The kettle was beginning to stir. A metallic plopping of stove eye against the vessel it heated. Rumbling as the pain increased.
Millicent murmured the start of a sentence to herself, and even she could not understand her own words. What was said in her mind was better kept there, full of color, prickles, and futility. Though no one would be around to hear it, save the cat, they were sore words, hateful words, petty words.
She sat in the rocker, though she would have been more comfortable on the sofa or the armchair. Her hair was unwashed for two days, tied up by a string. Her eyes were half open; white eggs with pepper cast all along the surface. She scratched at her knobby throat sometimes, as if to reach inside it and soothe every raw inch of its channel. Her nose was useless. Stuffed, clogged, encased, entombed; a relic, serving some purpose once upon a time, now a great craggly monument. People were getting sick across town here and there, but Millicent never got sick. She was old, she was ugly, but she never got sick. It had been a decade at least, she knew. And then that silly skipping young woman who painted pictures and babbled like a fool stopped and spoke to her a week ago in the street, and sneezed on her, and apologized, and Millicent hissed and told her, “If you make me sick I shan’t care how many times you say sorry.”
Never got sick; well, all those years gone by, the body had an awful lot of catching up. Stuffed nose, red throat, red eyes, dizzy head, cold bones, locked joints. Her ears worked fine. They alone, the great elephant bowers, heard all that could be heard. Even if she was thirty years younger they would have heard just the same. Perfect articulation in the stinging wings of a housebound housefly. Sharp clarity of the cat’s purring on the windowsill. The kettle’s shaking and snapping, all as loud as if it were boiling right next to her head.
Millicent sat in the rocker, waiting. She had been popping lozenges all week like sparrows with seed. She’d had twenty-one bowls of soup. Seventy cups of tea. Seventy-one soon enough. And that silly stupid flower-painting ding-dong was to thank for it, for a week of hot body and hot water. But Millicent could hear. The kettle continued to wobble on the other side of the room, in the kitchen, on the stove. Time enough, thought Millicent. She sat in the rocker because it was closest to the table where her radio was. Had she known she would be ill for a week or more, she would have paid someone to move it to the reading table beside the sofa. It would kill her now to try it herself.
So, she rocked in the chair and clicked on the radio.
A dreamy Sunday afternoon greeting to—
My girl’s the envy of every—
In other news, the—
At last a station with simple music, real music. Violins and low brass horns. Music crafted by a conductor and people who knew what they were about, knew their instruments like they knew how to walk. No blatherers, no weathercasters spreading gloom where there would be none, no brainless tunes about carnal fleeting love.
Millicent scratched at her knobby throat again. The kettle began to squeal.
In her younger days the kettle would not protest long. She would snatch and snuff its voice each time it began. Millicent, when she had her way, only drank tea, and for most of her life she’d had her way. Booze, coffee, lemonade; no, poisons. Tea. And in her present state she was dependent on it. But the making of it never got less horrible for her; the torrent of shrieking. Now, as an old woman, and sick too, she could either wait by the stove for it to boil, leaning in pain against the counter, or she could sit in the other room and wait and endure the walk from chair to kitchen while the kettle wailed.
The music from the radio returned to the room as she finally arrived at the stove. The kettle was lifted and calmed. She heard the cat on the windowsill purring to itself. A tea bag dropped in her mug. The water was poured in shaky fashion, a waterfall feeling the tremors of a coming earthquake.
Someone knocked at Millicent’s door, loudly. Millicent scowled, though whoever was doing the knocking couldn’t see it. She held her breath and waited. The knocking continued.
“Ms. Haver? Ms. Haver? Are you all right?”
A female voice. It couldn’t be her. Why—
“Ms. Haver, it’s Essie King! Are you in there?”
“Yes!” Millicent called out. She frightened herself a little with her own voice. A drowned bird. She began hobbling into the front hallway where the door was.
“Stop shouting! I’m alive, I’m alive,” she called.
“Oh good,” said Essie King. “I had heard you were under the weather, and—”
There was a square porthole on the door, Millicent’s favorite contraption in the entire house, even better than the radio. She slid it open and stared out into the world through a spider’s web of metal screen. There was the young painter, standing on her doorstep.
“It was you that made me sick,” said Millicent. “You practically vomited all your germs and plagues on me.”
“I know I sneezed on you,” said Essie. “You don’t know how sorry I am. I didn’t realize I was sick when it happened. I brought you some things to help you feel better. May I come in?”
To Essie, standing outside on the front porch, she only saw red eyes and a swollen nose in the little square window on the door.
“It’s just some things I put together,” said Essie. “Some crackers, some soup in case you’ve run out—”
“I own all the soup in the world,” said Millicent.
“And you know Mr. Oxx-Orx, that fellow from out of town?” asked Essie. “He made me some sort of home-remedy that he says will make you feel right as rain. Gave some to the mayor himself too, and he’s feeling better!”
“I don’t need outer space voodoo,” said Millicent. “I was just making tea. Go away.”
“I love tea,” said Essie. “Could I join you?”
“You give me disease and you want to take tea from my personal stores?” said Millicent. “Are you a beggar? A simpleton?”
“I didn’t mean that,” said Essie. “I could go make my own tea and bring it over, and keep you company, if you like.”
“You don’t seem interested in what I like,” said Millicent. “How many times do I have to say go away before you catch on?”
“Whatever you say, Ms. Haver,” said Essie King. “I painted you a picture as well. Hope it cheers you up. Sorry for sneezing on you. I’ll leave the basket right here on your porch.”
“No, take it with you!” Millicent began coughing and had to stare at the floor for a few moments as she cleared her throat and lungs. When she looked up, there was no one there. She opened the door and saw the rumored basket sitting on her mat.
Presumptuous busybodies. Trying to elbow their way inside to clear their consciences. Sickly youth, spreading illness. Millicent turned away and left the basket there. That’ll teach the do-gooder. She’ll see that basket rotting day by day. See for all her precious, proud efforts, all she’s given the world is sneezes and headaches.
Millicent sat on the rocker for a while, drinking her tea, listening to her music. Eventually the station changed hands and became jazz radio, and everything was ruined again. The tea cup was empty as well. She clicked off the device, inconsistent in its offerings, and went to the kitchen, coughing.
Millicent opened her pantry. She was, in point of fact, completely out of soup.
“Hmph,” she thought. “The ding-dong said there were crackers in that basket she brought. They’ll attract raccoons and squirrels to the door all night. Or worse.”
The cat mewed from its place on the windowsill.
That evening Essie King walked by Millicent’s house again, to do exactly as had been prophesied. She smiled to see the basket had been taken inside. There was, however, a piece of paper on the stone walkway that connected sidewalk to porch. Essie walked over and picked it up. It was the small watercolor she’d done of a pair of posies. She looked at the front porch. In the dim light she could see the jar of Oxx-Orx’s tonic sitting alone on the doormat.
Essie shook her head, taking the picture with her. She could find someone who might like it. The medicine she left behind.