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The Decline and Fall

Published: December 17, 2012

“This is fine, dear. Sam was never one to set my plate. Don’t let me keep you.”

“You have a nice house, Mrs. Larsen.”

“You can call me Gloria.”

“Gloria, do you live alone?”

“For the past 20 years, since Gunnar died.”

Helen nodded and squinted her eyes to look sympathetic.

“How do you manage? Groceries, doctor appointments and such.”

Gloria brought the soup to her mouth and slurped. When she lowered the container, an orange mustache coated her upper lip.

“People on this street watch out for each other. A young family, the Ryans, moved away last year, but they drop by every week. Their oldest, Todd, he’s something. When he was little, he loved to sit in my car and pretend to drive it. We bought the Cadillac new in 1986. Ocean Blue. Gunnar said the color matched my eyes.”

“Like your house.”

Gloria chopped the meatloaf with the plastic fork. A glob of mashed potato splattered on the floor.

“I promised Todd the car when he turned 16. Now he’s 16, but his father says there’s too much paperwork, and I should keep it. Keep it? I don’t drive anymore, not for years.”

“Of course not. People drive like lunatics, and they’re so rude. Where is it?”

“In the garage. Goodness, it doesn’t have but 23,000 miles on it. Do you want to see it?”

When Gloria smiled, her pink nose and tiny teeth reminded Helen of Fluffy, the little kitten she had as a child, until he drowned when Helen dropped him in the toilet to teach him to swim. Helen followed Gloria through the laundry room into the garage. In the middle of the mess of newspapers, mulch, and rusted tools, the Cadillac sat, covered in dust thick enough to write your name in.

“It’s dreamy,” Helen said. “Such a beautiful car and no one to drive it.”

Gloria nodded, from satisfaction or palsy, Helen couldn’t tell.

“Let me change your sheets and start a load of wash before I go,” Helen said.

In the washer, clothes stuck to the bottom like cement and smelled of mildew. Helen felt her work was cut out for her.

“You’re too pretty for that old robe,” Helen said. “Let’s get you into something fresh.”

“I need a little help with the stairs. Would it be too much to ask you to stay while I have a bath?” Gloria said.

An hour later, Helen, face flushed with satisfaction, pulled out of the driveway. That poor old thing in that big house needs someone to take care of her. Why shouldn’t it be me?

On a bright September morning, Gloria worked in the backyard, wearing garden gloves and the floppy hat Gunnar bought in Guadalajara. In her housecoat pocket, she carried comfort-coated floral scissors and a small pruner. Helen insisted she should pay a boy to prune, but Gloria liked to tend her plants and didn’t want any child near her belladonna shrub. She had nurtured the belladonna, the “pretty lady,” for 60 years, ever since Gunnar planted it. Of course, the leaves and berries were poisonous, but Gloria thought the plant was lovely, with shiny black berries nestled in green starfish-shaped calyxes. Bell-shaped purple flowers sprung from the stalks. Gloria was careful not to touch the belladonna barehanded. She clipped the closest branch, then the next, and next until her fingers grew stiff. The sun glowed pink in the cloudless sky. A bee buzzed so near she could feel the caress of its wings. When a breeze made her shiver, she turned to go inside. Helen would arrive soon.

Gloria liked to get one thing accomplished each day Helen came. Today she would ask Helen to come to the upstairs bedroom to look through her jewelry boxes. She hadn’t held the necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and rings in years—baubles Gunnar brought her each time he returned from a trip.

Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, Helen visited Gloria, bringing Meals on Wheels each Tuesday. Her mother had stopped nagging—thank God. Their house was on the market, but Helen wasn’t concerned. She would find a place to live soon, very soon.

On the way to Gloria’s, the Escort’s engine light flicked on. Helen smelled something burning but put the bad thought out of mind. In her purse were two packs of mini chocolate doughnuts for mid-morning tea. Gloria’s groceries rested on the passenger seat—milk, eggs, Barry’s Dublin tea, and strawberry yogurt. Gloria gave her more than enough money, so Helen bought paper towels, detergent, Pepsi, and Lucky Charms cereal, certain Gloria would be pleased.

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