j. l. navarro

Mrs. Bray's Stockings

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Alice Bray had been widowed for a year, and during that year a neighbor had assisted her in putting on her stockings every morning except Sundays; such a trivial detail in an old woman's life, and yet such an essential one.  Her doctor required her to wear support hose during the day for her bulgy veins.  Before she hired someone to help her, Freddy, Alice's late husband, did this every day of the week.  It had been one more detail in his otherwise mundane routine that enhanced his unwearied devotion to her.  They had been married for fifty-seven years before he passed away.  If it had not been for Alice's hip surgery, double knee replacements, and troubled spine, she would have been able to do this simple task herself. The problem was that she couldn't bend over far enough to get the stockings on.  When her husband died just two weeks shy of his ninetieth birthday, she had no choice but to find someone to replace him.


She lived in a two-bedroom condominium in Phoenix and thought that Cathy Pratt, the manager, might know someone willing to help her, for a price of course.  The manager said there was a retired nurse who lived in one of the units that might be interested in making some extra money.  When they met, Alice knew immediately that Gail Moore was the perfect choice.  She was cheerful, a "people's person," just like she was.  Over the course of that year, they got to know each other moderately well for the short time they spent together.  Gail was sixty-five, twenty years younger than Alice.  Aside from putting on her stockings, Gail also took her to the doctor and hairdresser when needed, and now and then, they would go out to lunch. For this, Gail was paid an agreed upon sum, and for a year, this arrangement went on without interruption.  


Then the day came when Gail said she would have to take some time off.  Alice had been anticipating this for some time.  Gail's bad knee had been getting worse and she would have to have it replaced.


"Don't worry," she told Alice.  "It's only temporary.  Don can help you in the meantime.  He's taking time off to help me during the recovery."


Alice had never met Don, but so long as he was willing, it made no difference to her.  They lived together and he was ten years younger than Gail.  That would put him somewhere in the age group of Alice's son, Michael, the Miami realtor.   As far as Alice could tell, Gail's relationship with Don was one of mutual convenience.  They lived together but weren't married.


The Saturday before she was going into surgery, Gail and Don came over so he could see what he had to do.  He was a tall man, or seemed tall because Alice was a slight woman in weight and height.  He had a full set of black hair that was streaked with white strands.  His olive skin was a little drooped, and his brown eyes peered out of glasses that darkened in the sun.  He would do as well as anyone else, she thought.  He was quiet that first day, observing.  Gail assured her that he was more than glad to take time off from peddling penny stocks for a small brokerage firm in the area.


"It can get on your nerves after a while," he said.


Gail pointed out Alice's pill container with the large letters indicating the day of the week on the seven small lids.  "Make sure she takes her pills," she told him.  "There are four of them."


Gail babied her just like her daughter did.  Her short-term memory was bad, and not getting any better.  But she was not an imbecile.  Before her husband died, she did a good part of the thinking for the both of them.  It wasn't until he was gone that she realized how important those simple things were that he did with such loyal commitment.


Gail took the dispenser bottle where they kept the peanut oil, and squirted some onto her palm, then laid it on Alice's right knee and rubbed it in all the way down to her foot; then the left knee.  This was done to moisturize her dry skin.  After this, she put on the stockings.


"That's about it," Gail said.


"It's not exactly brain surgery," Alice assured.


"I think I can handle it," Don said.


She spent her weekend the same way she did all other days of the week, mostly doing nothing.  She talked to her kids everyday on the phone.  Michael usually called in the mornings, her daughter in the evenings.  She made some brownies and baked some bread.  During the course of any given day, she would think of Freddy, look at the spot where he perched himself on the couch like a sedentary cat and think of him as a piece of furnisher that got up one day and walked out of her life.  She didn't mourn long.  After all, he was old and tired.  He got up one day and said, "I'm not feeling very well.  I'll be back in a little while."  And then he walked out the door.  He was dead two weeks after he drove himself to the hospital.  The man was being eaten by cancer and he didn't even know it.  He was the lucky one, she would think.  All of his problems were over.   


Sunday afternoon she went to the store with her neighbor Grace to buy some pears that were on sale, and she watched some TV.  Not much though, primarily because there was little on the set that held her attention.  And, of course, she spent some time mending her stockings around the heels where they invariably wore down. 


Monday morning after dropping Gail off at the hospital, Don was back.


Hearing the front door open, she said, "Well, good morning."


He had let himself in with the key Gail used for the security door and found her sitting in the kitchen on the same bar stool she had been sitting in the day he met her.  There was only one like it in the house.  Her son, Michael, had bought it for her.  The doctor told her not to sit in the bathtub, or on anything too low.  It was bad for her artificial hip, and if she were to dislocate it, her walking days would be over.


"Good morning," Don said.


"How's Gail?"


"She's probably in surgery right now," he said.   "I dropped her off at 4:30 this morning."


"I've had both my knees done.  It's not an easy operation.  I know."


"Did you take your pills," he said.


"Yes I did."


He glanced at the pill container.  The plastic lid was up and the space empty for "M."  Pulling a chair away from the table, he sat in front of her.  A pair of support stockings was hung over the back of another chair.  Alice told him that she preferred the sheer to the thicker, more durable white ones that were favored by nurses. 


"I just don't like the way they look," she said.  "They're not for me."


Because of this, she constantly repaired the sheer ones when they wore through at the heels soon after wearing them.  They were expensive, but it was worth it because she just did not like the white ones.  It didn't bother her to have to sew them all the time.  It's not like she had a lot to do.  She cooked less now that Freddy was gone.  She didn't play cards because she didn't have the patience for it.  She didn't read much except the paper, what she could read, the headlines mostly.  And she never learned to drive a car.  Freddy wouldn't let her.  He didn't want her to have too much freedom.  She resented this but never complained.  She had ridden the bus before she met him and would continue to do so whenever she needed after they were married.  For the most part, until the day he drove himself to the hospital to die, he had driven her wherever she needed to go. 


"Put your foot up here," Don said, tapping the edge of the chair.


He wore tight jeans.  "Better be careful," she teased.  "I might kick you there."  She was wiggling her toes in front of his crotch, chuckling. 


"Hope not," he said bashfully.  "That would hurt."


"I would think so," she said.


He had big hands.  They were certainly bigger than Freddy's, who had slender fingers.  Despite the size of his hands, Don had a gentle touch.  Her varicose veins, the worst ones looking like small pouches filled with blue ink, didn't put him off.  Though the veins were unsightly, her figure wasn't one of fragile emaciation.  She still had meat on her frail bones where it mattered.  He wasn't hurried to finish the job.  He took his time rubbing the oil on, and then putting on the stockings. 


"You have large hands," she told him.


"I know," he said.  "I've always been a little self-conscious about it."


She took one of his wrists and brought his hand up to look at it.  "Your fingers are thick," she said.  "Like sausage."   


He didn't say anything.


"I hope I didn't embarrass you."


"It'd take more than that to embarrass me."  He was rubbing the oil on her thigh, higher than Gail would have done.


While he worked, he told her he was a health addict; didn't smoke, drink, and went to the gym at least three times a week.  He was clean-shaven and looked trim.  His arms were muscular.  She told him her son was grossly overweight and wished he took better care of himself.  "He just eats too much," she said, "like a pig."


As he put on her stockings, she told him that a neighbor took her for walks sometimes and went shopping for her occasionally.  The big sprees occurred when her daughter and husband drove in from Santa Barbara every two months for a few days.


"She never stays more than three days," she said.  "They say they're too busy to stay longer.  The truth is, I think I bore them."


Then there was the cleaning lady who came in every two weeks.  Other than this, she was pretty much left alone.   


One day, a week after Gail came home from the hospital, Don came in and placed a chair in front of Alice as he always did. 


"How is Gail?" she said, the same question each day.


"As well as can be expected."   


He had her place her foot on the edge of the chair.  His crotch was close to her foot and she tapped his jeans without thinking about it, touching the spongy snake with her toes.  She was about to move her foot but decided to keep it there.  This was something new in her life.  Something different.  She couldn't see the bulge clearly, but she felt it.  He must be masturbating, she thought, because Gail is in no condition to give him any relief.  There is no way she is going to want to have sex with all that pain.  Alice pressed a little harder on the swell beneath the denim fabric to see if he would say anything.  He continued working without saying a word.  She watched him rubbing her leg, his large fingers glistening with peanut oil.




This story is included in The Blood Cake Vendor and Other Stories.