I wrote this short story after my mom died and it’s been sitting in Google docs ever since. I wasn’t sure I wanted to share it with anyone, ever. But recent events have lead me to think I should share it now.
The beast was acting up today. The pain was like a spear, a lightning bolt. Isabel gasped and tried to breathe. There was no predicting it. That was the hardest part. If she could only prepare herself.
The hospice worker recommended a higher dose of painkillers. “To cope.” Isabel didn’t
want to cope. She wanted to recover.
She shuffled into the bathroom and began the long process of getting ready for the day. Take pills, brush teeth, wash face, go to the bathroom, get dressed. By the time she was finally done, she felt like she’d lived a whole day and it should be time for bed again. She even looked at the bed, considering, but even that seemed too much work. How sad was it that going to bed seemed like it took too much effort?
Out to the living room. A beautiful sunny day. That reminded her of a movie — that young German girl who had been executed by the Nazis. “A beautiful sunny day and I have to go now,” she had said. Sophie. That was her name. Sophie Scholl.They had cut off her head.
I should be so lucky, thought Isabel, and then was ashamed of herself. She was lucky. She had lived a long life. A good life. She was dying, but she had a home and a family who took care of her. She should be grateful, not wishing for death.
“…. there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” HA! No amount of thinking would make cancer a good thing.
Tea and toast. That was what she needed.
In the kitchen, she found all had been set ready for her. Her daughter, of course, God bless her, had set out mug and tea bag and bread. She had made it as easy as possible without actually being here to do it herself. She had offered. She always offered. “I can take the day off, Mom, if you need me.”
I don’t need her, thought Isabel. I want her. A want is not a need. She had told the kids that over and over. An important distinction, critical to becoming an adult. What did the kids call it now? Adulting.The noun had become a verb, an adjective, and adverb. Be an adultier adult, she told herself. More mature. More grown-up. How much more grown-up could one get at seventy-eight? Would she be adultier at eighty? She would never know.
She sat down at her writing desk with her tea to think about that. She would not live to be eighty. She would not be here. Where would she be — heaven? Did it matter? She was going to die, and whatever the outcome of that was, the biggest problem she faced right now was how to do it without completely losing her self in the process.
Wasn’t that being an adult? Taking responsibility? She did not want to go out in a haze of painkillers, go to oblivion in oblivion. Maybe she would have wanted to if it were a fun oblivion. Getting drunk with friends — that was a fun oblivion. But taking the pills provided by hospice just made her fuzzy and confused. It was not fun.
Pain was not fun.
What was that song from Mash? Suicide is painless? “Google it, Gram,” her grandson was always saying. She went to the computer in her study and googled “Mash song,” then sat staring at the lyrics. “…the pain grows stronger, watch it grin.” How true that was. She sometimes felt the cancer was laughing at her. One of the hospice nurses had told her that sometimes people named their cancer. Isabel had thought that was ludicrous… months ago she had thought so, when she had been ignorant of how it would sabotage her.
“The only way to win is cheat, And lay it down before I’m beat….”
And there you had it: the thought she had been evading for months now. It was beating her. Cancer. Her archenemy. Maybe she should name it Arch. Arch was winning. And she wanted out. No, she wanted to fold before she lost everything. “Know when to fold ‘em” her husband, Don, had always said when they had gone to a casino. It was stupid, because she never played cards at the casino, only the slots. Don had had a lovely, gravelly singing voice, though, and she had enjoyed listening to him, even if it was only that stupid gambling song. She had preferred “Yellow Bird,” though.
“Yellow bird, You sit all alone like me…”
She would die alone. Well, everyone died alone. Her daughter might be here, her sister, her grandchildren. But death would come for her alone.
Isabel pounded her fists on her knees. “I do not want to spend months on painkillers. I do not want to be wracked with pain.” She looked out at the sunny day. “Such a nice sunny day, but I have to go now.” If only she could go, right now. Before Arch stole all her spirit, all her dignity.
She knew that some states had physician-assisted suicide. It didn’t seem fair, though — to ask someone else to be complicit in ending your life. It was personal.
She decided to create a chart. Her husband had been a big believer in charts. She put the requirements along one side: fairly inexpensive, fairly quick, mostly painless, at home, in control.
Then she listed the methods on the y-axis. Drowning, overdose, starving, freezing. Just walking into the water greatly appealed to her, but she had to be at home, because if she just disappeared, her daughter would spend years hunting. Overdose? She wanted to be in her right mind when she passed on, as the euphemism went. What other choices were there?
Back to the computer. She found that although more women attempted suicide, men were more successful. That, apparently, was because men were more likely to shoot themselves which was more often fatal than the overdose women preferred. Pesticide poisoning and suffocation by hanging were also common methods, according to Wikipedia. Isabel felt she was being poisoned enough already, and hanging? She looked up at her ceiling. She doubted the beams in this place could handle her weight, even if she could figure out a way to do it.
Her chart seemed to indicate shooting, but that required a shooter. Could she hire someone to do it? A hit man? Contract killers, according to Wikipedia, averaged $15,000. That seemed a little pricey for just pulling the trigger on someone who was standing there waiting for it. Could she shoot herself? That would put her in control. If she had a gun, she didn’t see why she couldn’t do it.
Googling “guns,” told her that pawn shops usually had them, and there was a pawn shop on the corner. In that news story she’d seen yesterday about the latest shooting, gun control people said it was much too easy to get a gun, so she figured she could just go up there and get one.
She sat a minute and considered. Was she serious about this? Well, what was the alternative? A slow, painful death, gradually becoming less able to do for herself as she was drugged into oblivion. Her daughter taking off days and days to care for her, forced to do the things people should only have to do for babies. No, thank you.She had heard people say that fate should be left to God. A silly claim, she thought. If her parents had believed that, she would have died of appendicitis when she was seventeen.
Isabel didn’t have a lot of money on hand, but she did have a lot of stuff. Silver candlesticks. She had read that silver prices were up now. Surely a pair of candlesticks would be worth the price of a small pistol.
She went through the laborious process of putting her shoes on, remembered to grab a jacket and her keys, and stuffed two silver candlesticks in her recyclable grocery bag. At the last minute, she grabbed her chart. If the cleaning lady came in, which was unlikely as she didn’t come nearly as often as she was supposed to, but if she did, Isabel didn’t want her to find the chart. There might be questions.
By the time she reached the pawn shop, she was puffing. She pushed open the door, which tinkled in a merry way that seemed out of character for a place she had always assumed would be a little disreputable. She had never been in a pawn shop before, and she looked around curiously. She saw shelves packed with everything imaginable, and a long counter with glass cabinets filled with coins and books and other smaller items. Isabel wheezed her way in, her bag banging painfully against her knees.
The bald gentleman behind the counter greeted her genially and offered to get her a chair, which she gratefully accepted.
“What can I do for you today?” he asked.
“It’s what I can do for you, “ said Isabel, who had not been a saleswoman for thirty years for nothing. “I have two magnificent silver candlesticks for you, brought from Germany after the Big War by my father.” She rummaged in her bag.
“Here, let me get that for you.” The big man reached down and picked up the bag, which seemed to Isabel to weigh at least fifty pounds by now. He lifted it onto the counter as though it were full of feathers.
“Be careful, you’ll scratch them!” she said sharply. “And you might crack your counter.”
“Ahh,” said the man, drawing out the newspaper wrapped parcels, and unwrapping them. “Lovely! And what did you want to do with these today, pawn them or sell them?”
“I want to trade them for a gun,” said Isabel. “Just a small pistol. And some ammunition, of course. ”
The big man set the candlesticks on the counter and looked down at her. He was silent for a moment and then said, “Every day I think I can never be surprised again, and every day I get a new surprise. May I ask why you think you need a gun?”
Isabel was prepared for this. “There have been several break-ins in my neighborhood. If someone breaks into my apartment, I want to shoot him.”
He shook his head and pushed the candlesticks across the counter toward her. “I am sorry, ma’am, but one, these, although beautiful, are not worth anywhere near as much as a pistol, even a small one. And two, there is a considerable amount of paperwork we would have to go through. I get the impression you think you could walk out of here with a gun today.”
“Well, yes, of course!”
“I am afraid it doesn’t work that way.”
“But I just read about –”
“Yes, ma’am, many people did, but the story that’s been all over the news this week is about a gun bought at a gun show, not at a pawn shop. Legally, there is a big difference.”
As Isabel opened her mouth to reply, the door banged open and a hooded young man burst in. “Open up your cash drawer,” he ordered, pulling out a gun.
That’s what I want, thought Isabel, as the shopkeeper opened his cash register. The thief did not seem to have noticed her, sitting in her chair. Or maybe he just thought an old woman was no threat. “Get over by the window,” yelled the man at the shopkeeper, and when the big man complied, the robber handcuffed him to the iron window bars. As he did so, Isabel stood and picked up the candlesticks.
Like that Ogden Nash poem her father had always quoted to her: “Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry, Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.” Isabel whacked the young man with one candlestick and immediately thunked him with the second, just in case.
The young man crumpled to the floor. Isabel picked up his gun. Her knees cracked painfully and loudly as she stood up again, and the shopkeeper flinched. From the expression on his face, Isabel surmised he had been surprised a little more than was good for him today. “You okay?” she asked. He nodded speechlessly. “I’ll call the police for you.”
She left him handcuffed to the window, put her new gun in her purse and walked out the door. She stopped at the pay phone on the corner and called 911 to report “something scary” happening at the pawn shop. She hung up on the questions and called a taxi. She was much too tired to walk home.
She asked the taxi driver if he knew anything about guns, and he did. When they got to her apartment building, he showed her how to unload her gun and load it up again. She told him it was just for protection, and he told her she should take a gun safety class. She promised she would and paid him for his time. She didn’t have any extra ammunition, of course, but she figured what was already in the gun should be enough to kill one old lady.
Back in her apartment she sat down and looked at her new acquisition. “Be afraid, be very afraid,” she said to Arch.
Someone knocked at the door.
“Well, shit,” said Isabel. She put the gun in her desk drawer and went to open the door. Probably it was that new girl who was supposed to clean. “I’m too tired!” Isabel called out. “Come back tomorrow!”
There was a sharp rap. “Open up, this is the police.”
“Oh!” Isabel opened the door. There stood a man in blue, with Geneva from the entry desk standing behind him looking excited and worried and curious.
“Mrs.Oakley? I’m Officer Danton. May I come in?”
“Yes,” said Isabel, letting him by. Hastily she shut the door in Geneva’s face. Gossipy thing would probably go straight downstairs and call Isabel’s daughter.
The officer looked around. “Are you all alone, Mrs. Oakley?”
“You seem to have been part of some excitement up at the pawn shop,” said the officer with a smile. “Not many ladies your age have foiled a robbery! You’re quite the little warrior!”
Isabel scowled up at him. Her age, indeed. “How did you find me?”
“Well, that’s the concerning part,” he said, still smiling. “We found —” He reached into his pocket and held up her death chart. “We found this rather odd assortment of ways to die at the pawn shop. If you want to plot a crime, you really shouldn’t do it on the back of your phone bill,” he said playfully, shaking his finger at her. “Now, I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Probably you were just working out a mystery you’ve been reading. My old gran says they call them ‘cozies’ — those mysteries you ladies like to read. But you understand, I have to check it out. The store owner seems to think you took that thief’s gun.” He shook his head, baffled. “Can you explain that?”
“Yes, I took the gun to kill Arch.” Isabel sat down at the desk. She was really too tired to explain all this. She ought to offer him something to drink, but Arch was stabbing her.
“You did what?” The officer obviously thought she was senile.
“Young man, would you hand me that bottle of pills and that glass of water? I am overdue for my morphine.”
Seeming bemused, Officer Danton did as he was asked. “Are you saying you did take the gun?” He examined the pill bottle before he handed it over.
“Yes, that’s what I said. I went to the pawn shop to get a gun. Didn’t he tell you that?” Isabel swallowed her morphine.
“He did, but I thought he was just upset and — what did you say you wanted the gun for?”
“To kill Arch. “
The door opened and Isabel’s daughter rushed in. “Mom! Are you alright? What happened?”
“Damn,” muttered Isabel, “I knew that stupid woman would call you.”
“Of course, she did! I have asked her to call me if anything happens to you. There is no reason to call her stupid!” Catherine turned in a flurry of blue raincoat and barked, “Who are you, and why are you harassing my Mother?”
“He’s not harassing me, and there is no need to be rude to the Officer! Catherine, you know better than that!”
A low buzzing sounded. “Excuse me,” Officer Danton said hastily. He stepped into the study and answered his cell phone quietly.
“Mom, what have you been doing?”
Isabel sighed with relief as the morphine began to take the edge off Arch’s bite. “Close the door, Catherine. Were you born in a barn?”
Officer Danton had turned to watch them. “I’m at the old lady’s place now,” he said.
He should either be more quiet or more polite, thought Isabel. She saw it was too late for Catherine to shut the door; Geneva and Isabel’s next door neighbor, Florence, were poking their heads in. Like horses in a barn, thought Isabel sourly.
“She’s been researching what?” said Officer Danton.
“What have you done now, Isabel?” asked Florence.
“Yes, sir,” Officer Danton was saying. “I’m looking at her computer right now, and I see a story about the shooting on her screen.”
“I stole a gun,” said Isabel to Florence. She was fed up with all this patronizing treatment. She was old, and she was tortured by Arch, but she knew where she was and what she was doing.
Her daughter gasped, Geneva looked like she would faint, and Florence laughed and said, “You did not!”
“Yes, sir,” said Officer Danton. “I don’t think it will be a problem, sir. She’s quite old and sick.”
Isabel pulled the desk drawer open and picked up the gun. She enjoyed the look of shock on Florence’s face. She smirked when Geneva crumpled to the floor. She felt a little guilty when she looked at her daughter. But only a little.This would make things easier for Catherine in the long run. Isabel took off the safety and cocked the gun the way the taxi driver had shown her. My, she thought, that Officer is a fast draw — just like an old Western movie.
“Put the gun down!” he yelled.
“I read about it when I was researching, but I did not put ‘death by cop’ on my chart,” she told him. “I just didn’t think it was fair to put a police officer in that position. On the other hand, if you fellows weren’t so quick to shoot, there wouldn’t be such a thing in the first place. And Arch isn’t a fair guy. And you’ve been a very rude young man.”
“Put the gun down!” yelled Officer Danton again.
She pointed the gun at the ceiling over his head and pulled the trigger.
There was a lot of pain, but it was no worse than Arch, and it didn’t last long. “Gotcha, Arch” muttered Isabel as she died. “Bet ya didn’t see that coming.”