Ashley Hubbard lay on her back at the bottom of The Pit, watching other teens on rusty four-wheelers ride above her. The Pit was a giant ditch that had been around for generations. Maybe as long as the town of Lowland, Maine itself. Nobody knew who dug it or why, though local legends claimed it had been a mass grave for witches. Ashley imagined somebody had started to build a mansion there, but then abandoned it because they couldn’t put up with the stench of the nearby dump. In the summer, the smell of hot trash could make you cry. It was one of the only spots for teens to hang out unsupervised. Ashley liked it best whenever an ATV broke down and she could watch as it was worked on.
Ashley had a red bandanna over her nose and mouth to block out the sand and stink. The teens swirled the rim of the ditch, like fish in a toilet bowl. They sped up and down the dunes, cursing as they narrowly missed each other. When Ashley closed her eyes and listened to the whine of the engines, she felt like she was inside a hornets’ nest. It was an escape.
Ashley didn’t even have to open her eyes. She knew it was Don, King of The Pit. She figured if she didn’t acknowledge Don, he’d leave her alone. But she looked up just as he placed a steel-toed boot on either side of her head, right next to her ears. Don was in his usual summer uniform, jeans slung low exposing plaid boxers, flames of red chest hair and acne igniting his pale, rail-thin frame.
Ashley went to move, but realized Don was standing on her splayed brown braids. She squirmed, trying to tug herself free. Don looked down at her and laughed, watching her struggle. “That’s right,” he said. “Stay down.”
“Get off me,” Ashley said, pounding her fists into his legs. He stood there until she reached up and jabbed him in the groin.
“Bitch!” Don stumbled back, clutching himself and groaning.
Ashley sat up and shook the dust from her hair. She watched as Don hobbled to the deserted cabin-sized house that was on his family’s plot of land across the street.
Don’s family ran a successful sod company. All of his aunts, uncles, and cousins lived on the compound in nice houses. The empty cabin was the one blemish. Ashley went in the cabin every now and then, but it always made her nervous. Old newspapers and paperback books stacked from floor to ceiling, had melted into paper-mache mountains as time passed and rain fell. Cigarette cartons with eagles printed on them littered every room. Her mother, Linda Hubbard, told her that when Ashley was a toddler, the cops had dragged Don’s great aunt, a cranky hoarding hermit, from the premises.
Ashley sighed and lay back in the dirt. This wasn’t how she wanted to spend her summer. She wanted to go to a robotics camp at the local community college. But her mom couldn’t scrape together the $180 fee, and had sent Ashley to Vacation Bible School instead, which she paid for in pies from the diner she worked at.
“Ashley, you get up here. Now,” a familiar voice shouted. She scrambled up the dune to her mother. Linda pointed wordlessly to her car, plugging her nose with the other hand. She still had her waitress apron on, a white notebook peeking out from the top with scribbled orders.
“I just knew you were skipping Vacation Bible School this week,” Linda said, spitting mad.
“No, I went to VBS,” Ashley said. “We’re just on a lunch break.”
“Bullshit,” Linda said. “I just dropped a pie off at the church and they were all in the middle of a group prayer.”
“I’ve been there all week, I swear.” Ashley said.
“Prove it,” Linda said, “Pastor Mike said you’d be making crafts. Let me see your crafts.” She held her open palm out to Ashley, as if she wanted her to drop a macaroni necklace into it.
Ashley could see the church steeple peeking through the trees. “I’m not going back there. I’ll just run away again.”
Ashley believed in God and she liked certain crafts. What she hated about church was Pastor Mike, and how he made the teenage girls at VBS do “women’s work”. During snack, the girls had to put the knock-off Oreos on paper plates, while the boys just watched.
“You can’t have free range in this town.” Linda rolled down her window and lit a cigarette. Her burden that summer was constantly coming up with free ways to make sure her daughter was monitored. She was so paranoid about Ashley’s fertility, she dragged her to the doctor and put her on the pill the very same day she got her first period. But the pill is only 99% effective, and Linda didn’t even trust those odds. “You’re not spending your summer in The Pit. That’s for damn sure,” Linda said. “Those kids in The Pit are trash.”
“You were one of them,” Ashley said. It sounded harsher than she’d meant it to, but it was the truth. Linda was once an unsupervised kid, and though they’d never discussed it, Ashley had a hunch that she’d been conceived in that pit. Linda didn’t know Ashley’s father’s name, didn’t want to know. She was pregnant at age fifteen.
Linda braked in the middle of the desolate dirt road, and stuck an acrylic red fingernail into Ashley’s chest. She opened her mouth, closed it. Checked the time on the car radio. “Christ,” she said. “My lunch break is over.”
Ashley sat in a booth at the diner for the rest of Linda’s shift. Linda was chewed out by her boss at the end of the day for letting her kid take up a table, even though the place was empty. “Do that again and you’re fired,” he said.
Ashley was shaken awake the next morning by her mother. “Up! I gotta drop you off before the breakfast shift starts.” Linda tossed the comforter off of Ashley’s feet and flicked on the lights. Her wet hair was soaking through her work shirt. Linda always looked like a teenager before she put her makeup on.
“Where?” Ashley said.
“I’ll tell you in the car,” Linda said. She looked around at the mountain range of dirty laundry that spread across Ashley’s room. “You live like an animal,” she muttered under her breath.
Twenty minutes later, they finally pulled out of the driveway. Linda took a couple sips of milky coffee and then handed it to Ashley.
“Tell me where we’re going,” Ashley said.
“Okay,” Linda said. “But I don’t want you to give me any trouble before you give it a chance. Okay?” She looked at Ashley until she nodded. She sighed, “I’m taking you to Green Meadows.”
Ashley remembered their commercial on TV with all the waving white-haired ladies, and their ear-worm of a jingle which was a spoof off of Green Acres. “What? The senior home?” she groaned. “I won’t fucking go.”
“You watch your mouth,” Linda said. “We have no other options. Grandma June can’t watch you because she has a doctor’s appointment. It’s this or Pastor Mike.”
Ashley sulked for the rest of the ride. She resented Linda for being a teen mom, and sometimes she was more bitter about paying for her mistakes than thankful for being born.
They pulled into the parking lot. “Listen,” Linda said, rubbing the braid that ran down Ashley’s back. “Don’t try to leave here until I pick you up, okay? There’s nothing around this place but woods anyways.”
“Fine,” Ashley said, not looking at her. She didn’t want Linda’s hand in her hair anymore. She got out of the car.
“See you around five o’clock.” Linda leaned into the passenger side and tried to give her brightest smile. Her teeth were brown, coffee-stained. “Oh wait, I packed you this.” She tossed Ashley a crumpled paper lunch bag.
Ashley slammed the door.
The woman at the Green Meadows reception desk had kind eyes. Her name plate said “Janet”. She made Ashley a nametag and handed it to her. “Alright, let’s get you started, hon. You’re gonna go down that hallway.” She pointed to a corridor to the right with the tip of her pen, it was lined with open doors. “Just see who you might wanna talk to. Feel free to go into any open room.”
In the first room, there was a woman sleeping. She looked peaceful, bundled up under a rainbow crochet blanket. She had it pulled up all the way to her nose, so only her dark forehead and a shock of blue-white hair were visible, not to be disturbed. But the lights in the room were on. The name on her door said “Rosie”.
Rosie and Ashley were good company for each other. Rosie slept soundly while Ashley looked at the two framed photos on her shelf. The woman in the pictures was beautiful, like Billie Holiday, with her black hair twisted into an updo. There she was holding a silver trumpet, there she was on the tarmac, getting ready to board a plane. Ashley sat on the edge of her bed and watched Antiques Roadshow.
She suddenly smelled cigarettes and looked toward the doorway. An elegant woman, wrapped in a sleek black shawl with her salt and pepper hair in a bun, stood there smoking. Big black frames magnified her faded grey eyes until they filled her entire face. She let the wisps of smoke seep from her mouth and pile in a cloud above her head.
“What the hell are you doing in there?” she asked in a gravelly voice.
Ashley set down Rosie’s photograph, tiptoed through the smoke cloud and out the door. “Are you allowed to smoke in here?” she asked.
“No,” she said, with a puff. “Now, who the hell are you?”
“Ashley. I’m visiting.” She pointed to her nametag. “Do you go here?” she asked.
“Do I go here?” The woman mocked. “What do you think this is, a high school dance?”
She perched a cigarette between her lips while she unlocked her door, the room next to Rosie’s. The nameplate on her door said, “Trudy”.
Trudy’s room was a mirror image of Rosie’s; the same bed frame, the same television, the same furniture. But it was filled with knick-knacks. Figurines, decorative paperweights, and miniature landmarks. Souvenirs from all over the world.
Trudy took a seat at the table, which had a dozen decorative ashtrays on it. She pulled out a long, lean pink cigarette from a box that said Virginia Slims.
“Sit,” she commanded. Ashley sat.
“Where did you get all these?” Ashley asked, thumbing an empty ashtray.
“Oh, here and there,” she said, flicking her ash into a tray with Mexico’s flag printed on the bottom.
“How’d you get to travel?” Ashley asked.
“I was a celebrity,” Trudy said smiling, pleased with herself. “I used to be famous.”
“Oh, this and that. I guess you could call me a socialite. People used to write about me in magazines,” Trudy said. “My fashion sense was legendary. Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without asking my opinion first.”
Ashley didn’t know who Audrey Hepburn was, but that didn’t matter. “You were in magazines?” Ashley got up to inspect her bookshelf. “Still got them around?”
“Um,” Trudy fidgeted, then looked at Ashley like she was a nuisance. She took a long drag off her Virginia Slim and scoffed. “I threw those out years ago. Maybe I never even bought a copy. You think I want to read about myself all day?” Trudy motioned to Ashley to sit down.
Trudy put in a tattered VHS of Roman Holiday. They shuffled their chairs closer to the TV, the screen wasn’t much bigger than a postcard. After, they watched all four hours of Gone with the Wind. Ashley gave Trudy half of her bologna and mustard sandwich. Around four o’clock, Trudy pulled out a plastic handle of vodka from beneath her bed and announced it was happy hour.
She poured a little into two plastic mugs with some cranberry juice she had sneaked from the cafeteria. No ice. She handed one to Ashley. Ashley took a little sip and discretely spat it back into her mug, hissing at her first taste of alcohol.
“Why did you come here?” Ashley asked.
“To get away from the spotlight,” she said, looking out her window to a view of the parking lot. “Nobody bothers me here.”
Just then, Janet popped her head in. “Ashley, your mom just pulled in. She’s waiting in the parking lot,” she said. She motioned for Trudy to put her cigarette out. Trudy rolled her eyes and stubbed it out, but relit another one as soon as Janet walked away.
Ashley got up from the table. “Nice talking to you, Trudy.”
“Who the hell is Trudy?” she said.
“That’s what your door says,” Ashley pointed behind her.
“I’ve been telling stupid Janet to change that since I moved in. Trudy used to live here, now she’s dead. I’m Vivian.”
“Vivian,” Ashley said, trying it on. “Can I come back tomorrow?”
She shrugged and took another drag off her cigarette. “You know where to find me.”
“So that wasn’t awful, was it?” Linda asked gingerly as Ashley got into the car.
“It was okay,” Ashley said, though she didn’t want to admit it. She spoke to the window, her hand hovering her mouth. “I met this old lady who’s been around the world. She was famous, people used to write about her in magazines.”
“Famous for what?” Linda said.
“She was a celebrity,” Ashley said into her palm, “a socialite.”
“But what did she do?” Linda said. “People didn't just get famous for nothing back then.”
“You don’t get it, Mom.” Ashley’s voice rose higher. “Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without asking her first. She’s like, the original Kim Kardashian.”
“Sounds like a snob to me,” Linda said. By that, she meant the woman sounded wealthy, and Linda didn’t trust people with money. She didn’t trust poor people either, but she at least understood them. At the next stop sign, Ashley sneezed and Linda caught a whiff of something. “Jesus. You’ve been drinking, I smell it on your breath.”
Ashley sputtered, “Vivian gave it to me. I had one sip to be nice.”
“I don’t care if it was one sip, you’re fourteen years old,” Linda said. “Who is Vivian?”
“The old lady Kim K,” Ashley said.
“Unbelievable,” She groaned. “I’m not taking you back there.”
“I already told her I’d be back tomorrow!” Ashley said.
“I’m not gonna let some old rich lady get you drunk.” Linda dug around the center console until she found her phone, and dialed her mother’s number. “You make me so tired,” she said to Ashley.
Marcus Waters was driving from Boston up to Lowland, Maine to see his mother, and he was speeding. He’d made this trip at least once every month for the last eight years. Initially, he was exasperated by her moving up to such a remote place. It was all white people in Lowland, and he didn’t appreciate the stares that followed at every gas station. “Move in with us,” he’d said to Rosie. “Stay in the city.” But over time he’d recognized that Green Meadows was a quiet place, it was affordable, and once things had taken a bad turn with his mom’s health he was secretly thankful there were caretakers to do the heavy lifting.
Janet had called in the evening, “It’s time,” she’d said. He’d just sent his daughter to bed, settled into the sofa with his wife, Dana, and a beer. It was too late to get a sitter, and he was in such a hurry, that he had to leave Dana behind and make the trip by himself.
Marcus arrived just before eight o’clock. He held Rosie’s hand and said, “I’m here, Mom.” The hospice nurse told him Rosie hadn’t eaten much in the past few days, and hadn't opened her eyes in 24 hours. They pointed to her blotchy, marbled toes, called them mottled, told Marcus that was the first sign of death. He felt them, and they were cold. “That’s because the heart’s not pumping blood effectively. It starts with the feet, then works its way up,” the nurse said.
Initially, the process of death reminded him of his daughter’s birth. The labor, the waiting, the nurses. But soon, he realized that death was nothing like birth. All of his muscles were tensed as he watched for what might be her last breath, all night long. The nurses were giving his mom syringes filled with popsicle-blue morphine every couple of hours. It was hard to think that this was what she wanted. She’d told him she was ready.
Marcus didn’t think she was ready, he wanted her for as long as possible. She was close to forty by the time she had Marcus, and was now over ninety. Up until the past year, she’d aged happily. In her eighties, she was more active than Marcus in his forties, going for long walks and teaching a weekly salsa dance class at Green Meadows. “I’m going to live to a hundred,” she’d say, smiling. For a while, Marcus thought she might outlive him. But two winters back, she slipped on a patch of ice and broke her hip. The surgery was unsuccessful, and she lost her independence in one foul swoop. She said, “Next time I’m dying, let me die.” After several conversations trying to talk her out of it, Marcus swallowed his fear.
Marcus ran his fingers through his mother’s blue-white hair. This felt strange but somehow right. They had never been physically close, preferring to show their affection through words.
He felt a hand on his back. He raised his head and it was morning, and there was the nurse standing over him with a bottle of Johnson’s baby wash and a wet cloth. “Sometimes a bath helps them pass,” she said. “If they’re clean, they feel ready.”
“Can I do it?” Marcus said. The nurse nodded, handed him the soap and cloth, and left him alone.
Marcus went to the foot of the bed and started with her mottled legs. He lifted the blanket to her knees. He dabbed the baby wash onto the cloth and rubbed her legs, then her arms. He wiped her neck and face, found her little blue brush in her bedside table, fixed her hair. He sat down on the edge of the bed, watched her breath heave in and groan out, then go still. “She’s gone,” he called out to anyone.
As slow as the death felt, the rest happened rather quickly. The funeral home came and took Rosie’s body away, and Marcus was left sitting alone by 9 o’clock in the morning. He suddenly saw how empty her room was, and began searching for anything she’d left behind.
Linda walked Ashley across the street to Grandma June’s early as the sun was just rising. June waited at the screen door in her bathrobe. She was almost young enough to be Ashley’s mother, and when Ashley was a kid she disciplined her as if she was. But last year, at 54, she suffered a severe back injury at the Shipyard, and the pills she took for the pain made her sleepy and distant.
Linda put her hands on Ashley’s shoulders and said, “You behave.” She turned to June and said, “You try not to fall asleep.”
“You quit telling us what to do,” June said, throwing her arm over Ashley’s shoulder.
As soon as Linda left, June assumed the position in her recliner, and let her two cats settle on top of her. She was watching Antiques Roadshow, and Ashley sat on the couch beside her and waited to hear her grandma’s snores. She crossed the room to the key hooks on the kitchen wall. She lifted the ring of keys to June’s red truck, quietly, so they wouldn’t jingle.
Ashley sat in the driver’s seat for a moment, trying to figure out how it all worked. When she was little, her mom would put her on her lap and let her drive down dirt roads. She put the key in and started the car, kept it in park while she tested which was the gas and which was the brake, she put Green Meadows into Google maps and was on her way. Ashley pulled her hood up, put her sunglasses on, and hoped none of the neighbors would recognize who was driving her grandmother’s car.
She made it to Green Meadows, was only occasionally honked at for forgetting to signal, but with the car in one piece and her body intact. Ashley was too proud of herself to feel any shame.
“Janet, can you come here for a minute?” Marcus called down the hallway to the receptionist. He’d spent the last hour going through his mother’s room, opening all her drawers and sifting through her closet. He only found two framed photographs on Rosie’s normally cluttered shelves, and half her clothes were missing. Everything had been there when he’d visited the month before.
Janet came and Marcus gestured to the empty room, “Where are my mother’s things?”
Janet looked at the empty shelves, and said, “I might have an idea.” She motioned for Marcus to follow her, walked to the very next room, and knocked on a door with “Trudy” written on it. He’d seen the woman who lived there only a handful of times in the last eight years. “Some kind of loaner,” his mother had called her.
When she opened the door, she was smoking a cigarette, wearing his mother’s shawl and glasses. Over her shoulder, Marcus saw Rosie’s treasures lined up on the shelves.
Trudy sized Marcus up and said, “What do you want?”
Marcus clenched his jaw. “I want Rosie’s stuff back.”
“Oh gosh, she’s done it again,” Janet laughed, shaking her head. “Trudy’s known to have sticky fingers around here.”
“This isn’t some cute thing, Janet,” Marcus said, moving past Trudy. He picked up Rosie’s little ceramic statue of a Flamenco dancer off of Trudy’s shelf. Spain had been her favorite place in the entire world, and Marcus had made empty promises to take her back one day. The Flamenco dancer, and all of his mother’s souvenirs, didn’t just hold memories of travel. They represented all of the hard work and challenges Rosie had endured, being the only black woman in the big band on tour. The hours of practice, sure, but also the blunt racism, even from her own bandmates. It pained him to think that even on her deathbed, this white woman was stealing what his mother had earned. “This is serious.”
“You can’t come into my room without my permission!” Trudy cried, indignant. She tried to wrench the Flamenco dancer out of Marcus’s hand. “Quit touching my stuff. Janet, this man is trying to steal my things!”
A gangly, freckled girl with a sun-burnt nose appeared in the doorway. She wore a baggy white t-shirt with a dolphin on it, denim shorts, and pink rubber flip flops. Everyone turned to look at her.
“Look, kid,” Trudy said, “this man is taking my stuff!”
Ashley was overwhelmed by the scene in front of her. A tall black man towered over Vivian, clutching her Flamenco dancer.
“You take your hands off Vivian’s stuff or I’m gonna call the cops,” Ashley said, raising her phone to show him she was serious.
“You have no idea what’s going on,” Marcus said, as calmly as possible. He slowly placed the Flamenco dancer on the shelf, and raised his empty, open hands to his chest. His mother had taught him this position when he was five, told him to assume it whenever he heard the word cops.
“Who’s Vivian?” Janet said.
“I’m Vivian,” Trudy said.
“No, dear,” Janet said. “You’re Trudy. Ashley, her name is Trudy.”
Trudy grabbed the Flamenco dancer, and hurled it at her mirror. “I said I’m Vivian!” she yelled. Everyone was still as shattered glass fell to the floor.
“Janet, can I talk to you out in the hallway?” Marcus said out of the corner of his mouth.
Janet nodded. “Trudy and Ashley, don’t move until I come back with somebody to clean up the glass.” She followed Marcus out of the room and down the hallway, where there was a small couch, and they sat down.
Marcus sighed and said, “Now, I’m not putting the blame on you, but what the hell is going on here?” Marcus hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. He didn’t want to talk anymore. “Look, I just want to get Mom’s things, and go.”
“I’m sorry, Marcus,” Janet said. “The resident manager won’t be in until two o’clock today, but I’ll report to her what happened. I’ll go a nurse to help remove Trudy from the room, and you can pack Rosie’s things.” She put her hand on top of his. “You sit here a moment, and I’ll be back.”
Marcus felt a small sense of relief that there was a plan, but he didn’t know how he’d be able to drive home to Boston. He reached for his phone to call Dana, as Janet walked over, the nurse and janitor trailing behind her. The nurse wore plastic gloves and carried a needle with a full syringe, while the janitor pushed her cleaning cart.
Trudy’s door was wide open. The glass was still on the floor, but Ashley and Trudy were missing along with half the souvenirs that had been on her top shelf. Janet pointed to the window that opened to the parking lot. They saw a red truck swerve out. “Shit,” Janet said.
“I’m Vivian, I swear on my life,” Trudy said, buckling her seatbelt. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I know a place that looks like Mars,” Ashley said.
“Fine,” Trudy said through the cigarette in her lips. “Mars is fine.”
They had managed to stuff half a dozen souvenirs in their pockets during their escape. Trudy lined them up on the dashboard while Ashley drove. The Leaning Tower of Pisa had been left behind, but at least they got the Flamenco dancer and the Eiffel Tower. Ashley knew the general direction of where they were going. As they neared The Pit, Trudy was absorbed by her trinkets, but Ashley noticed the pale, ginger body streaming down the hill towards them.
Don recognized who was driving the slow-moving truck and ran down to the middle of the street, holding out his hand for them to stop. Ashley put her foot on the brake and groaned. It was a Tuesday afternoon, Ashley knew Don was supposed to be up working his family’s sod farm. But Don had played hooky, and was no doubt spending his day looking at a Playboy under an oak tree when he saw them coming down the road.
Don eyed them through the windshield, confused at first, but then he grinned. He sauntered over to Trudy’s side of the car. Trudy’s window was open, she took a drag on her cigarette and flicked the ash at Don. “What the hell are you doing with my great-aunt Trudy?” Don said to Ashley, leaning into the car.
“What?” Ashley said. Trudy sat back in her seat, silently looking straight ahead.
“Can’t believe you’re riding around with her,” Don said to Ashley, nodding at Trudy. “I haven’t thought about her since I was seven and they dragged her out of that house. Dad just paid to put her away, wiped his hands of her. We don’t even talk about her anymore.” He finally looked at his aunt and smiled. “Cranky, dirty old Aunt Trudy. Look at that fancy cigarette,” Don said, grabbing it from her fingers and taking a drag. “What is this thing? Not what you used to smoke, can’t fool me. We’ve all seen your American Legend boxes up in the cabin.”
Trudy’s eyes briefly flicked towards her old home. “Drive,” she yelled at Ashley. Trudy gave Don the hardest shove she could so he moved backward, away from the car, and they took off.
They drove for a few miles until Trudy spotted a dirt side road. “Turn down there,” she said. Ashley figured it would be a dead end. The road was narrow, so they rolled up their windows to avoid being thwacked in the face by branches. They felt a kuh-chunk as the car ran over something, and drifted to a stop. Ashley hopped out of the car and saw they were dragging a bear trap, that it had punctured their front right tire. They were parked in front of an old family-plot graveyard. There were dozens of these small graveyards from the early 1900s scattered throughout the woods of Lowland. Some of the headstones were miniature, for babies too weak to make it through the Maine winters.
Ashley got back in the car. They sat there in silence, looking at all the stolen souvenirs on the dashboard. “Why did you take Rosie’s stuff?” she asked.
Trudy shrugged. “Now you’ve taken it, too.” Ashley felt like Don was standing on her braids again, and Paris was further than the grave.
Published by The Plentitudes. January 2021.