Art: The Company of Strangers
I could jump from Rita’s moving car before we approach the elders’ center. It’s mid-morning, clear skies, and no traffic. Rita rides the brakes, so I wouldn’t suffer anything past a skinned knee, maybe a dislocated hip. I’ve seen enough action films to know I just need to roll and protect my head.
“Don’t try anything stupid,” Rita warns, and starts looking for a parking space.
The building is shabby on the outside with rusty wind chimes and an unraveling welcome mat at the door. Inside, everything’s too bright and colorful like a daycare. The carpet’s cheap and ratty, and supermarket music’s playing in the background.
“Hello and welcome to Tender Mercies Senior Wellness Center.”
The redhead greeting us at the lobby’s front desk oozes with kindness. She has blue penciled eyebrows and still wears a beehive. Once upon a time, she probably had freckles. Now, her face is a storm of liver spots.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Rita says and signs in both of us. She links her arm through mine and pulls me down the hallway. The walls are lined with staged photos of smiling senior citizens in cardigans.
“This’ll do you a world of good,” Rita promises. “You don’t even need to talk. Just listen to what they have to say.”
“Stop treating me like I’m breakable.”
“I’m not,” she says. “Just worried about you, that’s all.”
We near a conference room with its blinds drawn. The room’s closed door has a large sign on it that reads KNOCKING IS FOR STRANGERS. YOU’RE AMONG FRIENDS. COME IN. Someone put a crooked smiley face in red ink next to the printed words.
Once inside, we’re hit with a chorus of hellos in a space filled with chipped, wooden furnishings and dusty windows overlooking Laclede’s Landing in downtown St. Louis. Cheesy paintings of fruit bowls and flower gardens cling to the walls. Water marks look like a dried up river on the ceiling.
“I feel like a slab of dirty meat,” I whisper to Rita, eyeing the participants hovering over open pots in the back of the room. They’re both men and women, different ethnicities, all over sixty. My stomach curls around the smell of collard greens and strong coffee as steam rises from their plates piled high with food.
“What are you talking about?” Rita asks, pushing her bifocals up the bridge of her nose. “They just don’t know you yet. They look at all the new folks that way.”
“Well, they don’t know you either.”
“They know me better than you. I’ve been here before.”
“Let go of me.”
I pull out of Rita’s grip and sit down at the table next to nobody. Folks’ eyes feel like ants crawling over my skin. Their mouths move with food and noise.
“What’s your name, darling?” asks a potbellied man seated across from me. His cheeks, sprinkled with red freckles, look like someone crushed two tomatoes on his fat face. The smirk in his movements makes me hate him.
His calling me ‘darling’ takes me back to when I was little and walking with Mama past the old Woolworth’s department store. At the time, they wouldn’t let us in because of our skin color, but that never stopped us from window shopping. Mama was always a huffy woman with sass the size of all the city. One day, I guess she decided she wanted more than what her eyes were used to seeing because before I knew it, she’d dragged me in that store like she owned the place.
I noticed the change in staff and customers right away. The calmness and smiles on their faces all turned to panic and scowls. Then, before we could even get to the wig stands Mama savored, I remember this moose of a security guard calling us his darlings before he rushed us and barked orders. Mama pushed my head in the rump of her long skirt and faced that man like she was ready to go to war.
“I’m not your darling, sir,” I heard her say. “Not unless you’re fixing to let us shop here.”
We were thrown out, of course, but I stuck my chest out for a long time after that. Mama made me feel like we were on top of the world, even if it was just our world.
“Leave her alone, Phil,” says a dark-skinned woman sitting next to the potbellied man. “Can’t you see she don’t wanna be bothered?”
The woman’s black like burnt toast and tiny as a turd on a stick. She has on glitter eyeshadow, and bright pink lipstick spreads over her teeth when she smiles.
“I’m Ingrid,” she says. “Folks call me Grit.”
“And, my name’s Rachel Beth. Folks call me Rachel Beth,” says a short, Hispanic woman in flower print culottes with bleach stains. Her face is as much golden as it is wrinkled, like the skin of fried chicken. She rushes toward me from the opposite end of the table and extends her hand with child-like excitement. Looking at her, I can tell she’s the type who’s always nice at the wrong time, like someone picking up a naked mint you dropped on the ground and returning it to you.
“This is Coconut, the sock monkey.”
Rachel Beth shoves her faded striped toy at me. It’s missing an eye and wearing pants that match its owner’s, minus the bleach spots.
“You better grab a plate before we start,” Grit tells me. “Ain’t no food like free food.”
“I don’t eat everyone’s cooking.”
I cross my legs, meaning for it to be the period in my sentence. I haven’t completely been over the belly ache I had from Rita’s damn potato salad during the repass after Wesley’s funeral in August. I was so sick that I couldn’t thank everyone for attending and the next day, I barely saw anything past the toilet. Then, Sonya, that high-yellow heifer who owns the dry cleaners up the street, refused to give me Wesley’s suits back. What fool fights to keep a dead married man’s clothes? The whole mess of it makes my stomach churn all over again.
“Don’t let her stay idle too long,” Rita says. She plants herself next to me with a glass of iced tea and slice of pound cake. “Those evil thoughts’ll start floating out like steam.”
Phil, Grit, and Rachel Beth all laugh.
“Nice seeing you two again,” Rita continues, quickly mixing contents from a flask into her tea. “This right here’s my best friend, Justine Holmes. The one I was telling you about last time.”
“Honey, I’m so sorry for your loss,” Grit says, saddened. “I know how hard it is to lose a husband. Believe me, I lost three and each took a piece of my heart with them to the grave.”
I mumble my apologies, hoping she’ll go away.
“But, I’m so thankful I know who’s my keeper,” Grit continues, pointing to the ceiling with thunder in her voice. “Long as I got the Lord, I don’t need nobody else!”
“I’ll be back,” I say, rising from the table. I turn my back to Rita’s protests and stick my index finger in the air like I’m excusing myself from church.
“Don’t ‘what’ me,” I say into the phone.
I hurl my purse into the restroom sink of the gas station next door. The morning’s balminess is gone, replaced by the wolfish noon heat of October’s Indian summer. I sit on the toilet lid, remove my stockings, and throw them in the trash.
“Have you seen or talked to your sister today?” I ask.
“No. Why would I do that?”
“I’m not kidding, Raynah.”
“I’m not kidding, either. Try calling her.”
“I just did. She’s not answering.”
“Okay. Is that it?”
“No. Come get me.”
“I thought you and Rita had a deal.”
“Fuck Rita. I’m ready to go now.
There’s heavy breathing on the other end. I can’t tell if Raynah’s mad or if she’s smoking again.
“I let Isha borrow the car for work,” she finally says.
“I knew this was going to happen,” I say. “Your dad didn’t leave you his things for other people to use at their whim.”
“She’s not other people. She’s my daughter.”
“Oh, now she’s your daughter,” I blurt.
There’s a click on the other end. I speed-wipe the sweat from under my breasts with damp paper towels and call Raynah back.
“Mama, I’m not doing this with you today.”
“Look, I’m in a bind, Raynah. You think I enjoy asking you for anything? I agreed to check the place out. I did and I don’t like it.”
“You mean you’ve already found fault with everything and everybody.”
“No, it’s just not a good fit,” I say, dabbing at my armpits.
“Then, tell that to Rita so she can take you home.”
“She’s not leaving early.”
“Call-A-Ride comes that way.”
“You crazy? I’m not doing that. It’s too damn hot. Might as well take the bus. ”
“Well, then, I guess you’re stuck.”
The word ‘stuck’ comes through the phone like a creature trying to claw its way out of quicksand. Or, a lone survivor calling for help in the ruins. Or, a widow who never learned how to drive and fills her days in an empty house, sifting through old pictures and watching her stories. A woman retreating more inside herself each time she’s reminded of her sorrow and uselessness.
“Mama, you hear me?”
I hang up and return next door where everyone’s listening to a woman talk about insomnia and fear of a dislodged stent. The man sitting at the head of the table politely cuts her off after I take my seat. His hair, multi-colored like a calico cat’s and cropped close to his scalp, looks as exotic as the rest of him, mixed with a little of everything. He turns to Rita, who turns to me.
“Before we go any further, I want to say welcome back,” the man says with a deep drawl. “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”
I snort gleefully into Rita’s ear. She ignores me, but I know she feels silly, learning she’s not as remembered as she thought she was.
“Rita Thompson,” she says. “It’s good to be back, Rich.”
Rich nods, already fixed on me. His blue eyes are a lullaby, soothing and warm. I look away, afraid I’ll get lost in them and forget to look mean.
“And, who’s this?”
“Justine,” I say in a small, dumb voice.
“Justine what?” Rich asks in an equally small, dumb voice. His mirroring cuts me like a shard of glass wrapped in silk. I want to leap over the table and claw at those downy eyes.
“Justine Holmes,” Rita answers for me. “She’s my best friend and she’s happy to be here, too.”
“I see,” Rich says. “I’m Richard McKline, the facilitator of this group. Great to have you. We were just checking in. Would you like to take a couple minutes and tell us how you’re feeling today?”
Rich holds my gaze. His fingers are long and slender with bristly black knuckle hairs. He leans forward, elbows against the table, and places his hands over his crossed forearms, rubbing instead of patting.
“Tell me something, Mr. McKline,” I say.
“Just Rich, please.”
“Tell me something, Rich. Why do you have all these pictures of goofy, smiling senior citizens out in the hallway? Is this some kind of joke to you?”
Rich looks at me confused, then embarrassed. The rubs on his forearm turn to taps.
“I don’t think it’s goofy at all,” he says. “It reflects the environment that we’re trying to set. One that’s vibrant and harmonious and inclusive.”
Rita looks evil enough to slap me, but I like the way Rich wears his nerves, the way he shifts in his chair as forks stop clinking and mouths quit chewing. Everyone holds their breath, eager for what will come next.
“But, why do they all smile if they’re representing us?“ I ask. “They’re in recovery. That doesn’t seem realistic.”
“The sister’s got a point, Doc,” says a man sitting across from me, the toothpick in his mouth nodding in agreement. “Seems creepy as hell.”
Rich flashes him a tight toothless smile. He loosens the silk tie around his neck and rubs a hand through the small spikes in his buzz cut. I can almost see him arranging words in his head.
“It’s very real, Justine,” he says.
“That’s right. Mrs. Holmes,” he carefully says. “I think their smiles represent hope in the midst of their circumstances. I’m afraid I can’t really speak for the photographer, but you should bring your concerns to management if you feel strongly about it. Anything else you’d like to share?”
I don’t say anything. Rich starts rubbing his forearm again.
“Well, I know I’d much rather see a bunch of goofy smiling elders on the walls than folks waddling in their issues,” blurts the insomniac. “What good has crying or protesting done for any of us?”
“Speak for yourself,” says the man with the toothpick. “From the looks of it, you never cried or protested a day in your life. What part of town you say you from again? Jesus Christ.”
“Cheryl, Cornelius, let’s calm down, okay?” Rich cuts in.
“Rich, can I check in now?” asks Rachel Beth, raising her striped stuffed animal in the air.
“Yes, go ahead, Rachel Beth,” he says. “Try to keep it under two minutes?”
“Sure,” she says, but blabs about her dreams of using Miracle Whip as a lubricant on a blind date and how Coconut, her sock monkey’s, allergic to new people who don’t smile.
Myrtle’s kitchen is stuffy with the smell of maple syrup and dirty hair. Gospel music and Saturday morning cartoons bounce off the walls while mobile fans, hoisted in every room, blow lint and hot air everywhere.
“Heifer, don’t think you’re fooling anybody,” Rita says. She dabs at the gunk of hair grease on the back of her hand and rubs it into Myrtle’s scalp. “You put up a good fight but I saw the way Rich had you melting.”
I ignore her and stir a bubbling pot of grits on the stove.
“Anyway,” Rita goes on, “I hope you have a better check-in speech prepared next time.”
“There won’t be a next time,” I say, dumping bacon from a skillet onto a plate. “I’m not going back. I told you that and I mean it.”
All this talk about the damn elders’ group makes me feverish. I consider propping open the back door but don’t want alley rats eating through the screen again. I fan dry the beads of sweat dribbling down my spine and hand Myrtle a piece of bacon, remembering when we turned on the air conditioning last month. No one turned it off for days. The heat index was up in the 100’s, but I found Myrtle on her porch, wrapped tight as a newborn in a blanket, complaining about how the coldness in her house had stirred her arthritis. I paid half of her electricity bill with donations received at Wesley’s funeral so she wouldn’t spend her whole disability check.
“You did fine,” Rita says, rotating her flat iron in the ceramic iron stove. “They’re a good bunch once you get used to them.”
“I don’t want to get used to them.”
“You should at least know Ingrid,” Rita says. “She’s sappy as hell and uglier than a prune but she can relate to widowhood. And, whether you want to hear it or not, you could learn a whole lot from Rich, too.”
“Why didn’t you wash her hair before?” I ask, changing the subject, my head pointed towards Myrtle dozing in her chair.
“It’s not going to happen. Hard enough getting her to take a bath these days.”
Rita points her hot comb in the direction of the personal care assistant cleaning the front room. “This new girl has another thing coming when she tries to hose her down. Third PCA this month.”
“Quit talk about me like I’m not here!”
Myrtle bucks her eyes at us and sits at attention. Her faded dungarees hang off her like butter rolling off a biscuit. The ruby pumps she insists on wearing look haggard under her chair.
“Hush and put this on your stomach,” I say, stuffing another piece of bacon in Myrtle’s hand. I try not to see her chewing or her eyes darting around the room like one of those objects in a pinball machine. It brings back memories of watching her from my bedroom window 30 years ago, clawing at a stretcher’s bloodied sheet the night they brought Pete, her oldest grandson, home. Pissing down her overalls, she was so mad. Breaking a police car window with one of her high heels before several officers tackled her to the ground. That mouth of hers, working and twisting like some demon doll.
What’s-her-face, Myrtle’s PCA, comes into the kitchen and starts dusting the counter. She’s about my granddaughter, Isha’s, age with wider hips. She’s too quiet for my comfort, always cleaning or fussing over Myrtle. She never smiles, or makes eye contact, or waves, or anything. She just looks at me all the time, like she’s seeing something inside me.
Rita says she’s shy. I don’t believe that. I was once shy when we were kids. It hurt me to see people, much less talk to them, unless it was Mama, or Rita, or Wesley. Not looking almost got me beat up a few times by the nasty older girls in the building we lived in. But, so did seeing too much. Folks want you to look at them but they don’t like you seeing them.
“When’s the last time you seen Theo?” Rita asks me.
“Good Lord,” Rita says, shaking her head. “And, before that, it was when? Election time?”
I test the grits from the tip of a spoon. They scald my tongue and the roof of my mouth, but not like the burn in Rita’s questions.
It was late March when Wesley and I returned from his dialysis treatment to find Theo at the house with a camera crew at his heels. One of the newspapers was doing a story on him during his run for alderman. They said they wanted to learn more about his upbringing so people could get a sense of his human side.
“What human side?” Wesley had asked, eyeing his son suspiciously. “He’s the alien in this family.”
I laughed off the remark with Theo and his entourage, but I knew it was the bitter truth. Theo was always tragically different. I’d wanted to protect him from his differentness since the moment he left my body.
He didn’t roar radically with balled fists like he was angry for being born as Raynah did. He didn’t fall out of me in a hurry, ready to meet the world like Lois, either. He barely whimpered when the doctor cut his umbilical cord, and his purple, mashed face already looked like a worried, old man’s. When I held him for the first time, I watched him blink slowly and tiredly, as if he was coming to a sad realization that no one else knew.
That day in March, I saw those tired, slow lids flutter quickly to mask the hurt as my boy blushed and giggled in front of his reporters. He made up some joke that was really an apology to them for his father’s cruelty. Then, he apologized to us for the last-minute meeting and for not dropping by more often.
It was enough to get me talking about what it had been like raising my youngest and only son, but Wesley wouldn’t budge. At the end of the interview, instead of joining Theo and I for a family snapshot, he spit on the lighting equipment and hobbled out of the house.
“He calls a lot,” I tell Rita.
It’s not really a lie. Theo calls, but it’s usually at the worst times, like near midnight when I’m already in bed. Or, on a Sunday afternoon while I’m at church. And, he never leaves a message or answers when I try to call him back.
“These kids,” Rita says, and frowns at the hot comb’s hiss on Myrtle’s head. “I see mine more than I care to and you have to make an appointment to see two of yours.”
“I didn’t sell my kids to no Jesus!” Myrtle blurts. “They took them. They took them all!”
“I know, honey,” I say, scolding Rita and feeding Myrtle more bacon.
I place the rest of the meat inside the dark oven to cool. My reflection stares back at me through the outer door’s glass as the scared, lonely wails of Deirdre, Rita’s youngest grandchild, split the air.
“Sounds like someone’s up from her nap,” Rita says, smoothing down another clump of Myrtle’s hair.
“I’ll go,” I tell her.
In the living room, Deirdre’s pigtailed head bobs as her feet kick away the comforter that was covering her body on the couch. I turn her over my knees and rock her back to sleep the way I used to do my kids when they were little. As she drifts, thoughts of Rich, rubbing instead of patting his arm at the elders’ group, force their way back to me. I hum softly and watch my fingers knead Deirdre’s back.
Lois is late as usual. She doesn’t call or come inside. She just blows the horn.
“What’s wrong with your mouth and hands that you can’t phone me when you’re running behind?” I ask, getting inside her Mercedes.
The car reeks of iced coffee and designer perfume. It’s almost too much for my stomach, with the lingering smell of bacon grease and Myrtle’s sour hair. I chew my gum faster and lower the window.
“How are you, mother?,” Lois asks in that I’m-more-civilized-than-you ways of hers. “I was stuck on a conference call earlier and needed to clear my head on the way over.”
I switch the radio station from jazz to gospel as we back out of the driveway.
“You’re keeping that air conditioning on? Must be nice to insult your mom and have money to blow.”
Lois sighs and turns the fan off. Her obedience annoys me. Ever since she was little, she’s prided herself on being the angel in the family. Back then, it was a comfort I needed against Raynah’s smart mouth, Theo’s coldness, and everything Wesley. As she got older though, Lois’s squeaky clean ways became her shield and her punishment. I rarely let it disarm me anymore, but I regret how it tempts me to pick on her.
“How was the elders’ group yesterday?,” she asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I say, opening my coupon book. We hit a speed bump and a bunch of papers fall on the floor. I reach down to grab what I can.
I spread the coupons out on the dashboard. They look like the deck of cards I used to lay out for spades games with Wesley during our long rides into North County. We’d joke, laugh, and argue in the ’68 cinnamon Oldsmobile he bought after we moved from the projects into our first rented home. That car was fierce with white leather seats and a new engine that roared to life. Every time Wesley turned the key in the ignition, I felt like I was part of the car, teeth chattering and bones rumbling against its cool, stiff cushions.
Before the kids came, playing cards and eating pork rinds in the car was just as sacred to us as Saturdays full of sex, whiskey, and Johnny Taylor songs. Everything sounded clearer, tasted fresher, and felt better. We craved our time together with the laughable intensity of two lovers who didn’t know how to break each other yet.
Lois turns onto a busy street and stops at a traffic signal. The light turns from golden yellow to throbbing red.
“Nothing happened,” I say again, and push the coupons back into one, neat stack.
When we get to the grocery store, the place is a mess of people and shopping carts. Lois grabs a small basket and heads toward the vegetables. I get a cart and wind up in the dairy section where it’s less congested.
The naked space is quiet and terrifying. I’ve never liked crowds, but these last few months have twisted me in a way that only a sea of people can unknot. I don’t care to make conversation with strangers; I just want the warmth of other bodies around me. Chatter in the background and feet scraping the ground. Whatever it takes to distract me from the crushing grief of going from Mrs. to Ms.
Not that I couldn’t have stayed a Mrs. I still use the title here and there, but I feel like a liar, defending a position that’s no longer mine to defend. I never miss being a Miss, or a single Ms. There’s the joys, but mostly the agonies. The older you get, the more it works on your soul. People start trying to find out what’s wrong with you on the inside. They make all kinds of assumptions and decide you’re barren, crazy, or stupid.
The world’s so different now anyway, with more reasons not to marry. Diseases, mouthy superwomen, men who can’t or won’t hold a job. I’m afraid both my girls will forever remain in that Miss world for one cause or another. Nothing about my marriage to Wesley could ever make me want to relive those days. I’d gladly take the bruises from our fights, or the endless prank calls from his other women before going back.
But, I never imagined being the other Ms. No one told me how to survive being one, either. It’s not like I haven’t been surrounded by them. They walk past me on the street. They sit next to me at church. They chat with me in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Still, not one of them thought enough of me to look me in the face and say, “Whatever you’re going through, it could be worse. Your husband could be dead.”
It’s the loneliness that gets you. I thought I’d known loneliness well when Wesley was alive, but now, it’s more draining and bottomless. It’s big in my mind like some fanged critter thirsty for light and thrilled with flinging me into darkness.
I get so mad with Wesley for being dead. I hate him for leaving me alone with his shadow and this pain that I can’t see around, under, or through. Sometimes I wish he’d re-die for making me the other Ms. Maybe if I had known then what I do now, I could’ve stopped him from letting me become one.
I realize I’ve been staring at milk containers in the dairy aisle and walk to the yogurts and cottage cheese. Everything looks so sterile and deserted and mean. The words on packages are all fuzzy and spiteful. The tile floor’s blinding whiteness sneers at me.
I grab a block of cheddar cheese and a carton of half a dozen eggs so I can hurry someplace else. The herd of people in the snack aisle is harmless at first, but quickly becomes troubling. Every woman I pass has a man on her arm, or a grocery cart piled high with food that she’s probably excited to take home and share with her partner.
The canned goods section isn’t much better. There’s more women with more baskets filled with more groceries. They walk by me, stealing glances at my near empty cart. The corners of their mouths curl upward into smug grins or downward into sympathetic frowns. I notice my hands shaking when I yank cans off shelves, so I go over to the frozen foods aisle.
There, everyone pretends to do whatever they’re doing but their eyes prick me like a bed of push pins. They think I’m too stupid and lonely to know I’m being stared at. To them, I’m some helpless idiot with a basket full of space. Them, with their overloaded carts, and their family-sized entrees, and their loving spouses, and their obedient kids.
The glass doors of freezers open and smack shut. I feel sealed into place in the biting cold air. It’s hard to move, but foolish to stay.
“Excuse me, Ms.”
The male voice behind me is youngish, high-pitched, and tinged with scorn. I can’t turn around or I’ll be stuck in these people’s taunts forever, looking old and puny and widowly.
“Can I get by please, Ms.?”
My chest beats with an explosive pound that vibrates over my torso and through my back. Am I having a heart attack?
“Hey Ms., you mind moving your cart?” a female voice, openly angry, chimes in.
My hands leave the handles of the cart in front of me and follow my feet’s lead down the aisle.
Folks forget to pretend and stop what they’re doing, attacking me with their stares, whispers and finger-pointing. Heart thumping faster, I feel myself shrinking under the hideous glow in their eyes and their overfilled carts.
“You left your cart, Ms.”
“Ms., aren’t you coming back for your groceries?”
“Don’t forget your cart, Ms.”
“Wrong cart,” I hear myself say, still walking. My voice is soft and quivery. I get mad at it for not being strong enough, for bending into the ugliness around me.
“It’s the wrong cart!,” I scream at the ceiling. “It’s the wrong cart!”
I close my eyes and let my purse dangle against my leg. I can’t stop, even as the shrill screams turn into hoarse yells and hot water trickles down my face. Not even when there’s feet scraping the floor, and hands clutching my arms, and walkie talkie sounds in my ear.
“I know her. Let me through, please.”
The familiar voice, silky and southern, tugs at me. Suddenly, I’m at the elders’ group again, sitting by Rita with her glass of spiked tea and watching Rachel Beth wave her handmade monkey. The images around me are so real. The discussion, so clear.
“It’s okay,” the familiar voice says.
Its speaker holds me from behind and then, turns me around. I look at Rich, my mouth still twisting and spirting sound. I claw at his smooth, pale face. He doesn’t stop me, so I claw harder, faster, until my fingers get tired and crumble against his cheeks. I become one long groan, sobs catching in my throat and racing against my next breath.
Rich’s body warms me like a heated blanket as I go limp in his arms. Then, I don’t feel anything except his eyelashes stroking my forehead, calming me back into the light.
Outside, the sky looks confused with a brash sun peppered by full clouds. We sit on a bench near the store’s entryway. The silence between us is wide and brutal until someone announces Lois’s name and my whereabouts over the intercom. Rich clears his throat like it’ll drown out the broadcast.
“You don’t need to be here with me,” I say.
It hurts to talk, so I drain the Styrofoam cup of water they gave me. The stale tears on my jaws stretch like dried glue. I’m wobbly and exhausted. I just want to disappear and sleep.
“It’s fine,” Rich says, leaning forward against his knees. His face is red and raw with my scratch marks. “I’m waiting on my ride anyway.”
I snort and crush the empty Styrofoam in my hand.
“Must be nice having valet, Mr. Therapist.”
“No, but it’s nice having Call-A-Ride. And, I’m not a therapist.”
I let my eyes travel over Rich with his freshly groomed calico buzz cut and his Mr. Rogers sweater. The tufts of hair on his knuckles and those robins’ eggs in his eye sockets. Nothing about him matches what I’ve planned out in my mind.
“Then, what are you?” I ask in a way that questions more than his occupation.
Rich sits up and squeezes the legs of his creased slacks at his kneecaps. He doesn’t smile, but he spreads his lips to expose his teeth.
“I’m a retired school superintendent and widower who became a certified peer specialist six years ago. My parents migrated from Louisiana before I entered middle school because they got tired of pretending they were white sharecropper and black servant, rather than husband and wife. I’ve got God-knows-how-high percentages of African, Irish, Creole, and Native American blood which make me your everyday bonafide whatchamacallit.”
He raises a finger in the air.
“Oh, and I don’t eat meat, drink alcohol, or drive anymore.”
“You’re some piece of work,” I say, shaking my head. At the mention of food, it dawns on me that I haven’t eaten anything since early this morning at Myrtle’s house.
“My wife, Agnes, used to tell me that all the time.”
“What happened to her?”
“Car accident. Her inhaler ran out, and I was drunk again. She couldn’t wake me up and tried to drive herself to the hospital.”
Neither of us say anything for a while. I suck on the insides of my cheeks to wet my throat with saliva. It’s hard to look at Rich, so I stare at the pieces of Styrofoam I’ve torn apart and laid on my skirt.
“I was probably more of an asshole to her after she died,” he continues. “Blaming her for looking the other way. She knew of the relapse. I could barely find our bed most nights, much less hide the bottles. She wouldn’t say anything to me about it, though. A goddamn nag about everything else, but nothing on that. I guess she thought her silence would shame me into rehab again. Or, maybe it just became something she’d learned to live with, I don’t know. Never expected her to die with it, too.”
“Did you have kids?” I blurt, and immediately regret engaging him.
“One son, Blake. He’s in prison. Murder and armed robbery.”
I envy Rich’s careless honesty. He lists personal tragedies like bullet points on his life’s catalogue. Each word strikes me like a punch in the neck. He exposes his teeth again, this time smiling, when he notices my stunned expression.
“We’re pen pals,” he says. “I go up to visit him every other month.”
“At least you know where your kid is. Check-ins always matter,” I say, hating myself more as I say it. I shouldn’t be concerned with painting him a brighter picture. I shouldn’t be concerned at all.
“Took some time,” Rich responds, “but right now, he doesn’t have much of a choice.”
I purse my lips and sit on my hands to keep quiet and still. There’s a chance he’ll leave me alone if I just stop everything.
“I take it you have kids but don’t see them often?” Rich asks.
Exhaling, I pull my hands from underneath my bottom and begin gathering the torn bits of Styrofoam on my lap.
“One, I see when he’s campaigning and needs my vote. Another, I see when she’s forced into Mother-sitting me between her house showings. The other one, my oldest, I see all the time, whether I want to or not.”
Rich looks at me, muddled.
“She inherited my husband’s house after he died,” I say. “He lived next door to me.”
I almost laugh at the way Rich tries to contain his curiosity. Instead of asking more questions, he sits back on the bench, folds his arms, and crosses his legs at the ankles.
“Years ago,” I continue, “Wesley decided we should sleep in separate beds. Then, a few years after that, he decided on separate houses. He died before we could get a divorce.”
“Interesting,” Rich offers.
“Yeah, especially over the holidays.”
We both quietly chuckle. I keep pouring the Styrofoam pieces from one hand into the other.
“How’d he go?,“ Rich finally asks.
“Slowly,” I say. “Took him all last decade to die.”
“I’m not,” I say, squishing the cup’s contents between my palms. “It was his time. I just hate accepting it.”
“Yeah,” is all Rich says and pokes his lips out likes he’s going to start whistling, but he doesn’t. We just sit there, listening to the faint fumble of Styrofoam and crows cawing over our heads.
“There you are!”
Lois scurries over to us in her pumps, her hair blowing in the wind and falling effortlessly back into place like some TV news anchor. A lanky, teenaged boy in a store uniform trudges behind her with an armful of grocery bags.
“Well, look at you,” Lois says, stopping in front of me. “Crying over spilled milk.”
“Actually, it was more like spilled frozen lasagna,” Rich jokes as he rises from the bench.
Lois looks at Rich, a speck of hostility in her eyes, and forces a quick, polite smile. I introduce them, repulsed and tickled at the idea of them hitting it off.
“Great to meet you,” Rich says, offering his hand to Lois. “Your mother and I were just getting some fresh air. She had a little scare, but she’s alright. The more she engages, the better off she seems. Maybe you can help persuade her to come back to our elders’ group?”
The elders’ group. Right now, I don’t want to be reminded that it was how I’d met Rich. There, he was still his sweet self but not as reachable. Out here, he’s both. A person who showed up when he was supposed to.
“If I can get her to tell me what happened during the last group first,” Lois says, raising an eyebrow at me.
“I told you, nothing.”
Lois adjusts the purse on her arm and puts on her shades which means she’s ready to leave.
“Let’s go,“ I say, looking around for a trash can. “Rich, I never thought we’d meet again like this. If I never see you again—“
“You’re welcome, and you will,” he interrupts, and removes the Styrofoam pieces from my hands, bit by bit.
“Don’t count on it,” I say.
In the rearview mirror of Lois’s car, Rich looks small and fictional, like a Ken doll with cat’s hair. He stands there next to the bench, looking at the back of the Mercedes, as we turn out of the parking lot. His shoulders are slightly hunched and his hands still hold pieces of the cup I gave him to throw away.
I feel my face smiling and stare out the passenger window so Lois can’t see. As we pick up speed down the main road, I can’t tell if Rich is smiling too, especially as the clouds start to let out their water, pleased with the sky for making up its mind.
Lyndsey Ellis is a St. Louis native who lives and works in Oakland. She received an MFA in Writing from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Ellis is a VONA/Voices Alumna and was a writer-in-residence at Vermont Studio Center. Her writing appears in The Offing, Nomadic Journal, Black Fox Literary Magazine, sPARKLE & bLINK, and elsewhere.