Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2013    poetry    all issues


Tristen Chang

John Shortino
Final Notice

Chris Belden
The Woodpecker Problem

Naima Lynch
And I Will Bring You Oranges

Daniel C. Bryant

Susannah Carlson
Killing Methuselah

Afia Atakora

Mackenzie E. Smith

Sabra Waldfogel

Lainey Bolen Burdge
Paper Thin

Erin Rodoni
Crossing the Street in Hanoi

Tim Weed
The Afternoon Client

Rick Kast
Of Wolves and Men

Andy Jameson

Thea Johnson
Baby Doll

Charles Alden
Holy Orders

Julie Zuckerman
Birthday Bash

Kathryn Shaver
The Fourth Monkey

Chip Houser
The Goatherd of Naxos

Mackenzie E. Smith


Esmé could tell that her mother had dressed herself that morning. She had on a fitted, leopard-print tee-shirt under a pink cardigan that said “Hello, Sexy!” in sparkly block letters across one shoulder—both new additions to her wardrobe since moving to Bishop Spencer Place, an assisted living “community,” six months ago. Although Esmé was 31 years old, she still felt a fresh pang of teenage embarrassment at being connected by blood, by habit, by love to her mother. The familiar mix of pity, followed by guilt, jounced through her gut. As Esmé walked closer she realized that her mother’s ensemble was finished off with grey sweatpants and purple Crocs. Dear God, she thought.

“Hey, Ma,” Esmé said as she navigated the minefield of wheelchairs, walkers, and oxygen tanks that covered the common room. She plopped down on an overstuffed sofa. All of Bishop Spencer’s furniture looked like it had come from a Holiday Inn Express; the art was cheap, but functional, and the carpets were the color of lentil soup—a color that hid stains well.

“Ma,” Esmé repeated and put a hand on her mother’s shoulder.

“Esmé?” her mother asked. “Shouldn’t you be at work?” The fabric of pity and guilt in Esmé’s gut unraveled a bit.

“No, Ma. It’s Saturday.” Her mother gave her a blank stare. “Saturday, Ma. Saturday.” She smiled, but it felt forced. “No kids equals no teacher. I’m off.” Her mother’s gaze had wandered over to a woman in a wheelchair to Esmé’s right. The woman had on a yellow nightgown and slippers even though it was two in the afternoon. A TV remote sat in her lap, but her back was turned from the common room’s TV.

“God damn Velma Mosher. What the hell is she wearing?”

“Ma, you’re being loud,” Esmé hissed. “She might hear you.”

“She can’t hear her own thoughts anymore, let alone what anyone else has to say.”

“Well fine, but somebody else might hear,” Esmé said.

“Oh, who gives a shit?” she threw up her hands, causing the “Hello, Sexy!” on her cardigan to ripple as if caught in an unseen current.

“Mamma, I’m here to drive you over to Manor Care today, remember? You’re moving today.”

“Good. This place is awful. Everyone here is old and insane.” She had a point. “Where’s Jacob?” she added. Esmé felt the warp and weft of worry pull at her again.

“Mrs. Hurst?” A woman with a clipboard appeared next to Esmé. This seemed to be a quality shared by all nurses at assisted living facilities: the uncanny ability to materialize—poof—out of nowhere.

“Yes?” Esmé asked. The nurse seemed soft and out of focus like the cartoon rhino pattern on her scrubs.

“We just need you to fill out a transfer form with some contact information and then we’ll be all finished on our end, and you and Doris can be on your way.” Esmé took the clipboard and began writing. “We sure will miss you, Doris,” the nurse said cheerfully.

“Why am I leaving? Am I getting the boot for bad behavior?” It was hard to tell if she was joking or not. This wasn’t a product of her age or disease; it had always been difficult for Esmé to understand her mother’s intentions.

“No, Doris. Remember, Medicaid is no longer covering your single room here and we’re full-up on doubles, so you’re moving to another home where they’ve got plenty of double rooms.” Doris was watching an elderly man pad barefoot across the thin carpet.

“No shoes! What is the world coming to?” Doris asked, ignoring the nurse.

“This, coming from the woman who spent three months living at a nudist colony, just to ‘get the story,’” Esmé said.

“Well yes, but I wouldn’t go out in public without shoes and socks. It’s just rude!” Doris said. The nurse laughed in a way that sounded genuine to Esmé. She turned her attention to the transfer form. Name: Esmé Hurst. She scanned the rest of the form for the question she dreaded: Marital Status. Single, Married, Divorced, Widowed. There it was, always the last option as if the person making the form had either wanted to avoid it or had added it as an afterthought. I guess there are people who are widows, the form seemed to say. Esmé finished the rest of the form before finally returning to marital status. She circled Widowed and quickly handed the form back to the smiling nurse.

“And you’re sure you want to drive Doris all the way over to Manor Care? We can still arrange a shuttle, if that’d be easier,” the nurse said.

“No, it’s no trouble,” she said. In truth, Esmé felt guilty about how rare her visits had become. She felt she owed the drive to her mother. Esmé grabbed her mother’s only bag—it seemed that only the old, the insane and the young are free from the piles of stuff that give shape to most people’s days—and walked over to the elevator with her. They got in and Doris stuck her tongue out before the doors began to close. Esmé looked across the room at the faces in the common room. Only Velma Mosher turned her head to look in their direction as the doors slid shut.

“Put on your seatbelt, Ma,” Esmé said. There it was: that raw edge, that exhaustion in her voice that only her mother could induce.

“How’d you get so demanding?” Doris asked.

“How? My mother taught me. Now put on your seatbelt.” Already the trip seemed like a bad idea. Why did she think that one forty-five-minute drive across Kansas City would make up for months of missed visits, missed conversations, missed life with her mother? She let silence prickle between them as she put the car in gear.

Her mother wasn’t bothered by the silence, a sure sign that she wasn’t herself today. She began rummaging through her purse. “Where the hell are my cigarettes?”

“Mom, you don’t smoke anymore,” Esmé said. They were on I-435, barreling away from Missouri and toward Kansas, toward a new home, if you could call it that.

“Why the hell not?” Doris asked.

“They don’t allow smoking at Bishop Spencer.” Her mother looked at her like she was a foreign movie without subtitles—something confusing and lacking any real meaning. “It causes cancer, Ma. You know that.”

“Oh, life causes cancer,” her mother said and made a face before returning to the task of sifting through her purse. Esmé thought of her mother’s first few weeks at Bishop Spencer six months ago. She had seemed so much like herself that she’d felt cruel leaving her there. But the truth was that Esmé could no longer care for her mother. She couldn’t take her mother putting the dish soap in the oven, trash in the freezer or finding her outside in the garden, digging up weeds in her underwear. She thought she could handle her mother’s Alzheimer’s—the most common form of dementia the doctor had told her, as if this somehow made it bearable—but she couldn’t. Just couldn’t.

“Where’s Jacob?” Doris asked. Esmé gripped the steering wheel tighter and watched as the car flew by a sign that said, LEAVING KANSAS? COME AGAIN! They were on the bare stretch of highway between Kansas City, Missouri and the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas. “Are you two fighting again?” Doris asked. How, how could she not remember?

“Mom, Jake is gone, remember?” Esmé said, repeating the lines she had practiced and had said to her mother many times, many times. She searched her mother’s face for recognition. Nothing. Maybe she should just let it go today. No.

“Mamma, Jake was killed during his last deployment. His Humvee hit an IED in Kirkuk.” She had learned to get right to the point. Forming new memories is difficult for an Alzheimer’s patient, the doctor had said. Be patient and repeat yourself.

“How long ago did this happen?” Doris asked. Her fingers were stretched out over her purse as if she were waiting for nail polish to dry. Her lips began to quiver with what could be anger or anguish. Esmé could never tell.

“Five and a half months ago,” Esmé said.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were at the funeral.” Don’t blame; just repeat the facts and move on, the doctor had urged. What terrible, terrible advice.

Doris slumped over in her seat, tears beginning to run down her face. “I’m sorry,” she wailed.

“Mamma, what are you sorry for?” Esmé asked. She had let the speedometer slip to 50 MPH; a Ford F-150, looming over her tiny Honda, honked as it passed.

“My Depends,” Doris said. “I—” she began and then stopped.

“Oh. It’s okay,” Esmé said. She thought of the smiling nurse back at Bishop Spencer. What did she say to grown men and women who wet their diapers, their “Depends”?

Esmé took the next exit, which was at the edge of a new subdivision. The houses were all large oatmeal-colored boxes with windows too few and too small for their sizes. A new gas station stood next to a construction site. Sod blanketed the few spaces of ground not covered in new, milky concrete. Although a sign hadn’t gone up yet, the new building on the site looked like it would become a Taco Bell.

The gas station was large and sprawling, like everything in the suburbs, but Esmé doubted they’d have adult diapers. The girl behind the counter had on huge headphones and an oversized KU hoodie. The place was empty and she sat on a stool behind the counter with her feet up. Esmé thought it was strange that the gas station wasn’t busy on a Saturday afternoon.

“I’m sorry, do you have Depends?” Esmé asked.

“What?” the girl asked loudly, not removing her headphones.

“Depends,” Esmé said. “Adult diapers,” she added.

“Oh. Probably,” Headphones said. “If we have ’em they’ll be next to the tampons and stuff. Aisle five.” Esmé glanced out the gas station windows. Her mother sat in the car gazing out at something that Esmé couldn’t see.

Sure enough, they had Depends. Esmé brought them up to the counter. Headphones bagged the diapers and ran Esmé’s credit card, all while bobbing her head in affirmation to the music. She tapped Esmé’s card on the counter while she waited for it to go through.

“What kinda name is Esmé?” Headphones asked, mispronouncing it and looking down at Esmé’s credit card. She maintained a look of calculated boredom, her eyes rolling over Esmé like she was a carton of Thai takeout left in the fridge too long. Esmé knew the look well: she had perfected it in high school and wore it deep into her twenties during most interactions with her mother. “es-MAY,” she corrected her. “It’s French, but my mother chose it because of a J.D. Salinger story.” Headphones nodded, still disinterested. Hadn’t she asked the question in the first place? Esmé thought.

“The dude who wrote The Catcher in the Rye?” Headphones asked. Esmé’s receipt dangled from the credit card machine now, but Headphones kept tapping Esmé’s card to the unheard beat of the music.

“Yeah, the story’s called “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.”

“Gotcha,” Headphones said.

“Have you read it?” Esmé asked. She didn’t usually ask.


“Well, the little girl in it—Esmé—is smart and precocious and loves stories, and that’s what my mother wanted me to be like, I guess.” She had never said this to anyone, but knew it was the truth.

“Oh. Here ya go.” Headphones slid Esmé’s card, the receipt and bag across the counter.

“Thanks,” Esmé said.

“No problem,” Headphones said.

Esmé helped her mother into the bathroom, which had grey tiled walls and floors and a sign on the back of the door that said “We take pride in our clean restrooms. Please tell a team member if this restroom needs attention.” Esmé had a hard time imagining Headphones on any sort of team. The floor was wet from a recent mopping, but Doris kicked off her Crocs and stood in her socked feet while Esmé wrestled with the Depends packaging. Esmé pulled off her mother’s sweatpants and wet Depends easily, but putting the new Depends on was challenging. Her mother’s fuzzy socks kept getting caught in the leg holes of the diapers.

“Ma, can you sit on the toilet?” Esmé asked.

“I don’t need to use the toilet,” Doris said.

“Mom, I’m not joking. Let’s just get these on.” Doris sat on the toilet and Esmé carefully raised one foot, then the other before asking her mother to stand.

“You’re such a beautiful woman, Esmé,” her mother said as Esmé pulled the sweats up over the Depends. “Beautiful, and smart too.” She hadn’t felt like either of those things in a very long time. She had been dumb enough to marry her high school sweetheart. Dumb enough to keep loving him when it wasn’t working anymore, even when they both wanted out. Dumb enough to stay, too smart to face the truth. But now she had no choice. Don’t blame; just repeat the facts and move on, the doctor’s words were etched in her memory. Forming new memories is difficult for an Alzheimer’s patient. It’s difficult for all of us, Esmé now thought. It’s hard on everybody.

Back in the car, Esmé threw a package of Camel Lights onto her mother’s lap. “I got these for you,” she said.

“Aw, I was just looking for my cigarettes!” her mother said. She scraped the inside of her purse again and found a lighter. Esmé wondered how she still had one. Her mother lit a cigarette and cracked the window like her old self. She took a drag and let the highway wind take the ashes. The rest of the ride passed in silence. Esmé imagined her mother trying—and failing—to make a new memory, a memory of this drive, of her son-in-law’s death in a hot, far-off place.

The drive to Manor Care in Overland Park was long, and Esmé felt a little lost, even though she knew the way. She had driven by Manor Care before, but had never been inside, which made her feel guilty. When her mother’s medical benefits changed and Esmé needed to find her a new place, she Googled “nursing homes” and called the first one that popped up. She was sure this made her a terrible daughter.

The driveway to the entrance of Manor Care snaked up through a wooded area. Esmé was surprised when the car reached a gate. A little speaker buzzed and a woman’s voice said, “Hello. What can we do for you today?” This reminded Esmé of driving onto military posts with Jacob. Name. ID. Purpose. Once, when she and Jacob were living off post, she had gone for a drive after one of their fights and ended up at the entrance of the post. When the MP at the gate asked Esmé the purpose of her visit, she told him she had just needed a drive. He stared at her like she was a flipped car, wheels still spinning. “The gym,” she said finally. “I’m going to the gym.” Satisfied, he made a note on his clipboard and waved her through.

Esmé wasn’t sure if she should push a button or something, so she just spoke out to the speaker; its two buttons, one red and one green, over horizontal pieces of paneling looked like a little face. “This is Esmé Hurst. I’m here to drop off my mother, Doris. Doris Edwards.” Esmé still didn’t know if she wanted to take her maiden name back. Her mother had told her not to change it in the first place. “It’ll just be a pain in the ass to change if you get divorced,” her mother had told her shortly before she and Jacob were married. At the time, this had made Esmé mad—her mother hadn’t even married Esmé’s dad—but now she thought that her mother was just looking out for her in the only way she knew how.

When they finally reached Manor Care, Doris had a hard time getting out of the car. A nurse appeared out of nowhere. Ta-dah! Seeing the concern on Esmé’s face, the nurse reassured her: “She’s probably just tired from the long trip.” Her mother turned to wave at Esmé, a smile on her face and a cigarette in her hand.

“It’s always so wonderful to see you, Esmé,” Doris said. “I love you.” The nurse began to push the wheelchair inside; Esmé followed, but then stopped. Suddenly she didn’t want to keep going.

“I love you too, Ma.” Esmé called after her mother and started walking. “I’m coming in to see your new place, remember?” She bent down and gave her mother a kiss on the cheek. She smelled like cigarettes and Suave hairspray.

“You’ll have to put out your cigarette before we get inside,” the nurse said cheerfully. Esmé thought she could be a sister of the nurse at Bishop Spencer. “There’s no smoking here.” Doris made a face and threw her cigarette on the ground. Esmé trailed behind and picked up the cigarette. The nurse either didn’t see the scowl on Doris’ face or pretended not to notice. Two automatic doors flew open like they were revealing the grand prize on a game show. “Here’s your new home,” the nurse said and leaned forward to gauge Doris’ reaction.

“This looks like the same God damn place.”

“Please, Mom,” Esmé hissed.

“Oh, don’t please mom me. This place looks like a hotel that no one would be caught dead in, and you know it.” The common room of Manor Care did look eerily similar to Bishop Spencer. The carpet was the same soupy color and there was even a poor reproduction of Monet’s The Water-Lily Pond hanging over the TV. The air-conditioning was cranked up. It was a thick August afternoon outside, but inside it felt like a walk-in fridge.

“Oh, the Monet was hanging in the dining room at Bishop Spencer, not the common room,” Esmé said.

“Same thing!” her mother yelled.

“Well, it’s always good to have something familiar around,” the nurse interjected. “Let me go grab her paperwork, then I’ll give you two a quick tour and leave you to settle into your new room. ” She patted Doris on the shoulder and left, her feet padding silently across the carpet.

“Mom, I left my wallet in the car; I’ll be right back,” Esmé said.

“Don’t leave,” her mother said softly.

“I’ll be two seconds. I’ve just got to grab my wallet. The nurse will want a copy of my ID.”

“No, don’t leave me here,” her mother said. Her hands were buried in her purse and she rubbed the soles of her Crocs together.

“Mom, I—I,” Esmé started. She looked into her mother’s eyes. They hadn’t changed the way the rest of her had. Her eyes were just the same as they’d always been—slate grey, like a wet city sidewalk. “I’ll be right back. Just two seconds.” Esmé turned and walked quickly toward the entrance. She felt herself break into a run as she neared the doors, almost crashing into a man with a walker, its tips covered in tennis balls.

“Esmé. Esmé!” her mother called after her. She could still hear her mother calling her name as she reached the automatic doors. The doors opened with a whoosh and closed behind her with a swoosh, her mother’s cries suddenly gone. The air outside was thick and quiet, and it swallowed her whole.

Mackenzie E. Smith studied Creative Writing and Arabic at Carnegie Mellon University. Her work has appeared in TriQuarterly Online, Main Street Rag, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and has been a finalist for awards from Glimmer Train and New Letters. A former Gilman Scholar in Morocco and Luce Scholar in India, she now lives and writes in San Francisco.

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