He shifted from one cheek to the other in the duct-taped leatherback rolling chair and scowled at the two of them. “I don’t care which of you threw the baby into the street,” he lied.
“I did it.” Maisy licked her bottom lip. Problematic Maisy. The way she said it, so self-assured and unapologetic, no remorse for dragging James down with her.
“Well, but, I helped,” James defended, all but fawning at her over his horn-rims.
“Well, but,” she went on, “I threw it in front of the Escalade.”
They stood before him in the office like a pair of jostled bobble heads, Maisy as indifferent as she could be to the severity of her actions and James risking his integrity for enthrallment with a girl he’d never catch. Twentysomethings behaving like middle schoolers.
Edgar, fifty-three and in charge of yahoos, was unable to divorce himself from silliness, being manager of Nub’s Novelties, the gag shop his dad started. He kept his badger-gray hair cut short, pedantic about the curl that would manifest if he skipped his Friday visits to Vince’s. Liberal in politics only, he often wished the family business had been groceries or golf clubs. His eyes, louring behind rimless glasses he got at Russ’ Optical, could never quite hide his desire to be something other than what he had become. Spinning around to his desk, he prodded the tire-treaded baby doll lying there with his quick-bitten fingertips. The glitter ball antennae mounted on its head went doy-oy-oing. “I get it’s April Fool’s Day and the store has a reputation for pranks every year but this crossed a line.”
“How’m I supposed to raise a mutant alien baby on eight-sixty-three an hour?”
James snickered until Edgar’s look.
“Distressing motorists is not funny! Especially in the workplace.”
“But this was outside the workplace.” She pointed a thumb over her shoulder, as spitefully composed as he was purpleptic. “Just out front.”
He raked his khakis at the knees. “How many years do we have to keep going over our policy on bare shoulders?”
Her eyebrows met sharply and she crossed her arms high, the way women do when untoward attention has been drawn to their chests. “My shoulders aren’t bare.”
Technically she was right. Over the forbidden tank top she wore her apron and over that a brown hoody with white flowers machine-embroidered on the pockets. The hoody, however, was unzipped, thus revealing the tank top under her apron, which, though not in danger of ruffling any gizzards, nevertheless violated dress code. Edgar yanked the bottom drawer open with a metal squeal, its rollers long gone and aerosol lubricant ineffective, and withdrew two orange sheets with a licked forefinger. “I’m writing you up twice,” he said, reaching for a ballpoint pen. “Once for the incident. Once for the tank top.” He screeched the drawer shut.
“It was my idea,” James insisted, his Adam’s apple bobbing with wherewithal.
“But you’ve never—”
“He’s got it out for women,” she cut in, burning through Edgar’s authority with her glare. “That’s what this is about. He hates my kind.”
That sort of accusation would be more palatable coming from a dumpy, unattractive female but the fact that she looked quite nice with nothing more than mascara and lip gloss added that particular venom the aging bachelor had never built a resistance to. The real shame was that such a sweet looking girl could carry such an antagonistic personality—and a ruthless command of intergenerational sexual politics.
Edgar separated the disciplinary forms, sliding them side by side, and uncapped the pen. “I’ll write you both up once,” he conceded.
“What,” she scoffed, “you don’t think I can handle being written up twice?”
“Zip up your front and get back to the register,” he snarled.
She turned her back to him and zipped her hoody to the collar.
“You can have your baby at the end of the day, so long as I never see it again.”
“I’m just going to throw it out anyway,” she said over her shoulder.
“Back to the redge!”
She swatted without concern, robin’s egg nail polish flashing, and flung open the door to the sales floor.
“There she is,” his father hooted from out there. It being Dad’s favorite day of the year, he must’ve just arrived to perpetrate his annual prank.
“Nubby!” Always greeting or leaving the silly old man with hugs, she pranced off for their embrace, which James watched from the jamb and Edgar witnessed by ear. They both made the drawn-out huggy noise, signifying it really counted.
“Listen,” Dad said conspiratorially, “I need your help with something.”
James started as if to join them, out there where affection blossomed, but Edgar gestured for him to close the door, which he did. James, the one employee he thought had his act together, bent his elbows to chicken wings and twiddled a mechanical pencil between his fingers with the intensity of one struggling with a Chinese finger trap.
Edgar exhaled loudly, louder than he meant it, and slipped the ballpoint back into his breast pocket. “James…” Pulling off his glasses, he added emphasis by rubbing the inside corners of his eyes. “She lives with her boyfriend.”
James ceased twiddling.
“It’s been a long time, sure, but I went through it all when I was your age. I went right through it and these things, I wish someone had told me what I can tell you now.” He re-seated his eyeglasses and put his hands out as if illustrating the length of a bass he once caught, hardly impressive in size but emphasized nevertheless for how greatly it had fought the line. “It’s no use ever wanting anything. We never get what we want – and what we want changes. As in, those things we want will change, especially when what we want is a girl or, or, a woman, a lady.” He felt so helpful sharing this wisdom, long back extracted from the ore of his life, the gold of which he hoarded for twenty, twenty-five years, not by choice but for lack of ever finding a grubstake partner. Emboldened by his employee’s deference, he laid out how, even if she left her fella, moved out that night and opened the door for James or anyone else who might wander into her clutches, she would inevitably, be it in a year, a month, even a week, become someone totally different. “Before we know it,” he reiterated, “Sheila will be someone else. Irrecognizable.”
The name sliced clean through. “What now?”
“You said ‘Sheila.’”
“No, Maisy,” he flinched. Had he said…? The name had, he knew, a habit of falling out of his mouth. But never before when speaking at anybody. Always a low whisper in a quiet moment. Always declaring itself in his own voice, completely independent of conscious control. If he had it his way, he’d never hear himself saying her name again – which is apparently what had just happened.
“Hi-ho, hi-ho,” his silver-haired father piped, shuffling in and throwing a thumbs-up to somebody on the floor before shutting the door. Stomach stuck out so his Houndstooth sport coat parted to either side, he bounced his eyebrows and elbowed James, making the skinny kid wobble like a bumped hat stand. “Mail came!” He held up a bunch of envelopes, the rubber band that had bundled them now around his wrist. It was his habit to save rubber bands for no good reason. Mom, too. Spry for eighty-five, he presented the daily invoices and junk mail with a formal lunge. “You might want to take a look at the top one there.”
He took the bundle and set it next to the flattened doll without a glance. “Dad, I know what day it is and we’ve already had more than enough fun for the whole year today.” He leaned over and shook the doll’s leg. Its antennae went doy-oy-oing again.
The old man ogled the ruined merchandise with a cocked eyebrow. “Maisy mentioned—”
“She went way over the line!”
“It was my prank,” James threw in.
“Well, but,” Nub said, leveling a soft eye at the scrawny young man and emphasizing with hands out in that fish-I-once-caught manner, “there’s being ornery and there’s misdemeanorism.”
James’s cheeks lit.
“I know you won’t do it again!” Dad lassoed an arm around his shoulders and yanked him so he tilted on one foot into a side-hug. Management By Compassion: his father’s preached and practiced philosophy, so effective in its method that whenever he came around and employed it, Edgar’s way was made to fall somewhere between straw bossery and fascism.
“Why’re you such a grumble-gus, Edgar?” He let go of James and pointed at the mail. “You should look at that letter!”
Taking the top envelope, smaller than the others and lavender, it was indeed addressed to him. And the return address…
It was from…
He breasted the letter and vaulted, the chair careening into the desk. “First the baby in the street and then this?” he roared. “And the two of you setting it up, first you with the name game,” he pointed at James, “and then you with this, and your lecture about the difference between ornery and misdemeanors? This goes far, far beyond April Fool’s! This is…”
They fell to the sides like fainting goats. Throwing open the door, Edgar stormed onto the sales floor. Maisy, Ryan, James, Nicolle and a handful of shoppers were staring, as if expecting him. Perplexed, he turned around into a tinkling waterfall of Styrofoam peanuts. White and pastel green and pink, he swatted at the snowing stuff, totally bewildered till looking up. The last of it slid out of a tipped cardboard box, upended from a careful propping when he had opened the door. While the public laughed, Edgar stormed into the back, peanuts that settled on his shoulders wafting away with each stride.
“That was my prank,” Dad explained as he stomped past, retreating through the narrow hall to the stock rooms. All but running, shelves stacked with fart putty, kaleidoscopes, and Groucho nose glasses streaked by, Edgar unwittingly following the diseased strains of Geoff’s music to the center of the labyrinth. The über-sludge matched in slow-pummeling aural horror the trauma playing out within. Staggering into the receiving room, Geoff nowhere in sight, probably smoking out back, he made for the shelf holding the keening boombox. Finding at last the volume slider, he cut the noise and collapsed, back against the shelf, knocking two boxed ant farms to the floor. He pulled away his glasses and pressed his thumb into one puckered eye and then the other.
Geoff, twirling his forked goatee, stepped out from behind a stack of boxes waiting to be checked in. He was dressed as always in black, today’s shirt reading “PWN3D.” His tattoos of monsters and dominatrixes crawled from under the sleeves down his forearms. “Oh hey,” he said, box cutter in hand. “I was like, where’d the music go?”
“Is that all you listen to?”
He shrugged. “I got Bat Womb.”
“Sounded more like Bat Grave.”
“No, that was Aldebaran.” He turned and slashed through the tape on a fresh box.
Edgar withdrew and immured himself in the closet-sized room where they kept stilts and pogo sticks, swiping blindly for the light string half a dozen times before catching its thread. The lavender thing in his hand had weight, a dreadful significance that its domestic dressings could not perfume. Even the postage, a Forever stamp, lent a pall. He pulled the ballpoint pen from his breast pocket and used the cap to open it in stuttered slices. Inside were two pages, folded once to fit. Old lady stationery, lilacs around the edges. Her almost cursive print. Her mother’s address, a phone number and e-mail in the top right of the first page.
I hope it is ok for me to write to you like this. Its been a very long time. I am actually in Des Moines but not sure how long, probably a month at the very least because my Mom is in hospice.
His lungs tightened.
My Dad should be flying in from Arizona to see her sometime this week. And of course Carrie still lives here in town. (She says she comes to the store every Christmas for Luke and Leia’s stocking stuffers. Did she tell you I’m divorced? Three years free)
Matter of fact, he had heard that. Heard it before the divorce was final. He let out the breath he was holding and flipped the first page behind the second.
My girls are both in college and they were just here for their spring breaks to say their goodbyes. I’m staying at Mom’s until its at least on the market. Then back to Boulder. Did you know I opened a cupcakery there? Next year will be fifteen years in business. My wonderful assistants are running it while I’m here.
It would be nice to see you. Maybe for dinner? Where do old people eat now that Phil’s is gone? Baker’s Square?
Hoping your well,
p.s. I thought an old fashioned letter might be the best way to contact you. If not, then sorry to bother you.
Her maiden name.
He had not heard about her mother.
Edgar stayed in back the rest of the day with that elephant tucked into his breast pocket. It was only on his drive home that something bit through the numbness. Driving past Perkins Elementary, where the road fell before rising on 44th, he invoked his customary end-of-the-day stress reliever: acceleration. The twenty-year-old Excel’s four cylinders hiccupped, life in them yet. Up the other side of the hill, his stomach lifting at the crest, the slope failed to cut his speed but the light ahead was red and his foot did what his judgment would not, the car skidding nose out into Franklin Avenue, a pickup curving by in Dopplered honk. Cranking into reverse, Edgar lurched the car back out of the intersection and braked as hard again. There he stewed, wringing the wheel. The light changed and he drove on to Allison Avenue. Tenth house on the right, the white duplex with the blue-gray roof, Mom and Dad on the east side and him on the west. He pulled in behind their car, a 2004 Mercury, and made an effort to prune his seething. Dad may have told Mom. Probably had.
Their kitchen light was on but the living room was dark so he closed his car door quiet as he could, testing that it was locked with a pump of the handle, and crept up the front walk and onto the broad, roofed porch. As he opened his screen door a fwoosh came from their side and Mom stuck her curly blonde head outside.
“Ooh, there’s a chill.” She shook her cheeks and, leaning to touch his arm, drizzled on the treacle. “How was your day, Precious?” She had on her white jacket. She had lain in wait.
“Uh, Maisy threw a doll at an SUV and accused me of hating women and then Dad got me with a box of packing peanuts propped over a door.”
“Well he told me about the letter.”
Edgar stared at his door, wanting to be behind it.
“You know what I’ve told you for a long time now,” his eighty-three year old mother reminded him. “It won’t always be like this. And I don’t want you to throw away the opportunity to get to know someone special all over again. You two were such a great pair.” She nodded. “You don’t have to tell me what she said.”
“Her mother’s in hospice.” His voice sounded more normal than it felt to say.
“Oh dear…” She looked out on their quiet street. “I should send—do you know where she is?”
He shook his head.
“Well, find out.”
“Mom.” He unlocked his door. “I don’t…”
“You do,” she assured, grinning up at him. “Oh yes, you do.”
“No, I really don’t.”
“Listen,” she chirped, jabbing his jacket with a thin finger, “how would it feel if something were wrong with me and you reached out to her and she rebuffed you? We don’t do that. We didn’t raise you or your sister to be cruel. Especially when someone’s dying, that’s when we set aside our pride. That isn’t when we take a stand.”
He kissed her on the forehead, saw that she made it back inside with door locked, and went in his side of the house to fix himself a tuna melt. He stood at the counter eating it along with a dill pickle and the last of Mom’s potato salad straight from the Tupperware. The reality weight loss show that on occasion dampened his eyes was on, but he left the forty-two inch TV in the front room off. When he got down to half a triangle of sandwich, he had to do something about that letter. Still in his breast pocket, the more he focused on its physical proximity to his heart, the angrier he became. He tore a paper towel from the roll over the sink and wiped his fingers thoroughly, not wanting to tarnish the kryptonitic envelope with grease smudges. Holding it again displaced his spirit, the heat in his hands retreating from its touch. Then, quite against himself, he unsheathed the letter and moved to the living room, to the antique lamp by his leather recliner. Leaning into the red-amber Tiffany glow, he drew the letter into the lemon underlight.
Every line written out in her hand, recognizable after the years, unzipped him with evocations. The closest effect to this, which hadn’t come all that close, was her sister coming into the store every Christmas with her twins, Edgar knowing they very well could have been his niece and nephew. Meeting them at yearly intervals, growth rendering them new every time when those faces could have been familiar. A perennial strike inspiring the realization that he could have been a parent himself and that his kids would have called Carrie’s cousins. Could have had two daughters in college. All of it raised rotting questions he hated.
Her mother. He last saw her at True Value Hardware. Years after he left Sheila for no clear reason. He’d gone to buy the laser line level that since reminded him of the encounter. Every time he hung something there was Ms. Baumgarten cradling a heavy bag of birdseed in her arms, enough to last the season. When she saw him standing down the aisle, eyebrows lifted and trying to smile, she spun and fled, expressionless but for her crescendo-ing pace. Des Moines being the size it is, he always figured it would happen again, crossing paths. In all the years it did not. He recalled her as distracted. Sheila’s dad left only a few years before he knew them, left for a suburban lady who had a name he couldn’t recall and a job at the jewelry counter at Penney’s. Soon they were off to Arizona. Edgar loathed Mr. Baumgarten most for the way his cold finality to relationships had bled into Sheila. Her mother was in her early fifties when their marriage ended, as old as Edgar was now.
Eventually he turned on the TV. Muted. Looked like after the news—a pallet fire and some school board thing from the preview—Pressman was interviewing a blonde. Edgar liked to stay up to see him make screw of the president. But his eyes escaped to the shelves of LPs lining the base of the carpeted staircase. He thought about it, decided against it, getting out and playing that one 45, which he kept atop the spines of the albums ranging Springsteen to Al Stewart. Apparently she did remember once upon a time. No need, as he’d once done regularly, and still might once or twice a year when his spirit flushed to its lowest, to have the Moody Blues ask the empty living room for him. Edgar lifted “Your Wildest Dreams,” slipped her letter beneath it, and set the sleeved 45 down like a paperweight. Then he went back to the kitchen and washed down the last of his grilled sandwich with a glass of fiber.
It all caught up with him in bed. After laying still for what seemed a long time, head under the pillow, his fingers clenched themselves into nail-less claws. Rigid, they scratched repeated strokes at the bed. Slow raking. He wished the pillow-top zinged like slate.
When he’d heard she had a daughter, he questioned whether he loved her or just the idea of her and, when the distance grew with news of another girl, he resolved to forget Sheila. He failed. Those feelings no one would ever think to be raging inside the dour middle aged man so many years later.
In his experience, conservation of mass was as true for the emotional world as it was for the physical. Atoms of love could not be destroyed. They could only be rearranged, a few at a time, into molecules of hate. And so he hated her.
And so he would not see her.
The teenage hostess sized him up with a mandatory smile and pulled a menu from the podium. “One?”
“There should be two of us.”
She withdrew a second menu and led him past the pie case through the beiged and marooned restaurant. Plastic ivy drooped from planters along booths where a meager diaspora of old folks, fewer than he expected for a Friday night, were set around the room before bird-picked plates. Probably saving room for that slice of dessert their stomachs had anticipated all week. The hostess tried seating him at a table out in the open but he desired to sit along the wall and asserted so. The girl acquiesced with insulted pride, as if he had affronted her seating abilities, which he had, albeit in a way he thought amicable. Sitting, he sloughed his shiny brown leather jacket in an escape artist squirm rendered more awkward by sitting. The girl left with an indifferent salutation as he struggled to free himself.
Mom won out in the end, his stubborn stand bending to penitent kneel under her persistence. Her winning blow: “CALL” written in mustard inside the turkey sandwich she packed for his lunch. If she knew he always lifted the top slice to lay a fresh layer of chips, perhaps she knew best. Thankfully, once he agreed to make the call, Mom let him be. Dad never said a word one way or the other, save for his fondness for Sheila’s behind. The old man probably couldn’t relate to the situation at all, having been committed to the same woman for over sixty years. What could he relate to in Edgar’s failing?
Eighteen minutes early by his watch, a long wait lay ahead even if her grasp on time had improved over the decades. Given his matured tendency to get places even earlier than he used to, a five minute credit in her favor seemed appropriate, putting her only ten minutes late. So, doing the math, twenty-eight minutes left. He tried to imagine the fifty-year-old woman who would sit across the table at the end of this, the final stretch in whatever you might call the opposite of a race. A long-running forfeit maybe.
When nervous, Edgar’s bottom perspired. Nobody knew this but him. He had never told a soul because he wasn’t close enough to anybody. Time yet, he got up and went to the men’s room. Ensconced in the handicapped stall, he undid his trousers and sat on the toilet. Leaning left and then right he dabbed the sweat from each buttock with toilet paper and thought.
He once saw a deal on IPBN where they said something like every seven years all of the cells in your body have died and been replaced by new ones. If it were true, he and she both were new people three and a half times over since last seeing one another. He wondered not only about the Sheila he would find but the Sheilas he had missed. And how life for him had not changed all that much in a long time but, nevertheless, there had been Edgars before the Edgar he was right then, each of them mutely pining for this evening. This was, he knew, the most significant thing to happen to him since Dad handed over management of the store twenty-five years ago.
He flushed the tissues and got his trousers in order and then, a quick wash at one of the two sinks, made sure he looked okay. At home he had trimmed his nose hair, though it hadn’t needed it, and the day before he had Vince shore up his eyebrows for the first time. His barber filled the comb with them and mowed the tufts with two swiped of the electric razor. Holding his glasses to the light, he gave them a rub with a triangle of undershirt yanked from his waist, the blue button-up too slick to remove smudges. Lenses spotless, he tucked his shirt back in, corrected its button line to correspond to his fly, and refused to acknowledge his tympani heart.
Reentering the restaurant, he wondered if her hair was still red and found his question instantly answered. She stood at their table, her back to him, removing a white crocheted beret to reveal red hair, cut above her ears but longish on top, which she tousled with a self-conscious tease. The color was bolder than he remembered and uniform in hue, artificially bright. Dressed in slacks and a Navajo-patterned wool cardigan—its blocky red and turquoise shapes could have been Space Invaders if he didn’t know better—she had inherited her mother’s form, high hips and healthy curves.
He walked lengths as if propelled by oars and floated around her side as she lowered her purse onto the seat. It was a moment only, long enough to take in her profile. She wore makeup, mascara, and lipstick almost burgundy. Finding lines fainter, cheekbones higher than in his cruelest visions, she was no crone. And when she saw him, it was a smile that lined her face and her aching eyes crinkled to match it.
“Edgar Blake Franklin.” Her voice, which he had heard over the phone, sang as if preserved.
“Sheila Joan Baumgarten,” he replied, unsure as to what to say or do now it was happening.
She touched his sleeves and gave him a hug, her head briefly touching his clavicle. Not used to hugs even from his mother, he gave her two stiffened pats.
They sat and looked each other over, she giggling like a tween into her cuffs and he going shy with his eyes. It went like this, embarrassment mounting over fond scrutiny, until their faceless waitress brought water and they remembered their manners. She ordered tea, he an orange soda, and they were alone again.
“I don’t mean to laugh.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he admitted.
“You look good.” She straightened her smile for his sake. “Distinguished gray.”
He gave her a nonverbal ditto.
“I almost signed that letter, ‘Older and fatter.’”
“No, no.” He waved with both hands and, suddenly conscious of them, hid them. “But your mother?”
It was lung cancer. She had been in hospice for two weeks, already living longer than expected. It could be any time, really, though she was still conscious and lucid. They found it too late, end of the first week of January, just after Sheila flew back to Colorado following the holidays, a cruel reality after all the gift giving. That’s how Sheila put it: “a cruel reality.” Managing at home for a short while, by mid-March time had come for hospice. Peckinpaugh House, he’d driven by it before, on 56th Street across from Waveland Golf Course. Sheila arrived the night before they moved her and had held vigil at her side from dawn to dinner every day, her sister Carrie taking evening shifts after work. Still at Percival Financial. Of course, Sheila would end up staying with Carrie. So it was. Days at hospice, nights at the house where she grew up.
“And when I told her I was having dinner with you tonight—well, when Carrie told her, since Mom’s been saying I should call you since I got here…” She toyed with the seal on the napkin around her silverware, “Mom wants a backgammon board.”
“I know where you can find a good one of those.” He mentally rolodexed through inventory, hoping one of the higher end sets was still in stock, the kind in a leatherette case with fine quality game pieces.
The waitress brought their drinks and gave them a few more minutes. When she returned, Edgar ordered the chicken fried steak dinner with extra gravy and slaw and Sheila a Caesar salad with the dressing on the side. He contemplated her hair as she handed back the menu, nearly as short as it had been when he broke her heart. In the seventies she had a feathered copper cascade, the style, but she went and cut it short, shorter than his had been, something he never understood. He’d envisioned it longer again, but stringy and gray.
“Remember you were so mad when I cut my hair?” she asked, reading him.
“I was mad?”
She scoffed. “Edgar. You’ve forgotten a lot if you don’t remember the fit you threw over my hair.”
“There’ve probably been plenty of women since me anyway.”
He wasn’t ready for that one. “Only dead ends,” he said, trying to make light of what he harbored as his great wound in life. “I traded in dating for avoidance a long time ago.”
“I know the avoidance game,” she claimed. “Being married nineteen years was a long exercise in avoiding divorce.”
His straw had risen with carbonation and he tapped it back down with his finger.
“It’s true. Really it wasn’t healthy.” She lifted the tea bag from her cup and wrung it on her spoon. “I should’ve seen it in hindsight: a reference librarian wanting to be an ‘epic poet?’ His great calling is a thousand page poem about the Rocky Mountains. I mean the geology. Never mind the ten years he spent talking about writing it before the ten years of spiral notebooks. The emotional aloofness was mysterious for a while, but playing hard to get with your wife? He was just so different that way, keeping me guessing when — it’s not fair to compare, I know — but you’d been so sensitive. I figured out after the girls were born that he’s just cold. He wasn’t respecting my space by being distant; he didn’t care. A self-proclaimed poet more interested in rocks than feelings.” She sipped the tea.
Edgar, feeling more alive than he had in years, removed and blew on his glasses, though it was not needed.
But she had stunned herself. She set her cup down carefully, shifting as quickly from anger as she had toward it. “And I am so sorry for just dumping that on you. I’m really… Mom is being so strong.” She withered inside the Navajo sweater, chin anchoring, tears salting her eyes.
Edgar whipped his napkin free from its silverware with a jangle, thrust it at her. He tried not to look at her. She accepted it and dabbed her cheeks and he felt such guilt for all the ill he had wished her in the past. “You just — this is a hard time and rightfully so because it is what it is and it’s the best thing for you to be here in Des Moines right now. I mean it’s where you should be and I haven’t said it yet but I’m really, me and my parents, we’re very sorry, and Mom told me to tell you that if there’s anything we can do, you just let us know.”
“Your parents.” Staving grief, she folded the napkin several times. “Thank them.”
“Anything you need.” He raised his hands. “That’s what Mom said.”
“Oh yes. She insisted I call you right away when I got your letter. And Dad said to give you a pinch for him.”
“Yeah, they still live in the old duplex,” he went on. “I live on the other side now.”
“Yeah, I keep an eye on them. Last week Mom called, I had to rush home ’cause Dad was out on the ladder clearing starling nests from the gutters.”
She covered her mouth with her hand. “He’s eighty?”
“Eighty-five. Still driving.” He widened his eyes and snickered in response to her surprise. “It’s all about independence with him, you know.”
“He’s a dear man. I really wanted to bring the girls into the store to meet him when they were here. My daughters.”
“What are their names again?”
“Olive and Mitzi.”
“Olive and…” He nodded, getting it straight. “You know, we have a Maisy at the store. She’s a real piece of work, too. Very…opinionated, you could say. On April Fool’s Day, just this, what, Tuesday? She took a doll and put antennas on it and threw it into the street in front of the store.”
“Yeah! Did a whole act like she was killing her alien baby. Scared the hell out of the guy who ran over it.”
“You can’t go doing that!”
“That’s what I told her,” he laughed. “We don’t see eye to eye on a whole lot but I guess that’s how it goes with some people.” Conscious of his tangent, he felt the need to backtrack. “I guess Mitzi reminded me of Maisy. The name. Don’t know why I brought her up.”
“Well I know this from running the cupcakery,” she said. “Your employees are the children you didn’t want.”
He guffawed. “Mine are always calling me ‘Dad.’ ”
When dinner came they discussed, briefly, her father’s impending visit. Sheila’s hope was that he would make it in time, because today was the first her mother had declined to eat. They shied away from the old strife but entertained forays into milder memories. Stories conjoined, sometimes butting before melding, shedding new light in long darkened corners. She remembered so much, things not thought upon in years despite all the energy he had spent focused in hindsight. An entire week they spent at Lake Wapello one summer, a cabin, had slipped entirely until reminded. The tree frogs on the screen door, however, he couldn’t recall at all, or the croaking contest she insisted they had with them when sleeping was impossible. And their trips to the state fair, the Butter Cow, the buffalo chip throwing contest, eating too many pineapple whips. She recalled there another event he buried: the time he consulted the gypsy woman in her unhitched camper at the end of the midway. Conjured, he suddenly remembered the psychic, in her robes the color of Pepto-Bismol, drawing destiny from her lava lamp crystal ball.
“You never told me what she saw.”
“Yeah, you waited outside her bullet trailer,” he noted, dodging her curiosity.
“Oh, something about us getting married and having three kids.” He made a nonchalant wave of a spoonful of mashed potatoes. “Two boys and a little girl.”
She scoffed terribly, bitterly. “So much for ESP.”
Though Edgar would have gone for a slice of French silk, they skipped dessert, Sheila lamenting that she hadn’t had time to bake any of her cupcakes. She’d eaten only a portion of her salad. Nerves. He paid the bill against her request and left a twenty percent tip for the waitress. Walking Sheila out to her mother’s car, an old Toyota Camry, he rocked back and forth on his heels in the glow of the long-necked parking lot light, his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. When she unlocked the car door and opened it, she surprised him, laying her head on his collar.
“Thank you for meeting up. It’s nice to do something normal.”
“Sure thing.” He pulled his hands free and put his arms around her. The feeling exhumed him.
“You could have said no. I thought you might hate me.”
His cheek nuzzled her hair, which smelled like flowery shampoo. “Not me.” She stepped back and donned her crocheted beret. Holding her shoulders, he said, “Backgammon.”
“I can pick it up tomorrow.”
“Please let me deliver it.”
She winced, glanced away.
“I can take it over to the place,” he said, not wanting to call it what it was, “first thing in the morning, on my way to work.”
“We need to remember,” she said with a sudden lack of warmth, the tone contrary, “boundaries.”
His hands fell from the cable knitting of her sleeves.
“This would be the wrong time for either of us to get hurt.”
“I’m fine,” he blabbed, quavering.
Retreating behind the wing of her mother’s car door, she shook her head. “I’ll just come get it tomorrow afternoon.” Sitting in the driver’s seat, backed with a beaded pad, she smiled a defensive tilt of her lips and waved at him though he was close enough to touch. “Good to see you, Edgar.” She closed the door, waving again behind the glass.
He stepped to his car and raised a hand when she drove by and away onto Ingersoll Avenue. Flummoxed, unable to decipher the last bit there, he stalled. Her drawbridge had gone up without warning, leaving him outside the walls. Outside. All he knew was that it wasn’t anger he felt now. Not anger, though something was wrong.
It was nearly nine and he knew Mom would wait up until ten. Wanting to avoid interrogation till morning, he decided to check on the backgammon. There was a possibility of running into Ryan Toper, who lived in the studio apartment over the shop and whose insubordination he enjoyed second to Maisy’s — but Ryan did community theatre most nights so it might be safe.
He drove downtown and crossed the river. The lit capitol, manifestly destined temple of the prairies, held watch over Locust Street. He pulled a U-turn at the store and parked in front. Going inside, he disarmed the keypad alarm and made for the games section, stretching along the left wall. In the little light from the two overnight fluorescents, he tilted his head for his bifocals and ran his fingers along the games’ spines. Deluxe checkers, chess, backgammon. Withdrawing it like a sacred book, Edgar took the game to the register.
This was the best one they had, coming in a latched leatherette case, with high quality pieces and a stitched felt playing field. He reached over the counter and felt around for a pen and draw pad. Setting the carbon paper under the first slip, he scrawled out an unpaid receipt to purchase it on his discount.
He stopped and touched the game, gave it a solid pat and his throat hardened. This game a dying woman’s nudge to get her daughter and him talking again. The simplicity unbound him. There was a way to fulfill the request without beleaguering Sheila, by delivering it before morning, discreet as a shoemaking elf.
There hadn’t been another girl when he left her. What there had been was a twenty-six-year-old man’s unearned assuredness that a more passionate love would come along. One more thrilling than the kind his parents shared.
His shoulders nearly leapt off of his body. He hid his face and snatched up the game, clutching it to his chest. Tear-stung, he stammered wordless syllables at red-haired Ryan, standing a few yards away, dressed like a Wild West ninja: Lone Ranger mask and leopard-print nun chucks stretched over his head.
“Oh hey, Dad,” he said, lowering the weapon and twirling it playfully. “Thought you might be a burglar.”
“It’s just me,” he said, trying to disguise his state.
Ryan did a skip somewhere between martial arts and tap dancing. “Aren’t you glad I’m guarding the store though? I so would’ve caught you if you were robbing the place.”
Shuffling behind the counter he grabbed a handled paper bag, one bearing the store logo in blue ink, and whooped it open.
“So do I get a raise for passing the test?”
“Whoa, just kidding.” He bowed, nun chucks drooping. “You have a sudden hankering for some backgammon or what?”
Edgar took a Magic Blooming Flower, yellow stemmed, from a rack beside the register and slipped it with the game into the bag. He amended and left the receipt on the counter, to be rung up first thing in the morning, holding his breath till he got to the door.
Ryan tilted as he passed. “Hey, you okay?”
“Can you rearm the deal?” It came out more whimper than he would have liked. He fled outside, Ryan with key ready to lock it from within. He avoided the young man’s masked face but lifted a palm to him as he hurried to his car.
The drive was short, meditative. Up MLK and onto the freeway, through the neighborhood long ago bisected by the interstate, past stately Rosewater High School and night-quiet Waveland, oldest municipal golf course west of the Mississippi. The Grecian observatory in the middle of it, capping the highest of Des Moines’s oaken hills, stood like a slumbering landlocked lighthouse. He took the 56th Street exit, the hospice there on the left. Ms. Baumgarten’s Camry wasn’t there, hopefully meaning Sheila had gone home to get some sleep. He parked and readied the gift bag.
Peckinpaugh House loomed in the shape of a waning crescent moon pulled down to Earth, one story built in glass and concrete and tucked into a birch thicket spring-budded. Edgar made along the curling sidewalk for the lit entrance, frightened but surprisingly dry-bottomed. Knowing only that this was a place where people went to die, he walked through the sliding doors conscious of formality and the fact that visiting hours had ended. Inside it was warm, the air dry, with an expansive lobby decorated like a spa’s: polished wood floors, potted orange trees, pillowed furniture, and off to the right a grand piano, white and un-played. Silence held the most remarkable presence, as if this space had never actually heard a single word, the serious woman perusing an open folder behind the tall desk having taken its vow. She summoned him with an inviting nod.
He approached, trying to mask his fear with an affable smile. Sheila’s mother was dying somewhere in here. “I’m so sorry to bother you,” he whispered, lifting and setting the bag on the counter. “I realize visiting hours…”
The nurse eyed the bag. “There are no set visiting hours.”
“Oh, oh.” He waved a hand and took a step back. “I’m just making a delivery. For Mary Baumgarten. I’m the manager down at Nub’s Novelties and this is a special situation so I’m just doing my duty here. Just dropping it off.”
“Alright,” she said, taking interest.
“Yeah, if you could just make sure she gets it in the morning, that’d be great. There’s even…” He stepped forward again and reached into the bag, withdrawing the Magic Blooming Flower. “There’s a trick to this.” He inverted the plastic stem, opening at the center the flower, which unfolded in multicolored paper like accordion bellows. “And if you flick the stem against your wrist,” he demonstrated, the flower popping into a new shape, “well, there it is.”
Sheila’s sister stood there next to him and before he could speak she hugged him from the side, third embrace of the night. Caught, his grasp went limp and the paper flower fell. He bent down and came back up gripping it like a teenage suitor met at the door by his date’s mother.
“Sorry to startle you,” Carrie said, hand at her throat. “I was just coming out for some air and here you are.” Bless her, she’d never held anything against him across the years. Their relationship, despite great change, had more or less remained the same. “How did dinner go?”
He handed her the flower and pointed to the bag. “For your mom.”
“Oh Edgar,” she frowned sweetly, tipping the bag and sliding out the backgammon set. “It’s what she asked for.”
He fumbled with the game, touching the latches on its case. “Best set we have. But listen, I didn’t want to intrude.”
“You haven’t,” she assured. “Thank you.”
He exhaled, aware that his efforts to hide his embarrassment were transparent. “I’m very sorry about your mother’s condition.”
“Thank you.” She took him by the arm. “I’m just going to step outside for a moment,” she told the nurse and walked out with him. “We hoped that getting Sheila out with you might do her some good, get her some rest and all. She’s insisted on staying most nights. Guilt for moving to Colorado all those years ago.” Carrie was a more trusting sort than Sheila and her show of kindness at this moment eased him. Soon as they were outside, she changed her tune. “You guys didn’t stay out late.” She twirled the flower. “She didn’t give this back to you, did she?”
“Did she play nice?”
“Of course,” he said, defending her. “Well, but the both of you are under great stress.”
“And when she’s stressed, she pushes the people who care away.”
His eyes blinked hard, recalling her sudden talk of boundaries. He cleared his throat, unlocked his arm from hers. They respected the stillness, only the freeway hum murmuring. “In any case,” he broke, “it was good to see her. And you.”
“Edgar,” she deemed over crossed arms in the April air, “you are such a gallant man. Why did you two break up?”
His throat seized. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged and scuffed away. “Give your mom all my very best.” He felt her eyes follow to where he had parked. When he pulled the car out, she gave a paper flower wave and headed back indoors.
Tears first, leaking down fixed cheeks. Then his face caught up, tightening, wrenching. He was sobbing by the time he got to 44th Street, taking the hill cautiously through wet blear. Through the light and right onto Allison Avenue. Mom and Dad’s side of the house dark. Despite the safety of not being accosted on the porch, he sat. And for all the tried, he could not understand why or how he hurt so much, so soaked with pain. Lifting one hand off the steering wheel, he found it useless with weakness, dropped it in his lap. Concentrating, he controlled his breathing to stabs of air. When control seemed to guarantee no more tears, he cried anew, spilling out tears another flavor. There was no room inside Edgar to think. There was only being flayed open.
Seven days later, Edgar finding out by way of a Des Moines Harbinger obituary, Mary Baumgarten died.
Five days after that, he left work before noon and attended her funeral, taking a white arrangement Mom ordered and Dad fetched from Flowers By Aoife.
The very next day, a Thursday, he returned to the sales floor after lunch to the backgammon set, the paper flower, and another lavender envelope waiting for him at the register. All he would remember from the letter, only ever reading it the once, was a word he had to look up in Hillman-Campbell’s Desk Dictionary:
adj. – Initially sweet but tending to cause disgust or aversion through excess.
The letter came to rest on the shelf in his living room on top of that never again played Moody Blues single, held down by the leatherette backgammon set, and atop that, folded shut, the paper flower.