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Chapter 2: Mary Mbwembwe Says Good-Bye to a Very Old Friend

Mary Mbwembwe was in the kitchen when the old woman died. She was making the old woman a cup of chamomile tea. By the time she came back to the bedroom with the tea the old woman was entirely gone. Mary Mbwembwe put the teacup and saucer down on the nightstand. She leaned down and kissed the old woman on the forehead. Then she dressed the body in the old woman’s favorite robe, a peacock-colored silk kimono with passionflowers painted on it. She fixed the old woman’s hair. She arranged the body’s arms into a tasteful impression of repose. Next she called the coroner, and after that she called the daughter. While she waited for the coroner and the daughter to arrive, Mary Mbwembwe cleaned the old woman’s home until it was spic-and-span. By mid-afternoon her job was done. The coroner had come and gone. A hearse had arrived and two somberly dressed gentlemen had zippered the old woman’s body into a white bag and took it away reverently.

The daughter looked up from her texting as if surprised to see Mary Mbwembwe standing there. She wrote Mary Mbwembwe a check for two hundred dollars. She had never liked Mary Mbwembwe, and she was behaving rudely now, barely looking at her, and handing the check over at arms’ length. By then Mary Mbwembwe had been caring for the old woman for seven years, in a town called Hemet, in the California desert, not far from the border. It was a town mostly populated with elderly John Wayne fans and their caregivers.

Mary Mbwembwe forgave the daughter for her abrupt manner. She did not mention that two hundred dollars was less than she was owed or that she would be sleeping in her car that night. A friend had written to say that a brand-new nursing home had opened in a town two or three days to the north, a place where they paid minimum wage plus benefits, so Mary Mbwembwe had a backup plan. The daughter watched Mary Mbwembwe while she packed to be sure that no silver or crystal made its way into Mary Mbwembwe’s bag. Mary Mbwembwe did not resent her for it. She did not complain. Her belongings were not complicated. She did not take long to pack.

Her car complained, though, wheezing and belching as she backed out and drove away.

Just as Mary Mbwembwe got on the highway and headed north she checked her rearview mirror, and at that very moment—in that casual, nostalgic look backward at her former life—she saw the beginning of all that was to come. It came in the shape of a strange, sullen-yellow cloud, far to the south, still close to the horizon but billowing upwards, as if spores had at just that moment been released from the biggest puffball mushroom in the world. The cloud didn’t look to her like ordinary smog. It looked sinister and alive.

“Will you look at that,” Mary Mbwembwe said.

Of course that old woman died a long time ago, so long ago that Mary Mbwembwe has since forgotten the old woman’s name. It was the time when new wars were popping up on every continent, and vast sheets of ice were falling into the sea, and a third of the trees on the planet were burning. Korea still existed. Holland still existed. Countries with borders and names still existed. People still had hands with opposable thumbs, for the most part.

But on that day Mary Mbwembwe did not think of the world and all its troubles. She was on a journey. The road was in front of her, not in her rear-view mirror. The sullen-yellow cloud brooding on the horizon to the south would take care of itself, and if not, then there was no use worrying over what could not be helped, because everything that ever happened in this world was meant to be. After reminding herself of all these things Mary Mbwembwe drove on with a hopeful heart.

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