Three Movements


She’d developed a stubborn habit of forgetting at least one of those three vital accessories which a person ought never leave the house without – her phone, her purse, her keys. She had always been absent-minded, but this went beyond absent-mindedness: it was too regular to be absent-mindedness. It was as though she scheduled these errors into her routine for the sake of reminding herself that such accidents were, in the end, unavoidable. The main problem with this idea was that Cecilia was incapable of scheduling anything. Even as she swept her arm in an exaggerated arc (brushing the low-hanging light fixture in the front hall with the tips of her fingers as she did so), saying “wish me luck, Buddy” and blowing him an extravagant kiss, Arthur wasn’t certain that she wouldn’t make an equally flamboyant return in the next five minutes. He might have asked her if she had everything she needed, but to that she would just respond in the affirmative without bothering to check. That’s what she always did.

As Cecilia turned and shouldered the screen door open, Arthur took note of both the purse and the keys – the former choking her left wrist with its worn leather strap, the latter bunched on a silver ring which hung in the crook of the same hand’s clawed index finger. As for the phone, he would assume that it floated somewhere in the aforementioned purse swinging by Cecilia’s side, among the never-opened miniature first aid kits, the scratch samples of perfume, the Gold Bond, the After Bite, the Polysporin. She carried around so many ointments you’d have thought she was about to go running bare-legged through the woods.

Through the kitchen doorway, Arthur watched the disturbed light fixture rock heavily, slowly, on its chain. He retrieved his own phone from his shirt’s front pocket and held it out at arm’s length, handling it as though it was leaking, or hot to the touch. He counted down: first from ten, then from twenty, and after that, twenty-five. At the beginning of each sequence, he promised himself that when he reached zero, he would begin to dial. Every time he faltered. It was only after he’d arrived at the end of the fourth and longest measure (a full thirty, counted slowly enough to be nearly a minute) that he grew annoyed enough with himself to proceed. He’d always found talking on the phone to be an ordeal, and he resented his ineptitude in handling this medium of communication. It was always the same: once he began talking into a receiver, or preparing to talk into a receiver, or even thinking about talking into a receiver, Arthur grew immediately conscious of the added weight in his breath, the increasing activity of his body odor.

He heard the light, irregular footsteps behind him and, allowing himself one final delay, he turned in the direction of the sound. He wasn’t certain when a baby passed into toddlerhood but supposed that it must be right around the time that upright, biped motion became a daily habit. His tiny associate was just arriving at this point in her own life. She was on the opposite side of the kitchen table from where Arthur stood, grappling with a stool. She was engaged, with total concentration, on circumnavigating the thing – her hands and feet moving in slow, tentative cooperation. Arthur was reluctant to disturb her, and he watched her in silence for several seconds before finally asking: “What do you think?”

Keeping her grip fastened to the stool’s wide seat, she turned her eyes up to the sound of his voice. From where he stood, Arthur could see only the top half of her face, from the flat bridge of her nose up to her mostly bald, Charlie Brown head. He saw those eyes – pale green and exotically mismatched with the rest of her face – and above them, her inquisitively bunched forehead which, so far, boasted no eyebrows. Whenever she smiled, Arthur could see the creases into which they would eventually grow. With this lumbering giant pouting down at her, the baby shifted out from behind the table’s edge (careful to keep her hold on the chair) and revealed to him the rest of her face. She stamped her foot and gave him a full, good-natured smile, as though the doleful countenance with which he confronted her could only have been a comedic flourish delivered for her amusement.

Arthur paced as he dialled, and would continue to do so throughout the conversation that was to follow. Long ago, he’d learned that low-level physical activity relieved at least a bit of his anxiety during phone calls. His were the rapid, shallow, urgent, repetitive movements of someone waiting for the restroom. Adding to his present anxiety was the fact that he’d already wasted a solid three minutes. He knew that there wasn’t much of an intermission between the freedom of Cecilia’s departure on this side of the call and the constraint of her arrival on the other. That ‘other’ was an eleven-minute drive from where Arthur stood, assuming that Cecilia took the Williams Parkway-Torbram route – the quickest, most direct course. But this being Cecilia, one couldn’t assume that she would opt for the quickest, most direct anything.

Arthur had been listening to the dial-tone for nearly a half-minute when he remembered that his grandmother didn’t have an answering machine. Her phone rang on with metronomic regularity until the call was either connected or dropped. Without one of these conclusions, the waiting line would continue to intone forever, unless some other intervention cut the thread of communication. During the wait, he imagined setting up a voicemail service for his grandmother. The thought of this was so unpleasant to him that by comparison the idea of the upcoming call was almost agreeable. And, making use of the well travelled technique of imagining something far worse that whatever lay before him, Arthur gained the perspective, the false courage which he needed to move forward.

He was in the middle of deciding how many dial tones he would endure when the line opened up. Arthur heard a distant voice, mid-sentence, in the process of loudly observing that the phone was ringing. His grandmother. Ben’s murmur then came through clearer, closer. It was much deeper than usual – a sign, Arthur knew, that he was under-slept.


“It’s Arthur.”

“Who else would it be?”

Despite knowing better, Arthur decided to regard this as a rhetorical question. Ben never asked rhetorical questions; he didn’t really ask questions at all so much as he demanded explanations. Each query that Ben posed was serious, and expectant of an equally grave response. Arthur was now trying to get ahead of this inquisition, and into a region where questions were no longer necessary.

“She’s on her way.”

“Why else would you be calling?”

Ben forced these interrogations upon his brother with a view to unnerving him, and in this he was routinely successful. Arthur always felt that the questioning stopped only when he was at the edge of violence, or madness, or both. It was the repetitiveness, the incessant “?” at the end of every phrase which tortured him. No matter how much the questions themselves might vary, there was always that “?” at the end, like an ugly face turtlenecking itself in his direction. Cecilia was, of course, immune to this treatment. When Ben had begun to gripe about her plan (and particularly about his appointed role in that plan) she had shut him up with ease.

“I’m telling you,” Ben had said, “we’re all going to regret this.”

“You might,” Cecilia had responded. “Because that’s the way you are. You regret everything. Don’t act like you can speak for the rest of us.”

Arthur was ready to declare that Ben could certainly speak for him. But he settled for the limp solidarity of silence, which wasn’t really solidarity at all.

Cecilia continued. “I try to avoid anything so worthless as regret.”

“Well, congratulations,” Ben had said, “but not everyone can be so perfectly inconsiderate as you are. Not everyone is in a position to so easily shrug off the consequences of their actions.”

And Cecilia, living up to this condemnation, shrugged it off. Arthur’s admiration could not be quantified. Cecilia had, so far as he was concerned, achieved the impossible. Impossible for him, at least. To be so nonchalant in the face of these protests! Even now, after having absorbed Ben’s attitude for weeks, Arthur couldn’t stop himself from getting defensive.

“I told you I’d call to let you know when she was on her way. Would you prefer if I hadn’t?”

“Texting works too, you know.”

“But we talked specifically about having a call.”

“There wasn’t anything specific about it. You could have meant ‘call’ in the broad sense – the sense that also includes texting.”

“And what if you had missed the text?”

“What if I had missed the call?”

“That’s why I called the landline. Because I knew you’d hear it.”

“Well, who asked you to call or text, or whatever, anyway? I didn’t.”

“Would you rather have had no warning at all?”

To this, Ben said nothing. In an unintentionally coordinated flail, Arthur had kicked up a pointed question of his own. He would count it a small victory. Accidental triumphs were triumphs, nonetheless. Suddenly, Arthur was in good enough spirits to ask the one question he was least interested in hearing the answer to. “How’s everything going over there?”

“How do you think?”

“Well . . .”

“She’s either coughing, or shouting, or making some horrific noise from far down in her chest . . .”

“She’s probably just got some phlegm,” Arthur volunteered, “she’s probably just clearing her throat.”

“She’s clearing her throat from her chest?”

“Well . . . it could be that –”

“I’ve gone to her room a few times –”

“You’re supposed to be keeping her company!”

“– you know, to ask if she’s alright, if she’d like some tea, if she’s hungry. And she looks at me as if I’ve just farted or something.”

“I’m sure she’d do more than look at you if you farted. I expect she’d at least protest a little bit.”

“I’m sure this is just hilarious for you.”

“I’m not laughing, am I?” Though this was technically true, Arthur was barely inhibiting his machine-gun chuckle, that stumbling drumroll he’d used since infancy to express his amusement. But it was all nerves, and the barely withheld laughter was a symptom of his despair.

Ben continued. “Just think how much more hilarious this would be if you were here. How am I supposed to –”

“Be quiet, will you? You’re screaming.”

“Oh, she can’t hear me. On top of everything else she seems to be deaf, too. I have to bring my face within an inch of her face anytime I talk to her.”

“She could hear the phone,” Arthur said. “And talking into her face isn’t exactly the most effective method of communication. Have you tried whispering in her ear?”

“Is the ear not a component of the face?”

“Of the head, sure. Not the face.”

“Well, in that case, my apologies. I will be sure to speak more directly into her ear going forward.” Ben was speaking at a markedly lower pitch now. The restraint made him sound insane, and Arthur wished he’d start screaming again. He continued: “That said, I do appreciate all this advice from the luxury resort over there.” Arthur could almost hear how tightly Ben was gripping the phone. “And remind me again: what’s your excuse? Why aren’t you here?”

Arthur tuned in to the excited shuffle behind him. “I’m watching the kid.”

‘Watching’ was the right word. ‘Taking care of’ implied a nonpassive participation in proceedings, an engagement between the caretaker and the cared-for. Since his sister’s departure, Arthur had done nothing more than observe the baby as she tested the limits of her environment with an all-enveloping curiosity.

She was a solid nine-month old who’d now spent almost equal parts time in the womb and out. She wasn’t yet walking in a sustained, independent fashion, but she had nearly mastered the art of assisted mobility. With the aid of a sturdy piece of furniture she could get onto her feet and, embracing her chosen support with the dauntlessness of a free-climber, she would stumble forward and backward with slow, choppy steps.

Despite her visible sturdiness – she was built like a little sailor (and on this day was dressed like one, too) – Arthur watched her in a state of barely-contained terror. He was certain that she would, in her explorations, collide with some insidious edge lurking in the architecture of a dining table, a cupboard, or a chair. When he learned that he was being conscripted into babysitting duty for the afternoon, the house lost every bit of its long-standing familiarity. It became a museum of menacing vertices, an institution of designedly ill intentions. He’d insisted that Cecilia, prior to her departure, install a baby-proof gate across the kitchen’s open doorway, effectively barricading Arthur and the infant – who was called Erica – inside.

“I don’t know what you’re so worried about,” Cecilia had said as she re-entered the kitchen with the requested appliance. She began fitting it into a groove in the doorframe. Erica was squatting by the kitchen table and gnawing one of its legs. Tilting her head in the baby’s direction, Cecilia said: “She falls down and hits her head all the time. She doesn’t even notice.”

Erica’s globe of a head was a bit unwieldy even atop the stout, sailor-suited body which supported it. It looked like the sort of head which would come into frequent and unintentional contact with corners, walls, floors. Erica turned to them and smiled, baring mischievously her four front and only teeth, which had begun to assert themselves in the last couple of months – two on the top and two on the bottom.

Cecilia stepped back from the gate and gave it a test shake. It rattled and fell loose of its place in the doorjamb.

“Here,” Arthur said, stepping cautiously around the baby. Taking over from Cecilia, he began manipulating the gate’s locking mechanisms, examining them carefully before each measured adjustment. Cecilia stepped back and leaned against the counter.

“I know you’ll resent this,” she said, watching her brother’s back as it dipped rhythmically in the doorway, “but you’re too cautious, Buddy.”

Arthur nodded, as though to say that naturally, he expected Cecilia to believe this. His retort was clean, almost aphoristic. It was like he’d been anticipating the challenge.

“No. Never too cautious. You can never be too cautious, as long as you have the proper view of caution’s purpose.”

“Which is?”

“Which is preserving one’s ability to be reckless in the future.”

She smiled. “And when’s the future, Buddy?”

Ever since she could speak, Cecilia had called him ‘Buddy.’ She had picked this up from the parents. In their home, ‘Arthur’ was a name spoken rarely enough to seem a strange and needless formality whenever it was uttered. For this reason, Cecilia had early on assumed that ‘Buddy’ was her brother’s given name. When she’d begun (as a child not much older than Erica) to address him as such, it was thought to be adorable enough that no one ever attempted to correct her. Even now, Arthur occasionally found it endearing – though just as often it left him feeling patronized and infuriated. It all depended upon the context. When Cecilia was telling him something foolish or obviously incorrect, he warmed to the nickname. But when she was conveying a criticism or expounding upon a truth that he was unwilling to hear, Arthur grew leathery at the sound of ‘Buddy.’

Erica had made her way over to the newly installed door-gate and was attempting, with all her weight, to shake it loose. “O!” she shouted, “O!” Though she heaved at the barrier with each exclamation, her bald brow was smooth and undisturbed. She wasn’t calling out in frustration at her confinement – the punchy little shouts were simply a test of her expanding vocal register. Every interjection, like every movement, was an expression of her curiosity. She was exactly as Cecilia had been at that age. Arthur could remember.

Cecilia was half Arthur’s age, fifteen years Benjamin’s junior and a full four decades younger than her parents had been. In her solitary, separate youth, she had felt none of that reserve which had dominated Arthur’s every interaction with his mother and father – people who, as far as Arthur could tell, were entirely different beings from the forty-year-olds who had welcomed Cecilia into the world. It was as though the decades-long divide between Cecilia and her parents had worked in reverse, bringing the three of them to a strange candidness which would have been impossible had they been closer in age.

If this had been at all comprehensible to Arthur, he might have envied it. But the situation was so far outside of his understanding that he couldn’t feel jealousy or resentment or a sense of injustice. This wasn’t a case of the spoiled baby in the family having free reign and dominating her aging parents. Arthur couldn’t accuse his sister of being spoiled. He’d never seen any evidence to support the notion that his mother and father had treated Cecilia with any more indulgence than they had expended upon either Benjamin or himself. Besides, indulgence has no place in relationships between equals, co-conspirators, friends; and Cecilia and her parents had undoubtedly been friends, delighting in each other’s idiosyncrasies and seeing no need to conform to a shared standard.

Arthur said, “I don’t see why she can’t just keep this to herself. It’s not lying you know.”

“You don’t think I told her that? And do you know what her response was? ‘Saying nothing about it is just as good as lying.’”

Arthur thought of all his own sins of omission: all of the facts that he had designedly failed to convey to his friends, his parents, his teachers – to the brother who now delivered, on behalf of his sister, a condemnation of such deliberate oversights.

“That’s not true.”

“I didn’t say it was true.”

“Because it’s not.”

“Tell her that.”

“She’ll be knocking at your door any minute now. Why don’t you tell her?”

“This isn’t my door, this isn’t my house, this isn’t my idea, this isn’t my choice. But, it’s happening.”

“Maybe it’s not too late to stop it.”

Ben laughed – “Is that why you’re calling? Because you want me to stop it?”

“What do you mean? I told you I’d call to let you know when she had left the house.”

“Exactly. You told me. I never asked you to. And now, after going along with this every step of the way, you want me to stop it. Well, I don’t care anymore. Let it happen.”

Arthur, defeated before he’d even really made his case, said nothing. He’d imagined beforehand how irrefutable his argument would be, how forcefully he’d deliver it. But no – the best-imagined arguments always turned out to be stillborn.

Ben continued. “The thing I don’t get is – why now? Why has she decided this is necessary now, after she’s waited this long?”

“She said she wanted to wait until nana was better.”

“Better? She’s not better. She’ll never be better. I think that’s safe to say at this point. Listen . . . do you hear that?”


“Come on.”

“All I heard was white noise. Phone static.”

“That’s not phone static – it’s her breathing.”

Arthur gripped his temples between the thumb and middle finger of his left hand, applying pressure until he felt as though his skull might give – but it didn’t, and that was a misfortune. He told himself that the scene on Benjamin’s end of the line was made more ominous by his being unable to see it. The coughing, the yelling, the otherworldly noises – Ben’s fondness for exaggeration and complaint surely made it all seem worse than it was.

That said, their grandmother had become more difficult for everyone to cope with in recent years. Her deteriorating health presented its challenges, but the concurrent recalibration of her perspective was a far more distressing change. Her innate, lifelong prejudices (which had probably once been innocuous enough) had become deep, enduring wounds under the lash of the obscene world – a world which had grown more and more determined to insult this woman’s sense of propriety with each passing year. Everything that she witnessed was a personal abuse, and this unceasing maltreatment had fixed in her a determination to dig down and die in rigid opposition to everything that had ever offended her.

It was in contending with their grandmother’s increasingly fanatical rejection of the world that all of them – Cecilia included – felt most acutely the distance which age engendered between people. Spending time with the old woman wasn’t so much like encountering a person from another planet – in such a case, one would assume that analogy might facilitate a mutual understanding of each party’s customs – as it was like meeting someone from a perfectly inverted facsimile of this world, where even the quaintest features of everyday life were turned to their opposites, so that common ground could never be realized. And knowing all of this, Arthur still told himself that Ben was exaggerating.

“The one thing that I find really messed up,” Ben said, “is that she hardly moves. She’s in the exact same position she was in when I got here. Even her arms haven’t moved.”

“I’d imagine that’s pretty normal. At her age.”

“It’s not normal. It’s the most unnatural thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“I’m sure moving is painful for her.”

“So what? So she’s just stopped moving? Since when has something being painful been enough for someone to just quit doing it?”

“She’s gonna die soon.” Arthur said this as though it answered every question.

“Thanks. That’s helpful.” Arthur could tell that Ben was still annoyed, but his irritation was taking on a gentler, more passive tone. “I hope she knows what she’s doing.”

“She didn’t seem too worried.”

“She never seems too worried. I wish she’d worry a little bit more.”

The brothers entered, together, into a silence in which the end of their discussion was implied.

“Must be time.”

“I guess so.”

Arthur, turning the phone from his ear, watched the timer on the call steadily ascending. 9:20, 9:21, 9:22. Even if Cecilia hit a straight succession of red lights, the trip would take her no more than thirteen minutes door-to-door. And with her tendency to race the amber, Arthur was surprised she hadn’t arrived already. Assuming, once again, that she’d taken the natural route – the route they’d driven hundreds of times – she must be turning onto Howden by now.

“Good luck.”

“With what, exactly?”

It was an appropriate note for them to end on: another semi-hostile question. Arthur, never particularly good at reassuring anyone, said “At the very least, I’m sure it’ll be interesting.”

“Interesting is overrated.”

And the call disconnected.

Arthur had, in the final minute or so of the conversation, dropped out of his surroundings. Not deliberately, he’d descended into some coarse form of meditation. The physical world had fallen away, though his mind remained restlessly and vaguely attached to it. Now, slowly rematerializing, the kitchen came back into view.

The first thing he saw on his return was Erica, upright and unassisted, in the centre of the kitchen floor. Both of her feet fit easily within the boundaries of a single tile. She looked at him like someone who, having slept through her bus stop, had now returned to consciousness at an unknown terminus. But this moment of uncertainty was soon past and, propelled beyond the outer edge of her earlier explorations, she raised her left leg and brought the foot forward, landing it stickily in the next tile. Her forehead was creased, and if she’d had any eyebrows they would have been drawn down towards her nose.

Rallying all her will into that trailing right leg, she heaved it up and forward to meet the advanced left. With her arms held out and slightly bent at her sides, she looked like a drunken tightrope walker who, sober, could have conducted herself with exceptional form. Arthur could see her fighting to gain that grace of motion which she seemed to feel was already within her. The little sailor’s uniform that she wore gave additional colour to the drunken pantomime she unwittingly acted out – but her expression was fixed, silent. Each step was executed with an intensity which tempered the comic aspects of the scene.

Following the first two paces, she managed to advance another three before being gripped by that strange gravity which challenges infants and drunkards alike, tossing them about more recklessly than the average, experienced walker. Though she’d stood solidly the moment before, Erica’s arms now wavered. Her legs, straining to hold the position they’d manoeuvred to, shook; and finally, readjusting her footholds in the hope of recovering her fleeing balance, she rocked into a retreat. She fell heavily onto her backside, letting escape a sharp “O!” as she landed. Then, with a slowness that seemed deliberate and theatrical, she tilted to the left, smacking her round head against the side of the fridge with a dull tap.

Arthur was slow to react. When he finally did, he propelled himself with pointless speed across the table’s length, stooping to the spot where Erica lay. By the time he’d arrived at her side, she was already pushing herself upright. Sitting with her legs stuck out directly in front of her, she gave Arthur a tiny-toothed smile. There was no pain, no worry, no embarrassment – she hadn’t yet developed the self-doubt necessary for embarrassment. She hadn’t yet come to regard ‘accident’ as synonymous with ‘failure.’ She hadn’t even learned to set accidents apart from the rest of life’s events. And Arthur knew that Cecilia had been right. There wasn’t anything to worry about – not for this strong will, this fierce little spirit who, too innocent to doubt, was also too bold to fear.