Susan squinted down her nose at her phone. Smartphone, Michael had called it, when he’d sent it to her for Christmas. Too smart for me, Susan thought as she retyped her password again. The screen finally unlocked. No return call from Michael yet.
She dropped the thing back into her purse and stepped into her neon blue tennis shoes. A Christmas present to herself. Dan’s eyebrows had risen at the color, the first time she’d worn them, and he’d wondered aloud if maybe they were a bit young for her. But Susan had shrugged him off. The shoes, so bright they looked like they just might take a walk on their own, made her smile. She’d known the moment she’d seen them that they’d put a fresh spring in her step.
She tightened the hot pink laces and straightened up. “I’m heading out for my walk,” she called out.
“Okay,” Dan called back over the sounds of the basketball game he was watching from his brown tweed recliner. A present to himself, upon his retirement last year.
Susan grabbed her light blue fleece jacket off its peg. The sun looked bright and warm, but spring could fool you. The breeze still held the winter chill. She pushed her arms through the sleeves and pulled open the front door.
A gust of fresh air greeted her, and she filled her lungs with it. The house could get so stuffy. She’d open the windows now and then, but Dan preferred to keep the house closed up and the climate control set to sixty-nine degrees year round. Keeps the dust out, he always said.
After a few blinks to adjust to the bright sun, her eyes did a sweep of the front yard. The buds on the river birch had unfurled to pale green leaves overnight. The crocuses along the flagged walk were now tipped with purple. They’d bloom any day now, followed by her wood asters, then her snowdrop anemones. Susan rubbed her hands together, eager to dig into the garden season. Just a little longer.
“Right on time,” said Bob, their neighbor, crouching in a patch of tulips at the edge of his garage.
Susan laughed. “You know me. 2:00 on the dot, every day. Wow, look at your tulips. I think you have every color there.”
“Yeah, they really spread this year. I just have to keep the grandkids out.” He chuckled and gestured to some trampled tulips.
“I saw you had a full house on Sunday,” said Susan.
“Yes, we did.” Bob stood up, his hands on his hips. “It sure is fun, and loud, when all of them are over.”
Susan’s throat tightened. She laughed through it. “Some trampled flowers are a small price to pay, I’d say.”
Bob waved his hands. “You’re right. What’s a few tulips? Well, enjoy your walk.”
Susan turned to head down the driveway, then hesitated. Maybe she should try calling Michael again, before she left. Peter would be getting ready for bed right now. She could say goodnight to him, tell him grandma misses him.
No, she told herself. Michael was busy with his own family now. He’d call back when he had time. She took another deep breath of fresh air and put it out of her mind.
She strolled to the end her driveway, pondering her route. Usually she turned right, and followed Linwood Lane down to Murray. It was the sunniest route, ending at the park with her favorite bench. But today her neon blue-clad feet seemed to want to go left. Well, why not? She hadn’t gone that way in a while. Maybe she’d come across something new, something different. Something surprising. Not likely, as she’d been walking these streets for the past forty-six years, ever since she was a twenty-one-year-old bride, her head still spinning from her whirlwind romance with the handsome mechanic who’d got her broken-down VW Bug running again. But, still.
So she went left and wandered down Linwood Lane with no particular plan. She turned left and right as her feet desired, admiring the greening grass, the budding trees, the splashes of red tulips here and yellow daffodils there. She came across a delightful little iris garden arranged around a stone bird fountain, and memorized the design, sure it was just the thing for the far corner of her backyard. Irises had such a soft, romantic look. She’d have to shift the pergola a bit, move the shrub roses, find a new spot for the butterfly garden statue. Yes, she could make the space.
She continued on, aimless, her mind arranging and rearranging her gardens. Her neon blue feet took her down one street, then another. On Groveland Street, she sidestepped a large truck blocking the sidewalk. A remodeling company. Curious, she squinted at the open front door. Was it a kitchen remodel? A bathroom? An addition? Susan watched every remodeling show on TV, and had a decades-long list of ideas to improve their 70’s era house. None that ever came to pass, of course. There were so many other, better uses for the money. She and Dan had saved for years to buy the mechanic shop he worked at, and then another, and then another. As the shops started to turn a steady profit — Franklin’s Auto Body was proud of its top-notch customer satisfaction — they’d saved up their money to put Michael through college. It was worth it. Instead of fixing cars, he fixed investors’ portfolios. Instead of quiet Linwood Lane, he lived in busy London.
A stiff spring breeze sent a shiver through Susan. She paused to zip up her fleece and orient herself. It took her a moment, but she recognized where she was. She hadn’t been over here in a long time, but she used to walk through this neighborhood every day, when Michael was little. It was close to a coffee shop, she realized, warming at the thought. She checked the pockets of her khakis, wishing she’d thought to bring some money. She found two folded dollars in her back pocket. Two dollars bought a hot cocoa, or it used to, back when she and Michael used to stop in here on their walk home from school. She’d get a mocha — a grown-up cocoa, she’d tell Michael — and he’d get a hot cocoa. Then, with a whip cream mustache, Michael would beg her to go inside the animal shelter next door. He wanted a dog so badly. He begged and begged, for years. Susan would’ve gladly bought him one. It might have even been fun for her, too, to have a walking companion.
But Dan always said no. Too much money, too much fuss. The same thing he said about having more kids, whenever Susan asked. Susan understood. He had enough fuss in his life, running the auto body shops. It really wasn’t too much to ask for him to keep things simple at home.
She turned the last corner to the coffee shop, and smiled. It still had the same sign. It wouldn’t hurt to step inside. She might be able to get a small cup of coffee with her two dollars.
A woman tugging a stroller behind her was struggling with the door. Susan rushed up. “Let me get that for you.”
“Thank you,” said the woman with a big sigh.
Susan peeked into the stroller at the sweet baby face snoozing inside as the woman cleared the doorway. A pudgy little baby hand clutched a fuzzy pink polka dot blanket. Susan put her hand to her chest. She loved pudgy baby hands.
Susan’s head snapped up. The woman eyes were wide with surprise. “I’m Mary Jacobsen. My son Chad when to elementary school with your son Michael.”
Susan hands went to her face. “Of course! Mary! It’s so good to see you!”
“You too,” said Mary, giving Susan a quick hug. “How’s Michael?”
“He’s great. He lives in London now, with his wife and his son, Peter. He’s nine.”
“Chad lives in New York, with his wife and kids. We see them three or four times a year, but it’s never enough.” Mary shrugged. “It’s hard when they move away, isn’t it?”
Susan’s smile faded. She heard Michael’s voice telling her he just had too much going on to come home from Christmas this year. And two tickets to London during the holidays was just too expensive her and Dan. She could only imagine how tall Peter had grown in the past year.
She cleared her throat. “And who’s this little one?”
“My granddaughter Lillian. My daughter Sarah lives just a few blocks away from here. She just went back to work, and I take care of Lillian during the day. So this little princess will go to Willow Wood Elementary too,” Mary cooed at the sleeping baby.
“Well, I don’t want to keep you,” Susan said through the lump in her throat. “Please tell Chad I said hello.”
Mary begged Susan to do the same to Michael, then pushed the stroller down the sidewalk.
Susan didn’t go into the coffee shop.
She continued on her walk, her steps heavier now. Uneasiness tugged at her, and she tried to shake it off. There was no point in dwelling. She’d made the decisions that had seemed the most sensible at the time. No one can really know how everything is going to turn out. Or that your only child will move a half a world away.
She realized her neon feet were taking her somewhere she didn’t want to go, but she couldn’t stop them. She walked away from the coffee shop, past the animal shelter, and down the few blocks to Willow Wood Elementary. Michael’s school.
The rambling brick building rose up out of the landscape, all quiet at the moment. But not for long. Susan knew the timing well. She’d always timed her afternoon walk so she was at the school for dismissal.
The playground was different, she saw as she drew closer. The metal swing set and merry-go-round had been replaced with colorful plastic climbers and slides. But the row of wood slat benches was still there. She’d sat on those benches, every school day, and watched all the happy faces race out of the school, looking for her favorite face. Michael would tumble out of the school, his backpack almost as big as he was, laughing and jostling with his friends. He’d spot her on a bench and run up to her. They’d stroll home, maybe stopping for a mocha and a cocoa, and he’d tell her about his day.
She sat down on a bench. Memories bloomed like hyacinths all around her. Playing Uno one last time before shooing Michael off to do his homework. Giving him a piggy-back ride home that day his new shoes hurt. Watching him pour chocolate chips into the cookie batter.
By the time he was in fifth grade, he preferred to walk home with his friends. He took the bus to junior high. And then came high school, and track and soccer and dances and girls. Then college. Then London.
The dismissal bell rang deep inside the school, and Susan’s breath caught. As the kids ran out, she couldn’t help but look for Michael’s face. But these kids belonged to other people, had other stories. She watched them run up to their mothers and fathers, who had smiles on their faces and heads full of to-dos and plans and schedules, just as she had, back then.
She had a sudden feeling of having skimmed over her life. Of not having really dug her hands in, not having planted herself deep enough into the dirt. If she’d known memories were all she’d have, then she would’ve made so many more. She would’ve lived a bigger life. A complicated, messy life.
The scene before her blurred. She gasped for air as tears rolled down her face. The school grounds emptied out and still she sat there, the tears on her cheeks slowly crusting in the cool spring breeze.
Susan shivered. The sun had dropped low on the horizon. How long had she been sitting here? She checked her watch. It was nearly five o’clock. Dan would be worried. She couldn’t call him. She never brought her so-called smartphone along on her walks. She hated the thing. It was just a reminder she couldn’t see her son’s face.
She was trying to get herself to uncurl when she heard a car pull up behind her, heard a door open, then close. Then footsteps. Familiar footsteps.
“Susan, there you are! What are you doing?”
Susan stiffened at the sound of Dan’s voice. “I told you I was going out for my walk.”
He came up behind her. “But you’re never gone this long. I got worried something had happened to you.”
Something had happened. She’d gone left instead of right. It was the shoes’ fault.
“Well, get in the car. I’ll drive you home. It’s getting cold.”
Susan folded forward, her hands on her tear-crusted cheeks. She felt Dan sit down in the bench next to her.
“What’s going on?”
A sob burst out of Susan’s chest. “We should’ve bought Michael a dog. Then maybe he wouldn’t have moved to London.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Dan, though not unkindly. “Michael would’ve moved away anyway. Kids grow up and move away. A dog wouldn’t have changed anything.”
“It might have made a difference.” A dog, a sibling. Some other connection to home. A reason not to go so far away. “I would’ve taken it with me on my daily walks. I would’ve taken care of it.” That’s all she ever wanted to do, take care of people.
“Michael’s just busy now. We’ll see him again when things calm down on his end …” Dan lapsed into silence.
Susan’s heard Dan’s always-sound reason, but this time it brought her heart no comfort.
Susan pushed herself to standing, her body aching and stiff. “Thank you for coming to get me, but I want to finish my walk.”
Dan opened his mouth, then closed it. He patted her on the shoulder, then got back in the car and drove away. Susan walked the route home she’d always taken with Michael all the years ago. Past the school. The coffee shop. The animal shelter.
Then her neon-blue shoes stopped. They turned to face the animal shelter, then walked up to the front door. Her hands pulled the open. Light spilled out.
A woman at the front desk looked up. “Good evening! How can I help you?”
“I’d like to adopt a dog,” said Susan. Her chest released, her shoulders dropped. She rubbed her chilled hands together, and felt the warmth return.
“You’re in the right place,” said the woman as she stood up and came around the edge of the desk, keys in her hand. “Do you know what sort of dog you’re looking for?”
Susan smiled. “One that likes to go for long walks.”