The old woman's hands twisted, wringing the water out of some imaginary nothing. Her skin was dry, it sounded like fine-grit sandpaper. Salt and pepper in her hair, and she was beautiful, still, even with the anxious look and the tremor. She was so beautiful it was hard to believe.
She tapped her foot, white orthopedic shoes that matched the nurses'. She was keeping time. That's what she'd say and folks would chuckle, thinking it was a joke. It was no joke. You spend your life on a stage snapping your fingers and singing through your heroes' songs, and it starts to be an obsession. She knew she couldn't keep time - it was slipping away fast, but she could keep a beat, and that's what she did. Click, click. Rubber soles on linoleum.
No one ever visited, but it didn't seem to bother her. She didn't want pity. She'd wave it off. I didn't do much in my life that warrants company, honey. It wasn't true, but she had long ago stopped trying to show people who she really was. They wanted a pretty statue with an Ella Fitzgerald soundtrack that didn't cost as much, so that's what they got.
She felt like a pet, and she didn't like it. She didn't like that the nurses "happened to bring their kids" to say hello sometimes. Look at the legend, kids. The hometown hero. You ignore all that stuff you hear - this here is a good woman. Voice like an angel, and I ain't just saying it. It's the Gospel truth.
It was just lies, but it didn't matter to her, especially now. So, she'd hum a little, shake their little hands, wondering why she was shaking hands with someone she had no interest in meeting, someone who had no interest in meeting her. She was used to the cell phone pictures now. No point arguing, they'd just change the meds and write it off. She knew it wasn't for the kids and it sure as hell wasn't for her. She knew the score. She was on a lot of peoples' computers, she knew that.
She'd tried once. I know what y'all think of me. The crazy nigger. I know you say the word in your head cause you ain't allowed to say it aloud. You wear those whites nice, but this is still Mississippi. I just want to be left alone. Y'all are the same as you always been, you just pretend. Shocked faces. Oh, and the groveling. So fake it hurt her fucking teeth. We would NEVER think of you as crazy or ... that word! But then the meds changed and she didn't like it, so she kept her mouth shut and they backed it off. She'd learned her lesson. The entertainment better damn well stay entertaining.
She'd managed to live her life her way ... to the extent that she was able to - she remembered when the water fountains had labels. Her doctors didn't, but she did. She got a bit of reprieve because she could sing. Just like the little visitors. It was all the same thing. Same as being on a stage sixty years ago. Talk pretty. Call people 'sugar', but don't let them know you're real. These are hard working folks, they didn't come here to feel guilty.
It happened on her birthday. She'd planned it well ... a final gift to herself. She was dead when they found her, but there was a note:
I'm done singing for y'all. Ain't none of it been true. I never did love a man for money, and I never even smoked a cigarette. A man in a suit made up those lies. Said it would make me famous, and it seems he was right. But it was lies. And I never liked singing to begin with. I was just good at it, and it was all I was allowed to do.
The funeral was like a festival. A bunch of balloons tied to a string of lies. Even in death.