First appeared in Still: The Journal
She’d spent the last ten years waiting for her husband to die. She came to this realization standing at the kitchen window, its glass fogged with age, the hinges painted shut for so many years now it didn’t occur to her, anymore, to try to pry it open. It was a view she knew by heart. The land had been in his family for generations, and when they first started building here, in ’65 or thereabouts, they’d stand together, arms at each others’ waists, young lovers looking out to a future coming into focus. The high ridges of the Black Mountains rose before them—Celo, Big Tom, Clingman’s Peak—and their refrain was always the same: Can you believe we get to live here. Can you believe all this is ours.
It had been different in those days. Remote, yes, but in ways that felt liberating. Air to breathe. Room to roam. There were no neighbors to speak of but for the Hawk’s Trail Hammersteins, who, for the most part, kept to themselves. She’d been grateful for that then, but it was a different matter today her left to deal with situation after situation on her own. No fresh milk when the snows came, no help in the garden. No one to get John up, when—with increasing frequency—he fell.
He insisted, still. I will die on top of this mountain. She argued back knowing it was in vain. “You are 86 years old. It’s time we moved down.” Then for the ten thousandth time she’d prattle off the myriad reasons: doctors, hospitals, ambulance, fire service. It was an exhaustive list that always ended with this. “Our grandchildren are there, John. Our great-grandchildren. Don’t you want to be with them?”
“I reckon they know where we are,” he’d say.
But they didn’t come, was the problem. It was a drive getting up that winding dirt road, and their lives were filled with work and school and activities. John John was playing football this year, and Kate was a sophomore. Or was it Junior? It was hard to remember there being so many, nineteen in all now counting the baby. All of them did see each other with some regularity two of the sons being in business together. Plus Ginger (the sentimental child) was good about planning cookouts and birthdays and holiday gatherings. There was some comfort for Edna in knowing that.
She poured another coffee and again looked over the list. Sam would be here soon to take her to town for groceries. Him and Ruth were summer neighbors, nice people up from Florida who quite often looked in on her and John, why that’s who she called the night he drove the front of his truck over the edge up at the top, a frightful predicament the truck tottering and her hollering for him not to move, not to try to open the door and get out for fear the whole thing would come loose and barrel down the mountain’s far side. Sam and Ruth both came hitching their truck to his, then Randall White added on, all of them knowing without discussing they could not wait for “officials” which would of taken an hour, at best, to get there from town. They got his truck pulled back, too, him safe, everybody relieved if rattled.
She walked to the bedroom, again combed her hair, rechecked her bag. It was all there, her prescriptions, her wallet, a big fold of cash held with a rubber band. She looked out the window again, for Sam.
“Don’t forget my Little Debbie’s.” It was John hollering from the den, over the TV, which was on Fox News and blaring. “You know the ones I like.”
Been buying them fifty years, yes, she knew.
“You won’t forget.”
“I won’t forget, John.” It was quiet, an offering not in response but resignation.
Gravel in the driveway crunched. It was Sam, who never honked the horn—too much of a gentleman for that—and she didn’t like for him to have to come to the door so always she was ready and waiting. This time, though, she collected her bag and went to John in the recliner. He looked up.
“I’ve left you something to eat in the refrigerator.”
“Alright,” he said.
“And there’s some other things in the freezer if what’s there don’t suit.”
There was a moment, a strange one where for the first time in years neither seemed to know exactly what might happen next.
“Well, then,” she said. “I’ll be going, I reckon.”
“Alright,” he said again.
She leaned down and kissed the top of his head, the motion startling him slightly. Then she turned for the door. Sam was there when she opened it, his hand raised to knock. “Here I am,” she said, “I’m right here.” She shuffled past him, her handbag over her arm.
“I’ll just stick my head in, say hello to John, if that’s okay.”
She flipped her hand dismissively. Then she went down the steps, climbed in the silver Subaru, pulled the seatbelt around her middle and buckled it.
“I thought they’d of come to fix the roads by now, but this rain’s held them up.” It was what Sam did, narrate the way, giving them something other than silence for the drive. Not that she wasn’t a talker. He’d learned a long time ago you get Edna going on something she’s got an opinion about and you’ll wish you hadn’t. Surprising things captivated her, mostly current events or national scandals that had nothing whatsoever to do with life on the mountain. And most especially Edna and John, who, from the best he could tell, lived in a world that extended from the front to the back of their atypical brick ranch.
But today she was quiet. Especially so, her purse clutched in her lap. They’d reached the swing arm of the neighborhood gate and Sam pulled the car up slow, putting it in park. His hand was on the door when she looked to him with her first words of the drive.
“You gonna put on that brake?”
He thought how pointless this was the road flat for 300 yards. It’s why they’d located the gate here in the first place, locking up access when so many cars and trucks started driving through. Curious onlookers, mostly, tourists who’d stumble on the turn down at the state road and thinking this one looked promising would come right on, winding their way five miles up in search of prime views. Them and the countless locals who’d come and go as they pleased believing all land in the county inherently belonged to them.
He gave her a knowing smile and pulled back the brake.
The lock took some fiddling it having been reattached improperly. But he got it loose, opened the wide swing arm, pulled the car through. Then he went back to close it, engaging the emergency brake again. He made a note to get a new padlock. This one was on its last legs, and lord knows as head of the homeowners he was in charge of everything. It was not a job he loved, particularly, but somebody had to do it and at least he was there, unlike 80 percent of the members who owned only property and who rarely saw it. Him and Ruth both agreed it was a small price to pay for the surround of so much virgin land.
They were forty minutes into the drive when he first mentioned his need to stop at the hardware. He’d expected her to direct, telling him to go there first, John’s vanilla ice cream wouldn’t keep in a hot car. But what she did was not respond, just looked out the passenger window her head turned to the side. She’d done this most of the way down, and it was something that surprised him, her typically keeping her eyes straight ahead in spite of the nice views. She watched that road like any minute he was liable to make an errant turn and there they’d go, careening over the side. She didn’t trust his driving, that was clear, which was odd her having never learned herself.
He’d asked why, one time last year.
“So I’ll never have to,” she’d said.
And that,you’d have to say, summed up Edna.
One more time she checked, twisting open the silver latch. She reached into the bag and touched the list though she could clearly see it right there. Just like five minutes ago, just like ten minutes ago the paper folded in half and laying up against the raw yarn edges of her mother’s perfect needlepoint. There were knots of red and green and navy, this being the backside of her famous rose pattern. Edna’d meant to add a lining after her mother’d given it to her (had it been twenty years?) but this had become just one more thing she never got around to doing.
She pulled at the Kleenex even though she didn’t need it. Then she dabbed, and wondered why, like this was an obligation she owed, a reason for going into the purse in the first place. She folded the tissue, tucked it back and snapped.
They’d got to town; she saw this now, looking up to see the light. Cars and trucks and two motorcycles sped by, and Sam flipped the turn signal to flashing even though no one was behind. He was a good, careful driver. She’d give him that, not like John who never could seem to get the hang of it. He had that old truck which he’d wrecked eight or nine times, the latest being his last behind the wheel. A least as far as the state of North Carolina was concerned, it involving both a citation and the withdrawal of his license. Henry and Sarah both had come up after that having a very stern sit down with their dad. And of course John’d come back with his own argument over how the authorities were trying to take over everything and that’s why you couldn’t just give in. It was why a person lives away, he said, to avoid such nonsense.
The kids rolled their eyes like they’d been doing for forty years. Then Sarah checked the refrigerator (as if her mother wasn’t looking) and also the medicine cabinet reviewing quantities, dates, instructions. Satisfied, apparently, she got in her brother’s black SUV and they drove back down the mountain.
The light changed and Sam’s car pulled into traffic. She could see the big INGLES sign just ahead on the left.
“What if I just let you out at the door,” Sam said, pulling into the lot.
They’d had rain down here, she noticed, the black asphalt shining.
“That’ll give you a little extra time, no need to rush. I’ll run on to the hardware.”
She was surprised, that’s all, this being a change.
“I’ll be back before you know it,” he said.
She didn’t argue but pursed her lips then tucked her purse up tight. The car approached the wide front doors, people coming and going, a group from the Church of God having a bake sale on the sidewalk right where she figured he would want her to climb out. She sat tight.
“Or,” he said. “Why don’t I park and walk in. Give me the opportunity to use the facilities.” He sounded ridiculous, this being the kind of thing nobody ever needed to hear, nobody needed to announce. “Then I’ll run on and be back before you’ve filled your cart.” She didn’t agree nor even nod. Then he added, “Won’t be a minute, Edna. I’ll be right back.”
Why all this jabbering, is what she thought. Let’s get on with it. She reached for the door handle but before she could get the thing open there he was, his right hand extended. “I’m not an invalid,” she said. He gave a quick smile but held firm. She took hold, finally, and arm in arm they wound together through the busy parking lot, her commenting on the manners of their fellow shoppers and on the perils of the errant shopping cart—of which, she noted, there were many.
They reached the front of the store. Inside, at the proper cart corral, Edna tried four different ones pronouncing each unsuitable. A bag boy passed and she hollered out, “You there, young man,” and Sam took the distraction to scoot. He disappeared deep into the grocery’s long aisles where he wandered for a minute, examining the selection of honeys (nothing local) and maple syrups (nothing pure) then made a pass back to the front keeping an eye out for Edna. He thought he would spot her from a distance, squeezing tomatoes, smelling cantaloupe, pulling back the husks of each ear of corn. He didn’t see her, though, and he headed for the exit behind checkout, away from the carts and complaints.
In less than two minutes he was parking again. He was considering whether he should of brought the handsaw but decided no, this was simple, the blade he needed was merely a replacement. Still the regular hardware had closed and he was dealing with the new Big Box. Good luck finding somebody to help, anybody with any knowledge of how things work. Plus the odds of a store like this carrying the blade were slim, he knew, these kinds of stores liking to sell things in sets.
A tall man in a red vest happened past, his hair streaked with gray, and Sam took this as an encouraging sign.
“Aisle 10,” the man said.
Sam nodded, then before he could get his second question out the fella was gone, off to some emergency—a shelf that needed straightening, or a riveting conversation with a coworker, no doubt. He hated that, wondered, as he walked, how management allowed it. Seven. Eight. Nine, he crossed the store. Ten, here we go. He made the sharp left, then walked the long lane either side stacked with boxes six shelves high. Hammers, drills, sanders, routers, …handsaws. Eureka.Blades. Blades…blades…Where were the blades?
Hells bells, he’d have to get help.
An hour later he was back at his car, the 15.4” Professional Series Curved Blade with Scabbard Large Teeth on order. Or so he hoped, it having taken the 20-year-old an inordinate amount of time to determine this particular item was not in stock but could be secured and shipped with a fifty dollar deposit. No, actually, the deposit was not required but once entered into the system it caused a multitude of problems that required a manager to step in. Three times Sam said he’d have to come back, someone was waiting. But should they exit the system, it seemed, he stood a chance of losing his fifty bucks.
Good god, is what he thought.
He hightailed it back to the grocery worried over having been gone so long, all the while trying to convince himself Edna would hardly have noticed. It took her at least an hour to get through the store and even then he typically had to go back around with her, helping her find many of the items on her list. He didn’t understand this, really, since she bought the same things every time. (She and John ate a lot of Macaroni and Cheese, this he could tell you, and also Chicken and Dumplings.) Still he did it, cheerfully as he could, knowing one day he would be old, which at 64 he was closing in on now.
He passed by Beer and Wine, then turned right at Dairy, his plan to go through backwards thus meeting Edna as she finished up. At the left back corner he turned, walking the width, first coolers, then Ham and Pork, Chicken and Beef, the Specialty Meats case. He looked right, down each aisle. Past Seafood, past Bacon, past Cheese, all the way to Bakery.
There was no sign.
He must of missed her at one of the edges, or maybe she was sitting in the Garden Cafe, the very idea him taking so long. She wasn’t there (a bit of a relief) and so he started a full walk of the store, up every aisle, down every aisle, then up, then back again.
When had grocery stores gotten so complicated? He thought this making his second and third passes, there being an entire international section that split up the middle with Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Korean—no wonder Edna had such a time.
He returned to the back, found a young woman in gourmet cheese.
“I seem to have lost…my mother.” He gave her a quick smile, it being sheepish due to the lie. “Would you do me a great favor and check the ladies’ room? I’m wondering if she might be in there, in need of some help.”
The woman put down the Havarti and disappeared through the marked door. In no time she was back, shaking her head no. She gave him a considerate “sorry.”
His heart collapsed.
He moved toward the parking lot. He didn’t know why. He did not for a minute believe she could have found the car or managed alone, and even if she hadgotten help, Edna Allen was not one to stand by patiently waiting. She wasn’t there, of course, so he turned around and approached the bake sale people, which they’d not seen her, not that they recalled, although a lot of folks came and went, God bless.
He touched his hand to his pocket. He’d left his mobile in the car, he’d have to go get it. He’d call somebody—Edna, but she didn’t carry a phone, never had, refused to in fact. He’d ring their home number but even if John answered (which Sam doubted) reaching him would be of no use. He could try Henry, their eldest and their HOA emergency contact, but he’d first have to get Ruth to find the form and send the number and how, exactly, did he expect Henry to help?
He unlocked the door. He reached for the phone.
In the distance, somewhere, a siren wailed.
He was overreacting, he knew. He could not have lost her.
You don’t bring a 78-year-old woman to the grocery and lose her.
His heart raced, it pulsed fast, faster. She was in that store.
Edna had to be in that store.
He stood upright then turned, listening, his hand holding steady to the crossbar on the roof. He waited, watched, cars stopping, lights flashing. He breathed in deep but there wasn’t room, his lungs iron, air with nowhere to go. He closed his eyes.
He thought of Edna, where to find her. Now Ruth, the sound and whirring going past, moving beyond.
She’d gotten the cart, she didn’t know why. She’d pushed it into the store the handle being something to hold onto. The right front wheel clicked away, click click click, she did not want noise of any kind and yet here she was. Plus the tomatoes. Those god-awful tomatoes just look at them, not her concern, but still. She planted her own, with seeds passed grandmother to mother to her. Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Ruby Gold. Plus the little cherries. She loved to pop them right in her mouth right in the garden, skin popping sweet, warm juice running. Their taste pure sunshine. “Vine Ripe Tomatoes,” the grocery sign read. Hothouse vine, she wanted to add.
No matter. She was not here for tomatoes. Not ever, not today.
She rolled her empty cart click click click toward the back. Employees asked four times could they help. Four times she responded, “I believe I’m quite capable.” The very idea. She parked at the lighted display of bakery birthday cakes (abomination, all that food color icing) then ambled toward the heavy door of the lavatory. Better to go on and take care of this now.
The shopping cart was gone time she came out. One less thing to worry over, she thought. She put her arm through the handle of her purse, and slow, determined, she walked the back of the store right to left. It was twelve noon; John would be in the kitchen now, up and reaching into the refrigerator for the pimento cheese sandwich she’d made and left him. No one seemed to be watching as she made the turn to the stock room.
He was there, waiting.
“Ready, Mrs. Allen?” he said.
She didn’t answer, she just followed him, right out the back door of the grocery.