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The Decline and Fall

Published: December 17, 2012

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.

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.

“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.

“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.

**

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.

**

Gloria felt it was only a matter of time until she worked Helen out of her life. Oh, the girl had served a purpose. The house was clean and tidy, Gloria got regular baths and she had to admit, Helen did a decent manicure. She listened for the Cadillac to pull into the driveway, just as she had listened for Gunnar all those years, when they spent their evenings on long walks then listened to Caruso sing Pagliacci on 78 rpm and took turns reading from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—“In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.” She remembered it well.

Now that the Cadillac was in running condition and the licensing up-to-date, Gloria hoped Janice would find someone halfway intelligent to deliver Meals on Wheels. The girl is stupid, Gloria thought, painfully stupid. Helen stole from her—baubles, knick-knacks and costume jewelry—but Gloria pretended not to notice. Better to let Helen dig her own grave.

With her left hand squeezed into one of the yellow rubber gloves Helen bought at K Mart, Gloria took a plastic salad bowl from the kitchen cabinet. The refrigerator door took three yanks to open. Gloria leaned over her walker to reach the bag of chopped spinach Helen brought the other day. “I love spinach!” Helen had said. A nice spinach salad for Helen, how lovely.

With her gloved hand, Gloria pulled a dish from behind the toaster, where she had stored the berries and leaves from the belladonna plant. She chopped the leaves, brushed the pieces into the salad bowl, added spinach and fluffed the greens with a fork. Gloria dropped the shiny black berries on top—they would be sweet and lend a touch of color. “I always like a taste of fruit with my salad,” she would say, “I thought you might, too.” Where is that ranch dressing? she wondered and turned back to the refrigerator. This time, when Gloria yanked the door, the small of her back sent an alarming pain radiating down her right buttock, through her thigh, to burn in the recesses of her withered calf.

Gloria turned towards her chair to sit, but the walker blocked her. She slipped to her knees, slumped against the walker. When Helen sang Good Morning, Sunshine and entered the kitchen through the garage, Gloria raised her head. Today, she would give Helen everything she ever dreamed of—the car, the house, government bonds and the casket-shaped jewelry box she so often admired. It hurt to laugh.

**

“Oh my,” Helen said. “Dear God.”

The color had drained from Gloria’s face, leaving it ghostly. The old woman’s arms clung to the walker and she slumped on her knees in a spreading pool of urine. Eyes wide, Gloria looked up at Helen with supplication. Helen rushed to her, flung aside the walker and grasped Gloria in a hug. When she dragged Gloria to the living room, Helen had super-human strength. With a one-two-three, she hoisted Gloria on to the hospital bed.

“I’m ok,” Gloria whispered, so low Helen could barely hear.

“I’m calling 9-1-1,” Helen sang. Gloria was a goner.

“No, no,” Gloria said. “I’m not leaving my house. My sciatica flared up, that’s all. Lord knows, you don’t live to 88 without discomfort.”

A vein pulsed blue across Gloria’s forehead and her gnarled hands clenched in fists.

“Let me get those wet things off. I’ll clean up the mess and then we’ll see how you feel.”

“I’ll be fine in a minute. I made you a nice salad for lunch,” Gloria said.

Helen mopped the floor, put Gloria’s wet clothes in the washer and cleaned her with a warm cloth. Gloria turned on her side and shimmied to the floor, where Helen helped her into a fresh housecoat. Not yet, Helen thought, don’t die yet, I haven’t had enough time. I’ve done so much for you. Don’t you see? I’m the one who helps you. I’m the one you need.

Today, Helen would promise to care for Gloria, to move in so Gloria could stay in her home. In return, all Helen wanted was a place to live, a car to drive, a little spending money and gold jewelry was always nice. “Of course,” she would say, “you must take care of Todd and his brothers. I feel the same way.” On the drive over, Helen had a feeling this was the day and now, look how desperately Gloria needed her. Just as she planned. Just as she prayed. God is good.

**

The stabbing pain took away Gloria’s breath, yet it was a godsend—the perfect situation to tell Helen how much she depended on her, needed her, thought of her as the daughter she never had. She leaned on the walker and dragged herself to the kitchen.

“I’ll brew a cup of tea,” Gloria said. “And I made you a beautiful salad.”

“Are you sure you’re okay? Do you need your meds?”

“No, no. Run upstairs and get the small jewelry box. Then we’ll have lunch.”

It took every ounce of strength for Gloria to lift Helen’s salad and get it to the table. With tiny beads of sweat forming on her upper lip, Gloria backed into her chair, exhausted, and listened to Helen rummaging around upstairs. The girl never missed the opportunity to go through Gloria’s things. Footsteps pounded down the steps.

“Your little jewelry box,” Helen sang and placed it in front of Gloria.

“I’m giving this to you. You’ve been a great help and this is dear to me, as you are,” Gloria said, pushing it towards Helen.

Helen trembled. Her hooded eyes glistened and her pouty lips were pink and puckered. Gloria thought of Sheba, the golden retriever she’d had for twelve years, quivering with delight at the prospect of a bone. She would throw Helen a bone, why not?

“I’ve decided to change my will. I want you to have the house and the car after I die. Gunnar was very wise with money. Between Social Security and the return on our investments, I’ve been able to live well enough over the years and I expect you will too. Of course, I have commitments to the Ryan boys. I intend to give Todd money to buy a car.”

**

Helen could not believe her ears. Her dream came true. All she ever wanted was to help people, to make a difference. Across the table, Gloria’s hands shook so much she couldn’t bring her teacup to her lips.

“Thank you,” Helen said. “I’ll take care of you. We’ll go for long rides on nice days and we can buy a big TV to watch movies when it rains.”

It will be so easy to take away Gloria’s pain after she changes the will, Helen thought. A slip, a fall, a pillow pressed gently on her face. No autopsy, she wouldn’t want that. I am the only survivor. Yes, she would like her ashes strewn over her garden. Helen smiled at Gloria and reached for the salad.

“You are such a beautiful person.”

**

Gloria wished Helen could help her up. The pain in her hip and leg were excruciating. After she finished the salad, Helen had staggered from the table and collapsed on the floor, blocking the front door. Before the convulsions became so unpleasant—the putrid smell was unexpected—Helen had sung to herself in a slurred voice, “Let the sun shine, let the sun shine in, the sun shine in.” Let the sun shine in, indeed. There lay Helen, sprawled across the threshold, her essence wandering through the house, leaving its impression on Gloria’s things.

Gloria pulled herself up and clumped to the chair by the phone. She sat for a bit to get her breath and plan the rest of her day. First, call 9-1-1 and get that thing removed. Then, call Janice and have her send another driver. Gloria sighed. I wish Helen had brought those little doughnuts. SEP Logo Reverse

 

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