by MARK GOODRICH
Lizzy sat in the recliner her kids had bought her when they moved her into the home after Joe had died. The television was on, some news program, muted. One window in the small living room, looking out onto the back garden. Empty, except for two of Lizzy’s fellow residents, sitting on one of the benches, motionless.
George had asked her to join him out in the garden a few weeks ago. He’d approached her at the end of the dining hour, maneuvering his walker over to her table, introducing himself. They’d talked on the patio for an hour. He’d put his hand on hers.
On the side table next to the recliner, a remote with oversized buttons that Carol, Lizzy’s youngest, had brought her after watching her struggle with the one provided by the cable company. Next to the remote, a faded envelope. Lizzy, printed in pen across the front. Lizzy picked up the envelope, turned it over, ran her fingers along the nicked edges. Sixty years in hiding, tucked in an old diary that she’d buried in the bottom drawer of her desk. Kept on her person during each move she’d made over eight decades. From the bedroom she shared with her sister in her parents’ house to the apartment she lived in with Joe after their marriage. To the couple’s two-bedroom cape in the suburbs. The ranch where they’d raised their four kids. The condo they’d downsized to when Joe started to fail. And finally, here, this landing place for those living out their last days, waiting for death to take them.
Before her kids had come to weed through her belongings, she’d taken the envelope out of her diary and squirreled it away into an inner pocket of her purse. Since then Carol and Mary had often rummaged through her purse, taking out the lotion they insisted she apply to her hands several times a day. Or pulling out a few dollar bills to hand to her, which she in turn would give to the cashier at the café they took her to for lunch every Saturday. She worried that one of her daughters would unzip the pocket and discover the envelope. But there was no safer place to put it. She had only a small closet, a cheap bureau, and her mahogany desk—the single piece of furniture her kids had allowed her to bring from her old home. But her children and various aides searched through all of it, retrieving clothes for her to wear and laundry that needed to be washed.
A few days after the garden date, George had invited her to the movies: the showing of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the commons room. He’d held her hand. Given her a kiss. Just on the cheek.
Lizzy put down the envelope and studied her apartment. A small living room with a fridge, microwave, and sink. A bedroom with a single twin-sized bed. Various photographs and paintings on the walls. A picture of her and Joe at a family reunion a few years previous. A painting of the beach she had summered at as a child. A collage of photos of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A lifetime of fading memories compressed into a few mementos scattered throughout an undersized apartment.
The past few nights, she sat in the parlor with George after dinner. Talking, contributing a piece or two to the communal jigsaw puzzle on the big table in the center of the room. He’d walk her back to her room. Say goodbye, kiss her, and then slowly head back to his room at the far end of the long hall.
But last night he’d asked to come inside. Lizzy hadn’t understood at first. Then he gave her that look. A man’s look. Something she hadn’t received in years. The last time had been from a retired account executive she’d met at a hotel bar on a trip she’d made without Joe to visit their daughter and son-in-law. She didn’t take the executive up on his offer. Never cheated on Joe throughout their long marriage. But now she was bound by no vows, released by Joe’s death.
A tremble in Lizzy’s fingers, a struggle to remove the paperclip that held the envelope closed. Her patience persevered. The flap opened. A dozen or so black-and-white photographs inside. Lizzy in the orchard on the outskirts of her hometown. Standing in front of an apple tree, with a body she’d lost long ago. She was eighteen. The following year she’d meet Joe, her partner for sixty-two years, the father of her four children. But that summer Ray was the man in her life. She’d met him that June when he stopped by the diner where she worked. A photographer for the local paper, having a cup of coffee and some breakfast. He wasn’t the first or the last customer to ask her out on a date, but he was the only one she ever said yes to. The others were either too young and eager, or too old and creepy. He played it just right. Talking with her the first day he came into the diner, telling her about his job, how he loved it. Making no move until the fourth visit, when he asked her out to dinner that weekend.
She was a few weeks out of high school, wondering what was in store for her besides extended hours at the diner. He was in his late twenties, a college graduate. Their dates had been typical. Movies, dinners, drives out into the countryside. Make-out sessions in his car. She rebuffed each of his attempts to sleep with her.
For the trip to the orchard, he’d told her to wear her nicest dress, but hadn’t explained why. He’d shown up with a camera and a tripod in the back of his car. He said that he wanted to take pictures of her. Why? Because she was beautiful.
She was nervous at first, but relaxed as the shoot progressed. A shy girl, never liking it when others looked at her. But the lens was an inert, benign object. Unlike a human eye, she could stare back at it without feeling intimidated. She looked straight into the camera. That beaming smile that everybody always complimented her on.
After five minutes, he’d walked out from behind the tripod, approached her. Said nothing. Reached for the zipper on the back of her dress.
What are you doing?
You’re gorgeous. Let’s capture it. There’s no one here.
She glanced around. They were at least a quarter mile from the road.
Who will you show them to?
No one. I’ll develop them myself.
Can I have a copy?
You can have the only copy.
She let him slide her dress straps off her shoulders, pull her top down.
He’d given her the photos the next week. Their relationship had fizzled out soon after that. He stopped coming into the diner. She wasn’t particularly disappointed. But she kept the photos. Had never shown them to anyone, including Joe. Taken them out every few years, when she was sad, when she wanted to remind herself of what she looked like back then.
She picked the one she liked best. Arms behind her, leaning back against the tree. Hair—so long back then—hanging down to one side. Her dress on the ground at her feet. She lay the chosen photograph on the side table. Put the others back into the envelope, closed the flap, slid the paperclip back on. Her failing knees strained as she pulled herself out of the chair. The recliner was supposed to make it easier to get up. Baloney. She missed her couch and chairs.
She shuffled over to her desk. An opened folder on top, filled with bank statements she could no longer follow. She pushed the papers to the side, picked up the empty folder. Returned to the recliner. Placed the lone photo into the folder, closed it, carried it with her to the door.
The hallway outside was empty, as it usually was. At mealtimes it filled with a slow procession of canes and walkers and wheelchairs making the trip to the dining room and back. But otherwise everyone always in their rooms, door closed, watching TV, sleeping, waiting for guests that rarely came.
Lizzy worked her way down the hall, her right hand up against the wall for support, fingers dragging along the floral wallpaper. She passed the doors, each labeled with the name of the occupant.
Lindsey Stewart. Her neighbor who’d never said more than hello to her. Bella Rose. She sat at Lizzy’s table at dinner. She had a new great-grandchild who she retold Lizzy about at every meal.
That look from George last night. His hair was almost all gone. His face rivers of wrinkles. Frail hands grasping the walker. But in his eyes the hunger of youth. She had considered his request. Tried to, at least. But couldn’t imagine it. Their two ancient bodies, intertwined. She’d made peace with her body years ago. But it was nothing she wanted to share with another.
Florence Williams. She still wasn’t sure who Florence was. Ed Martell. One of the few other men on the floor besides George. She’d never heard anything come out of his mouth other than grunts and groans. It was unclear whether he’d lost the ability to speak or just didn’t have anything left to say that couldn’t be articulated with guttural noises.
No, she’d told George, shaking her head. Disappointment he tried to hide with a smile. He took one hand off his walker, reached out and brushed her hair. C’mon Lizzy. She shook her head again. He gazed at her for a few seconds longer, looking for any hesitation on her part. There was none. His reluctant acceptance. He grasped the walker, turned away.
Betsy O’Neill. Her children came to visit often. Most of the other residents were jealous. One of her daughters always brought her cocker spaniel. Everyone fawned over it. Lizzy never liked dogs.
Almost at the end of the hall. George Carter. She knew he was out. An old family friend had taken him to a doctor’s appointment. She grasped the door handle, turned. You weren’t allowed to lock your apartment.
George’s living quarters. She’d never been inside. A recliner, similar to her own, but years older. It must have come with him from his house. Pictures on the wall. His wife. His siblings. His children, his grandchildren. His wife had died a year ago. Cancer. She was five years younger than him, and until the cancer, the healthier of the two. He’d always assumed he’d be the first to go.
A photograph of George and his wife long ago on a beach somewhere. They were in bathing suits. His wife had a decent body. Lizzy’s had been better.
A small table. A half-empty glass of milk. Pill bottles. A sheet of paper with dosing instructions, written in large print. Like a second grader’s writing assignment.
She opened the folder in her hand. Took one last look at the photo of herself from so many years ago. Wearing nothing, exposed to the world. Looking great. She closed the folder, lay it down on the table.
She held onto the table for balance as she rotated around. Hand against the wall, she walked back out into the hall. She shut the door. Smiling, she headed back to her room.
Mark Goodrich is a writer of novels, screenplays, short stories, and comic books. He has previously been published in Willard & Maple. A software engineer by day, he resides in Boston, Massachusetts.