by Robert Russell
Her old, arthritic finger lifted the simple latch on her whitewashed front gate. The wooded gate trembled under her weight and she as well. She swung the gate open, walking slowly through it.
She was back in her world, in her own world, in her own yard - further out on its parameters than she had been in a while.
She stopped when she got to the center of the walkway, telling herself that she wanted to look at her flowers; her perennials, the ones that came back year after year, much like herself.
The real reason, if she was honest with herself, was that she was tired, tired, and sad. "Funerals have a way of doing that to a person," she told herself.
Especially when the funeral was for her last true friend on earth, the last person she mostly ever talked to.
The only person who really knew if she was alive or dead; for the world, it seemed, had stopped caring about her long ago. Long before her husband, Billy Dugan had died 20 years ago.
Long before the last of her children, Sarah, the middle one, as she always referred to her, died a decade ago.
In this same season her flowers, the last love of her life, were in their most gracious blooms.
She stared for just a second at her daylilies, her caladiums, her elephant ears, her camellias, her snapdragons, and her azaleas, softened by the shade of her big oak tree in her front yard.
She looked at the antique altheas, with their huge purple flowers bordering three sides of her yard,
giving her a natural private barrier from the neighbors she didn't know on the rear and on the sides. These neighbors had long overtaken the houses once owned by her true neighbors.
Now only rentals whose occupants came and went as their 6 to 12-month leases expired.
The new neighbors who it seemed had to have the local authorities over at least once a month on a Friday or Saturday night.
The neighborhood had changed as the world had changed, "All for the worst," she thought, surrendering a look of disgust, lining the wrinkles deeper into her old face.
She walked gingerly to the front porch steps, wishing she wasn't so stubborn. Wishing she had her walker or cane.
Sher made it to the front porch steps, grasping the handrails tightly, gently raising her right foot to the first step.
A gust of spring breeze swirling gray wisps of hair around her face, old hair that had come loose from the french bun that she always wore when she went out.
The French bun that, when three bobby pins were extracted, came tumbling loose in a spiral of gray-blonde hair that fell to her waist.
How, she thought, Billy Dugan had always loved to take those supports out of her hair when they were in bed in the quiet of the night as she laid on top of him.
The ceiling fan in the hallway pulling the night's cool breeze over them. Her hair once considered California-blonde falling all around him. "Protecting him," he'd always say.
She, Viola Dugan, continued to lay on top of him while he ran his fingers through her hair, untangling the curls, relieving her daily stress; and his at the same time.
Her inner self smiled as she raised her left foot for the next step. "Only three to go", she thought.
She traced the years of lying on top of Billy Dugan, her hair turning from California-blonde to dishwater blonde to gray.
The ever-present ceiling fan pulling a breeze from the window beside the bed. The foreplay to lovemaking, the untangling of the hair always brought about. That and the backrubs.
God, what she would give for a backrub. What she'd give to go back in time and have Billy Dugan untangle her long blonde hair.
"Even her gray hair," she thought, almost laughing, giggling a school girl giggle - a school girl giggle at the age of 94.
She picked up her right foot, pulling herself up to the next step, her weight seemed lighter. The left followed the right and vice versa until she completed the small trek upward.
She stood on her porch, thinking only for a second. Inside, to her sheltered lost world, or outside, sitting on the porch, enjoying the late afternoon.
She walked to her old rocker with its old faded pads and sat slowly, almost as if her old rocker wouldn't take on the extra weight after all these years.
Her body bent, falling to the seat slowly, the rocker moaning against her weight; her body and weight shifting as she became comfortable.
She sat, peering at the sunshine world through squinted eyes lined by deep, dark crows feet.
A soft spring breeze swept down from the mountains that surrounded Hot Springs, Arkansas, sweeping across her front porch. Just for her, it almost seemed.
Viola chewed her gums and, inside her toothless mouth, smiled, closing her eyes and catching the faint scent of spring flowers and the spring breeze of years past.
She smiled, not only to the day, not only to herself, and not only to Billy and his untangling of hair, backrubs, and foreplay.
She smiled at the spirits all around her; the spirits of past and present, the old and the new. She felt them.
She felt them all around her, from her mother, father, brothers, and beloved sister.
To her own special man, Billy Dugan, and the three children she not only brought into the world but buried also. She felt them all around her, smiling. She smiled back.
She kept her eyes closed, as this is when she felt them best and when her burdens were released; her loneliness gone. She called it "traveling", "traveling lighter".
She sat on her porch, traveling, her porch full of loved ones from her past, all in their Sunday's Best. All smiling and chattering to one another 90 miles an hour.
She sat, her eyes closed, listening to the one-sided conversations, never putting her two cents in for fear the spell would be broken.
She sat until the quiet gray dusk stole the day and gave it to the star-filled night. She opened her eyes, almost from sleep, it seemed. The spirits around her vanished into the low bright stars.
"Another time," she whispered softly.
Sadness enveloped her as the night surrounded her rocker, knowing she should go inside, knowing she should put a bite to eat on her stomach and take herself to bed.
"In a minute," she told herself, "In a minute."
The rocker and the boards below it squeaked, complaining under her weight, reminding her of more pleasant memories of the long past. Viola, or Ms.
V, as her students called her, pushed herself from the rocker, steadying her legs below her. Her brittle bones cracked as if they were going to break, her left foot asleep from poor circulation.
Her arms covered in goosebumps from the cool starlit night, she clung to the rocker until she was sure of her balance. She let go, unsteady as a toddler taking steps for the first time.
She stretched, her arms reaching high above her, defying gravity.
Her limbs popping and snapping like breakfast cereal, she became instantly light-headed and dizzy, black butterflies rushing from the night, covering her sight.
They left as quickly as they came, the dizziness following them into the night.
She stood invisible to others, invisible to the world, listening to the night things. Crickets, frogs, cicadas, and the Spanish behind hollered next door with wild laughter.
"Hmph," she exhaled as she walked to the front door, fumbling for the keys in her dress pocket. Keys to the house and to the car she hadn't driven in years but was still mechanically sound.
She found the keys and inserted them into the deadbolt, turning it left. She then took the same key and put it in the door handle.
The door opened, hitting her with the smells and odors of 75 years of living in the same house. The smell of family laughter mixed with family fights.
The odor of the firstborn, first dates, first loves, but also death and the death that was waiting.
She stepped inside, the screen door slamming behind her, disturbing her thoughts.
She flicked on the hall lights - "the foyer lights", the yuppie couple who delivered her meals at noon every day called them. She shut the glass beveled door, locking both latches.
The foyer lights illuminated the living room-combo bedroom on the right part of the other hallway that was shut off from life today and the past twenty years,
except for the bathroom in the hallway. Her former bedroom had been vacated not long after Billy Dugan's death. She just couldn't sleep in there anymore.
She could never get the smell of his sickness and the memory of him dying from the room, no matter how much she scrubbed the floor and walls or washed the curtains or bedliner.
She tried to remember the good times, the times before the last ten years. The times when he was whole. The times before he was broken.
The time before the decade of sorrow, when they were in the primer of their lives - their golden years.
The time they were supposed to be the happiest, the time meant for traveling to foreign lands and grandchildren on the weekend. The time of lazy days and easy nights.
But it wasn't that way at all.
"It just wasn't meant to be," she whispered softly to the ghosts of the house.