Sunday 8 January 2023

Seeing Gracie Hall - Short Story by Margaret Duda


Seeing Gracie Hall

Short Story

by Margaret Duda 


After Gracie Hall died and her parents brought her home and put her to bed in the front parlour, my mother and I visited her every week. Every Friday afternoon, with flaky csoroge or kifli in hand, we mounted the wooden porch steps of the tiny house, which was only one room wide. The steps were warped and slanted toward us, making them that much harder to climb--but then nothing about our visits to Gracie Hall that summer of '51 in southern Delaware was ever easy.

A sense of ritual regulated the visits--even before we started out. Mama changed into her blue churchgoing dress and secured her matching straw hat with a pearl-tipped pin. She still had a trim figure for forty-three, though her hair had greyed prematurely shortly after I was born. I remembered her telling other women just how quickly it had turned, though it was never said in anger--just in fact. Mama was like that. She could accept anything without resentment. It helped that Mama was very religious.

Mama didn't even find it hard to accept the fact that Gracie had died during a simple tonsillectomy performed two weeks before she was to be married. The procedure was to have taken less than an hour and would have rendered her perfect again. The doctors had recommended it, but they hadn't known about Gracie's heart. "No reason for it," the surgical team insisted. “Her heart was strong as a bull.” But the heart as strong as a bull stopped beating for five whole minutes in the middle of the operation, and Gracie Hall, nineteen-years-old and soon to be married, died.

The doctors, at the limit of their powers, brought her as far back as they could. It simply wasn't far enough. There would be no bouquet of white roses for Gracie, no boutonniere for Sam. For all their years of experience and their fancy machines, the doctors failed. After two weeks, they finally conceded defeat and Gracie Hall was brought home in a deep coma on the very day she was supposed to have become Mrs. Samuel Hartswick. Mama accepted Gracie's coma just as she'd accepted the grey hair. It was all in the hands of God.

At ten, however, I couldn't accept the fact that Gracie had died and I hated to visit her each week, a routine that grew harder every time. I slouched the way I always did when faced with something unpleasant.

"Stand up straight, Mancika," Mama said in Hungarian, the language used at home, as she adjusted the collar on the pink cotton dress she’d made me for special occasions. "There. That's better. Now let's get going. Gracie needs us."

She picked up her weekly offering, a plate of sugar-dusted csoroge, straightened her own shoulders, and started down the lane, with me slouching along behind her.

Only seven narrow houses squatted along our side of the lane and the Halls lived in the middle one. Fewer than a hundred paces separated their house from ours, a two-story rambling structure built by the Amish, which dominated the bend in the road. We'd installed electricity and indoor plumbing in l948, but the white-shingled house—with its picket fence, screened-in porch, and rooms added on at odd angles—still looked like a house built by a large Amish family.

The Amish never left the region, but they’d gotten pushed farther and farther away onto roads even smaller than ours. But there was one thing they could not take with them, one thing that brought them back around the bend again and again. Just beyond the large field across from our house, lay a cemetery with stone markers. When a member of their community died, they all returned in a single file of black buggies, a long dark procession that underlined the finality of death. For them, it was easy to die. For Gracie Hall, it was much harder.

As Mama and I trudged along the edge of the lane, we passed the Strailey house, where the parents and five children were squeezed into two bedrooms. The mother was always screaming at one of them and the father drank too much. Papa called them white trash, but Mama refused to pass judgment. Next door lived the miserly old couple named Trimble. The Trimbles rarely spoke to anyone and only gave us four candy corns apiece on Halloween.

Eventually, we arrived at the Halls' driveway, where the stones dug sharply into the soles of my white sandals. A few paces led to the warped steps, their gray paint crinkling and peeling in the hot summer sun. Powered by good will, Mama didn't hesitate a minute as she crossed the meager porch where the Halls used to sit in rocking chairs when Sam came calling.

Mama knocked loudly and that embarrassed me. None of the houses had doorbells, which made everyone a heavy knocker. In this case, however, it wasn’t necessary, since Mrs. Hall was right there on the other side, keeping her desperate vigil.

As fragile fingers lifted a corner of the dainty lace curtain, Mama smiled and waited patiently to pass inspection. I stood behind her, still wishing I could be somewhere else, designing paper doll gowns with Nancy or biking with Anne. And then we heard the familiar clicking and unlatching. The door swung open to reveal Ethel Hall, a small nervous woman in a flowered housedress.

"Come in, come in," she said, herding us inside. "How nice of you to visit. Gracie will be so pleased."

Suffocatingly hot, the room reeked of medicine and sweat, but Mama noticed neither the stuffiness nor the human odours as she moved to the bed. It had a crank on the bottom so you could raise and lower the head and the feet, but we found Gracie lying flat on her back—eyes closed, lush black hair limp around her shoulders. A needle pierced her arm, delivering intravenous nourishment, and I knew a bag for her wastes lay just beneath the sheets. The frayed sofa and overstuffed chairs, lined up on the opposite side, permitted everyone to sit facing Gracie as if she were a shrine. Like a saint without sin, she lay there waiting to be worshipped.

"And how are you today?" Mama asked as she stood smiling down at the young woman who hadn’t moved in three months. I found it hard to talk to a person who looked as if she were sleeping—or dead—but it never seemed to bother Mama. The doctors said they didn't know if Gracie could hear, but it might help if people talked to her, so Mama talked. "You should see the day lilies, Gracie. They're just the prettiest orange you can imagine." Then Mama remembered me. "Oh, Mancika came too. Here, Mancika, say hello to Gracie."

I moved toward the bed. No matter how often I came here, I never grew used to the sight of Gracie lying there in her pale nightgown. Her skin sagged and she'd lost her tan. It was as if a stranger had entered the body of the formerly pretty young woman who had worked as an operator for the telephone company. Gracie had always had a kind word for everyone, as if she were always on duty, always trying to get people connected.

"Hello, Gracie," I said, hoping to see a flicker of movement. That's what everyone was waiting for, some indication that, against all odds, she was about to rise from the dead. I fantasized about being the one who woke her up, the one who said something so astonishing she couldn't bear to just lie there without dying to hear more. Suddenly I thought of some news that might very well do the trick. "Strailey’s cat had kittens," I said. "Five of them. Three black, a brown, and a calico." And then I delivered the final punch. "And I watched them all being born. They had these long cords like pieces of string and they were covered with blood."

I waited for the miracle resurrection, or at least a twitch or tremor. But nothing. Gracie just lay there, the IV dripping into her arm, sustaining an existence that couldn’t be called a life.

"Gracie moved a finger yesterday," Mrs. Hall announced with pride. "I know she did. No one else saw her, but I did."

"That's wonderful, Ethel," Mama said, though Mrs. Hall had told us similar stories in the past. "I pray for Gracie every night."

"And the newspaper had that story about the boy who woke up after two years. He woke up just like that and asked for a piece of apple pie and a glass of milk."

"A miracle for sure. Well, I bet that could happen to Gracie.” Mama suddenly remembered the csoroge sitting in the metal tin she held in her hands, "Oh, here's a little something for you and Howie."

"Well, isn't that nice? We can all have some right now with coffee. I'll be right back."

Mrs. Hall scurried into the kitchen, where coffee always seemed to be brewing as if the home was an all-night diner. I wanted to sit down, but Mama remained upright. She continued to talk to Gracie as she took the young woman’s hand in her own. Tears ran down Mama's cheeks, but she wiped them away before Mrs. Hall returned with flowered plates holding fluffy knots of dough. An instant later, she fetched coffee for her and Mama, pineapple juice for me.

We sank into the frayed chairs to eat our snack and discuss the weather. "Did you hear about that tornado in Texas?” asked Mrs. Hall. “And that mining accident in West Virginia? Twenty-three men killed in that one, the radio said." Because she rarely left the house and had few visitors, her gossip was limited to what she heard on the radio, read in the paper, or gleaned from her janitor husband’s remarks about his day. Sam still came to visit, of course, and often brought anecdotes he’d heard as assistant manager of Woolworth's. I thought it very romantic that Sam still called on Gracie every night and that the Halls moved to the porch to give the young couple their privacy.

Our visits rarely lasted more than an hour, but they seemed much longer since I was only occasionally included in the conversations and did little but sit there and watch Gracie's chest rise and fall. This was the hardest part of every visit because the other picture always came to mind. I tried to drown the scene, to push it down beneath the surface of my memory, but like the bar of soap in my bath water, it bubbled up again and again. No matter how hard I tried to concentrate on the young woman lying there in front of me, I always saw the other one.

The first image to rise up would be my hiding place, a small clearing I'd found the previous spring nestled deep in the thick woods behind our houses. I'd gathered all the old beer bottles, lumpy stones, sharp sticks, and scraps of paper into a large paper bag, and then used Papa’s rake to gather the leaves into a soft bed. Naturally cool and dark, the space was perfect for thinking and dreaming. I could lie there and watch gnats dancing in the shafts of sunlight streaming through the branches.

I used my refuge all through the spring and early summer. Then one day, I found them there—Gracie and Sam—early in June, right before her operation. The temperature was in the nineties and I'd fled to the woods to escape the heat. I heard them before I saw them and tiptoed to the edge of the clearing. I had a perfect view from the underbrush where a few seedlings were struggling to become trees.

Sam and Gracie held each other tightly as they rolled on my bed of leaves. They looked like the Strailey boys when they were fighting except that Sam and Gracie were naked. He raked his hands through her dark hair and nuzzled her neck. Gracie locked her long, taut legs around Sam. She cried out—setting birds to flight—but this was not the cry the of a chicken about to have its head cut off. It was more like the cry of a hungry child.

As they twisted and turned, their bodies gleaming white where bathing suits had once shielded their skin, they seemed glued together by their own sweat. "I love you, I love you," Sam murmured as they tumbled and rolled, cracking the branches I'd failed to clear away. Gracie covered his mouth with her own.

A fly buzzed around my ear as I sat entranced, watching Sam slide off Gracie and stretch out beside her, his hands roaming over her body, touching her in all the personal places. She didn't stop Sam as his tongue licked the tip of her breasts and his hand moved between her thighs. And then he was atop her again, pushing her through the leaves and into the ground harder and harder and faster and faster as Gracie begged for more and still more. I knew then that I shouldn't be watching and I ran away, and then she died. But she didn't die. She just wouldn't wake up and suddenly I knew why.

"Come back, Gracie, I won't tell," I promised as I rushed toward her bed, shaking her shoulders. Her head flopped to one side as if she were a Raggedy Ann doll. "I won't tell. I won't tell."

Mrs. Hall shrieked. Mama dropped her coffee cup, jumped to her feet, and pulled me away.

"I won't tell," I insisted again, screaming louder than before. "You don't have to hide anymore..."

"Ethel, I'm so sorry," Mama said, forcing my arms to my sides. "It must have been too much...I never thought..."

Mama shoved me out the door. All the way home, I couldn't stop crying, and when we got there, Mama just held me and told me she understood and was sorry she had made me go.

She didn't understand, of course, but after that day, she didn’t expect me to visit Grace anymore.

As the weeks drifted by, I overheard Mama telling Papa that the Halls had "released" Sam from the engagement. I’d guessed as much, since they never sat on their front porch anymore, and the empty rockers stirred only with the force of the wind.

Years passed. Gracie slowly moved into a foetal position, as if seeking a way to return to the womb. Little more than skin and bones, she no longer bore any resemblance to the pretty young woman who, before the disaster—as I came to understand—had known the pleasures of the flesh.

A scholarship eventually took me to the ivy-covered brick buildings of the University of Delaware where the letter from Mama arrived in my dormitory mailbox. It came wrapped in resignation and tied with her gift of infinite acceptance.

“Gracie Hall died this morning," she wrote. “Now she can rest at last."

That was a strange way to put it, I thought. In my mind, Gracie had been resting for seven years, but I still sent her parents a sympathy card and regretted that there had been no miraculous awakening. Why, I wondered, did my mother and I have to make so many visits if those efforts had come to nothing? Why did I have to go through all that?

Twenty years later, with teenagers of my own, a home far away from the tiny lane in southern Delaware, and my widowed mother living in a nearby apartment, I got a call in the middle of a beautiful summer afternoon.

“Come to the hospital,” the strange voice said. “Your mother has suffered a stroke.”

My husband and sons were away camping in the Poconos and could not be reached, but I rushed to the hospital with my ten-year-old daughter Laura, the same age I was when we visited Gracie each week. We found my mother in the emergency room, a tube down her throat, her right side paralyzed. But Mama could still move her eyes, and when I held her left hand, she squeezed it. My daughter and I took turns holding hand and reassuring her that all would be well. There was no fear in my mother’s eyes, no panic in her grasp. She had accepted her condition, as she had accepted everything else in her life.

We stayed with my mother for as long as we could and finally went to sleep in the lounge area. When we tried to go back to her room in the morning, the nurse told us that she was much worse.

“She had another stroke during the night. I’m very sorry.”

We went into the room and found my mother on her side with her eyes closed. My daughter tried to talk to her and get her to squeeze her hand, but to no avail. Laura asked to be taken home, not wanting to remember her grandmother this way. My best friend came and got her. I hugged Laura, and she told me to stay if I wanted to. I did. They didn’t know for sure, the nurse said, if my mother could hear or not, but in some cases, it helped to talk to the patient. I smiled sadly, thinking that medical science had not advanced far in thirty years. Like Gracie Hall, my mother was in a coma and all we could do was wait.

But because of my mother’s philosophy of life, I could do more than wait. I could face Mama, with the tube in her throat and the IV in her arm, and I could talk to her, telling her about the world outside and my husband’s camping trip in the Poconos with the boys, and Laura’s new friends.

“And you should see the day lilies, Mama. They’re just the prettiest orange you can imagine.”

The doctor arrived and I left the room. When he finished, he came out and drew me aside.

“Your mother left instructions that she did not want to be kept alive by artificial means. She is paralyzed on both sides now and unconscious.”

“I understand.”

Mama was not put on any machines to prolong her life but she continued to breathe. I went home to soothe Laura, but returned the next day after she went to school. I talked to my mother and petted her arm as tears rolled down my cheeks. Because of Gracie Hall, I did not expect a miracle awakening. Because of Gracie Hall, I could also accept my mother’s passing when it came early the next day. The blinds were still closed and the room was still dark when I arrived at the hospital.

“It’s for the best, my dear,” the nurse said later, trying to console me. “Sometimes these cases go on for years.”

“I know,” I assured her. “Now she can rest at last.”

Wiping away my tears, I stood up, straightened my back, and left the darkened room. Slowly, but surely, I started back down the long corridor, back toward the sunlight in the front lobby, half expecting, as I neared the corner, to see a dark procession of Amish buggies coming around the bend.


Margaret Duda, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, is a poet, short story writer, non-fiction author of five books and over a hundred articles in magazines, is working on the final draft of a novel, and will have a collection of poems published in May of 2023.  She had her short fiction in the Kansas Quarterly, the University Review, the South Carolina Review, the Green River Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, Crosscurrents, and Fine Arts Discovery.  One of her stories made the distinctive list of Best American Short Stories.

1 comment:

  1. Margaret, this is such a lovely story. I so enjoyed reading this, and it's so well written!


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