The Disappearing Woman (a Short Story)

Once a week for an hour, I visit Mrs. Jenkyns. 

Why do I go to her dark, smelly apartment? To pad my resume.

The volunteer activity I actually wanted – teaching jazz dance to poor kids – conflicted with my class schedule. So this semester I’m stuck visiting a senior citizen.

I’m supposed to be learning from the experience. Apparently, she has some wisdom that will benefit me. But Mrs. Jenkyns doesn’t talk much. When I show up at her place, each time a few minutes late, she greets me with a vacant look past my shoulder. I’m not even sure she knows my name.

Her apartment is in dusty shadows, the blinds down. I think she douses herself in hand sanitizer. Her perfume has an antiseptic sting.

I would probably like her if she was a cute granny, rosy and plump and gently chiding, sharing harmless jokes and pleasant anecdotes. If she was full of gratitude for visits and laid out a tray of cookies on the coffee table for me. But Mrs. Jenkyns is mostly silent and looks like she’s made out of broomsticks.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve visited her. (Is today the sixth time?) Nothing has changed about her apartment, except maybe there are more flecks of food congealing on the kitchen counter. I sit on one end of a dull red sofa, and she lowers herself into an adjacent armchair of the same color. 

The same photo album, with the cracked mauve cover, awaits us on the coffee table. It’s full of people Mrs. Jenkyns has mostly forgotten about. She has told me aborted stories about them. These stories tend to hit walls in her memory and crumble into silence.

Today, she lingers over a photo of a thin, middle-aged blonde lady who bears a faint resemblance to her. Now and then, she stares at the wall and mutters something. This is how we’re going to pad the hour.

I notice one difference with the album: It has fewer photos compared to last week. I’m pretty sure there are more empty sleeves. But I don’t know if that’s true, or if I’m just inventing a difference because of how bored I am.

To give life support to our conversation, I ask, “Are any photos missing?”

She stares some more at the middle-aged lady before flipping to other pages in the album. Her hands then drift to each side of her body, her fingers stroking the armchair cushion. When her hands rise again, she’s clutching a remote.

“Why don’t you watch TV?” she murmurs. With a trembling finger, she presses the red power button on the remote, and a talk show pops up, featuring three women with babies on their laps. 

Mrs. Jenkyns passes me the remote and levers herself off the chair. She totters away, broomstick arms swinging, and disappears through her bedroom door, which she shuts behind her.

For several seconds I stare at the door, incredulous. Has she really let me off the hook? Can I spend the rest of the hour just watching TV?

The talk show is about surrogate babies who were never claimed. I flip through the channels but soon end up back where I started, because it seems she only has a basic cable package.

I tune out the show and scroll through my phone. As the hour inches to a close, I glance uneasily at the bedroom door and wonder if Mrs. Jenkyns will come out. Is she taking a nap?

Maybe she’s dead.

I picture myself poking my head into her cold, stale bedroom. I see her lying under a pink quilt. It’s nearly flat over her thin body. Her bedroom is silent, and it has become a mausoleum.

As I imagine reporting her death to the police, she emerges from her bedroom right on the hour. Without looking at me, she thanks me for coming by.

Another week passes, and I’m back at her apartment for the same old, same old. The situation is depressing, when you think about it. So I try not to. I try not to wonder if one day, decades from now, I’ll also be dependent on a college student for a weekly dose of human contact.

She offers me something to drink this time, but I’m not going to take any chances putting my lips on anything she owns. The glasses on her countertop look cloudy. One mug is brimming with a black, lumpy liquid, maybe prune juice she’s left out for too long.

I settle on the sofa, she on the armchair, and the album with the cracked cover gets another look through. More photos are missing. Multiple pages in a row are blank. I wait for Mrs. Jenkyns to explain, but she maintains her vacant silence.

Among the remaining photos, one is half out of its sleeve, as if it’s trying to escape. It shows a young, thin blonde woman staring bug-eyed at the camera.

I lock eyes with the young woman, and my shoulders suddenly bunch up, as if someone has laid a hand on the back of my neck. I also have blonde hair, and for a few seconds, I think I’m looking at a photo of myself. But it isn’t me, of course. It’s just another blonde girl.

“Why don’t you watch TV,” Mrs. Jenkyns says. She scoops up the remote from the armchair cushion and jabs the power button. Shadowy figures pop up on the screen. They’re skulking through a forest, against the backdrop of a full moon fringed with clouds.

“This looks weird,” I say.

Mrs. Jenkyns leans forward and flicks the album shut. Then she heads for her bedroom, moving with more vigor than I’ve ever seen, her broomstick arms swinging steadily.

The program has something to do with witches. Maybe it’s a documentary about witch trials in history? I can’t focus well. The apartment has an airlessness that presses into my brain.

With a grunt, I reach for the remote, which Mrs. Jenkyns dropped on the other end of the sofa. I cycle through the channels – seems like fewer channels than last time – and again I’m looking at footage of shadowy figures and a flickering fire. A soft, flat voice discusses powers attributed to witches, like mind control and body swaps.

I mute the TV and turn to my phone. The Wi-Fi connection is painfully slow today. Websites take longer to load, and I spend the rest of my time in Mrs. Jenkyns’ apartment sighing impatiently and feeling a mix of restlessness and lethargy.

She emerges from her bedroom a few minutes after the hour is up. I blink at her, and my eyes feel gritty.

“Thanks for stopping by,” she says. “I’ll see you next week.”

I don’t remember walking out of her apartment. But somehow I’m in the second floor hallway, with its carpet cleaner smell, and my head and legs feel heavy. I tell myself I’m not coming back.

For a couple of days, I hold firmly to that resolution. I barely think about Mrs. Jenkyns. She’s buried somewhere in my brain, locked in her apartment as if in a moldering box.

But misgivings creep into me. Mrs. Jenkyns starts tottering into my thoughts at all times – when I’m about to fall asleep, and when I’m showering, and even in the middle of a math test, so that my answer doesn’t add up.

Won’t it look bad, I think, if I back out, leaving a lonely senior citizen in the lurch? I made a commitment, didn’t I? I don’t want to be a flake. I want to see things through.

It won’t be much longer until the semester is over. I can stick it out.

And so I go to her again. With a lurking dread I can’t explain, I arrive at her door for the next scheduled visit. It springs open shortly after I knock. Her eyes meet mine, briefly and searingly, before she peers into the hallway, as if to make sure that nobody has followed me. I step into a cloud of her antiseptic perfume, and my eyes water. I fumble my way to the couch and lower myself onto it unsteadily, while she waits for me perched on her armchair.

“You look tired,” she says. “Do you want some coffee?”

“Sure,” I manage, feeling a wateriness in my bones, as if I’m coming down with a bad cold.

I rest my eyes, and open them to find her standing before me with a mug full of dark liquid. I reach for it, and it sears my palms. My hands shake as I bring it to my lips.

It doesn’t taste like coffee. There’s a suggestion of a coffee flavor, but it overlays something faintly metallic. If I didn’t know any better, I would think it was blood.

It also makes me feel sleepy, which coffee shouldn’t do. The mug goes slack in my hands, and I feel it getting taken from me.

When I open my eyes again, the TV is on. A figure in a purple cloak, the top half of its face swallowed in a hood, is facing the camera. I’m pretty sure it’s a woman. The volume is off, and for a minute I stare at her purple painted mouth as it contracts and contorts. In the background is nothing but a black screen.

The remote is within reach, and with a trembling finger I increase the volume.

“You’re awake,” the figure is saying, in a woman’s pleasant lilting voice, “but you have no life. You don’t ask what’s in store for you, because you already know: There’s nothing but this. No one is coming. No one cares. And you’ve stopped caring too. So go lie down. That’s the only thing to do. Pass the time, until you pass from life.”

With a crackle, the hooded figure vanishes into static. 

I lower the volume, my hand shaking even more. Then I try switching channels. All static. The TV hisses like a noisy stream. It displays nothing but a river of noise.

Exhaustion washes over me. I’m on an ocean shore, and waves tug at my ankles. Slowly, they drag me from the beach into the water.

I rise, wavering, and want nothing more than to lie down for a while.

From under the bedroom door, there’s a glow. I aim for it with faltering steps. When I push the door open, I find an inviting scene. A warm bedroom, a pink quilt on the bed, a lamp with a peach pink shade on the nightstand, a folded newspaper and reading glasses beside it.

Leaning on the bed, I toe off my shoes and pull aside the quilt. The bed murmurs when I lie down, and my whole body sighs. After tucking the quilt around me, I settle the glasses on my face and reach for the paper.

It’s a local paper, and I skim it with a mind that’s already halfway to a nap. There’s a story about sewer repairs, another about a city councilman’s arrest for drunk driving. A new exhibit at an art museum, a massive cleanup of a park, and a feel-good piece about college students volunteering in the community. Photos show a dark-haired young man tutoring in an after-school literacy program and a thin blonde girl teaching jazz dance to disadvantaged kids.

I close my eyes in sudden pain and set the newspaper aside. It slithers to the floor. I remove my glasses and rub at my eyes, but the pain only settles deeper into my head. The pillow has a faintly antiseptic smell, and part of me finds it familiar and comforting. Another part of me recoils from it with a silent scream.

There’s something important I have forgotten. It’s lost to me. I have been robbed. Or maybe I’m just a silly old woman, afraid of accepting her own frailty. I’m at home, exactly where I need to be.

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