Chapter 15: Present 5

15Present #5

Sunday was my favorite day of the week. Each Sunday morning, I hobbled into my tiny apartment kitchen that had not been renovated since 1976 and brewed my black tea—not because of the caffeine but because I had come to love the taste. While it steeped, I made hash browns and sausage. I watched the water evaporate and explode in miniscule droplets that scattered everywhere, pricked my exposed arms, and finally settled as residue on the stovetop. I read the newspaper in my pajamas until noon, at which time I felt lazy and guilty and changed into daytime clothes, which made me feel (though not necessarily be) more productive.

This Sunday though, I awoke in my old room. My first view was of the pink with white trim dollhouse. I thought I had relegated it to the garage thirteen years ago because I hated pink houses with white trim. Apparently, my mother had decided it should be reintroduced into the house, away from the cobwebs, dirt and god-knows-what-else that inhabited the garage. I didn’t hate it as much as I used to, but I hurried past it all the same, grabbing my bathrobe on my way out. I was the only one who still slept upstairs; my parents, anticipating the crippling of old age, had moved into the former guest room downstairs. Dad was sixty-nine now, and Mom sixty-six, though they obviously still had no trouble carrying large objects upstairs.

Dad was in the kitchen with a mug of tea and the newspaper; I had clearly inherited his Sunday morning habits. Mom had left croissants on the counter, and I heated one in the microwave before sitting down at the table across from my father.

“Good morning,” he greeted from behind his newspaper. “Your mother left you a note.” He inclined the newspaper a bit to his left.

Sure enough, in immaculate cursive on a piece of stationary with her name printed at the top, my mother announced she was again working at the shop, but that I should stop by before leaving town.

“Off to the shop?” My father asked.

“For a few hours. I’ll see you again before I leave.”

My father nodded, and I took it as my benediction.

I showered and changed into clothes appropriate for my role as shop employee—casual, black pants and an uncollared shirt. I returned downstairs just before eleven.

It was only a five-minute drive to the shop. I pulled into the parking lot off Oak Street to find several other cars parked there; Mom had customers. I smoothed my pants and entered through the back, the bells she’d placed on the door jingling as I entered. They were probably made as Christmas decoration, but Mom used them all year round anyway.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” she yelled in her politest voice possibly. It was the voice she used when overwhelmed.

“It’s me, Mom!” I called back and I walked down the short, narrow corridor leading to the main shop area.

“Oh Emma,” she poked her head around the corner. “Could you please ring up the lady at the cash register?”

“Of course,” I hurried behind the counter and set my purse beside me.

“How may I help?” I asked.

The woman, slightly older than my mother, with clear green eyes, pushed forward a glass vase, with various colors swirling about, like a photo that a camera on slow-shutter speed exposed to moving lights might create. It reminded me of a certain lamp.

“Just this please.”

The woman adjusted the collar on her beige shirtdress. Everything about her reflected meticulous—her shoulder-length blonde hair, her singular strand of pearls, her filed nails.

I took the tag in my hand and entered the price.

“That’ll be fifty-three seventy-two, please.”

The woman drew out her wallet and fingered through the bills before extracting the right ones. She pushed them forward. Her exacting demeanor retained a kind of warmth, as if she—at one point—had been an outsider.

“I have seventy-two cents.”

She withdrew two quarters and two pennies and searched for the remaining balance.

“Sorry for being such a nuisance.”

“No problem.”

“Ahh, there it is!” She brightened as she handed over two dimes.

“Here, let me wrap this for you.”

I took the heavy brown wrapping paper from the top drawer, enveloped the vase, and placed it in a white bag.

“Thank you. Please come again.”

“Beautiful shop. I was so glad to see it still in business. It’s been over a decade since I was last here.” She spoke with a tiny hint of an accent, so faint I couldn’t discern which. It struck me as vaguely familiar, like a vapor lofting through the air, uncatchable.

“Thank you. I hope it’s less than a decade until your next visit.”

“I do as well,” she replied before she strolled to the back door. She carried our nondescript shop bag like it came from the Hermès boutique in Paris.

I sat at the counter for another hour, ringing up purchases, one by one, while Mom dusted and answered whatever questions customers had. While I sat, I tried to remember where the loveseat had rested in the shop; we’d had it for two years. In a way, I’d come to think of it as a piece of our furniture, but one can never get attached to anything. I wondered where it was now—if it was left behind, still waiting in the living room.

The customers cleared out, and Mom and I were left alone. She pulled out the extra stool and sat next to me at the counter.

“I was always jealous, you know,” she said, fixing her eyes on the same spot I had rooted my gaze, where there now rested a comfortable sofa, upholstered in a gold brocade.

“Of what?”

“Of you and them. Of Lynnie and Dave and all you kids.”

I turned and looked at her. I inspected her curly mop of hair—gray, but blanching—the same haircut she’d had since my childhood. I noted the crow’s feet nesting at the side of her eyes, the deeply indented bags under them that I had never seen her without. My mother, I always knew, was older, but this time I came to understand that. I wondered what Lynnie would look like now; she would be in her forties. And I realized how long it had been.

“You shouldn’t have been.”

“But I was. I didn’t have their energy, their charisma, their sense of fun and abandon. I was forty-something competing with twenty-somethings. I worried. I hated spontaneity. You should have seen the way you were with them. You came home and couldn’t stop talking about your adventures with them in a way you never talked about the things we did together. I couldn’t compete. So I started to see things our roles differently. They were there for the fun; I was there to parent. To make sure you were safe. I thought I would impart sage advice and life lessons. I thought when they left, things would change, but they didn’t.”

My mother’s eyes drooped and her brow furrowed. She didn’t look me in the face; she spoke to her knees. I thought my childhood ended when they disappeared. Her vision of my childhood ended when they arrived.

“You never left me.” I was surprised by the bitterness in my voice.

“I don’t know how anyone could.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

I wasn’t sure how she knew, as the slight ache of remorse had never before entered my consciousness. I would attribute it to a mother’s intuition.

“It’s okay that you want to find them,” she said.

She had taken the money out of the cash register and began sorting it into piles of bills. She patted each one into place, aligning each corner with the corners of the others, smoothing the bills I had crumpled. It was the same approach she’d taken to raising me.

“I don’t need to find them.”

“Then why are you trying?”

I wasn’t used to telling my mother things, confiding in her. I didn’t confide in anyone. When I needed to say something, I wrote it down on a blue post-it and placed it in a shoebox I kept beneath my bed. In weak moments, I ripped the top from the box and rifled through the post-its, scanning them multiple times, searching for more, wanting confirmation that anything I was feeling I had felt before. Usually, my feelings existed in permutations. I wrote it down, tucked it away, and waited to see if it resurfaced.

“Just because,” I told her. I busied myself reorganizing the vintage postcards that lived in the basket by the register, perfect for browsing at check out. “Just because” was not an adequate answer—didn’t explain anything. It was like ellipses: a cop out.            “Fine,” my mother replied. There wasn’t much more she could say.

In the complicated politics of our relationship, she instructed, and I obeyed. We rarely talked about anything of substance. She asked concrete questions; I provided concrete answers. Her prying into my private thoughts had only strained our relationship, so she trained herself not to. I could see the corners of her mouth twitching.

“It will probably be slow for the rest of the afternoon,” she finally said. It was already three-thirty. “You should go home, keep your father company.”

“All right.” My father loved nothing more than his quiet, alone time.

I grabbed my purse, took out the keys, and headed toward the back door. Halfway down, I stopped and turned around. Mom was still at the counter, her face hidden as she thumbed through old receipts.

“I love you, Mom.”

She looked up.

“I love you too, Em.”

I walked out the door.

My keys remained idly in my hand as I passed the car and continued down the street, away from the businesses on Oak Street and toward the residential area. Halfway down the block, I crossed the street and found myself face to face with the baby-toe pink Victorian that provided the settling for my dreams most nights. The windows were shuttered, the once white paint of the windowsills flaking, falling onto the lawn like large pieces of ash until the odd gardeners who came to mow the lawn every three weeks whisked them away. Everyone in town, with the exception of those who worked at the Victorian, had the same set of gardeners. Inside, the curtains, a deep purple, covering the front window, were drawn closed, denying a glimpse of the interior. The exterior of the window was laced with dusty cobwebs. The tire swing had snapped and disappeared nearly a decade ago.

Looking directly at the house made me fidget, so I sat down on the curb, car keys still clenched in my palm. What I had told my mother was true—I wasn’t looking to find them. I didn’t even need to know why they left. I needed to know why they left me behind, without a warning, without a word: a clean break. They never wrote, they never contacted me; they left me, stranded and abandoned, to find my own way through our one-note town and adolescence. In a way, though, my mother was right; in order to know, I would have to find them and ask. I guess I thought knowing would help me decide the answer to Luke’s question, the reason I had fled home in the first place. It was a simple question, but I had no simple answer.

When I had sat on the step for a solid twenty minutes, I stood up and slowly walked back to the car. I turned the keys in the ignition and drove off to give my father the company he didn’t really need.

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