This piece is shared in memory of Greg Teetsell.
“Oh, darling!” she exclaimed. Her blue eyes lit bright, lips tinted pink like an old photograph. “Wasn’t tomorrow wonderful?” Sparkling confetti fell through the air. “Wasn’t it just extraordinary?” They were dancing on top of the world. Band music played softly in the background. The moment was eternal as the singer crooned, “Time marches on.” Cheek to cheek. Her smile so beautiful. So lovely. Then just as suddenly her teeth turned yellow and black at the gum as her skin dried and scaled, creating a powdery residue on the cheek of the man she embraced. He brought his hand to her face and took her into the hollow of his palm. They kissed. Eyes closed. Lips rotting as they touched lightly on that intimate flesh. The stench of death filling her nostrils, penetrating something painfully deep inside her core. Wasn’t it all just wonderful?
Startled nearly out of her chair, the caregiver awoke from the nightmare. She had fallen asleep at the kitchen table, and experienced a waking dream. She’d been up for almost 36 hours on emergency case work combining Provigil, SoBe Adrenaline, and an aptly-named Wacky Bean high-octane-intensity coffee from the corner gas station. The couple, part of her normal schedule, could not be canceled. She just had to drive them to visit their son at a nearby life care environment, and then the eternal shift would be over.
The stagnant air they found so comfortable made her delirious. Waiting. Waiting. Her eyes never closed. She had fallen asleep eyes wide open. The smell brought her back to her senses. Smell? Stench! The result of a botched surgical procedure decades before, malodorous raw human waste wafted up beyond the loosely sealed ostomy bag the lady of the house wore hidden beneath an untucked blouse on her side. The gaseous buildup created an aura lacking all pleasantries. It made the nostrils flare and the stomach clench itself to steel. This, too, had to be a dream. “Wasn’t it just wonderful, darling?”
“The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” Agnes smiled with tea-stained teeth, singing beneath her breath to a tune similar to “London Bridge” as she walked in and out of the room, a small glass of liquid vanilla in her hand for her dear husband, Hank. She returned for a napkin. “Ain’t what she used to be.”
Then a few seconds later she returned again for the near empty bottle, “Ain’t what she used to be.”
Despite the caregiver offering to help, she insisted on doing it herself, then continued singing as the nutritious beverage spilled from the small glass to her shoe.
She screamed, laughing like a loon at the double entendre of Pennsylvania Dutch to English. “Ah, you’re too young to know, tain’t.”
Her laughter lit up her face for a second before she shook it off, along with the viscous liquid meal-in-a-beverage, and resumed singing her favorite afternoon tune, interrupting herself to sigh, “Time marches on . . .”
Herb and Agnes were not Amish, though they were county born and country bred. The local farm culture extended into the suburban and urban communities of the older generation, who had deviated from the traditional Evangelical Christian views on life with a love of big band, swing and jazz music along with the daily dose of Jesus. The caregiver shook her head. She wasn’t allowed to force assistance, so she simply sat, and observed the situation without intervention. Basically she was there to piffle, as they say, waiting for time to pass. Hearing her own generation of music playing, she thought: die young ~ stay pretty.
A soap opera played on the small television in the kitchen, the same as it had been most every afternoon since the summer of ’68. For those not in search of the psychedelic dream, there were many other radical events happening in the late 1960s. One Life to Live, a housewife’s escapist relaxation in between bake sales and chicken dinner raffles. Hank of course preferred news, sports, news, or sports. In the living room the larger television was also on, always the news, commercials blaring against the actual programming. A cacophony of inconsistent sounds filled the house all day. Silence was only a state of mind.
Static sparked over a small intercom on edge of the kitchen counter. Hank still-and-always-man-of-the-house-and-don’t-you-forget-it asked the caregiver to come back to the living room. Agnes poked her head back in, saw her soap on the television, and stopped singing to sit quietly, engrossed in the lives of the polished, perfect, ageless characters.
Obviously awake. Wide awake. She stood up, walking in between here and there and life and death, following the voice to what had long ago been an active family room. The once yellow walls, were now truly yellowed and tinged with years of neglect. Those years seemed to keep all the people who entered the home perfectly installed, as though the room was a theatrical stage with all the actors in place, all props always intact, the room held everyone present in their exact role. There was no deviating from the script with the spontaneity of actual life. All around the paintings on the walls and shelves of ornate odds and ends, the paint had simply faded away discolored like the pale irises of both Hank’s and Agnes’ eyes.
As soon as the caregiver walked into the living room where Hank sat for most of the day and night, the stench hit her again. Agnes wasn’t even in the room, yet the stink lingered like a shadow. It was so oppressive it forced her eyes into full focus. The smell clawed at her cheeks with a forceful, angry hand, looked her directly in the eye, and squeezed her face into a caricature until she could think of nothing else.
Purchased shortly after the Second World War , Hank and Agnes’ home was truly part of the classic All American Dream. Starting from a centerfold design in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, the husband had dutifully traveled from rural South Central Pennsylvania to a posh part of Connecticut to purchase the blueprint and bring it back to have the perfect family home custom-built on the multiple parcels they owned in a quiet area, not yet a neighborhood.
With the help of a local floral society, Agnes had planted many of the original white oak and red maple trees that lined the neighborhood, the dogwoods, and varied perennials that had originally been at the edge of their land in a large and open garden. Traffic from a nearby strip mall rarely intruded. This was a well-placed parcel to build the perfect home.
It was storybook house built to absolute code with pride. A past perfection, very different from the prefabricated designs that now dominated the neighborhood, complete with a slate roof and walkway, capacious rooms for the time, quality plumbing and piping and wiring, details that were all now antiquated and in need of update. Each room filled with all the wonderful items a housewife could acquire to fill her days with blissful domestic intention. The yard was large and lush with a picnic table and clothing line, and lots of room for a large dog to roam. It was designed to be a happy place. Dusty shadows in dark corners were regularly removed with love, laughter, sunlight, and of course the daily chores that were so important to a good marriage. When that was not enough there were plenty of civic and church related events at which to assist, along with travel to surrounding towns for dances and seasonal shopping downtown. Movie stars once visited the City to shop at the Watt and Shand, don’t you know?
The stench lingered—hanging heavily and clinging to everything—silently defining the decline of the household. It reeked of death piffling and piddling nearby. It reminded the healthy that somewhere deep inside we are all rotting somewhere within our skin. Within each and every person lurks something horrible and disgusting, waiting to get out, no matter how much you may love Jesus. It danced in the air, a mockery of every attempt to correct or cover it. There is no cosmetic repair for reality. There simply isn’t.
She, herself, had been so very lovely. Delovely! Just like the song and her home, Agnes was once a stellar example of the All American Dream. Light brown hair with natural blond highlights. Blue eyes like a clear spring sky. Rosy lips. A fair and lovely complexion. Fun loving. Devoted. Childhood sweetheart. Lifelong wife.
Hank sat in his chair with his vanilla Boost in hand, a smile on his face. “Good to see you again,” he beamed. “Good to see you!” He confirmed, “Thanks for stopping by.” He spoke in a congenial manner that technically expired in 1967. It was a part of his nature, and would be until his last day. He’d been quite successful in speaking engagements, sales and Dale Carnegie workshops because of his polished style, shining personality and personable ways. It made being around him bearable at times even meaningful. “Guess we should get going soon.” He nodded to himself with affirmation, “Woody would be awful upset with us if we were late.”
“Yes. Yes—I’ve already been here an hour,” said the caregiver. Then after an awkward silence: “It is always good to see you, also, Hank.” For a moment they both looked sadly to the floor before catching themselves and lifting their eyes back up until they smiled, talking about the weather and the traffic and the daily news before a strange silence sat in between them. It was a strange emptiness that interrupted them. A perfect moment for Agnes to peer around the doorway like a mischievous child.
The caregiver took advantage of the moment to address the unpleasant necessity. “Now before anyone says anything more,” the caregiver said, “I need to ask a very personal and intimate question.” She enunciated clearly, not loudly, firm to be heard, yet polite, effective. It gave her voice and odd tone. Too friendly. Too perky. “So, um, I apologize for having to mention this, but ma’am—are you aware that your side bag may need some attention?” The caregiver smiled very, sweetly. “Um, you know, we can . . .” She looked to Hank as Agnes angrily stomped over to her chair in front of the television set.
“What happened to my soap, Hank?” she seethed. “Why isn’t it on?” She fell heavily into her chair.
“You were watching it in the kitchen,” her husband answered. “I’ve been watching the news in here. I always watch the news. Always. For years, dear.” he nodded his head, dandruff dusting his shoulders. “You watch in kitchen.”
“Well put it on. I don’t watch this crap. CRAP! CRAP!” She crossed her arms over her chest and stared with her static blue eyes at the television screen, ignoring the caregiver. At some point over the last few years her eyes which had been electric became more like cracked glass. They still had a lot of light traveling through them, but not like the original lens. Her eyes reflected something stormy inside of her mind, something similar to the person she had once been, but now noticeably different.
“I don’t want to watch this crap.”
They went through this routine every couple of weeks. She’d forgotten how to clean and change the bag, so it only got tended sometimes and then only sort of.
“‘Time marches on.’” She laughed merrily. “Remember that song? Something on the TV reminded me of how long ago that was back then.” She looked away, but within a few moments she realized we were both staring at her. “Alright!” she seethed with venom, picking up a newspaper and hitting the chair with it before dropping it on the ground, “Ah!” She stood up. Her anger allowed her momentum. She held onto the chair for balance for a moment,
half-hobbling out of the room to the chair lift in the hallway that would bring her to the bathroom upstairs. The stench filled the indent of her behind and sank back into the cushion of her chair, as though it had to sit and rest with us all for a moment, before slowly ever so slowly and surely curling up into the upholstery. Committing to it. Owning it. The stench declared itself comfortable in the cushion.
Between the lack of moving air in the room, the heat, and the stench, the caregiver thought she would pass out. Utter exhaustion and disgust mixed with a sense of strange compassion for Hank left her standing with a slightly apologetic smile pleasantly plastered upon her face. She felt like Frances Farmer after the change. Somewhere in the back of her mind she heard Mel Torme and a big band playing “Time marches on,” a woman’s voice exclaiming, “Oh, darling, wasn’t it just wonderful? Wasn’t tomorrow . . .”
“. . . wonderful! You really are for putting up with us like you do,” Hank said, shaking his head and apologizing for his wife’s behavior. “She’s not really like that, you know. You should have known her . . .” From upstairs the bathroom door loudly slammed shut and then open, the cabinets banging in echo. The caregiver took the time to feed Hank lunch: a quarter of a sandwich with four small slices of ham on potato bread just as he had eaten every day for the last 27 years. They discussed local history, the weather, and the recent change in Woody’s condition.
When Agnes returned a half-hour later she glared at the caregiver, saying much without saying a word. Finally the caregiver told them she would be waiting in the car, and without response she walked back into the kitchen, out the side door of the storybook home. Behind her she heard Agnes asking Hank if they were to be going somewhere. Repeating over and over and over. Slower with each week. Like an episode of an old soap opera imitating life. Day in. Day out. The golden years of life.
“Oh, darling!” she said with an excitement that consumed her breath. “Can you believe it?” She shivered with exhilaration and enthusiastic passion. “Wasn’t tomorrow wonderful?” Sparkling confetti fell around them. “Wasn’t it just extraordinary?” Celebratory music played in the background. Lights sparkled outside a full-size window behind them. They were dancing on top of the world. Big band music played softly in the background somewhere from far, far away, a jazzy lounge beat taking it out of time. She reached forward and wrapped herself around the man. Cheek to cheek. Smiling so bright. So beautiful.
Her eyes looked wide out the windshield of the car. It was a beautiful day. A light, cool breeze carried sweet memories in the nostalgic aroma of dogwood blossoms, and the shade of the oak trees. She sat waiting without tasks to piffle. Waiting. Death waiting nearby with her.
Every few moments she heard, through the open car windows, Hank and Agnes debating about the process leaving the house. A daily dilemma. Agnes had to use the restroom. Hank had to have his Boost. Agnes wanted to watch her soap opera. Hank had to phone the facility again to be sure it was a fine time to arrive. Then they’d be close to stepping out of the house when they’d realize they didn’t know who had keys. In times of inclement weather the problem of sweaters or coats or umbrellas would become confused dialog, eventually dissolving into an argument.
It was time to visit Woody. Short for Eugene Woodrow, their only son. A mongoloid as Hank still referred to him in a hushed whisper, with a sad distant stare. Each visit Agnes asked over and over why he was in a hospital home if nothing at all was wrong with him. They should all be together, she would cry, where she could take care of them. At 67, Woody was also one of the oldest living members of the community, if not the country, with Down syndrome. Though they had kept him at home with them for all of his life, for the past season he had sat at a facility down the road, obviously starting the dying process, traveling weekly in a discreet medical van between the small nursing home and the nearby hospital.
Somewhere in the distance a car was driving quickly through the back streets, electronic tryp beats pounding deep bass, while a singer crooned scat-rap-swing. Vintage jazz synthesized into a modern acid mix combined with chill rap crooner overdub in a an unexpected multi layered mix of blighted yesterdays and tomorrows.
Hank and Agnes finally were in the car, arguing over the seatbelt law as Agnes got tangled in the crossover the chest straps. The caregiver did not help her since, if she did, Agnes would scratch at her with a fiercely independent venom. She was there only to observe, and to assist as absolutely necessary.
“Yes, dear, “ Herb sputtered. “You certainly are sharp as a marble. Clear as mud.” Agnes didn’t understand since marbles were round. “Die faasnacht kummt hinneno slow as molasses in January,” he whispered beneath his breath, shaking his head in exasperation, as she screamed that marbles were round not sharp, adding expletives into her idiot rant. Dandruff and dry flakes of hairspray fell to her shoulders, dusting the car seat.
All the the while that smell redefined everything once so lovely, that sharp and pungent smell of raw shit and near-death, lingered deep beneath the surface of yesterday. “Oh, darling! Wasn’t tomorrow wonderful?” Just absolutely wonderful.
Melanie Dante’s “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?” placed as a 2014 semi finalist in the Pirates Alley William Faulkner Society Wisdom Competition. Ms. Dante also placed as a finalist in the 2017 Wisdom Competition with original poetry, which she performed at The Philadelphia Museum of Art Perelman Bldg December 2017 in affiliation with The Erotic Literary Salon and Philadelphia Assembled. She has been bright in the shadows of Philadelphia NoirCon since its inception as GoodisCon.