Excerpt – Memory Lessons

Chapter One

 

The day Glenna left Cincinnati, it was cold.

Cold.

Hot.

Odd how difficult it was to recall clearly the heavy, suffocating pall of the one while experiencing the hard–edged, icy burn of the other.

The morning she chose for her departure was a day Mark was scheduled to be in the operating room early. It meant he was up and out of the condo well before dawn, already focused, no doubt, on the specifics of that day’s procedure. He didn’t expect her to get up with him, but perhaps he would have forced the issue had he known that most days she didn’t manage to get out of bed until right before he was due home.

Today was different. She got up shortly after he left and pulled a suitcase out of the closet. She’d packed it the day before with a half dozen tops and sweaters, an extra pair of jeans, underwear, basic cosmetic items, and two books—less than she normally packed for a weekend away.

Staring at the suitcase, Glenna fought the temptation to return it to the closet and go back to bed. For months bed was the only place she’d felt safe from the presence she felt hovering, waiting to pounce and envelop her in a swirling darkness from which there would be no escape.

No, that wasn’t right. The darkness was already there. Wrapping her limbs in lassitude and dulling her mind, although that lassitude and dullness were a relief from the roar of agony that had preceded it.

She shook her head, trying to clear it. Today. She had to do it today. Every day she delayed increased the chance Mark might discover what she was planning. And if he did, he would stop her, and that would end it, because she had the energy for only the one attempt.

Returning to the closet, she got out her winter jacket and gloves and put them on, then she looked around one last time at everything she was leaving behind. The relics and memorabilia she’d accumulated in her thirty–seven years, what she would have mourned if a tornado had flattened the condo, or its contents were destroyed in a fire—the Indian pottery from their honeymoon trip to Santa Fe, her grandmother’s bits of china, the jewelry, both gifts from Mark and heirlooms passed on by her mother. She was leaving all of it behind, so she could enter her new life as unencumbered as she’d entered the world in the first place.

Not that she believed it would work. It simply seemed like the proper way to proceed. An offering of sorts to the gods, a declaration…I am nothing, I have nothing. There is nothing more for you to take from me.

Glenna did feel guilty about not telling Mark she was leaving, but it was such a small addition to the load of guilt she already carried, it hardly registered. If she stayed, it would be only a matter of time before she slid past his watchfulness and erased herself. Although, what she was planning was an erasure of sorts. Of identity and relationship, certainly.

She left him a note with her rings, requesting that he not try to find her, although she doubted it would stop him. Over the past months, he’d become so certain of what her needs were he’d likely come after her anyway, perhaps summoning the full–throated bay of the media to accompany him. They would be interested in that greedy way, of course. She’d been a huge story for those few days, and so her disappearance might be news as well.

But people saw what they expected, and she no longer looked like the picture they used whenever they did a story about her. That woman, with her sweet expression and soft face set off by short light brown curls, was gone.

Replacing her was a gaunt woman with lank brown hair framing a face that was thin and angular. She pulled her hair severely back and added a pair of cheap glasses. There. Even her mother would have trouble recognizing her.

At the thought of her mother, a pang of longing momentarily paralyzed her before she was able to shrug off that older, more tattered grief and walk out the door.

Downstairs, she lifted the suitcase into the trunk of her car, drove to the airport, and left the car in long–term parking. At the terminal, she caught the shuttle to a downtown hotel, and from there, exhausted but now completely committed, she dragged her suitcase the five blocks from the hotel to the Greyhound bus station. No doubt she was taking excessive and unnecessary precautions. After all, Mark might very well be relieved to find her gone. Perhaps his unspoken forgiveness and unrelenting concern had exhausted him as much as it had her.

When the ticket agent asked where she wanted to go, she named the first city that popped into her head. Denver. She used cash to pay for her ticket.

~ ~ ~

Ten hours into the trip, when a group of new passengers boarded in Saint Louis, one of them, an elderly black woman, slid onto the seat beside Glenna, greeting her with a breathless, “How you doing, sugar?”

The woman had a handbag bigger than she was. She plopped it in her lap and began to rummage through it while Glenna examined, with little interest, the bus station scene outside the window.
“Like some gum, sugar?” The woman, whose head sprouted dozens of short thick braids, held out a pack of Juicy Fruit.

Glenna shook her head. She hadn’t chewed gum since she’d gotten braces as a teenager.

“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” The woman rocked a bit, a hum accompanying her words. “You wishing Ella Fitzgerald—not the Ella of course, just ordinary Ella Fitzgerald of Saint Louis—would get her sorry black butt to the rear of the bus?”

Glenna blinked. True, she wished the woman had chosen to sit elsewhere, but not for the reason Ordinary Ella was implying.

The woman’s frankness and assertive attitude freed Glenna to be just as blunt. “I’m not in the mood for chitchat. It wouldn’t matter if you were lavender with pink polka dots, I still wouldn’t feel like talking to you.”

“Well, now, if I was lavender with them polky dots, I bet you wouldn’t ignore me.”

Glenna gritted her teeth. Clearly Ella, whatever her manifestation, was going to be impossible to disregard.

“Maybe a Life Saver sweeten you up,” Ella said, pawing through the purse. “You sure could use something. Got a touch a that ol’ sour disease, seems to me.”

“Look, if you want someone to talk to, you’re going to have to sit somewhere else.”

“Mmm, mmm. A real scritchy–scratchy one. Like my Angie when she gets them blues. ‘Best thing,’ I always say to her, ‘best thing is to spit it out, Angel–girl.’ Although she sure ain’t no angel when she’s hurting. ‘You just tell your momma what’s going on,’ I say, ‘then let me give you a hug, and if it’s terrible bad, maybe we two’ll have us a good cry together.’ That’s what mommas are for. To help you take care of them blues. That’s why they calls it a good cry. Does a body good.”

As the voice, as rich and smooth as warm caramel, spooled out and curled its way around her, Glenna found herself unexpectedly relaxing. She even popped a green Life Saver off the top when Ella successfully extracted a roll from her purse and held it out.

“I’m thinking you need to hear a story about them blues, sugar. Just so’s you know they ain’t forever.”

Ella put the rest of the candies back in her purse and settled herself. Glenna leaned back, sucking on her Life Saver. She turned her head toward the window, no longer trying to wish the other woman away, but not doing anything to encourage her either.

“Blues ain’t permanent. But ain’t nothing permanent, come to think of it. Now this here story come to me from my great–gramma. Didn’t tell me herself, of course. Told my gramma who told my momma who told me. But this here’s a story that don’t get passed on till it’s needed. You hear what I’m telling you, sugar?”

Glenna didn’t respond, but that didn’t faze Ella.

“This is a story for when a daughter’s had some hard times. And believe me, sugar, I know all there is to know about hard times. Well, guess I know a bit about mommas and daughters, too.”
The bus left the station and began making its ponderous way through the late–night streets of downtown Saint Louis, heading for the interstate. As they picked up speed, the hum of the tires played under Ella’s voice, but Glenna had stopped listening to the words.

Hot chocolate and an apple crisp day making their cheeks flame red with the cold. She’d wanted a real tree that year, and Mark had finally acquiesced, but not before complaining it would drop needles on the carpet. It was only a few weeks after that Christmas, she discovered she was pregnant. Had been pregnant the day they picked out their tree.

Had that been the beginning, that first tiny stirring of uncertainty as she looked at the result of the pregnancy test? She’d wanted a child. Of course she did, only not quite so soon. Her plan had been to finish her internal medicine residency and begin the fellowship in geriatrics first, but Mark had argued it might take months for her to get pregnant. And so she’d stopped the pill and gotten pregnant almost immediately.

The pregnancy was normal, no foreshadowing there. She worked until the day she went into labor, after discovering that keeping busy was the best way to take her mind off the discomfort, although the fatigue had been debilitating at times. The first weeks at home with Jenny had been difficult. She’d had to learn to be satisfied with half–completed tasks, a not–so–pristine kitchen, meals hastily thrown together as she focused on feeding, bathing, and changing Jenny, and in
between, keeping watch. It was the most exhausting work she’d ever done, even more exhausting than the long hospital shifts during her residency.

But she’d adapted. It was, according to her residency supervisor, one of her strong points. “Dr. Girard is an excellent physician who cares for her patients with extraordinary compassion. She has amply demonstrated, as well, an aptitude for taking on new challenges easily and competently.”

When Jenny was six months old, Glenna had returned to the hospital to begin her fellowship. She found it emotionally difficult to leave Jenny in another person’s care, but it was physically less tiring having the responsibility for that care only part of the day. And did that make her unnatural to want, to need intellectual stimulation in addition to the emotional satisfaction of being a mother?
Glenna leaned her forehead against the bus window. There was nothing to see except the occasional stab of headlights and the narrow tunnel of light the bus was speeding down. Still at least five hours to dawn.

“Oh my, look what we have here.” The change in Ella’s tone snagged Glenna’s attention. She turned her head to find Ella’s gaze focused on her lap. She shifted uncomfortably as Ella smiled broadly. “Oh my, oh my. Aren’t you just the sweetest little one.”

Shock ran through Glenna as she recognized the words. They were ones she’d heard repeatedly, whenever she took Jenny anywhere. Jenny with her fluffy blonde curls that made her look like a ruffled duckling, and the dimple in her cheek that appeared whenever she laughed, and she was always laughing.

“What is it? What are you talking about.” The words rasped in Glenna’s throat.

Ella raised her eyes to Glenna’s. “Why, you’ve a little girl sitting right there on your lap. She has blonde hair and dark blue eyes, and she’s wearing a pink dress with, let me see, yes indeed, roses embroidered along the hem. My, my, someone must have loved you to death, sugar.” Her last words were addressed to Glenna’s midsection, which was clenching in shock.

Glenna looked around, but everyone she could see seemed to be sleeping. Maybe she was sleeping as well, and this was a dream. A cruel dream. She pinched herself and winced at the pain.

Ella nodded, her attention still somewhere south of Glenna’s eyes and smiled. “Oh yes, indeed. I’ll certainly tell her.” She raised her gaze to Glenna’s. “She wants to give you a hug and a kiss.”

“What? No. You’re crazy.”

Ella reached out, and her hands moved as if she were lifting the child she claimed to be seeing into a standing position. Glenna found her own arms curving to embrace the phantom Ella had conjured.

But there was nothing there.

“She says to tell you she loves you.” Ella’s voice was a soft croon. “And that she’s happy and cared for. And she wants you to be happy, too.”

Ella’s hand moved as if smoothing wrinkles out of a pink dress with roses on it. Glenna startled at a butterfly touch on her neck, then realized it was a tear that had slid from her own eye down her cheek.

There was nothing there.

And yet…

“Who are you?” The tear was joined by more tears. She swiped at her eyes, but with only one hand, the other arm still curved as if supporting Jenny, as if Jenny really did have her plump little arms around Glenna’s neck, and her soft lips were causing that tickle.

“Why, I told you that, sugar. Plain old Ella Fitzgerald from Saint Louis.”

“Y–you see ghosts?”

Ella nodded. “Oh my, yes. Not often, mind you. And mostly I see the little ones.” Her eyes shifted away from Glenna’s face. “It’s okay, sugar, I know it’s time.” She looked back at Glenna. “She has to go now.”

Glenna’s head began shaking, “No. Please. Ask her…ask her her name.”

Ella’s hand came to rest on Glenna’s arm, gently disengaging it from…thin air. “She’s gone, sugar.”
It had to be some kind of a trick Ella played. Hypnosis or perhaps she read minds? Except Glenna hadn’t thought of the pink dress. Not since the funeral. She could swear to it.

“How did you do that? You know who I am, is that it? What do you want, money?”

“You got it all wrong, sugar. I seen it before. You figure, something’s too good to be true, just can’t be. But that little girl, she was as real as you and me sitting here. Had a dimple, too, right here.” Ella poked at her cheek. “And a Band–Aid on her knee. Let me see…one of them Minnie Mouse ones. Course there weren’t no ouchy there. Not one needed a Band–Aid.”

The shock of Ella’s words kept echoing through Glenna as if her body were humming in response.

“You must know who I am.”

“Now how’d I know that? You didn’t tell me.”

“You must know. It’s the only explanation.”

“Oh, sugar. Sometimes ain’t nobody harder to convince than someone desperate to believe. Your baby girl’s okay. It’s you who ain’t okay.” Ella settled herself and yawned hugely, her hand patting her mouth. “Guess I’m getting old. Plumb wears me out anymore.” She yawned again, then her head bowed forward, the braids settling in place. Asleep.

Glenna leaned back against the cold window, tears flowing freely. How had Ella done it? How had she plucked all those specific, accurate details out of thin air? Not guessing. Knowing. Right down to the Band–Aid Glenna had put on Jenny’s knee that last morning.

Years ago, Glenna, out for a run, came upon a dog lying at the side of the road. He’d been hit by a car, and his high–pitched whines caught her attention. He was too big for her to pick up, so she crouched near him and tentatively touched his head. He sighed and tried to lick her arm. Then he lay quietly while she petted him. She’d shifted her position to get more comfortable, and the dog lifted its head, alarm clear in its eyes. And so she’d stayed rather than going to find someone to help.

What was the something in that dog’s eyes that communicated so clearly its distress, alarm, and gratitude for her presence? A spirit, a soul perhaps? And then the eyes went dull, communicating nothing except absence. What happened in that moment of transition when that life force disappeared? Where did it go? Could there be another dimension, one beyond this physical world, one where Jenny was alive and happy?

She was a physician. She believed only in what could be tested or proven, although was a spirit world any more unbelievable than cell phones, quasars, or the musical hum from a black hole once were?

Ella snored softly, and Glenna’s thoughts continued to spin until eventually she fell into a deep sleep and didn’t awaken until the bus pulled into the station in Kansas City. It was the first time since Jenny’s death that sleeping felt like it had done her any good, although she did feel disoriented when she remembered the conversation with the woman sitting next to her. But perhaps she’d dreamed that. She shook her head, attempting to clear it.

Ella gathered her things together and patted her hair. “This is where I get off. How about you, sugar? How far you going?”

“I–I’m not sure.”

“Well, don’t ’spect it makes any difference.” Ella sighed. “Too bad, though. All that second–guessing you’re doing. Just tell me this, sugar. If you want to believe last night wasn’t real, what does that gain you?” Ella’s tone was stern. “A whole lot longer to hang on to them blues, is all I see.”

With that, Ordinary Ella heaved herself out of the seat, gave her hair one last pat, and climbed off the bus. Glenna watched from her seat as Ella mixed into the crowd on the platform and walked through a door and out of sight.

Glenna disembarked then as well. She wasn’t hungry until she stepped inside the bus station and the smell of coffee and bacon hit her, and then she was. She ordered eggs, sausage, and hash browns, probably not the best idea, given her stomach was used to receiving small portions of bland food—yogurt, bananas, cookies, and milk—the kind of food one fed an ailing child. She pushed the thought away and took the last bite of egg and toast.

Breakfast taken care of, she went to the restroom and washed her face, brushed her teeth, and smoothed her hair, then stood for a moment staring at herself, checking out her expression, practicing how to arrange her lips and what to do with her eyes in order to appear…not blue. What she was going for was dull, uninteresting. Bland. And in the main, she was satisfied she knew how to project that by the time her bus’s departure was announced.

She climbed back aboard, relieved when the seat next to her remained vacant.

Chapter Two

 

When the doorbell rang Sunday evening, Jack almost didn’t answer. But he couldn’t screen actual visitors the way he did phone calls. Whoever was standing out there would know from the lights and the sound of the television he was ignoring them.

But, what the hey. Even if it turned out to be a pair of Mormons on a mission, it would be more interesting than another evening spent with the television droning in the background while he struggled to pay attention to a book.

He opened the door to find his daughter, Mintha, with Benny and Penny. But then, whenever the doorbell rang, he wondered if it would be them. He squatted down to greet his grandchildren. Benny, who was three, put his thumb in his mouth and stared at Jack, who held out a hand.

“Hello, Benny. How are you?”

“He likes to be called Ben,” Penny said. She was five and a half. She didn’t offer her hand to Jack either, hanging back behind her mother.

“Ben. Fine. And, Penny. It’s good to see you.”He straightened and looked at Mintha who avoided his eyes.
“Can we come in, Dad?” she said.

Reluctantly, he stepped aside. The children made a bee–line for the television. Without any sign of competition, Penny picked up the remote and started clicking through the channels, while Ben climbed on Jack’s chair and made himself comfortable.

“We need to talk,” Mintha said.

He followed her to the kitchen, where she took her old seat at the table. He sat across from her and cocked his head in question, trying not to let her see how unnerved he felt. She was obviously uncomfortable as well, wiggling around in the chair and biting her lip. Pregnant again. He sighed in resignation.

Her gaze skittered away from his, and he wondered how long it had been since she last looked directly at him.

“I hate to do this to you, Dad. But…well, I need you to keep the kids. For a few days is all. There’s just some shit I have to take care of.”

He’d never let her use bad language at home, and he disliked hearing words like that from any woman. Call him old–fashioned. An accusation whose truth he readily admitted to. “No.”
Her head snapped up, and for an instant her eyes met his.

In hers, he saw a wild animal cunning, but also uncertainty.

“They’re your grandchildren. It’s one thing to cut me off. That I can understand. I can even respect it. But they’re babies. Innocents. They deserve better than I can give them.”

“They do.” Jack sat back with his arms folded, knowing if he showed even the slightest hint of what he was feeling, she’d have him. As she’d had him in the past. He steeled his heart against the pain of seeing her. His darling girl. Once so beautiful and bright. All lost now. Now the fight was to save his grandchildren. “Only one way this is going down, I get full custody.” He
clamped his lips together and sat without moving, schooling the muscles of his face to remain motionless.

Mintha dropped her face into her hands and began to cry, noisily and sloppily. He stood and pulled the door to the kitchen shut, hoping to keep the children from hearing. Then he sat down and waited for her to stop. There had been a time when her tears would have reduced him to blubbering along with her, but he’d been through this before, and he was not letting her play him. Could not let her play him. Not anymore.

After a time, she pulled out a wad of tissues and used it to wipe her face. “You have no heart.” The accusation was an eerie echo of one of their go–rounds during her teenage years when she’d told him she hated him so regularly, he’d begun to believe it. If it hadn’t been for Amelia, he would have believed it.

As soft and gentle as her name, Amelia had always been there to step between them. “I love you both so much. You only clash because you’re too much alike, you know.”

His wife claimed Mintha had the same stubborn intelligence, independence, and courage that she saw in him. And she said that Mintha would grow up, and they would once again be close. But it hadn’t happened yet, and he doubted it ever would.

Just look at her. Smart enough to skip a grade in school and graduate at seventeen, but not smart enough to avoid getting pregnant. And then, shortly after Penny was born, Mintha left Lawrence with the man Jack had tried to prevent her from seeing, and she didn’t return until nearly four years later when she showed up with Penny and an infant Ben, asking for money. He’d given it to her of, course, and tried to talk her into staying, but she’d left again. After that, she reappeared at irregular intervals, but the request was always the same—money.

Until the day she’d asked them to take care of the children for a few days. He’d been unable to guard his heart through that time and neither had Amelia. When Mintha showed up after a week and bundled the kids into her rattly Honda, they’d both been grief–stricken.

There was no doubt in Jack’s mind that the stress of that shortened Amelia’s life. So many women with breast cancer lived for years these days, but Amelia was dead inside of two. He hadn’t even known how to reach Mintha when her mother died.

Since Amelia’s death, Mintha had dropped Penny and Ben off three more times, but only for the day. He’d finally decided he’d had enough, and so had the children.

“Oh. All right.” Mintha glared at his Adam’s apple.

Without comment, he went and got the paperwork he’d had drawn up for this eventuality. He brought it back to the kitchen and handed it and a pen to Mintha. She didn’t even bother to read it, signing her name with an angry flourish where he indicated.

“There. Satisfied? They’re all yours. Maybe you won’t screw them up as badly as you did me.”

The barb hit and twisted, as she intended it to, but he continued to sit impassively, despite the way his heart was aching. She shoved the papers at him. He would sign later and have at least his signature notarized. Besides, it was all pro forma anyway. Mintha had neither the resources nor the energy to fight him. He’d won, so why did he feel so hollow?

“Do you need money? For prenatal care?”

She glanced down at her belly, and her hand curved protectively. “Yeah. That would be good.”

He wrote out a check and handed it to her.

She folded it and tucked it in her pocket. “Give me a few minutes with them?”

He nodded and continued to sit at the table while she went to the other room. He heard a faint murmur, followed moments later by the sound of the front door closing behind her. Feeling much older than his forty–five years, he stood and walked into the living room where Penny and Ben, sitting together, were focused on the television. It was only when he looked closely that he saw Penny’s eyes were swimming, and a tear was trailing down her cheek.

He knew how she’d react if he tried to comfort her, his prickly little hedgehog of a granddaughter. And Benny, Ben, would take his cue from Penny and pull away as well. Only three but already as old as the hills.

Jack sat near the two children. When he glanced at the television, he discovered they were intent on a rerun of This Old House.

“See, Ben. That’s a drill,” Penny said, pointing. Ben crawled off the chair and moved closer to the screen.

It was a surreal moment for Jack. Mintha had always been embarrassed by the fact he worked in construction, even though he owned the company. He watched the two children, awash in regrets. After a time, he shook off his gloomy thoughts and offered Penny and Ben food. They ate like they were starving.

A good thing he’d not yet worked up the energy to clear out Amelia’s things. In her drawer, he found two T–shirts that would serve as something for Penny and Ben to sleep in. He made up the twin beds in the spare room, ran bathwater, then returned to the kitchen where the two were finishing their snack.

“Your bath is ready. Do you want me to help?”

Penny straightened abruptly and gave him a stern look. “I always help Ben.”

“Yes, of course. I just wanted to be sure.”

He stood waiting, and reluctantly Penny stood and held out a hand to Ben. “We’ll be fine,” she said.
Penny’s standoffishness made Jack both sad and apprehensive. She didn’t know him well enough to be affectionate, but the degree of her aloofness wasn’t normal, although he suspected little about her life up to this point had likely been what he would consider normal.

While they bathed, he started a list of what he needed to do. Finding someone to watch the children while he was at work was the second item, right after taking the morning off to shop for clothes. Mintha had left car seats and a bag of clothes piled on the porch. He’d taken one look at the contents of the bag and decided they’d best be left by the curb next garbage pickup day.

When Penny and Ben were bathed and dressed, he showed them to their room and offered to tuck them into bed.

“We can do it ourselves,” Penny said.

As he stepped out of the room, she pushed the door closed, and then he heard the sound of a chair being pushed over to block the door.

In that moment, any remaining doubts he had about forcing Mintha to give him custody vanished.

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