's scareda hospitals?”
I thought about this for a moment. “Maybe. I know this girl in school who has to be dragged kickin' and screamin' to the doctor's every year. She's afraid of needles. One time her ma even gave her a shot of whiskey before her appointment to calm her down.”
"Really?" He lay back on the pillow.
"Maybe if Polly took a shot of whiskey before she had her chemo-therapy stuff, she wouldn't be so scared."
Luke looked thoughtful for a moment.
The telephone jangled. He and I exchanged glances and I jumped up and plucked the receiver off of the wall.
“Huh? No, Lenny.”
“Lenny. Sweet boy, oh thank Jesus.” It was Polly. She sounded like she was crying.
“I … the television went off, and I don’t know how to get it back on, come quick, will you sweetheart?”
“I … oh … ok. Sure.”
She hung up, and I stood there holding the phone as it began bleating loudly with a dial tone.
“Polly can’t turn her television set back on,” I told Luke.
He was somber, and we regarded each other for a long moment. “I’ll come with you,” he finally said.
The inside of Polly’s house was airless and humid and the stench of something foul lingered in the air but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was.
We found her in her bed, the covers thrown aside. She was wearing a flowered housecoat that seemed to be several sizes too large for her, and it was bunched up around her thighs. Polly’s legs reminded me of plucked chickens’ wings, white and goose pimpled. Her red hair was matted down in the back and fired out in all directions in the front. It looked like patches of it had fallen out.
Polly looked at Luke and I through half-closed eyes. Her chin was sunken down into her neck, and her face was gaunt and colored a dull gray. Dried tears stained her face. “Hi handsome boys,” she whispered. Her voice made me think of dead leaves rustling.
“Hi Polly,” I replied with false cheer. “How are you feeling?” I could feel Luke’s breath on my neck; he was close behind me.
She lifted one bony arm from the bed in a half-hearted gesture and let it fall back down on the bed. “I‘ve seen better days, hon.”
My brother grimaced, and I knew that he could smell it too, the thick musky odor coming from the bed. It smelled to me like death and dying. I went over to the television and switched it on. A pop sounded from the back of it and a thin tendril of smoke wafted upwards into the air.
“It’s broken,” I said stupidly. I wondered how many days straight it had been on until now.
Polly didn’t seem concerned with the television anymore. The sagging pits of her eyes were filling with tears, and she motioned for me to come closer. When I did she reached out and grazed my arm with her fingers. “When I met my husband Joe, I was eating an ice cream cone at the beach …” She stared off into space and let her fingers fall away from me. “And I never had another one after that, because I knew it wouldn’t taste the same as it did that day.”
I tried to think of something to say. “Do you … want a glass of water?”
She didn’t answer, but put her hand up to her eyes. She was weeping now. “I don’t wanna die here. In this trailer. A goddamn trailer! Not even a real house.” She made the Sign of the Cross quickly and swiped at her face with the palm of her hand. “Joe, he wanted so much better for us. He was gonna build us a real fine place.”
Her head fell forward into her hand and a low, raspy wail sounded from her gut, rising and falling. The pit of my stomach felt cold. I pulled a tissue from the box on her nightstand and held it out to her but she waved it away.
My sinuses stung but I bit down hard on my lip. I wouldn’t cry; I‘d be brave. I started thinking about all of the nice things Polly had done for me and my brother, I couldn’t help it. One time, when Ma was having a sad spell, Polly came and fetched us and took us back to her trailer. She stayed up late with us and we ordered pizza and watched old movies with Jimmy Cagney in them. I remember having my head in her lap. Her legs would shake and her belly would bump the side of my head every time she laughed.
Polly was making a series of soft whimpering noises. She inhaled, and exhaled a long, shuddering breath. “Oh, Joe.” she said. She held out her hand and I gave her the tissue I’d been holding onto.
Luke sat down at the foot of the bed and gently covered her legs back up with the blankets. After she fell asleep, went into the kitchen table and ate stale cookies from a half-covered plate that had been sitting there for days, and we watched some television.
We ran back into her bedroom and found Polly awake again, and lucid.
“I want to go for a ride.”
“Huh?” I scratched the back of my head.
“Get my pink sweater,” she said to me, pushing herself up on her hands.
“Polly, you can’t … you’re sick, now, come on … you’ve got to rest!” I hurried over to the bed and put my hands on her shoulders firmly.
"Goddammit, son, don't you tell a dying old coot that she can't see the sun again before she goes and meets her maker." She glanced at my brother. “Luke, honey, can you drive?”
Luke didn’t answer right away, he just put his hands in his pocket and muttered something I couldn’t hear. I knew he could drive, but being fifteen, he didn’t have his driver’s license.
“What’s that, boy?”
“Good, we’ll take Baby Girl then. Her keys are hangin’ up by the ’fridgerator.”
“Ma’s gonna be real mad,” I said, but Polly had already swung both legs off the edge of the bed and was reaching for me to help her.
We helped Polly into an old sweater and found a hat for her hanging in the kitchen. She asked for her sunglasses and I handed them to her; they had large black box-shaped lenses and rhinestones glinting on each corner.
She had an ancient mint-colored Cadillac convertible that was slowly being devoured by rust. The door hinges wailed in pain as I opened the passenger door and helped Polly into the seat. The inside of the car smelled like stale cigarettes and old leather. She smiled at me and said, “Love my Baby Girl. Lord, this feels good.”
I hopped into the backseat as Luke gave the engine a try. After several attempts, the Caddie growled and shook and came to life.
We rolled away from Polly’s trailer, twigs and rocks snapping beneath Baby Girl’s tires. Luke drove cautiously, slowly. A bolt of excitement threaded its way up my spine; I thought of all the trouble we’d be in later with Ma, but somehow right then, I didn’t care.
“Lenny, sweetness, crank down her top, will ya, let some of this sun in!”
With considerable effort, I worked the lever. The roof buckled and slid away and the tops of our heads grew warm in the afternoon light.
“Where’re we goin’ Luke?” I shouted over the roar of the car’s engine. The wind whipped through our hair and locks of it vibrated against our temples.
Luke glanced over at Polly, who looked back at him. She looked like a fly with those giant glasses on her face, and her hat sat crookedly on her head, but she was smiling.
“Where do ya wanna go Polly?” Luke asked her.
She spoke softly and it was drowned in the wind, but I could read her lips. Gulley Point.
We drove on for several miles to Gulley Point Beach, and Luke found a parking spot near the boardwalk. The two of us helped the old woman out of the car and half-carried her across the sand-sprayed planks. I could feel her breathing heavy through her sweater, and a couple of times she gasped and we had to stop and let her rest.
There was an open area on the beach, and the three of us sat down among the throng of mothers with their babies and teenaged girls hell-bent on browning themselves before school started up again. No one noticed us.
“We shoulda brought a blanket, huh Polly?” Luke said, looking remorseful.
“Heck, no,” she replied. “I wanna stick my toes in the sand. Take my socks off will ya hon?”
I eyed her feet and their cat-print coverings. Reluctantly, I slipped them off. Her feet were milky-white and her toenails looked like potato chips. She curled her toes down into the sand and squealed.
“You boys take your shoes off too,” she ordered. “Dig those toes right in.”
We did, and the tips of my toes hit a spot in the sand that was cooler than the toasted top layer. I looked over at Luke, who was giggling, and I giggled too.
Polly reached up and took off her hat. A breeze came off the water and fluffed her sparse tangerine curls. She held her face up to the sun and stayed like that for awhile, as if she were listening to music.
Luke stood up, brushed the sand off his legs, and walked away. He returned a few minutes later with three ice cream cones, and handed one to me and one to Polly. Her thin fingers curled around the waffle cone uncertainly and she examined the chocolate mound for some time before putting it to her mouth. The bud of her tongue slipped from her lips and she tasted it. Then she turned to Luke and said, “I haven’t had ice cream in forty years.”
We watched her savor her cone for awhile, her eyes widening with each bite.
"Polly," I said finally. "I know you're scared of goin' to the doctors."
She turned to me. "What do ya mean, Lenny?"
" ... But, me and Luke, we talked and ... we'll go with you if you want. We'll stay as long as you want. And Ma'll go too. You wont' be alone."
"I ain't scared, honey!"
"It's ok! It's nothin' to be ashamed of. Heck, I'm afraid of bees, scareder than a five-year old! Ain't that right, Luke?"
My brother nodded.
"Dear heart. I ain't afraid 'a no doctor!" Polly pursed her lips tightly and looked straight ahead, out over the water. "It's not that. It's not ... being afraid of doctors and hospitals and needles."
"But," I stammered. "Then why won't you go to the hospital? Why won't you let them help you? You could get better!"
Polly chuckled softly and drew a line in the sand with her big toe. "I'm seventy-nine years old, hon," she sighed. "I ain't lookin' for no second chances."
"So you're just gonna sit there and wait to die?"
She didn't look at me. I stood up and stalked off in the sand. I wasn't sure where I was going. I walked out into the parking lot and sat on Baby Girl's hood; the rusting metal buckled beneath my weight. The thoughts in my head wouldn't stop churning. I tried to imagine what it would be like to see death coming at you like a speeding train, and do nothing. It made no sense.
On the ride home, Polly took off her hat and watched the scenery cascade by. She looked very small and frail sitting there, clutching her hat in her lap, hair flying all around exposing bits of her pale scalp. The light and shadows passed alternately over her face, as if a movie projector was shining right on her. I wondered what she was looking at, or if she were seeing anything at all.
At one point, Polly turned to my brother and said, "Luke, honey, put a little more feeling into it.”
He looked at her questioningly and stepped on the gas, cautiously. The engine hummed and we lurched forward.
Polly laughed and held on to the door handle. “A bit faster, now!”
She rose up in her seat and Luke accelerated, and the trees became one as they whizzed by. I heard Polly suck in her breath sharply. She was half-sitting, half-standing, lips peeled back over her gums in a grin. I laughed in spite of myself.
After a few minutes she settled back down in her seat, put her hat back on and stared out the window. She smiled and said, “I will walk into his warm embrace.” She wasn’t talking to me, or Luke. She wasn’t talking to anyone that I could see. But she didn’t look so scared anymore. I sat back, and let the wind whip at my cheeks until they were numb.
Sometime later, Luke pulled in beside Polly’s home and cut the engine. The sun was beginning to wane, and I knew we were both thinking about how Ma would be home soon.
My brother leaned over and tapped Polly on the shoulder, and then he drew back quickly. “Lenny,” he said, his voice unsteady, and I knew. He pulled off her glasses and they tumbled to the floor of the car. Polly’s eyes were closed, and her face had gone slack. The corners of her mouth were turned down slightly and she had a sticky chocolate moustache and a cocoa smudge on the tip of her nose.
Luke put his ear to her lips. “Polly?” he said loudly, close to her face. “Polleeeee!” I could almost hear his heart beating. Or maybe it was mine. He put his forehead on the staring wheel and his shoulders began to quiver.
I was paralyzed in the backseat, afraid to move. My hands had begun to sweat and my palms left wet prints on the seat. “Luke? What's wrong Luke?” I whispered.
My brother sat up straight and wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Sh-she’s not breathing."
I reached over and touched the old woman's shoulder. It still felt warm, and I could feel her bones beneath the fabric. But she was perfectly still.
“What should we do, Lenny? What?”
I couldn't form any words. Though it was late summer, I felt cold all over. I sat back in my seat and stared at my trembling knees because I couldn‘t think of anything else to do. The two of us sat there with her until the crickets’ song started up and the sun had all but disappeared from the sky, and the trailer park was blanketed in blue dusk.
Ma pulled in eventually and got out of her car and came towards us. “Boys? What in heck? Polly?” She went around to the passenger side, and our eyes followed her fearfully.
“I think we killed her, Ma!” Luke blurted, and began sobbing again.
Ma clapped her hand over her lips and said “Oh! Oh, Pol, darlin'.” and put her arms around her friend and started to cry. “No, Luke, you didn’t," she said softly through her tears. "You didn’t kill her, hon. Her body just couldn't take it no more.”
That night we were up late, Ma, Luke and I. She made us grilled cheese sandwiches and we sat at the kitchen table eating them. My mother's makeup had melted into black bruises beneath each of her eyes, and her skin was blotched with pink.
“Ma?” I said.
I put down my sandwich. “Was Polly really not scared 'a dyin'?”
Ma stirred her cup of coffee slowly and then looked up at me. "Sugar, do you think she was scared?"
'Polly, it’s your time and I’m calling you home.'
I thought about her chocolate lips and the squares of sunlight dancing on her face. I recalled the way the color of roses had burst into her cheeks as she stood up to embrace the rushing wind, like she had embraced her faith. An unexpected bloom of joy swelled in the pit of my belly. There had been something strangely beautiful about watching her let go and not ask why.
I stared at my plate. "No," I said quietly. "I think she was the bravest person I know."
My mother nodded at me solemnly, but with a small trace of a smile on her lips. We finished our sandwiches in silence.