That particular morning, I was having an, “I’m not going to run into anyone, so it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing” day. I was cloaked in straight black—black sweats, black sweater and a gray T-shirt, which is a form of black. My hair was shoved into a ponytail, and I hadn’t applied any makeup. I had decided at the last minute to slip into an obscure Al-Anon meeting in the middle of an ugly brown desert and scrawny brown stage brush. If I didn’t attend one at least three times a week, life became a whole lot harder. I didn’t need any more hard. So I drove past all the stout cactus and saggy buildings to a meeting on the farthest north of town. Being late, I creaked the old metal door open and stepped lightly into the jail room complete with cemented walls, glaring fluorescent lights, and supplied with foldout chairs, probably from the seventies. They were set out in a lopsided square, three rows deep, facing each other.
I don’t know why but instead of just focusing on quietly taking a spot, I looked across the room filled mostly with ancient people dressed in T-shirts and jeans or frumpy sweaters, and a few accompanied by sparkly new walkers and polished wooden canes.
Sometimes, okay often, I wished this town had more people my age, and not so many people focused on passing their time until they reach the grave, and what their grandchild was up. The older generation liked to talk a lot, which I never preferred to do. Being from X-generation had turned out to be curse since there was so few of us in the population mix. It wasn’t uncommon to go weeks without running into another Ferris Bueller child, especially in this retirement town. Maybe if I did run into someone from the same generation as me more often I wouldn’t feel so alone and misunderstood. Not to mention, most the elderly stories were deeply sad and bothered my dreams. The old weren’t support to hurt emotionally like that. They had enough on their plate just getting on.
There had to have been at least thirty people today, a surprisingly large turnout for an early weekend morning and way too many people for comfort. I preferred meeting of no more than ten people. The less people the better.
As I was accessing the numbers of people, suddenly I saw him slumped back into his chair in his confident, cocky way he always had. His light brown hair swept off his forehead with an George Clooney sexiness. Right leg crossed over the left forming a square, the man’s power-sitting position. He was too relaxed, too happy to be in these rooms. He looked too much like he had before, but maybe cockier, if that was possible.
Immediately I tugged at my loosening ponytail to tighten it, to make look smoother and not so sloppy but to no avail. I hadn’t spent enough time twisting the rubber band tight enough. Giving up the fight, I let my hair fall down in crazy randomness. What was Randy doing here?
Seeing him here, at a twelve-step meeting, looking like he was at the top of his game, rather than the bottom—none of it made any sense to my confused brain. He belonged in one of my other lives. A life long ago that needed to stay in the past, but not this one. So I blinked. As my eyes fluttered, our gazes connected, leaving me with no way I could’ve pretended that I didn’t see him. Also, I couldn’t really dodge back out of the meeting without looking like I was a chicken-shit, which of course I was.
Once I unthawed from the shock of seeing him after all these years, I gave him a short nod like I didn’t have any bitter feelings. He lifted a two-finger wave, barely noticeable, and gave me a side smirk as though he found my fall from grace, and into this room, amazing. I hadn’t arrived late enough because the group was still reading the traditions. Beside me, the eighty-year-old lady with thick, fluffy white hair and pancake smooth cheeks whispered, “Read tradition twelve, dear.” She handed me the worksheet with the steps and traditions printed on it.
I stumbled through the words until the group joined in on the last phrase saying it with me, “to place principles above personalities.” My eyes flickered across to Randy. Personalities had gotten me into plenty of trouble in the past; maybe it was time for me to try some principles.
His younger face stood out in the crowd. He wore an expensive suit with bright orange tie and shiny black dress shoes, on a Saturday, like he had to rub it in. He was trying to prove his importance. Some things never change.
The selected leader for today continued to read from the script. He was a man advanced in his age and lacked most of his hair. His voice, though, had no wear in it as he read about how the group doesn’t have any dues or fees, but does accept a donation to pay for rent and literature. He was explaining how the bucket would be passed around when Randy loudly shifted to get into his back pocket. We all watched him pull out his leather wallet bulging to a thickness I’d never seen when we had spent time together. The man was such a showoff.
From across the room, the leather looked real and so did the dollar bills he flipped through. It appeared like he had settled for a fifty when everyone else would be giving a dollar if that, and me, I had planned on dropping fifty nickels and five dimes that I had scrapped out of my couch cushion and bathroom drawer before coming. He held the large bill in his hand as he huffed, putting his wallet away. The eyes of the quiet lady next to him grew wide as she stared at his hand holding the money.
I coughed, bringing my gaze to my lap to slip into my listener mode, which I stayed in. After all, I had come to listen, not think about Randy. I had floated into the recovery trance listening to others’ faith, hope, and experience when Randy spoke, introducing himself.
“Hi Randy.” Voices spoke from all four corners of the cemented walls with an echo-ey effect, like something wanted to drill this man into my bones.
“Well, this week has been amazing,” he said for his share. “I’ve been working on several major business deals trying to get them to close.” He chuckled to himself at some insider’s joke.
“Anyways, I find it really hard to keep my mouth shut when they’re so many crazy people. I appreciate the reminder of today’s meeting that I’m not responsible for their crazy or to save anyone. I’m finding that I’m a big enough job to take care of.”
The room was filled with nodding heads. My stomach hurt, and I felt compelled to dart home. But if I left right after he shared, he’d know that he’d upset me. He already had enough control over me for a lifetime. I’d rather sit there on this incredibly hard metal chair and deal with my clenching stomach then give him any satisfaction.
At the conclusion of the meeting, I tried to dash away avoiding the hand holding and reciting the Serenity Prayer, but that eighty-year-old woman clutched on tight and didn’t let me go until she pulled me in for an embrace. By the time I was released from her clasp and gave a fake nod to her comment “to keep coming back,” Randy made it over to me. Not that I was going to avoid him in an obvious way. But if I didn’t happen to talk to him, it wouldn’t cause me any loss of sleep. At least I hope it wouldn’t.
“Patty,” he said amusement swimming all over his face.
“Randy,” I said. Two could play “remember the other person’s name,” game.
He pulled me in for a tight hug, still wearing Polo cologne, still possessing a solid chest, and still causing me to catch my breath. He was a lot taller than me, and his shoulders spread out to twice my width, so I easily curled up in his embrace feeling the throb of his heartbeat pronounced and strong.
I flushed from my swooning reaction. The man still stirred me despite everything. A tear slipped out of the corner of my eye. I rubbed my forehead against his suit jacket to hide my face.
“What the hell are you doing here?” He pulled from my hug but still stood awfully close. I could smell his peppermint breath.
I could’ve asked him the same question. Other attendees swarmed passed us like we were a rock in the fast moving stream. Suddenly his phone buzzed, breaking his spell on me. He looked at the white screen then back to me. “Damn. I have to go.”
That was good. That was preferable considering the circumstances.
“My work,” he said.
“What do you do now?”
“Make lots of money,” he said with that damn cocky smile of his. “Nothing glamorous, though.”
I nodded staring at his shiny dress shoes. I couldn’t make myself look up even though I felt tremendous pressure from the part of me that didn’t want to appear like a desperate dork.
He punched out each word. “Why. Are. You. Here?”
I glanced up for a brief moment, long enough to take in those mesmerizing brown eyes. Long enough to remember, and I flushed. I shrugged. “Things change.”
His phone buzzed again. The white screen lit up, catching his eyes. “My sister. My qualifier.” He waved his phone. “Give me your number,” he said, handing the phone to me.
I did what he said. I was used to doing what he told me to do. Besides, I doubted he’d call, and if he did, I wouldn’t pick up. That was better than having to say any more.
“We’ll catch up,” he said. “Maybe coffee or something.”
He was just saying that. I hoped.
Five years ago we were inseparable. Me at his place or him at mine. Often in bed with Doritos, ice cream, and buttered popcorn to binge-watch popular old movies. Those times were simple. All we had to worry about was what day it was, who left for work when, who would have to go on the midnight snack run, and who got to pick the next movie.
Neither of us wanted to grow-up. Neither of us wanted more from life than to watch good old Gene Kelly Singing in the Rain. I always hogged the Doritos, and it seemed like Randy could eat out of a five gallon ice cream jug all night long. His lips never grew cold, but I grew tired of watching his arm go up and down for hours.
I have to admit I did look at my phone once or twice to see if he’d called me. I wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t. That fit his ways. So I let it go after talking about it at three different Al-Anon meetings and to my sponsor.
Sometimes after the meetings, everyone who doesn’t have a life gathers together and goes to a cheap restaurant to do more talking. I sometimes went when I thought the talking wouldn’t be directed my way. To keep away from personal questions, I’d park myself between Bob, an 82-year retired sailor with the tats to prove his loyalty, and Charley, a retired high school teacher, who had been left by his alcoholic lover, and never had much to say except about which doctor he’d be visiting that week.
I lived in a studio apartment in the middle of town, which meant I could bike most everywhere, so I did on most days. It was good for my heart except when drivers threatened to run me off the road.
My studio didn’t even have a TV, stereo, or any other old fashioned entertainment device, nor any of the large painting I used to surround myself with. I guess I had advanced past lazy days propped up in a bed in front of a TV and surround by art deco everywhere I looked. Now I just embraced the silence life had to offer me and the simplicity of nothing.
I worked at the greasy local café, waitressing. I took on everyone’s shifts whenever they wanted. It didn’t bother me. Hungry people needed to be fed. On holidays I worked double shifts except for Valentine’s. That day’ nobody could force me to work. If they scheduled me against my protest, I would magically find the flu.
I have been waitressing for years and learned that all types of people drift through there, and that often the young bums tip better than the old fogies. The ladies dripping with jewelry were the pickiest, and the crowd after ten was a journey into a thriller movie. Many red-eyed zombies stumbled in muttering, mixing with the wide-eyed, overly enthusiastic youth—motorized mess-makers who did everything in stereo, and often drugged on laughing pills
Still, I took pleasure in tapping into the heartbeat of the city and feeding the crowds. But I knew eventually I’d become too old for the job. Mess up one too many orders, drop one too many dinners and out I’d go. That was the danger of being an outsider that never really belonged.
I still had one of those flip phones. The kind that had to be opened and actually used buttons that had to be pushed. It was all I really needed. Besides fielding calls to take on more shifts I didn’t need the buttons
One week after running into Randy, the phone vibrated, and when I glanced at the white screen, it declared he hadn’t changed his number.
“Patty,” he said, “how are you?”
I paused for two beats not knowing how to respond.
“Good. Good,” he continued, not skipping a beat and not noticing my lack of an answer. “I want to do coffee as I said before but today I am in a rush. Way too much craziness. I still thought I’d quickly call because I have an opportunity for you.”
Amway had gone out of business, hadn’t it?
“Hello,” he said to nudge me to respond.
“Good. Here it is. My grandma had a stroke.”
That was awful. She was a sweet lady. I really liked her. “Sorry.”
“Yeah. I know it’s real sad. It’s taken everyone by surprise. Real big surprise. Well, the thing is she can’t keep up like she used to. It was a real zinger. It sure took the life right out of her. Everything is difficult for her now. Everything. So, I have been appointed by the family to help her out. Get her coping again. And the thing is I can’t get her to do much of anything because she’s all worried about getting her cross stitching done.”
“You know the stuff you used to do with a needle and thread all the time.”
I could hear him take a frustrated sigh, and then the ring of an opening door. I snapped back before he thought I’d gone too far off in the deep end. “I just didn’t know those words could come out of your mouth.”
“Ha. Ha. Very funny.”
He sounded hurt and it made me wonder why I had jabbed him. He had just told me his favorite grandma had a stroke and was struggling. That wasn’t very funny. My anger must still run deep as a dormant volcano.
“Anyway, before the stroke, she had promised her church she would do over 200 cross stitch pieces for the children of domestic violence.”
“What do children do with cross stitch?”
A car door slammed.
“They sew it together to make something for them. I don’t know what. That doesn’t matter. What matters is my grandma won’t settle down until it gets done and she can’t do it.”
“That’s why you called. To get me to do Grandma’s project for you.”
“Knock it off, Patty, you know it isn’t, but I’m in a situation here. I need your help. Please. Give you $400 if you get it done in two weeks.”
“I’m desperate. Her heart rate won’t go down until it’s done.”
A dog barked.
“Fine. I’ll see what I can do, but I don’t want your money.”
“You’ll take my money and the project. I’ll be over to your place in twenty. Where’m I going?”
I wasn’t going to tell him it would take more than twenty minutes. He must still be in the outskirts by the mountains. No use telling him my apartment was half the size of the one we’d shared and that now I made half the money I once did.
An a half hour later, eight in the evening, I watched from the dark space of my living room as Randy parked his Porsche in front of my place. I greeted him outside. The streetlight shed a grayish smoggy glow trickling down on top of us as the day’s left over heat circled us.
“What the hell?” he said, gesturing toward my place. He had a large, bulging plastic bag in one hand and keys in the other. “Want to tell me what happened… since… how did you get to this? Al-Anon? How did you get to look and dress like this? People change but not this much.”
Tears brimmed my eyes. I wasn’t going to go into it. I would never go into, especially not with him. I extended my hand out to take the bag. “You’re coming back to get these when they’re done, or am I going to drop them off somewhere?” The bag—heavier than expected — thumped on the pavement by my foot.
“I’ll come back, and we’ll do dinner or something. It’s been a long time. There’s lots to catch up on.” He handed me a thick envelope which I assumed was the money.
I held it out, debating what to do with it. For a sudden brief moment, it seemed like I was in a horror movie frozen in fear, but that apprehension left me, and I put the bag in my right hand that was still holding on to the red handles of the plastic bag.
“Call if you have any questions or need supplies. Or need anything.” He lowered his head. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “This means a lot.”
He had moved out of the headlights. I could no longer see his face. I shuffled my feet and moved into the evening shadows.
Randy stepped toward me giving me another tight bear hug. “You are okay, Patty, aren’t you?” He laughed. “Of course you are. Nothing ever keeps you down.” He eyes, filled with worry, flickered up at mine. I didn’t know if the concern was over me, or his sister (his “qualifier”), his grandma, or his high pressured job, but it was there.
“Hope you supplied me with a thimble.”
He looked at the bag and gasped.
“Don’t worry.” I put my hand on his chest to calm him. I shouldn’t have, though, because touching him did anything but calm me. “Bad joke,” I choked out. “Bad joke. Better go. You too. You have a long drive.” I hoisted the bag to my hip.
“Since when were you okay living the city?” he asked.
I stepped back. “Two weeks. Come back in two weeks.” I put my back to him and hustled to my door, only stopping once inside to hear the lock snap. I didn’t turn on the light. Instead, I let my heavy breathing fill up the room as I looked through my open drapes to see him staring in the direction of my place. He just stood there as though at a complete loss.
I waited two more hours and did nothing but think about the project. I didn’t understand how some cross stitching would help children in need, but for some reason that church felt like it would and Randy’s grandma was convinced it would, too. She couldn’t seem to rest until this project got done. Why was it so important to her? I guess it didn’t matter if I understood. There was a lot I would never understand. Ever. My part was simply to put the thread to needle and to form stitch after stitch following the pattern. Simple. Follow the pattern, and the rest would be taken care of. The patterns were childhood designs of bears, toys, smiles and lots of color. The scenes suggested life, innocence, and hope.
Under the low light of a reading lamp, I took the needle and made several attempts to thread it. My hand shook as I tried to string the thread through the eye of the needle. The thread felt foreign and familiar all at the same time rolling between my fingers.
At last, the thread poked through, and I sat on my chair and followed the pattern as absolute quiet wrapped around me. I continued to labor. The light bulb flickered. My fingers ached from the small detail work. It had been a long time since I used them for such endeavors. This was flirting with trouble. That was messing with suffering, but despite that I did form the stitches. For Randy’s grandma. For no other reason than that. The more I stitched, the more it seemed to weave me into a trance as I pushed the needle in the fabric, then pulled it out.
Early morning light seeped into the window, shaking me from my reverie.
I sewed several more stitches before the tendinitis in my wrists and elbows forced me to stop. I stood and stretched out the kinks in my hunched-over frame and decided that since today was an off day from work, I’d get a change of scenery from my two-by-four apartment and drive around town to see all the cactus and adobe houses.
The car lulled me into a slow reverie. I felt unconscious in my driving, unconscious in sewing, unconscious in my reunion with Randy. Like it had a mind of its own, my car jerked to a stop in front of the art gallery. The building—adobe with tan cactus in front and back, far away from any other shop—had slumped into shabby condition with gray smudges left over from the fire.
The side door of the building cracked open with a squeak, breaking the utter stillness. I snapped my visor down. My reaction time to hide seemed to have lagged, probably from consuming too many potato chips over the past ten years. The grease had built up.
The intruder carried a large cardboard box in her arms as she struggled toward the overflowing dumpster. She squinted and faced my car. She dropped the box down at her feet and stepped to the side, heading my way. The sun slipped behind a cloud as I debated if I should take off, but I had been too slow in making up my mind. The woman knocked on my window with force. I rolled it down.
“Trish,” I said. She hadn’t gotten any older over the past decade, not even changed her hair out of her distinct bob.
“You finally ready to do more pieces?”
I stared at the steering wheel, unsure of what to say.
“I’d have to talk to the owner. I’m not sure he’d being willing to display your painting, after everything.”
I needed even more sanity. I thought about going to the far north meeting, but Randy and his suit might be there. Instead, I checked out a meeting far south. That was the poorer side of town. There shouldn’t be any showy, ostentatious displays. It was an evening meeting; most of the crowd probably didn’t have family to go home to. I brought my sewing. It would ease any nerves or boredom if the room grew too quiet. That happened more often in the less popular gatherings.
I arrived early to another cemented room. I spotted a corner metal chair that faced the door. I secured the spot. That way I could be the all-seeing eye. I pulled out my cross stitch and focused on tugging the thread so no one would bother me with their mindless talk. The room was slowly filling with attendees. Today had more people cloaked in business clothes than the last meeting, but there was still the fair share of those in yoga pants and tank tops, giving the illusion that they took care of themselves physically. I wondered if any of them actually had worked out. It didn’t really matter.
I stitched, and no one talked to me through the whole meeting. The eighty-year-old lady from the last meeting was the only face I recognized. Fortunately, she sat tucked behind the more vibrant talkers several rows back to my right. She smiled kindly at me. That surprised me. She seemed kind. Total epitome of a loving grandmother I’d never had. I smiled back.
The meeting came to a shrieking halt when the leader noticed the time. He had us all stand to hold hands and say the Serenity Prayer. I should’ve skipped out on that, but I didn’t manage to escape and ended up muttering my way through. After all had been said and done, I gathered my sewing, tucking it back into my bag when the eighty-year-old suddenly stood by my side.
“Dear,” she said to me. I turned my eyes to look into hers. “Just wanted to say it’s nice you are making such a difference.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“The sewing you’re doing. It will bring much happiness.”
I flushed, not able to know what to say. Maybe she was right.
The lady gasped and clutched her heart. “Ohhh,” she said, vibrancy running out of her voice.
“You okay?” I asked.
She hunched forward strange sounds gurgling from her throat.
I grabbed onto her shoulders to keep her from smacking the floor. She slumped to the ground and laid flat out, her color drained against the white tiles. The room erupted in commotion as people asked, “What’s happening?”
I grabbed my phone, dialed 911. As I talked to dispatch, I saw the complete helplessness on this woman’s face. She couldn’t go anywhere, she couldn’t move, she couldn’t talk. She was helpless against her condition. Completely helpless. More than me. I could at least move and get myself to one place to another. She, at this moment, couldn’t even make herself slightly more comfortable. My heart rattled on, choking me.
Finally, I forced myself to move, slightly lifted her head up and carefully slid my bag under her head to form a pillow. Gratitude seemed to stream out of her eyes toward me as her skin turned even grayer than her hair. We waited. Someone said they’d usher the paramedics in. Others asked if anyone knew if she had family. The general consensus was that she had none. I kept my eyes fixed on this woman who had been kind to me. She had no one, nothing.
I stared at her lifeless gray face and wondered where all the kindness had gone. Suited men with a gurney rushed in and brushed me aside. They fumbled and checked in on the radio. They hefted her onto the gurney, leaving my bag on the floor. I snatched it and tucked it under my arms.
One paramedic turned to me and asked, “Are you family?”
Whispers crowded the room. I could feel everyone watching me. I reached out to the old lady’s limp hand and squeezed it.
Lisa J. MacDonald has an MFA in Writing Fiction from Antioch University, LA. She’s been published in Women’s World, Irreanteum, Noms Review, and others, including blogs such as Savvy Authors and PTOfficeMagazine.