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‘The End of the Day,’ by Bill Clegg: An Excerpt

With her back against the foyer floor, Jackie lies still and watches dust motes rise in slow motion around and above her. She’d drifted to sleep after falling, but has no idea for how long. By the angle of light beaming from the kitchen window, she figures it must be early afternoon.

She’d been awake for only a few minutes before Amy’s knocking ended the silence. At first she thought Dana had come back, and reflexively, before she could manage her reaction, felt a mix of alarm and relief. She pictured her old friend standing on the other side of the door, restless in fitted suede pants, polished leather boots; her ringless fingers raking her short hair. But the more vividly she imagined the woman who had marched away from the house earlier and fled in her car, the less likely it seemed she’d changed course and returned.

And then she heard Amy’s voice. Her rendition of Mom—an inextricable knot of scold and worry. When Rick was a little boy he would beg his mother to tell his sister to leave him alone. From the time he could talk he complained and cried and sometimes threw violent fits when, as he put it, Amy bossed on him. She’s bossing on me, Mommy! She won’t stop bossing on me! His face would often be splattered with tears as he pleaded to be understood. She won’t stop telling me what to do, he’d say with as much desperation as he could muster.

[ Return to the review of “The End of the Day.” ]

Jackie finally understands what her son endured. She, too, has come to dread her daughter’s voice which arrives in doubting tones over the phone, asking if Jackie has taken her pills, checked the thermostat, gone to the doctor’s appointments she’d scheduled for her, called the insurance company to authorize her to follow up on her claims. These calls are almost as awful as her unannounced visits which began last summer and coincided with her complaining that the kid Jackie had hired to take care of the lawn was doing a shoddy job and taking advantage. From there her inventory of grievances could go anywhere—the shampoo Jackie used, the toxic fabric softener she bought, the window she left open, the gutters she’s reminded her countless times to get cleaned, the type of milk in the refrigerator. I thought we talked about this, her most frequent refrain as she roots through the dresser drawers, closets, and medicine cabinets, throwing things out without asking. It’s the same with the cupboards and freezer shelves she ransacks, weeding out unnecessary or unauthorized items that don’t pass muster. The last time Amy was in the house she threw out a frozen pizza Jackie had bought at the grocery store. It’s not that it looked especially good, but it seemed easy to make and something she could eat half of for dinner and the other half the next day for lunch. I can’t believe you’d buy this! Do you know what they put in these things? The salt alone will spike your blood pressure! I thought we talked about this.

After Jackie retired from working as a secretary in the principal’s office at Wells Center School, Amy became relentless. Jackie’s first response was to stand her ground and let her daughter know that she could manage on her own, as she had since Floyd died. But Amy responded to any sign of resistance by overwhelming her with statistics and articles and anecdotal evidence. Didn’t she know that by not complying she was only ensuring more work for Amy, who, with her own daughter moving home, her nursing job at the hospital, and second husband commuting to Danbury every day, was at the breaking point? I’m just going to have to deal with it all later, she snapped recently. Jackie was stunned at first not just by her daughter’s insensitivity, but by her miscalculation. She was only sixty-eight, not ninety, she’d started to say, but then realized that ninety was only twenty-two years away, eighty only twelve, seventy, just two. After a while, Jackie’s most frequent response to her daughter was silence. In less than two years, Amy had gained access to or had taken complete control of her bank accounts, medical information, retirement plans, insurance, everything; and in that time she managed to change it all. New bank, new leased car, new cable TV plan, new telephone provider, new primary care physician. New lawyer, too, to grant her power of attorney over everything medical and financial. Rick will only make it worse, she’d warned, when Jackie suggested they involve him. Without Sandy doing the books at the restaurant, he’d have been out of business by the end of the first year. He’s a mess.

There was, at first, a part of Amy’s bossiness that Jackie welcomed. She’d never minded the monthly onslaught of paperwork required to keep her family and her house going, but when Amy began meddling, Jackie thought it couldn’t hurt to have another set of eyes on the bills. She regrets now that she failed to remember that when it came to helping, Amy only had two modes: not involved or complete control. And now it was too late and too complicated to undo. Buying groceries and dealing with the tradesmen and boys she hired to keep the house sound and presentable were Jackie’s last remaining areas of autonomy, and these she would not surrender. Holding on, however, came with the high price of Amy’s shock-and-awe tactics of relentless fault-finding, discrediting, and shaming of Jackie’s choices and decisions. Amy was inexhaustible, despite the breaking point she often cited. Lately, Jackie flinched whenever she heard her daughter’s voice.

Mom? Mom! What’s going on? Why is the door bolted in the middle of the day and why are you not answering me?

Jackie wriggles her fingers and toes. Cautiously, she rolls to her side and maneuvers to a seated position. She’s relieved to confirm again that nothing is broken or mangled.

I’m calling Rick and then I’m calling the cops and between us we will get this door down. Mom!

Amy is shouting at full volume. Jackie can’t resist a smirk as her daughter sputters with rage. She knew withholding the key to the bolt lock on the front door had been a good decision. It just took a few years to appreciate exactly how good. In witnessing Amy’s upset at having absolutely no control over the situation, she experiences a cool satisfaction, a welcome, if fleeting, justice. Still, she does not want her son or the cops summoned.

Calm down, Amy, she says. I’m right here.

You’re WHAT? Excuse me? HELLO?

Here, Jackie repeats, but more softly now. Holding onto the doorknob for balance, she stands. Upright but still wobbly, she frees the bolt.

Hi dear, what’s the matter? Jackie’s limbs and back are stiff from lying on the floor and she holds onto the doorframe to steady herself.

You tell me, Amy says, irate, incredulous, yanking the door open the rest of the way. How about we start with who Dana is. And then we can move on to why she left this at the door you refused to open.

Propped against Amy’s narrow hip and under her beige-fleeced arm, she is holding a brown leather briefcase. In her other hand, held high at the end of a stiff, straight arm, a scrap of torn paper—a page torn from a book, it seems, with a note scribbled in familiar handwriting:

Dear Jackie,

I’m sorry it’s come to this. But I can no longer control what I never could. But I tried. I did try. Wrong as I might have been, it was for you. I was young. You were my friend.

I’ll be at the house until tomorrow. It’s time we talk.

Dana

Before she responds, Jackie grabs the briefcase and letter from her daughter’s hands, and without breaking eye contact swings both behind her and lets them crash and flutter to the floor. And then she yells. It had been a long time—not since Rick was a boy knee-deep in mischief that left sofa cushions stained with red pen, or an entire peony bed a mess of petals, stems and upended bulbs. Yelling at Amy now feels good. Like a steaming hot shower blasting away layers of filth built up over years. Amy has never experienced her mother this way and in her shock she sits down on the stoop and listens.

Who are you to stand in front of my house and scold me? You are not the one in charge here. Go home and don’t call me for a few days. And don’t turn up here unannounced again! Jackie delivers these last words as she’s turning away, and before Amy has an opportunity to respond, she slaps the door shut.

[ Return to the review of “The End of the Day.” ]

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