Authors: Nita Prose
However, just before classes were about to begin, I attended an orientation session, and that’s where I met Wilbur. Wilbur Brown. He was standing in front of one of the display tables, reading the literature. There were pads and pens being offered for free. He grabbed several and shoved them into his backpack. He wouldn’t move out of the way, and I very much wanted to browse the brochures.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Might I access the table?”
He turned to me. He was stocky, wore very thick glasses, and had coarse, black hair.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was in your way.” He looked at me, unblinking. “I’m Wilbur. Wilbur Brown. I’m going into accounting in the fall. Are you going into accounting in the fall?” He offered me his hand. He shook it and shook it until I had to yank my arm away to make the shaking stop.
“I’m going into hotel management,” I said.
“I like girls who are smart. What kind of guys do you like? Math guys?”
I’d never considered what kinds of “guys” I liked. I knew I liked Rodney at work. He had a quality I’d heard referred to on television as “swagger.” Like Mick Jagger. Wilbur did not have swagger, and yet, he had something else: he was approachable, direct, familiar. I wasn’t afraid of him the way I was of most other boys and men. I probably should have been.
Wilbur and I began dating, much to Gran’s delight.
“I’m so happy you’ve found someone. It’s simply delightful,” she said.
I’d come home and tell her all about him, how we went grocery shopping together and used coupons, or how we walked in a park and counted out 1,203 steps from the statue to the fountain. Gran never inquired about the more personal aspects of our romance, for which I’m grateful, because I’m not sure I would have known how to explain how
I felt about the physical parts, except that while it was all new and different, it was also quite pleasant.
One day, Gran asked me to invite Wilbur round to the apartment, and so I did. If Gran was disappointed by him, she certainly hid it well.
“He’s welcome round here anytime, your beau is,” she said.
Wilbur started visiting regularly, eating with us and staying after dinner to watch
. Neither Gran nor I enjoyed his incessant TV commentary and questions, but we bore it stoically.
“What kind of a mystery reveals the killer from the beginning?” he’d ask. Or, “Can’t you see the butler did it?” He’d ruin an episode by talking through it, often pointing out the wrong culprit, though to be fair, Gran and I had seen every episode several times, so it didn’t really matter.
One day, Wilbur and I went to an office-supply store together so he could buy a new calculator. He seemed very off that day, but I didn’t question it, even when he told me to “Hurry up, already” as I tried to keep up with his compulsive stride. Once inside the shop, he picked up various calculators and tried them out, explaining the function of each button to me. Then, once he had chosen the calculator he liked best, he slipped it into his backpack.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Will you shut your damn mouth?” he replied.
I don’t know what shocked me more—his language or the fact that he walked out of the store without paying for the calculator. He’d stolen it, just like that.
And that’s not all. One day, I came back home from work with my paycheck. He visited that evening. Gran wasn’t doing so well by this point. She’d been losing weight and was much more quiet than normal. “Gran, I’m going to pop down and deposit this in the Fabergé.”
“I’ll go with you,” Wilbur offered.
“What a gentleman you have there, Molly,” Gran replied. “Off you two go, then.”
At the ATM, Wilbur began asking me all kinds of questions about the hotel and what it was like to clean a room. I was more than happy to explain the peculiar joy of making hospital corners with freshly pressed
sheets and how a polished brass doorknob in the sunshine turns the whole world to gold. I was so engrossed in sharing that I didn’t notice him watching me type in Gran’s PIN.
That night, he left abruptly, right before
. For days, I texted him, but he didn’t reply. I’d call and leave him messages, but he wouldn’t answer. It’s funny, but it never occurred to me that I didn’t know where he lived, had never been to his home, didn’t even know his address. He always made excuses for why it was best to go to my place, including that it was always nice to see Gran.
About a week later, I went to take out the rent money. I couldn’t find my bank card, which was odd, so I asked Gran for hers. I went to the ATM. And that’s when I discovered that our Fabergé was empty. Completely drained. And it was then I knew that Wilbur was not just a thief but a cheat as well. He was the very definition of a bad egg, which is the worst kind of man.
I was ashamed that I’d been duped, that I’d fallen for a liar. I was ashamed to my core. I considered calling the police and seeing if they could track him down, but in the end, I knew that would mean telling Gran what he’d done, and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t break her heart like that. One broken heart was plenty, thank you very much.
“Where has he been, your beau?” Gran asked after a few days of not seeing him.
“Well, Gran,” I said, “it seems he’s decided to go his own way.” I do not like to lie outright, and this was not an outright lie but rather a truth that remains the truth provided no further details are requested. And Gran didn’t inquire further.
“That’s a shame,” she said. “But not to worry, dear. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”
“It’s better this way,” I said, and I think she was surprised that I wasn’t more upset. But the truth is I
upset. I was furious, but I was learning how to hide my feelings. I was able to keep my rage under the surface where Gran couldn’t see it. She had enough to contend with, and I wanted her to concentrate all of her energy on getting well.
Secretly, I imagined tracking Wilbur down myself. I had vivid
fantasies about running into him at the college campus and garroting him with the straps of his backpack. I imagined pouring bleach into his mouth to make him confess what he’d done, to Gran, to me.
The day after Wilbur robbed us, Gran had a doctor’s appointment. She’d been to several in the weeks prior, but every time she came home, the news was the same.
“Any results, Gran? Do they know why you’re unwell?”
“Not yet. Maybe it’s all in your ol’ Gran’s head.”
I was pleased to hear this, because a fake illness is far less frightening than a real one. But still, part of me had misgivings. Her skin was like crepe paper, and she barely had an appetite anymore.
“Molly, I know it’s Tuesday, deep cleaning, but do you think we could tackle that task another day perhaps?” It was the first time ever that she asked for a reprieve from our cleaning routine.
“Not to worry, Gran. You rest. I’ll do our evening chore.”
“Dear girl, what would I do without you?”
I didn’t say it out loud, but I was starting to wonder what I myself would do if ever I were without Gran.
A few days later, Gran had another appointment. When she came home, something was different. I could see it in her face. She looked puffy and strained.
“It seems I am a little bit sick after all,” she said.
“What kind of sickness?” I asked.
“Pancreatic,” she said quietly, her eyes never straying from mine.
“Did they give you medicine?”
“Yes,” she said. “They did. It’s a sickness that unfortunately causes pain, so they’re treating that.”
She hadn’t mentioned pain before that, but I suppose I knew. I could see it in the way she walked, how she struggled to sit down on the sofa each night, how she winced when she got up.
“But what is the illness exactly?” I asked.
She never answered me. Instead, she said, “I need a lie-down, if that’s all right. It’s been a long day.”
“I’ll make you a tea, Gran,” I said.
“Lovely. Thank you.”
Weeks went by and Gran was quieter than normal. When she made breakfast, she didn’t hum. She came home from work early. She was losing weight rapidly and taking more and more medication each day.
I didn’t understand. If she was taking medicine, why wasn’t she getting better?
I launched an investigation. “Gran,” I said, “what illness do you have? You never told me.”
We were in the kitchen at the time, cleaning up after dinner. “My dear girl,” she said. “Let’s have a seat.” We took our spots at our country-style dining set for two, which we’d salvaged years earlier from a bin outside of our building.
I waited for her to speak.
“I’ve been giving you time. Time to get used to the idea,” she eventually said.
“Used to what idea?” I asked.
“Molly, dear. I have a serious illness.”
“Yes. I have pancreatic cancer.”
And just like that, the pieces clicked, the full picture emerged from the murky shadows. This explained the loss of weight and the lack of energy. Gran was only half herself, which is why she needed full and proper medical care so she could make a complete recovery.
“When will the medicine take effect?” I asked. “Maybe you need to see a different doctor?” But as she doled out the details, the truth began to sink in. Palliative. Such an operatic word, so lovely to say. And so hard to contemplate.
“It can’t be, Gran,” I insisted. “You will get better. We simply have to clean up this mess.”
“Oh, Molly. Some messes can’t be cleaned. I’ve had such a good life, I really have. I have no complaints, except that I won’t have more time with you.”
“No,” I said. “This is unacceptable.”
She looked at me then in such an unreadable way. She took my hand in hers. Her skin was so soft, so paper-thin, but her touch was warm, right to the end.
“Let’s just be clear-eyed about this,” she said. “I’m going to die.”
I felt the room close in around me, felt it tilt on one end. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe at all, could not so much as move. I was sure I was going to pass out right at the kitchen table.
“I’ve told the Coldwells I can’t work anymore, but don’t you worry, there’s still the Fabergé. I hope that when my time comes, the good Lord takes me quickly, without too much pain. But if there is pain, I’ve got my prescription to help with that. And I have you….”
“Gran,” I said. “There has to be a—”
“There’s one thing you must promise me,” she said. “I will not go to the hospital under any circumstances. I won’t spend my end days in an institution surrounded by strangers. There’s no substitute for family, for the ones you love. Or for the comforts of home. If there’s anyone I want by my bedside, it’s you. Do you understand?”
Sadly, I did. I’d tried as hard as I could to ignore the truth, but it was now impossible. Gran needed me. What else was I to do?
That evening, Gran tired out long before
so I tucked her into bed, kissed her on the cheek, and said good night. Then I cleaned the kitchen cupboards and every dish we owned, one by one. I could not stop my tears from falling as I polished every bit of silver, not that we had much, but we had a little. When I was done, the entire kitchen smelled of lemons, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that dirt lurked in the cracks and crevices, and unless I cleaned it, the contagion would spread into every facet of our lives.
I still hadn’t said a thing to Gran about the Fabergé and Wilbur, how he’d left us penniless. How I could no longer pay tuition for college, how I was struggling to even keep up with the rent. Instead, I simply worked more shifts at the Regency Grand, took on more hours so that I could have enough to pay for everything—including Gran’s pain-management medications and our groceries. We were late on the rent,
which was another thing I didn’t mention. Whenever I met our landlord, Mr. Rosso, in the hall, I pleaded for more time to pay, explaining that Gran was sick and we were down to just my income.
Meanwhile, as Gran’s health worsened, I read college brochures aloud to her at her bedside, explaining all the courses and workshops I was excited about, even though I knew I’d never make it to the first class. Gran closed her eyes, but I could tell she was listening because of the peaceful smile on her face.
“When I’m gone, you just use the Fabergé whenever you need to. If you keep working part-time, there will still be enough for rent for at least two years, and that’s not including your tuition. It’s all yours, so use it to make your life easier.”
“Yes, Gran. Thank you.”
I’ve been daydreaming and I didn’t realize it. I’m standing by the front door of our apartment. My mop leans against the wall and I’m clutching Gran’s serenity pillow to my chest. I don’t remember when I put down my mop or when I picked up this pillow. The parquet floor is clean, but it’s battered and scarred from decades of foot traffic, from the daily wear and tear of our domestic life. The overhead light bears down on me, too bright, too warm.
I’m all alone. How long have I been standing here? The floors are dry. My phone is ringing. I lean over and grab it from Gran’s chair.
“Hello, this is Molly Gray speaking.”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “Molly. This is Alexander Snow from the hotel. I’m glad you’re home.”
“Thank you. Yes. I’ve been home for some time. The detective drove me here herself after she questioned me. Rather good of her, I thought.”
“Yes. And thank you for agreeing to talk to her. I’m sure your insights will help the investigation.”
He pauses again. I can hear his shallow breathing on the other end of the line. It is not the first time he has called me at home, but a call from Mr. Snow is a rare occurrence.
“Molly,” he says again. “I realize this has been a very trying day for you. It’s been hard on many of us, especially Mrs. Black. News has been
spreading about Mr. Black’s…demise. As you can imagine the entire staff is very upset and disturbed.”
“Yes. I can imagine,” I say.
“I realize that tomorrow is your one day off in weeks and that you went through a lot today, but it seems that Cheryl has taken the news of Mr. Black’s death quite badly. She says the experience has caused her ‘extreme trauma,’ so she won’t be coming in tomorrow.”