By Mallory Chesser
Death will catch Gloria naked between the wall and the toilet. Everyone’s aunt and nobody’s mother—a choice she’ll make early in life, without caring who will take care of her at 65, and never really expecting to achieve old age—she lives alone. She’ll be wedged in the crevice overnight while flesh frees itself from bone, while blood and water separate for good, while breasts sink irrevocably. By the next morning, death chill will set in.
Fifty years before, she rides her bike through the middle of the street, coasting from lane to lane with hands in the air, taking corners too quickly, playing chicken with cars, neglecting a helmet over her long, wet hair, a dull brown until the wind dries it blonde. In the sun she is brilliant, stopping traffic at sixteen. At night she rides without reflectors. This is a body to bare, to share. Now she thinks of the new turquoise bikini under her sundress and pumps the pedals faster. She’ll be the last one to the lake, but she’ll make the biggest splash.
Gloria dies on a hot summer, like this one. Not breast cancer, as she was expecting, or consumption, the romantic death she’d imagined in childhood, but a heart attack on the toilet. Within two days, putrefaction will begin. After working their way through Gloria’s last meal—tuna fish sandwiches and a bottle of cheap wine she would not have chosen had she known it would be her last—the bacteria will start on her organs, on her blistering flesh. Eyes will bulge, tongue will unfurl, gases will leak. Mouth will cringe at the lack of dignity.
Gloria at sixteen thinks about the party tonight, the party last night—parties all summer. Pasture parties, bonfires, volunteer work for the resume; days at the beach, kickbacks at the doctor’s house, part-time job at the library. Eli’s father is the doctor, but Eli likes to be called Doc. They all have aspirations. Life is beautiful. This summer Gloria has graduated from white wine to red, from Billy to David to Doc. She believes in the power of names—Billy will be a mechanic, David will go to law school, but Doc will take seven years just to graduate college, because his name is tempting fate. Billy’s arms are warm, like the sun on her skin, and David wears cashmere sweaters in fall. Doc has the biggest house and the father who is never home. If she ever meets a Stuart, she will forget about all of them. She passes the county line and the road opens up before her, stretching out for miles.
She’ll have a fenced-in porch, a screen door, a room she can call a library, and a chocolate Labrador. She and the dog and the house grow old together. Life was, is, will be beautiful.
– Mallory Chesser is an MFA fiction candidate at Texas State University. She serves as managing editor of Story|Houston, a Houston-based literary journal, and teaches composition. She is currently working on a collection of linked stories set in little-known parts of the Lone Star State.