This is a two-part story. Come back tomorrow to read the ending. This story was previously published in The Spillway Review, in Jan. 2004. Copyright is held by the author.
THE WIPERS made one last whack before wet snow began refilling the arcs on the windshield. Emily startled, whimpered, and snuggled further down in her car seat.
Joanne let her head slump against the head rest as she looked across at the row of red brick houses solidly looking back in the late afternoon darkness. Lights glowed upstairs and down in several, but hers was completely dark except for a dim light in her old bedroom. She still wasn’t used to the fact that lights upstairs in her house had little to do with her: they were now Rose and Tyler’s lights, and now Rose and Tyler slept in her old bedroom while she and Emily slept in the dining room below.
She sneezed, and as she dug in her pocket for a Kleenex, she remembered her ESL class that morning. Every Friday, while Emily played with the students’ children, Joanne stood behind a fat blue curriculum book and tried to teach English to eight, solemn Italian women. Today the prescribed lesson was Table Setting — six pieces of silver, stemware at the tip of the knife, linen and napkins — but after looking once again at their long-suffering faces, she had packed away her props and started talking to them about what was on her mind: her interminable, rotten head cold. She wrote cough, sneeze, sore throat, and fever on the little blackboard, and after a few seconds of pantomiming each of the miseries, the women began to talk, all at once. Mrs. Zafanio and Mrs. Campagna — whose silence she had thought conveyed impenetrable hostility — suddenly started shouting in Italian, alarming Joanne until she realized that what she was hearing was sora trota and suneeza packed with rolling vowels. Then Mrs. Palazzolo rose to her feet, drew herself up very tall, and signalled to the others to be quiet. Mrs. Campagna reached out to Mrs. Palazzolo with both arms outstretched, palms up. “Maria Palazzolo, una grande cantante d’opera!”
“Opera?” Joanne wasn’t sure she heard right.
“Si, si. La migliore!” The other women laughed and clapped.
Mrs. Palazzolo nodded in acknowledgment, put one hand on her chest, took a deep breath, and sang “OH STAR-A-A-AR-NU-U-U-TO-O-O-O!” in her ringing soprano. Joanne looked around for help, and the women all began to mimic huge sneezes followed by shouts of “Starnuto! Suneeza!” Joanne finally understood that their waving arms meant they wanted her to join in, so she took a breath and shouted, “Starnuto! Sneeze!” Soon they were all laughing, holding their stomachs with one arm and wiping at their eyes with the other. Joanne wasn’t sure if hers were tears of joy or regret that it had taken her so long to figure anything out.
The gate stood wide open again, and a growing wedge of snow was keeping it open. Must have been open for hours. Joanne made a mental note to remind Rose, and another to insist that John install a proper latch the next time he picked up Emily. Not that it was easy getting him to do things any more.
Carrying the half-asleep child, Joanne made her way up the snowy path. She pushed open the front door and grimaced. The door leading up to Rose’s apartment was open again, and the smell of cigarettes and hamburgers plus the whine of TV sirens spilled down the stairs. She double-locked the outside door, stamped off the snow, and headed up.
Rose was standing in front of the stove, watching two thin patties sputter in a frying pan. She wore bell-bottoms and a red sweater, and her hair hung down in a thick black braid. The radio was on, and she was singing along with Simon and Garfunkle.
“Hi, Rose.” Joanne reached into her shoulder bag for a little brown bag “I got you a potato for the one I borrowed last night.” The top of the bag was creased in two neat folds. “And please keep the gate shut.”
Rose picked up her cigarette and inhaled deeply as she turned around.
She smiled at Joanne and then at Emily, blowing smoke sideways as Joanne swiped at it with her hand. “Hi, Joanne,” Rose said. “And hi, Emily! Didya come to see us?”
Emily opened one eye, grinned, and suddenly hurled herself towards Rose who caught her and gave her a big smacky kiss under her chin before she handed her back to her mother. “You look like Tyler’s troll with your hair hanging down like that.”
Emily and reached out to Rose again, but Joanne took a step towards the door and patted the child back into place on her hip.
“Like a bri-idge over troubled water, I will ease your . . . .” Rose stopped. “You weren’t kiddin’, were you? One potato,” she said over her shoulder. “You don’t have to bring back one potato, Joanne. You’re my friend. It’s no big deal.”
“No, no, it’s only right,” Joanne said. “I was taught to pay my debts, and besides, charity begins at home.” She tried to laugh, but Rose didn’t join in.
Rose’s voice was still soft and slow and even, but the spatula in her hand now punctuated each word. “I don’t want that potato.”
“I’ll just put it on the counter; we’ve got to go. It’s nearly six already, and Em needs her supper.” She put the bag near the sink and turned to leave. “Lord, I’m tired. This darn cold.”
“Yeah, I think I’m getting one too,” Rose said. “Had a headache all day. Look, why not leave her up here for a bit? You go have a little rest, and they can play.” She reached for Emily. “I bought some doughnuts, and she and Tyler can watch their ‘tartoons.’ I even bought new markers today, a set for each of them so they won’t fight. She could stay for supper too. It’s easy.”
Emily started twisting back and forth, trying to get down. As Joanne tried to get a firmer grip on the slippery snowsuit. Why did Rose never understand that some people had plans? “Sorry, but I need to get Em to bed early. We’re going to a puppet-making workshop tomorrow morning. Right, Em?” She tried to sound normal, but her voice had become just a little louder, a little sharper, as she knew she really should take Tyler along. After all, Rose took Emily to the park every couple of days, but Tyler could be so wild. Emily began making growling sounds deep in her throat as she pushed herself away from Joanne’s side with both hands.
“Hi Emily!” Tyler raced in, and slid to a stop. “Wanna play with me?” He was wearing green pyjama bottoms and one of Rose’s big black sweaters that came right down to his knees and covered his hands. He waved the empty ends of the sleeves in Emily’s face.
“Tyler, stop,” Rose said as she gently stroked the child’s cheek. “It’s OK, Em. You come another time. OK?” Emily threw back her head and began to wail. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Tyler continued jumping, waving his arms in the air and shouting, “Mighty Mouse! Look, Emily! I’m Mighty Mouse!” Rose told him to stop again. He stretched his arms out in front of him, fists together, head down, and made loud siren noises to propel himself back into the front room and the TV.
“Has Emily seen that new kids’ show, what’s it called? Oh yeah, Sesame Street. Pretty cute. Tyler really likes it. Oh, wow!” Rose laughed, shaking her head, “What’s the matter with me? I almost forgot. My sister, Louise, is in town tonight, eh? And I haven’t seen her in ages, so can Tyler go to sleep down at your place? I’ll take him upstairs when I get home, like always. And then maybe Emily can play up here tomorrow afternoon, after her nap?”
Joanne glanced down at her watch, pursing her lips.
“I’ve got my key, so I won’t wake you up.” Rose said. “He’s no trouble, is he?”
Joanne took a deep breath. “No,” she said, “he’s no trouble.” By now Emily’s crying was so loud that Joanne had to shout each word as if they had both gone deaf. “OK! How about just after eight? By then Em should be —”
“Far out. Thanks, Joanne. See you later, Emilygator!” Rose called out as Joanne hurried out with Emily still reaching up yelling “Osie!”
Emily and Joanne were propped up on Joanne’s bed reading library books when Tyler banged on their door. It was 7:30. Joanne let him in, and he raced down the hall in his green pyjamas yelling “Emileee!” dropping his bag of cars and a threadbare elephant behind him.
Rose burst in after him, telling him to slow down. Joanne piled Tyler’s toys on the blankets on the couch, and when she turned back, the bedroom door was shut, and there wasn’t a sound. As she opened it, Rose yelled “Ta-dah!” and threw off the big comforter she and kids were hiding under. Then she got up and dumped the comforter back over the kids who kicked it off again, shrieking and bouncing and throwing themselves onto the pillows.
Rose was still chuckling as she checked herself in the dresser mirror. She turned from side to side to make sure her blouse was still tucked in. “You should go out sometimes too, Joanne. Church people; that’s all you ever see.” She stopped to check her teeth for stray lipstick. “And don’t give me that excuse that you’re still married. He’s been gone ever since I’ve known you.” Rose gave each kid a big good-night hug and kiss. “Night-night, Emily. Night-night, Tyler. Now you be good, Tyler, and you listen to what Joanne tells you.” She turned back to Joanne. “I might be late, Joanne, but never mind, I’ve got my key.” She threw on her coat, and rushed to the door. As Joanne was locking the door after her, she heard Rose call out to someone, her laughter ringing out through the cold air.
Next morning, Joanne woke to the unmistakable sound of Woody Woodpecker. She dashed into the living room, and there were both Tyler and Emily sitting in front of the TV in their pajamas. The hall and porch lights were still on. She checked upstairs, and Rose’s bed had not been slept in. Rose had not come home.
Come back tomorrow to read the ending.