Authors: Joyce Magnin
a novel by
For the lunch ladies at
Lynnewood Elementary School
EAMER RARELY SULKED
T WASN’T ON HER
top-ten list of favorite things to do. Smiling, looking on the bright side, was always preferable no matter what the circumstance. But today she felt a little sad and sulky as she peered into the yard at the birds—crows mostly—and the trees and green lawn with spotty crowns of dirt here and there. She took a deep breath and let it out her nose. It was a pretty view, especially with the mountains in the background. But still, there was definitely something different in the air from what she was used to, and she wondered.
Maybe moving to Grass Valley, California, to live with her son and daughter-in-law was a mistake. She missed home—back east, Pennsylvania. She missed her friend Martha and hoagies and scrapple and, worst of all, Henry and she were still … nervous around each other. She had hoped that once she moved in—lock, stock, and massive salt and pepper shaker collection—she and Henry would figure out how to finally discuss the elephant in the room. That had not happened.
Harriet slipped into her red Converse sneakers and tied them tight. She liked the way they went with her white Capri pants, the ones with the little blue anchors on the cuffs. Red, white, and blue. She felt quite patriotic and nautical.
“But they started this,” she told her reflection in her bedroom window as she pulled a brush through her short, gray hair. There was a time when she considered dyeing it—perhaps back to its original brunette, but she always thought of an excuse not to. “They insisted I come live with them. They said I was too old to take care of myself.”
She was pretty much working herself into a perfect snit when the phone rang. Her cell phone. The fancy one she had purchased for her big trip from Pennsylvania to California. Harriet grabbed the cell from the night table and saw it was Martha calling. Her heart raced a tiny bit. Martha always knew when Harriet was feeling sad.
“Martha,” Harriet said. “I am so glad you called.”
“I was worried about you.” Martha’s voice held a twinge of melancholy.
Harriet sighed as she sat in the blue, wingback chair near the bedroom window. “I miss you,” she said.
“And I miss you. Are you okay?”
“Not really,” Harriet admitted. “I mean, I’m not sick or anything. It’s just that I feel a little … listless today. Maybe even sad or at least blasé. I’m not sure moving here was such a great idea.”
“Of course it was a good idea,” Martha said. “Just give it more time.”
Harriet always tossed the stale bread to the birds, and now she watched a crow the size of a Labrador Retriever puppy swoop down to steal a piece from a tiny sparrow. “You big bully,” she said.
“What’s that?” Martha asked. “Who’s a bully?”
“Oh, it was just a big crow swiping a piece of bread right from a sparrow.”
“If it’s come down to you watching thieving crows, then maybe you are ready for some new excitement.”
Harriet pondered this through a moment until a light bulb turned on in her brain. “Let’s do something about it then. You
should come out for a visit. A nice, long visit. It will be like old times.”
Harriet listened to several seconds of silence before she said, “Well, what do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Martha said. “I … I guess I could come … now. Considering that …”
“Considering what?” Harriet asked.
“Nothing,” Martha said. “It’s nothing.”
Harriet did not believe it was nothing. But she also knew Martha tended to be a private person but would spill her guts when the time was right. She’d let the comment go for now.
“Are you sure it would be okay with Henry and Prudence? Won’t they feel imposed upon?” Martha asked.
“They’ll be fine. After all, it was their idea for me to come to live with them. And they must have known I’d want to entertain a houseguest every now and again.”
“I suppose, but I don’t want them to feel put out.”
“They won’t. There’s plenty of room.” Harriet glanced around the small bedroom. It was not the smallest room in the house. The third bedroom, the one Prudence had converted into an office, was by far the smallest room. Harriet’s room was next in line of smallness. Still, it had been a very long time since Harriet had occupied a bedroom that felt so tiny. Finding a way to fit Martha in for a week would take some rearranging. It would be like fitting two feet into the same shoe.
“We’ll make it work, somehow,” Harriet said. “I mean, the house is small, but I believe there is always room for friends.” Harriet’s Basset Hound, Humphrey, ambled by and flopped at Harriet’s feet. She reached down and scratched behind his ear. “I’ll talk to them tonight over dinner.”
“As long as you’re sure.”
“I am,” Harriet said. “Now, enough of this worrying. Let’s pick a couple of options for dates so I can clear it with Prudence
and Henry. She is so very organized, you know. Makes me crazy. Everything in its place, a place for everything. Not that I’m a slob or anything, but sometimes I—”
“What about your salt and pepper shaker collection? Don’t tell me she’s got a place for them too.”
“Ha, you won’t believe it, Martha. You just won’t believe it.” Harriet shook her head. “My collection is still mostly in the garage. In boxes. Doesn’t that just fry your cookies? I’ve been able to set a few around, but Prudence didn’t like my monkey shakers or my gnome shakers on the windowsills. She said they creeped her out.”
Harriet, who knew Martha very well, could almost see the ensuing expression on her friend’s face through the phone lines. Shock. Utter and total shock. Everyone who knew Harriet knew just how important her salt and pepper shaker collection was to her, how large and monumental it was, and about the love and devotion that went into caring for it over nearly twenty years.
But “I’m sorry” was all Martha said. Not exactly the outrage Harriet had expected to hear steaming through the phone. It was almost as though Martha didn’t find it all that upsetting. And this lackluster reaction convinced Harriet even more that there was definitely something heavy on Martha’s mind.
“Are you all right, dear?” Harriet asked. “You seem a little distracted.”
Martha sputtered a few syllables until she finally said, “I’m sorry. No … I’m fine.”
“As long as you’re sure. You’d tell me if you had a problem?”
“Certainly, Harriet. I’d tell you.”
“Well, we both know that’s not true.” Harriet opened the window. “Scat, you crows. Honestly, why do the big guys always pick on the little guys?”
“Now, what about your collection?” Martha asked. “She won’t let you display them?”
“Yes, I just told you most are still in the garage. In boxes.”
Harriet took a deep breath. “Martha, I know you said everything is fine, but frankly, dear, you
Martha let go what sounded like a nervous giggle. “Harriet, I told you, I’m fine. Really. It’s just that … that sometimes I wish you had never left.”
“There’s a lot of that going around today.”
“What do you mean? Is everything okay? Is there something else going on with you and the kids?”
“No,” Harriet said. “I think I’m just sore about my collection.”
“Maybe you can find a compromise,” Martha said. “Put them in a display cabinet. It
your house now too.”
“That’s just it. It doesn’t feel like my house. I feel like a guest. The guest who never leaves, like I’m the stinky fish left in the refrigerator too long.”
“Now you’re just being maudlin.”
“A little. Maybe. But lately I’ve been thinking that I have been put out to pasture and it might be time to sell my collection. You know, before the … the Grim Reaper comes knocking on my door.”
“Now stop it,” Martha said. “You have not been put out to pasture. Isn’t that what that whole cross-country trip was about? Didn’t you learn anything?”
Harriet felt a tiny bit ashamed of herself. “Yes. You’re right. But is it too much to ask that my collection, something so important to me, be part of my life here?”
“Of course not. You need to be honest with Prudence. Tell her how you are feeling.”
Harriet swallowed. “I can’t stand the thought of them in those boxes in the garage. They need to be free, Martha. Free and on display.”
Martha chuckled. “I agree. But please, Harriet, don’t sell. Don’t do something you will regret. Maybe you could just start getting more of them out one set at a time. You know, just kind of sneak them in, introduce them slowly into the décor.”
Harriet laughed. “I can just see the reaction from Prudence if she saw a turtle looking at her from the kitchen counter.”
“So what? She’ll get used to it.”
Harriet shook her head. “No, the woman does not like change. And she’s got eyes like a hawk. Notices everything. She can spot a piece of lint from twenty paces, and then she’s right there with her DirtDevil. The other day she got all flustered because I dropped my tea bag into the sink. It’s not plutonium, for crying out loud. It’s Red Rose.”
“She got mad?”
“No, not mad. Let’s just say she let me know the proper place for used tea bags. I had every intention of tossing my tea bag in the trash.”
Talking about tea made Harriet desire a cup, so she carried the phone out into the kitchen. It wasn’t a long walk. The house was a ranch style built around 1974. Harriet liked the layout well enough. She especially enjoyed that there were no stairs to climb. The kitchen was the biggest room in the house. Henry had said the previous owners built on to the original floor plan. The kitchen now boasted a fine granite island and lots of wood cabinets—all white, stark white, with pretty yellow door knobs and one set of cabinets that had doors that were all glass to show off Prudence’s collection of Fiesta dinnerware with bright colors and inviting shapes.
While Harriet and Martha continued to talk about Harriet’s new life but not about Prudence in case Henry walked in from his den, Harriet filled the kettle with water and set it on the stove to boil. She retrieved two teacups and saucers from the cabinet before remembering that Martha was on the phone, not in the kitchen. She returned one teacup and saucer with a sigh, dropped a tea bag into the other teacup, and then sat down at the round kitchen table.
Finally Harriet said, “But hey, why are we discussing all this on the phone? We can talk when you get here. Just come as soon as you can. And stay at least a week, more if you can.”
“Well, okay. Let me check on some things first and get an idea about airfares, and then I’ll get back in touch with some dates.”
“Spectacular,” Harriet said.
“It will be,” Martha said. “I’m so excited to be seeing you.”
“Me too. I love you, Martha.”
“I love you too.”
Harriet tapped the phone off and set it on the kitchen table. Misty-eyed, she felt memories of home flooding back. Could it have been three whole months since she arrived in Grass Valley? It was already early September, and time was certainly whizzing by at breakneck speed, although Harriet felt she had been standing still.
“I feel like I’m in the eye of the hurricane, Humphrey,” she said. “Everything is whirling around me, and I’m moving like a sloth.” She leaned down and rubbed the dog behind his long, ridiculous ears. “I really need her to come. Or I just might go stir-crazy.”
“Are you okay, Mom?”
Harriet looked up. Henry was leaning against the kitchen counter. He was wearing his usual Dockers and a green Polo shirt with the insignia of a golf club his agent took him to once. He held a coffee mug in one hand and a Little Debbie snack cake in the other. Henry had a weakness for Little Debbies.
“Oh, Henry, I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I needed to come up for air, and I need more coffee. I’ve been writing since six this morning. I heard what you told Humphrey. Why would you go stir-crazy?”
Harriet waved his words away. “Don’t pay any attention to that. Just the ramblings of an old woman.”
“Mother. Cut it out. You are not an old woman. You have more energy than me sometimes. But I will say that I’m a little concerned about you.” He took a bite from the small chocolate cake.
“Concerned? About me? Why?” Harriet sipped from the little, delicate teacup with purple violets rimming the brim.
Humphrey let go a woof.
“I just think you need to be doing more,” Henry said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you might be seventy-two—almost seventy-three—but you are not ready for the pasture.”
Harriet smiled. “Well now, that’s nice to hear but—”
“Maybe if you got out and did something. Made some friends. Got involved with something.”
“Well, speaking of friends, I was going to wait until dinner when Prudence is home, but I might as well tell you now that I’ve invited Martha for a visit. Won’t that be nice?”
Henry coughed. “Martha? But, Mother, you should have spoken to Pru and—”
Harriet rested the teacup on its saucer. “Now, Henry. You told me I should feel at home here.”
“Of course you should. I was only saying that having Martha here is fine as long as the dates are good for Prudence. That’s all I was saying.”
“I’m sorry, dear. I have been a little edgy lately, haven’t I?”
“It’s okay, Mom. But that’s why you need to get out. Most days, you spend all day in the house. You bought that Vespa scooter so you could get around town easily.”
“I know that, dear, and I have used it … many times.”
“And you need to make new friends. I wanted you to buy a car. But you insisted on buying yourself a scooter. You said it made you feel hip. But you can’t very well take friends around with you on that thing, can you?”
“I do like the scooter. It’s cute, and the helmet makes me feel young. But the truth is, I’m too old to make new friends. And, frankly, there is no one at that church we go to that I would feel comfortable with. I think that’s why they keep asking me to take nursery duty. I’m everyone’s grandmother.”
“It is a younger crowd, I know,” Henry said. “But there must be some way to meet people your age.”
Harriet fiddled with a salt shaker. It was shaped like an obelisk, a crystal obelisk with a silver cap. “I suppose I could see if there is a salt-and-pepper-shaker club near here.”