The twirled tissues screwed up into my nostrils make it difficult to breathe, but at least my nose isn’t running anymore, down around my lips, salting them like tears, then unbearably tickling my chin until the drops plop onto my sweaty chest. I wheeze and strain, vaguely conscious of aides coming in occasionally to check on me. There will be no medical intervention as I grow worse. No hospital, no physician, no tubes or needles or respirators. It is as I insisted the end must be. The fever rides me in waves, each time leaving my mind like an empty beach at high noon, strewn with sea wreckage, abandoned by even the most sun-hardy.
Mary and Leah pick their dainty way through the mire of my hot memories. Mary, Virtuous One, as always, dashes her endearments around her in little spurts, like a cook seasoning a stew. Her face is close, too close, her nose almost pressed against mine, like she’s looking in the oven door at a cake whose center is collapsing. Now she purses her lips and crinkles her nose. I’m still not quite to her taste, but, as always, she looks for the remedy—a little this, a little that, a little simmer and boil and bubble and steam. I’m hissing. She’s turning up the heat.
She won’t come. Not now, as I melt away, and not later, when they scatter my charred remains. She will think about coming; she will call about flights; she will sigh with regrets; she will not come. Of course it is my fault. It has always been my fault. Even now, thousands of miles and endless years away, she shoots guilt at me like a flamethrower. If I could dodge the blame, I would. It scorches and singes my bare behind as I turn my back on her, as I’ve always turned my back on her.
I left; she remained. I abandoned our cool, moist, shaded home for the sand and the sun and the severe shadows of adobe buildings on desert floors. But it really wasn’t rejection, only restlessness; not betterment, only empty quest, only a dry wind blowing me away, blowing me like a torn candy wrapper against a saguaro. But the Virtuous One clung and never forgave for being abandoned.
And Leah, my uptown sister, High and Mighty One, lying on her lawn chair enjoying the sea breezes, pen and paper nearby to write and ask how, darling, I was doing, and that she simply must come to visit soon…perhaps she could stop by some time on one of her jaunts to Balboa Island. Her breezy inquiries fan my sizzling remembrances into flame.
She, too, left, even before I did. But she did the logical thing, the rational move, the unquestionable coup of upward mobility. Of course she left Evanston; of course she changed her name; of course she had no time. She had a destiny; I was a drifter. She moved with fate; I moved with insolence. She married up, married in, married right. Arthur: cool, cosmopolitan, clever, cultured. Spinster Sara I was, until I married Hank, who was most definitely not up, in, or right. And the High and Mighty One could not deign to grant her sweaty, soiled, scalded sister an audience.
They mingled—Virtuous One and High and Mighty—a combustible combination. Morality and Vanity. Stroking, inflaming, tempering. Their faces come near, their cheeks caressing, their smiles running on from one false face to another. Then, like pines exploding in the inferno, the images of my sisters shatter and the charred pieces move out of my awareness, never to return again.
For a moment my mind is clear. The room is dark, and though the lighted hallway bustles with activity, in here it is hushed and dim. I watch for a moment through slitted lids. The aide with the pierced nose talks to Marian, Wild Woman, who is as ever wickedly wheeling herself backward down the hall, mowing down whomever and whatever gets in her way. Trays filled with half-eaten food are tossed from wall to wall; gentle old men creeping and shuffling with one hand on the railing crumple under her ruthless intent; aides curse the brainless bitch under their breath. I used to chuckle when I saw her, finding a perverse pleasure in another’s malicious mobility, for I can move nothing.
I’m 73 years old; I haven’t moved a finger in 31 years. Multiple sclerosis. So they say. I’ve never submitted to any medical tests, treatments, analysis, or assistance. They whisper about my stubborn denial, my inability to face reality, my weak cowardice. But I am not afraid. I have all the valor I need: courage to submit to sticky summers when the flies rest on my nose and I cannot shoo them away; courage to be a practice body for aides in training, four or five strangers standing around my flaccid nakedness and talking about wiping techniques; courage to face death without a whimper. I am strong; I can endure; I am ready to be nothing. What other choice do I have? What other choice have I ever had?
Wild Woman moves slowly, unwillingly forward across my doorway, only momentarily persuaded by the frustrated aide. I watch, waiting. Minutes later, she crosses the doorway entrance again, backward, faster, furiously, bending over with her head between her knees for greater thrust on the wheels. My eyelids close again. So tired. So hot. So ready.
I hear whispers and feel the fetid air disturbed. Someone has come in. I don’t bother opening my eyes, or perhaps now I can’t. I have no idea what needs to be done: garment changed? fresh water? bed adjusted? diapers checked? I lie, waiting, then I hear the tray slid onto the nightstand. Food. No thank you.
“Sara? You awake, honey? Want a little soup? How about these brownies? Can I help you with some of these sweet yellow cling peaches?”
It’s Freda, the Favorite. But I still want nothing, not her cheery chatter or her gentle kindness, rare as they are around here. I say nothing. The Favorite wipes my forehead, pulls out the tissues, and replaces them with fresh ones. I can feel her hovering, so I crack my eyelids. She is stroking my arm–to no avail, I feel nothing. She leaves; the tray remains. I remain.
Then another enters. This person sits on the chair next to my bed and speaks my name. Her voice marks her: Becka, the Volunteer. She has been coming, every week or so, for several years now. I still wonder if I’m supposed to know her or if she was assigned to me by some charity organization. She says not. She says she lives nearby and simply wandered in to visit one day. I was a captive audience.
There have been times I longed for the Volunteer to come, and times I wanted to throw her out. Her benevolence has simultaneously annoyed me and served me well. She is my scribe and secretary. She reads to me, tells me the news from outside, and listens both to the tales of a life lived long ago in faraway Santa Fe and the woes of a life lived today in a nursing home. Once I asked her to sing to me—“O Little Town of Bethlehem”—and she complied. So-so voice; remarkable willingness. Once I asked her to buy some expensive chocolates as a Christmas gift for the aides, and she brought in a cheap box from the grocery store. I would have paid her back. So cheap. Didn’t think I would know. Didn’t think I would care. Once she disappeared for almost a month. I never know when she’s coming. Sometimes she wants to talk about God. Sometimes I think she’d like to convert me. She thinks she knows everything.
Maybe I should have tried to convert her. I’ve wondered if, perhaps, her evolution was part of my disabled destiny. Though her youthful pinkness and chipper future mock my shriveled muscles and flaps of skin, I don’t think I would trade. Too much behind me; so much closer to the goal. Is God the goal, like she says? Maybe that would be nice; maybe it wouldn’t. Depends on what kind of God. Depends on my aim. Depends on a lot of things, things I’ve never been able to keep straight. I’ve never been one to care about right answers. It’s the questions that alternately hover like a clucking grandmother and spit in my face like a fat bully at school.
But now, now the Volunteer will have to find another hostage of her charity. I must get going. On into the earth’s inferno. On, on, on perhaps to nothing, on to all. I’m weary of life. Who would want one for eternity? I’m sick of people. Who would want to be in a heaven full of people? I don’t believe there’s a hell, but if there were one, I’d fit—I can already imagine the flames mounting my thighs like horny dogs, encircling my arms like pagan serpent bracelets, caressing my neck like golden liquid.
The Volunteer speaks to me, calling me. I feel her hand on my forehead, brushing away sticky strands of hair. She wets a washcloth and anoints my cheeks with it. “Sara? Sara, it’s me Becka, come to visit. Sara, hang in there, Sara.” She brings a cup of water to my lips and gently dribbles some in. I refuse to open my eyes. I let the water sit under my tongue. I can hear the Volunteer praying for me, so I say my own fevered prayers of resistance, redirecting her good intentions, dissipating them in a molten bath of doubt. Then she is quiet, for a long time. So long that I crack one eyelid open ever so slightly to see if she’s still there. She is. Her brow is crunched, her eyes glinting. She seems to be fretting over something. She’s wasting her time; she should just go. I am lava and she had better get out of the way.
And then it happens. The Marines land and plant a flag in enemy territory. I am staked and can’t resist. The Volunteer picks up the cup of water that a moment before had cooled my lips and she puts her hand on it, whispering something I can’t follow. Then she dips her fingers in the water and traces a cross on my forehead, three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The cross burns my skin, and I wonder how she could have heated the water.
It is done before I have a chance to gather the troops. The fire in my brain has dispersed the resistance and I can find no one to defy the deed. The Virtuous One and old High and Mighty would burst into raucous, jeering laughter if they weren’t already dashed to pieces. There isn’t enough memory there to condemn me.
The water lingers on my forehead, mingling with the sweat. The Volunteer still sits there, probably wondering about the theological propriety of her action. I, too, wonder. I no longer have the strength to be sure. Will her claims have any hold over me? I’m certain I would not utter any creed deserving her declaration. Can a lifetime of devotion to irreverence yield to three drops of water, a muttered name, another’s desperate desire? Will God forbid?
The decay that began so long ago in my fingers and toes weighs heavily on my chest. Again I peek, this time to make sure the Volunteer isn’t sitting on me. No, she is beside the bed, exhausted by her conspiracy. No one has seen. Her highly irregular action apparently surprised her as much as it did me. What longing possessed her? Some silver star to paste next to her name in a Sunday school roll in heaven?
But now the anointing is drying just as the fever reaches high tide again. The colors of my soul disperse like sands before the relentless pushing and pulling of a hot gray sea. Nothing is firm; everything shifts and slips. Only one unmovable rock seems to remain, a peculiar stone, a simple interruption to my planned end. It wasn’t foreseen. It can’t be dealt with now.
The Volunteer goes out with the wave, taking my breath with her. It can’t be helped. What is done is done. She has outmaneuvered me, waiting until my most helpless moment to undo all my doing. Whether she has saved me or damned me remains to be seen.
To be seen. Till now I have steadfastly and successfully sidestepped belief. The riddles of the world, of my own spark of life, have tossed me like flotsam on a vast ocean. No anchor, no sail, no port. But now is the time. Now I will discover, uncover, recover the truth. Moments from now I will know what no living person knows. And as I peer into the mortal volcano, toppling on the edge, preparing my jump, I waver and wobble. I wonder, ever so dimly: if Volunteer were right, would I care? Would I welcome Something, instead of Nothing? But the questions are too delicate now, and the answers too immediate. Intelligence, clairvoyance, conviction—these are the currency of the living.
Life drains out of my toes. How I thought they were already dead all these silent years, but they were only sleeping. Now I can peer down at the lumps under the sheets and know that those feet there are dead. And out of my knees. No fear of buckling under now; no fear of kneeling benches or panic prayers. And out of my belly. The unused womb lies dumb; my gut gives up its ghosts.
I am naked now, sitting on a rock and watching the approaching tide. It will soon wash over me and that will be the end. The rock is blisteringly hot under a silvery sun. It’s burning my behind—how nice to feel my buttocks again—but I am used to not moving. I hardly know it when the water laps my feet. It is between my toes and licking my ankles before I even look down. I am reconciled; I am ready. I breathe; the flame flickers and goes out.