Photograph by Rusty Hatfield via Flickr

Promotional brochure photograph of furnished single-occupancy apartment at Bright Pines Assisted Living and Care Facility. Forest green carpet, mauve armchair and matching couch, wooden kitchen table and chairs. All independent living apartments come furnished.

It was understood that everyone would eventually migrate to one of the two nursing home wings, and the process was easier if they didn’t need to shuffle couches and chairs and beds.

When he had the stroke, Arthur was looking at thirty-year-old pictures of his late wife in the nude. His apartment was exactly like the one in the brochure photograph, except for the naked pictures of his wife on the floor. At least that’s what Harold said. He lived in the apartment next to Arthur, was the second person in Arthur’s room after Arthur pressed the Medic Alert button. Harold held Arthur’s hand while the attendant nurse called for an ambulance. Harold told me he didn’t look at the pictures until after the paramedics had left with Arthur.

“Naked as the day she was born,” said Harold. “I’d never seen the photos before, but Arthur mentioned them once or twice. You should have seen his wife when she was still with us. A real looker. She passed on about eight years ago.”

I never wanted to see pictures of Arthur’s wife, clothed or otherwise. I’d had a crush on Arthur for three years and envied her as it was, especially since she’d known him when he was young, and I’d known him when he was seventy-seven.

One of two publicity photographs of me swallowing a sword. It’s sixteen inches long, one of my shorter blades, but that’s not apparent because it’s in my mouth. I wear black pants and a teal cotton blouse.

I also had a pink blouse and a violet blouse, bright colors so people would focus on my top half. During the weekends, I performed on college campuses and at Renaissance festivals. I sent my publicity pictures to shows where I was scheduled to appear, but they cost way too much to have taken and I was never sure if they were worth it. I could have just sent Polaroids if the fair organizers needed proof of my abilities. I knew people didn’t go to fairs just to see me. I was part of a larger spectacle.

The day before Arthur’s stroke I’d been in Cincinnati at another Renaissance fair. The performance went well. I swallowed five swords and was paid five hundred dollars. The next day it hurt to drink orange juice and coffee.

The day before Arthur’s stroke I’d been in Cincinnati at another Renaissance fair.

The performance went well. I swallowed five swords and was paid five hundred dollars. The next day it hurt to drink orange juice and coffee. I couldn’t even get down a piece of toast before work. I knew my throat muscles had been too tight. I’d probably forced the sword without realizing it, so my chest was bruised. I’d be on a diet of soup and yogurt and ice cream and cottage cheese for a few days. Could have been worse. A couple times I’d nicked my throat with the point of a sword and gotten an infection, had to go on antibiotics for a week.

Brochure photograph of Bright Pines Assisted Living and Care Facility, panoramic view of building exterior. The facility is one story high, has a bunch of fluffy evergreen bushes planted in front.

There were no pine trees by Bright Pines, just the bushes and four obviously plastic rabbits crouched under them.

On the drive to work, the job at which I actually earned money, I consoled myself over my weekend injury. It was Monday, there would be chicken soup with Chloe’s homemade noodles for lunch, so I wouldn’t have to put meatloaf and beef broth in the blender and whiz together something I could swallow.

Chloe was the morning chef at Bright Pines. Together we opened seven-pound cans of fruit cocktail, stirred gallons of spaghetti sauce, and chopped handfuls of chives. We were firm believers in garnishes—parsley springs on each slice of lasagna, lemon wedges with the broiled fish, a couple kinds of sauces on the meatloaf if we had time. We knew some of the pleasure in food was presentation, the thrill found in the appearance of the plate. Chloe and I didn’t let the fact we worked in a nursing home stop us from being idealists. It spurred us on. We wanted to serve food that made people think of catering rather than a cafeteria. We wanted to impress.

Cooking was my second love, though. Arthur was third. Sword swallowing came first. I’d have made it career but couldn’t get enough engagements in the area, would have needed to travel a lot. I knew I’d been born fifty years too late. Maybe that’s why I liked working with old people, being around folks who remembered the sorts of things I wished I’d experienced. By the time I was in grade school, most sideshows had dried up, so I had to content myself with weekend immortality. I wasn’t much different than artists and actors and dancers and poets who simultaneously wait on tables and for their moment in the limelight, the primary difference being that painting is not that dangerous.

Brochure photograph of Chloe and me working in the kitchen—she rolls out dough to make her beloved noodles, I chop vegetables for a salad.

The photographer told us to act natural, which is impossible to do on command. Chloe didn’t want her picture in the brochure. I was pleased management thought the food was worth advertising.

The day of Arthur’s stroke, Chloe was finishing preparations for lunch when I arrived, mixing noodle dough, and rolling it out thin.

“Bad morning,” she said from the counter. “Bradley forgot his lunch so I took it to him at school. Russell was a bear all weekend. Having problems at work. It gives me a headache.”

I dished sugar-free chocolate pudding into little plastic cups. I was the too-intelligent age of twenty-six and pondering the next ten years of my life. Chloe made me think twice about starting a family. Besides, my mentor Edward always said practicing sword-swallowers shouldn’t have romantic attachments.

Chloe and I ate in the dining room with the assisted living residents and a few of the ones from the nursing home section. In two of the four wings of the care facility, everyone had their own little apartment. They stayed at the facility most of the time, but some residents had cars and could take afternoon jaunts to buy snacks or clothing or go to the movies. They wore little alert devices around their necks with a button to press in case they needed a nurse. When the residents fell to a lower level of functionality, they moved into the nursing home sections.

At lunch, Virginia asked about my weekend. I told her I was in Cincinnati at a Renaissance fair. Nobody at Bright Pines knew about my other job.

Virginia said she’d worked in Cincinnati during the war, before she met her husband. “I was a lady of the night.” She winked.

The residents all told tales like that. Mealtime conversation was often a series of boasts. I was never sure whether to believe them, but Virginia had the high cheekbones and slim nose of someone who was once quite lovely.

I swallowed a spoonful of soup and tried to not make a face. My throat hurt. Everyone was talking and eating and I don’t think they noticed. Sometimes it’s good to do interesting things, and sometimes interesting things are better once they’ve become stories. I didn’t realize that when I was twenty-six, and all my older friends had stories that made me jealous.

Lottie grumbled about typing the column she wrote for the local paper on a computer. “When I was an investigative reporter for the Post,” she said, “a typewriter was fine.”

“Kids need computers now since they can’t spell worth a damn,” said Harold who’d been a jeweler. He claimed he’d kept a magnum under his cash register and used it five times, but never said if he’d killed anyone. “I was the Indiana state spelling bee champion two years in a row when I was in grammar school. Now I use a red pen to correct letters from the grandkids.”

“I’ve never been able to spell worth a damn,” said Arthur. Because he was my crush, I glanced at him sideways to see if he was looking at me. Sometimes he was.

Black and white photograph of Arthur as a young man, before he fought in the war. His hair is brushed back from his face and his teeth are the sort of white that only exists in black and white photographs. He sits on the front fender of his father’s car, a Model-A Ford, and looks like a movie star.

Arthur said he lost his hand driving racecars, but nobody knew if that was true. Harold said he lost it in a car accident when he ran a red light and smacked into an empty cross-town bus. Lottie said he lost it in the war and just didn’t want to think about those times. Etta said he probably lost it trying to pull some stupid prank because he was sort who wouldn’t have been smart around firecrackers.

I loved him because he was always taking off his prosthetic hand and waving it around to make his point, then trying to slip the hand into Lottie’s lap.

I loved Arthur because he seemed like a daredevil, like the sort of person who would have tried swallowing swords. I loved him because he was always taking off his prosthetic hand and waving it around to make his point, then trying to slip the hand into Lottie’s lap. It made me envious. I wanted to be an object of teasing affection. Lottie didn’t.

“Arthur!” she screeched. “You keep that damn piece of plastic to yourself.”

“It’s the only part of me that’s still twenty-five,” he said.

Etta sat beside Arthur and giggled. She’d been a tattoo artist and was the only one of the residents whose former profession I could verify because she still had old business cards. Etta wore floor-length skirts and blouses with sleeves to her wrist, never let much skin show. She’d known many sideshow people, made me wonder where all those performers had gone when they got old. Retirement communities and tiny ranch houses in suburbia, I guess. I was trying to figure out what would-be performers such as myself were supposed to do in the age of cell phones and computers, if fat ladies and bearded women and snake handlers were expected to be content as dishwashers and checkout clerks and gas station attendants. There was no place to be acceptably eccentric. Except maybe in a nursing home.

“You need to draw some naked ladies on my chest,” Arthur said to Etta.

“With my arthritis they’re going to look old and wrinkled as me,” Etta said.

“I don’t care,” said Arthur. “Just as long as they’re naked.”

It surprised me how bawdy my friends could be, but the more I was around them the more I realized that when people get old, their minds don’t always work much differently.

“I feel like I did when I was thirty,” Arthur said, “just ache a bit more. Nobody gives me credit for that. When a thirty-year-old guy looks at a woman or makes a dirty joke, most folks say he’s got a healthy libido. When I do the same, I’m a dirty old man. It’s like I’m supposed to stop thinking about sex every five minutes because I’m over sixty.”

Brochure photograph of Christmastime at Bright Pines: Lottie, Etta, Virginia, Harold, and Arthur stand in front of the Christmas tree in the lobby. They smile—gray-haired, pink-cheeked, and vibrant, like they’re about to run outside and build a snowman.

Harold was Jewish and had a menorah in his apartment. Etta said she celebrated the winter solstice and not Christmas. In the photo she had to lean against Harold slightly because the photographer didn’t want her cane in the picture.

After lunch, Chloe helped me start dinner preparations. She came to work at six in the morning, prepared breakfast and lunch, then left at two. Etta and Arthur talked with me while I layered lasagna noodles and sauce in baking pans.

“What’re you going to do for the talent show?” Arthur asked, leaning against a metal table. They had talent shows at the home twice a year, and he always bugged me to perform. Arthur was a tease, but I knew he liked me. Or he would have liked me if he’d been younger.

“Swallow swords,” I told him. What I usually said. Arthur figured it was a joke, which was what I wanted him to think.

“Come now,” he said, patting my arm. “You must have a talent. We need something fresh. I’m going to have Etta tattoo a naked lady on my rump while everyone watches.”

“That’s not a talent,” Etta said.

“I’ll be standing on my head at the time,” said Arthur.

“I’ll think of something,” I told him.

“A cute girl like you has got to have talent,” he said, waving his prosthetic hand at me to scold or flirt or both.

Arthur was diabetic, told me when his time came he wanted to take his own life in a blaze of sugar.

“I’ll think of something,” I said again.

“You could always practice sleight of hand,” he said, “slip me a chocolate bar to keep in my dresser drawer. Like the pills they gave us in the war. We were supposed to take them if we got captured by the Krauts.” Arthur was diabetic, told me when his time came he wanted to take his own life in a blaze of sugar.

“I’d be fired,” I said. “And it might not be a very pleasant way to go.”

“I don’t care as long as I have the taste of chocolate on my tongue,” said Arthur. “I’d love you forever.”

I blushed.

“But a young lady doesn’t need the attention of an old man like me,” he said. “You must have all sorts of beaus.”

Arthur winked at me before he and Etta started down the hall, him explaining how he wanted the naked lady on his rear to look. How could I not imagine him fifty years younger, leaning against the wall of a drugstore, smirking at me. I was in love with him in a not-quite-romantic way that’s hard to describe. I liked his daring. His sense of humor. His playfulness. I was never sure whether to wish him younger or wish myself older.

Picture postcard of Edward from his publicity photographs. He’s in his prime—thirty years old, bare-chested and glistening even in black and white. His hair is dark and just past his shoulders, lends him a wild and dashing and slightly unkempt look.

When Edward taught me the art of sword swallowing, he was sixty and slightly arthritic. He had retired from a sideshow career to pursue woodworking, moved in down the street from my family. I begged him to teach me his act, but he stalled until I was seventeen, the age at which he’d become an apprentice.

“If you so much hint about this to your mother,” he said, “the deal is off.” We shook on it, my small hand in his big one, then he smiled. “Most women aren’t dumb enough to do this.”

Edward was a master, could slide a twenty-four-inch blade down his throat and pull it out again so easily you’d think he was hollow inside. The first six months of training consisted of me standing in his tiled kitchen sticking red licorice whips and toothbrushes as far back down my throat as I could, conditioning those muscles to allow things where they shouldn’t be. After a year I moved up to table knives, got accustomed to the cool feeling of steel. I learned how to flip the epiglottis that usually closes off the trachea when swallowing food. The epiglottis had to be open while swallowing a sword so I could breathe with the blade in my mouth.

The swords I used when performing were not sharp because they had to push open the sides of my throat. When I swallowed a sword I could feel the saliva slide down like was going to pool in my lungs, which made me want to sneeze or retch, but when I pulled the blade out of my mouth and the crowd gasped, I felt immortal.

Brochure photograph of empty dining room at Bright Pines—mauve tile, ten round tables, wooden chairs with mauve padded seats.

This picture always struck me as sterile, made it look like no one used the dining room. There were no wheelchairs in the entire brochure, and only a few old people.

I was almost finished with dinner preparations when I heard sirens. A few minutes passed before Etta shuffled through the door.

“Arthur had a stroke,” she said.

I steadied my hands on the metal table, focused on the bowl in which I’d been mixing herbs and butter to make garlic toast. I tried to ignore the way my arms wanted to crumple.

Etta walked into the kitchen, slipped her hand on top of mine.

“He was conscious when they left,” she said.

Her fingers shook. They often tremored slightly. I wondered if Arthur would pull through. How much of him might be left behind. Strokes could paralyze arms and legs and voices. Deterioration was an unspoken weight in the care facility, explained why the employee turnover rate was high. I couldn’t cry, had to make dinner and feed several dozen people in a few hours. Etta said she was going to sit with Harold since he was worried.

“Do you want to come?” she said. “Just for a moment.”

I shook my head. Kept working dried basil and oregano into the softened butter. Pictured Arthur standing in the kitchen doorway like he so often did. I dreamed his limbs younger and thick with muscle, his voice less gravelly.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “And you’ll still owe me chocolate.”

“Of course,” I said.

No one was hungry for lasagna. Harold said Arthur was breathing on his own but couldn’t talk. His left side was paralyzed.

“That bastard,” muttered Lottie. “Just like him to go and get hospitalized before I could get back at him for putting his hand in my lap at lunch.” She daubed her eyes with a napkin.

“He’ll be back,” said Etta.

I ate reheated chicken soup (my throat still hurt) and thought about how Arthur would appreciate knowing I swallowed swords. I’d performed at senior centers, in front of crowds of old people, and sometimes got the best reactions from them. Residents told me about summer carnival stints selling ice cream and caramel apples, about going to sideshows when they were little kids and seeing sword swallowers and tattooed people. My talent was something my friends didn’t know about me. Something that would surprise them. Meet their boasts about their young lives. It would please Arthur. Once he came back.

I’d been working at the care facility for three years, and none of my good friends, the ones I ate lunch and dinner with, had taken a turn like this. I knew illness was one of the perils of having older friends, but being aware that something could happen to one of them and something actually happening to Arthur were two very different things.

That night I went home and made a devil’s food cake. A chocolate pecan pie. Mocha almond brownies. Chocolate mint cookies. I baked until two in the morning, couldn’t sleep and couldn’t eat anything I made because my throat hurt too much. I imagined the younger Arthur in my kitchen, smelling chocolate and sticking his finger in the batter bowl. He rubbed my shoulders and told me not to fret.

“It was bound to happen,” he said. “I’m not immortal.”

“I have rotten luck,” I said. “Why did you have to be so old?”

He didn’t have an answer for that.

I wrapped all my confections tightly in plastic and stored them in the freezer.

Brochure photograph of double occupancy room in nursing home section of Bright Pines. One bed, a plant and lamp on the bedside table, and a large picture window.

The photo only showed one bed so it looked like the room was single-occupancy, and the lamp and plant made it seem more like a parlor.

Arthur returned to Bright Pines a week after the stroke. He looked surprisingly normal, hadn’t lost weight, dressed in his usual button-down shirt and jeans but cradled his left hand in his right like he was holding a doll. He couldn’t talk, could move his left leg a little, but needed to be in a motorized wheelchair. Most of his belongings had been moved from his apartment, boxed and put into storage or in his new room. Etta and I visited him before I started my shift.

“You’re going to be a terror on the roads now,” said Etta.

Arthur smiled and wrinkled his nose. Still impish. It was hard for me to speak. I wanted him to look worse, different, mark his injury. I didn’t know how much of his mind was there. I didn’t know how likely he was to have another stroke. I wanted to tell him I loved him, though he wouldn’t have understood what I meant by “love,” and I wasn’t entirely sure, either.

“I’ll be swallowing swords in the talent show,” I said. “Like you asked me to.”

Arthur released his left arm, let it flop to his lap, and patted my right hand with his. It made me smile, though I figured he still didn’t believe me.

He ate lunch and dinner with the rest of our usual crowd. Arthur could feed himself, but Etta and I helped cut his meat. Everyone made a painful effort to include him in conversation. Harold called him hell on wheels. Lottie said she’d be by to read her latest article to him. Virginia asked if she could buy him some new shirts when she went out shopping. Arthur nodded. I think he was embarrassed by the attention. Harold walked with Arthur back to his room, chatting all the way. I’m not sure if it made Arthur’s lack of words more or less awkward, but after a couple days, mealtime chatter settled to a comfortable norm. Arthur contributed nonverbally, nodded or made faces, without having every remark directed at him.

Sometimes he wheeled to the kitchen and sat beside the doorway to watch me chop vegetables for soup or stew. I talked about my cat and the weather and the recipes I was making. He nodded and repositioned his hand while I imagined his comments on how I was a very cute girl and so bright besides. But I was sensitive to his frailty, glanced over at him often to make sure he was okay. I waited for the talent show with equal glee and anxiety. If I wanted to show my friends what I could do, it was best to do it now.

Brochure photograph of empty recreation room at Bright Pines. Beige tiled floor, light pink walls, several windows.

The main activity in the recreation room was Bingo, but yoga was second.

On the day of the talent show I carried my swords to work in a golf bag. There were seventy chairs crowing the rec room for the usual piano solos, tuba duets, and tap dancing. I performed last, wore jeans and a T-shirt, my usual work attire minus the white apron. Everyone gaped when I pulled out the swords. I almost thought someone might stop me. Their faces were bright with awe. It made me happy. Smug. Arthur sat in the front row, his eyes a little too wide, but he was grinning.

Edward said you had to be confident when swallowing swords, but not so confident that you were careless.

I wiped the first sword with a white cloth, raised it over my head with both hands, and lowered it into my mouth. Everything was fine. I was loose. Relaxed. As comfortable as I could be when sliding a sixteen-inch sword into my mouth. I drew the first blade out and grabbed another sword from the golf bag, one with a slightly curved blade.

I’m not sure what went wrong. Maybe I poked the side of my esophagus. Maybe there was a little muscle spasm in my throat because my body was recalling a time when I did not force it to perform such feats. Maybe I was a little more nervous than I thought because I wasn’t performing in front of strangers but friends and co-workers who I saw every day.

Whatever the reason, I gagged. Drew the sword out fast. Threw up on the clean tile. Should have known not to eat lunch that day, but I hadn’t vomited for years. Maybe I’d gotten too cocky. Edward said you had to be confident when swallowing swords, but not so confident that you were careless. My throat burned with stomach acid. Everyone stared—Lottie and Virginia and Harold and Etta and Arthur. I asked for a mop. It was my damn mess and I had to clean up. My friends shuffled out of the room. Arthur motored away. Their eyes were hard.

I don’t think we always get smarter as we get older. We just recognize how dumb we are. Sometimes I ask myself why I kept swallowing swords, why I dreamed of it as a career. The only answer I’ve been able to puzzle out was because I could. I’m not sure why it was enough, but at the time it was.

After cleaning I retreated to the kitchen to make Swiss steak and rolls and salad for dinner. I tried not to worry about all the residents who were now pondering how youth might not always be wasted on the young, but I was a good candidate.

That night I spent extra time on the salads, cut carrot and radish roses and made mice out of canned pear halves with cloves for eyes and carrot strips for whiskers. I wanted to make the dinners look especially nice, wanted to make Arthur and Etta and the rest smile. I feared Arthur would be mad. Think I was a damn idiot. Even imagining his reprimand was awful.

“How are you feeling?” Etta said when I walked into the dining room and sat down, terrified no one would talk with me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I haven’t done that in a long time. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Don’t worry about us,” said Harold. “We’ve all seen worse things in our lives.” His voice was raspy. They all peered at me for a moment, then down at their plates.

“The pear salads are cute,” Lottie said.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Virginia said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I just didn’t want to upset any of you or—”

“We’re fine,” said Harold. “Shut up and eat your pear.”

Arthur poked his pear with the tines of his fork and chopped off the mouse head.

It was the worst meal ever. Worse than after Arthur came back. No one laughed or bragged. Harold and Etta and Virginia and Lottie talked about the weather, how this spring was warmer than they could remember, if that was a bad sign. Arthur didn’t look up unless someone spoke to him directly, and he didn’t look at me at all.

It was okay for me to be dumb in front of strangers. It was okay for my friends to have been dumb in years past and tell stories about remembered dumbness. But I was beyond salvage. I couldn’t remember if Edward had admitted a mistake like this. Even if he had, it would have been in front of an audience who didn’t know him from the next freak on the midway.

Second of two publicity photographs of me swallowing a sword. I wear a bright pink blouse, hold the curved blade in my right hand, but only four inches of steel is in my mouth.

The photographer thought it looked more impressive that way.

Etta came to talk with me after dinner while I cleaned the kitchen.

“Is Arthur mad?” I asked. I wanted her to tell me something I hadn’t considered already.

Etta paused, shook her head. “I never could figure that man out,” she said. “Wouldn’t hazard a guess. We’re just concerned about your health.”

I grimaced. Concerned about my health and they’re taking twenty pills a day to control heart and kidney and liver function.

“I’m fine,” I said. “My throat is fine. I didn’t mean to make you worried. Or mad.”

“You gave us an awful scare,” she said.

“Tell everyone I’m sorry,” I said.

Etta nodded before shuffling back down the hallway.

The Care Facility manager called me to her office the next morning before I’d put on my apron.

“I heard about your escapade,” she said. “You shouldn’t have been so careless.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It was wrong. You don’t know how mad I am at myself.”

She glared at me. I was certain I was going to be fired, an idea that made me panicked and oddly relieved. Maybe that’s what I needed to do. Leave. But she said I should get back to the kitchen and help Chloe.

At lunch, everyone was too pleasant. No one asked about my throat. Harold said please and thank you more than usual. Virginia talked about next month’s luau, how she was going to make a grass skirt out of green crepe paper. Arthur balanced the bowl of his spoon on the end of his nose. Etta fingered her sleeve. Chloe asked how everyone liked dill in the chicken soup. I wanted Etta to vouch for my remorse, but maybe I was asking too much.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” I said quietly. Virginia kept talking. Harold didn’t look up. “I’m sorry,” I repeated more loudly.

“We heard you the first time,” said Harold.

“I thought we were done discussing it,” said Virginia. “I’d rather talk about the luau.”

Tempting mortality will always be a pastime of the young and the stupid.

Chloe never mentioned the incident to me, though I know she must have heard about the talent show and my talk with the care facility manager. She liked discussing food at work and not much else, was never one to chat about things that didn’t affect her directly. This was alternately pleasant and maddening.

For three days at lunch and dinner no one spoke of my accident. They talked about grandkids. Books they’d read thirty years ago and planned on reading again. How Lottie was going to teach everyone to play bridge. Arthur was included in the chatter. I wasn’t (except when Chloe made an effort). My friends could identify with Arthur. Could imagine themselves in the same position. They figured out how to treat him. But I was a mystery. A stupid kid.

I couldn’t think of any apology that would be enough.

It’s not something we consider often—the weight of shame, the importance of honor, how embarrassment can be so overwhelming that ties must be broken. Driving to work made me sick. Standing in the kitchen I felt like crying, and did on a few occasions when Chloe wasn’t around. I entered and left by a back door close to the kitchen so I wouldn’t see many people.

Six days after the talent show I knew I’d have to quit my job, look for something else. Tempting mortality will always be a pastime of the young and the stupid. If my friends had been young and stupid, maybe it could have been excused. But they weren’t. I’d lost all respect.

“I’m going to leave,” I told everyone at dinner. “I messed up.”

No one said anything. I went back to the kitchen to eat my soup and fill out the form giving two weeks’ notice. I cried while signing my name, but felt a little better. After that I had my meals in the kitchen and read want ads. Chloe asked me if I wanted to join everyone for lunch, but I shook my head.

“It will be hard to find a good replacement for you,” she said, but didn’t comment further. Etta and Arthur did not stop to visit. I still believed Arthur was a person who could have swallowed swords, and maybe he would’ve admitted to this if he’d been younger, but not now. I convinced myself resigning was a good thing, would make me go on the road and perform more in front of crowds who didn’t know me, crowds who’d gawk and take pictures if I threw up.

Photograph of my house when it was listed in the real estate section of the newspaper before I bought it. One bedroom, one bathroom, central heat and air.

There was no mention of the poor insulation, the rattling pipes, or the family of mice that took up residence in a cupboard under the sink and ate all of my cat’s dry food.

Saturday, eight days after I’d announced my resignation from Bright Pines, I sat around wondering if I should be wedded to a mortgage. There would be plenty of time for that later. Maybe I’d been too quick to embrace stability. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for it yet.

The doorbell rang at four in the afternoon. Etta and Arthur stood on the front step. Arthur had regained enough strength in his left leg to shuffle along with help. He leaned on Etta, stepped into my house, and they both hobbled into the living room. Etta sat beside Arthur on the couch, unbuttoned the cuffs on her blouse, and rolled up her sleeves past her elbows. I’d never seen her arms before. On her right, Eve considered the apple still hanging on the tree while covering her more intimate areas with her hands. On her left, a female angel in a white robe wielded a sword.

I gaped.

“We’re not here to ask you to reconsider if you don’t want to stay at Bright Pines,” Etta said. “Arthur and I want you to be comfortable, wherever you work. But we figured we should tell you we’d miss you and leave it at that.”

With his good hand, Arthur detached his prosthetic hand from his wrist and sat it on my coffee table, fingers up, grasping for something hanging in the air just above the palm.

Teresa Milbrodt

Teresa Milbrodt is the author of two short story collections, Bearded Women: Stories (Chizine Publications) and Work Opportunities: Stories (Portage Press); a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press); and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories (Booth Books). Her stories, essays, and poems have been published widely in literary magazines (including Guernica). She is addicted to coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, frozen yogurt, and anything by George Saunders.