The Trouble with Life Enrichment Is

Short Stories

By Marike Stucky       

   She looked at me as if to say, “Well duh, you little shit.”

            I had asked this woman sitting on the curb, whose face was like a dried apricot—all orange and crinkly—if anyone was home at this time of day. Of course someone was home. This home was always occupied. The smoke drifting up from the woman’s cigarette seared my nostrils—I’m allergic to cigarette smoke—and drove me to action. I turned from the apricot woman and jogged up the steps leading to the house. Door. Handle. Open.

            “Hello?” I asked into the dismal entryway of house number 314. There was a staircase filling the space to my right; a living room devoid of the living on my left. A few potted plants dotted the living room—they had long past died. There were some squashy arm chairs in there, all with horrible floral prints. I was standing in the foyer. I’d left footprints in the dust as I had traipsed in.

             “Uh, Madge? You in here?”

            Madge was pretty much a recluse. She went out to get groceries, collect her mail, and visit her dying grandson, but that was it. She was my mother’s project, but I was supposed to enrich her life.

            The silence that greeted my question was heavy and absolute. God, I thought. Was she dead in there? I mean, she was pretty old, like ninety or something. Before I could start to panic about trying to find a corpse in house number 314, a little creak sounded from the upper floor. A slight chill made its way down my spine. That place—where everything seemed dead or in the process of dying—gave me the creeps, creaks and all. Madge was a bit creepy even. At least until you got to know her (I hadn’t). This was what I told myself anyway. It must’ve been heredity that told me things like that. And by heredity, I mean my mother.

            Madge appeared at the top step of the long wooden staircase, her dark gray face regarding the steps carefully, like she expected them to jump out from under her as she climbed down. She didn’t seem to perceive that I existed in that moment. Like she was just headed down to feed Lucifer, her pet cat. The cat I had heard about from my mother. My mom did this kind of charity work all of the time but with less mentally stable people than Madge, if that’s even possible. I had been forced to come to house 314 that day because of my mother, the Queen of Social Justice in this city. She was also my social welfare policy teacher, which really sucked. She made me do things. Like her program Life Enrichment, which, in my opinion, was way too much to ask of kids my age. It was her responsibility to ensure life enrichment for the community, so she had thought the class was a perfect opportunity to spread her love. I say “her love” because it was not my love. I was not her; I was not a professional social worker. I was a kid. I was a stupid, uncaring kid. I did not care about Madge. I cared about Friday nights. I cared about excessively violent video games.

            I remembered my mother lecturing me, even as this young, guiltless kid. I would be in the sandbox or something like that, fingering through the sand, trying to ignore her. I would look at anything but her face; a little patch of sand stuck to my knee maybe. She’d say “Don’t forget about the kids without bikes, Angie. You know, if they can live without fancy red bikes, then you can, too.” Or: “Just remember to thank God for our meal. Some kids can’t afford food and they still thank God.” Or: “Eat all of your carrots, Angela. Some kids aren’t entitled to carrots.”

            I had left my mom with the words, “Fuck this shit” as I had climbed into my car and proceeded to drive to house number 314. So, byeah. Fuck this shit.

            I couldn’t ride on that mentality at Madge’s, however. I was here—I couldn’t just leave. I would have to man up, as they say, and do my duty to the community.

            By this time, Madge had made her way successfully down the stairs and to a point approximately four inches from my face. I was surprised to find she was about my height. Her face revealed nothing but time—her skin looked like dry, whisper-thin parchment. It looked ready to drop off with the next breeze. Clearly I had been watching too many horror movies because I envisioned Madge’s elderly innocence disappearing before me; a breeze carrying her skin away, replacing it with a monstrous face and fangs that would gleefully munch on my intestines after ripping off my head.

            Anyway. We were standing there, face-to-face. I was feeling a little weak in the knees. I knew something important was coming.

            Madge’s eyes narrowed. She pursed her lips in a way that suggested she knew I was just like all of the other kids. They just didn’t get her; they just didn’t understand. She was nothing but an old, creepy recluse to them. I was suddenly filled with this intense desire to get to know Madge, to prove her wrong. I was not like those other kids. I could be decent, after you got to know me.

            I tried out a smile on her. She did not return it. Damn, this woman was tough, I was thinking. What could I do to lighten her up? I momentarily imagined myself cracking some sort of off-color joke or retreating towards the door, shimmying as I did, but I told myself she would totally fetch her assault rifle (which she was rumored to keep handy in a broom closet somewhere on the first floor) and gun me down. Madge didn’t seem to be the type keen on dancing. Or humor. Or anything. Except maybe Lucifer.

            “I hear you have a cat.”

            Madge opened those pursed lips and stated, point blank, “I have no cat.”

            Fuck. This was only getting harder to bear.

            “Um. Do you like cats at all?” She seemed to detect that I was trying really hard to connect. It seemed to amuse her.

            “I used to,” she said with a slight grin. “Until one of them nearly killed me.” She did not elaborate further.

 

            I visited Madge as often as I was assigned to. Our interactions became standard: I would yell into her dusty old house, she would creak in response, trundle slowly down the stairs, and stand squarely before me. I would say, “I hear you have a cat,” and she would purse her lips expertly and reply, “I have no cat,” and tell me she had enjoyed cats previously, until one had attempted to murder her. I would then nod my head politely, acknowledging this greeting as appropriate and normal and sit myself on one of her lumpy armchairs. I would do homework, usually geometry. She would knit. We would enrich one another’s lives. We felt very accomplished.

            After about a month of this, Madge started elaborating on how her cat had gone about trying to kill her.

            “He was right there, looming over my bed, with an evil grin on his face.” She had begun to gesture wildly at this point. She seemed to be miming her cat, bony fingers hooked like claws. “The next thing I knew we were in the kitchen. He was sitting in the top half of the refrigerator—the freezer section—for some reason—must’ve left it open. And he’s flinging frozen vegetables at me. He’s digging his claws into the nearest frozen whatever and hurling it toward me. I took a full package of frozen peas to the face—imagine! I shut that fridge on that cat as fast as I could. The next day, I thawed out the body and left it in my dumpster.”

            I would always respond to stories like this (which changed from visit to visit) with silent awe and disbelief, which she seemed to enjoy immensely. It was like the lights were flickering on in her eyes when I acknowledged her story with a response. The stories were our routine, our rhythm. I guess it felt sort of good. Normal, even.

            There was hardly ever a glitch in the system, except for this one time. She was finishing up a story of how her cat had found its way into her broom closet (which I discovered did not in fact house an assault rifle). It had jumped out at her with the intent of scaring her to death. She had hissed ferociously at it, and it had in turn died on the spot from fright.

            I thought that was sort of bad-ass and responded with “Really? Fu-ck!”

            Her face sagged at my words, like the emotion was drained from her face with some sort of tubing I was unable to see.

            I was horrified.

            She was horrified.

            We stared, horrified, at each other for what seemed like a whole 5 minutes. Her mouth was slightly open, as if she wanted to say something but was too shocked to let anything out.

            I was opening my mouth to apologize when her face started working again and she began to laugh. Laugh. I was totally caught off guard. She was laughing at me. Within the next moment, I realized she was laughing with me (even if that sounds corny and all). It was a strange sort of realization, one that pleased me deeply. I started to chuckle too. Crazy old woman.

 

            The apricot woman was back today, waving her cigarette lazily at me as I strode up to number 314. I looked at her. She seemed to say, “Well duh, you little shit,” but I couldn’t decipher the meaning of it. Why would she have looked at me like that? What was her problem? I mean, I guess it was because she was homeless or whatever. But God. Go fuck yourself.

            She must have gotten my drift because she scooted further down her curb. She had her arms squeezed tightly around her shoulders. She was looking away. Silly apricot.

            I was at the door by this point, standing before it, feeling Madge on the other side.            I wrenched open the door and stumbled into the foyer, making creaks that reverberated around the whole building of number 314. The silence was heavy as always. I waited for Madge’s creak of response. I had made so much noise. Surely she had heard me.

            “Madge? You home?”

            More silence. Maybe she was out getting groceries, more frozen peas for her cat to chuck.

            I thought about leaving number 314. Maybe this wasn’t worth it. An image of my mother popped into my head. In my vision, my mother was young, ten maybe—I must’ve gotten that picture of her from a family scrapbook or something. She was quiet. Her pale eyes were imploring. Not as a little girl’s eyes would implore, but as…an animal would implore with its eyes. Do this for me, and I’ll continue to live.

            A rustling sound was coming from Madge’s broom closet. My mind immediately went to “cat.” That’s what it had to be. Trying to kill Madge again. Typical.

            A smaller part of my brain urged me to go ahead and leave. To fuck it. This wasn’t all that important. Madge was gone, and a cat was in her closet. Big whoop. But I didn’t. I didn’t leave. Something important was about to happen. I took a step toward the closet, some internal force pushing me forward. I resisted the push for a moment.

            Should I have gone to get the apricot woman? Would that have been helpful? She could’ve burned the house down with that cigarette of hers. It would have spared me the pain of ever seeing this place again.

            It was just a damn cat, probably. Or Madge had got stuck in there somehow—old people do things like that. I purposefully moved toward the broom closet. Insistent scratching sounded from inside the door.

            “Madge, you in there?” My hand was on the knob. I turned it. The door creaked open.

            Out fell Madge, stiff like a concrete statue and darker gray than I could have possibly imagined her to be. She landed with a sickening thump; something absorbed by the wood, unlike the creaks. A mangy tomcat ran out, previously fenced in by the brooms. It did not seem to notice I existed. It made its way to the foyer, then to the front door. It scampered out. I heard the words, “Well duh, you little shit,” drift from the outside.

            I stared down at the dark gray form, completely and utterly stunned.

            What the hell was I supposed to do with this?

            My brain was working double time. I frantically looked around me, at the swirls of dust caught in beams of light that snuck in through the window panes. At the dead potted plants; at the horrible floral prints. Hysteria began to bubble up in my throat. I’m not sure if my eyes filled with tears, but there was a breaking in my chest that produced so much pain that—

            I imagined Madge, crouched in the broom closet, minutes, maybe hours earlier, with a devilish grin on her face. The tom was nestled under the crook of her arm. She was waiting for me, to scare the living Jesus out of me. What a clever joke she had thought up. We would have laughed about this for many more visits to come. This was life enrichment at its finest. I felt a hint of a smile twitch on my lips. Jesus, there was this woman, dead, and I was smiling?

            It appeared that Madge had died at the height of her brilliance. I stood there, dumbly, completely at a loss.

            My mother would kill me for doing this.

            Madge was done. I was done. So, a stupid grin still plastered on my face, I left.   

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