My pockets are stuffed to bursting with vitamin supplements and fancy organic powders when I leave Juice & Harmony. Mel has written me a list the length of my arm that tells me what produce to buy at the co-op. I am lucky because I can use Mel’s fancy blenders and juicers, so I don’t have to shell out for my own. She even sends me home with a bookmarked smoothie recipe book for beginners.
Riding the bus equipped with all this stuff makes me feel healthier already. I’m humming a little to myself as I prance around the store looking for all these exotic fruits and veggies. I think I’m becoming a person who might seriously use the word veggies.
The more things I’ve never heard of that I put into my basket, the more giddy I am. By the time I get to checkout I’m basically dancing.
“Is that your phone?” The checker, seemingly somewhat amused by my delirium has started looking around, confused.
“What?” I am initially caught off guard and then I remember that I changed my ring tone a couple days ago, back to the default ringer which I now don’t even recognize. “Oh, God. Yes, that’s me,” I say, picking it up without even looking to see who’s calling. “Sorry.” I’m pretty sure I make this “eek” face that I’ve seen my mother make whenever she receives a phone call in the middle of a transaction.
Beth sounds different than I remember her. She sounds younger or blonder or something. And she’s calling from a new number.
“I didn’t think I’d actually get you. I thought maybe you’d be at work or somewhere,” is what she opens with. There’s a palpable amount of fear in her voice.
“Well, I’m at the grocery store,” I say, trying to look nonchalant to the checker, who mouths “do you need a bag today” at me.
“I didn’t think I’d get you,” she says again. “I wrote down notes for what I was planning to say in a voicemail.” I shake my head at the checker, and hold the phone between my shoulder and my ear as I try to fit all this produce into my tote bag and a reusable grocery bag Mel insists I take with me everywhere for “emergencies.”
“Well, you can just read me your notes if you want, I guess,” I say. The butternut squash is not fitting on top of everything else, and I realize I probably should have packed it first.
“Is that all right?” More like a mouse is really how she sounds.
“Let’s hear it, Beth,” I say, dumping everything back onto the grocery conveyor belt and starting again. Doug-the-checker tries to help me. There’s a strange silence on the other end of the line, and then I hear her take a deep breath before launching in.
“Hello Mackenzie, this is Beth Bruce from the Holiday Inn Express downtown, calling you from my personal number. I am calling about your father, Gerald Adams, who recently... passed on.” She gulps down tears. Putting the squash at the bottom of the bag has made it so that now that farrow doesn’t fit and Doug says he’ll give me another bag and he won’t even charge me the five cents, but I shake my head, intimating that I don’t want another bag. What I want is for everything to fit into these two bags that I already have. “Your father left behind several personal items in his hotel room,” Beth goes on, “including a letter that is addressed to you, Mackenzie.”
And then I drop the phone. Or maybe it was never very well balanced between my head and my shoulder. Either way. The phone is now on the floor, and I am standing there holding a large bunch of bananas and a bag of farrow and not picking it up.
I think a million things at once. I have so many questions for Beth. Like, who the fuck is she? Like, why the fuck is she calling me and expecting me to be at work? Like, why does she think I even want this letter? Like, what does this letter even say?
Doug asks me if I’m okay, most likely because my face has gone all rubbery and blank. When I don’t respond, he offers to re-bag things for me so that I can finish my phone call. He has put the “lane closed” sign out on his conveyor belt, and I really hope he didn’t do this just for me, but I didn’t see him do it so I don’t know. Regardless, I set down the bananas and pick up my phone.
“Are you there? I heard a bang or something... Mackenzie!?” Beth has gone totally hysterical.
“I’m here,” I close my eyes, and clench my jaw tight before asking, “You were saying that there’s a letter?”
“Well, um, yes. Among... other things. Yes.” I hear her sorting through, finding her place in her notes again. She clears her throat. “In the interest of respecting your father’s memory, I would like for us to meet at your earliest convenience, so that I might pass some of his effects onto you, and deliver the letter. In person.” My head is swimming. I look over at Doug-the-checker, puzzling over how to fit all my shit into my two bags.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” My voice is sharper than I intend, but I’m so angry I can’t breathe. “Why didn’t you tell me that there was a fucking letter when I came for his body?”
Beth starts to sob. Her voice is close to the phone and then far away, and I gather that her hands are doing that horrible shaking thing. “I just,” she wails, “I didn’t want to upset you any more!” People around the supermarket are starting to watch me now. I glimpse Doug-the-checker out of the corner of my eye, giving me a meek thumbs up after having figured out the bagging situation.
“For fuck’s sake. Pull yourself together,” I hiss at Beth. There’s another few moments of whimpering before I hear her sniffle and then shuffle her notes again.
“I am,” she clears her throat, “I am available during the day tomorrow for a meeting. I understand that this is an incredibly difficult time and won’t pretend to know the trauma you’re going through--” her voice breaks off and I think she might lose it again, but she holds strong. “Please feel free to contact me at this number to arrange the details. I will wait to hear from you.” And then she hangs up before I can say anything else.
I pick up my groceries from Doug-the-checker, and thank him for his patience. He asks me if everything is all right, and I give a half nod before leaving the store.
The sky is a clear, bright blue today, and so there’s this biting cold that starts to numb me as soon as I’m out the door. Maybe it’s not the cold, maybe I’d be numb in 80 degree weather too. I don’t honestly know.
For a long time, I just sit on a bench at a bus stop, looking into the street, thinking abstractly about getting hit by cars. The buses going by me are headed in the wrong direction to take me home, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not waiting.
It was a Sunday morning during my 4th grade year, when Gerald moved into the Holiday Inn Express. The week before, he had showed up at our door with a busted lip, four more missing teeth, and a face full of bruises, including two grisly black eyes. His shoulder was clearly dislocated, and so Mom took him to the ER where he got 4 stitches over his left eye and was informed he’d also cracked a few ribs. They were gone for the rest of the night: hospital waiting room, hospital bed, and then just driving around the city in the Dodge, arguing about what to do next. About what to tell me.
When they came home the next morning it was 10:46AM and Gerald walked right past me without saying a word. Mom said that he would be staying with us until she could find somewhere else to put him. That was the way we always talked about it: finding a place to put him. Like he was an ugly piece of art we were obligated to keep because it was a gift from a tasteless relative. I knew well that no one else wanted to take him, and while it was Mom’s worst nightmare to have him staying in the house with us and Jimmy, I could see that she would have felt worse if something more had happened to him because she’d turned him away.
But the three weeks he was sleeping in the basement were unbearable. The whole house started to smell like him, from the bottom up. There was dirt, tobacco and canned food spilled everywhere. And he was constantly lurking around every corner waiting to make you feel guilty for not spending more time with him, because who could even say how much time he had left. I stopped coming home after school, opting instead to stay at the neighborhood library until closing, and then a coffeehouse until it was late enough I could go straight to bed.
Mom never told me exactly how she’d managed to get him a room at the Holiday Inn Express, or who was paying for it. I have always suspected that she’d turned to Alice and Walter; that they had cut her a check for some enormous amount and then looked the other way about how she chose to spend it. But I don’t know that for sure, and I’ve never had the courage to ask Alice.
He was only supposed to stay there for as long as it would take his rib to heal. A month maybe, at the most. “Just until he can keep himself safe on the street,” Mom had said to me that Sunday morning, as we unpacked his things into the hotel drawers. Her voice wavered as she said it, and I knew we were both thinking how strange it was that this was our real life.
The deal was that he would go in and out at the service entrance of the hotel, and up and down the back stairs, which let out at the end of the hall on the third floor next to his room. He was not to attract any attention to himself or to cause any disturbance of any kind for any reason. Business at the hotel was slow enough that they could usually avoid booking other guests in the adjacent rooms, so much of the time he had the hall to himself.
But Gerald charmed them the way he charmed everyone. He befriended the staff, got into the good graces of the management, shared the occasional cigarette with the janitors, had a beer with the security guards. And so the month went by, and then another and another. The hotel bills got smaller, and then stopped coming at all, but still he stayed at the end of the hall on the third floor. I’ve thought sometimes that they must have figured they’d never be able to rent out the room to a normal person again after the way Gerald lived in it, so he might as well stay.
In the first two years he was there, I would sometimes go downtown to visit him. He liked having a place that was his where I could come, where everything between us could happen on his terms, in his territory. And sometimes we laughed like we used to when I was a little girl.
But being in that room was awful. It was perpetually full of smoke, reeking of booze; entirely saturated with everything Gerald. The kitchenette was stained with residue from microwave meals that sat on the counter unfinished. Nowhere felt clean to sit, nothing was comfortable. And Gerald was always getting worse. He was drinking more because he no longer had to worry about where he was going to sleep. He grew unbelievably reckless, always in fights in the middle of 3rd avenue, trying any and every drug that was offered to him by the new “friends” he was always making. He was lonely, sad because his body was finally succumbing to the torture he was putting it through, but too angry to let anyone get near him or help. So the calls started pouring in: can you come get Gerald Adams from the station? Can you help Gerald Adams back to the hotel from the free clinic? Gerald has broken a leg, an arm, a collarbone, will you come? Hello, is this Gerald’s daughter? I’m afraid we have some bad news.
And he would call too. Mac, I need a favor. Ms. Macadocious, can you help me out? Mac, you know I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t have to-- but, baby girl, do you have twenty dollars? Fifty dollars? Just a hundred dollars? I owe a friend some money. I need to eat. I just need to buy some cigarettes. It’s none of your business what I need it for, are you gonna help me out or not? Are you my daughter or not?
The third year he was there I only visited a couple times. Once for his birthday and once around Christmas.
The fourth year I only went once while I was home over spring break.
And then, in what turned out to be the last year of his life, I didn’t go at all.
I have this fantasy that Neil will be going by this bus stop for some reason and see me. That he’ll have gone to the store to pick up a random thing, and then, through an act of fate, he’ll pass by this bus stop and ask me what’s wrong. It feels stupid that I want to see him so badly, when seeing him was so strange. And still, I feel myself smiling as I play out what we might say to each other, and how I might make a bad joke that we have to stop meeting like this. I imagine that this is the kind of thing that would happen if I lived in a movie where life was consistently beautiful in its sadness. But I do not.
What happens instead is that a homeless man comes and sits next to me and asks me if I can spare some change for the bus, and when I give him a dollar he tries to lick my face in gratitude. So I get up and start walking toward anywhere else.
Once I’m walking I don’t want to stop. And so the afternoon ends with me walking the two and a half miles back to our apartment, weighed down by produce that I don’t even know how to eat.
Luke is in the living room eating Oat Bran when I come in. When he sees me, he immediately puts the bowl of cereal down on the coffee table and insists on taking my bags so I can rest.
“I see Mel told you,” I guess, relinquishing the bags and sitting on the couch. He gets a very guilty look on his face, and puts the groceries down on the floor, choosing to sit next to me instead of taking them to the kitchen.
“How are you?” He looks me over with his very soft and sympathetic brown eyes. “It’s good to see you.” I look at him and laugh pitifully. I can’t think of anything eloquent to say, so I don’t bother. I slump against him on the couch, and close my eyes. “Oof. That bad, huh?” He throws an arm around my shoulder and squeezes, and I just laugh some more to keep from crying.
I forget sometimes, when he’s on the other side of the country, how much I really do like Luke. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to see coming in to rescue you from a fire. He’s this big, broad-shouldered, mountain man from Maine, with a beard that suits him beautifully and who wears a lot of rugged plaid flannel as I presume is required by his Forestry major. The tiny hipster men of Seattle dedicate hours of their lives to trying to look as effortlessly handsome and outdoorsy as Luke. He’s one of those rare boyfriends of my friends who I would be happy to be friends with regardless.
“Where’s Mel?” I ask, calmed by the ease of being still for a bit.
“Gym,” he says, smiling at the mention of her name. “I figured I’d stay here, get settled, shower, have something to eat, and then we’ll go out when she’s back.” Sometimes I am comforted that couples like Mel and Luke exist. I sigh and he looks warmly at me. “And then, of course, I wanted to see you.” He rubs my arm, and sits forward, stirring me from his shoulder. “You gonna be okay, slugger?” I roll my eyes and laugh, running my face through my hands.
He nudges me in the ribs gently, his mouth now full of oats.
“Hey, um, since you’re here... do you mind sitting with me for a little bit while I make this weird phone call?”
He squeezes my knee gently, and smiles.
So we sit together while I call Beth and arrange the details.
My inheritance is a cookie tin full of old photos of me and even older photos of Mom, an unopened carton of Marlboros, a water-damaged painting of a cherry tree, his clothes, his keys, and then the letter, all stacked very neatly in a cardboard box.
Beth sits across from me in a Starbucks downtown, in no make-up, and a very simple black sweater dress. She looks as though she hasn’t slept in days, and she fiddles with a too-big-for-her ring on her thumb every time she speaks.
“I didn’t read the letter. Just your name on the envelope,” she says, as I sort through the contents of the box. She isn’t looking at me even when she’s looking at me. Her face is vacant, ghost-like, and her eyes are these enormous empty saucers. Her skin is pale, almost translucent in the winter sunlight, and her lips are chapped. She is drying herself out, mourning my father.
“How old are you, Beth?” She would look young if she didn’t look so dead.
“Twenty-five,” she squeaks.
“Hmm.” I open the cookie tin and pick up a tear-stained picture of Mom in a sarong. It must have been taken on their honeymoon. Beth slides the ring off her thumb and puts it on the table. Then she twirls it back onto her thumb. I should give the pictures to Mom. She’d like them. Probably they’d just end up in a box of old things that never get looked at. Stashed away in her attic or molding in the basement. But still, knowing she had them, that he’d held onto them all those years later, might give her some kind of peace.
“I didn’t call sooner because I didn’t want to upset you is all,” Beth sputters, and it breaks my focus. I had forgotten she was here for a moment. I glance up at her face, and the hollowness of it makes me feel like apologizing too. For snapping at her over the phone in the supermarket, for being too callous at the hotel. But I don’t.
“No it’s all right,” I tell her.
“It’s just... These things-- his things. They belong with you.” Her eyes dart from crumbs on the windowsill out onto the street, watching an old man playing saxophone for spare change on the street corner outside Barney’s. The expression on her face softens, as if she can hear his melody over the trendy folk song on Starbucks radio and the 6th avenue traffic. I lay the photos back into the cardboard box and check my phone like I’m expecting to hear from someone. Nothing.
The ring clinks when it lands on the table again, and I stare a while as she fiddles with it. It’s his wedding band. I would know that ring anywhere; the way the gold has worn down with age, the little scratches in the metal, the amateurish inscription on the inside.
Sometimes, sitting in that tiny hotel room, on the days when Gerald was at his worst, I would stare down at that ring while he ranted. I would try to distract myself with it, a little fleck of gold, jammed onto his knobby, weathered hand. Part of me was always angry that he still wore it so long after the divorce, like it gave him some lingering rights to our family. And at the same time I would have hated for him to have taken it off. He loves you, and he loves Mom, the ring told me. Even now, even though he can’t say so.
But now there it was, hanging off Beth’s tiny thumb. “You two must have been close,” I say, while she twists the band around and around.
Twist, clink, twist. Clink. The ring falls still on the table, and she notices my fixation.
“I’m sorry.” Her face rumples for an instant, but she irons it out, and doesn’t cry. I put my elbows on the table like I want to say something, but then I look out the window instead.
I suppose I should have known sooner. How did she get into the room if he was laid out, unconscious, blocking the door? I should have known that she was already there. That of course she was already there. She was the reason he’d called for room service. She was the reason he was naked when he died. Little, twenty-five year old Beth. He must have told her he loved her too. Given her the ring so she could be certain of it. Was she wearing it that morning? Was she wearing it when the paramedics came? I can’t remember now. Everything is a blur. Then I wonder if Beth is short for anything. For Elizabeth. And I think of Mom.
I think that maybe I’ll just light the letter on fire.
“He was a gentleman,” she says, after what feels like years of silence, and somehow it’s almost comical.
“Go ahead and keep the ring,” I say, without looking at her. “It doesn’t mean anything to anyone anymore.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch it now, even if I did want to take it from her. Sitting up in my chair, I am overwhelmed by the desire to climb out of my skin, and I know it’s time to leave. I glance back over the contents of the box. “Is this everything?”
“Yes.” Her voice is hoarse from grief, and I almost envy her that.
“Good.” I get up from the table, and for the first time since we sat down, I catch her eye. “Please, Beth. Don’t call me again.” She blinks back tears, bites her lip and nods, her chin tucked down onto her chest. I pick up the box and walk outside. My heart feels like it could beat right out of my chest. But it can’t think of anywhere else to go... and neither can I.