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

Read More

Short: Swing

“Well, you can’t have it!” She screamed loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear.

Jimmy slammed the door in Macy’s face as she tried to follow him into the front yard of his mother’s house. He felt her eyes on him as he approached the aging swing hanging sideways off the old oak.

“Why does that old thing matter to you anyway? You were never here to use it.” She stood on the other side of the screen door as the accusing tone in her voice raked over him. Macy didn’t seem understand his penchant for keeping everything. Or at least his trying to. Did she forget how he’d owned nothing for years?

“I’m doing my best to clear out this house, and all you want to do is pack everything away.” Macy pushed open the door, stood on the steps and put her hands on her hips, a stance that told him he was on her last straw. Some things never changed.

Jimmy wiped his eyes and pretended to ignore her. He turned over the swing seat and saw the initials carved there. His finger followed their outline, bumping over rough, cracking wood. He glanced back at his wife.

“I don’t expect you to do anything. I just want it.” Taking out his pocket knife, he cut the single lasting rope that held it suspended over the ground for the past twenty years. Satisfied, he tucked it up under his arm, ignoring the splinters that poked through his shirt and into his flesh.

“Fine. You keep whatever you want. Go rent a truck and haul all that garbage out of here by Monday. Whatever’s left is being donated to the poor.” She pushed past him towards her car.

Jimmy grabbed her as she moved by, pulling her towards him. She swung around, wrenching her arm away. He put his hands up and took two steps back. “Listen, I appreciate your taking care of everything all this time, Macy.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I know you did a lot.” Her head snapped up, eyes blazing at him. That got her attention.

“I did it all.” The last word ground out past her teeth.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”

“That was your doing.” The bitterness in her tone didn’t shock him. The accusing looks didn’t either. He deserved her wrath.

“I know it was.” But, there was something he didn’t understand at all.

Glancing back at the old house, the only home he’d known really, he decided the question had waited long enough. “Why’d you stay married to me, Macy?” He didn’t look at her. Rather, he hoped she was already driving away in her car.

“We made a covenant.”

Jimmy closed his eyes at the pain he heard in her voice to avoid seeing it in her face. “I broke that, didn’t I?”

“No. You never did. Least ways, I don’t think you did.” She sounded strange. Regretful?

“I’ve been in jail for twenty years. That’s not enough to break it?”

“No.” Resentful.

“I robbed a bank and that man died because of it. That’s not enough?”

“No.” Macy’s voice was just above a whisper.

Jimmy moved away and sat down on the front step. He slipped the swing seat from under his arm, tracing the dedication. “Did they use it?” He heard her step closer, then stop.

“Yes.” Her voice choked. “They’d push each other and pretend you were pushing them.”

Pain. Clear and bright it tore through him. He’d missed his children’s growing years. He’d missed being married to the most amazing woman he’d ever known. He’d missed taking care of his mother in her aging years. Missed Christmases and birthdays. Flu’s and chicken pox. First days of school, first dances, first dates and first broken hearts. He’d missed his mother’s funeral. For what?

“There’s nothing I can do to set things right. God knows I tried.”

“God knows?”

He glanced up at her face, wondering at the tone she’d used.

“I think so. I talk to Him about it.” Jimmy shook his head in shame. “Those men I was with. They knew they had me. They found a stupid desperate kid who wanted nothing more than to take care of his wife and new twin babies. They promised him things, things deep down he knew they’d never deliver on. And that stupid boy agreed to drive their car for them.” He shook his head at the memory. Even now he could feel the fear and excitement that had welled inside. He’d gripped the wheel, ready to make their escape as soon as they climbed in the car. He’d gun the engine and they’d make off with everything he needed to take care of his family. No working sixty hours a week at a minimum wage job could give him that kind of security. Their bills would be paid in minutes. They’d be set for months until he could find another job. And then the next one.

He would have never stopped.

“I thank God the police caught me, Macy.” They hadn’t caught the others. He’d been honest at the trial, he didn’t know their names, didn’t know where they lived. There was a public outcry. Someone had to pay for that security guard getting shot. Jimmy paid.

“Did I hear you right?”

Tears welled as his eyes met hers. “Yes, you heard me.”

“You had to suffer for what those men did. You lost everything for them!”

How could he make her understand? “If the police hadn’t caught me, I’d have gone right on taking the easy way. The kids would have grown up with a father who was a criminal.”

“That is how they grew up.”

He shook his head. “No. They grew up with a father who paid for the crime he committed.”

“You didn’t commit that crime.” She sniffed. “Robbery. You should have been out in five. You paid for someone else’s crime.”

That was the rub. The very thing that opened his eyes to God. “I needed that time to turn my heart around. If I hadn’t got caught, who knows what kind of man I’d have become.”

She shook her head at him. She probably thought he was crazy. “You haven’t become any kind of man.”

Macy’s words cut him. She hadn’t let the kids come by more than once a year to see him. She blamed it on the prison atmosphere. She only came to see him three times a year, claiming it was too hard to see him in there. None of it was true. She was punishing him, over and over again for the mistake he’d made.

“Are you ever going to forgive me for being weak?”

“I don’t know that I can.” Tears streamed down her cheeks.

He glanced down at his hands, rubbing his thumbs over the seat. “You know why I made this?”

“I have no idea. But your mother insisted we put it up in the yard.”

“So part of me would be here.”

She tried to snort, but it ended in a sob.

“Sometimes it takes a man a long time to realize what’s important to him.” He held out a handkerchief to her. Taking it, she dabbed her eyes.

“You had to go to jail for twenty years to see what’s important?” Anguish laced her every word.

He shook his head, unable to make her understand. She would stay married to him forever, because of a vow she made before God. But, it’d be like they were strangers. He didn’t think she’d let him live in the same house with her. There was nothing he could do to change her mind.

His gaze traveled over the porch, stopping on a looped rope he’d intended to use to secure the boxes on the trailer they were pulling. Standing up, Jimmy grabbed the rope and headed towards the big oak in the front yard. He tossed the rope high, slung it over the branch, and then he did it again. Fall leaves rained down over his head, showering him with the dust of passing time. He secured the swing seat and patted it.

“Let me push you.”

Macy shook her head at him. Then her eyes went wide. He could see almost see the light turn on in her mind. She’d finally remembered.

“We used to swing together, in the park.” Her voice was just above a whisper.

“That’s right. You said you felt free when you were swinging; lifted up, the ground rushing by, but you were safe. You said you’d always want to swing with me. That you felt like nothing could touch you when I was pushing you. Invincible.”

Tears streamed as she clenched her eyes closed. “We were kids.”

“We were in love.” He patted the seat. “Let me push you.”

Macy crossed her arms over her chest. She shook her head at him.

“Please. Then you can go.”

Jimmy didn’t know if it was the word please or the promise he’d let her leave. Whatever it was, she gave in. Walking slowly towards the swing, she turned her back to him and slipped down onto the seat, the ropes creaking against her weight as she settled back. He put his hands over hers, gave them a squeeze and stepped back, pulling her on the swing with him. Then, he let go.

He pushed her, again and again, and watched her legs instinctively go out and back, pumping. He gave her a harder push. She let out a quick gasp and laughed. Ten years fell away.

“Not so high.”

“Swings are meant to go high. That’s the whole point,” he repeated the same words he’d used all those years ago. Fifteen more years stripped off. She was above him now, head tipped back, looking through the branches.

“What do you see?” He took a quick peek past the orange and yellow of the dying leaves.

“Blue sky.” Her voice came in a wisp to him as she swung away.

He smiled as joy met and mingled with bittersweet regret. They’d never be the same, but he’d always have this. He pushed her again, but he didn’t need to. She was on her own, pumping higher and higher, laughing now. Then, as if someone blew a whistle on the playground, she slowed her legs and came back to rest in front of him. He stood behind her, once again putting his hands over hers. She didn’t move away. Instead she leaned back, her head coming to rest against his chest.

“I missed you.”

“Me, too.” This was it. Goodbye. He braced himself for the pain he knew was coming.

Macy stood and stretched in front of the swing. Her hair was mussed and interwoven with tiny bits of leaf and moss. She ruffled her hair, shaking out the lose pieces and gave him an embarrassed smile. Then she came around behind him whispering in his ear, sending a shiver of hope down his side. “Your turn.”

Holding his breath, Jimmy met her eyes and found warmth there.

“You going to get on, or what?”

He nodded and squeezed his body in between the ropes. Again, they groaned. He put his feet up, feeling like a little boy. He felt her hands wrap over his.

“Ready?”

“I’m set.”

Her hands pulled him back, and then she gave him a heaving push. He was much bigger than she was, but she got the job done. He began pumping his legs back and forth. Laughter bubbled up from his chest. The ground swung away and back, his stomach pulling down with gravity at each pass. Her hands pushed, her voice laughed and then he heard a thud. Turning behind him he saw Macy sprawled along the ground, shaking. He jumped from the swing, out of instinct. Landing hard, he felt his ankle give a bit. He’d pay for that tomorrow.

Racing to her side, he saw her shuddering was from laughter. He knelt down and began pulling bits of earth and tree from her hair and clothes.

“Are you okay?”

“I tripped over the root.” She kept laughing, drawing him in to share her joy with him. As their smiles faded, she focused on the sky above. “Thank you for the swing.”

“I’m glad you liked it.”

Macy’s locked her eyes on his. “We need to take it with us. I want you to put it up in the back yard.”

“For the grandkids?” A hopeful confusion washed over him.

“For us.” She took his hand. “For us.”

Copyright by April McGowan 2011

Read More

The Arrangement

As the owner of a floral shop, Hua knew that people gave flowers for every occasion: marriage, birth, celebrations and loss. Today, as she walked around straightening the displays and dusting the vases, everything in the shop reminded her of loss. Especially the roses.

Hua wiped a tear escaping from the corner of her eye and faced the door as a customer entered her small shop. She forced a smile when she saw Mrs. Lee. The sweet old woman came in every Tuesday to buy the same small bunch of flowers for her husband’s grave. Hua already had it prepared, but out of respect for Mrs. Lee, she waited until she asked for it.

“Good morning, Mrs. Lee. What can I do for you today?”

“Ah, Hua, I’ve come for an arrangement for my husband’s grave.”

Hua listened to Mrs. Lee’s selection of flowers, then went to the back of the shop and puttered around for a few minutes before opening the floral case and taking out the prearranged bunch.

“I hope this will be good enough.” She offered the grouping of narcissus, white daisy and baby’s breath to Mrs. Lee with a slight bow and smile.

“Perfect. As always.” Mrs. Lee bent her arthritic fingers with painstaking care and extracted a ten-dollar bill from her wallet. But, instead of leaving, as she usually did with a wave, she stood there.

“Was there something else I could help you with?”

“How are you?”

Taken aback, she said, “I’m well.”

Mrs. Lee looked at her with skeptical eyes. “And your husband?”

Hua didn’t know how to answer that. She wasn’t accustomed to lying. “He is well.”

“Ah.” Mrs. Lee tottered past the ferns and other live plants to the small café table in the waiting area and motioned for Hua to follow. “Come and sit.”

“I don’t have a lot of time right now, Mrs. Lee. I just got several new shipments in, and they need to be refrigerated.”

“Give a few minutes to an old woman, will you? Do you have any tea?”

After bringing a pot of jasmine tea and two small cups out to the table, she sat down across from Mrs. Lee.

Mrs. Lee poured the tea into the cups and watched the steam rise. “I have not seen your husband in the shop for some time.”

Neither have I. “He’s often gone. Business is good for him.”

“I thought you owned the shop together.”

“We do, but he was offered a job two years ago in the sales department of one of our suppliers.” It was supposed to secure their future. Tears threatened, but she blinked them back.

“He’s a hard worker.”

Hua just nodded, afraid of what she might say if she spoke.

“And how long have you been married?”

“Twenty-five years.” Today. Not that he’d bothered to call her. She wasn’t even sure which town he was in.

“Ahh. You are just beginning.” Mrs. Lee’s eyes grew wispy. “I was married to Mr. Lee for sixty-five years. We met at the immigration office. Then, in citizen class, he would come and sit by me. I didn’t want him to, so I would always move to the most uncomfortable section with the worst view of the teacher, hoping he would not follow, but he didn’t stop. Once I actually saw him give money to another person so that they would move and he could have their seat near me.” She clucked her tongue. “Even though he was very handsome, it wasn’t proper to encourage such actions.

“Finally, on the day we were granted citizenship, he asked me to lunch. As soon as I heard his voice, the gentle tone, I knew I would say yes.” Mrs. Lee let a happy sigh escape. “We were married just two weeks later.” She extracted a crumpled tissue from the sleeve of her coat and dabbed at her eyes. “And how did you and your husband meet?”

Hua stiffened in her chair. “I don’t want to keep you, I’m sure you have many things to do today.” She began to rise, but Mrs. Lee stilled her with a wrinkled, gentle hand on her arm.

“Please, honor an old woman with a quick story.” She smiled encouragingly at Hua.

Hua relented. “On the subway. I was working in this same shop, but back then I had to travel across town to get here. One time I looked up and saw Joseph sitting in the seat across from me. He was very tall.” She remembered feeling small and alone on the train—his size seemed to amplify her feelings. “The next day, there he was again. Later that week, I looked out of the window of the shop and saw him walking up the street. The day after that he was at the newsstand on the corner. The following day he was getting coffee from a vender, then sitting in the restaurant next-door.

“He started to come into the shop, every day, to buy just one flower. As soon as he’d see me working in the back, he’d leave. This went on for three weeks.”

“He was following you? I would have been afraid.” Mrs. Lee made a tisk sound with her tongue.

“I was. My boss didn’t take it seriously, and he chalked it up to cultural differences—but I didn’t think anyone from any culture would like to be stalked. One morning I took a later train, hoping to avoid him, but when I got off, there he was. As soon as he saw me, he turned away and bought a newspaper, hiding his face behind an article. My fear turned to anger and I confronted him.”

Hua remembered the shocked look on Joseph’s face.

“Just what do you think you are doing?”

“I’m sorry. I just…” Joseph stopped, his face flushed pink with embarrassment.

Her hand balled into a fist and she shook it at him. “You leave me alone. Quit following me.”

She caught herself smiling at the image in her mind, her tiny Asian form threatening his six-foot frame.

“I wasn’t. I mean, I was, but,” he paused, hands up as if she held a gun to his chest.

“If you continue, I’ll call the police.” Hua began walking away, but he ran ahead, blocking her path.

“Please. I’m sorry. Let me explain.” He held out a bunch of flowers, dried to perfection, arranged so that the colors blended yellow, gold, red, pink and white, one into the next. They were all roses, perfectly preserved. The aroma was sweet, but it was the adoring look in his eyes that took her breath away.

“I’ve been trying to get the courage to talk to you, but I didn’t know how.”

“So instead you follow me?”

“I work down the street. I started to see you every day on the subway and then I saw where you worked.” His eyes searched her face. “I didn’t know how to approach you, or if you even spoke English.”

She kept her eyes narrowed at him.

“I brought these hoping to catch you.” He held up the flowers again, but she didn’t reach for them. “Will you tell me your name?”

“Hua.”

“Hua?”

“It means flower.”

A pleased smile grew across his face. “Flower.”

She felt her cheeks go warm under his gaze and decided to change the subject.

“You did this?” She motioned to the bouquet.

“I made them for you.”

Hua let the memory of it work through her. She could see his boyish face, so handsome and fair; his green eyes reflecting worry and hope as she’d finally accepted his flowers.

She finished the tale to Mrs. Lee. “And five months later we were married. Three years after that, we pulled together our life savings and got a loan to buy this shop.” She shrugged and smiled in spite of herself.

“A lovely story. Thank you.” Mrs. Lee finished her tea and stood to leave. “May God bless your marriage.” She took her flowers and left the shop.

As Hua cleared the table, she looked out the window, and saw Mrs. Lee stop by a man on the corner. He leaned down, bowing to her and she walked past. The man strode up the street towards the shop, his coat collar up against the cold, but she couldn’t see who he was. She put the tea things away and looked up over the doorway. The sign Joseph painted for her hung there. It read, “A flower fades, but true love remains.” She shook her head, wondering how she could have ever believed that.

Just then, the door opened, jingling the bell above it, and in walked the man she’d seen. As he turned down his coat collar, revealing his face, she froze. Joseph. Once again, he stood before her with worry and hope in his eyes. His face was more lined than it used to be, his hair sprinkled with gray at the temples. Yet he still took her breath away.

“Hua, my flower.”

Joseph hadn’t called her that for some time. In fact, she hadn’t seen him in weeks, or heard from him in days. Every call grew more distant, every conversation more strained. All they’d dreamed and worked for was fading away.

“What are you doing here?” She hadn’t meant to sound so accusing, but her anger had gotten the best of her.

“These are for you.” He held out a bouquet of dried roses, twice as large as the one he’d given her all those years ago. “One flower for every year.”

Taking the bouquet, she recognized some of the flowers that had been grown in their private garden. Some of the plants weren’t there anymore. “You must have been collecting these for a long time.”

“Not everyone gets to be married for twenty-five years.”

“What did you say to Mrs. Lee?” She could see the surprise in his eyes. His face fell, like a little boy who’d just been caught breaking the neighbor’s window with a baseball.

“I asked if she would come in today and remind you of how we met.”

“Why?”

“I quit my job.”

Shock and relief rushed through Hua, but did she dare hope?

“I know we decided I should take that job so we’d have a solid retirement, so that in the future our days would be secure.” He took a few steps closer. “But I realized as I put this bouquet together, that soon I would be financially secure, but I’d also be alone.”

He put his hand under her chin, tipping it up to look into her eyes. “I would rather work hard every day by your side, than retire early and have no one to share it with.”

She felt the tears in her eyes spill out, washing away her anger as he brushed them away with his fingers.

“Did the Tuesday shipment come in?” He used a business-like tone, but she could see joy in his eyes.

“Yes.”

“Let’s get it unpacked.”

She nodded and started toward the back of the shop. Instead, he blocked her path and pulled her into his arms, his eyes locked on the sign over the door. A flower fades, but true love lasts forever.

She followed his gaze. “Mrs. Lee says we are just beginning.”

“I hope she’s right.” He kissed the top of her head. “Happy anniversary,” he whispered.

Copyright by April McGowan 2010

Read More
%d bloggers like this: