Karen asked Veronica, "How can they feed you this wallpaper paste?"
"I guess it’s easy on the stomach," I said.
Veronica said, "The cuisine here is not worth the detour."
I was glad to see her sense of humor surface.
"Not worth the detour" was Veronica’s refined complaint against eateries or anything that didn’t meet the standard.
"Let’s get out of here," Karen said. "We’ll take her back to her apartment. We can fix her a nice dinner there."
I said, "Take her out of here? They won’t let us — "
"We’ll sneak her out. I’ll go find a wheelchair."
"I’ll get her a bathrobe."
I walked over to the closet where a few of our mother’s garments were arranged, as if she had come for a weekend holiday.
Veronica said, "I read in the newspaper about an inmate’s request for his last meal — "
"Don’t talk like that," Karen said. "That’s morbid."
Veronica went on, "He wanted fried chicken. Ho hum. But the funny thing about it was that he ordered a Diet Coke. Now why do you suppose he’d want a Diet Coke to wash down his fried chicken?"
"For my last meal I’d want the Real Thing," Karen said.
The mood had suddenly shifted the way sunshine stabs through bamboo blinds. We giggled like three girls planning a party. Karen and I decided to wheel Veronica back to the apartment. Then I would go to the market next door to buy the fixings.
"What do you want to have?" I asked Veronica.
"Whatever you girls want. My treat. My wallet’s on my bureau."
We lifted her from her narrow bed and lowered her into a wheelchair. She weighed less than 90 pounds and her bones felt like the poles of a tripod tangled in her hospital gown.
I looked up and down the hall until the coast was clear, then Karen whisked her down the long corridor.
In preparation for our mother’s departure, our half-brother had gone through all six rooms of the apartment, making lists of estate heirlooms for immediate appraisal and collecting all secondary items in boxes. Without the usual clutter, the place looked robbed of its history, like a furniture showroom. But Veronica was glad to be home.
Back from the market, I poured our mother two fingers of scotch in her favorite tumbler. She sat beside Karen, happy to be planted on her own living-room sofa. "Cheers and jeers," Veronica said, lifting her drink in a salute to us. The toast, or jab, got a laugh out of Karen.
A stray cat waited at the patio door. Karen let him inside and he weaved in and out of our legs. His long fur was matted with clumps that were so tender to touch, he hissed at us each time we tried to pet him. Some tangles are too painful to inspect. Karen found a can of tuna in the cupboard and we watched the tom devour it. Then, he wanted nothing more to do with us and we let him outdoors again.
Veronica said, "Go get my jewelry box in my bedroom. I have some rings — "
"Keep your rings, you might still wear them," Karen said.
"We don’t want your jewelry." I said. "I wish you’d just talk to us."
"Talk about what?"
"I don’t know. This is a chance for us to connect the dots. Maybe you have some advice, I mean, woman to woman — "
Veronica said, "Woman to woman?"
I knew that she was always bored if we talked about our kids or our domestic routines, so I told her about my last trip to New York. I said, "My boss came to my hotel room. Do you think I shouldn’t have let him in?"
"He came to your hotel room?"
"Yes. Suddenly, he’s standing there. What would you have done?"
"That depends. Is he worth the detour?"
Karen was laughing between pulls on her Newport.
"Worth the detour? I don’t know," I said. "The jury is still out."
"It’s a bend in the road, so watch yourself," Veronica said.
"I shouldn’t be telling you this," I said.