Rain splatters on the gravel and cement in the motel courtyard. Peering from the foggy window, hung with heavy motel drapes, Aretha Johnstone admits to herself that it's a perfect day for a funeral.
The day her mother had sent her away was a similar day. What did a sixteen year old think about, on her way to New York to be locked up in a home for wayward girls? She thought about Ray Forrester, his muscles, and his strength as he drove the seed of life deep inside her. She gazed out the bus window and couldn't distinguish between rain and tears.
There are no tears today, just rain that splashes from the tires of the now cleansed taxi, making its way to Room 14. She pulls tightly on the belt of her navy trench coat, tying it neatly in a hard knot. Her fingers rake back the loose strands of chestnut hair and pat the neat chignon at the back of her head. Tying up loose ends, and there are a lot of those.
Inside the cab her eyes follow the monotonous wipers, thinking of today, yesterday, today, yesterday. The rhythm builds to a crescendo...the funeral.
Today she would see her brother for the first time since he was ten. She would also meet her sister-in-law, although she'd already met her on the phone over numerous conversations concerning first, the hospitalization of her mother, then the death call.
Aretha had practically looked after her younger brother for years. She had also done most of the cooking and cleaning. her mother was too busy entertaining the bottle. At sixteen, Aretha's home life was one of misery. School at Maple Hill High was her only relief from the pain. Her father operated a family hardware store in the dingy coal mining town. His long hours at work left her mother with too much time on her hands. She couldn't handle the struggle of raising children alone.
The taxi driver produces a weak smile as he accepts Aretha's fare. It's not been a day for smiling, so far anyway. She smiles, though, when the door opens to her brother's home.
"Aretha?" The tall, redhead with hair to her shoulders smiles back.
"Yes, it's me. You must be Samantha."
The redhead's right arm makes an arc, as she pulls the door inward exposing an ample chest-line in the restricted material of the funereal black dress. Her pretty, blue-green eyes sparkle as she bids, "Come in out of that dreadful rain."
Aretha steps into the hallway, newly painted and papered, at least since she had been there. Stepping into that house is like stepping back in time. Thank God they had at least re-decorated.
Samantha takes her coat and directs her towards the living room. "Would you like tea or coffee? I have both."
"Tea's fine, thanks." She stares at the back of a man's head and warily asks, "Martin?"
He spins around from his spot on the sofa,glued to the TV. He stands and awkwardly extends his right hand. His eyes are bright blue, like her own. She remembers those eyes. Ignoring his hand she embraces him instead. Martin turns crimson and pulls back. "I wouldn't have known you," he sputters, the expression of his smile now somewhat melancholy.
"You were just a kid, you're not expected to."
"She would never tell me where you were. One day you just vanished and I was alone...with her."
"Was it bad?"
"Sometimes." He brushes his slender fingers through fair hair. Their mother's hair, silken like spun gold. But his is manly, short and smooth, parted neatly and combed towards his left ear. "But it's all over now. We've survived."
Have we? Aretha wonders. To Martin she replies, "Your wife is very pretty. And you didn't grow up too ugly."
He grins and they move to the sofa, sitting stiffly until Samantha brings the tea and breaks the ice with an old box of family photos.
"This is Martin when he graduated. And this is Martin at university, our first date. Doesn't he look spiffy?"
"He does indeed." Aretha's fingers tremble as she holds the photo of her smiling brother. "I've missed a lot."
"I'm sorry," Samantha speaks softly. "It's too bad it took a funeral to bring you home."
Aretha watches Martin twist and untwist his office hands. The door bell chimes and a boisterous neighbor pops into the hallway. "Anybody home?"
Samantha jumps up and meets him halfway into the living room. "Hi, Harry. Oh, thanks." She takes the plate of food he has been holding and walks it to the kitchen.
Harry makes himself at home in the armchair Samantha has just vacated.
"Well, Martin, is this your sister?"
Martin nods. "Aretha, this is our good neighbor, Harry Emerson."
Harry rises and stretches a long arm towards Aretha. "So sorry about your mother. I lost mine last year. Mothers can't be replaced."
Aretha squirms in her seat. Does he think their mother had been a saint? Why is he sorry anyway? She isn't. She could say so without guilt, but she remains silent reacting with only a faint smile.
Harry doesn't return to the chair. He starts to leave. "I'd better get along, you folks have a lot to catch up on." He turns and takes two steps then stops and looks back. His thin lips twitch uncomfortably and he repeats, "So sorry about your mother."
Samantha returns just in time to see Harry out the door. She re-enters the living room and clears away the tea cups. "We've got to hurry, Martin. The church service begins at two."
Aretha travels to the church with her brother and sister-in-law. A straggling group of mourners tells her that her mother had not been a popular member of the community. "They're mostly Martin's friends," Samantha whispers, "and downtown business acquaintances, who patronize the bank where Martin has been manager for the past three years."
At the cemetery they all hold umbrellas, like a scene from a movie. The minister's voice booms parting words, and Aretha looks around wondering if she might see Ray Forrester.
He had been in her class when she was sixteen. She remembered him as tall, blond, muscular and popular. He played almost every kind of sport. You could say he played the field. Samantha laughs to herself, as she thinks of Ray. Yes, he played the field all right.
She had been lonely and shy, unable to take anyone home or visit other girls' houses, because of her mother's drinking. And she had made few close friends.
But Ray was in her dreams almost every night. Then one day he noticed her and took her for a drive in his beat up, blue Ford. In the back seat on Lookout Ridge, her dreams came true.
After school for a couple of weeks, he gave her everything she ever wanted. Finally someone loved her. She had no regrets, no after-jitters, until he began to ignore her. By the time she discovered she was pregnant, Ray was already dating a blond cheerleader. Every time Aretha tried to talk to him, he was too busy rushing off to somewhere. He'd call her, he said. But he never did. When Aretha's mother found out about the baby, she sent her off to a home for pregnant girls in New York State.
The wind picks up and Aretha fights with her umbrella. She notices most of the assemblage has departed. She hadn't seen Ray. Should she look him up? No, there was no point to that. Better to leave her fantasy in tacked. She looks at her mother's grave, a pile of soggy earth covered with droppy, funerary flowers, and she feels nothing.
Back at the house she visits the bathroom and snoops around upstairs. She peeks into her old bedroom that is now a guest room. They had asked her to stay but she refused. It is too painful, even now. Her mother had banned her from this house, she doesn't want to return.
After the guests have all gone, Samantha once again digs out the family albums. Faces of yesterday smile at Aretha. If only they had smiled then. She can't believe her old high school year books are still laying around. She lingers on the last one and flips from her own photo to that of Ray's. Staring at the blond boy with the terrific smile makes her quiver. She remembers every detail of those two weeks.
"I should go now," she tells Samantha. "I'll see you tomorrow, before I leave."
"Are you sure you won't stay here? Martin feels bad about it."
"He shouldn't." Aretha rises. "It's not because of him."
"I know." Samantha hugs her newly-found sister-in-law, then retrieves her coat from the closet.
At the motel, Ray's image remains in her mind's eye. The snapshot of a young man longed for by an almost forty-year-old woman. All those years. She had been sent away to have her baby and leave it there. But she never made it to New York. In Boston she was robbed of her wallet and identification and taken home by a stewardess, who had a granny looking for domestic help. She hadn't the money to contact anyone and woudn't have dared return home, even if she had had the means.
Granny was wealthy and attended many social and family functions and gatherings. But she never went without being accompanied by Aretha. And she always bought her a new dress for each occasion. She had practically adopted her. She taught her how to dress and act properly in society. In turn Aretha became her constant companion, looking after the elderly woman with love and affection.When Granny took her in and found out she was pregnant, she conveniently lined her up with a doctor she knew to have an abortion. She told Aretha she was much too young for that sort of burden.
It was at one of the gatherings that Aretha met her future husband. Wealthy and crazy about her, he was a young doctor, just beginning his practice. Granny paid for the entire wedding and acted like any proud mother on her daughter's wedding day.
Aretha and her new husband, Mel, had a wonderful first year. He was attentive and caring. Then the arrival of their first child, a son, brought more happiness. Two years later they joyfully produced a daughter.
But the marriage disintegrated when he lost interest in the family life and began to work constantly, striving for success. Although Aretha was lonely, she never neglected her children. Her son and daughter, now teenagers, spent time between her home and Mel's. They loved their father but were closer to her. Aretha knew all about workaholic fathers. She and Mel had parted on friendly terms, and he even helped her acquire a receptionist job in a medical clinic. Of course, he left her well-off, but Aretha wanted something to do with herself, so she opted for work.
The rain ceases and she leaves the motel and takes a cab downtown. As the late afternoon sun sets on the one-horse town, she strolls down Main Street. It looks almost as desolate and depressing as in the days of her teenage years.
On a whim she decides to visit her dad's former hardware store. He had passed away years before, and no one had even bothered to contact her, even though she had written to her mother on several occasions. Only when her mother was dying did she express a desire to see Aretha. Then she gave her son his sister's whereabouts. But Aretha had gotten the news too late and arrived home for a funeral rather than a reconciliation with her dying mother.
The store doesn't look the same. Renovations have changed the long, dark lanes of binned hardware into bright, cheery areas where plastic bags and colorful boxes fill the aisles. The previously bare hardwood floors are covered now with slick, new tiles.
It's franchised now under a new owner. Aretha didn't know, and is shocked to discover the new owner is Ray Forrester. He recognizes her right away and knows why she is in town. He doesn't miss much. Gossip in a small town penetrates everyone. Some things never change.
"Well, you ain't changed much, Aretha. Same sweet dimples, and I can still see the devil shining in those bright, blue eyes of yours."
Fool, he is! The devil was in him...in her mother. He gabs on, how he'd married the most popular cheerleader, and they now have five kids.
He walks to the front of the store and locks up. She follows him with her eyes. He disappoints her, but she couldn't have expected him to still look sixteen.
He strolls back and sits on a stool behind the counter. He strokes his hair with long, store fingers. "I bought the old company house at the edge of town. Of course I had to renovate it, just like I did this place. Got to keep up." He smiles, exposing crooked teeth. She had never noticed that before.
"Do you still play sports?" She asks, almost knowing the answer, but feeling cruel.
He just shrugs. "Look at me, what do you think? No more. It's all in the past. No more coal mines either. No more miners spending money. Industry in town is based on small businesses and government ventures."
Boring and slack. What had happened to the boy with the bulging muscles? The blond hair, now half grey and thin on top. The gut! That was the worst. The hardest to take.
All over the years she had thought of him. She had also stayed slim and attractive, and she knows he notices. She keeps catching him staring at her, when he doesn't think she's looking. She watches him count his money and wonders had she gotten a chance to tell him about the baby, would he have talked to her then? Maybe they would have gotten married. She would have been Mrs. Hardware Store, instead of the cheerleader, living in the former coal company president's house with five kids and the ex-sports hero of Maple Hill High.
But she had never had the chance to tell him about the baby. Now it didn't matter. Too much water under the bridge Granny would have said. Aretha had always thought the old woman had known best. But during her fantasies over Ray, she would wonder about the baby. Would it have been a boy who looked like him? Or a girl who looked like her? Or maybe the opposite thing. However it went, it went on for years, with a slight reprieve during the happier years with Mel.
But after that marriage fell apart, the fantasy began again, more vivid than before. Dreams of Ray and the baby, a non-sex child dressed in yellow. Ray, bobbing the baby on his knee, laughing and throwing kisses to Aretha.
"How long you gonna be in town?" He breaks her thought pattern.
"I'm leaving tomorrow."
He slams the cash drawer shut and comes around to her side of the counter. He draws up close beside her, and she can smell the sweat from a long day in the hardware store.
"Nobody knew where you disappeared to, Aretha. " He squints his blue eyes at her. "Somebody said you went off to New York to live with an aunt."
"Who really cared?" Her anger flares.
"Hell, I did."
"Get real, Ray. You wouldn't even talk to me." She hadn't come there to start things up. She didn't even plan to see him, unless by accident. And that happened all right. Fate, cold and ruthless, walking all over her fantasies.
"I planned to talk to you, but you disappeared."
"Convenient for you," she replies.
"Never mind, Ray. It's all water under the bridge." Granny's voice emerges in her mind.
"Yeah, you're right." He pulles off his hardware coat. "Where are you staying? Can I drop you somewhere?"
"I'm at the old motel at the edge of town."
"Hell, I go right by there. I'll give you a ride."
Aretha doesn't object. But on the way he makes a side trip to Lookoff Ridge. In the back of his modern van, they lay on rugs and blankets and do it again, the second time around.
He wasn't as slick as before, she recalls. It must have taken a lot out of him to make five kids, and maybe the cheerleader had worn him out. Whatever the reason, there was nothing happening to build a new fantasy on. But Ray seemed to have a heck of a good time. Granny's words again.
He drops her off at the motel and grins slyly. "Next time you're in town, give me a holler. You'll find me at the store most of the time."
Of course. Why doesn't she find that unusual? She smiles back. "Sure, next time. You bet."
She stops inside her door long enough to lock it. Three bolts in a town like Maple Hill? Really. Then she moves directly to the bathroom. Everything falls to the floor and she steps into the shower. For fifteen minutes she stands under the hot flow of the cleansing water, soaping and scrubbing until she feels sore.
The fantasy drains down the sides of the tub and gurgles around the spiral, gagging and oozing as it disappears into the black hole...where all bad fantasies belong.
Copyright 1998 cstewart