Friday 4 June 2021

Hetty Had a Headache


by Dvora Wolff Rabino

Amber Moon

 Hetty had a headache. The pounding pain woke her up in the middle of a dream—something with ghosts in it, oddly, but the details evaporated as soon as she opened her eyes. The throbbing stuck with her despite the Tylenol as she did her morning toilette in the old subway-tiled bathroom of her pre-war railroad apartment on Riverside Drive and as she returned to her dark, musty bedroom to slip on her sweats. And it accompanied her as she padded down the hall to the farmhouse-style kitchen that, since the renovations about five years ago, had been her favorite room of the apartment.

            Given the extra pounds Hetty had added to her post-menopausal paunch since the winter began, she’d resolved to fix herself a breakfast of protein today instead of carbs. She cracked open a trio of eggs into a blue-glazed ceramic bowl and whipped them with skim milk, a dash of salt, and a sprinkle of fresh chopped dill. She poured the mixture into a lightly oiled frying pan, then diced a quarter of a red pepper and half a slice of low-fat cheddar and scraped them into the pan with her cutting knife, narrowly avoiding an injury from her newly sharpened blade.

            The pan sizzled. Outside, a dog barked. Hetty looked out the window above the sink to find a woman in a tight gray coat jerking her poodle away from a snow-covered tree. “Poor creature,” Hetty muttered. She shook her head but the slight movement only made her pain worse.

            As she reached for a spatula in the center island, Hetty saw that the paint on the sage-green wainscotting that she found so charming when the kitchen was new was now badly cracked. Also, the contrasting white baseboard was pulling away. The kitchen, like Hetty, was already showing its age. Maybe the whole expensive renovation had been a dumb waste.

            She plated her omelet.

             “How many egg yolks did you use in that, Henrietta dear?” her older sister called out from the living/dining room beyond the pass-through counter. Clad in a thin white nightgown, Catherine was ensconced in her favorite cane rocking chair with a knitting project on her lap, a walker against the wall beside her. Her skin looked even tauter than usual; she’d always been tall and thin but lately her face was looking almost skeletal.

            “Three,” Hetty mumbled.

            “What was that?” Catherine asked. Her chair rocked forward and back, forward and back, with an irritating creak. “Sorry: I didn’t hear. And God knows I don’t mean to intrude. I was just curious. Weren’t your LDL levels a little high at your last doctor appointment?”

            Hetty closed the sliding pocket window for privacy. Bypassing the stools at the island counter, she stood by the sink, forked two big bites of her breakfast into her mouth, and scraped the rest into the garbage. Catherine was right: her omelet contained enough cholesterol for an entire week. And it tasted as bland as a boiled potato. She scrubbed the plate, pan, stove, and countertop to at least approximate her sister’s standards, paying special attention to a new splatter of oil on the tin backsplash. She dry-mopped the floor.

            All right: enough already, she told herself. Headache or no, it was time for her video check-in with her father.

            Catherine’s chair was parked midway between the dining and living areas, right in Hetty’s path. Hetty walked around her without a word or a glance and sat down heavily on the living room couch. Leaning forward, she opened her iPad on the coffee table in front of her and pressed the name perennially at the top of her FaceTime list.

            Her father was standing by his writing table, all six foot two of him, when he picked up. He seemed distracted; he was looking not at Hetty, and certainly not at Catherine, who was out of camera range, but off to the side.

            “Hey, Dad,” Hetty said. As he slowly pivoted toward her, she forced a smile and sat up straighter for the camera. “How are you doing?” The retirement home was depressing and frankly, so was he. She hoped these daily FaceTime calls would buy her a between-visit break filled with only tolerable levels of guilt.        

            “Meh,” he answered. His narrow mouth was set into his characteristic look of disapproval tinged with disgust. Not that everyone got to see that face: he reserved it for his nearest and dearest. “I’m okay, I guess, for an old man,” he elaborated. “Bones creaking. Pipes leaking. Memories evaporating. And walkers and wheelchairs everywhere I look. Old people!”

            He didn’t ask how she was. Then again, he never did. Never had. Even after her divorce twenty years ago, her hysterectomy ten years after that. Never asked about her writing either; he was the only writer who mattered.

            “Did I tell you that I’m giving a reading next week to a group of residents?” he asked. “I call them the Alter Kocker book club.”

            “That’s funny, Dad,” Hetty said. Old farts, roughly translated from the Yiddish. He’d made the same bitter, half-hearted joke the last three times they’d talked.

            “So? Nu?” he asked when the conversation stalled. “When are you coming to visit?”

            “Same as always. Friday.” She suppressed a sigh.

            “I’ll just have to wait then,” he said. “Same as always.”

            Water off a duck’s back, Hetty said to herself. Water off a duck’s back. She didn’t need to respond reflexively to every one of her father’s needle pricks.

            Hetty’s duck-feather mantra might have actually succeeded had her big sister not looked up over her knitting needles and half-glasses just then and tsked. Catherine’s disapproval was not directed at their father, it was clear: it was aimed at Hetty. She must have thought Hetty needed reminding that Catherine, had she been able, would have visited their father every day, with casseroles and a potted fern in hand. Plus a watering can. As Catherine saw it, that was a daughter’s job. Their mother had done that and more with her own parents and in-laws.

            Their mother had been dead eighteen years, and Catherine still acted as if she needed her approval.

            The pressure inside Hetty’s head was building. She could use a nice scalp massage right about now. Anyway, she was in serious need of a root touch-up and trim. To feel better, look better. She read that in some tattered women’s magazine in the waiting room of her doctor’s office. She phoned her hairdresser for an appointment.

            Catherine’s hair was naturally gray, as always, and almost militantly short. She trimmed it herself with a ruler in front of the medicine-cabinet mirror, a paper towel carefully laid on the sink to catch the clippings. Though lately it seemed her hair barely grew at all. “You go to the hairdresser once a month?” she asked while Hetty was on hold. Her knitting needles were in rapid motion, making a clack-clack sound with each stitch. “How much does that come to per year, I wonder?”

            Right. How many starving children in Africa—or Bed-Stuy—could Hetty feed with the money she spent on this exercise in vanity? She knew; she got it. She rubbed her temples.

            With no appointments to be had until tomorrow, Hetty had the rest of this morning and all afternoon for the novel. That would be plenty of time to get in fifteen hundred words, maybe more, as long as she glued her tush to the chair. She had started writing Chapter Four yesterday. The juices were flowing. She’d purposely stopped working yesterday while her heroine was in the middle of a hairy situation and was eager to pick up where she’d left off.

            She scooched back, moved her iPad to her lap, and scanned the last page she’d written. Getting the detective out of the hot water she’d left her in yesterday went fast; she’d planned the rest of that scene in her head in the hours she was trying to fall asleep last night. Now came the hard part: developing the next plot twist and sprinkling in a trail of clues, at least one a red herring. The best mystery authors dropped hints so subtle that they became obvious only in hindsight.

            “Another murder mystery, I assume,” her sister murmured.

            Yes. It was. As Catherine well knew. Hetty wished her sister would shut up so she could concentrate. Hetty could move to the bedroom, of course, but the light in there was awful. And the kitchen table was too small for all the notecards. Anyway, her sister tended to follow wherever she went.

            “Interesting,” Catherine went on. “I prefer novels that uplift the spirit, like Dad’s, but what do I know.” The chair squeaking and needle clacking were getting louder and Catherine was raising her voice to be heard above the din.

            It was as if the needles were poking at the inside of Hetty’s skull.

            That wasn’t fair. Hetty’s stories were uplifting, in a way. Weren’t they? The subjects were sordid, but the amateur sleuth was a clever, gutsy woman, and the good guys always triumphed in the end. Also: their dad’s novels might have been more uplifting, more spiritual, than hers, but it was all an act. In real life he was a committed cynic, devout atheist, and unabashed narcissist who sneered at any folks deluded enough to believe in anyone or anything beyond themselves.    

            Seeing him once a week was a lot, given everything. Wasn’t it? 

            Hetty had to admit, though: the mysteries were a bit self-indulgent. Maybe she was wasting whatever microscopic writing talent she had. What was she contributing to the universe? Compared to Catherine, she was a selfish waste of space. Her sister had been the epitome of a devoted daughter, wife, and mother. (Hetty had not. She never achieved motherhood status at all, which was probably just as well considering how abruptly her wife status was terminated.) Catherine was also a regular clothing-drive organizer and food-pantry volunteer who spent her few remaining hours knitting blankets for preemies and headwraps for chemo patients.           

            And their mother had been a self-sacrificing saint. She had to be, to put up with their father.

            Hetty looked back at the screen in the vain hope of some fresh inspiration.

            “Remind me: what ever happened with your last book?” Catherine asked, the mole by the corner of her thin lips twitching. “How many agents did you write to in all?”

            Twenty-one, Hetty murmured. But this book, she’d thought, would be different. The premise was more original and the writing a whole lot livelier.

            Ha. She was deluding herself. What were the odds, really? Her late-life passion was a hobby, not a career. She might as well go back to handling wills and trusts or take up something really useful, like plumbing. Or knitting for that matter.

            Hetty closed the laptop and rested it on the coffee table. She returned to the kitchen for an Advil to top off the Tylenol, then spread herself out on the couch and pulled the midnight-blue afghan Catherine had knitted over her shoulders and face. The wool throw felt scratchy against her cheeks. But the gift had been a nice gesture. Catherine was nothing if not generous.

            Hetty would just close her eyes for a few minutes. After that she could do some gentle stretches. Her kinked-up shoulders, neck, and back couldn’t be helping her headache any. She’d just have to find that set of PT exercises she’d written out and stashed away in one of her piles.

            Hetty thought she heard Catherine snort, as if she knew how her sister’s latest little self-improvement endeavor would end. Little Miss Perfect had always known better than Hetty. Even when they were four and six, and Catherine told Hetty that her bones would crumble if she didn’t drink up the glass of milk their mother poured them. Even when they were ten and twelve, and Catherine yelled at Hetty to stop biting her nails. Even when they were fourteen and sixteen, and Catherine told Hetty she’d better cross her legs in that too-short skirt or she’d find herself pregnant before she even finished high school.

            “Can you cut it out with the jabs already?” Hetty asked. “Please?”

            Catherine pursed her lips together tightly and didn’t say another word. She didn’t need to. Every forward and backward tilt of her gratingly noisy chair jabbed at the inside of Hetty’s forehead and crown. Hetty took her head in her hand and felt hot tears forming in her eyes.

            She had to face it: her sister had been right. Hetty wasn’t going to work on that stupid novel anymore, not today anyway, and she certainly wasn’t going to do the stretches. She didn’t need to exercise; she needed to exorcise. There was barely enough space in Hetty’s brain to house her own thoughts, let alone to accommodate Catherine, her squeaky rocker, and those ever-clacking knitting needles. It was time to send the woman back where she belonged.


An hour later, Hetty left her car on Cypress Road at the Mount Hermon Cemetery and trudged in thick down coat and heavy boots to a snow-covered grave. Catherine had beaten her there; she was already seated in her rocking chair, the knitting in her lap once again. Her skin was looking a little gray now, like her hair, and her outlines had become fuzzy.  

            “Catherine,” said Hetty. She wiped off the nearest headstone with her woolen mittens, another gift from her sister, and checked the date to be sure. “It was five years ago last October that Dad and I buried you here, right next to Mom.” 

            “Yes?” breathed Catherine. “And your point?”

            “My point,” Hetty said, as firmly and lovingly as she could, “is that this was supposed to be a place of everlasting rest. Isn’t it time to do just that? You’re torturing me.” She laid a heart-shaped stone from her pocket lightly on the crest of the headstone.

            “Oh, Hetty,” Catherine sighed. Droplets fell onto her cheeks and crystallized. “Don’t you realize I only wanted to help?”

            “I do realize that,” Hetty said, her voice breaking. She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her jacket. “And it’s effing hard to be angry at you when you mean so well. But first you go and die on me and then you kibbitz from the grave? It’s all too much.”

            “You’re right,” Catherine said. The wind picked up. The weeping willow by the back fence shuddered. A white rose petal from a bouquet lying on a nearby grave came to rest between Catherine’s feet and Hetty’s. “I’m sorry.”

            Catherine placed her knitting on the seat of her chair and stood. Her wraith-like body turned as wispy-white as Hetty’s cold winter breath. Her legs, then her torso, and finally her arms and face melted into the snow-covered soil atop her grave.

            Hetty stood there a while longer, letting the wind dry her tears. It was time, decades past time in fact, for her to lay Catherine’s measuring stick to rest. She stood up and shook the snow off her coat. “I forgive you, Cat,” she whispered. “And I’m sorry. For the blame.” 

            She turned and walked to her car. It was time to go home. After all, she had a story to write.

About the author 

A recovering media lawyer with an undergraduate degree in journalism, Dvora Wolff Rabino studied creative writing most recently at the Gateless Writing Academy and the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute. Her previous essays and stories were published in a variety of journals, including The Lascaux Review.



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