HAPPILY HERE HEREAFTER
Annabelle vowed if there was such a thing as reincarnation she’d come back as a boy. “Men have all the advantages,” she’d say, up to her elbows in warm soapy water, crashing dishes around the sink and slamming them on the counter. When Annabelle was angry her green eyes, with a tiny fleck of blue pigment in the left eye, would flash. “Men have it easy,” she’d say, rolling her long blond hair on hard plastic rollers; after bleaching, washing, untangling it and preparing to spend another sleepless night staring at the ceiling, and wondering where her husband Harry was at three in the morning. Again. “He’s going to hell,” she’d hiss in the darkness to reassure herself there was justice somewhere, maybe not in this world but definitely in the hereafter.
A preoccupation with death was a genetic glitch in Annabelle’s make up.
It was the favorite topic of discussion among her aunts each Sunday when they gathered in her living room after Mass at Saint Pius, for tea and cucumber sandwiches. While Annabelle prepared the food and Harry slipped out the back door, they regaled each other with horror stories. On Sundays five-year-old Lola, Annabelle’s only child, crouched on the steps of the staircase in the living room with her elbows on her knees, her fists propped against her chin and her thumbs close enough to block her ears when things got too scary.
“Did you hear about the road they’re putting in near the farm?” Aunt Hildegard began.
“I didn’t tell you about that?”
Lola knew what was coming. She’d heard every gruesome detail the Sunday before. She winced. Her thumbs inched closer to her ears and hovered there but, self-control wasn’t her long suit.
“….they started building a new road up by Nelson’s farm and they found out the old one was built over a cemetery.”
“No!” Aunt Sophie gasped.
“Yes! And, wait till you hear this….”
Nightmares for sure.
“…they found coffins.”
How could they not remember they’d heard this same story a week ago?
“Yes. Inside they found skeletons clawing at the lids.” Aunt Hildegard clawed the air and twisted her mouth in agony for emphasis. “They’d been buried alive and were trying to get out.”
“A lot of good that would do,” Aunt Rose huffed. “So you get out of your coffin and then what?”
Lola knew after being tucked into bed and kissed goodnight the nightmare would float into the room. She had the same dream every night after first hearing that death related tale. There were others, shared while cucumber sandwiches were devoured and washed down with dainty sips of Red Rose tea. But the premature burial found a nook in Lola’s brain and set up house.
The nightmare never varied. Lola’s father Harry was being waked at St. Pius. Candles flickered. The scent of incense and melting wax filled the air. After the last mourner had viewed the body Lola tiptoed to the casket to pray. The lid began to lower slowly but paused long enough for Lola to catch a fleeting glimpse of Harry as he opened his eyes and winked. Lola, frantic, tried to shout, “Don’t bury ‘im.” But, the congregation, busy with their rosaries or novena booklets, either didn’t care or didn’t believe her. Lola, awake, had a terrible time with truth; asleep, she paid dearly for this shortcoming.
When Lola was nine several cataclysmic events occurred within a week of each other. First, the mother of Beatrice, the disheveled girl who sat beside her at school, died. Next, Harry moved out of the house into an apartment. Then, Aunt Sophie died. Sophie, at eighty-nine, was the youngest of the group and the only one with a valid driver’s license, even though she occasionally drove over curbs or forgot where she was going. The Sunday gatherings stopped abruptly.
On the moonless night of Sophie’s wake Lola and her mother stood alone on the funeral parlor porch watching nearby trees pitch and writhe in the wind. The scent of rain was heavy in the air. Suddenly Annabelle whispered, “I was thinking about Beatrice today, the one whose mother died.” Lola looked up at her mother, a looming shadow in the darkness. “I wonder what Beatrice will do now that her mother’s gone.”
Lola felt a chill, wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
“Are you cold?” Annabelle gathered Lola to her side.
“Do you want to go in?”
Sophie was inside; in a coffin. “No.”
“Well,” Annabelle’s voice drifted into the darkness as she lit a cigarette. The tip
caught fire and flared for a moment then melted into a faint orange glow. Annabelle sucked the smoke deep into her lungs, held it a moment then, jutting out her chin, exhaled it into the darkness. “Someone just walked over your grave,” she said.
“My grave?” Lola reared away from Annabelle.
“Not really. It’s just a saying.” Annabelle dropped her cigarette, grinding it out with the toe of her shoe. She draped her arm around Lola’s shoulders and said, “Let’s go in.” She dragged Lola inside where they took a front row seat.
Aunt Hildegard, sitting behind them, leaned over and whispered in Annabelle’s ear, “What are you going to do now that that snake moved out? Are you going to be able to keep the house?”
Annabelle shrugged. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “I haven’t figured it out.”
When Lola realized the ‘snake’ was Harry a new terror nudged the old terror from the nook in her brain and settled in. What would happen now that it was just Lola and Annabelle against the world? The apartment her father had moved into wasn’t an apartment at all. It was his girlfriend’s house. And, what if Annabelle, like Beatrice’s mother, died?
Lola checked out the woods behind their house. Tangled masses of vines drooped from trees making canopies over small clearings big enough to house a nine-year-old. Reassured, she went home and watched cartoons.
One rainy afternoon she slogged into the woods to test her home away from home. She crawled inside the clearing that seemed the homiest and sat cross-legged on the ground. The rain pounded through the vines and stung Lola with such fury that she ran back inside the house and was walking through the kitchen when Annabelle, in the dining room, heard water squishing in her shoes. “Stop!” Annabelle shouted, about to run towards Lola who froze mid-step. Annabelle back-pedaled out of the kitchen on her tiptoes. “I just washed that floor.” Lola stood stock still beside the sink as rain water pooled on the floor around her. “What happened to you?” Annabelle asked.
“I was playing in the woods.”
“Have you lost your mind? It’s pouring cats and dogs.”
Since the woods didn’t work out Lola came up with a new plan.
Each morning she’d press her nose against the school bus window to scope out alleyways as the bus rocketed its way to St. Clements School. Bobby Slecthman, the kid next door, had a club house made from the cardboard crate his mother’s new refrigerator arrived in, so Lola decided if worse came to worse and she was alone and adrift in the world, she could live in a crate at the end of an alley.
When Lola turned twelve Annabelle had an epiphany. As her anger at Harry subsided she noticed that Lola had turned into a bundle of angst waiting to erupt. She had a solution. She gave Lola a book, Song of the Scaffold, the story of a timid girl caught in the chaos of the French Revolution. Lola, an avid reader tore through the book, got to the last page and, pressed her hands against her mouth. “What’s wrong now?” Annabelle asked.
“What an awful story.”
“It’s a great story. It shows you can overcome your fears and be stronger. Like that girl.”
“Her mother died in childbirth. The Carmelite nuns were beheaded. She got stoned to death,” said Lola, trying to rid her brain of the image of a feeble twitching arm poking out of the bottom of a heap of stones. The only way she could keep from screaming was to focus on the tiny blue star in her mother’s eye.
Annabelle rested her fist on her hip, tilted her head to one side and said, “I give up. You missed the point.”
Over the years, as Lola grew up, old fears were replaced by new ones; Fear she would never get a decent job, never find a man willing to commit or, find an apartment she could afford.
Eventually, Lola met men unwilling to commit, couldn’t find an apartment she could afford but, got a job as a receptionist in a small ad agency. When the copywriter left in a huff, Lola’s boss asked her to write a 60-second radio ad for a meat market. “Pretend you’re pitching to hungry cannibals,” he said. Lola, who had the right mind-set for the task, did so well she began writing ads for newspapers and flyers as well as for radio. She lived at home, putting money aside for the day when either Mr. Right or the right apartment came along.
One Sunday after Mass Annabelle, inspired by Lola’s success, poured over the employment section of the Globe until she found a job as a receptionist in a large hospital.
On the morning of her interview Annabelle locked herself in the bathroom until an hour later the door slammed open and she emerged with a loud, “Tahdah, What do you think?”
“About what?” Lola asked
Annabelle turned to the left and fluttered her eye lashes. She had applied dark eye-liner and several layers of mascara. “Can you see it?”
“I don’t look like a freak?” She tapped the cheekbone under her left eye.
“Mom, you look great.”
Annabelle slung her new purse over her shoulder and braced herself against the front door as she stumbled onto the front porch on her new three-inch heels. With a wave of her hand she was gone.
After Annabelle got the job she began bringing home stories of people she met and offered them up over dinner and Lola continued her search for an apartment she could afford. Finally Lola abandoned the search and the arrangement that was supposed to be temporary, drifted from one year to the next. They had known each other so well for so long, and had weathered so many storms together that Annabelle was the compatible roommate Lola was looking for. They did the grocery shopping together, ate dinner together and shared the days’ successes and disappointments together, but then went their separate ways.
One Wednesday evening Annabelle told Lola about a homeless man who had died the previous Monday. The hospital was no closer to finding a funeral home for him than they were after he slipped the mortal coil. Annabelle patted her lips and tossed her napkin on to her plate. “I’m going to see Digger O’Dell about funeral arrangements.” She pushed her chair away from the table and headed for the phone.
Digger O’Dell, the nickname of the local undertaker Kevin O’Malley, was a short, portly man who even in the summer wore a long black coat and a black homburg tilted to one side on his bald head. He was the father of eight raucous kids who lived upstairs over the funeral parlor viewing rooms. Mr. O’Malley did the embalming; Mrs. O’Malley kept the kids under control. It was an unequal division of labor.
“Whose funeral arrangements,” Lola asked as Annabelle, her mouth set in a grim, determined line, picked up the phone and began to dial.
“Mine,” she said.
Lola’s mouth opened and her half eaten sandwich dropped to her plate. Childhood fears nipped at the edges of her brain. “Are you sick?” she asked.
Annabelle waved the question away. “I’m healthy as a horse,” she said. “When I die I don’t want you moping around trying to make decisions that’ll have you spending a bundle on something I’m not even going to enjoy.”
Annabelle pressed her finger against her lips, then using her professional receptionist’s voice said, “Mr. O’Malley, I’d like to make an appointment to meet with you.” During the pause that followed she shook her head several times then said, “No emergency.” Another pause; more head shaking. “No, she’s fine, too.” Annabelle turned, snapped her fingers and pointed to the cabinet where they kept pencils, tape, paperclips, notebooks, and curls of dust. Cradling the phone between her shoulder and her ear she mimed writing and motioned for Lola to bring her something to write on.
That night Lola woke up and squinted at the illuminated clock on the nightstand beside her bed. Three a.m. She rolled on her back, put her hands behind her head and tried to remember what had roused her from her sleep. A slow smile spread across her mouth as she realized she was finally and completely free from fears about death, dying, abandonment, and funerals. Her mother had made an appointment to arrange for her own funeral and Lola had held the notebook, secure in the knowledge that if worse came to worse she was an adult. She could survive. She rolled on her side, hugged her pillow, and fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
The next Saturday while walking down Lebanon Street to buy groceries Annabelle spotted Mr. O’Malley a block away, power walking towards the A&P. “Hurry up, Lola” Annabelle said. “I need to talk to him.” They raced to his side and while Annabelle caught her breath he tilted his homburg and smiled. She fell in step beside him and they continued down the street while Lola tagged along behind. “Can I change my obituary,” Annabelle said.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Stop by anytime and we’ll talk.”
“I’d like my funeral Mass to be in the evening.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said.
Lola silently vowed she would never go shopping with Annabelle again.
Since they lived in a small town Annabelle’s path frequently crossed Mr. O’Malley’s path, especially on Saturdays. While he did the grocery shopping for his large family, funeral arrangements were tweaked and re-tweaked as he and Annabelle wheeled their shopping carts side-by-side down the aisles snatching items from the shelves.
One stormy night the snow deepened against the garage and crawled in drifts up the window panes. The wind shook the house in its fist and the lights flickered on and off as Lola tried to read. Annabelle crocheted another doily for the table cloth she had set aside after Harry left her. Suddenly she sai “I missed my birth. I don’t want to miss my death.” The lights flickered off. Lola drew in a deep breath. The lights flicked on. A spasm of fear clutched her heart. “I mean,” Annabelle continued, “no one remembers their birth and what an adventure that must have been.” Lola shook her head as if to shake loose the Sunday tales of gnashing teeth and poor dears who sold their souls to the devil to escape the excruciating pain of childbirth. She put her book down and stared at Annabelle who said, “I want to be awake when I die. I want to know what it’s all about.” She looked up from her crocheting and smiled. “How about you?”
“I’d rather die in my sleep.”
“Would you want me to be with you when you die?”
“Would you want to be with me when I die?”
Lola wasn’t sure where this was leading. “If you want me there,”
Annabelle finished one doily and began another as the wind howled like a banshee against the window beside her chair. “If you’re far away I’ll wait for you.”
Euphoric that she hadn’t committed herself to a bizarre murder-suicide pact, Lola heaved a sigh of relief and said, “I’ll be there.” She picked up her book but put it down when the questions got harder and came faster. “If,” Annabelle said, leaning forward, “I can come back and let you know if there’s a hereafter would you want me to do that?”
Lola’s eyes widened. “Mom,” she began.
“I’ll figure out a way. I won’t scare you.”
“If you promise not to lurk in dark corners.”
Annabelle crossed her heart. “If you die first I wouldn’t mind if you’d come back and let me know.” She winked and said, “I wouldn’t mind if you lurked in dark corners.”
The wind gave the house another mighty shake as though to seal the pact. Lola brought the book close to her face, hoping to end the conversation. Annabelle was sending chills down her back.
“You know,” Annabelle said, “If there is such a thing as reincarnation I’m coming back as a boy. Men have it easy.” She threw her head back and shouted at the ceiling, “Hear that?” Lola glanced over, expecting to find a bitter down-turn to Annabelle’s mouth, and was not disappointed. That afternoon Aunt Hildegard had called to tell Annabelle she had seen Harry in a restaurant with a woman who looked so much like Annabelle that she had gone up to their table and sat down before she realized it was his new wife; Not only a new wife but, his fourth.
Winter gave way to spring and the frost in Annabelle’s heart melted as Harry became a fading unpleasant memory.
That spring Lola’s car died and she began taking the subway to work since there was a station around the corner from her job. One morning as she stepped off the train she noticed a circle of people gathered around something on the ground. Further down the platform a man huddled in a phone booth occasionally gestured towards the small knot of people as though the person on the other end could see what he was seeing. Lola joined the crowd. A man in a three piece suit was lying on his back; his arms and legs akimbo. His brief case had snapped open and papers drifted aimlessly around her feet. “What happened,” Lola asked, crouching beside him.
“I don’t know,” a woman said. “He just leaned up against that wall and slid down.” A flurry of papers caught in the slipstream of the train and followed it as it pulled out of the station and into the darkness of the tunnel. “I think he hit his head.”
Lola cradled her hand behind his skull and realized he was bleeding profusely. “Louis,” she whispered in his ear, sitting down and pulling him onto her lap.
“Do you know him?” a man in the crowd asked.
Lola nodded. “He’s our bookkeeper. Louis Johnstone. Louis’ eyes fluttered open and he looked at Lola. His mouth was slack; his eyes vacant. “You’ve been hurt,” Lola said, “But they’ve called for help.” She glanced up and raised her eyebrows looking for confirmation. A woman wearing a floral dress nodded towards the man who had left the phone booth and was running towards them. “There’s an ambulance on the way,” he shouted.
“Did you hear that Louis?” Lola said. “Hold on.” His eyes slowly rolled back, his chest heaved and he took a deep breath. A stream of frothy spittle oozed from the corner of his mouth. The crowd turned towards a loud echo of footsteps as two ambulance drivers and a policeman clattered down the stairs and hurried towards them. “Move aside,” the policeman said, helping Lola to her feet. Louis was lifted on to the stretcher, strapped in, and taken up the stairs. “That’s all folks,” the policeman said. “Move on.” He touched Lola’s arm and took a small notebook and pen from his pocket. “Are you related?” he asked.
“No. I work with him.”
“At the Harvard Humphrey Agency , it’s an ad agency.” She pointed vaguely over her shoulder and gave information about herself and the telephone number of the agency, but Louis had been a loner, a suspected weekend drunk, and she wasn’t sure if anyone at the agency would know who to contact.
After the policeman left, the woman in the floral dress came to Lola’s side. “Here,” she said, offering a package of Kleenex from her pocketbook. “I’m sorry about your friend.” Lola nodded and rubbed the stain on her skirt, making it worse. “It was good you were there for him.” she said. “I was at my mother’s bedside when she died.” Lola gave back the package of Kleenex, bundling the stained one in her fist. “It’s a gift,” the woman said, “Letting you be there during their last adventure.”
“He didn’t die, did he?” Lola asked. “Not like that.” She looked over at the dirty platform and her eyes misted.
The woman patted her shoulder and was about to walk away but turned and asked, “Are you going to be all right?” Lola nodded. “I’ll walk you to work.” Lola nodded and together they came out of the shadows of the subway and into the bright sunlit street.
That night when Lola told Annabelle about Louis and the woman in the floral dress, Annabelle smiled. “See?” she said, “That wasn’t so bad was it.”
Lola slammed down her fork. “What are you talking about?” she shouted. “Louis died in my arms, mama.”
Annabelle reached across the table and took her hand, “And you were there to comfort him. You weren’t afraid where you?” She asked softly. Lola thought it over then shook her head and smiled.
That night the dream crept back. The casket was closing, her father’s eyes snapped open and they were Annabelle’s green eyes with the tiny blue star. He winked as the lid closed and Lola woke up screaming. Annabelle, her white nightgown billowing around her in the moonlight rushed into the room. “What’s wrong?” she cried.
“I had a nightmare.” Lola sat up in bed. Perspiration drenched her pajamas and she held her hand against her throat as though trying to push her heart back into her chest.
“I don’t know,” Lola lied. She lay down on her side with her back to Annabelle who crawled under the covers behind her and put her arm around her waist. “Shhh,” Annabelle said, “Go back to sleep.” Lola felt like a terrified child whose goal in life was to find a refrigerator crate large enough to house an adult.
It seemed to Lola that everything in life happened in clumps. Shortly after Louis died it was discovered he had been embezzling from Harvard and Humphrey long enough to sink the agency like a depressive en route to a deep pool with a pocket full of rocks.
Jason Harvard called Lola into his massive glass paneled office, an office overlooking the bustling street below and the harbor beyond. “I supposed you’ve heard the rumors,” he began. Lola nodded. “They’re true. Louis wiped us out. I suppose you know what that means?” Lola tilted her head and waited. “We’re done. It’s over.” He leaned back in his brown leather chair, the leather as soft as melting butter. “We may reorganize but in the meantime we have to lay people off.” He looked down at his desk, a thick sheet of green acrylic resting on stainless steel legs, and began flipping his antique letter opener from side-to-side. “I’m sorry, Lola. We don’t want to let you go but,” he looked up, waiting for her to say something to make it easier for him. The sun poured into the room through the window behind his back, crept over his shoulder and touched the twitching letter opener.
“When am I done?” Lola finally asked.
He looked over the top of his rimless glasses, “Today?” It was a question more than a directive and she knew she could stay longer if she wanted to but, for what purpose.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I understand.”
She was almost out the door when he called her back. “Lola, sit down for a minute,” he said. She drew up a chair and sat down. “You were with Louis when he died.” She nodded. “That must have been a comfort to him.” She shrugged. “That son-of-a-bitch ruined us. I hope he’s rotting in hell but, I’m glad you were there.”
That night she and Annabelle ordered a plain cheese pizza. After the delivery boy flew back to his dented car and sped off into the night, they discovered it was a pepperoni. “Figures,” Annabelle said, picking off greasy rounds of meat. “The only thing you can count on anymore is that you can’t count on anything anymore.” She kicked off her shoes and sat down at the table.
“How was your day?” she asked while Lola brought the plates to the table and opened two cans of beer.
“I lost my job.”
“Remember Louis? He embezzled so much money from the company they went under. I was last one in, first one out.”
Annabelle’s eyes narrowed; the tiny blue star seemed more prominent. “You were the only one?”
“No, mom, relax. By the end of next week everyone will be gone. It’s over.”
“Well,” Annabelle picked up a slice of pizza, eyed it carefully then took a bite, “Look at the bright side,” she said. “It’s the weekend. Check out Sunday’s want-ads. You’ll find something.”
Lola took a long swallow of beer, “I’m a failure.”
“You’re not the failure. That stupid boss is the failure. He hired a crook, gave him free rein and never bothered to check the books himself.” She slid the pizza box closer to Lola, “Don’t lose faith in your self. You’ll find a better job. You’re a good copywriter.”
“It won’t be copywriting.”
“I want something different,” Lola said. Annabelle held her fist to her chest and grimaced. “Are you all right?” Lola was about to stand up but Annabelle waved her back down and took a sip of beer. “I’m fine,” she said. “It’s the damn grease left over from the pepperoni.”
“How was your day?”
“The usual.” She didn’t tell Lola she had been over-come by a spell of dizziness so severe she had to lay down on a sofa in the nurses’ lounge.
On Sunday Lola poured over the want-ads while Annabelle concentrated on the crossword puzzle. “Find anything?” Annabelle asked.
“Not yet.” She was about to fold the paper and put it away when an ad caught her eye:
FT GAL FRIDAY
Lumber company. Friendly,
Energetic, w/ability to multi
task. Computer skills not
necessary. Call Ruben at 555-307-6218.
At the sound of ripping paper Annabelle put aside her crossword puzzle and held out her hand. “Let’s see,” she said. She scanned the ad and frowned. Lola braced herself for the worst. “‘Gal Friday?’ Did this guy just crawl out of the primeval sludge? He’s probably a fat slob sitting behind a huge desk somewhere with his feet up and a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth. Men have the power; we have the ‘phones.” She crumpled the ad and tossed it at Lola then went back to her crossword puzzle. “Don’t answer it,” she said.
Lola put the crumpled ad in her pocket, and called for an interview the next morning.
Cohen’s Lumber Company was housed in a large orange metal building. The entry was bracketed by a wooden bower covered with non-flowering vines. A startled robin flew out of its nest in a rain gutter as Lola approached the door. She stood for a moment inhaling the smell of fresh hewn wood as men on forklifts stacked piles of lumber behind the building. Then she straightened her back and went inside.
Rubin Cohen, a thin nervous man with sad brown eyes, was a foot shorter than Lola. Their interview was interrupted by continuous phone calls and a harried secretary who kept slipping in and out of the office to lay messages on his metal desk. Lola took out the ad and passed it across to him while he was on the phone. He tucked the phone against his ear, looked at the ad, and put it aside. When he finally put the receiver back in its cradle he sighed and gnawed his lower lip. “I’m sorry,” he said, “we just filled that position.” Lola began to cry; big, heaving sobs that rocked her back and forth in her chair. “What’s wrong?” Rubin asked. His large eyes got larger and he pressed his palms against the desk, ready to get up just as the door opened and another man, a little taller and slightly bald, but close enough to be Rubin’s twin, entered the room. “What’s this?” he asked, stepping back from Lola’s chair as though he had encountered a leper.
Rubin shrugged. “Miss,” he said gently, “Miss?” Lola snuffled and brushed her sleeve against her nose. “This is my brother Sidney.” Sidney stooped down so he was at eye-level with Lola. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“I lost my job,” she sobbed, “and I need to get another one fast so I can forget everything.” As the Cohen brothers exchanged a quick anxious look the misery Lola had trapped in her heart poured out of her mouth and she told them about her old job, about being laid off, about the embezzlement, and finally about Louis dying in her arms.
Sidney pulled up a chair and sat down. “Rube,” he said, “Isn’t there something she can do? This is a big place. There’s gotta be something.”
“They always need somebody in collections. There’s always somebody leaving to have a baby and we always get Office Temps for a month or two. I was going to call today but,” he nodded at Lola, “if you want to do that you can. It’s only temporary and it’s boring compared to what you were doing.”
“I’ll take it.” Lola hiccupped. She wiped her nose against her sleeve again.
“It’s just opening envelopes and sorting them into piles,” Sidney said. “We’re not computerized. Everything’s done by hand. Dad wanted us to keep the company the way it was when he ran it. It’s been successful for four generations…”
“…and ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ was dad’s motto,” said Rubin.
“When can I start?” Lola asked.
Rubin and Sidney exchanged a glance. “Now?” Rubin asked.
After Lola left the room Sidney said, “We just hired a nut case. What would dad have done?”
“What we just did,” Rubin said. “A man died in her arms, Sid. How could we say no? It’s only a week or two at the most.”
The job that was supposed to last a week or two at the most, was nearing the end of its second year thanks to the fecundity of the collections department. As one woman returned from maternity leave another left. The department was awash with baby pictures. Lola and Jackie were the only unmarried women in the office and that was about to change as Jackie was planning for a wedding in May. Although she was right-handed Jackie answered the phone with her left hand, fixed her hair with her left hand and generally invented creative ways to call attention to the ring that sparkled on her third finger.
One day over lunch Jackie, a large red-headed woman who had taken Lola under her wing, asked if Lola had ever had a serious boyfriend. Lola shook her head. “Not even in high school?” Lola shook her head again. “Girlfriend, class is in session. Get-A-Guy 101 will meet at Murphy’s pub after work. I’ll pick up the tab this time; you pick it up next time.”
Jackie convinced Lola that she needed a computer to go on line and find a compatible date. On the Saturday they planned to price computers but stopped first at Macy’s for free facials. Then Jackie snapped pictures of Lola and they took them to a one-hour-photo shop. While they waited in line the cell phone, Jackie insisted Lola could not live without, began to chime in Lola’s purse. She dug it out and snapped it open “Hello,” she shouted. People behind her frowned and whispered among themselves until Jackie motioned for her to lower her voice. “Hello,” Lola whispered, “Oh God! Where is she?” The line leaned forward straining to hear. Jackie took Lola by the arm and they stepped outside. “NO. Tell her Lola’s on the way. Tell her I’ll be there.” She snapped the phone shut. “I’ve got to get to City Hospital .” She rushed into the parking lot with Jackie close behind.
“My mother had a heart attack. They said I should come but they don’t think I’ll get there on time. She flat lined twice.”
“What do they know?” Jackie tore the passenger door open and yelled, “Get in,” then rushed to the other side and slid behind the wheel.
Traffic was stalled and roads were barricaded everywhere they turned. They drove down side streets and alleyways, bumping over curbs and mangling trash cans until they were trapped in a log jam of cars and semi-wheelers. Jackie hit her horn several times then got out of the car. The traffic signal at the corner flashed from green, to gold to red several times and then she heard bagpipes in the distance. She threw her arms into the air, turned in circles, and finally slid back inside the car.
“What’s the problem?” Lola asked.
“It’s Saint Patrick’s Day. I forgot about the parade.”
Lola opened the car door. Jackie leaned across and pulled it shut. “We’re five miles from the hospital,” Jackie said. “It’ll be quicker if we sit it out and wait till the parade’s over.” She shut off the engine and rolled down her window. Lola turned to the window beside her. At the far end of an alley next to the car, a man in black and white checked pants and a soiled chef’s jacket sat on an overturned white plastic bucket spooning food into his mouth from a plate on his lap. “He must be cold,” Lola said. When Jackie didn’t answer Lola turned towards her. Jackie’s eyes glistened with unspilled tears. Lola squeezed her hand. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “We’ll get there in time. My mother will wait for me.”
“It’s not that,” Jackie held up her left hand. The ring was gone. “The wedding’s off.” She took a deep breath and shook her head, “It’s over,” she whispered.
“Well it’s better you found out he was an immature jerk now rather than after you married the rat.”
Jackie rested her head on the steering wheel. Her voice was so low and muffled that Lola almost didn’t hear her when she said, “He called it off when I told him I was pregnant.”
“Do your parents know?”
“Not yet. When dad finds out he’ll throw me out of the house.”
“Your mother won’t let that happen,” Lola said.
“Wanna bet? You don’t know my dad.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
Lola gazed out the window trying to think of something comforting. The man at the end of the alley stood up, scraped something from his plate, and disappeared into one of the buildings. “You can stay with us,” Lola said.
“With all you’re going through?” Jackie shook her head.
“It would be good to have you there.”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s an option.”
The sound of drums and bag pipes gave way to shouts and cheers as people streamed down the sidewalks. A group of teens stopped beside the car. One stuck his head through the open window on Jackie’s side. “Kiss me. I’m Irish,” he slurred
Jackie rolled up the window and caught his head. “Don’t mess with me I’m in a bad mood, you freak.” His eyes bulged and as his buddies weaved their way to his rescue she rolled down the window, put her hand against his forehead and pushed him into their arms. They stumbled onto the sidewalk and were swept away by the sea of foot traffic. The car in front inched forward and Jackie muttered under her breath, “Men! They’re a different species.”
When they reached the hospital Annabelle was already in the Intensive Care Unit. Jackie chose a chair in the waiting room and picked up a magazine while Lola went to the ICU and sat beside Annabelle. “I’m here,” she said. The light above Annabelle’s bed threw shadows into the corners of the room. Tubes from her body fed into machines and filled the room with soft beeps and hums. There were long pauses between each ragged breath and a low bubbling in the base of Annabelle’s throat. Her hand was icy; the finger tips and nails blue. “Mom,” Lola whispered. “I’m here.” Annabelle opened her eyes and made a feeble attempt to lift herself onto her elbows. She stared at the foot of the bed with such intensity that Lola turned to look. “Who do you see, mom?” she asked. When she turned back Annabelle’s head again rested on the pillow. Her eyes were wide and vacant and her chest was still. An even line crept across the face of the monitor closest to the bed as a nurse came into the room.
A few days after the funeral Lola found out that Jackie had been right about her father. “I was always a rebellious kid,” Jackie told Lola, “but you’d think he would have forgiven me by now.”
“Where are you living?” Lola asked.
“In my car.”
“Not anymore,” Lola said. “Move in with me.”
“I couldn’t impose.”
“You wouldn’t be imposing. You’d be paying half the bills.”
Jackie smiled. “Okay,” she said. “We’ll give it a try.”
The day she moved in Jackie insisted on sleeping on the couch and hanging her clothes in the hallway closet. Annabelle’s room stayed untouched until July when Jackie, six months pregnant, rolled off the couch and on to the floor while trying to turn over. Lola painted the walls in Annabelle’s room and together she and Jackie turned one corner into a nursery. When Jackie enrolled in the Lamaze class she asked Lola to be her coach and then insisted on finding some way to repay her. “Listen,” she said. “We never got that computer.”
“You can’t afford a computer,” Lola said.
“But together we could afford one.”
“And then we’ll go on line and find you Mr. Right.”
“Jackie, you’re not the poster girl for finding Mr. Right.”
“I know, but the people at http://www.rudyledonnematchmakers.com/ are.”
After the arrival of Jackie’s baby Minnie, Lola and Jackie, with Minnie on Lola’s lap for good luck, trolled the site each night. Before going out on dates Lola left Jackie the date’s name, where they were meeting, and when she’d be home. By pre-arrangement the dates were interrupted by whispered phone calls from Jackie to check on Lola’s safety, and to give her an excuse to escape: “My cat’s dying. Gotta go. Bye.”
Lola was about to abandon all hope when the week before Thanksgiving http://www.rudyledonnematchmakers.com/ lived up to their hype. Much to her delight, and Jackie’s amazement, Lola met the man who met the criteria on her wish list.
Drew Benson was divorced, in his mid-forties, and raising a teenaged son. He had salt-and-pepper hair and a sign on the side of his pick up advertising his construction company: Homes at Last. He had been a customer of Cohen’s for several years but since he picked up lumber in the back of the building and Lola worked in the front of the building, they had never met.
By December the relationship was becoming serious.
“What do you like most about him?” Jackie asked.
“I feel safe. I feel like he cradles me in his hands,” she shrugged and smiled, “and I’m home at last.”
It was a tradition at the Cohen Brothers Lumber Company that every Christmas Eve the holiday party started at 10 a.m. and employees could leave at noon . One of the warehouses was cleared out and a bagpiper, Liam from the accounting department, fronted by the Cohen brothers, led the employees in Christmas carols. After a buffet brunch the company closed its doors for three days. Another tradition was that former employees brought children in for a maternal show-and-tell.
Drew was picking Lola up at noon and it was hard for her to concentrate because the holiday excitement in the collections department was at a fevered pitch. Flocks of babies were carried into the room for display but Lola kept working, kept her head down and only glanced up to check the clock. A steady stream of toddlers surged around desks and filing cabinets, some wandering up to Lola to rest their mittened hands on her knee waiting for a Christmas treat. When no candy was forthcoming they moved on and ignored her; except for nine-month old Patrick. No matter which way his mother turned Patrick twisted in her arms in search of Lola. She wasn’t aware of him until someone behind her whispered, “Patrick’s a cute baby, but…”
“But what? Jackie asked.
“Did you see his left eye? He’s got a broken blood vessel.”
Jackie snorted. “That’s pigment. If it was a broken blood vessel it would be red. It’s blue.”
Lola’s head snapped up. Patrick had rested his fist against the door jamb and wouldn’t let go.
“It’s just pigment,” Jackie said. “It’s cute. It makes him unique.”
Lola and Patrick’s eyes met. He gave her a droll smile, let go of the door jamb, disappeared around the corner and as she did she forgot all past memories as he sailed into the brave new world of male entitlement.
BIO: Grace Gannon Rudolph is the author of the plays We’re All in this Together, and Elder’s Statements. Her articles and short stories have appeared in Contemporary Long Term Care, Intergenerations.com, shortstory.us.com and short-humour.com