Her grim face like a melting candle, Paula lumbers to her feet, collecting the paper plates she’d shoveled her homemade cake onto and pushes her way past the screen door to the kitchen. She was hospitalized a month ago for what she called “heart shivers,” and told to part ways with her beloved Marlboros. When she came home, her niece Joann gave up the first-floor bedroom in her own house so Paula didn’t have to do the stairs. That was before she caught Paula sneaking cigarettes in the backyard, sucking them up right next to her oxygen tank. Joann said, “Do that again and I’m turning you out.”
Today, on Joann’s 61st birthday, after they had a calm hour sitting outside together, after they talked about how they’d have to rake up the leaves soon and bring the lawn chairs in, after Joann sat down to work, her aunt went into the sacrificial first-floor bedroom to nap. At dinnertime, Joann found her slumped half onto the floor, face blue, mouth open, tongue bulging. The EMTs needed room to work, so they dragged Paula out onto the hallway floor and pronounced her dead at 7:30, her fluids leaking through the sheet that covered her; her hands slipping out on either side. Even on her birthday, Joann couldn’t get anyone to pick up the body until two o’clock in the morning. She didn’t want to touch Paula’s hands, so they stayed like that, palms-up, asking the world for a better life.