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My neighborhood, I decide, is an embarrassment. I live on the Street of Clichés, the Avenue of the Expected. Worse, I’m a cliché myself: almost forty, the baby weight that I could never shed ringing my middle like a deflated inner tube, gray roots and wrinkles and breasts that look good only when they’re stringently underwired. They could put my picture on Wikipedia: Abandoned Wife, Brooklyn, 2014.
Brenda’s hands are gentle as she eases me up and off the bed and into the chair in the corner—a flea-market find, upholstered in a pale yellow print, the chair where I sat when I nursed my girls, when I read my books, when I wrote my reports. As I watch, she deftly strips the sheets off the bed, shakes the pillows free of their creased cases, and gives each one a brisk whack over her knee before settling it back on the bed. Dust fills the room, motes dancing in the beams of light that push through the dirt-filmed windows I’d been planning to have cleaned.
I huddle in my nightgown, shoulders hunched, knees pulled up to my chest. “Why are you doing this?” I ask.
Brenda looks at me kindly. “I am being of service,” she says. She carries her armful of soiled linen out of the bedroom and comes back with a fresh set. When she struggles to get the fitted sheet to stay put, I get up off the chair and help her. Then she goes to the bathroom and turns on the shower. “Come on,” she says, and I pull my nightgown off over my head and stand under the showerhead, with my arms hanging by my sides. I tilt my head to feel the warmth beating down on my cheeks, my chin, my eyelids. Tears mix with the water and wash down the drain. When I was a little girl and I’d come home from the hospital with Steri-Strips covering my stitches, my mom would give me a sponge bath, then sit me on the edge of the tub to wash my hair, pouring warm water over my head, rubbing in the shampoo, then rinsing, then conditioning, and rinsing again. She would touch the thick, braided line of pink scar
tissue that ran down the center of my chest, then gently pat it dry. My beautiful girl, she would say. My beautiful, beautiful girl.
My sheets are silky and cool as pond water, but I don’t lie down. I prop myself up against the headboard and rasp out the question that I’ve heard hundreds of times from dozens of clients.
“What do I do now?”
Brenda gives a rueful smile. “You start again,” she tells me. “Just like the rest of us.”
There was only a hospital bed, and two white plastic chairs for visitors. “I’m ready to go,” Mr. Sills told him. “I lived a good long while.”
“You have so many friends,” Andy said. This was true. There’d been the boys whom Mr. Sills had met and befriended and helped over the years, many of whom had found their way into one of those white plastic chairs over the last weeks. They had left tokens, too: photographs of themselves with Mr. Sills, at basketball games and graduations, at weddings and christenings and First Communions and commencements. Pride of place had been saved for a framed photograph from Athens, of Mr. Sills, beaming, with his arm around Andy and the two of them wrapped in the American flag, with Andy in his laurel wreath and Mr. Sills wearing Andy’s gold medal.
“I’ve made my peace,” Mr. Sills wheezed. A tear slipped down his cheek. “I’m not afraid.” But his hand was trembling when Andy took it. “I will miss this world,” he said. His chest labored upward, paused, and sank down. “Andy,” he said, reaching
for Andy’s hand. Andy leaned close. Mr. Sills’s eyes were closed, and his voice was faint, but each word was clear and deliberate. “You can stop running now.” Andy sat with him, waiting for more, but his friend’s eyes stayed closed, and he didn’t wake up again for the rest of the afternoon.