The World’s Second-Oldest Woman by Maxwell Paparella

BOMB 152 Summer 2020
BOMB Magazine Issue 152
Maxwell Mockup2

No one lives every day as the person they want to be. It is rare that a full hour should pass in such a feeling.

As end-of-life professionals, we believe the human spirit should be put at peace as its host body performs that final sacrament. At least there, in the course of our final breaths, we might consider ourselves with a certain aplomb.

When we meet our clients, most are anxious that they have amounted to nothing. We are able to reassure them with our many means of measurement.

In layman’s terms, our work involves the consolidation of archives. We firm up a legacy here and there, fluff this or that canon with a few additional names, engage in a little imaginative eulogizing, and deliver to our charge a stirring account of their life and legacy.

Some want a complete history of the body—every ache and pain, every chill and pinprick. They have given up on, perhaps were never interested in, the mark-making some of us try to perpetrate upon the world. They seek only redress of grievance for those ways the world has marked them. You might be surprised how many find their life is best organized into chapters beginning with the dozen or so times they hit their head very hard.

For the very vain, and there are many of these, we can identify the day, the hour, the moment of their most radiant beauty and doctor the remainder of the visual record to match.

Our obligation as we see it is not to history but to memory. You cannot accuse us of any exaggeration, any falsehood, the mind itself would hesitate to commit.

As our story begins, we have been asked to perform these rites by and for a woman, very old. Policy prevents us from using a name. Her extra years are the allowance of a controversial anti-aging treatment.

The procedure involved the splicing of human genes with strawberry bacteria and was never made available in wide release. Only the Very Rich had been given experimental access, and most of these went on to take their own lives in spectacular manner. She is an exception.

The treatment renders the body perilously fragile. Even the Woman, who has always been extremely careful, is covered with bruises from where she sits, kneels, lays. Her skin has the consistency of curdled milk.

Our work is performed in the home. Hers is already a kind of museum of the self, a converted multi-family on the mid-UWS.

She used to share it, as we will learn, when the “state of things” (she is fond of this term) demanded that she must. Her tenants objected to the smell of rot in the walls, her slowness to perform repairs.

When we meet, she is looking over the glass cases and vitrines in the Middle Period wing, formerly a dining room. She opens one of the displays: Girlhood Embroidery. Hands that have never touched work touch lace, which fails to trigger a memory. She frowns, replaces it.

She must have heard us come in, but she does not look up. As we near, she begins to vocalize her counting: “…33, 34, 35…” We do not interrupt.

Beside us is a case of custom dining sets. On the pleats of one dish, her daily routine is illustrated. The figures are worn and faded, but they are clearly her likeness.

Hanging all around are massive paintings of ships: some at sea but mostly wrecks.

She is an interesting enough subject, as they go. Her life has brought her into the proximity of greatness, yet she has avoided becoming herself great.

Her parents were well-regarded success consultants. As young lovers they had tried communes and cults before settling on money.

She and her sisters were raised in the city and taught to be jealous of each other and to pity everyone else. With no one to speak to she would find herself in places she had not expected to be, not realizing that she had made the decision to go. The pigeons came to know and avoid her.

The family fortune had been inherited by the sisters rather unevenly. With her part, she has invested in all the neuroses suitable to her station. She keeps lobsters, tending carefully to the molting of their shells. She makes careful study of the slowest and most gnostic martial arts. She has traveled extensively, but her impressions of points abroad have mostly to do with the relative quality of service on jetliners and in hotel chains.

She has been close at hand for some of the most significant events of our century, although only by invitation, as a guest. She was among those who passed the torch at the bonfire of the flags and the abolition of nations. Later, she helped to dedicate the strings which hold up our part of the sky. When some of the ghosts were expelled from their haunts so the Old City could be rebuilt, she passed out little cups of sherry along the parade route.

She attributes her advanced age not so much to the strawberry treatment as to a lifetime of temperance. She has always been mild. We find her off to the side in group photographs, not wanting to be crowded. She is a principled vegetarian.

At first she seems disappointed by our attempts to glorify her archives, as our other clients usually expect. She presents us instead with meticulous accounts of several alternate versions of her life, in which decisions were made differently. She expects the team to investigate and confirm the veracity of these speculations and then to enter that version of events into the historical record.

We begin to make inquiries at the Halls of History. She is vague about the contents of her regrets, and almost no

trace of them appears in the databases to which we have access. There is something about a doomed romance, but the few details we have to go on are bland enough to suggest a lie.

The Rich, we know, are alone in their psychology. They throw themselves into love. It is not always possible to produce a secondary text out of such affairs. The most abiding mystery becomes only a fact, a constraint on the imagination.

Within these walls, her vitality is unrivaled. She keeps no plants. Her lobsters are sedate, almost lifeless. We sometimes sense she is looking over our heads, inspecting the rigging on one of her doomed ships. She avoids our eyes, in which she might encounter the glint of something that is not her own.

She emits a sound from the rear of her throat at the end of every sentence. It is different than the sound of her swallowing. It is a thrust, vaguely disapproving, though not quite a tut. Not a cluck, in the sense that it does not travel beyond her mouth. It is punctuation, for it is only sounded over what would appear on the page as a period. It is a gag, as though talking makes her physically uncomfortable. It is a tic, as is the constant opening and closing of her locket necklace, which holds no photograph.

This description of the Woman comes only from those days on which we saw her. Of the nights, mornings, and weekends we can only speculate. She may exercise at those times similar humors, or she may reserve for them those moods and behaviors she does not wish for us to see.

She never cooks, and none of us can say whether we have seen her eat. She does like to suck the sour layer off of a certain cinnamon candy, leaving the sweet remains to dry and harden on various surfaces of her home until we or the Housecleaner removes them.

There is an argument with this Housecleaner once, on the subject of compensation. Voices become hostile in the other room, and the Housecleaner is not seen for days. The following week, however, just as soon as one of us has tracked in some mud, they return to mop the floors with an astringent soap (a recipe of their own devising), the odor of which scalds the hair in our nostrils.

There is also an Assistant, who the Reader is asked to please regard with some suspicion. They seem at times to be confiding in the team, offering us a way out or a way in, but their advice always ends with elliptical thoughts and double meanings. We find their handwriting on everything, and it is almost always illegible.

The Woman enjoys nothing more than to speculate on the psychological well-being of her servants. To smile, we know, is painful for her, but a peculiar one seems to play on her lips with ease in these moments. At times, her Assistant is invited to partake in her musings. When they are not present, it is often the Assistant themself who is under examination.

The work is difficult but rewarding. The team becomes very involved in the case, staying on well past the end of our paid shifts some nights to calm her. We think she is afraid we won’t come back. She says she is not afraid she will die in the night. She is sure she will die in the street, which she hates.

Having discovered several photographs of her in a leotard, we ask if she still dances.

“The way I might do it under observation is,” she replies, “so unlike the way I perform alone.”

She does not move from where she sits for the remainder of the afternoon, except to raise her legs so the Housekeeper might sweep around her.

We send the dust to our lab for analysis. If it contains traces of her biology, it is carbon dated and set aside in vials, which will accompany the future retrospective of her notes and letters, if there is interest in such a thing. Our galleries and museums have lately become preoccupied with the genius Poor, but it seems only a matter of time before they turn again to the indolent Rich.

It becomes clear, gradually, that our ostensible assignment is a ruse. As soon as we unveil an alternate version of events, with the variables adjusted as she has described, we are instructed to destroy it, along with the original.

We begin to suspect that the Woman wants to disappear from the records entirely, to be finally, absolutely inconsequential. In this way, she may hope to be given life again.

There has always been demand for erasure, of course, by failed criminals hoping to reenter straight society, by runaways and charlatans. There are competent contractors for this kind of work, but we are in a different line. The request makes some of us uneasy.

For one thing, it’s a project that goes directly against that which we supposedly hold dear: the monumentality of the human enterprise, the impossibility of its reduction, all that. Still, it is not outside of our ability, and we could use the work.

After all, we are not exempt from the passing of time. Whenever we care to, we can see a new sign of age on our faces. It will not be so long now until we are being laid up for the final examinations, our own stories compiled in their official and authorized forms. The life of a Recordist is not so interesting, we muse darkly, having been spent largely in the looking rather than the doing.

There is no question that people are living longer and in better health, but memory suffers. Even the young Assistant, who in childhood had accrued a few prized scars, has lately gone looking for one only to realize they can’t find it, can’t even be sure on which side of their body it had been.

Midway into our term of employment, having recovered some certification from the Board of Records, we come to understand that the Woman is, in fact, the world’s second-oldest.

She shrugs off our questions about the distinction. It seems they had never been in touch, she and her only superior in years, although she does refer to this other woman by a first name: Amelia. She gives off a flash of embarrassment and hastens to change the subject.

She takes us one day to the family gravesite. It is a clean, modern affair. A low curb of blushing marble emerges from the grass and winds its way around itself and around the plot, rising and falling back underneath the earth where its strands meet and overlap. The effect is one of a lovely, simple knot, which can be followed with the eye and which seems to suggest the speed at which this should occur. The ends of the line fall just next to each other, at the center of the balance achieved by the twisting forms above and below. It has been redesigned several times, she tells us, and will continue to be updated, even after her own death, to stay always in step with the tastes of the day, and so in step with the rest of the sites in this section, which seem also to be keeping up with each other in this manner.

One of us carries huge bows of forsythia from the car. We lay half of them at one end, dedicated to her mother, and half at the other, to her father. I don’t know if any of us think of her sisters until we see them on the way out: a row of simple, flat markers bearing only their initials and set away from the monument, much closer to the road.

“I should have known when I was in love not to make any other plans,” she whispers once while we are taking her temperature through her ear.

She seems to be asleep. We make a note of the time and the position of her head. The shadow of her hair has fallen over the birthmark above her left eyebrow.

“Strange that language seems to invigorate the act of living,” she says another day, fully conscious, “which I should think would be better left alone.”

We make another entry in our book of quotations.

One day, it is unbearably hot in the apartment. She has changed the page on the calendar, having grown tired of the picture, although it is not yet August. We go to a movie.

“It is a sad moment,” she tells us later, “when the character grows out of the first actor to play them, as if the child has died.” We remember the scene she is referring to. “The young boy is recalled,” she continues, 

his role filled by an older man who receives immediately the hard-won benefits of adolescent struggles. This person, who we are asked to care for as though we’ve always known, may see the plot through to its conclusion or else may pass his name again to yet another man. This one, older still, may be asked to revisit scenes from his past, from days on which he did not work and for which he will not be paid, running his fingers over furniture on which he is meant to have lain sick or made love, remembering with grief or joy things that did not happen to him, but to other men. His scars were applied only cosmetically, with no memory of that moment in which blood flowed from them. He may even be asked to die there on the screen, to play the body as if exhausted from all that it has done—beatings it has not endured, journeys it has not taken. The first boy, who appears again in a flashback, acquires a halo for all that is to come. He is buried by the acts of his maturity, remembered as perfect form in soft focus.

We awake one morning to find the Woman’s name in the notifications of some of the more patrician dailies, with certain members of the favorite families offering their reminisces and astonishments. There are the images we have prepared for the occasion, dissolving into one another: a face firms, blossoms, fades. We are unsettled, but also a little underwhelmed, and go in to work as usual. We find her in the video room with the screens on mute, chuckling lightly, blowing across the surface of her tea.

She declines to attend her own funeral, even after we’ve devised a suitable disguise. We are there, in one of the back pews, although there is room in front. The oratory is polite, if desultory. She spends the afternoon in the park, hoping to be recognized and disbelieved, to have become a ghost.

At the very end, we are the only ones with her every day. The Assistant has been fired for stealing, although she tells us later it was simply time for them to go. New homes have been found for the lobsters. A book of one-sided correspondence from actors and activists is in the works. Her letters to them seem not to have survived.

“If it were to come right now,” she calls from the bath, with uncharacteristic music in her voice, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t have the words. I’m just not in the mood.”

Maxwell Paparella lives in New York City. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, Screen Slate, and elsewhere.

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Originally published in

BOMB 152, Summer 2020

Our summer issue includes interviews with Amoako Boafo, Jibz Cameron, Brenda Goodman, Odili Donald Odita, Jenny Offill, Nicolas Party, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Craig Taborn; poetry by Safia Elhillo and Nathaniel Mackey; prose by Lydia Davis, Marie-Helene Bertino, and Saidiya Hartman; and more.

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BOMB Magazine Issue 152