December 16

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 3)


Ethel Finley was not an idiot.  She knew that her house was a mess.  She knew this stranger — who pretended to be a salesman or an exterminator — was actually a social worker who’d come to assess her living conditions.  He’d snoop around a while, then write some biased report that declared her unfit to live on her own.

Just because she’d let a little clutter build up.

Well, life sneaks up on you.  Possessions accumulate like the process of aging: one day everything is fresh and in its proper place, then things start to shift or fade or lose their value.  Some things she intended to throw away, and she made stacks:  a discard pile, or two, but a save pile also, and at some point she’d grown careless and just made piles, intending to sort them later.  The higher the stacks, the more remote her memory of what lay at the bottom.

She would have to sort through them.  Make sure she didn’t, as the saying goes, throw out the baby with the bathwater.

A curious phrase, implying somebody would be careless enough to throw out a baby.  Babies weren’t garbage.  Nobody’d ever think that.  Yet that’s what they tried to do when you were old:  throw you out.  Toss you from your house and into some lonely apartment, or into some nursing home where you’d be surrounded by all the other discarded antiques.

No, thank you.  She’d earned the right to stay in her house, to die here when the Good Lord decided to take her.

I only want what’s best for you, her son Arthur would say.  Well, who should judge what’s best?  You can’t just waltz into somebody’s life a few hours each week and think you have all the answers.  She’d lived long enough to make decisions for herself.  After her husband passed, God rest his soul, Ethel had grown to appreciate solitude.  She had complete control over her day:  ate what she wanted, slept when she wanted, taped and watched her favorite TV programs when she wanted.  She phoned her grocery orders to the Food Lion and had them delivered, and looked forward to her newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and sometimes packages she ordered off the Home Shopping Channel.  This really was the best time of her life — and Arthur wanted to change that?

I think you’d be happier around people your own age.  That was another good one.  If The Doctor Show had a segment about the elderly, she’d change the channel:  too depressing.  There was a reason most programs focused on younger people:  they didn’t complain about arthritis and gout; they didn’t wear hearing aids and walk with canes or let people push them around in wheelchairs.  Nobody looks forward to a game of checkers or rummy with some half-asleep man who barely remembers your name.  She’d rather spend time watching the younger folk on her daytime plays.

Unfortunately, her television hadn’t been working lately, or the lights, or the telephone.  For the most part, she’d been fine.  She had plenty of candles to burn.  Her milk had gone warm in the icebox, but she ate her cereal dry, and still had several boxes in reserve.  No urgent need to call Food Lion for more supplies, and no need to call the power company, either:  they always fixed things on their own, flipped a switch somewhere and brought things back to life again.

It was just taking them more time than usual.

The television was actually her main worry.  She didn’t care about the news — whatever happened, local or national, never had much effect on her.  But her daytime plays moved forward, even when she couldn’t watch them — the characters schemed behind each others’ backs, fought or made love, got paralyzed or died or woke from a coma.  Ethel hated to miss the excitement.

The best she could do now was thumb through an issue of Daytime Monthly.  Ethel retrieved the magazine from the “save” pile at her end of the sofa — the most recent mail and newspapers she’d received, before the curious halt in deliveries last week.  She turned to an article about her favorite show, Their World, Too.

The article reported that the actress playing Simone had not renewed her contract.  Producers hadn’t recast the role, and the character didn’t have plans to move peacefully out of town, so that meant something dramatic was bound to happen.  A car accident, a fall off a cliff or down an elevator shaft.  Or maybe she’d be killed by one of her enemies:  the woman she fired, the man she blackmailed; a bitter ex-lover, or the sister she cheated out of her inheritance.  Ethel could predict some of the things Simone would say:  “I never loved you as much as you loved yourself,” and, “Enjoy your money now.  You won’t have it for long.”  She was evil, and probably deserved to die.

That crucial episode could actually be broadcast today, and Ethel wouldn’t get to see it.  She closed her eyes, tried to envision how the drama would unfold…




[…continued in December 17 entry…]