I hadn’t learned the protocol. “This John Steeno wasn’t home,” I told Irene when I got back to the senior center with one extra meal hydroplaning at the bottom of one of the coolers, a sad little plastic clamshell of Salisbury steak and a roll and some half-thawed corn. I didn’t tell her that the county van was almost out of gas, since this was my first day and I didn’t know if she was who I was supposed to tell and I didn’t want to get into trouble. Irene croaked at me, arching a raggedy finger and waggling it at my naughtiness. She said I had to learn the protocol: check every room, check around the client’s house in the summer in case they’re in the backyard, call the client’s phone number, call the emergency contacts, call the aging agency, call the cops. “There might be a dead one,” Irene told me. “We haven’t had a dead one in a long time.”
I liked the order of the protocol, liked being part of the chain of command. I craved the sense of normalcy. “So what do I do now?” I asked. I was going to prove that I wasn’t a screw-up.
“Don’t worry about the protocol today, Steven,” Irene told me. “I’ll take care of John.”
“Well, what should I do with his meal?” I asked, holding out the clamshell.
“We’ll keep it. Put it in fridge number two.”
I almost told her she should eat it: she looked haggard and sunken, as if she were recovering from meth addiction, but she was just a dry-as-dust Midwestern lady with a rampant metabolism, apparently. Instead I took the meal downstairs and ate it myself, having no idea which fridge was fridge number two.
I went home feeling like this was going to be a pretty good job, one I could keep through the winter as long as I didn’t get another DUI, one where I could help people, make a difference. I was going to do it right this time. But then the next week there was a dead one.
It wasn’t John Steeno — he was fine, had just been decoupaging a puzzle to a square of fiberboard in his basement den and lost track of time. Nice guy, showed me his den. Nope, the dead one was Gladys Reimer. She had been a nice one too, told me to call her Gladys instead of Mrs. Reimer. Good tip, since most of the other old gals brightened up when I used their first names, as if I were a flirt or something. Being fresh. “Just trying to be cordial,” I told them with a little bow. I guess I was flirting. It was too bad they didn’t give cash tips, but I began to hope they might at Christmastime.
When Gladys didn’t come to the door that Monday after five minutes, I followed the protocol. I figured it would be easier to take a quick scuff around the outside of her house first, but there was four inches of snow on the ground and I had on canvas sneakers. So instead I went back to the county van and got the big ring of keys, the one you had to check in first thing when you got back to the center, since these old people were really paranoid about someone coming in to rob or choke them at night. And there Gladys sat on her living room couch, under a turquoise and tan afghan, not looking asleep but rather dry-eyed dead, curled up on herself like a dead mouse. One arm raked off the armrest at a disturbing angle, her tongue tip was out, and talk radio rambled on with a grating A.M. coarseness. I’d followed the protocol I’d been given and I’d found her. Success. But now there would be some other protocol I hadn’t learned. I stepped back outside and picked up her meal from the concrete stoop. Looking at her in her dead-mouse curl on the couch, I’d suddenly felt like her food shouldn’t be on the ground.
In my defense, after going back inside Gladys’s house, I was this close to picking up the phone and calling Irene — I might’ve even had my hand on the receiver, if I’m remembering correctly — when I realized I didn’t know the senior center’s number. It was likely in the van somewhere, but I decided to eat Gladys’s ham slice and au gratin potatoes and sleep on it. I rationalized that if I waited until tomorrow, maybe they’d think time of death was right after I left. But as it was, with no new protocol to follow, I felt like I would get in trouble. It would somehow be my fault. I didn’t want to get written up or violate some terms of something I must’ve signed, and I didn’t want Irene mad at me. I had really taken to this job. I was on a mission for good. I was excited to prove I could do the right thing for once.
The next day I walked up to Gladys’s front door with her meal of chicken and dumplings in hand and rang the bell. I think in the back of my mind I was covering, in case the neighbors were paying attention. As I stood on the stoop waiting for no one to answer, I thought maybe today I’d just go back to the center and tell Irene that Gladys wasn’t home — break protocol again like I had with John Steeno and let Irene handle it. Or maybe I could just jump right to calling the emergency contacts and let them come find her. But what if the emergency contacts called her of their own accord, possibly that very night, and everything took care of itself? Then the emergency contacts could be the ones to contact the aging agency, who would call the center and tell Irene, who would tell me what I already knew. Or maybe the emergency contacts would forget about us entirely, and then they would be the ones breaking protocol. I hoped hard that these emergency contacts were loved ones who actually loved Gladys. She deserved that. Eventually I went back to the van for the big key ring, so I could go inside and use the microwave.
I thought maybe a day off would give her that peaceful look you hear about, but she still looked more like a poor desiccated rodent, still listening to A.M. pundits rag about greening the economy. I felt bad for her. It was good she kept that house cold, it preserved her pretty nicely. She had the thermostat set at sixty and before I left I turned it all the way down to help her out, then put the kitchen and bathroom faucets on a trickle so the pipes wouldn’t freeze. It was the least I could do.
Wednesday’s meal was beef stew. I was looking forward to trying it, though all that morning I hoped someone would call the center and give us the news about Gladys. Where were her emergency contacts? Didn’t they care? They didn’t. They were heartless bastards. “Don’t worry, Gladys,” I told her later from her kitchen table. “Your loved ones will be calling soon. They’ll figure it out. They’ll come find you.” She lay there like something at the bottom of a shoebox, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was starting to reek a little, though not enough to put me off my feed. “Beef stew today,” I told her. “Pretty good.”
I was back out on the stoop, ready to lock up, when I decided I couldn’t leave her like that anymore and slipped back inside. I didn’t think I could uncurl her completely, because of rigor mortis, but she’d been a nice lady, and she shouldn’t have to suffer through another night with her little hand dangling off the side of the couch and her head askew. I’d never touched a dead person and wasn’t about to, so I curved a thick Better Homes & Gardens around her arm and worked it more or less to her side, then pushed the spine of the magazine against her temple and righted her head. She looked better. I let the magazine drop loudly on the glass coffee table, which I knew was disrespectful, but I didn’t want to touch the cover now that it had touched someone dead.
Thursday was ground-beef lasagna, and Irene warned me the clients would be giving me a hard time since it was so hard to heat up evenly in the microwave. It occurred to me that we should have a hot box in the county van, to serve some meals hot, like lasagna. I could work my way up and implement this change and other innovations like it, I thought, when I took over Irene’s position. I had a lot of time to dwell on this need for change on my route, as four out of five clients agreed that lasagna was too much trouble when they screwed their toothless faces up with skepticism and grudgingly clawed it from my offering hands. Ingrates. It was a rough day — on top of this there was a solid little snow shower while I rattled among their crayon-colored ranch houses — so I decided midway through to push hard and then save Gladys’s house for last. The lasagna was indeed a challenge to reheat, until I made peace with the fact that it was going to be a two-part process: eat around the outside, then stick it back in Gladys’s microwave to heat up the frozen core. It was probably the best-tasting thing I’d had so far and warmed me up good in Gladys’s cold house.
When I got back to the center, Irene asked where I got my pin.
“Gladys Reimer gave it to me,” I told her. It was this bicentennial flag pin I’d found in her bathroom, with the regular flag facing one way and the colonial facing the other, and that cartoonish ’76 in a blue circle connecting them in the middle. Just a little thing, but I liked it because I’d been a bicentennial baby. It cheered me up.
“You shouldn’t accept gifts from clients,” Irene said, but she didn’t tell me to give it back.
The next day was Friday and I thought it was crazy that it had been a week by this point and the emergency contacts still hadn’t caught on about Gladys. All morning at the senior center I let myself get jazzed up on burnt coffee from downstairs that I wasn’t supposed to be drinking and whipped myself into a frenzy about these loved ones. I mean, with the upcoming holidays and all. Can you believe it? The thought entered my mind that maybe she had done a little jail time recently. Do a little jail time here and there and your loved ones don’t call anymore. I mean, I wasn’t even a felon. A felon I could understand.
I drove my rounds out of spite. John Steeno and the rest of them looked slack-jawed and dementia-stricken and the best I could do was hand them their tuna casserole and tell them it was supposed to snow again, six to eight inches, and watch as they clutched their scaly chests in fright. I told them call your loved ones or the aging agency, don’t you go shovel that walk yourself, though inside I was thinking if they wanted to go ahead and keel over in some crusty snowbank they could. I saved Gladys for last again, because that had been a nice little reward yesterday, and it looked like I’d need another today because already the snow had started. Gladys would understand me and my woes. I knew she was dead, but still, doesn’t your soul live on? It seemed like hers would be hanging around for at least a week. Or maybe she was an angel, like the guy in It’s a Wonderful Life, and I was like Jimmy Stewart.
“Gladys, you wouldn’t have anything to drink, now would you, honey?” was the first thing I asked. (Even if she was an angel, I was still her guest. I mean, her house was freezing cold and smelled like a dead body, and I was being polite about that.) I found only two dusty-topped almost-full bottles in the tray cupboard near the sink, one brandy and one vodka. I poured a brandy for me and one for her — spirits for the spirit, I had to chuckle at that. The liquor seemed to have sharpened with its age, which helped nicely in cutting the taste of the tuna.
“Gladys,” I said, “I’m beginning to think it’s going to take a while for your emergency contacts to call.” I want you to know now that I wasn’t talking to her corpse, which I knew was just a corporeal shell. I was talking to her brandy glass. “Are you going to be all right here in the snow? Who does your shoveling?” Maybe that would solve it: the snow. Neighbor boy knocking on the door. Husky, bearded son-in-law finally getting up off his ass and checking on the woman who gave birth to the love of his life. Something. There was a soul in purgatory here and no one would do anything about it. It made me sick.
Halfway back to the center, I had a revelation. I’d been learning a lot about these other services they give to old people as freebies, like cleaning and caretaking. I could pop in on the weekend, when we didn’t run meals out to the old folks, and check up on her. I pulled over to the curb and slid her house key off the big ring, knowing by now that Irene didn’t actually count all those keys, just checked the ring in. I just couldn’t bear to leave Gladys alone in there with that dead body all weekend. It had gotten so you couldn’t even be comfortable on that side of the house anymore.
Irene was frazzled by the snow, with everyone running late and then tromping their boots off on the rubber-edged mats by the doors, but usually not doing a good enough job. “Someone’s gonna have to mop,” she told me, which was my cue to unclip Gladys’s info sheet from my route board and duck out early. I wanted to make sure I had her emergency contacts on me, in case I wanted to give those rotten sons of bitches a piece of my mind.
I hadn’t planned to, but I drove by Gladys’s house on the way home, and I stopped. When I saw the snow piling up on her driveway, I remembered how my dad would always have us start shoveling when it was still snowing. Like this, he would say, showing me and my little brother how you could just plow the blade down a straight line the whole way and not have to do any heavy lifting, which you would if you waited. There was one bent metal snow shovel in back of her carport. It would do. The work was quick and good for the blood flow and reminded me of the times before I used to lie and cheat and steal and burn bridges. When I was done, it was full dark and the snow had turned orange under the streetlight and my face ran with the melted flakes.
I went inside to warm up with Gladys’s brandy. I’d already poured her the one at lunch, so I just grabbed that and went back into her bedroom and lay down and took a big gulp. It flushed through me all the way to those far ends still nipping from the cold. “Gladys,” I said, “I hope you don’t mind I’m in your bedroom.” It seemed right to acknowledge the fact. “I hope you don’t mind I’m in your bed.” The smell of mothballs and ladies’ perfume rose from the pillows and bedspread, which made it seem like a sign that it was okay. I wrapped the sides of the bedspread and blanket and top sheet around my chest, a coccoon in reverse order.
At midnight, when I woke up, I turned on the bedside lamp, but that didn’t feel right, and I wanted everything to be perfect. So I turned off the lamp and got up and flipped the bathroom switch across the hall, and then lay back down under the oblong of light it threw onto Gladys’s bed. She had a charging phone with giant buttons glowing green next to an alarm clock with giant numbers glowing blue. I pulled the crinkled info sheet from my coat pocket and held it at just the right angle to the light so I could read it. Emergency contacts: Harold Reimer, Shirley Kohlbeck, Brianna Kohlbeck-Schroeder. And with the holidays coming up, and they hadn’t called. Would it have killed them to give a rat’s ass and pick up the telephone, just once. I crushed the paper in one cold hand and let it drop to the carpet, then rattled a deep sigh.
The flicker of an orange snowflake caught my eye out the window. Its wink seemed filled with righteous anger and forgiveness and solidarity: Gladys, telling me what I knew needed to be done.
“Gladys, are you sure you want me to do this?” I asked her. One more solitary, drifting, glowing snowflake, which I had to consider a sign. She was being brave for me.
“I’m ready too,” I said. With a metal cluck, I took the handset from its perch in the charger, dragged in another slow breath, and one by one dialed all the old phone numbers I still knew by heart.
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