Lorene was Bill’s stepmother and in her eighties. Although she was financially secure, and could have done just about anything she wanted, she never went anywhere. Her friend, Mary, handled her finances and chauffeured her around; other friends mowed her lawn and did odd jobs around her house, offering to take her to church and out to lunch or dinner. But she spent most days in her blue recliner, her Chihuahua perched in her lap, gazing out the window.
We visited her two or three times a year, and when we arrived at her house just about this time last year, she met us at the door in her pajamas."I thought y’all would be here sooner!” she said, “I was getting ready to just lock up the house and go ahead on to bed!"
She dropped her long, thin body into her recliner and pulled the lever, sending her feet high in the air. "Bella’s walking funny,” she said, “Y’all have got to take us to the vet."
I looked at Bella, and I could have sworn she rolled her eyes at me. The dog had been taken to the vet so many times in her 11 years that her tiny body quivered and quaked at the mention of “The Vet.”
“Y’all have got to take me to Dr. Smelly tomorrow, too,” she said.
“Smelly?” I said, trying to stifle a giggle, “Did you say ‘Dr. Smelly’?”
She pulled the lever again and slid to the edge of the chair. “Yes, her name is Dr. Smelly,” she said, “What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” I said, “With a name like Wooley, I can’t talk. But you should not be going to a smelly doctor.”
She jumped up, glowering at me, and I broke into a torrent of giggles. We always tried to deal with Lorene’s crankiness with humor, but I knew I was carrying it a bit too far.
"I don't believe in making fun of nobody," she said, "Dr. Smelly can't help what her name is!"
"Does she stink?" Bill quipped.
"Y’all ought to be ashamed of yourselves," Lorene replied, "Dr. Smelly is a very nice doctor!" She got up, stormed to her bedroom and slammed the door.
The next day, we drove her to Dr. Smelly’s office and the pharmacy.
"Y'all are gonna have to take me to Wal-Mart," she said, after we picked up her prescriptions.
We accompanied her up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart, looking for batteries, denture adhesive, a special unscented hand lotion, and hot chili peppers. She mixed them with everything she ate—from beans to scrambled eggs.
As we were heading toward the check-out, Lorene stopped, “I need rubber gloves.”
I volunteered to get the gloves for her, since they were on the other side of the store, but when I handed them to her, you would have thought I had presented her with a dead rat.
“They ain’t the right kind,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “These ain’t worth a toot!”
The following day, we took Bella to the vet. The diagnosis was arthritis, so we went back to the pharmacy for dog medication and back to Wal-Mart for dog food.
When Bill said he would wait in the car, I made a face at him.
I thought things were going well. We strolled along, laughing and talking, filling the cart with everything she wanted, and I was congratulating myself on being such a congenial companion. But something changed on our way back to the car.
“She run off and left me," she told Bill, “She run clear off!”
Actually, I had stepped over to the next aisle for Pepto Bismol. For some reason, my stomach was upset.
Evenings, after dinner, Bill and I usually retired to the front porch. Lorene couldn’t join us, she said, because she was allergic to mold.
We enjoyed those times; being back home put Bill in a reflective mood. He talked about growing up in the Deep South, running around in the hills and hollows of Alabama, the church where he was subjected to hellfire and damnation sermons each Sunday, and being pushed out of his home when he was only 15.
“I had to leave,” he said, “I tried to get along with Lorene, but she lied to Dad, telling him I wouldn't do my chores and causing all kinds of trouble.”
“I’m surprised you even want to visit her now,” I said.
“She’s just an old, lonely woman, now,” he said, “With nobody, really.”
“Well,” I said, feeling guilty, “I guess you’re right.”
Suddenly, Lorene appeared. “Y’all are sitting out here because y’all don’t want to be around me!” She placed her hands on her hips and gazed at her neighbor’s neat little house, “Has Buford been over here?”
Buford was in his eighties and a very nice man; Bill had known him all his life. He sometimes stood at the fence, talking to us, when Lorene was not around.
“His granddaddy was his daddy, you know,” she said, “And I don’t want to have nothing to do with people like them.”
"I don't know how much more we can take," Bill said as we were preparing for bed that night.
Lorene burst into our bedroom the next morning, Bella at her heels. “Y’all have got to take us to The Vet,” she said, “One of Bella’s eyes don't look right.”
Bill and I looked at each other, and Bella looked up at us. Her body began to quiver and quake, and I could have sworn she rolled her eyes at me again. Was there actually something wrong with her eyes, or was she the most intuitive pooch on the planet?
“You’re gonna have to take me back to Dr. Smelly, too,” she said, “My sinuses are acting up worse than ever.”
We made another trip to Dr. Smelly’s office, then on to The Vet’s office, where he determined there was nothing wrong with Bella’s eye.
"We're going home tomorrow," Bill said that night, "And I don't know if we'll ever be back."
The next morning I found Bill and Lorene drinking coffee at the kitchen table. “I just don’t know what I’d do without Dr. Smelly,” she was saying, “I dearly love Dr. Smelly.”
I burst out giggling. "I smelled a foul odor in Dr. Smelly's waiting room," I said.
"It was Dr. Smelly," Bill said.
Lorene grabbed a bag of Doritos and a jar of chili peppers, stormed into the living room and reared back in her recliner. She pulled the handle, feet flying into the air, and turned the television to the Andy Griffith Show. She hardly spoke to us the rest of the day.
As we were preparing to leave the next morning, the pharmacy called to tell Lorene she had forgotten a prescription, so we headed to Tuscaloosa again. On our way home, Lorene started to cry.
“I wish y’all would move in with me,” she said, “Then you could take me everywhere and I wouldn’t have to pay Mary to take me around.”
“Lorene, we’ve told you before,” I said, “You could move to Kentucky.”
She cocked her grey head, “Now, what would I do up there?”
“The same thing you do down here,” Bill said.
She burst into tears again as Bill was loading our luggage. “I ain’t no good to nobody,” she said.
“Oh, Lorene,” Bill said, patting her shoulder, “Don’t talk like that.”
We both hugged her, and I hooked my arm through hers as we walked to the car. “I bet I never see y’all again,” she said, wiping her tears with a crumpled tissue, “Never.”
“You say that every time we visit,” Bill said, “You know we’ll be back, maybe Christmas.”
“Nobody cares nothing about me,” she said, “And I always treated folks real good.”
“I know,” Bill said.
“I always treated you real good, didn’t I, Billy?”
“Yes, Lorene, you did.”
As we drove away, Lorene stood in the yard, Bella in her arms, waving until we were out of sight.
Bill sighed as we pulled out on the highway, “Maybe we will come back around Christmas time,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “Maybe we will.”