I found Mr. Emory the week I arrived in New Mexico by way of a hardware store flier.
CARETAKER NEEDED. GOOD PAY.
I called the number and drove the winding road to Mr. Emory’s home. His desiccated front yard was littered with cacti, rocks, lawn ornaments. A bent “Don’t Tread on Me” sign was staked into the dirt. Inside he served me cloudy tap water and told me he was dying. Cancer, he said. He said that he didn’t expect the job to last very long. “I won’t last very long,” he said. He said he’d given up on chemotherapy. He went into a long spiel I didn’t try to follow—something about the effects of toxicity of the blood on the afterlife. Without waiting for me to respond he said, “Let’s get down to brass tacks.”
As if remembering he was supposed to, he asked me my qualifications. I told him I was a former yoga teacher. I was familiar with anatomy. “Death doesn’t scare me,” I said.
He looked at me a moment and said, “You’ll do.” He shook my hand and thanked me. He called me “Miss.” I did not bother to correct him. I was married only in the technical sense. Any day now, a packet of notarized papers would arrive care of my husband’s lawyer in New York.
When my parents heard about the divorce—irreconcilable differences, I told them, I used those words—they had wanted me to come to Florida, where they’d retired and now spent their days playing tennis, drinking mojitos, and purchasing starfish-patterned bath towels for their musty beach-adjacent ranch. I didn’t go to Florida. The idea of it made me itchy. Instead, after an Ouija-like sweep of Google Maps, I found Devil’s Fire. It was a nowheresville outside of Santa Fe. I had never been to New Mexico but the idea of geologic formations shaped like tables appealed to me. I pictured ghosts suppering at the red-orange mesas. I was cheered at the idea that these phantoms might outnumber human residents. I found a rental apartment on Craigslist for $250 a month. I found Mr. Emory.
* * *
In the beginning, I wheeled Mr. Emory outside during the day, where he sat blinking among his lawn ornaments with a folded copy of the Albuquerque Journal on his lap. I watched daytime TV shows and checked on him every few commercial breaks. Sometimes when I poked my head out I half expected his wheelchaired body to have calcified and joined the lawn’s other grayish gnomes. When it grew dark or cold or rainy I read to him inside: local newspaper articles about the school budget, chapters of a John Grisham novel which he gave no indication of enjoying. The closest thing to a visitor to arrive was the cable guy.
Mr. Emory said please and thank you. He paid me every second Friday what I was owed. It wasn’t Tuesdays with Morrie.We did not grow close. He did not impart life lessons from his long tenure on this earth. We talked a bit, here and there. It’s hard to avoid when you spend forty hours with a person. He’d been a senior vice president at a bottling plant outside of Albuquerque for fifty years. He’d never married. Never had kids. There was a Law & Order episode on one day about an artist and Mr. Emory said, offhand, “I used to paint.”
“What did you paint?” I was trying to be polite. But it took effort for me to utter those four words.
“Pictures,” Mr. Emory said, his eyes sullenly adding an unspoken duh.
Fuck you, I shot back silently.
There were days like that, days I’d arrive, back stiff from a restless night on my Walmart futon, and it was clear that we both were in a mood. One day when I served him lentil soup he demanded to know whether there were GMOs in it.
I scanned the label. “I don’t know.” He’d never professed a concern about GMOs before. Never even asked me to buy organic food.
The countertops were burnt orange, peeling at the edges. “You’re like me, you know,” he spat.
“Am I?” I fed him a spoonful, unblinking.
He held my gaze. “The two of us, we weren’t put on this earth for anyone but ourselves.”
In my head I catalogued everything I had done for him that day, that week. Laundry, dishes, groceries, cooking, cleaning. I’d bought him an ice cream cake at the supermarket, just for something festive. But why argue. This was a job. I was being paid to do these things. I bought the ice cream cake because I was bored. Because I wanted to eat it.
“No,” I answered.
Mr. Emory didn’t say anything.
Where did he see the selfishness in me? Was it in my steeled eyes, my pursed lips, the way I clenched my fists at my side? “Smile!” men used to say to me on the street when I was younger, less weathered. I never did—I turned away.
* * *
On my way home I passed an elementary school, an empty playground with spotlights illuminating the bright spindly structures, a shiny metal slide. I passed a large airy McDonalds. I drove through the one-street downtown, every other storefront boarded up, and at the end of the block a bar. On a whim I put on my blinker, turned onto the side street, pulled into a dusty lot. M LL R L GHT, a fluorescent sign above the back door gleamed. I wondered what the chances were that all the vowels had gone out first like that. If maybe they were wired differently, if they’d been a different color. I sat in my car for a minute debating going home. But the idea of lying with my eyes closed on my futon for ten hours was excruciating. I hadn’t been a drinker for a long time, not since college really, when my sorority sisters and I used to mix Diet Snapple and flavored vodka and drink it out of 18 ounce tumblers meant for coffee. My husband didn’t like drinking. He didn’t like fun. He was a yoga teacher, a vegan, gluten-free. I’d started teaching yoga because of him. To be like him, or so he would like me, it wasn’t clear to me even now.
I met an old man at the bar. Outside the bar. He was blocking the door. “Excuse me,” I said quietly, starting to push by, but he still didn’t move. “Excuse me,” I said again, more loudly. Still nothing. I waited a moment, then repeated my request. Finally he turned. He looked at me with red cheeks and blue eyes and a steely gray head of hair and chuckled. “You been waiting long?” he said.
“A little bit.” I didn’t laugh. I was annoyed, on my way to angry. “Got a bum left ear,” he said. “A mostly bum right one too.”
“Fine,” I said and nodded. In my past life I would’ve said sorry, and I still had the instinct, but it wasn’t my fault.
He moved aside. We both walked in. He sat on the stool next to me at the bar. I wondered if he was going to hit on me. I’d had men who were older and fatter than he was hit on me before, with an astonishing amount of confidence. I’m pretty but not so pretty. A good enough body to make men feel like they’re punching up, an average enough face to give them confidence. But I could tell as soon as he sat down that wasn’t his aim. It unsettled me a bit. He ordered a Diet Coke from the bartender, who was pressing the button for it before the words had left his mouth. He gestured to me to see what I wanted.
“Double vodka soda,” I said to the bartender. “No lime.” I don’t even like vodka, or soda water. Lime’s okay. But drinking isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. Maybe that’s my husband’s influence. Ex-husband. If you’re going to do it you should feel a little bad about it.
“I’m Richard,” he said. “What brings you here?”
“Can’t hear you,” he said.
“I didn’t say anything,” I half-shouted.
“Joke,” Richard said. “Just a joke.” He reminded me of someone. A teacher I’d once had?
“I’m tired,” I said. Don’t apologize, I thought.
“You want to play War?” Richard said. He took a pack of cards from his pocket.
“The card game?”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“Oh come on,” Richard said.
He dealt the cards expertly and we played.
I had another vodka soda. Another. We kept playing. Richard told me he was divorced. Two kids. Grown and living in California. “All the young people want to go to California,” he said. “But not you.”
“What are you doing here?” he said. We’d both drawn kings. We each put three more cards face down and then another card face up. Mine was a 2, his was another king. I flipped over my other cards, queen, jack, 10, and pushed them his way.
“I tried to steal a baby,” I said.
“You what?” He looked up at me, pointed at his ear.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s not a big deal. I wanted to steal a baby.” My mouth was cottony. My tolerance wasn’t what it used to be. In my drinking days I could throw down four vodka sodas, no problem, but here I’d only had three and already the room was spinny.
“I’m acting like a lady!” I shouted at him.
“I think you should call it quits.” He gestured at my cup.
We kept playing. Richard won. I drove home blitzed. I never went back to the bar again.
* * *
As the weeks went on Mr. Emory’s mind grew blurry. His speech got muddled, he slept for most the day. He needed to go away. Somewhere he was fed the same portion of stewed pears each morning, where a Yolanda or Bertha or Melanie, listless and overweight in scrubs, would crush up his pills and change his diaper while staring longingly out the crusted window of his airless room. I needed to find a job at the grocery store or writing 500-word articles about yoga poses for a second-rate fitness website. Instead I told Mr. Emory I could move in. I would take care of him. I would make sure he was okay.
He looked at me and said, “Will you help me die?”
This wasn’t the first time he’d asked me. I was keeping track: it was the third. The other times I’d shrugged noncommittally, and Mr. Emory had accepted my ambivalence, moved on. But this time I paused. I said, “Yeah. Okay.”
Mr. Emory nodded. We were both silent. I flicked on the golf channel.
That evening he had a glass of wine and rice pudding for dinner. Afterwards—he was always more talkative after Chardonnay—he told me to go to his bathroom closet and look in the back of the middle shelf. The pills were there.
“I got them when I was diagnosed. Don’t ask me how. It’s probably better for you that way.”
“This isn’t a Lifetime movie,” I said.
“You know everything, huh?”
“Do you want me to help you?”
“I don’t want them yet,” he said.
“When do you want them?” It was strange. In that moment I felt like I could finally look at him. We were partners. I saw beyond his twisted useless body and those wiry gray hairs poking from his nostrils, the musty breath, the greenish hue of his gnarled toenails, and I just wanted to please him. It wasn’t sexual, if that’s what you’re thinking. It would be weird if you were thinking that. But also not that weird. Because it wasn’t devoid of feeling. Of affection. He was a human being, and I was a human being, and he needed me.
“Just do it when I’m ready. Do it when you would want to go. If you were me.”
“I want to go all the time.”
“So you understand the impulse.”
* * *
The next week I gave up my apartment and sold my Walmart futon for $20 to a man with a handlebar mustache who looked me up and down like a piece of meat he wasn’t hungry for. I brought my clothes and toothbrush in the same duffel bag I’d taken from New York. I slept on a loveseat from the living room I had put in Mr. Emory’s bedroom. I comforted him when he woke in the early hours of the morning, gasping and screaming so faintly I don’t know how I heard it.
One day I stared out the streaked bedroom window, my arm resting on the side of Mr. Emory’s bed. The mid-afternoon sun spread listlessly over shrubby crabgrass. Suddenly Mr. Emory grabbed my hand and refused to let go. Meanwhile on TV silent spectators gaped at titanium sticks and tiny balls. His eyes were fastened shut. I looked at him and felt a new depth of pity. But he wasn’t ready yet.
* * *
Before when I would change Mr. Emory’s diapers he would turn his head away, resigned, letting his eyes flutter closed. But in the following weeks he began to writhe, throw elbows. I apologized, moved away, tried again. He reeked of shit and piss but would not relent.
I gave him his wine in a plastic cup with a straw, but he refused to drink.
He lay crookedly in bed. He looked me in the eye and spat, “You bitch.”
I wondered: Was it time? No. “You bitch” shows chutzpah. The days before I left New York for New Mexico, the days after the baby, I couldn’t even lower myself into child’s pose on my yoga mat, let alone hurl curse words at my husband.
* * *
One day Mr. Emory’s TV changed over from golf to some kids’ show, fluorescent bubbly characters talking in Alvin the Chipmunk voices. I don’t know how the channel changed. I didn’t change it, Mr. Emory didn’t change it, the remote was three feet away, lying on an end table. A glitch, I told myself. I looked at Mr. Emory. Still sleeping.
An uneaten grilled cheese sat on the bedside table and I went into the kitchen and ate it in four bites. The shredded cheese was gummy, terrible. I took out my cell phone and punched in my husband’s number. Ex-husband. I didn’t have it stored. Because I had deleted it. For my own good. Which was dumb. Because I knew the number by heart, always would. What’s the 411? I typed in. This was how we always texted. No hi or what’s up or how’s it going or are you working late or what do you want for dinner or did you get the dry cleaning. What’s the 411 could mean any and all of those things. I looked at the words. I deleted each one slowly. I closed my phone. I did the dishes, breathing in the artificial citrus of the detergent. I peeled the label off an empty wine bottle on the counter. It came off in strips, leaving ugly white residue behind.
When I went back into Mr. Emory’s room, a new show was on. I didn’t know what it was at first but after a moment I saw Elmo. I turned the volume up. Mr. Emory kept on snoring. Next to Elmo a goldfish swam in a little tank. “Hi Dorothy,” Elmo said to the fish. “Dorothy wants to know how to play with a ball,” Elmo said to the audience. To me. “Should we ask some kids?” The show cut from Muppet world to show a light-skinned black girl on a playground, maybe sixor seven. She was bouncing a basketball on the blacktop, hurling it up at the hoop. “You might not do it at first but then you will!” It took three tries but the ball sailed through the net. Back in Muppet world, Elmo nodded, clapped. “Now let’s ask a baby!” Cut to a baby in a white high-chair, wearing a purple bib, holding a squishy yellow ball. The baby stuck the ball in its mouth, gummed it around a bit, and then Elmo walked in again and looked at the baby and laughed, a gleeful frantic cackle that was at once gratifying and scary.
Mr. Emory startled a bit when Elmo laughed but didn’t wake. I turned the TV down. I covered him with his blanket and then put the TV on mute. His eyes blinked open at the silence. He looked up. Caught my eye. Then fell asleep without a sound. I sat in the dark.
I said, “I’ll tell you how it happened.”
* * *
I told the story to Mr. Emory. I told the story to the ground. I didn’t tell the story to anyone. How could I say these things out loud?
We couldn’t have a baby. We needed to do treatments, and they were expensive, and my husband didn’t want to. I wanted IVF. Whatever it took. A baby. I was a woman and I would be a mother. This was the reason I’d gotten married. Yes, I loved my husband, but how anyone loved a grown man enough to marry him without the promise of children, I didn’t know. His mother was coming into town for the weekend. She was a monster. No. She was a nice lady with extremely annoying tendencies. The first thing she’d do would be to drop her suitcase and put her hand on my belly and say, “Anything in there? Yoo-hoo!” And then I’d go to the bathroom and cry and she’d ask, “What’s for dinner?”
She was coming on a Saturday morning. I drove to the grocery store when she texted to say she was on her way in a cab from the train station. I forgot a few things, I told my husband, who knew that I was lying, but who was so accustomed to these untruths that to him they weren’t even false. They were just a code that he had to wade through. On the drive I gripped the steering wheel too tightly. Walking around the grocery store would help. Its clean predictability and bright rows of cereal boxes, the bold confidence of the waxed fruit and buoyant loaves of bread. But once I got there it was wrong. I’d entered a funhouse. The fluorescent cereal cawed. The milk was an accusatory wash of white. In the bakery section I used the tongs to pry out three sticky buns from a plastic cupboard into a plastic bag.I tore off a piece of one and stuffed it into my mouth, licked the glaze from my fingers. It gummed up in my throat.
Worthless pig, the voice inside my head said. The voice and I had been well-acquainted for years. It picked apart everything I did. Unknitting a sweater knot by knot. In college a psychiatrist had prescribed Klonopin, which dulled the voice but everything else too, like swimming in a sweatshirt. I developed strategies over the years, alternatives to medication. Yoga helped, but these days I didn’t practice. I’d teach my classes then go home as tired as if I’d run a marathon. I’d try to picture a stop sign when I couldn’t sleep at night, let the octagonal red overtake the screen of my mind—someone had told me that once. Or I’d read it in a meditation magazine. I pictured ocean waves, which had always soothed me. But now I could only see their crash as they reached their peak and destroyed the sandy shore.
The grocery store was sharp-cornered and foreign. I was unprotected and alone. I needed to leave.
I put my basket down, and that was when I saw her.
Propped in an elaborate stroller, glossy skin unreal in its swaddle. Eyes darting guilelessly. I breathed for the first time in minutes.
Where was her mother? I wanted to know not because I was scheming but because I was concerned. This is what I would try to tell my husband later.
Behind the deli counter I could just make out an employee kneeling into the glass case. I peered into the nearby aisles. The baby was so placid. Ocean waves couldn’t calm me. She calmed me. Her eyes fluttered open, open, closed. Her rosebud mouth sucked at the air. I took it as a sign.
I crept closer. She was still. Her chest beating slightly.
She looked up at me. I was God. “Hi,” I said out loud.
She gave me a wide open smile. Her toothless gums made me ache.
I had listened to a podcast a few weeks earlier about attachment parenting. Babies should not be in strollers, babies should be nuzzled against your chest. Babies should not be in cribs, babies should be next to you in bed. Babies should not be fed through bottles, babies should only know your breast. Now looking at this beautiful creature I understood. Her soft skin deserved contact. She was so delicate and small. She beseeched me.
I stood over her. And then, in several coordinated motions, I unbuckled the harness that kept her in. One click, furtive glance, another click, furtive glance, another click, and her body stayed still, but she was free.
And then I heard the footsteps. Looked, panicked. It was a sixty-something women in kitten heels. She smiled at us, grandmotherly, and I put a finger, just one, on the baby’s wrist. For a millisecond I was her mother.
And then the other footsteps. This time a woman, blonde, thick around the middle. Crow’s feet, bags under her eyes, outgrown highlights. I could’ve identified her across a football field. NEW MOTHER, her whole being screamed. She was carrying dish detergent and she was out of breath.
Before she could get any closer I took a tiny step away from the baby, but kept my arm shielding her, and called out, “Is she yours? Because she’d gotten herself twisted, in the straps—so I unbuckled—I didn’t want her to—” and I smiled at her to say, she was welcome, and isn’t it nice to come across a good Samaritan, in the world we live in today…
And she looked at me worried, then puzzled, then grateful. I had won. I smiled at her again, and she reached the stroller, and saw her sleeping daughter, unsecured but calm, and lifted up her frogged body and held it to her chest.
“Oh,” she said, “I must have— don’t even know. I’m exhausted. I was just going to get the detergent, and I thought she’d be—oh my god. I’m so stupid. What if she had—how did you say, where was the twist—”
“Don’t worry. I know. I have one myself. Six months. She’s at home with my husband.
For once.” I smiled, a little wickedly, and the woman laughed gratefully.
“Good for you,” she said. “This one’s only three months. I’m with her all the time. I haven’t started pumping yet. I’m always worried she’ll be hungry.” Her eyes flitted up and down my Lululemon-covered body. “You said six months? You look amazing.” Her eyes languished on my flat belly, the taut arms she could see through my skin-tight pullover.
“Breastfeeding,” I sighed thoughtfully. “I can’t eat enough.”
“I wish I had that problem,” she said, and paused. “Does it get easier?”
I nodded. “Hang in there,” I said, and she smiled at me gratefully. It felt good, but not amazing.
“This is a little weird,” I said, “but can I hold her? I don’t know if this ever happens to you, when you’ve been away for just a few minutes—but I miss my daughter terribly. I know! I know!” I said. “It’s so embarrassing.”
“It’s adorable,” my new mom friend said. “Of course.”
I nestled the baby to my chest. I held her tight with both arms and once she was settled, I took a deep breath. Then I set off running. Past the toothpaste, toothbrushes. The paper towels. The pet food, wet and dry. The organic romaine lettuce, the conventional iceberg, the plastic clamshells of tripled-washed baby kale. Through the smeared glass double doors. The air was cold. I clenched my baby tighter. She didn’t cry. I darted across the crosswalk, cars screeching to a halt, fumbled for my keys, got us both into the car, nestled her across my lap, as secure as I could get her, started the car and backed out of the spot, holding on to her small warm body with one arm and steering with the other. I pulled out of the parking lot and turned right and merged onto the highway.
No. I handed her back. Smiled. Said have a nice day. She said, we should exchange numbers, is that weird? I’m sorry, I’m a little desperate, aren’t I? We did. I switched the last two digits. I went home. Greeted my mother-in-law. Told her, no, not yet. Cried in the bathroom. Tried to talk to my husband that night in bed. Tried to tell him about the baby. I don’t want to know, he said. It sounds insane, he said. I cried. My whole body longed for him to hold me. We were separated within the month.
* * *
Mr. Emory’s eyes flutter open in the dark. It is nearly 4 am. “Belinda?” This is not my name.
“Yes?” I say.
But he has gone back to sleep.
* * *
In the morning the sun rises but through Mr. Emory’s shades it is nearly impossible to tell. On the New Mexico Hospice Association website, a setting sun flares golden from fiery plains. The website asks me “What Is Hospice?” and “What Is Palliative Care?” and implores me to learn “What You Fear.” I click on “Contact Your Local Chapter.” This page is decorated with stock photographs of deciduous trees with burgundy and orange leaves. New Mexico Hospice has been caring for the larger New Mexico community like family since 2004. New Mexico Hospice has a Twitter feed and Instagram page. I click on the telephone picture and a number pops up on my phone and my phone asks me, “Call?” I leave the bedroom. In the kitchen I eat handfuls of dry cereal. A fly lands on my forearm. I swat it away.
* * *
If you didn’t know already, babies are everywhere. They do not stop being in grocery stores just because you want them to. You see them in their car seats and at cash registers screaming in frightening pitches. They are in the liquor store and they are playing next door and they are bundled in a baby carrier on their mother’s chest while she tries to stop the baby’s older sister from catapulting head first down the slide. Some of them are exquisite and others look like tiny Winston Churchills, chinless and fat, and some smell like Johnson & Johnson and others overwhelmingly of shit and sometimes it is both, and even the most exquisite ones are not as exquisite as the one who would have been. They are all magical but not all of them are magic. Still you look at them and you feel in your chest the desperation pressing up against you, from the inside, always from the inside, saying, look, look, look, touch, touch, touch, and you steel yourself against the voices. But pushing down the voices just makes the other one louder, the one that always wins. Worthless, it says. Worthless worthless worthless. Yes, you say, I am.
* * *
It was time. I knew that it was time. Mr. Emory didn’t want to eat. He would take a sip of water and it would dribble out over his pale chapped lips and down his sunspotted chin. I dabbed it with a cloth. According to the internet Mr. Emory had more than enough pills to make it to the other side. According to the internet there is a simple playbook and they can tell me what to do.
This is a beginning, the internet tells me, this is a gift. A way out of endless suffering. But what is endless? Work, meetings, commutes. Marriages. Of course these things are not endless. Everything will be finished. You are just a conduit, I tell myself. Give him the medicine and then you can leave. Can’t you ever do what someone asks you?
No. In the end no is the answer, I’ve known it all along. Mr. Emory is an old man and he is not exquisite. But so many years ago the nurse placed him bleating on his mother’s chest, and his mother cried, My baby!, because how could she not? So I call the number for hospice like I was always meant to, and even though I don’t have to explain, I tell them I was visiting him. Mr. Emory. An old friend in dire straits. No, I don’t know who has been taking care of him. Yes, maybe they’ll come back. Yes, maybe not. I hang up. I take a few blankets from Mr. Emory’s guest room, I take one of the John Grisham books, I take a couple hundred dollars from a drawer. I take what I am owed. Some toiletries and food. I say goodbye to Mr. Emory. “See you later,” I say, stupidly. I drive. I pass the elementary school playground and I wish I could nestle on its scratched metal benches, I wish I could sit and watch the little girls and boys going up and down, up and down, up and down the slide.
Meghan Daniels is a writer based in Brooklyn. She received her MFA from Hunter College, where she was a Hertog Fellow. She is currently at work on a novel.