This story is by Carole Wolfe and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Don’t wait up for me.”
Helene waved at her husband’s back as he disappeared down the hall before she closed the door of their tiny apartment. She looked around the sparse room with its second hand furniture and nicotine stained walls. A weak sunbeam struggled to make it through the polka dot curtains Helene had made from her prom dress but the room was still dark.
Dark enough no one could see the tears streaming down her face.
Her grandmother was right. She should have waited for Max to graduate from college before they got married.
Shaking off the sick feeling in her stomach, Helene threw herself into her routine.
Make the bed. Clean up the breakfast dishes. Sweep the floor. Set the table for dinner. Gather the clothes for a trip to the laundromat. Update the grocery list.
Grasping the kitchen counter, a sob ripped through her. She couldn’t do it anymore. As much as she loved Max, she had to go home. At least there she wouldn’t be alone.
Mammy needed her help in the kitchen and Pappy was glad to talk to her during his lunch break. Anything was better than puttering around this one-bedroom apartment all day with no one to talk to.
Max would understand. He’d warned her that he wouldn’t have a lot of free time during college, but she thought he’d at least be at home in the evenings. She couldn’t remember the last time they ate dinner together. And even if Max was home every once in a while, they didn’t have money for anything more than a can of Spam and a bag of rice.
She hated it when Mammy was right.
Grabbing her umbrella, Helene locked the front door behind her and made her way out of the apartment building toward the payphone on the corner. The miserable drizzle matched her mood and kept everyone else off the street on the cool morning.
Helene dug out the correct change and dialed her grandparent’s number.
“Parker residence.” Pappy’s gentle voice warmed Helene’s heart.
“Hi Pappy. How’re you today?”
She imagined the smile that pushed the wrinkles on her grandfather’s face aside.
“Oh you know. The arthritis is flaring up and your Mammy is fussing about my hearing, but other than that, I’m good. I miss ya’. How’s my married granddaughter doing? Calling to tell me great-grand-babies are on the way?”
Her cheeks warmed and she shook her head.
“No Pappy.” Helene looked around. A few college students passed by the phone booth. Despite the overcast morning, they were smiling and chatting. “Glad you’re doing well.” She hesitated. Mammy ran the house, but maybe if she asked Pappy what he thought of her moving back, he could smooth the way. “I was thinking I might come home.”
“A visit would be nice,” Pappy said.
Shaking her head, Helene said, “No, I mean I want to move home. I miss you.”
She didn’t expect the silence. As she waited for her grandfather to respond, she heard a car horn in the distance and a few boys yell out a greeting to each other. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she asked, “Pappy, are you still there?”
“Sweetie, you’re home. You knew it would be hard, but you don’t want to come back here. What would Max think?”
Helene felt a tear slip down her cheek.
“Pappy, he’s never home. All he has time for is school and homework and labs and tests. I’m all by myself. I don’t have any friends. It’s like being alone on a deserted island. I’m isolated. At least if I came home, I’d have someone to talk to.”
She felt as much as heard the empathy in his voice when he said, “Max is your husband now. You belong there with him. This ain’t your home anymore. When you got married, you made your choice. You have to abide by it now, honey.”
An overwhelming sadness blanketed her. Pappy was right. But she didn’t know how to keep going all by herself. She pushed on.
“Mammy needs me, though. She can’t keep up with everything at home without me.”
Pappy sighed. It was usually a good sign, but for some reason Helene didn’t feel like this was a victory. It felt like the other shoe was waiting to drop.
“You can ask your grandmother. I’ll go get her.”
Before she could tell him to wait, Helene heard the click of the phone against the formica in her grandparent’s kitchen. The shuffling of her grandfather’s work boots on the linoleum floor told her he moved to the kitchen door.
“Mammy, phone’s for you.”
After that, she waited. It wasn’t unusual that her grandmother took her time getting to the phone, but today she wasn’t interested in waiting.
“Hello. Parker residence.”
“Pappy already answered the phone, Mammy.”
“That ain’t no way to talk to your grandmother, young lady.” Helen’s stomach clenched at her grandmother’s immediate complaint. “You’ve been gone two months and you’ve already lost your manners. I told you, getting married was a stupid thing to do.”
Helene hesitated. If Mammy was already irritated, what would she say when Helene announced she wanted to come home? Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Easing into her request, Helene asked, “How are you doing? Do you need anything?”
“We’re holding up just fine, no thanks to you. We got a girl from the church to come in and help clean once a week. Cost us money we don’t have, but I guess when your family abandons you, you do what you gotta do. What’re you calling about? You pregnant? I told Pappy this would happen.”
Pressing her head against the glass of the phone booth, Helene said, “No. I’m not pregnant. Why would you think that?”
“That’s the only reason I can think that you’d call us. That or you want to come home.”
Helene froze. From the tone of Mammy’s voice, Helene didn’t think her grandmother was happy about the idea of Helene being homesick.
Before she could respond, Mammy continued. “I knew it. You think you can call here and everything will return to normal. Well, I knew you wouldn’t last being married. You’re just like your mother. What a quitter she was. Only thing she didn’t quit was that marriage and look where that got her.”
Hearing her grandmother’s words, Helene’s reality became clear. She couldn’t go back. Whatever independence she’d achieved since she got married would be lost. Sure she was alone. But there was some power in not having to answer to anyone. Or be insulted by someone who thought she knew best. Max would never treat her this way. He might not be around much, but wasn’t that better than the alternative?
Helene squared her shoulders and stood up straighter.
“Sorry to bother you, Mammy. Tell Pappy I love him.”
As she hung up the phone, relief washed over her and she felt something warm on the back of her neck. Turning, she saw the sun reflect off the puddles of water on the sidewalk.
It wasn’t much, but she’d take it.