Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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from Effusive Greetings to Friends

One time Ms. Hicks saw somebody die

it wasn’t anybody she was close to
or knew very well it was her Aunt
Wilma Ransom an old maid they said
she was & she’d asked the family
to let her come do her dying with
her own people she wasn’t particular
which ones took her home just didn’t
want to have to die with strangers
being paid to watch her do it.
Hicks was thirteen difficult even
for herself to live with a pouter
of colossal intensity her mother
called her hoping some wry diction
would make the child more bearable
it didn’t it was then her brothers
stopped calling her Hazel they said
she wasn’t that sweet little girl
anymore not that that was ever
she was but she & Aunt Wilma had
got along all right the three or
four times the lady had visited
over the years & so Ms. Hicks didn’t
object when her father suggested
she take on the deathwatch a.k.a.
the task of tending to Aunt Wilma
during the weeks of her attempt at
making a graceful exit Ms.
didn’t confess to them that death
& Aunt Wilma & Elvis were all she
could find in the world to respect
in those days & she worried that
Elvis might crumble under too much
scrutiny she thought it worth her
while to cozy up to the old lady &
to death mostly just to find out if
the ten thousand lies of school
family dinner & church & manners
& building character & hygiene &
everything in moderation & getting
a good night’s sleep & President
Reagan & zip-a-dee-doo-dah etc. applied
to them she was pretty sure death
was rock solid in its integrity
but she worried Aunt Wilma might
reveal churchy inclinations
hidden back when she & Hazel had
enjoyed iced tea & swinging on
the back porch glider together &
Aunt Wilma had invited Hazel to
play her trumpet for her several
times & Hazel was just learning &
wasn’t all that far beyond scales
& Old MacDonald but Aunt Wilma
smiled listened with her head
& rocked the glider with her feet
while Hazel stood in front of her
& performed her recital piece it
would make Ms. Hicks cringe now
because it must have sounded like
Satan was her trumpet teacher but
Aunt Wilma talked to her like she
was almost a grown-up & said it
was funny about practicing if
kept at it you got better whether
you wanted to or not & then the
old lady told her about taking
piano lessons when she was a girl
& how she hated it until one day
she didn’t mean to but it turned
out she loved three or four bars
of a Russian peasant dance she was
trying to learn for her recital
made me cry she told Hazel but it
was the sweetest crying like the
music had just announced to me
that I could make this beautiful
sound—it was in A major I remember
that—any time I wanted to & Aunt
Wilma trailed off then but Ms. Hicks
had it in her mind & kept it there
like a bracelet or a locket
in her underwear drawer & so when
Aunt Wilma Ransom arrived at the
Hicks’s house driven there by her
cousin Stanley in his new maroon
Buick Ms. Hicks came out to help
her move in & right away the old
lady looked her over & didn’t quite
manage a smile but nevertheless the
two of them let each other know
remembered the other & those iced
tea afternoons on the back porch &
Ms. Hicks felt like her heart had
shifted in her chest so she carried
one of the suitcases while Stanley
& her father carried the old lady
into the house between them even
though they said she didn’t weigh
enough to make it a two-man job
that’s how they did it anyway &
somehow Aunt Wilma made Ms. Hicks
understand she was half-amused &
half-humiliated by the spectacle
she & the men were making she asked
them very softly please not to show
her sit-downer as they ever so
awkwardly carried her up the porch
steps & Ms. Hicks stepped close
told her she’d hold on to her robe
& keep anything from showing & so
that’s how it was with them in the
days to come Ms. Hicks ceased her
pouting even around her brothers &
the family let her be the boss of
how things were to go with Aunt
Wilma’s dying & it was as if a new
& improved human girl had
into Hazel Hicks’s body & as Ms.
Hicks thinks about it these many
years later she sees it as a time
when her life took on an intensity
she might never have known if not
for Aunt Wilma & the dwindling of
her spirit her breath her ability
to move or speak & yet—Ms. Hicks
sees it now—they had such a
understanding of each other that
actually speaking aloud would have
been a comedown from what they
could manage by moving their eyes
their lips their eyebrows Aunt
Wilma became her out-of-the-body
instructor or maybe she was her
in-the-body instructor because so
much of what Ms. Hicks had to do
to appease Aunt Wilma’s body from
which the old lady felt somewhat
bemusedly detached as if the old
thing had been bestowed upon her
by a whimsical creator once Ms.
Hicks was pretty sure Aunt Wilma
meant her to understand she’d have
preferred a turtle’s body if they’d
asked her at the time they were
them out & this was when it was time
to change Aunt Wilma’s diaper & turn
her & the old lady kind of flapped
her hand at the same time she pulled
in her chin so that for that instant
she looked enough like a turtle that
Ms. Hicks laughed aloud & Aunt Wilma
blinked at her so that Ms. Hicks from
that moment on stopped being
by the waste Aunt Wilma generated they’d
had some vocabulary trouble until Aunt
Wilma let Ms. Hicks know it was okay to
call it puke & piss & shit Ms. Hicks
thought neither one of them much liked
those words but in the back room where
Aunt Wilma lived now & her death lived
there too right beside her in the bed
those chunks of language became
itself & mostly they didn’t have to say
them aloud though there was less & less
of the waste Aunt Wilma couldn’t manage
more than a spoonful or two of oatmeal
with brown sugar & cream & a couple of
sips of tea with honey in it her face
more & more the same expression eager
& serious but private & earnest like she
was a schoolgirl silently memorizing
multiplication tables Ms. Hicks once
thought she saw her lips move ever so
slightly but maybe she just imagined it
& truth was she sat with Aunt Wilma so
many hours & even took to sleeping there
on a pallet beside the bed that it felt
like they were becoming the same person
like Aunt Wilma was just dissolving into
her & Ms. Hicks was doing the
and feeling for both of them the other
family members stayed more & more away
from them too her mother & father said
it saddened them too much to see Aunt
Wilma just fading away like she was
they could remember a time when that
woman could can ten bushels of peaches
in a day & still put a chicken dinner
on the table & Ms. Hicks’s
never said why they stayed away but
she knew it was because death scared
the wee-wee out of them & maybe they
didn’t know it but Ms. Hicks did & it
made her all the more fiercely attached
to Aunt Wilma oh it disturbed her when
she’d feel how cool Aunt Wilma’s skin
would get like she was practicing being
dead Ms. Hicks was constantly
up her hands arms shoulders tucking her
in again & again but it wasn’t the kind
of fear that kept her useless brothers
away & it wasn’t that she didn’t want
her Aunt Wilma to die Aunt Wilma had
all along made her understand death was
what she yearned for one day the old
lady had said aloud out of nowhere Not
heaven just death please & yes she
have been just trying out the words but
Ms. Hicks was right there by the bed &
so she knew Aunt Wilma had wanted her to
hear what she said & Ms. Hicks liked it
that they had that goal between them for
some reason it made everything easier Ms.
Hicks expected there’d be some churchy
talking when death did finally arrive
& she wasn’t about to pick a fight
the pastor or the uncles aunts & cousins
who were inclined to insert praise Jesus
into anything they said like Pass the salt
praise Jesus what Aunt Wilma’s saying just
death please did for Ms. Hicks was make
her ready to let all that foolishness
wash over her like rain off a duck’s back
as her father had liked to advise her back
when her brothers tried to tease her
crying but now she was pretty sure they
wouldn’t do that anymore she felt wildly
strong this one sunny morning she’d decided
just to lie in the bed beside Aunt Wilma
because her breathing had got to be so slow
she needed to be close to her to know just
exactly when her auntie’s body would change
from something alive to something dead
she’d given Aunt Wilma her bath the
before & put lotion on her skin all over &
brushed her hair & made it look nice & when
she saw Aunt Wilma’s face this morning she’d
known it was just about to happen the way
her eyelids had released themselves down
over her eyes excusing those eyes from ever
wanting or having to look at the world any-
more it made perfect sense to Ms. Hicks &
she knew it wouldn’t to anybody else
saw them in that bed together that that’s
where she needed to be it wasn’t even
anything she had to think about she didn’t
pause even a second after the thought came
to her & she told herself she’d never confess
to anybody as long as she lived that if she
could’ve had her way she’d have gone right
over with Aunt Wilma she’d have stayed with
her wherever it was she was about to go.  

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