Sarah McCutcheon stood on the front porch of her late sister's house and sighed. She didn't know if she was up to it, but the job had to be done. There were companies that did this kind of work nowadays: strangers who would come in and clean up the mess of a suicide, scrub the blood from the walls and the ceiling, deodorize the carpet, throw out the ruined mattress. But Sarah was of the old school and felt this was family business, her business, and she would do it herself.
Not that Margaret had committed suicide exactly; there was no blood, no gunshot wounds. But she was dead, had been found dead, with Malachi Davis, her lover, lying not four feet away in a drunken, drugged stupor. Margaret had been dead for days by then, not that Malachi had noticed. Someone had reported a stench and when the health authorities couldn't rouse anyone, the police broke down the door. It made all the papers.
Sarah didn't know what she'd find inside. She hadn't been in the house yet. She'd gone directly from the airport to the funeral home and then stayed with old family friends. She hadn't read the newspapers and she hadn't talked to reporters. She was surprised none had followed her over here today, but two weeks in the news business is a long time, and Margaret's story was old news by now. Sarah told her friends, old friends of her parents actually, that she wanted to go alone. And she had.
But now she was apprehensive. The police report said Margaret had died of natural causes. One cause actually. She'd starved to death. Why, no one seemed to know. Or how, really. It wasn't that easy to starve to death. They'd taken Malachi to jail, but they couldn't charge him with negligence or much of anything else. After all, Margaret was a grown woman and she was living with him of her own free will. They finally charged him with one count of drug possession and failure to report a death. No doubt he was already out on bail.
Sarah shivered, even though the weather was warm, the beginnings of summer apparent in the fat green leaves and cloudless sky. She pulled her sweater closer, its white cashmere ill-suited to anything but afternoon tea, and thought, how the neighborhood had changed. When Margaret and she had been children this address bespoke good breeding, a family up and coming. Now the tidy little house was surrounded by commercial establishments of various sizes and respectability: an insurance office, a hairdressing boutique, a florist, a secondhand store disguised as an antique store - and the house where Mr. and Mrs. Lake used to live had been converted to a golf and trophy store. Where once lawns had been, they were paved over to provide parking. Theirs was the only postage-stamp-size spot of green on the block and, Sarah noted, it needed cutting.
She still had the key to the front door, the one she'd been given when she was ten and considered old enough for the responsibility. Fingering the worn metal, she slipped it into the deadbolt and finessed the lock into opening by lifting the door ever so slightly up as she pulled on the doorknob.
The door swung open and a blast of fetid air assaulted her. She rummaged in her purse for a scented handkerchief and clamped it over her nose. Stepping inside, she moved from room to room, trying without success to open the windows. They were nailed shut. She settled for propping the back door open and leaving the front door wide with only the screen door latched.
Whatever had happened here? Sarah felt herself reeling, felt some sense of herself, of the way life was to be lived, falling away. She had expected a mess, but this was beyond anything she could have imagined.
Every room was piled high with boxes, four foot high stacks of newspapers clustered like battlements, some of them yellow and crumbling, dating back years, and scattered on top of the heaps were paper plates with rotting food, crates of empty pop cans, and nearly a whole room filled with washed-out, empty half-gallon milk boxes. A narrow path threaded its way through each room like a supply line through a forest. Boxes of junk lined each step of the stairs to the upper floor, making them impassable.
The living room had been turned into a bedroom of sorts: two cots stood in the middle of the room, camped around the electronic hearth of a portable TV balanced on what was probably the box it had come in. With a sense of horror, Sarah realized it was on one of these cots that Margaret had died. A dull ache thudded behind her eye sockets, and she held her head in her hands.
Malachi Davis! That's where this all had started. Margaret, a good Christian lady, a teacher, for god's sake, had been writing inmates in prison. It was all meant as a bit of harmless do-gooding. And he'd answered. With lovely, literate prose and a heart-rending story. He was innocent, he'd been railroaded, he had never hurt anyone. He was lonely and looked forward to her letters, they were the only sane things in his insane world. He wanted a picture. He sent her a picture. He wanted to see her. He had no family. He had no one. Only her.
Sarah got all this second hand. By the time she heard it, Margaret was breathless with anticipation, glowing with what she supposed was love.
"He's a good man. I sense it," she'd said. "Only look at him." She thrust a grimy photograph at Sarah who saw only a gaunt black man in a prison uniform.
"It's a good thing Mom and Dad are gone," Sarah said. "What are you thinking of? He's a criminal." She lowered her voice. "He's black."
"I'm going to see him," Margaret had insisted. And she had, coming back convinced of his goodness.
A lonely spinster is what Sarah thought. Easy prey. She warned Margaret not to loan him money, and she swore she hadn't, but when he was paroled, Margaret found him a place to stay until he found a job.
"He just needs a second chance," she said. That was five years ago. And Sarah had seen her only twice since: once at Seth's graduation and two years ago when Margaret took early retirement. It was then she'd told Sarah she loved Malachi, that he was moving in with her.
With the news, Sarah disowned her sister. She returned mail unopened, refused her calls, installed caller ID to protect herself. And now Margaret was dead.
"You must be Sarah." At the sound of the soft voice, Sarah spun around, her hand stifling an involuntary scream.
"Who - how?" But in the same moment she recognized the slight, balding man in front of her as Margaret's beloved Malachi and realized he must have come in the open back door. "How dare you come here?" she hissed.
"I live here," he said.
He said nothing. His thin face radiated a kind of intense sadness.
"As far as I'm concerned, you as good as murdered my sister. I can't believe you have the nerve to come back here." Sarah gestured at the room. "Look what you did to her home! You drove her to this! And for what? Drugs. Your filthy addiction!" She spat the words out like a snake striking.
"It's true Margaret was unhappy," Malachi said, his head nodding like a bobber on a gentle sea. "I tried to help her, but-" He stopped, his eyes filling with tears. "I wasn't enough for her."
"You tried to help her!" Sarah could barely speak the words, her tone was so incredulous. "The only help you could ever have been is if you'd left, and it's too late for that now."
"If I'd left, she would have been all alone. I promised her I would stay until the end." He was wiping away the silent tears with the tips of his fingers, only lightly touching his cheeks, as if brushing away an eyelash. "I was going to put everything to rights before you came. But it was too much for me." He sat down on a nearby stack of newspapers and Sarah could see the gray in the close cropped hair near his ears. "When she died, I couldn't take it in. I miss her so much."
He covered his face with his hands and sobbed, wet hiccuping sounds. "I couldn't stand it. I got drunk. After all those years. I'm sorry, Margaret." He spoke the dead woman's name as if she were present and Sarah eyed him coldly.
"You never even called a doctor." Sarah's accusing tone snapped like a whip.
"She didn't want no doctor. And she wouldn't eat." He shook his head. "I fixed her favorite meals and she'd just pick at them. 'Thank you,' she'd say, 'but I'm not hungry.' Ask Rose if that isn't so. Just ask her."
For a moment he looked puzzled, then he brightened. "Rose is her lawyer, she helps take care of things. She helped get me out of jail. Posted my bond, said Margaret would have wanted that." He blew his nose on what seemed to be a clean handkerchief. "Told me to meet her here. Fact is, I thought you were her. Thought that's why the doors were open."
"This Rose has never tried to contact me," Sarah said.
He shrugged. "Everything we sent you came back. That sure hurt Margaret. I told her maybe you'd moved and the post office lost your new address, but she was always wanting me to write again."
"Why didn't she write herself?"
Malachi shook his head sadly. "That was one of the first things to go, being able to write and to read."
"What are you talking about?" Sarah snapped.
"With the Alzheimer's. She wasn't like some who get mean and nasty, she stayed sweet to the end, but she couldn't do anything for herself."
"The police didn't say anything about Alzheimer's. That' s ridiculous!"
He held himself still. "I don't know what the police said. But that's why she wouldn't eat. She forgot how, she forgot how to swallow." His voice shook with a kind of horror and his eyes looked as if he'd seen more of life than he'd wanted to.
Sarah watched him, hugging herself as if she were freezing on this summer's day, and just as she wondered if she should believe him, they heard the clack of high heels on the kitchen floor and the sound of someone's voice calling out.
"Malachi! Are you here?" The voice was female, high pitched, and nervous.
"I'm in here, Rose," he called out, half turning away from Sarah.
Rose came into view: she was a heavyset woman, younger than Sarah expected, perhaps in her late twenties, with mouse-colored, wispy hair styled in a ragged bouffant. She was wearing an oddly formal skirt with a matching vest, the kind attached to the faux blouse, and she looked hot and uncomfortable, as if her bulk were a sack of potatoes she wanted to put down but couldn't.
"Who are you?" she asked Sarah. Her voice was soft, but wary.
"I'm Margaret's sister. Who are you?"
Rose nodded her head sagely, sadly. "Margaret said you'd come back, wanting the house. Malachi, what have you told her?"
"I ain't told her nothing, Miss Rose, 'cept Margaret sure missed her. I told her that."
Again Rose nodded, sighed heavily. "Well, I've come over to get the will. We'll have to search for it, Malachi." She looked out of the corner of her eye at Sarah. "Margaret wasn't much for cleaning this last year or so."
"He tells me you are Margaret's lawyer." Sarah was holding herself stiffly as if she were in pain. She refused to say Malachi's name.
"Not exactly. I helped her out when I could. Especially after she got sick. It was too much for Malachi. Besides, he had to work during the day." Malachi was nodding, his face still wet with tears.
"I didn't know Margaret was sick," Sarah said.
"I would guess you didn't," Rose said, her tone acid. "But she was." She turned to Malachi. "Did she tell you where she kept the will?"
"I don't see what business my sister's will is of yours," Sarah spoke up.
"As much my business as yours," Rose said. "I promised Margaret I would see to her affairs in the world since she'd been abandoned by her family."
"How dare you!" Sarah's voice rose like a teakettle on the boil.
"Oh, and it wasn't you who returned her letters unopened and hung up when she called? It was your evil twin?!"
For a moment Sarah thought she might strike at the leering, insulting face so close just a few quick steps would be enough to bring her suddenly bunched fists into bone crunching contact, but she didn't. Long years of self-restraint stopped her.
"I want you to leave," she said, through gritted teeth.
"Sure, just as soon as we find the will," Rose answered. "I'm the executor, and I won't be put off my duty just because you're here with your guilty conscience, crying beer tears about family. I know you never cared for Margaret."
"And if you cared about her, where were you?" Margaret shouted. "She was dead nearly a week!"
"I was out of town." Rose spoke softly, smoothing her skirt like a tablecloth on a table. "I didn't know the end was so near. Malachi was taking care of her. There was no way I could have known he would go off the wagon."
Sarah felt suddenly weak: the room seemed to be spinning like a merry-go-round. She had to sit down or she would fall. With an unsteady motion she sank onto the nearer of the cots. Malachi took a step in her direction, then stopped. Rose shook her head, making a small, almost inaudible clucking sound, then turned away.
"Where do you think she put it?" she asked.
Malachi shrugged. "Maybe in the kitchen. There's a desk in there. Miss Sarah, are you all right?"
He sounded like a well-trained Negro of another era and Sarah was startled by his lack of sarcasm. His concern seemed genuine, something she was unprepared for. But she turned her face away from him. She closed her eyes, feeling his gaze finally shift, and she heard him go into the kitchen, the soft rubber of his athletic shoes making a tiny squeak like the snick, snick of a knife.
She could hear the drawers of the desk open. It was an old wooden office desk, one that had been her father's and which she remembered him working at during her childhood. Then it had been in the dining room, much to her mother's dismay. She didn't know when Margaret had moved it.
Sarah heard the push and scrape of the wood, the rustle of paper, again and again, as Rose riffled through whatever was in the desk. Sarah knew she had to rouse herself, had to stop this hideous invasion of privacy, but she couldn't bring herself to move. She opened her eyes.
Malachi was standing in front of her with a glass of water. He offered it to her and she took it, feeling the cold glass, slippery and wet.
"You look like Margaret," he said. "You have her eyes and mouth."
Sarah felt a blush color her face. "We were sisters," she said coldly, to cut him off, but she was surprised. His observation was accurate. Eyes and mouth, and when they were younger, hair, long lush auburn hair. No one had told her she looked like Margaret for years.
In her casket Margaret had looked severe and a little like a refugee from a Third World country. Actually the mortician had reconstructed her face from photographs and to Sarah she was unrecognizable. After a quick glance, she'd insisted on a closed casket. There were very few mourners. A handful of teachers Margaret had taught with, one or two students, a few old friends of her parents. Sarah didn't remember Rose being there, but of course, she might have been and Sarah had simply missed her. She had informed the funeral director that Malachi was not to be admitted. She didn't think she could bear seeing him there. Margaret's shame made visible was what she thought, but didn't say. To her friends she said, "He wouldn't have the nerve to come-or the common decency."
"Thank you for the water," she said now. There was no place to put the glass and so she handed it back to him. In the kitchen cupboard doors and drawers scraped open, clicked shut.
"I know you didn't approve of me," Malachi said, "but I loved Margaret. She believed in me even when I had given up on myself. I let her down, and I won't forgive myself for that. But I'm not sorry she loved me. Or that I loved her back."
Sarah didn't know what to say: everything seemed out of control. She couldn't remember why she'd come here in the first place. Just to clean up, she remembered-she hadn't even thought of a will. After their parents died, she and Margaret each owned half of the house and property, but later, when Sarah was putting her children through college, she'd approached Margaret and asked her to buy her out. After all, Margaret had been living there for years. And now it looked like the home of a demented person. Of course, that's what Malachi had said she was-demented. How long had that been going on?
She looked at Malachi, in a way, amazed he was still there. He was wearing blue jeans and a light blue denim work shirt, buttoned at the cuffs. His sneakers were clean and white, Reeboks. He had slim, almost tiny feet for a man, and he was clean. What Sarah noticed most about him was that he was clean.
"You aren't staying here, are you?" she asked, curious.
He shook his head. "I'm staying with friends from work."
"Where do you work?"
"I'm a janitor at the high school."
Sarah raised her eyebrows. "The high school?"
"Margaret recommended me for the job," he said.
The noises from the kitchen had stopped and the impatient click of Rose's heels sounded across the wooden floor like a drumroll.
"I didn't find it in the kitchen," Rose said. "Malachi, look in the dining room buffet. We'll have to go upstairs if we don't find it down here."
Malachi followed a narrow trail through the stacked debris until he found the buffet. He toppled towers of newspapers so he could open the drawers. Inside the top drawer, tarnished silver plate nestled in ancient red velvet lined dividers. The second drawer was filled with neatly folded yellowing table linens. Malachi rummaged through them searching for an envelope or even a piece of paper. Clearly no one had been in this drawer for years. He repeated his search in the remaining drawer and in the two side cupboards. Faded tablecloths, fine china in a rosebud pattern was carefully stacked on the one side, and on the other, dusty bottles of liquor, scotch, creme de menthe, liquors of blackberry, cherry, and pear were crowded together.
"There's nothing in here," he called out. Rose made an annoyed cluck with her tongue and Malachi wound his way back through the boxes and cartons. He tripped on an old fashioned iron floor lamp, knocking it over with a clang.
"It could be anywhere, Rose," he said, righting the lamp.
"Are you sure she didn't say anything?"
"She might have. I just don't remember. Seems she had a pile of papers she said was important. But I didn't take no mind. She couldn't remember one moment to the next. I figured you already had that all straightened around."
"What did she say?"
"I don't know. Something about a safety deposit box at the bank."
Rose's face lit up. She disappeared into the kitchen. Sarah and Malachi could hear a tiny click, then papers and change, keys, being dumped out on the kitchen table. Rose returned triumphant, clutching a key ring, waving a long skeletal key in the air.
"It was in the zippered compartment in her purse." She turned to Sarah. "We'll be going now. I hope you find everything you want."
Malachi said, "Are you going to the bank?"
Rose nodded. "The will's probably in the safety deposit box. I don't know why I didn't think of that sooner. Anyway, do you want me to drop you off somewhere?"
"That's all right," he said, his soft voice shrinking back as if he were too shy to be in the same room with her, let alone her car.
"That's fine then," she said. "I'll let you know how it all turns out." She dropped the elongated key into her own handbag and snapped it shut. Then, nodding at Sarah one last time, her shoes tapped a little pattern as she click, click, clicked her way out the back door.
Sarah was still sitting on the cot, one hand resting lightly on her chest as if she had been dealt an unusual surprise.
"Even with a key she can't get into Margaret's safety deposit box," she said finally. Her voice was faint and slightly indignant. "Do you know where the bank is?" she asked.
Malachi shrugged. "If it's the one I'm thinking of, I do."
"Which one is it?"
"I don't know the name, I just know where it is."
Sarah struggled to stand up, finally leaning on Malachi's extended arm as a point of leverage. "I want you to show me where then," she said. She was startled by his wiry strength. She withdrew her hand and stepped back.
"You're taller than Margaret," he said, eyeing her, not answering her, "but ."
"But?" Sarah's voice was sharp and curious, and tinged with the recognition she had just asked him for a favor.
"Nothing." Something shifted in his glance and he seemed suddenly more formal. "Did you drive here?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm parked at the curb. Will you show me?"
He nodded, then went into the kitchen to close the back door. Sarah stood by the front door, waiting for him. She wondered why Margaret and he had never married. She'd assumed because he hadn't wanted to, but now she wasn't so sure. There was an unexpected kindliness about him, something in his manner that disarmed her. Malachi stepped onto the porch and waited for Sarah to lock up.
Together they walked to her car, which was parked by the side of the house. For a moment Sarah thought how her sister had loved this man, walked beside him, shared his bed, and she felt a curious kinship. She understood how widows might be drawn to marry their spouse's brother, as was the custom in some societies. She had expected Malachi to be talkative, but he wasn't, and surprisingly, his silence was comfortable.
"Up to the next traffic light," he said, "then turn left."
Sarah maneuvered the car on automatic; she felt disconnected from what she was doing and feeling. She seemed to be on a fool's errand and she was a woman unaccustomed to feeling foolish.
"How much further?" she asked.
"A couple more blocks," he said. "See that blue sign with the key on it. On the left."
Sarah pulled into the parking lot and eased into a parking spot. Together they walked into the bank building, Malachi on her left. It was a modern bank. It had none of the stately features of banks Sarah remembered from her childhood: columns, marble floors, imposing windows or the hushed air she had always associated with power and money. Instead it was arranged for convenience and utility. Tellers lined one side of the lobby and were shielded by a chest-high wooden counter; on the left, two desks were manned by young, serious, up and coming bankers, who looked unused to the formality of white shirts and ties; and, in the space between, velvet ropes divided the area like a waiting line for an amusement park.
Sarah approached one of the young men at the desks. "Where are your safety deposit boxes?" she asked. "Are you interested in renting one of them?" he countered smoothly, reaching into a desk drawer for an application.
Sarah stopped, wondering how much to confide. "I don't know," she said finally. "I'm in a delicate situation " She hesitated, aware of Malachi standing just two feet away, and hearing herself through his ears, she thought she must sound grasping and petty. But she couldn't read his expression when she glanced over at him.
Behind the desks two women emerged from a glassed-in room that had been shrouded in gold curtains for privacy.
"Did you get everything you wanted?" the one woman asked the other.
"Yes, thank you. Everything was in order."
Sarah looked up at the second speaker. It was Rose, her soft voice satisfied as a cat lapping milk. She smiled a Mona Lisa smile at them both and then said gaily, "Couldn't wait?"
Sarah was shocked, an old fashioned emotion she knew was out of date, but which washed over her like spring rain down a gully, leaving a soundless kind of fury in its wake. Malachi stepped forward.
"Was the will there?" he asked.
"I would have called you, Malachi." Rose was tucking an envelope into her purse, then rummaging for something, perhaps keys. "I'm sure some accommodation can be made. And you," she said, indicating Sarah, "I would have written. Margaret gave me your address."
Sarah felt her face go stiff. The young bank employee she'd been talking to looked frozen in place, a sheaf of papers extended in his hand. She thought he might still be speaking, but she couldn't hear him.
Rose brushed past Sarah like a cold breeze. "We can sit in those chairs there," she said, pointing to a faux living room tableau, arranged near the desks but out of earshot. "No sense in putting it off, since you're both here."
Her heels echoed on the tiled floor, then went silent on the rug underneath the wingback chairs. She sat down primly. For an absurd moment Sarah imagined her taking off white gloves, pristine and unblemished. Sarah and Malachi each took a seat opposite Rose who had taken from her purse the white envelope she'd just stuffed into it. She unfolded a single sheet of typing paper. Sarah could see the raised stamp of a notary at the paper's bottom.
"Well, I believe the pertinent part is this." She read aloud: "I, Margaret Carter, hereby bequeath to Rose Marie Maxwell, all of my earthly goods, including my house, at 1721 Adkins Street, and all my possessions therein, excepting the following: for Sarah, my sister, and only living relative, I leave all my family photographs, and to my beloved friend, Malachi Davis, I leave all my love and the memories of our time together. May you each live in peace."
A moment of silence dropped between them like a curtain.
"I don't believe it!" Sarah said finally. "When is it dated?" She held her hand out, wanting to read it for herself, and Rose handed it across to her.
The words were typed on what looked to be a portable typewriter. There were no erasures or strikeovers, but the print seemed wavy, maybe because the letters alternated light and dark, then light again. The signature was distinctly Margaret's, Sarah was sure. It had her dash, her surety of line, the notary's seal, everything appeared to be in order, just as Rose had said. Except for the blasphemy of the words themselves.
It was dated nearly two years ago, sometime after their last visit together.
"Who are you?" Sarah looked up at Rose as if seeing her for the first time, the youthfulness of the full face, the moist hands, the dress-for-success outfit from K-Mart.
"I was her friend," Rose said, taking back the will. For a moment it seemed she might say more, then she didn't. Instead she gathered herself and started to walk away. She turned after just a few steps.
"I'll send you the photographs as soon as I can. And Malachi, is there anything you'll be wanting? Some memento? You let me know."
Sarah closed her eyes, listening to the resounding echo of Rose's heels as she walked away. When she opened her eyes, she was alone. Malachi, too, was gone. She saw his back disappear through the double set of doors.
Outside the afternoon sunlight sparkled like raindrops through the summer leaves and Sarah sat a long time watching, thinking of nothing really, of Margaret, a little, and of Rose, and Malachi, and herself, of how time slips by unnoticed one moment, and drags the next, and how all that you've done that seems right and justified, is suddenly ashes in your mouth. She paused a moment at the double doors on her way out, captured by the reflection in the glass. Like a ghost the eyes gazed back at her, frightened, lost, alone, and she shivered.
She really did have Margaret's eyes.
When I came home from school, my mother - I mean, Margie - was there. Ever since she moved out eight weeks ago, she wants me to call her Margie instead of Mom. It's okay with me.
She was sitting at the dining room table, drinking coffee, just like she used to. I hung my book bag by the back door and pushed Bear down so he wouldn't get dog hair on my skirt.
"Hi, Lou," she said. "I thought we could hang out together today. I mean, we haven't seen each other for a couple of weeks. I thought maybe we could see a movie and afterwards go by my apartment. You haven't seen it yet."
That's what she calls me now. Lou. Like my friends do, short for Louisa. Because she wants to be my friend, she says. She used to call me sweetie.
"I have a lot of homework," I said. "Besides, Bry isn't home yet. And I have to get dinner started for Dad."
"Well, Daddy can fend for himself for once. We'll leave him a note. And of course I meant for Bryan to come along too. I haven't seen either of you." She pushed her chair back and stood up. "How about a kiss?"
I didn't really want to, but I kissed her on the cheek. She had that sweet, sour apple smell that meant she hadn't been taking her insulin. She looked heavier, too, and she was wearing a new top I hadn't seen before. It had daisies all over it and said "Save the Planet."
"Do you like it?" she asked, when she saw me looking at it. "I got it at a Greenpeace rally at Sugarbush Creek last week. It was fun. Next time I'll take you, if you want to go."
"Yeah, well, I'll probably have school," I said. She pushed her hair back from her face like she does when she gets nervous. "Get down, Bear!" I pushed Bear down again. He wanted his after school snack. He's the only one here when I get home now, so I've started feeding him a can of Alpo before Bryan gets home. I buy it with my own money at the Piggly Wiggly on my way home from school, so not even Dad knows. "I gotta change," I said.
For a moment I thought she was going to follow me into my bedroom, but she stopped at the doorway. "The house looks real nice," she said.
"You're doing a real good job, Lou. Does your Daddy help out?"
"We do okay." I didn't want to tell her how in the first couple weeks we ate at McDonald's every night. Sometimes as late as nine o'clock because Daddy would lock himself in his room and not come out. He said he was just going to change and then he wouldn't come out. I'd knock on the door. "Daddy," I'd say, "Bryan's hungry. Aren't you hungry? I could make scrambled eggs?" At first he wouldn't answer and I was afraid he'd done something awful. I'd put my ear up to the door and listen. Then I could hear him. He was making a muffled sound like someone shouting into a pillow and I knew he was crying. Bryan and I would go and watch cartoons and I made sure we got our homework done. Then a long time later Dad would come out and act surprised it was so late. "I must have fallen asleep," he'd say. "You guys must be hungry," he'd say. "How about McDonald's?" And we'd get in the truck and drive across the railroad tracks and get a double cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate milkshake for each of us. Then one day, Dad came home, scrubbed his hands, and started making supper. He made pancakes and made us sit at the table like a family. "It's just us now," he said.
I closed my bedroom door as far as I could until my mom stepped back.
"I swear you've grown two inches since last I saw you," she said, her voice muffled by the door. "You're almost as tall as I am. You'll probably be taller, like your dad." Her voice trailed off. "I'll just wait for Bryan in the living room," she said, but I heard her open the door to Daddy's room instead.
I wanted to open my door and yell at her, "Get out of there! Go away! That's Daddy's room now - not yours!" But her stuff was still in there: dresses in the closet, little pink bottles of nail polish on the dresser, even an extra hairbrush. Dad kept the door closed most of the time, but when I put his folded laundry on the bed, I saw how much she'd left. She was opening drawers in there right now, sliding them open slowly, on the sneak, so I would think she was in the living room.
I pulled on my jeans and an old t-shirt, and went across the hall. She was staring at the picture with an embroidered saying on it that hung over the bed. My mom believes in sayings. When she was trying to lose weight, the entire refrigerator was covered in inspirational sayings to help her say no to ice cream and yes to carrot sticks, plus a big bumper sticker that said DO NOT OPEN UNDER PAIN OF FAT. I've taken them all off. I don't need to be reminded. I had to scrape the sticky stuff off with my fingernail.
"Your Aunt Grace gave this to us for a wedding present," she said. "She made it herself. Your father and I, and Aunt Grace and Uncle Bruce, were all married the same year."
The only difference being that they're still together.
"I thought it would get easier as I got older, to know what to do. But it hasn't." She wandered around the room, touching things with just the tips of her fingers. "So many memories. I was just fourteen when I met your father. Just a year older than you are now. He was seventeen. Just graduated from high school and already living on his own. He's always known how to take care of himself. I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't taken me in."
"What do you mean, taken you in?" I had to ask. I'd never heard how they'd met or too much about the time before they were married. They were my parents: full-blown, three dimensional, a unit unto themselves. I had never thought of them apart until this summer.
"You're old enough to know now." She flicked her hair back again. "Your Granddaddy Ralph, he was Grandma Shirley's second husband, tried to get in bed with me and so I ran away. I met your Daddy at a . . .at a party. When he found out I didn't have a place to stay, he let me stay at his house. You remember Uncle Doug? He and Uncle Doug were living together then."
"But what did Grandma Shirley say?" I blurted. My voice sounded loud and high pitched to me. I couldn't imagine my mother, fourteen and running away.
"She didn't believe me about Granddaddy Ralph. And when she found out where I was, she said I didn't need to bother coming back." She picked up some clothes she'd put on the bed. "That seems such a long time ago."
Then why are you bringing it up, I thought. And if you were so grateful to Dad for helping you out, why did you leave him? Why did you leave us? But I didn't say anything. I just watched her go into the closet and take down three dresses and fold them like a salesclerk in a department store.
"I need to get another job. Working at the Pizza Corner isn't enough money. I'm thinking about going back to school, and I need to save money for tuition. I don't want to get a loan unless I have to. School's important, you know. I hope you're still keeping your grades up."
For a moment she looked like my mom, and then, she was just some strange person in my parents' bedroom, packing up my mom's clothes, taking away what was left of her as if she were dead.
"Are you?" she asked.
"Keeping up your grades?"
"Yeah, sure." Like you care.
The back screen door slammed and I heard Bryan throw his book bag on the table.
"Hey, Bry! We're in here," I called out, to give him some warning. He's been pretty hot and cold about Mom since she left. Sometimes he wants her to come back so we can be a family again and the next minute he says he doesn't care if she ever comes back.
"Who's we?" he asked, standing in the doorway. "Oh."
"Oh, Bryan! Look at you!" She held out her arms as if she expected him to run over and hug her, then she went over and hugged him. "Your hair's longer and you look so grownup! You're so handsome! I bet the girls are all running after you this year!"
Then she realized she was gushing, I guess, and that Bryan was just standing there, and she shut up.
"What are you doing here?" Bry asked.
"Bryan! I'm your mother!"
"Oh, yeah? I forgot." Then he walked down the hail into the bathroom and slammed the door. I heard the little click of the lock in the quiet after the slam.
Mom, I mean Margie, looked at me as if I should do something. I just stood there. This was her mess.
"Bryan?" She knocked on the door, then rattled the doorknob. "Bryan? I came over because I thought we could spend some time together. I haven't seen you for so long. I thought we could go to a movie, have dinner together. You could see my apartment. Bryan? Come on out, so we can talk." She leaned her head against the door and for a moment, I wondered if she was going to faint. But then she rattled the knob again and nearly shouted, "Bryan, come out of there!"
"I'm in the bathroom, for Christsake!" he yelled.
"Don't you take the Lord's name in vain, Bryan Adam Schuster! I taught you better than that!"
Her voice rose like someone skating out of control on a fast turn, knowing the next second would bring either a fall or a slam into the wall or the slimmest chance of making it out of the curve.
"Bryan," she threatened.
"I'm coming," he said. "I gotta wash my hands."
I heard the sound of the water running and then the toilet flush and the water running some more. I felt sorry for Bryan. He couldn't even hide in the bathroom anymore. Mom stepped back when she heard the lock click open.
"I don't want to go to your apartment," Bryan said, pushing himself past her and going into the dining room, then into the kitchen. I hung back in the hall. Bry was looking into the open refrigerator.
"Why not, honey? We'll go to a movie. We'll spend the evening together. C'mon, it'll be fun."
He didn't answer, but he took out the milk carton and drank directly from the spout just to make her mad.
But she didn't say anything. I could see the muscles in her back tense, but when she spoke she used that new, I-am-your-friend-and-I-am-cool voice that she wanted us to believe.
"You don't have to if you don't want to, Bry. But Lou and I are going. I thought you'd want to come along. You're growing up and can make your own decisions, but we have to start building a new life together."
Just then the phone rang. It was probably Dad. He tries to call if he can to make sure we're home okay. We all just stood there. On the third ring, I said, "I'll get it."
But it was Grandma Shirley, looking for Mom.
"Yeah. Yeah. She's here." And I handed her the phone.
I didn't want to listen, but you could tell Mom was getting mad.
"I don't intend to be here when he gets home," she said. "The kids and I are going to spend some time together. I'm going to show them my new apartment. I'm leaving him a note. Really, Shirley, I'm sorry I even told you I was coming over. I know what you think. But I know what I'm doing. And I have to do this."
Grandma Shirley had only been over once since Mom left. She'd stayed about a half hour, doing her imitation of a hand-wringing grandparent, and then she left, saying she'd try to talk some sense into Mom. This was in Dad's shell-shocked stage and he made Grandma more nervous than usual. She wanted him to know she was on his side. She thought Mom was crazy to walk out on him. Where was she going to find someone who would put up with her mood swings and her health and besides after all they'd been through together you'd think Mom would be more grateful. After all, Grandma Shirley said, you keep a steady job, you don't drink, you don't chase women, and you love her. What more could she want?
Dad just sat there with a glazed look on his face, wishing she'd go away, I think. And finally, she did, patting her Loving Care colored hair in place, she stood up and pulled at her halter top where it had ridden up. "I always thought Margie would have more sense than I did, and know a good thing when she saw it. I thought you two were going to make it. You know, I'm not proud of my three husbands, but I've not always been a good judge of character, and none of my girls have been lucky in love, except Margie. And now she's throwing it all away."
Dad didn't say anything, just sat looking at his grease-blackened fingernails. It didn't help that everyone thought Mom was wrong - she was still gone. Grandma hugged Bry and then me. "I'll talk to your Mom," she said. "She'll come back. Take care of your Daddy."
Now Mom slammed down the phone, cutting her mother off in mid-sentence. Bryan and I eyed each other, wondering what would come next.
"You people have just got to understand. This is between your father and me. And this is my life. I only get one chance to live it and I can't be standing still, waiting here forever, for my turn. You two are almost grown up - you have lives of your own too." She was flinging magazines and books into a paper bag, then stomped down the hail to get the clothes she'd left in the bedroom.
But I don't understand, I wanted to shout. What life of my own? I'm thirteen, I wanted to say. Now I'm taking care of your house, making supper for my father, making sure my brother does his homework!
Bry stood in front of the refrigerator with the door still open. He looked blank, as if he'd forgotten where he was or why.
"Shut the door," I said.
"We're out of milk," he said finally.
"Make some Kool-Aid."
He popped the door shut with one quick swing. "Make it yourself."
But he started banging cupboard doors and I knew he'd make it. Bear started barking with every bang and finally I dragged him by the collar to the back door to put him out.
Mom stood in the dining room with her packages, watching Bryan dump sugar on top of the green Kool-Aid. "Are you coming, Bry?" she asked.
"I guess so." He filled the container to the two-quart mark and shoved it back into the refrigerator.
I wrote out a note for Dad and taped it to the back door. Mom was driving a big blue and white boat of a car, old fashioned to the max. But it was a convertible. She'd pulled up on the dirt border that was supposed to be our tree lawn, and the retro colors gleamed in the late afternoon sun like jelly beans on Easter morning.
"Cool!" Bry said, forgetting himself and vaulting over the door into the back seat. Mom looked like she'd scored ten points. I slid in next to her.
"When did you get this?" I asked.
"It's not mine," she said. "It's a friend's. A girlfriend's," she added, catching my look.
She drove fast like she always does and I figured her friend had never seen her behind the wheel of a car or we'd be bicycling. But the breeze felt good and I wondered how far away her apartment was. Not far. We could actually have walked if we'd wanted to, but it seemed like a different world, like it was a different time and place than the world Dad and Bry and I lived in.
It was on the other side of the bridge in the new part of town, a kind of singles apartment complex, built of shaped concrete to look like adobe, a low rent version of the new Southwest look, although on second glance it wasn't that new. The landscaping was sparse and it looked like no one had watered the flowers since the beginning of the last heat wave. There was an empty pool in the middle of the two story garden apartments. It wasn't a family sort of place or at least a two parent family kind of place. I felt out of place. Bry was scuffing his shoe and slapping his hand on every phony pillar as we passed.
"I'm on the ground floor over here," Mom said. She stopped at a wall of mailbox slots and opened the little brass door with a little key. Her name was on the bills just like she was going to live here forever. I wanted to kick her.
She had another key for her apartment and when we were inside it felt like we were on a kind of vacation, stopping overnight at a motel, and in the morning we'd put our stuff back in the car and drive home. Two beige overstuffed chairs were huddled around an old trunk she was using as a coffee table and a tiny TV was perched on an orange crate in the corner. Another orange crate painted forest green supported a ceramic vase lamp, the kind you see in K-Mart for fifteen dollars. There were books I didn't recognize on the trunk and plants in margarine containers lining the window sill.
"I don't have much furniture yet," she apologized.
"I can see that," I said. She gave me a sharp look and I ducked my head away.
"There's only one bedroom, so you can't stay overnight, but I'll be getting a pull-out couch from a friend and then one of you can stay at a time." She moved into the little kitchen "How about a Coke?"
"Sure," Bry said. He was fingering all the motivational sayings she had plastered on the kitchen cabinets like he was suddenly homesick.
"No, thanks," I said, shaking my head. I sat down on one of the chairs.
There were two stools pulled up to a tiny counter that separated the kitchen from the living area. The counter must have served as her dining room from the looks of the dirty plates and glasses collected there.
She popped the tab on a Coke and handed it to Bryan. "What movie do you want to see?"
"What is there?" I asked.
"Jack's supposed to be funny. And Lionheart's got three stars. It's playing at the Hoyt, the $1.50 place." She shrugged as if it didn't matter, but I could tell she wanted us to see the bargain flick.
"Sure, whichever." Her eyes were kind of out of focus for a moment and alarm bells went off in my head. "Have you checked yourself lately?" I asked. She knew I meant her sugar level, and her mouth tightened.
"I know what I'm doing, thank you very much," she said.
"Why not have some orange juice before we go?"
"Quite the little mother, aren't we, Lou?" She was shaking a cigarette out of a pack of Salems.
"Mom?" Bryan schlucked down the last of his Coke.
"You're not going to get sick, are you?"
"No, Bryan. Your sister's just worrying for nothing. Come on, let's go."
She ran her finger down the movie listings. "The movie starts at five. We'll stop for McDonald's afterwards."
"Or Taco Bell?" Bryan asked. I could see he was slipping into the easy favorite-son slot, almost as if he'd never stepped out of it. I felt kind of sorry for him. Maybe he felt if he acted like everything was okay, Mom would magically come home and everything would go back to normal.
"Sure," Mom said. "Come on, we'll miss the beginning."
We hustled outside like a movie in reverse: lock the door, pass the pool, out the front gate and into the waiting blue and white convertible.
"I call her Snook'ums," Mom confided as she cranked up the old V-S engine.
"Who?" I asked.
"The car," she said, patting the dashboard. Why, I wanted to ask, but the answer seemed obvious: my mother was a ditz, more sentimental about her car than about her kids or her husband, but maybe with good reason. After all, we were more trouble.
The radio was playing country and western, something new. At home Dad always played kind of classic rock 'n roll, except lately. Since Mom left he doesn't play anything. The only music in the house is Bry tooting on his tuba, playing "Mary Had A Little Lamb" or "Three Blind Mice." He just started this school year.
"How's school?" Mom asked.
"Okay," Bryan said.
"Do you like your teachers?"
"Sure." He squirmed around. I knew he wanted to change the subject. He's been in more trouble this year already in six weeks than he'd ever been in since he'd started school. Two fistfights, sassing the teacher, not doing his homework. Dad's been in to see his teacher three times. He even had to take off work. The teacher knows it's a hard time for Bryan, but even so, he's got to behave. That's what Dad said.
"What's your favorite subject this year?" Mom asked. But Bryan was pushing the preset buttons on the radio, punching his way through one station after another in rapid succession like a channel surfer, turning the music into one second sound blips of noise.
"Stop it!" Mom snapped.
Why should I, his face read, but he stopped. She looked distracted for a moment, then glanced up at me in the rearview mirror.
"What about you, Lou? How's school going for you?" She slid through the stop sign, barely missing a red Toyota coming the other way.
"Watch it, Mom!" I said.
"I'm driving, you know. I know what I'm doing. And I thought I told you to call me Margie." She twisted around in her seat to glare at me.
I saw another stop sign over her shoulder, looming.
"Mom! Margie!" I pointed frantically. She turned back just as our car plowed into the passenger's side of a green sedan. Bryan knocked his head and knees on the dash and windshield. Mom was thrown forward over the steering wheel and my lap belt cut into my groin like a knife, but I didn't think any of us were seriously hurt.
"Are you okay?" I asked. "Mom? Bry?"
"I think so," Bryan said. His voice was shaky. Mom didn't answer. She was slumped over the wheel, moaning. I unbuckled my seatbelt and leaned over the front seat.
"Are you okay?" I asked again. "Mom?" I put my hand on her back, making little patting motions. Through the cracked windshield I could see the other driver moving around. Luckily there didn't seem to be anyone in the passenger seat. Someone was tapping on the window of the other car, trying to get the driver to open the door. The driver behind us got out of his car and approached our car.
"Are you all right?" he asked. Another man came forward and said, "I've called an ambulance and the police."
"I think we're okay," I said. "Mom, are you okay?" I asked again.
But she didn't answer and when I pulled on her arm, she flung herself back in a loose, disjointed way like she was drunk.
"Has she been drinking?" one of the men asked.
"No! She must have hit her head!" I could hear a police siren coming closer. "She wasn't drinking."
"Sure looks like it. Hey, lady, are you okay?" But Mom's head lolled to one side like a broken flower and although she was muttering something, the words didn't make sense. Bry's face was white.
"We'd better not move her," the man said. "We'll wait for the ambulance." He reached around the steering wheel and turned off the ignition. Two police cars pulled up and an EMS panel van skidded up right behind them. A pair of medics and a cop went toward the other car, while two medics and a policeman came up to our car.
"Let's get her on a stretcher," the one medic said. "Ma'am, do you know your name?"
"It's Margie Schuster," I tried to tell him. "She's my mom and she's a diabetic. She was acting all spaced out. Maybe she's going into a coma."
But he acted like he didn't hear me and together the two medics lifted her out of the seat after strapping a rigid collar around her neck. She was moaning and when I looked over at Bryan, he looked really scared. The policeman standing on Bryan's side of the car said, "You doing all right, buddy?"
"Where are they taking her?" Bryan asked, his eyes following the stretcher toward the ambulance.
"Probably Mercy Free Hospital. It's the closest," the policeman replied.
Bryan tried to open the door, but it wouldn't budge.
"You'll have to climb over," the policeman said, "if you can."
The door on my side still worked and, pushing it open, I ran over to the ambulance. "I want to go with her."
One of the medics, the one with blonde hair, said okay. "Bryan, bring Mom's purse," I shouted. "We're going to the hospital with her."
"In the ambulance?" he said. "Cool!" He was limping like his right knee hurt. He shoved the purse at me in a kind of embarrassed way as if he was afraid someone would see him carrying it. Then I noticed there was another ambulance parked nearby. Another team of medics was carrying an elderly woman on a stretcher. Her eyes were closed and there was a gash on her forehead.
"Is she hurt really bad?" I asked. I figured she must be the driver of the other car.
"I don't know. Do you know what happened?" And helping us into the ambulance, the medic said to Bryan, "How's your knee? Do you hurt anyplace else?"
Bryan looked at his knee in surprise. The knee in his jeans was torn and bright with blood.
"I'm okay," he said.
"My mom was driving," I said, "and she didn't see the stop sign. But she's a diabetic. She was acting irritable and spacey and I think she may be in insulin shock or whatever it's called. She used to wear a bracelet."
"Where can we reach your dad?" the medic asked. The name on his nametag was Bob.
"He's probably at home by now." I told him our number and he wrote it down on a chart, then tried to dial it from a cellular phone. I could hear it ringing, but no one answered.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"He's probably caught in traffic. He works in the city at the university."
"What does he do?" We were speeding through intersections and up and down streets crowded with rush hour traffic. The medic Bill was setting up an IV drip into Mom's hand. To keep her from going into shock he said when I asked him.
I looked through to the front of the van and could see cars pulling to the side and stopping, a wide swath opening before us as if we were royalty passing.
"How much farther?" I asked.
"A few more minutes." He cut away Bry's pants leg and swabbed at the cut with some sort of sterile looking rag, then bandaged it up neatly with gauze and white tape. Mom had stopped moaning.
"Is she going to be all right?" Bry asked.
"You bet," Bill said. "You say she's a diabetic? This glucose drip should help set her right. Of course, she may have hit her head and have a concussion. Did she have a seatbelt on?"
We both shook our heads no. No one except me ever wore a seatbelt and just for a moment I felt like a little Miss Priss.
"It's a good thing she wasn't going any faster. In that convertible you're lucky you both didn't go flying over the hood."
We were pulling up into a circular drive off to one side of a big brick building and parked under a green aluminum canopy. The driver jumped out and yanked open the double doors of the ambulance. Bryan and I climbed out. I was already starting to feel stiff and sore and my mouth was uncomfortably dry.
Mom started moaning again and her eyelids were fluttering almost as if she was dreaming. They wheeled her inside and someone told us we'd have to wait in the hallway. A nurse asked us if we had any insurance and I told her I didn't know. I thought Dad had insurance and that it still covered Mom even though she wasn't living with us because they were just separated, not divorced.
"Separated?" the nurse asked.
"Yeah." She looked like that could be a problem and I told her again about Mom being a diabetic.
"Do you know who her doctor is?" she asked.
I didn't. Neither did Bry. I went down the hall to find a pay phone and call Dad.
He answered on the first ring.
"Where are you?" He was shouting.
"At the hospital. There was an accident."
He said to hold on, he'd be there in ten minutes. And he was. I don't know how, but it seemed like I'd barely hung up and there he was, pushing open the double doors of the emergency room and scooping us up in a big, tight hug.
"Are you all right?" he asked when he finally let us go.
"Yes. Bry hurt his knee."
"But I'm all right," Bry interrupted. "Mom was driving us to the movies and yelling at Lou because she wouldn't call her Margie and then she ran into a car."
"She missed the stop sign. I tried to tell her but she was turned around and not listening and-"
"It wasn't your fault," Dad said.
"How do you know?"
"I just know." He gave me another hug. "How's your mother?"
I shrugged. "They wouldn't let us in."
He told us to sit tight and he'd check with the admitting nurse. He was gone a long time. At first I could see him at the registration desk, taking out his wallet, probably giving them his insurance number, then filling in forms on a clipboard. Then he disappeared behind the second set of swinging double doors.
"Why won't they let us in?" Bry asked. "We were there. She's our mother."
"So." I looked at the big round clock on the wall. Six-fifteen. "Do you want a candy bar?"
"Dad said to stay here."
"You will stay here. I'll go get it." My head was starting to ache. We'd had close calls with Mom before when she was still living with us. She's what they call a brittle diabetic. Hard to control. And because she'd had it since she was a kid, my guess is she goes through stages where she pays more attention to it and then not. I can't let it run my life, she'd tell us, but after a near miss like today, she'd go back to monitoring it real close. At least I hoped that was what she'd do. Who would be around to save her next time?
Suddenly the double doors were flung open and Mom stomped through, Dad trailing her.
"I'm fine," she was saying. "I don't need to stay here for observation or anything else. I promised the kids a movie."
Dad rolled his eyes.
"There you are! Are you okay? Well, that was more exciting than we'd planned, wasn't it? " She had a band aid on her hand and her eyes still looked a little wild.
"Maybe we should get something to eat and I'll take you home," Dad said.
Mom looked coy. I wanted to throw up. Why couldn't she act like a mother?
"Sounds like a date," she said, then relented. "Sure, thanks. Bry wanted Taco Bell. Anyway, where's my car?"
"They probably towed it away," Dad said.
Mom bit her lip, frowning. "I'll have to call Rhonda. It was borrowed. She'll be mad. The policeman said the other driver'll be okay. I just didn't see her."
"You passed out."
"No, I didn't. I just didn't see the stop sign. I hope I don't lose my license. Although I could take the bus if I had to." She was almost twitching she was so eager to leave.
A thick-faced policeman in a blue uniform came up to us. "I need you to sign here, Mrs. Schuster," he said, holding out a long form in triplicate. "Your court date is on here if you want to contest the citation. Failure to yield the right of way. You can pick up your car at the impound lot. We didn't know where to have it towed. Do you have someone to drive you home?"
"I'll be taking her home, Officer," Dad said. He sounded protective and responsible at the same time and the policeman gave him a kind of 'hope you know what you're getting into' look. I hoped he did, too.
Mom signed it and he tore off a copy and handed it to her. "You're sure the other driver was okay?" she asked.
"I think so," the officer said. "Her name was Mrs. Harmon. You can ask at the desk." He walked away, fitting the billed hat he had tucked under his arm back on his head.
"I'll call when I get home," Mom told us.
"The truck's out in the front lot," Dad said. "We'll have to squeeze in."
We walked out together, Bryan straggling behind like always and for a moment it seemed like old times. Dad held Mom's elbow to steady her. He'd come straight from work and even in work pants and his work shirt with his name stitched on the pocket, he looked gentlemanly. I think Mom wanted more than to be the wife of a mechanic, a man with grease under his nails and the smell of oil on his hands, and I could see by the way she held herself away from him when they walked ahead of me, she thought she was better than he was. I wanted to yell at her, he would never leave us like you did! But I didn't. Somehow she looked smaller and more fragile than I remembered. Younger. And a little frightened.
It was more than a tight fit in the cab of the pick-up. Mom ootched up close to Dad, her shoulder pressed against him, and Bry pulled up under her other arm. I squished myself between the door and Bry's hip, sticking my elbow out the open window. I was sitting where Mom used to sit and there wasn't much room. She was in my spot but she didn't seem to notice.
At the Taco Bell Dad suggested we eat inside.
"Good! Free refills that way!" Bryan was happy.
We sat at a booth. Mom and Dad sat opposite each other. I sat next to Dad and squirted three packets of hot sauce on every taco.
"How are you doing?" Dad asked Mom. His voice was nervous.
"I'm fine! I told you at the hospital I was fine." Mom was having two taco lights with the fake cheese and the no-fat sour cream. Every time she took a bite, part of the taco crumbled and fell in a mess on the wrapper.
"I meant otherwise."
"I'm fine. I'm thinking about starting back to school. I'm really getting into organic foods and natural supplements. Lecithin is big news right now. It's supposed to protect you from cancer. I take two capsules every day." Her voice drifted off. "What about you?"
Dad was barely eating. The double-decker taco he'd ordered was still wrapped. He looked like someone sorting through a pile of laundry with too many things to say and not knowing where to start. I didn't know when was the last time he'd seen her or talked to her or if they ever talked anymore. Finally he answered, "Same old, same old. Work, the house, the kids. Bryan's taken up the tuba, has he told you?
"No, that's great, Bry! I always wanted to learn an instrument but I never had the discipline. Do you practice every day like you're supposed to?"
"He's pretty good," Dad said.
"I'll bet you are," she said. Her face was puffy like she'd been crying and suddenly she added, "I'm really tired. Delayed reaction, I guess. Do you think you could take me home?"
"Sure." We gathered up what was left of the food and Bry refilled his drink with suicide punch, a combination of all the possible drink choices mixed together into one disgusting conglomeration, and we piled back into the pickup.
No one said much as we backed out and Mom gave directions. Five minutes later we pulled up in front of her apartment complex. It was dusk and the streetlights were popping on like electric stars.
"I'll walk you in," Dad said.
"No need," she answered, climbing out. This time she'd sat by the door. She leaned in the open window. "We'll have to talk," she said to Dad. "Kids, be good. Sorry, we didn't get to see the movie." She stepped on the running board to reach over and kiss Bry on the cheek. She gave me a little smile and a wave, then turned and walked away.
"Bye, Margie," I called after her.
We spread out, filling the seat, and drove the long way home together.
Copyright © 2001 by Linda L. Rome