This story is by Cindy Bucher and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Kate squinted at the image on her computer screen. She hadn’t seen this house in years. Her eyes moved to the letter on her desk informing her of her inheritance. A final gift from her beloved grandmother in rural Texas. At Nana’s funeral two months ago, she’d made it to the church and cemetery, but not to Nana’s house. She sighed as she slumped back into the leather chair. “As if I have time for this.”
The morning quiet was broken by a familiar ringtone. Her stomach curled into a knot. That would be Kirk. She tapped the Speaker button. “Good morning.”
“Katherine, where the hell are you?”
“I’m at the office. What’s wrong with you? Settle down. Jeez.”
“What are you doing sneaking out at this time of morning? No note, no nothing.”
True, it was early. And Saturday. Kate was no stranger to weekends at work. As a fast-track attorney, long hours and 7-day workweeks were routine. The years of hard work paid off and she now enjoyed the perks of a sleek corner office with a breathtaking view of Chicago, mere 70-hour workweeks and a high six-figure salary.
“Kirk. I didn’t sneak out. We talked about this last night. I’m going to Texas to take care of Nana’s house. I need to wrap up a few things here before I go.”
“God, another trip to that god-forsaken cesspool. Well what about me? We’ve got the Bulls game this afternoon.”
The Bulls game. Kate hated basketball. She’d long ago mastered the skill of mentally checking out from every game they attended. Whether composing legal briefs or planning their next vacation; whatever it took to remove herself from the drunken fans, spilled beer, and toxic food court of the arena.
“Look, I need to finish up here, then I’m coming home to pack. Remember? I fly to Dallas in the morning, then drive to Marshall.”
“Oh yes, Dallas. God, I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough. How long will you be gone?”
Kate paused. Took a deep breath and calculated the shortest path to end this conversation. “I’ll be back on Wednesday. And as for the game, sorry, I’m out. Get Hank to go.”
“Katherine, I need you there. Thomas and his wife will be in the box too. We need as much face time with him as possible. You know what this could mean for my practice. They look at the entire package. Which includes you. Say, how about you wear that white outfit. You know, the cashmere?”
Kate twirled the rings on her left hand. “Sorry, I can’t this time. Can you take me to the airport tomorrow or do I need to call the service?”
Kirk was silent.
Kate said, “Hello? You still there?”
“OK, then I need to get back to this. Give Hank a call. I’m sure he’ll go.”
The condo was silent and empty when she returned home late in the afternoon. Kate packed for a three-day trip and crawled into bed after a ham-sandwich dinner. Kirk strolled in after midnight, smelling of beer and cigarettes. He showered before slipping between the sheets and easing up behind her, encircling her in his arms. She stiffened against him and inched away. He sighed and rolled over, and began snoring almost immediately.
Kirk was up and dressed before 7:00. They drove to the airport in silence. He pulled to the terminal curb and retrieved her bag from the trunk. Before departing, he planted a perfunctory peck on her cheek, said “Have a good trip” and was gone.
A two-hour flight and three-hour drive later, Kate pulled into the driveway of her inheritance. Her grandmother – Nana – lived in this house for more than fifty years, the last twenty as a widow. Kate spent every summer of her youth here, learning from Nana. Crochet, canning, Gin Rummy, boys, life. After college and law school, they’d kept in touch through phone calls and greeting cards. Kate hadn’t been here in at least fifteen years.
As she stared at the house, a slideshow of memories flashed before her. Nana sitting in her webbed lawn chair on the front porch. Nana watering flowers in her garden out back. Nana’s Christmas lights hung neatly in every window.
Kate parked the car and killed the engine, then grabbed her purse and stepped into the cold winter air. She tiptoed on the uneven sidewalk, dodging the weeds poking up between the bricks. Two clay pots flanked the front door, each containing dead plants in dull, hard dirt. Nana would have planted poinsettia in those pots.
She slid the key into the lock and turned until it clicked. Kate stepped inside and stood in the center of the chilly room. Dust particles floated through the fading afternoon light. A million memories flooded her brain. Digging through red and green boxes under a shimmery silver tree. Playing Barbie dolls with her cousins. Watching soap operas with Nana on hot, summer afternoons. Emerging from blackberry brambles with a bowl of fresh berries and scratch-covered arms and legs.
Throughout the house, cobwebs floated from the ceilings and light fixtures. In the living room, sheets covered the furniture atop a large rug braided in shades of green. White lace curtains covered the windows, blurring the rays of the winter sun. Built-in bookshelves still held Nana’s knick-knacks. Kate smiled at the memory of Nana and her Precious Moments.
Kate drifted from room to room, each conjuring a warm memory from her past. The house, with all its soft worn edges, was a world away from the condo in Chicago. Kirk insisted on sleek, austere, shiny and sharp. Sharp angles everywhere. Even the throw pillows on their square, contemporary sofa had sharp corners.
The dining room connected the living room to the kitchen and was filled with a table, six chairs, sideboard and china cabinet, all covered with plastic sheeting. At Christmas and every holiday, this room overflowed with food, family and fun. She enjoyed none of this with Kirk. Kirk demanded brunches, catered dinner parties and ‘tasteful’ decorations. No hot chocolate in Santa mugs. No construction paper chains or popcorn garland. No ripped and crumpled gift wrap strewn across the room. Too messy. Too common. Not fitting of their station. Kate’s eyes filled.
Nana’s kitchen was curled linoleum and worn Formica, unlike Kate’s stainless and granite showplace. Kate hated that damned, perpetually smudged stainless. Her gaze settled on the table that anchored the room. How many hours were spent here, playing cards or talking over cups of tea? One conversation in particular sliced through her like a sabre.
“Isn’t it gorgeous? Look how it sparkles.” Kate held out her left hand, watching the diamonds catch the light.
Nana’s words filled her head. “Oh Katie-Bug. I’m not sure he’s your best bet. I’d slow it down a bit, dear. Get to know him a little better.” Kate was stunned. True, she’d only known Kirk a few months. But they were the perfect couple. Kirk beginning his residency at Parkland; Kate kicking ass at SMU law. How could Nana object? Couldn’t she see how happy he made her?
But Nana had excellent instincts. Kirk was raised poor and wore it like a shroud. Nana saw in Kirk what Kate only realized after years of marriage. He’d worked like a fiend and bore all the marks of success. But in nurturing his practice, he’d neglected his soul. Kate read somewhere once that the only thing worse than being single and alone is being married and alone. At the time she thought it clever; now she knew it was true.
Kate wandered through the house, finally settling into the arm chair next to Nana’s bed. Every inch of this house embodied Kate’s past. From a four-year old’s wide-eyed Christmas wonder to reading Golden Books on Nana’s lap to her first teen-age heartbreak. Nana’s house was more than her past. This was Kate’s world a lifetime ago.
Kate awoke to her phone vibrating on the nightstand. In her dream, it was a gnat at her ear, buzzing in and out, annoying her awake. That would be Kirk. She’d ignored all his calls. Lost count at twelve. The vibration stopped. As she tucked the covers under her chin, tears filled her eyes and a smile crept across her face.
She sat up in bed and sunk into the pillows stacked behind her. Kate picked up the phone and tapped “Call”.
“Katherine. Are you still in bum-fuck Texas? When are you coming home?”
Thursday morning. Of course he was furious; he expected her home yesterday. Kate let him go until he ran out of steam. He paused as if waiting for a response.
“I am home, Kirk. And this time I intend to stay.”