Susan Hettinger ~ Quiet Room

When I first learned of The Count, though he’s not a clas­sic Dracula type, it creeped me out that he exist­ed, that we came from the same place, and that we had this one behav­ior, this secret thing, in common.

It hap­pened at the call cen­ter on a reg­u­lar work­day. My sis­ter Laurel texted me: “Did you lis­ten to NPR this morn­ing? Kalispell doesn’t hit the nation­al news very often. Check it out.”  I was on my morn­ing break, and it was the end of my break. Well, tech­ni­cal­ly, I was no longer on my break. I was twen­ty min­utes into a fif­teen-minute break. I had­n’t lis­tened to the news that morn­ing and could­n’t at this moment. We aren’t allowed to use our cell­phones in our cubi­cles, which is sort of iron­ic when you think about it, because my job is basi­cal­ly talk­ing on the phone.  Talking on their phone, not mine. There are lots of things they don’t allow us to do. I had to wait until my lunch break, which was sched­uled for 12:30 p.m. that week. My super­vi­sor changes it every week. I’m not sure why. He has some sort of plan. He’s always up in my busi­ness. He lis­tens in on some of my calls. Says it’s “qual­i­ty con­trol.” Anyway, I went back on their phone and did­n’t give Laurel’s text much thought.

At lunch time I ate two squares of left­over lasagna from a Tupperware con­tain­er in the break room. I ate it cold. I like most things bet­ter cold than hot. Something about the tex­ture.  Cold, con­gealed fat appeals to me. Also, the microwave in our break room is filthy. I don’t think I’d actu­al­ly get sick from using it, but I know it would affect my appetite.

After I ate, I put in my ear­buds and went into the Quiet Room.

The Quiet Room is about twen­ty by thir­ty feet and dim­ly lit. It con­tains sev­en Lazy Boy reclin­ers. We keep the door closed at all times so that it will be, you know, qui­et. It’s designed to give the agents relief from the stress of deal­ing with the cus­tomers, who are unem­ployed and try­ing to get ben­e­fits from the state. People phone in to the call cen­ter if they can’t fig­ure out how to file their claims online. Or if they don’t have access to a com­put­er. Or if they can’t see the claim forms very well on their cell­phones. Or if they just pre­fer to hear a human voice. Sometimes they cry on the phone. Like if their check is late, or if they’ve been denied ben­e­fits because they don’t qual­i­fy because they cheat­ed or what­ev­er. People often believe they’ve con­tributed to the unem­ploy­ment insur­ance fund through pay­roll deduc­tions and are there­fore enti­tled to draw ben­e­fits out of it, when in fact it’s all employ­er tax­es. Sometimes the claimant will say he’s been laid off, and the employ­er will say he got fired for show­ing up drunk, or not show­ing up at all, or being incom­pe­tent, or steal­ing from the com­pa­ny. Then the agent has to sort it out and decide who to believe and whether to pay the claim or not. Some agents find this emo­tion­al­ly dif­fi­cult, mak­ing these deci­sions. I don’t, but I like the Quiet Room and I go there more often than most. I do it to get away from my nosey team­mates and their emp­ty chat­ter, not to decom­press from the work itself.

On this day, I was the only per­son in the Quiet Room. I pulled up the NPR piece Laurel texted me about. As I lis­tened and real­ized what this guy, The Count, in Kalispell, Montana was doing, I straight­ened up in my reclin­er with a shock of recog­ni­tion. I won­dered if my younger sis­ter had sent me the link to this sto­ry because it came from the place where we grew up, or because she too iden­ti­fied with its con­tent. But then I decid­ed not to wor­ry about that. I didn’t want to know this inti­mate thing about Laurel.

Here’s what The Count does that NPR thought the world needs to know about: he counts. Not objects, just the num­bers them­selves. He does it on paper and he does it over and over again, prob­a­bly for hours. That’s all I can real­ly remem­ber about the NPR piece, but what I thought about then and still think about now was that there was a per­son in my home­town, who sat in a room all by him­self for many hours of his life with a pen or pen­cil and paper—he must have used notebooks—and wrote:

6 …
… 9,878,652,332
9,878,652,335 …

Rinse and repeat. I imag­ined that he did this in a room alone, but maybe not. Maybe he did it at a kitchen table while his wife made avo­ca­do toast and his kids ran around chas­ing Bitsy the Cat. Maybe he did it in the break room of the call cen­ter where he works. No, wait, prob­a­bly no call cen­ters in Kalispell. Maybe he did it between cus­tomers at his cashier job at the Quickie Carwash east of town on Highway 2 near the Flathead River. Didn’t mat­ter. What mat­tered was why. Why did he do this at all?

And why did I?

See, I’m a counter too—or I was back then. I had­n’t known that there were oth­ers. I did it dif­fer­ent­ly than this guy in Kalispell, but still. And I have nev­er told any­one about it.

It start­ed in 2014. Once a month I would take a day off work—which is exact­ly the rate at which I accu­mu­late paid leave time, eight hours per month—to make a three-day week­end so that I could dri­ve over the moun­tains from the indus­tri­al area of south Seattle to Madras, Oregon near where my sis­ter Laurel lives. My moth­er lived in a nurs­ing home in Madras. She was in her sev­en­ties when she lost the use of her legs and land­ed there. Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, my five fer­al broth­ers fled Kalispell at the same time, aban­don­ing her in her hour of per­il and then return­ing to claim the spoils after­ward. She remained in that nurs­ing home for the rest of her life, which end­ed when she was 83. For sev­en years I used all of my vaca­tion time trav­el­ling to Madras, and I do not regret it. I didn’t have any­where else to go or any­thing else to do, so no prob­lem. The point of these trips was to give Laurel time off from her twice-week­ly vis­its to Mom in the home, which were not fun. Unpleasant smells and sounds, depress­ing sights, all that. This was after Laurel flipped out one day in Mom’s room. Some unchar­ac­ter­is­tic shout­ing of coarse lan­guage was report­ed to me, as my mother’s old­est child and the one with pow­er of attor­ney, by Nancy, the head nurse. Also jump­ing around and wild ges­tic­u­la­tion, that sort of thing. Nancy said this behav­ior upset Lois, Mom’s room­mate. While I found Nancy’s account of Laurel’s spell or what­ev­er it was, dis­turb­ing, Mom attrib­uted it to Laurel’s menopause and seemed to find it mild­ly amus­ing. Mom for­got it, and much else, right away. I inter­pret­ed it as Laurel’s plea for help. I was the eldest, and felt pro­tec­tive of her. I could see that I need­ed to be a bet­ter daugh­ter and a bet­ter sis­ter, in view of my broth­ers’ self­ish refusal to engage in any mean­ing­ful way with the woman who had giv­en them life. For some rea­sons, I guess. They owed her. They were the cause of her fate, liv­ing in this depress­ing place and yet they couldn’t be both­ered to even mail her a Christmas card, much less show up in the flesh and pre­tend inter­est or con­cern. They were all sin­gle and child­less, like Laurel and me. No coin­ci­dence there. Still, they could have made an effort.

Well, to hell with all five of them. Especially Rex.

I start­ed com­ing month­ly to give Laurel a break and to give Mom some atten­tion. I had not seen our moth­er reg­u­lar­ly for some time. We’d nev­er been close in the way that Laurel and Mom had been. My moth­er seemed to blame me for res­cu­ing Laurel from the pathol­o­gy that was our fam­i­ly. Someone had to.

As it turned out, Mom, despite her numer­ous phys­i­cal and men­tal dis­abil­i­ties, was still alert most days. She wasn’t too crazy about this busi­ness of giv­ing Laurel a break, and sub­sti­tut­ing me for my sis­ter. The first time I came into her room on my inau­gur­al week­end vis­it, she didn’t even say “hel­lo.” She said, “Where’s Laurel?” I thought she would get used to my vis­its and stop ask­ing, but she nev­er did. It was always “When is Laurel com­ing?” “Is Laurel sick?” “Why are you here?” Once she even said “Did you bring your broth­ers with you?” I guess she must have loved them, despite everything.

Eventually I learned small ways to cur­ry favor. She liked to play cards, games like Hand and Foot and Polish Poker. She usu­al­ly won and expe­ri­enced appar­ent plea­sure at this. She liked to watch foot­ball but was con­fused by the remote, and Lois hat­ed foot­ball so would nev­er put it on the TV they shared. Lois seemed afraid of me, at which I expe­ri­enced plea­sure, so I tuned in col­lege ball games when I was there. Mom seemed to enjoy hav­ing an ally against Lois. Gifts of food worked too. She hat­ed the bland, soft insti­tu­tion­al diet offered up on plas­tic trays: pud­ding, apple­sauce, mashed veg­eta­bles. She like crunchy, salty things, like Doritos and egg rolls fried hard. She said she want­ed food that put up a fight, not pas­sive, sog­gy food. So I made a habit of bring­ing edi­ble offer­ings that seemed to please her and in this way, I formed a rela­tion­ship with her. Laurel said the things I brought were unhealthy and that if Mom want­ed crunch, we should give her raw car­rots and apple slices. I didn’t see the point of encour­ag­ing healthy habits. If she’d asked for cig­a­rettes, I would have brought them. I took the short view. Not that it mat­tered. Mom nev­er seemed hap­py to see me.

There was a peri­od in late 2015 when I could have earned her undy­ing approval, but Laurel put the kibosh on it. Mom had been com­plain­ing for months about unbear­able pain in her legs. They’d been seri­ous­ly burned in the farm­house fire that I believed my broth­er Rex start­ed. Even after the skin healed as much as could be expect­ed, the nerves under­neath kept flar­ing up. The med­ical peo­ple at the nurs­ing home said they were giv­ing her as much pain med­ica­tion as they could with­out get­ting in trou­ble with the state reg­u­la­tors who snooped around fre­quent­ly. Mom said it wasn’t enough, she was in agony, she couldn’t bear it. Then final­ly, dur­ing a vis­it in November, she told me she didn’t want to live any­more, and want­ed me to help her to stop. Stop liv­ing, she meant. I pon­dered this. She didn’t qual­i­fy for Oregon’s assist­ed sui­cide law, because her con­di­tion was chron­ic, not ter­mi­nal. How then? Street drugs? Suffocation by pil­low? She sel­dom asked for any­thing. I want­ed to help. There was risk, of course. But I could fig­ure this out.

I talked about it with Laurel, the good daugh­ter. She was aghast that I would con­sid­er such a thing. Absolutely not, she said. But dur­ing my vis­it the fol­low­ing month, Mom brought it up again, this time more force­ful­ly, with tears and all. She begged. I did some research online. There are ways. I spoke with  Laurel again. She dug in. She threat­ened to “tell.” I believed she would have. I gave up. Besides, if our moth­er were dead, how could I ever get in her good graces? How would I spend my vaca­tion time?

I arranged for Mom to have week­ly treat­ments from a trav­el­ling acupunc­tur­ist. He was young and hand­some. She liked the atten­tion. And she stopped whin­ing about pain.

So I kept com­ing. I would leave direct­ly after work on a Thursday. I usu­al­ly got off at 4:00 p.m. but dur­ing the win­ter we had an avalanche of unem­ploy­ment insur­ance claims to process relat­ing to sea­son­al lay­offs in agri­cul­ture and con­struc­tion, so there was manda­to­ry over­time, and some­times my shift didn’t end until an hour or two lat­er. Though I like to dri­ve, I would get sleepy at about the third hour into the six-hour trip. I’d stop for cof­fee, which helped. So did sug­ar. Still, some­times nei­ther was enough, so I would open all the win­dows or set the air con­di­tion­ing to “frigid.” Or sing real loud. Then one day when I was hav­ing trou­ble stay­ing alert, for rea­sons unknown or unac­knowl­edged by me, I start­ed look­ing for and then count­ing birds. I would scan the hori­zon through the wind­shield and glance out the side win­dows and when I saw a bird, I’d say out loud “one bird.” Then “two birds” and “three birds” and so on.

That’s how it started.

At first the rule was that if I saw mul­ti­ple birds at once, I could count only one of them. My goal was to count at least one hun­dred birds before I reached my des­ti­na­tion of Madras, in cen­tral Oregon, about ten min­utes away from Laurel’s house. This was hard to do, espe­cial­ly in the win­ter when it got dark ear­ly. The first few times, I did­n’t get much past fifty. But with prac­tice, my pro­fi­cien­cy improved and soon I was rou­tine­ly hit­ting one hun­dred. Achieving this goal grat­i­fied me. Once I saw an owl sit­ting on a tree branch. There were lots of gulls and star­lings on the west side of the moun­tains. I liked mag­pies a great deal and saw them occa­sion­al­ly after the pass over Mount Hood, in the high desert. As I gained expe­ri­ence, I changed the rules on mul­ti­ple sit­ings to include as many birds as I could sep­a­rate­ly iden­ti­fy and count aloud. For exam­ple, if there were a lot of crows— “a mur­der,” they call it, but that’s not the rea­son crows remind me of my brothers—perched on a wire, and I said “one bird, two birds, three birds” while they were all vis­i­ble, I got cred­it for three. Later, I fur­ther relaxed the rules. If I saw a cou­ple dozen doves on the roof of a barn, or a pond full of geese, I gave myself auto­mat­ic cred­it for ten. Using this method, I could some­times count as many as three hun­dred birds between the park­ing lot at the call cen­ter in south Seattle and Mom’s nurs­ing home. I con­sid­ered allow­ing extra points for large birds of prey—hawks and the occa­sion­al eagle—but ulti­mate­ly, I decid­ed it was dis­re­spect­ful to all the LBJs (Little Brown Jobbers, the many non­de­script North American species I can’t tell apart).

After a while I found myself count­ing birds not only to remain awake on the long dri­ve to Madras but on my way to work or to the gro­cery store. I would even dri­ve around the block a few extra times to increase my chances of see­ing and count­ing more. I count­ed birds every day, even when I had decid­ed not to; I could­n’t help it. There was a rhythm to it. It put dis­tance between me and my con­cerns. It relaxed me.

At about this time, KNKX, my local NPR affil­i­ate, began to broad­cast a pro­gram called “Bird Notes” week­day morn­ings at exact­ly the time I com­mut­ed from my apart­ment to the call cen­ter. I lis­tened with increas­ing inter­est and learned a great deal about the habits of many species. For exam­ple, some birds keep their nests clean in an inge­nious way. While their babies are too young to fly, yet ful­ly capa­ble of eat­ing and defe­cat­ing, par­ent birds secret a gel-like sub­stance, use it to encap­su­late the poop, and then dump the bagged poop over the edge of the nest. Crows, I learned, can rec­og­nize human faces and harass peo­ple who harass crows. The “Bird Note” host inter­viewed an ornithol­o­gist at the University of Washington who had trapped crows and out­fit­ted them with tiny dig­i­tal devices to fur­ther his research. A decade lat­er the guy still can’t walk across cam­pus with­out attract­ing neg­a­tive atten­tion from crows.

I know how he feels.

Anyway, about count­ing: I start­ed keep­ing track of oth­er things besides birds. “Keeping track”—that’s what I told myself I was doing. At work, a com­put­er sys­tem mon­i­tored how many calls I answered, how many min­utes I spent on each one, how many unem­ploy­ment insur­ance claims I filed, how many claims I denied, how often my deci­sions were reversed by the adju­di­ca­tors, how many cus­tomers com­plained about me (more than oth­er agents’ aver­age rate of com­plaints; peo­ple often said I wasn’t “nice” to them, what­ev­er that means), all that per­for­mance stuff. I began to tal­ly how many of my cus­tomers were women, how many belonged to unions (I belong to a union; I need its pro­tec­tion), how many called me “ma’am” (which I liked), how many were jerks. I made lit­tle score marks, the kind with four ver­ti­cal bars crossed by a fifth diag­o­nal bar. I record­ed these on col­or-cod­ed 3M sticky notes, pink for women, green for union, and so on. I didn’t label these cat­e­gories; I mem­o­rized the col­or-cod­ing sys­tem. Just in case. Then one day there was a broad­cast email mes­sage to every­one in the call cen­ter about exces­sive con­sump­tion of office sup­plies. I sus­pect­ed that my super­vi­sor knew it was because of me so I bought my own sticky notes in col­ors that weren’t stocked in our sup­ply room: laven­der, ecru, tan­ger­ine. I used the col­ors I liked for the callers I liked. Robin’s egg blue for those with well-mod­u­lat­ed voic­es. Ugly col­ors for ugly callers. Mustard yel­low for any­one who used pro­fan­i­ty or talked over the top of me. At the end of my shift I would put all the Post-it notes in my bot­tom draw­er and recy­cle them when no one was look­ing. Later, I start­ed tak­ing the tal­ly notes home and enter­ing the data into a spread­sheet on week­ends, so that I could exam­ine trends using the chart­ing capa­bil­i­ties of Excel.

I also count­ed: the num­ber of times the younger mem­bers of our team used the word “like” in a sin­gle sen­tence. I found this near­ly as irri­tat­ing “irre­gard­less.” The num­ber of days in a row that Dennis, the agent in the cube to my right, wore the same pair of pants to work (record: brown cor­duroys, eleven days). The num­ber of sham­poos I could get out of a six­teen-ounce bot­tle. The num­ber of pieces of junk mail I received per day. The num­ber of times each week that Laurel texted me (aver­age: three). The num­ber of times my moth­er phoned me (zero).  The num­ber of times one of my broth­ers con­tact­ed me (also zero).

I asked my moth­er about her sons once. I want­ed to know if she held them respon­si­ble, as I did, for the fire that destroyed her legs. I want­ed to know why she had them—so many chil­dren, so many boys. I want­ed to know why she stayed with our father (who art in hell as far as I’m con­cerned). To the lim­it­ed extent she was will­ing to dis­cuss this, she gave me an answer that sur­prised me. She said that from a tele­o­log­i­cal stand­point, the func­tion of male ani­mals is to spread their seed (she actu­al­ly used the words “tele­o­log­i­cal” and “seed”) as broad­ly as pos­si­ble, and that this bio­log­i­cal imper­a­tive some­times required dom­i­na­tion of the female, even vio­lence, for impreg­na­tion. This explains male mar­i­tal infi­deli­ty, she said. And rape, she said,  giv­ing me a mean­ing­ful look. It explained why she was con­tin­u­al­ly preg­nant, lac­tat­ing or mis­car­ry­ing between the ages of twen­ty and forty-five. This was her oblig­a­tion, her pur­pose in life, she said.

What she didn’t dis­cuss with me was our father’s uni­lat­er­al deci­sion to sign over the deed to the fam­i­ly farm to my younger broth­ers in equal shares. Our father died short­ly there­after. Our broth­er Rex was chum­my with the coun­ty coro­ner, so I had sus­pi­cions about the deter­mi­na­tion that the cause was “death by mis­ad­ven­ture” as record­ed on the cer­tifi­cate. My broth­ers buried our father on the farm with­out a cof­fin. His body was not embalmed, or even washed and dressed in his Sunday best. My father nev­er owned a Sunday suit, or a suit of any kind. He had no use for one. He didn’t care which day was Sunday.

Laurel and I also doubt­ed the valid­i­ty of the sig­na­ture on the deed. We spec­u­lat­ed forgery. And worse. The five of them, we believed, sub­se­quent­ly resort­ed to burn­ing Mom out of the farm­house when she refused to leave at their request. She had nowhere else to live, but they found her med­dle­some and want­ed her gone. She didn’t die, though, which was incon­ve­nient for them.

By this time, of course, my sis­ter Laurel and I were long gone, hav­ing dropped out of high school and fled the juris­dic­tion at the ear­li­est oppor­tu­ni­ty. It was my idea, though I don’t know whether it was anoth­er bio­log­i­cal imper­a­tive or an act of free will. We left when I was six­teen and Laurel was fif­teen but no one pur­sued us or encour­aged us to return. We lied about our ages and got jobs. Everything worked out fine.

Considering these fam­i­ly cir­cum­stances, count­ing things seemed a minor anom­aly. It didn’t wor­ry me. I found it calm­ing. It seemed harm­less. Until I learned about The Count in Kalispell, Montana. I was dif­fer­ent from him, though. I had a job and man­aged my house­hold com­pe­tent­ly, which, pre­sum­ably, he did not because he was ful­ly occu­pied by writ­ing down sequen­tial num­bers. Or so I imag­ined. This habit I’d devel­oped did­n’t impair my effec­tive­ness in any way I could see. Or if it did inter­fere, it did­n’t hurt any­one. If I was in a car with some­one else—this was rare—silently keep­ing track of birds, for exam­ple, I might not quite fol­low the con­ver­sa­tion for a minute. So what?

I did won­der from time to time why my sit­ings of crows near­ly always con­sist­ed of groups of five, sel­dom four or six. I know of the design prin­ci­ple favor­ing odd num­bers. Like in arrang­ing flow­ers, for some rea­son eleven ros­es looks bet­ter than twelve, sev­en looks bet­ter than eight. The crows remind­ed me of my broth­ers Rex (third in birth order after me and Laurel), Al, Harry, Ed, and Art. All were short, dark men. Ugly aggres­sive men. Lots of peo­ple in Kalispell couldn’t tell them apart. I could, but it didn’t matter.

Then one day, sev­en years and four months after I’d start­ed counting—it was a Wednesday morn­ing in May and I had tak­en eleven calls so far (six from women, two from union mem­bers, zero from jerks, and three from peo­ple who called me “ma’am”)—I noticed that my cell­phone, which was in my purse by my feet rather than in my bot­tom desk draw­er where my super­vi­sor spec­i­fied it should be, was vibrat­ing. Not just once but repeat­ed­ly, giv­ing the impres­sion that some­one real­ly need­ed to talk to me. I had already tak­en my break, and I hate talk­ing on the phone in the restroom with the flush­ing nois­es and all. I con­clud­ed my cus­tomer con­ver­sa­tion by inten­tion­al­ly dis­con­nect­ing and then say­ing “Hello? Hello? Unfortunately, I think our con­nec­tion has been broken”—for the ben­e­fit of the qual­i­ty con­trol record­ing. Then I slipped into the Quiet Room, which was unoccupied.

It was the call I had long known would come, the call from Laurel say­ing that Mom had final­ly had a mas­sive stroke and died this day. And that she, Laurel, wasn’t exact­ly afraid to go to the nurs­ing home alone but she didn’t want to. Could I come right away and accom­pa­ny her? Of course. I told my super­vi­sor and left imme­di­ate­ly. I didn’t go home and pack a bag. I just got into my Prius and trav­eled south and then east. I didn’t even real­ize until much lat­er that I had left my col­ored tal­ly notes on my desk by my phone in plain view. About half-way through the jour­ney, at the top of Mount Hood, I became aware that I had no idea how many birds had been vis­i­ble, eli­gi­ble to be count­ed, since leav­ing the call cen­ter. This dis­tressed me. I con­sid­ered revers­ing course, dri­ving west then turn­ing around to start over again, but I knew it would take too much time.

It occurred to me that this might be the last time I would make this dri­ve. This too I found distressing.

The next few days went pret­ty much as you would expect. I drove Laurel to the nurs­ing home to col­lect Mom’s things. We offered Lois her pick of the leav­ings, and she asked for Mom’s mini-fridge and a pale green cash­mere bed jack­et. She didn’t seem sad about Mom’s pass­ing, just a bit rat­tled about hav­ing spent the night in a room with a dead body that wasn’t dis­cov­ered until break­fast. We dropped off most of the oth­er stuff at Goodwill in Redmond. Laurel called Rex, the ring­leader of our tribe of lame broth­ers, on the land line at the farm where they all lived. Laurel said he seemed unin­ter­est­ed in Mom’s demise, but curi­ous about her estate plan. Was there a will? No. Did she leave any assets? There was a bank account on which Laurel and I were sig­na­to­ries, but she didn’t tell him about it or that the bal­ance was sig­nif­i­cant. Maybe we’d get back to him on that. Or not. There was no one else to noti­fy and no com­pelling rea­son to write an obituary.

We met with the guy at the cre­ma­to­ri­um. He was an odd-look­ing per­son with a shaved head and near­ly col­or­less eye­brows and lash­es. He was small, maybe five foot three and a hun­dred twen­ty pounds. He told us to turn off Mom’s Social Security ben­e­fits or we’d get in hot water with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. He gave us sev­er­al copies of the death cer­tifi­cate. We gave him a check for $200 and Mom’s favorite out­fit, a bright red ankle length muumuu made of shiny poly­ester, a high­ly flam­ma­ble fab­ric, and a string of fake pearls with match­ing clip-on ear­rings. He agreed to dress her. He didn’t appear to have the phys­i­cal abil­i­ty to wres­tle stiff corpses into muumuus, but we didn’t ask if he need­ed help. He said that if we want­ed to, one of us could push the but­ton that starts the con­vey­or belt that would take Mom into the fire in the body-burn­ing oven. We declined. I bet Rex would have done it if he had the chance. We decid­ed to scat­ter her ash­es and have some sort of memo­r­i­al event lat­er in the sum­mer, though we had no idea who might attend besides the two of us.

With Mom gone, there would be no rea­son for fur­ther com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Rex or my oth­er broth­ers. Ever. Laurel was an open ques­tion. I no longer had any pow­er to pro­tect her. Nor any obligation.

By late Sunday, every­thing that need­ed to be done was done so I trav­eled back to Seattle alone, in the dark­en­ing May evening. On this last trip I had the jit­ters and didn’t need cof­fee or sug­ar or loud singing to keep myself alert as I drove. When I arrived at my apart­ment, the air inside felt cool and smelled stale. I didn’t want din­ner. I walked around, back and forth between the bed­room and the kitchen, many times. Everything looked the same. But it wasn’t the same.

Monday morn­ing, despite lit­tle sleep Sunday night, I arrived at work ear­ly. Another car was already in the space where I usu­al­ly park. It’s fes­ti­val seat­ing, not assigned. But every­one knew my blue Prius and that I always parked in that spot. Still, I felt no annoy­ance. I pro­ceed­ed to the far side of the lot and pulled into a vacant space near an unkempt juniper hedge.

Inside the call cen­ter, I saw that Dennis, the agent in the cubi­cle next to mine, was wear­ing an unfa­mil­iar pair of kha­ki pants with sharp creas­es pressed into the legs. The door to the Quiet Room stood open and the over­head flu­o­res­cent lights were on, giv­ing the impres­sion that it had been scoured. In my cubi­cle, I found a small flo­ral arrange­ment and a sym­pa­thy card signed by my super­vi­sor and our team of agents. It sat on my desk where I had, in my haste to depart, aban­doned my col­ored sticky notes record­ing last Wednesday’s tal­lies. They were nowhere to be found. I felt relief.

It was a reg­u­lar work­day. I answered cus­tomer calls. At lunch time I went into the break room and noticed that some­one had cleaned the microwave. When I returned to the park­ing lot to go home at the end of my shift, I saw motion in the juniper bush­es near my car. A pair of adult quail, fol­lowed by a con­ga line of a dozen juve­niles. I love quail because of their odd voic­es and com­i­cal hats and because they choose to walk, though they are capa­ble of flight.


Susan Hettinger is a Wyoming native, for­mer attor­ney and writer. Her essays and short sto­ries have appeared in Fiction Factory, Scribble, Havik, Please See Me, Reedsy, Seattle Magazine, Washington Law and Politics and Colors Northwest. She takes cours­es at Hugo House in Seattle and par­tic­i­pates in the cre­ative writ­ing cer­tifi­cate pro­gram at the University of Washington. She is a three-time alum of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College where chap­ters of her still unpub­lished nov­el Third Woman, Third Act were workshopped.