The Circle at the Top of the Hill

Dottie would have never let this happen, Gram thought as she said goodbye to the house she was born in, her son calling impatiently from the back door.  Oh, Dottie might have said many times “when you’re too old, Gram, into the home you go.”  But she would have never followed through.

“Ma, hurry up now.  Looks like more snow.”

Can’t wait to get the deed over with so he can come back and get drunk, Gram thought with disgust.  “You would have never let this happen!” She said aloud to the picture of her daughter-in-law sitting on the mantle. “No siree bob.” 

But Dottie had died years before.  She wasn’t supposed to.  Only the good die young, and everyone knew Dottie was no good.  Just ask Gram.  She’d tell you how her son met Dottie at a bar.  O’Hara’s Pub down on Main, to be sure.  And, not too long after, she got her claws into him real good, yes siree.  He was always such a soft-hearted sap, her Charlie.  Such an easy man to con, especially for the likes of Dottie.

“Come on, Ma!”

“Hold your horses.”

Lyme Disease.  That’s what all the doctors said. Dottie had Lyme Disease. Gram had never heard of such a disease.  She didn’t buy it.  She knew those young doctors. They didn’t have a darned idea what was wrong with Dottie so they went and made up a new disease.  Lyme Disease.  Well, I never.

Of course, Gram was eventually proven right.  After a few years of treatments that only made her sicker, the doctors changed their minds. Dottie had cancer, they concluded.  Cancer?  Gram didn’t believe that either. Not Dottie.  She was too darn contrary. Cancer only grew in people who swallowed their anger until it got to be too much for their bodies to handle, festering in evil cells, the anger cells, the cancer cells.  And that wasn’t Dottie.  She never bottled up a dang thing in her whole life!  Gram’s blood still got to boiling when she thought about that convertible Dottie couldn’t live without even though she and Charlie didn’t even have enough money to take their sons to the dentist!  A fire engine red Mustang she tore about town in like that speed racer, what was his name? Oh yes, Mario Andretti. What a spectacle for all the neighbors to see and gab about. Crazy Dottie and Poor Charlie.  Yes siree bob.  That Dottie never bottled up a dang thing in her whole life.

Finally, the doctors gave up and sent Dottie home with Gram to die peacefully in the same bed where Jim had died the year before.  Her calm acceptance of the inevitable had surprised Gram, who in her many years of nursing had seen all manner of death.  Why had Dottie been such an angel in death, whereas her own husband was so ornery that she was glad when he finally gave up the fight?  Her Jim, quiet all the years of his life, suddenly full of anger, spitting nasty words of regret with each spasm of pain, regret that he’d kept bottled up for a lifetime.  The hurt of those words still cut deep into Gram.  Some thanks for a lifetime of devotion.

Dottie had another surprise.  All those friends.  Day and night they converged on Gram’s small bungalow with tears in their eyes.  “It just won’t be the same without Dottie,” they told Gram.  “What a wonderful woman she is.”

“You sure do have a lot of friends, Dottie,” she’d remarked on the off-hand to the dying woman.  She was not meaning to sound incredulous, just being frank.

“Guess I got em all fooled, hey Gram?” Dottie chuckled, as she relaxed back into the pillow of her death bed, “all but you!”

“And you look a fright. I warned you not to have so many visitors but did you listen?”  Dottie’s dark hair had just begun to silver on the sides.  Too young, too young to die, she thought applying another cold washcloth to Dottie’s hot forehead.

“They don’t know the real Dottie, do they Gram?”  Dottie cackled, “the one what ruined your son.” 

“They sure as shooting don’t!” Gram’d agreed, to which Dottie laughed her last laugh and it was a good one.

* * *   

“Who’ya talking to now, Ma?” Charlie chuckled as he sauntered into the dining room. He had Jim’s slight build but a Navy man’s swagger.  “The Galaxy’s all loaded up, the driveway shoveled off and I’m ready.”

“None of your beeswax!” She snapped.

“Yer talking to Dottie again, aren’t cha Ma?  I hear her laugh all the time.  Gives me the willies,” Charlie mumbled, picking up Dottie’s picture and setting it face side down. “Lois wants me to get rid of all these old pictures.  Think I’ll do it too.” He grabbed her arm, “Come on now, Ma. It’s time to go.”

She pulled away. Who did he think he was?   She’d kept a humble but respectable home for over eighty years.  It may have been cluttered with a lifetime worth of knickknacks, but it was clean.  And now? Lordy she was ashamed to have folks in. Not more than two months after Dottie’s passing he’d moved that woman in.  Just moved her right in without even asking Gram. Now it was a dump.  A disgusting dump.  The first thing that woman did was to get rid of the mahogany table Jim bought on their honeymoon.  The table where there had been so many dinners, so many birthday celebrations, anniversaries, wakes, and neighborhood potlucks, gone. 

“We don’t need that huge old table, Gram,” Lois’d told Gram. “There’s only the three of us. We can sell it and buy a nice new TV with that money.”   And she did just that.  Sold Jim’s table and bought a Motorola in a ugly walnut cabinet that sat in the middle of the dining room and remained on for most of the day.  Dinner was on TV trays –  chicken pot pies or canned spaghetti. 

Gram shuddered as she walked through the dining room.  What a scene Jim would have made if he were still alive.  Dinner in front of the television!

“It’s a good thing your father didn’t live to see this,” she snapped.

“What ‘this’?  What cha talking about?”

“A television in the dining room.”

“Sheesh, Ma.  Nobody sits down to dinner like in the old days anymore.”

He was behind her now, pushing her out the door.  She’d never lived anywhere but this house.  All her life, in this house and her son was pushing her out the door.

The air outside was dry and very cold.  It hurt her lungs to breathe.  She felt light-headed.

“Charlie?” It was so bright she couldn’t see her feet.  She felt a hand grab her arm.

“Yeah, Ma.  I’m right here. Take it slow now.”  The back lawn was covered with snow.  Her clothesline, the lawn chairs – everything was white.  Were the neighbors watching, she wondered. Watching an old lady, unwanted, hauled off like discarded trash. The family dog being taken on one last trip to the vet, tail between her legs.  The concrete stairs seemed deeper than she remembered, each step down a balancing act until she reached the bottom and was shoved into the warmth of a pre-heated car.

“Charlie, the roads will be icy now.  You better watch your driving.”

“Yeah, Ma, yeah.  I know.”  Charlie said, shaking his head like he always did when he felt like he was being treated like a child.   Well, Gram thought, you are a child.     Your whole life spent living off your parents.  How will you get by without me to look after you?  That Lois won’t take care of you, what with her working all night and sleeping all day.

“Charlie,” she said, as they were pulling out of the driveway, “Take me past Dottie’s grave.  I want to say good-bye to Dottie.”

“Sheesh, Ma, you ain’t saying good-bye already, are yah?  Lois and I are gonna come get you all the time and take you anywheres you want to go.”

Gram started to whimper.  Lordy, Helen, she thought.  Tears never help. They’ve never helped your whole life, they won’t help you now. “Give me your hanky,” she ordered.

“Ok, ok, Ma.  I’ll take you by the cemetery.  I just hope they plowed the roads this morning.  Sheesh.  Otherwise, we’ll have a devil of a time.  But anything to make you happy.”

The cold had forced most people in.  The red-brick grammar school where her children had gone to school, the stone quarry where her husband kept the books and fought the unions, the steepled Congregational Church where her daughter had gotten married, all were deserted.  Her town was a ghost town and she, a ghost passing through.  No one to reach out to.  No one to say: “Don’t go.”  They were all gone.

“Remember when Dottie bought that plot?” Gram asked.

“Yeah, you really took her head off that time, Ma.”

“Well we had a perfectly good plot for her in the old cemetery!”

“But she wanted a view.”  Charlie chuckled.  “Said she never had one in life so, by golly, she’d have one in death.  Didn’t make no sense but that was Dottie.”

The road to Queen of Heaven had not been plowed making it nearly impossible for the Galaxy to gain any traction.  But Charlie drove slow, real slow, and eventually they made it to the top of the hill.  There, spread out beneath them, lay an idyllic winter scene.  Fields of white beneath a hazy sky, church steeples, frozen creeks, red-brick houses, a wisp of smoke rising through the arms of barren trees.  Dottie’s view.

“Ma, you don’t go to out there, do yah?”

“Remember Dottie’s funeral, Charlie?”

“Course I do.”

“I never knew she had so many friends.  Cars were lined up all the way down to the main road.”

“I never did either.”

“How could we not know that?”

“I don’t know Ma.  I know she was always loaning people money and that’s why we never had…”

“Don’t you go blaming Dottie!  You never had any money cause you always spent every penny you got your hands on on some damn foolish thing!  Like that boat you bought last year.  Why the sam hill do you need a boat?”

Charlie began to hem and haw.  Gram cut him off.  “Oh never you mind.  I don’t want to know.”

They sat quietly with the engine running.  A layer of dust covered the dashboard, candy wrappers filled the ashtrays and littered the floor.  Jim’d always taken such good care of the Galaxy and now Charlie was letting it go to pot.  Course, if she took him to task, he’d probably blame Lois just as he’d blamed Dottie all those years for all his failures.   She didn’t need to hear it anymore.

“We better get going,” Charlie finally said.  “That wind’s picking up pretty good.”

Gram didn’t respond. Snow sprites twirled around the car, up and over the hood and through the grave stones like mischievous children mocking death. 

“Yer not crying now are you, Ma?”

“Now why the sam hill would I be crying?”

“No reason.  No reason.” He mumbled as he shifted into drive and started slowly around the circle at the top of the hill.

Read Part Two here.

From Writing for the Absent Reader available on Amazon

Writing for the Absent Reader

8 thoughts on “The Circle at the Top of the Hill

  1. Well this is the best thing you have written for THs in my opinion. The things you didn’t say are what really make the piece. Figuring out what is wrong with people, why they eventually die, the way in which their lives deteriorate, final moments, toxic environments…it’s all here and there is the sense that we, in one way or the other, end like this. Oh maybe not so bad, yet there will be the heartache, the body on the floor calling for nobody to come and they won’t come, because it will be that time. I have this theory that when you die, the universe dies too. Growing old is the process of becoming invisible. The universe disappears at the end and you are witness to it and you know where it goes and you follow it there with all the invisibility you can muster, because invisible things attract each other. This is the answer to how one creates something from nothing. I am working on this idea.


    1. Thanks Duke. You inspired this with your loud woman comment. My auntie Dottie was the loudest woman I’ve ever met and until the ending she and my Gram fought constantly. I think you’re right about universes ending. First they kind of circle around in the snow.

      Liked by 1 person

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