Autumn - Nancy Smith Harris

            Minnie smacked the chain link fence with the power of Manny Machado; the dull clang of her chrome cane striking galvanized steel wire like a raging death knell. She swung, again and again; something beyond the Pine Street pit bull’s growl fueled her fury.
            The dog glared, red gums glistening. His guttural tone climbed and plunged, cycling through a short raspy scale. He lunged for the cane  ̶  she stabbed the fence now with the other end, goading, keeping him fired up with rage. Her heart now pounding, each beat an explosion. In her ears she heard the roar of rushing blood.
            A whistle from the shadowed porch, and he turned, skulked away.
            That, Minnie knew, staggering around the corner leaning hard into the cane, mopping her forehead with a tissue limp as old skin, is what death is like: a mean dog, trailing a body over a lifetime. A nurse for forty years, she’d stalked death when it came slinking around ICU beds, when it pounced on fading hearts, on plunging blood pressure. Oh, how she’d fought that mangy skulking beast then, believing in her own abundant and powerful presence to fend the cur off.
            People gave up far too quickly. Because death was the ultimate victor, people took its every gesture, its every bark and bite, as a win for death. They couldn’t know, unless they’d watched it as often as she had, that death was often merely testing a body’s mettle, measuring an opponent’s strength and resolve, in preparation for some future, final drama. Death wanted to get to know you before snatching you away. Death enjoyed the chase as much as it thrived on the denouement.
            Only in recent years, only now that the animal circled her own bed sometimes in the world between dream and consciousness did Minnie raise herself on her elbows in the dark and ask the ragged hunched shape in the shadows, “When? Now?”
            Had there been a specific moment in time, she asked herself, now dodging a teenager on a skateboard, when she’d begun to lose her defiance? No, she said under her breath, shaking her head; the thought of surrender had only begun to creep in after years of pitying glances from grocery store clerks, of fright in the eyes of passers-by. They were scared off by her visible mortality. They could not see that she was just like them. Tiny blips of time separated her departure from theirs.
            “What happens,” she tried to tell Marilyn Samson once over coffee at Hilda’s Diner, “is we begin to act like dying people because everyone who looks at us sees our physical infirmity, our proximity to the end. If only they could see past our wrinkles and tremors.”
            She thinks too deeply about these things, Marilyn observed silently at the time; she needs to take a yoga class. She should have an occasional glass of red wine in the morning and watch a robin weave her nest in that Japanese maple spreading its crown over her front lawn.
            Minnie registered Marilyn’s complacent smile with irritation, picturing her friend in powdered wig and satin bodice, fanning herself in the box of an opera house, trilling eighteenth century feminine laughter, a comic aria weaving its way to her from a stage below like some intoxicating incense. Marilyn thought life was a comedy. Had Marilyn ever been subjected to insult? Minnie glared at her friend’s clear blue eyes, her stylish Size 8 in raw silk.
            No. No teenager had ever shouted “lard ass” at Marilyn as he breezed by in his daddy’s car; Marilyn had never been mocked by a gang of hospital morgue orderlies who loaded a gurney with towering heaps of dirty linens, covered them with a sheet, and fashioned one visible toe from a hot dog  ̶  a tag tied to that toe reading, “Nurse Minnie.”
            Minnie heaved herself down the broad sidewalk and up the three steps to the town hall. She grabbed the door handle with such force that its old metal parts clattered in the quiet air, shaking three crows from the vine-draped lattice overhead. Inside, she disappeared into the shadows of the elevator, chilled by a memory of recent entrapment, thinking of a coffin, deep and silent.
            As she passed the Public Works Department on the second floor, Minnie’s pantyhose lost its grasp of her ample waist and slid to the tight crevice just north of two boulder-shaped knees, taking her briefs along. The pantyhose, a bold but necessary measure, was meant to warm her in the cooling Autumn air. Minnie stopped and glanced over her round shoulder. Measuring the distance back to the ladies’ room, she resumed forward motion.
            The failing undergarments were only the latest debacle in a string of indignities, the many private humiliations suffered now, now that her sphincter muscles had grown lax, now that hair, gray and stubborn, sprouted daily from strange new places. Each day brought new raised spots of rough, darkened flesh, moles the size of mushroom caps, popping up on face, neck, breast, or belly. She halted, listening to her heart knocking about, before resuming the course.
            In the conference room, Marilyn sat, bright and smiling, among gray companions. She winked at Minnie, who settled into the oversized swivel chair closest to the doorway, the seat reserved for Minnie unable to navigate the narrow perimeter between conference table and wall.
            On the table, one sandwich, neatly sliced in two, lay before most of the ladies  ̶  except for Janet, a girl from Georgia, who favored fried chicken. Each meal was coupled with a tiny flowered paper cup. Janet, the town manager’s assistant, circled the table with a plastic pitcher, filling each cup with water.
            Breathless, Minnie caught Hope Conigliaro’s blank stare. Only a week earlier, at Ristorante Arrivaderci, where the volunteers gathered regularly to celebrate birthdays, Hope had arrived with no purse, no wallet, nothing but a copy of Memento Mori stuffed in the pocket of her red leather blazer.
            “Isn’t this book club week?” Hope had asked, cataracts darting from one shriveled face to the other as their waiter hovered with a menu.
            In the end, they’d pitched in, covering the cost of Hope’s meatball sandwich and two Merlots.
            “Someone should speak to her …,” Minnie had whispered to Marilyn that afternoon as they tossed twenties into tray at the end of the meal, “her head’s turning to mush. It’s just a matter of discipline. Working crosswords, watching PBS  ̶  you’ve got to exercise those brain cells…that’s key.”
            Marilyn, who was herself under suspicion for choosing to read novels while ignoring the ringing phones at town hall, smiled vaguely.
            “I think she only needs a calendar,” she replied in her soft, throaty voice.
            “Minnie! Minnie!” Hope crooned, “Have some!” Shimmery gold loops twanged on Hope’s arm as she shoved a paper plate of crescent-shaped biscotti toward Minnie. Her red nails, like painted chicken claws, gleamed beneath the lights. For many years now, Minnie had noticed that Hope was tripling the Amaretto in her twice-baked cookies.
            “After lunch, Hope,” she said neutrally, extracting her own sandwich from the depths of her paper sack, unwrapping it with extreme care. It was the Hopes of the world who gave them all a bad name.
            Hope turned to her insulated lunch box. Her wobbly face tightened with distress. “Oh my,” she said, shifting the box on its side for all to see. It was empty. Hope looked anxiously across the table at Minnie’s two neat halves of stacked ham pressed between toasted slices of sourdough. Minnie pulled her sandwich in closer and lowered her gaze.
            “Here you go, Hope,” Janet said, pushing a golden crusted drumstick down the table in a boat of aluminum foil.
            Minnie tightened her thin lips.
            “Thank you, doll,” Hope said to Janet, “I’ll bring you more biscotti next week.”
            “Next month, Hope  ̶  not next week,” Minnie said.
            “Oh, yeah.”
            The elephant in the room, thought Janet, watching Minnie, because it was very much like having an elephant in the room in every sense of the expression: Minnie Rogers, big, gray, lumbering, an oversized reminder of what happens when life turns the corner and begins its downward slump. She couldn’t look at Minnie without wondering how in the world they would ever get her into a casket, how many it would take to carry her to the grave.
            She glanced at the clock over the doorway. The town manager was late. Janet found these gatherings tedious, but there they were, spelled out in the job description, along with taking minutes at council meetings, keeping track of boards and commissions, and directing preparations for the annual ice cream social at Fromer Park: “meet with town volunteers on a regular basis.” She’d looked forward to the volunteer lunches at first, believing these women would tell compelling stories from their past or exchange favorite recipes  ̶  grandmotherly gestures But it wasn’t to be. Instead, they seemed to disappear into themselves, turning inside out in a disturbing way. Only Marilyn Samson, beautiful and serene, turned outward the way a blossom unfurls, looking beyond herself on to the larger world.
            “Good afternoon, ladies,” Maureen Scully, the slim blonde town manager, a woman in her late fifties with the linear silhouette of a young girl, slid into her chair at the head of the table. She peeled the foil cap from a small container of plain yogurt and broke the milky surface with a plastic spoon.
            With an eye on Maureen’s spoon, Minnie devoured a chunk of bread and ham. Only yesterday, Minnie had been scouring a copy of Bon Appetite in the library when she heard the mayor one aisle over whispering, “I don’t know why you feel you must sugarcoat everything, Maureen…sometimes it seems as though you consider us just more of your dotty volunteers.”
            Dotty! That is what the mayor had said.
            “They’re not my dotty volunteers, Tom,” Maureen had hissed back, “Remember? It was your council, under your direction that brought them in. Something about better relations with the senior community, as I recall.”
            Boiling in the heat of that recollection, Minnie glowered at Maureen, who only studied a paper in front of her.
            “I thought we’d start today with a report on Country Fair Day,” Maureen began, “it looks as though we brought in more money than last year…”
            “Oh, the lines!” Minnie exclaimed, brushing a tumble of crumbs from her mountainous chest, “too long. I waited nearly ten minutes for a snow cone…”
            “They ran out of drink tickets,” Hope gasped, “I felt faint  ̶  it was like that awful hot day last year, that Sunday in August. Bruno and I sat at the back of the church near the door, praying for a breeze.”
            “Thought I’d die of heat stroke standing in line,” Minnie lamented, her dramatic eyes now closed in awful concentration.
            Not to be outdone, Hope interjected, “My legs stuck to the church pew. I worried my skin would rip off if I tried to stand up. I said to Bruno, ‘Bruno, go wet your hankie in the holy water and bring it back here so I can slide it under my thighs’,” Hope moaned, shaking her head.
            “My heart started racing. It was just like the day I got stuck in the elevator at the U. S. Bank Building. Horrible, horrible. Sat on the floor in the dark with my head between my knees for two hours. Took three paramedics to get me up…” Minnie opened her frankest, blue eyes.
            “It was the same day that my cousin Frankie died in Buffalo. I remember we got home from church, and the phone was ringing. Bruno, said, ‘Honey, it’s Viv.’ It was my sister, Vivian, calling…poor Frankie. I think he died of…” Hope searched the ceiling for the name of Frankie’s disease.
            “…they put me on a gurney, and the thing collapsed under me, fell clear to the ground. Thought they’d broken my back.” Minnie’s eyes grew round.
            Janet rose and left the room, pitcher in hand.
            Maureen cleared her throat, but no one noticed.
            “…hemorrhoids…I think it was hemorrhoids he died of.”
            “No one dies of hemorrhoids, Hope.” Annoyed that Hope had turned the discussion away from the disaster that was Country Fair Day, Minnie bit into her sandwich once more.
            “Well it was something with ‘oid’ in it.”
            Maureen stirred her yogurt dismally, ignoring the animated discussion of hemorrhoids that followed. She glanced at her watch and searched the swath of sky visible through the window. Rain showers, early for the season, had been forecast. Plastic bonnets wrapping gray heads, confused stares hovering over steering wheels, dented fenders, stalled traffic, these were the images that offered themselves. What was the town’s liability, she wondered, if one of them caused a calamity on the road?
            “Maureen, the Mayor’s on the phone for you.”
            Janet stood in the doorway with the refilled water pitcher.
            Maureen excused herself and motioned Janet into the hall, handing her the list of topics she’d prepared for discussion. “Country Fair Day,” at the top, had been crossed out.
            “Can you take over in there? I have a feeling this is going to be a long conversation.” Maureen disappeared into her office and closed the door. She’d only just returned from a meeting with the mayor, an insufferable man whose term would stretch on for another year.
            It didn’t help matters that the mayor held Maureen’s English degree against her, believing the town needed the direction of a professional, someone who’d studied public administration. But that sort of degree was not even offered when Maureen had gone to college; besides, what self-respecting finance guru would put up with the constant parade of strange and cranky characters demanding her time and attention?
            She sat at her desk and picked up the receiver.

            In the conference room, Janet crumpled the list of topics Maureen had handed her, dropping it into the wastebasket. She circled the table of chattering ladies, refilling the little paper cups with water, and placed the pitcher on the credenza beneath the window overlooking the street below.
            The librarians had fashioned scarecrows, dressing them as goblins and witches, and secured them to the light posts, reminding her of the turning season and the way the air had changed in the past couple of weeks, to something with a snap in it, something brittle and crisp.
            A time of year that Janet usually found exciting, ushering in Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, left her uninspired now, now that instead of zipping a warm jacket up the tiny torso of a child she found herself playing substitute nanny to this room full of desperately old women. When, she wondered, would it be time to give up? At what point would she and Mike be mistaken for a child’s grandparents, making them foolish among the back-to-school crowd? In the street below, a tank-like black car, huge as a bus, glided to the curb.

            In her office, Maureen palmed the mouthpiece of her phone, whispering a word that would have made her mother turn white with shame.
            “I had a thought, Mo,” the mayor said, “Could you run a couple of numbers for me? Replace the street crew with a landscape service and outsource the heavy maintenance to a contractor. Let’s see what we could save…”
            This kid, this investment banker who looked like he didn’t yet grow facial hair, continued to meddle in personnel matters. He continued to ignore her recommendations, leading the rest of the council away from her. The town manager stared through the window. On the street, a young woman in ponytail and spandex was leaning in past the open door of her Cadillac Escalade, coaxing a little boy out of the back seat.
            Recently Maureen had noticed that the town was full of these young women with small children, further proof of her advancing age. With a kind of mournful longing, she remembered when her own children were small, when she and the women filling the street were the same age. Frightened, she thought: am I too old for this? Should I retire?
            “Look up the Robert Frost poem about what the afternoon knows and the morning only suspects,” she scrawled hastily in her opened, paisley- covered notebook, before taking down the mayor’s instructions as he droned on.
            In the conference room, Marilyn Samson appeared at Janet’s side, peering down into the street where the little boy now stood on the sidewalk, his chin in his chest, bunched fists tight at his side. His mother crouched before him, whispering in his ear.
            “Isn’t it odd,” Marilyn said in a voice so quiet Janet had to strain to hear over the heated on-going hemorrhoidal discussion in the background, “that mothers drive their tiny charges about in those huge transporters?” Marilyn turned her light-filled eyes on Janet.
            This, she thought, studying Marilyn’s radiant smile, was the way to be at eighty. Janet had been to the Samson home for a Christmas party last year. She recalled a tiny galley kitchen, its sink filled with dishes, pots and pans, ignored as guests crowded into the living room around a tree sagging beneath its tinsel, listening to Marilyn rumble through Rachmaninoff’s arpeggios on a grand piano, her head bowed over the keyboard, her hands traveling the range of ivory in a furious, passionate race. Bookshelves hugged the walls bearing volumes of Mailer, de Beauvoir, Stein, Hemingway, and not a single, solitary insipid pastel figurine or Chicken Soup for the Soul title.
            Growling and screaming broke out on the sidewalk below. The faces of the women at the conference table froze, their mouths sprung open, each sat paralyzed, each imagining her own version of some debacle on the street.
            The pit bull from Pine Street had flattened the little boy against the concrete. The mother, on the dog’s back, pried at the animal’s rock-hard shoulders with small, ineffectual hands.
            “Minnie, honey,” Marilyn turned away from the window, “someone needs a nurse.”
            Minnie swiveled away from the table and stuck her legs out.
            “Get my shoes off!” She barked, dragging her skirt hem up jellied thighs, baring the fallen undergarments, “get me outta these!”
            Hope scrambled around the end of the table, dropping to her knees, pulling off one shoe, then the other. Janet and Marilyn each took a leg, unpeeling the hose-shrouded panties, sliding both garments over Minnie’s bulky ankles.
            Minnie thundered to her feet, down the hall, thumped down the back stairs, and barreled out to the sidewalk where a small crowd had gathered. Two young women pulled at the sobbing mother’s waist, trying to pry her from the animal whose teeth gripped the boy’s tiny arm between the wrist and elbow.
            Breaking through the throng, Minnie dropped to the ground and jammed her fist between the animal’s jaws. The boy’s arm was released, and his mother pulled him from beneath the vicious dog. Minnie shoved her arm down the animal’s throat until the pit bull gagged and slunk away, slobbering into a rosebush bordering the sidewalk.

            “…and let’s look at negotiating a cap on healthcare at the next go-round with the union,” the Mayor continued.
            Maureen, distracted by the tremor of voices in the street below, turned to the window. There was Minnie Rogers, barefoot, on her knees, with her arm halfway down the throat of a pit bull. Maureen dropped the phone and dashed from the room.
            On the sidewalk, a police officer collared the dazed animal and pulled him into the backseat of the black-and-white at the curb while a second officer ushered the boy’s mother, the boy in her arms, into the backseat of his vehicle, and sped off beneath frantic flashing lights.
            Minnie sprawled on the cement, its chill stinging her thighs, its rough texture scraping her bare behind. Her chest heaved, her face shining with sweat. Hope and Marilyn beamed down at her, then Maureen and Janet appeared, each taking a side, hoisting Minnie to her feet.
            Minnie swiveled her head, taking in the faces. There were loving hands on her back, a spatter of applause, a few cat whistles. Was it a dream, she wondered? Her reddened, punctured arm began to throb, her skirt hem lifted and a breeze crept up her legs, chilling her privates. She shook off the hands gripping her arms but both Maureen and Janet continued to stand engulfed in Minnie’s shadow, looking up into that lined face as if seeing it for the first time.
            The crowd fragmented, moving off in all directions.
            “Shall we finish our lunch?” Marilyn asked, taking Minnie’s hand.
            “Hemorrhagic stroke!” Hope, exclaimed, linking arms with Minnie, “that’s what got Frankie!”
            “Hope,” Minnie said, moving steadily down the sidewalk to the back door of the town hall, “hemorrhagic stroke doesn’t have ‘oid’ in it.”
            “Oh, yeah.”
            “Let’s have some biscotti,” Minnie replied. Not as calming as a shot with a beer chaser, but it would have to do.

For eleven years, Nancy Smith Harris toiled over mundane tasks assigned in a small-town government office. There, she smiled inwardly, keeping her ears and eyes open, observing comings and goings, small dramas, and tiny, but fierce, politics. She remains forever grateful for that experience because it provided the opportunity to observe a rich cast of characters and their predicaments. When she is not writing stories, Nancy studies the works of writers she admires, including Elizabeth Strout and T. C. Boyle, always striving to inch ever forward in the quest to turn out small fictions. A descendant of Pennsylvania Mennonites, she resides in northern California with her astonishingly good-natured husband, Pete, and their three-quarter pug/one-quarter Boston terrier Poker.