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Monday, March 12, 2012

A Better Place

I have a simple goal in life: To make the world a better place. There are many ways to do this and no one way is necessarily better than another. I tell myself how much I care about making the world a better place and then something like this happens…
She gets about seven hundred dollars a month courtesy of Uncle Sam... her widow's benefits. They take a part of that for Medicare so she has about a hundred fifty bucks a week to live on.
She's often lonely so when she sees the "OPEN" sign lit at the real estate office she'll stop in to say "Hi" and to grab a couple pieces of hard candy I keep in a big glass jar on the reception counter. I suspect she must have been very pretty many years ago and she still takes great pains to put her makeup on just the right way and to keep her hair dyed and fixed up nicely.
Time has its own way of winding down a body though and anyone can see she is slowing winding down. Her mind is sharp but I notice of late that she repeats herself more and more or perhaps she's simply refining her stories, recalling in each telling more and more detail until the stories come alive once again in her mind. When her hands tremble she turns away as if to hide a terrible flaw but she keeps talking.
Her name is Ana, short for Anastasya. She came to America from the Ukraine and from Russia before that. When I listen closely I hear a lilting trace of accent in her voice. She tells me that her journey to America took place just after the Great War. They'd gone to an art fair in Kiev, her and her mother. Her mother had met an artist exhibiting at the fair and they had fallen in love. The artist married her mother and brought them both to America to live in a little brown house at the edge of a large blue lake. She talks often of that period in her life so I've come to understand it as one of the happiest times in her memory.
Some time later she would marry a man who beat her and punched her in the stomach when she told him she was pregnant. She miscarried on the cold tile of the bathroom floor in the apartment above an old rundown Laundromat where they lived. She tells me of how she could smell the exhaust from the dryers below and how some time after that, her husband Donald became very ill and died before the doctors could figure out what was wrong with him. She tells the story as if it happened to someone else and then she skips back to telling me again of her childhood.
They lived on boiled potatoes and beets when she was very little and the beets stained the potatoes red and she fussed to her mother about it. She smiles at the memory. One day her mother brought home a goat named Lila. The neighbors all laughed when they saw Ana's mother feeding the goat lollipops and Tootsie Rolls but when she drank the milk Ana could taste the sweetness. She never liked the taste of goat's milk before or since. "Oh, you should have tasted it!" she exclaims as she helps herself to coffee and donuts that I bring into the office for customers who happen to show up on Saturday mornings.
The day is bright and sunny but it's bitterly cold. Ana seems to stop into the office quite often on such days. "I was born in Russia," she confides to me. "When I was very little the doctors told my mother we should move south to the farm belt. I was so scrawny. The doctors said only a diet of good farm food would fatten me up properly." She laughs. I see she has forgotten her teeth today, or perhaps her gums are bothering her again.
She lives kitty-corner to my office in a rough, weather beaten gray-shingled bungalow wedged in between an Ace Hardware called Stephenich’s and a gas station with a large brightly lit sign that flashes 'MARCLEY'S' over and over and over throughout the days and nights. Her front yard is concrete and she says her water tastes of turpentine. She mentioned to me once that her roof leaked. One day I bought a large blue tarp and spent an afternoon draping it over her roof and trying to secure it by tying it down to the rusted gutters but the wind soon blew it flapping loose.
She named her only daughter Zoya. She was born much too early and only lived a few minutes.
"In Russian, 'Zoya' is spelled with only three letters but it's pronounced the same," she informs me, between bites of donut and sips of coffee. "Something inside me was busted after Donald beat me that time and I couldn't have babies after that," she says matter-of-factly looking at my cup before pouring herself more coffee.
"I'm sorry," I stammer, embarrassed at being privy to such an intimate story.
She just giggles.
"I dreamed of goat's milk last night. I used to dream of it all the time when we first came to America but not for a long time before last night," she says, her eyes looking wistful and losing some of the hardness that wears around their edges. "Mother had a little hand bell she would ring and you know what?"
She looks at me expecting an answer but I just shrug. She takes another bite of donut and licks the chocolate from her fingertips.
"That goat would just come a running whenever my mother rang that bell, no matter where she was," she said, looking at me for some kind of approval. I nod and smile and sip my coffee.
About that time the bell above my door tinkles eerily as if it heard us talking of bells. A fat man wearing a heavy parka and blue jeans walks into the office followed by a fat woman wearing heavy overalls and a red scarf: Customers. Ana rises silently and dangles a hand over her shoulder as she exits out the back door.
A couple days later when I open up the office in the morning I look out the window and notice police cars sitting across the street in front of Ana's, along with an ambulance. There seems no particular hurry. I stroll over. A policeman meets me in front of the little bungalow, asking my business. I give him my card and tell him I know the woman who lives here. He says she is dead. He says that the postman knocked on the door two days in a row and no one answered so he informed the authorities.
The police went in and found her dead in the garage. She was living there since the house was uninhabitable. The roof had leaked so badly that all the drywall had fallen off the ceiling followed by the insulation. He says come on in so I follow him into the house. Standing in the living room you can see the hard sky. I shake my head. I cannot believe what I'm seeing and hearing.
"It looks like she froze to death," the policeman says as we watch two men dressed all in white roll out a gurney cart with a black bag on top of it the size of Ana. "We found a half bottle of vodka next to the lawn chair where she was sleeping. I guess she just drifted off."
I walk back to the office and turn on the open sign. I think to myself how misplaced our priorities as a culture have become. As long as someone has enough, they really don't care about anyone else. I jump at the sound of the bell above my office door tinkling yet I see that old blue tarp on top of Ana's roof blowing in the breeze and never give it a second thought. How many others noticed? It was a hard thing to miss.
Is my goal in life merely something to which I pay lip service? Is my goal something that I keep in mind only when it suits my own purposes? What's it say of a culture that lets an old woman die all alone in a country half a world away from her home? We're all part of the same hypocrisy I suppose. I pour a cup of coffee and vow to do better in the future. But inevitably I find I am too busy to remember the vow, working to fulfill the wants and needs of my clients and customers and myself. I forget about things like old women and goats eating lollipops and blue tarps blowing off roofs to let the rain in. I forget to care about important things.
Quality comes a knocking and I say, "Go away, I'm waiting for Quality." I find that I need constant reminding to care for others. Perhaps we all need that...

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