Chapter 4: Present 1

4Present #1

I took the train from New York Friday night. With my father retired and happily settled in at home reading newspapers and puttering about the kitchen, I had no company on the forty-five minute ride into the Hudson Valley.

I had brought up the Enson-Mortons the week before while on the phone with Mom. I could imagine her smiling as she said “of course,” and launched into a long summary of my childhood, which largely omitted them. After ten minutes, I cut her off as she was beginning to recall my first day of preschool; my lunch break was over. A day later, I called back to let her know I would be visiting for the weekend.

With a carry-on sized suitcase, I boarded the 4:15 train home, still dressed in the black skirt and white blouse I wore as a uniform to work everyday. After forty-five minutes and only two chapters of The Great Gatsby later, I arrived at the train stop in our small town. Mom met me at the station in her three-year-old BMW, the ancient Volvo having been retired when I was twelve. Mom had ignored its failing health until it overheated on her way to an important auction in New York.

On the short drive home, she asked suspiciously how my week had gone. I countered with questions about the store.  As we pulled into the driveway, my dad looked up, taking his eyes off the flowerbeds upon whom he lavished the attention normally reserved for me.

The three of us entered the house, Dad and I retiring to the parlor and Mom heading to the kitchen to fix drinks. The Edwardian lamps provided dim light and the open, burnt orange curtains exposed only dusk. Dad sat in has mahogany and purple-cushioned throne as I took my place on the red velvet couch. He asked about my job and I answered as ambiguously as I had when I was a teenager asked about my school day. It was always “fine” because if I said “bad” I would inevitably have to expound on why. Silence was easier, even when painful.

Mom hobbled into the room with a tray supporting three glasses: two alcoholic, one regular.  She massaged her arthritic hip as she took her place next to me on the couch. She handed my father his sherry from her seat and grabbed the regular glass, placing it before me.

“You’re looking a little thinner,” she said, shaking her head at my knobby wrists. She placed cranberry juice in front me,  “I thought you could use some vitamins.”

“If it’s not bitter, it’s all sugar, Mom.” She stirred her own drink, pretending not to hear. I would have appreciated something alcoholic, but she never offered me a drink at home. It reminded her that she and I were growing old.

“You’ll get some Vitamin C,” Mom replied, apparently oblivious to my last comment.

Mom took a long sip of her bourbon and I touched my lips to the cranberry juice; it was all sugar. I rolled my eyes.

As Mom prattled on about the importance of my health, I was reminded of an incident when I was eighteen, already an adult and treated like a tween. One night, my friend Megan had dropped by our house quickly before we took the train into the city for a jazz concert. For most of my adolescence, I lied when going to concerts, claiming that I slept over at Megan’s until she called one night and the whole ruse fell apart. By eighteen, our yelling matches had waned, thanks to her incremental yielding. That particular night, Mom was attempting to convince me to take a heavier jacket, then she wanted me to take a snack in case I didn’t like any of the fifty choices there, then she wanted to remind me of my self-defense and the number to call in case of emergencies: 911. It was a school-sponsored graduation trip. As I shut the door tightly behind us and began walking down the driveway, Megan turned to me, already anticipating the complaints that were sure to flood out of my mouth.

“It’s so sweet that your mom cares.”

Sweet or not, it was unsolicited.

“Are you kidding?” I replied. “It’s stifling.”

Stifling like the August heat we sought to escape each year, like a hand clasped over a moving mouth, like gasping for oxygen underwater. It took me years to equate stifling with love: a mother bird warming her eggs, a kangaroo in its mother’s pouch.

While I remembered, my parents spoke quietly. My glass of cranberry juice was empty.

“Honey, let me get you some more. Poor thing, you’ve been thirsty.”  Mom slowly rose and returned to the kitchen. My protests went unanswered.

When she disappeared, Dad turned to me and whispered.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all these years of marriage, it’s that the wife is always right.”

“I’m sorry to tell you,” I countered, “but that’s not exactly a new concept, Dad.”

His joking smirk didn’t wane.

“Well, your mother’s always liked old things.”

I smiled slightly; retirement had taught Dad to take himself less seriously. Mom hurried back into the room.

“Anything exciting happening?” Mom asked, situating herself next to me on the couch again. She placed the cranberry juice in front of me.

“Just work,” I lied taking a sip as an excuse to keep from talking.

“Will you be staying all weekend?”

“I’m not sure.” That, at least, was the truth. I supposed I would stay, escape, until I was ready to go. I changed the subject. “How’s the store?”

“Oh well, it’s all right. Still plenty of people on day trips to keep me in business.”

“You know, I was thinking about it the other day. You do remember the Enson- Mortons, right?” I had to check, even if Mom had claimed to remember them last week; she sometimes said she remembered just so she wouldn’t disappoint me.

“Even I remember them,” Dad spoke up, “so you’d better bet your mother does.”

My mother shot him a look and composed herself, sinking more deeply into her chair as if it would convey nonchalance.

“Well, of course. You spent so much time with them, darling.”

She tapped her fingers on her glass.

“Have you ever heard anything about them?” I asked.

“Still nothing,” Mom replied, looking down. She didn’t want to upset me. “You know, Nora Fitch was telling us at bridge club a few weeks ago that she even checked to see if they still owned that house. They do.”

I took another sip of my cranberry juice. Mom’s bridge club was the ultimate source of gossip, especially since Nora Fitch had joined last year.

“But still no one knows what happened to them?”

“Nora has tried, and even she can’t find anything.” Mom was shaking her bourbon, listening to the tinkling of the ice cubes colliding.

They had simply disappeared, run away. Even the house was a false lead. For years, I’d believed that one day, they would come back and find me. The years marched on and I waited. But they weren’t coming.

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