Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
Short Story
3433 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

At Death’s Door

by Tamara Shaffer

Marcy clicked “Internet White Pages” and waited for the blurry ads to clear. When the empty rectangle jumped into the space beneath them, she quickly typed in Odell Harris, selected Alabama, and clicked FIND. Magically, the name, address, and phone number appeared. She brushed back a stray clump of graying hair and stared at the screen.

She’d already found a former neighbor who’d moved away and several co-workers, which is how she liked to classify Odell, so she could kid herself and re-categorize their little episode. The truth was, she had some unfinished business, a bothersome issue that ran through her mind periodically—out of nowhere, fleeting...

How to contact him was the question. She pushed her chair back and walked across the darkened room to the dresser, where she pulled a pair of worn shorty pajamas from one of its drawers and slowly began taking off her clothes. A phone call might be too abrupt and intrusive. What if he didn’t care to speak to her after the intervening years—or worse, had forgotten who she was? Writing to him would give him an out. Email would be perfect—the same effect, only faster—but he didn’t appear to have an email address. By the time she’d donned the pj’s and brushed her teeth, she’d decided on a letter.

“Dear Odell, Lew Saunders told me you moved to Alabama, and my computer white pages gave me the address, so here I am saying hello and hoping you’re well. I am living in downtown Chicago and working as an editor—a long way from my file clerk job with the government, wouldn’t you say?” She kept it brief and closed with, “I’d love to hear from you.”

She signed it “Marcy Belrath,” then realized he knew her as “Marcy Colson.” Soon after her stint with the government, she’d dropped her ex-husband’s name and reverted to her own, adopting the stance of independent identity she’d heard about early on in the women’s movement. That whole issue appeared to have died out over the years, but it had remained a rather basic one to her.

She added her former surname in parentheses.


Her mind was on something else when the call came a week later. A low, scratchy voice responded hesitantly to her hello and asked whether she was Marcy Belrath. She answered, “Yes,” just then realizing who it must be. “Odell?”

There was a pause. “I got this letter,” he began, ignoring the inquiry, “and lo and behold,” he continued in that story style discourse she’d found so charming, “it was from someone I’ve wondered about a million times.”

“How are you?” she asked, groping for words. Now that she’d made the connection, she was nearly mute.

“Old,” he replied, causing her to chuckle. “What made you write?”

“I have a computer now, and I’ve been looking up people I used to know,” she explained. “In fact, I’ve written to some people we worked with.”

He paused again. “It’s nice to be remembered.”

“Well, it’s too bad you’re so far away,” she answered, “or we could have coffee or something.”

“Well, we can have coffee or something,” he repeated, sounding slightly animated. “I’ll be in Chicago next week.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Nope I’m not kidding. I have a couple of daughters up there. They don’t like it when ol’ Dad doesn’t visit now and then. I’ll be there Tuesday.”


Tuesday afternoon, Marcy headed for the designated snack shop early and grabbed a booth near the door. Odell would be 84 now—she’d done the math—so she was expecting a gray-haired old man, certainly, but not the bent, hollow-eyed shell that hobbled toward her with the aid of a cane, and glasses so thick, she thought his eyes would jump out at her. His teeth, obviously false, were ill fitting and looked as though they might fall from his mouth as he smiled and said hello.

He stopped at the edge of the booth and stood wobbling for a moment, fumbling with the cane. “This damn thing,” he muttered, as he jabbed it forward, trying to maneuver it into the seat ahead of him. She had an urge to jump up and push the obstinate stick of wood in place for him, just because she could—without effort—but she stifled the impulse, just as she always resisted the urge to finish sentences for her stuttering neighbor, Bonnie. It’s the sort of help that makes the recipient feel self-conscious or more inept. She never quite knew what to do with her face while Bonnie bellowed the first syllable of a word at her several times before she finally spit the whole thing out. Odell gave the cane one last thrust with as much force as he could muster, wedging it between the table and the seat, where it stood steadfast.

“Well, you’re not looking much worse for wear,” he said softly, when he was finally settled. “You must be pretty old now.”

His sense of humor was still understated, the way he said things humorous—often ironic—without affect. She blurted out her age, then fell silent. So many years had passed, she suddenly found herself overwhelmed by the thought of catching up. They stared at each other for a brief moment. Mercifully, the waitress showed up and relieved them of their social clumsiness.

“Well, I guess we should look at this thing,” he said, opening the menu. “Not much on here I can eat, I’m sure.”

“You’re on a special diet?” Marcy asked, thinking he probably had myriad health problems, maybe some surgeries, to be looking so decrepit.

“You might say that,” he said, without looking up. “I think I’ll have some of that chicken soup and some tea. But you? Go ahead, live it up; anything on the menu, Babe, I’m buying.”

She laughed again. The highest priced dinner in the shabby, gaudily-decorated diner was fifteen dollars, and that was for a steak she knew from her pre-vegetarian days would have the texture of an old shoe. She and a girlfriend had split one once, much to the consternation of the crabby, on-duty waitress, who’d had to be asked twice for an extra plate. Marcy settled on a salad and handed their current, smiling waitress her menu.

“So how are my niece and nephew?” Odell asked, grinning and referring to her two kids, who’d been pretty small when the two of them worked together. He had lived on the more affluent side of 35th Street, and posing as their uncle and letting her use his address had allowed the kids to attend the better public school, and she was grateful.

“So, you’ve moved to the other side of town?” he asked, prompting a condensed chronological discourse on her whereabouts over the intervening thirty years. His second query was ribbing, teasing: “Did your prince charming ever come through?”

She caught his drift right away.


She’d been desperately in love, at the time, with an up-and-coming lawyer who’d worked one floor below them, and everyone knew it. Camden Lewis had captured her interest with friendly chatter in the cafeteria, before inviting himself to her table for coffee. They eventually dated, and the relationship appeared promising at first, but as his career blossomed, he faded from her life.

She was trying to get over it and not take romance so seriously, when Odell began showing an interest in her. She was in the dumps over her loss and mentioned that she didn’t care to see anyone but Camden. “Oh, come on now,” Odell had goaded, with a rather impatient tone, “plenty of fish in the sea.”


She’d felt foolish after his remark and was now feeling that way again.

“Oh, there’ve been a few others since then,” she rallied, not mentioning how she never quite got over Camden, whose public career had placed him on the front pages and on local television talk shows. She watched him, read about him; she even dreamed about him periodically. “What about you? Did you ever remarry?”

“Oh, no.” He shook his head dourly. “I decided not to try that anymore.”


He’d been in the throes of his second divorce—a nasty one, according to the office scuttlebutt. They’d been sitting at his desk, in their shabby government office, with its army green cabinets and overflowing manila folders, when she posed the question, “So, are you married?” as though she hadn’t heard the gossip.

“Nope,” he said, lifting his chair onto its back legs, “the judge says I’m not married anymore.” He paused. “That’s the second time a judge has told me so.” He hooked his fingers together over his stomach and looked pensive. “A two-time loser, I think they call that,” he quipped.


His funny, self-effacing manner had obviously covered pain and self-evaluation. She wondered what people thought about themselves when they divorced more than once. Did they question their own stability? character? simply blame their partners? Some of them less insightful might claim bad luck, but she bet that those second failures swelled the patient rosters of psychiatrists everywhere.

He was blowing on a spoon of hot noodles when the waitress brought Marcy back to the subject at hand. “How is everything, folks?” she wondered loudly, getting an affirmative nod from both of her customers before disappearing into the kitchen. Marcy began to expound on her former hopes for remarriage and her current prospects—which were none.

“I’m dying,” Odell interrupted. She stared, speechless for a moment. It was a statement people made casually, one she frequently made herself. It usually illustrated the discomfort of heat on a muggy summer day or shoes that were too tight. Was he saying it because he was 84 and had passed his life expectancy?

“People are living longer now,” she said weakly, still awaiting a denial.

“Yes, I know they are, but I’m not.” He slurped some soup into his mouth, the spoon making a clicking noise as it hit his teeth. “I’m dying.”

“You don’t mean dying? Literally dying?”

“Yes,” he said, nodding slightly and crushing some Saltines into the steaming bowl. “The doc says so.” He rubbed his hands together up and down over the soup, to clear them of the last vestiges of cracker crumbs. “Gives me a couple months—tops.”

“Are you...sick...or something?” she asked hesitantly, still hoping it was a joke.

“Prostate,” he replied, chewing a cracker and looking directly at her for the first time since he dropped the bombshell. “Cancer.”

Marcy peered into the enlarged eyes, which looked a bit pleading now, thinking about how you never know what to say to people regarding the demise of someone close to them—this was worse. She continued to stare for a few seconds, then asked the only question she could think of.

“How long have you been sick?”

“Almost a year,” he said after thinking for a moment. “Or, at least that’s how long I’ve known I was sick. I was pretty far gone when they found it.”

She’d heard about people who think they’re dying or who come close to death, how they begin to appreciate every minute, every blossoming flower, every drop of rain. Even though she’d begun to realize her own mortality, the way people do in middle age, she couldn’t quite adopt the “live each day as if it were your last” stance. She still got mad as hell when her computer froze, her shoe came untied when her arms were full, or she forgot her bath water was running and the tub ran over. She wondered how he really felt about it.

“Are you scared?” she asked him, deciding to match his candor.

“Only of hanging around, making life a pain for everyone else,” he responded. “I’ve been able to handle things myself so far, and once I can’t, I’m ready to beat it on out of here.” It struck her that he was as blasé about death as he’d been about sex thirty years ago.


There had been an attraction between them, but for her, it hadn’t been sexual. Rather, it was the quiet wisdom overlaid with humor that she enjoyed. When he suggested dinner one evening after work, a call to the sitter granting her a few additional hours, she naively anticipated a double treat, his special brand of discourse over steaks. She was surprised—later realizing she shouldn’t have been—when, after dinner, he drove straight to his newly rented room, and there she was—uninspired and unprepared—fully aware what was expected of her and not knowing how to back out.

The encounter was brief—no heavy breathing on her part. He was unable to sustain himself, and that was fine with her; she just wanted it to be over. He was oblivious to her distress (she was the master at covering it in those days), but shocked to discover that she wasn’t protected. “You mean you don’t use anything?” he asked incredulously, scrambling into his pants and out the door, mumbling something about the distance to the nearest drug store.

She’d lain on the bed after he left, not moving, feeling unsophisticated and stupid. She wanted badly to emulate the casual attitude about sex that prevailed at the office—the men on the make, married or not—the 60s peace and love notions carried to the nth degree—but her efforts had been futile. The truth was, she wanted to go out and have dinner and go to movies and music events, but with her small salary and the kids to support, she couldn’t afford to pay her own way. Between her rather puritanical bent and total devotion to Camden, she felt no passion for any of the men who might take her places, buy her things. She was trying to decide which of her failings she hated more—not being able to enjoy what had just transpired or not being prepared for it—when Odell opened the door and handed her a container of foamy stuff that was meant for insertion prior to sex.

“We’ll use this,” he said, tearing the package open, “and prayer.”

His derision be damned, Marcy spent the next several weeks alternating everything from the demands of her kids, her love for Camden, and her sexual scruples as rotating excuses for not seeing him again. She was feeling relieved that he had finally stopped suggesting it, when she missed her period. It’s just late, she told herself, though it was never late, and even when she noticed her swollen breasts in the mirror and a subsequent aversion to morning coffee, she held out hope—until the endless nausea took over her days.

“I’ll see what I can work out,” Odell assured her, when she finally told him it was definite. She knew what that meant. They hadn’t discussed it; no need—it was simply the solution. Her desperation prevailed over any lingering vestiges of Catholic guilt—invading her system like a virus, rendering other fears minor by comparison—even hellfire—even the effects of the turpentine she drank from the tiny bottle under her sink, unable to fathom why she had ever bought the stuff, but assured by her friend Kathy that it would certainly do the trick. It did nothing, good or bad, and she continued to worry, in those pre-Roe vs. Wade days, that no doctor willing to risk his license would be found.

Until...Odell surreptitiously handed her an envelope into which three crisp hundred-dollar bills had been folded and a sheet of paper on which a doctor’s name and phone number had been written. It was with great relief that she made the initial phone connection and was told the fee was six hundred.

“But I was told it was three; that’s all I have,” she gasped into the phone. One more “The fee is six hundred,” this time, followed by a perfunctory “I’m sorry”, and Marcy knew it was over.

In the end, she got a name from her sister, a suburban connection, charging five hundred dollars and therefore causing Odell to reach further into his pocket, coming up short, and her to discover an extra seventy in her bank account. Making the withdrawal, she panicked for a moment; perhaps she’d made an error in subtraction and would get a notice from the bank, incurring an overdraft and eating into next month’s rent. Then the larger problem regained its prominence, and she adopted a new stance: “after this, all things are manageable.”

She panicked again when Kathy nearly blew her second opportunity. The new people had her phone number and had promised to verify the appointment. No last names were used, and Marcy had called herself “Nancy.” She and Kathy had been standing in her kitchen discussing the dilemma and Marcy had left the room to tuck in the kids when the call came. Kathy, having gone brain dead for a moment, picked up the phone and promptly told the caller he had the wrong number. “There’s no Nancy here,” she was repeating as Marcy returned to the kitchen, too late to keep her from hanging up. She threw up her hands in a gesture of despair, just as the phone rang again and she grabbed it, feigned no knowledge of the previous call, and made everything all right.


At this point in her reverie she blurted out, “We would have a child thirty-one years old,” causing Odell to lower the spoon headed for his mouth.

“I thought about it a lot,” he said, “and I don’t regret the way we handled it.” His voice rose slightly, then he covered his mouth, realizing he might be speaking too loud, “Why didn’t you use something?”

She looked downward sheepishly, then rushed into a dissertation on Catholics and sex. “Sex was a sin; so was birth control,” she began, noticing his mouth turning upward into an incredulous smile. “If you use birth control,” she continued, “you’re planning to have sex, and that makes it more of a sin—no, really, I know you think this is crazy, but I was raised with these notions. As long as I could tell myself that it ‘just happened,’ I could feel vindicated, at least a little bit.”

“Too bad you couldn’t just enjoy a good lay,” he said flatly. “Life is short.”

Marcy had another issue on her mind. “Well, something you said always bothered me,” she told him, remembering how stung she was when he questioned her honesty—too stung, in fact, to respond.


They’d been riding the same bus, several weeks after the dastardly deed was done and they no longer worked together.

“Ya know, I was thinking,” he’d begun, in his story-style, lacking humor as he continued. “I thought to myself, what if you told me a fib? What if I just gave you all that money, and there was no baby?”


“It always bugged me that you might have suspected me of ripping you off,” Marcy said, nearly tearing up. “The biggest reason I wanted to see you again was to dispel that idea. I wasn’t even capable of such a thing.”

“I think I knew that,” he explained, “But I’d seen it done to other men, and I didn’t want to look like a fool, just in case you could possibly—well, don’t worry, I knew you were honest. I guess on some paranoid level I thought you might have been—well not slick enough but desperate enough—to rip me off; I knew you were having a rough time with your kids and all.” He picked up the check. “This sick old man’s getting tired.” She watched as he pulled out a couple of tens and laid them on the table. She was thinking how it might be the last time he paid a bill, spoke to an old friend, or ate chicken soup, and here she was, still taking time for granted, still saying, “One of these days, I’ll...”—fill-in-the-blank—and never doing it. She renewed her vow to fulfill at least one or two of her dreams.

She wondered, as she watched him work his way into a cab, if he could possibly not be afraid—of death, of not be-ing. She noticed him struggling to open the car window, his teeth grotesquely on display, as he smiled and yelled something she couldn’t make out from where she stood. She ran close, managing to hear, just as the cab sped away and he repeated, “Still got that little waistline.”


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Tamara Shaffer’s

stories and articles have been published in various newspapers, journals, and magazines, including the Chicago Tribune, Woman’s World, Phoebe, and The Pedestal, as well as Serving House Journal. Her book, Murder Gone Cold: The Mystery of the Grimes Sisters, was published in 2006 by Ghost Research Society Press. She is retired and lives in Chicago.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury