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"Sumall," short story excerpt

Saturday 9/11/21

An old woman stands on a street corner and says to another old woman, “I’m going to have it done, that’s all there is to it.”

We are in a city and it is not quite autumn and not really still summer. Dawn has just occurred. The sky is a dim pink that is beginning to be invaded by an advancing sheet of flypaper orange. The women stand outside of a greasy spoon, holding coffee in those kinds of containers that seem will last forever, like the cockroaches who can live in outer space.

The woman continues. “There’s no choice at this point,” she says. “It’s out of my hands.”

Her companion is tempted to say that there is always a choice. Her father had claimed words to the affect. Their relationship had faltered. She had to be coerced by her brother to visit him when he was dying. He died young. Sixty-eight. She thought about what age was the cut-off for when others stopped saying that someone had died too soon. Nurses were apt people to listen to on that score. They worked at a Ground Zero of death. They were the first responders of the end of life. The transition phase, if one wished to be rosier about it.

She considered mounting a malevolent glint in her eye as she went into her father’s room, sat at his bedside. For years she had referred to him only by his first name. To her sister, she said, “your father.” As in, “If that’s what your father wants to do with the house, that’s fine with me. It’s not my business, if that’s what you think mom would have wanted.”

“So where’s your choice now?” she planned to say. Instead she took his hand. “How are you?” she asked, surprised and grateful for the depth with which she meant it.

But that was very long ago. She’d made herself get out of bed that morning. Take her little walk. Forced herself. The day was an anniversary, and if she didn’t start early, she wouldn’t start at all. Her grandson used to work her every last nerve. They said he had ADD. They said he had lots of things. Medications weren’t just crucial, but the right blend. Constantly the talk of the right blend. His body changed, the medications had to change. There was always an adjustment period. He was a sneak thief in high school. During what his mom called “a bad stretch.” Stole a cross on his own grandmother’s wall for the silver, which was only plated. She gave the boy a guilt trip. Said that was the cross she planned to be buried with and how did he feel now? His eyes might as well have been breakable with a strong tap. Those unblinking eyes. They reminded her of when she was at the museum and couldn’t tell if a painting was out in the air or had a pane of glass over it.

How he changed, though. How thoughtful he became. Soft-spoken. Dutiful. College fella who had the same girlfriend for most of the four years. They broke up half a year after graduation when she met someone new at a law school a couple states away. He handled all the questions about her with aplomb. There were a lot of them. Everyone asked. They sure were something together, people reflected wistfully, what the label “perfect couple” was seemingly invented for. He said that she was really happy. He said it like he was glad for her, as if what had happened to her to increase her joy had also happened to him.

When his grandmother learned on a morning that was not quite in autumn but also not part of summer that he had died in a field, she first thought about that time with the theft. The lack of need in her chastising. A dumb cross that hadn’t entered her thoughts in years. The boy had had some troubles. So what? And she thought of warnings when she was a child, how people said, “You’ll die alone in a ditch” when you didn’t take enough heed, wandered out when you shouldn’t. Or bad people had you at their mercy.

The ditch wasn’t the worst part, as she understood it. The alone bit was. He wasn’t alone. There were the other travelers in the plane. Going, at least temporarily, where he was going. The young man of business. She called a young woman that morning, because she knew she had to know. A woman she’d never called before. If you had told her the night before, when she went to bed, “Hey, it’s a good thing you happened to have that old number, because you’re not going to believe who you’ll be ringing tomorrow,” she’d have thought you were crazy, or she was starting to become so. Would have looked up early symptoms of dementia. But one does not go to bed with an awareness of how the future can be ruptured before it even happens.

She wasn’t paying attention to her friend on the street. Oh, goodness, what was she going on about now? Probably another nasty corn on her foot. Laser surgery for her eyes. To take away fogged glass.

“So as you see, it just can’t be put off,” the friend finished a further stage of her account.

The woman who had once owned a silver-plated cross imagined that her friend had just said, “My heart has to come out, that’s all there is too it. It’s like weight reduction surgery for fat people. It’s just too damn heavy. I’ve tried everything else. Eating better, living right, but it doesn’t take, not with the way I’m designed. That old heart just has to be removed. I can probably run races after. That’s how much lighter I’ll be.”

“I’m sure you’ll come through it, Joan,” the friend said. “You always do.”

She was trying to feel like she was not talking to herself, but she was in a way, and accepted it without resistance. Things are going to be what they’re going to be. Let them, she thought. She looked at her watch. She still wore a watch. She’d make the call at exactly 10:07 because that is when she made the call every year because it’s when a ditch had been a field and her grandson—who had some of her father’s obduracy, which was actually the decent, loyal variety, she learned in time—had not been alone.

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