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: Blackout

Black Out by April McGowan

‘Singleness is a state of mind’ the sign read.  Well, not only was Tracy single, she was also an orphan.  Could you call yourself an orphan if your parents died after you were eighteen?  It didn’t matter.  No matter how old you were when your parents died, you still felt like one.

In any case, she was alone on all counts and facing the day she’d dreaded most in her life.  The doctor said the news wasn’t good.  Wasn’t that just like a doctor?  It’s not good, but we won’t tell you how bad it’s going to be until you come in for an appointment.  Then you had to wait six weeks to for an appointment and pay exorbitant fees to be finally let in on the news.  What was that about?

The overhead lights flickered as the subway plowed along in the underground tunnel.  Tracy re-read the singles ad.  Flanking its left, an advertisement for Disneyland beckoned happy families to live out their perfect fantasy vacation.  On its right was an abuse hotline number.  And down below, a poster for depression, complete with check-off list.  Someone had checked them all off in shaky black scrawl.  They’d probably left their abusive relationship and were now single, not loving it, and unable to partake of the fantasy Disney getaway.

An itchy feeling built inside to take her pen out and check off all the boxes too.  Nothing like self-help on the subway.

Closing her eyes, she blocked out the signs and concentrated on the slight knock and rock of the speeding train.  The sound of a couple arguing over in-laws, the rustle of gum wrappers and crinkle of newsprint filtered through her thoughts.  She kept her eyes closed, playing the familiar game she’d begun as a child.  Picking out sounds and smells, concentrating on the little details around her, she memorized her surroundings.

The aroma of twenty different colognes and perfumes blended together with summer sweat, and her previous seating companion’s forgotten, half-eaten burrito.  Scuffling feet on metal floor tiles, whispers, and coughs mixed with the collage she built in her mind.  Then, the hollow sound of her own breathing filled her ears.  Darkness closed in, fear niggled and her eyes snapped open.

Take it all in; don’t forget a bit of it. The voice in her memory was as real as if her mother was sitting next to her reminding her to appreciate all she experienced every day.

The man across from her caressed his lover’s fingers, their glances locking as she whispered to him.  His smile, her shining eyes, spoke volumes.  To her left, an elderly man slid nearer his wife and spoke in gravely tones too deep to decipher.  She leaned closer, reached in her purse, and handed him a cough drop.  He squeezed her hand in thanks.

On her right, a man in a dark blue suit clutched his briefcase as he mechanically mumbled a sales pitch he would give moments from now.

A teenage boy sat next to him, dressed in the latest fashion of loose-fitting designer jeans and logo-laden, baggy t-shirt.  He tore tiny sheets of paper out of a small notebook, crumpled them into miniature projectiles and launched them expertly into the isle, bouncing them off the leg of the elderly man.  The old couple shot him annoyed looks, but his only response was a sarcastic grin.  His harried and oblivious mother shuffled through the multiple purchases stacked around their feet in oversized glossy sacks, verbally taking stock of the savings she made on each one.

The ride continued, shifting and jerking down the track.  The seams in the walls of the tunnels, dimly illuminated at times, rushed by at a dizzying speed.  Inside the lights flickered, retuned, and went out.  Blackness enveloped them like a fist.

Tracy held her breath, blinked rapidly, and gripped the seat as fear coursed through her like an electrical shock.  Was this it?

But then complaining voices rose in exclamation and dismay.  People around her cursed, packages dropped, feet shifted.  The train skated on, unstopping, unaware of the panic building in its cars.  Red emergency lights buzzed to life, casting a dim, dusty red glow over the throng.  A voice crackled over the loud speaker as way of apology for the inconvenience.

She relaxed, and her breathing returned to normal.  As her hands met in her lap, she rubbed the tension from her shaky fingers.  A second announcement thanked them for their patience, but it was premature.  All around her were sounds of protest.

“You’d think a city this size could afford better maintenance.”

“This happened last month, on this same route.  They should have fixed it by now.”

“I can’t read my paper in this light.”

“Where did my purse go?”

“Riding around in the dark, it’s just not safe these days.”

Then the mother saw the projectiles illuminated on the floor, glowing pink with guilt; she saw her son’s hands full of tiny wads, and more of the same gathering in the isle.  She smacked his hands and the miniature bombs flew into the air like New Year’s confetti.

“You’ll lose your computer for a week for that.”  She pushed her hair back and pulled her sacks in closer, wedging them between the two.

Darkness edged in, threatened, and stole their contentment.  The dark brought fear. She knew the fear—better than the rest.  A scream built in her chest.  She wanted to shout at them, to tell them this was only temporary, that they’d all see again.  Before the admonition could escape, the lights returned.

Everyone in the car winced under the brightness.  They appeared unharmed, but now a strange uneasiness swirled about them.  The lovers still held hands, but out of comfort—not passion.  The old woman laced her arm through her husband’s, her aged fingers clenched around his forearm.  The boy sat scowling at them, mourning his lost missiles, as if the old couple had caused all of his trouble.  The businessman still held his briefcase tight against his chest, but his mumbling ceased.

Their train pulled into the stop and the car emptied.  They had entered the car singly, contented, some even happy.  But they exited as an angry mass, their joy stolen by the dark, complaints and curses lacing their lips.

Tracy, last off, pulled her purse close and walked after them—a disgruntled mob made one in their bitterness.  Up the stairs, out into the bright sunlight, they dispersed before her.  The horns of autos, the shouts of food vendors, and the rush of people along the city streets all seemed to flow in slow motion.  Every detail captured in her mind, as if in a snapshot. She would never see any of those people again, but they and their reactions were glued into her scrapbook memory.

Her mother had known the darkness personally.  Blind from a genetic illness at the age of fourteen, she would often reminisce about the things she missed seeing, but also about the beauty all around that so many took for granted.

Tracy reached the tall office building and entered.  Inside, a vast, polished marble floor stretched before her.  She spied the elevator bays on the right and headed towards them, her tennis shoes squeaking with each step.  After calling the car, she waited only a moment for it to arrive.  Entering alone, she reached to push the button for the tenth floor.

Her fingers lingered on the smooth, golden-lit circle, then trailed over to the cool Braille bumps near it.  She closed her eyes and tried to memorize the pattern.  The elevator stopped to let on more passengers, and she pulled her hand away as if caught doing something wrong.  She backed into the corner, allowing the others to choose their destination.  When hers arrived, the computerized voice sang out her floor number, and she excused herself, squeezing between them.

A tall, blue directory met her as she left the elevator.  Listed on it were different medical offices, all edged in the same bumpy pattern.  She closed her eyes, reached out and traced her doctor’s name over and over.  Satisfied she knew it, she turned and walked down the long hall.  Wood edges lined the way, with breaks for guides.  Each door had a raised printed name.

She reached the office, entered and greeted the receptionist.  As she sat down, she picked up a magazine and noticed a variety of Braille booklets neatly stacked by each chair.  She had never noticed them before.  Maybe she hadn’t wanted to notice.  An involuntary shiver raced over her as she remembered her experience on the subway.

Really, she was blessed.  She’d had so much more time to prepare than her mother had.

“The doctor will see you now.”

Funny choice of words.

“Thank you.”

Copyright by April McGowan 2010

Read More
%d bloggers like this: