Little Company

I.

Jerry knew that there were sometimes these kinds of deliveries. He’d heard stories around the office—so-and-so had tea at a delivery; so-and-so was there for three hours, can ya believe it. They were scattered around the city, these kind, lonely old people who needed the groceries less than the company. Jerry’s work advertised itself as elderly-friendly, so they sat a little while with their customers. It seemed an all-around win. But it was the delivery guys who lost. They sat through these hours-long teas and photo album displays and endless lists of ailments and aches. They were all harmless enough, but there was an essential duress in any of these visits. And Jerry knew he was walking into one of those.

“Where would you like these bags, ma’am?” He started for the counter.

“Ah, not there, please. I can’t reach those.”

Jerry set the bags on the floor and looked up, for the first time taking in his customer. She was a smudge of a woman, wispy and deeply wrinkled. She seemed perfectly straight and structured, shrunk evenly. She caught the light in a way that made her look almost transparent. The top of her untidy bun was barely the height of his nipples. Looking around the kitchen, he saw no step stool. Looking back at her, he knew she likely hadn’t even considered a step stool. She simply accepted that there were parts of her kitchen made unusable. She could probably reach the sink. Maybe the counters were abnormally high. He felt dizzy. The groceries were on the floor.

“Do you drink enough orange juice?” she asked.

“I don’t really drink orange juice, ma’am.”

“As I suspected. You’re pale, Jerry. Orange juice is good for us pale folk. It keeps you young. Have a glass.”

She must have read his nametag. He tried to remember her name. “I don’t drink orange juice because I don’t really like orange juice,” he said. “I don’t like a lot of juices. Thank you, though.”

“What do you drink?” she persisted.

“I— It’s a little early in the day, ma’am, and I’m on the clock. I can’t—”

He noticed that she had blocked him in the little kitchen and there was no way he could subtly get past her.

“I meant in general, in life. You don’t drink juice. What do you drink?”

“Oh, I—,” he sputtered, “coffee, I drink coffee in the morning and with lunch and I drink beer at dinner.”

“That’s all? Beer and coffee?”

“I guess I sometimes have a coke or something. At a nice lunch or something.”

“A nice lunch?”

“I don’t know.”

He put his hands in his pockets. He felt a few coins clap lightly together.

“Have a glass of orange juice. The juice is in the refrigerator.” She looked expectantly at him, bright eyes shining behind her drooping brow.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t—,” he attempted.

“Jerry, I am one hundred and three years old. You cannot be one hundred and three years old if you only drink coffee and beer. You will never be one hundred and three years old if you do not accept a glass of orange juice when you are in dire need of a glass of orange juice.” Jerry remembered a story his friend T-Ro had told him, where an old lady locked the door and refused to let the delivery guy go until he tried and complimented her new strawberry-rhubarb pie recipe. It struck him that they were completely at the mercy of their customers while in their homes.

He turned to the fridge and opened it. At first, he thought it was empty. Then he saw that the lower shelves were perfectly ordered and stocked. His delivery would perfectly fill the few gaps. He bent down to retrieve the orange juice from the lowest shelf on the door. There were two cartons unopened beside it and another, he knew, in the bags he had brought. He closed the fridge and turned around. She was holding two glasses, silently watching him. It seemed she hadn’t moved. It seemed she had conjured the glasses from the air.

He took them from her, noticing her hands for the first time. He’d never seen hands as tiny or as limber before. She had little, perfectly-manicured nails and a gold ring on her right hand. It clinked against the glass.

He left two circles in the dust on the counter. She took her glass and drank it in one gulp, her eyes never leaving his face. He brought his hesitantly to his lips. It’s not poison. It’s juice. He sipped a little.

“Juice is good for you.”

“I never really liked it,” he apologized.

Her face looked like she didn’t really believe him. “That’s a pity,” she said.

“Thank you for this, um,” he strained to remember her name from the address. He couldn’t. “Mrs…,”

“Helena. It’s Greek. Greek-ish. My mother chose it.”

“Oh,” he said. He finished his orange juice. He had forgotten what pulp tastes like and how it feels against your teeth. “Thank you very much for the orange juice. Helena.” She stared at him with the same mixture of confusion and judgment. It was as if he was a foreign beetle or spider: he imagined her deciding whether to squish him or move him outside. He imagined her deciding to squish him. He stopped imagining that.

“If there’s anything else you need…?” She continued to stare at him. Had he dribbled orange juice on his chin? He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “Thanks again. And thank you for choosing Paul’s to bring in your grocery haul!”

“That is the silliest line I’ve ever heard,” she said, though she smiled a bit.

“We have to say it.” Jerry didn’t know why he was apologizing. Something about her made him feel guilty. He wondered if she did that on purpose.

“Did I get detergent?”

“It should be in there, ma’am. Want me to check?” He moved to the bags.

“I can,” she stopped him, “I trust you. Don’t bother.” She produced a five-dollar bill. “Thank you. Drink more orange juice.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“No you won’t,” she said, closing the door behind him.

II.

There was one time (Journal 83, p. 6) when her friends decided they would all go to a cabin in the woods for a weekend, and they had applied for special permission from the college and finished all their school work by Friday afternoon, picked up boxed dinners from the cafeteria and bundled into Sally’s mother’s station wagon, with Sally at the wheel and two other girls in the front and five more in the back seats.

The cabin was lovely and rustic. They stoked a fire in the fireplace. One of the girls had a pack of smokes and another had some gin that a guy in town bought for her so they had their fun and giggled and ran around the place like a pack of little girls playing make-believe. After the others had fallen into long-limbed nightlong piles, Helena sat up by a candle and wrote six whole pages in Journal 39. Six pages was a lot for that time in her life and it went beyond the day-to-day that mostly exists in her college-age journals. She wrote about life and love and the way women, people, look at each other. She must have been a little drunk because she also drew little pictures in the margins, flowers with faces and weeping willows dancing. She wrote little poems, “How purple is our love / how withered is our sky / how touching are your fingertips / how long until we die?” and the smudging on some of the pages seem like tears, so perhaps she cried as she wrote, or—more likely—a later person, reading and remembering, cried, as anyone is apt to do in the face of nostalgia and differently withered skies.

There was one time (Journal 178, p. 22) when her youngest daughter got married in a field in Vermont, cows in patches stood against the greenest pasture and the purest sun-cut sky. Katherine, little Katie was getting married and she was getting married to a man, tall and broad, a face that looked like it had been carved from wood, rugged and solid. He was kind, too, gentle, holding doors and carrying things all week and always saying please and thank you. The wedding was glorious, with friends arriving from far and wide, family pouring in like Helena hadn’t ever seen. It was fun and funny and loving, each moment gliding gently together. Katherine’s father, Stephen, got too drunk, of course, but he and Helena had some nice moments nevertheless. She was pleased to be going home alone, though, and guiltily relished seeing him stumbling out to wave down a taxi. Helena tore out a bit of the paper here, likely to write a note to make sure Stephen got home safely. Katie, to her mother’s relief, stayed happy all day, never going off to pout or turning momentarily sour. She was always a fickle girl, black and white as the cows in the background of her wedding photos. It was yes or no and nothing in between. Helena was pleased that this new husband was apparently a yes. She hoped it would stay that way. She suspected it would.

There was one time (Journal 226, p. 19) she was driving and got a flat tire. When she pulled over to look at it she locked her keys in the car with the engine running on the side of a crowded interstate and no one pulled over to help her for two whole hours, though she waved her arms and yelled. Finally, a police officer did and she was shaking so badly that he called for someone to deal with the car and drove her to the police station where she sat and shook and waited for her car to be returned. She almost ran out of gas on the way home but coasted into a gas station and filled the tank, settling into this rattled state. “Standing and waving my arms,” she wrote. “Crying with my voice and my eyes and all I get are horns blaring at me and a few pieces of trash thrown my way. Even the police officer seemed unhappy to have to stop. I thought this world a different place.”

There was one time (Journal 278, p. 30) where she realized all the shelves in her journal closet were full. There were more shelves above, but she couldn’t reach them without a step stool or ladder, neither of which she had. She saw the strangeness of the self-produced written record of her life growing taller than her physical form. She wrote and shrank a little more.

There was one time (Journal 380, p. 14) where she regretted never showing anyone else her journals, allowing another person her perspective on herself. She wondered if other artists do it: “If a painter paints a self-portrait only for himself or if a dancer has a dance intended only for her own room alone — but who am I to compare myself to an artist?” Helena often struggled with the nature of the journal project, debating her own narcissism and wondering the actual worth of her journals. The phrase “What’s one woman’s life?” is written well over a hundred times, with several occurrences prompting digressive analysis of her use of said sentence. She sometimes thought about framing a page or a few: Katie’s wedding, for example, or entries on birthdays, celebrations, little moments. But that, she had eventually decided, was “purely narcissistic and bizarre… It’s like coming back from some wonderful vacation and showing everyone pictures that you’re the focus of. They’re of you, not the Taj Mahal or the Sistine Chapel or whatever’s behind your frame-filling face. In writing, the author is inevitably in the foreground of any little rememberings. I’ve never written for anyone but myself. Perhaps that should change. Hello, reader. ”