Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: A Lateness of Words

He was about to walk into the sprawling blue house on Merton and Fifth. That is, after he had decent coffee (if he could find the cozy weathered spot he’d always gone to), driven past once more (he was confident this wouldn’t be difficult) to better prepare himself, and called Rennie for support.

After parking at a corner he knew like the back of his hand, he slouched about, hands in pant pockets, looking this way and that. There was the hardware across the street with new awnings and paint; there was the staid brick bank; there was the grocery, although with new name and entryway. But no Dot’s to be seen. Instead, a hair salon sat in the coveted corner property. It had been a few years, okay, but Dot’s was an institution, the place everyone met up for a quick or leisurely cup from breakfast ’til dinner.

He dashed into the street between two vehicles to cross the street and he got a better look at things. There had been more alterations; it was looking oddly prosperous in spots. It was disorienting, shiny storefronts jammed between almost ramshackle ones. Then he saw it. “Dot & Daughter” was proclaimed in calligraphic gold and black above the double door. That would be Dot, yes, and …Hannah? He guessed she’d be early thirties now. He was surprised–she had said she was leaving, too–so he crossed back over and went in.

Even though he was stunned by the fancy decor and too many coffee choices beaming at him from the menu, he knew Hannah right off. It was the back of her head he was staring at as he got in line. With heaps of unmistakable glossy black curls as always, she turned and it didn’t seem like years had passed. She looked past him, waved at another customer. He gawked at scattered quaint cafe-style tables and stools, the glass case tempting with baked goods plus pita bread and hummus, veggie wraps, yogurt, cheese and crackers– it was like he was in a big city place trapped inside a small town.

“How you doing? What can I get you?” Hannah greeted him with appropriate cheer as she pushed away a stray spiral of hair.

“Espresso, two shots.”

She noted the order, looked at him a second time with lips parted then firmly closed. One more moment and she frowned, then recovered. “Name for order?”

“Hank.”

She dismissed him with raised eyebrow and nod.

He stepped quickly away from the counter, stood along the wall. He could have given his real name. Arley, the nickname of yore; now he was just Arlen. She may not have remembered him, but he suspected she might though he’d changed his look. No shaved head, no scraggly beard and feathery mustache. No black jeans and torn jacket, no heavy motorcycle boots. “Arley and his Harley”, a joke, a stupid one since he never got a Harley. He’d become a grown man. So different from the young man his hometown knew that he surely blended well for a few hours– and then he was gone. It had been right, even necessary to leave years ago. And good to be a bona fide grown up, slowly transforming.

It was taking much longer than he wanted so he zipped his jacket, made for the door. He didn’t want to revisit any of it, no good would come of it; just a stop at the house. But then “Hank” was called out, a hand holding out his espresso, and he was about to down it when he felt her eyes on him. And then another gal’s and guy’s then as he shifted his gaze felt all were looking at him–or trying to not look at him. Just what he didn’t need. Arlen;s heart raced, his stomach turned. He left.

“Arley, wait.”

He opened his car door and got in but Hannah was fast on her feet. He lowered his window by half despite a chilly shower descending. She stood there with arms across her chest, leaning in a bit.

“It is Arley Whitaker, right? Come home for a visit?”

He responded with the grin that used to get everybody, easy and warm as a summer breeze. But inside he felt cold as the rain, and miserable.

“Your mama, I guess? Heard she was doing poorly. I hope you’ll come back to Dot’s and Daughter’s before you go. Catch up.” Her gaunt face softened, seemed hopeful.

“How you doing, Hannah Jean? And where is Dot today?”

“Oh, I’m good, married Jeff, got a kid. Mama’s in the back but she’d come out and say hi, I’m sure–“

“That’s okay. On my way.” He started the engine and shifted.

“Nice car you got, must be having better times,” she said, eyeing the pristine, refurbished silver Camaro. “Fast bikes and fast cars forever, I guess!” She then had the decency to slap a hand to her mouth, knowing too late he’d not want to hear it put that way.

“Give your mother my regards, great coffee as always.” He waved at her like he was in some damned parade; she stepped back, staring after him.

Arlen drove off nice and slow as he could, foot just itching to slam the gas, hand gripping the gear stick knob. She was still nosy and naive, but good for her and Jeff, he was better than most he knew.

There was no one and no thing that could permanently lure him back to his hometown. It was one stop for today, and he already half-regretted it. He dared a cop to get him for speeding as he wheeled out of downtown.

******

He drove right by, eyeing the house, noting the long-faded blue needing a repainting. Surely it hadn’t been like that for almost ten years. The yard was emerald green even in the silvery drift of rain, and mostly tidy as always; the porch swing was gone but nothing looked decrepit. After circling the block, he parked a couple houses down, got out his phone.

She answered right off.

“Arlen, love, you there now?”

Her words came to him like petals floating on a pond, peaceful, gentle. He mused again over her absence; he missed her already. She had said it was his journey, not hers, and he should get it done alone. She’d meet up later. He supposed she was right. It was all before her time, his wrecked life to try to better restore.

“Got a coffee, felt like the town was breathing down my neck so came straight here. I can make it to the cabin by four if this is a short visit. Which it should be…”

“Take it as it comes. It’ll be good or it won’t, but you at least are there.”

He had nothing to add to the bare facts. Rennie knew the whole story, she knew he hadn’t set foot into that house for nine years, and he and his mother spoke briefly only on Christmas. Until the last one, when they had talked a little more, updated a few things. And he’d found she had had pneumonia, had been in the hospital and he didn’t even know; she was still weak. It struck some nerve deep inside. She’d always been so healthy, strong, more resilient than his father who had died at 52 when Arley was in his senior year. Before the even worse thing.

He shook his head. “I know, but what if she–“

“Keep it honest and to the point unless it feels right to do more. Remember? Trust your gut, honey.”

Silence rang between them. He fiddled with his key chain, finally pulled it out of the ignition. The windshield was fogging up; he cracked his window since the rain had let up. Fresh air gave him more calm, some strength.

“It might not be such a good idea, but I drove five hours top do it, so I’m going in. At least I can get to the cabin right after. Spread my thoughts and feelings over Lake Michigan, listen to music of the waves.”

“That’s my baby. And I’ll be there tomorrow by noon or 1:00. I’ll love you back to normal, so no worries either way.”

Arlen released the worst of his simmering fears in a short exhalation.

“Okay, here goes. See you tomorrow.”

******

At first his feet wouldn’t move up the path. He knew what he had to say. He had called her the night before, said he had some business up north, would it be okay if he stopped by a few on his way. When she didn’t respond, he panicked, nearly told her never mind. Instead she had told him between a deep cough and wheezing that sure, he could come on by. She had said it as if he was in the neighborhood and she was accustomed to his visiting. Then they hung up, both of them shocked by what they’d just done.

The porch was deep and wide and he had half a mind to walk it, get the sense of it and the moment, look back at the street to see how it felt. He didn’t have time. The white door with the stained glass rosette window opened wide, and his mother stepped back as Arlen came into the house where he was raised.

“Mom.”

“Hello, Arlen.”

They looked at each other, eyes startled, secretive, and looked away–but not before she took his upper arm, led him in. Her still-firm grasp felt foreign yet too familiar, and yet he let her do it.

The smells, then. Musky and sweet like ancient dried roses (the garden’s) she had kept in a pretty wooden box. Yeastiness of baked bread that has cooled awhile. And still those worn wood floors with a rug here and there. Smooth dark wood banister on a long staircase that led up to dark halls and quiet bedrooms. He averted his eyes from the upper reaches. Where her and his siblings had slept, squabbled, studied.

The living room beckoned with low lighting, same green velvet love seat and deep gold with green couch. The fireplace stood gawking, empty of fond memories of roaring fires.

She began to sit first and, as he had been taught, he waited until she was settled in her arm chair, then sat on the couch.

“This is a surprise, I know,” he said. “I said I’d never return. But we have talked a bit more, I felt I could come, finally. If you wanted that.”

She laughed, just barely, as she coughed easily. “You knew I got sick, about to die, maybe?”

“You were?”

She waved that away. “Not yet. You know how they talk around here, always drama. I make progress daily.”

“Yes. Good.”

She settled the afghan over her lap. She was not old, maybe sixty, he had forgotten to his dismay, but she looked almost old in the dusky room. Her hair, for one thing, had gone all steel grey, and was pulled back from her pale, lean face.

Arlen sat back, trying to not think of “Then versus Now”, how different it was despite a strange sameness of the place. Heat rose from his chest, trapped beneath his jacket–she kept the rooms too warm, as before– and he wanted to take it off yet was unwilling to do so. It might be thought a signal, give her the idea he wanted to stay awhile and maybe she would hate that. He didn’t want to, really, although they hadn’t embraced, or acted so glad to see one another at least she hadn’t said anything terrible yet. Nor had he. What words could ease such distance between them, the misery gnawing and creating the deep impasse to separate them?

He’d imagined he’d offer a few but true sentences and be gone. But they now dissipated. And she spoke.

“I made bread. And coffee. Would you like some, Arlen?”

He followed her into the high-ceilinged kitchen with big six burner stove. Fresh bread perfumed all. How she had once loved to cook. The worn teak table in the dining room beyond was set with pretty placemats; a loaf of bread on cutting board with a knife; plates and knives and a butter dish all in a row. The coffee carafe and cups were at the ready.

It was then that a small, persistent lump formed in his throat. The trouble she had gone to. The way it had been before…how they all had been happier more often than not, better off than most, a home filled with industry and ideas and play– and kids and adults who had learned–primarily– reasonable ways and developed good plans for life, together or apart.

“How is your business faring so far this year?” she asked. She buttered two pieces of bread for each of them, poured the coffee. Gestured toward the homemade pear preserves which she’d forgotten he didn’t like much.

“The shop is busier all the time; I have so many new orders this past year. The cars are beautiful once rebuilt, restored. You should–” He had forgotten himself, got excited. He wanted to tell her more but why? It was his unusual interest in vehicles, his mechanical talents that did the damage.

“That’s good, Arlen, you’re doing well then.”

Arlen was good with mechanical things since childhood; his father and he had shared the knack. And it wasn’t long before he fell in love with all things related to engines and wheels, especially motorcycles though his father didn’t, not really. But he encouraged his children in their interests.

In a short few years Arlen gave in to his growing need for power and speed. The desire for not just the fun weekend dirt bike but then a fine sport bike, not the Dodge Tomahawk he desperately wanted to ride one day–but, still, the Honda Blackbird was a dream, its acceleration, its dexterity, how it hugged corners, gave him that charge of adrenaline. And it was true he changed some as he rode more. It emboldened him, gave him a sense of freedom, a confidence as never before. Too much confidence. Arlen the “all around good guy” got a bit tougher and some said wild even as he increased his skills with hands, and his riding. Well, he met people. He met guys who liked those things rather than studying and such so by high school he had slipped from one social side of things to another. It wasn’t bad, he felt–it was just…faster, riskier, and when on a motorcycle this is what counted to him. Challenge and reward.

The slices of bread seemed to melt in his mouth, such richness, smoothness on the tongue, how they filled him. The coffee, though weaker than he’d make, was also a pleasure as they talked some more. Just this sharing of food and drink with his mother was easier than he had thought it could be.

He dipped into the vast pool of family matters. “You hear from Marilyn? About coming for awhile to help out and all?”

She brought a tissue to lips, coughed three times, hard. “In a couple of weeks. She had to take time off her county job, find someone to help out Dan with their two kids. Your niece and nephew…”

“Yeah. I have pictures.”

“When did you last see them?”

It sounded accusing but maybe he was wrong. She looked calm, interested.

“It’s been awhile.” They’d been two and three, respectively. They were now seven and eight, at least he thought. But he and Marilyn were never too close, she was older than he and…Doug, and after what happened, they were in touch twice a year, maybe three times max.

“Do you miss Dad still? I do,” he said before he could stop himself. He should not be going down that path. He should stick to script. Just make amends and be gone.

“Do you really mean, do I still miss Dad and Doug?”

Arlen felt the slippage inside him, as if he was coming off his moorings, fear threatening. He looked at his hands holding bread, put the slice down, lowered them into his lap where his fingers twined into knots.

“It’s funny,” she said, adjusting the afghan on her lap, smoothing the placemat, “how you can finally get used to losing a husband who died of a heart attack, yes, you actually can–with practice of new routines, after much mourning. But a child? That is another process; it never really ends.”

Arlen couldn’t bear to look at her so looked at the large portrait still hanging as it always had, taken one moment in time when they were all presentable and accounted for–all alive in this house.

“But.” His mother’s voice came out in soft breath, then almost a whisper. “But to lose a husband a son and then, despite him still being alive, another son–to lose, essentially, most of a whole family–that is the hardest thing of all, Arlen. The thing that cannot be forgotten.”

He rose then, paced back and forth, gesturing at nothing but the walls, careful to not see her eyes. “I didn’t make him get on, didn’t encourage it, not on that bike, I swear it! Dad had just died, we weren’t even thinking right. I kept saying that after he…I told you then but no one heard me. He insisted, he felt left behind, he had to have some fun he said, even when I told him he shouldn’t get on, I was still learning the Honda’s ways. And Doug jumped on behind me as I was taking off but I didn’t for one tiny second think we would get so far as to find trouble, much less crash on the hilly curve… I’m so sorry, I loved him, too–I’m so sorry, Mom!”

“I know, I truly did later realize it. Come here, son, come.”

He got down on his knees, wrapped his arms around her frailness and she clutched him to her, patted his back, smoothed his hair.

“Forgive me, forgive me, Mom…”

“God forgive us all, let’s leave what’s been lost, be thankful for what we have now,” she said clearly at his ear.

Then closed her eyes and shed tears with him but not like when it was her hard time of sorrows. This time it was for her only son’s return to her. And he at long last released that aching for it all, and felt salvaged by her arms about him once again.

******

“Here I am,” Rennie called out, hoisting bags of food and other supplies from her truck.

Arlen lay the ax atop the pile of wood pieces he was splitting and pulled off leather gloves. They embraced heartily and he took two bags as they went inside. Rennie removed cap and jacket as she moved purposely across the small living room.

She held out her hand. “You came, Mrs. Whitaker, glad you did. I’m Rennie.”

The older woman rose on steady legs and swiftly passed the dancing, popping fire in the fieldstone fireplace, and took the young woman’s capable hands into her own.

“I’m pleased to meet the woman who loves my son–and be asked to visit this fine cabin. Come and sit, get warm, let Arlen do the work.”

Arlen left the food on the table and returned to the wood, every strike a blow to the ravenous past, every new split log a store against the coming winter’s brittle cold, it’s astonishing yield of snow, All the more reason to gather his family within the cabin. His dad and Doug sure would have liked it. At first that thought jarred him, then felt pretty good. His mother gazed through the window so he raised a hand in response and tossed another log onto the pile.

Wednesday Words/Fiction: The Messy Heart of the Matter

It wasn’t like they were meeting royalty. Teddy told Lola to stop fussing in front of the bathroom mirror and “let’s get on with it, you’re clean and combed” and he was barely 9 years old, too smart for his own good. He had little patience with his sister’s (15 years old last week) rituals and wished fervently for a brother before another year passed. Fat chance, the odds seemed against it. If anyone else got born, it’d more likely be a she; there were more girls than guys in their line up.

Mother got as done up as she’d ever get and was waiting downstairs. Dad was likely checking his bristly mustache a last time in the round flower etched mirror, standing too close to their mom. Lola could hear her from the bathroom: “Hands to self, now, Art”, when likely all he did was put arms around her for a quick squeeze. Lola once thought she and Teddy must have been adopted; Mother was not the cushy sweetie type. She was a supervisor at a huge shoe factory. Dad was a freelance cartoonist for various periodicals and a singing waiter on week-ends at Cutter’s Steak and Seafood. What did they expect when they met? Everything was a joke waiting to happen for Dad; she obviously went along with it for the long haul.

“She’s going to give me the ole one-two boot one of these days, kids,” he’d say with a mock sad face. “Those big ugly ones right out of Brown’s Shoe factory.” He nudged them toward a hardee har har and they’d exit the room.

Luckily, his cartoons were much better–few words, great drawings. Mother admired him for his talents, as he did hers. And he was a good father.

Lola pressed down her springy waves and surmised her reflection. Her best navy sweater and the ugly gray polyester ankle pants and flats that pinched her left big toe–for what?

This day came about because Dad had been claimed and called upon by Madeleine Taylor Froheimer, apparently his lost great-aunt. There had been stories abut her, how she’d run away from home at 17 to marry some bigwig she’d met at the cafe where she’d worked. It was a scandal; the guy was 28, already a successful businessman. They married, to everyone’s surprise, and moved to Chicago, which was a long away away from Missouri in everyone’s small minds. Madeleine did not keep in touch after she was disowned. She lived one life and the rest of the family lived another–everyone was poor to improving yearly to modestly secure. (Lola guessed they fit in the last category though they still rented–a nice enough–duplex on Gorman Street.)

Three years ago Madeleine’s husband died, likely due to complicated, long nights and rich dinners out and the stress of being so important. Then she came back to the hometown to see if anyone was still around and maybe considered her family. Not many were around, and those that were, were unimpressed now, or plain put off–did she offer them money all those years they were sweating the bills, did she send them holiday goodies or fruit baskets when in the hospital? No. Did they care if she was home again? Please.

But she located Art Taylor, her great nephew. Or, rather, she was in line behind him at the old corner pharmacy, a nostalgic gesture since she didn’t live in that area, anymore. When his name was called, she fluttered inside and out with astonishment, relief and a surge of nerves. Arthur Taylor. Her brother’s son’s son….was that right?…Yes. Her brother who stopped speaking to her, so disgusted was he that she eloped with an older man, a total stranger. She’d heard he got a job in Fort Worth and was nearing retirement. Not much chance of seeing him in Missouri or elsewhere.

But Arthur, maybe.

She tugged at his sleeve gently. He half-turned, a quizzical look on his craggy face.

She ventured forth, sonorous voice floating to him. “Arthur Taylor…that was my great nephew’s name…!”

A few customers looked her over well, then him. She wore a dark fur of some sort, nylons, a deep pink dress, black heels. He smiled, stood taller, then held up a finger. Frowning slightly–was she for real?– he got his medicine. Heart stuff, she recognized it, the Taylor family curse. She was next in line–antacid pills– so he took a seat in a plastic chair along the wall. Looked up at her dumbfounded. 

As they walked down an aisle together, she updated him. briefly.

“Well, I already heard,” he said amiably, mustache twitching in agreement. “Sorry for your loss. Mom mentioned it.”

“Did she snarl about it? Or refuse to say my name?”

He laughed. She had, in fact, snarled about it. She wasn’t interested in meeting “low-down, snooty Maddie”–but, then, his mom wasn’t interested in much but crocheting, eating, and gossiping about her senior housing cohorts. He wasn’t close to her. But Art was excited to meet up with this great aunt. His whole family then was invited to her condo on the river the following week-end. “Like a pre-holiday ice-breaker,” she had said which he didn’t get, but why not go?

“Oh, I was going to ask about your father, my nephew… he’s still around, I presume–how can I reach him?” she inquired as they parted.

“He’s about three hours from here now. Good luck, he’s been drinking lately.”

She softly grunted; it was clearly not news.

The next Saturday afternoon Lola, and her brother and parents spruced up and piled into the van just as a cold rain was dumped. Art knew Alison, his wife, was agreeing to go out of respect for family ties; she wasn’t a social person, really. Teddy and Lila were more than curious. Great-Aunt Maddie was almost famous in the family. And rich, maybe.

The condo was a contemporary behemoth that seemed more like a penthouse snug upside a few others overlooking the river, near the aging, status-soaked marina. Art recalled when several creaking houseboats and docks had been relocated and ostentatious condos were erected; there was public outcry but no matter, they were built. And here he was setting foot in them.

“Fifteen stories up and a rooftop garden,” Teddy whispered as they rode a partly glass elevator. “I read up on it. Only one other condo other side of the building up here. And she has the views! Might be a penthouse?”

Lola was also fully taken by them as they ascended. How far the gaze could penetrate the misty treeline and beyond. It made her feel like she was in a different country. She wondered if they could see to Illinois from the top. She wondered if she could take off her flats upon entry, and planned a decent selfie from the topmost floor. She shook off the rain before her dad rang the doorbell which sounded like deep chimes, a European church chiming, maybe.

“Welcome!”

Great-Aunt Maddie, elegant in a silky persimmon and lemon paisley caftan (Lola described it thus to her best friend) and her silver hair in a tidy chignon, opened the door immediately to shake everyone’s hand. Hers were surprisingly warm and strong. Her small feet wore gold slippers and she slid over the wood floors after taking their coats and hanging them on a brass coat stand. They were led to the long, open and bright living room. The rain did nothing to take away from the flooding of light. The ceilings went on forever. The rooms could hold hundreds, she imagined. Teddy elbowed her and they smiled.

Their dad had been stopped by the art work hanging in the grey ceramic tiled foyer, but caught up. He would rather just wander about looking at her art pieces than chat but sat himself beside Alison, his kids at either end. Teddy, though, required stern coaxing to peel himself from the west wall of windows.

“Sunsets must be incredible,” Teddy mumbled.

Maddie laughed. “They are! You must come back for a viewing if you are so inclined. Now tell me who you are and and something about yourselves. I have coffee brewing and will bring out cakes in a bit.”

The air smelled sumptuous Lola thought, and then, pleased with her pick of adjective, thought of waves of satin that smelled of coffee. It was that kind of air in there.

Who says if you are so inclined, Alison wondered as she smiled at her son’s observation. Who asks for personal information when you first meet?

“Well, you met me,” Art offered. “I do cartoons that help me make a pretty decent living. And I sing.”

“I’ve seen a few. Amusing and canny, and you’re very skilled at drawing!” She beamed at him. “I like to draw but only for myself. And you sing? What sort of singing?”

His family looked at him and back at Maddie. She had classical music turned low on stereo system.

“Popular music,” he said, “old big band standards, some lighter, more recent fare…well, eighties and nineties. I like some opera but am not good at even at pretending I can sing that. I tried it at home once and everyone banged on the bathroom door until I gave it up. My audience prefers the standards.”

“He sings at a restaurant, he’s a waiter on week-ends, and sings as he delivers orders,” Teddy offered, a hand gesturing dismissively. “A steak and seafood joint.”

“But it’s a nice place,” Alison said, throwing Teddy a warning look. “He has a good solid baritone, so they say. I know I like it.” She patted Art’s knee.

“I think that’s lovely–an artist and musician in the family. I’ll come hear you at–“

“Cutter’s, it’s called,” Lola said. “The songs get boring but no one asks him to stop, a good sign.”

Maddie gave up a light laugh. “And so–you are…?”

“Lola Lee Taylor, 15, tenth grade, and I like creating collages out of odds and ends and playing basketball. I can cook, I guess, if you like Italian food and certain cookies. And this is my brother.” She pointed at him and thought too late, never polite to point.

“Sounds promising. Fun. I do like Italian. And cookies.” Maddie leaned forward, hands clasped and in her lap. Her caftan rustled softly. Lola noticed that her earrings were gold, hung with tiny bells that swished and jingled.

“I can speak for myself. Teddy Taylor here.” He raised his hand as if being counted as present. “I think Theo sounds better–at least when I’m older. That’s short for Theodore. I am into bugs and chemical reactions. I prefer spring, summer and fall to winter because I’m all about being in the field.”

“He means literally,” Lola interjected. “He takes his insect collecting stuff out every spare hour and brings back exotic, odd stuff. Dissects bug wings and things. A bit strange, I guess, but generally alright for a little brother.” Was that an unsolicited defense of him? Lola blinked.

Art said proudly, “An aspiring scientist. And an athlete and collage artist. We have good kids.”

Alison was studying Maddie’s feet as slyly as possible. She’d secretly wished for gold shoes when she was a kid: utterly impractical, beautiful, just made for leisure or parties.

Maddie got up. “The coffee must be done. Water or pop or iced tea for you kids?”

“Sweet tea with ice, please,” Teddy answered.

“I’d love coffee with cream and sugar,” Lola said.

Her mother was about to deny her but her dad stopped that with a hand on her forearm and winked. Alison could not resist his winks.

“Can I help?” Alison said, but Lola got up first even though the answer from the kitchen around a corner was a negative.

It was all white, spotless, sparkling. Even cupboards, with brass pulls. Copper pans hung above the stove top. The deep counter tops were white with a golden flecks. Pendulous lights dangled from the high ceiling, shedding a warm glow–were there any other sorts of ceilings and light in this place? There was a skylight, even, and rain drummed on it, rhythmical and silvery and sheer.

Maddie held out an oval shiny tray of perfect, one-bite cakes, colorful in a muted way.

“Petit fours–do you know of them?” Maddie said.

“Only what I’ve seen in magazines. I always wondered how you made these!”

“Me, too!” She grinned. “These are from a bakery downtown. I don’t cook much or well. I might need lessons.”

“I’ll teach you…well, I could that is if you– I mean…” This woman probably had chefs come in, that’s why she didn’t now how to cook.

Maddie looked at her with a friendly, appraising gaze. “I bet you could. I just might take you up on that, Lola. Especially cookie baking–haven’t done that since I was a teenager. How I miss making cut-out sugar cookies for Christmas…I’ll get coffee cups filled, then you can come back to help me, okay?”

Lola did as told, came back and retrieved a black lacquered tray with three cups and a tall blue glass of iced tea. Maddie had the tray with cream and sugar and spoons. She set it down and they both served each person.

Alison watched all this with chin hanging. Since when did Lola offer to do anything much serve people? But it was good, it was polite and well done. She was impressed. But Maddie was a definitely too high brow for them. And Alison’s pantyhose were tight and itchy, her feet tired out by the heels.

After they’d sipped and enjoyed the rich tasty cakes, and oohed and aahed over more views, Maddie resumed the intros.

“Alison, could you share some of what you do or like? You have to be a patient, fun-loving person to be with Art–he is a bit, well arty, I gather?”

They got a kick out of that. Alison let out a long breath and jumped in.

“Not sure about being a fun person, but I supervise at Brown Shoe Company. Have been there eighteen years now. I hope to make manager soon; I like being a leader, working with a team.”

“That’s interesting, a long career there. What do you enjoy outside of work?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked over at her family members. “I like to read. Thrillers and mysteries. I like suspense movies. I try to take good care of my family.”

“You like to go on long bike rides, Mom, you have endurance,” Teddy said.

“You love gardening our little plot, too,” Art noted.

Lola thought about it a moment. “You make pretty Christmas ornaments–I know Dad helps with design–each year.” She smiled at her mother, then Maddie. “She started on some last week after Thanksgiving, the best yet.” And she realized it was true and that she loved seeing them on the tree.

Alison’s cheeks grew warm; she looked down with a smile.

Maddie sat across from them in her favorite velvet wing-back chair and felt something she hadn’t felt in awhile: delight. She liked these people. She liked them much more than she even dared hope.

“All admirable.” She put her coffee cup on a side lamp table. “My turn, right? You know I left home young, ran away with a business man who was over ten years my senior. I had an adventurous streak. My family and friends said I was wild but I wasn’t all that. I just needed something other than what they did. Marty and I shared an instant passion and I thought it was love, would have followed him anywhere. Chicago seemed far away and he had money, enough to show me a different life than the hard one I’d had with an alcoholic father and withdrawn mother. Martin Froheimer was a stern, very smart man who let me see his gentler, romantic side. We had quite the social life, lovely homes, traveled. But he was gone often on business. It got lonely, I can tell you. And as time went on he got more stern–ornery, to be honest, and then a bit mean…Anyway. That’s how things went.”

She paused to collect her thoughts, smoothed back lustrous hair, rested her thin hands on the arms of the chair and sank back. The family waited, surprised at her frankness. Alison looked away, a little embarrassed at Maddie’s self-disclosure but Art sat up, attuned to undercurrents of sadness. Pain not openly admitted before and there it was, popping out now.

“We talked of divorce, but decided to put it off for our daughter’s sake. Then he got sick. Pancreatic cancer. And he died shortly after.” She sat up again and stared out the wide windows, lifted her head. “That was two years ago. I needed a change. So here I am–for now, anyway. Lizzie, our daughter, lives in Amsterdam. We will see.”

“Wow,” Lola said. “That’s a lot. Maybe you can rest up here.”

Teddy squinted at the aging woman. “Yeah. Good you moved.”

“Well, Great-Aunt Maddie…I–“

“Please, just Maddie will be fine. I feel less aged than that.”

“Well, I sure am glad you ran into me. I wondered if maybe you’d like to come by our place for dinner soon.”

Alison shifted. “Or we could take you out.”

“I’d like that–dinner at your home. I was hoping we’d get on alright. And I feel that we really will. All this–“she opened her arms to indicate the finely appointed rooms–“is just this, but I’m only Maddie, you great-aunt, you’ll see.” Her amused smile warmed them.

They paused at that thought. She was different but, then, so were they.

“I think we should all go to the Christmas Village, it’s so pretty there, especially if it snows well enough to cover buildings and pathways, ” Lola said, cheered at the memory of years prior.

“She might not like the smelly animals and paths that get muddy,” Teddy muttered.

“Of course she will,” Art enthused. What was not to like about the corny, lovely Christmas Village?

Maddie felt the steamy heat of tears behind each eye threaten her composure and she blinked them away. They barely knew one another, even if it was off to a good start. She was certainly not going to ruin it with any bawling. “I’d love to go. Really. I can’t recall when I last tromped in the dirt and was around smelly animals. And a simulated village–it sounds wonderful.”

“The decorations and lighting are excellent,” Art said, encouraged.

“Festive is the word,” Teddy added as he got up to gaze at the soon-to-set sun. “A festival of Christmas!”

“We could make a day of it, have dinner after,” Lola said and went to stand by her brother, taking in the expansive view of the city and river.

Alison relaxed and gave a welcoming smile to her husband’s great-aunt. Now hers, she supposed. “Would you join us next week-end, then?”

Maddie nodded and rose. They got up and got their coats.

“Good to have you here, Maddie.” Art gave her a quick hug; she held on a moment longer, her thin arms strong about him.

On the way back down, seeing the lit up city landscape rolling, open and beautiful from their vantage point they fell silent. Teddy felt annoyed he hadn’t asked to see the rooftop garden but believed he would get to see it yet; he wondered over the insects that lived outside a luxurious condo. Lola imagined the gleaming kitchen steaming up from pasta and sausages bubbling away in savory sauce. But she didn’t get that selfie shot–yet. Alison thought how funny it was that a woman who manufactured sturdy, ordinary shoes knew someone who owned golden ones for such delicate feet–and that Maddie was likely a decent human being.

Art felt gratified that he knew the truth or at least more of it, and that he liked her a lot. It was mutual, too. They’d share this Christmas together–she wouldn’t have to be alone up there in the clouds. Then he started planning his next cartoon. It’d be about family ties. It’d be funny, of course, only more so. He might frame and give the original to her. He wouldn’t care if she put it in her bathroom or hung it outside among bushes on the rooftop–it wouldn’t be an investment like the expensive art. It was all the same to him, and a good inside joke; he’d be quite pleased that it was hung there for her.

 

Perils and Pleasures of This Kind Devotion

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Kayla’s life was upended when Great-Aunt Bertie fractured her second hip and stayed at the nursing home, then rehabilitation services. But that was nothing compared to the current state of matters. Fractures and rehab are manageable for stubborn old women, it turned out. After Bertie decided to move in with her often absent nephew an entire state away, Kayla felt adrift in two time zones, the past and present all at once. She could not find her bearings. She kept hearing Bertie call out for her and simultaneously had to answer a student whose voice bot more insistent.

“Why?” She had implored one more time the last week Bertie was there. “I only teach twice a week this term and we’ve always managed. We can get someone to come in when I’m not here if needed.”

Bertie sniffed, more due to great colonies of dust that refused to stop rebuilding in her home than the present topic. “Nelson has a sprawling but one-story house, as we’ve discussed, Kayla. My house is an impediment for me at this time. I ought to sell but I don’t always do what my financial adviser advises. A few months, a year at most with Nelson and I’ll be back. Likely.”

“You’re not the least convincing. It sounds as if you’re absconding and worse, maybe giving up.”

Bertie stomped her cane hard on the worn pine floorboards.

“Have you ever known me to give up a fight? You’re a fine one to make such pronouncements, taking care of me for five years now when it was supposed to be one or two at most. The left hip was almost nothing, this one a trial. But even a medium heart attack did not take me down long and when you willingly arrived, there was plenty to do as well as the completion of your degree. You stayed after your Bachelors, then got your Masters, good for you. And then remained well after I needed you, I might add. But we both know it was an auspicious arrangement.” She eased forward in her seat just a little and winced, masking discomfort with another impatient thunk with her cane’s rubberized tip.

“Yes, a perfect arrangement until now.” Kayla’s voice caught in her throat and a lightly freckled hand went to her chest, then fingered bronze-colored beads she had worn to work over an old ivory cotton sweater.

Her hands always did something, wound and unwound a strand of hair, drummed lightly on any hard surface, twiddled a pen or pencil. The rest of her was just as still as a watchful cat whose tail nonetheless twitched. But for her there was an underlying anxiety never quite quelled. Others said that, although she was reserved and to herself, she was in quiet command of students, at meetings, under pressure.  She often seemed much older than twenty-seven. They also entertained an alternative judgment: rather cold. Kayla sensed rather than heard what they said at Crane Community College as she elbowed her way around student hoards and faculty groups chattering away, making her way out and back home.

Bertie’s home, of course. Which her Great-Aunt was now abandoning. And her.

Bertie had more she might say to her Great-Niece but she knew better than to utter a tiresome homily–at any time. She was not a giver of wisdom, a corrector of wrongs, a font of inspiration. That didn’t mean she didn’t know a few worthwhile things.

Kayla had remained sheltered a bit too long, that’s what Bertie had surmised. The girl had now hidden long enough in Bertie’s comfortable home. So much education to acquire, such a varied amount of duties and care needed for the Great-Aunt and who else would do the job she did impeccably, with longstanding love? All that was true. But who cared for whom in the end? Bertie, a long retired mathematician, had been a widow for twenty-odd years before Kayla had come to live there. She’d been a boon, aided in more speedy healing of this or that health matter. But Kayla rarely if ever went out with a co-worker or  anyone else, did not attend concerts or see a movie or go on even a short day trip by herself.  They took long, dawdling drives like two  tired oldsters. When she got the college position to teach sociology, she worked and came right home. Cared for that big groaning house and Bertie, a mere (but sturdy) twig in comparison yet also admittedly creakier than desired.

Bertie, at least, had begun to yearn for a change of scenery as well as another floor plan. Enough was enough. She was entertained by the company of her mildly flamboyant nephew and his artsy wife. There weren’t such stairs there to take her down. They’d be glad to have her since they’d become the antsy retired, already weary of so-called fun travels to exotic places.

Bertie was definitely leaving, then finally gone. Who knew what the future brought? Kayla could stay as long as she liked, the bills would be dealt with, but she’d be fending for herself.

That young woman was never going to see life’s shining and confounding facets without getting out there and discovering them.

******

The first week was so terrifying Kayla thought she’d have to call in sick, but staying alone there for more than a day would only make things worse. She was used to getting up and making them a tasty breakfast, sometimes taking a tray to Bertie’s room, or setting the dining room table with a third-best, flower-strewn tablecloth. It started the day off so well. Now it started with a halt and a slump.

And then she had errands or class, then was back for lunch to check on Bertie who might be dozing over a book by a living room window or out in the garden yanking at various green or brown stems with great enthusiasm, despite weakened hips. One thing came after another, everything orderly, reliable. At night they would sit by the fireplace and read classics, poetry and sociological studies (Kayla) or natural sciences and history (Bertie) or watch a public television series.  Occasionally a movie they could agree on. Bertie would crochet badly but happily. She always said the same thing at end of day; “Sleep well, the sun rises too soon for young and old alike.”

Kayla should be exalting in this new freedom, nonetheless. Let loose of an old lady who could be cantankerous if in pain, even just slowed down, more opinionated than Kayla ever thought to be or lost in her own interesting thoughts. But Kayla forced herself out of bed and got dressed, made an ordinary if semi-palatable breakfast and went to her work and faked it the best she could.

It was true, her adult life had been Bertie, college and then teaching and that was it. It hadn’t been her intention but the longer she stayed, the better it felt and her Great-Aunt had been amenable. It puzzled and hurt her that her elder had determined to stay with the long missing Nelson. But it must make sense at age eighty-three.

People at work did ask her who she was dating or what were her plans, and she smiled enigmatically (she hoped), changed topic or said something obscure and acceptable. So when it appeared she was not in such a rush to leave her desk at end of her day two weeks in a row, she got a few looks. She had no intention to no become chatty, though Tom Heinz cast a sharp eye her way, mouth opening then shutting as he hurried on.

“So what do you have going on that you’re here late again? You and Bertie on the outs or what?” Wanda asked as she paused between coffee runs. She drank more coffee than was advisable despite living “clean”, as she put it, both utter mysteries to Kayla.

“No, just have things to catch up on, all the grading we have to get done.”

“The bane of teachers! But you usually get right out and come in early, if needed.” Wanda gulped a draft of rancid coffee from her stained mug, frimaced. “She’s okay, isn’t she? I meant, she’s all mended, right?”

“Of course! She’s just visiting for a few months, a nephew, that’s all.” It just slipped right out, such personal information! But she smiled, a no-teeth exposed sort of smile.

“Ah, I see,” Wanda said and smiled back. “Left you to your own devices, did she?” Then she wandered back to her desk humming, sipping from her bargain store mug.

Kayla shook her head–what a character she was  while also aggressively smart–and wondered what the woman could possibly know about her life. Yet it struck a chord. Wanda could be strident, quick to make inferences and blunt. They went back to work. Later, Wanda sidled by and a hand grazed Kayla’s shoulder which startled her so that she swiveled in her chair and stared at the woman in muted horror.

Wanda pulled her hand back, crossed her arms before her chest then asked, “Want to go for a drink sometime or dinner?”

“I can’t possibly, you know that, I have to get back to Bert–oh, well…” She looked up at Wanda, whose right eyebrow was raised in a starkly drawn arch. “No thanks, not tonight.” Not any night, Kayla thought as she went back to work.

On the way home she noticed streetlights were already on. Autumn had arrived in all its burning glory and faded now, and soon would come winter’s onslaught. She pictured a fire flaring and crackling in the massive fireplace, how comforting it would be again, and then sadness rose up on the crest of a ghastly wave. She had to pull over and let tears fall, but only a moment. Bertie was only visiting, she’d get tired of their fun and games soon and be back. Wouldn’t she?

She drove home and parked in the driveway. How monstrous that house was, how excessive a home for even two or three or more! How could this have escaped her so long? The many dark windows closed her out with their blank stares. She must leave on a few lights each day. She must get take-out food tomorrow. She must get a dog. No–dogs were forbidden in Bertie’s house if not professionally obedience-trained or left unattended for longer than ten minutes.

Kayla started to shake though it wasn’t yet unbearably cold. She was shaking in her heavy grey socks and worn black leather boots because her life felt like quicksand so many moments without Bertie.

And no one was there to save her. No one. Only herself. And she was trying and it was not quite enough.

******

The third time Wanda asked her out to dinner, Kayla agreed because she was so sick of eating take-out Thai and frozen chicken tenders. She just didn’t feel like making a tasty meal. But she might like eating at a restaurant. She might not fully like Wanda, but it was better than no one sitting across from you day after day, night after night.

It was a contemporary eatery where hip younger adults went to dine and drink. It had a generous vegetarian menu which Wanda liked, and meat enough for Kayla to order something. After they did so, Kayla looked around at the boisterous crowd. Most were drinking as they ate, something that seemed unnecessary. Wanda had ordered a beer and one for Kayla although she said she wasn’t much of a drinker. But this label was excellent, Wanda said, why not try it?

Maybe it would quiet the quaking in her diaphragm, Kayla thought as she watched Wanda’s burgundy red lips move rapidly. Her ears were on overload already. Why did people like this environment? What discourse could happen in such a place? It made her think of earliest college days, when too many crammed in a booth. The purpose had been less about conversation and good food and more about filling up residual emptiness, hunting for a potential partner, erasing the bad day or night before. She got that though she denied it even as she saw it.

Wanda waved a hand before her face. “Yoo hoo! You here or not? When was the last time you ate out and where did you go?”

“Oh, we never ate out. Maybe on a Sunday if we didn’t feel like cooking, but that was unusual. Let me think. Embers–for steaks, I think.” She took a sip of beer and swallowed without wincing.

Wanda grabbed her own beer. “That old staid place! It’s high time you discovered the great foodie scene here.” She held up her bottle, waited for Kayla to clink hers, then sat back. “I’ve wondered about you a long time, you know that? You’re the mystery person in our department. Everyone has a theory about you; no one knows anything. I tell them you have great depth but choose to keep it hidden.”

Kayla took a fast sip. This was not going to be about personal revelations or she was leaving. “Is that right? What makes you think so? Never trust your first impressions.” Turn it back on her and lead her astray, that was it.

“Your classes, for one thing. You must manage to make Intro to Sociology fascinating–your classes always fill up fast. And your other one–what is it?–has a waiting list this term.”

“Societal Impact on Women’s Life Goals.”

“Right, that one, sounds good. Tom said he stood at your door one time, opened it just a tad and listened to much of your lecture. He was surprised by how you interact with the students, and they, you–so easily. Impressive, he said. And seems like he’s always looking your way now.”

Kayla bristled. “I hadn’t noticed. Anyone can pop in if they just ask me. I love sociology and found I have a knack for teaching despite initial misgivings about doing it for a career.”

“What misgivings?” She leaned chin on hand, streaky blond hair swinging about her face.

“I thought I’d do research…I guess I still can.” She felt a sweep of heat up her face and then agitation came zooming back, so took a big bite of food. She’d not said even this much to a colleague before. It wasn’t their business, how she felt, what she desired, other than how it might impact department goals. It had to be the beer and convivial atmosphere. She  felt disoriented all of a sudden, needed to finish her turkey and bacon burger and leave.

“I know what you mean. We get derailed sometimes. Like me. I started in this direction later than most as my husband was ill a long time. I never got past this job so now am wondering what to aim for again or if I should just stay on…”

Kayla felt herself recoil. Boundaries, weren’t they important, anymore? But she agreed they both had experience with sickness and care taking. “I sure hope he’s better. You’ve never acted worried, just self-assured. You have a lot of great ideas and energy.”

“Yeah, I do make my presence known. ” She looked at Kayla, eyes gleaming. “He died a year before you arrived–was it really two years ago? Married four years, though.” She took a long swig.

“I am sorry, Wanda. Truly”

The burger suddenly felt like too much but she ate it, anyway. How did they get to this intimate stuff already? She never would have thought someone like Wanda had had such a terrible loss. She drummed her fingers on a thigh, sipped, surreptitiously checked her watch. So much emotion in one night.

“Thanks, it’s okay, things have a way of changing again. I’m dating a little, not from the college though. You?”

“No, not in a long time. I like being on my own. That is, I used to hang out with Bertie, spend time with a couple of her friends, all such smart ladies and gentlemen. And often have been alone. It’s okay that way for me, I am a solitary creature despite my interest in groups of social beings and their behaviors.”

“Naw, can’t be that okay.” Wanda dug into her salad. “I don’t imagine that much time alone with a very elderly lady is so good for you– you really think so?”

Kayla released a long sigh. She felt warm inside and out, no longer too empty or too full; the crowd seemed more settled, their voices a drone of contentment. It was alright being there. More than decent.

“Maybe not. I grew up in a small family, then went to college, and when Bertie asked if we could work out an arrangement I thought for two seconds and agreed. Really, she helped me. Gave me free room and board to just keep an eye on her and house matters. And she is not dull companion, believe me. It was a perfect solution for us both. Or maybe still is.”

Wanda chewed her kale, radicchio, avocado and tomatoes, looked thoughtful but waited.

“I miss her, more than I expected. She was more involved with my life than I knew. Or vice versa.”

“Well, you love her. I get it. She loves you. That’s the whole thing. Or it might be, ultimately. Worth thinking over and debating, anyway.” She shrugged luxuriously and sat back, satisfied.

Kayla leaned into the table, hands expressing her thoughts as she spoke. “But also, maybe I’m just lazy or don’t know what to do outside of work, work, work. Or my rotten anxiety curtails a life that works well and seamlessly like most seem to do. Like yours despite your challenges.”

“I seriously doubt that, all of it. You have what it takes, you just got too comfortable. You know how common it has been to do what you’ve done, right? For centuries women have taken care of others, of their elders. Not a bad thing, no. But there is more for us than that, right? And I was where you are, in a way, with my cancer-ridden husband…life just upends us and we have to redirect ourselves, figure out each next step.” She laughed as if it was some sort of epiphany. “Kayla, life never gets easier, it just gets more familiar, you know? You’ve had a door pushed open. So now what?”

Kayla narrowed her eyes at this woman with the too blonde hair and dark eyebrows, with her pronouncements, suppositions. And she felt such a wave of relief she was afraid she could faint, but sat up straighter.

“Walk through it…and maybe that’s what Bertie was offering me. Not just changing up her care plans. She was so ahead of her time, after all, a respected mathematician for forty-eight years. She knows how to be alone and how to not be alone.”

“Exactly. So make the most of this, I say! Get out more to art and history museums, films, restaurants, author readings, take a trip, go on a mountain hike! Let others become a friend, Kayla. And so you know, I can go hot and cold, I’m not all that together. But for sure you will not sink. If you think you might, give me a holler, we’ll go out for a beer and burger. Well, veggies for me.”

She winked at Kayla, which sure seemed presumptuous, as if declaring an actual possible friendship. But it was pleasant, too, Kayla thought as they paid their bill. She found herself laughing as they forged a path through sidewalk throngs to find her car window. It displayed her first parking ticket. The time had passed so quickly.

******

The house seemed to be glowing when she got home. For a minute she thought Bertie had come back without advance notice and she hurriedly put the car in the garage. But, no, the house stood empty, she could feel it’s expansive, worn elegance wanting company even as she walked toward the door. She had left a few lamps on so windows were radiant with amber light. Kayla turned the lock with her key, walked in, thought how lovely it would be to light a fire and read a few sonnets. How she might possibly swing a simple dinner for two or three colleagues around upcoming holidays.

Mae Lynn’s First and Last Drive-In Movie

Photo by Stephen Shore

The Sunset Drive-In looked harmless enough but worn out at best. Verging more on ugly, some thought. It’d been there so long, and in nineteen ninety-eight there was talk of tearing it down, building cookie-cutter townhouses or duplexes. But Mae Lynn would be the first to take a bulldozer or even an ax to it. Most citizens of Beauford had gotten used to it over the last thirty years, hardly giving it a second glance as they sped down Raymond Road toward Route 31. One movie a week played now from June through August. It wasn’t worth keeping open for that but once it was a huge draw for miles around, the only place to go on week-ends. Now, twenty miles away, there was a four theater movie complex in a much bigger town.

The Sunset was a matter of serious discussion when it first went up, many against it but just as many for it. Mae Lynn Jarrett remembered its beginnings very well. She operated the Tank and Tobacco Stop just a quarter-mile from its entrance. When it was approved, the kids and their parents would stock up on plenty of cheaper pop and snacks and sneak it into the drive-in until Mae Lynn got wise and raised her  prices. But for the most part she was against it’s very existence.

“See that movie screen over there? It was doomed from the start, if you ask me.”

She pointed to the Sunset as if accusing a criminal and shook her head with creased lips pressed hard together. There was a For Sale sign at the entrance the last two weeks.

Strangers as well as Beauford residents stopped for gas and a pop or beer. Their gazes followed her costume-bejeweled index finger as the guzzled from sweaty bottles. They were willing to listen while benefiting from an industrial-sized fan. This afternoon two women and one man said they were coming from Nashville, on their way to California. They didn’t much like Missouri so far but Mae Lynn was a hoot.

“Old Man Harrison did that. He’d argue he’d none of it but the fact it, it was his land, and then it wasn’t so he must’ve agreed. His family had held that land for three generations but he said it wasn’t no good after the Four Year Drought. He never did try to plant corn on that piece again; the other acreage was kept in hope of better grazing acreage. It gets rented out now. But he was just getting worn out with it all, like lots of folks out here. So when the land development company–land crooks, we call ’em–offered Old Man Harrison a good bit for just ten acres–he bit good and hard. Never did tell a soul how much. Up and left for Florida.” She planted her hands on skinny hips. “Huh!” She laughed like she had a cough. “We ain’t seen or heard from him since. ” She rubbed her scarf-covered head. “Set for awhile, I guess.”

She paused to help another customer, a local who hurried out again, shaking his head in pity at the captive listeners. They winked at each other–best to just humor the lady.

“Anyway, there was this ugly cracker-box subdivision getting set up out here. So Old Man Harrison’s land was gonna have a strip mall, you know, a couple of good clothes stores for the ladies, a family shoe shop, a small restaurant with overpriced Italian food. Maybe a pharmacy, that woulda been good out here–first aid supplies, all the medicines, a quick birthday purchase of perfume, a rack with sports and news magazines. But no, they had a change of mind at the last minute. Just put in that thing, sold off the rest again and it stands empty. Don’t get it.”

She shook her finger at it, then her whole hand balled up. Mae Lynn caught herself just as a splotchy red crept across her cheeks. She released her fistful of anger to the air; the red receded.

“Plays good movies, though, I hope?” the short-haired blond asked, eyes blue as cornflowers smiling at the store clerk. The younger woman’s dress was about as tight as you could make it and still get into it. It was a soft mint green color, good with her coloration. Her older companion–a sister?– wore coral pants and a blousy white top.

Mae Lynn had from the start thought this gal looked as if she ought to be a model at least or even the film racket herself, and the very idea made her cross. She didn’t show it; her business didn’t thrive on bad manners. No, she smiled right back. They were passing through.

“Wouldn’t know. I don’t see them. When they first opened up I joined the herd to find out what all the fuss was. Uncomfortable as all get-out sitting in the cab of our truck next to my Joe and Howie. Having to adjust the speakers just right. Noticing other people doing things in the next cars that you don’t want to see. Howie, my boy, he always wanted a huge drink or more popcorn and it got spilled over the seat–it’d take days to find all the squashed kernels and wipe down sticky soda pop. Joe would fall asleep, anyway.”

She paused long enough to ring up another gas customer, Tate from the feed store with his delivery truck. She’d  have liked to catch up with him but the three strangers were waiting. She bet the two gals were sisters, they shared that papery skin and those large eyes. The man might be their brother, older, none of their charm. He seemed at odds with himself, big and sort of floppy, like he hadn’t yet grown into himself, couldn’t hide it for all he tried with a nice shirt and pants. They were just curious. Looked okay, polite enough, a little rich for her blood but she wondered who they were, what they were off to California for, anyway.

So many still wanted to go as far west as possible, it seemed. It was discouraging. Not her. Mae Lynn had no desire to leave her store or town. She had never even left Missouri, a fact she emphasized when those passing through inquired.

“You been here long?” the big man asked as he eyed chips and beef jerky. The second woman put her hand through the crook of his arm, then closed her eyes while the fan’s wind rushed over her neck and back. Her hair–light but not white-blond like her sister’s–was in a pony tail that flipped up and around in the draft.

“Yes sir, born and raised in Beauford. A decent small town, top-notch farming land. Own the business with my husband, Joe. He’s in a wheelchair now. Got through the Viet Nam war, then got himself a stroke, go figure.”

“Sorry to hear it,” the man said and she nearly believed him. “Well, I never heard what the first movie was that you saw. I’m a movie buff, you might say, so I’m curious.”

Mae Lynn thought a minute; she’d no desire to recall it. But she’d humor him a nit more. “I tend to forget things that don’t deserve a second thought.”

“How long ago was that?” the man prompted. “Nineteen sixty? Nineteen sixty-five?”

“Sixty-nine, maybe?… It was one of those action features…Joe and Howie liked it….the guy was driving a fast car…oh, he was one homely man, hardly moved his face…”

“Steve McQueen? In Bullitt?”

She closed one eye and looked into the distance, trying to pull the movie it from the past. “That’s it, I think. Fancy, fast cars, Ford–”

“Mustang 390 GT! Charger 440 Magnum!” The first woman had spoken up; her perfectly manicured hand pumped the air hard once. “Yeah!”

The big man looked at her fondly while the sister rolled her eyes.

The trio was driving a spanking new Dodge Charger, an alarming red, so they should know. Mae Lynn also knew something about cars, though Joe was the professional mechanic. Or was. Howie had long ago learned the trade and always had more work than he could manage alone. They’d have to hire someone else soon unless Joe miraculously stood up and jumped right into all the work. Not likely after all this time. She winced at her attitude. Howie was a blessing to them even more in middle-age now.

“I’m Delilah Miner, by the way,” the Mustang enthusiast held out her hand, “and this is Marietta, my older sister, and my fiancé, Sam Harking. This has been very interesting”–she looked at the name tag on the woman’s large bust as she squeezed her hand gently–“Mae Lynn. But I’m more than a little wondering why you dislike the Sunset Drive-In so much.”

“I don’t know. It does bring us more business. The last twenty-five years have been good to my family…”

She turned toward the garage where she heard Joe and Howie loudly differing on mechanical problems and repair costs. How would those sleek young adults even know what such a drive-in  meant back then? What it could do to people, a town? “Why do you say that, anyway–that I hate it?”

Delilah raised one feathery eyebrow. “Oh, I didn’t say you hated it. That’s a very strong word for a simple outdoor movie theater. Maybe you are…religious? I don’t meant to offend you.”

“Maybe we should move on, Sis.” Marietta placed her hand on the other woman’s arm and left it there, giving her a warning look.

“Yes, time to head out, honey,” Sam agreed, and picked beef jerky, lay two packages on the counter, then hurried over to the cooler to get another orange soda pop. “You ladies want anything more?” he added as he came back.

“We’re good. Come on, Delilah. Nice meeting you, Mae Lynn. You have a nice place.”

They went out to their fiery fine car, chatting with and letting Howie get in and check it out.

But Mae Lynn saw Delilah’s eyes widen with a hungry look, a big curiosity getting the better of her. She thought she might tell her more… if she got her own questions answered. Why not? They’d never see each other again. People came and went all the time that Mae Lynn wished she had talked to even more. But it was business, not a social occasion, Joe reminded her with irritation if she talked too loud or much. He didn’t like people taking up big amounts of time and space (unless it brought income) since he returned from the war; less so since he’d suffered the stroke at forty-nine.

She tried to be patient but the best things about her work were the new and interesting people. The rest of her labor was numbers, which were fine on their own, but they couldn’t hold a conversation worth a damn–and neither, God help them both, could Joe. She felt like she had actually been somewhere else after folks talked with her. Mae Lynn learned things. She found out about other states, the weather, their cities and differing ways. How other people felt about the day or night, how they managed. All she had to do was be herself and ask a few questions. She got skills out of it, like how to calm someone down if he felt he’d been gypped out of a couple dollars on gas or how to make someone smile if she was wrestling with a cranky child. With Joe, anything might happen, but often nothing much or very different, after all. Which could be good. Or could get on her last thin nerve. His silence was a deep reservoir that went dry long ago. Mae Lynn waited, still holding out for hope, and meanwhile chatted up customers.

Mae Lynn leaned on the counter and looked straight into Delilah’s quick, sly blue eyes. The cornflower color had changed to a swampy blue in a shadow cast by passing clouds.

“I’ll tell you what. You let me in on what’s in California and I’ll share why the Sunset Drive In drives me crazy as a buggered loon.”

Delilah’s laughter spilled into the room like silver spangles, her chin up, her open mouth showing off bright, expensive teeth. Then she leaned her elbows on the counter, too, her face a few inches from Mae Lynn’s. She joined in their conspiratorial exchange.

“Why, the movies, of course!” She felt Mae Lynn shrink back, saw her face go a shade paler, then tighten. But the woman had asked. “Sam is a young and brilliant up and coming producer. I’m a stage actress ready to try the big screen. Marietta is a talent agent–mine, but also others’. We thought it’d be a hoot to drive out to LA in Sam’s newest car, or at least for a few days. Marietta and I might catch a plane in Vegas, we’ll see. But we have our ducks in a row so we’re good to go. Sam also likes this locale for another project he’s in talks over.” She considered the soft featured, fine-lined face of the person before her. How still she had become. “So I naturally wondered about the drive-in… why you hold a grudge against it.”

Mae Lynn felt hot, too hot, and weak. She sat on her stool, pulled off her scarf and ran her fingers through grey and brown curls, letting the fan’s wind toss and turn them, cool her neck.

“Okay, I’m fine,” she said.

“You want water?” Delilah tentatively asked, baffled. “Look, we can just drop this.”

“Yes, water would help.”

Mae Lynn smoothed her forehead and retied her scarf, then took the bottled water and drank. She put it on the counter and pressed her steaming palms on the scratched greenish glass counter.

“Candace, it’s about her, you see. My daughter. She had such a thing about movies, said they changed everything, even maybe the world, she kept on and on about it. Drove Joe and me near up a tree, back down and around, kept us awake with worry. As if they were like some magic potion, they were so powerful to her, maybe even like a religious experience to her, because she stopped doing much of anything but reading about them, sneaking out to see them even when we made it clear: no more. It was so easy, the drive-in just a fast walk down the road, meeting up with friends and then we couldn’t find her in that crowd, so why even try? It was everything to her.”

Delilah felt confused, then a small horror crept up her chest and she fought it off. “But, wait, they’re just stories, that’s all, tales brought to a big screen rather than flimsy pages of books. They come alive with good acting, right costumes, great scenery–the movie projector gives it all to us–”

Mae Lynn slapped the counter top once. Silence, then her voice was so soft beneath the noise of cars and trucks whizzing by and the fan’s whir that Delilah had to lean close in. She could hear Sam laughing and it tugged at her. She wished she had not said one thing.

Mae Lynn seemed suspended in time a moment. Joe felt her and rolled his wheelchair around the bumper of a VW van and peered at the women, then rolled away. Let his wife be, she was good at managing whatever it was, she’d find him if need be.

“No. They take away, they don’t add one blasted useful thing. How many boys are drawn to battle by war movies? How many girls are drawn to some wild idea of love that’s just no good? How many people are given the wrong idea about life just because they get lost in a moment, that bigger-than-life hour or two that they think offers something more important than what they already have? Then nothing else can compare, can it? Nothing is as thrilling as that made up nonsense…and real life looks too damn hard. It is hard. It takes stubbornness and, oh, I don’t know.”

It was like she’d run out of steam. Mae Lynn sat back and held up her hands in surrender. She had nothing more to say to her.

Delilah felt her spine tingle all the way to her brain. This ordinary woman was amazing, such energy pulsed in every word, look, pause. She had seen the hunched, somber man in the wheelchair and guessed he was her husband, and the young man, her son, covered in grease, a good whistler, a shyness in his eyes when he glanced Delilah’s way. Her family leaned on her and they loved her.

But Mae Lynn hurt beneath the banter and the talk. She had been hurt badly and so had her family.

“She’s gone, isn’t she? How did she….pass?”

“What? No, no, Candace is alive…as far as I know as of last month she’s still kickin’!”

But Mae Lynn closed her eyes against the sizzle of pain in her heart, willed herself to sit still and strong. What did this awfully shiny Delilah know? What could she understand of her one and only gullible, lively daughter, of her forlorn husband, their smart-as-a-whip son now trapped here with them in their difficult need? And her good gas station business, how much it meant to her–to them–despite the other hard facts. Because of them.

“Oh! I thought she…you spoke of her as in the past. So it had to be the movies that made things happen, right? She felt dissatisfied and restless, they filled her up with such dreams and so Candace up and left the family, Beauford, all that you care for…is that it?”

Mae Lynn held her breath. She held her tongue. When her heart settled and began to hum again, she looked at the other woman. There was one tear trickling down her cheek. Was it a true tear? Perhaps. It touched her. Delilah wiped it away.

“Mae Lynn, I’m sorry we both had to go. That we fell in love with those damned movies and left our mothers, our families behind. But everyone needs to follow a dream!”

“Sure, I know.” Maybe she really didn’t know. This was her true life, this keeping things moving along. What mattered was her family. And this little business.

“If I meet anyone named Candace…”

“Candace Jarrett–”

“I’ll tell her you and I met. Help her if I can, I promise.”

“Sure, sure.” She smiled tiredly at Delilah. A lovely young woman, but there was work to be done.

Sam laid on the horn once. They were impatient to get to LA. Or first, Las Vegas. Somewhere even farther away.

“I have to go Mae Lynn but thanks for talking with me.”

“Thanks for telling me some of your story, Delilah.”

The young woman came behind the counter and suddenly threw her arms around her. She could smell the metallic sharpness of the garage, tang of sweat, ancient rich dirt, sweet hay. Her strength was like the earth’s and she wanted it to  be in her some day, too.

Mae Lynn could feel Delilah’s fears flitting about like ghosts playing tag and she knew it wasn’t easy on her. Such deep hopes and her own private aches were taking root in blood and bones, as happened with all as time went on. She patted the-movie-star-in-the-making on her tender, bony back, then let go. Mae Lynn smiled into her limpid, vulnerable eyes and turned away.

The Charger fired up and squealed out of the station as a cranky old truck lumbered in. Mae Lynn stood up and straightened her blouse, tucked a stray grey curl back under the scarf, wagged her hand in a cheery greeting as she walked out to the pumps.

All That May Yet Remain

life-in-detroit-in-the-1970s-8 by Dave Jordano
life-in-detroit-in-the-1970s by Dave Jordano

In this case, seeing is not quite believing. He first insists it is a mistake, his mother’s name co-opted from that of a bystander, perhaps, by a rookie staff reporter. Ace scans the half-column article in the section “Out and About” that explored a neighborhood summer festival. There was a battle of the bands and one rock band on the rise, Harry and the Hurons, was headlining that date. A few folks listening to the music were briefly interviewed.

“We came for cheap drinks and hot dogs but, yeah, the boys in the bands first, right girls?” Ellen Smalley of Troy, laughed.

She brought two friends along to enjoy free entertainment and a fun afternoon in the hot July sun. Seated with Miss Smalley, center, is Bethany Janson, left, also of Troy and Candy Lister, right, of Detroit. 

When could that have been, nineteen seventy-what? She wouldn’t have met their dad by then, would she? He smooths the paper on the kitchen table and looks up at Deanna.

“You found this stuck behind dad’s old tool box by the work table?”

He has stopped by after her phone call and a cunning invitation to come over by enticing him with: “I found a surprise about mom, maybe both parents.” She stirs sugar into his coffee mug and sets it down with a thump, steaming liquid splashing over the edge. He jerks his hand away and is about to say something but she is filling her own mug.

“It was actually in a worn cardboard accordion file behind the tool box on a shelf. There are lots of things in there. I didn’t look too  much. It felt…weird, like I had stumbled on private things.”

“Well, you did. We never saw this. What else did you find?”

Deanna pulls out the chair and settles into it like a yellow cloud as her bulky sweater envelops her frame. He squints closer at the picture, then back at Deanna. He examines the newspaper’s capture of the woman’s eyes and eyebrows, the shape of jaw and chin. That hair. The mouth with barest pout.  The similarity of that mouth and his sister’s registers as a tiny twinge under his breastbone but it still isn’t definitive.

“Oh, a few other regular pictures, a couple of dad playing ball in college, I think. An early certificate of recognition for his work at the plastics lab. Other stuff, I don’t know. What do you think of the newspaper picture, though?”

It doesn’t so much strike him as their mother. “More like a relative, like family we knew but hardly talked to, lived off Third Street near the lumber store, our second or third cousins.” He blows across the coffee’s surface. “Last time I heard from them was…don’t even know.”

“It was at dad’s funeral, going on eight years now.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

He looks around the spacious off-white, rectangular room. The same type of (or were they the same ones?) blue and white checkered curtains have hung here since he left for college–the  last time it was re-done. He has returned for Christmas a few times. And their dad’s funeral. The white-painted pine table is still sturdy and takes up a length of wall beneath a large bay window in the kitchen. He used to make a breakfast mess here, get unsolicited advice, practice a speech for school, fight with his sister, get kissed by his mother on the forehead, share Sunday comics with his dad and get smacked across the back of his head when he didn’t mind his manners. All right here, a time so long passed.

“I never heard her talk about either of these girls, though. This was a long time ago, even before dad, I suspect.” Deanna seems upset by the mystery.

He finds it a curiosity to survey and put in place on a timeline.

“But he kept it a lifetime for some good reason.”

“Maybe he met her that very day.” She smiles to herself more than at Ace, as if savoring the romance of such a possibility. “But she is so lovely here, isn’t she? I mean, so full-bodied and young. Man, so different…”

“If it’s even her! I’d ask her sometime when you two are sipping a glass of wine and watching one of your shows. Make it kind of casual, be nice so she isn’t unhappy you snooped around out there.”

Ace has other things to do but he had been in town more than a week without calling them or stopping over. Thus, he feels obligated to hang out. In three weeks he is to begin what he hopes is a new chapter, no longer a lab tech like his dad was before he rose to lab manager and then headed up some projects. No, Ace is now a bona fide earth sciences teacher. He wants to look up a couple old friends, get his apartment in shape. Locate the new, up and coming establishments for dining and drinking.

He feels a shade guilty about his anticipation. A shadow drapes over Deanna’s face like a veil, then it moves, exposing fine lines and eyes bloodshot from too much computer work. She was married ten years but now is back at their parents’ three bedroom house. It has no spacious back yard to redeem its ordinariness. When he walked through earlier he paused at the back door. The cement patio looks as if it’s about to cave under its charmlessness, giving in to a mob of dandelions and cracks that snake their way to the screen door. He might have to do something about this. But he didn’t return to become a big part of their lives. He doubts they want that, either. Too much time has passed between them, a swift river, taking bits and pieces of them to other destinations.

“The thing I can’t get over is how much rounder she is. It makes her look sweet. I mean, she has always had so many edges…She looks a little sad, though, don’t you think? I wonder what that Ellen girl is telling her?”

“I think you should put it back. Unless you want to unleash mom’s wrath. But I’d like the whole story, too. It might be nothing more that a random picture for the paper that dad found and liked a lot. Her youth and all.”

Deanna pushes back her dark straight hair and looks at him a full three seconds before she asks, “Why are you back here, Ace? In Detroit area? You vowed never to return. I didn’t expect it.”

“Ditto, kid, you, either.”

Her cheeky face starts to crumple at his sharpness but she has never been one to go down the first strike so she straightens her back, making her good-sized frame appear larger. Ace stifles a grin; it is a bit like old times. He leans forward.

She folds her arms across her chest. “Well, divorce has side effects, like costing too much money. Impacting state of mind. I have my sanity overall and I have my legal assistant job. I’ll be out of this house in a year or less. What’s your excuse?”

He leans back and balances on the back two legs like he used to, even though it’s hard to not teeter. “I always wanted to teach, I just never made a big thing of it since I seemed destined to be a lab rat all my life, too. But I did youth volunteer work in Philly and I like high school kids, how their minds work. So I look forward to sharing ideas and knowledge they don’t have.”

Deanna’s laughter explodes, then subsides. “I can just see it! You like to have such mastery over things. But kids aren’t controllable like experiments and processes in a sanitized environment.”

“I’m giving it a real try.” He wants to challenge her, inform her of his excellent skills but he holds steady. They are both smart enough; they both want better, even at forty and forty-five. “I want to succeed–so I will.”

She nods and lazily stretches. Then her face hovers once more over the picture of their mother who has come from way back of their dad’s tool box to puzzle them.

“Just who was she, this young woman? I have never seen a picture of her this age. In fact, very few before she married dad. She always says they got lost during moves.”

“I can’t find our mother there, really.” He’s about over this moody nonsense. He lets the two legs thud onto the vinyl flooring. “She looks like someone who really thinks before she speaks, who has all the time in the world to do things but she’s figuring it all out first. Not really like mom.”

“Mom has always lived minute to minute, especially since dad passed. She really does think on her feet–her work demands that.” She holds the paper between them so they can both see it. “Can’t you see it, hope still filling her up with dreams? Like she is someone you want to hug close.”

It takes him by surprise, the hurt of this truthful asssessment, or the lack of those qualities in her. Their mother full of affection and tender dreams? She hasn’t shown them so much of that. Love, it was –is–there. Efficient and hard-working, a devoted partner for their demanding, bright father. A reliable, mostly reasonable mother who has also had a habit of grinding in occasional spiky words. Yes, she looked more open then. Maybe vulnerable. Pensive as the shutter closed. A moment in a life they did not share with her.

He thinks he would like a copy. And then Deanna should put it back and leave it alone.

They both freeze as they hear her step hard on the wooden porch steps, then turn the door knob. Deanna and Ace hold each other’s eyes a fraction of a moment as if to hang on to this frail thread they are reweaving. Before it is frayed again.

Bethany Janson Fishel’s home-dyed dark head pops in, a skimpy wave escaping from her wide-brimmed felt hat and falling forward. Her arms are around two grocery bags. “Who parked their big ole silver truck in my driveway, Dee? I had to park out front!”

Ace stands up first, then Deanna rushes forward to get the bags, talking as she moves.

“Mom, it’s Ace here, he’s moving back! Take off your coat and sit down. I’ll get these.”

Their mother stops and turns, hands in mid-air as they’re emptied of supplies, her direct gaze made fierce by scrunched brows. He comes forward four steps and holds out his hands.

After shrugging off the coat onto a living room chair, she’s pushing up her sweater sleeves as if getting ready to attack more work or start a “play” fight. “Arnold, you’ve decided to come around. There must be news. Well!”

He winces at his birth name. She’s skinny as ever, a narrow woman with a hunch in the shoulders. She strides over as if she hasn’t been on her feet all day. Takes his broad palms into her chilled, thin ones. There is a slight squeeze, then she lets go.

“You got that new job?”

“I did.”

“That’s good. Better to be working then not. You’ll have some challenges with such a big change, not the least of which are the teen-agers!” She follows after Deanna and the bags, then starts to unload them. “Staying for dinner?”

“Not sure.”

Deanna waits for direction, then sits down. “I say stay.”

“Yes, Arnold, catch us up. I doubt we’ll see you for another three or four months so let’s do this while we have a chance.”

“Mom, it’s been ‘Ace’ since eleventh grade. As you know. And that’s a heck of a way to comment on my new job–and coming to visit you two before I’m even all moved in.”

“Now, never mind. Where will you be living?”

“Over in Royal Oak, not far from Birmingham. Small but newer one bedroom apartment.”

She clamps hands on hips, squares her shoulders. The blue hospital uniform is baggy on her. It startles him to take in the fact that she’s still a warhorse of a nurse. Her first job was before he was in school. The same county hospital for the last twenty-five years, almost unheard of loyalty.

“Have to watch the uppity factor over there or you may not cast a shadow on this street without regretting it,” she says in that edgy voice reserved for warnings or corrections. She nearly smiles. “Excuse me a minute while I change my work clothes.”

As soon as their mother leaves the room, Deanna stands close to her brother at the refrigerator. “I forgot to put away the newspaper clipping,” she whispers. “I’m taking it to my room.”

Ace stops her. “No, leave it for me. I want a copy. Put it in my backpack.”

Deanna has trouble with the zippers so he trots over to her in the living room where he left it in an ancient leather chair. The zipper won’t budge. He opens a smaller compartment, rearranges things, takes out a hardback in which to place the clipping.

“What are you squirreling away?” Bethany asks. “Looks like old newspaper.”

Deanna and Ace freeze, the clipping in his hand, her body making an obvious move to block his.

Their mother gestures her aside. “No, I want to see. Is it something you dare not share with your mother? Even better!”

She holds out her hand, like when they were kids and she demanded some small contraband.

They want to deny her access, stuff it into the pocket and lead her into the kitchen. Make pork chops and green beans and a chopped salad. But they know better. Deanna leads the way, sits on the couch, then their mother. Ace last. She turns on the floor lamp. Deanna reaches across, takes the clipping from Ace.

“I found this in dad’s things in the garage. I’m sorry. But I wondered about it so showed it to Ace.”

The newspaper clipping is handed to her. She snags the edge, then holds it close to her eyes. They watch her face but it says nothing. Rather, it says to them “private, keep out”. Her hand trembles the smallest amount. She lays the clipping in her lap, keeps searching the page, her mouth a compressed line from which more lines creep out and down. She’s whittled way down, more than before. Ace sees how old she is, sixty-seven, still working, not able to call it a day. He cannot imagine she can ever die, and then wonders why he has such thoughts. She’s fine, just caught off-guard.

Oak branches rub against the grey siding and cars stop and start on the street. Deanna’s hand is pressed against her chest through the canary yellow sweater. Their mother is so still.

Ace broke the spell. “Mom.”

Deanna grabs his wrist and he leaves it there, her hand proof they are actually back on this too-firm, nubby couch. Together despite their desire to separate from it all long ago.

Bethany Janson Fishel speaks as if she is alone and only the wind has ears.

“My, not even nineteen. That Ellen, what a gossip. Candy…hardly recall. I’m waiting for the rock band to quit playing, the lead singer to come down, sit by me. Harry, love of my life, I suppose.”

Her children are flummoxed. She tries to hide, chin-length hair swinging over her profile.

“Your father was his friend, sound guy who thought he’d go pro. He was hired for the longer piece of the road trip. He fell for me that week, too, but I didn’t know it yet. I had eyes only for Harry Starken.” Her right forefinger taps her chin. “Maybe your dad liked to remember happier moments, before he knew about us.” She pauses, each word a small stone thrown into deep water. “Before Harry died, overdose, cocaine. On the road, me left behind.”

She sucks her lower lip in hard, then lets it go slack.

Deanna’s breath is sucked deep into her. Ace feels his heart hit a rough spot and shift. Their serious father, a wannabe sound guy? Mom, in love with the Hurons’ lead singer? He can’t feature it, but there it is.

Their mother folds the clipping, presses it into Deanna’s hands. Looks them both right in the eyes, her own empty of the old barriers that have strained to keep so much under wraps. Such tenderness and sorrow, lostness and courage. Being found out. More things only she will decipher, unravel long into the coming night.

“His death is why I became a nurse. Your dad and you kids, are why I’ve worked hard so long. Have had some fine times. It all fell together.”

And then she is on her feet and moving into the kitchen, pulling out pans and pots, getting food for dinner, calling them to come help.

Ace stands up with care. He has to make certain he won’t lose balance and steadies his sister, too, whose eyes are wide with astonishment. He links an arm through hers and they join their mother. He suspects the two of them will meet for lunch soon.