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Eva St. Claire sat stiffly in her cane bottom rocking chair by the window that looked out at the ivy covered wall. The window faced south and it seemed the sun was getting warmer every day. Her air conditioner rumbled noisily, making it difficult to hear "The Guiding Light" on her 19 inch color television set.
She paid no attention to the air conditioner or the television set either for that matter; instead, she stared intently at her hands. They seemed to have a life of their own. At times they would appear locked together in mortal combat or clasped together as lovers might be. They were rarely at rest, and only by a supreme effort of will could she make them do what she wanted them to do.
They were thin hands -- old woman's bony hands, blue veined. The knuckles were swollen to twice the size they used to be. Holding them up to the light of the window she could see the bones through the thin skin of her hands. They were like an x-ray photograph of someone else's hands. "How thin the skin of my wrists is," she thought, ".... paper thin and dry -- like the skin of an onion."
"But they're your hands, Eva St. Claire," she said loudly enough to hear herself over the droning air conditioner and the tireless passion of the television lovers on Guiding Light. "They've done everything hands were meant to do; caressed lovers, changed babies, cooked and cleaned, and even wrung each other dry in loneliness. A lot of miles on these hands of yours, Eva."
Between her hands she held a necklace, it helped to keep them still. Sydney bought it for her in Florence. It was a woven silver choker supporting eighteen crystal beads. Each bead was slightly different in size and shape, although a casual glance would judge them to be identical. Eva had come to know that each bead was slightly different and represented the years of her life.
The salesman in the shop told them that one could read the past and the future in them, like rosary beads. It was a romantic story, and at the time neither she nor Sydney believed it for a minute. But now, with Sydney gone, and sitting alone in this room in the Sweetwater Nursing Home, she had learned to read them from the first bead to the last.
Each of the eighteen beads represented five years of her life, and though she was only eighty-four, she had studied the last bead well enough to know the details of the end of the story. She was partially paralyzed since the stroke. Her left side was numb from her neck to her knee, yet the fingers of her left hand were just as sensitive as ever. They helped the right hand in the reading of her beads.
At the moment she was enjoying the story of the second bead, she was eleven -- in Catholic school. It was a Friday afternoon -- all the girls had to go to confession on Friday afternoons. She and Angela always sat together waiting their turn in the pews adjacent to the confessionals. One by one, each girl would disappear behind the curtain and confess to Father Thornton.
Father Thornton was old and deaf -- and as old men do, he shouted to be sure you heard him. Instead of confessing in secret, it was like shouting your sins out loud in the street. Roberta, the fat girl in pigtails was in there.
"Speak up girl," Father Thornton shouted. "I can't hear you -- you say you touched yourself -- where? Where did you say you touched yourself? THERE!! Six Hail Marys for you young lady -- and a good act of contrition!"
Only a fool would confess to Father Thornton.
The whole story was there, there at the end of the second bead. Without the beads Eva would have forgotten the stories of her life long ago. She would have forgotten the details of the night Philip was born, had it not been for the fifth bead. First, her water broke and then Sydney flooded the carburetor, then they couldn't find the traveling bag they had so carefully prepared for the trip to the hospital.
There was a little indentation in that fifth bead -- what was that again? Oh yes! Sydney had gotten a ticket for parking in a doctor's reserved space at the hospital. It was her favorite bead .... the fifth. Such a wonderful time -- being pregnant, after wondering if she'd ever be. Both she and Sydney harboring the unspoken suspicion that the other was to blame. They were closer together those months than ever before. A little of him and a little of her -- all growing inside her.
Then came Philip. So much like his father, even as a baby. So demanding of her time and attention, so eager to be the center of attraction. Only children are like only husbands -- they want all a woman can give.
Expectant motherhood had been the best time of her life, far better than motherhood itself. "What might I have been without a family to care for? A great actress? Yes, it could have been. I played 'Nora' in my senior year .... and I played the piano so well." She skipped back to the third bead -- yes, there was the recital! Mendelssohn's 'Songs Without Words.'
She looked down at her hands again. "Did
these hands actually play Mendelssohn?
She always tried to avoid it, but like fingers picking at a sore that will not heal, she drifted ahead to the seventh bead. February 14th. It was the day she first realized Sydney had been unfaithful. "Unfaithful!" How inadequate a word! How could it ever convey the emptiness and the failure she felt in herself as a woman. Even now, the memory of that late winter that dragged into late fall, saddened and chilled her.
Still holding fast to the seventh bead, she rose and slowly walked to the rumbling air conditioner. When she turned it off the relentless torment of the "Guiding Light" was the only sound in the room. She turned the television set off as well. The seventh bead. It never failed to chill her to the bone.
"Sydney, Sydney, I failed you! I grew old in front of you -- it wasn't enough to love you, was it? Oh, the lying, the lame excuses, the calls from the office at 4:30, and worst of all, the knowledge that you still loved Philip and me. Even then I knew you suffered as much as we did, and when it was over, you suffered for it the rest of your life. Even though it was forgiven and forgotten, you would not forgive yourself. Like an albatross, the guilt of it hung around your neck and weighed you down -- made you old before your time, and in the end it killed you before you should have gone."
Eva's fingers moved along the string of beads. She stopped at the eighteenth, and just as they predicted, Maggie walked in.
"How we doin' t'day, Eva. S'awful quiet in here. Y'got the AC off, child -- y'feelin' chilly?"
"It's the noise, Maggie. I can't stand the noise. It drones on and on -- I can stand the heat but I can't stand the noise."
"That's 'cause you skinny, Eva. You be as fat as me, and you put up with noise -- believe me. Gotta take your blood pressure, love -- then we goin' downstairs to see the movie."
"Oh, Maggie -- I really don't want to go down there. Just let me stay up here, please?" It meant sitting in the dark -- everybody dropping off to sleep. It would be a movie she had probably seen years ago and partly remembered, then getting it confused with others she'd seen and in the end losing track of the story altogether.
"Looka that, girl! 136 over 70 -- you on the road back honey! We goin' downstairs f'sure. Y'gotta get them joints loosened up, you know. Y'gotta see people -- get your mind off yourself. You goin' home to your family soon -- Miss Eva, listen t'me girl -- y'got the rest of your life t'live."
Maggie walked to the closet, got a robe, and helped Eva into it. "There y'go. Y'look real sweet, Miss Eva. Why don't I fix that necklace on you? Them crystal beads'll look real pretty with the lavender."
"No, I want to hold it, Maggie."
"Necklaces are for wearin', not holdin'." Maggie took the necklace from Eva, stepped behind her and secured the clasp. "Oh, don't that look fine! You'll have all them old bucks down there wantin' t'sit next to you f'sure."
Maggie could not see the bewildered
expression on Eva's face. She raised both
Maggie, startled, caught her and sat her on
the bed. "What's wrong, honey?
Eva was vaguely aware of the sound of Maggie's rubber soled shoes squeaking on the tile floor as she turned and sprinted out of the room. It was hard to breathe now. The weight of the beads was unbearable -- if she could only reach back and undo the clasp .... no, it was impossible. Well -- let it be, she thought. It's been long enough, the weight will pass.
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