Leaning on the door for a minute, she waits for any noises to leak through, hoping Bat Boy has finally fallen asleep. Brushing aside the twinge of guilt, she can’t help but be grateful for the silence that settles over the house as three year old Chad finally drifts off for what she hopes will be a blessed hour alone.
Funny. Alone wasn’t something she ever thought she’d want. She’d been alone so much of her early years. Alone at home. Alone on the way to school and alone once she got there. When she went. She was alone at most of her meals and weekends and definitely alone when she slept.
Except for the Raggedy Ann her mother had made for her on her fourth birthday. But that was a secret, so it hardly counted. The rag doll was in a box now. Tucked away in the closet behind a tidy row of shoes.
All of this flashed through Trudy’s mind as she waits, ear against the door, for an extra 30 seconds. She doesn’t want to get all relaxed only to discover that she has to do a replay of the nap process. She knows someday she’ll miss those moments of singing a song, telling stories, ruffling hair and watching those deep brown eyes slowly flutter until they closed in sleep.
But for now, she heaves a sigh and heads toward the kitchen.
Grabbing a bottle of Rose and a wine glass from the counter, she scoops up the book that Ellen left by the key rack when she stopped by this morning. Gack, she thinks, was it only this morning?
Trudy flops down on the wicker chair, settling into the overstuffed pillow nested inside the willowy frame. Sun slants through the window with just the perfect warmth. She watches the sunlight and notices the tiny flecks of dust drifting through the golden cast. She can dust later. Now it’s “me time” she thinks.
Pouring a glass of wine, she looks at the cover of the book with skepticism. Her eyebrow crooks as she tried to remember anything she’s heard about this author but nothing rings a bell. The picture on the cover, though, is… interesting. A handsome dark haired man with glinting eyes, strong brows, and a chiseled jawline. Nothing like a good cliche, she thinks.
She flicks the book open and reads the first paragraph. It could be okay, she thinks. She finishes the page with a modicum of approval and uses her pinkie to turn the page as she reaches for a bowl of homemade pretzels to the left of her chair. She can barely reach it, leaning as she smoothes the page open. Barely into the second paragraph, she rolls her eyes and throws the book across the room.
“I can’t believe this crap,” she says out loud even though there is no one but the dust to hear. “Why does this sort of drivel even see the light of day?”
Between annoyance and the opportunity to hound her sister, she grabs her cell phone from her pocket and pushes the speed dial.
“He stares at her heaving breasts and wonders how long it has been since… Come on, Ellen. On the second page? And she is gripping the coffee cup as though… My gosh this is ridiculous. Even for you!”
There is a warm chuckle on the other end, which finally erupts into helpless full-gutted laughter. “You know you need a little spice in your life,” chortles Ellen. “How long has it been?”
Trudy balances her wine glass on her knee as she lets herself grin. Just a little. “I don’t need you to remind me,” she answers.
“What kind of sister would I be if I didn’t try to look out for the one who looked out for me?”
“Seriously, Ellen,” Trudy manages to say in a much more sonorous tone. “Just because I randomly discovered that we were sisters doesn’t mean that you need to do anything to pay me back.”
Trudy had done the ancestry thing along with a group of college students who were conducting a research project during her junior year at FSU. It was no big deal. They were just horsing around. The reports came back with all the expected stuff. Some percent this and something else of northern europe or asia or africa. Whatever. It was all casual and just part of a bigger project.
Except that a match had appeared with Trudy’s sample. There was someone searching for her,and this random chance apparently showed a high probability that it was a sibling. Trudy had been contacted by a mediator. It was some social worker or something who asked to meet her and go over some information.
She never would have guessed in a thousand years what was in store for her. It was the type of thing you might read about in the Enquirer. Her mother had left Trudy right after her seventh birthday. Trudy remembered harsh words between her parents. They weren’t often home at the same time, and when they were, tension laced every scene. One on one, both her parents were pretty much what Trudy supposed was normal. Then again, she didn’t have any idea what “normal” actually was.
But that night it was a doozy. No one yelled, but there was a lot of “oof” and “umph” followed by a door slamming. Her mother came into Trudy’s bedroom and sat on the bed, eyes swollen and hands trembling. Trudy hugged the Raggedy Ann and patted her mommy on the back.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” she crooned. But mommy just sat there staring off toward the open window.
Eventually, mommy looked at Trudy and said, “Remember I love you. No matter what else, remember that.” Then Mommy stood up, smoothing the bedspread as she plucked invisible specks off the skirt of her dress. She clapped her hands once, and said, “That’s that.” Then she turned and walked out the door, heels clacking on the wooden floor.
And that, as Mommy had said, was that. No more Mommy. Only Daddy. And he wasn’t very much fun any more. He didn’t smile much, and he wasn’t home very much. There was always food in the fridge, and he gave Trudy a very special chain to wear around her neck from which hung a one-of-a-kind house key. Instead of just a metal key, it had a cloisonne face on the top with a rainbow unicorn prancing against a blue sky.
It had been okay. Maybe a little quiet, but Trudy didn’t mind that so much. No one had to nag her to take care of things like a big girl. She had a unique drive to prove herself. Mommy loved her, and that was that. She wanted to make sure she was doing the right thing, so when Mommy came back. She would be proud.
By the time she was in high school, Trudy had pretty much created such a strong sense of motivation and desire to achieve that none of her teachers were aware of her state of independence. Sure, Dad showed up at least a couple of times a week, but when he did, it was more of a comrade type relationship than father-daughter.
Whether she was home alone, or Dad was there, Trudy fixed her meals, cleaned up after herself, did her chores and homework with an uncanny sense of responsibility. But from her point of view, she was the core of this home, and she was determined to make it work. Whatever that meant.
Her hard work paid off, and Trudy got a scholarship to FSU, and flourished in the new setting with others who shared her drive.
Then the ancestry thing came up, and this woman came to visit. It was pretty much out of the blue. Trudy was living in an apartment with two other girls, and this visit was such an alien thing. The woman had shown up at the front door with a huge bag slung over her shoulder. And by huge, it means absurdly large. The sort of thing Mary Poppins might have used if she was still around these days.
Trudy let her in and led her to the kitchen where they sat at a formica topped table. Trudy served tea she’d made and put out a plate of cookies one of her roommates had donated to this unexpected side trip.
Ms. Morgan, it turned out the woman’s name was, hefted her bag to the chair beside her and rummaged noisily through it. She placed items on the table as she rooted. A manilla folder, a rice paper envelope, a sheaf of miscellaneous papers and a small box.
Unravelling a tangled tale of confusing facts, Ms. Morgan explained that after Trudy’s mother had left, a baby had been born some months afterward, but the mother had died without giving much information to anyone who might have helped. No one knew her last name, or anything about any family members. The baby had been adopted by a couple in Wisconsin and all was well until she contracted leukemia. The only hope for her at this point was a bone marrow implant. Because of her unusual DNA, a match had been impossible as of yet, so a net had been found out much further to hopefully find a match.
Months had passed and the family had nearly given up hope until this sample had shown up out of the blue. A lot more talking took place; phone calls, emails, facetime, and finally, after further tests up the ying yang, and more than a little soul-searching, Trudy made the commitment.
Long story short, Trudy finally met Ellen, and the two formed a quiet friendship. “Quiet” mostly because of Ellen’s frailty. She’d been battling the illness for three years at that point, and was on a downhill slide with no hope left. The sisters shared childhood stories, future hopes, and eventually the fears Ellen was currently facing. After the transplant, Ellen’s improvement was slow but consistent. Ten years later, Ellen was considered in remission and relatively healthy.
Ellen’s parents were overcome with gratitude, but Trudy brushed off their generous offers of compensation, explaining that family is important, so it was really nothing special she had done. They welcomed Trudy into the circle of their family, though, and even took time to invite her father to join in events as well.
During the interim, Trudy had gotten married to the mechanic who fixed her car alongside I-5 one blistering August afternoon. She’d been stranded just off the highway where she’d hauled the car on its last breath. Her cell phone has zero bars, and she was down to half a bottle of water along with an apple core. She was drawing circles in the gravel with her boot counting crickets, when a battered tow truck pulled up behind her dead car.
Overcoming her distrust, Trudy agreed to let the stranger look under the hood. Turned out that it was something with the timing belt or whatever. He could fix it alright, but the part would have to be ordered or picked up from another town. The man had offered her a tow and a ride into town. He took the car to the shop where he worked and even helped her find a room at the Motel 6.
Back on the road, Trudy drove with a smile, remembering Jack’s kindness and warm laughter. So she wasn’t totally surprised when he showed up a few nights later to take her out for dinner. The rest, as the cliche says, is history.
The part that wasn’t part of the cliche, though, was what happened down the road. Literally. A couple years later, Jack answered a call for help out on the highway again and stopped to help a guy in a broken down truck. It didn’t end well. Jack lived to tell the tale, but only barely. He was still in rehab, learning how to deal with the ‘body modifications’ he’d received due to the encounter.
In the meantime, Trudy was glad that the rehab center was just half an hour from their home. It wasn’t what she’d signed up for, but Trudy wasn’t complaining. He was due to come home in another three weeks.
“It’s not like he’s dead, so I don’t need a trashy novel to get any juices going,” Trudy reiterated. “And I wouldn’t think you’d be reading this crap either.” She can’t help but give her head a shake. Seriously. Ellen has a zesty life married to a semi-professional extreme sports athlete. She lives the life that juicy books imitate, so what’s the point.
“You’re right,” Ellen answers, still laughing. “We read them out loud to each other and try some of the scenes depicted just to see if they’re even possible.”
“And?” Trudy sips her wine and studies the reflection of blue sky in the stem of her glass.
“Let’s just say that even we, in our amazing physical fitness, have a tough time reenacting that stuff. And then we just end up laughing and having more fun than…” Ellen trails off, laughing all over again.
“I’d rather read a cookbook and try the recipes than That junk,” Trudy says. “Speaking of which, I want to have a picnic in the back yard when Jack comes home. I want you and Wally to come. And bring the dogs, of course.”
“I can just see it. Jack lording it over the rest of us peons, all serving his every whim,” says Ellen. “But if the dogs are there, the whole picture changes.”
“Yeah, I know. But that’s why I want them here.” Trudy pictures the pair of mismatched huskies along with the chihuahua. One large, healthy husky, a second, older husky blind in one eye and completely deaf, and the silly little dog who thought he was the alpha male. The three were constantly getting into mischief and were incorrigible to say the least.
The antics and destruction lying in their wake was enough to distract from the grimmest of circumstances. And Jack’s homecoming seemed to merit just that touch.
As if on cue, Trudy’s calico cat, Fizzy, peeps her head out from behind a vase of sunflowers on the far windowsill. Not a fan of company in general, Fizzy would be just as happy to never see another canine again. On the other hand, or paw, she isn’t one to back down from a challenge.
“Okay, well, nail down a day and a time, and tell me what to bring. Besides the boys.”
The two women laugh a little more. Ellen at ease, and Trudy on the edge of ease but still arranging the details of her future in the last remaining remnants of her quiet space.
She tips her head against the back of the wicker, and watches the sky tilted upside down from where she sits. The escape of a book isn’t really what she needs after all. She just needs to take measure of the blessings around her, and hold onto the new reality. Lord knows, a lot of things have to be changed before Jack comes home.
But some things, she hopes, will never change. The magic of the sleeping boy. The company of a lazy cat. The love of a sister. The golden sun warming her face.
As for something to read, well, she knows there is a book on her shelf in the kitchen she loves. She never tires of it. It is the recipe book her grandmother hand wrote. Along with each recipe is a story, a poem, a prayer, some entry to give the recipe a life of its own. The Yiddish recipes never fail to help her create tasty treats and festive, hearty meals.
She pads to the kitchen, setting her empty glass on the counter as she pulls out the thich blue tome. She turns to the story about the thieves who stole poppy seed cookies. This afternoon, Bat Boy (AKA Chad), and she will make a batch together, and she will read the story to him.