by Bernadette Miller
An old woman refuses to exchange life on earth for a glorious hereafter.
Published: Of Unicorns & Spaceships, Summer 1996
Above the Mozart flute quartet, Lillie heard a rapping at her door. She turned off the parlor radio nearby and listened intently, her newspaper sliding to the carpet. The rapping was louder, insistent. Rising slowly because of arthritis in her knee joints, she straightened her wool cardigan, grasped the cane leaning against the wing chair, and walked to the foyer. He probably waited outside in the hallway just like in her dream. Trembling, she peered through the peephole.
Grayish dust surrounded the tall, gaunt visitor like a cloud. He wore a long black cape, his somber face shadowed by a wide-brimmed black hat. He waited as if he knew she was studying him until she unlatched the door. "Lillie, it's time," he said.
"I...I'm not ready." She frantically scanned the apartment. "I have things to do, packing..."
"You won't need to pack," he said gently.
"Then let's be on our way." He motioned for her to follow him.
"But I should call my daughter Vivian in Brighton Beach! And Peter, my grandson, will worry if he doesn't hear from me. The refrigerator needs cleaning out or the food will smell."
The visitor smiled. "Excuses, Lillie, excuses."
"Yes..." She turned for a fleeting glance at her apartment and for a moment studied her image in the antique hat rack mirror. She was ninety-five, surely time to leave. The white plaits around her head were wispy, her face deeply wrinkled, the flesh sagged on her shriveled arms. Her family would grieve but they'd accept her death because of her age. Yet she resented going. Despite arthritis she read voraciously--history, politics, novels; took courses last year at the New School on philosophy and modern literature, and anticipated next year's courses on astronomy and art. She'd made lovely friends; the teachers said she was their oldest student! In addition, she cooked, washed dishes, and swept, although a maid cleaned once a week.
"I'll miss my apartment," she said. "It's rent-controlled but large with beautiful views. And I'll miss Mr. Blumberg, the deli owner, and Mario's fruit and vegetable market. Do you know that for fifty years I've dealt with the merchants in this area?"
"Lillie, we must leave."
She nodded and continued. "After I'd run away from Tennessee to become an actress in New York, I met my first husband, dear Willie, while working in vaudeville. We just loved entertaining people! Then he died during the Depression. I was determined to support my little Vivian so I worked as a maid although my boss treated me as if I were poor white trash when my daddy had owned the biggest pharmacy in Beauford. And then the Good Lord sent a miracle, my second husband who taught history and persuaded me to attend college and teach grammar school but then poor Hank died, too, so I stayed on in our nice apartment. It's too hard to readjust again now that I've gotten used to everything, all my nice things in their proper place."
"It's difficult but necessary," the visitor said. "However, we want your experience to be joyful. Would you feel better if we had some coffee before departing?"
She smiled, relieved by the delay, and ushered him inside. Walking slowly with her cane, she led him to the kitchen with its checkered linoleum, walnut cabinets, and dotted Swiss cafe curtains billowing in the spring breeze from an open window.
"I'll make fresh coffee," she said. "I had it ground yesterday at the supermarket." She washed the percolator and measured fresh tablespoons. "Do have a seat. You look uncomfortable, standing there, waiting..."
The visitor removed his cape and draped it over the back of a chair. Wearing a long-sleeved black shirt with black tie, the hat resting on a nearby chair, he sat, gazing at the bridge and East River sixteen stories below, glinting in the fall sunshine. "It's a nice view," he said politely.
"I just love it!" Lillie said, pouring two large mugs of coffee in the room filled with the tangy aroma. She paused. "Milk and sugar?"
His thin lips curved in a smile. "Black, please."
After serving him the coffee, she took the opposite chair and spooned sugar from the tiger-shaped bowl bought at a carnival with her grandson. She turned to wince at the pain in her knees and glanced back at the visitor sipping coffee. "How about an oatmeal raisen muffin? I baked some this morning."
He shook his head. "Normally I don't eat or drink. I'm just being sociable. I want our future guests eager to join me."
Lillie's trembling hand groped for the loose hair pin to anchor a plait. "It must be difficult...having a task like yours."
"Not really. The elderly look forward to leaving. It ends all pain, of course."
"That might be comforting," Lillie said and sipped coffee. Her knees throbbed. Too bad she'd forgotten to take aspirin. She gritted her teeth to avoid exposing her pain and thereby proving she should leave. The thought of leaving was more painful than arthritis! Never again to see Central Park, hear a classical concert at Lincoln Center, or read a good book...Silently they stared beyond the cafe curtains as a barge floated past the apartment building. A trawler tootled its whistle, making Lillie shiver.
She exclaimed, "Despite my age, I'm very busy! I write skits for the senior center, visit hospital patients, and wrap toys for needy children. I'm out every day! Just because I'm old doesn't mean I've stopped living. I still see pretty well with reading glasses and hear all right."
"And the pain in your knees?" the visitor said gently.
Lillie shrugged. "It's no problem if I take aspirin. She leaned toward him conspiratorially."To tell the truth, I've so much to think about, I forgot it this morning. Otherwise, it hardly hurts." She gazed at the distant river. "Sometimes I just sit here like this, drinking coffee and remembering my two husbands. Good men, both of them."
The visitor sighed. "Yes, I know."
She turned toward him. "How have they been doing since...since..."
"Just fine," the visitor said, smiling.
"There's no reason to miss anyone. Understanding removes all yearning. The departed are wrapped in bliss, connected to the entire universe."
"Oh..." Lillie breathed, fascinated.
The visitor, smiling, rose and donned his black cape. "Well, it's time to go."
"Can't I tell you about my grandson?" She was enjoying the chat with someone, even the visitor. "Vivian married a nice Russian fellow who inherited a successful wine business. Their son, Peter, became a lawyer, smart as a whip, published articles on real estate. His portrait's on the parlor mantel. He helped me hold onto this apartment when a landlord tried forcing me out."
"Yes," the visitor said and motioned for her to put away the coffee mugs and unplug the percolator.
"But Peter's son, poor Nicolai who wants to be an artist, has AIDS." She turned away, eyes dampening. "I don't care what his sexual preference is, he's a good boy and needs his Granny Lil during this awful time, in and out of hospitals. I must be there to comfort him."
"Yet, it's time to go," the visitor said gently, fastening the clasp of his cape.
"Time to go..." Lillie echoed. "I don't see why the rush. We have eternity to reach our destination!"
The visitor grinned, his good humor startling Lillie. "That's true. However, I must make other visits today."
"Can't you come back for me? I'd like to call my family before I leave."
She added hastily, "I won't tell Viv the truth. I'll just chat casually so she won't suspect anything. I'll ask how she and Sergei are, what's happening with Peter and Nicolai."
The visitor hesitated. "Well, I suppose it can't harm since you won't be calling them anymore."
"Thank you, you're really very nice," Lillie said and felt a warmth toward the visitor. He was kinder than one would imagine. She rose, wincing at the pain, and dialed Brighton Beach on the wall phone. It rang several times and the answering machine responded.
"Hi! Viv here. At the sound of the beep, you know what to do. 'Bye for now."
"She's probably shopping," Lillie said. "I'll try to reach Peter." She dialed the number.
His secretary said, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Livingston, he's in court."
"Well, I might call back later," Lillie told her and next tried calling Nicolai but he was out, attending an art class. Leaving a message on his answering machine, she turned toward the visitor. "Oh, dear, I did so much want to talk with them." Absentmindedly, she poured two more mugs of coffee. She sat down and motioned for him to join her.
Reluctantly he sat down. "My dear, you're only postponing the inevitable but I must say, your unwillingness to leave is unusual for someone your age."
Lillie nodded and sipped more coffee. Despite his remarks about his guests' contentment, she'd miss her delicious coffee; the secret was adding salt before perking. She'd miss many things... She glanced about the kitchen. It seemed wasteful to abandon a happy life. She still had much to do! Peter's wife was pregnant again--after all these years. She'd appreciate having Granny Lil as a babysitter. And what about all the wonderful books she hadn't read yet.
"Why do I have to leave?" she asked.
"Believe me," the visitor said, draining his coffee mug with a flourish, "it's all for a good purpose."
"Well, it still doesn't seem right." Lillie gazed out the window. "To be given life and then have it taken from you..."
"But, my dear, all will be clear to you once you have passed over. That's one of the joys of leaving Earth."
"Will I see...God?"
"You will know everything," he said and stood.
Lillie hesitated. The possibility of knowing everything was enticing. Yet, Earth's pleasures tugged at her heart: chatting with interesting strangers; seeing a sunset; enjoying peach yogurt; visiting museums...
The visitor frowned again. "Lillie, we must go now." He waved an arm and she suddenly felt very tired. Perhaps it was his trick to convince her to leave. Like intruding upon her dreams so that she'd wake up sleepy, instead of alert, and begin to feel old and useless. Well, he was fooling himself if he thought she'd want to die!
She gazed through the window, pondering awhile, and rose, smiling despite the pain. "All right."
The visitor looked at her with eyebrows raised in surprise and then he nodded.
Picking up her cane, she followed him to the foyer. "You first," she said sweetly.
"If you wish."
He opened the door and stepped into the grayish dust. Before he'd turned to see if she followed, she slammed shut the door and leaned against it, trembling. She waited in the foyer, trying to catch her breath.
"Lillie!" the visitor shouted behind the closed door. "Soon you'll want to leave and plead for me to return."
"I won't!" she shouted back. "I'm not ready!"
Resting awhile, she listened for sounds beyond. There was a humming and then stillness. She peered through the peephole; the red-carpeted hallway looked normal. She sighed with relief. Maybe someday she'd want to leave after losing all her relatives and interest in life--but that wouldn't happen for a good long while! In the parlor the mantel clock chimed three. It was already late afternoon and she hadn't eaten lunch! Grasping her cane, she walked back to the kitchen and stooped to grope for salad vegetables in the refrigerator bin. She groaned with pain and finally headed for the large bath room with Nicolai's metal wall sculpture. Better take plenty of aspirin. She planned to live at least another two decades!