You’ve probably seen one in more thrift stores than you can care to remember, looking appropriately stained and worn down by the grating sands of time: an old padded recliner, resting unassumingly in a corner, not taking up very much attention at all.
This particular recliner doesn’t sit in a Goodwill or Salvation Army, collecting dust particles as a hobby. It rests in an old one-story house in the suburbs of Georgia, taking its place as the crowning member of the family, sitting closest to the television and the telephone with extraordinarily large buttons. Its faded blue exterior attempts to hide stains well, but as all furniture eventually does, it has caved with time to the pressures of everyday living.
Thoughts of a recliner and who ought to own one spring forth often as you see it, alive with the glory of stereotypes: an old man in a worn-out shirt and blue jeans, a beer in one hand and the television remote control in the other. While beauty and truth are in the eye of the beholder, you would not be too far off the mark if your mind conjured this image up.
Its owner would settle down, gratefully, into its comfortable embrace. The chair welcomed this, stretching around his body, feeling a sigh ripple out across the room. The television would come on, the woman would sit nearby, knitting a blanket for someone, wind chimes would ring out in the distance, rain would patter against the old tin roof and the world would sigh as one, as if the chair and its occupants were the single most important thing the universe had to offer.
The old man and the chair, not too dissimilar from each other at the end of the day. They both sit stooped over a bit, and shake when pushed too hard. Their inner workings creak under pressure, and sometimes they both just wish everything would stop for a minute. Their home is made under a blanket of stars near Stone Mountain, where nightly fireworks ring out across the hills in the summertime. The man doesn’t enjoy these noises, though – too many memories of his old home in Hawaii, age sixteen, standing outside as the planes roared overhead the day of Pearl Harbor. He insisted for the longest time that he could make out the face of a Japanese pilot as he flew overhead. Most believe he did.
He went to war as they all did, moved to Georgia. The days of returning home, sinking into bed with bone-deep exhaustion have been replaced with shuffling from the bedroom to the living room. It’s much easier to let John Wayne do the fighting for you on the television after a while. Budweiser doesn’t shoot back when you break its top off, either. But one day, he stood up and shuffled off, and never came back.
His chair lies, waiting, not asking for much. A sliver of sunlight from the back porch, some reading light from the side table, the rare slip of a drop of someone’s misguided beverage. There had been a time when its life had been so packed full, busy. Children clambering all over it, laughing, fiddling with its faux-wood lever, pumping the footrest up and down. The metallic clang of guns from a television western, the music of rain falling on the tin roof, a cacophony of sound.
Now, there’s not much laughter. The chair waits for the light to come back, and sometimes it does, but it passes away fairly quickly again. It has settled itself into the ground, creating pleasing grooves to settle down and pass the time, waiting, always waiting as the shadows creep across the floor.
A place suspended in time, a moment, frozen over in a midwinter sheen. One day, things will change again. And until then it sits in the living room, just as it always has. Waiting, a thread or two of grey hair clinging to its exterior, shimmering in the low light.
"Don't go in that lake!" my mother had warned as my cousins ran out the back door of my grandmother's house and down to the dock, shedding articles of clothing and whooping and hollering in true Southern summer fashion. I paused at the screen door and cast a look back at her over my shoulder: I was six, I was practically grown, I didn't need her help. I fingered the ties of my new shirt, blue with splotchy white flowers that tied at the front, some new nice, pristine white shorts. I set my jaw and followed my cousins, basking in their shadow: they were loud, rough and tumble boys and like a new puppy I was desperate to fall in line, to be one of them, be accepted.
They bounded down to the side of the river and waded in, my oldest cousin at age nine beginning to pretend to do a newscast about the weather conditions. My aunt hovered nearby in a grove of pine trees, talking and laughing with us as the boys frolicked in the gentle ripples. I slowly kicked off my tennis shoes and peeled off my socks, placing them reverently beside a tree and picking my way across the pine nettles that cascaded over the forest floor, careful not to let on that it hurt my feet. My aunt Amy paused what she was doing and looked over to me, a frown creasing her brow.
"You sure about that, Tricia?" I didn't hear her, didn't want to. I needlessly rolled up my shorts and picked my way out into the water, tongue poking out of the side of my mouth, so pleased with myself: my mother would never, ever know that I was here! This was genius. I took a few more tentative steps and shouted out at one cousin or another when the icy fingers of the lake reached out and traced themselves down my spine - I tripped over a rock, stumbled, and fell into the water, blubbering.
I stood up immediately, drenched and absolutely humiliated. Peals of laughter rang from the dock and the water as my cousins laughed at my misfortune, and I could feel my lower lip wobbling. My aunt stood nearby, aghast but shellshocked, unsure how to react. I folded my arms across my flat chest and attempted to stomp out of the water, made my way across the pine nettles and scooped up my socks and shoes, carrying them in my limp arms to my grandmother's back screen door.
I wrung my shirt out and tried to bite back tears, fingering the tie on my lovely new short set that was now absolutely ruined. My four year old cousin was inside playing a tea party with Gran, and for a moment I wished I'd stayed inside and played a baby game with her instead. Slowly, tentatively, I eased open the screen door and let it clatter behind me. I could feel my mother's eyes from across the house, and as I shuffled my way off the carpet into the tiled kitchen, I wished I could melt into it.
"Patricia!" I heard my mother's screen before I saw her, like a supersonic bat, and I cringed: it was never good when she said my name that way. She went to fetch a towel and I felt myself burst into tears as she threw it at me, too angry to even form words. Tears dripped down my face, intermingling with the briny lake water, and I saw my grandmother's figure from behind my dripping wet eyelashes. She clucked her tongue and reached out to me, pulling me close despite being wetter than after a bath.
"Hey now," she said, smoothing my hair back off my forehead and planting a kiss on the crown of my head. "It's okay, there's no crying at Gran's house." she toweled off my hair and held me until the tears subsided. When my mother went out back to talk to my aunt, my Gran made me a big glass of chocolate milk in one of my favorite grown-up Libby drinking glasses, and I didn't have to share a drop with my cousins. She rubbed at her arthritic wrists and did a Polly Pocket knock-off of Where's Waldo with me, curled up on the sofa like two peas in a pod.
My grandmother passed away last month, and I remember a lot of things about her: her distaste for my rejection of dresses, bows and ruffles, her distrust for people who were not Christian, her inability to see that I didn't need to be married at 22 like my cousin to feel fulfilled. But as big as our differences were, are, after I found out she had passed and I fell sobbing into my boyfriend's arms, the darts we'd been playing clattering uselessly to the floor, I felt her smoothing my hair back all over again, the siren song of those words following me like the Pied Piper: "it's okay, there's no crying at Gran's house."
No matter where I go or what I do, if I feel defeated or beaten down, if I goof up a job at work or I fail in my duties as a colleague, a daughter, a girlfriend, I can hear her in my mind clear as the day she said it 19 years ago: "it's okay, there's no crying at Gran's house." And I know that somewhere, wherever she is, my Gran is free of her arthritis and dancing jubilantly with her God, pleased in me even if the words never fell from her lips.
It had happened so fast he'd nearly missed it: just a blink, that was all it took, to go from the top of the steps to here.
Where was here, anyway?
Nathan couldn't recognize anything, and he reached up to rub the back of his head, frowning. He'd been going down the icy front steps, the dog's leash clutched in his left hand and a fistful of bills to mail in the right. His mother always gave him grief about not getting with the times and just doing them all online, but he liked the feel of sending something in the mail, it made him feel important, somehow. The wind was blustering and whipping his scarf around his face, and he set his jaw stubbornly and tried to grapple for it ... and that was the last he remembered. He opened and closed the hand that had been holding his water bill, but there was nothing there.
The sky was a dingy grey, like someone had slung a bucket of mop water across the sky. Fog rolled across the area as far as the eye could see. As he focused on his surroundings, Nathan found himself feeling strange, almost ethereal. He blinked up at the sky and slowly moved each limb, but he felt foolishly weightless. It was, by far, the strangest sensation he'd ever experienced. He thought he could make out the shape of a figure far off in the fog, but when he blinked to bring it into focus, it seemed to fade into the sidelines.
"Hello?" he called out, his normally clear voice ragged and tattered on the cold, harsh air. He pulled his arms in closer and wished he'd worn another layer of clothing when the figure in the darkness moved, shuffling closer. It made no sound on the ground and he felt fear creep across his skull, the hairs on the nape of his neck rising.
"Hello?" he said again, his voice wobbling. The figure became more pronounced and suddenly, Nathan could make out its shape: a robe, rolling fog at its feet. If he didn't know any better, he'd have said it was the grim reaper itself. But that was just a childrens' story anyway, there was no grim reaper. Right? He swallowed a gulp of cold air and watched the figure come ever closer before coming to a stop a yard away. Nathan could not see a face, just a hood with shadows underneath, deep-set and stark.
"Am I in Hell?" he mumbled, more to himself than to anyone else: it wasn't like he expected the hooded figure to answer. He was surprised when a hand came sweeping out of the folds of the robe, solemnly gripping his wrist and then pulling it back toward him. The figure's head swam back and forth in front of Nathan's eyes: no.
"Then where am I? This isn't Heaven!" He had almost said "sure as Hell isn't Heaven," but this was no time for jokes. A small smile played on his lips, though: he was pretty funny, he had to admit. His brother would have laughed at that joke. The figure shook its head again, and even though no words were exchanged, Nathan felt the answer solemn as a vow in his mind: no.
"I give up, then," Nathan murmured, hugging himself even closer. "just do whatever you're going to do with me and let's get on with it." The figure's hand opened, revealing in its palm a set of pristine, marble dice. He glanced up at the figure, but of course nothing glanced back. Unnerved, he reached out and took the dice and closed his eyes, wishing with everything in him as he let the dice roll out of his palm and onto the ground. They came to a rest somewhere a yard or two away - Nathan couldn't see where - and the figure turned to look at them - nodded approvingly. Nathan gulped.
The figure crept closer still to Nathan and reached back into the folds of its robe, extracting a small plastic object. Nathan squinted into the fog but could not quite make out what was cupped in the figure's hands as he brought it closer to Nathan's face and held it up toward him, a student passing back a sheaf of papers.
"Is that ... a barrel?" Nathan asked, incredulity creeping into his voice. The figure said nothing, but placed the barrel into Nathan's palm and unscrewed the lid, tossing it to the side and revealing a hollow toy, full of what looked like ... "Where did you get a barrel of monkeys?" As ridiculous as the situation was, Nathan couldn't help feeling like he was being pranked, but it wasn't like he could see the camera in all of this fog even if there was one. And then he heard the voice, so faint it was like it hadn't happened at all: around.
"You have a mouth?"
The figure reached into the barrel and extracted a monkey, hooking it onto another monkey and held the chain out to Nathan. He was sure that if the figure had a face, it would be quirking an eyebrow at him right now. Slowly, he reached out and took the monkey chain from the figure, dipping it into the barrel and pulling it out with three attached. The figure wordlessly took it from Nathan and added a fourth monkey, immediately passing the chain back to Nathan, who struggled to hold the barrel and the chain at the same time. This is unfair, he wanted to protest. You should have to hold it when I go. Then he realized it was absurd to try to complain to hooded figures that the games they were playing with you were unfair, and the whole thing was just utterly ridiculous, so he kept his mouth shut and kept playing.
It was at the end of the barrel that Nathan made a critical error. The hand that held the barrel wavered and wobbled, and in that one moment, the chain broke against the side of the barrel. Monkeys cascaded to the ground on either side of him, and Nathan looked up frantically. He could have sworn he saw the figure shrug, but that was impossible. In an instant, the game vanished from his hand and the figure reached out a hand to him. Unsure of what to do, but feeling the pull, Nathan let the figure clasp his hand in his and found it to be warm and gentle, not cold and harsh.
"That wasn't fair," Nathan stuttered as the figure began to lead him away, somewhere dark and cold. "I could never have won."
That is how life worked. he swore he heard the figure say. What makes you think death is any different?
"Bethany," her father said one night over their spaghetti dinner. "what would you say if I told you that one day soon you might have a baby brother or sister?"
Bethany frowned hard at that, her hand frozen over the slice of garlic bread on the side of her plate. She had classmates who had one day gone from only children to kids with brothers or sisters, and it sounded absolutely awful. She had always said she wanted a baby sister, but now she was six, and she was practically grown. She was too old for a baby brother or sister! Her parents had had their chance, and they'd lost it.
She shook her head emphatically before taking a giant bite out of her garlic bread. "No thank you, daddy," she said through a mouthful, spraying a delicate shower of crumbs across the table. "I'm too old now, I am an only child." Satisfied in her response, Bethany began to twist spaghetti around her fork, tongue poking out of the side of her mouth in thought. On the other side of the room where she was pouring water into her cup, her mother ran her hand over her decidedly swollen belly and frowned in a way eerily similar to her daughter.
One day, when Bethany got off the school bus, her father wasn't there waiting for her, but someone else was.
"Grammy!" she shrieked, pinwheeling her arms and legs and launching herself into her grandmother's arms, clinging to her, a barnacle that had finally found a place to call home. Her grandmother patted her hair and back, grinning into her granddaughter's hair and waited.
"Let's go inside, Bethie - it sure is hot!" her grandmother said. Bethany nodded emphatically and grabbed for her grandmother's hand, leading her to the house. She twisted a lock of hair around her finger, lost in thought.
"Grammy, where's daddy?" she asked, sticking the tip of her hair into her mouth.
"Well, Bethie, he's at the hospital with your mommy. She just had your baby brother." Grammy seemed unsure about how Bethany would take this, and apparently it was as her entire family had feared: not well.
"She had a baby anyway? I told her not to!" The smile on Bethany's face absolutely shattered, and her grandmother could feel her granddaughter's heart break. "It's just supposed to be me, only me!" She stomped her foot on the pavement, cheeks reddening.
"Let's go inside and talk about it, okay?" Her grandmother fumbled with the front door key while Bethany stood on the porch, gleefully scuffing up her Mary Janes and trying not to cry because only babies cried.
"There's nothing to talk about." Bethany said simply, having swallowed her disappointment and anger. "The baby will be gone soon. Want some lemonade?" she shuffled through the front door and down the hall, depositing her backpack on the steps upstairs and trying (badly) to whistle. Her grandmother swallowed - it was like she'd already forgotten about the baby. Was it too good to be true?
"This is Bo," Daddy said, taking Bethany's wrist and offering her finger to the infant who clung to it like a limpet. "and he's your baby brother." Bethany squinted down at the baby, perched precariously on her lap in a Boppy pillow and swinging his fists at the air, a miniature pugilist.
"No thank you." Bethany said softly, turning to look at her father. "You can take him back. I don't want him." Her father's lips fit into a grim line.
"Well, baby, I can't just take him back. He is part of our family now."
"Can't we just return him? The hospital gave you a receipt, right? Like Target? We just take him back to the hospital. Let's go." she jostled the baby in her lap and peered up at her father through a curtain of hair.
"I'm afraid there's not a return policy on babies, Bethie."
Bethany ripped her finger out of the baby's fist, and Bo started to squall in protest. Bethany threw the Boppy pillow to the side and her father barely managed to catch it in time as Bethany stormed upstairs.
"You'll be sorry!" she called over her shoulder before she slammed the door to her bedroom. Her father cuddled Bo close to his chest and closed his eyes: just once couldn't Bethany make things easy?
The next morning, her father went to get baby Bo from his crib, but upon peering inside found his son to be gone. Nowhere to be seen. He ran downstairs, sure Bethany was the culprit, but she was sitting calmly at the kitchen table, legs swinging as she watched TV from her perch and ate a cereal bar.
"Where is the baby?" her father asked her, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. Bethany shrugged.
"I don't know, Daddy." She turned back around to face the television. Her father was beginning to think maybe Bo had been in the crib the whole time and he was just losing it when he thought he heard a baby's cry. He turned back around.
"Bethie?" he called. No answer, his daughter was engrossed in Yo Gabba Gabba. Walking into the kitchen, the cries grew louder. He stopped in front of the refrigerator and opened it with trepidation, but thankfully his son was not in the crisper drawer. He took a step deeper into the kitchen, and had a sudden revelation as to where Bo might be.
His infant son was lying in the bottom rack of the dishwasher, blue in the face and screaming so loudly he'd gone hoarse. He scooped up the baby and wheeled around to confront Bethany, but discovered she'd soundlessly made her way into the kitchen and stood next to him, hands clasped behind her back.
"I told you you'd be sorry." she said simply, turning and skipping off. Her father was unsure if either Bo or Bethany would live to see their next birthday, and he clutched his heaving son to his chest and went to find his wife.
Miriam didn't particularly have an affinity for the elderly, but this was better than the alternative. At least, that's what she kept telling herself as she wandered up and down the hallways, white Ked sneakers squeaking on the tile floor, waving hello and exchanging pleasantries with the people who had wound up in this assisted living home.
25 hours of community service, or as she had put it to her boyfriend on the phone, "Twenty-five motherfucking hours of goddamn shitty community service." He might have been a bit more sympathetic had her call not come from a local bondsman's office, as his secretary paced in front of the wall-mounted phone like an overanxious cat waiting for a meal while Miriam exploded to her boyfriend over the injustice of her plea bargain. "All I did was fucking hit that stupid bitch, just one goddamn time!" Joseph (the boyfriend) mumbled something soothing over the phone line and hung up to go back to work: he worked in construction, and this sort of thing was sorely frowned upon.
Miriam was 12 hours in, though, and felt the halfway point drawing near. She tugged the handle of a mop bucket toward her and grinned falsely at the family members who had come to visit their aging grandmother, or mother, or aunt ... whoever it was. This was better than cleaning a park or sorting clothes at a Goodwill, but she wished she'd been able to tolerate the animal shelter. She wrinkled her nose at the memory of the cat dander, so thick in the air you could see it floating around like a dust mite. Wheeling the mop bucket down the hall behind her like an unruly toddler, she made it to the end of the hallway and began to mop her way down it, stepping carefully over tile so she didn't mess up her work.
"Hullo?" the voice was so faint and hoarse she thought she'd imagined it, but then it came again, from an open doorway behind her. "Hullo there?" the woman said softly, peering anxious at Miriam from the safety of her apartment. "Oh dear, could you please come here?" she beckoned for Miriam with what she felt were clawed hands, an angel of death. Suppressing a shudder, Miriam plopped the mop back into the bucket and carefully maneuvered into the woman's quarters.
It was sparsely kept, very white and spartan in appearance. A few coffee mugs sat on the counter tops, along with Sudoku puzzle books and crossword puzzles scrawled through in pencil. Keeping their memories on the straight and narrow, that was what the no-nonsense matron of the place - she'd long-since forgotten her name - had said as she gave Miriam the tour. This woman must be particularly sharp, she thought, turning to shut the door behind her.
"What can I do for you, ma'am?" she asked, stepping toward the old woman. Grey ran through her hair, but not too much - there were still faint strands of blonde. Thought she stood a bit stooped, she was largely not all that hunched or, frankly, old-looking. Miriam gazed at her face until the woman looked up from her feet to her, wringing her hands.
"They forgot my Melvin's lunch." she said softly, glancing anxiously at her kitchen table. "I eat by myself, it's all well and good, but my poor Melvin, he needs to eat, too." she looked immediately down at her feet again - soft, baby blue slippers - and clucked her tongue, almost imperceptive. "He will be so cross if I don't get him his lunch." Miriam glanced around the apartment, her gaze falling into the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom ... but no sign of anyone.
"Ma'am ... what is your name, again?" she asked, feeling rude all of a sudden.
"Carolyn. Carolyn Rice." the woman said to her slippers.
"Mrs. Rice, I don't seem to see Melvin anywhere." Miriam said, taking a harder look at the living room to make sure he hadn't folded himself into the armchair by the television. "Is he resting? I can get him some lunch but perhaps it should wait until he's here?"
Apparently she had said the wrong thing, as a darkness passed over Carolyn's face. Slowly she raised her head before making direct, unflinching eye contact with Miriam, who felt scolded before Carolyn ever opened her mouth.
"My Melvin," she said crossly, "is right here, and I am tired of you people suggesting otherwise. Just look at him!" she gestured angrily to her side, toward one of the chairs at the kitchen table - totally empty, save a threadbare cotton bathrobe draped over it.
"Oh," Miriam said, unsure how to react to this turn of events. "Yes, right. Of course. Let me go get your lunch, Melvin," she said, addressing the bathrobe. Carolyn sniffed approvingly, now fixated on her slippers again. Miriam slipped out the door and grabbed her mop, wheeling it behind her toward the staff room at a frentic page.
"What the shit," she said, pinwheeling into the doorway and sending the mop bucket rolling into her ankle, "is up with that lady in 109?" the director - she wished she could have remembered the woman's name - sat at the table, picking the crust off a sandwich and glancing up at Miriam through cats-eye glasses, placed down the bridge of her nose.
"By that admission," she put down her sandwich, "I assume you're speaking about Mrs. Rice?"
"Yes!" crowed Miriam, maneuvering the mop bucket into its place in the closet and dumping the dirty water down a grate as she spoke. "She thinks her fucking husband is there, and he's not there! And she wants lunch for him! What a maroon. Is her husband in the game room, or something? I need to get him. Old people are so quiet they don't even notice when they're alone!" she laughed as she wiped her palms on her scrub pants, shutting the closet door to look into the very stern face of the director.
"Mrs. Rice," she began, "has been a widow for three years now."
Miriam wasn't sure how to react, and gaped a bit, waiting for the director to respond.
"Here is a lunch for him," she pushed a sandwich wrapped in a paper towel toward Miriam, "and just serve it like you would any other resident." Miriam took the sandwich, shaking a bit, and made her way back down the hallway toward room 109 once again. Edging the door open with her hip, she called out into the stillness:
"Mrs. Rice? Mr. Rice?"
"I'm in the bathroom," called Mrs. Rice wheezily from the back of the apartment, "but Melvin is still at the table! Please just give him his lunch, he must be starving, the poor dear."
At a bit of a loss, Miriam unwrapped the sandwich, laying it out on its napkin. She filled a plastic cup with water from the tap and laid it beside the sandwich, picking at her cuticles until the bathroom door opened and Mrs. Rice lumbered out. She glanced up from her slippers just long enough to see the kitchen table, and her face broke out in a jubilant smile.
"Peanut butter and jelly! Oh Melvin, your favorite!" she sat down across from the sandwich at the table and began to pick at a spare thread on her slippers. Not ready to leave, Miriam cleared her throat.
"Carolyn, do they often tell you they can't see Melvin?" Mrs. Rice nodded, never looking up.
"Oh, yes. They tell me he's not here and they can help me, that it is okay for me to be alone now, but I'm not. He's right here, he's always with me, my Melvin." Miriam could hear the tears edge their way into her voice. "I won't let anyone tell me any different."
"Fuck," Miriam muttered under her breath. Carolyn's eyebrows shot up, but her gaze never left the floor. Leaning against the counter, Miriam spoke again.
"Tell me about him? He seems like the strong, silent type."
Carolyn Rice's face lit up and she peered upward toward Miriam, tears shining on her cheeks.
"Oh, yes. He always was. My Melvin is a crown jewel. Did you hear about the blizzard of '59?" Miriam shook her head no, and Carolyn placed her hands on her knees, jiggling them excitedly. "Well let me just tell you!"
Mrs. Rice spoke animatedly for upwards of three hours about her Melvin, occasionally pausing to send a grateful smile the way of the bathrobe draped over the chair. She never seemed to mind that the sandwich had not moved, nor the cup emptied, and Miriam stood fixated by every word. Glancing at the wall clock, though, she noticed it was nearing 4:30 pm: almost time for their dinner, and time for her to sign out.
"Carolyn," she said gently, reaching out to touch the woman's shoulder. "he is a wonderful man, god damn it, and you're right. Never let anyone else tell you differently, okay? I have to go now, but I'll be back. I promise." The old woman's hand reached over to Miriam's arm and she squeezed it affectionately, nodding.
As Miriam walked toward the exit, the director looked up from a computer situated in the lobby, her eyebrows tilted up.
"I trust you met Melvin?" she asked. Miriam didn't know what else to say, how to react, so she just nodded.
"Yeah," she mumbled softly. "he's gotta fuckin' be there, somewhere." She tightened her grip on her car keys, and headed out into the sunlight.
Bethany wheeled around, the slack arm holding her briefcase pinwheeling and nearly hitting a fellow commuter.
"Am I what?" she brushed a strand of dishwater-brown hair behind her ear and stared straight ahead, incredulous.
"Are you going to kill yourself?" the man repeated eagerly, hungry for her response, like it would sustain him. He had thin-rimmed glasses made of a tortoiseshell plastic, and he clutched a sheaf of papers in his hands so hard that they trembled. Lips pressed into a thin, unamused line, he brandished his papers at her. "You don't have much time left, you know!" He passed one of the papers to another person walking by who nodded sagely and tucked the paper into their pocket, mouthing "thank you" in the man's direction.
"What are you talking about?" Bethany protested, setting her bag at her feet and crossing her arms resolutely. The man blinked slowly a few times, like he couldn't comprehend her not understanding his words.
"I mean," he said slowly, "that your time is running out, my dear. You're, what, 34?" he glanced at a wristwatch strapped to his right arm and gave it a shake and a firm tap on the glass front. He nodded to himself. "Yes, 34. You don't have much time left, surely you know that." Bethany wrinkled her nose and stepped forward, her bag flopping to the concrete.
"May I have one of those fliers, please?" The man shrugged and handed one to her. "It's too late for you, miss, but I'll give it to you anyway." He spun around on his heel and walked toward the subway, checking his watch one more time and handing a paper to a relieved-looking man on the sidewalk near the guard railing.
Bethany peered down, the wind whipping her hair around her face as she knelt down, pulling her reading glasses out of a side pocket of her briefcase and placing them on the bridge of her nose.
Your thirty-fifth year draws near! the ad proclaimed in large, bold letters. Our records indicate that you have not yet made any plans to deal with this. Please make your demise arrangements with the nearest death agency to avoid any further penalty from the bureau.
Bethany let the paper fall to the ground and squinted ahead, trying to see the man with the papers, but he was nowhere to be found. She took a deep breath and folded the paper in half, tucking it into her pocket. Surely this was some sort of April Fools joke ... in November. Shrugging, she walked down the street toward her office, lost in thought. Her birthday was next month, but nobody had ever said a thing to her about whatever this nonsense was - demise arrangements? Surely they just made this up, some sort of college drama department prank?
Rounding the corner, though, she saw it - a small, unassuming two-story building, somehow both narrow and foreboding, with a sign plastered in the front window and written in broad, urgent strokes - Death Agency. Bethany squared her shoulders and pulled her phone out of her pocket to glance at the time - she had a few hours of comp time, why the Hell not? Clearing her throat, Bethany pushed open the door.
A soft tinkling bell echoed through the room, which felt like the atmosphere of a massage parlor crossed with a church. A woman with her hair in a colorful wrap glanced up from the front desk and adjusted her glasses, smiling serenely.
"Ms. Cambridge?" she asked, standing up and extending her hand. Bethany glanced behind her, looking for someone else before realizing that this woman was saying her own name.
"Yes?" Bethany asked shakily, crossing the gap between the front door and the desk. As the woman shook her hand, pumping it up and down, a nearby fountain peacefully ran and a kitten skittered around on a play rug, chasing after a motorized laser pointer. Distracted by the cat, Bethany glanced down at her hands, which were shaking.
"Don't be afraid, darling. We're so glad you made it." Bethany peered back up at the woman, perplexed. "I am so sorry for not introducing myself, goodness, where are my manners?" the woman reached behind her desk and extracted a tall glass of ice-cold sweet tea and a soft, buttery crumpet - Bethany's favorite snack from childhood. "I'm Thanas, I work for the bureau?" Bethany nodded like she understood what was going on and bit her lower lip, confused.
"I don't understand." she said flatly. Thanas stepped out from behind the desk, carrying a box of tissues and a small saucer of milk, which she set out for the kitten.
"Let's sit down, you must be so perplexed." Bethany nodded slowly and followed Thanas over to some chairs near the window, where she set the bowl of milk down for the kitten and lowered herself into a large armchair. Bethany folded herself into a small beanbag at the armchair's side and bit at her cuticles.
"Well, dear, you know about the legislation," Thanas began. "and you haven't registered a thing! You must be so nervous. But it's nothing to worry about, I can take good care of you here."
"What legislation?" Bethany spat out. "What's a death agency? You made all of this up as a prank, didn't you? I'm on TV?" Thanas smiled sadly and shook her head no.
"You know it costs too much to keep someone alive into old age, and the older you get the more children you have - do eat your crumpet dear I baked it especially for you - so the government has decreed that anyone over age thirty-five ... well, you know the rest."
"It was never this way before!" Bethany screeched, her knuckles going white around each other. Thanas stared at her blankly.
Bethany shook her head, a soft noise issuing from her throat that sounded almost like a kitten's mewl, but the kitten was happily slurping milk across the room. She watched it skitter around, lost in thought.
"Would you prefer a puppy?" Thanas had her hands on her knees, ready to spring into action. "I've got a pug and a husky in the back if you find them more suitable." Bethany shook her head absently.
"I thought not." Thanas settled back into her chair. "Anyway, dear, you've got about a week here, but you've just had Thanksgiving, so today might be a good day?" She produced a pad of paper and a clipboard from beside the chair and held them out to Bethany. "Just sign on the lines and we'll get you whisked away." she beamed, as if Bethany had won some grand prize in a lottery.
"None of this was here last night." Bethany muttered under her breath. "I'm positive this is all new." Thanas just repeated that same, sad smile.
"Honey, it's been this way since you were a little girl." She handed a pen to Bethany as well. "Come on now, baby, it's time to go." Bethany felt a surge of emotion in her chest, a rise of bile and panic, but bit it down, swallowed it. What would happen if she didn't sign the papers? What if she lived to be 36? But there was no good in wondering, and being in this office, she felt so calm ... it was so safe in here, Thanas was so nice ... surely the kindly woman was right, it was time go to sleep.
Nodding dumbly, Bethany signed the papers on the marked lines and passed the clipboard back to Thanas, not even bothering to read the fine print.
"What's going to happen?" her voice was hollow.
"Well," Thanas said, standing up and offering a hand to Bethany, who let the woman tug her to her feet. "We're going to get you all cozy in some pajamas and go lay you down and watch a movie. You'll get a lovely dinner - oh, whatever you like, darling - and then before you know it, you'll be so sleepy ..." her voice trailed off and she shrugged. "That's that, really." She gestured at the kitten on the ground. "Would you like a cuddle buddy?" Bethany shook her head no, and Thanas reached behind her desk, pulling out a paper-wrapped package. "This is for you, my dear."
Bethany opened it to reveal a gorgeous pair of silk pajamas, identical to a pair her mother had once owned when she was just a child, when she would stand at the counter beside her and rub cold cream on her face to be just like her mother. Oh, how she missed her mother ... she clutched the pajamas to her chest and turned to look at Thanas, nodding.
"Any other questions, honey?" she asked, putting a hand on Bethany's arm and leading her down the hallway. Bethany felt her mind give a little kick, a butterfly's flutter. Wasn't there something wrong with this? Her forehead wrinkled, she just knew something was wrong, but oh, what was it? She shouldn't be here? No, that was ridiculous. Halfway down the hall, she remembered and turned to Thanas in a panic, frenzy on her face.
Whitney Jennings had never meant for this to happen. But if you were to have asked her that morning, she would have probably told you - unabashedly - that this was something she'd wanted. Of course, things we think that we want often turn out to be not so great after all.
"I really need to go to that party, mom," she was protesting, pacing the kitchen floor and running her toes over the cracked linoleum. "everyone is going to be there and I just have to. I have to, it's social suicide if I don't!"
Marissa Jennings was a no-nonsense woman, stocky and anything but subtle. She stood at the stove, stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce with one hand so that the other could rest on her hip. "Whitney, you don't have to go. Your sister's not going!" Whitney felt her eyes roll and let them, feeling a small tug of pain as they attempted to crawl into her head. Marissa adjusted her grip on her spoon and looked at her daughter expectantly, lips pursing.
"Christina never goes to anything, mom, she just wants to sit in her stupid room and read her stupid Moby Dicks or whatever." Marissa let a small half-smile crease her face before it fell again.
"Well, you'll have to join her, Whitney. The answer is no. I don't have time to drive you, and I don't want you driving yourself, either. There will be other parties." Whitney peered up at her mother through a curtain of dramatically tossed hair, and this was how she would always remember Marissa: her Rubenesque figure rolling like a graceful wave across the kitchen, tossing a pot of spaghetti noodles into a colander, steam coating her figure in grey.
Enraged, Whitney grabbed her coat off the back of a kitchen chair. "I'm going out for a walk." she pronounced, shoving her feet into a pair of flip-flops - probably Christina's but who cared? - and tucking the key to the front door into the pocket of her jean shorts. Marissa shrugged.
"Be back in fifteen minutes, Whit. Dinner's almost ready." Whitney muttered something that was simultaneously agreeable and bitter and marched outside, slamming the front door behind her.
Dusk was falling, and as she skulked down the driveway and into the cul-de-sac beside the house, Whitney raked her fingers through her hair. It was unbelievable. Hannah was going to be there, and Jeffrey, too. And just because her stupid twin sister wasn't going, she couldn't go? It just wasn't fair, and seventeen was the worst age possible - so close to being able to work and buy her own car, so close to sweet freedom. She stomped down the broken concrete, aimlessly meandering from side to side, avoiding parked cars and yipping dogs. Stumbling over a fissure in the sidewalk, Whitney nearly fell but kept her balance, though her toes were scraped up. She figured now was as good a time as any to head home, and turned toward the driveway as the streetlights began to flicker on overhead.
Whitney threw open the front door and deposited her door key in a bowl by the front steps, hopping on one foot so she could kick off a flip-flop.
"Mom?" she called into the stillness. She wrinkled her nose momentarily: the house should have smelled like pasta sauce, what happened? She tugged at the base of her ponytail, tightening it up as she wandered into the kitchen. "Mom?" she called out again, only to be met with stony, cold silence. The kitchen was bare and still, no food to be seen, nor any trace of her mother. Panic gripped Whitney's heart like a vice.
"Christina!" she screamed, turning and pinwheeling, feet pounding up the stairs faster than her mind could keep up as she burst into her sister's room. "Christina!" her sister looked up from her position on the bed, splayed on her back, a large book balanced against her thighs. Puzzled, Christina pushed her glasses up on her nose and turned down the volume on the stereo on her bedside table.
"What, Whitney?" she said, exasperation apparent as she floundered around on her bed for something to use as a bookmark.
"Where is mom?" Whitney all but screamed, her face ashen. Christina furrowed her brow as she placed a scrap of paper towel in her book and shut it, setting it aside slowly.
"In the hospital? Where she's been all week? Aunt Lynda will be here soon to take us to dinner, are you hungry? You don't look so good."
Whitney felt her heart skip a beat, and her pulse quicken.
"She's where?" maybe she'd just misheard her sister. There was no way ... she'd just been arguing with her minutes before.
"Do you have Swiss cheese for brains?" Christina muttered, shaking her head. "She fell in the gym last week, remember? Her back is really hurt, she can't walk, they're doing surgery tomorrow. We're gonna go see her afterward and then she's gonna come home. Do you forget things this easily all the time? Do we need to call a doctor?" Christina stood up and crossed the space between herself and her sister in two steps, putting her hand on Whitney's shoulder. "I know this is rough but we've got to stick together, sis."
Whitney shook her head feebly. "I was just talking to her ..." her voice trailed off and she looked outside at the streetlights' faint glow. She was home, somewhere, she just had to be. This couldn't be all in her head, she wasn't creative enough for this, her teachers told her all the time that she had too much wasted potential.
"On the phone? Why didn't you tell me!" Christina protested. "I wanted to tell her about my Chemistry test. Oh well." She brushed past Whitney into the hallway and thundered down the stairs in the practiced way only a house's inhabitants can. "Let's get ready for dinner, come on."
Whitney slowly meandered down the staircase, her fingers tracing the wooden railing. What had she done? For the first time in as many years as she could recall, all Whitney wanted was her mother.
"Maybe you should just get a cat." Sophia's laughter rang out, and she grimaced, holding the phone away from her and making a rude gesture at it before putting it back to her ear.
"I'm serious, Soph," Margaret protested, mashing the lock button on her car keys and jugging the grocery bags while trying to keep the cell phone penned between her ear and her shoulder. "I don't know what it is, but it keeps making these clicking noises and I'm terrified that it's mice or rats or something."
"Like I said, maybe you should get a cat. Not even joking, sister. Laughter aside and all that, a cat might be the answer. Mine is the reason I haven't seen a cockroach in years." Margaret wedged a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke under her right arm and shuffled her way toward her apartment, fumbling with the keys again to get to her door key.
"I don't have time for a cat!" she protested feebly, unlocking the door and holding it open with her hip while she set down the soda bottle and a package of toilet paper. "I don't even have time for myself!"
"Maggie," Sophia said gently, "cats are therapeutic. Your husband left you, you're kind of obligated to get a cat now, it's a rite of passage. Newly single? Get a cat! Look at me, I have one and I'm still single." Sophia trailed off, realizing the implications of what she was saying. "... but not because of the cat! Come on, I'll drive down there, we can go to the shelter together."
Margaret sighed dramatically as she began to unload the plastic bags: she'd forgotten her canvas, reusable bags again. Why did she keep buying them? She literally never remembered them. She did have a lot of space now ... and 29 wasn't too young to ever find love again, cat be damned.
"How's tomorrow work?"
"Look at that one!" Sophia pushed her sunglasses up to the top of her head and sat down in the middle of the room as a herd of cats began headbutting her for attention. The shelter had their cats set up in a huge, open-air room and there were at least 30. Margaret hung back a little bit, anxiety creeping over her chest. She'd heard the noises again the night before, and they seemed louder and closer. But maybe she was being paranoid. And maybe, just maybe, a cat would help with that after all. She slowly crept farther into the room, watching as her best friend laid down on the concrete, laughing as waves of cats clamored euphorically over her, mewing in ecstasy.
"Okay, okay!" Sophia sat up and pulled a Ziplock bag out of her pocket. "Want some?" She shook it at Margaret. "I brought catnip treats. My own recipe!" She began to break the treats up into small pieces and toss them around, creating a feline mosh pit. Margaret shook her head. "I'd rather just look."
A few cats came over, rubbed themselves along her ankles and walked away, happy that they had left their marks. Margaret noticed a small calico sitting a few yards away, intensely studying a corner and ignoring the treat frenzy Sophia had created across the room.
"Hey little girl," murmured Margaret, creeping closer. "What are you up to?" The cat didn't even glance up, but remained fixated on whatever was going on in the corner. Margaret kept an eye on the cat, settling down in a chair a couple of feet away. Moments later, the calico pounced on something and turned around, pride shining in her eyes as she trotted over to Margaret and deposited it on her shoe.
Margaret looked down at what appeared to be a mangled cockroach, and over to the calico.
"I found the one," she shouted over to Sophia as she put her hand out for the cat to sniff. "I think she might be the solution to all of my problems." Margaret suspected Sophia might have heard her, but she was too busy communing with the feline world to notice or care. Margaret gently scooped up the calico and stroked her ears, thrilled to hear the purrs come like a roaring engine.
"Danica!" exclaimed Margaret to the cat, who continued to purr enthusiastically.
A month later, Danica had settled in to Margaret's apartment seamlessly, and she hadn't heard the noises in weeks. "You're my little good luck charm!" she'd exclaim to the cat, who would purr and trace a figure eight between her legs. Until mid-July.
"Did you hear that?" Margaret sat up, alarmed. Danica was asleep at the foot of the bed and seemed quite nonplussed about the entire situation. "Danica!" Margaret hissed. The cat stretched her legs in response and rolled over. Slowly, quietly, Margaret slipped out of bed and grabbed for her phone to use as a light source. 4:12 in the morning: if the noise was going to come back, couldn't it at least be more nice about what time it showed up?
"Danica, I think it's in the bathroom." No response from the cat, and Margaret cursed to herself. "Want a treat?" she said louder, in a higher pitch. The cat was at her side instantly, purring and making small chirruping noises. Margaret opened the door to the bathroom and flicked the light on: the scrabbling, rodent-like noises were coming from inside the walls, and they were definitely in here.
She opened the door to the linen closet and poked her head in. Danica followed, becoming interested in a Q-Tip that had fallen to the floor of the bathroom and batting it out of the way. The scratching noise came again. "Do you hear that?" she exclaimed to the cat, who sat on the floor with the Q-Tip hanging out of her mouth, her ears back. "Mrrp?" said Danica, standing up and trotting away toward the living room.
"Damn it, you're useless!" Margaret exclaimed, shoving aside towels and linens. She needed to get into the closet, needed to see if this rodent, creature, whatever it was was in the walls or in the closet itself. Margaret turned around to make sure the cat had left the bathroom with her prize, and shut the door behind her with a firm click so she could wedge open the linen closet door even farther. Margaret began to toss towels and sheets out onto the floor, and the scrabbling noise in the wall became more frenetic.Mutant mice? She had no idea, and didn't really care to find out, either. This was most unamusing.
A loud scratching noise issued from the other side of the bathroom door. "Not right now," she exclaimed, "I'm trying to see if it's in the closet. Hold on!" The scratching became more insistent, and Margaret figured that the cat was having a severe case of separation anxiety. She climbed off the shelf in the linen closet and went to shut the closet door behind her, when she saw Danica sitting on the bath mat, gnawing on her Q-Tip.
The scratching from the other side of the bathroom door stopped.
I am a cacophony of change, a swirling symphony of contradictions played out by a band who is all-too familiar with the piece, and ever so slightly disinterested in playing the same song again.
I will be 25 years old in 16 days. I live alone with a cat named Pixel, and an ever-changing bookshelf crammed full of young adult novels. (My Masters degree is in School Library Media, and I fall in love with the quick-clip pace of the young adult world time and time again).
I have a desk job at a local university that pays the bare minimum I need to stay alive, but it's a good enough job.
I have a younger sister who is 15 - ten years younger than I am - and I am thrilled to discover over and over again that she is becoming much more of a person and less of "the baby" that we all talked about for years and years.
I just filed my first tax return with a "grown up job" on it and was shocked to learn that I could get $500 returned to me just by working hard. It should be in my account by the 27th and I consider this the best birthday gift I could receive.
I fantasize about taking a bubble bath, but by the time I run the water and get in, I lose all desire to actually be in a bubble bath.
I am overly fond of cats, looking at cute animals on the Internet, talking to stray animals in the hopes that I have become The Stray Whisperer overnight and didn't know it yet, Kroger's version of Diet Cherry Coke, my Tervis tumbler and sleeping in.
I will spend hours on the laptop looking at various things on the Internet, decide I'm done with the Internet for now, turn the laptop off, roll over, pick up my Kindle, and spend even more time doing exactly what I was doing on the laptop on a smaller screen.
I constantly start TV shows and never finish/catch up with them (Supernatural, Chuck, Deadwood).
I have a fervent, surprising love of professional wrestling.
I bite my nails, my cuticles, and the skin around my nails. It's a nervous habit that I never used to do, but started in middle school and have been unable to stop besides in short, ineffective bursts.
I love to buy things, and I love the high that comes with them. I've learned that I get the same "new purchase" high by getting new books from the library, and so I go on a weekly basis to return what I got and get some new finds.
I do not care a lick for fashion. I wear the same ~8 shirts, pair of khakis, and 3 pairs of shoes to work each day. I own one pair of jeans, two pairs of gym shorts, and enough t-shirts left over from college to float me through my off-times.
I have been dieting since January, but this past week has been a lapse. I will pick it back up on Monday, however - my body does deserve better, even if sometimes I squinch my eyes closed and act like it doesn't.
All my life, I have been challenged to think critically. Now that I am older, this has become an ability I cannot turn off - I think critically about everything. "What did he mean when he said that?" or "They abbreviated that phrase, does that mean it's not genuine?" - it's impossible for me to just relax and not think at all. Thanks, school teachers, for instilling anxiety into me from a young age.
I am bound up in inconsistencies, but at the same time, my flaws are all too human and relateable. Join me on my journey to find "me," and I hope that in doing so, you can find some of you, too.