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The Decline and Fall

Published: December 17, 2012

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.

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