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The Decline and Fall

Gloria Larsen opened her watery eyes to sunshine streaming through curtains. In the middle of the living room, she lay in the hospital bed the doctor insisted she buy after that silly fainting spell at church. Tried to put me in a nursing home. Not me, no sir. I have my own home right here. She kicked off the tangled blanket and rested her arm under her head. Her wrist felt like a twig. Before she got up, Gloria took a moment to plan her day. Now, what day was it?

Sunday, the Ryan family—Marty, Cynthia, and the boys—stopped by with chicken soup, peach pie, and vanilla ice cream. Gloria finished the soup and pie yesterday—that was Monday. So, today was Tuesday, Meals on Wheels day. Yesterday, Janice, the Meals on Wheels lady, called to say Sam couldn’t deliver anymore. Too bad—Sam was great for bringing in the mail. Gloria certainly hoped the new driver would be courteous and efficient.

Gloria grabbed the bed rail and rolled to her stomach, anticipating the jolt of pain from her knees and hips. What they don’t tell you about getting old is that everything hurts. Well, she made it 88 years, she guessed she could make it another day. After she shimmied to the edge, she dropped her feet to the floor and reached for her walker. Her hand settled in the wet spot on the sheet, but she ignored it and the damp gown flapping around her legs. She clumped her walker to the kitchen. A cup of tea to start the day.

Helen Witt pushed the gloves, umbrella, and overdue library books to the floor of her red Ford Escort. At 42, Helen had experienced her share of bad luck. After a year of haggling, she finally received her first disability check. For crying out loud, the injury was work-related. When Helen hung the Halloween wreath over the reception area, she fell off the stepladder.

God, how they fussed—first workers’ comp and then the feds. The attorney her mother hired eventually got Social Security to approve her injury after her doctor wrote that bending, stooping, and crouching were impossible. The money wasn’t enough to live on, but it was better than listening to her mother bitch whenever she borrowed a few bucks. Lately, her mother, a heavyset woman of 65, had been nagging Helen.

“You need to get off your duff,” Mother had said.

“What do you want me to do? It’s not like I can get a job,” Helen replied, reasonably.

“Then volunteer, Meals on Wheels, something.”

“You want me out of the house,” Helen said.

“I want you off my sofa. You’re 42 years old. Get yourself together, find an apartment, and grow up. I’m not going to be around forever.”

Cancer, brain tumor, heart failure … the house would be hers.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I’m retiring at the end of the year and selling this house. I bought a condo in Florida. The minimum age is 55.”

“What about me?” Helen had wailed.

Her mother called Meals on Wheels, bought her a purple tracksuit, and filled her car with gas. Helen supposed next her mother would put her on the list for subsidized housing. It was that or the shelter. Still, she felt excited when she settled into the Escort. She had a lot of living to do. Just yesterday she read on Facebook: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Helen thought Ben Stein said that.

After tea, Gloria clumped to the bathroom. She found the toilet to be the best place to put on her therapeutic shoes. With her left arm, she gripped the safety bar and swung down her right to work her feet into the shoes. The tough part was her toes—big toes angled into second toes and bunions jutted at the joint. But once Gloria wiggled in the ball of her foot, it was easy to flip the Velcro strap. She heaved up, and as she brushed her teeth, studied herself in the mirror. Gloria had always been a beauty—fair skin, blue eyes that inspired young men to poetry, blond hair with a natural wave. All four years of high school she served as prom queen; and at the University of Kansas where she studied home economics, she was crowned Miss Hay Capitol.

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