Ethel and Leo
A Brother in Cordelia
First thing to happen, this strange woman calls up. “Ethel?” She says. I hardly have a chance to answer when she goes, “I’m your husband’s brother’s wife and this foolishness has been going on long enough.” I wasn’t real polite then, and that’s not like me. I told her Leo didn’t have a brother, but after a bit she convinced me.
According to her, Leo and his brother had a silly argument fifty-two years ago and they haven’t spoken since, both of them stubborn as can be. That’s for real.
My problem is that when we got married, Leo said he didn’t have any family. I believed him because in our wedding vows we promised each other that no matter what, we would always tell the truth. When I found out he’d been lying to me for forty-nine years, I was madder’n a wet hen, and that night, me and Leo, we got something to talk about, you better believe.
I didn’t even give him time to wash up before I started in. “I got a call from my sister-in-law today.” It didn’t take long before he fessed up and told me the whole story. When he did, I stopped talking for fear I’d say something I’d regret.
My girls came then, looking all worried. Leo must of called them. The oldest tried using logic on me. “Mama, you’re not going to divorce him at this late stage.” And the other one—her daddy’s favorite—she was crying and begging me to forgive him. Well, of course I’m gonna forgive him, but not before I let him know in no uncertain terms how hurt I am since he promised never to lie, and what is a secret but a lie after all.
He’s real sorry. Said it several times.
“You sure are,” I told him. “Sorry as can be.”
But finally, after three nights on the sofa, he’s back in the bed with me. Truth to tell, I sleep better when he’s there.
Our son Jack died two years ago, and nothing will ever be as bad as that, so most of my being angry at Leo was for show. When you lose a child—Jack was the baby—it takes a long time to actually feel much of anything, or at least that’s been true for me.
Jack’s wife has been real good to bring our grandson to visit. Jack Jr. is nine now and looks so much like his daddy. Every time I see that child I can’t help but think about what our son’s missing since he went and drove our car into a big, solid tree. There we were thinkin’ he’d put all that drinking behind him.
Anyway, that sweet boy’s lost his dad, and that can’t be changed, but he’s gonna have a bunch of relatives, it seems. A great uncle, an aunt, cousins, a whole passel of kin we knew nothing about.
I’m finding myself humming, thinking about the big wingding the girls are planning for our fiftieth and how we might have some more relatives to invite. “We gotta go meet those people,” I said to Leo, knowing he’d do pretty much anything to make me happy these days.
So, that’s why we took our old Ford truck to Harvey down at the garage and let him look at it to see if it’s okay to go on a little trip. He advised us to replace the windshield wipers, and we did. “You’ll be fine. Just don’t go too fast,” Harvey said.
I even went shopping and got us some new clothes. It’s been so darn long since we had a reason to get dressed up. Leo looks real nice in that jacket I found at the Hospice thrift store. I’m proud that he never let hisself go like some men do. He told me—twice—how much he liked me in this blue dress.
We avoided the Atlanta traffic by taking the back roads, and we’ve only got about another hour to get to Cordelia. We’re both pretty excited. Our old truck’s doin’ fine and so are we.
There’s a big old Coca-Cola truck been on our tail now on that curvy Highway 236 ever since we made that last turn at the intersection. Looks like the driver’s in a hurry. I tell Leo to pull over and let the poor fella pass us, but, well, you remember how I said my husband is stubborn?
“Let the darn fool wait,” he says.
Having a Bad Morning
“Mama, Mama, Mama,” my beautiful cherub cries, arms raised, smashed scrambled eggs and Cheerios clinging to her face and arms. Tracey, two weeks from her first birthday, is rarely clingy, but this morning she wants no one but me.
“Honey, Mama has to go to work.”
My handsome husband, still in his robe, swoops in and picks her up. He feels her head. “No fever,” Dan says. She tries to throw herself in my direction, still wailing, but Super Dad holds on tight. I remember that from our first date when I stepped off the curb and he grabbed my arm and stopped me from being run over.
When I met Dan I was leery, having recently broken up with Bob, a guy that I’d been with for too many years. Inertia had set in. After meeting up with some friends in a coffee shop one day, Bob asked if I wanted coffee. I did and said sure.
Then he said, “How do you want it?”
Maybe it was timing. All I know is that in that moment I realized that in all our time together I had come to know his favorite TV shows, foods, clothing styles, sports teams, and music. And for sure I knew how he liked his damn coffee.
After six weeks single, I was starting to believe my career was all I needed when a co-worker encouraged me to go out with friend of her husband’s. “I think you’ll like Dan,” she said. “He’s not a jerk.”
I had lunch with him and he was anything but a jerk. He was comfortable with himself, no posturing, and easy to talk to. He wasn't bad to look at, either.
Dan had been serial dating rather than getting involved. He claimed he hadn’t found a reason to get serious until he met me. I wasn’t so sure at first, but there were several more dates and late night conversations on the phone, each one better than the last.
Then one night, he showed up for a date with a bottle of the kind of wine I said I liked and a book I had mentioned wanting to read. A year later we were married. Two years later, still in love, we started talking about having kids.
And that’s how we ended up living in the country. When I was pregnant with Tracey, we moved out of the city to a little burg on the outskirts of the Atlanta sprawl. We’re tucked in the trees about a mile down a dirt road that turns off of Highway 236, a two-lane highway that’s far enough away so we rarely hear traffic noise.
After six months of blissful maternity leave, I’ve been back at work for only two weeks. I’ve been scrambling to get up to speed since the corporate world hasn’t exactly been waiting for me to catch up. This morning, at least, my little one is oblivious to all that pressure on her mommy.
I pull several wet wipes from the package and clean my baby off as much as possible. I take her in my arms, feeling her solid warmth. I try a little cuddle—one more effort to calm her down. Maybe I should just quit the damn job. Scratch that. We need the money.
“What’s wrong, honey?” I’m swaying with her, and she lays her head on my chest, which melts my heart—and breaks it. I look up at the kitchen clock.
“Dan, I just can’t...”
“Give her to me.” He holds out his arms, but she shakes her head and whimpers. Sick with guilt, I pry her off me and hand her over to him. She begins to cry again in earnest.
“I don’t know what to do,” I plead.
“Go, Micki,” Dan says over her wailing. “I got this. She’ll calm down as soon as you’re out of sight.”
Maybe he’s right. When I pick her up at daycare after work this afternoon, she will have forgotten all about this. “Mommy’ll see you later, baby,” I call out to my grief-stricken daughter.
I grab my keys, my phone, and my bag. I head toward the door, trying my best to ignore my little girl’s sounds of distress. I’m blinking tears from my eyes as I push the door open.
“Be careful,” Dan calls out. “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” I say, as I close the door and make my way down the front steps. Tracey’s cries fade as I get into my little Honda and start it up. At the end of the driveway, I turn onto the single lane dirt road and bump along, trying to avoid potholes.
I’m late, worried, and still focused on Tracey. What could be wrong with her? She’s been fine with my leaving for two weeks now, but today was a disaster. Teething, maybe? Maybe I’ll call Dan to give her some Tylenol. My phone’s in my bag, and it’s in the back seat.
I get to the end of the dirt road.
I look to my left. Nothing’s coming.
Driving gives me time to think, and today I’m thinking about how when shit starts happening, it keeps happening. Most obvious—and recent—is the two old folks puttering along on 236 in the no-passing zone. Then there’s my divorce. I can waste bunches of time ruminating on that—another thing I can’t change.
Oh, and my folks and the failing Ohio farm. The one that three generations of my family worked. I would’ve been the fourth, but Dad was buried in debt and didn’t want me to go down with the ship. “Go, Ross. Take Caroline and get out of here. Clean the dirt from under your nails and do something for a living that won’t break your heart—or your back.”
Got a little brother Jeff, never wanted anything to do with farming. Took off years ago. Got himself a college degree and became a big muckety-muck with Coke-Cola in Atlanta. “Come on down,” he said, “You can start as a delivery driver.” Caroline, my wife, childhood sweetheart, only girl I’d ever loved, told me she could be a nurse anywhere. So we went. Rented an okay apartment and settled into a routine.
Not a bad life at all, or so I thought. It wasn’t farming, which I love, but I kinda liked the solitude of the job. Driving this big old delivery truck from small town to small town, filling up shelves with soda pop. Not rocket science, but I’m no rocket scientist, either.
Then, out of the blue, Caroline “found someone.” Gut punch. “We fell in love,” she said. Never meant for it to happen, hadn’t wanted to hurt me, hoped we could stay friends. Right. Couldn’t see any reason to be friends with my cheating wife and her new boyfriend.
My brother and his wife insisted I live in their garage apartment—“until you find something else.” Six months later, I’m still there, and nobody seems to mind. In fact, my two, smart-as-whips nephews are teaching me to be computer savvy, telling me I gotta plan better for my future.
If I have one. Being behind the faded pickup through curve after curve, when the driver has yet to hit thirty miles an hour, and me with no line of sight to get around him, I’m figuring at this rate we’ll all grow old and die out here. Jeez, come on, folks, come on.
Then finally, a stretch of open highway. Single yellow line. Nobody coming.
I pull around him and accelerate.
As I get even with the truck, I glance over and see the old man bent over the steering wheel hanging on for dear life and a white-haired lady staring straight at me, her mouth moving as if she’s talking to me.
I look back at the highway, where ahead of me a small sports sedan is poking its front end out of a nearly invisible side road, more like a driveway. There’s a dark-haired woman at the wheel, and she’s turned to the left, looking for cars coming in her lane.
I figure she will surely look my way, and for God’s sake, please, don’t pull out.
But she does.
The last thing I see is a pale face behind the windshield, a look of terror.