Miss Martin
by William Michaelian

The dead woman, known as Miss Martin to all but a few of the most elderly patrons, was found lying face down late one Thursday evening after uttering the words “oh” and “my” in the old city library in Laurel Spring, California. The books she had been holding for twenty minutes and was planning to check out — Leaves of Grass and Riders of the Purple Sage — lay on the floor beside her, as mute and heavy as two bricks.

Lily Elizabeth Martin, a resident of Laurel Spring her entire life, was eighty-seven years old. She lived alone, never married, and had no relatives. During her short graveside service — only a handful attended — the young minister who helped lay Miss Martin to rest said simply that she was being survived by the town of Laurel Spring itself — by which he meant the kids on bicycles, the old men in the park, the cats and dogs, and the birds, flowers, and trees.

Especially during the summer, when the evenings were tranquil and light and warm, and the dusty air bore the sweet smell of ripening fruit, she enjoyed the short walk from her house on “J” Street to the library. No fan of newspapers, and even less of television, she sought out her neighbors as a way to keep in touch with the world and its many changes.

There were times, though, when she purposely stayed at home. The interceding stretch of sidewalk was three blocks long. It passed the houses of many people she had once known, and who had since died, making it harder and harder to face the relentless passage of time. For as many as two or three days in a row, she would scarcely eat, if at all, and leave her blinds shut against the street.

If her blinds were still shut on the morning of the fourth day, however, Miss Martin’s next door neighbor, Ellie Jamison, would knock lightly on the front door and call out, “Lily, darling. You have company.” And within a few short minutes she’d be invited inside for tea, during which her grateful hostess would talk her leg off. Ellie was about fifteen years younger than Miss Martin, and the wife of Albert Jamison, printer and publisher of the weekly Advocate.

Otherwise, if asked, Miss Martin would have wholeheartedly agreed with the general consensus that she was an unremarkable old woman. She was thin, but not overly so, and tall, but not so tall that men needed to look up when they spoke to her — which they rarely did. And her tastes were plain. If offered a choice between a piece of hot apple pie and one of the new exotic desserts touted in women’s magazines, she would opt for the pie every time — not that this ever happened. But pie was sensible. It had already been around for ages, cooling on window sills across the land and satisfying hearts and minds and stomachs. What could a silly chef in Paris with a white hat growing out of his head know about cooking that countless pioneer women didn’t?

And so, like a cloud descending upon a field of ripened grain, death came to Miss Martin. Like her neighbors in Laurel Spring, she had long expected it would, waiting, but its abrupt arrival in the library that evening still managed to catch her by surprise. Modestly, and perhaps foolishly, she had hoped one last time to hear the plaintive cry of O Captain, My Captain, and to feel the thunder of horses’ hooves as they approached the entrance of an unexplored canyon.

But this was not to be. Instead, when she collapsed near the tall east window overlooking Lindgren Park and the fire house, she felt a school girl’s startled embarrassment for having attracted so much attention. There followed a brief moment of longing and regret, as real and vivid as the taste of fresh-cut peaches, and then the fading image of herself in an oddly shaped mirror, until at last there was no reflection left at all.

The moment Miss Martin’s spirit was carried away, the small group of library patrons who had gathered around her body fell silent. Out of awkward respect no one moved for nearly three minutes, until at last the librarian, Mrs. Mercer, officially sighed and said, “I’ll call James and tell him we need the ambulance.” She carefully picked up the books Miss Martin had dropped, glanced at the printing on their spines, and carried them back with her to the circulation desk.

As always, the profundity of the moment didn’t last. Within a short time, Miss Martin was retrieved by the city’s one ambulance, officially pronounced dead, and the visitors in the library that evening checked out their books and went home. A short obituary was written by Albert Jamison with the help of his wife, and appeared in Tuesday’s edition of the Advocate. Miss Martin’s small bank account was turned over to the proper legal authorities, and after what seemed an insensitively short period of time, especially to Ellie Jamison, her simple house on “J” Street went up for sale.

Before the house could be shown, however, it was necessary to dispose of Miss Martin’s belongings. This task was offered to Ellie Jamison by Ed McCormick, who managed the real estate office in charge of the sale. “I’d do it myself,” he said. “But you were her neighbor. And women are better at these things than men anyway.”

Before accepting, Ellie smiled, knowing full well Ed McCormick was lazy, and that his left-handed compliment had been uttered in the name of business, not admiration. But she felt responsible, and didn’t want to lose the opportunity to help her neighbor, even if that neighbor was no longer alive. When she said yes, Ed was obviously relieved. But he knew he wasn’t getting away with anything. If Ellie had told him to get his own wife to do it, that’s probably what he would have done.

On a warm morning in August, after seeing her husband Albert off to work, Ellie Jamison washed the breakfast dishes, put on her shoes, and then walked across the narrow driveway to Miss Martin’s house. She unlocked the door and quietly let herself in.

She was greeted by a breath of heavy, stale air. Nearly a month had passed since Miss Martin had been there to open the windows, and the absence of activity left the place with a pale, depressing feeling. The furniture needed dusting, but other than that, everything was in place. The dishes had been put away, the bed was made, and the few soaps and lotions Miss Martin permitted herself were in perfect order near the bathroom sink. On the back of the toilet there was a chipped bud vase, and inside the vase the dry hard stem of a rose, now treading air where water had been. Most of the rose petals themselves, a faded pink and yellow, had fallen onto the tank. Ellie picked one of them up, felt how brittle it was, and then put it back where she found it.

She sighed, wondering where to begin, and almost sorry she had let herself become involved. In spite of the many times she’d been inside to visit with Miss Martin, she still felt like an intruder, or a furtive mouse, emerging and sniffing the air now that the house was empty. And, like a mouse, she felt uneasy enough to turn and run if she heard the tiniest sound.

After checking through each of the drawers and cupboards in the kitchen, Ellie decided the dishes and silverware would be easy to dispose of at one of the church rummage sales. The simple furniture in Miss Martin’s sitting room could be given to charity or sold through a small ad in the paper, with the money — it wouldn’t be much — going to a worthy cause.

It was the same with most other items in the house, which included her pots and pans, an old radio, two braided rugs, a laundry basket and bag of wooden clothespins, linen, ironing board, and vacuum cleaner, as well as dozens of other mundane, practical things. In fact, other than an old-fashioned painting of a boy tending sheep hanging over the sofa in the sitting room, the absence of anything decorative made Ellie feel instinctively sorry for what must have been a terribly lonely, prosaic existence. To her way of thinking, it naturally went beyond what Miss Martin did or did not own, to how hard it must have been waking up each morning with the knowledge that she had no one to share her life with.

For, on any given day, who, other than Miss Martin herself, was there to talk to?

After only an hour of poking about in the oppressive quiet, Ellie wondered, if she were forced to live alone, whether her own company would be a blessing or a curse.

She hoped never to find out.

Later on, as a change of pace, she opened the front door and went out on the step.

Tasting the inside of her mouth, she looked both ways down “J” Street.

Other than a lazy orange tomcat sunning itself in the gutter, and a handful of Chevrolets and Fords waiting under the sycamores, the street was entirely empty.

To break the silence, Ellie cleared her throat. Finally, she was relieved to see her husband on his way up the sidewalk.

When he joined her on the step, he smiled and said, “I’ll be darned — I thought you were Miss Martin there for a minute.”

When she didn’t laugh, Albert Jamison kissed his wife and added, “I’m sorry, Ellie.”

Only then, aware of the painful irony, did she realize that their street hadn’t been given a name, but only a letter instead.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

Title Page & Copyright      E-mail Your Comments      Top of Page      Previous Story      Next Story