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By Richard Luftig

 

Lilly rummaged through her father’s kitchen, searching for Maxwell House, Sanka, anything that contained a morning fix of caffeine. There was nothing, just the uncountable bags of decaffeinated tea that he insisted on drinking.

 

She slammed a cabinet shut. How could a person live like this?

She turned and saw her father sitting at the kitchen table in his bathrobe, calmly watching her. His hair was disheveled like he had just gotten up and he badly needed a shave.

 

Instinctively, Lilly ran a hand through her long auburn hair. She was nearing that age when a woman who cared might consider a dye job. The gray beginning to appear indicated that Lilly was not one of those women.

 

“Dad, you scared me. Do you always sneak up on people that way?”

 

“Hey, you’re the one who should apologize,” he grumbled. “All that racket you’re making could wake the neighborhood. What are you after anyway?”

 

“Caffeine,” she said, renewing her search. “Preferably in coffee form. But after the terrible night I had, I’d settle for intravenously. I know you don’t drink it, but would it hurt to keep a little of the stuff around for visitors?”

 

Her father filled the teakettle and turned on the burner. “In case you forgot, I don’t get many visitors anymore. Besides, you know my regimen. Green tea, three times a day. It’s known to prevent cancer.”

 

“Fat lot of good it did you,” she said. “Maybe if you had eaten more Twinkies and Ho Ho’s you’d have been better off. I hear they have enough preservatives for a shelf life of twelve years.”

 

Her father laughed. “And here I’ve watched my diet all of this time.” He poured two cups of tea and placed one in front of her. “Drink up, it’s better than nothing.”

 

He took a long sip. “And what about you? What have you decided to do with this place?“

 

Lilly shrugged. “I really don’t know. Paula’s coming over at ten to talk to me about listing it with a realtor.”

 

He laughed. “Wish I could be a fly on the wall for that conversation. Your sister and you are like oil and water. I just hope you can settle it without getting blood on the wall.”

 

Lilly tried the tea, made a face and pushed the cup away. Nothing could make this stuff palatable. Not milk, sugar, or honey. She wondered how her father could drink it straight.

 

“It’s worse that that,” she said. “Now she’s playing the mental health card. She says that with all the bad memories tied up here, I’ll probably have a relapse and end up in the psych ward again.”

 

He sipped his tea. “It’s not outside the realm of possibility. This place holds a lot of baggage. It’s not been a happy place for either of you.”

 

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “But I was the one ended up in the looney bin. And I’m the one holding onto sanity by a hangnail. We’re one hell of a family, wouldn’t you say?”

 

She looked up and saw tears forming in his eyes.

 

Nice going. Now look what you’ve done.

“I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean to say it that way.  It’s just that I don’t know what to do. Sell or stay. None of it makes much sense. I don’t dare tell Paula I’m already off my medication. I’m tired of feeling like a zombie with cottonmouth. I’d rather drift off again to locoland.”

 

She held his gaze and took a breath. “Dad, I need your help. Tell me what to do.”

 

He stood up, cinched his robe tighter and put the cups in the sink.

 

“How the hell should I know? You’re the one talking to me, and I’ve been dead a week.”

 

He turned, shuffled in his slippers back into the bedroom and closed the door.

 

Paula arrived thirty minutes early. Lilly wasn’t surprised. Her sister always came early or late, you could never predict which. Lilly knew it was a game, a control issue that her sister had used for as long as she could remember.

 

It wouldn’t have mattered even if Paula had been late. Lilly would have still been sitting at the kitchen table in the same tee shirt and baggy sweatpants that she had worn the last two days. She recognized the symptoms; had lived with them most of her life. She was into the depressed cycle of her manic depression. Yes, Lilly knew the politically correct diagnosis was bi-polar, but she didn’t care. She hated that name. It made her sound like an explorer simultaneously at the North and South Poles.

 

Going off the medication cold turkey was going to be bad news, she knew that. But right now all she cared about was getting her sister off her back. Under the best conditions, she disliked meeting with Paula. And these were far from the best conditions.

 

Paula gave Lilly a quick peck on the cheek. She was dressed in a dark blue suit, perfect business attire for an advertising executive. She was five years older than Lilly but looked ten years younger. Botox and wrinkle cream had a way of doing that.

 

Lilly could smell her rose- petal perfume through the kiss. It didn’t go well with the smell of cold tea and toast.

 

“You look like crap,” Paula said sitting down by the only clean setting on the table. “Have you slept at all?”

 

Lilly looked at her sister to read if there was any real concern in her face.

 

“Good to see you too. And to answer your question, no. Even the sleeping pills don’t help.”

 

“I’m not surprised. I have no idea why you insisted on staying here after Dad’s funeral. I offered to pay for a motel.”

 

 

 

 

 

She studied Lilly like an overly strict teacher. “How come you’re still not dressed? Please don’t tell me you’re off your medication. That’s all we need in the middle of all this, you having a psychotic episode.”

 

“I’m fine,” Lilly said. “I was just having a cup of tea with…”. She caught herself. That would get her back in the psych ward for sure, “…toast.”

 

Her sister looked around the kitchen. “This place is a mess. Don’t depressed people do dishes?”

 

Lilly laughed. “No, we wait for our mentally healthy sibling to do them. Don’t you keep up with the women’s magazines? It’s called co-dependence.”

 

Paula didn’t laugh. She took out a set of papers from a manila folder and put them on the kitchen table trying to avoid the dirty dishes, butter stains and crumbs.

 

“What are these?” Lilly asked.

 

Paula smoothed out the papers. “A realty agreement to sell the house. I need your signature to make it legal.”

 

Lilly didn’t even look at the papers but pushed them back toward her sister.

 

“I told you I’m not sure I want to sell. I need time.”

 

Paula slammed the table with her hand. “Dammit Lilly! Time for what? To go off the rails like you always do whenever there’s a crisis? Then what? I’m stuck with this place, trying to keep it up from New York, and you’re ruled incompetent, so I can’t sell it until you’re stabilized.”

 

She sighed. “It’s been the same crap since you were sixteen. You Looney Toons, Dad dead drunk half the time, and me having to be the adult for the three of us. I’m sick of it.”

 

Lilly looked down at her hands. They were ugly, she thought, veiny with the nails chipped and unpainted. But she didn’t have the energy to do anything about them. Even for her father’s funeral.

 

“I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment to you,” she said. “Then and now. But I’m the one who found Mom with her wrists slashed staring straight up at the ceiling in a pool of blood. I’m the one who had to fish Dad out of the bottle long after you left for your nice, neat world in New York. So, if I want extra time now, you have no say in it. You’re just going to have to wait and follow my lead for once.”

 

Paula got up but left the papers on the table. “Yeah, well we don’t have a lot of time. I’m due back in New York tomorrow, and the lawyer wants us to make up our minds about things for probate. I need your answer, and I need it soon.”

 

Lilly looked over Paula’s shoulder into the living room. Her father was there, still in his bathrobe. He had a heartbreakingly sad expression on his face, like the one he wore when he left Lilly at the mental hospital for the first time.

 

Her eyes sought his, questioning. He shrugged helplessly and left the room.

 

“Please Lilly,” Paula said, in a softer tone, “think about it. This house holds nothing but bad memories for both of us. And with the money you’d get from the sale you could start off fresh, travel, maybe find that piece of yourself that you always say is missing.”

 

She got up to leave. “Just promise me you’ll think about it.”

 

Lilly found herself on the brink of tears, unable to speak. More reason to think she was sliding backwards. She nodded her head and let Paula kiss her goodbye.

 

After Paula left, Lilly got up and put the dishes in the sink.

 

“That certainly went well,” her father said. He was sitting at the table.

 

Lilly added soap and ran the hot water. “You could have helped.”

 

“How,  by coming back from the dead for your sister? No, that honor is reserved for marginally insane people like yourself.

 

“By the way, how was my funeral?”

 

She laid the clean dishes on the counter to dry. “You mean you weren’t there?”

 

He chuckled. “Wanted to, but I had other places to be. Was there a great deal of crying and gnashing of teeth?”

 

Lilly poured a glass of milk and sat back down. “Wished I could say yes, but truth be told there really weren’t that many folks there.  Reverend Walkins did a nice eulogy even though he hardly knew you. Paula kind of filled him in on what to say.”

 

“Damn, too bad I missed it. If I’d lived just a few days more I could have been there in person.

 

She snorted milk through her nose. “Dad!”

 

Her father laughed. “ Waited a lifetime to use that joke and only one around to hear it is nuts.”

 

She studied the liquid in her glass like it was some magic elixir. “Dad, tell me the truth. Was Mom always a basket case? And why did you stay with her?”

 

“You have to understand the times back then,” her father began. “People didn’t know about things like schizophrenia or bipolar disorders. You were either sane or you were crazy.

 

“When I started dating your mother, she was high strung– that’s what people called it then. Her mother, your grandmother, was a piece of work. Yelling and screaming at your mother all the time, making her feel like crap. I thought if I could just get your mother out of that house she’d be okay.”

 

“And did it work?”

 

“For a while, on and off. She’d have her bad days, dish throwing and crying periods, but usually she’d come out of it. But over time, she got worse and the crazy periods started getting more frequent until they just ran together.

 

“After you kids were born, things turned worse. Today they call it post-partum something-or-other. Then they just called it the blues. We tried everything, psychiatrists, drugs, even shock therapy. But nothing took. I wish I could tell you that I was there, either for her or for you girls, but you know what happened. I crawled into the bottle and shut out the world.”

 

He paused. “I’m sorry for that.”

 

She stood up and walked over to him. “Pop, you know with me off the medication it’s just a matter of time before I’m committed again.”

 

He looked hard into her eyes. “I wish you’d stay on it. It does you good.”

 

“Maybe. But I just can’t keep going this way, flat lining inside and talking to dead relatives. I’d rather be off the juice and totally nuts. Crazy doesn’t hurt as much.”

 

Her father walked over and hugged her. “I know, sweetheart. But flipping out and ending up on the street or in the hospital isn’t the answer.”

 

She started to sob. “I’m not so sure. Everything hurts, Dad. It hurts so much. Would it be so bad if I ended up like Mom?”

 

“Hush. Stop. Don’t talk like that.” He sat her down in the chair.

 

“Look, I can’t tell you what to do. I’m not even here. We both know that. Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid. Can you promise me that?”

 

She dried her eyes and nodded.

 

“Good. That’s my little girl.”

 

He started to walk off. “I’m going to lay down. I can’t tell you how this dying knocks the hell out me out.”

 

As the day dragged on, Lilly found herself getting increasingly agitated. She knew the warning signs, the bottoming out of depression and the up tick of mania. Quitting the medication, the only unknown was the timing.

 

She tried to concentrate on television, but the shows all seemed to run together—game shows, soap operas, reruns – each more difficult in holding her attention than the one before it. Finally, she gave into the impulse and began walking around the house, moving from room to room. She thought it ironic that whatever room she entered, her father was absent. Maybe, in her hyperactive state, he no longer existed.

 

She found herself in the attic. The afternoon light showed through the dormer window bathing the upper space in a strange iridescent glow.

 

Lilly aimlessly explored open boxes—books, postcards antiques that had belonged to her mother. Nothing seemed to hold her attention for very long.

 

At the far end of the room she came upon a large cardboard carton filled with circular metal canisters. It took a moment for her to recognize what they were.

 

Home movies, 8mm, in black and white.

 

Dad must have shot these years ago.

She sorted through them. Each reel was rubber- banded and labeled by subject and date. Lilly began to read off the names like a roll call of memories: Paula’s 6th birthday, Brownie Troop, Florida Vacation, Trip to Santa Claus Land.

 

Next to the carton was the old Bell & Howell projector and the portable screen that her father used to show the movies when relatives came over, which, near the end of her mother’s life, wasn’t very often.

 

It took three trips but Lilly managed to lug the films, projector and screen downstairs to the living room. Late afternoon was yielding to night.

 

“Christ, I haven’t seen those in years, never even thought about them.” Her father was sitting on the couch watching her struggle to put up the screen.

 

“Hey!” Lilly said. “I thought you had gone. I haven’t been feeling so hot.”

 

“Yeah, I know. You forget, me being dead and all I can sense your moods pretty good. No, I’ve just been keeping myself busy on other things.”

 

“Jesus, Pop, there’s a ton of these. And they’re so small. How come?”

 

“That’s how they were in those days,” he said. “Black and white film lasting four minutes each. I tried to take them at every major event in our lives. Later, the technology improved and they went to color film and bigger reels, but with your mother dead and all, I kind of lost interest.”

 

Lilly chose a reel titled Christmas, 1963.

 

This should be interesting.

 

She tried to figure out how to work the projector.

 

“Who the hell invented this thing? A little help here would be appreciated.”

 

Her father laughed. “Yeah, they never were easy. Just put the full reel on the top arm, the empty one on the bottom. Then put the pointy end of the film into the slot of the bottom reel. I even tapered it with a scissor back them to make it easier. Give it a few turns and turn the machine on. Hopefully, if you did it right the film won’t burn up or rip, but I can’t promise anything.

 

Lilly turned the projector on forward. The film flickered with bursts of light and she thought she had screwed it up. But after a few seconds, images appeared on the screen.

 

It was Christmas, this house. The living room to be exact. There is a tree, a very odd one, tall but scrawny, full branches on one side but bare leaning to the back. There are some presents underneath but not many. Lilly and Paula are in front of the tree. They stand stiff, as if posing, not really knowing what to do. Paula is wearing a stage smile like she is trying to do what is expected for the camera. Lilly, still a toddler, looks frightened, ready to cry.

 

The camera pans to their mother sitting nearby on the couch. She is looking away, not quite focused, almost as if she does not realize that she is being filmed, which would have been impossible with her husband standing two feet in front of her aiming the camera at her nose. She looks distant, removed from the activity around her. In her left hand is a cigarette, burnt almost down to the filter, the ashes long, ready to fall onto the carpet at any moment. In the other hand, a highball glass with a half-finished drink.

 

The camera cuts back to the Christmas lights and then the presents under the tree as if it is too painful to focus on the participants in the event. A few more seconds of film, flickers again, and the reel is empty, spinning wildly on the top of the projector.

 

Lilly felt herself beginning to shake. She planted her feet firmly on the floor but the shaking wouldn’t stop. Tears were streaming down her face.

 

“Withdrawal from quitting the medication,” her father said. “I told you not to quit.”

 

Lilly wiped away the tears and blew her nose. “No, bad memories. I wish I hadn’t chosen that film to look at.”

 

“I don’t understand,” he said.

 

Lilly sighed. God, she hadn’t thought about this in years.

 

“I was four, maybe five,” she began. “It was Christmas, just like in the movie. Mom was all excited. She announced to Paula and me that we were going to buy the perfect Christmas tree. No imperfections would be allowed.

 

“She got us dressed and put us in the back seat of the car. We went from place to place, some stores, but mostly just guys selling trees on street corners. At each, Mom would stop and inspect every tree but none were good enough. It was fun at first,

but after the ninth or tenth place, it was getting pretty boring, and Paula and I cried that we wanted to go home.

 

“Mom ignored us. She kept getting more and more agitated. I remember her chain-smoking so many cigarettes that we could hardly breath.

 

“We kept driving and stopping. Mom would get out, argue with the owner of the tree place, get back in, and start driving again. Then she started yelling at us. After, she just drove, screaming at no one in particular.

 

“I remember us going farther out from the city until we were in the country somewhere. Then Mom just stopped the car, still smoking, staring out the windshield, muttering to herself. I was terrified.

 

“Finally, a policeman showed up. I guess he made a few phone calls because Uncle Steven came and took us home.”

 

Her father whistled. “Jesus, this is the first I’ve heard. Why don’t I know any of it?”

 

“I think you were off on one of your business trips. I just remember that you weren’t home. I guess the relatives were too embarrassed, and Mom made us promise never to tell.”

 

 

 

Her feelings turned from sad to angry.  “God, I hate her! She’s responsible for it all. My childhood, finding her dead. Me being nuts and talking to dead people.”

 

He sighed. “ I’m sorry, Honey. About all of it. But you can’t blame your mother. She was sick and did the best she could. And I was a lousy father, trying to deny it from inside a bottle. I just wish that all of it hadn’t fallen squarely on you.”

 

Lilly got up. “I need a drink. You have any beer in the Fridge?”

 

He laughed.  “How would I know? I sure don’t have any need for the stuff now. Maybe there’s some left over from the wake.            “

 

She walked into the kitchen. Then she saw it, the long bread knife on the kitchen counter, still there from breakfast.

 

Maybe it was medication withdrawal or just the flood of bad memories from the movie, but Lilly knew what she could do to make all the pain go away.

Serrations are good. One slash on each wrist. Not crossways, that’s for amateurs, but north and south. Just like Mom. Poetic justice.

She picked up the knife.

 

Let Paula have the whole house to herself.

 

“No.” The voice came from behind her. A woman’s voice. It couldn’t be Paula’s. She was getting ready to head back to New York.

 

Lilly turned. Her mother sat at the kitchen table sadly studying her daughter.

 

“No,” she said again and shook her head.

 

Lilly threw the knife to the floor and fled to the bathroom.

 

Dear God, help me. I got dead people coming out of the woodwork.

She looked into the mirror. She thought the dark circles under her eyes made her look like a raccoon and the bags were large enough to pack an overnight trip.

 

I am nuts. Christ, there’s no hope for me, on the medication or off.

 

She noticed the pill bottle on the sink, the medication she had quit when she had come home for the funeral. She picked up the bottle and shook it. Half full.

 

Suddenly, her mind was made up. For once she was thinking clearly.

 

This is no way to live.

She washed ands dried her face and walked back into the living room. Her father was still sitting on the couch.

 

“Dad, I need your car. I’m going back to the hospital. The attendants there will call someone, Paula if she hasn’t left yet, one of the uncles if she has, to pick up the car and bring it back.”

 

“Good girl,” he said. “You’re making the right decision.”

 

Lilly took the keys and walked back to the kitchen towards the door that led to the garage. She stole a frightened glance at the kitchen table. Her mother was gone.

 

Thank God for small favors. Maybe I’m only half crazy.

She noticed the real estate papers on the table. She took a pen and signed the last one.

 

Let her have the place. I want none of it.

She started the car and backed down the driveway. Her father was sitting in the passenger seat.

 

“You don’t need to do this Dad.”

 

“I know,” he said. “I want to. Besides, how else am I going to get out of the house?”

 

She drove down city streets until she reached the highway and took the ramp southbound.

 

Hey, you’re going the wrong way,” her father said. “The hospital is north.”

 

“Yeah, I know. But I need to do this.”

 

Lilly stepped hard on the gas; the speedometer hit seventy, and then quickly shot to ninety. The broken lines that separated the lanes become a blur of solid white. The tachometer moved into the red zone. The engine was running dangerously hot.

 

“Jesus, Lilly!” her father yelled over the roar of the engine. “Slow down!”

 

She turned off the headlights. Everything was dark except for the taillights of the cars she was speeding up on. With her lights off, they would never know what hit them.

 

So this is what death is like.

 

“Lilly, stop! I mean it. If you want to die, do it. But don’t take innocent people with you.”

 

Lilly began crying again, and eased her foot off the accelerator. The speedometer slid down to a more moderate sixty. She switched the headlights back on.

 

She took the next exit, drove across the overpass, and headed back north on the expressway toward the hospital.

 

Her father sighed.

 

“I swear girl, you’re going to be the death of me yet.”

 

_____________

Richard Luftig is a professor of educational psychology and special education at Miami University in Ohio. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a semi finalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award for Poetry. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines including Bloodroot, Front Porch, Slugfest International, Cataraville, Front Porch Review, and 3 Hearts Magazine.


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