Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Eulogy for Mildred Elman by Candice Carnes

Candice Carnes' mysterious protagonist reflects on the last few weeks of a grumpy old lady's life and her influence on the people around her.

I always thought Mildred Elman was old and not very nice. I've heard rumors that she was nearly one hundred, but even I can't recall her age for sure. In the last year of her life, she began to go deaf and that made her downright intolerable, especially to those blessed souls, like Sandy, who kept going out to her dilapidated house to care for her.

Most conversations Between Sandy and Mildred went something like this:

"Mildred, I'm here from..."

"What?"

"I said I am..." (louder now).

"What? I can't hear you."

"I said..." (shouting now).

"Oh I wish you girls would learn to speak up. You're all so soft spoken."

Sandy never had the opportunity to introduce herself as the new caregiver from the agency, but that never stopped Mildred from giving her too much work to do. "Don't forget to clean up the kitchen when you're done cooking," Mildred would snap, "and don't even think about stealing the silverware. I count it every night."

In addition to needing help cooking, cleaning, and shopping, Mildred was also given a bath by the caregiver on the odd days of the month. Mildred was a mean old biddy, but the agency managed to keep a few other regulars willing to go on the days when Mildred didn't need a bath. Sandy was the only one who would put up with that nonsense. Bathing Mildred was a dangerous operation. The bathroom was too small. Mildred was stubborn and prone to slipping on the wet tiles. Sandy was a strong and sturdy girl, but on several occasions had to call the local fire department to get Mildred off the floor.

Sometimes Sandy thought about quitting and never going back. She wanted to be a registered nurse, but as a single mother she couldn't find the time or money to go back to school. Sometimes she thought that she would be better off working in fast food where the customers could never, even on a bad day, be as mean as Mildred Elman.

Three weeks after Sandy started working for Mildred, Mildred developed conjunctivitis. Her eyes were red, inflamed, and oozing. Mildred insisted that someone from the Mafia had poured hot oil in her eyes while she was sleeping. She rubbed them constantly. She kept grabbing hold of Sandy. Mildred stood too close. Because Mildred couldn't hear, the more Sandy tried to explain the infection, the closer Mildred would stand. Sandy contracted the pinkeye, passing it on to her seven-year-old son, Danny.

Danny infected nearly his entire second grade class, who then stayed home from school, giving his teacher time to finally start writing a romance novel that later went on to become a best seller.

Mildred's house was in an old area near downtown and built to resemble a Victorian-style home. It was once elegant and regal, but became neglected. Outside the shutters hung in odd directions. Shingles fell from the roof and littered the yard. Inside, the cream-colored wallpaper, moistened with water stains, was beginning to peel giving the living room a sweaty sort of feeling. There was a faint, but growing, putrid sort of smell that no one could find the source of.

Sandy kept it as clean best she could under the circumstances. She scrubbed everything, though usually it did no good.

Mildred could no longer hear the television set. She said couldn't follow the fast-moving plots of shows worth a lick, but she loved the Discovery Channel. She developed a passion for nature shows. No sound was necessary to know that eventually the vicious lion would catch the helpless zebra and rip it into bite size shreds. She always wanted the lion to win. She thought anyone who wanted the zebra to escape was a weakling.

She also loved the constant drama of the termite queen who popped out babies so fast that the workers had to turn her over. Mildred imagined that the troop of termites made a collective "heave-ho, heave-ho" sound as they pushed and pushed. The bloated queen flopped over and continued to have more babies until, again, she started to suffocate, and needed to be turned. Then, the tiny army ran around to the other side and started the process all over again.

Some queen, Mildred thought. She would prefer the life of a worker termite any day. Devoting your life to having babies didn't seem fulfilling to Mildred, who was once an airplane pilot in the day when women rarely ventured out of their homes. She retired from the company with honors. She moved into the little Victorian house, on Elm Street, where once she had a garden with prize winning tomatoes.

Now it's only full weeds.

She wondered if termites, like ants and bees, were a mostly female society. She decided, if they were that efficient, they must be.

Mildred once was Millie, a bright and young fresh thing. Once she must have even been a child, with missing teeth and a crooked smile, but that was a long time ago, and even I don't believe it. Her skin must have always sagged. Her hair must have always been thinned and stringy. Her clothes must have always hung from her narrow crooked body. She must have always hollered at people, out of anger, in a world that had grown lonesome and silent.

Mildred had nothing better to do than to make trouble if you ask me.

She was unpleasant towards her neighbors. At least twice a week she called the police because of all the noise she imagined they might be making.

The police often sent an officer out to humor her, because the chief of police was a kind man and thought she was lonely, but they never took her very seriously. She couldn't hear the dispatcher well enough to complain about the music that she was sure was probably blaring next door.

The Neighbor's five-year-old, a cute little girl in pigtails named Cindy, liked to play outside in the sandbox. It was difficult for Mildred to walk in the yard with her walker, but she often went through the trouble just to torment Cindy. Mildred would wander around near the fence dividing the lawns in her dirty housecoat.

Frequently she did insane things like pull her teeth out and say, "Look at this Cindy. The tooth Fairy stole my real ones. She never even paid me for them!"

"Child, that sidewalk chalk is made from ghost poop. And it's highly contagious!"

Mildred also told mean truths like hamburgers were made from cows that were butchered in inhumane slaughterhouses. Sometimes the realities of the world were just as twisted as any fib Mildred could come up with.

The child usually ran inside to tell her mother and asked all sorts of questions. This annoyed the mother more than it disturbed the child, but Mildred didn't know that. I am sure if she did it would have made her twice as satisfied.

Later, when Cindy grew up, she became a vegetarian. She made her lunches from tofu and soybeans. She took them to work where she designed dentures, in a lab that smelled like enamel. On Halloween she would make fake vampire teeth which annually lead to winning costume contests at the Y. She liked to question life, which she found unsettling and contradictory, but also interesting.

Mildred was mostly a nuisance if you asked me.

She never had any children of her own, but she was visited regularly by her niece, Myra. Myra took Mildred to lunch, at Milton's Dinner, every Tuesday afternoon. Mildred referred to Myra as a tramp and spendthrift. Mildred usually complained that Myra was late, even though Myra was always on time. Myra was what Mildred called "a fancy college girl," who was getting her PhD in economics.

"This food is too expensive!" Mildred yelled at the waiter.

Myra tried to explain to Mildred that when you adjust for inflation the cost of lunch at Milton's Diner was not all that expensive, but even if Mildred could hear this, she would have pretended not to.

Instead of being nasty, Mildred might have thanked her niece for treating her to lunch every week, but it was not in her nature. Mildred might have also apologized for the accident she had in the passenger seat of Myra's car; it smelled like urine for a week. But apologizing also was not Mildred's nature. Mostly she was just angry at Myra for driving too slow.

Myra would someday be offered a high paying job calculating financial trends in elderly retirement investments. She eventually bought plastic seat covers for her car. She learned to always pay, and to never to let any of her clients see the check in restaurants.

The last thing Mildred did with her life was sit in her big plush chair, on Monday night, in her living room. She read a magazine article featuring photographs of a komodo dragon. She enjoyed the pictures of a komodo chasing small children on a beach, and wondered if the children would make a good komodo dragon lunch. The last words Mildred read before falling asleep, and subsequently passing on, were:

The Komodo preys on just about anything. His saliva is poisonous. The animal he cannot kill right away dies days later from its wounds. He will follow it to feed on the dead carcass.

"Dead" and "carcass" are redundant, was Mildred's last thought before becoming a redundancy herself.

Mildred would be declared dead on Tuesday, which was an odd day of the month. Sandy was horrified to find Mildred dead and cold in the morning, but relieved not to have to give her a bath. Sandy called her agency to report the incident. Mildred had a living will stating that she did not wish to be resuscitated, so Sandy was spared the necessity of trying CPR, which would not have done any good anyways. Mildred had been dead for hours by then.

Mildred was taken to a local morgue where the mortician's assistant stole a ruby ring off Mildred's finger. He later hocked that ring at a pawnshop who gave him $350. He used the money to buy an electric guitar and joined a heavy metal band. The band eventually gained a small but dedicated cult following of emotional teenagers with lots of piercings.

Mildred's funeral was held on Thursday at three o'clock in the afternoon.

Cindy's parents promised that they would take Cindy to Chucky Cheese afterwards so that the child would behave. Cindy would win tickets playing skee ball and buy a plastic panda. She would name the panda Mildred Elman and keep it in her sock drawer, until she went to college. Eventually, Mildred Elman, the panda, would be stolen by Cindy's roommate. Mildred Elman would end up super glued to a frat boy's bong. Whenever the boy got stoned, Mildred Elman would be looking at him with cold hard eyes.

The ceremony was open casket and Mildred got one last laugh in at Cindy's expense. The child had never seen a dead body before. It troubled her and she had even more questions for her mother.

Even as an adult Cindy would still remember the pose of Mildred's hands and the way in which the arms were placed across her chest. They were wired into position behind her back with tiny cables. Mildred looked plastic and was indeed spray painted to look less grey and dead, but only Cindy noticed this.

People often speak passively of the dead. The eulogy was kind and vacant. It could have been used for just about anyone. It was actually a recycled speech, because the minister was more interested in Sandy's company than he was in Mildred's funeral.

He spent most of Wednesday night trying to figure out a way to ask Sandy out for dinner, which, if you ask me, seemed like a better use of his time.

He later went on a cruise to Jamaica where he married Sandy and became Danny's stepfather. Sandy would wear a turquoise and fuchsia sarong. Tropical flowers decorated a chocolate cake. Their wedding guests drank piña coladas with tiny umbrellas. It was an unconventional wedding for a minister, but lovely just the same.

Mildred was buried in the cemetery with a view of the freeway. The day of her funeral was hot and sticky. It seemed no great loss to me that she should die. Most of her friends had long since been dead. She was survived not by peers, but by successors who no longer had any use for her. People mourned for her out of politeness and obligation.

After a short speech, the first shovel of dirt hit the casket with a thud.

It suddenly occurred to me that Mildred Elman was indeed dead and never coming back. I felt a brief surge of sadness. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that a funeral is a chance to say good-bye.

"Good-bye," I said. "I will miss each and every one of you,"

My words were silent. No one could hear me, of course, for the world was no longer only silent, but also growing dark and slipping away.

5 comments:

  1. Interesting story - I loved the sub-plots of the lives of the people with whom Mildred had contact. An excellent, thought-provoking ending.
    Beryl

    ReplyDelete
  2. i agree with Beryl about the Sub-plots, there is also a lesson to be learnt, also by the old.

    very good

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love that there's a thread (in this case, Mildred) that weaves through the cloth of the story touching the fabric of other people's lives, and we get to see the result of that in the little sub plots. I can only hope I'm not half as cranky as she is in her final days ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  4. The ending was certainly one I didn't expect. Which makes it all the better! :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Online reading is not my thing. But after reading your blog I am really pleased. I don’t know about other blogs but this I will definitely keep coming back to.

    ReplyDelete