Never Be

Standing in the corner with the umbrellas and the hat-rack is an old rolled-up map of places the old woman has never been. She sits and rocks in her chair in front of the television that has been broken since 1967 and stares at the window behind her left shoulder and the silhouette of her figure  reflected in the rounded screen before her. The dials are dusty and the buttons are cracked with age. The plug is melted to its socket from the time a bad power outage sent a surge through the wires and sparks flew everywhere.

The old woman’s cheeks are sunken in and her shapeless knit hat is askew. She chews her bottom lip in a rhythmic motion that matches her rocking, and she counts. She counts the steps it takes to get from her chair to the kitchen, and from the kitchen to the post-box outside. She counts the steps it takes to get to the store in town and to the bus stop that takes to the city and to the music hall in the city where she saw the young man with the broken tooth and the newspaper hidden in his jacket and the glasses fitting his face lopsidedly. She counts how long it would take her to find her address book and run her finger down the alphabet to find his name; how long it would take to get a grip on the page and how long it would take to flip to it without ripping any of the pages in between. She counts the teeth left in her head and the days that have passed since her children have visited.

She counts wrong, often. She loses the thread between four-hundred twenty-seven and four-hundred twenty-eight. Sometimes she skips numbers, going from one thousand and one to twelve-thousand fourteen without a pause.

Her door is unlocked and she waits for the cowled figure she was promised in childhood. She remembers pictures of hourglasses and the fear of other girls looking at the scythed man beside them in the tarot cards. She knows exactly what she will say if he ever shows up. She will complain, and ask why he didn’t come when she could still take a step, a dance, a twirl. He will have to carry her out now, she’ll point out, and what, she’ll say, is the point of that.

One Good Thing

Jodi lay on what she knew to be her deathbed, and thought about life. It was impossible for her to think about death. She’d been thinking about death for the past three years, ever since the doctors had found the first tumor. But in a few hours, the doctors said, she would die. They’d offered her morphine, to ease the pain, but she’d refused. It wasn’t because she was particularly strong, nor because she desired to suffer. It was merely that she wanted to think about life a little before she died, and she knew that she wouldn’t do that in the blissful haze that morphine gave her.

She wasn’t a very good woman. Ninety-three years old and her neighbors had been wishing her dead for two decades already. She knew that no one liked her. But that was alright. She’d realized sometime during her sixties that she didn’t like herself much either. At first she went to therapy and tried to fix herself. After four sessions, she’d decided that there was no reason to fix something that had been broken for so long, and anyway, Doctor Haddock was simply gaga.

Lying in the stinking hospital room, on her soiled sheets, Jodi wondered whether she’d done anything good in her life. She thought of her children, and concluded that they turned out to be good people despite her, not because of her. Her husband of forty-five years had died a long time ago, and she didn’t think that she’d made his life better. She thought, upon reflection, that he would have done better to have married his mistress when he started having an affair. She didn’t begrudge him anymore. Her grandchildren she hardly knew, although they were all in their twenties and probably having babies of their own by now. But her children had both run away to far corners of the earth, and so she’d never come to know their offspring well. Better this way, really, because her death wouldn’t be of much notice to anyone.

But surely, she thought frantically, she must have done something good in her life. No one would remember her for long, it was true, and if anyone did they’d remember a gruff, violent old woman who couldn’t hear very well but insisted that she did. They’d remember her spiteful cackle and the way she never opened the door for children at Halloween. None of this bothered Jodi, not really, but she still thought that there must have been something good in her, sometime.

A strange memory came upon her as she stared at the boring whitewashed ceiling. An image floated across her mind’s eye, an image of a red-haired girl giving a flower to an old drunk on the street and handing him a thermos full of strong black coffee. She remembered the man blessing that red-haired teenager, who was wearing a frightfully short yellow dress, and calling her “ma’am.” She remembered the red-haired girl laughing merrily, giving him five dollars – more than a month’s worth of allowance back then – and telling him to get a job. Finally, the last image she could see was of a janitor whistling as he swept the floors in an old office building where the red haired girl worked as a secretary. She remembered the red-haired girl smiling at him and shaking his hand and the man blessing her for the coffee and the money, but most of all for giving him hope.

Jodi’s crabbed fingers clutched at the call-button. A nurse came in, warily. She was new, and she’d heard horror stories about the old woman’s temper.

“Tell the doctors that I want the morphine, girl,” Jodi said in her rasping voice. “And be quick!” The young nurse jumped, surprised at the vigor in the words and hurried off without a word.

Jodi smiled to herself, toothless, sunken-cheeked and liver-spotted. She’d done one good thing in her life. That was good enough.