Just a Cupful
In a rare moment of quiet, Carmita settles into Dr. Malcom’s recliner. She should be sweeping up the crumbs from lunch and emptying the dishwasher, preparing Mrs. Malcom’s evening meds. Dr. Malcolm will be home soon, and he’ll have a few more things for Carmita to do before she and Manny can go home. But Manny and Mrs. Malcolm never sleep at the same time like this, and the quiet is palatial, only the sounds of the two invalids breathing and the wind’s bright whistles against the adobe. Carmita stares out the window to where the horses chomp the dry tufts of grass and imagines the wind on her like hands.
Wind like this is unusual for this time of year. It should be that May is when winter is long-gone but the heat hasn’t yet come, the month when Carmita wants to push open the windows to let fresh air roll through the shut-up house, over the sofa and Manny, into Mrs. Malcolm’s just-combed hair. But lately the wind is so bad it knocks stuff over, like the flowerpots in the Malcoms’ garden, so the windows stay closed. There is something a little sinister about the weather but Carmita won’t admit this to her mother, who’s full of ideas about the astrological significance of every little thing.
The Malcoms’ house looks over the low belt of escarpment into the shallow valley. Beyond it is the toothy grin of the mountains and the open mouth of New Mexican sky. The flowers chuckle up from the overturned pots, the cacti spout their funny little blooms. The Malcolms aren’t from here, but they call it home. The horses and the cacti and the monstrous blue is like a movie backdrop that the Malcolms pulled into their life and left there.
“Shoulda gotten rid of those horses,” Ray always says. It’s playing through her mind now like a mean jingle as she watches them in their dry pasture. Eight years ago, Dr. Malcolm bought a new horse for Mrs. Malcolm’s birthday, imported from another country. There are pictures of her laughing after she rips off her blindfold to find the horse tied in a silky bow. “She rode him and rode him,” Dr. Malcolm told Carmita, but not long after, it spooked at a rattler and dumped her on her head. Since then she’s brain damaged. Mrs. Malcolm’s body, unlike the horses’, Carmita’s, even Manny’s, is no longer hers.
Ray’s a little right, Carmita thinks: there is something sick about it, the way Mrs. Malcolm looks down all day on them running around or just standing there eating without needing any help, flicking their manes like quick little brags. He says, “If one did you like they did her, I’d shoot him and feed him to the dogs.” He likes to say rough-nice things like this then run his hands over Carmita’s tits and squeeze.
But Dr. Malcolm doesn’t shoot the horses, he just continues to train and run them as if, Carmita’s thought before, he can work them hard enough that everything flips backward in time.
“Riding was her big love,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s good for her to still have the horses nearby. Brings the life back to her.” Well, thinks Carmita. But it’s none of her business. She and Dr. Malcolm are a good team—staying out of each other’s way and feeling their own brand of badly for one another. No one wishes a retarded kid or a brain-damaged wife on someone else. Dr. Malcolm spends all day out seeing patients, making house calls, filling up his calendar with more things to do for tomorrow, and cutting Carmita her weekly check.
Manny wakes up and starts socking himself. He folds his fingers halfway down and pummels his cheek, his forehead. He does this every now and again. Doctors say it’s to experiment with his physical sensations. He whacks hard, then harder.
“Manito,” she says softly. “Don’t do that, baby.” She’s said it one hundred thousand times, just like that. Mrs. Malcolm doesn’t stir, only bobs a little as she breathes in and out while Carmita, break over, gets up to sweep the floor, rub down the counters, clank the dishes back where they belong.
When Dr. Malcolm pulls in the driveway, a little bump bump happens in Carmita’s stomach. She scans the house to make sure things are in place. She says, “Someone’s home, Mrs. Malcolm!” in a songy voice. This always makes Mrs. Malcolm pull her head up straight and smile her half-faced grin. Manny goes “Aaaaaeeeeee!” long and high.
The car door slams and Dr. Malcolm lets that crazy dog of his run in ahead of him, collar jangling, drool slinging everywhere. The dog darts around like he’s on some kind of merry-go-round, tracking in a mess and slapping things with his tail. The cat scampers out of sight and Manny groans. “Unnnnnggghhhhh!” he says. The dog doesn’t know any better than to not sniff all over Mrs. Malcom. Dr. Malcolm doesn’t stop her.
“Good for her,” he says, “To have all that puppy-dawg energy! Itn’t that right, girl! Itn’t that right!” he says to both Mrs. Malcolm and the dog at the same time. Mrs. Malcolm smiles, avoiding the dog as much as she can, and watches her husband as he takes off his coat, runs a hand through his whitened hair.
If you only saw Mrs. Malcolm when her husband was home, you’d think she was one thousand percent better than she is. She sits with her head up on her own, her eyes flash like they’re alive, she even talks in sentences.
“Thanks, Carmita,” says Dr. Malcolm.
“Yes, taaannnnk you!” whines out Mrs. Malcolm in her shapeless language. She loves to play hostess when her husband is home.
“Love you, honey, see you tomorrow!” Carmita calls. Dr. Malcolm walks her to the door.
Today he says, “What would we do without you?” He shakes his head and turns around to get on with the evening.
“I don’t like the way he looks at you,” says Ray sometimes, even though he’s only met him twice. Ray doesn’t like the way anyone looks at her—not the Malcolms, not the man who pumps her gas, not her mom, not even Manny, though he’s nice to her son. Others haven’t been.
“Goodnight, Manny!” calls Dr. Malcolm from the study. Carmita loads him up in the car and drives thankfully home.
“Inside she’s herself,” said the speech therapist at the beginning. “Inside, she is who she is. It’s just that she can’t be that way on the outside. Our job is to help her make the match.”
Mrs. Malcom has the kind of brain injury where you know what’s happening around you, but you can’t make your body do what you want it to. In the county hospital, Carmita worked with people like her—only it was sadder, for the patients and for Carmita: stuck i