She was the daughter of her first and only husband and Lil Thiesson was trudging through the neighborhood the longest way possible before meeting her. So she could shake out the nerves that roused, then scrambled in alarm when she’d gotten the letter. She hadn’t thought very often of that girl in well over twenty-nine years. It had been that long since Everly had passed from a shocking, early heart attack.
They had been married for almost ten years but they had tied the knot only after Lil had let go her passive resistance. She got tired of waiting for someone who met all her and her parents’ qualifications. She hadn’t much luck on her own, two dissolved (one highly attractive if ill-conceived) engagements by age twenty-three. The neighbor, Miss Farnham, had called her attention to Everly Thiesson.
He still worked the corner newstand then, having taken over for his uncle. Lil had barely noticed Everly except he was new, having moved from the Midwest. She could hear it in his flat, unimaginative vowels when he noted her presence with a tip of his cap, a sentence or two. She hadn’t answered him more than twice but apparently that was enough since he confided in Miss Farnham, their mutual neighbor, that he had to meet her. They were introduced formally at a late August block party. Everly, known as “just Ev” he’d insisted, was conversational in a deferential way, had no bad teeth, and placid grey eyes that looked deep. They were calm enough that Lil wanted to dive in and splash around, see what unknowns rose to the surface. Ev was several years older; she found she didn’t care. They began to spend time together shortly afterwards and got married twelve months later in a small, tasteful ceremony at St. Christopher’s Chapel.
And there was a daughter he parented, about school age. Freida was bright-eyed, given to bursts of colorful speech but non-committal about Lil for the first weeks.
Lil stopped at her favorite ginkgo tree and sat on a peeling green bench. Her leg had been bothering her again, the sciatica that woke her at three in the morning. By the time she’d awakened, pain trickled in a thin stream down the back of her thigh and pooled in her calf. Walking erased it or at times stitched it into her no longer lithe tissues. She wasn’t sure which this was going to be. She had over four miles to manage, not impossible. Or she might take a train to D Street, then walk a last block. To see the girl.
Well, her ex-stepdaughter (ex? is that what she was?) was a full-grown woman now and then some. But back then she had been five, wild haired and fierce, a miniature sometimes gleeful tyrant with a smile that could take you to the edge of terror or tender tears. Now she was embarking on middle age and all its conundrums, its surprising pleasures. Maybe Frieda Marten (mother’s last name? husband’s?) was a whole other person now. Anything could happen.
Ev once had told Lil that his daughter was “an unwilling human being.” She’d told him often she’d rather be an animal, “a red fox or a calico cat or a wild painted pony”.
“–something that lives only by nature’s whims and designs, it seems.” He nodded at Frieda like she was to be commended, perhaps because he had some knowledge of the great outdoors. He had wanted to be an etymologist as a boy, still liked to briefly capture and show them to his wife and daughter, explain odd, minute characteristics before freeing them.
“That right, a fox?” Lil felt a mixture of intrigue and worry. The girl was always up to something.
Frieda stomped her feet and galloped off then came to a full stop before her stepmother. “I don’t like two legs and feet. It slows me up. And I need a tail to swish and make dance like the wind, okay?”
Lil found this amazingly poetic and found herself staring at the child for long periods. Was she special? Was she a little genius or something? It was true she was quick; she knew how to read well enough before kindergarten. But Lil was so busy keeping her in tow that she didn’t have much time to test the girl’s mental prowess.
Ev tried to be democratic about all things. He gave his attention to them both in ways they needed, or so he thought. It was not easy losing one wife to the theater’s garish allure and gaining another who had partly snagged him with her good nature but now worried him with its slow corrosion. But Lil persevered in all she did. He admired her for it. He knew she would keep working at this business of parenting with him.
To Lil, the truth of it was this: she and Frieda in the same room was too often like opposing ends of a magnet forced to occupy space. They often repelled each other with powerful energies. The girl had unique ideas and high spirits but she often acted recklessly, her emotions overriding Lil’s reason, her need for freedom running Lil’s morale into the ground.
Ev didn’t quite see what she did. He saw disorder in his home. Though his daughter had always had a wild streak (like his ex-wife, he admitted) he felt it was flaring more now. But he adored Lil. If only they were companionable or at least could be placated. He didn’t realize his wife was already deemed an impediment to Frieda’s place in the hierarchy. He did realize it wasn’t any more easy for her than it was for his child. She was new to this, and his daughter had been another woman’s offering before she exited. And they had not seemed a fertile match yet. He could live with this.
Lil kept many thoughts to herself. She wondered if the true crux of the unruly currents in their home were due to there being two unaccommodating species. They seemed intent on determining who was predator, who was prey. If Frieda was akin to a beautiful feral cat, though, Lil was more like a watchful wolf. This didn’t bode well.
“That’s a terrible thing to say!” That night Ev had stormed off, too, and later her kisses did nothing to erase the tension in his jaw and shoulders.
He was right, she’d thought as she was left alone.
“It is terrible…and at least half-true. Which of us will best survive in this small den?” She addressed the empty room. Tears overcame her recently avowed composure. In truth, she wanted to sit back on her slim haunches, let loose and howl, too, if it so pleased her. This thought astounded Lil but it was a relief to admit it.
One time after another useless fuss whereupon Frieda was sent to her room before dinner, Lil sat on the edge of the sofa, flummoxed and weary. The comforting smells of a boiled dinner wended its way through the flat. If only her good food made things right, there would be no more arguments. If only she was a real fairy godmother. If only.
As he bounded through the side door, Ev saw her reflection in the mirror, and he felt relief and happiness even as he noted her arms folded tight against her chest. He hung his hat on its hook. It was getting harder, not easier. Three years into the marriage and the battle of his two favorites had not resolved.
“Frieda misses her mother, what else can be said?” He sat beside her, hand smoothing her back and she turned to face him. “In time, she’ll adjust, be nicer.”
“You might say to her that I am now the mother figure, that she is to be more respectful, follow my rules at the very least. Give me a chance here!”
“But you’re not that, not quite, are you?” He’d averted his gaze from her dismay. “She will always miss her, no use denying it. You are perfect for me, not to her.”
“Marion Carpenter just left–abandoned her! Frieda is surely better off now…”
“Well, yes, all things considered.” He took a deep breath and his chest quivered as air was let out inch by inch. “I know, Lil–I do know it is a daily strain.”
The way he said it made Lil ache all over. Ev was a man who needed to act out of integrity: he wanted to do the morally correct thing, be a responsible husband, a most loving father. But even he had his hands full with Frieda. He’d had to work like mad to transform his inherited newstand into a storefront business and it had happened. It was starting to thrive. He counted on Lil to be there, to be strong, to be compassionate. And she tried so hard it hurt.
That night she knew, finally, she could count on no one. Not for this one thing, maybe more. Not when it mattered most, beyond good intentions and careful words, beyond hard work. But she put her arms around him and he gave her a squeeze back, then got up to wash for dinner.
The bench pressed against her thigh to send more pain coursing down her leg. She adjusted her tennis shoe laces and stood, chin up so a cooling breeze fanned her soft, lined face. Daylight slanted, then thinned at her feet strode along the sidewalk. To her left were new apartment buildings, one with full-length windows–were they the walls, she wondered?–and another with a reflective bronze glass. Such changes about her. To her right, a new park where there had an auto body shop and two small, struggling restuarants. It was alive with fountains and surrounded by cement slab seating. People congregated nonetheless, sandwiches and coffees in tow, pidgeons and seagulls on patrol.
Her own home was a sweetly shabby, rambling house shared with six women. Six bedrooms with a conservatory and large living room and several more rooms. A wide back porch, screened. It wasn’t impressive as it once was, but beloved as well as manageable in every way.
Last week the mail had been delivered late. Lil often brought it in but time she had been shopping. When she got home just in time for dinner–her turn to clean up, she was reminded–it was on the wooden tray set upon the round foyer table. The letter was in a sturdy pale blue envelope, the kind you would buy at a stationer’s. Good, rapid handwriting. She’d glanced at the return address but didn’t recognize it. The meal was rosemary chicken with risotto and green beans and she took her time. As she scrubbed and cleaned afterwards she realized there was still the letter to read.
With excitement–how often had she had a real letter from anyone in the last five years?– not once!–she slit open the envelope with her nail file and released the page from its sheath.
I doubt you expected to hear from me again; I find it surprising I am writing now, myself. But I ran across Miss Farnham’s niece and she said you were still here. I’m back in town after all these years. Not for so long, likely, but still, it is a bit strange! A lot of life has happened to us both, no doubt.
I wonder if you would meet with me next week, say the third at one pm? I’m on Hewson Boulevard near the train station, in a place on the top floor. Number 1712. There’s a doorman to let you in, tell him your name.
If not this time, just leave a message with the concierge by then. I’ll understand, of course.
Frieda Thiesson Marten
It wasn’t a surprise to Lil. It was more like a blow to the back of the knees; she struggled to stay on her feet.
The last time they had seen one another had been the day of Ev’s funeral. Lil and Frieda sat face to face in the living room. Silence loomed like a mean cloud. But they knew what was to happen next. Ev’s daughter, now fifteen, was going to live with her maternal grandmother who had materialized from Manhattan. Apparently they had been talking on the phone for years. Lil was going to go back to work, stay here. Alone.
There was no use pretending, anymore.
“I will miss you, Frieda, despite our differences.” Her voice sounded formal and still, an echo of someone she didn’t know. Could she say I love you and it mean the right thing to the girl? No.
The clock on the fireplace mantle ticked with a steadiness neither of them felt. The teen-ager smoothed back unkempt chestnut hair and adjusted a looping paisley scarf.
“I cannot imagine life without your father,” Lil offered. A sudden hold of breath that would not budged but when it did dragged between her ribs like the tip of a blade. “I’ll find the rooms so empty…you gone, too.”
Frieda let out her own noisy stream of air between her teeth, as if she was bored with this, as if she needed to be done with everything. She kicked at the frayed Persian rug beneath the coffee table, the one that she had spilled candle wax on but never told her stepmother about, the one a half pint of beer had dumped onto so she’d scrubbed and scrubbed until the smell came out to avoid a grounding. The rug that kept her feet warm when the first autumn chill crept into the pockmarked hardwood floor. She liked the rug, it was true. She loved her father more than any words she’d found.
But Lil? Please.
“I’m not sorry for anything. I wish Dad had hung on until I got a lot older. I love him, he was too good!” Weeping erupted like a tidal wave but then it was done. She pulled herself into a taut figure, a stiff shell, really. “But I’m not sorry I’m leaving here. And you.”
Frieda looked up at her stepmother from clear hazel eyes and held her gaze as long as she could stand it. She hoped the look was telling her everything she had no energy to say, like how she was shattered when her father remarried, how she still waited every night for her real mother to come in and smooth her brow, how she believed Lil was just a dim, self-righteous woman who no one else would have bothered with except her father was just so kind he rescued her from her foolishess.
Lil saw and knew what was there. It didn’t bleed her as it used to; Ev was gone. Now this child, too. It was too late to alter the course.
Frieda scrunched her shoulders up, let them go and took from her purse an old necklace. The one that belonged to Lil, a wedding gift that had been so long lost.
“What? My locket! You found it! Or–?”
Frieda dropped it into Lil’s cupped palms, its fine chain broken, the scratched locket swinging open to display nothing at all.
“But, wait…where is our little wedding picture?”
She looked up at Frieda to see if there was an explanation, hear words that could change this moment into something cleaner, an apology, even a peaceable lie, anything that would be better than her ruined wedding locket relinquished at last.
“That’s all you have left, Lil. Bye!”
Frieda crossed the living, ran through dining room and kitchen and slammed the side door hard, the affronted reverberation echoing, the wind of her passing stirring up old dust so it spun, lifted, fell again like a fine veil, resting on the sun-striped floor around Lil’s stocking feet.
Lil climbed up the hill after getting off the train. Of course she made it, of course this day would happen, and she huffed only the last few feet. She wouldn’t have missed this for anything. It wasn’t that she had anything more to say to her dead husband’s daughter. She had forgotten how she looked, even, just the vaguest memory of Frieda with much brown hair, eyes that crackled. But it was like a specter passing beyond the frail recesses of dream. She was sixty-three now; Frieda was forty, maybe more. What was there to say after all was said and done? It was for Ev that she made the journey to the high-rise.
After Ev had passed, she had begun to work full-time at their (her) store. “Ev & Lil’s News-to-Go”. She wasn’t a natural as he had been but she was good at hiring a couple of people who were smart and out of need she developed a sense for the business. She had a genuine fondness for chatting with customers, many of whom were old friends, but increasingly, newcomers and tourists. She learned how to supply their needs.
The boarding house was her’s, an investment after Ev had died. She had always rented a home. Now she shared hers for nominal payments. It had worked out well. If she was lonely, she didn’t show it. One husband had been enough. He was an old-fashioned decent man, the sort she would have loved even more deeply and comfortably as the years passed. Except for Frieda, she had been happy. Except for Frieda’s and her warring, he might have also left this world content if even too young, she used to think. But she knew she knew nothing much. All she had was a handful of memories and a soft glow left from his kindnesses, his nudging, sweet kisses on her neck, the crossword puzzles they shared in bed each Saturday morning, the sound of his off-key whistle as he ran up the back steps. And he so loved his daughter, something not every man could have done as well throughout a decade of his “best girls” hissing and scratching like two cats in a cage.
Yes, Lil had been more than fortunate, all told.
She gave the doorman her name, then Frieda’s, chuckling at all steps she had to take to get in, then waited for him to hold open heavy glass doors and finally presented herself to the concierge.
“I’m to see Frieda Marten, room 1712.”
“Mrs. Thiesson.” He nodded, then reached below the sparkly black granite counter. “This is for you.”
She took the small package, a rectangular, padded envelope sealed shut.
“Oh, Frieda is to meet me. Am I to go up or wait?”
The concierge smiled at her patiently, his front teeth set against each another. “She wanted me to offer you her apologies. I’m afraid she’s gone. She had an unexpected and early flight to Rome.”
Lil’s hand went to her chest, then fell away as she stood up taller. “I see.” She scanned the opulent reception area, then looked at her tennis shoes. Her leg hurt more than when she had started. “I guess she’s a busy woman. Did she leave a phone number?”
“I’m sorry, no. Yes, Ms. Marten is a well-known singer. She did say she’ll be in touch.”
Lil felt her skin flush from chest to face and willed her cheeks to not turn red. “I see, very good, thank you.” She opened her purse and dropped in the package, then turned away. Before she moved she turned back to the young man to ask, “So what genre of music?”
“Rock, Mrs. Thiessen. ‘Blazing Mad Cow’ is her group with a number one song just this week.”
“Huh, right, thanks.” She managed to stifle a laugh and left.
It seemed right that this would be her end, a mad, glamorous, creative life. It meant little to Lil, a new fact to turn around at odd tmes, perhaps with a recollection of its merest inception when they were all together. She wondered if Freida’s youthful years were only a trial conduit for all that inate wildness.
Lil perservered all the way to the train station, then watched life flash by as she rode to her neighborhood, then stumped her way back home. She went upstairs with a wave at her housemates and entered her spacious room, shut the door firmly.
The package was torn open and a small box became visible. Her hands did not want to take off the lid. She set it in her lap, a foreign object, looked at it until the setting sun cast a tangerine hue in her airy room. It had to be faced. She lifted off the top.
It was a necklace. A necklace not so unlike the one Ev had given her their wedding day but far more expensive, perhaps 24k gold. The locket was round like the old one but larger, with fine viney lines scrolling around its edges. There was no perfect, tiny heart in the center like her old one. She pressed a miniscule latch to open it. And there they were.
Not Ev and herself pressed close together in their wedding finery as before. Nor Ev on one side of the locket and herself on the other. But Ev and Frieda and Lil. Sitting before the fireplace, tipped up faces nearly smiling. A second of peace captured Was it Miss Farnham who had come by as often happened, the camera aimed by her? It was a moment held onto by an angry, imaginative, complicated girl who had wanted nothing of Lil in her life.
The room darkened. It was tempting to lie down on the quilt. To lie down and remember. To weep over all that was given and all that was lost, the bad times and exquisite times, the hard words and the harsher silences. She loved them both, that’s all. Lil felt her heart contract hard just once, followed by a miniscule explosion that dissipated. Then the next beats got right back on track.
She bent to knead tender spots on her aging leg, got an increment of relief. The locket was laid on her bedside stand. Lil tapped it once with her pale fingernail and added a soft two-finger pat. Then left the room, closing the door behind her.