I walked all the way to Gertrude's house in the middle of the night. I saw her there in the open door, in her saggy bathrobe and old slippers. I'd meant to make her new slippers for Christmas but hadn't ever gotten around to it.
She squinted because she didn't have her glasses on, and then I saw her forehead furrow, her eyes grown round with concern. She didn't look like she was in the mood to have a wreck like me wash up on her doorstep, but she had to let me through out of human decency. But I needed her--that was all I could think of at the moment.
She let me hug her and then she bade me sit down. She sat by my on the big, worn velvet couch but then I was so beaten down I lay with my head on her lap. She patted my hair and it felt very cool and nice on my fevered head.
"Tell me what's in your heart," she said.
"It's just, I feel like a loser. It seems like I've been lazy in my life, and now I have nothing. While others persevered and won, I gave up and now I'm getting older, I'm washing out, and those just starting now will get far ahead, leaving me behind. I don't inspire anyone to take me along, and I feel like giving up completely."
"Well, dear. Maybe you're not the success story you thought you should be. Maybe you're a tragedy. But, tragedy is still a story worth telling. Shakespeare did well with tragedies."
"But I'm useless! If I were a movie I'd be one nobody remembers, I feel like a mildewed rag that fell in back of the washer. You didn't even want to let me in, did you? I'm a bother--yes or no?"
She paused to decide what words to use, then leaned over and looked at my face.
"You and I always speak completely honestly to one another, right?"
Now I paused. I was supposed to say yes, that's true, I'm always honest. But then, that would not be true. There are many ways I haven't been completely honest. The truth is, sometimes I've looked at her and felt sorry for her. She can be so dingey and messy, even kind of stale smelling sometimes. My silence probably told her everything.
I just don't think I can take that much honesty. Just now I'd prefer it if I could say anything and believe it. I'd say I'm okay, I'm great. I'd snap to my feet and make a plan for future success. I'd name something I'm supposed to want and I'd go for it, by golly. Because, everybody knows success means you are not a waste of oxygen. Be a winner! Tell a happy story and people will want to hear it.
"Okay, you asked for the truth," she said.
"I didn't like you knocking at my door. You woke me up from a very good dream I was having. I feel put out by it. But what can I do? I'm your friend."
I started sniffling and wiping my eyes on my sleeves.
"I'm sorry," I said, sitting up.
"Lay back down," she said, and pulled the afghan from the back of the sofa and reached to throw it over me. "Listen."
"I'm old now. I've had many nights of rest. I've slept in a hammock on a beach in Mexico with the sea breeze washing over me. I've slept in a cabin in the Alps under an eiderdown quilt. But I've also had many nights I couldn't sleep.
I've lived through the blitzkrieg, where my home and my neighbors' homes were getting destroyed by bombs. I've stayed awake through epidemics and a couple of earthquakes. In my marriage I had many nights I couldn't sleep because we were fighting. I've spent nights eaten up with worry over my own children. I am not worried about you. You're fine, you just get caught in your thoughts."
"Oh, great," I said. I'm just not that much in the scheme of things, and here I am so full of myself..."
"...Shhh...shhh..." she said. "Here, stretch out on the couch and think about where you are."
I fell into a heavy, uncomfortable sleep. When I woke up in the morning I felt all sweaty and my hair was dirty, my clothes baggy, stretched out and wrinkled. Gertrude's whistling teapot woke me up with its screaming. She turned the burner off and poured me a cup of that good jasmine tea she keeps in her tin.
The tea smelled like a little hint of heaven--flowers and summer winds, berries and sky.
"Thank you, Gertrude," I said.