At 12:55 on Monday afternoon, Katrina entered the reception area outside Aric Hammond’s office.
“Ms. Wade!” said Carol, clanging her crochet hook on the desk. She stood, the back lip of her swivel chair fitting into a crease in the drywall. “You’re right on time. Unfortunately, Mr. H. had to rush out. I’m hoping he’ll return in a few. Would you like coffee?”
“No, black will be fine.”
“You sure? I’ve got flavored creamer. Amaretto, I think.”
“Oh, come on. Try it. I think it’s better than those fancy-schmancy drinks at those coffeehouses.”
“Okay. I’ll try it.”
“Good! And I’ll scoop out one of my famous rhubarb bars. Won’t take a minute. Mr. H. should be here by then.”
While Carol bustled around the break room clinking dishes, Katrina pulled Linna Monroe’s poetry collection from her bag. She thumbed through the pages until she found her place.
The Woodpecker on the Cedar
after swooping invasions
on my time and energy,
all I want is to stand firm
to mind my own branches.
Only after the woodpecker flies off
with cackling, troublesome taunts—
how menacing can a squirrel-spooked bird be?—
do I miss him and his purpose.
He has consumed the cedar’s
insect infestation for his breakfast.
the bark is scarred.
from it emits a distinct fragrance
used by brides and mothers
to line their chests
with its stalwart scent.
As Carol set the coffee and dessert on the side table, Katrina studied Monroe’s poetic symbolism. Engrossed, she reached for the coffee.
She grimaced against the cup rim after one sip of the lukewarm, soured brew. Was it spoiled creamer, old coffee, or both? Sensing Carol watching, she nodded and managed a smile. Thankfully, the rhubarb bar was as delicious as advertised with the right blend of tang and sweet.
“Family recipe,” explained Carol.
“It’s very good.”
“Would you like another?”
“No thanks. But, I do like it.”
“I’ll write the recipe down if you want.”
“But, it’s a family recipe.”
“Oh, once one of yours moves in here, you’re family, Ms. Wade.”
“Call me Katrina.”
“Carol. I just knew we’d be friends!” She rounded the desk and enveloped Katrina in a buxom hug.
It was only then that Carol glanced at the digital wall clock, displaying 1:25.
“He must have forgotten about me,” Katrina said, trying to sound cheery and nonchalant.
“No, I mentioned he had a one o’clock appointment when he left. If you’d like, I could call his cell phone.”
“That’s all right. My afternoon is open. Though, if you don’t mind, I’d like to run up and see my great-aunt. I don’t usually get a chance to come by during the week.”
“Of course! I’ll call Minnie’s when Mr. H. returns. Oh, Minnie! She is such a dear. And so funny. She gives the best hugs.”
“There’s no one quite like Aunt Minnie,” said Katrina, thinking by the throbbing in her shoulder that Carol’s hugs rivaled all others. “I’ll come down as soon as I hear from you.”
When Katrina reached Aunt Minnie’s door, she heard “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” being played on the piano. Instead of walking in as usual, she knocked. The music stopped, and Aunt Minnie’s slipper-shuffle neared the door.
Aunt Minnie squinted at her grand-niece. Her mouth gaped slightly, and she swayed a little. She appeared to be deciphering something familiar, like a street sign, without glasses. Katrina noted Aunt Minnie’s robe and nightgown. Her uncombed red-streaked silver curls were separated from sleeping.
“Sorry to just pop in, Aunt Minnie. But, I came for a meeting this afternoon and thought I’d come up.”
Aunt Minnie blinked.
“Katrina! How nice to see you! What brings you here?”
“A meeting with the nursing home director,” she rephrased. “He’s late, so I thought I’d come to see you.”
“Wonderful. What time is it?”
“About one-thirty. Play some more.”
“The piano. I heard you when I knocked on the door. ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness.’”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “That was my Ray’s favorite song.”
As Aunt Minnie walked to the piano, Katrina peered into the bedroom, seeing the unmade bed. The clock blinked on the nightstand. There must have been a power outage, she reasoned. But, that didn’t explain the farm clock’s idle pendulum. Then Katrina remembered. Uncle Ray always set the clocks in the house. No wonder Aunt Minnie had asked the time.
As Aunt Minnie continued to play, Katrina set the bedroom clock and wound the farm clock. She made the bed and placed Aunt Minnie’s weekend clothes in the hamper. Checking the bathroom, she noticed it needed freshening. A quick wipe-down of the shower, stool, and sink completed the job. She returned to the kitchen, filled the teapot, and waited for its spitting whistle. When the stove top remained stone cold, she seethed. She slipped out of the apartment and headed to the kitchen on the main floor, stomping down visions of Aunt Minnie missing anything worse than her daily teatime over the weekend. Let Aric Hammond be late. She needed a cup of tea herself.
At precisely two o’clock, the farm clock bonged. Aunt Minnie stopped mid-measure just as Katrina returned from the kitchen with the steaming kettle.
“Oh, Katrina! Where did you come from?”
Katrina hesitated a moment, then laughed, “You got lost in your music again, Aunt Minnie. I’ve been here quite a while enjoying it myself. The tea is ready.”
“Well, I’m clearly not! What is this I am wearing?” she said, gawking at her robe.
“You’re just having a lazy day. No worries.”
“I’ve never been lazy in my life or had tea in anything but a skirt. Keep that tea water hot. I’ll be changed and ready in fifteen minutes.”
True to her word, Aunt Minnie returned fifteen minutes later. She wore an orchid sweater set and a casual gray skirt. She replaced her bedroom slippers with the black silk ones Uncle Ray gave her two Christmases ago. Her hair was neatly back-combed. Here was the Aunt Minnie that Katrina recognized.
“Did I ever tell you about how your Uncle Ray and I met?” she asked, lifting her teacup from its saucer.
“I’m sure you have, but tell me again.”
“I was playing in a concert. Brahms’ Requiem. I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was the heat from the lights or the length of the program. I could see the page darkening from the outside in. But, I kept playing. I heard the words ‘Blessed are the dead.’ My falling on the keys at the end could have startled the dead! It jolted me out of my faint, that’s for certain. The conductor looked appalled. I felt sure I would never be asked to play for his choir again. I waited until the stage cleared and then I made my way to the edge of the stage. ‘Best piano playin’ I’ve ever heard,’ said a voice from below. It was your Uncle Ray’s. ‘Jump! I’ll be here to catch you.’ I curled my toes around the edge of the cliff with the sun’s heat burning my skin and the water calling me like a Siren Song. ‘Jump, I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.’”
Just then, Aunt Minnie’s phone rang.
Katrina moved to the phone, eyes trained on Aunt Minnie who sipped her cooling tea. It was Carol, telling Katrina that Aric Hammond would meet with her now.
Reacting to Carol’s frantic hand-waving gesture, Katrina quickly strode into Aric Hammond’s office. She noticed the tidy desk and the alphabetized bookshelf. The decor was classic but non-personalized, except for the backside of a frame angled at the right corner of the desk.
“Again, I apologize for being late,” he said, rising and extending his hand. “How is your great-aunt Minnie settling in?”
When she grasped his hand, it radiated firm tenderness. His was the kind of hand she would want to catch her if she slipped on a patch of ice.
Releasing her hand and easing into the chair behind her, she cleared her throat. “Actually, I think it was good you were late, Mr. Hammond. I had a chance to go up and see her. I am concerned.”
“Is she hurt?” he asked, leaning forward until his own chair squeaked in protest.
She smiled. “No, but she didn’t seem herself.”
He relaxed at this comment. “That’s actually typical. Moving is a difficult transition under any circumstance. It is especially hard on people with memory deficiencies. You should expect to see some regression.”
“I do expect it, Mr. Hammond. It’s just I think some of it might be avoided.”
“Was there a power outage over the weekend?”
“No one reported one. But, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a minor surge.”
“Well, the bedside clock was blinking by Aunt Minnie’s bed. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem. She doesn’t use the alarm since she just wakes up around the same time every day. But, the farm clock had wound down. My great-uncle used to take care of winding and setting all the clocks. She never did that, even before she started to lose her memory. When I went up to see her, she wasn’t dressed. She didn’t know who I was. Once I went around the apartment and reset the clocks, she heard the farm clock and instantly came back to reality.”
“Hmmm, I should have remembered about the farm clock. I will make sure one of the staff members keeps it wound, especially over the weekend.”
Katrina’s brow furrowed as Aric made a note on his planner. “Why would you remember about the farm clock?”
The pen hovered over the paper a few seconds before he resumed writing. “Her husband mentioned it.”
“Oh, right. Uncle Ray told you about her routine, then?”
“Yes, in great detail,” he said, pulling a file from his desk. “The farm clock slipped my mind.”
Aric slid the file across the desk to Katrina. She noted all the important details about Aunt Minnie’s day, including “keep farm clock wound.”
How like Uncle Ray to make sure Aunt Minnie’s world remains revolving around her. How important it is for us to make sure it does.
“Are you aware of all The Refuge activities your aunt Minnie may participate in?” Aric asked. “Monday, we bus all the residents to local stores. Bible study and hymn sing is Tuesday mornings. There is a prayer meeting Wednesday evening as well. A quilting group meets Thursdays. I know she isn’t one for Bingo, but that happens every Friday. Katrina?”
Katrina closed her gaping mouth, then said, “You do seem to know quite a bit about my great-aunt.”
He shifted his gaze to his pen. “It’s part of my job description.”
“Well, you must be appreciated for your attention to detail.”
“Most of the time.”
“Was it your attention to detail that unplugged her oven? How is she going to make her tea every day at two o’clock?” She chided herself for her tone as a flushed fury rose along his pulsing jugular.
“Of course, she can no longer make food in her room.”
“After the incident with the oven, we can’t take a risk.”
“No second chances?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Attention to detail, and all judgment no mercy?”
“What about her tea?”
“There are portable tea makers, I believe.”
“You seriously think she’ll be able to learn how to use one?”
“I’ll have one of the staff members heat the water in the kitchen for her until you can find a model you think she can use. Or we come up with a different solution.”
“What about her meals?”
“We’ll make sure she eats in the dining hall.”
“What about meals she missed when she couldn’t turn on her oven?”
“The staff knew about her oven.”
“And you didn’t bother to let her know? Let me know?”
“I thought you saw me unplug it.”
“Well, I didn’t. I was too busy paying attention to my great-aunt. Something I was told you would be doing personally.”
“Katrina,” he said, inhaling sharply. “You have no idea how personal this is for me.” He blew out an exhale and straightened his tie. “Do you have any further concerns? Anything I can do for your great-aunt? Anything I can do for you?”
The edge in his voice softened with a slight catch, causing her to focus on his eyes. His dark-ringed, brown irises reflected the same concern she had seen the other day when he had talked with Aunt Minnie. The hint of additional warmth startled and comforted her. The fanned creases at the corners of his eyes proved his experience in caring for others more than he cared for himself. She wondered why he extended that same care to her.
“No, I don’t think so. Thank you, though.”
“Please let me know if you do. I’ll promise to be more prompt than I was today. And I promise you. I am keeping an eye on your great-aunt.”
She almost believed him, looking into his mocha-colored eyes. “I should go.”
“Yes,” said Aric, moving Aunt Minnie’s file back to his drawer. “I’ll see you to the door.”
“Actually, I think I’ll check on Aunt Minnie one more time.”
“Katrina! What a nice surprise! I’ll just put the tea kettle on.”
She watched Aunt Minnie go to the stove and turn the dial.
“Uh, Aunt Minnie…”
“Let’s sit and wait for that water. Did I ever tell you how I met your uncle Ray?”
“Many times, but I don’t mind hearing it again.” She sneaked to the stove and turned the dial before she joined Aunt Minnie in the main room.
“Ray and I met at a concert. He was in the military service and was being sent to Galveston. He came with a friend to hear our local choir sing Brahms’ Requiem. Oh, I’ll never forget that concert.”
She giggled. Out of habit, Katrina did the same.
“We were on the last song, and I started to feel faint. I could see black surrounding the piano music. But, I had worked so hard on that music I was determined to finish the concert. We got to the last line, ‘Blessed are the dead.’ I guess I fell forward onto the keys. What a glare I got from the conductor! I waited until everyone left. Ray introduced himself from the edge of the stage. He offered me a hand down the stairs and gave me some water. We talked in the front row until the night custodian said he was going to lock up for the night. Ray called on me the next day, and we were inseparable for the whole week. By that Friday, he had asked me to marry him. At the Justice of the Peace, they played Brahms’ Lullaby as I walked down the aisle. He joked afterward he doubted he would get a moment’s rest from then on.”
Katrina watched a tear slip along Aunt Minnie’s wrinkled cheek as she looked out the window. Katrina licked a droplet from her own lip. When she heard the clock sound, she did not hear the death knell, only the lullaby.