She hated baking. It involved math, seeping flour in faulty packaging, and counter space.
She hated driving. It involved neck craning, mirrors, good vision, and potentially imminent death since she was too timid to merge.
She was doing both, caring for Caleb, her injured oldest sibling. She was staying with him in his isolated, massive country home that, on the plus side, had an abundance of available counter space.
“I’m awake. Get the ladybugs.” Caleb’s eyes had opened under the brim of his ever-present baseball cap. His contorted body was sprawled amidst multiple pillows on the man cave brown leather couch in his living room. He looked crooked and uncomfortable, soaking up the midday sunlight that was blasting through the floor-length windows leading to one of his three decks.
Claire was grateful for the sun’s heat since Caleb kept the house so cold she could see her breath. She missed her overheated city radiators. It was January, twenty Connecticut degrees outside, but with windchill, it felt more like zero. The bucolic deck view—icy lake, ridge of snow-covered mountains—increased her chill. There were no cabs to hail, no subways to jump on.
The narrow, twisting driveway was steep and slippery. It took a leap of faith to summon the energy to get out of the house, whether by driving up to the private road (where most of the neighborhood residents had skipped out to Florida for the winter) or climbing on foot to the top of the driveway at almost a forty-five-degree angle against a swirling wind that made Claire feel almost airborne (despite being encased in nineteen articles of clothing) to fetch the mail, soggy newspaper, or drag the recycling bins to and from the garage on garbage day. Claire missed her hallway garbage chute.
The ladybugs drove Caleb crazy. Their removal required the noisy dust buster that was ever charging on its permanent portion of kitchen counter space. She tried to be as quiet as possible during Caleb’s frequent naps and only dust bust when he was awake. Any sound she made bouncily echoed throughout the multi-landing, open-floor plan. He stirred easily despite the drugs. She limited herself to Swiffering conspicuous dust bunnies all over the bachelor’s wood floors while he slept. She was ten years younger and agile enough to reach places he couldn’t, see things to fix he either didn’t notice or didn’t care about. She had never Swiffered before, but as the days wore on, she was getting pretty good at it.
“You know I have mixed feelings about this,” said Claire. She was attached to the ladybugs. Compared to other creatures in the vicinity of Caleb’s house, they seemed the most benign, even though she admitted there were too many to ignore. Hundreds gathered inside the doors leading to the decks, rigorously and regularly assembling in crevices, expanding into living quarters, and crunching underfoot. Unbeknownst to Caleb, she spared a small colony that had moved onto the walls of her guest bathroom. They asked nothing of her. She greeted them each morning, comforted somehow to see them there.
“It’s got to be done,” said Caleb. “They just don’t stop. It’s like the invasion of Normandy.”
“Actually I read somewhere that they increase explosively when their enemies are few.” Claire squatted and shot the air of the dust buster all along the length of the living room.
“Good job,” said Caleb. “Thanks.”
She snapped open the lid over the kitchen garbage and watched the ladybug families disappear into the bin. “I also read that they are considered very useful insects. And that some cultures think they bring good luck.”
Caleb snorted. “So much for that.”
“Well, the sun is out. You’re out of the hospital. And your beloved sister is here to scoop up ladybugs for you.”
“True. Thanks for the ladybug tutorial.”
“Time for some pills,” said Claire.
“Right. Good idea. Thanks.” He was an appreciative patient. She helped Caleb sit up, apologized for causing him to grimace with pain. She handed him the contraption he had to breathe into, to see how his lungs were faring. She didn’t really understand what success looked like, as the tubes flew up and down in reaction to his breathing into it. Math was involved.
“How is it?” she asked.
“About the same.” It hurt Caleb to do it, she could tell, but she got the sense he thought he was doing okay. Though, as the protective older brother, he might be concealing things from her. The gurgling sound he’d made in the hospital had stopped. He’d fallen, broken three ribs, slightly punctured a lung. “I feel like I’m drowning,” he’d admitted to her, doped up and tangled in the hospital sheets. He was too tall for the bed, and his legs were dangling. “Didn’t you almost drown once? With Grandmom? At the shore, when you were little?” he asked Claire. She started to answer but he’d dozed back asleep. She found a nurse in the hall and described what Caleb had said. When a doctor came in later, Caleb was awake and breathing okay. After three days in the hospital, they released him, and Claire was in charge.
Claire had in fact famously waded into the ocean when she was a small girl. She’d been curious to step beyond the shoreline and was suddenly caught in an undertow that propelled her seemingly sideways, a whooshing sound, beyond her family, her surroundings. She was confused when she was unable to do anything but succumb to being flushed and inhaled by the sea; spinning, her hands unable to move, she had no power to slap the water away, no process to carve out a space to breathe, to beat the currents, to break through or climb up above the water’s filmy surface, like the stubborn skin on the top of her grandmother’s cooked butterscotch pudding. She tumbled further away from the world, from the glass bottle of Yoohoo twisted into the damp, cool sand near the beach blanket under their striped umbrella, to a wet, thrilling, unspeakable place. Her grandmother, who typically never raised her voice, screamed at a lifeguard to get her, catch her. Eventually Caleb yanked her out, Claire gulping the air, then doubling over to spew debris from the ocean’s floor for what seemed hours.
Claire distributed Caleb’s daily medications based on an hourly chart she’d developed, written on a sturdy, oversized index card. She kept the card slanting out at an angle from a hearty ornate gift box large enough to hold all the bottles of meds. She flipped the lids to their orange side once he had swallowed that particular med, to keep track that he’d ingested it. She studied the index card religiously throughout the day, worried she’d forget a pill.
Except for the floral design, the gift box resembled something a ballpark hot dog vendor would have jutting out from his chest as he barked to the fans. Claire envied their shoulder straps since the pill box was always on the wrong landing from where Caleb had plopped himself. She’d prefer wearing the box nonstop so they wouldn’t forget the pills and she wouldn’t have to spend so much time speeding up and down the multi-landing stairs to fetch it. She missed her apartment building’s elevator.
She had originally given the ornate box to Caleb as a house gift when, after retiring, he suddenly and surprisingly changed coasts and moved back East the previous year. (He’d claimed that as the oldest, he was probably next in line to require family support as his ailments accumulated.) She had freely admitted to him at that time that she was re-gifting since she didn’t have the ledge space for the three oversized spa-worthy artisan pump soaps. She’d received them as a birthday present from another apartment-dwelling friend who should have known full well she would not be able to use them. Her guess was that this friend had re-gifted too. No New York City dweller would have the ledge space.
Caleb had initially resisted the soaps as too girly but relented when she put them in the guest bathrooms and he didn’t have to come into contact with them. Now he appreciated the oversized box, praising it with drug-induced wonder as the perfect solution to his recovery. He did, however, often question her drug distribution accuracy. She wasn’t insulted since she saw this as an indication that his brain was working despite the drug haze, and she did have trouble reading the many-syllabled and mysterious drug names on the faint, tiny labels.
“Let me see that bottle. Can you get my glasses?” He examined the bottle she handed to him. “Okay. Yes, this is right.”
“It’s good to have a quality check,” said Claire. Their father had been an engineer, obsessed with “best practice” processes both at home and at the office. Claire worked in manufacturing, but fortunately in a corporate role, so she didn’t have to explain or understand six sigma.
“Should we put on some music?” she asked.
Caleb looked out the windows, as if this was a deeply considered task. “Are you going to play Amy Winehouse again? As a cautionary tale? I’m not going to get addicted, I promise.”
Claire laughed. “Okay. Okay.”
“You haven’t been playing the piano,” he said. “You wouldn’t bother me at all if you did, you know. I wouldn’t be able to hear you.”
But she wouldn’t be able to hear him either, if he needed anything. The piano was on the lowest landing. “It’s awful cold down there,” she finally said, as an excuse that wouldn’t mention his fragile state. “Plus, didn’t you tell me there were field mice in the utility room?”
“Trust me, they’d stay away from your playing,” he teased.
It was her childhood piano. She and their dad were the only ones who had played it. He’d been gone for thirty years already, and after their mom died a decade ago, the piano had been in climate-controlled storage. Claire had no space for it but couldn’t let it go. Then Caleb bought the Connecticut house and told her he had room for it if she wanted it. She could play it whenever she visited. It was the best gift she ever got, though the moving van had been too wide for the driveway and knocked out a chunk of Caleb’s stone wall. She had assumed she’d never touch the piano keys again. When she first did, after all those years, her fingertips felt so instantly at home, she believed the keys still held the imprint and dents from her childhood poundings.
She was eager to hit reliable notes. Yes, the tepid repertoire from her childhood lessons— the Bach, waltzes, movie scores, the jazzy ballads her dad liked to sing—had come haltingly back to her, assisted by the music books still under the lid of the old piano bench. But for some reason she wanted to learn how to play the opening chords of Leon Russell’s Roll Away the Stone. Not the song itself, just the full page of hiccupy opening chords, before Leon’s distinctive, beseeching vocal kicked in. But the chords proved impossible. Her hands just didn’t have the spread. Her fingers and her brain infuriatingly couldn’t master them no matter how hard she tried. On visits to Caleb’s, she’d study the sheet music while riding on the train. But it didn’t help, nothing sunk in; she’d flounder again once she hit the keys. One of her childhood piano teachers had once bellowed at her in frustration in an exotic European accent, “It’s in your head. It’s in your heart. Now if we could just get it into your fingers!”
Claire knew her impatience at her inability to play the chords was irrational. She’d never played the song before, she hadn’t touched a piano in years, and unlike Leon, she wasn’t soulful, southern, or a self-proclaimed master of space and time.
She was just a sister in a basement, accompanied by throngs of ladybugs jam-packed along the bottom of the nearby doors that led to another of her brother’s decks.
“How about a sandwich?” She headed to the kitchen.
He shook his head. “No, I’m eating too much. I’m just lying around and not exercising.”
“But you have to eat.” She knew it was serious when he refused to munch the sea salt caramel and chocolate chunk cookies she’d baked.
“No. Not now. Thanks.”
A famous oxycodone side effect had upset Caleb almost more than his injuries. He suffered from and, in Claire’s opinion, over worried about constipation, apparently a new experience for him. When she suggested high-fiber foods and over-the-counter options, he dismissed her advice. He called his doctor, who suggested exactly the same options, and Caleb asked her to make the purchases for him.
When she’d put a bowl of brightly colored fresh fruit on the counter, Caleb had recoiled from it, saying he would never touch fruit. But in between his naps, she’d slice pieces of apple or an orange and put them on a plate near him. He’d absentmindedly take a slice from time to time while looking at his iPad. She felt triumphant and noticed that the bowl contained the only primary colors in the monochromatic décor.
“Can I please throw out and replace this disgusting sponge?” Claire asked. She was standing at the kitchen sink. “I know you’re thrifty, and I respect that, but this is ridiculous.” Since Caleb’s dishwasher was broken, she’d spent too much time with the decrepit sponge as well as the dishwashing detergent that produced soaring, fulsome bubbles bouncing all around the kitchen. In her weariness, Claire had mistaken the bubbles initially for floaters or some kind of dire ailment in the corner of her eyes. Now she’d grown fond of the bubbles and considered them, like the ladybugs, a form of company, especially when they landed on her and melted.
“What’s wrong with the sponge? It still works, doesn’t it?”
“It’s been here since before the holidays, it’s filthy, it stinks, it’s falling apart. And you have about six new sponges in your huge pantry. I’m begging you.”
He laughed. “If it means that much to you, go right ahead. Toss it. How about some laundry?”
Claire agreed it would be a good time to run the machines when he wasn’t napping and he could oversee her process. He had strict rules about separating his dirty laundry, and these had to be honored. Claire was baffled by them. Things she thought should be washed in cold water he insisted on hot and vice versa. She marveled at the luxury of laundry without elevators or quarters, at the humming machines conveniently tucked behind a folding door in an area off the kitchen, at the vast amounts of ledge space to fold the laundry.
She hadn’t expected to stay so long at Caleb’s and could probably benefit from some cleaner clothes herself. She had raced to the hospital after his fall with just an overnight bag and the basics. She didn’t bring any shampoo, and her hair was now matted. Caleb had offered her his green-bottled shampoo, a product she thought had been discontinued during the Reagan administration. She declined, thinking it would destroy her highlights.
The first night home from the hospital, Caleb had howled with pain from his bedroom every few minutes, and Claire had raced down the landing each time to check on him. He couldn’t get out of bed without assistance, and the effort was excruciating for him. He was a good foot taller than she was and at least a hundred pounds heavier. After much trial and error, they came up with a strategy: She’d roll him to the side of the bed as he yelled Motherfucker, he’d reach one arm to her when he was ready, and she’d pull it with all her might until he could sit up. After this he was exhausted and sat on the edge of the bed for a few minutes, to recover.
“I hate to contradict the Bee Gees,” huffed Claire. “But you are heavy and you are my brother.”
“I think it was The Hollies,” Caleb said. “Okay, I’m ready.”
Claire helped him stand up and walk across the large bedroom floor, by the overstuffed leather chair, by the dresser where his sock drawer was a picture of organization that would make his father proud, by the non-working fireplace, by the framed black and white pictures of their dead relatives on the mantel, to the skylighted bathroom. She’d wait out on the landing until he was ready to walk all the way back to his bed.
Afterward, when she’d returned to the guest room, she would listen for sounds of his howling, coiled to pounce again down the stairs. But she was confused, had trouble distinguishing if it was him or the clacking heat turning on (she’d convinced him to raise it once it got dark), or the decks popping and cracking from the cold. Since she was never sure, she spent the first few nights constantly racing down the stairs at every sound, looking in through his bedroom door to see if he needed assistance, or if he was breathing strangely, or if he was breathing at all. She kept the hall light on to see where she was going, and to avoid squashing the ladybugs (propping Caleb’s door so the light wouldn’t bother him underneath the non-brimmed knitted 49ers cap he wore to sleep in. He lay wrapped in a sleeping bag on top of his sheets as the sound of nonstop splashing waves came from the machine on his nightstand).
One night she was startled awake by a howl. Disoriented, she shook her head to clear it from a vivid dream she’d been immersed in so she could snap into action. But as she slipped out onto the landing in her sweat socks to check on Caleb, she fuzzily tried to assemble the dream’s details: She’d been stepping into the tub in the guest bathroom. The water was already running from the tub’s faucet, allowing it time to travel through the cold pipes in the big house and warm up. Even in her dream she had learned this country lesson, despite living in a city where she was fortunate to have instant hot water.
Once she had fully stepped into the tub, she pulled the shower curtain in the way Caleb always reminded her to do whenever she visited, as if she was someone who needed instructions or would forget how to position a shower curtain. She adjusted the water to shoot through the shower’s nozzle, and shards of glass, like speared diamonds, came out instead. She woke up before they stung her skin. Somehow the ladybugs had protected her.
After a few more days of recuperation, Caleb could slowly and with fewer teeth-revealing grimaces get out of bed without assistance. He could almost dress himself. He could tie his shoelaces. He could grip the railing and climb or descend the stairs to a new landing, supported only by a cane and not a sister. He still had pain but he could do it. Then he’d be tuckered out and take another nap. He was a howler no more.
“I want to see if I can get in and out of the car,” said Caleb. “And if that works, maybe I can try some driving.”
“Great,” said Claire. “I can drive us to the library, and you can practice in their parking lot.”
“Well, if we make it, toots. Your driving skills are not the best. I’ll be praying in Latin in the passenger seat.”
They got to the library, and Caleb decided he wanted to go inside. As they slowly entered, he raised his head to the high ceiling with a stupefied look, a look Claire had seen on her mother’s face many times after surviving yet another health crisis, a look that reassured her, as it now seemed to reassure Caleb, that the world was filled with things other than pain, the library was still here, life was going on, there were people going about their day, there were books. They used to spend their family holidays all of them sitting in the same room quietly reading. “For this I flew three thousand miles?” Caleb once asked. They’d all laughed and resumed their private reading.
That night, after the sun had gone down and all the lights in the house were on, Claire cooked kale, potatoes, and chicken for dinner. Caleb had no condiments. Not even black pepper. He preferred his frozen Lean Cuisines, but she was still pushing fiber since he still had his problem.
As she heard him shuffling to the landing to come down to dinner, she put the warm food out on his stark white plates. He walked down the stairs, holding onto the railing, and sang:
We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the world
“Does this mean what I think it means?” asked Claire.
“Yes!” He smiled broadly as he arrived in the kitchen. Caleb stood akimbo.
“Congratulations! Your voice is so strong and you sang with such gusto.”
“And relief,” he said.
“Yes, the relief only defecating can bring. Are you hungry?”
“Yes! Bring it on, sister. And let’s get out the tin of cookies for dessert.”
“I didn’t know you liked Queen.”
“I don’t, but I saw the movie. I can’t believe he won the Oscar and didn’t do his own singing.”
In the morning, they sat at the dining room table with sun pouring in from the deck through fancy wood-slatted blinds Claire had recently Swiffered. Caleb was confidently eating blueberries and Grape-Nuts with almond milk. They were sitting on his straw-seated chairs, enjoying the peace and quiet and sunlight, when she heard a scratching sound, a parting, and she realized her straw seat was breaking as she sat on it.
She was stunned she caused the breakage but managed to get up before she hit the floor. The former howler assured her he could easily have the seat fixed. “It’s happened before. They’re ancient. Don’t worry,” he said, hiding his smirks behind the paper towel he was using as a napkin. She replaced her broken chair with what she hoped was a functioning one from the other side of the table.
“Caleb,” she said, “once your guest starts breaking the furniture, isn’t it time for her to go home?”
He looked at her. The scared jolt he’d had in his eyes since the injury had lifted. “I guess you’re right. Though it’s been great to have you here.”
“I can come up again the weekend after next. To check on things. To Swiffer.”
“That would be nice.”
She retrieved the mighty pill box from the kitchen counter. She’d miss the counter space. The box contained fewer pill bottles than before (though she hadn’t actually counted what was left—too much math), and many of the drug names were now crossed off the index card.
Caleb swallowed a pill with a sip of milk and reached for one of the baked cookies.
“Could you do one more thing before you leave?” he asked.
She knew he wanted her to suck up the ladybugs one more time. It was still hard for him to bend.
She’d miss the ladybugs. She wondered if there was a system or process she could develop, a way she could train the ladybugs to convene in the guest bathroom, where Caleb would never notice them.
“Let me think about it,” she said, without his even asking. He nodded.
With any luck, he’d forget and be napping when she left.