Shepherding

Fiction by Michael Overa

I.

michael-overaThe sky is empty, as if the clouds have drained over the horizon and the winter sun comes down harsh and direct. Henry used to say this kind of weather left the angels nowhere to hide.  From where Thérèse sits in the passenger seat of the old sedan, her granddaughter’s back is framed in the door of a house she doesn’t recognize. The house, Emma told her, is one Thérèse used to live in. All she can make out of the person inside the house is the edge of an arm, maybe a shoulder. Thérèse squints at her granddaughter’s back and looks down at her hands, at the veins that rise in tangles beneath skin that she fears has grown too thin.

 

II.

When she first wakes she thinks that she is in the Hotel Du Nord, where they spent a long honeymoon in the fall of 1952.  It’s as she runs her tongue over her gums that she realizes that some unaccounted for quantity of time has passed. The simple act of pushing back the covers takes more energy than it should, and she reaches for her glasses.  The room reveals itself in more detail. It’s five in the morning and still dark outside, but there is a nightlight low on the wall casting a wedge of light toward the ceiling. She can make out framed pictures hanging along the walls. This must be her room, she realizes. She is not in the Hotel Du Nord. It is not 1952.

An intimate narrative blooms in the constellations of pictures hung from the walls of her room. Here is Angelique and her brother Serge at one graduation or another—she in a shimmery blue graduation gown with tasseled hat. The photo is grainy and the color has begun to wash away. There is Henry in his uniform—and, although it is black and white, she knows that the darker color was actually a deep green, and the lighter shade of his shirt was crisp khaki.  Another, of Henry and Thérèse standing in the living room of their small Paris apartment. She cannot remember the occasion. Henry, head tilted back in a full laugh; Thérèse, arm around his waist, eyes fixed upon him.

 

III.

The dining room is full of people who move as though deep beneath layers of tidal pressure. They move with the help of canes and walkers; they hang like worn out clothes on bent hangers. Thérèse sits, feeling minuscule at the table.  There is a plate in front of her but she has no appetite. She sips her coffee, which seems to have grown tepid. The waiter pauses to refill their coffee cups; she has seen him a hundred times but can’t recall his name.

“This is my daughter,” she says.

“Granddaughter,” Emma says.

Thérèse looks at the woman sitting beside her. She was certain that it was her daughter, but now that she looks closer she can see the differences, differences that compound until she wonders if she knows the woman at all.  There is a lilt of the eyebrow, the slight downturn at the corners of her mouth as if she might, at any moment, begin to frown. It is Angelique and not Angelique—both daughter and not-daughter. A delicate simulacrum.

“Yes, “ she says, “sorry, this is my granddaughter,”

The gold watch on her granddaughter’s wrist reminds her of the watch that Henry gave her on their twentieth anniversary. The same intricate links. The same ivory face. The band dangles loosely from her granddaughter’s avian wrist.

 

IV.

Her eyes lose focus on the broad, pale yellow walls of the living room; each year weighs several pounds. The furniture is modest and there is a thin layer of cat fur that clings to the back of the couch. She wants to say that she does not live here. She has never been here before. She has never owned a cat. The surroundings are entirely unfamiliar. Emma is talking to a kind looking woman in a faded sweatshirt.

“I know it’s probably odd,” not-Angelique is saying, “but it would mean a lot if she could just take a quick look around.”

The woman in the sweatshirt smiles. “Please,” she says, “help yourselves.”

The woman disappears into the recesses of the house; the disembodied voice of a television like a zephyr tumbling from room to room. They are alone there in a place that she does not recognize. She wants to say: we never lived here. We lived in Paris for decades after the War.

There on the edge of the coffee table a pair of earrings sit beside a stack of magazines. Not-Angelique bends and sweeps the earrings into her open palm. It’s a casual gesture, like sweeping crumbs from a table. Thérèse says nothing—uncertain of what she saw. Outside the rain is beginning to pebble the windows.

 

V.

For hours at a time, Thérèse stares at the clock that once hung above the mantel in the apartment on Rue de la Mare and wonders what time Henry will be home. Perhaps he has yet another overnight flight out of Orly. It is quiet. The children must be visiting friends. And then it is the smallness of the place that emerges. Someone has taken all of her familiar things and brought her to some sort of cloistered cell. She thinks back to the nuns that they saw on the streets of Paris that year. The year of the Accords. It dawns on her: the children are grown. Henry will never be home.

She does not know how long it has been since he left. How long has she been in here? People seem to know her by name here. There is a constant shuttling of people down the hallways.

Thérèse stands in the courtyard between buildings and cranes her neck upwards. There are no planes above her. No metal beasts hanging in the firmament. Henry had said that, in the mornings before bombing runs over Germany he used to imagine he was seeing the world as God saw it. Pure. Unadulterated. A feeling he savored—because in miles or hours he would become the destroying angel.

“The wrath of a king,” Henry would recite, “is as messengers of death: but a wise man will pacify it—and we were sent to pacify.” [1]

 

VI.

“Does this bring back memories, Mémé?”

Emma has her hand on Thérèse’s elbow. Thérèse looks around the kitchen, appraising the new appliances and the stack of mail sitting on the counter. The dishes piled up in the sink.

“I don’t live here,” she says.

“Not anymore, Mémé, but do you remember after the War? You lived here with Papi.”
A man with dark skin stands nearby, arms folded across his chest, a smirk creasing his face. Thérèse wonders what he is doing here in this house. The rain has picked up outside and she can hear it roiling against the windows.  A car makes its way up the street, whispering water beneath its tires.

“I hate to ask, but may I use your restroom?” Angelique asks.

The man gestures down the hallway and then Thérèse is alone with this stranger.  Henry had always been so good with strangers. It was a gift of his. Glancing down at her wrist, Thérèse tries to check the time, but she must have forgotten to put on her watch that morning and now she is too timid to ask this stranger—too shy to impose on him any further.

 

VII.

When they return to the retirement home Emma escorts Thérèse to her room.  She greets the woman behind the front desk by name, and they ride the elevator, slow and silent, to the third floor. Thérèse is tired, she shuffles into the room and flips on the lights.

“Can I get you anything, Mémé, before I go?”
Thérèse shakes her head, and settles herself in the rocking chair near the TV.

Emma stoops and kisses her on the forehead.

“I’ll give you a call tomorrow morning to see how you’re doing.”

The news flickers on. A man with a helmet of blond hair sits behind a broad wood desk. There is a storm passing through the Southeast, and something about immigration bills in Congress. Shaky footage of a desert and men in mismatched military uniforms riding in white pickup trucks.

She is dimly aware of her granddaughter leaving, the door clicking closed behind her, and then she is alone. Why is her granddaughter shuttling her from house to house?

 

VIII.

Sunday morning, Thérèse wakes at six, retrieves her Bible from the nightstand and makes her way down to the lobby for church service. She sits in the small dining room with her cup of coffee and crust of toast.  The waiter pauses beside her to refill her cup.

“It’s nice your granddaughter comes so often.”

Thérèse nods and watches the steady stream of dark liquid.  Somehow the coffee is still tepid. She pages through her Bible unsure of what she is looking for. Other residents move in and out of the dining room, scooting chairs and rattling silverware.

At seven, Thérèse scoots in her chair and takes her Bible and makes her way to the front room where the chairs are set up in even ranks and the podium has been shifted into place. The ushers are other residents, and call her by name and welcome her.  She takes a seat near the front, in the second row along the aisle, scooting back in her seat as others scuttle past her.

On the inside of the cover she squints at the network of spidering lines, the careful cursive.  Blue ballpoint pen. She has mapped out generations of family. She looks at the soft indentation of Henry’s name on the page, and traces the line to her own name. Thérèse Morris, née Fournier.  She has been a Morris three times longer than she was a Fournier. She has been a widow half as long as she was married. There, beneath it all, is her granddaughter’s name scratched in her own scalloped cursive.

 

IX.

Another house; this one smaller than the others. So small that it seems as though the rooms blend together.  The house is probably from the 1950s.  Thérèse remembers houses like this springing up seemingly overnight along long straight streets in the north end of the city.  The houses all roughly the same, the same floor plan, composed almost entirely of cinderblock. The yards simple rectangles of sod—little doormats of wilting blades. But that was in another city, she is almost certain of it.

This house smells of something cooking—baking, maybe. There is a warmth to the house. Buttery. Something that reminds her of fresh baked croissants and a café on Boulevard du Montparnasse. She remembers the clumsy schoolboy French of Henry as he asked her for directions.  It wasn’t until after they were married that he admitted he hadn’t been lost at all.

A child’s toys are scattered in one corner of the floor, and the woman that must own the house scoots a toy car out of the way with her foot. A young boy toddles from one room to the other, watching the women, eyeing Thérèse with a curiosity that might easily be mistaken for suspicion.

“I hate to ask,” Emma says, “But would it be possible to use your restroom?”

“Just down the hall on the right. First door.”

Emma thanks the woman and disappears down the hallway.  The boy leans against his mother and continues to watch Thérèse.

“When was it that you lived here?” the woman asks.

“I never lived here,” Thérèse says.

The woman smiles in a way that is almost condescending. She can tell then that these people think that she has lost it. She is senile. She is a doddering old woman who shits in diapers and can’t remember her own name. This sweet young granddaughter is struggling to help her grandmother fend off dementia. The look on the woman’s face says that she understands everything.

 

X.

As Emma helps her grandmother out of the car her purse slips from her shoulder and clatters to the ground.  There is a familiar rattling and a handful of pill bottles goes rolling across the pavement.

“Shit,” Emma mutters and steadies her grandmother against the car as she reaches down to gather up her purse and the little orange bottles, dropping them into her purse and slinging the bag back over her shoulder. She seems frustrated now, and guides Thérèse quickly to the front door of the home.  She moves so quickly that Thérèse is afraid that she might lose her balance. This time she does not bother to take her all the way up to her room, but abandons her at the front desk as though she were a casual letter.

“I’m sorry,” Emma says to the woman there behind the counter, “I’m in a bit of a rush. Bye Mémé, love you, I’ll call tomorrow.”

Emma kisses her grandmother quickly on the cheek and disappears.

“Did you have a good day, Thérèse?”

Ne pas être sorti de l’auberge,” she says. [2]

 

XI.

Thérèse struggles to peel back the layers of memory. Why had she been in Paris in the first place? Where have the children gone? She would dial Angelique if only she could remember the number, and it seems now as if her conscious—or perhaps her conscience—is conspiring against her. But it is hard to tell if there is a difference. In the midst of the night she is awake. It is just after midnight—she can tell from the over-sized numbers on the digital clock beside her bed. A graceless, clumsy clock. She snaps on the bedside lamp and scoops her Bible from its place and unwraps the rubber band from the cover. Her fingers skate through the pages to Proverbs 29:24. She mouths the words and begins to weep. [3]

 


[1] Proverbs 16:14, King James Bible.

[2] Literal translation: to not be out of the inn. Meaning: to face a complicated problem. https://frenchtogether.com/french-idioms/

[3] “He who is a partner with a thief hates his own life; he hears the oath but tells nothing.” (New American Standard Bible)

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About Michael Overa

Michael Overa was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. After completing his MFA at Hollins University, Michael returned to Seattle where he currently works as a writing tutor. He is a writer-in-residence with Seattle's Writers In The Schools Program. His work has appeared in the Portland Review, East Bay Review, Fiction Daily, Inlandia, and Across the Margin, among others. "Shepherding" is included in his first collection of short stories, The Filled In Spaces, due out on November 4, 2016 through Unsolicited Press.

Michael Overa

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