Decline: A Short Story


The windows

That’s the first thing I noticed.

Her every gesture is in sync with the seasons, waning seed, waxing bulb. She shakes the morning dew from her harvest, disturbs the evening dew as she prunes. Opens her windows to welcome the first sighs of spring, then closes them against the fist of summer heat.

The fist is relaxed in the cool breath of fall, yet her windows are closed, blocking these gentle breezes.

I see the droopy heads of the flowers as I approach, sad pleas, a slouching pity party for anyone who bothers to look.

She had spoiled them.

What do we do now? Trapped in beds. And the weeds! They’re coming for us!

I give them an empathetic nod, poor souls at the mercy of the whims of the weather and approaching winter.

I had noticed the long whiskers of the lawn, bearded in places. Today look up. Did an impatient neighbor shear the wild growth, leaving irregular skeins of blades and weeds?

Soon enough, I suppose, winter will set in, the nap of nature, relief from the rambunctious growth of leaf, limb, and stalk.

She needs her rest.

I see the driveway littered with tangled tufts, fallen needles and leaves. Everything is falling, spent at the end dog days, preparing for the big sleep.

Is she ill?

No one knows.

We would wave at her when she looked up from her flowers. We would nod as she turned her mower in our direction.

Does she have family?

We all shrug.

The gate

My muscles, energized by the fresh October air, tighten as I approach the depressed beds at the end of her drive. A floral dirge.

We shouldn’t be here anymore! Where are the autumn mums? Has she forgotten?

I shrug.

I had stopped here for years of mornings to smile at the flowers. A bed of blooms for each season. This morning I stare at the windows.

I bend to pull a weed.

I kick a brown cluster of grass into the ditch.

Was she forgotten?

The gate is closed. I’m not sure it matters, not sure I would go to the door and knock.

Are you all right?

I’m moved by curiosity, concern, grief for the garden, but not moved enough to break through.

I don’t even know her name.

I stare a few moments, gripped by the world inside her gate, its response to the closed windows.

Philosopher outside her world, I till the emotions, drive my spade into the dry soil of decline. They say “the world goes on,” but that’s not the whole story, is it? The world unravels with us, at least for a moment.

I continue my walk, leaving the wake of decline.

I’ll return tomorrow, maybe I’ll squeeze through the gate.

Today, I’ll visit the nursery after my walk, buy some yellow mums, maybe orange as well. But first, I’ll open my windows.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

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The Cane

Mom comes over sporting a cane today.

What’s wrong?
My knee.
The right one?
No, this one, pausing to wave the cane at the left knee. I wish they would finish what they’re doing.

She’s holding the cane in her right hand, which is correct, but she’s moving it with the right knee, which is wrong.

What they’re doing?
Yeah. You know . . .

Thinking . . . I don’t really know.

You mean, the exercises? The PT?

Today is Thursday, and it’s been gray, cloudy, humid, and foggy since we took a short road trip on Monday. I took her for PT on Wednesday. All my joints feel achy from this gray weather. Could that be the problem?

When you go back Friday, you need to tell them . . .
I don’t think I’m going back. My knee hurts.
But you’re going because your knee hurts. They’re supposed to help make it better.
Well, I don’t know, as she almost trips over an ant bed.
You need to tell them in case something you did there yesterday . . .
Oh, I won’t remember . . .

This is how our conversation goes from my house to hers, as she shuffles, her feet barely clearly the tired winter grass. This feels like downhill. I try to be careful with my words.

In case you don’t remember, I’ll tell dad to be sure they know your knee was hurting today.

Wasn’t it just yesterday, I leaned on her?

You need help with ____ [fill in the blank with the move, painting, cutting down the tree, taking down the pool, refinishing the cabinets, the kids, the wedding, school, a dress, the story, your buttons, your nap . . . lullaby, say goodnight . . .]?

Just yesterday.

Today she leans on the cane, on me, and most heavily on dad.

Today is downhill. I liked the hike uphill better.

Maybe tomorrow the clouds will break and, when we walk up the hill to her house, she won’t need the cane.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020.