The Circle Line

by Mary Pat Musick

My mother gave me a polite hello, the kind you'd give an acquaintance whose name was lost. I sat across from her in the dining hall at Sunset Care, and took out the photos that I had brought along to help her remember our happy family life. Our cousins' family relationships were messy, but ours were as content and conventional as the matching peach drapes and walls in the Sunset Care dining hall. Or so I had believed.

Mom's eyes traveled the room. Wrinkles crowded her face. Her body had shrunk from its tall frame, and her hair, once the color of glossy dark chocolate, was dusty. But there was a hint of the woman she was when my brother and I sat on the steps with the babysitter to say goodnight before she left for Chamber of Commerce dinners with Dad, her skin pure, translucent even, and she’d wear something that complimented her green eyes, and she’d add African beads or tie a batik scarf around her shoulders, pull her thick waves behind her ears to allow earrings to dangle untangled, always something just a bit more arty than other women in our town, and I had been proud that my mother was beautiful in an unconventional way. 

I held up photos of Dad, figuring they would have the best chance to shine through her dimness. My favorite was the one of him in his softball uniform, his raised arms holding a trophy, my brother and I alongside, looking up to him. It was Dad who rescued us from small-town dullness, taking us on road trips to Yellowstone, Chicago, and Mount Rushmore. Mom didn't comment on the pictures, even the one of Dad in front of his car dealership in Fort Wayne, where he was grinning, his arms crossed over his big belly, a man proud of his business, and I prompted: "You were high school sweethearts."  She took that photo and folded it origami style, pulling the outside corners to the middle, repeating the fold. It didn't end up resembling a crane or a crown, but her concentration was impressive. Finished folding, she fidgeted. Other residents were still scattered around the dining room, crouched over their plates, but it felt empty, so I guided her to her room.

We sat on her love seat––the one that had been in the den at our Fort Wayne house–– and looked at photos from the party that my brother and I had put on for Mom and Dad's 40th wedding anniversary. She had charmed the guests, animating them with funny stories and flattery, stirring them until they were the celebrated. She had told us that she was "over the moon" that we had arranged the party––she talked like that back when she was bright. There was her best friend Barbara Joyce, some neighbors, and her cousin Gretchen, whom she always enjoyed, as well as other family and friends. Mom showed no awareness of having loved or hated them. She turned to watch the lilacs bloom on her room’s wallpaper. 

On my next visit, Mom seemed more alert. She answered simple questions: she was "feeling fine," it was "a lovely day," and I had on "nice red shoes." She even wondered where I got them.  It gave me hope for deeper communion, so I took out the album of pictures from our lake cottage, a pretty place that had attracted feral cats, which Mom had discouraged us from taking in; she thought it sad to domesticate wild things. In the pictures, Dad looked perpetually happy, my brother and I sometimes clowned, other times sulked, and Mom had the look of contentment I had remembered. Looking at it years later, I realized that her expression was loaded with resignation.  While I turned the pages, she sat next to me on the love seat, disinterested; not a word, a cocked eyebrow, or a nod, even after I supplied remember when stories. The photos could have been of strangers in Stockholm.

In the meantime, at my home, I sorted through her books––the garage was stacked with boxes of them––to figure out which to donate to the library.  A photo floated from a book of poetry. I didn't know the person, but I had seen the picture before, first coming across it when I was ten or twelve. It was in a concealed compartment under the silverware case. Mom had said he was an old friend, and I didn’t wonder why his picture hid under our knives and forks. She was alert then, smart even, a hospital administrator. Years later, when I was helping her pack for a move, after Dad died, the photo was in her bed-side stand, along with a prayer card to the Virgin Mary, and a picture of my brother and me on the beach.  I was rushing her packing then, and didn't ask about it.


 When I stopped in to see Mom at Sunset Care, there was a bouquet of pink roses on her dresser. We smelled and admired them. She asked if I wanted chocolates from the box beside the vase.  I reminded her that her son, John, had sent the flowers and the chocolates, but I didn't think she grasped who that was. And I doubted she knew who I was.

I showed her the single photo I brought that day, the one that had dropped from the book. “Do you know who this is?” I asked. She took it from me. I wouldn't have been surprised if she turned it into confetti.

She held it. Her hand was steady, with veins spread out like small streams. I saw a flicker in her eyes that I had not seen in years; her eyes had dimmed long before the rest of her. But they fixed upon the black and white snapshot.

"Dapper isn’t he?" I said. I'd never used that word, but it sprung to mind as I looked at the elegant man standing sure on a dock, trim in a light suit, holding a hat best left in his hand because nothing should block the view of his gorgeous face. His hair, free to blow with the breeze, suggested carefree. His smile was seductive, as he stared at the lens, or the person behind it.

My mother searched the photo in silence. I was used to her silence, but this time it seemed to shout. I regretted that I had not asked more about the dapper man sometime in the past; I hadn't knocked on that door when she could have opened it and let me in.

"You must have known him long ago," I said, trying to keep importance from my voice. Since her decline––and maybe before–– she retreated from me when I was insistent.

"It was the day we took the Circle Line," she said. She spoke as though she was clear every day. "We sailed around Manhattan. The boat was slow, but the river was in a hurry." As she spoke, the water slapped the boat, and the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings stood out; the skyline changes that had come and gone turned illusions.

I swallowed tears. It was not a family reminiscence, but still. I asked about the man who looked as though the he could drop by a Manhattan gallery opening before his flight to Nepal to scale a mountain. I spoke as though we commonly talked about him. "Oh yes, what was his name?"

"Doug O'Brian," she said, without taking her eyes off the snapshot. She touched it, barely, her fingers floated above it. Her nails had a fresh coat of Apple Red, a color she had worn for years––Mom had wiggled her fingers when the Sunset Care manicurist (at my request) had that shade.

"Where did you know him?"

"New York."

 "You used to go to New York for hospital meetings. Was that how you knew him?"  She didn't answer. After a minute, I tried another question. "What was he like?"

"Funny, not clownish, but, you know." Her finger circled in air, searching for the word.

"Witty?" I said.

"We talked about things. Not real things."

"Ideas," I said, finding intimacy by lending her the language she had taught me.

She shut down again. It wasn't the normal vacantness where she flipped over the closed sign. She was still open. 

I slipped along with her into the picture. I could smell the smart scent of his aftershave, although I couldn't identify it.

 “He was handsome," she said. Despite it's frailness, her voice sang.

"Quite," I said.  "Did you take this picture?"

"The boat ride was rough that day. Everyone got seasick. Doug and I were the only ones who didn't," she said.

"You've always been steady on boats."

"After we docked, we had a drink to celebrate."


She laughed–– she remembered how to laugh––and said, "probably something with gin."  I enjoyed the buoyance of my mother's romantic memory, but my father became a shadow over my shoulder, and I was sad for him.

There was activity rippling down the hall with aides getting residents ready for the night. I leaned closer to Mom, closing us off from the outside. Huddled together, she was the mother I'd missed, the one who had supported me when I had confided my love for the man I went on to marry, and later, the sadness of our breakup. She was the mother who had accepted my decisions without burdening me with unsolicited advice. I longed for our bond, though, in truth, even at best, that bond was like a hug that stopped seconds too soon. 

"He was a sculptor," she said. I didn't think that she was addressing me; she seemed alone, perhaps not alone in her mind, but I was not included.  "I modeled for him." 

She leaned against my arm. Barging into her thoughts as softly as possible, I said, "You used to do oil painting." One of her paintings, a fat face of a flower, had hung in our Fort Wayne living room when I was a little girl, and I use to stand on the back of the sofa and look straight into it, imagining myself a bee collecting nectar.

"I wanted to be an artist," she said. "He encouraged me. He thought I had talent.”  A sense of possibility layered those words, and I thought how different her life had been then, whenever then was.

Why didn't you?" I said, wondering what had happened to her desire to become an artist, but she was thinking of another course of action.

"I was already married."

It was my turn for quiet reflection. I tried to figure out when it happened. There was the never spoken memory of the time my mother went away as I started second grade. I had delighted in receiving her postcards and gifts; I'd kept a miniature Statue of Liberty on my dresser for years. Mom returned home at Christmastime, a special gift for me that year. The day before she got back, Dad put up the biggest tree we could find: he needed to buy a taller ladder to decorate it, and he put little twinkling lights around all the windows on the outside of our house, and hung a wreath that was too big for the door, making it hard to close.  It was the grandest Christmas we ever had. I was happy to have her home and there was no talk of her absence; it was erased from our family history.

"We were deeply in love."

"You and Doug O'Brien?" Even as I said it, I knew the answer.  A part of me, the small part, wanted to go back in time, to rip up Doug O'Brian's picture the first time I saw it. But another part, the bigger part of me, let my heart go out to her. I remembered when my parents' anniversary party was over, I had found her alone, out on the back stoop, in tears. She had told me they were grateful tears, but the pile of shriveled Kleenex on the steps said otherwise. At the time I had reasoned that she cried because the guys from the car dealership got drunk and into some shouting and shoving. In truth, even then I had known it was a rationalization for something I didn't understand.

"I had to go back," she said. "I had a family you know."

 An image came to me of Dad cutting the top of the Christmas tree so the star would fit, Mom's suitcases by the front door where she'd dropped them as she bent down to me, holding my face, her hands gentle and firm, and she stared at me as she repeated that she had missed me and that I'd grown so, all the while tears dripping from her face.

The sounds outside Mom's room were getting closer. I wanted to put a do not disturb sign on the door, but that would mean my getting up, and I dreaded loosing her again any sooner than the inevitable. Mom and I rested against each other, watching Doug O'Brian gaze back from time, his ageless body standing on the dock, set to show her the city and the life she would miss.  We stayed like that until there was a knock on the door.

"It’s time to get ready for bed," the aide announced in a cheerful voice, startling my mother, fetching her back. Mom looked around, and released the photo. I held on to it. The aide went about her duties. My mother cooperated with the routine that evening, washing and brushing and slipping into a pink gown.  My brother had sent her pink things since she moved into Sunset Care, as though all women in their dotage favored pink, even Mom, who had never bought a pink thing in her life. I caught myself then, for what did I know of her life?

"Good night now. Have a good sleep," the aide said, as she left the room.

I tucked Mom into bed. She looked content, serene even. I leaned over and kissed her cheek.

 "Do I know you?" she asked.

BIO: Mary Pat Musick's short fiction has appeared in The Pedestal, The MacGuffin, Coe Review, Summerset Review, LitnImage, Eclectic Flash, and other publications. She earned an honorable mention in Glimmer Train for the Family Matters Story Award. Her travel essays appeared in Literary Traveler and Traveling Tales. She lives with her husband in Santa Cruz California.