“Rufous is back!” Blanche shouts.
Henry falters from a doze in his electronic push-up chair.
Blanche grabs for a tattered dish towel and marches toward the deck on a mission, only to be met by an obstacle! The screen door is completely broken.
Her wrinkled face squishes into a grimace. Blanche knows, only too well, that her neighbor, Sally Collins, will be happy to help on the next check-in. Sally cheerfully drops by every morning, with a cup-of-tea excuse, but Blanche is certain it’s to make sure that she and Henry survived the night. Sally’s been here already this morning. She won’t be back until tomorrow. Blanche will figure out how to fix the screen door on her own before then.
Sally is the same age as Blanche—eighty—but looks rosy in her pastel “jogging” outfits, and she moves with a bouncy step since taking up tap dancing at the Trumbull Grange Hall.
Blanche jiggles the screen door, tips it to the side, and wiggles it the other way. She shoves and thump-thump-thumps it open. If she doesn’t hop-to, tannish brown Rufous, like a schoolyard bully, will chase the more cooperative red and green Broad-tails away. A nine-inch space between the screen door and its frame allows Blanche to slip through. Her body, in gray sweatshirt and baggy trousers, has shrunk to five feet, two inches from her earlier five feet, five inches. Never a heavy woman, Blanche weighs a mere ninety pounds.
Charging onto the deck, she waves the dish towel like a flag that has seen too many battles. Blanche doesn’t want to hurt Rufous, but something has to be done. He can’t run roughshod over the others. If she could only get a little closer. Taunting her, he circles behind the feeder. When she had her full height, Blanche could have easily reached him.
She doesn’t depart, so Rufous jets off to loiter in a nearby ponderosa pine while the other hummingbirds gather to take fast sips from ten red plastic, blossom-shaped dispensers. They give each other turns the way Blanche wants them to do.
She used to teach fifth graders, and often said, “They’re agreeable. Different from those sixth graders with their big ideas.”
Fifteen years ago, Henry, upon his retirement, came up with his moving-to-the-cabin-permanently idea. Blanche felt a painful clutch to the chest as if her heart had been stabbed. The thought of leaving her school, where she had been employed since their boys went off to college, caused a throbbing, like her lifeblood pumping out.
Eventually, she got over the loss and started volunteer work. She also quit thinking of the old white colonial in Denver as “my home,” which is a good thing because their youngest son, Andrew, and his wife, both artists, bought the house. Recently, they painted it chartreuse with burgundy trim.
With a huff of irritation, her thoughts return to Sally Collins and her meddling ways.
Sally is also a permanent resident on the river. She and Ralph and her three pampered felines moved in year-round shortly after Henry and Blanche Robinson took up permanent residence.
At the time, Henry said, “This is just grand. Chums right here in the wilderness. We don’t have to drive down the mountain for a party.”
At the time, Blanche felt grateful to have an old friend nearby.
As soon as she turns her back and heads for the front room of the cabin, Rufous, like a fighter pilot, dive-bombs the Broad-tails. Blanche does an about-face. If it’s necessary to stand here until the little ones get their fair share, that’s exactly what she will do. For another ten minutes she waits, dish towel stretched tightly between her two hands, teeth clenched, causing her prominent chin to jut out.
At last, the satiated Broad-tails fly off to hide in low-hanging branches, and she finally feels free to leave her post. It’s time for Rufous to have all he wants. There’s plenty more. Blanche makes a new batch of boiled water and sugar every day. She requires a good supply because bats raid the feeder at night. If some sleep wasn’t necessary, she’d stay up with a flashlight to scare them off.
“Did you get rid of him?” Henry rasps, leaning forward on his chair when Blanche returns. He can barely see the hummers due to macular degeneration, which has left him legally blind, yet claims that he senses their whirring motion and hears their metallic whistling sound.
“I sure did,” Blanche says. “Kept him away until the others got enough.”
Henry has taken to slumping on his walker near the deck railing, letting the more sociable of the hummers, never Rufous, land on an outstretched finger. Grinning, he says the beating wings tickle. Observing this, Blanche finds it impossible to believe that he used to perform several delicate surgeries each month. Christopher, their eldest son, has taken over the practice, with his wife as part-time bookkeeper—a position Blanche held through their boys’ growing-up years.
“How ’bout me?” Henry whines. “Time to fill me up?”
“Sandwiches’ll be ready as fast as I can assemble them.”
“A bit of wine’d be nice.”
“You always say that.”
“Well, it would. Some of the peppery red that Ralph used to like,” he coaxes.
Sally’s husband always said, “Wine is good for us.” He’s been gone over a year. Cancer. Blanche is sure that if he hadn’t indulged in all the scotch, as well as all the wine, he’d still be with them.
She takes a small glass shaped like a turned-up bell and pours barely a thimbleful of cabernet into it.
“Dr. Johnston tells me this is beneficial. Takes away the aches and helps me sleep,” Henry informs her for at least the hundredth time.
“What does he know? Burt Johnston doesn’t look old enough to be a doctor,” Blanche retorts for at least the hundredth time. “If you hadn’t been drinking so much wine all these years, you’d have your vision, of that I’m absolutely convinced.” And your sharp mind. Blanche forges toward the kitchen. “Besides, you sleep more than enough with those long naps.”
While standing next to the counter nibbling at her own lunch, she cuts Henry’s tuna fish sandwich in triangles and places them on a plate from the old house. It belonged to her mother and has a rose pattern. When he could see, Henry liked these dishes. Alongside the sandwich, she arranges sliced Gala apple in a pinwheel. Next, Blanche waves her hand over the plate as if giving his food a blessing and carries it to a foldable tray alongside his “magic” chair.
After she sets down the meal and tucks a napkin into Henry’s collar, he says, “More, please?” Two wobbly hands lift the wineglass under Blanche’s nose, Oliver Twist-like.
“Just one additional, very small serving,” she says, and after it’s poured, “I don’t want you tripping in the bedroom when you go for your rest.”
Blanche hears Henry’s sigh, but chooses to ignore it. Several months ago, he fell at bedtime. Stark-naked and about to wriggle into his pajama bottoms, he tipped over. She couldn’t hoist him onto the bed. He insisted that she help dress him before calling Sally, so she rolled and boosted and tugged until he said, “I’m properly covered.” Upon arrival, Sally aided Blanche in lifting Henry off the floor and tucking him under his blankets.
She stayed for at least an hour. “To make sure everything’s okay.”
That’s when Blanche first imagined Sally acting as their monitor. Tick-tick-tick.
“Why don’t I get a little wine to relax you?” Sally had said, in an annoying, artificially calming voice that she’s taken to using all the time.
“I don’t need to relax. I’ll make some tea.”
“Tea would be nice. Remember tea we used to drink at The Cozy Café?”
“I most certainly do, as well as the work on your campaigns.” And so started one of their many stories. Blanche helped Sally win every high school class office she ever ran for, with useful improvement ideas and colorful, eye-catching posters: Vote for Sal—She’s Your Gal!!! They lost touch with each other until, after Blanche’s years of supporting Henry through medical training, when he finally joined an established practice, they became reacquainted. Sally was the wife of another junior partner in the cardiology group.
She would say, “It’s so remarkable that Ralph and Henry came to the same office. We were able to resume our friendship.”
Blanche also used to think of it as remarkable.
On the night Henry fell, when Sally ran out of memories, she started on the Robinsons’ general well-being. “If he breaks something, I’m afraid you’ll have to move back to the city.”
This prospect would have pleased Blanche no end earlier, but she’s grown to love living in the mountains. Early on, she visited a nursing home in Woodland Park three times a week, bringing wholesome snacks like homemade granola bars and vegetable juices whipped up in her blender. These offerings were not always appreciated. Still, Blanche said things like, “It’s your responsibility to stay as healthy as possible,” and felt pleased with their cooperation. Lately, she’s had more than enough to do keeping Henry in working order, and stopped going to this nursing home. The past two summers since his deterioration, she has worried that it’ll be the last season to feed the hummingbirds and protect the Broad-tails against Rufous. What will they do when she’s not around? Will the poor things be ill-prepared for their long flight? Will they starve?
That wretched night of Henry’s fall, Sally eventually took her lantern and left for the short walk back to her cabin. That was when she first said, “Call any time you need me,” and the next morning her drop-in checks began.
Blanche vowed to never need Sally again, and she’s been successful until the blasted screen door broke.
However, it’s going to have to wait a bit. After Henry is prepared for his nap, Blanche tromps to the bathroom. She’s been working on a huge project—re-pasting wine labels stuck to the walls over forty years before, back in the days when she enjoyed the revelry. Back when she liked the buttery taste of chardonnay. These labels stayed perfectly fine until the past few months when all of them started to peel off at once. Her plan for the day was to finish this task.
A hint of a smile crosses her face as she recalls Henry’s oft-heard remark, when he could see: “This beats fussy wallpaper or boring old paint. Every one of these labels has a story and represents a fantastic time. Better than reading a magazine when you’re sitting for a long while.”
They hosted work parties with friends that first year the cabin was built, each person taking turns with the pasting. The bathroom walls are covered with labels of every wine variety: chardonnay, rosé, zinfandel, a Zeller Schwarze Katz—this one mounted by Sally. Henry had leaned close and peered at the black cat, with back arched and paws outstretched. He said in a teasing voice, “It looks like you, Sal.”
That day, Blanche said, “Oh, Henry, it does not!”
Sally comments on this label whenever she uses their bathroom. If it wasn’t her grandchildren’s favorite, Blanche would rip it off the wall and throw it in the trash. Instead, she squeezes her lips together and swallows to get rid of the memory of chardonnay in her mouth.
She puts her stepladder in place and starts to work. In her normal rushing fashion, she drills through the designated task and completes her goal. She neatly places supplies under the sink, stands back, and admires her efforts.
Suddenly, her still-sharp ears pick up rustling noises. Rufous again! She considers the stuck screen door and decides to push it onto the deck in order to get her ladder through, thinking that after defending the Broad-tails, she’ll fix it. Blanche fetches a broom in order to really give Rufous what-for! Several Broad-tails cluster in the pines like spectators to a bloody confrontation.
She places the ladder close to the railing, tests for stability, and climbs a couple steps. She reaches with the broom to give Rufous a good whack, but he zigzags away from the bristles. Landing on the feeder’s far side, he commences to gulp belligerently. She nudges the feeder’s bottom with her broom, and he zooms away. Blanche climbs up another step to the top of her ladder. Here she can hold him off. She swishes through the air several times, pauses, and sniffs at sun-warmed pine needles spread over the deck. This mess will have to be swept away as soon as she’s fixed that door. The Broad-tails flit tentatively past the feeder and spread their tails like fans, seeming to say, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Blanche answers. Poised as straight as a sentry, she glares at Rufous until he backs down and disappears. Most of the Broad-tails zero in on plastic blossoms. A few vibrate nearby as if awaiting orders. Gradually they join the group.
Once her duty is completed, Blanche prepares to leave. It’s time to get Henry up so he doesn’t sleep the rest of the day away. And once that’s done, she’ll fix the door. She moves each foot down once, twice, and on the final step catches a toe. The broom drops with a clatter. She circles her scrawny arms backward, round and round, loses her balance, and tumbles from the ladder. At the last moment, Blanche turns her head to look into the cabin, catching a glimpse of Henry’s gnarly, bare foot peeking out from under the covers. Then, she crashes onto the deck and smashes her temple against the metal frame of the waiting screen door.
A puddle of blood, as dark as red wine, pools around her cheek. She lies there, eyes scrunched shut, hands uncharacteristically quiet.
* * *
That’s how Sally Collins finds her in the early evening. An ominous feeling caused Sally to come by for another check on the elderly couple. Blood has dried a dark rust color, and Blanche’s face is grayish white. Sally touches her neck. No pulse. After a startled few seconds, she considers moving Blanche into the cabin, or at least looking for something to cover her. Sally concludes that neither action will make her any better off than resting in the open on a bed of fragrant pine needles.
“Blanche…Blanche… Where are you?”
Sally barely hears Henry’s voice. She raises her own. “It’s me. Sally. I’ll be right in.” She looks at the fallen screen door and wonders when it broke. Sally scoots it aside with a hard nudge of her toe so that she can enter the cabin. With this action her head whirls as Blanche’s head tips back and forth and clunks to the deck.
Sally takes a deep breath and goes to help Henry out of bed. Once he’s sitting up, she gently guides his bare feet to the floor and into fuzzy slippers. She places an arm under his arm. The other hand presses his chest for balance.
Henry pushes his walker into the opening where the screen door used to be. Blanche lies inches from his fuzzy foot.
“You must stay inside,” Sally tells him. “It’s cold out here with the sun setting.”
“There’s been an accident. I’m so sorry.” Sally puts her arm around Henry’s frail shoulders, guiding him and the walker to his special chair. In the bedroom, she finds a quilt to wrap around him.
Henry shivers uncontrollably as if his chair vibrates. Through chattering teeth he says, “What kind of accident?”
Sally explains that Blanche fell off a ladder onto the deck, hit her head, and she’s gone.
He looks blank, as if shell-shocked. It takes a while for the accident to register. With his head slowly shaking, he says, “How could this happen? She’s such a trooper.”
“That she was,” Sally agrees.
And, after a few more minutes, Henry murmurs, “Blanche always kept humming along.”
Sally uncovers a dusty bottle of scotch. It’s her deceased husband’s Chivas Regal, hidden in the back of Blanche’s first-aid cupboard. She pours a healthy dose in a tumbler for Henry, to warm him and settle his nerves. Now, she calls the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. They tell Sally that before long someone will arrive to take her best friend away.
Turning to Blanche’s mostly unused chair, beside Henry, Sally sits down with her own scotch in a bell-shaped glass. She watches the tiny birds at their feeder. They all depart, except the biggest one. He’s such a pretty coppery gold color.
Rufous sticks around for a long time, taking an extra-big drink.