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Two weeks after her second COVID vaccination, Sylvia called Mavis to suggest dining out for the first time since the pandemic hit. Finally, relief from toxic social isolation. A rare shot of optimism that gave Sylvia’s voice a hopeful lilt.

“How about lunch tomorrow? Aphrodite’s. My treat.” Sylvia bounced over to her bedroom closet. What to wear to lunch?

“I thought that restaurant closed. With all the others.”

“Aphrodite’s is hanging on. There’s outdoor seating.” An umbrella table overlooking a shopping center parking lot, but still. Lunch. Something to look forward to at last. “I’ll pick you up at 12:30.” If Mavis drove herself, there was no telling when she’d show up.

“Better not. I’m in the middle of something here, Sylvia.”

“What? Are you okay?”

“Death cleaning. It’s kind of involved.”

Sylvia closed the closet door and sat down on the edge of her bed. “Are you talking about the decluttering fanatic who wrote that book? The Japanese woman?”

“No, this is a different woman. She’s Swedish and her book is about cleaning up before you die. So your kids won’t have to do it.”

Sylvia gasped. “Mavis? Are you—dying?”

“Not yet. I mean, not that I know of. Although, when you think about it, we’re all dying. We just don’t know exactly when. The Swedish woman says if there are any secret things you don’t want anyone to find, you should get rid of them now.”

Sylvia did have a few items her sons wouldn’t appreciate running across, but she wasn’t ready to dispose of them.

Lunch was all she wanted after a year in solitary confinement with PBS and NPR. And CNN, of course. It sounded like Mavis had the shredder going. Sylvia raised her voice over the noise. “Wouldn’t it make sense to get a diagnosis first? Something that would kill you but not immediately. You’d still have time to clean up, and you’d be really motivated to do it then.”

“Or I could have a massive heart attack like Cliff.” Cliff was Mavis’s deceased husband. Not a huge loss, but it was a sudden death. “Remember his mountain of junk in the basement?” Mavis was still angry about numerous infractions over 30 years of marriage.

“Can’t you at least take a break for lunch?” Lunch was the reason she’d called, after all. Sylvia’s enthusiasm was starting to wane.

“I’m not supposed to quit. That’s key.”

“You sound like that Japanese woman. No way am I climbing on her bandwagon. She’s not normal.”

“This woman is Swedish. It’s a completely different thing.”

Sweden: home of Ikea and their incomprehensible assembly directions, thought Sylvia. “She’s trying to scare people, Mavis. Are you afraid to go to lunch? You could wear a mask.” The shredder stopped grinding.

“Not while I’m eating. Listen. Here’s what I’ve learned. A lot can happen, Sylvia. Think about it. The Delta variant. People running around unvaccinated. Trump. Who could have anticipated that? Who knows what could be around the corner?”

“But aren’t you glad we don’t feel the need to have CNN on day-and-night anymore?”

“There’s one thing I can control, Sylvia. I can die knowing my belongings won’t be a burden. The Swedish woman says I can give my stuff to friends and relatives as gifts from here on instead of buying more stuff. Do you want a hand-knitted poncho?”

“Wait. I thought you just said something about the burden of belongings—”

“Treasures, I mean. Heirlooms. Like the silver. The dolls. My mink. Oh—the Hummel figurines.”

“Special to you. My kids couldn’t care less about my silverware.”

It was clear there would be no lunch at Aphrodite’s. Certainly not with Mavis.

What would they talk about anyway? Sylvia sighed. Her mind was blank. She picked up the remote and switched on her old friend CNN. Coronavirus cases were on the rise again. She stretched out on the bed and closed her eyes. She may have dozed for a second until the grinding noise started up again. And the loud, peppy voice of Mavis.

“Honestly, it’s not too late for you to get going on this, Sylvia. Death cleaning! Do you want to borrow the book?”

Barbara Taylor

Barbara Taylor is a boarding school/women's college survivor (and, alas, Ph.D. dropout) who disdains Facebook and Twitter. She lives and writes in North Carolina.

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