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The Decline and Fall

Published: December 17, 2012

Gloria sighed. When the bold warrior, Gunnar Larsen, returned from the war, she was smitten. That night at the drive-in, she supposed she let things go too far, but she had been filled with patriotic spirit. They lived well enough together for 45 years, even though the pregnancy that led to their hurried marriage ended in miscarriage and she never held a fetus to term. Gunnar’s job with the World Bank took him all over the world, and Gloria filled those vacant times nurturing flowers, ornamentals, vegetables, and herbs on the grounds of the house they bought in 1950. When Gunnar died 20 years ago, he left her alone but well provided for. She rarely thought about him anymore. Gloria fumbled with the belt to her cotton robe and eventually got it knotted. She must do a load of wash and tend the garden.

With arms folded across her chest, Helen watched while Janice, the Meals-on-Wheels manager, loaded the Escort.

“Mrs. Larsen—Gloria—lives alone. She’s quite a talker,” Janice said.

“No problemo,” Helen said.

Blond, bubbly Janice smiled at Helen. “You can make a difference in this person’s life.”

That’s all Helen ever wanted—to make a difference, to make people happy, to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.

The little tune, “All You Need is Love,” echoed in her head as she bounced down the church driveway and thumped onto the road. Maybe Mother was right—she needed to get out and do something meaningful. With one eye on the road and one eye on the directions, Helen almost missed Rose Lane and scraped the curb when she pulled the steering wheel hard right. A woman walking two fox-faced dogs gave Helen an angry glare, but really, it wasn’t on purpose. My bad, she mouthed to the woman, her middle finger concealed by the dashboard.

At the Larsen address, Helen felt she had arrived at an arboretum. The house was robin’s egg blue and surrounded by shrubs. She hopped out, straightened her top—she wanted to make a good impression—and piled the meals into one “lazy man’s load” as her mother would say. While she waited at the front door, her foot tapped to her favorite song—If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.

A bent woman opened the door a crack. Her stunning blue eyes shone from a fair-skinned, wrinkled face, framed by wispy white hair.

“Meals on Wheels,” Helen sang in a happy voice.

“Come in.”

The old lady’s voice quivered with palsy. Her words came out creaky, forced to the surface with pain, like a baby’s first tooth.

With her rump, Helen pushed open the door and swung into the house, balancing the boxes—like the leaning Tower of Pizza.

“You almost knocked me over,” the old lady said.

The air in the house smelled stagnant and pissy and the furniture needed dusting. It was too dark for Helen—she must open the windows and let the sun shine in. On a faded Oriental rug in the middle of the living room, a hospital bed sat in disarray.

“Where shall I put your meals?” Helen sang.

The woman motioned to the right. The kitchen was orderly though not what Helen would call clean.

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

“That would be lovely,” Helen said. “Here’s today’s meal. I’ll put the others in the fridge.”

Helen looked for a towel to wipe the table. Since the dishrag on the faucet was stiff and cruddy, she brushed off crumbs with her sleeve and placed the Styrofoam container, filled with tomato soup, crackers, ketchup-covered meatloaf and mashed potatoes, on the table. When she handed Helen the cup of tea, the old woman’s hands trembled, but with expertise, she dropped into her chair for lunch. The plastic spoon shook in her hand, spattering the soup.

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