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BMC

56 readings

3

Carmen's rooms in the senior high-rise contained the flotsam of more than eighty years of life. Romance, finance, religion, politics, diversions, all were represented by some physicality.
Practical aids composed a collage of her day-to-day life, the essentials for functioning: a collection of faded photos of friends and relatives, a worn straw basket of junk mail including coupons for twenty-five cents off a variety of grocery items, forty or sixty rolls of toilet paper stored in the back room against a rainy day, and three pairs of bifocals in easy-to-find locations.
Each of her two husbands (the first, handsome; the second, charming; neither, well-to-do) had abandoned sentimental paraphernalia along with his body. For her part, however, she clung to their books, papers, matches, half-used containers of shaving foam, old ties, cuff links worn once to a friend's wedding. The men's odors still were discernible when you walked past their clothing.
Other smells represented the constants of any single old lady's life. Mothballs, rancid grease on kitchen walls and appliances, pressed face powder, coffee scorched on a burner, dust, flowery cologne were the inevitable consequences of an aging, solitary habitation.
Two friends stood in Carmen's kitchen. Esther, tall, bony and strung together loosely like a starved cat, searched through a miscellany of vitamins, minerals, and herbs stacked on the kitchen counter.
Unlike Carmen, a seeker after health who purchased in bulk garlic pills for circulation, echinacea as a hedge against infection, gingkoa for alertness of the brain, Esther had chosen hedonism over a long life. When still an artless girl, she'd become passionately obsessed with socialist principles, especially those pertaining to free love, and attached them to a muscular but married infantryman shipping out for the Italian front who'd encouraged her to willingly sacrifice reputation and fitness for his physical skills. The thrill of coupling intellectual stimulation with sexual freedom lasted long after the war ended. The infantryman had faded back into his Minnesota farm life, and Esther had not only vowed but also lived a pledge to experience every moment to its fullest, rather like the grasshopper in the Aesop fable. Astonished now to find herself eighty-three, Esther considered her exuberance and activity a confirmation of her philosophy and indulged her senses at every opportunity.
"Coffee. Where's the coffee?" Esther asked. "Surely Carmen can't drink only green tea?"
Pansy, who no longer consumed caffeine, even though at 68 she was the youngest of the three, didn't care. She continued filling a glass of water from the tap, sipped, then poured most of the liquid into the potted plant on the window sill.
"I wonder why Carmen keeps all this junk?" she asked. "It just collects dust."
Friends long since passed to a higher sphere had sent salt and pepper shaker sets to Carmen from around the world--Eiffel Towers from Paris, buckaroos from Texas, Roman gladiators, green Mexican chili peppers holding neither salt nor pepper.
"They're a substitute," said Esther. "She said God hadn't wanted her to travel, but he blessed her with friends who could."
"Hmm, and God favors this latest escapade?" said Pansy.
"She said to collect her at the central police station in three hours," said Esther.
Pansy shook a disbelieving head. "Do her nieces know yet?"
"About her arrest? Yes. But not the legal charges."
"And they are?"
Esther held up her hand to count on her fingers, "Disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, cease and desist, infringement of civil rights, and so on and so forth."
"My god," breathed Pansy.
Both women fell silent for a long minute to consider the odds of an 80-year-old woman receiving an actual jail sentence.
"Do you think she and the rest of the group will plead guilty at their court appearance?" asked Pansy.
"Definitely," said Esther. "What's the point of a political protest if you don't?"
Pansy's plumpness belied her bottomless obsessive anxiety. Even though her face was unlined, her soul worried at the future as a dog does an old shoe. "Yes, but what about the other inmates? Will Carmen be too old to be bothered for, for, favors, or so weak that everyone will pick on her?"
Esther snorted. "I imagine she and the 'chosen' people will stand around singing hymns. That will be enough to drive anyone away."
With the dignity of the virtuous, Pansy inclined her head toward Esther. "You're certainly being nasty. Why are you so hostile?"
"I'm not hostile," Esther said with noticeable heat. She slammed the cup down on the counter. "I get sick of her holier-than-thou routine. I mean, really. Thirty years ago she'd have been the first to demand blood from anti-war protesters who broke the law, regardless of their personal ethics. Now, here she is, yapping on and on about the rights of the unborn. Pre-born. Whatever the hell she calls them."
"She feels she's preventing murder."
"By littering Civic Center using pamphlets with disgusting pictures? Carrying banners down the street to disturb traffic?"
"Yes." Pansy's reply was soft but certain.
Pansy joined her friend at the table. Ran a hand over dust that had collected in the four days of Carmen's absence. Picked up several sheets of paper. Held them up for Esther to look at.
The first, Esther saw, torn from a mass-market women's magazine that contained articles about actresses, cooking, diets, pop psychology,and sex, all punctuated with a plethora of exclamation marks, asked in a page-filling headline "Can You Make a Difference?!?" Several paragraphs underneath evidently explained and gave answers to the query. The second, printed without photos on cheap paper, stated in a somewhat smaller size "How I Can Make a Difference with the Help of My Guardian Angel!" A number of blank lines on both questionnaires encouraged readers to complete with their own pertinent points. Some lines had been filled out.
Pansy flipped the sheets back so she could read them. "Do you believe that one person can change the world? (a) never, (b) rarely, (c) sometimes, (d) frequently?"
Esther answered automatically. "Never. The question is ridiculous. One person can't do diddley-squat. It's obvious Carmen knows nothing about sociological theory."
"Hmmm. Carmen answered (d). Next—Are you able to persuade people to your point of view (a) never, (b) rarely, (c) sometimes, (d) frequently?" Pansy continued.
"Sometimes," said Esther. "What did Carmen check?"
"Same as you. Now, the next. . ."
By the end of both quizzes, the women sat on opposite sides of the kitchen table, Esther gloomy, Pansy tolerant. "There's not a right answer for any of these," said Pansy, motioning in the direction of the papers with her glass of water. "It's just interesting where you and Carmen are the same and where you're different."
“According to the scoring, Carmen is much more likely to have an impact on the world than I am."
"Mostly because she thinks she has God and the angels on her side."
"Yes, she's very naïve."
"You aren't like that," Pansy continued. "You have a wider experience of the world. You're more intellectual. . .realistic."
"Say cynical. That's what you mean."
"Let's face it. At our age, we're not likely to have any impact. We're lucky to make it day to day," said Pansy.
"And to think, Carmen might change the world all because she has some pea-brained, emotional religious obsession," said Esther.
"Maybe believing in something, anything, is better than believing in nothing," said Pansy.
The television news blared on the counter. By the police station stood a cluster of protesters just released from incarceration. Carmen was one of the women in the background. Though her hair stood on end like fine gray wire, and she was innocent of makeup, her face shone.
"I guess she's found her calling," said Esther, suppressing a twinge of envy.
"And at her age. Imagine that," said Pansy. "I'm making her a welcome-home cake."

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