LJ Idol 10: TOPIC 6: Heel Turn
The old woman makes her way down the familiar block, past crumbling buildings and neglected brownstones. She keeps her eyes on the sidewalk, though it isn't to avoid meeting eyes with her neighbors. No one is out this evening. It's more to shield her aged eyes from the blinding cold. Everyone piling up together on this wretched, greedy day. Pretending. Oh I love it, oh I'm so glad to see you. Oh I've missed you, they'll wheedle and promise. But they are lying. Lies upon lies. Just like I used to lie. But I don't have to anymore.
She comes to her building, as gray and withered as she is, and painfully mounts the stoop. She would know it in the dark after all these years consigned here. Never did escape, though I dreamed it all those years. Her once nimble fingers, gnarled with arthritis, punch out the simple code to open the door. It clicks open into a shadowy foyer, reeking of piss and cabbage. She can remember when the checkerboard floors were waxed regular and the children could be sent outside for the day. Was the only thing to get the miserable brats out of my way, to send them along to play with the neighborhood children. Of course, Martin would come home, always after dark, always with whiskey on his breath, as if his day were long and tiring. And there I'd be, all simple, accommodating wifey with his supper hot. They would follow him in like flies follow horses, to plague her again. Climbing in his lap, reading him the paper. Untoward, for a man to be so attached to children. Not right. Not manly.
Even once they were grown, they would hover around him, doting on him like a treasured monarch. Always Daddy this and Daddy that. And there I'd go, serving them all, smiling and simpering and playing their game. They never knew, not one of them, how much I hated their faces. Even when they brought their squalling brats around. Calling me Nana. And still I smiled and did and did and did.
The rubber treads on the stairs are all but worn away, leaving only black, sticky shadows that catch on the treads of her worn out shoes. Shifting her load around to accommodate her ascent, she takes a deep breath and begins to climb. From somewhere above, a door opens and she briefly hears a radio playing carols and the sounds of laughing children. It closes after a moment and the sounds muffle and mingle with the raspy breaths she gulps in as she makes the effort to get home. Yes, so glad those days are over, when children and grandchildren filled the rooms. The only joy I got from those visits were the stolen ones, a pinch here and there to their fat little legs or letting them lay in their piss soaked diapers until their asses were red while their greedy parents took advantage of us, leaving us with their spawn. So glad that's over. No more 'Nana loves you sweetie'... how those lies tasted bitter on my lips. But Martin never knew, no never.
The cold digs into her old bones in pains both sharp and dull, aching and biting, all at once. She struggles up the stairs to the third floor apartment with her grocery bag, a tattered canvas tote with long faded logo that her granddaughter gave her back when the kids were still coming around. “It's for the environment!” Her granddaughter had explained the gift to her Nana with a little too much condescension in her voice, as she flipped her pink tinted hair away from her eyes. Tattoos and holes all in her body, an affront to God! And yet she dares tell me I can't use plastic or even paper bags! She should be in a freak show but I'm the one who has to change my ways! Now all the damn grocery stores expect you to lug your own bags in. What happened to service? They'd finally gotten the hint when she'd stopped answering the phone. Now it was disconnected and it had been long enough that they didn't even bother with cards around the holidays anymore. The memory of her granddaughter had come unbidden and made her grimace even more dour. It's good they don't bother anymore. It's much easier to not pretend. I'm too close to death to waste any more time pretending. I'm just glad I stopped the lying to myself that it was for the good anyway.
She continues her musing as she slowly takes step after agonizing step, never taking her eyes from her feet, making sure each foot is placed solidly on the next stair and then pulling up, one laborious step at a time. She stops on the second floor landing to catch her breath and allows herself a look upward toward her goal. A bitter sigh escapes her dry, cracked lips as she readies herself for another hard pull.
A broken window allows a frigid breeze to swirl around the dusty landing and her hands scream and stab until tears well in her eyes. Another pull, another step closer to home... but no closer to warmth, her musings continue. Can't afford to heat the damn place and won't be getting any money soon, not since the savings dried up and the greedy bastards refused to give me anything. That's when I was able to finally stop lying. That's when I told them what I really thought, when I could finally be who I am.
Her thoughts are cold comfort as she barely conquers another stair. Her sparse gray hair forms a wispy halo around her face as another breeze whips through the stairwell. The sputtering bulb swaying above her gives it a dull greenish tint and she catches a whiff of stale dandruff and cigarette smoke. Needs a washing I guess, its been a while, ever since that damned harpy at the salon on the corner told me off for not tipping. Who does she think she is, all high and mighty? Her shit smells just like the rest of us!
Ragged breaths and grunts replace thoughts and she finally finds herself at number 301. After 50 years, I ought to be used to the damn climb comes the next thought once she catches her breath, then at least I can get under the blankets, take some aspirin. Have a cup of tea.. After a bit of fumbling with the keys, she limps into the dark entry, slams the door behind her and collapses into the chair just inside the door. The grocery bag falls over, spilling it's contents onto scraped and filthy floors.
She stares forlornly at the meager groceries for a while then bends toward them slowly. It's a struggle, but she manages to retrieve her items from the floor. Standing up gingerly, and never quite achieving 'upright', she hobbles into the galley kitchen and drops the bag on the counter. Filling the kettle and clicking on the ancient gas stove, she shuffles about the space with no thought but her aching bones.
When finally she settles down at the scarred formica table with her hot tea in a stained and chipped 'Worlds Greatest Mom' mug, she lights a cigarette and pulls as deeply as her used-up lungs allow. Crooked fingers struggle with the plastic encasing a snack cake and when finally unwrapped, she eats the cake unceremoniously. Ashes, she thinks, it all tastes like ashes.
Even so, she eats two more cakes and has another cup of tea before rising, managing another cigarette and a double dose of aspirin as well. The apartment is sparsely furnished, but she still has to wend her way through the stacks of papers, trash bags and boxes strewn about the small space. Once, there were five people living here. Once, there were holiday parties, family events, Sunday suppers. How on earth I ever fit them all in here is a mystery! Glad I don't have to mess with all that anymore.
There are un-faded squares on the wallpaper where portraits once hung. Now those portraits lay packed into musty boxes, unwanted. Even the cat box has a layer of dust over it. She put the cat out onto the fire escape last month, shut the window and ignored his pleas to come back in. It only took four days for him to stop begging at the glass and disappear. Good riddance, she had thought when she noticed he was gone. Nothing but mewling trouble.
She had shown the same relief when she noticed the children had stopped calling altogether. Took them longer than the damn cat to take the hint and with more fuss than I wanted or needed. All the questions, 'Mama why? Mama please talk to us' Best satisfaction I ever got was watching their confusion and pain. If only I could tell them how their precious Daddy really died, only that pain on their faces would be my best triumph. The thought wanders through her mind and she briefly wonders why she is even thinking of them today.
She glances out the window and catches sight of twinkling lights in the building across the street. She drops into her battered recliner and pulls the familiar quilt around her. Absently, she runs her hands over the stitches along the edge, remembering vaguely the day she had finished sewing it with her daughters. Damn thing is getting threadbare, would do better to just burn it for warmth than try to get warm under it!
The silence is so complete that her breath seems to echo off of the empty walls. Distant tinkling laughter comes from a floor somewhere above and the smells of holiday cooking fill the halls of the old building. Better them than me! Ungrateful children gathered around all clamoring for gifts and wanting big meals! I've spent my servant days and made my sacrifices, thank you! Better to be left alone. Once Martin passed I was released from that hell! I wonder if they ever knew how much I hated every smile, every hug, every kindness I was forced to give. I did my time, marrying an odorous widowed man with his three small children was charity enough! And damn him for taking away what was mine and leaving it all to them! I deserved it after what I did for it! And damn them for acting so surprised and hurt when I finally dropped the decades-long charade! Damn them all.
Unconsciously, she raises the quilt around her shoulders, huddling in it for warmth, with none to be found. She shivers and quakes, far more than the chilly apartment should offer. With her bitterness settling into her as deeply as the cold, a fear grips her. She begins to cough and shake. She tries to rise, to call for help but her body betrays her and ceases it's struggle. One by one, the colorful, twinkling lights from across the street blink out until darkness closes in on her last thought.
Damn them all.