*image: “Silver Bell,” Paige Berg Rizvi
by Alan E. Kennedy
She had flown up from Houston, unannounced, because there was something she had to tell me, she said. She put down her shoulder bag and gave me a quick hug, then walked over to Richie who had been dozing in his chair in front of the TV and gave him a kiss.
There were gifts as usual: another fishing vest for Richie and more clothes for me. And though the colors were more flattering to her olive skin and brown hair than to my fair complexion, and though the sizes were too small, they were beautifully made. She spread them out on the couch and told me about the boutiques where she had found them, and how much they had cost and how that didn’t matter at all to her, because she had bought them for her best friend. Then she took me by the hand and we moved into the kitchen.
Beanie had strong, graceful hands. She had never worn much jewelry but when she moved away and continued on to the window that opened onto Mom’s garden, I noticed that she wore no wedding ring. I wondered at that, thinking this was why she had come, that there was some trouble at home with Paul and she needed to talk with me. I sat at the kitchen table waiting.
“You’ve done things with the house,” she said.
“Not really. Richie had all these ideas when Mom died and we moved in, but then he had his accident.”
“You painted though.”
“No. This is the same.”
“It looks different somehow.”
“The sun maybe.”
She came back to the table and sat down. “We spent a lot of time here, you and me.”
“Yes. We did.”
“We’d come in from school and your mom would have those brownies with the shortbread bottoms.”
It was Mom who gave her the nickname. Mom headed our Girl Scout troop and Patricia, as we knew her then, would come in, her uniform a mess because they had no car and she’d have to walk all the way from the trailer park down near the sawmill. When it was time for Mom to drive her home, and she couldn’t find her cap, she’d be calling out all over the house, “Where’s my beanie.” So after that, whenever she came over to the house, Mom would greet her with “Where’s my Beanie? There’s my Beanie.”
When Mom had her cancer, Beanie made a lot of trips up to Sagerville. She’d spend an afternoon—maybe a day—at a time with us, and then fly back to Houston. When Mom died Beanie came up again, even though it was spring and her firm was very busy. I was a wreck, and Beanie took over. She stayed with me, made all the arrangements and paid for the funeral. During all those three years visiting, as far as I know, she made no attempt to visit her own mother, who died a few years later.
I finally asked her.
She seemed surprised. “With Paul? Paul’s fine.”
“Your ring, though.”
“Oh, I have it.” She was smiling. There was look of excitement in her eyes. Willful, was what Mom called that look. She turned and, searching through her bag, took out not the ring that I was expecting, but an envelope with my name on it.
“I want you to keep a secret for me, Carol Ann.”
“Promise me,” she said, her dark eyes demanding.
She had always told me that I was the one person she trusted. Those times when she’d come to stay the night, she’d tell me how her mother, whose drinking was no secret to anyone, was always yelling at her, telling her that she couldn’t do something. Or later, when we were in high school, she’d tell me, like it was no big deal, that she had cheated on some test so she could get the scholarship that would take her out of Sagerville, or that she had slept with some married guy because he was nice and gave her money. But she always made me promise to keep her secrets. And I always did, because I loved the fact that, as popular as she had always been, I was the one she chose.
“So tell me.”
“I’m going away.”
I laughed. I was nervous I guess. “Away? What do you mean, away? A vacation, Banff, what?”
She shook her head. She took the envelope she had just handed me, impatient as she sometimes was, opened it and smoothed out the piece of legal paper on the tabletop. She pointed to the crisp slanted letters, the unpronounceable name.
I looked up at her. “I don’t know what to say, Beanie. This is all too much.”
“Be happy for me.”
“Oh, I am. It’s just that—”
“What, that it’s dangerous?”
“No. I was thinking of Paul. And the boys.”
“They’ll be fine. I’ll disappear for a while. They’ll miss me. And then I’ll give them a call.”
“Your job though. You can’t just leave.”
“Yes, I can.” She took up the paper. “This is a very interesting place. You should read about it.”
I looked down at the name, the Internet address.
“It’s an island,” she brightened. “Beanie’s Island, now.”
After dinner, we moved the air conditioner from the kitchen into the den. While Beanie was in the shower, I made up her bed, gave her my clock radio in case she needed an alarm, and put out a jar of moisturizer because of the air being so dry here. Then I helped Richie up to our bedroom.
He was a big man, a warm and loving man who had flipped his snowmobile during a race in the Blues fifteen years ago. He was like a child now. We sat on the bed and I answered his questions about our guest: who she was and where she had come from. I took out the photo album I used to help him remember family and friends. I told him that I had known Beanie since I was little, we were in Girl Scouts together, and I showed him pictures of us in our uniforms. There were pictures of her as a rodeo princess and of me with her at her wedding. I told him again about Paul, who was an engineer, and their two boys, Conner and Simms, and their visits. Richie again asked if Beanie had come to live with us. When I said no, he asked if she had to go away. I said yes, for a little while, and then she was going back to her family. That seemed to satisfy Richie and he was able to lie back in the bed. I turned on the fan set near an opened window, hoping it would be cool enough for him to sleep.
“Do I have to go away, too?” Richie asked.
After his accident and all his operations he had had to go to a hospital in Seattle for therapy. Sometimes, because of work, I wasn’t able to be with him. Having to go away is what he remembers whenever he’s stressed.
“No, Richie.” I said to him. I bent down and touched his forehead where the scar jagged into the hairline. I kissed him, and touched the soft thick hair. “You’ll always be with me.”
“Always,” I said and turned out the light.
I woke early. I wanted to fix Beanie a breakfast and give her a hug and kiss good-bye, but she was already gone. Her bed was unmade. There was a note where the jar of moisturizer had been. “Thanks so much, Hon. Love you, B—” I pulled off the bedding, accidentally knocking the clock radio to the floor.
One week later, after leaving my job at the library, I stopped at the church to drop off the bag of clothes Beanie had given me. They were never going to fit, and someone else could be very happy with them. At Safeway I bought some things for dinner and the salt substitute that Richie has to use. When I got home, Mary, the single mom who looks after Richie while I am away, said that a Paul had been calling and would try again. I put away the groceries, helped Richie down to the front room and started dinner. About a half hour later, the phone rang.
He asked about me and Richie. We talked about his work and the two boys, and for about five minutes we went on like that, talking about everything else.
Then he said, “Carol, I’m calling because I thought perhaps you had heard from Patricia.”
Hearing her given name made her seem like someone else, someone I didn’t care about, wasn’t in awe of. Patricia, like a character on a show. It made keeping her secret a lot easier.
“Is something wrong?” I knew that I sounded too loud, too rehearsed, and I was sure that he must have been suspicious, but he only went on, and I felt some tension go out of my neck and shoulders.
“Ten days ago, she told me she was going up to check on our place in Banff. I had work in Caracas to tend to. We’d texted back and forth until about three days ago, leading me to believe she was home, but when I got back yesterday she wasn’t there. Now the texts have stopped. No one at her firm has heard anything. And you say you haven’t seen her.”
“Ten days ago?” I looked at Richie in his chair, wearing the fishing vest over his sweatshirt. I eased the kitchen door closed to a crack and returned to the table.
“I thought she might have stopped for a visit, like we used to.”
“Oh, those were such great times, Paul.”
“I’m worried that something might have happened.”
“To Beanie? To Patricia?” I shut my eyes, trying to focus on what I had to do. “Oh, Paul. She probably stayed in Banff a little longer, or took a little side trip or something. You know how much she loves that part of the world.”
“She’s all right,” I said. “You’ll see. One of those things you worry about today and gets all settled tomorrow.” I opened my eyes. Outside the kitchen window, house lights came on above Mrs. Christie’s fence pickets. “But if she calls me, you will be the first to know.”
“Anything. If you hear anything, call me.”
After Paul hung up, I sat awhile looking at the receiver, at the backlit keys, at the phone number printed on a white tab. The number Beanie had always called when she was hurting.
I moved our tray tables into the front room, brought Richie his dinner, and we watched Wheel of Fortune. The bright colors of the spinning wheel always made him smile, and he’d ask me about the contestants and whether they lived nearby. When he was asleep, I took out the article I had photocopied on The Maldives, read again about the island, about village life, the still primitive farming methods; about the old Buddhist shrines and the Portuguese and English traders who had plundered the small islands in the wake of building empires.
Conner, Beanie’s older son, called the following week. Like his mother, he was a tax lawyer, living in Arizona. He, more than Simms, liked to talk about the times that Richie took them out fishing in the mountains east of Sagerville.
“Do you know where Mother might be, Carol? Not that I’m too worried. She’s always had this thing about taking chances, testing herself. Once when we were on vacation in Switzerland, she took off alone for a few days and went to Vienna, because Dad said we wouldn’t have time. She’d wander off when we went anywhere and later come back with gifts for everybody, and act like she’d never left. She was the one who got us out skiing and rafting. When we were little, she’d be training for a marathon and have to get in her ten-mile run, no matter the weather or the time. So if Dad was on one of his trips, and Mom couldn’t get a babysitter, she’d just tell us to stay in our room until she came back.” Conner laughed.
“Dad has no control over her. No one does. Mother does pretty much what she wants, Carol.”
When Simms called, I again kept my promise. Then I lied for her when someone from her law firm called, sounding a little irritated with my answer. Toward the last of September, a reporter from The Sagerville Times called. He said he had learned I was a childhood friend of Patricia Collier.
“When would a good time,” he asked. He sounded young.
“To interview you.”
Richie was out in the front room wrapped in his Seahawks blanket in the front of the TV. I walked out onto the back porch, and the dry fall air stabbed at my eyes. “I have an invalid in my house, Mr.—Mr–.”
“Yes, well, Mr. Thomas. My husband needs 24-hour care, and so I can’t just stop everything and—”
“Then we’ll come to you.”
“You don’t understand.”
“It would take only fifteen minutes or so.”
“I’m sorry, my husband is calling for me.” I hung up.
The newspaper kept calling. There were other reporters. After the first of the next month, I bought a new phone with caller ID.
Every year after Thanksgiving, and before his accident, Richie would load the snowmobile into his pickup, and we’d head into the Blues, to Meacham. He’d hook up the sled and we’d go deep into the woods and find a tree for Christmas. Now, I get a small one from Tasker’s Market. Richie and I decorate it the first week of December and listen to The Mormon Tabernacle music.
Richie was opening boxes from the attic and I was putting out Mom’s crèche figures on top of the television when Paul called again. He didn’t say hello or ask how we were. He demanded that I tell him where she was. His voice was hoarse and he slurred his words.
I told Richie to take a break, and I went into the kitchen. I said a quick Hail Mary to block out his anger and waited until I heard him pause.
“I care about Beanie, too.”
“I hate that name you have for her. She’s Patricia. Patricia.”
“And, like you, I’m worried.”
“Fine, everybody’s worried. Everybody’s sorry. But nobody’s doing anything. I’m getting stonewalled. The police. Even you.”
“That’s not fair, Paul.”
“Fair? You know what I think? I think you’ve been lying to me, Carol. You’ve been covering for her for some damned reason.”
“That’s not true.”
“So tell me straight out, that you don’t know where she is.”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t know what, Carol? What is it you don’t know?”
“I don’t know where Patricia is.”
“I thought there was more to you than this, Carol. I thought you had some substance. That was what Patricia always said about you, that you were different, that you were honest.” Then the line went dead.
When Richie called for me, I put him off.
“Just a minute, honey.” I sat staring at the pattern of the tablecloth, smoothing it, listening to the echo of Paul’s voice, the anger of it all, and looking at the way the colors of the fruits and vegetables were laid out. There was a small rip near the center. I moved a glass bowl that was filled with a few pinecones and red ornaments to cover the spot. I smoothed the cloth again. So that was it. She couldn’t say, maybe, but of course it was his drinking. I kept smoothing the cloth, stretching the figures and colors of the pattern and watched them slowly slip back into shape.
In February of that next year, Mary told me that she was moving to Pullman to live with her sister and her husband. She had been putting it off because she knew I had been under a lot more stress, what with Richie getting weaker. She was sorry, she would miss us very much but she had to think of her daughter now, and it was a good move for her. She wanted to keep in touch. I put out an ad for her replacement, but most people wanted more than I could afford, so I had to cut my hours at the library and plan my errands for when Richie would be asleep.
One afternoon, I was in the parking lot of the Rite-Aid checking the receipt for Richie’s medication and supplies, when I noticed that they hadn’t charged me for a jar of moisturizer. At first I was happy, surprised, feeling I was due for a break and that I could use the $7.95. But I realized that wasn’t right. I took the jar in the plastic bag along with the receipt and started back across the lot. I was pleased with myself, wondering how many people would be so honest when they didn’t have to be. I imagined the reaction of the clerk when she realized my honesty; she would tell her manager. Most people wouldn’t think twice about stealing, he’d say. The three of us would have a nice conversation.
A car pulled into the lot and I stopped to let it pass. The driver smiled at the gesture. I watched him park, and then I turned to the storefront, thinking of what I was about to do; that I was maybe keeping the cashier from losing her job. Because when you came right down to it, it was her fault, not mine. And maybe not really the cashier alone, but the store’s fault because they don’t train their staff properly, and maybe they know an occasional mistake is cheaper than the time taken to train someone well, so this sort of accident happens all the time and no one thinks twice about it.
And really what is $7.95 to a big drugstore chain? Most people would laugh at me for worrying. “Oh, Carol,” Beanie would say. “That’s not stealing. Don’t be such a prude.”
I hadn’t moved from where I had stopped to let the car pass and was looking at the front of the store. Maybe I expected someone to come running out, pointing at me. There She Is. But nobody came; no alarms went off. I waited another moment, then walked back to my car.
I put the bag on the seat, changed my mind and put it out of sight on the floor. I backed out of the parking spot. I drove slowly past the store entrance, but still no one came looking for me. I continued toward the exit. If a clerk came out, I would stop. The traffic light turned green. I waited and the driver behind me honked. I waved him around. The light turned yellow, then red and still no one came out. I waited more time. I said a prayer for forgiveness. At the end of my prayer I looked up and saw the light turning green again. I pulled out into the street and headed home.
And if I didn’t open it, I could always return it. So that wasn’t really stealing at all, was it? As I turned off Main at the corner and toward my street, a song that Mom had taught Beanie and me a long time ago went through my head.
You can’t holler down my rain barrel,
You can’t climb my apple tree,
I don’t wanna play in your yard,
If you can’t be good to me.
Occasionally I would hear rumors that Beanie had been spotted. One time she was working for the Red Cross in Sudan. Another time, it was the Congo. Then I’d hear that no, she was in South America, or back home with Paul. Each time one of these stories arose, someone in town who had known of our friendship would call, asking if I’d heard the good news, and then as the stories faded the calls, too, would fade.
I was sitting with Richie in the front room, watching a Mariners’ game. The day had been cool and rainy, and the leaves had not yet come back to my birch tree. I heard a car door close and went to the window. At the curb was a new black sedan. I watched the tanned, hatless figure get out and start across the damp lawn. I looked quickly around the room for anything that would make trouble and then waited a few feet back from the door, focusing on the handle. When the bell rang, I took a deep breath and made a smile.
He was as tall as Richie but rangy where Richie was muscular, and grayer than I remembered from three years ago. He gave me a hug and for a moment I thought he would say something about the call months earlier, apologizing for how he had been, but he only smiled.
“It’s Paul, Richie,” I said, turning down the TV volume.
“Paul,” Richie repeated and looked at him, and then at me.
“Good to see you, Rich.” Paul shook Richie’s hand. He had what Beanie called a soft Texas drawl.
I was afraid he had come to demand more of me, but he only said that he had business in Seattle and at the last minute had decided he would drive, so he could stop for a visit. I suspected there was more to it, but I’d let him bring that up. He said that the drive had taken his mind off things. He told Rich about the wild game he had seen while coming through Utah and Idaho. Paul was an interesting mix of outdoorsman and brains. That was how Beanie had described him when she first told me of her plan to marry him.
While I caught him up on doings around Sagerville—mentioning anything to postpone what was sure to come—the baseball game went on. Richie, from time to time, would turn away from the screen to look at Paul, and then to me, as if asking for an explanation. At one point, Paul walked to some framed photographs on the mantel: pictures of Richie and me, of his parents and mine, Beanie and the boys on their summer visits, Paul and Beanie at their wedding.
“She called,” he said and, turning around, looked directly at me. “Of course she planned it when I wasn’t home, when she’d only have to leave a message.”
“Oh, Paul, that’s wonderful news.” I said, pleased at my enthusiasm, my show of surprise. “When was this?”
“About three weeks ago.”
“Did she say where she was?”
He shook his head.
“So whatever she is doing, there’s no reason to keep me in the dark anymore, is there, Carol?” He didn’t seem angry; in fact he was smiling slightly.
“I wish I could tell you, Paul. I really do.” I took the jacket he had draped over a chair and, turning away, walked it to a closet near the hallway. “But at least we know she is okay.”
I watched him nod, still looking at me. I thought he would ask more, so I said to him, “You must be starving.”
I ignored his answer and told Richie that we were going to eat now.
“Now,” I said, knowing it was much earlier than usual and that Richie was not comfortable with change.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Paul and I are going to eat,” I said, taking the remote from him and placing it on the table. “Don’t you want to join us?”
I asked Paul to help me get Richie to his feet, although I did this alone all the time. I turned off the TV and Richie walked to the bathroom to wash up and then went to his chair at the kitchen table. Paul sat across from him. I cleared the table of some mail and the newspaper, putting them on the counter next to the Rite-Aid bag containing the jar of moisturizer. I set the table, then took a chicken casserole from the refrigerator, put it in the oven and set the timer. I wiped down the stovetop that I had cleaned that morning. I wiped the empty counter near the sink. Away from Paul, I could think clearer. I was tempted to tell him what he wanted to know. Didn’t he just say that he had heard from her? Didn’t Conner tell me that she’d done this kind of thing before? But then I thought that Paul might be lying, trying to trick me. Besides, if Beanie had really called him weeks ago, why didn’t he then call me? And don’t people who drink too much sometimes lie to protect themselves? I watched him telling Richie about a fishing trip he had made off Florida. I looked for signs. They say that a person who drinks too much breaks little blood vessels and it makes the face red and blotchy, but that was hard to tell, him being so tanned.
“Are you warm enough?” I asked.
“I know we’re chillier than what you’re used to.”
I continued to straighten the counters until the timer went off.
“It’s ready,” I said.
“Can I help?”
“No, you just rest. You have more driving coming up.”
When I brought the food to the table, Paul was reminding Richie of when Simms and Conner were young and would stay with us for a couple of weeks in the summer, and Richie would schedule time off from his railroad job.
“You took them fishing at Anthony Lake.”
Richie nodded, seeming to search Paul’s face.
“Brook Trout. They still talk about it.”
I stood behind the chair, gripping the back of it. Paul turned to me.
I nodded. “I don’t have beer or wine or anything like that,” I said. “Richie’s not supposed to have it.”
“Water’s fine, Carol.”
“I should keep some on hand for guests, I know,” I said, going back to the cupboard and then to the sink. “I just forget.”
“No problem at all.”
I brought water for Paul and myself. I tucked a good paper napkin into the top button of Richie’s shirt. I poured his milk.
“Smells terrific,” Paul said.
“Nothing fancy,” I said, sitting down. “But use the potholders, it’s very hot.”
Paul was being nice. Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much. Besides, there was always the possibility that he was telling me the truth.
I turned to Richie. He sat waiting, his hands on the tabletop. He was looking at me.
“You remember Paul,” I said. “Paul from Houston.”
“Texas,” Paul said.
“Beanie’s Paul,” Richie said.
“That’s right, Rich,” Paul said, looking at me. “Beanie’s Paul.”
“Is Beanie’s Paul going away, too?” he asked me.
I heard the fork clatter off the edge of the plate to the floor. I scooted the chair back, the legs scraping loudly. I picked up the fork and took it to the sink. I ran hot water. The sound of the splashing, the feel of the heat calmed me. Is Beanie’s Paul going away too? How could Paul have missed that? I turned off the water. I found a fresh towel in a drawer and took it out. I unfolded the towel and dried the fork. I rubbed the handle and the prongs and the spaces in between. I dried it again. I put the fork down on the counter, and folded the towel neatly in thirds and draped it over a hook by the sink light. Then I turned and walked back to the table and sat down. It’s an island. I moved my chair closer to the table. I used my napkin to clear a piece of chicken that had fallen to the cloth. Our little secret. Promise? I could feel Paul looking at me, questioning. I cleared my throat, knowing what I was about to do, angry with myself already.
“Paul is going away,” I said. My voice was harsh.
“Oh,” Richie said, quiet, apologetic.
“Going away to Seattle,” I said, knowing it was too loud. I didn’t look at him but I knew what was going to happen. The shock would show on his face, the quiver begin at the corner of his mouth. Then he would begin to shake.
When I heard the glass shatter and saw the milk spilling across the tablecloth, I looked up, not at his face or his eyes, but beyond him. Then I got up from my chair. Paul was now noticing Richie, not looking at me.
“It’s okay, Richie,” I said. “Paul is going. You’re staying here, Richie. You’re staying with me,” I said, over and over. Gradually I felt the trembling in Richie’s body ease. “Shh,” I whispered to him, and sensed my own control slowly return. “It’s okay.”
Richie had cut his hand on the broken glass. His face was pale. I hugged him, touching his cheek. I saw Paul take the towel from the hook near the sink and press it to Richie’s hand. The bleeding stopped. I felt Richie’s breathing settle down. I pulled away, not yet ready to look into his eyes.
“No one is going to send you away,” I said, smoothing his hair.
He finally nodded, then looked at Paul. “Beanie’s going away,” he said.
I brought him close again, kissed him again.
Paul put his hand on Richie’s arm, “It’s okay, Rich,” he said. “I’m going away. Beanie’s Paul is going away, Beanie’s Paul.”
It was over. The food remained on the plates. I cleaned up the broken glass, and the milk, and put a bandage on Richie’s hand. We moved into the front room. Richie wanted to nap on the couch, so Paul and I took the chairs. Not much was said. Paul leafed through the Field and Stream magazine. I brought out coffee. He didn’t touch it. I sat down.
“How long will your drive take?”
“Five hours, maybe.”
When Paul left, it was dark. I turned on a light in the hallway but that made it too bright. I switched it off. I turned on the radio but it was just news and loud music so I turned it off. Out the back door, on a table under the patio lights, I counted six dead leaves from the winter spread out in a broken circle. Then a breeze blew them away and they drifted into more leaves wedged against Mrs. Christie’s fence. The lights in her kitchen were on. I could see her and her husband, talking. I ran a glass of water. It was too cold, so I poured it out and walked back to the front room. I sat down again in Richie’s chair, watching him sleep. It was so quiet. I turned the heat up. I put on a sweater. I took one of the throws off the couch and huddled inside it. I wanted to sleep. I wanted Richie to wake up so I could take him upstairs to sleep. So I could sleep. Every time Richie moved, I called softly to him. I wanted him to wake up so I could tell him I was sorry.
Some days I brought Richie to the library, because I hadn’t been able to replace Mary. My boss understood, and everyone was fine with Richie at first, but sometimes he would wander, or talk too loud, and people complained, so I stopped bringing him. His doctor prescribed medicine that helped him sleep while I was at work, but he was up a lot at night when I needed to sleep.
After midnight once, I was awakened by an alarm. I went downstairs. Toast was burning and the kitchen was filling with smoke. I unplugged the toaster and threw the blackened bread into the sink. When I opened the windows, I saw Richie wandering out in the garden, in the dark, in his underwear.
I was finally able to get some help. A girl named Claire, just out of high school, said she wanted to be a nurse and needed some experience. She didn’t seem to mind what I could afford to pay.
Slow months led to another summer. Richie and I followed our routine: I worked; I shopped for food, fixed our meals, sat with Richie while he watched his shows and sports. When we went to Mass, we took our usual pew on the right side near the sixth station, where Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. I still went to communion. I didn’t see why not. I knew there were some in our church who had done a lot worse than tell a fib or two, and who could act like they’d done nothing wrong and go on without a care in the world. God knew I hadn’t changed.
Often, I pictured Beanie in her new life, helping local villagers with her practical smarts. Those times I’d sit at the kitchen table. I’d have the note with Beanie’s number and the phone in my hand. I’d be all set to dial, when something—some fear, or guilt at betraying Beanie—would stop me, and I’d put the phone down, replace the note and make myself do something else. I’d leave it alone for a while, then a bad day would visit us, and lonely for that excitement she had about her, I would take out the envelope again.
Finally I gave in. It had been almost a year.
At first I didn’t believe the recorded message, so I dialed again. When I called an operator and had him dial the number, he told me the same thing, that it was a non-working number. I thought then that maybe Beanie had meant to cut everyone off. And maybe I was just like everyone to her.
But I had trouble really believing that. When she first told me her plan, I thought she’d be gone for a few weeks, maybe months at most, and then she’d come back. And like always, she’d thank me for standing by her. She’d stop here before she went home. She’d tell me about her island and all that she had done. And because I had been loyal to her, allowing her to do what she had to do, she’d now be able to go back to her life with Paul.
While Richie and I were having dinner on a warm evening in August, a Breaking News story announced that Beanie had returned. Another rumor, was my first reaction, but then I saw her face on the screen, in front of some microphones. I moved closer to the TV to make sure that I wasn’t wrong; that I wasn’t seeing someone who looked like her, or some other Patricia Collier. Then I saw Paul standing behind her. I turned up the sound, and moved back to my chair. Of course it was a relief that I no longer had to keep her secret. I listened to her confident, excited voice, and I thought that maybe I would hear my name, but she only said how great it was being back in Houston. When that story ended, I switched to the other channels but found nothing more on her. Later, on the 11 o’clock news, the story ran again. I thought back to a year ago when she had made me swear not to tell anyone, not to let her down.
I didn’t sleep much. I went to work the next morning. I checked with Claire two or three times, but no one had called from Texas. That night, after putting Richie to bed, I took out the article on the Maldives one last time and put it in the trash. I was angry. I couldn’t help it. I told myself that it was the heat or that I was tired and I convinced myself for a while that she would call me and I would be special to her again, but more days and more nights passed and still she did not call.
It was late morning that next Friday, my day off. I fixed Richie’s breakfast, gave him his medicine and turned on the TV. I went into the kitchen and closed the door. I sat for a few minutes at the table, thinking of what to say. I said a prayer, and called their home.
She picked up on the second ring.
“Carol?” There was a slight pause. “Carol! We were just talking about you.”
“Really,” I said.
“Oh, Carol, it’s so good to be back home, you don’t know. Everyone has been so understanding.”
“I saw it on the news.”
“Oh, that. Wasn’t that crazy?”
“So everything on your island went okay?”
“Well, to be honest, Hon, I didn’t stay there very long. I guess I’m not cut out for adventures any more. After a few months, I gave it up and took a little detour through Europe. That was fascinating. So much I hadn’t seen. We’ll have to talk about it.”
“And your job?”
“Gone for now, but they’ll take me back. They always take me back.”
I waited for her to go on.
“Oh, Carol. You don’t know how many times I had meant to call you, to tell you everything, like always. But I knew you’d understand. You know me so well. But now I’m back and we’ll make time for just the two of us.”
Again I waited.
“So tell me about you.”
“Yes, you, silly. How’s everything in Sagerville?”
“Everything’s the same. Just about.”
“And Richie? How’s he doing?”
“Oh, you know Richie.”
“Right,” she said. “Well, you give him a kiss for me.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Oh, Carol. It has been so great to hear from you.”
“But you have to go.”
“I know how that sounds, but the boys are here. Simms is getting married next month, you know. So we’re all flying up to Alberta for a week, sort of a pre-wedding and reunion all in one.”
“You should join us. You and Richie.”
“Beanie?” I was standing now.
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“One call. Telling me it was all over. And I could’ve quit lying for you.”
“Lying?” she laughed. “You didn’t have to lie, Hon, just tell people you didn’t want to talk, or something.”
I moved the phone away from my ear. I heard a pause and then her voice, sounding distorted and tinny, calling out for me. I brought the phone back to my ear.
“There you are. We must have gotten—”
“Carol? Carol Ann?”
I put the phone down on the table, heard my name repeated over and over until finally the phone went silent. The screen turned dark. I walked to the sink. I ran the cool water for a few minutes and washed the dampness from my eyes and cheeks and dried them on a fresh towel.
Before I left the kitchen, I took the bag with the moisturizer and put it near the back door so that I wouldn’t forget it the next morning. Then I walked out to the front room to Richie, sitting in his chair, wearing his favorite plaid shirt.
When I reached down and touched his hair, he looked up at me, and for a moment I saw the old strength in him. I kissed him and turned toward the television. The sunlight from the window was bright across the top half of the screen and the voices seemed to be coming out of a cloud.
“How can you see that?” I said to him, hearing the break in my voice.
I walked to the front window. Outside, beyond the birch tree, two kids rode by on bikes, their excited cries and laughter rising and falling as they pedaled on out of sight. I pulled the curtain then, closing out the light, until the TV screen was bright again. I moved my chair close to Richie. I took his right hand in both of mine and leaned against his shoulder and together we watched the end of Days of Our Lives.