THE BUREAU • by Chris Antenen

It wasn’t like having a manicure by a professional in a fancy salon or even the Full Set, Walk-ins Welcome next to the supermarket, but Annie wanted to look her best. She blew on her nails while she pulled her closet door open.
She had decided on the silver sandals. They had low heels for walking and looked good with her new blue shift. The instructions said no jewelry, but she planned to wear the crystal pendant anyway, even if she had to drop it into the tray before she went through building security.

She pulled the shift over her head and slipped into the sandals, shook her white hair into place, then stood before the mirror. Not bad for seventy-five, she thought, and some anger rose, a lot of anger. Remission was supposed to mean something—not healed, but something–along the lines of hopeful. She had held the hands of friends in treatment for Stage IV. Annie’s heart was beating fast. The pendant sparkled. Ten minutes remained before she had to leave.

She was going to an appointment with the Atlanta Branch of the Federal Medical Resources Clinic, in a building eight blocks from her apartment. There was no free-parking facility there and only one public entrance to the building, so she had decided to walk. Now she made the decision not to look in the mirror again. Instead, she took a small blue card from her billfold and slipped it into her pocket.

Along with her car keys, her cell phone, and a note for her daughter Lily, Annie put the billfold into her purse and lay it on the table by the front door. She donned a light jacket, set the lock, and stepped out into sunshine.

The smells of autumn reached her as she turned onto the sidewalk past beds of mums and asters, bushy lantana leaning over them. The warm October day was exceptional–trees still green, only a few leaf edges turning. A welcome breeze brought some sweet-smelling gusts and she caught a whiff of burning leaves–probably her imagination–but the odor made her hungry for hot dogs and burned marshmallows on a stick.

Annie wondered if recalling happy memories would be possible there. Cancer drugs played with one’s taste buds and memory. Chemo brain they called it. Certain foods tasted like pennies and she already had trouble with nouns in conversation, often hesitating when trying to recall names of people–or things—or places.

Folks hurried by. Some smiled and some ignored her. She walked with steady steps, neither fast nor slow. She was accustomed to living in the city where cars and trucks sped by and buses passed too closely, spewing their noxious exhaust.

Her trip was mainly over sidewalks, past apartment complexes like hers and aged brick homes on large lots, with iron fences, thick hedges, and acres of winter periwinkle. It was too late for flower scents, but she recognized the glossy jasmine leaves and the tangled vines of honeysuckle as they climbed over fences and in among the azalea and rose bushes. Once she had loved to garden, but lately only enjoyed the efforts of others. Now and then she bought five-dollar bouquets from street vendors.

As Annie drew close to the business section, she had to walk in the street or through parking lots, and when she reached the small park across from the federal building, a wide bench beckoned her. Her legs were beginning to ache, so she wanted to rest for a few minutes—catch her breath.

Under a tree thirty feet away from where she sat, a young couple munched on sandwiches and held large pads of paper against their knees. She could tell the girl was working in chalk because she was making broad strokes and blowing away the excess. The boy was hunched down, elbows pulled into his task. The girl pointed to something on his drawing. When he nodded and pushed her hand away, she laughed and took a bite of her sandwich before resuming her work. Ignoring happy memories of the hours she had spent in front of an easel, Annie wished for the candy bar she had left at home in her purse.

Farther away, Annie heard a baby cry. Looking off into space and with one hand in his pocket, a young man pushed a stroller around a small fountain. When the baby stopped crying, he sat down on a bench, but kept the stroller moving slowly back and forth as he pulled a cigarette pack from his shirt pocket.

She looked away, remembering special days in the small town where they had first lived. How many times had she had heard Lily’s questioning voice, “Get the mail after while?” cheerful words of anticipation. After their lunch each day, Annie would walk with three-year-old Lily to the park, holding her hand, the child skipping along beside her. Then after playing on the swings and bouncing on the little orange hippo that she loved, Lily would be eager to continue their stroll to a small grocery store.

There she would squat in front of the candy case for more minutes than Annie wanted to wait, but then with her bag of candy in hand, Lily would trudge willingly to their last stop, the post office. On cold or rainy days they made the trip in the car, and that was special, too, because everything with Lily was special.

Annie turned on the bench to watch the parade of cars and pedestrians, but a glance at the large clock above the federal building told her she had only fifteen minutes, time enough to walk across the street, into the building, and up the elevator to the sixth floor for her appointment at the Bureau of Voluntary Euthanasia.

Chris Antenen retired from teaching in 1960 and years later from the University of Georgia, where she was a mainframe systems designer for administrative data processing. Somewhere in there she and her husband raised three children. Two of her stories are in print online and she’s editing final versions of all her stories for publication. She writes sporadically on her non-fiction blog with a range from mindless to thoughtful. The theme for “The Bureau” was suggested by a friend.

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