The Winter of Her Life

Alma spread the newspaper pages out before her, her heart leaping at the number of obituaries. She fingered her shears, debated where to start cutting. Should she start with the A’s and work her way through the alphabet? Perhaps she could start in the middle and cut out each life story in a counter-clockwise circle. No, she would cut the border of the paper first, being careful to save the date, and then go column by column. Oh, this was such fun.

With delight shimmering behind her clouded, cataract-riddled eyes, Alma placed the scissors carefully between her thumb and forefinger. Her hands had long since given way to arthritis, and her cutting ritual could be a challenge, depending on the weather. Today, bless her, was sunny and dry.

Although she couldn’t read the small print anymore, if she narrowed her eyes and brought the paper within an inch of her papery-thin and wrinkled face, she could just make out the names. And what names they were: Alfred Knobloch, Miriam Poppy, Sarah Johnson. They brought back so many memories. Of course, being a native of Springfield, she knew most of the names, could, if she looked back far enough in her lengthy memory, recall a watery image, an outline of facial features.

But now, as these friends were passing, each one crossing the path to the afterlife, Alma was doing her Christian duty by honoring them, placing each of their obituaries into an old leather scrapbook. One day, she thought, someone might cut out her story, remember bits and pieces of her life, her family. Who might write about her, she wondered, who would she be survived by?

Probably just Sue and Martin, she thought with a shrug. Her daughter and son-in-law took care of her, though truth be told, she could live just as happily on her own. Here, she was a burden, the albatross around Sue’s neck, and Lord forgive if she would ever give thanks to her ungrateful child, that whining, sniveling brat. Useless piece of trash. Selfish bitch.

Alma looked down at her fisted hands. Why did she have shears? Whose paper was this? Puzzled, she glanced around the room. This wasn’t her house. No, she lived in a cute little bungalow, the one she had shared with Simon for over thirty-five years. She’d had the tile replaced in the bathroom a few months back.

Alma turned to look out of the window, expecting to see her vegetable garden, the one she and her husband had planted in the summer of ’02. But before her was a house, where through a picture window she could see a young couple playing with their child. A little girl, screaming with laughter, chased her daddy around the dining room table. The mother stood in the doorway, her shoulder resting against the jamb. Laughing, she swatted at her husband and daughter with a ragged dish towel, telling them to knock it off before someone got hurt.

That was just the way of things, wasn’t it? Families could burst with love and pride and laughter, but there was always room for pain. Thank goodness Sue and Martin had taken her in, not forced her into one of those dreadful retirement homes with eggshell walls, quiet corridors, lonely rooms. What sweet children.

With a sigh, Alma returned to her paper. Clutching the scissors, she methodically opened and closed them, again and again. Lord, that was just a wonderful sound. Snip, snip, snip. Alma cut through one obituary after another, marveling at the lengths of some people’s lives. What wonderful accomplishments they must have had to garner 18 inches in the paper. She wondered what her obituary might say. Perhaps Sue would write it.

And Alma continued her routine, clipping and watching, alternating between the deaths of her mates and the life of the family next door. Sometimes a glass of water would appear at her elbow. Sometimes she would find an empty plate on the table next to her, though she couldn’t remember having eaten. Maybe Simon had sat down next to her, and she just didn’t realize it. Sometimes she called out his name, and a disembodied voice would float back to her, “Dad died eight years ago, Mom.” And sometimes, she would sit in her chair and watch the family next door, envious of their bond.

One night, however, Alma’s predictable life came to end. Oh, she didn’t die – but she would never be the same.

Alma had sat in her chair, the threadbare one that smelled faintly of mothballs, and watched the family sit down to dinner. The mother had prepared a thick ham, one that seemed to drip with honey sauce. The father took to slicing the meat while she dropped dollops of creamy mashed potatoes on festive dinner plates. And, as a surprise, the mother had also prepared an apple pie, one whose sweet scent drifted over to Alma.

The family said grace then dug into the food. The mother nudged her daughter’s elbows off the table, reminding her to have nice manners. The father appeared to launch into a tirade – probably about politics, Alma thought, that was all young people talked about today – and the mother nodded along absently.

They were, to Alma, a perfect family; they actually seemed to enjoy each other’s company. The father had a cheeky grin, and he occasionally reached out to stroke his wife’s arm, touch her hair, massage her shoulder. The mother was doting, loving, feeding her family with affection – as well as a nicely-baked ham. And the little girl was precocious and energetic, dancing in her seat as she seemed to talk about her day.

This family was not like Alma’s family, no sir. Her mother was a strong believer in spare the rod, spoil the child, and Alma’s rear had felt many the sting of a willow branch. Some days, she could still hear the whistling of the switch and braced herself for pain. And, continuing the cycle, she had used the same method with her own daughter. Maybe Sue didn’t deserve to be beat, but what could a mother do? If a child wouldn’t listen, they would be made to listen. And bless her heart, Sue didn’t have a good bone in her body. It was a wonder Alma hadn’t beat the stuffing out of her more often.

The next time Alma looked up, the little girl had been sent off to bed, probably tucked in among her teddy bears and toy ponies. The parents remained downstairs, sitting next to each other at the table, their hands clasped together. Alma couldn’t quite make out what they were talking about, but it looked to be serious. The mother was wiping her eyes, brushing away tears, and the father was shaking his head, insisting on some important point. And just as Alma leaned forward, her eyes narrowed in concentration, the couple looked up, meeting her eyes.

Shocked, Alma watched as they stood and walked toward the window. The mother, tears glittering in her soft brown eyes, had her hand stretched out, an offering of peace. The father held onto his wife’s other hand, trying to pull her back into the room. And Alma rose from her chair, her bones popping with the movement.

She thought she heard screams, thought she heard someone shout, “Mom, what are you doing?” But that was impossible, she lived with Simon. She wasn’t a mother. She just got married two years ago. She was 23 years old.

Across town, Officer Pearson was having a difficult night. He’d pulled over a car packed with teenagers, booze and his neighbor’s daughter. He let them off with a warning, but had confiscated the alcohol and, he hoped, scared them sober. He’d have to go over to Jerry’s in the morning, explain that he had found Sherry in a car with a bunch of drunken high schoolers.

He scrubbed his hands over his face, wishing for a cup of coffee that didn’t taste anything like the sludge in the station. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with already, his wife was complaining about wanting to re-do the kitchen, his own teenager wanted to pierce her nose, and his father was beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s.

Officer Pearson – James – was tired. Bone tired. He dreamed of a time when he wouldn’t be plagued by images of battered women, abused children, drunk drivers. He wanted a simple life: a sweet wife, well-behaved children, a fridge stock-piled with beer, and a sunny afternoon spent watching the Yankees win the play-offs.  But he wouldn’t get that dream tonight.

“Car 1719, we’ve got a report of domestic disturbance at 238 Walnut Street. That’s you, Pearson.”

“I’m on it.”

Officer Pearson turned on his lights, made a quick U-turn, and drove quickly to Walnut. When he pulled up to the house on the corner, a neat Colonial that must have cost a pretty penny, he thought there might have been a mistake. Everything appeared to be in order. But with this job, he knew, nothing was ever as it seemed.

He pulled himself out of the cruiser, poised his right hand over his gun, and approached the house. The door was closed, the windows were locked. He pushed the doorbell, heard the straining sounds of the first notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. What an odd ring.

When no one answered, he nudged the door open. As he stepped into the foyer, the sight that greeted him was one that would, he knew, join the ranks of the abusers and abused that haunted his dreams.

He grasped his walkie-talkie, called for back-up. And the coroner.

Spread before were the bodies of a couple, a young blond woman and a handsome man. Dark blood pooled beneath their heads, their eyes were open and glassy. Both looked to have been stabbed in the neck. Whoever had done this, Officer Pearson thought, had gone right for the jugular.

Turning, he noticed a woman rocking back and forth in a chair in a far room. Her gray, thinning hair was tightly wound in a bun, and newspapers were falling off her lap, sheets falling to the floor with a slight whoosh.

“Ma’am? Are you alright, ma’am? My name is Officer Pearson. If you could just turn around for me, please, I want to make sure you aren’t hurt.”

Alma heard the voice of a man behind her. Without turning, she called out, “Simon, is that you? What’s happening? Where have you been? I miss you so much.”

Officer Pearson stared at her, his eyes hard and cold; he had long since learned to block emotion. Emotion was what could kill you, eat away at your heart like acid.

Hanging next to the old woman’s chair was a large mirror, one that could be mistaken for a window. And reflected in the mirror was a woman with a pair of bloody shears grasped in her gnarled fingers.