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The Decline and Fall

Published: December 17, 2012

“Gloria!” Helen called and rang the doorbell.

Instead of just letting herself in, Helen waited outside, arms loaded, for the scrunch-clump of the walker. It was so stupid—when she suggested that Gloria give her a key, Gloria had said, “I’m not ready to do that,” in her quivering voice. Helen hummed “See You in September.” Come on, come on, she willed until Gloria cracked open the door. Helen squeezed in and put the groceries on the table.

“We needed detergent and paper towels. I just love Pepsi, don’t you?”

Helen put most of the change from Gloria’s $50 bill on the table then reached into her purse. With great flourish, Helen curtsied and swept her right hand towards Gloria, presenting the little chocolate doughnuts.

“For our tea, Madame.”

The kitchen was spotless and when Helen opened the refrigerator, neatly stacked plastic containers filled the middle shelf. A quart of orange juice stood in the door rack next to a jar of olives and a baggie with celery and carrots perched on the bottom shelf.

“What’s this?” Helen said.

“The Ryans stopped by and brought me nice home-cooked meals,” Gloria’s voice wobbled across the room. “We had such a nice day. Todd raked the yard and washed my windows. Cynthia and Marty took me for a drive—it was wonderful.” Her blue eyes gleamed from her wan face. “Marty let Todd drive the Cadillac around the block. Marty says it’s in good shape, considering.”

“I don’t know why you don’t get a home health aide,” Helen said.

For the interminable trip to the second floor, Helen held her hand against the small of Gloria’s back. In the dingy bedroom, Gloria dropped into a straight-backed chair by the vanity.

“My jewelry boxes,” Gloria said.

On the bureau, in a large cherry box, necklaces hung from hooks. A smaller, tarnished silver box, shaped like a coffin, sat next to it. It was beautiful. Helen cradled the silver box reverently, as if in adoration and ran her nails over the bird and butterfly that glided through flowers etched on its domed top. Helen set the silver box on the vanity, just out of Gloria’s reach.

“That little box was my wedding gift from Gunnar. ‘A place for your rings,’ he said. But I think of it as the casket for the child we lost.”

“Why do you keep it, if it makes you sad? I think it’s exquisite.”

“For sentimental value, I suppose.”

Helen explored the bedroom, opened windows and coughed when dust floated from yellowed lace curtains. When she circled back, Helen moved the silver casket to Gloria’s reaching hands and sat on the bed. It was surprisingly comfortable. Once the comforter and sheets were cleaned, why, the bed would suit her perfectly. Gloria looked up and sneezed.

“Do you have family, Gloria?”

“None living.”

“What will you do with your things?”

“When I die? The house goes to Cynthia and Marty. With three boys, they’ll get great use from it. And the children’s education will be covered.”

Helen’s heart dropped. Still, Gloria seemed in good health. No reason to worry. There was plenty of time.

The thing about these Meals-on-Wheels people, Gloria thought, is they wear on a person. The November sun shone bright and warm, like summer. In the back yard, Gloria clipped oval leaves and shiny black berries from the belladonna and dropped them into the pocket of the blue-checked housecoat Helen picked up at K-Mart. Helen picked up extras, too–plastic flowers and coffee mugs with “Friends 4 Ever” on them. The mug was heavy and Gloria did not like the taste of her tea in it. Now Helen was asking what Gloria wanted for Christmas and should they get a natural or an artificial tree.

What Gloria wanted was a new Meals-on-Wheels driver, thank you very much. Yet, Helen was so willing. They had made progress organizing Gloria’s things—jewelry, fine china, the wall-to-wall books in the library and Gunnar’s collection of recordings going back to 1930. What a time to be alive! Gloria plucked the last shiny black berry from the branch. She must put them away before Helen arrived. She hoped Helen wouldn’t pester her about the car.

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