The Forgotten Voices

After my roommate dies and they clear her possessions, I have a few days on my own in room 112. My last roommate didn’t have a strong presence, but I was still aware of her. I tried to be considerate. Now, living alone, I don’t have to worry about disturbing anyone when I wake up at 4 a.m. I just lean over my bedside table, wrap my fingers as best I can around the remote control, and hit play. Pastor Jim’s good word soothes me, so even though I don’t fall back asleep, I feel rejuvenated.

Some days I don’t even leave my room. The aides come and help me get dressed because my arthritis is so bad, and they bring me meals on trays, and sometimes check on me mid-afternoon to make sure I haven’t fallen. But other than that, I’m perfectly solitary. I alternate between listening to Pastor Jim and my records: Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, the Four Tops, the Miracles. It is glorious.

But it can’t last. “These rooms are in demand,” they tell me as they roll in Daisy’s boxes. “You pay for a double. You have to expect a roommate.”

I didn’t forget that I live in a double. The empty bed across the room is a constant reminder. But expecting a new roommate is not the same as expecting Daisy.

After the staff have brought her boxes, she rolls in with her chin raised, like her wheelchair is a royal chariot. Her white hair is straightened and slicked back, her dark skin a little ashy, like mine. She flashes her white, even dentures at me. “You must be Clara,” she says.

“Yes.”

“I’m Daisy Parker.” Her loud puff of a sigh ends in a vocalized unggggg sound, a nasal moan that prickles my flesh. “Would you mind getting me a glass of water? Getting here wore me out.”

Fortunately, one of the staff is still here. She hurries to the sink and fills a glass.

“Thanks,” Daisy says, drinking from the Sesame Street-printed mug with her pinky out.

“You two all set? Have everything you need?” the nurse asks.

“I believe so,” Daisy says, and I nod.

“All right, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted. I hope to see you both at lunch. Daisy, will you help convince Clara to join us today?”

“Of course.” Daisy blinks at me, her bifocal-covered eyes wide.

“Okay, see you then.”

As soon as the nurse is gone, Daisy slumps further into her wheelchair and sighs again. She looks like a pile of floppy, unconnected limbs. “Now that she’s gone, we can really talk. Give me the skinny on this place. Why don’t you go to lunch? The food here gross?”

“No,” I say. I angle myself to face her wheelchair, to be polite, and my neck immediately feels strained. “The food’s fine. I’d just rather eat here.”

“Here? By yourself?” she wrinkles her nose. “Why? The other residents mean? Drooling idiots? What?”

I shrug, moving my shoulders as little as I can to avoid pulling muscles.

“How about stuff to do? Games? Movie nights? They got all that?”

I nod.

“And? They any good?”

“I think so. I don’t go much.”

“Why not? Do you hate it here? I was dreading this, I can tell you. I told my kids, ‘Don’t lock me in there with all those vegetables! I’m still prime rib! That place is gonna be my coffin!’ But they said, ‘Momma, this house already is your coffin.’ I guess they were right. I couldn’t drive, in this thing. Couldn’t go anywhere. Couldn’t even go upstairs. My house wasn’t made for a wheelchair. At least here, they got elevators, and people to help you get in and out of ’em, and hopefully company. I hate being alone; really can’t stand it. My kids visited me all the time at my house—such good kids, but you know how it is. They got lives; they’re busy. My son’s a scientist at GM. All those rounds of layoffs, so terrible, but they never let him go; he’s the smartest one they got. You got kids?”

I can’t talk about it. Also, my head hurts from all her blather. “Is that all your stuff?” I say instead. The room feels more cramped than it did with my last roommate. The rooms here have just enough to make us feel independent, even though we aren’t. There’s a sink but no dishwasher, and a mini fridge, but no microwave or stove or oven. Every room comes with the same white plastic bed frames, white plastic desks, and lumpy blue couch. We’re not allowed to replace any of it. The idea is to keep us from fighting about which roommate gets to bring more of her own furniture when she moves in. There’s only enough room for a few small belongings besides clothes and medicine: a couple of pictures, my record player. I’ve got a few ferns, but they used to be on the other side of the room. The staff must have moved them to make space for this woman’s things.

“No, my daughter’s going to come by later with some valuables—things I didn’t trust the movers with. I don’t know if she’ll be able to make it today, though, ’cause she works.” Daisy cocks her head to one side. “What is that? Music?”

It’s so much a part of me I barely noticed it was still on. “The Supremes.”

“Can you turn it off? I don’t like music.”

I’m not sure if I’ve heard or understood her correctly. Is it possible to not like music, any kind at all? I thought the enjoyment of harmony and rhythm was a basic human instinct. But she’s still looking at me, one eyebrow raised, so I pull myself up by my walker, make my way to the record player, and lift the arm.

“That’s so much better,” she says. “I just really appreciate the peace and quiet. Now, here’s an important question. What are the men here like?”

“What are they… like?” I don’t understand.

“You know.” She taps her hand impatiently in her lap, and her wheelchair inches forward. “I’ve been alone a long time. I figure, there’ve gotta be a lot of single fellas here—widowers, divorcés. I figure, they can’t be as picky as they are on the outside. So, what’s the skinny? Any of ’em have potential?”

My head turns to the picture on the coffee table. My husband is in black and white, but otherwise he’s just the way I remember him. When he was young, his square jaw looked like Sidney Poitier’s, and his smile sparkled with mischief, like he was plotting a prank. That’s how I’ll always remember him.

Daisy’s eyes follow mine to the picture. “You still married?”

I shake my head, God rest his soul.

“You’d think, for all the trouble they’ve given me, I’d give up on men entirely, but I just can’t seem to help myself…”

What does she expect me to say? I’m at a loss.

“What’s wrong with you? You lost your voice or something?”

“I’m a private person.”

She makes a show of rolling her eyes. “Well, ex-cuuuuse me, Ms. Privacy. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go and meet some folks who are a little less private.” She wheels herself to the door, weaving around her boxes, and leaves. She does not bother to close the door behind her.

*     *     *

The aide wears green scrubs and a name tag that calls him Raymond. “I’ll never get over your record collection,” he marvels, flipping past Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding. “Oh my goodness, Miss Clara, did you know this one is signed?” He lifts a blue-gray album cover, and Etta James, in her white bouffant, stares fiercely past me. Above her typewritten name, there’s a scrawl of black ink.

“Of course,” I say.

“My goodness, what a life you’ve had,” he says, slipping Etta out of her sleeve and clicking her into place on the turntable, starting with the flip side.

I shrug, looking downward. He takes a seat beside me on the blue couch and we are silent, honoring the serenade. When Etta croons, “Something’s gotta hold on me,” listening feels decadent, like tasting the richest, silkiest chocolate cake. Then her gospel singers jump in, and they fill me with the sweet rush of spiritual fulfillment: that church bliss.

Raymond and I don’t move, not once during the album. We are blessed to listen to this divine talent, and we are enraptured by it. Only after the last track ends, he says, “I guess I’ve dawdled enough. Thank you for letting me sit with you, Miss Clara. Your albums are the highlight of my day.” He stares at my neck. “Did anyone help you get dressed this morning?”

“No one came by, but it’s all right. My arthritis isn’t too bad today, so I did it myself.”

Raymond shakes his head. “Maria is out today, but Leann was supposed to cover for her.” He scoots toward me on the couch. “Your sweater is inside out. Let me help you.”

I don’t mind taking off my sweater in front of Raymond because I have on my cotton undershirt as well. I stick my arms straight in the air. He pulls the fabric over my head with gentle, practiced gestures. This universal act of caring unlocks a treasure of sweet memories: my dear mother pulling her homespun wool over my head, and my sweet Troy’s arms waving playfully as I did the same for him. When Raymond smooths my tan sweater over my stomach, his tenderness takes my breath away. “Thank you,” I whisper. “I’m so glad you started working here.”

He smiles. “I’ve been honored knowing you these years, Miss Clara.”

Raucous laughter startles the smiles off both our faces. Daisy opens the door, sees us, and asks, “Am I interrupting something?” She waggles her eyebrows at us in an unseemly way.

How did this woman get plagued with such a tawdry mind? Raymond is young enough to be my son. “Of course not,” I say.

I notice three other women in the doorway with Daisy. She gestures for them to follow her wheelchair into the room like she’s ushering in her entourage.

“You all going to gather in here?” I ask. Between their walkers and their wheelchairs, I don’t even know where all of them will sit.

“We’re going to play cards,” Daisy answers me. “You got a problem with that?”

“I wonder if you’d be more comfortable in the game room,” Raymond suggests. His tone is so light, so agreeable, that it really sounds like he’s wondering.

Daisy wrinkles her nose. “It smells in there.”

Raymond rises to his feet immediately. “It does? Did someone have an accident in there?”

Daisy makes a show of shuddering at the idea. “No, nothing like that. Just that smell it has. Like cigarettes. And naphthalene.”

Raymond’s shoulders relax. “Yes ma’am, it does smell like that.” He turns to me with a small shrug, as if to say, I tried. “I’d better keep going on my rounds. See you later, Miss Clara. Ladies.”

As he leaves the room, I try to get a better look at the ladies Daisy brought with her. I’ve always been good with faces, but I don’t recognize any of them. This is morbid to say, but it’s hard to keep track of names here when everyone keeps dying, like my old roommate.

“My last roommate didn’t have a strong presence, but I was still aware of her. I tried to be considerate. Now, living alone, I don’t have to worry about disturbing anyone when I wake up at 4 am.”

“You know,” Daisy says, once Raymond closes the door behind him, “I’m allowed to bring visitors here. This is my room too.”

“It’s a small room,” I point out. Now that her whole group is inside, there’s barely room for me to get up. It feels like the walls might close in on me, pressing inward together until they squeeze the life out of all of us. I close my eyes and wait for the feeling to pass.

“Well, it’s the room we got. And I don’t want you giving my kids the stink eye when they come to visit. My son’s a scientist at GM, he’s used to being treated a certain way.” She narrows her eyes at me. “Do you even have kids? They come to visit?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“What are you, a government spy or something? Why won’t you tell me anything about yourself?”

“I find bragging unseemly,” I say.

“Is it bragging? When your son is a scientist at GM?”

I hear the women murmur amongst themselves. One reaches for her walker to leave.

“It is bragging, to keep talking about it. It isn’t humble,” I say, since she asked.

“Come on, Daisy, let’s go,” the woman says, now pushing her walker forward. “We can play cards in my room.”

“Getting driven out of my own room!” Daisy exclaims, like she’s the victim of an outrageous crime. “Maybe you’re so humble because your kids are in jail or on drugs or something.”

This doesn’t even deserve a response. Even though I am slow, even though it is painful, I get up off the couch. The other women are all standing by the door again, so no one is in my way. Using my walker, I shuffle across the room, to the window, standing with my back to Daisy. I don’t let myself turn around until I am sure they’re all gone, until I know the room is mine again.

*     *     *

The intercom phone in our room rings and Daisy lifts it out of the cradle. “Okay, I’ll tell her.” She turns to me, scowling. “You didn’t tell me you were expecting visitors today.”

“What visitors?”

“I didn’t ask. But they’re on their way in here.”

I can’t imagine who could be coming. I don’t remember the last time I had visitors. It might be nice to have the room to myself, though, if I have guests. “Aren’t they running some activity this afternoon?”

Daisy’s scowl deepens. “Yes—bingo. But I don’t like how they run bingo here. I went on Monday, and Joyce was playing three cards even though it’s one per person. And when I told the volunteer about it, she told me to ‘settle down.’ Like I was the one doing wrong.”

I guess she’s staying. I hear knocking, but my knees pain me too much today to get up. “Come in,” I call as loudly as I can.

Raymond, the aide, walks them in, saying, “Here you are.” His Southern drawl reminds me of someone I used to know, but whose identity dodges my memory. I know these small lapses in my recollection are a normal part of aging, so I try to make peace with them. The good Lord has blessed me with a healthy mind and body for so many years; more than I deserve, I’m sure. These little missing details must be a blessing in disguise—a way to shield my mind from unpleasant memories, maybe.

With a small wave to me, Raymond leaves and I get a look at my guests. A darker woman, maybe five or ten years younger than myself, and a lighter-skinned young man in his late forties or fifties enter. They glance at Daisy before finding me on the couch.

“Dear Clara,” the woman says, resting her hand on my shoulder. Up close, I see that I am right—she is in her late seventies, or maybe just eighty. She keeps herself well though: tidy hair, subtle makeup, elegant clothes. I am sure that the reason she doesn’t hug me is that she doesn’t want to bend her back. But the man leans over and wraps his arms around me like I’m made of glass. The man and woman have the same prominent cheekbones and height—it hurts to look up at them.

“I brought you these.” He hands me a pack of my favorite, Twizzlers.

“Where did you get them?” I can never find them here. They’re always the first thing to sell out of the vending machines.

“The 7-Eleven down the street. I remember how much you like them.” The two visitors place themselves on either side of me on the couch. Daisy, in her wheelchair, is still on the other side of the room, not even pretending to do anything other than watch us. It would be rude of me not to introduce her. “This is my roommate, Daisy,” I gesture.

“Betty Higgins,” my visitor says, nodding deeply. “This is my son, Bill.”

“Nice to meet you,” Daisy says, making no moves toward or away from us.

“Auntie, you look so good,” Bill says.

“Clara always had the best skin,” says Betty with a fond smile. “We’d all be backstage, running around like headless chickens, putting on all these layers of paint, and she’d be cool as a cucumber because all she needed was her red lipstick.”

“Well, it still shows,” Bill says, flashing his teeth at me. Something about his face strikes me as boyish, even though he’s got deep lines on his forehead and his goatee is knitted with gray. “It’s been too long since we came to visit, Auntie. How are you feeling? Your knees still troubling you?”

“Sometimes, but I can’t complain. I just thank Jesus every day that I’m still here.”

“Amen,” Betty nods.

I don’t want to hurt their feelings by asking who they are, or why he’s calling me Auntie.

“I’ve got great news,” Bill says, pressing his hands together and leaning toward me. “That documentary producer has been back in touch.”

“Documentary producer?” I ask.

“I told you about him a while back. He’s making a film, The Forgotten Voices of Motown, about you and Mom and all the other women who backed up the greats. They want to schedule an interview with you as soon as possible. Don’t worry, I’m happy to do all the planning. We’ll pick a date together. But you two will finally get to tell the world who you were and what you did.”

“No.”

“What’s wrong, Auntie?”

This young man is talking too fast and making no sense. His youthful face is kind, but I don’t know what he wants from me. He’s obviously confused me with someone else. If I had sung in Motown, I would certainly remember. And I don’t know why he’s calling me Auntie.

“I never had any brothers or sisters,” I say.

“What’s that, Clara?” the woman, the man’s mother, asks.

“I don’t have any brothers or sisters. So I don’t have any nephews. I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

The woman and her son lean forward, in front of me, and stare at each other for a long moment. Then, in a higher, condescending voice, like people use with babies or dogs, the woman says, “That’s right, Clara. You’re an only child. I’m not your sister. Not by blood, anyway. But Bill has been calling you Auntie all his life. Because we sang together for many years. And then later, we raised our sons together.”

“What sons?”

The woman’s mouth falls open slightly. The young man cuts in: “Me and Troy, Auntie. We were best friends, like brothers.”

“What Troy? Where is this Troy?” I don’t know why they keep persisting with these fantastical stories. I don’t know any Troy. Maybe this is my roommate’s life, her family. I turn to her. “Do you know these people? Do you have a son named Troy?” She shakes her head.

“Auntie, Troy died seven years ago. He had cancer. I…” he pauses, and I watch his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows. “I was a pallbearer at his funeral.”

What a horrible idea, a mother outliving her son. I don’t know whose life this is, but I don’t want it. “You’re mistaken,” I say, trying to keep my voice firm, but I hear it shake. Why have these people come all this way to upset an old woman with lies? Don’t they have anything better to do?

“No, I’m not, Auntie.” His voice is a low rumble of thunder, threatening my climate.

“Please go find the person you’re looking for. I don’t know any Troy, and I don’t know you.” Fat, undignified tears leak out of my eyes. I lift my arm to try to wipe them with my sleeve, but my arthritic hand is shaking too hard. It won’t behave.

“Dear Clara,” the woman whispers, leaning toward me. I try to move away, but I only end up approaching her son.

“I think you’d better go,” says a voice from across the room. My roommate Daisy wheels over, looking sternly at the intruders.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but we’re the only family she has left,” says the man, sounding offended.

“But you’re upsetting her,” Daisy says. She has a bingo board and a golf pencil in her lap, which she hands him. “Write down your name and number. If she wants to, I’ll help her call you.”

The mother and son do not look pleased, but he jots something down and they rise from the couch. The woman reaches down as if to pat me on the shoulder again but sees my face and does not.

“Goodbye, Clara. We love you. Take care and rest up, we’ll call you on another day.”

I have nothing to say to these intruders, so they finally leave. Daisy’s wheelchair is still beside the couch, beside me. She tucks the bingo card into the back of a picture frame. It’s a black and white portrait of a handsome man whose square jaw reminds me of someone else.

“Thank you for helping me with those people,” I say, leaning back into the sofa. I hadn’t realized how tense my shoulders were during the entire visit.

“You and I, we’re roommates. I figure, we gotta stick together,” she says. She points at the Twizzlers in my lap. “Can I have one?”

I wrap my gnarled fingers around the package and hand it to her to open. “Those people,” I say. The visit feels like it’s still crawling on my skin.

“What?” Daisy’s focus is still on the red candy wrapper.

“Why wouldn’t those people leave me alone? Coming in here, telling me about a woman outliving her child. Trying to convince me that it was my life. It’s cruel.”

“A mother outliving her child is a terrible thing,” Daisy says, looking up. “But it doesn’t seem like that was everything. Seems like she and her child were loved. And a lotta people woulda given their left tit to sing in Motown.”

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry.”

I watch her take out a piece of red licorice and put the rest on the table. “Now I’m thinking of that young man, who passed,” I say. “If they think I’m his mother, then where is his real mother? Who will pray for his soul?”

She takes a moment to answer. “I don’t know.”

“I could pray for him,” I decide. “Do you think those people would send me a picture, and his name, so I could pray for him? In case his mother’s not around to do it?”

“I’m sure they could. We could call them and ask.”

“Good.” For some reason, there are still tears on my cheeks. I can’t shake the thought of this young man’s funeral, how sad it must have been. For some reason, I imagine it as a cold day, with sleet falling, chilling everyone to their bones. I can picture the small crowd, shivering in their overcoats and hats, and the pastor. Surely, he led them in a good Christian homegoing. Surely, they gave this young man a proper farewell before Jesus welcomed him into heaven.

“Would you mind if I put on a record?” I don’t like idle chatter, but I can’t stand silence, I never could.

“Go ahead.”

I don’t even have to think about the gestures, they’re as natural as breathing: sliding the record from its sleek sleeve, placing it just so on the turntable, adjusting the stylus on its ridged surface. The song plays and I hear my fragile, cracking voice joining in. I don’t remember the name of the song, or the artist, but this—the harmony—is etched into the muscles of my throat. It pours out of a wellspring I didn’t know I had.

When the song ends, I am struck with a memory of holding that same note, backstage, with a few other girls. A tall man whose face reminds me of a movie star and whose smile crackles with mischief, turns to me. In a thick Southern drawl, he says, “Forgive me for disturbing you, but I have to tell you: you have the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard.”

I am flattered, but embarrassed. I’m still shy around strange men. I turn to my fellow background singer, my best friend, to see her reaction. Does she hear this beautiful man, praising me like this? What should I say to him? I grab her hand for support, but her skin feels different than I expect—soft and loose with wrinkles, almost withered. It doesn’t make sense, for a young woman like her to feel like this. But still, she is there for me. She gives my fingers a reassuring squeeze that tells me: this is real.

Emily Mirengoff returned to her hometown of Washington, D.C., after stints in New Hampshire, Paris, and Miami. She is currently working on a short story collection which explores the interpersonal dynamics between women. (If there were such a thing as a reverse Bechdel test, this book would fail it.) She earned her bachelor’s in history from Dartmouth College and her master’s in communication from the University of Miami. Find her on Twitter at @emirengoff or visit her site: emirengoff.com.