Gert is watching soap operas, two at a time. Her eyes dart between the pictures on the main and preview screens, her trigger finger twitches on the remote. I set my pocketbook on the coffee table and reluctantly take in today’s throes. On the main channel, a young couple is arguing, then their heated words explode into a lip-wrenching kiss. On the preview screen, a stylish woman has just walked into her bedroom and found her husband and her best friend disgracing themselves beneath the sheets.
“Ooooo, I knew she’d catch them.” Gert zaps the TV, switching channels so the bedroom scene leaps to the fore. “Now she’ll turn for comfort to that handsome young minister who’s harboring a secret past.”
I take off my coat and rub my neck. The pain has been worse than usual lately, but Dr. Blumenthal insists the arthritis medicine should take care of it. And he doesn’t know what to do about the dizzy spells, except to tell me it’s not uncommon among people my age and we’ll try motion sickness tablets.
“Gert, we have to talk.”
Gert waves impatiently. I should know better than to interrupt when her soap operas are on. Later, if I ask her what happened on “Days Of Our Lives” or “The Young And The Restless” she’ll give me a long, juicy recital that mixes plot lines from half a dozen shows. She seems to think she knows the characters personally and that they live just around the block.
“All right, Gert. When you’re done.”
I go into the kitchen and put on the kettle for tea, planning my approach. It won’t be easy. Gert makes it a point never to face anything unpleasant. It’s a habit she started when we were girls on the farm, a blanket refusal to acknowledge life’s aches and pains and upheavals. Of course, her beaus all thought it was charming. Never mind if there were drought or crop blights or a Great Depression sweeping the land. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it,” they told her. That was for plain sisters like me. So Gert smiled and teased and fluffed her hair, while they plied her with their silly bouquets. And even at our age she has not given up these games, oh no. Why, just last week at the Senior Center I caught her making wide eyes behind her bifocals at Morris Gubelmann.
I pour my tea and take it to the kitchen table. Outside the leaves are past their peak, bold yellow and orange dulling to cold brown. The dying colors frighten me. Oh, why can’t we keep the green? Why must fingers stiffen and bones creak and precious sap run dry? I scan the street, foreseeing winter, each house in its silent muffle of snow. And here, two old women, circling the rooms and marking the hours by trips to the medicine cabinet. Oh, don’t be a ninny! I shake myself, but the picture is too real. If the dizzy spells persist, I don’t dare drive, and how will we manage then? It’s three blocks to the nearest bus stop, and the sidewalks will be icy. Maybe we should sell the house and move into a retirement building like Gert’s son Frank has been urging.
The volume on the TV changes, signaling commercials. I check my watch—four o’clock, the soaps are over for today. I put the teapot and a plate of cookies on a tray and carry it to the living room.
“Gert, we have to talk.”
“Oh, Ethel, is that you? Are you back?” She looks up surprised, as if I’ve materialized out of nowhere. I set the tray on the coffee table, and her face brightens at the sight of the cookies. “You’ve been to the bakery.”
“No, I’ve been to the doctor. I went to the bakery yesterday.”
“That’s what I meant.” She gives an airy wave. Gert has a variety of waves, little flips of her wrist that range from casual to curt to queenly, leaving her audience to interpret their significance. She wears a flower-print dress that makes her look plump and grandmotherly, while I have somehow fallen into a routine of polyester pantsuits and crepe-soled shoes.
“Dr. Blumenthal gave me a pamphlet we should read.” I take a seat on the sofa, open my purse, and offer her the leaflet.
“All right.” She ignores it, her attention drawn back to the TV where an announcer is hawking this week’s sale items at the drugstore. “Look, pantyhose for a dollar ninety-nine. Didn’t you want some pantyhose?”
“Yes, you did. You said so last week.”
I stop, confused. She’s right. I wanted to buy support hose, and I completely forgot.
“Well, I need some stockings, too,” Gert snaps off the TV and her tone grows coy, “because I’m going to dance with Morris Gubelmann at the Senior Center on Friday.” She picks up a macaroon and nibbles innocently, and for a minute I don’t see a wrinkled old woman opposite me but a young lady sitting of a summer’s evening on a front porch swing. She sips lemonade with her latest beau and talks with such animation it’s like watching a movie. Why can’t I do that? I’d ask myself, pretending to read on the parlor sofa but in reality eavesdropping on every word through the open window. Gert’s laugh would fly in, high and bright like a bird, and sometimes I’d think: She’s not doing this for him, she’s doing it for me. But whether her gaiety was to show up my failings or to instruct me how I might copy her success, I never knew. The image fades—there is Gert nibbling her macaroon, and now her teasing look reminds me of something more recent.
“You lied to Morris about your age,” I say. “I heard you when you were playing checkers. You told him you’re seventy-two.”
“You’re seventy-eight, Gert.”
“I know that.” She gives another wave. “I just shaved off a few years so he could think of me as a younger woman. But I did tell him the truth about you. I said you were eighty-one and a fussbudget.”
“Oh!” My hurt shows, and instantly Gert’s face registers remorse. She pats my hand, imploring forgiveness.
“Oh, Ethel, I’m sorry. I’m sure he paid it no mind. Here, you wanted me to read this pamphlet, didn’t you? Where did you say you got it?”
“At the doctor’s.” I forgive her, letting the little twinge slip away. Why should I care at my age if anyone thinks I’m a fussbudget? Besides, I am. I point to the brochure in her hands. “It’s important, Gert. It says if you don’t want to be kept alive on machines you must leave clear and convincing proof of your final wishes. I think we should draw up a document that says we want to die with dignity.”
Gert frowns. “I don’t want to die with dignity.”
“What do you mean? Of course you do.”
“No, I don’t. I don’t want to die at all.” She drops the pamphlet on the table and rubs her fingertips as if to banish an unpleasant feel. Oh, I knew she wouldn’t be sensible! She never has been, not her whole life long. She got out of homework, she got out of chores. The irritation of it plus the pain in my neck makes me forget to be patient.
“You have to die, Gert. We all do.”
“Yes, you. Everybody.”
“No, I refuse. I think, therefore I am. Do you know what that means, Ethel?”
“It means you’ve been watching that New Age program on cable again.”
“It means I control my destiny. I am the best me I can be.”
“It means you are seventy-eight, Gert, and you can’t get out of dying.”
“Then I’ll pay someone else to do it for me.”
“On Social Security?”
“I’ll take estrogen.”
“You’ve already outlived three husbands on that stuff.”
“Don’t tell Morris.”
“Gert, please!” She’s being wayward now, and when she acts like a child my only recourse is to treat her like one. “If you won’t cooperate and listen, I won’t help you curl your hair.”
Gert sulks. “All right. I’m listening.”
“Good.” My shoulders relax, and for a moment I feel better. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t try yoga or herbal remedies or some of those other natural cures. Dr. Blumenthal pooh-poohs them, but what’s the good of a gerontologist if all he can do is say, “At your age, you have to expect a few aches and pains.” But when I picture myself going into a health food store and trying to explain to some apple-cheeked clerk, the foolishness of it brings me back to my senses.
“Now, Gert, you know we’ve been sisters a long time.”
“All our lives, Ethel.”
“And we’ve stuck together through marriages and sickness and children.”
“So we have. Do you remember that big feather bed we used to share on the farm?” She taps her chin, and my thoughts skip back to soft pillows and restful nights. In winter we’d pile on the quilts and snuggle under them in our flannel nightgown. Gert giggles and points at me. “You always snored.”
“What? Why, I never!”
“Yes, you did.”
“No, I didn’t.”
She pouts her lip, as if conceding I’ve had the last word. Then, “Did, too,” she says quickly. “Anyway, what was I getting at? Was it about that old pony we used to ride? No. Was it about the time I stole your beau Ernest Simpson? No…”
I’m tracking now, back to the day Ernest Simpson drove up to our house in his Packard to show Papa samples of seed and grain. Gert was upstairs pressing her frocks, too busy to descend, and for a month I contrived to keep her out of the way whenever Ernest was due to appear. I sat with him and Papa in the parlor, pouring coffee and serving cake, and Ernest regarded me with admiration when I explained my ideas for stock management or increasing the crop yield. “Ethel knows everything about running this place,” Papa said, and he passed me a look, encouraging me on. But then Gert strolled in—“Oh, hello. I don’t recall we’ve met.”—and Ernest’s eyes fastened on her like a boy in a candy store. After their wedding they moved to the city, and six months later I married Papa’s hired hand.
Gert’s voice breaks into the memory. “Ethel, what was that pony’s name?”
“The pony?” For a minute, the change is too abrupt and I can’t focus. “Oh, you mean Oatsy.”
“That’s right. Good old Oatsy. Whatever happened to him?”
“He got old and died. Gert, can we please get back to the subject? We were talking about—”
A sudden guilty look comes on her face. “Uh-oh.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, nothing.” She waves. “I’ll be right back.”
She rises from her chair and heads to the bathroom. The minute she’s gone, I check her seat. Just as I suspected—she’s leaked again! She refuses to wear a pad, refuses to wear a diaper, now I’ll have to clean it up. I huff off to the kitchen for a sponge and paper towels, then return and dab at the upholstery. I don’t know why I do this for her, except that she’d never do it properly herself and then we’d have a stain and probably a smell. It isn’t fair that one of us should be allowed to slip so effortlessly through life, while the other has to work and work. I wonder if she was ever sensible, even when she moved to the city, and we didn’t see each other so much anymore. Who took care of things for her when I wasn’t around?
When Gert returns from the bathroom she sits on the sofa, and neither of us mentions the damp chair. But I have the advantage now and she knows it, so when I open the pamphlet and hand it to her she accepts it meekly.
“Now I’ll tell you what I want, Gert, so pay attention. If I become terminally ill and life becomes too painful, I want to end it. I’ll write up a document like this pamphlet says. But it might not cover everything, so as my nearest living relative you must speak for me. Take whatever steps you have to, but don’t let it go on. Do you understand?”
“You mean you don’t want to understand. But you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
Frustration rises in my throat. Why won’t she do this for me, this one simple thing? Heaven knows, I’d do it for her.
“Please, Gert. We’re old. We must make plans. Who’ll take care of us?”
“Why, the children, of course.” She flips her wrist toward the mantle to indicate the pictures of her son Frank, daughters Mary and Jane, and assorted grandchildren. Beside them is a photo of my dead son John in his Army uniform. Gert gazes contentedly at her offspring, conveniently forgetting that they rarely visit and though we remember every grandchild’s birthday with a money card, their thank-yous are grudging and misspelled. None of them will want us. Even Frank’s urging that we move to a retirement building is less out of concern for our welfare than to reduce his obligation to look after two old women.
“Gert, we don’t want to be a burden to the children.”
“Why not? They were a burden to us.”
“But they grew out of it. We won’t. What if you went into a coma and had to be hooked up to a machine?”
“I might wake up.”
“But suppose you didn’t? Would you really want to lie there unconscious?”
“I might be having beautiful dreams.”
“You might be having nightmares. You wouldn’t be able to eat or speak or even go to the bathroom. It makes me shudder to think of some stranger having to clean me up.”
“Why? They get paid. It’s not my fault they can’t find a better job.” She dismisses everything with a toss of her hand. “You’re so negative today, Ethel. Snap out of it.”
I clutch my temples. The movement sends a stab of pain through my neck, and tears start to my eyes. Oh, this is too much! Me, crying. “You’re no help at all, Gert! You never take anything seriously!”
“Ethel, Ethel, my poor baby sister.” She moves closer and puts her arms around me, totally ignoring the fact that she’s the baby sister, not me. “Dear, dear, you’re all upset. Come here and have a hug.”
“I don’t want a hug. I want your promise, so I know everything will be all right.”
“But of course everything will be all right.” She pats my shoulder. “Besides, we don’t have to talk about this for a long time yet. Everybody in our family lived way into their nineties. Great-grandpa Arthur was a hundred and four.”
“And then he died. We all have to. I just want to be sensible about it.”
“I think we should change doctors. Morris Gubelmann’s son is a doctor.”
“He’s an ophthalmologist.”
“He is? Then maybe when I marry Morris I can get my glasses for free.”
“Oh, Gert.” A minute ago I was crying and now she makes me laugh. I dab at my eyes, seeing her wrinkled face through a blur of tears. Even at our age people look at us and know: she was and always will be the pretty one.
“That’s right, Ethel. You go ahead and laugh.” It’s Gert’s advantage now and she presses it home. “Remember that time you found a lump in your breast and you thought it was cancer? I told you it would turn out to be nothing, and I was right, wasn’t I?”
“You also told me to look on the bright side because if I did lose a breast no one would even notice it was gone.”
“But you didn’t, and everything was fine. And whatever happens I’m going to take care of you, just like when we were growing up on the farm.”
“What? You never took care of me.”
“I most certainly did.”
“You did not. You stole my beau and rolled onto my side of the bed, and you never did your fair share to groom Oatsy.”
“Good old Oatsy. Whatever happened to him?”
“I shot him.”
We jerk apart and stare, Gert in disbelief, me in dismay. I never meant to let that slip.
“I don’t believe you.” Her jaw sets. “That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is. I shot him and we sold him for dog meat.” It sounds awful, but it’s the only way to make her understand.
“No! He lived a long and happy life, then he went out to pasture.”
“He got old and sick, then I shot him and he died.”
I can still remember that winter day in the barn, the pony wheezing, ribs heaving, his labored breath turning to steam in the frigid air. His eyes were rheumy, and there were sores on his shaggy hide that wouldn’t heal. In his feed bin were uneaten oats and the sugar lump I’d brought him the night before. When he saw me come in with Papa’s shotgun he lifted his head and looked at me, and I thought: He knows. Then he put out his muzzle and nudged me as if to say, “Go on.”
“He was old and sick, Gert, and you weren’t there. You married Ernest and moved away. Papa offered to do it, but the farm was coming to me and I had to be sensible and strong.”
“But I loved that pony, Ethel!”
“So did I.”
Gert turns her head, unwilling to meet my eyes. She fusses with the plates and cups on the tea tray; after a minute she mutters something about more cookies. She gets up and leaves. I know what will happen. She’ll avoid me and not mention it, then she’ll start to forget. In a few days, if she remembers at all, she’ll mix it up like her soap operas and have Oatsy out frolicking in the pasture. And I realize, too, that once again she’s gotten out of it, changed the course of our discussion as easily as she carried those long-ago conversations with her beaus. She won’t help me, she’s afraid—not only of dying, but of delving too deeply into life. I pick up the pamphlet, scan the cover, set it aside. As always, if I want anything done properly, I’ll have to do it myself. Just as I did for Oatsy: I pulled the trigger, and without a sound he collapsed and lay quiet in the straw. And though the tears streamed down my face—me, crying!—my hands were steady as a rock on the gun.
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1994)
Edge City Review, January 1994; Crone’s Nest, Summer 1995