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The first time I heard Palchebel’s Canon, I was sitting in a molded plastic chair, five rows from center stage, violin propped on my knee. Mrs. Parsons was standing on a felt-covered platform, baton poised, mouth open to show the bright pink lipstick smear on her front teeth. It was the final concert of my sixth grade year, and I still remembered how I begged my mother to come. She had sighed, running her fingers through her bottle-blonde hair. “Oh, honey, I don’t know,” she had said, expertly extricating herself from my grasp. She had finally agreed, somewhat reluctantly, the day before. I was watching her then, sitting near the back door, fanning her flushed face with a program. My mother wasn’t much for crowds, which was why I wasn’t surprised when Clara told me she wasn’t coming today. “She’s busy,” Clara had said, sounding tired. “She wants to be here, but she can’t. She’s sorry, so sorry.” She had sighed, too.
Now, as the musicians struck the first chords, I peered down the church aisle. Clara was standing just a few steps in front of me, veil covering the updo that Sylvie and I had spent two hours on. But in a moment or two, just a hundred notes, a hundred pizzicato pluckings, she’d be at the other end of the aisle, hand in hand with Paul, and I’d be behind her, as I always was, wearing a dress that was just a little too tight, a little too itchy, and much, much too pink.
“Reese.” She turned around to whisper my name, a smile on her lips. “This is it.”
“I know,” I whispered back, because I did know, even if part of me wished that, maybe, it wasn’t true. “You’ll be fine, Clara. You’ll be great.”
She took a deep breath, “Oh, God,” and started walking, one white-heeled foot in front of the other. I waited a beat and started after, the bouquet of flowers I held strangled in my clammy grip. I centered my eyes on the lace in between her shoulder blades. She was walking faster than I was, her steps growing wider as she neared Paul, who had a stunned smile on his face, standing there looking supremely uncomfortable in his rented tuxedo.
It was only after the ceremony, after the reception and the dances and the overpriced cake, that I caught up to Clara. Her smile was starting to fade, and her face looked sallow under the overhead lights, the thick makeup she wore unable to conceal the tiredness that bagged under her eyes. “Hey,” she said, wrapping one arm around my shoulder, pulling me close. “Wasn’t it beautiful?” She closed her eyes, tilted her face upward as if searching for sun, though natural light was hard to come by in the basement of the Elks’ Lodge.
I surveyed the room, still filled with flowers and half-melted candles, bad toupees and relatives decked out in their finest two-piece pastel suits. “Beautiful,” I agreed. “Where’s Paul?”
“Eh, around.” She waved her hand vaguely, swirling the stale air. “You know.”
“Sure,” I said. “Of course.” Clearly, as a high school senior, I knew all about missing husbands.
“So, listen, Reese.” She opened her eyes and took a step back, putting her hands on my shoulders. I wondered if she was drunk. But then, and I’m speaking from personal experience, it’s the best way to make it through a Wellsville family function. “I just want you to know,” she said, “that even though I’m moving out, you can call me. Whenever. If you just want to talk, or if something’s wrong with Mom, or whatever.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said, taking a few steps backward as I tried to pull myself from her grasp. “That’s great of you, Clara. Really.”
“No, I mean it,” she said, tightening her grip. The fabric was starting to bunch under her fingers, and her voice was getting louder, attracting the attention of several people around us. “That letter really upset her, okay? So I’m just saying—” she broke off, hiccupping, and I took the opportunity to edge myself in.
Clara looked confused. “The letter from Dad, you know. He just sent it now, after fifteen years away, fifteen, can you believe it? What a—”
“He wrote a letter?” I was having great difficult wrapping my mind around this. Maybe it was because I didn’t know him, not really; the pictures I had of him weren’t even from a photo album, they were constructed from the stories Clara and my mother told, each one more condemnatory than the last.
“She didn’t tell you?” I shook my head, and Clara shrugged. “She must’ve forgotten.”
“Maybe,” I said, doubtfully.
“Well, anyways.” Clara hiccupped again, already detached from our conversation, eyes searching the room for Paul. “Look,” she said, “just keep it in mind, okay?” She stepped back, having found him talking to a brunette in navy. I found myself longing to switch dresses with her, to take off this frilly gown and pull on something that would help me blend in because, really, that was all I had ever wanted.
“Sure,” I said, this lie coming so easily to me, this promise that, yes, I would call her, I could keep in touch, I wouldn’t resent her for leaving me. “I will.”
“Oh!” She turned back to face me, one last thought occurring to her. I realized this was the last time I’d have with Clara without Paul attached, and I found myself nodding, urging her on, not quite wanting this moment to end. “Tell Mom,” she started, then stopped, taking a deep breath, “tell her I wish she would have come.”
It was eleven-thirty when I pushed open the front door to the apartment, and all the lights were off. I was careful to stay quiet as I tugged off my heels and dropped my coat onto the hall bench. I walked through the hallway, my bare feet moving noiselessly on the faded carpet. I paused as I passed by the living room, automatically checking that her laptop was plugged in for work tomorrow, that the TV was off, that the coffee maker she kept in the corner wasn’t still brewing. I was just turning to leave when I saw her, curled up on the couch, an old afghan covering her legs. She was crying soundlessly, her shoulders shaking with the effort.
I stood there for a moment, watching her. I felt unsure, wondering if she noticed me, or if I should say something to let her know I was home. But it seemed too private a moment to interrupt. She raised her head a moment later, noticing me, but said nothing. I didn’t, either, as I crossed the room and sat next to her, letting her lean against me and cry.
I woke on the couch, my head bent at a forty-five degree angle, pressed in between two overstuffed cushions. I straightened up slowly, feeling my spin crack back into its normal position, as I realized I had never changed out of the pink monstrosity. Its skirt had creased around me; the beading on the neckline had worn a pattern of dots and flowers into my collarbone. I stood up, heading to my room for a T-shirt and pair of sweatpants in a nice, neutral gray.
My mother had already left for work, I realized as I walked into the empty kitchen. The coffee maker was still flipped on, the grounds at the bottom turned to an oily sludge. I opted for orange juice instead, drinking it straight out of the carton, head tipped over the sink. My eyes were running over my mother’s cookbooks when I noticed the piece of paper protruding from the dusty pages of The Joys Of Cooking. I flashed back to last night. That letter really upset her. I set the carton next to the tap and pulled the cookbook from the shelf. The paper fell out as I cracked the spine, drifting to the floor and landing on my left foot.
It was short, hardly enough to make up for a fifteen-year absence. Just a page scrawled on hotel stationary, each word running into the next. I squinted at it, scanning the lines. I was near the end when I saw my name. Tell Reese I’d love to see her. I’ve got a place in Fresno; she’s welcome anytime. I know it’s not enough, Mary. But it’s a start. Roger.
Slowly, I leaned forward, doubling over the counter, the edge of the countertop pressing into my ribs. He wanted to see me. My father wanted to see me. This, I couldn’t understand.
“Reese?” It was my mother’s voice, cutting into my thoughts. She was standing in the doorway, her briefcase in one hand, a milky coffee stain spreading across her blouse. She smiles sheepishly. “Red light, you know, I wasn’t really paying…” she stopped suddenly, her eyes flicking from my hands to my face. “Attention,” she finished, voice no louder than a whisper. “Reese? What is that?” She took a step towards me, tone rising, pitching into hysteria. “What is that?”
“When were you going to tell me about this?” I could feel my face flushing, growing hotter with each word I spoke. “You weren’t going to, were you? You weren’t going to tell me a thing.”
“Reese.” She took a wobbly step towards me, eyes filling with tears. “You don’t understand. It’s been fifteen years, honey, fifteen years, and I thought he was gone and dead, and suddenly he wants to write? Suddenly he wants to see you? No.” She shook her head. “No. He doesn’t deserve that. He doesn’t deserve you.”
“I want to.” I’m a little surprised at the words pouring out of my mouth, as if my brain and my vocal chords aren’t even connected. “I want to see him.”
She waited a moment before speaking. When she did, her voice was tight. “Stop being ridiculous.”
“What if I’m not? What if I’m being serious? What then? Tell me!”
“We are not discussing this.” She stepped back, towards her bedroom, where she could go put on a clean shirt, touch up her makeup, walk back out with a new face and pretend this never happened. Just smooth it over, keep it down, don’t let it show. It’s all we’d ever done, and suddenly, I was sick of it.
“I want to,” I repeated. “I want to see him.”
She sagged against the countertop, a balloon suddenly popped by my manic insistence. “Reese,” she said. “Think about this. He’s not a good man, honey. He left us.” She let her words fall between us, an imaginary divide.
And yes. I knew she might be right. I knew she probably was. But I also knew that this wasn’t about us. This was about me, and this was about him. And I knew that it was something I needed to find out for myself. “Please.” I held my hands out, palms upward—a peace offering. “Please let me go.”
She picked up a carton of cigarettes from the windowsill, flicked on the lighter she kept next to the box. She exhaled, blowing smoke out in a deep breath I hadn’t known she’d been holding. “You don’t even know him,” she told me. “You were two when he left.” Inhale, exhale. Her fingers shook as she brought the cigarette to her lips.
“But I want to,” I said, my voice quiet. “You have to understand this, okay?”
“Reese,” she started, then stopped, as if she’d already run out of words to say. “Oh, my baby girl.” Her eyes were open, filled with sadness.
“Please.” I held on to the countertop with both hands, gripping it as though level balance would show that I was levelheaded, too, that this couldn’t shake me. That I would be okay. No matter what.
“I’ll call him,” she said, finally, stubbing her cigarette out in the sink. “No promises. But I’ll call him, okay?” She folded my hands in hers.
“Okay,” I agreed, softly. “Okay.”
“You have to promise me you’ll come back.”
I was standing in the airport, my suitcase in hand, wrapped in an old sweatshirt of Clara’s she’d left behind. My mother was standing next to me, holding my elbow, refusing to let me go until I’d agreed. I didn’t know why she was bothering; she knew I’d never leave her. I would always be the one to stay.
But not right now. Right now, this was something I needed to do. And still I smiled, said, “I promise, of course,” and this time I was the one hoping she would call, would keep in touch, wouldn’t resent me for leaving her.
“All right, baby.” She kissed the top of my head and pushed me forward, just a little. “Don’t miss your flight, now.” She smiled, lips quivering. “Call me when you get there, okay? Reese?”
“I will, Mom,” I sighed. “I’ll call.” And I smiled back at her, standing tall. She would be fine, I knew. So for the first time I could remember, maybe even the first time ever, I straightened my shoulders and took the first step forwards. This time, I was the one who walked away.
Crooks, South Dakota
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