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Day One Hundred and Sixty-four: Out of the Rain

November 1, 2011 1 comment

Annette glanced out the window and wrote the weather down in her planner: light rain. She flipped back a few days and grimaced. It was the third day of rain, which meant that her events were piling up. There was supposed to be a welcome picnic for new neighbors last Sunday, the monthly North River Retirees softball game on Monday afternoon, and her hike with the library boosters had to be postponed until next week – if she could make it fit with her cooking class and monthly school board meeting.

The rain was the last thing she needed.

She turned a few pages and scanned through her plans for the next week, looking for empty space where she could shuffle things around, and – not for the first time – wondered how retirement could be so much busier than working life. When she’d been working, having taught the town’s children for decades, she daydreamed of nothing more than having time on her hands.

She’d imagined what it would be like, finally being able to sleep past six in the morning, to have no demands on her time and nothing to do that she didn’t want to do. She thought she could follow in her sister’s model and start doing something creative. Maybe knitting.

What’s more, she could spend her sunset years with her husband. Alan had never complained about being a schoolteacher’s widower. The late nights at school functions, PTA meetings, and long nights correcting homework and planning lessons were all part of the job. He had his own work and his own friends, and never said a word about hers. She’d always worried, though, that she was letting him down somehow. Sacrificing herself to her career was one thing. Sacrificing her marriage to it, however, was something else. Or should have been, anyway. The first of her Retirement Resolutions was to do more with her husband. Evenings and weekends were for them now, not for catching up on old work or getting ahead of new.

But the quiet life chafed. Many years had burned out her ability to sleep late and stay up past eleven. And there was a limit to how often she could clean her house, take long walks in the park, or watch daytime TV. Oh, yes, there were definitely limits to that. And Alan wasn’t quite as ready to adapt to her newfound freedom as she’d hoped. It turned out that he’d built a life for himself already, and fitting her into it would take some time.

When the library called and asked if she would want to volunteer in the children’s reading room, she jumped at the chance. It was a few hours a week, certainly, but it was doing something. It was there that she met Adam and Margery Parker, who told her about the town gardening club, which led her to Nancy Everton, who ran a soup kitchen, and Phil Walker, who taught a seniors’ yoga class and whose brother ran a Spanish class in the evenings.

Within a few short months, Annette’s calendar was full again. Classes, courses, community activities, half of which she either ran by herself or had a hand in – they kept her busier than she’d ever been before.

Her phone chimed, and Annette had it in her hand immediately. Five more messages – three about the dinner she was putting together for the North River Ladies’ Club, one about substituting at the high school for the day, and another asking if she knew anyone who could speak at the Junior High about not doing drugs. She sat at the kitchen table and answered them in short order, keeping her eyes on the clock.

A cough from behind her made her jump. “Oh!” she said as she turned around. Alan was standing there, looking tired and disheveled, quite a contrast to her crisp suit. “Good morning, honey!” she said.

He muttered something that sounded like it might have been “Good morning,” and shuffled to the coffee maker. Once he had the machine turned on, he leaned against the counter and looked at her through bleary eyes. “Saturday,” he said.

“I know,” Annette said, getting her purse from the counter next to him. “I just have a few things to do today.” He nodded and rubbed is eyes. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll be home before five, I promise,” she said.

Alan glanced out the window. “Umbrella,” he said.

She kissed him again, grabbed an umbrella on the way put, and got in the car.

The drive into town was slow and treacherous. Three days of rain had stared to flood put some of the smaller streets, leading to detours and slowdowns that had her revising her plans in her head. She tuned the radio to NPR, hoping for something soothing and calm, but the show host was going on about the upcoming elections. Her hand shot out and she turned off the radio, but she did make a mental note to double-check the time for the meeting at the Town Clerk’s office.

When she arrived at the youth center, the umbrella turned out to be not much help. The rain was coming down hard enough to get past her shield, wetting her shoes and her slacks. She cursed quietly to herself and started thinking of when she could squeeze in a trip to the dry cleaners.

The youth center was hosting a debate club. High school students would learn to argue and discuss the issues of the day, which would all lead to a statewide debate contest in the spring. Annette spent her Saturday mornings helping the kids out with their ideas, listening to their arguments, and offering gentle correction.

From there, it was another slow drive to the soup kitchen. It would be packed today, she was sure, because of the rain. When she ran to the little restaurant, the wind picked up a little, blowing the rain in under the umbrella. Nancy Everton took one look at her and laughed in sympathy. “Oh, Annie, you poor thing!” She took Annette’s dripping umbrella and propped it in a corner of the staff room. “You need a few minutes to dry off?” she asked

“Nope,” Annette said. “Those folks out there need food more than I need to be dry.”

“That’s the spirit,” Nancy said, patting her on the back. “Let’s go do some good.” and for the next few hours, that’s what they did. As she’d predicted, the line for food was long, but she was able to lose herself in smiling and handing out bowls of homemade minestrone and cheerful “God bless”es to everyone who came to her.

When two o’clock came around, and the crowd thinned, she made her excuses to Nancy and headed out. The rain was still coming down, and she was halfway to her car when her phone went off. It was the klaxon ringtone, a loud horn that meant it could be only one person: Alan.

She juggled the umbrella with her bag, digging for the phone while trying to keep the rain off. She got the phone, but dropped a pack of mints to the wet pavement. She bent down to scoop them up, letting the phone slip from her grip and clatter to the ground, still blaring. Annette cursed, picked up the phone, and left the mints to melt away in the rainwater. As she positioned the phone to answer it, she shifted her grasp on the umbrella, sending rainwater sluicing down her back.

“Hello?” she shouted into the phone, once she managed to answer it. “Alan, what is it?” Her suit was soaked, the rain was getting in under the umbrella, and she had a meeting of the North River Preservationist Society to get to. “Alan,” she said again, “what is it? I’m in a hurry!”

There was a silence on the other end for a moment, and then her husband said, “Annie. It’s your sister.”

Annette stood in the rain, listening to her husband. She let the umbrella drop to the ground, and didn’t even notice until Nancy came running out to see what was wrong.

*****************

The funeral was three days later. There would be no burial, as Molly had wanted to be cremated, and her ashes kept in an urn she had made herself. It stood up on a small pedestal near the altar, a simple red clay jar with a few geometric designs painted on in glaze.

It was a small ceremony, sparsely attended. There was a TV up front, and after the ceremony began, the priest picked up the remote control and turned it on.

Annette’s sister looked older than she remembered, her hair going gray and she looked thin. Despite that, her eyes were bright, and she had that same smile she’d always had, the one that suggested she had a really good joke that she was just waiting to tell you. Annette felt a horrible twist in her belly when she realized how long it had been since she’d last seen her.

Well, she said. Ain’t this a hell of a thing? The crowd chuckled, despite itself, but Annette couldn’t laugh. She could barely bring herself to look at the screen.

All things considered, I’d rather be out there watching this, but it looks like that’s not really an option. The camera pulled back, showing Molly in her workshop, surrounded by pots and sculptures and bowls. I’ve been to funerals, she said, and I’ve hated most of them. They’re sad, miserable, morose – hell, I’ll bet it’s raining right now, isn’t it? Nearly every head in the church turned to the windows to confirm that yes, it was still raining, and this time the laugh from the crowd was easier, louder.

I really don’t want people being upset today, Molly went on, walking out of her workshop. The camera followed her, taking in the house she’d designed years ago with her husband. I’m happy with how my life worked out. I did the things I wanted to do, I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, and there’s not much of a better way to go. I found who I was and stayed true to that, and that’s all we can really do in this life.

She walked with the camera to the old Adirondack chairs she’d made years ago, and sat next to her husband. The people in the church started to murmur, and some to cry quietly – Paul had passed just the year before. Annette dabbed at her eyes. She had sent a card, she remembered that.

Molly sat down with him and took his hand. It’s traditional, I think, for the dead to offer advice to the living at this point. So here it is. The camera zoomed in on her. Do what makes you happy, she said. If you don’t know what makes you happy, then figure it out and do that. If what you’re doing isn’t making you happy, then stop, and go to step one. She glanced down for a moment, and when she looked up again, Annette could have sworn she was looking right at her.

You can spend your life trying to make other people happy, and that’s okay, I suppose. If you’re strong enough. But most of us aren’t. But in the end, that just leaves a bunch of happy people over there… and you over here. And what’s so wrong with you that you don’t deserve to be just as happy as anyone else? She glanced over at her husband, off-camera, and smiled. Be just as good to yourself as you are to each other, she said. And that will go a long way towards making the rest of your days as good as mine have been. She waved, the camera pulled back, and, a moment later, the screen went dark.

There were a lot of sniffles and a little scattered applause. The priest came back up and gave a final benediction for her soul, and then it was all over. Annette and Alan stood up and walked out first. Then she stood by the door and accepted well-wishers and condolences, like a morbid mockery of a wedding.

Finally, she stepped outside the church, umbrella in hand, and squinted against the sun.

The rain had stopped.

She looked up at the breaking clouds and the thin streamers of sunlight that pierced them, and her phone buzzed in her pocket. There was another message there, added to the dozen that had come that morning. Each one was the same – it began with short condolences, and then moved on to a scheduling issue or a logistical question or a brainstorming idea for some kind of meeting, conference, or event. Each one wanted something from her, something she had always been willing to give.

Annette stared at her phone. When she glanced up, Alan was talking to one of the funeral guests, and he would occasionally glance over at her to make sure everything was okay. She smiled tightly and waved at him.

I’m very sorry, she typed into her phone, but I will be unable to continue working on this project for the foreseeable future. Please accept my apologies, and I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. She copied that and pasted it into the reply field of each message. It hurt to hit “send” the first time, but each one hurt a little less.

There would be loose ends to tie up, for sure, but the step had been taken. She took a deep breath, and felt… free. For the first time in ages. She looked up at the rapidly clearing sky and said a silent Thank you to her sister, wherever she was.

Alan came up to her and put his arm around her shoulder. “You gonna be okay?” he asked. Annette just nodded. “You need anything?”

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Let’s just go home.”

****

Annette Reid’s page on 30characters.com

Day Sixty-six: Ultimogeniture

Randall took off his tie and slumped into a folding chair in the back of the parlor. The house was filled with people in black, milling about with little paper plates, warmed-over finger foods and expressions of sympathy on their faces. The casket was at the far end of the room, open to the world and surrounded by a magnificent display of flowers. No one was standing there now, paying their respects or remarking on how lifelike Dominic looked. They just chatted and gossiped and every now and then looked his way to see if he had broken down yet.

After this funeral, he thought he might. He didn’t after Wally’s. Or Ari’s. But this one, maybe. Three funerals, three brothers in as many years. This might be the one where he finally got the chance to drop out of grad school, curl up in a ball and go to pieces.

The crowd shifted and he saw Calvin sitting next to the casket, and Randall’s heart broke. Cal was still a teenager. Still skinny and lanky, and he looked utterly fragile and alone over there. Tears welled up in Randall’s eyes. Cal should have brothers. He should have brothers to show him how to grow up, how to become the good man that he should be. He could see it all in his head, the life that should have been. Ari would have been a model husband, a great example of how to find the right woman and make a relationship work. He and Keisha would have been married by now, if it hadn’t been for the car accident. They would have been beautiful together.

Wally was the risk-taker, the one who knew what he wanted and how to get it. So unlike Randall, or their parents. Wally saw opportunities everywhere and was not shy about chasing after them. Before he died, before the heart attack, he was poised to start his own company. A risk management company, of all things. Their father was ready to put his money in, which was proof of just how good Wally was. His parents had plenty of money, but neither of them was very fond of taking chances with it. Golden-tongued Wally convinced him.

Randall shook his head. A heart attack. Who the hell has a heart attack at thirty-five? That still angered him, but his father said there had been an uncle or two, one grandfather, who’d had heart problems young. “He just got unlucky,” he said. No one was sure if it was a blessing or a tragedy that it had hit him at home, after a big Thanksgiving meal. At least he was surrounded by family, instead of lying out in some godforsaken wilderness somewhere.

And now Dominic. Randall’s stomach clenched. Dom was between him and Cal, just starting college last year. He had graduated with honors, got into Aurelius College with ease, and everyone agreed that he would probably be President someday. He was easily the most well-liked person anyone knew. He somehow managed to bring people together who would have just as soon killed each other and lead them to work together before they knew what they were doing. He never told people what to do, never tricked them or lied to them or pitted one against the other. He just talked to them as if they were reasonable people who wanted the best for everyone. Somehow, against all odds, that worked. His service was the best-attended of the three.

He was closest to Cal, of course, so it hit hardest when he was mugged and murdered for his watch. A Rolex that their parents had given him as a graduation present.

Randall wiped his eyes. Three brothers, all of them better than him. He was studying business, learning how to be a middle-manager in some faceless corporation somewhere. He was single, and had been for a long time, and lived a life of remarkable mundanity. All he had going for him was his writing – he’d sold a couple of short stories in the last few years and had a novel he was working on. If anything would get him out of the shadow of his brothers, it would be that. Randall buried his head in his hands and started weeping quietly. Of all of them, why had he lived? The world wouldn’t miss Randall D’Amato very much at all.

“Hey.” Randall looked up through bleary eyes and saw Cal standing in front of him in the same tailored suit he’d worn for the last three funerals. He was starting to grow out of it, too. “You okay?” he asked.

Randall let out a half-laugh and wiped his eyes clear again. “No,” he said. “Not really.” He looked at his brother. “How about you?”

Cal shrugged and sat down on the sofa next to him. The kid was still young, about to enter high school, and didn’t know what he was going to be yet. He played the guitar really well, and was the lead in the drama club’s last production. But he also had a thing for machines – airplanes and cars mostly. He got an old-school chemistry set from their grandparents and went through every experiment in the workbook within a week. He took care of stray animals, drew pictures, and excelled at math. Randall patted Cal’s knee, and the boy looked over at him. “We’ll be okay,” he said.

Cal nodded. “I wish it didn’t have to be like this,” he said. His voice cracked, a hint of who he would be someday.

“Yeah, kid. Me too.”

They sat in silence for a minute or two. “You know who I feel really sorry for?” Cal asked. Randall looked over. “Mom and dad.” He looked around until he spotted them and Randall followed his gaze. His mother was sitting in the antique rocker, the one she’d nursed all five of her boys in, and looked burned out. People kept coming over to say how terrible they felt, what a tragedy it was, and she just nodded like a mechanical doll. She was already gone. Their father was a little better. He stood next to the chair, weakly shaking hands and making sure people didn’t linger too long with his wife.

Randall nodded and felt the shame run down to his toes. He had been feeling sorry for himself, worrying about his own insignificance, when these two people had just done the unthinkable a third time – they had buried a child. When Wally died, they had fallen to pieces, but they vowed to be strong, to carry on in his name. When Ari died, they were confused for a while. Depressed. Their father started to drink. Now Dominic’s death had broken them.

“Jesus,” he said.

“What?”

Randall shook his head. “I was all wound up in my own problems. I wasn’t thinking of them. God, I’m an ass…”

Cal put his arm around his brother and pulled him close, a gesture of kindness that drove Randall back into wet, quiet sobs. They sat that way for a while, until Randall was able to compose himself. “It’s okay,” Cal whispered. “You don’t have to be the strong one here.”

Randall looked over. “Huh?”

Cal waited until his brother’s eyes focused on him and then leaned in. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe you are too wrapped up in yourself.” He reached up and wiped away tears from Randall’s face. “I can’t blame you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Maybe you should just… go.”

“What?” Randall sat up straight. “Go? Go where?”

Cal looked around and hushed him. “Look, Randy. It’s you and me now, right? Mom and dad, they’re in their own world now, and I understand.” Cal’s face was close to Randall’s now, and his voice was stronger than he’d expected. He kept their gazes locked, and it seemed that Cal blinked a lot less than he should. “You’re off studying to be, what, a cube-dweller?” He shrugged. “If that’s what you want to be, then fine. If that’s what you want to do to honor our brothers…”

The shame that Randall had been holding on to flared into rage. “Now you just wait right there, Cal,” he growled. “I have a plan. I’m doing what I want to do with my life.”

“Are you?” Cal’s voice was flat and even, and Randall knew the answer immediately.

He slumped back in the chair and stared at the far wall, at a point just above where Dom’s casket sat. “No.”

“There you go,” Cal said. He patted Randall on the back. “Mom and Dad are in a bad place right now. I’ve been there this whole time, I know what they’re going through. I can take care of this.” He patted him again. “You’ll probably just be in the way.” He stood up, took Randall’s arm, and lifted him to his feet. “C’mon. Why don’t you go home?”

Randall let himself be led by his brother out to the parking lot. They passed his parents on the way out, but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything. He just stopped there and took his mother’s hand. It was cold and still and dry, and she didn’t look up at him. She just glanced over at Cal, took a shallow breath, and went back to staring straight ahead. Cal and Randall went outside, and the brisk November air was a relief after the stuffiness of the funeral parlor.

Randall got into his car, but didn’t start it. Cal stood there, holding the door open and looking remarkably adult for his age. “I’m really sorry, Randy,” he said. “I know it’s hard to hear, but on a day like today we really have to say what’s true. Not just what we think is true.” He leaned in and kissed his brother on the forehead. “We don’t need you,” he whispered. “Go home.”

Cal closed the car door and took a few steps back. He leaned on their parents’ Mercedes and clasped his hands in front of him. He didn’t wave. He just waited.

He was right. Randall twisted the key and the car started. They didn’t need him. And home? A single man’s apartment, no more than a dorm room. No girlfriend. No pets. He blinked a few times. Cal was right. They didn’t need him. Nobody needed him. And nobody would.

Randall swung the car around and lowered his window. Cal stood up straight. “Thanks, Cal,” Randall said. “Take… Take care of mom and dad for me.” Cal smiled, a tight, grim smile, and Randall rolled up the window.

It was a long drive home. He had some important decisions to make.