Lady Death

This time I know who it will be:
sirens spiraling two houses down,
EMTs pumping Mr. Phillips’ chest,
Randy naked at the parted curtain,
telling what unfolds. Blinking neighbors
on their lawns, awkward and useless
as furniture; the street crew digging
a hole, methodical, not even
pausing. Men at Work, Randy says, meaning
both teams, one urgent and the other
what? Indifferent? Or just playing
their part: some rescue, some watch, some die
and some just dig. Me, I can’t decide
where I belong. Forty years, I’m thinking,
fifty: that’s how long these folks
have stayed put. I’ve lived here just twelve,
long enough to see them
disappear. The ribs crack
during chest compression, Randy says.
Mr. Kubeczka last fall, before that
Mrs. Doyle. My David that same year,
though not of age. Mr. Curry, then
his wife. Mr. Root. The nameless woman
up the street who lived so long
without running water they simply yanked
the tub and toilets out instead of scrubbing.
How sad, I said, but David
disagreed: She kept her house
until she died. I say good for her!
And each time Ruby walked
from house to house, yellow umbrella
bobbing in the rain, in the stunning
heat, collecting signatures and cash
for flowers. We took to calling her
Lady Death, especially the year
cancer bleached and stripped
her body down; the only time she didn’t call
was for David, but she was starting chemo.
Five weeks later she found me out
in the garden: rickety, shrunken,
two sweaters flapping, she shuffled past
the wet azaleas to hug me and say
Throw it all away,
his clothes, his shoes. I’m telling you
it’s better in the long run.
That summer
I thought she might go next, but pressed her
a twenty for Tom’s wife and said,
Not you. Ruby blushed. I wonder if she hates
this task? She’s the only one who’s met
the families who buy these emptied houses,
change the locks, change the neighborhood,
if that’s what we have. I don’t feel
part of it. Perhaps it’s gone, or maybe
it’s part of what she does, maintaining
such a ritual, connecting us, strangers
despite ourselves.

:: Ron Mohring, Survivable World (2004)

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