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A Certain Change of Light

2010 Short Story Contest: Second Place Winner
A Certain Change of Light

Someone has stolen my glasses again. I suspect Sylvia Shapiro because she can't quit crowing about how darling she thinks they are. I think they're gaudy. My daughter Dorothy bought them for me, but now they are gone. I also suspect Bobby.
          Don't think I accuse her because she's shvartser, I'm no racist. It's just that I caught Bobby with them, one day when she was cleaning my room. She claimed she was returning them to me, that she had found them in Arnie Gutkin's room, but why would I leave them in Arnie Gutkin's room? I don't even like Arnie Gutkin. He is pompous and needy. True, he can be funny when he wants to be. When his Parkinson's is particularly bad, he tells me that he's feeling a little shaky. It's very funny, how he says it.
         I always keep my glasses on a chain around my neck except for when I sleep. But Bobby insists on poking around my room, dusting, even before I'm awake. How many times do I have to tell her to leave me alone? That my room is quite dusty enough, thank you very much. Once, I even woke to her trying to steal them right off my neck. "But Mrs. Bernstein!" she said. "I was afraid you'd break them." She wants them for her mother, a horrible woman from all I can hear. I tell her, enough with your mother, because I can't stand all that complaining. 
         True, I can see without them. My vision is excellent, as is my hearing. I have always taken very good care of myself which is why I don't understand why I am here with all these shlimazls. They're a flatulent haunt of complainers. I know for a fact that Bess Fishel can walk, but she pretends she can't, just for the attention. So it's not hard to understand why I'm upset. I can't read without my glasses, and that is my only escape from all these pathetic old people. I'm half way through another of Updike's Rabbit novels. I never understood why everyone was so crazy about him. He bores me. 
         I go to see Mary about the glasses. She's a Catholic. She rarely leaves the front desk. 
          "Mary," I say. "I want to report a theft." 
          "What is it now, Wilma?" she says. 
          "My glasses." 
          "You've probably just misplaced them again." 
          "It was Bobby, I'm sure of it. She needs them for her mother." 
          "Honestly, Wilma. Have you checked Arnie's room?" 
          "I also suspect him." 
          "Wilma, he didn't steal them either. It's just that the nurses found them there the last time you lost them." 
          "Did my agent call?" 
          "Mr. Milford?" 
          "Bradley. Mr. Bradley." 
          "No, Wilma. He didn't." 
          "It's very important. Let me know the moment he calls." 


I am looking at bubbles and fish. The fish make O's with their mouths. There is a knock at my door. "Come in, Bradley," I say. "It's about time. I've been expecting you for hours. Now, you must take a look at my new manuscript." 
          Bradley says, "Wilma, what a nice surprise, to find you in my room." 
          "Don't be absurd. You don't live in this prison. I do. And when are you going to get me out of here? Call Dorothy and tell her to come pick me up. I want to go home. And why are you walking with that ridiculous cane?" 
          I don't know what has happened to him lately. He used to be such a dapper man. And now he's always a mess. Like that, dropping fish food on the floor. 
          "Would you mind getting me some water, Wilma? I'm a little shaky today," Bradley says. 
          I turn on the water but can't find the cups. "Did you move my cups again?" I ask him. 
          "They're hanging right there, above the sink." Why does he insist on moving them there? I get him a cup of water and put it on the table. He is struggling with a bottle of pills. 
          "Let me." I open the bottle for him. 
          "Thank you, Wilma. You are such a dear. Even when you're being ornery." 
          "I wouldn't be so ornery if everyone stopped acting so strangely." 
          He puts the pill in his mouth and spills half the water just bringing the cup to his lips. 
          "Bradley! Why are you such a mess?" I say. 
          He ignores me, like usual. He wipes his chin. He asks, "Have you found your glasses?" 
          "Of course I haven't found them! Someone stole them. Probably Arnie Gutkin. He stole them last time." 
          "Now what would Arnie Gutkin want with your glasses?" Bradley's hand is on the table, like a little dish, like a wrinkled old bowl. 
          "How should I know what he wants with my glasses! He probably likes to dress up like a woman." 
          Bradley is laughing. He says, "Why don't you ask him if he took your glasses? He's a reasonable man." 
          Now I have to laugh. "Arnie, that alter kaker?"
          "Oh, here he comes!" says Bradley. I turn to look where he is pointing. No one is there. A cat runs by. The goya director walks past the door. She smiles. I hear water. I turn and see fish and bubbles. The fish open their mouths into O's. 
          "Wilma, it's Arnie." 
          Arnie is sitting at my table, smiling at me. "Who let you in?" I ask. 
          "It's my room, Wilma. I let myself in," he says. "And I found you here waiting for me." 
          Try to remember. I was asleep. I. …
          "You came to ask me if I have your glasses." 
          "Oh." 
          "I don't. But I will look for them." 
          "I can't read without them. I'll go crazy if I can't read that boring Updike novel today. I swear I will." 
          "Reading's overrated," he says. "Oh, what a buffoon!" 
          "Sit with me. Stay here and watch the day go by, my way. Maybe you can even sleep over." Arnie leans towards me and makes his bushy eyebrows go up and down, suggestively. His favorite gesture. 
          "I have things to do, Arnie. I can't just sit here with you. That would be a waste." 
          "Indeed!" 
          "I have to work on my manuscript. Those damn glasses! When is Dorothy going to come anyway. She's always promising to come tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow." 
          "That's because she comes every day, Wilma. After work. I wish my children would be so gracious." 
          "Every day? I haven't seen Dorothy for weeks." 
          Then Arnie says, "I saw you with her yesterday." 
          Think. It can't be. "Arnie, you are worse than Bradley. Worse than my dead husband." 
          "But luckier," he says, and pats my thigh, way up here, with his wrinkled shaky hand. 


Something is changing. The light. Perhaps it is night now. I can't tell from looking out the window. Something is strange. 
          "What's happening?" I ask. "It's snowing outside." 
          "Snowing? What season is it?" 
          "It's winter." 
          "Of course it is!" Who is that talking? I see the face, I do. I can see all the features clearly, yet, still, it is out of focus, somehow, fuzzy. Think. Who is this? 
          "I hope your Dorothy doesn't try to come today. It's much too slippery." 
          I see the snowflakes now, swirling. I remember that when they fall on my face, they are like miniature feathers that disappear. I remember the hollow smell of snow and the sound of my mother's boots crunching, leaving a trail of holes across the yard. She wears black boots with fur around the top. "Wilma, hold my hand." Her voice is like velvet. She is always singing. She loves Christmas songs. "The Jew who loved Christmas!" That's my father. He is at the door, his pipe in his mouth. I bury my face in his sweater. I am so warm. "My sweet little Wilamina." His voice is rough, not like my mother's. When he sings, everyone laughs and begs him to stop. I am passed, swinging through the air, smiling person to smiling person, each a different smell. I remember. I do remember. 
          I open my eyes. It is dark. I have forgotten to put an extra blanket on the baby. I open the door. It's so bright. There is a woman pushing a cart. "Where's the baby?" I ask. 
          She comes and takes my hand. Her hand is warm. "It's the middle of the night, Wilma," she says very quietly so she won't wake the baby. "I will take you back to bed." 
          "Will you check on the baby for me?" I ask. 
          "Of course I will," she says. She is so kind. 


I can hear them talking. 
          "She's doing okay. She's always better in the mornings than in the afternoons." 
          "I appreciate all you are doing for her." "Oh, and she misplaced her glasses again. We've been searching everywhere. She thinks someone stole them." 
          "Yes, Arnie Gutkin. She told me on the phone." 
          "Poor Arnie! He's so good to her. So patient." 
          "How's his Parkinson's?" "It's getting worse, I'm afraid. But it doesn't seem to affect his mind." 
          "That's good, at least." 
          And suddenly here is my daughter. "Hello, Ma. How are you doing?" 
          "I would appreciate it if you didn't talk about me right outside the door. And I didn't misplace my glasses, someone stole them." 
          "Why would anyone steal your glasses, Ma?" 
          "I don't have the slightest idea." 
          "I'll pick up another pair tomorrow," Dorothy says. 
          "Tomorrow will be too late. I'll already have gone crazy from not being able to read." 
          "I'll read to you, Ma. What do you want me to read?" 
          "Over there, the New Yorker. There's an Updike story. …" 
          Dorothy sits down and reads. She never was a very good reader. She doesn't breathe through the words. She sounds nervous. And she mispronounces names. But it's better than nothing. I listen. It's one of those dull stories about a middle aged man and his dog. 
          "I have got to talk to Bradley." 
          "What, Ma?" 
          "There's no reason why he shouldn't be able to get my stories in there. The drivel they publish these days!" 
          "I think it's a nice story, Ma." 
          "I have an appointment with him today. So you can't stay too long." 
          "With who, Ma?" 
          "With Bradley, I told you! He's coming to have a look at my manuscript. He's very excited about it." 
          "Bradley?" 
          "My agent, Dorothy. Can I go home now?" 
          "Ma. This is your home. Remember? I explained it to you. There are many nice people here to take care of you." 
          "I want to go home." 
          "I'm sorry, Ma." 
          Dorothy, Dorothy, my little Dorothy. Why the tears? You always were quick to cry. Do you remember when you used to climb into my lap and suck your thumb and stroke my ear? And how you used to make me laugh! Sometimes we would laugh together, laughing over nothing, just laughing because laughing felt so wonderful. Do you remember the day you climbed up the step ladder, trying to reach your roller skates, and you fell and broke your arm? The terrible things a mother has to remember. All the blood! Shhh, sweetie. It will be all right. Come, let me wash you. Let's put a bandage on your head and then we'll take a little ride. The doctor will make it all better. Now, quiet Dorothy. Did I tell you how I once broke my ankle? Dorothy? Shall I sing you a song my mother used to sing to me? Dorothy? Where have you gone to now? 


I worry. I worry about getting confused. I know something is wrong. Something is definitely wrong with my mind. I can't remember things. I get confused. I'm afraid of the moments when I don't know that I should be worried. I'm tired of seeing Dorothy's face reflecting back all my worry. And being trapped with all these invalids is only making it worse. Why isn't the doctor prescribing any medication? They must have some medicine for this. I want to see a doctor. I reach for the red call button by my bed. 
          In walks Bradley. "Bradley! It's about time." 
          "What do you need, Wilma?" "I need you to get my manuscript published, that's what I need! You promised." 
          "Wilma. Do you want to go to lunch with me?" 
          "As long as you're paying, Bradley." 
          "Very well. Here hold my arm." "I don't need your help. I can walk just fine!" 
          "It's me who needs the help, Wilma. Remember?" 
          "Remember?! You've never even told me what happened. Did you have an accident?" 
          "I suppose you could say that." 
          "How mysterious of you." 
          "I like to keep you guessing." 
          "Bradley. You're going to love my latest story." 
          "I'm sure." 
          "It's about that old codger, Arnie Gutkin." 
          "You mean the handsome Arnie Gutkin, the one with the genius wit?" 
          I have to laugh. "Bradley! You almost sound jealous." 
          "Well you talk about this Arnie character so much, it's as if you've fallen in love with him." 
          I almost fall over it's so funny. "Me in love with an old boob like Arnie!" I say, but Bradley is gone. Where did he go? Bobby is running towards me. She must want to return the glasses she stole. 
          "I knew you'd come to your senses, Bobby." But she doesn't even see me. She is kneeling. And there on the floor is Arnie Gutkin. "What happened to you?" I ask. 
          "I felt a little faint of heart, Wilma. That's all. You do that to me." 
          Bobby helps him up. She asks, "Do you want to go back to your room, Mr. Gutkin?" 
          "Oh no," he says. "Wilma has finally agreed to go to lunch with me." 


Water is running in the sink. I look up and see someone. Who is this old sorrowful person? I put up my hand. I touch something cold and hard, and then I see myself. Someone has dyed my hair white. Who would do that without asking first? Or did they, and I forgot? They say it will only get worse. They. They. The doctors and my daughter. "Dorothy, why am I here?" Apparently, I turned on the gas stove one afternoon. "But Dorothy, I was making tea. The wind must have blown out the flame. It can happen to anyone." She found me asleep on the couch with a book in my lap, the house filled with gas. "Dorothy. Be reasonable. It won't happen again. It was a simple accident. No one was hurt. Why are you so stubborn?" She packed my things, as if I were a child. Against my will. Don't. Don't take the books. No, I must have the books. I can stay here, with the books. Take the stove, I don't care. Just let me stay in my own house with my books. 


What is this soft thing? It is such a beautiful soft thing, like my mother's coat, her long coat that she hung in the closet where I would go and hide and rub my cheeks against the softness and inhale the smell of winter, warming in the closet. I like that. I must put that in the story I am working on. Where is my notebook? Nurse. Nurse! Whatever happened to my notebook? … Someone explain to me why everyone insists that Arnie would have my things. What does he know? . … Where did you find it? … Thank you. … Now. Where did I put my glasses? 


Someone is reading. I don't know who. It's a man's voice. It's not Robert. He is gone, still at work. He wouldn't like another man reading to me, would he? But the words, Robert, the words are so beautiful. I don't want him to stop, it makes me feel so good inside to hear the words. I don't even understand them, but that doesn't matter. They are as beautiful as the days we used to spend together on the river. Do you remember that, Robert? Do you remember what it was like when we met each other? You were so shy at first. And then. … 

          "Wilma?" 
          "Yes? Arnie? What are you doing?" 
          "I was reading to you. I thought you had fallen asleep." 
          "Don't be silly. Arnie. What were you reading?" 
          "I was reading from one of your books, Wilma. The one you wrote after Robert died." 
          "Robert? Did you know him?" 
          "No. I wish I had. He sounds like he was a wonderful person." 
          "He was. He made me laugh. You remind me of him." 
          "Thank you," he says to me. 
          "For what, Arnie?" "For jump-starting my heart." 
         His eyes are wet. He is sitting beside me on the couch. It's cold outside. He takes my hand and rubs it. I can smell the popcorn already. Of course, Robert bought popcorn. I always tell him it's too expensive, but he insists. "What's a movie without popcorn?" he asks. We always hold hands in the movies, even if we are having popcorn, we eat with one hand and hold hands with the other. Robert is very romantic in that small way. He'll cry at movies, but he won't let me see him. He tries to hide it. Are you crying, you silly? Robert, don't cry. It won't always be this way. We'll forget someday. I promise. Things will be better. 


Dorothy brings me new glasses. "They're ugly," I tell her. She smiles. "What's so funny?" 
          "You still want to look good," she says. 
          "Of course." 
          "For Arnie Gutkin?" 
          "That meshugener?" 
          "Ma, you like him. He likes you. It's nothing to be ashamed of." 
          "Stop talking about that old goat Arnie. Bradley's going to be here any minute, and I need to read over my notes for my new story." I open a box. "What is this?" 
          "They're your notebooks, Ma." I pick one up. It is dusty and the pages are wrinkled. There are more, many more. I flip through the pages. There's a smell . . . a smell of something . . . as familiar as my own breath. I read. The handwriting is very bad. "Robert didn't know what to do with himself today. He said it was just fine that the children play in the ravine since the. … What is this word?" I show Dorothy. 
          "Gutters?" 
          "Since the gutters needed to be cleaned anyway. He got out the ladder but then got distracted in the garden." I stop reading. "Not very interesting." 
          "Sure it is, Ma. I remember how much we loved the ravine." 
          "What am I supposed to do with these?" I ask. 
          "Read them," she says. "Try to remember." 


It is dark. I can hear whispering. And music. What is that? A piano? Why is my brother practicing so late? Doesn't he know I have a test tomorrow? I yell for him to stop. Why does the piano sound so far away? Did my parents have it moved to the back room? But I like the piano in the front room. I like hearing my brother play Chopin while I ride my bicycle up and down the sidewalk. I yell at him. "I have a math test tomorrow, dummy!" I didn't study for it. Dad will be mad. 
          "Wilma?" 
          "Yes?" 
          "You must have been dreaming." 
          "But the piano—"
          "It's just the nurse's radio. I'll ask them to turn it down." 
          "But." 
          "It's okay, Wilma. Close your eyes. Go back to sleep." 
          "Tell my brother to play me Chopin tomorrow, after my test." 
          "I will. Now, go to sleep." 
          I lay awake for a long time, listening for my brother to come upstairs to bed. 


I am holding a piece of paper. I try hard to understand it. 
          "What is this?"
          "What, Ma?" 
          "This! Who wrote this?" 
          "You did, Ma." 
          "But, it doesn't make any sense—" 
          "I know." 
          "Why didn't you tell me?" 
          "It's fine, Ma. It's good. It calms you." 
          "But it's gibberish." 
          "It doesn't matter, Ma." 
          "How the hell can you say it doesn't matter?" 
         I cry, though I can't remember why. 


The cat is so soft. I pet her, and she purrs, and then a telephone rings, and she jumps from my lap. Arnie answers the phone. He talks for a while, and then he asks me to help him to his bed. I do, and he asks me to lie down with him. We laugh together, lying on his bed. He holds my face with his cold hands. 

          "You don't have the shakes today," I tell him. 
          "I just took my medicine," he says, and then he kisses me. He tastes like an old philosophy book, only better. I remember all the beautiful kisses, each a cup of water, so many, they fill a mountain creek. I sit on the bank and dip my naked feet. Robert. Tell the children to take off their shoes before they get them all wet. Let's move to the mountains. Your face smells like pine and wind. Do you think that after I am dead and gone you will find someone as wonderful as I? 


Bobby is poking around my room again, and I decide I've had enough. 
          "How does your mother like the glasses?" I ask. 
          "Excuse me? "My glasses. How does your mother like them?" 
          "Your glasses are hanging from your neck, Mrs. Bernstein." I look down and see my old glasses, not the new ones that Dorothy gave me, but the old ones that Bobby stole. "Where did these come from?" 
          "We found them last week, remember? Thank God, too, because you were driving everyone crazy, ranting about how someone stole them." 
          "Someone did steal them, Bobby." 
          "I'm the other black woman. Bobby quit weeks ago." 
         How could that be? 
          "This time they were tucked in one of your old slippers," she says. 
          "What were?" 
          "Your glasses." 
          "Why would Bobby put them there?" 
          "Maybe you put them there." 
          "That doesn't make sense." 
          "Most things don't. Just be happy to have them back. And don't go hiding them anymore. No one wants your ugly old glasses." 
         I laugh. I laugh and I can't stop laughing just like when I was a girl and my brother tickled me until I laughed so hard I cried because it hurt inside. But it feels so good, I don't want to stop. So I keep thinking about Bobby putting her hands on her hips and saying, "No one wants your ugly old glasses." She's right, too. That's why it's so funny. 


"What's wrong, Ma?" 
          I show Dorothy the letter I found on my table. "I wrote this, didn't I?" 
          Dorothy sighs. "Yes. You did." 
          "It's to Arnie." 
          "Yes." 
          "… Is he still here?" 
          "No, Ma. I'm sorry. He's gone. He's been gone almost two months now." 
          "He was a good man, wasn't he?" 
          "Yes," she says. 
          "And I loved him, didn't I?" 
          "You loved each other very much." 
          "He was funny." 
          "Yes, he made everyone laugh." 
          "Like your father." 
          "He reminded me a lot of Dad." 


I look out the window. Robert is mowing the lawn with a push mower he found in the basement of our first house. We just moved in. The blades whirl, making a hum. It's spring. He knows I'm watching so he scowls, like he's mad at the grass, and he sprints every which way with the mower, making a big mess. I laugh and laugh until tears are running down my face. 
          It's the mailman. Robert meets him on the sidewalk. He gives Robert a package. Robert holds it up to show me. He takes the stairs two at a time. We gather around, the children grabbing at the package. "Calm down," we tell them, but we are just as excited. Robert cuts the tape with his pocketknife. He gives me the package. I open it. There inside is my first book. The children rub it with their hands. "Let me see! Let me see!" they say, pushing against each other. Robert hugs me. I cry. 
          I look around. Why is there a bed in here? Where am I? Wilma, I'm so proud of you. 
          What good have I ever done? 
          Your book is beautiful. 
          But it says right here, "For Robert. I won't ever forget you." 
          Yes. 
          But I have. I have forgotten. I have forgotten most everything. 


What's this word? 
          Night. 
          Night? 
          What does that mean? 
          Wilma, why don't you put your book down now. It's late. 
          But it doesn't make any sense. Why do people write things that don't make any sense? 
          Wilma, dear. It's time for bed. Maybe in the morning it will be more clear. 
          I lay awake for a long time wondering where I am. There is a loud noise somewhere. A hand is on my shoulder. 
          "Ma. It's me. Dorothy." 
          Dorothy? 
          "Your daughter." 
          I … Why are you crying? Or am I? … My mother cried when her vase broke. I wrote about it. Remember? Have you seen Bradley? … I wish. … 


I'm cold. So cold. Who was that man who used to read to me? 
          Arnie Gutkin? 
          Yes. A real mensch
          Yes, Ma. 
          And your father? 
          Your husband. 
          Yes. I miss him. 
          Me too. 
          And who. … ? 


Look. The sky is perfect. 
          Yes.
          A voice from somewhere. Who is singing? Bring your face closer. I forget. Hold my hand. … Careful, my glasses. … Right here by me. … Stay close while I fall asleep.

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Contributors

J.K. Dane is a writer and artist. Her work has appeared in Lumina, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and three of Main Street Rag’s short fiction anthologies, as well as other publications. She lives in Appleton with her husband and three children.

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