"This is my play's last scene, here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage's last mile; and my race
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace ... ."
--John Donne, Holy Sonnets
Paulette's dying, and she wonders if you've heard about it yet.
"Look at me!" she invites, pushing her wrists and forearms out from the billowing folds of her coat. "They measured my bone density and all that a few years ago. Now I just need to find a good doctor. Oh, those doctors!"
Her number is called, and Paulette gets up to pick up her box lunch. Her walk to the counter is careful, mincing.
She gets back to the table. "I hate this table. I hope that table in the front opens, and we'll move up there. It's lonely back here."
The opened lunchbox reveals two big slices of fried catfish and a chunk of macaroni and cheese. "I only weighed 105 pounds tops. Now I weigh 85. I go to the doctor and get on the scale, and he won't tell me how much I weigh. He just says "Oh, you're fine, Miss Paulette.' But I ain't."
She eats with small but strong bites, like a sheephead taking the bait from a hook. In the process of being weaned from life, she's sure she's being cheated, but who to complain to?
"By my house, people park all over for the playground. One fella got my Italian up. He said he didn't know that was a driveway. Hah!" Incrementally, a slice of fried catfish is being eaten up. "A lady in a car passes and hollers, "Why don't you paint this house?' And I said, "Well, it's standing here. Why don't you get your butt here and do it?'"
The complaining stretches to include a smart-aleck boy next door for some unclear trespass. "He's just doing that to get my goat. But that's all right. I'll get even. I'll get him."
Threats are interrupted by a tall woman stopping by for a little hug. She embraces Paulette as if she were afraid to hug her too tight. The newcomer gets Paulette's full attention. The struggle against solitude goes ever on, and there are so few allies these days. "You said you'd ride me to church sometimes," Paulette wheedles, but the tall woman is fending her off by changing the subject, asking isn't it true that she lives close to this sandwich shop?
Yes, Paulette concedes, although she stays away from home all she can. "I hate to go there," she says with a shudder so exaggerated as to be funny. She's like that. She strives to be miserable, to convince you of her misery, but she does it almost too good-naturedly, as if she were setting you up for some great punch line. There's a lightness to her face and her story, and you get the feeling that no matter how miserable she was, she would not cry. Because she has lived long enough that she really can't believe in the injustice of things anymore.
The tall woman is having some trouble disengaging from Paulette, and that affords time for the memory of a Camus essay, the one where he notes the loneliness of the old lady who stays home while everyone else is going to the show and the old man nobody listens to any more. Funny for Camus to find his way here among the box lunches of macaroni and catfish.
Paulette wants to move to the now-empty table by the door and wants to get a multi-colored snowball for dessert. While she waits for the ice machine to work, she keeps repeating, "If I could just find me one of them doctors who'll tell me what's wrong with me." Eventually you come to realize that no doctor says what's wrong because there is nothing wrong, at least nothing that anybody can do anything about. Just too many calendars have been nailed up and taken down.
She takes the top off the pretty snowball using her lips only, no teeth. "I lost my husband. I miss him so much," she says matter-of-factly. Paulette's husband has been dead for 19 years, and she still talks like he just walked out the door. He was a musician and the first name he came to be known by was a musician name, not his real name, the one he always used when they were alone.
"My sister married a piano player, too. When I was working for my parents' store, my brother-in-law saw me waiting on Eddie, and he told me later, "I know now why you been taking an hour to get ready to go to work.' I was shy. Not like I am now. That's how my parents raised me. A good girl.
"Later, when Eddie was dying, he tried to prepare me. He'd say "Little thing, you gotta assert yourself.'" Paulette is told that she is assertive now. "Yeah, but I hate the way I am now." After a moment, she thrusts her arms out away from her coat. Her hands, wrists, forearms are out there. Paulette finds a big vein with an index finger and begins to push it around. "Lookit that!" she cries lightly but heavily. "You think I don't know what's going on?"