Stella knows it’s almost time for the home health aide to come when the light from the east window falls on the blank eye of the television screen. Today the strand of sun illuminates a series of fingerprints in the dust like a row of ducklings. Stella can’t remember the last time she was outside, but she remembers long ago sitting on the banks of Lake Champlain, watching a mother mallard swim by with her brood as the tourists tossed them bread. A snapping turtle rose out of the deep and grabbed the feet of a duckling, who gave several shrill cheeps as it was pulled under. The mother swam back and grabbed the little duck’s head with her bill, but the turtle was too strong, and the duckling was quickly gone. The mother duck swam round and round for a minute, calling to it. Then she went on her way, the remaining offspring almost climbing her back to stay close.

Life is funny. For some it’s quickly snuffed out. For others it burns on and on, like a fire fed by kerosene. Stella can’t seem to die. Though she’s eighty-four and can’t walk, and her weight is almost the same as her age, still her heart beats on and her blood courses through her body, the cells scrubbing and knitting like faithful housewives.

Stella has already taken her morning pills, carefully removing each from the plastic pill container on the over-the-bed table and washing it down with water from a child’s sippy cup. Her hands are twisted from arthritis, and sometimes a pill falls onto the bed and she’s helpless to get it back till the aide comes. That’s why she’s so careful. There is a heart pill and one for her bowels, but the most important is the OxyContin. It’s yellow and not very big, and it makes her existence bearable. Not just the pain. She’s had pain all her life. No, when she first took one of the yellow pills, something happened in her mind. She closed her eyes and thought she was napping, but she wasn’t napping. Her brain was taking a walk in a fantastic garden where anything could grow. There were crystal castles and elephants, feathered hats and frilled shawls. Stella had never been to Mardi Gras, but she’d seen it on TV, and taking a pain pill was like letting her mind go to Mardi Gras with the sound turned down.

Now she hears someone coming up the walk and wonders who the agency has sent this time. She hopes it’s not the one that likes to talk about everything being God’s work. Stella does not believe that anything in life is God’s work. She gave up on God a long time ago.

The key clicks in the lock, and she hears a bag being put on the kitchen table. A girl walks in, smiling. Stella has seen her before: a college student, doing this job for the summer. The college students aren’t much good at baths and diapers. This one—Stella can’t recall her name—put her diaper on backward once.

“Hi, Stella,” she says. “Did you sleep all right?”

“Oh no, honey. I’m always up half the night. But it don’t matter much, do it? I got nowhere to go.”

The girl takes the plastic basin from under the bed. She’s wearing long, dangling earrings and a T-shirt with writing on it. Stella tries to read the shirt but can’t without her glasses, which are on the nightstand. She can see the girl’s jeans have been patched with bright-colored material. When Stella was young, no one would have dreamed of advertising their patches. Patches were a thing of shame.

The girl goes into the bathroom and comes back with the basin full of warm water and a clean washcloth. She puts on the plastic gloves they all wear, strips the covers off Stella, removes the wet diaper, and drops it in the trash.

Stella closes her eyes as the girl washes her face with the warm cloth. The girl quickly dabs at each hand, giving them short shrift. She’s better about the privates. There she uses plenty of soap and gets Stella’s few pubic hairs in a froth. Stella knows to turn onto her side next, but she needs help. The girl pushes her from behind while Stella grips the bed rail. Finally the girl cleans her butt.

“I think you’re going to have a poop today,” the girl says.

“Yeah, I can feel it there.”

The girl gets a fresh washcloth and gives Stella’s back a once-over. Then she takes Stella’s nightgown off and puts a clean diaper on her—the right way round this time, tapes in front.

“Now, up we go,” the girl says.

Putting her arms behind neck and knees, she swings Stella to the edge of the bed. She’s strong, this girl. She smells of onion and foreign spices, not flowery perfume like most of them. Stella grips the girl’s forearms. She likes it so much, this moment when she is helped up. She can feel the girl’s body heat, touch her skin, smell her breath.

Stella stands on wobbly legs while the girl grips her under her arms and swings her into the chair.

“Safe landing,” the girl says.

“What’s your name, sweetie?”

“Charity, but most people call me Chare.”

“Charity. That’s a nice, old-fashioned name.”

“My mom named me.”

“Well, they usually do, don’t they?” Stella says.

Charity smiles. “I guess you’re right.”

“Where does your mom live?”

“She’s dead.”

“Oh my, I’m sorry,” says Stella.

“Why should you be sorry? You didn’t kill her.” Charity gives a sharp laugh.

Stella is silent. She wonders if Charity is mentally unbalanced. That’s unlikely. They put them through screening at the agency.

“What do you want to wear today?” Charity asks.

“Oh, you pick. I ain’t no fashion queen.”

Charity goes to the small closet and comes back with purple pants, pink sandals, and a green shirt that buttons down the front. She’s also found a necklace of turquoise beads and a white cotton top to go under the shirt, instead of a bra.

Curious, Stella asks, “What did your mother die of?”

“Overdose. She was a heroin addict.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Shoot. She said that word again. It just slipped out.

Charity dresses Stella, then stands back to admire her handiwork. Lastly she takes the spectacles from the nightstand, polishes them with her T-shirt, and lets Stella put them on. Now Stella can read Charity’s shirt: “Let the Buffalo Roam.” The girl puts Stella’s sparse white hair in a tight bun and tries wrapping the strand of blue beads around it, but Stella has so little hair that it keeps slipping free. Finally Charity gives up and puts the beads round Stella’s neck. It strikes Stella that not too long ago this girl was probably still playing with dolls.

For breakfast Charity gives Stella cornflakes and cuts up an apple from the refrigerator. Stella can’t chew the skin, so she strips the rest away with her few teeth and leaves the skin in a pile. Meanwhile the girl remakes the bed, puts the dirty clothes in the wash, and tidies up.

“Do you have any kids, Stella?”

“No, I never married.”

“Why not?”

“No one asked.”

Stella’s sisters all married, and from what she saw, married life was not always to be envied. She was the eleventh child of fourteen, and not much of anything had trickled down to her, including looks. She’d learned not to harbor dreams.

“Where did you work?” Charity asks.

“In the woolen mills. Till thirty years ago Burlington had mills, you know. And Winooski, too. Anyone could get a job. I worked at Burlington Mill fifty years and never missed a day, except for my mother’s funeral.”

“Did you like it?”

Stella snorts. “Back then we didn’t think about whether or not we liked a job. We just did it. Had to. Folks nowadays think too much about pleasing theirselves.”

“I guess you’re right,” Charity says.

“You bet I am.”

“I like this job.”

“You do?” Stella asks.

“Yeah. I get to meet people like you.”

“That ain’t no thrill.”

“But it is!” the girl exclaims.

“Well, you’re sweet. Don’t ever get old and crabby, like me.”

“You’re not crabby. You just say what you mean.”

“You’re a lucky girl,” Stella tells her. “Never forget it.”

“I do sometimes,” Charity says. “Forget it, I mean.” Charity sits on the bed. Her face has grown flushed.

“You know, sweetie,” Stella says, “I don’t own a thing in the world but this old trailer, and I spend twelve hours a day in that bed and twelve hours a day in this chair. I see an aide in the morning and an aide at night. Otherwise it’s the blasted television. I’m just waiting to die.”

“Really? Is that all you want?”

“I’d like to get it over with,” Stella says. “Meanwhile I just take life as it comes. Always have.”

Charity gathers Stella’s bowl and plate with the apple skins on it and walks into the kitchen. Stella hears her doing dishes. This girl hasn’t turned on the television yet. The aide who talks about God’s work always turns it on first thing and then watches a program as she heaves Stella around like a ham.

Charity comes back sweating a little. “I’m going to take you outside,” she announces.

“My goodness, why would you do that?”

“Cause it’s something new for you.”

“Isn’t it against the rules?”

Charity shrugs. “They didn’t tell me not to.”

She retrieves Stella’s wheelchair from the spare bedroom, puts a pillow in the seat, and lifts her into it. They have a hard time getting through the trailer’s door, but with a few good jerks the girl manages it, and down they go on the handicap ramp the city installed a few years ago. At the bottom Stella gets another big bump, and her head falls back for a moment, causing her to look up.

The sky startles her: a great blue bowl with puffy clouds, like clotted cream. Stella’s chest feels wide open, and the smell of grass pours into her like sweet tea.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh my!”

A slight breeze sweeps the hair on her forehead. She is riveted by the blueness of the sky, the largeness of the world, the summer sounds of a lawn mower, a dog, some birds. She and Charity are quiet for a minute. Stella knows the other aide would say this moment is God’s work, but she does not agree. The girl did it. All by herself.

“Do you like it?” Charity asks.

“Like?” Stella says. “Oh, my Lord, I’d forgot.”