Esther Dies at the End
The autumnal breeze hissed its way through the little aspen leaves and Noah was unamused at the way it chilled his ears. He was one of those guys who held onto that one ratty blue hoodie instead of investing in a big-boy jacket. Exhaling an exasperated breath of air, the young man stopped walking and apathetically re-adjusted his balls. A tongue swiped over two chapped lips as he tried, in vain, to hide his discomfort. The too-tight black denim that swathed his skinny legs was rubbing his testicles raw. They were already a bit chaffed from the night before. Damn, that girl was psycho. Noah liked the way her mouth had been open the entire time, smirking, like she thought the whole thing was hilarious. Like watching him squirm was hilarious. However, he did not think that testicle clamps were funny.
Noah had recently developed a thing for women who, quite literally, didn’t give a shit about him. He would walk the long way back to his tatty apartment from work each Tuesday night, passing by the decrepit Rec Center on 4th Street. That’s about the time when the SAA meetings would end. Different women each Tuesday would filter out of the front door, the ineffective mumblings of some prudish speaker droning after them. The meetings made them hungry. Noah was content to obligingly lie down as a midnight snack.
He stopped fiddling with his genitals when he noticed a young girl staring at him next to the train tracks. He never really looked at women’s faces. He didn’t need to. She was wearing her wavy hair in an unforgiving side ponytail and her leggings had weird stains on them. Grease? Her hands were really skinny with intimidatingly long nails haphazardly painted a sparkly polish. Noah mentally listed off telling details. Combat boots. Weird ear cuff. iPhone. Chewing on an old piece of gum. More glittery stuff on her chest. Though it was chilly the October sun warmed the tracks and the young man was very aware of the smell of pungent metal. The girl’s tacky eyes opened and closed through a veil of viscous, navy eyeliner. They brimmed sexily with ennui. Noah half-thought about asking her if it would be okay if he fucked her.
A loud dinging noise severed Noah from his observations and the blinking red poles above him began to lower, signaling the approach of a train. Feeling the exhaustion of the previous night, this royally pissed him off. He was ready to crash at home before work. He scraped his fingernails across his scalp and pulled out two little strands of brown hair. Noah always told people that he didn’t need haircuts because his hair didn’t grow. He also didn’t like people touching him. He had one of those obnoxiously traumatic pasts which explained away his disdain for pleasant things like companionship and affection.
A fast-approaching whirring sound began in the distance.
“Today’s the day, Suckers!” Startled, Noah thrashed his head around to see a ninety-year-old lady on a purple motorized wheelchair speed across the road—toward the train tracks. She was hooting and hollering old-timey obscenities. Her face scrunched up in gumption. A puff of frizzy whiteness seemed to hang on for dear life at the top of her spotted head as she raced to play with the gods. She had little jewels of cobalt for eyes. The old woman sported a pin with several painted horses on her bosom, like she had picked it out especially for today. Her exuberance was beautiful.
Her wheelchair hummed past Noah and continued onto the tracks. The approaching train whistle sounded in the distance, prompting Noah to stop the old lady from this seemingly dangerous display of carpe diem. Fuck. Me.
“HEY, LADY! STOP!” Noah shouted as loudly as was physically possible. He bolted after the purple bullet, momentarily forgetting about the huge death machine coming closer. “LADY! What the hell—WHOA, SHIT!” He was just inches from colliding into the side of the careening train. His body forced itself backwards and he hit the gravel below, the little rock granules piercing into his skin and turning it black. Adrenaline coursing, Noah waited for the endless boxcars to thunder by. Please don’t be dead.
The final compartment whooshed past and blood throbbed in Noah’s head, causing a vein-shaped bolt to appear on his temple. Come on, Lady. He pushed himself up and apprehensively looked around. There she was, across the tracks, perfectly safe, looking quite disappointed. The girl beside the tracks mouthed an appalled curse and stalked away past her. The old lady’s ancient face was turned downward. Noah groaned, half out of annoyance and half out of relief. He jogged over to her, hopping over the still-blinking caution bars. Saturated with sweat and disbelief, the young man puffed his chest up in preparation for a lecture.
“Look, uh, ma’am, I don’t know what planet you’re from, but most normal human beings don’t wheel themselves in front of a train,” he panted. He felt awkward, like an emotionally stunted single dad trying to talk to his daughter about her monthly cycle. Only this woman had bigger problems.
“Dag Nabbit,” the lady interjected. “To be normal is cow dung. Today was the day! Today was supposed to be the day I die. Well, if we’re being honest, I thought it should’ve been years ago. But, hey. Ya win some, ya lose some. Eh, Kiddo?” Those eyes stared up at him and smiled. Noah was lost for words. The old woman kept talking. “Thanks for ruining my death. Name’s Esther. What’s your name, Chief?”
“Name’s Noah,” the young man breathed out. You crazy bitch … Esther held out a prune-y hand to his chest. There were tiny, white hairs on it that Noah thought were endearing. He suppressed a grin and took it in his. It was soft and warm—welcoming. He looked down at her waist. “Is that a fanny pack?” he asked.
“Yes, indeed! It’s hard to mix sex with utility but a fanny pack does it all,” Esther responded merrily. She unclipped the 90s teal pouch from around her waist. “It’s all the stuff I want to take with me to the afterlife. I might have something for ya, in here. Now don’t show anyone, hear? Not a soul.” She held out her soft hand once again, this time just her little finger. She’s like a kid, Noah thought. He obediently made a silent vow of rectitude never to show another soul whatever resided in her pouch of mysteries. Her skin felt pleasant, not what he had expected. They were bound in the sacred honor of pinky-promise. Esther unhooked her bony finger from Noah’s and rummaged around inside the fanny pack. She pulled out an index card. In that moment, Noah just knew he was going to call in late to work that day. He received the gift with a sigh. It read the following:
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
¾ cup butter or margarine, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup pumpkin (Invest in a real one … not the pumpkin pie mix—yuck!)
2 ¼ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
Browned Butter Frosting
3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 to 4 tablespoons milk
¼ cup real butter (The good stuff)
“How am I supposed to make these, E?” Noah inquired. He flipped the index card over in his hand. There were no baking directions. Esther grinned again and clucked her tongue.
“That’s what I’m here for, Kiddo. From the looks of it, and the foulness of your language, you sure as heck don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Wait, you got a tattoo where?” As Noah asked the question, a forkful of slightly over-cooked eggs plopped back down onto his plate and the utensil hung motionless in the air. Esther continued working at her breakfast as if nothing had happened. Her stuffed French toast was cut into little shapes and she coyly raised a little morsel into her grinning mouth. They were having breakfast at a little hole-in-the-wall café—it might just as well have been called “hole-in-the-wall,” for the name was Russian and no one knew how to properly pronounce it.
“We don’t need to talk about that, kid,” Esther replied. She was an excellent multi-tasker and sipped at her floral teacup as she changed the subject. This woman could evade an atom bomb just by bluntly stating the fact that everything was meaningless anyways so the only reason to bomb another country was to prove just how childish and in need of shallow affirmation the offending bomb-dropper was. Noah blew out an amazed breath and continued eating. He had a few errands to run before work that day but he wished that he could take Esther back to her house and read his novel. He preferred to read pulp-fantasy fiction and E was only the second woman to never judge him for his literary choices. “You’ve got a bigger secret than a saggy breast tat, Noah,” Esther continued, “but you won’t tell me about it. I know what anniversary it is.” Noah’s skin burned. She gestured toward his pocket. A letter to his dead wife stuck out of his jeans. In all honesty, he had placed it there in the hopes that his new friend would coax something emotionally scarring out of him. Maybe then Noah would be able to admit just how much guilt he held in his heart.
“You’re one hundred and a million percent correct, E,” Noah began. “It’s a letter to Molly.” Esther smiled so tenderly, so empathetically at Noah. He felt defensive tears begin to pool. The clock froze on the dingy yellow wallpaper of the restaurant; her wrinkles deepened into caverns of experience. No judgment. No pity. Noah felt himself falling into the fault lines of her face. She stopped time.
“I ain’t dead yet, Kiddo.” She began to read.
Here’s my formal apology. I promise that I didn’t know that it was happening when it was ... I pretended that your sickness was a metaphor for our young, struggling marriage. I held on to a pride of being a better husband, of disguising my guilt for your death. The hubris helped me to fraternize with fate like I was. I love you so goddamn much, Molly. I don’t know why I am here anymore. The only reason I am here is because you would whoop my ass if I killed myself. So I don’t. I wait patiently every day.
I don’t know where you are after you died but I have been on Earth, hurting. I hate to admit that. I meditate every day before stepping outside my house so I don’t get overwhelmed. I focus on breathing ... breathing. I just focus on being me ... But I can’t do that after I have lost the reason why I want to be a better person. I lost you, Molly. I feel like I didn’t hold on tight enough, like I didn’t wish for enough miracles.
You said a lot of things to me when we were together and, though I don’t agree with most of them, I do agree with some. Like how you said that I always think of the bad things. That’s sort of turned me into an asshole and less of the kitten I was ... I think about the bad things not because it’s easier but because it feels better. It feels better to think of the things that reaffirm your absence. But I want you to know that I have taken some of your advice with a grain of salt. And that I DO think about the good things. So I’ll leave you with a list of things that I love about us. I’ll leave you with the memories that made me fall more in love with you every day:
I think about how we used to lie in bed and not want to do anything. I think about how I would sit on the floor next to my old dog Shane and you would look at me to tell me to grab him and come sit next to you. I love how you would cook dinner in your limited repertoire for me. Make me finish my milk after I ate my cereal. I remember how you would hug me and press me into you to let me know that you wanted me. I love how you would reach over to me discreetly and touch my back with your finger, letting me know you were there. I love how you and I would go out and you would be proud to be there with me, this piece of shit man who loved you. I loved watching movies with you, squeezing my hand when something exciting happened or just getting completely lost in the story. I loved listening to your adventures from the day, little things that you made extraordinary. I loved you helping me with grammar in grad school even when I was being a butt and wanted to give up. I loved you holding me at night even though the bed was tiny and you were tired.
I can’t write down anymore. I can’t relive our life until I go completely mad with—whatever. Just know that I love you, okay? And I forgive you for dying. And I forgive myself for letting it happen. And I have met the most beautiful friend who is holding me together in this life. I’m allowing myself to finally heal.
Esther wiped away the tears pooling on Noah’s shuddering lip and put down the letter. “This is very special. Let’s put in the fanny pack, eh?”
Esther eventually had Noah move in to her house. It was a whimsical little cottage which resembled more a petal-clad pixie hideaway than anything else. Everything seemed to be covered in moss or had dangling leaves. Esther loved to garden and little distinction was made between the outside soil and her carpet. Her home was fodder for everything vibrant and green and growing. Reading was a big theme in the house. Noah liked watching Esther read more than the contents of his own books. Instead of a smokers’ jacket she had a reading shawl, vintage, from back when she was young. She had purchased it while staying with a host family in Trujillo, Peru. Threads of burnt mustard and dusty blue dominated the garment. The beach and the sea. The air seemed to feel more humid when she wore it. Noah imagined how she looked back then. There weren’t many pictures of her but he could imagine. As she would read in the house with him, Noah could see through the shawl threads onto her shoulders beneath, knowing that once her shoulders had a honey-glow from the sun’s gaze. He imagined her once touching the stem of a wine glass, her fingernails tracing the edges of the crystal, just as they did the pages of her books. He imagined her drinking deeply just as she consumed the stories with her eyes. Sometimes she would make soundless laughter and the lines around her eyes would deepen even further. Esther wasn’t classic but she was timeless.
Esther had a hard time moving around and Noah always had to help her into the bathtub. It was her own little pond where she could bathe the physical struggles of the day from her worn-out skin. Noah made playlists of songs for her to listen to while she sat floating. There was no one fonder of music than she. But most nights the two friends were simply content with talking. He would run the water with bubbles that smelled like milk and honey. Sometimes he would sit on the floor next to the feet of the tub or by her wheelchair and just listen to her tell stories. Sometimes she would tell the same stories over. Noah didn’t mind hearing them again.
One of his favorites was about her trip to the Grand Canyon. She would snuggle into her purple rocket, still donning her bathrobe, and sip coyly on tea before beginning any tale.
“Noah, let me tell ya about this big hole in the ground. I was with this guy at the time, a real tasty dish, and he pulls up to the side of the canyon, behind pinyon and juniper. He tells me to close my eyes and I start thinking that he’s about to push me over—a real dramatic sort of murder. I tell him this and he laughs a full-bellied laugh, the way that men do when they are attracted to ya. But I knew it wasn’t my time yet. So I shut my eyes real tight and told him to lead on. As he’s pushing me onward I get real nervous, see? I didn’t want to get my hopes up only to be disappointed. I knew I would regret it, too … feeling so hopeful only to be crushed by the ordinary. But I was real ignorant for thinking that mother earth could ever disappoint. It was all-encompassing. Everything that ever was or ever will be would never ever re-create any sight like that ol’ thing. You know what it looks like, of course but you don’t know what it feels like to look at it until you do. The canyon is a giant frosted glass of beer, all those striations. I felt as if I tipped the canyon over I would be swallowed into the foam of creation and erosion. I would become part of the beginning of this planet. The man I was with kissed me under the blue, blue sky in some hopes to get lucky with me right on the edge of the rim! But instead he released me and opened up both of his arms. You know what, Kiddo? He began to sing! He sang a prayer song right into the heart of the canyon. His voice reverberated off of the sides and shook amidst the ribs of mother earth.”
Noah laughed at this, thinking of all of the times that he had been silent. All of the noise inside of him which he thought might have once been prayers.
“Were you in love with him? The man who kissed you at the Grand Canyon?” Esther clucked her tongue and shook a handful of knuckles at Noah.
“I’ve been in love with no man! Liars and cheats, all of ‘em. And stinky. They get stinky.” Esther grinned mischievously. “Not like your love for Molly, no. Not anything that wouldn’t eventually end. Not anything that defies all laws of gravity or time or the American judicial system. But that canyon, Kiddo … it comes pretty darn tootin’ close to love. I feel as if places sometimes hold a bigger capacity for love than humans do. Places hold all of the love people are now feeling and have felt for … well, forever.” She sighed deeply and slowly tapped her little feet on the side of her nest. Noah was enchanted.
“That’s beautifully said, E.”
One night in the tub she was unusually quiet. Noah slumped over a battered novel. Esther splashed him with water, creating little blotches on the pages of his novel.
“Hey,” Noah laughed, “no goofing around in there!” Esther’s little blue eyes seemed distant and peered into the yellow wallpaper as if she were trying to pry secrets out of the repetitive daffodils. “E?” Noah folded his book and sat up. He was confused. He bumped one of her much-wrinkled elbows. Tremulously lowering her fingers to the water she parted the fading bubbles and watched them pop. She turned stormy, clouded eyes towards him.
“Did you have something for me, Kiddo?” she asked, turning her gaze to his. Cobalt jewels lay within canyons of wisdom formed by years of eccentricity and senility.
“It’s another playlist. I will put it in your computer. Do you want to get out?” Noah had a strange feeling. Esther nodded. Noah cracked all ten of his toes before getting up and grabbing an extra-large fuzzy towel. He enveloped his friend in the fluffy cloud, respecting her modesty like a gentleman. He lifted her legs, one at a time, out of her own little pond.
“Bring it along with us. We’re going for a joyride,” Esther said. Noah was surprised. He smiled a bit and left the room so she could dress. He had laid out her pajamas on the vanity.
“Where are we going?” Noah asked as he closed the door.
“Today’s the day,” Esther whispered.
Noah drove Esther to the train tracks. Before they had gotten into the car, Noah had placed her favorite painted horses pin on her top. She had grinned so widely at his thoughtfulness of this small detail. She had given him a letter for him to read after she was gone for good. The young man’s knuckles turned white from gripping the fuzzy steering wheel of her Toyota. Noah wasn’t ready. This woman had entered his life on the notion that she would die. But everything all felt terribly … full-circle. However, several months before he had sworn yet another promise to Esther. She had held out her bony little finger and asked him to drive her back to the train when the time finally came.
“Promise me. If ya don’t, I’ll give ya the icy mitt! Hear?” Noah and Esther had sealed the consecrated oath with a pinky promise. He thought the whole idea absurd and half-hoped that she would die peacefully in her sleep so he wouldn’t have to.
They didn’t speak and didn’t need to. They listened to the playlist.
New Playlist # 46
1. Good to Go – Eye Alaska
2. Post Script - Typhoon
3. Above My Ground - Landlady
4. A Case of You – Joni Mitchell
5. For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her – Simon and Garfunkel
6. Yankee Bayonet – The Decemberists
7. Alone Again Or – Calexico
8. Dog and Butterfly – Heart
9. A Lack of Color – Death Cab For Cutie
10. Your Graduation – Modern Baseball
11. Stormy Weather – Etta James
12. Barely Legal – The Strokes
13. When You’re Smiling – Louis Armstrong
14. Mouthful of Diamonds - Phantogram
15. I Felt Free – Circa Survive
16. I Am Aware – From Indian Lakes
17. Open – Rhye
18. Detlef Schremph – Band of Horses
19. La Vie en Rose – Edith Piaf
20. Honey Jars – Bryan John Appleby
21. Big Black Car – Gregory Alan Isakov
22. The Waiting – Angel Olsen
Noah opened the door of the old Toyota for Esther, helping her into her purple wheelchair, and touched her little white-haired hand for the last time. He knew that they were just a bit early which made Noah feel uncomfortable. Esther smiled at him in a sad way and placed a brief kiss on his face. Noah wondered if his cheek tasted bittersweet. He knew that she was ready to go but he was unsure still. He cleared his throat to ask a final question.
“E,” he spoke quietly, “do you think that people love the same way that they did back then?” Esther raised her translucent eyebrows up at Noah. She thought a bit before responding.
“Oh. Yes. I do think that.” She nodded slowly as if the thought solidified more and more in her mind as the seconds ticked forward.
“I can’t see it.”
“You young’uns are too uneasy nowadays. Too hesitant to fling yourself into the greatest love affairs of your time. I suppose … hmm … I suppose that you are the most fearful of falling for something you already believe will turn out none-the-better. Come on. Just pitch yourself into the romantic ether, ya lovebird. Life ain’t about knowing.”
Noah laughed. Here, at the very end, he found himself laughing. “Esther, you say the darndest shit.”
“I think I would lose myself again. Being so invested in another person.”
“I’m not so sure, Noah. Other people help us to see who we are. Heck, out of all the people I have known, all the faces I have looked into, I am glad I got a piece of you.”
The sounds of the train were dulled by the weight this evening held for both of them. Esther creaked her restless joints and stood up. She winked at Noah. “Hah! Well, I’ll be seein’ ya, Kiddo.” The timing was impeccable. Just as Esther hobbled over to the other side of the tracks the blinking red bars began to ding and fall as if signaling for Noah to go no further. We’ll take care of her, they seemed to say, but this is where you stop. She did not turn around to look back at him. The train whistled and splintered the air as it thundered by. As the last boxcar went by Esther was nowhere to be seen. He made sure that she had fully disappeared, that every bit of her had dissolved into the wind before reading her letter. Noah pulled put the envelope out from his blue hoodie. The paper crinkled and moistened from his palms.
This is some foul business, death. Every man has a “Molly” but you have now lived through two world-destroying losses (if I do flatter myself). You are a hero. I don’t know how to say goodbye to you so I will just scribble a few words and be done with the whole thing. I feel as if I have done you an injustice, making you take me here tonight. I am a selfish creature.
You don’t say much, Kiddo. But you think loudly. I feel as if your eyes could swallow the whole ocean. You open them and the salty water pours in, seaweed, oysters, amoebas … Those watery eyes of yours are going to get you in trouble one day.
Before meeting you I was already halfway to dead! Just an old, old … old body, exhausted with the thought of any more living. But there were indeed things to be done. I think we fell into a strange love in the time we had together. Our love is different. We’re soul mates distanced by my many more wrinkles and, well, foreseeable death. Too bad you’re only 22 … you could’ve come with me to wherever I am now! Our last adventure. You’ve got a lot more life left, though. You poor bastard, HAH!
You know, Kiddo, I wonder if it’s easier to just write someone to love. You could implement all of the beautiful and hideous and captivating and tranquil desires you want onto paper … and fall in love with your own gorgeous, continuous creation. You could be with them every day; no risk involved. Their only imperfection would be that they didn’t exist. Perhaps, someone would find it later on Earth’s infinite timeline and wonder who this fabrication was and who loved them so. It could’ve been our little secret.
I am leaving you the house and the car. It’s a piece of junk but you got it working fine now. You’ve gotten great at watering the plants but some of the leaves get a little dusty so wipe them off with a damp paper towel, okay?
You, Noah … You’re real. You can smell and taste and think. Never stop thinking. Dropping dead has got to be the most liberating thing I have ever done. But please don’t miss me every day. Just write me down with words and perspective. You’re the only one I want to preserve me. Pinky promise.
Noah itched tiredly at his head and tugged out a few loose hairs. A sigh escaped his lips as he shut his eyes. The sigh was a prayer to Earth. It was a prayer of peace. He blindly placed the precious emblem of his friend into her old fanny pack—he had gotten into the habit of clipping it around his waist before he left the house with Esther. Items had been added to it over the past year. Noah’s favorite piece was the partly chewed guitar pick he found behind one of the couches. It was red and the little tooth marks glinted in the light whenever he took it out to fiddle with it. His idea of a stress ball. Esther had long since been incapable of playing the guitar, but she would still sing. His hands would strum the lame few know chords and E would bellow. She preferred songs originally sung by men but Noah thought her voice had sounded more appropriate with the resounding twang. He removed himself from this memory and imagined a world without seeing her fill every corner. A set of eyelashes untangled themselves as he opened his eyes to a new planet. An Earth without Esther. He realized that the world lived on without Molly and it would live on without E. Everything burned inside on a low setting. The fire of grief would never ignite into an uncontrollable rage—E wouldn’t want that. She left explicit instructions not to let him break himself. So he took a deep breath. Noah knew that all he had to do was keep observing and keep collecting.
Tomorrow he would begin the drive to find his Canyon.