April McGowan

Quitting Time

A sharp horn sounded behind Mary as she headed up the steps to her duplex in the hot May sunshine. She turned towards the older model Buick, unable to see who was driving the car, but gave a friendly wave. As a rule, she waved to anyone. Fairly certain the father of her grandchildren belonged to a gang, she wanted to stay on good terms with everyone in the neighborhood.

Tossing her keys on the antique stand near the door, she entered the kitchen and opened the freezer. Inside, she found a frozen glass mug that she filled with ice and edged with a lemon slice. She stepped through the back door and retrieved a large jar of sun tea off the back stoop. It’d been brewing since 4AM, when she’d left for her job at the Dollar Mart—just about ten hours of steeping. The heat from the glass burned the tips of her fingers as she carried the jar back to the counter. As the liquid poured in over the crackling ice cubs, cooling the concoction, a sense of peace filled her. Mary’d been looking forward to this all day. She held the golden-brown drink near her nose and let the earthy scent of tea, sunshine and citrus draw her mind to easier times.

After flipping the switch on the oscillating fan sitting on the Formica counter top, she pulled up a chair at the kitchen table, directly in its path. Giving the crumbs from her hasty breakfast a sweep off the table, she drew the pile of mail toward her. She saw several envelopes addressed to Tina with ‘final notice’ highlighted in red letters. Mary clucked her tongue. What would ever become of that girl? She’d raised her better than this.

Sure that the tea had chilled long enough, she sipped it, letting the strong brew energize her from the inside out. It was just as good as she hoped it would be. She clucked her tongue again and sighed.

She couldn’t say that about much in her life these days.

Glancing at the clock, she saw her grandsons would be home any time now. Really, Jimmy was supposed to pick them up from school and take them home with him for a few hours, helping them with their schoolwork and spending ‘quality time’ with his sons. The social worker’s idea was a good one—and if Jimmy had been a good man, it would have worked. Knowing him as Mary did, he’d last about an hour with the boys and he’d be dragging them home to her instead. She’d be the one helping them with homework, fixing them dinner, giving them baths. Then Tina would saunter in and give them kisses goodnight, declaring once again how the day got away from her. Got away from her while she was having drinks at the bar near her work, most likely.

Best laid plans. That phrase had tumbled through Mary’s mind more than once in the past six years. Her daughter had shown up pregnant on her doorstep, and Jimmy made one false promise after another. As soon as he got a good job, they’d get married and he’d bring her and the baby home. Now there were two babies, and they weren’t babies anymore. How could Tina be so blind to mix her life up with that lazy, no-good man?

Mary shot a look at the ceiling. “Just like her mother, then, isn’t she, Lord?” As if Tina had written down Mary’s life story, her own life followed her mother’s map of failure—almost item for item. Except Mary only had Tina, and she certainly didn’t have any family to rely on in the early days. There wasn’t any escaping for Mary after work.

Even now—it was as if her day never ended.

Mary filled her mug with ice once again, and then with tea. This time, she grabbed a couple cookies from the package on the counter and sat down to enjoy the silence of her home for a few more minutes. Soon enough those boys would tumble through the door, and the house would fill with the sounds of laughing and arguing. She glanced at the wall covered with signed handprints and other artwork the boys had made her in school.

Pride nudged her as she remembered them giving those gifts to her on Mother’s day and holidays. They’d stopped making such things for their mother a long time ago. They knew who took care of them, who fed them, who could be counted on.

A sudden sadness washed over her. It wasn’t right, not any of it. Tina should be the one they came home to. Tina should be the one rocking them to sleep when they were scared, or reading them bedtime stories.

The newspaper on the table caught her attention. Mary flipped it open and began scanning the apartment section. There was a small two-bedroom four blocks away. She glanced around and took in the books, the papers, the toys strewn from one end of her house to the other. It’d take a whole lot of packing to move Tina and the boys from her place—and Tina wouldn’t want to help. Four blocks?

Mary flipped through the paper again, scanning, her mind forming a solid plan. It was time for change around here. Something had to. There it was, ten blocks away, a furnished one-bedroom. They could stay here, she’d leave. She picked up the phone and called. It was still available. A large Victorian, cut up into manageable units. She’d seen the place—it was in a quiet neighborhood on a dead end. Ten blocks. Perfect. She called back and made the arrangements. She needed boxes. The boys would help her pack. Tina could have her own room, and she and Jimmy could finally get married. Or not. Maybe when Tina forced his hand she’d see him for what he was and tell him to go for good.

The front door screen opened with a screech. Mary fixed a smile on her face to greet the boys, but instead of the boys, Tina came around the corner.

“I’m home early tonight. You happy?” Tina headed towards the table, a sour grimace on her face.

Mary took a deep breath to steady herself. “Before you sit down, grab a glass of tea. I’ve got some news for you.”

Copyright by April McGowan 2012

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