“Hey lady, get in your car! We’re about to dock,” yelled the old man with the wiry beard, wearing a Cardinals ball cap.
I had been watching him while standing on deck of the modest ferry that drove me across to Cassique Island—the place where my Aunt Diana lived. I imagined all the tiny particles of everything that could get caught up in that beard. And wondered if he washed it with shampoo or regular soap. Or indeed, if he ever washed it. Yes, this is what I was wondering these days.
Classic over thinker things.
I’d just spent the past two weeks on the road driving cross country, listening to podcasts dealing with motivation and courage. It seemed to be the only thing that kept my foot on the gas pedal. Well that, and the fact that after I’d lost my husband to my ho-like sister, it would be a bit out of character for me to show up at charity events and fund raisers like a jilted ex-wife, refusing to give up the crown of events chairwoman. That scandal, and of course, the politics and ramifications of that came with sleeping with Tom. Which I spent hours upon hours of meditation wondering why. Was it because I truly loved him? Was it because he provided me with the security I needed and wasn’t getting? Why was it, for crying out loud?
Either way, all the people in my circle would talk behind my back when they found out I single-handedly ripped out Kate’s heart by foolishly sleeping with the man we both were insanely attracted to. In a single night, I’d become like my back-stabbing, no good, slut of a sister. I had such empathy for Kate. No, it was just easier to leave. I had successfully banished myself from the only place I’d ever known and traveled to what seemed like the end of the earth.
It was day three before I stopped doing a constant replay in my head of Tom waking and not seeing me that next morning. My mind ran in a couple hundred thousand directions. I couldn’t bear to listen to his messages. Just seeing his missed calls and voicemail notifications kept my stomach somersaulting and my nerves stretched like tight wires. Stupid girl, stupid girl, stupid girl. But boy, didn’t it feel so right?
I waved my hand at the bearded man and went in search of my new red, four door sedan. It was a god-send that I got rid of the U-Haul truck before coming across to the island. At the last drop-off spot, the two lovelies that owned the store came out to check the truck—making sure I didn’t wreck it, I guess. They began making small talk and before I knew it, I broke down in front of them. I think they were talking about the weather in Oregon compared to South Carolina or something. Whatever it was, it precipitated a nasty scene from me, in which I told them briefly about the cheating, the fact I ran away, and the notion I’d never want to see anything in the back of that truck ever again. At least the furniture pieces. And the microwave I’d heat coffee for
Wesley in the morning. Oh, and the foot massager he bought me one year for my birthday, just so he wouldn’t have to rub my feet. Anyway, Wayne and Theresa, the U-Haul owners, offered to buy the stuff. They said they had a son moving into a new apartment, and if I wanted they would take it off my hands.
I opened the back to see the familiar pieces. Shriveled plants and slung-around boxes met my gaze. My poor, dead plants. Wayne helped me throw them in the dumpster. I tried not to get so sentimental over them. After all, they were the only things living in my house that I obviously took care of. Wesley didn’t count. He was now the rat-fink that was always going to be marked a cheater in my book. Now both of them were dead to me.
I pulled out some boxes, a lot of my clothes, and three pictures I wanted to keep. Theresa said she’d keep them in the store until I got back from getting a car. I stroked the arm of the sofa on my way out of the back before Wayne helped me out. It had that mustard stain on it. I can’t say how many times I told Wesley ‘no eating in the living room.’ He was so immature about things like that. I looked at the coffee table, turned on its side by the back. Nothing but endless beer ring markings on the top. Yeah, I wasn’t so uncomfortable selling the pieces of my past to these fine people. They could look at that mustard stain for a while; I had the real stain of him for the rest of my life. He and my sister could do whatever they wanted in my house now. I rubbed the corner of my eye where a tear sat and walked to the nearby dealership they recommended to buy a car.
By myself, for the first time in my life, I was really going to buy a car. It wasn’t so bad. I guess I should’ve figured Wesley would never make good on his word to get me a new one. I
looked at it now, the floor mats were un-scuffed and the dashboard was free of dust. The mileage gauge read 20, and the smell was that of a plastic toy, just opened for the first time. I didn’t waste money on extravagant things. Just air conditioning, power windows, and cruise control. When the man with the beer belly popped the hood, I looked in like I’d seen my fair share of chrome thinga-ma-bobs. Nope, it was just me there. Me and my virgin eyes to carburetors and belts. I tried not to get tripped on the fact, and focused on Aunt Diana waiting for me.
“Pull up to the end, Miss.”
I rolled down my window halfway. The cooler outside air wafted into my warm car. “Sir, can you tell me the direction of Willaby Street?”
“Willaby Street? Who do you know on Willaby Street?”
I watched as a crumb that was stuck in the bush of his beard move up and down. “My aunt lives there. Are you familiar where it is? Which way do I turn when I get off the boat?”
It was dark, so I hoped he could just direct me. It was sheer luck that I made it on the ferry. It was the last one for the day. Thankfully I had the advice from Wayne and Theresa to direct me where to go. And luckily I’d called Aunt Diana last week to get directions and find out it was an actual island she lived on. She thought I was coming earlier this morning. It would give us a chance to talk and get caught up before she left in the morning for her two-month hiatus to
Europe. Instead of Florida this year, her and her best friends had decided on a month cruise to Italy, where they’d get off the boat and tour through Venice and Rome, then fly back home by the end of March. That was when tourism would pick up again and her little store would be open for the season.
The man looked at me. Stroking his mess of a beard and squinting his left eye like a pirate, he pointed right. “You go to that first stop sign, bear right, and you’ll see a little store with a mermaid on the sign. Turn left and Willaby is your second street on the right.”
Good Lord, I hope I could remember that. Right, mermaid, left, and second street. It was a relief having other things floating in my mind. Anything to get my focus off of Tom, Wesley, and Ashley. I had managed to respond to Tom on the fourth day. Thankfully I timed it when he was in court. I left him a message telling him how soul-wrenching sorry I was, but I had decided to go to Chicago after all. I knew that would stall him. There was no way he would call and confirm my story with Mark. And if I’d told him the truth, he’d have beat me to Cassique and been waiting for me at Aunt Diana’s house. No, I needed to lie in order for him to realize he needed to be there with Kate. Poor, Kate. May she never be told of what happened. And may her nosey cousin, Amanda never find out. They’d have it in the local gazette with a picture of me and large ghostbuster sign around it.
I did as the man instructed, making a few rights and finding the mermaid. It didn’t take me longer than five minutes to make it to her house. It was on a street with a few other houses. Hers stuck out, with its bright red shutters. Even though the daylight had completely surrendered to night, the red burned bright, compliments of the few street lights. I parked my car in front and sat for a second, trying to get ready for my first impression. I must’ve looked better than the last few days. I finally slept in at my last hotel I stayed and took an extra shower that morning. Another thing I was totally not used to doing—staying at hotels by myself. I must’ve checked the door lock a million times before falling asleep.
I pulled down my rearview mirror and took one last look. I tucked my hair over to the side and smeared some cherry chapstick on my lips. I had no idea what to expect of Aunt Diana. Mom had no pictures of her anywhere in the house, and she said very little of her childhood. Just the important things, like she had a mom, dad, and sister. Her parents lived overseas somewhere, and we left it like that. When it was grandparent’s day at school, Ashley and I had no one to sit with at lunch. Dad’s mom died when he was a toddler and his dad never re-married and lived in Alaska. Dad said that after his mom died, his dad was never the same.
I took a deep breath and knocked on the peeling painted door. A wood chip floated to the ground like a snowflake. I tried not to get caught looking at the dilapidation of the front porch. In the corner sat an old crunchy fern—brown and stiff. The black rocking chair was sitting at an angle from its broken wood, and a pile of leaves kept still in the corner, underneath the bay window. I wasn’t sure what the inside would look like. But beggers can’t be choosy. It was so completely nice of Aunt Diana to let me stay here while she was away. I just hoped she didn’t have a rodent problem. I couldn’t stand to think things lurked around while I was sleeping, waiting to devour me or at the very least, nibble on my toes.
“Well, looky here! My goodness, if it isn’t a replica of my sister, standing right here on my porch!” She pulled me by the arm and squeezed me to death.
“Hi, Aunt Diana. It’s so good to finally meet you in person.” I said, pulling her stray hairs from my mouth, while getting pressed like a flower.
She released me and stood back to look some more. Her piercing blue eyes managed to sparkle in the dim light. “My gracious, just as pretty as a picture.”
“Thank you,” I said. I could feel my face glowing red from the heat, and my cheeks hurt from smiling.
“Well, come on in. Sit a spell and let me prod you with a million questions.” She ushered me into her house.
I did a quick glance around the room. It was very homey. She had nice sofas with lamps on end tables. A reading chair in the corner with a tall light stretched over it. Obviously it was where she was when I knocked on the door. A book lay turned over on the ottoman in front of it. Her bookshelves held blue collectible vases, conch shells, and lots of more books. I wonder what she read. Mom only read magazines, that I could remember. Fashion and high society ones.
“So, how was your trip? I declare, I don’t know how you made that trip alone. Were you simply bored to sheer madness? Were you scared of getting stranded somewhere? By being mugged by truck drivers? Pulled over by those policemen that really ain’t the police?” She rested her hand on her hip, and hunched over waiting for my answers. The bright flowers painted on her shirt kept my attention, along with her crazy questions.
“I really didn’t think too much about it. Every time my mind wandered to all the different things that could’ve gone wrong, I played the radio and thought about something else.” Or someone else. His name was Tom and he was getting up that next morning, calling out my name, waiting for me to answer and tell him what I wanted for breakfast.
“My gracious. I just stayed busy, myself, packing up my things. Keeping focused on the time. I didn’t want to call you because I didn’t want you to swerve off the road or something like that. But I must say, I was worried.” She shifted a bit and pulled her red hair behind her ear. “Imagine that! Going through my whole life not knowing one thing about you, and then all of a sudden, I’m worried about you.”
I smiled. It was kind of nice to have someone waiting and worrying. I hadn’t had that in a long time. Mom used to, Wesley never did, who knows about Mark, seeing I really didn’t know that much about him, and Tom I was pretty certain did worry, but he didn’t count. He wasn’t female. I missed the mom-like worrying of my mother.
“Are you hungry? I’ve got leftover meatloaf, a few beans from last night’s dinner, or a chicken leg I bought tonight at the store…I swear! I told Jimmy not to give me legs. He always shoves those things on me. I’m a breast girl, you know?” She squared her shoulders and shook her head.
Aunt Diana talked fast. And with a twang. Like country singers used in those songs I never listened to on purpose. Flo had a radio in her office and I sometimes heard them on stations she’d listen to. If it weren’t for Aunt Diana’s red hair, a splattering of freckles, and a tiny turned-up nose like Mom’s, I would’ve never picked her out of a lineup to be related to me.
“I’m sort of hungry, but I don’t really care for chicken legs or meatloaf. If you have some crackers, that’ll be fine.”
“Crackers?” she asked, smacking her hand on her leg. “How you suppose to get any meat on those bones with crackers? Say, don’t you have a sister?”
“I do, she’s my twin.” And please don’t ask what she’s like. I’ll have to either lie, or say what a low-down dirty back-stabbing cheater she is. And that wouldn’t be good in the first fifteen minutes of our first impression.
“Well, I’ll be. I thought you might be. I heard something through the grapevine about it, but your mom and me, as you might know, didn’t really talk too much.”
“Yeah, why is that exactly?”
She seemed to breeze over that one, led me out to the kitchen, and pulled out a chair from the little dinette table that sat in the very center of the room. “Have a seat. I’ll get you something to eat.”
She put her finger to her lips and studied the shelves of her refrigerator. I looked around at all the cabinets. Most of them were glass-faced. Her dishes were colorful and pretty sitting inside them. Old looking. Like they were passed down from older generations. The only thing Mom had in our kitchen when I was growing up was everyday wear from a department store. The better ones stayed in the china cabinet. Which was still at Wesley’s house. I doubt Ashley would ever attempt to use them. I wasn’t pressed about packing them up on the first move out of there. There was no connection, really, to them. For years they sat unused in our cabinet at home. As far as I was concerned, they were more liability being toted around than just sitting in another cabinet in the house.
Aunt Diana put a bowl of mixed greens in front of me with a glass of iced tea. “I figured since you asked for crackers, you might not turn down a salad. Lucky for you, I bought some leaves two days ago to dress my turkey sandwiches. I just can’t eat turkey without greenery.”
“I appreciate it.” I looked toward the sink. “Mind if I wash my hands?”
“Not at all. My house is your house.”
I walked over to the sink and washed. There was a little plaque above it that read, ‘Home Sweet Home.’ “I really appreciate you letting me stay here. I had some time off from work, you know, and I just wanted to get away.”
“Goodness, when you called a few weeks ago, it was a Godsend. It’s better than locking up your house and praying it don’t burn down while you’re gone. At least I know someone is living here and seeing to things while I’m gallivanting in another country. You know, getting the mail, and seeing that nothing bursts or burns.”
“Well, I can’t thank you enough.” I returned to the table and began picking at the salad.
She had dumped an enormous amount of Ranch dressing on it. I patted each leaf, hoping some would drain off, before putting it in my mouth.
“So, you were asking about Jo and me.”
I coughed on some stray pepper. “Jo?”
“Yeah, Jo. Well, I’m sure you called her mama.”
“Well, yes we did. But, no one called her Jo. She even hated Joanna.”
“I don’t doubt it. She hated everything about everything. She hated living here, our parents…me.”
“What? She said my grandparents lived overseas, and you had run away when you were young. When she met Dad in college, there was no reason for her not to marry him and start fresh.”
“Hmm…is that what she told ya?”
Aunt Diana looked at me like she was sizing me up for something. Her eyes half-closed
and she scratched her chin—the one that sat underneath her pinched lips. “Well, it ain’t exactly the complete truth.”
My forehead folded. What exactly was the truth? At the moment I was going to ask her, the phone rang. She jumped up and pulled the receiver off the wall. It was one of those canary yellow phones with the long cord and buttons on the receiver. By the looks of how long the cord was, I imagined it could stretch into the laundry room in the back—where I had heard the buzzer for the dryer had gone off a few seconds ago.
“Linda, now what’s wrong? Talk slower, I can’t understand you.”
I crunched on a crouton and listened to Aunt Diana’s side of the conversation with
“All right, all right. I’m coming over. Don’t worry, I have an extra suitcase. I’ll bring it with me. Calm down. It’ll be all right.”
She hung the phone up and stood, shaking her head. “Deed, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Linda Murphy is one of the women going on this cruise. It seems when she went down to get a suitcase from the basement, she discovered her hot water heater had been leaking. Needless to say, they’ve got a mess now. Pete’ll clean it up, then Harvey’ll have to come over and fix it, but for now I’ve got to run a suitcase to her and help as best I can to dry-vac the basement. Freddie is bringing over two extra ones he got from when the hurricane hit us last summer. It should be a fun night.”
I swallowed some sweet tea and nearly convulsed from the shock of sugar to my system.
Were there any tea leaves in there? Or just a few twenty packets of sugar?
“Should I come and help?” I asked, clearing the stray crystals from my throat.
“Lord, no! Child, this is something we can do. We’ve got a lot of practice. Clara’s basement flooded two months ago. We’ve got a system. I’m just glad my house will be looked after so I can go on my trip with ease of mind.” She stopped abruptly from putting on the boots she kept by the back kitchen door. “That reminds me. I forgot to tell you.”
The phone rang again. She lunged from the door to pick it up. “Hello?”
I watched as she shimmied on the other boot and pressed the phone between her shoulder and ear. “Yes…all right…I’ve got one in the shed out back. I’ll bring it over.”
She hung the phone up and grabbed the keys that hung on the wall by the phone. “She needs some spotlights. Thankfully Ned worked on cars and I have a few extra.”
“Ned was my husband.” She stood looking at me with my mother’s eyes—large and translucent blue. Her mouth remained shut after giving her answer, but I was sure her brain was saying more.
“Well, I have to get going. I’ll never make it to bed early tonight, if I don’t get this stuff taken care of. Thank goodness I’m packed. I leave at five in the morning. Just help yourself to anything you see, and you’re in the bedroom upstairs on the left. It’s got the peach colored walls. If you get cold, there’s a linen closet at the end of the hall. There’s towels and washcloths in there, too. Don’t be shy.” She rubbed her head. “Seems like I’m forgetting something. I’m sorry I couldn’t show you around, but I’m sure you’re capable. After all, you drove clear across the country by yourself, to get here.”
“Okay, and thanks for the salad. Call if you need me to come and do anything. I really don’t mind.”
“You just get settled. We’ve got this. I’ll probably see you in the morning. If you’re an early riser. If not, come on over here and give me a hug. I don’t want to get the boots on the kitchen floor.” She stood with her arms stretched wide.
I got up from the table and went to hug her. She was more affectionate than Mom. She even did that ‘mmm…mmm…mmm’ when she squeezed me. “Now, you get some rest. You must be plum wore out.”
“Okay. Be careful.”
And just like that, the door banged shut, and I was alone in a strange house. A half-eaten salad on the table, a glass full of sugar cane with ice, and a low hum of a refrigerator to keep me company. If this is how the two months were going to go, I might go crazy. Because last time I checked, my brain was still screaming loudly in my ears about Tom.