Certainly, Delores believed in sharing the facts. Selfishness was not in her nature. If the facts happened to be fun, how was that her fault?
Fact 1. Her grandson had started teaching kids in Sunday School. When she asked why, he said, “it’s good practice.”
Fact 2. Her granddaughter-in-law said she was feeling bloated.
Fact 3. They were pregnant.
There were other facts, too, she just hadn’t figured them out yet. She would lay awake, going through every possible clue again, gently, carefully, like combing a little child’s hair after a bath. Yes! A little child.
On the way to the bedroom, she passed what her friend Norma called “the shrine.” This was not offensive to Delores; it was the intended effect. There were candles, dried flowers, angel sculptures – the hired mourners for her only child’s perpetual funeral, whose perfect picture hung on the wall. Perfect – just the word she’d chosen and spoken, quietly, at the photographer’s, so many years ago. “I want her to look perfect,” she said to him, getting quieter and quieter, “no acne, no shininess, no stray hairs. Perfect.” He understood and produced a product of the pre-airbrush age, not plastic, but warm, almost chiffony, like the camera had been drinking a bit and found everything beautiful and interesting.
Anyone who talked to Delores for more than 15 minutes knew about the tragedy of her only child Sally’s death. Skin cancer. Age 36. Probably from excessive use of the heat lamp that damn dermatologist suggested. For a few years their lives had become divided by doctor appointments, mind-numbing medical monologues, prescription drugs meant to simulate a virtual reality. Death can only be delayed.
But Sally was so alive! So creative. In the way she dressed, spoke. She painted a picture of a teddy bear once, and it still hung on Delores’ wall. Everyone said it was quite good. For a teddy bear. And Sally wrote lyrics. But never the music. She was always asking Delores to do it. “I hear you making up tunes when you think nobody’s around, ma,” she would say, sitting on the counter like a daughter and smiling like a friend. While they washed dishes, they would sing the hits on the radio. Sally’s favorite was Cyndi Lauper. “When she finishes a song, there’s nothing left. She’s given you everything.”
Even now, 26 years later, Delores’ heart was held together by rice paper; any pull of emotion could rip it open. So upon realizing her grandson and daughter-in-law were pregnant, she wept. A little child! It was about time the ledger of loss allow a column for gain. Of course it could never be balanced, God could never be forgiven, but it was right for Him to repent.
Tomorrow was important. Therefore sleep was important. But Delores couldn’t stop thinking. She could take one of those pills, it had been awhile – how long had it been? They would help her relax, but not help her think. A child. Just think. What would they name it? If it was a girl…
By 8:03 AM Delores had long since stopped pretending to sleep, showered, and clipped her toenails. It was a good thing too, because Norma called to share that the toaster had burnt the bread, the washer kept getting lopsided and stopping mid-cycle and UPS’ signature machine wouldn’t work and therefore they couldn’t give the package to her. All of this was the worst kind of technological warfare, prejudice against the greatest generation, and much too much for a Monday morning…
After bravely and vacantly abiding this pitter prattle, Delores was rewarded by being asked how she was.
“Oh, I’m just wonderful,” Delores said, and waited.
“It’s just a wonderful day.”
“It’s hotter than blazes out there,” Norma protested. “My clothes dried on the line in under a half hour. The neighbor girl’s got all the windows open and she’s cleaning naked. And she’s got air conditioning! Ever since he left, she’s so desperate. She might as well post a sign on the lawn and put an ad in the paper.”
“Delores?” Norma’s voice and interest peaqued at the same time. “Why are you wonderful?”
Delores pressed her lips with pleasure until they popped open with, “You can’t tell anyone.”
“Not a soul,” Norma said, smelling something cooking.
Delores lowered her voice, though there was no one in her house, and no one in Norma’s house, and no one who would have cared even if they were. “My grandson and daughter-in-law are going to have a baby,” she said.
The center of attention is a spotlight with a loose stand that swivels on a whim. Now it was warming Delores’ face and she felt – wonderful. Quite wonderful. For quite awhile. Too long. The pause was too long.
“Is Robert there?” Norma asked, at long last.
“I knew it. He just has to meet the old group at McDonald’s every afternoon for 4 hours,” Norma started the eyeroller coaster. “They don’t even eat. They just get coffee. What do they talk about? Everybody else. Thank God I never married,” she sighed. “Tell you what. I just made some muffins. I’ll bring you some.”
“Muffins?” Delores squinted, presumably to prevent her eyes from popping out. “Did you hear anything I said, Norma?”
“Have it your way.”
“Well, uh –” Lorraine stuttered, shuffling in the background. “Del, I’ll be over in a bit, alright? We’ll talk more then.”
“Don’t bother, Norma,” Delores muttered, “I don’t want to come between you and the muffins.” She hung up and dialed again. After 3 rings, Sam answered.
“Good morning, Delores.”
She hated when he called her anything but Grandma. “Good morning, dear.”
“Are you staying cool?”
“Thank goodness for the air conditioner. Believe me, it’s better than sliced bread, and I’m old enough to remember when we didn’t have either.”
“You’re not that old.”
“I’m not that young, either.”
Sammy was Delores’ favorite grandchild. And her only. But even if she had more, he’d still be her favorite. Sam was a writer. He’d been published just once, but it was in Poetry, and everybody knew that being published once in Poetry was better than being published 7 times in Reader’s Digest or Better Homes and Gardens or whatever garbage that was only good enough for the Dentist’s office.
“How is the writing today?” Delores gushed, twirling the phone cord girlishly. It was for moments like this that she had refused to buy a cell phone. It did not support mannerisms.
“Well, you know, I’m not really doing that,” Sam mumbled.
“Then what are you doing?” Dolores tried to make her concern sound like curiosity.
“Oh, some landscaping,” he sighed. “You know, planting shrubs, uprooting them, planting them in the same spot again.”
“Why can’t those people decide what they want the first time?” Delores had no stomach for fickleness and this reeked of fickleness.
“Don’t be too hard on them, Delores,” Sam could be heard smirking, “a lot of times they just forget.”
“Don’t argue with your grandmother,” Delores settled the matter.
He chuckled. A bit oddly, it seemed. “Well. How are you doing?”
Delores saw an opening. “Oh, I’m fine, dear,” she pivoted and threw. “I’m just worried about Sylvie.”
“Oh?” Sam fumbled.
“Sylvie, your wife,” she teased. As casually as possible, she reminded Sam of yesterday’s after church potluck: Sylvie’s announcement that the salad was tired from traveling across the country and muttering that it didn’t matter because she was bloated anyway.
“Bloated,” he laughed. “She says that when she drinks a glass of water. The way she manages her diet, you’d think she was a model.” It was Sam’s turn to pivot. “Which of course she could be if she wanted.”
“Of course she could,” Delores smiled, “now put her on the phone.”
In the background, a garbled mass appeared; the only words that found form were “hey”, “Delores” and “patient”.
“Hi, Delores,” Sylvie said.
Again with the Delores. Where was her grand title? Yes, Sylvie was only related by marriage, but she was still related, and now she had introduced Sam to this first name business; it was like meeting someone at a convention, or a cashier at a grocery store. Delores wouldn’t do it.
“Hello dear,” she responded, “Now, tell me, truthfully: how are you?” Delores blossomed into a malaise so baroque it would inspire dissatisfaction in a daisy.
Unfortunately, Sylvie understood this as an opportunity to complain about work – or rather, the people at work. As a web designer for a premier women’s retailer, she was always reporting to some trendy twit with too many ideas. The latest edition was a regrettable being named Space. His first, and as far as Delores could see, only, mistake was suggesting that Sylvie be more spontaneous. “I can be spontaneous,” she foamed, “just watch me combust.”
Delores realized this would require a more finessed finagling. “If only he knew how sick you feel,” she cooed, “men are so useless about these things.”
“I didn’t say he was a man; he may not even be human,” Sylvie sighed, needing a hit of oxygen for the next wave, but Delores intercepted.
“Of course not, dear, how can you be human until you’ve had another life inside you?” Delores blurted. It was like she had dropped a tray of dishes in a restaurant. Everything stopped.
The only suitable response was “What?” so Sylvie said it.
Delores laughed, “Well, what’s the point in pussyfooting?” not realizing until now just how weird that word was.
The silence had a temperature, and it was below freezing. There was some scuffling and Sam was on the line again.
“Delores, look, um. I told you this, a while ago; don’t you…?…well. We – ” he breathed in like it was something he hadn’t done in a long time. “We can’t – we can’t.”
Delores could hear his words, but she could not hold them; whenever she tried to squeeze tighter they slipped out.
“I’m sorry,” she said, from memory. Someone said something, someone said something else, someone hung up. Delores stared at the table for an amount of time. It seemed that she might need a new prescription for her glasses. Everything looked so blurry. Making the short pilgrimage to the shrine was more difficult than usual.
But it was worth it, always, for there she was again, in mementos, in paintings, in photographs; if you’re lost and you look then you will find me, time after time. Her dear daughter Cyndi. Her only daughter.
The doorbell rang. Delores’ heart punched her in the ribs. Cyndi? She peeked through the blinds. No, it was just an old woman holding on to a plate of muffins. Probably some nosy neighbor. Still, she seemed nice.
What a great story, Ben. How masterfully you’ve conveyed the little illusions that we allow ourselves so as to keep painful truths at a distance. This belongs in an anthology. Submit it to publications that pay money for good stories.
My hearty actually ached a little when I finished this. I thought of my Grandma Wiher. This is her. It’s her.
Heart, not hearty. I can’t even blame my iPhone for that error. It was all human.
Love it Ben! Reminds me so much of reading Flannery O’Conner!