Back to Issue 10
by Adrienne Garrison
Tilda brought me a box of my favorite tea from the grocers, sat me down on the swing in the yard, and lifted a tiny glass bottle of Sutter Home out of her bag. “When you called,” she said, “I knew you had no business being alone, not with news like that.”
I forced a laugh. “Tilda, he’s getting married, not going to war, for heaven’s sake,” I replied, shaking my head no at the wine. “It was harder sending him off to school. Anyway, it’s been seven years since he left home, and a family is what I’ve always wanted for him.” I folded my hands over those hideous spots, remembering how one morning I woke up with my mother’s hands attached to my wrists. “I met her when I visited for Christmas. Very nice girl.” Her family often invited Kyle over for an elaborate dinner or an afternoon at the country club, black cars lined up by valets. Everything Kyle had imagined for himself at fifteen, pressing wrinkles from his button-down before school.
“From the city?” Tilda asked. “You said she doesn’t even drive?”
“From the suburbs.” I settled into the cushion, letting the swing rock me. “She works in the city, so she’s never had to drive. A school teacher.”
Tilda pressed her lips together and peered across the road into the bean field, where cicadas piped up as the ice melted in our glasses. She wrapped her hand around my wrist and squeezed.
One August afternoon before the wedding, Kyle called to say that a local clinic would pay off his student loans if he committed to rural practice for five years.
“I’m driving down next weekend to interview with the medical director, but they’re desperate for help. It’s a pretty sure thing.”
Five years, I thought.
“So, can we stay with you for a few months?” he asked. “Until we find something closer to the hospital?” I was cutting corn off the cob to freeze, and had to pinch the phone to my ear with my shoulder.
“I can do anything for five years, Mom,” he said. “Anything. Then, when the time’s up, we’ll move somewhere for my residency.”
I wiped my hands on the dishtowel. Out the window, the cedar fence was going gray. Tiger lilies pushed against the fence posts, their heavy heads bobbing yes in the breeze. “What does Ruth think?”
“She can’t wait. I’ve been telling her all about the farm. She’s always wanted to live on one.”
“She has?” I stared at the barn leaning to one side. It was time to get the thing down before it collapsed altogether, though Raymond would’ve hated to see all that good timber hauled away to be stripped and sold for a small fortune.
“So what do you think? Can we stay with you this weekend while I visit the clinic?”
“Honey, you know you’re always welcome home.”
With a full garment bag draped across the rear seat, I wheeled into VanVactor’s to fill up the gas tank and wash the car before beginning the three-hour drive northward to Chicago for the wedding. I watched as the Wilson boy worked the pump. He handed me a gold car wash coin, and I entered the queue, jabbing at the little box and switching into neutral while the track carried the Buick forward. I clutched the wheel as the automatic system started up, and remembered how I had scolded Raymond for taking Kyle through three times in a row just to watch the soapy tentacles slop and whap across the windshield.
The first two hours I spent peacefully ensconced between cornfields even flatter than the ones around home. And then, as if in a time warp, there I was on Interstate 80, a super-sized billboard for a local strip club floating in the sky. I veered slightly left, switched off the news station, and leaned forward over the steering wheel, angry travelers heavy on their horns as they passed me, an old country woman on her way to a rehearsal dinner.
The directions I’d written out led to a bed and breakfast on a tree-lined street in Orland Park. “Just any motel close by, Kyle. That’s just fine,” I had said. Kyle insisted on making a reservation for me somewhere after I’d declined an invitation to stay with Ruth’s parents, but I was uneasy with his provision for me, even in this small way. I understood by the sheer distance from the freeway that this was not a place accustomed to economy. Still, I was warmly greeted, and I had allowed myself plenty of time to change and make my way to the church.
Kyle seemed taller in his sports jacket. He placed his hands lightly on my elbows and leaned in to kiss my forehead while I pressed a tissue to my mouth. I stepped back and brushed a few invisible flecks from the planes of his shoulders. “That traffic took months off my life,” I said. “And how could you put me in such a fussy place?”
Ruth appeared with a small flock of women bearing baskets and flower arrangements. Seeing me, she found her way to us and kissed my cheek.
“Mom was just telling me how much she loves the B&B,” Kyle said, pulling Ruth closer and kissing her hair. He raised an eyebrow and lifted the corners of his mouth to remind me to behave myself, as Raymond would surely have done in the car on the way there.
“Oh, yes,” I said, opening the clip on my earring and moving it back slightly. “Lovely.”
The day dawned impossibly bright through the gingham curtains, and robins seemed to have been commissioned to announce the provenance of the day. So I woke up early, showered with the palm-sized bar of rose soap and tried not to think about the day of my own marriage, remembering how Raymond had rented a room in the student union at Purdue, where he studied, and, following the reception, how I’d stood in the window as he carefully unfastened the five dozen hooks on the back of my gown.
“What are you thinking about?” he’d asked, that day and every other day for thirty-one years.
“Nothing,” I’d said, and remembered even now how I’d been unable to look away from the shaded patch of ground below, studded with half-worn limestone markers.
At the church, I hovered near the guest book, watching for any long-lost cousins who might sweep in for Kyle on this day. As the music began, he escorted me to the front left pew, the bride’s side bursting with friends and family in tailored suits and dresses, our party rag-tag and sparse, assembled behind me. At the last minute, a band of young men shuffled in, their pallor and exhaustion matched by the groomsmen at Kyle’s side marked them as fellow medical students. And yet Kyle’s cheeks were ruddy, and his eyes surveying the church as though all might be right in the world.
The ceremony proceeded with some standing and sitting, a sort of blur punctuated by the lighting of candles and the passing of rings. The bridesmaids, arranged from tallest to shortest, wore turquoise taffeta with sweetheart necklines, teardrop diamond earrings nearly skimming the tops of their over-puffed sleeves. I had never felt so alone, and afterward, at the reception, I couldn’t find a thing to say beyond those few whispers to myself in the lull between the passed plates. Nor could I meet Kyle’s gaze during our one and only dance of the evening. At the end of the night, Ruth sent the unwrapped gifts back with her mother for storage, held a list in her hand, and waved as they drove away.
“Thank you notes,” she said to me, as if I’d asked.
The next week, after the honeymoon, they moved in upstairs. I’d closed it off five years earlier to save on heating. I put a hot plate on the Oak hutch, plus a small wastebasket in every room, and installed a full-length mirror behind the closet door. When she came down, Ruth told me it would be perfect, “Very homey,” as she said.
Kyle drove to the clinic in Westboro the next day, and, within a few weeks, it became clear that the hospital had gotten the better end of the deal. While I had my garden to close up for winter, and meals to deliver to the senior citizens, and choir practice, I could see the days stretching long for Ruth. Sometimes she rode into town with me to the library, and where I’d pick her up after my errands. One day she walked from there all the way to the elementary school to inquire about a teaching position.
“I’ll be able to substitute even though I haven’t gotten my Indiana teaching license yet,” she said over dinner, shrugging off Kyle’s litany of questions. “And possibly get a classroom of my own next year if there’s an opening. They’re even arranging for me to be picked up by the school bus each morning, so I won’t need to trouble you for a ride.” When she met my eyes, I thought again how like a girl she still was.
“It’s never any trouble, Ruth. But I’m happy you’ve found something.”
Kyle shook his head at his wife, marveling. “Taking the bus to school,” he said. “All grown up.”
Frost came with enough persistence to force down any leaves that still remained, and color drained away from the world. It’s no surprise anymore how fast the seasons desert us, never pausing to look back, and it’s exactly in this same way that a boy becomes a man. One evening, you smooth the hair back from his forehead, place a hand on his rounded cheek, and when he wakes, the face is no longer soft, but angular. A jaw cleaves out, a new topography along the throat, the chin superior. And later, as you kiss him goodbye, you find you must lift your heels ever so slightly, and each day after he firms up like granite, rises higher above you, substantial and unfamiliar, something new entirely.
Of an evening, Kyle sat on the sofa, Ruth tucked beneath his arm. I’d glance away, as though I’d intruded upon a couple in the park. They never seemed to notice my hurried steps from the front gate up the walk, returning at dusk from choir practice. Inside, the pans were already rinsed and drying on a towel, and that lingering smell of garlic. Their intimacy grew in my absence like moss filling the cracks of the sidewalk. I called Tilda, said I’d join her for BINGO at the Catholic church on Wednesdays.
“What?” she said. “I’ve been asking you for twelve years!”
Ruth asked if I’d teach her to knit. For their wedding, I’d given them an afghan my mother had made, cream-colored. Kyle had opened it, running his hand along its bumps and whorls, turning the edges over until he discovered the tag: Made with love, Edna Mae.
“My grandma,” he’d said to Ruth.
She took it from him, refolded it slowly, as though reading braille in the rows. “It’s beautiful,” she said, and later, when I ascended the stairs to empty the wastebaskets, I saw it draped over their bed, bright against the walnut footboard.
Weeks later, when she knocked on the door to my sitting room, eyes lingering on my plastic needles, I explained that the blanket was crocheted.
“I never learned,” I said, relieved to find I had nothing more to offer her.
“But could you teach me to knit anyway?”
I’ve never been any kind of teacher. The things I do, I can’t say how, but I nodded nonetheless, and said, “I can try.”
She thanked me with such an excess of enthusiasm, I sent the next five stitches so backward I had to pull out three rows to fix it.
One morning I entered the kitchen to find my coffee maker had been replaced by a version boxy and black, a dozen buttons at least. “What the devil?”
“I hope you don’t mind!” Ruth said, as if she’d been waiting. “Another wedding gift. It brews ten cups, and I thought, well, with all three of us here, we might like to make it this way.” Her eyes searched mine. “I can show you how it works,” she said, and took down a foil bag of coffee beans, slid them into one side, and ground them up.
I waited for the racket to stop, then searched the cupboards. “And my coffee pot went where, then?”
“It’s right here, behind the crockpot.”
“And the Folgers?”
“Above the fridge,” she said, and reached up to get it, her cheeks bright pink. “Kyle and I just… we’ve gotten used to a dark roast, and…”
I steeled myself. This was only week five. “Don’t you worry one bit about it. I’ll just have mine my way, and you can have yours your way.” I patted her arm. “Now, tell me what class you’re with today?”
“Third grade,” she smiled weakly. “My favorite.”
I kept on with the teaching questions as I set about filling my coffee pot with water, and after a few minutes, we sat down, our cups full, and the tension smoothed over.
“Tell me something about Kyle as a baby,” Ruth said.
She was standing next to me drying the dishes with a towel, even though I’d insisted it was fine to let them dry in the rack.
“He was a happy boy. Always happy,” I said, and imagined him sprinting out of the bathroom, fast as his tiny legs could take him, thrilled with his own nakedness. I remembered how he’d cried when his first tooth came out in an ear of corn, afraid he was turning toothless like his Papaw.
Ruth moved a stack of plates into the cupboard, and I opened the drain, dried my hands.
“Day he was born, Raymond came to the hospital with a tiny bear, black and white like a panda.” I leaned against the counter. “That boy didn’t make it one night that whole first year without waking up, but a short while after his birthday, Raymond left town for a trade show, and I came down with a head cold. The medicine knocked me out, and I didn’t wake until near ten, the sun blinding me, not a sound in the house.” I ran the rag around the edge of the sink again. “I just knew something terrible had happened and hurried into the nursery, and there he was, arm tight around that bear, just smiling up at me.” I glanced at Ruth, who’d stopped drying to listen. “Of course his diaper had leaked all the way through, but after that, he met that bear every night like a lost friend, slept from sunset to sunrise, never so much as a peep.”
I refolded the towel and threaded it through the cupboard handle. “Such a good, good boy.”
I stayed under the covers for as long as I could after the coffee maker woke me, its high whine enough to alert the dogs five counties over. I swung my feet out of bed and into my slippers, pulling the covers tight to the pillows.
Ruth was standing at the sink, mug halfway to her lips. Out the window, a doe had stretched her neck over the chicken wire and was nibbling my late corn.
I reached across the sink and rapped on the glass. “No you don’t!” I shouted. A fawn snapped its head up, its small eyes lifting just above its mother’s back. The doe set off slowly across the yard, her fawn in tow.
I turned back to Ruth. “Damn things,” I said.
She blinked her wide eyes and opened her mouth as though to speak.
“Bambi?” I said, and shook my head. “Don’t believe that nonsense for a second.”
She glanced down at her mug. “Coffee?” she offered.
I shrugged. “Pour me a cup. I’ll get the milk,” I said, a compromise. I’d never intended to get so old and set in my ways, but at some point I’d realized the only surprises ahead were endings.
The coffee was bitter, way too strong, but still, I nodded my appreciation as Kyle shuffled into the kitchen, hair askew. “Morning,” he said, the same sleepy grin that I’d loved when he wore his favorite dinosaur pajamas mended over and over at the toe.
“What is it?” he said, reading Ruth’s expression.
“Nothing,” she whispered, her back to me, then set her mug in the sink and went into the bathroom. No cure for a bleeding heart like that. And how like Kyle to choose a sensitive one.
“What time did you get in last night?” I asked.
“A little past two,” he said, and lifted himself onto the counter, heels bouncing against the cereal cupboard. “Delivered my first baby.”
“Is that so?” I said. “And? What’d you think?”
He stared into his mug for a moment, then said, “Slippery.”
I laughed, caught sight of his expression again, and laughed even harder, steadying myself on the counter, that burn of tenderness so beautiful I almost wept. He tilted his head at me, worried, and I thought, all right, okay, try to calm down.
“Just think, you were the first one to touch that child’s life.” I watched him wrinkle his nose. “You witnessed a miracle,” I said, nodding at him.
He shook his head and put his coffee down to wrap his long arms around me. Hours later, in the garden, I could still feel his sternum hard against my cheekbone.
There are few reasons to hear a middle-of-the-night knock on the door. The very sound a promise of pain. I called Ruth’s name from the other side of her door. Called again across the distance of wood and air, curled my hand into a fist, and, bringing it up to knock, she opened her door.
“Who was that?” she asked.
“The sheriff,” I said.
“The sheriff?” She blinked at me, wrapping her arms around herself.
“Kyle. An accident.” Breathing was an effort, the mechanics of my body in chaos. “The bridge.”
She clawed at my arms, moving past me into the hallway, trying to drag me along. “Ruth, no, listen to me,” I said, taking her hand and leading her back to the bed.
She stood up again, moving toward the door, and said, “Can the sheriff drive us to the hospital? Kyle’s okay?”
My head shook back and forth, and she froze. “Gone,” I said.
She drew a robe around her and ran down the stairs, calling the sheriff back up the walk, she pleaded and pleaded with him, her cries a broadcast in the night.
At the hospital, I pressed my lips to his forehead, stroked his hand with my fingertips, then left the two of them alone. I kept one shoulder against the wall to steady myself down the hallway and into a chair. Minutes or hours passed. A man’s voice.
“Did you know that doctor? The one from the wreck?”
A young man stood over me.
“Are you related to him?”
My mouth dry, empty, my lungs squeezed, I managed, “His mother.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said, bouncing in front of me with a newborn baby, a small wad of pink, in the crook of his arm, the room harshly bright.
“We were coming from the other direction,” his voice barely loud enough to hear. “On our way home. Across the bridge, and he was already spinning.” He cleared his throat. “I’d been driving so slow that Nina – that’s my wife – she said it would take us forever to make it home, but it was icy, and I couldn’t take any chances.”
“He spun right past us, almost clipping us,” he said, choking. “Head-on into the guardrail.”
Then he crumpled, as if from some great height, onto the seat next to me.
“When I went to the window, I knew right away it was him. A face I could never forget.”
I turned to look at him then, his fingers spanning the length of the child’s spine.
“He delivered her.”
I nodded, dry now of tears and feeling, a husk. I reached a hand out to touch the child. “Beautiful,” I said.
“Nina saw a deer run past,” he continued. “We think he swerved to avoid hitting it.”
From the bureau, I took the lilac sweater, pearl beads along the neckline. Women wear pearls to nice places, Kyle told me, after I’d unwrapped it one Christmas.
From Raymond, a sterling silver locket, no picture inside. I’d just never gotten around to it. Black nylons, black skirt, black pumps. I threaded my arms through the sleeves and pulled it across my shoulders, a bit tight now, a reminder that I was no longer the shape I’d been, that my grief had bent and twisted me in a way not difficult to measure.
Tilda was keeping vigil, never letting me out of her sight for more than a few minutes. I couldn’t meet her eyes as I shut the bedroom door behind me. In the hall mirror, she pinned a corsage on me, as though I were headed to a dance.
“Be brave,” she said.
At the funeral, Ruth’s family tucked into the third row. As sparse as our relatives had been at their wedding, most of Troy assembled to pay their respects.
After the burial, we gathered for a meal in the fellowship hall, the Ladies Aid portioning out sheet cake and fried chicken onto plastic plates, watered-down lemonade, unsweetened tea. The efficiency of mourning. My family ambled up to Ruth one by one until her parents angled themselves toward her from either side, murmuring. Finally, she stood to leave.
Our eyes met, and I nodded. I’d seen how she’d packed their room, Kyle’s things most likely nestled in the suitcase alongside her own. She came to me, smelling faintly of lilies as she touched her cheek against mine.
She took the train down to visit me at Easter, “They’re hard-pressed to find substitutes around here,” she said, then she hauled an overlarge suitcase up the stairs and into their bedroom.
She stood in the second pew for the Sunday service, moving her mouth to the words of “Old Rugged Cross”, her throat white and still. I watched from behind the sheet music at the piano, grateful my fingers had memories of their own. Tilda’s eyes flicked from Ruth to me and back, her face tinted red from the stained glass, and I hoped she wouldn’t keep that up through the luncheon.
Outside, rain, though Ruth insisted on going to the cemetery, the heels of her black pumps sticking in the mud. She stood at the grave so long, I walked back to the car and cranked up the heat. She shivered the whole way back to the house.
Next morning, she was gone again, her things still tucked into the drawers of the hutch as if she’d return any moment.
I’d heard the phone ringing from where I worked in the garden and let the call go to the answering machine. It kept on, though, so I made my way inside to answer it.
“We need you to come on into the school, Miss Everly. It’s about Ruth. You’ll see when you get here.”
When I turned into the lot, the school secretary waved me toward the entrance, the long yellow bus still parked where it had unloaded the children an hour earlier. I shut off the ignition and stepped out of the car, hardly remembering how I’d gotten there, why I’d come.
“She won’t come out, Miss Everly,” she said, and motioned through the door of the bus. “We felt it best to call you.”
I took the tall step up, lifted my glasses onto my head, and, standing there at the front, saw no sign of Ruth. I touched the top of each vinyl seat as I walked down the aisle, and, finding her curled up halfway back and staring out the window, I sat down beside her.
“Too soon to be back to work, Ruth,” I said, noting the pink gone from her cheeks and lips. She seemed more like a girl than a nearly-thirty-year-old woman, except for the grief etched like years into her skin.
“Five months,” she said.
“I’m sure it was easier for you to be with your family,” I said. I knew it had to be true, it was easier for me for her to be with her family. Much easier.
“It was, almost.” She placed her feet on the floor, leaned forward, so the top of her head rested against the seat in front of her. “That’s the problem.” She turned her head towards me. “We were building a life together.”
Outside, the recess bell dinged, children already pouring out onto the playground. “Someday, you’ll build something new.”
She sat up. “Will I?”
I searched her gaze. If she meant Raymond, that was something else altogether. Yes, we’d made a life together, but he’d provided me with enough to stay comfortably alone.
“Let’s get you back to the house,” I said, and she took my hand and let me lead her from the bus, but at the bottom of the stairs, she dropped to the pavement. I glanced at the secretary, and the two of us lifted and held her up, our steps heavy as we made our way to the car.
I would call her mother, collect her things. Ruth was in no state to stay here; maybe she even needed medical help. Her mother would surely meet us halfway.
“We’ll gather your belongings and get you back to your family.”
She rested her head against the window, empty fields with fence lines like stitches in a quilt.
“No,” she said, and lifted her head, placed her hand over mine on the gearshift. “Don’t send me away.”
“Send you away? There’s nothing left for you here, Ruth.” I withdrew my hand. “It’s time to go back to your people.”
At the house, I wrestled with the chicken wire around the garden that had collapsed from the snow, while Ruth packed her things and called her mother. I refused to look up at the window. Late March and still cold enough to drive slivers of pain into my knuckles, my knees. Struggling with the wire clippers, I noticed the car at the gate.
“’Lo, there!” called a small, bundled-up child as he hurried up the sidewalk and out to the garden.
“Can I give this to Mrs. Everly?” he said, holding out a roll of paper and tugging the scarf down from his mouth.“ My buddy Jay said she rode the bus this morning, but we didn’t see her at school. I drew this during recess when they kept me in,” he said, and shrugged. “Mom said I could give it to her. Is she here?”
I took the gift from him and got down on one knee to smooth it out over my leg. The boy was no artist; globular heads with oversized eyes and ears filled the picture.
“Why is this person wearing so many hats?” I asked.
He frowned, impatient. “That’s me. I’m the peddler.” He pointed to the picture. “From when she read us Caps for Sale. And those are the monkeys.” He wagged a finger, made a noise between his teeth, then narrowed his eyes.
“Jay said nobody lives here anymore. Except for today, when Mrs. Everly got on the bus again.”
“I live here,” I said. “I’m living here.” I stood and brushed off the knee of my pants. “Let’s go find her since you’ve got such an important message to deliver.”
We entered through the kitchen door and met Ruth at the bottom of the stairs, her face, blotched and drawn, transformed when she saw the boy.
“Christopher,” she said. “What on earth are you doing here?”
He rocked up to his toes and back down again. “My mom brought me,” he said, and handed her the roll of paper. “So that I could give you this.”
Ruth led him to the couch, where she opened the present. “Chris,” she said. “You must have worked on this a long time!”
“Two recesses!” He raised two fingers like a V. “I thought I maybe could’ve kicked Lyla’s chair again so I could get a third, but I wanted to play soccer.”
She laughed, and something in the sound had me reaching for the wall to steady myself. Kyle’s face against Ruth’s, standing behind her while she rinsed out the coffee pot. Kyle, in his flannel pajamas, hair rumpled like a boy.
“Well, I’m so glad you made this for me.” Ruth studied the picture. “Is this the day we read “Caps for Sale”?”
“Yes,” Christopher said. “Only this time, I’m the peddler.” He watched her for a moment, turning serious again. “You’re back, right, Mrs. Everly? You didn’t leave for good, did you?”
Ruth smoothed the picture across her lap and drew a breath.
For good. Leave. Gone. Outside, the wind whistled over the chimney top. Nobody lives here anymore.
“She didn’t,” I said, and the boy looked up at me. “She didn’t leave for good.” Something else, other words, my throat squeezing. “She’s building a life here.” I nodded, and lifted my eyes to the ceiling, cracks in the plaster like a river snaking across a map. What am I giving up? I massaged the knuckles of my left hand. Empty rooms. Heartache.
Everything that is no longer mine.
Adrienne Garrison is a writer, mother, and educator living in Bloomington, Indiana. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories and completing her MFA in Creative Writing with Pacific University in Oregon. Her essays on motherhood and friendship have been published in Coffee+Crumbs and New Millenium Writings.