“Get a Grip” is excerpted from I Have the Answer: Stories, copyright 2020, by Kelly Fordon. Originally published in Bartleby Snopes magazine. Excerpt courtesy Wayne State University Press.
Get a Grip
Maura Elliot finished cleaning up the TV room and brought some dishes down to the kitchen sink. When she looked up from the soapy water, she saw that May Keane, her zany neighbor, was waving frantically to her from the kitchen window across the driveway.
May Keane lived next door with her mother Suzanne and her entire life seemed to consist of walking to CVS and back, anywhere from four to six times a day. The word on the street was that May Keane had addled her mind with drugs when she was an undergraduate, but none of the neighbors had ever asked her mother, Suzanne, directly.
Each time May Keane left the house, she sported a jaunty canary-yellow beret and a bright pink pocketbook, which she gripped tightly as if warding off assault. Maura had no idea why everyone called her May Keane and not simply May, but it may have been because sometimes when May Keane wandered off in the wrong direction, Suzanne could be heard screaming, “May Keane! May Keane!” from the doorway as if May Keane was six, not closing in on fifty.
Maura waved back to May Keane and then looked down fixedly at the dishes. When she looked up a couple of seconds later, May Keane was still waving, so she waved again half-heartedly and moved away from the window. She would finish the dishes later when not under surveillance.
Later, that morning Maura stood at the side door saying goodbye to her children as they got on the bus. She had not left her house in four months. She’d been fine for a little while after Howard had deserted her, but then, one morning, when she went to the door, she found she just could not go through it. It had been the same every day since.
It was possible to remain sequestered because of grocery deliveries and her oldest son, Mike, who’d acquired his license a year earlier. Mike loved driving and never balked at carting his little sister Liz around, especially when Maura paid him so well to do it. Mike and Liz were so caught up in their own high school dramas that sometimes Maura wondered if they even realized she was housebound. They knew that their father had moved out, but they seemed to operate under the notion that if they said nothing about it, it wasn’t real. Maybe they were just relieved not to be subjected to his mood swings any longer. In either case, neither one had asked her a single thing about him since the day of his departure when she had briefly explained he would be working out of the Dallas office for the next few months.
Today, she did what she’d been doing every day since her agoraphobia had set in. She took out her endless to-do list and attacked the house. She cleaned, she mopped, she descended into the depths of the basement and sifted through fifteen years of detritus, sorting and discarding as much as she could. While she worked, she hummed along with WMJZ, the classical music station.
For ten years before she’d gotten married and had kids, she’d worked as an architect at Cole Redding. Now the only place she would allow her mind to go was into the buildings she’d designed. While she worked, in her mind she was roaming the rooftop garden and atrium at the Marygrove plant admiring the ceramic glazed bricks, the neoprene gaskets they’d used in lieu of caulk, the futuristic water towers. Other than future and past designs, she refused to contemplate anything else except the next task at hand. When she ran out of chores, she made up more—washing the walls, unearthing and polishing the never-used silver.
For the most part, this was the same way she’d operated during the late stages of her marriage. If she did not want to hear what Howard was saying, she could carry on whole conversations with him without processing a single word. It was as if someone had drilled a hole in the base of her head so that his words dripped out like water from the bottom of a flowerpot. What he was saying—that he wanted to leave, that he loved someone else, that he felt like he was “self-actualizing” and she was not—washed right through her leaving no residue at all.
Around 11 a.m., the doorbell rang. Maura heard it, but she was nearly finished with her final load of laundry. Assuming it was the UPS man, she ignored it. But then it rang again. And again. And again.
“Shit!” she muttered, tossing a pair of balled-up socks into the basket. Who could be that rude? She located her button-down sweater and put it on over her T-shirt, buttoning it up to the collar. She smoothed out some creases in her khakis and put on her loafers. Then she hurried downstairs and opened the door.
It was May Keane. She was clutching the pocketbook and peering repeatedly over her shoulder. Without acknowledging Maura, she threw open the screen door and scurried past her into the house.
“The meeting is starting,” she called out, sounding frantic. “Should have started at 9 a.m. You’re late! Sit down. Sit down. Wait! You better make coffee. Did you get the pastries? Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!”
Maura was alarmed, but she talked herself out of it almost immediately. After all, she had no reason to believe May Keane was dangerous. She’d lived next door to the woman for five years without incident.
“May Keane,” she said. “There is no meeting going on here. I think you are mistaken. Where is your mother?”
“She went to the land of Costco, where all of her dreams come true,” May Keane said, walking quickly on into the dining room. Maura followed her. In the dining room, May Keane took a seat at the table so that she was facing the wall. Maura continued around to the other side of the table to get into her line of sight.
“Would you like something to drink, May Keane?” Maura said. She needed an excuse to leave the room and call Suzanne from the kitchen.
“Yes,” May Keane said, “I’d like a jasmine tea with a side of lime or cucumber, if you have it.” She placed her purse on the table in front of her but kept her hands clasped tightly around it.
Maura went into the kitchen and located Suzanne’s cell phone number on the list taped to the refrigerator. Suzanne answered breathlessly on the first ring, as if accustomed to emergency calls.
Suzanne sighed as Maura told her what was going on.
“Well, that’s a first,” she said. “Normally she doesn’t like to interact with people.”
This was true. May Keane had never spoken to Maura before. Sometimes she seemed to recognize Maura and the kids, and other times she hurried past them looking terrified, as if they were wild animals on the loose.
“I’m in the checkout line at Costco,” Suzanne said. “I’ll be there as fast as I can . . . it’ll probably take me twenty minutes. I’m sorry. I know you have your hands full as it is. Just humor her.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just, in her world . . . I guess what I’m saying is . . . just go along with it . . . she has an active imagination.” The answer was so disjointed that Maura was reminded of a supposition she’d made about Suzanne, whose thin hair blew this way and that in the wind, and whose outfits were always mismatched, oversized and dumpy looking. The supposition was that living with the daughter had unhinged the mother.
Maura went back into the dining room. She’d forgotten about the tea, but May Keane reached up to take it anyway.
“Thanks so much,” she said, taking hold of the imaginary cup, simulating a stirring motion and then leaning down to make loud sipping noises.
“Delicious. Just right! You did it perfect!” she said.
Suddenly, her head whipped around. “You hear that?” she said. “They’re here! They’re here!”
Before Maura could react, May Keane backed up, scraping her chair on the wood floor.
Maura winced and followed her to the door, inadvertently catching a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror. With the rings under eyes and her black hair pulled back into a bun, she looked like a nun.
“It’s a man,” May Keane said. She was on her tiptoes peering through the peephole. “I think it’s your guy.”
“My guy?” Maura asked.
“Your guy who lives here,” May Keane said.
“I don’t have a guy anymore,” Maura said. Howard had left her for his malnourished, bucktoothed secretary. It was a pathetic story, so cliché that when people asked what happened, she lied rather than tell them the stupid, sordid truth.
May Keane opened the door, and of course, there was no one there. But Maura’s heart had done a little flip as the door swung open, and she immediately chastised herself for having any anticipation at all at the thought of seeing Howard.
“Come in, come in,” May Keane said, waving an unseen person into the room. “Have a seat in the dining room. The meeting is just about to start. Isn’t it great to see him!” she said, as she passed Maura on her way back to the dining room.
“Who?” Maura asked.
“Your man! Your man!” May Keane said.
“My man is not my man any longer,” Maura said. “He lives in Texas.”
“So, what are you doing here in Michigan?” May Keane said to the empty dining room chair where the imaginary man was presumably just taking a seat.
She cocked her head and listened for a minute. Then turned back to Maura and whispered, “Who’s he talking to on that cell phone anyway? Seems to me he ought to pay more attention to the people standing right in front of him, you know?”
Maybe May Keane had picked up on Howard’s cell phone addiction; maybe she had been watching her neighbors more closely than Maura had realized. If she’d known that, she definitely would have shelled out money for the expensive plantation shutters.
May Keane sat down at the dining room table and looked over at the spot where invisible Howard was sitting. Maura looked down at her watch. Fifteen minutes until Suzanne rescued her. She really wanted to get that laundry done. After that, her plan had been to finish re-grouting the basement bathroom shower stall. It had been an ambitious undertaking for one day, even without an interruption of this magnitude.
“Oh! There goes the door again!” May Keane said, popping up.
“I don’t hear it,” Maura said, then remembered Suzanne had warned against insisting on reality.
May Keane hurried to the door and looked through the peephole.
“Good God!” she cried, flinging the door open.
“Who’s there?” Maura asked.
May Keane didn’t respond. She gaped open mouthed at the door. Then she stepped aside and waved another hallucination into the room.
“Who’s there?” Maura asked again.
“Stedman forgot to let the dogs out,” May Keane whispered to Maura. “That’s why she’s late.”
“Oprah?” Maura asked, stifling a short, nervous giggle.
May Keane put her arm up in midair, around what she must have believed to be a shoulder. “I watched you every day, Oprah,” she said. “Every single day. Why’d you go off the air? Huh?”
When they reached the dining room, May Keane pointed to one of the empty chairs.
“Maura’s man! Maura’s man! Hey you! Get off that phone! Oprah’s here!”
May Keane pulled out a chair. “Would you like me to get some coffee?” she said to the empty seat. She cocked her head then turned to Maura.
“She doesn’t drink coffee. Do you have some peppermint tea?”
Maura nodded and headed to the kitchen. Once there, she stood next to the oven. She felt a bead of sweat trickle down her back. She thought about a church she’d read about in Belgium designed with thin sheets of steel to give the illusion of transparence. When viewed from different angles, the church disappeared completely. The architects said they were exploring the idea that not seeing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Perhaps they’d like to hear May Keane’s thoughts on that.
“Doorbell!” May Keane shouted.
Maura didn’t move.
“I’ll get it!” May Keane called.
Finally, the thought that May Keane might actually be dangerously unstable and burst through the swinging door with a weapon propelled Maura forward.
She peeked into the foyer where May Keane was once again on tiptoes at the peephole.
“Holy Mother of God!” May Keane shouted. “It’s Thomas Jefferson! Come quick! Come quick!”
Maura continued through the swinging door pretending to carry a tea set into the room.
“Thanks so much for bringing the tea.” May Keane pointed to the table. “Just set it down right there.”
Feeling foolish, Maura pretended to put the tray down in front of May Keane.
“Help yourselves everyone,” May Keane said in a high formal voice before turning to the empty seat to her left.
“I really like those pantaloons and that cravat,” she said. Then she waggled a finger at Maura. “Sit down. We can’t start without you.”
Maura hesitated. She wasn’t sure where all the people in May Keane’s mind were sitting. Finally, she chanced a chair on the far left.
“Thomas Jefferson! Holy shit,” May Keane said. She nodded a couple of times as if in answer to something, then got up and moved to the chair at the end of the table.
Once there, she pounded on the table.
“Excuse me, madam,” she said in a low gravelly voice. “I’ve been called to this gathering and have traveled a great distance to be here.”
Maura glanced at her watch. Five minutes until Suzanne returned.
“Who is leading this meeting?” May Keane called out. She looked at Maura, then cocked her head again.
“Your man says he doesn’t have all day,” she said.
Maura grimaced as if she’d actually heard him. Get those kids in gear! I don’t have all day. Forget your hair. I don’t have all day.
“This small girl cannot be the leader of the movement,” May Keane said in her Thomas Jefferson voice, pointing at Maura. Then she jumped up and moved to the Oprah chair, where she shouted back in a higher voice. “She can be the leader and she is! She is!”
Maura tried to inhale, but it felt like she was sucking through a cocktail straw.
“Your man says he hopes marriage is not on the agenda. What do you have to say to that?” Her eyes narrowed as she waited for Maura to respond.
“I am honored to have you all here,” Maura said.
May Keane got back up and moved into Jefferson’s seat. She banged on the table again. “As our enemies have found, we can reason like men, so now let us show them we can fight like men also.” Then she bolted up and walked stiffly over to the window where she stood staring out at the empty street. She clasped her hands behind her back in a stance that really did remind Maura of an elder statesman. Maura remembered a quote she’d once read from Thomas Jefferson: “Architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.”
“The question is,” May Keane shouted, turning away from the window. “Are we going to participate in the politics of cynicism or the politics of hope?” She walked purposefully to Maura and clapped her on the back. Maura felt her heart catapult into her mouth.
May Keane strode back around to the other side of the table, sat down, and took a BIC pen out of her purse. Then she began furiously scribbling on the thick protective pad covering the mahogany dining room table. When she was done, she cleared her throat.
“I have drawn a smiley face,” she said, looking at Maura.
Maura stared at her.
“Hold the applause,” May Keane said. Then her mouth opened into a big O again. She turned to Maura.
“Your man is saying that you are fat!”
Maura said nothing. In truth, weight was the least of his complaints. He’d called her old, ugly, done in. He’d told her he was more attracted to the cat. The last time Maura had left the house was the day her friend Carol had taken her to Nordstrom to have a makeover. When the makeup artist was working on her, Maura had made what she’d thought were just a few harmless self-deprecating remarks about how much she hated her crow’s feet and her neck and her jowls. Finally, the girl had put down her makeup brush and put a hand on either side of Maura’s face.
“Get a grip!” she said. “You’re beautiful!”
Carol had nodded in agreement. Instead of inspiring Maura, the speech had done the opposite. Every time she’d tried to leave the house since, she heard the words in her head—get a grip.
May Keane stood up and pounded on the table. “We have real enemies in this world. These enemies must be found. They must be pursued, and they must be destroyed.”
“I don’t know if we need to go that far,” Maura said.
“Change will not come if we wait,” May Keane shouted. “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for. We are the ones we seek.” She walked over to the empty seat and simulated picking something up. “Let’s go, Mister,” she said.
Maura watched as May Keane made yanking motions. She dug her heels in and leaned back. She tried to scoot the chair out, to no avail. She looked like she was playing tug-of-war. She wiped her brow and said, “Whew!” over and over again.
In May Keane’s mind, there was an enormous immovable object in the chair where Howard once sat. How many nights had Maura sat across from him, wishing him gone? How had she forgotten that?
May Keane slumped over on the floor breathing loudly, then she wiped off her hands and kicked the chair over.
“Ya! Ha!” she yelled. She took hold of the imaginary object and began dragging it backwards toward the door. If May Keane had been on TV and only her face were visible, Maura would have been convinced she was straining to lift a piano.
Maura stood up. “Let me help you with that.”
Kelly Fordon is the author of an award-winning short story collection, Garden for the Blind (Wayne State University Press, 2015); a poetry chapbook, The Witness, which won the Eric Hoffer Award for the Chapbook; and a poetry collection, Goodbye Toothless House.
Music by Catlofe