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STORIES that stretch your mind

The Best Metaphysical Fiction of the year from Thresholds Quarterly

a memorable story by Robert J. Levine

Glendale Avenue runs through the oldest section of the city revealing few traces of its mercantile past. While narrow by modern standards, the street was wide enough to have supported the busy wagon trade that once carried goods and produce from the nearby rail head to the row of warehouses which stretched along its course.

At the beginning of the century, pavement replaced cobblestones and the warehouses gave way to spanking new brick tenements with ground floor shops that exuded confidence and optimism. Over the years, however, the neighborhood had acquired the patina worn by people and things that carry the weight of time and disappointment for too long. Above the rooftops, the approach of sleek high rise buildings could be seen, inexorably displacing before them all that was old and worn, like a giant serpent shedding its skin.

The Glendale Home For Women stood among the aging buildings and it too showed the passage of the years. The brick facade was grimy and the concrete columns and swags that flanked the entrance no longer seemed grand.

The Home was sanctuary to sixty elderly women, many of whom had forfeited their few remaining assets in order to gain admission. In turn, the Home embraced them in its comforting austerity and provided their last address on Earth.

A large room on the third floor contained six beds. Over each hung a curtain attached to runners which could be pulled along a channel to surround the bed in fabric. The curtains draped the beds at night but were left open during the day so the women could receive light from the single window in one corner.

Room “D” as it was called, held those women who had outlived their bodies’ usefulness and were consigned to spend the rest of their lives bedridden. It was a place of incontinence, confusion and pain. The turnover here was the highest in the Home and, consequently, an unwritten rule had been imposed. The window bed was given to the woman who had resided in the room the longest. Its current occupant was Annie Larson, who entered the Home five years earlier and had been a resident of Room D for two of them.

“Just you wait and see,” Annie was telling Brenda McCallister in the next bed. “If Shirley doesn’t come this weekend then it will be the next.”

“But it has been so long,” Brenda replied, shaking her head sadly.

“No it hasn’t, dear. It’s all a matter of time. Us old folks are always thinking about time. It is all around us and touches everything we do. That’s because we have so little of it. The youngsters don’t even notice time. It is moving so quickly for them and they have so much of it they hardly know it is there. You’ll see, Shirley will come. Just as soon as her world slows down enough for her to think, ‘I wonder how Mom is doing?’”

Brenda smiled. “Yes,” she said. “It’s all a matter of time.”

With the return of silence, each of the women turned inward, lost in her own thoughts. From Annie’s partially open window, street noises drifted into the room and played in subliminal counterpoint to the sounds of their labored breathing. Cadence was provided by the ticking of a wall clock which implacably charted the winding down of the women’s lives.

The blast of a truck horn brought Claire Brown back from dozing. Opening her weak eyes, she turned toward the sound and said, “Please Annie, tell us what you see.”

This phrase always began a ritual in Room D which was repeated several times a day. It was invariably followed by a chorus of “Yes, tell us Annie,” and “Please do.”

Annie would then slowly and painfully raise herself up against her pillows. Reaching for her spectacles with a hand disfigured by arthritis, she would then look out of the window, her face bathed in a glow of light which could have been reflected off the wings of angels. She would chuckle softly and say, “My oh my. Now isn’t that something.” The women would each smile in anticipation.

“A truck is parked in front of the Belvedere Flower Ship,” she would continue, “and a young man is loading large and beautiful flower arrangements wrapped in cellophane. There must be a large wedding today to require so much beauty.”

Or on another occasion she might say, “Oh, there she is again, Claire. The young mother is wheeling that cute little boy in a stroller. He is all bundled in a warm snowsuit with the most adorable blue wool hat pulled over his ears. She is so pretty and she looks so happy. Now she is stopping in front of Solomon’s to look at the dresses in the window. I wonder what she is thinking?”

These observations always gave rise to discussion about places seen and people known, most of whom were now gone. Amanda Swansen would frequently reminisce about her garden.

“My roses were the talk of the neighborhood,” she would say. “I could hear them, ‘Amanda Swansen’s roses are what the good Lord intended at Creation.’ “

Claire Brown would turn to a faded photograph in a shiny silver frame on her night stand. A smiling young man in a uniform stood frozen in time.

“Billy was a good boy,” she would say, defending him from an imaginary attack.

“Of course he was,” Annie would respond.

“Sure he was high spirited. Trouble seemed to come to him like bees to honey. He just needed to grow up, that’s all. The Marine Corps was all he ever wanted. Even as a little boy it was always the Marines when he graduated. He was so proud. Well, he got what he wanted... and it cost him everything.”

A gnarled hand would cover her eyes for a few moments. Then she would laugh and recount a recollected caper when he was a child.

Much was repetition but no one seemed to mind as these were the rare moments when the sound of voices, and even rarer, the sound of laughter, could be heard in Room D. In time, however, the energy would dissipate and silence would return as each of the women turned inward.

Through the succession of days, Annie was the women’s link to the world outside. She never grew tired or impatient when someone would say, “Annie, please, tell us what you see.”

From a bed against the far wall, a woman with a pale, pinched face surveyed the room with cold and bitter eyes. The light from Annie’s window was not welcomed by Martha Donovan. She scorned the other residents of the Home and saw Annie Larson as a fool who disturbed her rest with endless blather.

Hers was a lonely vigil. From the smoldering ashes of the wreckage that was her life, the future held no horror. Indeed, she mocked death, not out of defiance but with an arrogance born of ambivalence. Life to her was merely a nasty interlude straddled by oblivion. From time to time, however, the harsh lines of her face would soften, her wheezing breath would subside and a calm would come over her.

She ran through the green grass toward the mist rising from the crashing surf. The salt-laden wind whipped her long red hair into a frenzy and her white frock billowed around her. Jocko loved her and soon they were to be married. She paid no mind that Dad thought him a ruffian who would come to no good. She was carrying his child and now the world would know that she had landed Jocko Donovan, the best catch in Clay County.

The summer sun sliced through the moist air and left a rainbow to mark its passage. With a burst of speed she reached the rise above the rolling sea. In wide-eyed awe she stared down at the fan of hues the rainbow painted on her dress. Jesus was giving her a sign. She was blessed.

One morning Brenda McCallister was heard to say, “Oh.” Then, “Oh my.”

Claire Brown’s curtain had remained closed. They had all seen it before. In this waiting room to the hereafter, life was a gossamer thread with the substance of a dream. Its fragile existence was sustained by a will whose resolve was diminished with the passage of each day.

By mid-morning, two men with a gurney, led by Mrs. Hillson, the Head Nurse, rolled into Room D and entered the confines of the closed curtain.

“My dear ladies,” Mrs Hillson said when she emerged, “Claire is now at peace in a better place. She is resting in the bosom of God. Let us rejoice for her.”

Brenda’s body began to quiver. The sound of her soft sobbing could be heard.

Martha eyed her with contempt.

Jocko stood over her, weaving, his breath stinking from the whiskey that had polluted their lives for the past ten years. From where she lay, blood dripped from her nose onto the linoleum kitchen floor. Deidre and Colleen huddled whimpering in the corner. Their terror-stricken eyes, having already witnessed the death of two brothers, again observed the desperation and brutality that crushed the past and set the cast of a failed future.

“You will have no other opportunity to hide money from me,” he said, spittle running down his chin. “From the time we came to this God-forsaken land you have been my curse. I will have no more of it.”

He staggered across the room. “Ruin. It is all a ruin,” cut off by the slamming door which echoed in her mind for the next half century.

“My Lord,” Martha grumbled, glaring at Brenda. Her voice was rusty from disuse. “We don’t need more carrying on...”

Annie quickly interrupted. “Oh Brenda,” she said, “what a glorious day it is outside. I can see people running about with their coats unbuttoned. Spring can’t be too far away now.”

Brenda became still and turned toward Annie. “They must be giving it away,” she continued. “There is a crowd of women in front of the fruit store. The display is just so pretty. Oranges. Apples. Melons. I imagine it is almost impossible to walk past without buying something.”

On she talked, as the women listened in rapt attention. Each imagined herself living in the world described by Annie, where things kept changing and the commonplace held sweetness. Each, that is, but Martha, who rolled her eyes and ground her teeth in frustration.

With the slow passage of time, Annie guided the women of Room D toward the approaching Spring. The mother with the small boy always delighted them and they marveled at how fast he was growing. Fruit was sold, flowers were delivered and the window display at Solomon’s changed to encourage each passerby to step inside to see whether that linen dress was as pretty as it appeared on the mannequin.

Then one morning, the women were greeted by a calamity. The curtain around Annie’s bed was closed.

“This cannot be,” they said.

“Why just last night she seemed so...”

“Gracious, this cannot be.”

They turned away as the gurney bearing Annie’s sheet-shrouded body was wheeled from the room. They lay silently as her bed was stripped and the meager contents of her night table were emptied into a plastic bag. A life which had spanned the greater part of a century and about which the women knew so little had been erased in the blink of an eye. Nothing of Annie Larson remained.

Mrs. Hillson walked to the foot of Martha’s bed and said, “Well Martha, now it is your turn. I am sure Annie would be pleased to know you are moving to the window.”

Martha made a sour face and was about to say, “I am quite content to stay right where I am, thank you,” when a thought occurred to her. If she was to get any peace and quiet she might as well take the window bed. For all she knew, the next woman would be a bigger blabbermouth than Annie Larson.

Two attendants soon arrived and moved the empty bed out of its location in order that Martha’s bed could be rolled into the square of morning light where it had stood. The activity and commotion were very upsetting to Martha, who was much out of sorts by the time it was completed and ready to take a nap.

“Martha,” she heard, coming from that foolish Amanda Swansen, “we would all be so pleased if you tell us what you see.”

In the expectant silence, Martha saw those big mousy eyes staring at her beseechingly. “Not on your life,” she thought.

Turning away, she lay silently for a moment, then her body suddenly stiffened and the sharp intake of her breath could be heard across the room. The window looked out across an alley. A dark brick wall filled her entire field of view.

Martha lay transfixed, her mouth moving silently. At the very core of her being, under the relentless weight of a lifetime of bitter disappointment, something stirred; something painted in the hues of a rainbow and almost forgotten.

Eventually, she said, “They must be giving those peaches away...”•

Robert Levine is an author living in New York City, New York.

©1998 Thresholds Quarterly Vol. 16. No. 1

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