Authors: Brenda Hill
Sometime later, I found myself in the car with Stan, crawling east on I-10 in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The last few moments in the bank had been a blur and I hadn’t been able to focus on what the two men were saying. I’d felt wobbly, as if the very foundation of my life
had suddenly been whisked away.
Now, in the car with Stan, I realized it had.
He must have made out a check as I vaguely remember protesting, but he’d said something about paying it back later, and so I had relented. I didn’t want to crumple in that nice, sterile bank.
Besides, what could I do? My thoughts were a confusing jumble, but two questions kept repeating over and over: when had my hu
sband done this to me? And why?
I looked at Stan now, at his dear,
sweet face. He was such a rock.
“Thank you so much,” I finally managed to say, swallowing the tears, the sheer panic, “for the money, for the moral support. For coming with me this morning. Most of all, for being my friend. I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
“It’s okay, doll. No sweat.”
“Keep an account of everything,
and I’ll pay you back as soon—”
“Let’s worry about that later, okay? Maggie and I are all right financial
ly. We can afford to help you.”
Pressure in my thro
at choked me. I couldn’t speak.
“I caught up the back payments and paid three months in advance,” he
added, “time enough to get everything settled and to decide what to do.”
What to do...
The mortgage changed everything. I certainly couldn’t move to Minnesota now, and it was doubtful I could at any time in the near future. There was only one solution. I’d have to go back to work full-time.
Later, when I could think rationally, I’d have Stan help me figure just how much was owed on the condo and see whether I should make payments or sell it. But if I sold it, I’d have so little equity that I’d just have to make payments someplace else. I might as well keep it—unless something else unforeseen slapped me in the face.
“Why would Mac do this? And if he mortgaged the condo, where’s the money?”
Stan’s mouth tightened but he said nothing, jamming on the brakes whe
n some jerk cut in front of him.
I had the strangest feeing that something was very wrong, something besides the money
, and that he knew more about it than he was telling me.
“Do you have any idea what he did with all that money?” I as
ked, watching his face closely.
Stan kept his eyes on the road. “Beats me. He never mentioned anything about it to me.”
He answered so quickly that I wasn’t sure I believed him. Would he lie to protect his brother?
I studied his profile, noting the familiar strong jaw and the firm, sure grip he had on the wheel. Those steady hands guided us safely through traffic in much the same way he’d guided his family and mine through the small and larger happenings in our lives. He’d always been so dependable, so supportive, that I’d grown to rely on him almost as much as I had Mac. Yet he had a soft side as well, a loving side such as when he’d picked me up and whirled me around o
n the day of the barbecue. He and Maggie had been my strength during Mac’s illness and death.
How could I doubt him how? How could I think that this man, my friend as well as my brother in law, would lie to me? But Mac had lied, another side of me reasoned. Not in so many words, but by not telling me something I had every right to know.
Maybe Mac had, but I refused to think that Stan, who knew what I had lived through, who supported me during the funeral and tenderly tucked me into bed afterward, would deliberately lie to me now.
“Before he got sick,” I said, shoving the doubts aside, “we always made the bills out together. We did everything together. Or so I thought.”
“Now don’t go jumping to conclusions. You know he must’ve had a good reason to do that.”
hat good reason? What would possibly justify something like this? And without telling me. I thought I knew him so well.” I stared out the window. We had passed the city outskirts and begun to climb Crafton Hills toward the Yucaipa exit. I gazed absently at the homes nestled on the hillside, shaded by a multitude of palm trees, each of them like a safe haven above the congested freeway. I wondered if I would ever feel safe or secure again.
“I know I’m asking a lot,” I said, “but could you check with David Greyfoot at the plant? He’s still office manager and Mac’s pension checks should be starting. That’ll help until I can get a few commissions going.”
When Stan pulled into my driveway, I sat unmoving, gazing at my home, at what I’d thought was my sanctuary. Even now, I still couldn’t quite comprehend that it wasn’t mine, that it belonged to the bank, and unless I made regular payments, it would be taken away from me.
Stan opened the car door. “Come o
n, doll. Let’s get you inside.”
When I stepped onto the pavement, my legs buckled. Stan g
rabbed me and walked me inside.
In the kitchen, he rummaged through the cupboards and pulled out an old bottle of wine. After pulling the cork, he took a whiff, then poured two glasses, one about half full. He took a sip from his, then offered the smaller one to me.
“Don’t want it.”
“Take a dr
ink. It’ll settle your nerves.”
“My stomach’s already rolling. Besides, you know I don’t drink.”
“If anyone needs to start, it’s you. Now drink the damn wine.”
Reluctantly, I took a tiny sip, set the glass down, and pushed it away.
He pushed it back toward me. “Bottoms up. It’s only a few sips.”
I ignored it. “Thank you for today, but go home now. I’m exhauste
d and just want to lie down.”
“Finish the glass and I’ll go home.”
“You’re a bully, you know.” Ready to do battle, I looked up at the mountain that was Stan, but when he smiled at me with such compassion in his eyes, I caved. Had he deliberately baited me to get my mind working again? “You’re a bully, Stan Montgomery, but a loveable one,” I told him softly.
“The wine really will help,” he told me, his voice gentle. “And it’s much better than a tranquillizer.”
I picked up the glass and drained it.
A couple of hours later, I woke from a nap and felt better. At least I was steadier. After a light snack of cheese and crackers, I tore through the house, going through all the cupboards and drawers, looking for anything that would tell me why Mac had needed that much money.
When he’d become so ill, he’d talked about me moving near Shanna and her family, and I kept shushing him up because I couldn’t bear to think of a future without him. But he kept insisting I face the inevitable.
If he’d been so concerned about my future, why did he jeopardize it with a hidden loan? And where was the mone
y? He knew I’d need it to move.
Could there be another safety deposit box somewhere? But that didn’t make sense. Why borrow money just to put it in a box in a bank? I pulled out all the kitchen drawers, looking for any kind of clue, all the time pushing down a very real sense of betrayal, betrayal by
the only man I had ever loved.
Later that evening, Terry called.
“We going house hunting?” he asked.
“Good heavens. Don’t you understand plain English? I’m not going to work with you and that’s final.”
hoping to convince you to change your mind,” he answered jovially, “and I’ll keep asking for that chance.”
I slammed down the phone.
When it rang again. I ignored it, hoping he’d get the hint. Finally, after several rings, I picked up. “Really, Mr. O’Neal—”
“Just wanted to tell you I think you’re sp
ecial.” His voice was soft, and I suddenly thought of silky bed sheets on a hot night. Horrified, I stared at the phone. Where had that image come from? He hung up.
It rang again. This had gone far enough. I picked up so violently the
base went flying. “I told you—”
“Hey doll, it’s Stan.”
“Oh.” I felt deflated. And embarrassed. “I’m sorry. Some jerk has been calling.”
His voice hardened. “Who? That same guy?”
I hesitated. I didn’t want to sic Stan on Terry. He wasn’t dangerous; he was just a pest. “No,” I said. “Just kids.”
Stan was silent a moment. Then
, “Lisa, I’d like to stop by.” His voice had a slight edge.
Something was wrong; he seldom called me by name. I gripped the phone, waiting for him to explain. “What is it?”
“Let’s talk when I get there.”
it Maggie? Is something wrong?”
“It’s not Shanna, is it? Or the baby?” Please, God, please, God...
“It’s nothing like that.”
After we hung up, I noticed my hands were shaking and I couldn’t seem to draw a deep breath. Even though I prefer Diet Coke as a beverage, I headed for the kitchen, took out the wine, then bypassed it for Mac’s Scotch. I drained an entire shot glass in one gulp. If this kind of thing kept up, I’d turn into a drunk.
Then I unlocked the front door and sat down to wait.
Twenty-three minutes later, Maggie stood beside Stan at the door. “Thought I’d come along, too,” she said, giv
ing me a brief hug.
I tried to read her face but she wouldn’t look at me.
Silently, Stan enveloped me in a hug. Then, with his arm around me, he led me into the living room. He looked tired. And troubled.
is it?” I said, bracing myself.
“Sit down, Lisa. We have to talk.” He perched on the edge of Mac’s wingback chair. Maggie took the other.
I stood frozen.
“Christ,” he sighed. “How about some of th
at wine. Or any booze will do.”
Now I was truly frightened. Normally Stan only had a couple of drinks
“Mac’s Scotch is in the kitchen.” I searched his face then Maggie’s for some sort of reassurance, but neither of them would meet my eyes. My legs weak, I slid onto
the sofa and clutched the arm.
“Oh, honey, are you all right?” Maggie rose to check on me.
When I met her gaze, she paled.
“I’ll get the booze,”
she said, heading for the kitchen.
As if from a great distance, I heard cabinets open and shut and the tinkle of ice hitting glass. She returned with a drink for each of us. Stan drained his and set the drink on the coffee table, taking great pains to place it precisely in the middle of the coaster. Dread emanated from him, thick as a blanket choking out the air. I found myself gasping and concentrated on one breath after the other.
“Enough,” I said, carefully setting my glass next to his. My movements felt labored, as if I were walking underwater. “What is it, Stan? You’d better tell me right now. I can’t take this much longer.”
“Lisa, honey, I’ve been going over final papers for the estate and checking into the pension.” He paused. “Everything’s in, the bills, the insurance,
and...” His voice trailed off.
silence hung thick in the room.
Just tell her,” Maggie finally said.
“Honey, you’re broke,” Stan said in a rush. “There’s no insurance left in Mac’s account, no pension.”
I couldn’t have heard him correctly. A great roaring started in my ears and my voice rose. “What do you mean, no pension? You mean a delay? Some reason I can’t draw it yet?”
“It’s gone, honey. At least the bulk of it. You’ll draw two, maybe two-fifty a month.”
“No, there has to be some kind of mistake.” My voice was so shrill that I barely recognized it. “Mac worked at that plant every day for twenty-six years. He never missed a day until his illness. Some of every paycheck went into his retirement. Every paycheck, Stan. There has to be over three-hundred thousand dollars.”
Stan was silent. He looked as though he’d rather be anywhere on earth than here.
Then I knew.
And felt sick. “He took it, didn’t he?”
Stan’s gaze was level. “I’m afraid so. He borrowed against it as well as the insurance.”
“Is anything left?”
“You’ll have about three thousand.”
Three thousand dollars. I couldn’t get enough air. All my plans, all my hopes for the future, had just evaporated like a puff of smoke.
Stan and Maggie stayed until late that night. I think they were afraid to leave me alone. I felt numb. Dazed, actually. Nothing made sense but I went through the motions. I drank when Maggie handed me something and ordered me to swallow. I ate part of a sandwich that she made for me, although I tasted nothing. I remember staring through the glass door in the kitchen to the mountains beyond until it was too dark to see anything except a single twinkling light. It came from someone’s home in the foothills, no doubt. Maybe a young couple snuggling down to watch TV after putting their children to bed.
I turned away.
Sometime later, Maggie insisted on helping me to bed. I slept a dreamless sleep.
I woke the next morning to the sound of rain tapping against the windows. I had always loved to listen to the sound, especially when I was snuggled in bed. I
t made me feel safe and secure.
But now, of course, I knew that had been just an illusion. I wasn’t secure. My husband, the man who had always been so careful about finances, the man who had cautioned me over and over again about how important it was to have a savings account in case of emergencies, had left me in debt and almost penniless.
Why? the concern been a sham? Had our entire life together been a farce?
And what happened to the money? About the time Mac had taken out the loans, he’d been so ill he hardly went anywhere. When he did, it had been with m
e. So where had the money gone?
And what was I going to do?
I suddenly thought of that last good day and of his cryptic message, “Forgive the bad.” Now I knew what he meant. Couldn’t he have told me, prepared me in some way? “A toast to tomorrow,” he’d said. How could I look to tomorrow when he’d taken all my security away?
question repeated itself in my mind, over and over: how could he have done this to me? Would I ever find an answer?
I could have stayed in bed all day, maybe the rest of my life, but pressure on my bladder forced me up. Afterward, I washed my hands and brushed my teeth, partly from habit, partly because my mouth tasted as if something had died in there. When I lifted my gown to take it off, I caught a reflection of myself and realized how haggard I looked. Why bother to get dressed? I dropped the hem and padded downstairs for some coffee.
While it was dripping, I poured a small glass of soda and gazed at the mountains through the glass doors. The rain had stopped and the sun was breaking through the clouds.
I closed the drapes.
The next couple of days I kept the drapes pulled and stared at the TV. I didn’t bother to dress. The phone rang and rang. According to the ID, Maggie called several times and so did Terry, but I didn’t answer. I resented the intrusion of their disem
bodied voices over the machine.
I wanted a cigarette, but unable to face the thought of putting on clothes and going out to get some, I went searching through all my handbags, hoping an old pack would magically appear. But I found nothing, no old, bent cigarettes, not even some loose tobacco.
I’d started smoking in my teens, and over the years had worked up to two packs a day. Mac had nagged me constantly about it, but I hadn’t listened. As far as I was concerned, I could get through anything if I had my Diet Coke and cigarettes.
Shanna had always hated it, dramatically waving her hand in front of her face when I lit up. When she became a teenager, she spouted statistics about second-hand smoke. I sympathized, but I didn’t put them down. Finally, one day, she looked at me with her big, brown eyes and asked, “How can you expect me to stay away from drugs when you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day?” That had done it. That had been over ten years ago and I hadn’t smoked since.
Finally, giving up the search, I went down to the pantry and dug around until I found an old package of Mac’s cherry licorice. The ropes were glued tightly together, but I pulled and tugged, ripping off a jagged strand and sticking it in my mouth.
The third day Stan called. I heard his voice on the answering machine, warning me that if I didn’t talk to him, he was going to break down the door.
Damn. Why couldn’t people leave me alone? Resenting the intrusio
n, I punched the answer button.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I’m okay. I didn’t stick my head in the oven or throw myself in front of a moving truck. It might hurt and I’m too much of a coward to risk it.”
“Thank God you’re all right. Unfortunately, I had to run down to San Diego day before yesterday, couldn’t get out of it, but I’m here now. So what gives? Maggie says you won’t talk to her.”
“Tell her I love her but to leave me alone. You too. Right now I just want to be by myself.”
“Maggie and I are going to bring something for you to eat. You’re skinny enough already. You can’t afford to skip meals, which I know you’re doing. You don’t have to do anything except eat.”
“For God’s sake, Stan, don’t yo
u understand English? Leave me—”
“You might as well realize,” he interrupted, “we’re not going to leave you alone, at least not right now. We
love you and we’re concerned.”
With my teeth clenched, I told him I needed some time alone, that growing up the way I had, I needed solitude to heal. I wasn’t so sure that was necessarily true, but I simply couldn’t face anyone, even them, right now.
Finally I convinced him but could only get rid of him by promising to heat a bowl of soup as soon as I got off the phone. It was easy to agree; I needed to take a couple of aspirins and didn’t want to swallow them on an empty stomach. While I felt so miserable I didn’t know if I wanted to face another day, I didn’t want an upset stomach. I had to smile at that one.
After shuffling to the kitchen, I stared at the closed cupboards. My fleeting light mood had suddenly vanished and I simply didn’t have enough energy to bother. I stuffed a piece of stale bread and the pills in my mouth and opened the fridge for some Diet Coke. Well, damn, damn, damn, no Coke. I’d forgotten to replace the empty liter, so I trudged into the garage for a
warm bottle and drank my fill.
Later that afternoon someone knocked on the door. I ignored it, but the noise continued, the pounding becoming more and more insistent.
Then I heard someone tapping against the sliding glass door in the back. Goddammit! Why the hell couldn’t people leave me alone?
“Come on, Lisa, open up,” Maggie called through the glass. “I know you’re in there, I’m not going away until you let me in!”
I ignored it as long as I could.
The tapping grew louder. “I’m not leaving until you open this door! Want the neighbors to call the cops?”
“All right, all right!” I shouted. “I’m coming.”
I stomped to the kitchen, unlocked the sliding door and pulled it open just enough for her to step in. She was wearing potholder gloves and carrying a brown glass casserole dish that she set on the counter.
“Well,” she said, “when Mohame
d won’t come to the mountain...” She eyed me up and down. “You look like hell.”
“I wasn’t expecting company,” I said pointedly, “and I don’t want any.”
“My, my, aren’t we grouchy today. Look what Stan fixed you.” She lifted the casserole lid, and the pungent aroma of hot shrimp and spices drifted to me. “Your favorite, seafood casserole with rice. When did you eat last?”
“Well, go wash up,” she said. “You’re going to have a decent dinner while it’s nice and hot.”
“I appreciate what yo
u’re trying to do, but I’m not—”
“Look.” Maggie drew herself up, feet spread and hands on her hips. “Stan and I have been worried sick about you, and I’ve had enough. I want to sleep tonight, so you’re going to eat whether you like it or not. And after that,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “you’re going to march your skinny little ass into the bathroom and take a shower. Understand?”
I scowled at her, giving her my most formidable look, but she didn’t flicker an eyelash. In fact, she was wearing the same expression she’d used with her children. She meant business, and I knew she was stubborn enough to stay right there until I did everything she said.
No matter how I tried to hold a scowl, my
lips betrayed me and curved upward in a smile.
About an hour later, Maggie and I sat at the table. I’d had dinner, two helpings, actually, and a bath. I hated to admit it, but things didn’t look quite so black. Maybe a dark shade of gray.
Maggie was good for the soul. She listened, and no matter what popped out of my mouth, she understood.
My home phone rang, and, thinking it might possibly be Terry, I ignored it. Maggie arched a brow but said nothing. The phone rang three more times, then the machine picked it up.
“Hi, Mom,” Shanna said. “Just got your letter.”
I jumped up to take the call. “Hi, honey. I’m here.”
“What’s going on?”
I brought her up to date, glossing over the details. She’d always had such faith in her father. “So, it’s going to be a while yet,” I told her.
“Mom, you have to come soon. I wanted to surprise you, but I’m pregn
ant, and I want you to be here—”
“Honey! Congratulations!” I turned to tell Maggie the news. Then Shanna and I talked about seeing the doctor, about how Kyle was going to react, and just the normal things
between mothers and daughters.
“I’d love to be there,
” I said, "but I’m not going to have as much money as I’d thought.”
“You don’t need money; you can stay with us. Oh, Mom, you weren’t here when Kyle was born and I understood because Daddy was so sick. But you could come now. Nothing’s keeping you there now.”
It wasn’t until then that I knew what I had to do. I didn’t like it and Shanna most certainly wouldn’t, but there it was.
“I can’t, sweetheart,” I said. “I’ll fly out for the birth, but I can’t stay.”
“But Mom, I-I need you.”
I wanted to cry
, to scream out my frustration.
“I just don’t understand.” Shanna’s voice took that edge that always preceded an argument. “What’s so damned important that you have to stay there?”
“I have...obligations, bills to pay. A moral obligation as well as a legal one.”
“You could pay them here. You were going to move anyway, so why not now? It’d work out for everyone.”
“Just think for a moment.” I tried to stay calm. “If I moved right now, I’d have to go to school, then find a job. Even if I sold something the first day, it takes time for commissions to come through.”
“But Mom, it’s the same there.”
“I wouldn’t have to wait so long here. I already have a license, a place to work, and I know the routine. Shanna, please try to understand, I—”
“All right! If a
is more important than your grandchildren and me, just stay there.” I heard a click, then the line went dead.
I must have stood with the phone in my hands, because Maggie put the receiver down for me. I felt stunned, unable to move. My daughter’s harsh words were the last straw.
I couldn’t catch my breath. I stood gasping until something within me fought back and I gulped air. My vision was blurred. I began to shake and I heard a terrible keening sound. I didn’t realize it came from me.