Race

Josephine Walker could run fast. Everybody knew it. She’d been running fast since she was a little girl and there weren’t anybody would could even keep up. Why, she used to brag that she could even outrun old Scratch himself. Of course, that’s when she was just a bit younger. Now, her arthritis acted up a bit and there was a hitch in her left leg before it rained sometimes. She had to carry that cane most days as well. But she was still mighty fast and everyone knew it.

Now, one could almost say that Josephine was so fast she could even outrun Death and that would almost be a true statement. And Josephine always told her closest friends this very fact. But one day in the Spring of 2020, this uncontested claim of hers got put to the test.

During the early days of 2020, Josephine was staying at a little hole in the wall nursing home called Shady Acres. She had no clue where they got that name from as there weren’t no trees to provide shade and, as for the building itself, it barely rested upon half of an acre. There wasn’t much to it. But she supposed that Shady Acres was just as good a name as any and better that than Pending Purgatory or ‘Scuse Me While I Hunker Down for a Bit of Rest Home.

She had a room all by herself which she had filled to the brim with various porcelain sculptures of puppies, kittens and the occasional child doing something fanciful like letting a fish on a fishing line bite them in the rear, autographed pictures of stars from The Grand Ole Opry and her personalized collection of quilts with unique statements, like “You don’t have to be crazy to fit in around here, but it sure helps,” and “Must be a Monday”. She also had her favorite rocker perched right next to the window so she could crochet as she watched the squirrels steal walnuts from a nearby tree.

She was seated on her favorite rocker, about to get ready for some serious crotchet work when the lady across the hallway, one Ira Feinstein burst into her room, uninvited. “Oh, Josephine, honey, have you heard the latest news?”

It really didn’t matter one way or another if Josephine said “yes”, “no” or “go away” cause Ira was like a freight train wailing down the track. So, instead of making a reply, Josephine held her tongue and allowed the Ira train to go speeding along its way.

“Three things,” continued Ira. “First, we’ve got a new orderly just today. He’s a handsome young man. Sorta reminds me of my grandson Wally. He’s got that big, bushy Wayne Newton hair and a devil-may-care attitude about him. Oh, he won’t be staying long. Mark my words. He’s an orderly that’s going places.”

Josephine didn’t reply, just nodded her head at the appropriate places and concentrated on her crochet. It was best to let Ira get it out of her system. Why, one day several weeks ago, Josephine had allowed a phone call to interrupt Ira’s dialogue and, wouldn’t you know it, that lady had barged into her room on five separate occasions later that afternoon just to make sure that Josephine didn’t miss one bit of the latest news, like she was your own personal CNN reporter.

“Oh, and Mrs. Dean, down in the West Wing…did you hear that she had a gentleman caller the other night…and at her age? Well, Of course, Mrs. Weathers heard the ruckus and came investigating and found them in a quite compromising situation. Needless to say, she’s on thin ice with the board and she may not be with us for that much longer.”

Josephine nodded and found a particular interest in one of the squirrels on the big oak by her window. It had one of those walnuts in its mouth and was attempting to climb down a branch and get into its hidey hole but it was having one heck of a time with that nut in its mouth.

“And, of course, there’s the Covid Count for this morning.” When Ira said “Covid Count”, she automatically put quotations around it and capitalized it. “We’re up to 19, with Mr. Lennings and Vera Franklin just this morning. I’ll tell you, Josephine, you better be careful and don’t let anyone in your room unless they are properly attired, if you know what I mean.”

Josephine did know what she meant. In fact, Josephine was good and tired of hearing about how one should be properly attired these days. Got on her darn nerves. People spent so much time being afraid of things they forgot how to live. Being in fear ain’t any way to live. You got to take risks a bit. You gotta run to beat the devil once in a while.

Sooner than later, Ira Feinstein excused herself as it was time for her sponge bath. It made Josephine squirm a bit just thinking about Ira Feinstein taking a sponge bath. Some things are just too powerful even for the imagination.

Her head had just lulled forward for the third time, signaling her nap time approaching, when the noise of someone intentionally clearing their throat brought her right up out of drowsy land. She looked around excitedly before her wits could clear themselves and she aimed her old, tired eyes at the doorway.

And there was a man at her doorway, just looking at her while she was sleeping. He was a funny, little man with gold chains around his neck and dressed in a soft blue running suit, looking mighty soft like velour or some other like material. He just stood there with them beady little eyes of his staring right through her, like he just laid every secret she had out bare for the world to see.

“Can I help you?” She asked a little too loudly.

The man smiled this greasy, little smile like he was sizing her up…made her feel a little nauseated to tell the truth. “Hey toots, do I have the please of addressing the Josephine Walker, the fastest woman in Carver County?”

The compliment made her smile a little despite her discomfort. “Why, you sure do. And who, may I ask, are you? Ira told me we had a new orderly, but you’re not exactly dressed for the work now, are you?”

The man entered her room like he owned the place, even picked up a few of her figurines as he talked. Why, if Josephine hadn’t been a woman of God, she would have let him have the prickly point of her tongue right then and there. But she held her words as what the man was saying held her attention pretty well.

“Oh, I ain’t no orderly, Mrs. Walker. I’m not really into the healing business, you might say. Naw, I’m more on the other end of the life spectrum. See, when Mrs. Franklin came into your room a few days ago, she left something here for you. Now, don’t go looking for it as you won’t be able to see it. But she left you a bit of the Coronavirus and that nasty little cough and fever you’ve been doing so well to hide from everybody else is about to come on you hard. And let’s just say, when it does, I’m here to collect.”

“If you are death,” said Josephine, “why are you bothering to show yourself? I thought you just waited until the deed was done and came up to collect afterwards, like the coward you are.”

The man’s hand went up theatrically to pat his ample chest, rustling his gold chains in the process. “Coward? Now that’s no way to treat an old friend like yours truly, is it? Why, wasn’t it you, Josephine Walker, that told poor Mrs. Faulkner when she lost that little boy of hers that death was just a natural part of life, something that needs to be embraced and not run from? So, where’s my hug?”

“I ain’t hugging you. I’m just gonna sit right here till our business is done. And you know as well as I do that the words I spoke were just words of comfort. They weren’t words of truth, just something I had to say to the grieving mother to set her mind at ease.”

“Of course, sugar lumps, I get that.”

Josephine’s mouth set in a hard line. “So why are you here? If I’m on my way out, you just need to be waiting your turn.”

Death picked up a quilt with the phrase “Hang in There, Baby” emblazoned and considered it before talking. “Well, now, sweetie, it is customary for yours truly to allow a game of chance before the deed is done. Something to take your mind off the passing, as it were. Also, you know all the other fine print about if you beat death then you get to live a while longer, yada, yada, yada. So, I was just thinking, here’s a dame that’s never been afraid of nothing. Maybe she’ll provide me with a little diversion. Maybe you’ll give me a run for my money for once.”

“A run? Is that your game, you crafty old death? Take advantage of a little, old, frail lady like me in the last moments of her life?”

“Frail? Why, I heard you were the fastest woman to ever run this earth.”

“Really,” Josephine asked. “And just how’d you hear that?”

Death put the quilt down as he turned with a gleam in his eye. “Why, who do you think told me? It was the Devil. Do you really think you can run to beat the devil and that news won’t get around?”

Josephine nodded. “Yeah, that devil always did have a big mouth. So, you wanna try your hand at the big prize, is that it, old death? Is that why you got all dressed up in that fancy running suit of yours? Try your hand at the title?”

Slowly, deliberately, she raised herself out of her rocker. “Well, I’m ready when you are, old man death. You just name the spot.”

“How about right now, out back of the home?”

Josephine smiled, nodded to herself, took one step and was dead before she hit the floor.

“Oh, by the way, toots,” Death smiled down at her, “I was just kidding about the virus thing. It was a stroke. And I never gamble with business. I was just having a little fun with you.”

* * * * * * *

An hour later, as the paramedics were wheeling Mrs. Walker’s body down the hallway, Ira Feinstein looked on and sadly shook her head.

“Ah, that’s too bad. She was so young. Well, 83 ain’t that young, but definitely too young to die like that. But everyone’s gotta go sometime, am I right?”

The new orderly smiled back at her. “That’s right, Mrs. Feinstein. Death comes for everyone in the end, doesn’t it?”

“Oh please, call me Ira. And, I’m sorry but I didn’t catch your name.”

The new orderly smiled. “Why, it’s Jerry. Jerry Kincaid.”

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