Edith Willoughby used scraps of newspaper and clear tape to mark her possessions. In her shaky scrawl she wrote her daughter’s name, Sarah, and tore it from the edge of an article about a mother who drove her minivan into the ocean with her three children strapped inside. Edith’s plan was that when she died, her homemade labels would serve to return gifts to the people who had given them to her in the first place, and to divvy up the few valuables she had bought on her own. They were all that she had left to offer.
Her daughters and her son would find names taped to the bottoms of lamps, on jewelry boxes, behind the pictures on the walls, and on the undersides of her better furniture, and there would be less bickering—less pillaging—than if they went through her things without any direction at all.
The minivan mother, Edith decided as she attached Sarah’s name to the little box that contained her new pearl necklace, hadn’t picked up adequate speed to get deep enough before the engine stalled. Instead, two young men who happened to be on the beach that day pried her fingers from the steering wheel and hauled Mrs. Cryforhelp out of the surf, but only after they’d rescued the children from their car seats.
Edith collected many of her pricier possessions on her birthdays. March 23rd meant a dinner out with Sarah and her husband. It was a punctual, skip-the-appetizer affair, fraught with Jerry’s wallet-tension while the menus were up around the table. Once the waitress had taken their orders, Jerry faked interest in his mother-in-law. While Edith and Sarah carried the conversation, he stole glances at his watch and at the youngest females in the room. The meal ended with the obligatory dessert, the presentation of the ironically expensive bauble, and Jerry’s line-item review of the check.
She used to see Sarah and her family more than three times a year (they also visited with her on Mother’s Day and Christmas), but that was before the kids were in school and they needed Edith to babysit. She missed her grandsons most of all, and they hadn’t even come to the restaurant this year.
On her birthday she received a card and flowers from her other daughter, Melinda, who lived in Texas. Jonathan sent a check from Florida, and always wrote her age on the memo line—this year, 78.
She’d saved every dime of the money from Jonathan and tucked it away in a bank account in his name. What else could she do with it? Drag herself on bum legs to a tanning salon? Limp through a clothing store in search of a scarf that might tastefully disguise the hump on her back?
Edith stayed in touch with her only living friend through long letters. Angie had better luck with her children, proven again when she moved across the country with her middle daughter, the one who doted on her. Edith penned the lovely-sounding California address on an envelope and sealed it, all the while dreaming of the warmth of the sun and days when she could cross a room without huffing for air.
The appliance-yellow telephone jangled on the kitchen wall. Edith remained at her desk, too slow to reach it before the answering machine picked up. She listened as the machine beeped through to the fuzziness of its open speaker.
“Hi, Mom.” It was Sarah, her voice wavering. “I have a favor to ask.” Pause. “Mom? Can you pick up?” Longer pause and what sounded like a whimper. “Oh God, I’ll just ask…can you watch the kids on Wednesday nights for a few weeks? There’s a spin class I want to take and Jerry has meetings. I just have to do something for myself or I think I’m going to crack up. Okay, Mom? Thanks, call me.”
The following Wednesday, Edith drove the ten miles from her apartment building to Sarah’s house, noticing along the way that spring had arrived with its extended, hopeful dusk. The silhouetted trees were heavy with buds, and at one red light spring peepers called in earnest from a drainage ditch. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had plans.
Edith made circles with her fingertips on the pearly granite countertop as Sarah wrote her cell phone number and the number to the gym in extra-large print on a memo pad. She nodded when Sarah opened the refrigerator to show Edith the chicken and pasta casserole, and folded her hands as Sarah scribbled “350 degrees, 35 minutes” on the pad below the phone numbers. It wasn’t until her daughter leaned in for an awkward hug that Edith noticed the deep worry creases between Sarah’s eyebrows.
She waited until her daughter drove off before she told the boys that they were going out to eat.
In the car, Jerry Jr. sat in the front, his arms folded across his chest. “Twelve is too old for a babysitter,” she’d overheard him protest to his mother. Ryan stayed quiet in the backseat. Edith concentrated on her driving. “You guys remember that little Mexican restaurant we used to go to, don’t you?” Her voice was strong and clear.
“Oh yeah…” Ryan said. “They fry ice cream there.”
“My dad hates that place,” Jerry Jr. said, and the space between the three of them went stale again.
“Yeah, but Dad hates everything.”
The boys ran ahead as Edith hobbled across the parking lot. There was a slight incline, and she needed to stop and rest. She leaned against a red sports car, imagining how much easier it would have been to eat at Sarah’s kitchen table. Jerry Jr. rolled his eyes when he saw how far behind she was. He sat and drummed his fingers on the outdoor table. Edith hauled herself up the curb and was panting by the time she got to the door.
“Are you okay?” Ryan asked. She nodded, shuffled to the nearest table, and sat.
“But we order the food over there.” Jerry Jr. pointed to the counter.
“You guys…”—breath—“…don’t really need…”—breath—“…a babysitter anymore.” She dug two twenties out of her purse and handed them to Jerry Jr. The boy’s eyes widened and he pointed to his own chest in a “you mean me?” gesture. He rubbed the bills together between his thumb and index finger. “Get your grandmother two beef tacos…”—breath—“…and a ginger ale.”
Edith worked at calming her heart, her eyes closed and hands clasped as if in prayer. After a minute, she blinked and looked around the narrow, windowless restaurant. A young couple flirted at a nearby table, and two young men ate heartily at another. The space was brighter than she remembered, and the tables had been rearranged.
Mexicans still manned the kitchen, but a middle-aged white man with slick, dark hair stood straight as a plank behind the register. Edith thought he must be the new owner. She watched him poke at the register keys and purse his lips as he took the order from the boys with an unfriendly intensity. He slid the sodas across the counter. When Ryan asked for straws, the man said nothing, only pointed to the utensil station along the opposite wall.
The boys came back and set the sodas on the table. Jerry Jr. held out the change. “It was only $23.69.”
“You two can split the change.”
Ryan’s eyebrows shot up. He grinned broadly and looked to his brother. Jerry Jr.’s expression was subtler, but a smile was there. He stuffed the money into his pocket and told Ryan they would count it out at home.
“Thanks, Grandma,” Jerry Jr. said.
While they waited for the food, the boys sipped and fidgeted. Edith studied Jerry Jr.’s serious eyes, their broodiness accented with eyebrows that had grown dark and thick. His younger brother resembled Sarah, and his cheeks were still soft and fatty. Finally, Ryan said: “Dad says it isn’t safe to drive with you.”
“They were arguing about you,” Jerry Jr. added.
Edith didn’t know exactly how to respond. “People argue,” she offered, “because they can’t control everything.”
“Some people argue a lot,” Ryan said.
A peppy young waiter with a red bandanna knotted around his neck ended the uneasy conversation. He set their overflowing plates on the table, wiped his hands on his battered apron, and urged them to enjoy. For a moment, the three of them inhaled the aromas from the spicy meats, crispy brown tortillas, and melted cheese. Then they dug in. They were ravenous.
Jerry Sr. stood sentry in the front doorway. When he spotted Edith’s car, he stepped onto the brightly lit porch and placed his hands on his hips. She had his attention now. “I didn’t think he’d be home already,” she said as the boys scrambled out of the car. They shut the doors and Ryan said good-bye through Edith’s window.
Edith backed the car down the driveway slowly enough to watch Jerry Jr. approach his father, arms out, palms up, as if to explain that it wasn’t his fault. Ryan stayed several steps behind. He was the last one in the door and had one foot in the house when he looked back toward Edith and waved.
When Edith got home there were three short, white-noise messages on her answering machine and a message from Sarah: “Hi, Mom. Um, you didn’t tell me you were taking the boys out for dinner. I mean, they actually had a nice time—of course they would—it’s just that Jerry and I prefer that you stay at the house.” Long pause and a sigh. “It’d be easier, don’t you think? Anyway, thanks. It was really nice to get out.”
“Yes, it was.” She deleted the messages.
Her phone rang once more that evening, but again the caller failed to leave a message. Edith was so tired that she went to bed early and slept late the next morning.
Happy to hear that the Philadelphia spring is finally coming your way. I’m so spoiled here in the “Golden State.” I’m sorry you didn’t get to see your grandsons on your birthday. I know how much you’ve missed them.
Vanessa and her husband are taking me to see the giant sequoias next month. Did you know that some of them are 3,000 years old? Other than that I’ve been lying low, doing a little cooking and laundry to try and earn my keep, but I sure have slowed down these days. Which reminds me—you should see your doctor about that shortness of breath!
Edith, I think we both know that we’ll never see each other again. I can’t imagine either one of us making a cross-country trip now. I want you to know how much I’ve cherished our friendship. I just want to say it straight out like that. I love you, Edith.
Edith’s phone rang more than usual over the weekend. There were blank messages on the answering machine when she came home from getting her hair done and after grocery shopping. She was sure it was a telemarketer. Finally, late Wednesday afternoon, shortly before she was going to leave to see the boys again, she happened to be standing next to the phone when it rang.
“Oh, I’m so glad I’ve finally reached you.”
“Edith, this is Angie Decker’s daughter, Vanessa. Are you sitting down?”
Edith sat, already knowing. “I’m sitting.”
“Mom died last week.” Vanessa’s voice caught as she said the words. “I’ve been trying to call you. I just couldn’t leave a message.”
Edith leaned her head against the wall, and the hand that held the receiver drooped onto her shoulder.
“Are you there?”
“I’m so sorry,” Edith said stiffly as she pressed the phone to her ear again.
“We’re thankful that it was quick and peaceful. That she died at home.”
“That’s a blessing.” Edith’s eyes spilled over. “That’s a blessing.”
“I’m so sorry to tell you over the phone, but I had to let you know. She always said you were her best friend.”
“Thank you for calling, dear. I have to get off the phone now.”
Edith drove mechanically to Sarah’s house. She was late and she hit every red light along the way. A stiff wind roared through the trees and rattled the car as she waited at the intersections.
The memo pad instructions were on the countertop again, and this time Sarah simply told her that dinner was in the refrigerator before she dashed out of the house with her gym bag. Edith’s lateness had spared her a lecture.
She told the kids to get in the car.
She scored the closest parking spot, but the wind still managed to ruin her hair. The boys helped to hoist her up the curb, and she was only huffing a little when they walked into the restaurant together.
It was busier than it had been the week before. The new owner bantered with a large group at four tables pushed together, his hands on the shoulders of two of the men. Edith and the boys passed behind him on their way to the counter. There was tequila and wine and raucous laughter, but the noise couldn’t overpower the thoughts of Angie floating through Edith’s mind.
The owner excused himself from the group and made his way to the register, since they were there and needed his attention. Edith smoothed her hair while he flashed his ultra-bright teeth at them and told them about the specials and a new item on the menu. His smile dissolved as they ordered nachos and soda, tacos and quesadillas again.
They chose a table at the front of the restaurant, and they’d just taken their seats when Ryan said they’d forgotten to ask for ground beef on the nachos.
“Go ask for it,” Edith said. “It isn’t too late.”
Ryan waited at the counter for several minutes before the owner, who was enjoying the party group again, returned to meet him. No smile this time, and after he spoke to Ryan he rolled his eyes before passing instructions on to one of the cooks.
Their food was again well presented, but Edith couldn’t taste a thing. She chewed slowly and managed only a few bites. “It’s a shame…” she said, “…the way people treat each other.” The sound of her own voice brought a welling up inside her, a feeling that it was all too much. Tears streaked down her cheeks, and the boys stopped chewing and stared. She dabbed at her face with her napkin.
“I’m sorry,” she said, composing herself. “It’s been a difficult day.” She forced deep breaths. Old people getting emotional only led to coddling. A single show of sorrow or anger and people started thinking you were losing it. Despite her best efforts, another tear slid from her eye.
Ryan reached across the table to place his hand on hers, and in doing so he knocked over his drink. The plastic cup hit the table with a slap, and 16 ounces of brown soda pooled and ran over the edge. Jerry Jr. pulled a bunch of napkins from the dispenser at their table, and Ryan grabbed some from the table behind them. They began to drop them onto the puddles. Edith grabbed a stack as well.
“Don’t waste all those napkins!” the owner’s voice boomed. The chattering party table quieted like a flock of startled birds, and they all looked back and forth between him and Edith and the boys. The owner closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’ll clean it up with rags,” he said. “Just leave it.”
The boys tried to push the napkins that they still held back into the dispensers. “Just set them down, guys,” Edith said. She stuffed her own stack into her jacket pocket. They hadn’t eaten even half of their meals, but they looked at each other, nodded, and stood to go. Employees with rags descended on their table.
A stone-faced Jerry Jr. held the door for her, but Edith stopped short and turned back to the hushed patrons. She tilted her chin toward the ceiling, ever so slightly. “I think we all know,” she announced, “that you won’t be seeing us again.”
The wind buffeted them on the sidewalk. They approached the curb and Ryan took Edith’s arm. She paused at the edge, pulled the napkins from her pocket, and leaning on Ryan for balance, tossed them into the air. A strong gust took them flapping and careening into the night, and for the first time in years Edith heard her grandsons laugh out loud.
Jerry Sr. was already at the top of the porch steps when Edith turned into the driveway. He took a cigarette from his mouth and crushed it under his heel. “I didn’t know he smoked,” Edith said.
“Only when he’s really mad,” Ryan said.
“We’re not going to see you again,” Jerry Jr. said.
“I like how you say it straight out like that.” Edith winked at him.
“It sucks,” Ryan said. Their father was on the driveway now.
“No regrets,” Edith told them. “It was worth it, don’t you think?” She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “Go on now.”
Their father pulled Jerry Jr.’s door handle, and when it didn’t open he ducked his head to glare at Edith through the glass. Edith ignored him and pressed the unlock button. The boys slid out of the car and slammed the doors. She shifted into reverse and pulled out of the driveway without looking back.
She stopped at the gas station two miles from Sarah’s house. She thanked the scrawny, pimply attendant who filled her tank, bought a map, and asked him to help her with the directions. After he’d highlighted the best route with a red marker, she tipped him $20.
“Goin’ to the casinos?” He grinned at Edith as he tucked the marker and the bill into his breast pocket.
“That’s not a bad idea,” she said, starting her engine. “But what I really want is to see the ocean.”
Edith pulled away from the gas station and headed for the Jersey Shore. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been on the highway.
Joan Hill lives and works in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her fiction has appeared in Prick of the Spindle Online and in the anthologies Chester County Fiction and Unclaimed Baggage: Voices of the Main Line Writers Group.