TIRED • by Janel Gradowski

Grace was tired.

The kind of tired that rooted in her soul when she was a young mother with an infant, a toddler and another baby on the way. The kind of tired that made her nights dreamless black holes when she worked two jobs after Charlie got laid off from the mill. The kind of tired that made her realize that she was now an old woman.

She stared at the bright sunshine streaming through the window and thought of her eighteenth birthday party. Memories were the only pleasure in her life now that the days slipped by without any worthwhile event to distinguish one from all of the others. How could she remember her eighteenth birthday so clearly, like it happened yesterday? There were eighteen tiny, white candles on the chocolate cake. The flames shifted and danced in the gentle spring breeze as she wished that Charlie would ask her to marry him. By the time her next birthday came, a gold ring with a tiny, sparkling diamond was on her finger. It was still there.

What would her birthday cake, with a candle for each year, look like now? The kitchen workers would need to put it in the fireplace in the lounge before beginning to light the candle wicks. Then the flames would feed off each other like kindling in a campfire. Wax would drip and pool on the frosting, setting into a hard, inedible crust. No wonder the cafeteria only served pieces of thinly iced sheet cake to residents on their birthday. It was just easier for everybody that way. Her choice for the day was chocolate or carrot. She chose chocolate because that was Charlie’s favorite flavor.

“Grace, do you want me to read to you before I leave?” Natalie asked as she flicked the feather duster along the top of the curio cabinet. Swaths of bright pink and pumpkin orange hair twisted through her thick, honey-colored braid. Between her hair, tie dyed t-shirts and brightly colored sneakers, she looked like a tropical bird flitting around the apartment.

“No, honey, I’m just going to watch TV instead.” Grace forced a smile. The young woman meant well. “You go punch out for the day and have some fun tonight.”

“Okay. You have a happy birthday, Miss Grace.”

One wall of the tiny living room was lined with dark oak book shelves overflowing with books. Trashy romances and thin, serious novellas mingled with encyclopedias and regal leather bound classics. A collection of follies since she couldn’t read anymore. Prescription glasses no longer helped. The world looked like a soft-focus photograph all the time. A tear trickled down Grace’s face as she remembered reading. The weight of a book in her hands, the feeling of accomplishment after finishing a novel that stretched to well over 500 pages. Natalie, the aide who helped clean the apartment and keep track of medications, talked about audio books. Just put a CD into the stereo and someone would read the book. No sight required, other than to find the button to turn on the stereo. It just wasn’t the same, though. Just like words, she couldn’t see the icons on the stereo buttons either. How was she supposed to get an inhuman narrator to reread a passage that she wanted to revisit?

Being read to was one more thing that made Grace feel helpless, slipping back into the life of a child. She needed help bathing and getting dressed. Someone else cooked all of her meals. Being read to like a fussy three-year old was a concession to old age that she couldn’t tolerate anymore.

“Oh, Charlie, why did you have to leave me alone?” Grace whispered as she turned on the TV after Natalie left. Ridiculous game shows were pathetic stand-ins for Charlie’s silly jokes and gentle teasing. There was an ice cream social in the rec room soon, but even chocolate ice cream was not enough incentive to leave the apartment. Grace rarely took advantage of the constant rotation of game nights, pseudo parties and mingles. It was difficult to move around, even with the motorized scooter, and she didn’t want to make new friends. She wanted her old friends back. She wanted Charlie back, but dead was dead and there was nothing she could do about it.

The senior complex’s social program was a perk to her children, who had deposited her there then went on with their busy lives on the other side of the country. She didn’t blame them for not visiting often. They had fancy careers and growing families. Why would they spend their hard-earned money to sit with a shriveled old woman who could barely carry on a conversation anymore?

Grace drifted to sleep. She tried to keep Charlie cemented in her mind as she felt her head nod to the side. Dreams were the only way she could be with him now, but between the medications and thick fog of old age she hardly ever dreamed anymore. Naps and night time were tar pits that sucked up her life.

A neighbor’s door slammed. Her eyes fluttered open and she saw Charlie. He stood in front of the bookshelf. His head was tilted slightly as he read the titles on the spines. After selecting a book bound in burnished red leather he turned to look at her. His familiar lopsided smile made her heart tap dance as he crossed the room then set the book on the end table beside her. Charlie settled on the arm of her recliner and cradled her hand between his warm fingers. The long, willowy fingers of a pianist who had supported his family working in dirty, sweltering factories. She glanced down. The liver spots that peppered the back of her hand were gone. Her finger joints were no longer swollen with knots of arthritis. He kissed the top of her head and said, “I’m so happy to see you again, my love.”

Janel Gradowski grew up and still lives in the mitten of Michigan. She finds inspiration in her rather ordinary life and spins fictional tales while watching the seasons change outside her windows. Her work has appeared in many publications, both online and in print. She writes the Culinary Competition Mystery Series, the Bartonville Series of women’s fiction and the 6:1 Series of themed short stories.

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