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The Decline and Fall

Published: December 17, 2012

Helen’s car sputtered into the driveway. Joe, her mother’s mechanic, said the Escort was dying: “There’s oil in the radiator and radiator fluid in the engine. Car’s not worth the cost of repair. Not with a cracked block.” Cracked block! Joe’s block is cracked, Helen thought. She stomped to Gloria’s door.

“I’m here,” she trilled and put on her happy face.

No need to spread gloom, her mother always said. Yet, how could Helen keep up her visits without a car? Meeting Gloria had been great. Helen was making a difference, helping an old lady, and, truth be told, had accumulated a nice little pile of gifts—a necklace, a shawl, Pickwick Papers by Dickens in good condition considering its copyright was 1842. She felt certain she could sell it on eBay. Helen felt certain the silver jewelry box would be hers, too.

In two months, mother would move away and abandon her. In Helen’s dream of dreams, she would move in with Gloria. Then, her message to mother would be—good riddance to bad rubbish. First, I must get that car, Helen thought. Gloria opened the door.

“You look beautiful! The housecoat brings out the blue in your eyes! I brought an emery board and peach nail polish. I’m going to give you a manicure!” Helen sang.

The house had lost all but a slight smell of urine. Helen pulled wet sheets from the bed, put them in the washer and took clean ones from the dryer while Gloria clopped to the kitchen and turned on the stove.

“Did you bring those little chocolate doughnuts for tea?” Gloria called.

“Not today. I’ve had such a bad day.”

As she changed the hospital bed, Helen glanced into the kitchen. Gloria stood by the window, as translucent as a ghost. When she turned, a sunbeam glinted off her eyes. After Helen fluffed the pillows, she headed to the kitchen and collapsed in a chair. With her head in her hands, she sobbed.

“Joe says my car’s not worth fixing. The block is cracked. I don’t know what that means.”

“Oh my,” Gloria said, delicately sipping her tea.

“Please let me borrow your car while I figure out what to do.”

“Helen, I promised Todd.”

Helen looked up, her plump face blotchy and wet.

“I just want to borrow it. I’ll get Joe to inspect it and make sure its safe for Todd. Let’s see how it drives. We can go for a long ride, anywhere you want. We’ll buy ice cream.”

“Getting the car in tip-top shape is a good idea,” Gloria said, “and so is ice cream.”

Helen followed Gloria into the garage—another room to clean. Gloria flipped a switch and the garage door creaked open, barely high enough for the Cadillac to pass under. When Helen put the key in the starter, the engine groaned to life. She jockeyed the gearshift into Drive and they lurched down the driveway. The brakes were powerful and sticky and the steering wheel had so much play Helen felt like she was driving an electric bumper car at the carnival. As they entered the street, Helen turned on the radio. Thumping bass notes pounded hard rap music—Give me two-pair, I need two-pair, Big Boy…

“Gunnar and I prefer classical music,” Gloria said.

Helen pressed buttons until she found her favorite easy listening station. She sang along. I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean. Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens…

“Well, that’s a pretty tune,” Gloria said.

Gloria smelled much better these days—her clothes of lavender detergent, her hair of fruity shampoo. But in the close quarters of the car Helen smelled decay, like sodden leaves in the woods after a storm. In the passenger seat, Gloria sat wide-eyed and smiling and Helen felt it was only a matter of time until she worked her way into Gloria’s heart…and home.

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