She had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes, but suicide was so corny and you had to be careful in this milieu which was eleventh grade because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before and between them they left twenty-four suicide notes and had become just a joke. They had left the notes everywhere and they were full of misspellings and pretensions. Theirs had been a false show. Then this year a girl had taken an overdose of Tylenol which of course did nothing at all, but word of it got out and when she came back to school her locker had been broken into and was full of Tylenol, just jammed with it. Like, you moron. Under the circumstances, it was amazing that Helen thought of suicide at all. It was just not cool. You only made a fool of yourself. And the parents of these people were mocked too. They were considered to be suicide-enhancing, evil and weak, and they were ignored and barely tolerated. This was a small town. Helen didn't want to make it any harder on her mother than circumstances already had.
Her mother was dying and she wanted to die at home, which Helen could understand, she understood it perfectly, she'd say, but actually she understood it less well than that and it had become clear it wasn't even what needed to be understood. Nothing needed to be understood.
There was a little brass bell on her mother's bedside table. It was the same little brass bell that had been placed at Helen's command when she had been a little girl, sick with some harmless little kid's sickness. She had just to reach out her hand and ring the bell and her mother would come or even her father. Her mother never used the bell now and kept it there as sort of a joke, actually. Her mother was not utterly confined to bed. She moved around a bit at night and placed herself, or was placed by others, in other rooms during the day. Occasionally one of the women who had been hired to care forher during the day would even take her for a drive, out to see the icicles or go to the bank window. Her mother's name was Lenore and sometimes in the night her mother would call out this name, her own, "Lenore!" in a strong, urgent voice and Helen in her own room would shudder and cry a little.
This had been going on for a while. In the summer Lenore had been diagnosed and condemned but she kept bouncing back, as the doctors put it, until recently. The daisies that bloomed in the fall down by the storm-split elm had come and gone, even the little kids at Halloween. Thanksgiving had passed without comment and it would be Christmas soon. Lenore was ignoring it. The boxes of balls and lights were in the cellar, buried deep. Helen had made the horrible mistake of asking her what she wanted for Christmas one nightand Lenore had said, "Are you stupid?" Then she said, "Oh, I don't mean to be so impatient, it's the medicine, my voice doesn't even sound right. Does my voice sound right? Get me something you'll want later. A piece of jewelry or something. Do you want the money for it?" She meant this sincerely.
At the beginning they had talked eagerly like equals. This was more important than a wedding, this preparation. They even laughed like girls together remembering things. They remembered when Helen was a little girl before the divorce and they were all driving somewhere and Helen's father was stopped for speeding and Lenore wanted her picture taken with the policeman and Helen had taken it. "Wasn't that mean!" Lenore said to Helen.
When Lenore died, Helen would go down to Florida and live with her father. "I've never had the slightest desire to visit Florida," Lenore would say. "You can have it."
At the beginning, death was giving them the opportunity to be interesting. This was something special. There was only one crack at this. But then they lost sight of it somehow. It became a lesser thing, more terrible. Its meaning crumbled. They began waiting for it. Terrible, terrible. Lenore had friends but they called now, they didn't come over so much. "Don't come over," Lenore would tell them, "it wears me out." Little things started to go wrong with the house, leaks and lights. The bulb in the kitchen would flutter when the water was turned on. Helen grew fat for some reason. The dog, their dog, began to change. He grew shy. "Do you think he's acting funny?" Lenore asked Helen.
She did not tell Helen that the dog had begun to growl at her. It was a secret growl, he never did it in front of anyone else. He had taken to carrying one of her slippers around with him. He was almost never without it. He cherished her slipper.
"Do you remember when I put Grecian Formula on his muzzle because he turned gray so young?" Lenore said. "He was only about a year old and began to turn gray? The things I used to do. The way I spent my time."
But now she did not know what to do with time at all. It seemed more expectant than ever. One couldn't satisfy it, one could never do enough for it.
She was so uneasy.
Lenore had a dream in which she wasn't dying at all. Someone else had died. People had told her this over and over again. And now they were getting tired of reminding her, impatient.
She had a dream of eating bread and dying. Two large loaves. Pounds of it, still warm from the oven. She ate it all, she was so hungry, starving! But then she died. It was the bread. It was too hot, was the explanation. There were people in her room but she was not among them.
When she woke, she could feel the hot, gummy, almost liquid bread in her throat, scalding it. She lay in bed on her side, her dark eyes open. It was four o'clock in the morning. She swung her legs to the floor. The dog growled at her. He slept in her room with her slipper but he growled as she made her way past him. Sometimes self-pity would rise within her and she would stare at the dog, tears in her eyes, listening to him growl. The more she stared, the more sustained was his soft growl.
She had a dream about a tattoo. This was a pleasant dream. She was walking away and she had the most beautiful tattoo covering her shoulders and back, even the back of her legs. It was unspeakably fine.
Helen had a dream that her mother wanted a tattoo. She wanted to be tattooed all over, a full custom bodysuit, but no one would do it. Helen woke protesting this, grunting and cold. She had kicked off her blankets. She pulled them up and curled tightly beneath them. There was a boy at school who had gotten a tattoo and now they wouldn't let him play basketball.
In the morning Lenore said, "Would you get a tattoo with me? We could do this together. I don't think it's creepy," she added. "I think you'll be glad later. A pretty one, just small somewhere. What do you think?" The more she considered it, the more it seemed the perfect thing to do. What else could be done? She'd already given Helen her wedding ring.
"I'll get him to come over here, to the house. I'll arrange it," Lenore said. Helen couldn't defend herself against this notion. She still felt sleepy, she was always sleepy. There was something wrong with her mother's idea but not much.
But Lenore could not arrange it. When Helen returned from school, her mother said, "It can't be done. I'm so upset and I've lost interest so I'll give you the short version. I called...I must have made twenty calls. At last I got someone to speak to me. His name was Smokin' Joe and he was a hundred miles away but sounded as though he'd do it. And I asked him if there was any place he didn't tattoo, and he said faces, dicks and hands."
"Mom!" Helen said. Her face reddened.
"And I asked him if there was anyone he wouldn't tattoo, and he said drunks and the dying. So that was that."
"But you didn't have to tell him. You won't have to tell him," Helen said.
"That's true," Lenore said dispiritedly. Then she looked angrily at Helen. "Are you crazy? Sometimes I think you're crazy!"
"Mom!" Helen said, crying. "I want you to do what you want."
"This was my idea, mine!" Lenore said. The dog gave a high nervous bark. "Oh dear," Lenore said, "I'm speaking too loudly." She smiled at him as if to say how clever both of them were to realize this.
That night Lenore could not sleep. There were no dreams, nothing. High clouds swept slowly past the window. She got up and went into the living room, to the desk there. She looked with distaste at all the objects in this room. There wasn't one thing here she'd want to take with her to the grave, not one. The dog had shuffled out of the bedroom with her and now lay at her feet, a slipper in his mouth, a red one with a little bow. She wanted to make note of a few things, clarify some things. She took out a piece of paper. The furnace turned on and she heard something moving behind the walls. "Enjoy it while you can," she said. She sat at the desk, her back very straight, waiting for something. After a while she looked at the dog. "Give me that," she said. "Give me that slipper." He growled but did not leave her side. She took a pen and wrote on the paper, When I go, the dog goes. Promise me this. She left it out for Helen.
Then she thought, That dog is the dumbest one I've ever had. I don't want him with me. She was amazed she could still think like this. She tore up the piece of paper. "Lenore!" she cried, and wrung her hands. She wanted herself. Her mind ran stumbling, panting, through dark twisted woods.
When Helen got up she would ask her to make some toast. Toast would taste good. Helen would press the Good Morning letters on the bread. It was a gadget, like a cookie cutter. When the bread was toasted, the words were pressed down into it and you dribbled honey into them.
In the morning Helen did this carefully, as she always had. They sat together at the kitchen table and ate the toast. Sleet struck the windows. Helen looked at her toast dreamily, the golden letters against the almost black. They both liked their toast almost black.
Lenore felt peaceful. She even felt a little better. But it was a cruelty to feel a little better, a cruelty to Helen.
"Turn on the radio," Lenore said, "and find out if they're going to cancel school." If Helen stayed home today she would talk to her. Important things would be said. Things that would still matter years and years from now.
Callers on a talk show were speaking about wolves. "There should be wolf control," someone said, "not wolf worship."
"Oh, I hate these people," Helen said.
"Are you a wolf worshipper?" her mother asked. "Watch out."
"I believe they have the right to live too," Helen said fervently. Then she was sorry. Everything she said was wrong. She moved the dial on the radio. School would not be canceled. They never canceled it.
"There's a stain on that blouse," her mother said. "Why do your clothes always look so dingy? You should buy some new clothes."
"I don't want any new clothes," Helen said.
"You can't wear mine, that's not the way to think. I've got to get rid of them. Maybe that's what I'll do today. I'll go through them with Jean. It's Jean who comes today, isn't it?"
"I don't want your clothes!"
"Why not? Not even the sweaters?"
Helen's mouth trembled.
"Oh, what are we going to do!" Lenore said. She clawed at her cheeks. The dog barked.
"Mom, Mom," Helen said.
"We've got to talk, I want to talk," Lenore said. What would happen to Helen, her little girl...
Helen saw the stain her mother had noticed on the blouse. Where had it come from? It had just appeared. She would change if she had time.
"When I die, I'm going to forget you," Lenore began. This was so obvious, this wasn't what she meant. "The dead just forget you. The most important things, all the loving things, everything we..." She closed her eyes, then opened them with effort. "I want to put on some lipstick today," she said. "If I don't, tell me when you come home."
Helen left just in time to catch the bus. Some of her classmates stood by the curb, hooded, hunched. It was bitter out.
In the house, Lenore looked at the dog. There were only so many dogs in a person's life and this was the last one in hers. She'd like to kick him. But he had changed when she'd gotten sick, he hadn't been like this before. He was bewildered. He didn't like it--death--either. She felt sorry for him. She went back into her bedroom and he followed her with the slipper.
At nine, the first in a number of nurse's aides and companions arrived. By three it was growing dark again. Helen returned before four.
"The dog needs a walk," her mother said.
"It's so icy out, Mom, he'll cut the pads of his feet."
"He needs to go out!" her mother screamed. She wore a little lipstick and sat in a chair wringing her hands.
Helen found the leash and coaxed the dog to the door. He looked out uneasily into the wet cold blackness. They moved out into it a few yards to a bush he had killed long before and he dribbled a few drops of urine onto it. They walked a little farther, across the dully shining yard toward the street. It was still, windless. The air made a hissing sound. "Come on," Helen said, "don't you want to do something?" The dog walked stoically along. Helen's eyes began to water with the cold. Her mother had said, "I want Verdi played at the service, Scriabin, no hymns." Helen had sent away for some recordings. How else could it be accomplished, the Verdi, the Scriabin...Once she had called her father and said, "What should we do for Mom?"
"Where have you been!" her mother said when they got back. "My God, I thought you'd been hit by a truck."
They ate supper, macaroni and cheese, something one of the women had prepared. Lenore ate without speaking and then looked at the empty plate.This excerpt is a portion of the first story in the collection.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Honored Guest by Joy Williams. Copyright © 2004 by Joy Williams. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.