Painting by Mary Howard
Ashland, Oregon, September, 2011
This story is a chapter from my novel Less than Kind, and depicts my second main character, Emma Fielding.
The kitchen sink was clogged again. In the past, Emma had left this sort of thing to Michael. She’d ask for his help and he would tease her gently, but would appear, work some magic and fifteen minutes later, her sink would be clear. She recalled the last time it happened, the night before the fated hike.
But he wasn’t here to fix it now. A mess of discolored eggs shells, blackened potato peelings and coffee grounds floated in greasy water that sank an inch every fifteen minutes, leaving a ring. Of a piece with the rest of her kitchen: the dead freesias on the windowsill, the lazy winking curtains, one open, one closed, the gritty, stained floor tiles. The calendar stuck on July.
With the drain clogged, Emma couldn’t run the dishwasher; without the dishwasher, she couldn’t clear the countertops; with countertops covered and the dishes unwashed, she couldn’t make dinner. She’d tried running the water, hoping to flush out the obstruction, but that had just led to the sink overflowing. She’d tried using the toilet plunger, but to no avail. She’d tried running the garbage disposal. Nothing worked. She was slowly coming to the conclusion that she’d have to call a plumber. The last straw, she thought. True, it was a slender straw, but combined with the bales of straw she’d had to bear recently, it was a backbreaker.
The last time Michael had fixed her sink, she’d cleaned up the mess and made his favorite dinner – boeuf en croute followed by chocolate mousse. After three large servings of dessert, he’d leaned back and said with satisfaction. “A lot of calories there.”
“Well, you’re hiking eighty miles this weekend,” she had replied, “With a forty pound pack. You’ll need the energy.”
“And what are you doing this weekend?”
“Chauffeuring two teenagers around town. Oh, and writing a philosophy paper. Thinking takes a lot of calories too.”
He had moved and stood beside her and held out his hand. When she stood, she reached only to his shoulder. He put his arms around her, caressing her back, waist, and buttocks. “You don’t need to worry about calories,” he murmured. His big hands made her feel small. “Come with me,” he continued, his intention clear.
“But the kids will be home any time…”
“I have to leave before five tomorrow. If you say no now, and a grizzly gets me tomorrow, you’ll never forgive yourself.”
“A grizzly,” she’d said carelessly. “Perhaps I shouldn’t let you go at all.”
But she’d kissed him and given him what he wanted, what they both wanted. It was a river and not a grizzly that got him; but she was glad afterwards that she hadn’t refused.
“Michael,” she said now, gazing at the photographs on the fridge. “Come back to me. I need you.” She ran her hand through hair she hadn’t washed in days, and reminded herself that she had to make an effort.
The phone rang. If it’s another telemarketer, she thought, I’m going to scream. But it wasn’t a telemarketer. “Mom,” she said, forcing her voice to take on a gentleness she didn’t feel. “What’s going on?”
In a high, imperious tone, Beatrice Fielding reported that she was at the grocery store and that she’d tried but failed to find her car. Emma was tempted to scream. But then she reminded herself that she was helpless too – faced with the wretched sink – and that her mother had a better excuse. The elderly woman had moved into the house next door about a year ago — at Michael’s suggestion — after they first received the diagnosis.
“All right, Mom,” Emma said. “I’ll come and fetch you. We can look for your car together.” Perhaps we can talk about getting rid of the car, now that it’s becoming such a burden to you, she thought of adding. But she knew that Beatrice was in no mood to be scolded. “Perhaps we can have a bite together at the market.
She was gathering her things when the phone rang again. Beatrice must be getting impatient. “I’ll be just a few minutes,” Emma said. But it wasn’t her mother; this time it was her department chair, Simon Waters. She listened while he asked her – for the third time, apparently – to send him the syllabi and class lists for her classes. She had started teaching at the beginning of the fall quarter, but had failed miserably, and Simon had suggested, almost insisted, that she take a leave of absence. She blushed now to recall the complaints that had led to this decision: the student she had harshly chastised for an incompetent presentation, the lost quizzes, the moments of forgetfulness in the midst of a class when she’d been gripped by the memory of phone call that had informed her of Michael’s death.
She wrote herself a note about the syllabi and class lists and left it on the keyboard of her computer. She had to hurry now. Her mother might panic if left alone too long.
The third phone call came when she was in the car. For a few seconds, she couldn’t place the voice. But the owner of the voice obviously knew her well enough. “Emma,” he murmured in an ardent tone she associated with Michael. “Jocelyn, here,” Not a tone she expected from the dean of her college. “I want to see you again.”
Something had happened between them. Happy Hour at the Faculty Club last Friday, she slowly remembered. One of her colleagues had suggested that she attend, guessing that she might enjoy the food and drink and company. She had reluctantly agreed and then had overdone it. In the tawdry light of three martinis, Jocelyn Anders’ curly gray mane had seemed suave, his quips clever, his attentions flattering. She had forgotten Michael for half an hour and imagined herself a free spirit ready for adventure. She’d allowed Jocelyn to lean across the car and kiss her hard. She closed her eyes to shut out the memory.
She could hear him breathing now on the other hand of the line. He wanted another kiss and more. She pulled over to the side of the road. It wouldn’t do to get another ticket. “Jocelyn,” she said. “I’m really not ready. Michael’s only been gone two months.”
“But you seemed so ready on Friday night.”
What could she have been thinking? Even if she’d never been married, even if the alternative was a convent, Emma would never sleep with Jocelyn Anders. “I’m afraid I was very drunk.” He laughed, not unkindly, which encouraged her to add. “It was totally out of character for me. I’m lost, Jocelyn. Please don’t take advantage of that.”
The laughter stopped. “I hear you, Emma. I’ll leave you alone for now. But you must allow me to call me again in a few months.”
“Thank you, Jocelyn. I appreciate that.” She hit the close call button on her phone. Perhaps it was a mistake not to be clear about her feelings for him – or lack of feelings. But she didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with that conversation now. In a few months’ time, she’d be stronger and more clear-headed.
She saw her mother in the small eating area next to the deli, and took a few seconds to examine her, noting the too long gray hair in disarray, the cheekbones that had once been beautiful but that were too chiseled now, the frantic blue eyes.
“Mom!” she called.
“Emma!” Beatrice whispered when they embraced. Emma felt her trembling.
“It’s all right, Mom. I’m here. We’ll find the car.” Emma knew she had to be careful. Beatrice could be childish on occasion, but she had flashes of caustic insight, and absolutely hated being patronized. “I’m hungry. I think I’ll try the portabella sandwich. What would you like?”
Beatrice didn’t cook much for herself these days and had lost weight recently. Emma was determined to keep her healthy. They sat and ate hungrily. “Well,” Beatrice asked. “What’s the news with you? What have you been doing with yourself these last few weeks?”
Emma considered the question. It wouldn’t do to remind her mother that they had eaten together two nights before and shared their news. If she were to answer the question fully she would say: my beloved husband died eight weeks ago; my fifteen year old daughter thinks the wrong parent died; my son is desperately sad and uncommunicative; my mother is in the first stages of dementia; I have been put on compassionate leave from my job; and I have to fend off an unwanted suitor. Oh and my sink. Here was something she could talk about. “My kitchen sink is clogged. I was trying to deal with it when you called. It was one of the things Michael used to handle.”
“That’s what comes of relying on a man,” Beatrice said briskly. “Far better to go it alone.” Beatrice had never married, but had raised Emma on her own while pursuing a career as a political scientist.
“Well, I’m alone now,” Emma said, suddenly angry. “And I can tell you it is not better.”
The food and conversation seemed to calm Beatrice. “Are you all right to drive?” Emma asked her.
“Of course…” Beatrice replied with a disdainful glance. “Follow me home if you’re in doubt. And then come in. There’s something I want to show you.”
Emma followed her down Lithia Way, past the college, through the busy touristy shopping area, past the theaters and up the hill towards their adjacent homes.
Emma tried to gauge whether Beatrice’s house was more disorderly than usual. Her mother had never been much of a housewife, insisting that housework was a waste of time, and that it was better to write a paper, something that wouldn’t have to be repeated in a few days.
“Come into the kitchen!” Beatrice instructed. Emma followed. Beatrice opened the cupboard door under the sink with a flourish. “See!” she said. Emma followed her gaze. White pipes amidst pots and cleaning supplies.
Beatrice leaned over. “See these plastic pipes. They come apart very easily. See these plastic nuts. If you press hard with your thumb, you can unscrew them and undo the whole contraption, find the obstruction, remove it and put the pipes back together.”
Ah! Michael’s magic. Emma blushed. Such a simple thing. She should have known. “But how did you know, Mom?”
She saw her mother hesitating, pleased to know something Emma didn’t, reluctant to spoil the mystery. “That husband of yours showed me. Apparently your plumbing is exactly like mine.” She giggled. “I mean the plumbing under our sinks.”
Emma laughed for the first time in eight weeks. She was her mother’s daughter: a serious scholar, indifferent housewife, attentive and indulgent mother, but they differed in this respect. Emma was content to remain ignorant of the plumbing while Beatrice would have insisted on understanding it. And how like Michael, darling Michael, to accommodate both women.