They didn't speak of Jen's father. Not even during the year and a half he'd been sick, any of the times she'd come back to Connecticut to see him or her mother, sometimes both on the same day, alone or with Tom, with or without the kids. She'd long adapted to her parents as separate entities who moved in different orbits in the same town, and how to maneuver between them.
So Jen hadn't told her mother any details about the memorial event at the VFW and her mother hadn't asked to hear any. Her mother kept a subscription to their hometown weekly and it came to where she now lived. The paper had reported it with photos, of the hundreds of attendees, the details of the high school scholarship to be started in Police Chief Turpin's name. So, like always, although she pretended otherwise, her mother knew.
They had lunch in the dining room. Her mother dressed up whenever she took a meal there, make-up even, her best shoes. The waiters, young Latinos, made a not-quite mocking show of it, called her Mrs. Turpin, yessing her, kept coming by. Jen thought her mother played it like she'd made it, as if she'd become a member at the country club two blocks from where she'd lived for so many years.
Her apartment, a smallish one bedroom, was at the end of a long, thinly carpeted hallway with metal handrails along the bright yellow walls. The place was a cross between a fancy dorm for the elderly and a middle-of-the-pack motel. On the way back from lunch, her mother picked up her pace to get around the residents with canes or walkers. A man and a woman rode past side by side, each in their own matching blue electric scooter, holding hands.
Her mother returned the hello from a pair of women; nothing to anyone else they passed. If she had any close friends here, Jen had yet to meet them. Two different doctors had cited changes in social interaction as a sign of what could be the next stage after the duly noted short term memory problems, but Jen felt unprepared by her infrequent visits and sporadic observations to confirm any diagnosis.
"So what's the deal with Cindy and this guy?" Jen asked, at the window in her mother's apartment, as she closed the blinds against the afternoon sun.
Everyone seemed to be involved with cops. This cousin, much younger and who Jen barely knew, had according to her mother met hers in a bar and they were living together. Then there was the woman in the next chair at the hair stylist the day before. She'd met a cop at a party and couldn't stop talking about him, loud enough to challenge the blow dryers, everyone else forced to listen. And there'd been Sally, of course, at the lunch that had ended abruptly earlier that week.
Her mother filled her white teapot at the sink, banged it against the faucet. She rested the pot on the counter before bringing it to the stove. "Cindy?"
"You know at lunch you said -"
"You know how she is," came the sharp reply.
It wasn't important; Jen didn't press. Moments like this seemed more and more frequent. She felt her mother was hiding that she had completely forgotten a conversation just passed. She wondered whether this was more a sign of memory loss or mental capacity loss; no one had defined the differences for her, but no doubt it would eventually be both. But hadn't one of the doctors - the aptly named Dr. Stern - said that old memories might bubble up at random moments? Jen often hoped she'd finally hear something interesting about her mother's youth, or maybe more than the little she knew about her parents' marriage - the presumably happy hopeful times, starting out.
She wasn't sure yet about the mental hand-me-downs, but she'd kept note of how her mother had aged physically, cataloging her own pre-ordained fate. The hair that grayed early, the problems with ingrown toenails and flat feet. Now her mother had put on pounds around her middle, not a good sign. But perhaps it was due more to the lack of exercise, no more gardening or yard work, no long walks along the paths of the country club, and a tendency to overeat in the dining room or from the boxes and bags of snacks she kept in her room.
No one called them Old Age Homes anymore. And this one was better than most. It covered ten acres of what had been some rich family's estate. The gardens and an impressive mix of heirloom fruit trees, evergreens and hardwoods survived. Thanks to the arrangement from the long-ago divorce, Jen's father had left her mother something from the survivor benefit of his police pension; combined with the proceeds from the house, and Tom's abilities as a financial planner, it got her in, and set up for the foreseeable future. If and when she got worse, she would move from the apartment to a room in the hospital section. The two distinct wings were segregated, connected by a series of double doors. Jen assumed they moved the failing residents over in the middle of the night. It was that type of place - one that managed the details. If you followed the recommended, roundabout directions on the back of the brochure, you never knew a public housing project of squat, rundown brick buildings, beat-up cars, and scraggly grounds loomed two streets away.
Making things seem better than they are? Marketing, they called that.
Most of the women Jen knew - friends, women in the neighborhood, including one who often car-pooled with her husband - hadn't gotten a break; they'd had to keep working, not stop for any appreciable length of time when they'd had kids. She'd been lucky. Tom had insisted Jen be a full-time, stay-home Mom and she didn't fight it. To this point they'd gotten by, and gotten a decent house near good schools, but nothing like luxuries. And college was coming.
It wasn't just the money; Jen had begun to fantasize about the office she would have - to keep a door closed and have it mean something. Now she didn't use her brain for anything more complicated than who to call when they needed something repaired or what to make for dinner. And she'd started to get jealous when Tom went on business trips. She wanted to meet new people too.
But to find her way back, she had to start with the people she knew, and revive her network. She'd kept every business card she'd been handed at a meeting or a conference. She'd made a list of people in the order of who she thought could help most.
A month after deciding to look for a job, after she'd worked through a handful of less likely connections, she called Sally Marchetti and invited her to lunch. As the basket of bread and small plate of infused olive oil arrived at their table, Sally finished up about the cop.
"I have to say it's the best sex I've had in a long time. Total barnyard."
Jen's smile broke at what she imagined.
Sally chewed bread, looked around the half-filled room. "Is the food bad here? Where is everyone?"
"It's early. Just twelve."
"I guess we'll see what they can do to a Cobb salad. What do you want?'
"I haven't quite decided," Jen said, glancing down at her menu, "maybe the - "
"No, what do you want with me? What's it been... three years since we talked? I'd decided you hated me after all."
"I don't hate you," said Jen, surprised.
"Not as if that makes you so special."
They had met at one of the first breakfasts. It had been started by a woman Jen had gone to Cornell with, and against her better instincts she'd been excited to find a place to share experiences, try out ambitions. Back then, when you said "professional woman" it could be anyone who wasn't typing or answering phones more than half the time. The stories were the same: women in an office dominated by men. This before talk about a glass ceiling, before anyone, any men anyway, knew there was someone down there - a whole lot of someones - looking up.
"It is about that, right honey?" Sally said.
Sally had taken off her jacket and put it on the back of her chair after they'd sat down, and reached around now and brought it back over her shoulders. It was red suede leather, expensive of course. She wore a beige silk blouse and a gold and diamond pendant that rested in the hollow of her neck.
"My father was a cop," Jen said, when the other woman didn't explain what she meant.
"He was police chief in the town where I grew up."
"I bet all the boys loved that."
Waiting for their food, Jen watched through the window at the passers-by. When she first moved to Boston, this part of the city had been full of junkies, prostitutes male and female, drunken bums, teenage gangs. Now million dollar condos had begun to replace the methadone clinics and welfare hotels, and full-of-themselves restaurants hawked high-concept fusion cuisine, combining unfamiliar ingredients in unlikely ways.
Jen wondered what else she'd missed while huddled safe in her suburban hole, too much time on her hands, worried about too many things.
Sally had started in on her salad, but after eating very little pushed it aside. She'd been a smoker when they'd first met, and Jen watched her long thin fingers as the other woman rubbed her hands together. She remembered how she'd played with the prop of her cigarettes, tapping them, wagging them, moving them from hand to hand, more Sally seductions.
"So your cop," Jen asked, "is he married?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Don't you?" Sally said, her voice brightening.
"Don't I what?"
Sally smiled as if to confirm what they shared. "You can't say you're not sensitive to what happens with married men," she said.
"Especially your own. Are you two are still together? I guess you are." Sally nodded at Jen's rings.
This was how it was going to happen. She just didn't know when, or where, or with whom. "Yes?"
"And... this is embarrassing. Steve, right?"
"Tom." Jen felt a rush of relief, like she'd narrowly missed being part of a car accident, now watched the scene shrink in the rearview mirror as she drove away.
"If you're still pissed off that's legitimate, I guess," Sally continued undeterred. "Just don't pretend otherwise. You know me. Everyone's a consenting adult. I don't hold a gun to their heads. I'm living my life... it bothers the lesser beasts sooner or later, because it steps on their egos but it's the women who get their backs up. We're all so competitive and always about the wrong things!"
Always when Jen was near this woman, she was reminded of Sandy. Sandy Turpin. Dad's Sandy. About the same age as Sally, both with dark hair and blue eyes, the same slender, big bust body type. The similar names. But Sandy was no executive, no businesswoman: she'd become their mail carrier the summer Jen turned 12.
Barely a year had passed - the year her father left - when young Jen overheard him say at a Turpin family reunion she'd been forced to attend that Sandy was "the best thing that ever happened to me." It sent Jen running as fast as she could down the tree-shaded block, back to the house where she and her mother still lived, the home her father had abandoned for the young mail carrier's across town.
Jen had since concluded that the "lesser beasts" acted badly when they deluded themselves into thinking they'd made too many wrong turns and ended up cornered. So they made it worse - bought a sports car, quit a job, dumped one family and started another. But it was the women who bore the brunt of it when their men followed a dubious Muse.
Jen pushed her plate and it bunched the white tablecloth, stopped by the other woman's. "You don't think they should? Get their backs up when you sleep with their men?"
"I think they should look in the mirror. That's how I start my day."
"It's always about you, isn't it?"
"Could you tell me why it shouldn't be?"
Her mother started in on her constipation. Jen looked at her watch. After she'd provided her usual observation that it might be the medications her mother took, and repeated stock advice about eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and drinking plenty of water, she decided she'd had enough. It was 107 miles back to where she lived.
"Aside from that, is there anything else I should know about?"
Her mother looked away, seemed puzzled at what something like that might be. "I knew you'd come," she claimed at last.
Jen nodded, acknowledging in her own mind at least, that she came when she could. She resisted the urge to look at her watch again.
"Because of all you did to me. That you'd be sitting here now."
Jen knew her mother's feelings were no less worthy than hers, just as valid. Predominant in her confusion, she felt guilt.
"Mom? Are you mad at me for something?"
Her mother turned her head, as if to get a different view. "Oh no, I'm talking to your father."
She had stopped rocking her chair. Jen stopped herself from looking around the room. The furniture included familiar pieces from the house: her mother's bedroom set, sofa and chairs from the living room. Jen had inherited the dining room table that had been her grandmother's, but it remained where the movers had put it, covered by a white sheet in the garage.
Other things however she'd never seen before. They'd arrived between her visits: the large clock, like something from a classroom, overwhelming on the opposite wall; in the bathroom, a watercolor painting of a tree-lined country road leading off into deeper woods; on the table next to the TV, a red and white merry-go-round - a music box.
"He's not quite done with us yet. Are you, Frank?"
Jen had imagined this - not this, but that there would be a moment when she'd witness the predicted dementia.
The sun had drifted off in its decline and no longer sent its bright, direct light into the room. Jen poured out unfinished tea, washed the mugs, and set them in the rack by the sink.
The mind wheels, Dr. Stern had said - whatever that meant, or as if it explained anything. She'd tried many times to be allowed into her mother's world. The keys she had were never the right ones. And now, if the doctors were to be believed, the locks had been changed too.
"I have to move that."
Jen couldn't tell what her mother meant. "Move what?"
"That's where he'll be when he visits."
Jen's frustrations froze her where she'd ended up in the narrow kitchen, trapped between the counter and a hard-backed chair. She couldn't leave it like this. She looked around the room, found a safe place to land.
"Mom? I've been meaning to ask. Where did you get that music box the merry-go-around? Does it play?"
"Sandy gave it to me."
Jen assumed this was another hallucination, or an extension of the same, another misfire along the path her mother's mind wheeled down, but asked anyway. "Sandy Sandy?"
"No," her mother said, annoyed at her daughter's denseness. "Sandy Turpin."
On her way out, she thought about stopping at the on-duty nurse's station, telling someone what she'd seen. Or not seen. But then she decided to think about it, maybe even try to talk to Tom about it - although he shut down whenever she brought up her mother. He didn't even want to deal with his own parents, both in their early eighties, out in Wisconsin, instead opting to leave it to his siblings.
She worked her way through the chattering flock in the central corridor, the early birds waiting for Sunday dinner. A woman in a wheelchair smiled as Jen went past and out through the sliding automatic doors into the lingering heat and humidity of the day.
A fat man in a matching olive-colored shirt and shorts having a cigarette smiled and nodded at her as he spoke Spanish into his phone. She wondered why everyone was suddenly so friendly. She didn't deserve their misplaced affections.
The parking lot sat on a rise and as Jen walked up, she decided to call Tom and let him know she was running late. Even though he should have been finished with his golf game, he didn't pick up. Her suspicions flared. She called her oldest daughter Heather next, told her she'd be home in a couple hours, asked her what she was doing, what she had done that day. If she'd seen her father. She got the usual one word responses. She assumed her daughter was both hedging her bets and already taking sides.
The lot had been filled when she arrived, and she'd parked in the back. Rather than cross the lot she went up the paved path that ran alongside it, between parallel rows of old trees. Her daughters had wanted to know what types they were on their last visit; Courtney had a school project at the time, assigned to collect and identify leaves from their yard, almost exclusively and boringly maple and oak.
The girls had been most impressed by the striking old apple or maybe a cherry -she couldn't tell them which - in full white bloom. Its trunk looked like two crossed arms that had embraced early on and then been encouraged by some long-gone arborist to grow apart to support what was now a dense green canopy. Kids bored during their visits to grandparents or other relatives were always trying to climb it before the staff or security or some other adult got them down.
The parking lot had emptied out, with only a few cars other than hers scattered around. Jen didn't see anyone, except the same guy on his phone down the hill, at the entrance to the complex.
From her father Jen had learned that the first move had to be aggressive. Could she still do it? For her age she had kept up, kept in shape, fast-walked and lifted small weights. She took a short run, hopped up, braced her foot on the tree trunk's notch and grabbed the lowest, sloping branch; stalling for a moment, she got her foot solid enough to hold off second thoughts, then climbed. Hands up in the tree for balance she went up as far as she could and carefully turned around.
She could remember a birthday when, feeling special for a change and showing off, she'd climbed the pine tree her father had taught her to climb in their back yard. He came out of the house yelling because the boys at her party were standing underneath, looking up her frilly pink dress. Back then, it had not been the climbing she'd liked, but the new way of seeing when she got there, the perspective both superior and apart.
Today, Jen had gotten 10-12 feet off the ground. She was high enough to see the roof of the assisted living building. Clouds pushing in from the north had blocked the setting sun. A cool breeze swayed the heavy-leafed limbs. A black car, a Honda like Jen's only new, came into the parking lot. To plan a reverse course, she held the branch above her, looked around. Instead of a way down she saw a dark haired woman dressed in blue jeans and a low-cut top, coming from the black car that had arrived. She carried a white plastic bin.
Embarrassed, like she'd been caught doing something she shouldn't, Jen thought for some reason it was Sally Marchetti.
No. It was Sandy.
Sandy Sandy. Sandy Turpin.
The bin she carried was from the post office, US MAIL stenciled on its side. Jen hadn't talked to her since the night at the VFW when at the moment she thought she was finally free of her, she'd let the other woman pull her tight and express her hope that they could always be family. As she came closer Jen imagined jumping out of the tree, leaping and landing on her like a super heroine, taking her down. The first move had to be aggressive.
Sandy could have looked up - seen her. Instead, Jen saw what the other woman was delivering: framed photographs, a black eyeglasses case, some white envelopes, old letters probably. And the urn.
It was shiny aluminum with the familiar blue and white NY Yankees logo on its side. It sat on a miniature, wooden home plate. Sandy told her at the wake it had been $799 plus tax - a bargain, she claimed, considering it had been "your Dad's all-time favorite team."
Jen had worried she'd be asked to chip in. Tom had guessed who would get it. But then why was Sandy bringing it here?
No, not it. Him.
If Jen followed Sandy down the hill, went back into the building and walked the long corridor to her mother's room, and stood outside and listened with her head up close to the door, what would she hear?
And if Jen finally asked Tom, after her next 107 miles alone, if he knew what he was doing to them every time he car-pooled with that bitch down the street - or took a three-day business trip with the latest of his company's fresh young things - would he laugh and come over to hold her close, and tell her it was her imagination?
She was crying in a tree. Clouds on the horizon glowed, backlit by a rising, spreading red-orange. A fresh wind lifted the heavy-leafed limbs above her head, bringing the faint scent of rain.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Jon Fain. All rights reserved.