In the End

by ANGELA CORBETT

We have finally realized nothing matters. It has taken our whole lives up until now. Since nothing matters, nothing must be said or done when something unfortunate happens between us, like when one of us doesn’t tell the other they have stained their shirt, or eats the other’s after-meal sweet without asking. All the little hurts and lies evaporate somewhere off into space. So we don’t hug or say sorry, and only if it’s something particularly grievous, like if one of us were to stab the other in the meat of her thigh after taking the wrong medication, would we maybe share a brief meaningful gaze with one another.
   We are very old and nothing is so important that we should spend what little energy we have on it. We have some lipstick on our teeth and are happy not knowing it; we are happy in our loose lovely skin with our sagging breasts we’ve grown so fond of; we are happy with the shapes our faces have folded into. We have impressed ourselves all our lives and now we just sit back and admire our impressiveness. It is something to see, all of us so old and happy. We are resting, like ancient trees.
   The unknown no longer bothers us because it has all turned out okay until now. And we’re prepared for the end whenever it comes.
   Millie’s husband Ronald died in his sleep two days ago. She went into his room in the morning and said, Good morning, Ronald. And his silence said, Ronald has moved on. Then she called us to his room and together we looked at Ronald’s partly open mouth and thought of how lovely his dancing was.
   So long, Ronald, We said.
   Nelda in room 103 died last week from Pneumonia and just a month ago emphysema finally suffocated our long-suffering next-door neighbor, Martin.
   Here, death is like getting the mail.
   Here, take it with your eggs and toast.
   Here, the beds are not that comfortable, the rooms aren’t the cleanest and the food isn’t that well prepared. Life takes its course.
   We gathered Ronald’s veneers and toothbrush, his wallet and bowtie collection, his shoebox of valuables—wedding ring, paper notes, his father’s comb, his mother’s gold tooth—and packed Ronald into plastic bins beneath our beds. In place of Ronald went Francis; in place of Ronald’s veneers went Francis’s; instead of his photo albums, her romance novels; instead of his cane, her oxygen tank, and so on.

Millie is always dreaming of flying. She says, Last night, I soared over Chicago.
   Francis asks, Did you see my family’s old house?
   Millie says, I only saw the fingertips of skyscrapers through the clouds.
   Oh, Francis sighs, How nice.
   Francis cannot remember her dreams but her unconscious frequently drifts to one of the young nurse aids. It has nothing to do with sponge baths.
   There’s a lot of love undercover here, hiding in the fake plants and gray meal trays; the smell of disinfectant and bodies that are regularly losing something—a sliver of curled toenail, a tuft of white wispy hairs, a full bladder. A young man visits Mr. Lewis every Wednesday to give him his “foot rub”; the therapist and the a.m. receptionist make love in the spare units; Mr. and Mrs. Tiegle, almost never leave their room. Now there’s Millie and Francis and together they aren’t alone. It’s rare for there to be a spark between a person who is ninety-six and one who’s eighty-three. But it’s there.
   At night we sneak to the rooftop in our white cotton gowns and soft blue slippers.
   Mille says, Ronald was a good husband.
   She says, Sometimes he was hard to talk to—but his hearing aid was old.
   What? Francis asks, and they smile.
   We name a star somewhere Ronald. Maybe Ronald’s Ronaldness is drifting somewhere nearby, we say.
   Francis and Millie go back to their room and comb each other’s hair. It would be romantic to say that they turn out the light and find the parts of each other that never get old. Tongues. Throats. The backs of their eyelids. That they touch and touch and touch. But they don’t. They tell each other stories and fall asleep swimming in the warmth of each other’s voices.

Everyone believes that the year before you die is lonely, but it’s the best time anyone’s ever had. We see and hear everything people think we cannot see and hear. Mr. Habib sneaks away with two to three extra ice cream cups every night and when he gets caught, he just stares at the aids quiet and lost-looking until they kindly lead him back to his room.
   Mr. Habib, One says, You have diabetes.
   He forgets, Whispers the other, It’s his dementia.
   We know it takes a special kind of person to work in a place like this, where things move so slowly, and people mumble so cryptically, and there is always a mess to clean; where crocheting and Girl Scout choirs and bingo games rove on in an endless cycle, like Vegas, but at one one-thousandth the speed. We can float far away while we do our crafts and games; we can leave and visit our grandchildren in our heads while our hands twiddle away.
   Francis crochets every Tuesday while her unconscious plays. Afterwards, she finds us and says, I think I am ready to go home now.
   You are home, We say.
   She looks around considering this, then agrees.
   Did I ever tell you, She says, That I have not seen my children in two years. And everyone used to love me.
   We know it has been at least three years since anyone has visited Francis, but we know two other things: that it is not for lack of loving and time means nothing anyway. It is difficult for our loved ones to see us here while life outside careens wildly on. And it is difficult for them to witness us slowly detaching from reality. Some of us can’t help that bad people live inside us; we are not even aware when they come out. Some people aren’t who they used to be—we know it’s not really them who has to be tranquilized in the hallway.
   It’s impossible to know everyone inside someone. Millie and Francis have been a hundred different lovers; they’ve had lives in different states and states of mind, and have been different mothers to different children, plus whoever else they’ve been to anyone who ever met them or might have watched them from far away thinking they were beautiful. But now we are who we are, and no one else knows any different.

Any upset in our routine baffles the few blinking neurons still shuffling around up there and when that happens, the aids find us staring off in a corner of a room with one shoe half-tied.
   The rivers running through our brains are flooding into oceans. There is no stopping it.
   This is why we engage our softening minds in synapse-preserving activities. Francis does all the activities. She doesn’t have much of a choice as she thinks she’s somewhere else most of the time. But with Millie holding her hand, Francis is less lost.
   After she comes back from crocheting we have our weekly Remembrance Meeting. It’s a special activity; our secret. This week’s theme is The Worst You Ever Saw.
   I saw my cousin break her arm, Francis says.
   I saw someone jump off a building to their death, Millie says.
   Agnes has lived through two wars.
   Last week we played That Was A Crazy Night and Agnes told us about the time she robbed a restaurant with an empty gun (just once) (and got away with it—there weren’t cameras everywhere back then) and Francis talked about the night her brother drowned.
   Every Sunday night, we play Who Has the Most Dead Friends, except this time we don’t share memories unless it’s truly special; this time we write the names of the ones we miss on a white board in the lounge, above a vase of plastic calla lilies on a pink stand. We don’t mind the flowers’ inauthenticity; they look real enough to us.
   This is our ceremony.
   We think of all the tiny things that make up a person, like that they never lasted through a whole film; that they said thank you at inappropriate times and yelled when anyone was late and always prayed before eating. Grief waits for us in these details. A million little holes to fall through.

Millie helps keep Francis brain-strong. Their friendship is the deepest and shortest they’ve ever had because life changes rapidly here. A bad aid gets hired and some of us shit our pants over delays in bathroom schedules—it happens. Last year we ate hamburger casserole every night for two months because of budget problems. Most of our tastes have faded anyway, so we pretended the casserole was something different like we do with everything else.
   People come and go. Everywhere they’re getting older every day. Our rooms are in steady demand—high demand if you consider the rate at which we move out of them and into the beyond. Fortunately there’s rarely any violence, but there are a lot of attacks—gall bladder, heart, ulcer. We never know what’s going to happen and a good deal of the time we do not know what’s going on in the first place so we’re completely blindsided when Millie slips in the shower.
   She breaks her hip; sprains both wrists; hits her soft veiny skull on the cracked yellow tile.
   No one says it, but everyone knows a fall or the death of a spouse is the middle of the end—phase two, after coming here. Phase three is the beginning of dying. But Millie has survived worse.
   Gravity erodes. Our bones waste to porous shells of their milk-strong younger years faster every day. Once we get to a certain age, they’ll be so hollow a strong wind could sweep us up—this is what we tell Francis on her ninety-fifth. We celebrate while Millie is away at the hospital recovering. We wheel Francis to the rooftop, tie ribbons around our wrists, and wait for the wind.
   Francis has trouble remembering it’s her birthday, which is okay because so do we.
   The sun shines; it’s not too hot, not too cold, and not windy. Francis stands at the edge of the rooftop and looks out over everything she can see from there. She spots green shapes in the courtyard and says, We must have pleasant trees out front. She looks up into the blue sky; the clouds, she assumes, are remarkable shapes—we all take turns guessing them.
   No one floats off.
   After a while we amble back inside.
   We are all we’ve got, plus Millie, who we leave an empty chair for at our Remembrance Meeting where we play, That Was the Last Time I Saw Them and share our surprising final memories of people we’ve lost.
   We hold Francis’s hands for Millie. It was only a fall, only a hip, a little bump on the head, we say. Yes, we are glad that we wake up each morning to eat the same breakfast and cut shapes out of colored paper; to watch our shows and play our games and send another letter because we forgot we sent one last week and to where, because who will read it anyway while we’re here, waiting.

Angela Corbett was a Squaw Valley Community of Writers fellow, and her short story, “Grievers” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the 2015 Sonora Review fiction contest, judged by Stuart Dybek. She earned her MFA in Fiction from California State University, Fresno, where she worked as Online Managing Editor and Associate Fiction Editor for the Normal School.