“May. May got covid.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Her kids won’t let her go anywhere. How’d she get covid?”
Lucille pursed her lips smugly, lifting her tea cup as if to take a drink. “Little Bull Falls Supper Club was running karaoke on the side. Without covid restrictions.”
Betty let out a shriek of laughter. “And sweet Mary May was sneaking out, weren’t she!”
Lucille grinned. “Yep. When she fessed up, she told ‘em she had a thrilling Jackson impersonation.” She patted down her short white curls.
Ilene smiled at that. She could see May doing it, belting out ABC with Samson’s old black leather jacket and white gloves. Even alive Samson would’ve let her, let her and bragged about his girl even as May pushed seventy.
George would’ve done that for Ilene, too, and she for him. She still did it for him anyway. “Till my dancing’s all done, Georgie, and then some,” Ilene muttered, the other girls laughing so much they didn’t hear her none. One day.
The rain soaked into her hair until it – her hair – clumped horribly in thick ugly strands. Ilene gripped her suitcase handle tighter and jerked it over the step in the sidewalk. She shivered and wiped water from her eyes. Her blouse clung to her, but in a drowned rat way more than Marilyn Monroe. A muted rumble joined the constant pounding. A car pulled up beside her, headlights dulled by the heavy spring shower. The window slid down smoothly. Someone must’ve just got the crank replaced. Or oiled. Or something.
“Whatcha’ you doing out in the rain?! You dumb?!”
The suitcase jerked straight up, standing on its pegs. Ilene opened her mouth. The rain water entered. She snapped it closed and the suitcase forward.
“Hey!” the man yelled. The car inched forward until she was striding past the open window again. “Get the hell in the car, lady!”
Her heel broke, and she stumbled. She’d seen him around before. A little older than her, but not much, and a handsome man to be sure. May had said so, and Betty had teased her nonstop for the rest of the day.
The man left the window, leaning over to the passenger’s side and opening the door. He settled back. “Well?”
Ilene’s other heel teetered on the edge of the sidewalk slab. She stepped forward, taking small breaths and steps. The suitcase clunked onto the road, Ilene’s every other step an inch shorter than the first. At the passenger door, Ilene picked up her suitcase, shoved it in, and slammed the door. She climbed in back. She slid off what remained of her heels and appreciated the lack of water for a moment. “Rose Lane, number 306.” She settled back as she spoke.
The man had turned around in his seat and was staring at her.
“What?” Ilene snapped.
“You were supposed to sit up here.”
She folded her arms. “And you were supposed to treat me like a lady.”
“I picked ya up, didn’t I?”
“And I got the hell in your car, didn’t I?”
The man stared for another moment. He grinned. “George.”
“Ilene,” she sniffed. “Like I said, Rose Lane, number 306. You need directions?”
“No.” He turned back around and resumed driving. May was right, Ilene decided. She was most definitely right, and Ilene spent the rest of the drive pretending she wasn’t seeing drive-in movies and parking in the future.
“A nursing home?”
“It’s assisted living, Mom.”
Ilene nodded. Assisted living. Wasn’t that marriage? But then, George had been gone for nearly seven years now, and Ilene didn’t want to find no one new. No one was going to treat her so good, she was sure, and she didn’t want no one anyhow. Josie was still looking at her, and Ilene opened her mouth. “I heard Betty moved in there. Didn’t I tell you that? Betty did, and Lucille was just talking about it yesterday. Her and Bobby were thinking about it, but then they figured they’d both just wait cause they’re just fine where they are.”
“Well . . . that’s . . . wonderful. That’s wonderful, Mom. Think of all the people you can talk to!”
Ilene hummed. “Or I could stay here.”
“No.” Josie fidgeted. She put her hand on Ilene’s arm. “Mom, I need to know you’re safe. Especially after the hospital incident. Okay? I just got to know you’re safe, and I’ll sleep better at night knowing you’re surrounded by people who you can talk to and know you, and you can all keep an eye on each other.”
Ilene was tired. So was Josie. Weren’t they all? There used to be a warm body and snoring beside Ilene, the dark created from earth resting its eyes for a night. Now the television sent a steady stream of color into the living room nearly twenty-four seven. Ilene forced a smile, nudging her daughter in the ribs. “We’ll have lots of tea parties. You, me, and the girls. Little Hailey can come along, too. Does she still like to wear that pretty blue dress of hers?”
“It doesn’t fit her anymore.”
Ilene remembered that it had been bought a size too big, so it would last longer. “Oh.” The smile returned. “Guess we’ll have to get her another one.”
Ilene would not yell. She wouldn’t. No. She wasn’t going to yell. Ilene didn’t yell.
“Whaaat?” Her beautiful red-curled baby slouched into the room, and Ilene exasperatedly wondered why Parent Living never mentioned that the moods could come before the teens.
She nearly jabbed her finger at the sink but turned it into a sharp gesture at the last moment. Losing the war against turning into her mother was inevitable, but she’d hold off as long as possible. “I asked you to wash those dishes yesterday.”
“This pasta bowl is from two nights ago. It’s disgusting.”
“Papa just finished it today. He just put it in the sink.”
“Don’t go lying to me, young lady.”
Ilene saw the next ten years, now till eighteen, stretch before them like uphill climb coated in butter. “Sweet potatoes,” she murmured.
“It was pasta, Momma.”
The world thudded erratically, warmly. So warm. Nothing swam, but things came in and out, and she wasn’t quite sure when they entered or left. Thud. Thud. The white walls gleamed. The benches comfy. So much better than before. Thud. Thud-thud-thud. Snippets of the nurses arguing came to her, nothing stuck. She couldn’t stay.
“You can’t drive, m’am. We’ll call an ambulance.”
“No. No.” Ilene’s hand fluttered. It was supposed to a strong gesture. Thud-thud-thud-thud-thud-thud- . . .
“M’am, you need an ambulance.”
“No, no, Josie said no ambulance. I won’t.”
The noise resumed. They had talked to her. So warm. Thud. She’d been here with Josie, her red-curled baby. It was a walk-in tetanus shot. That’s what thud it had been.
“M’am, we’re calling an ambulance to take you to the cardiologist building.”
“I can’t take any ambulance!”
“We’re talking about it. Okay, ma’am? You just need to rest and calm down. We’re doing all we can.”
Nothing swam before her. It just came and went, and it wasn’t as bad as being drunk. Thud-thud. No, no, not really.
“I need to use the lady’s room.”
“Down the hall to the left.”
The white-coat left, and Ilene wasn’t quite sure why it was so important thud that she not take the ambulance, but Josie had told her not thud-thud-thud to, so she wasn’t. She wasn’t, and that was that.
Down the hall to the left and then left again led her back to the entrance. Josie had gotten her tetanus shot here, and George when he broke his leg with the whole darn thing sticking out, and she had nearly puked, but he had refused to go the emergency room. Down the hall and two lefts and the ground changed from white to black, smooth to rough, and she had her keys in her bag somewhere. She nearly dropped the thud-thud keys, but she knew what she was doing, and she could still drive. She saw what was in front her just fine, and it was a block because she’d always had heart problems, so it wasn’t no big deal for her to go to the cardiologist building cause she’s been there so much.
The car started, thud and Ilene pulled out, eyes focused ever onward.
Loud clacking and New Years’ Eve honking filled the air. “Ilene! Ilene!” George yelled, smiling as his hands covered his ears.
“Retirement! Wooooo! Retirement! Wooooo!”
He slung an arm around her waist and picked her up, a slight rise and drop.
She grinned at him, the party hat askew on her permed curls. “You just had to prove you could do it.”
“I can still do a lot of things. Like . . . this!” He tickled underneath her arms, and Ilene gasped, jerking gently with huffs of laughter.
He stopped, resting his hands on her back. “Yes, love?” He grinned. His eyes gleamed, and Ilene couldn’t exactly remember what he looked like forty years ago, but she thought that his eyes must have been the same. She loved those eyes. He bumped his nose against hers. Their warm breath swirled and mixed, and she imagined Tinker Bell’s pixie dust sparkling between them. He swayed, and she swayed, and they danced.
She kissed him on one cheek.
On the other.
On the forehead.
He rested his head on hers. “We’ve grown old together.”
“We’re growing old,” she corrected with a smile. Pinching his arms, “I don’t see any grandchildren yet.”
He laughed and kissed her on the cheek. “Not yet.”
The sun warmed her. She hoped it wouldn’t fade the flowers too quickly. The wind nipped her. She kissed her empty hand and blew it.
“I’ll be awaiting for our next dance, love. Love you, Georgie.”
“You crying, baby?”
Ilene shook her head once, slightly, pressing it up tighter against George’s tux. He was just as warm as the rest of the dance hall, but so tangible and real and her husband. Sweet potatoes! She’d gotten hitched! The warmth and water rose up again, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
“Uh-huh.” Clearly disbelieving, George lay his head next to hers and slowed their steady movement till it was a simple sway back and forth. “Whatcha’ crying about?”
“I’m not,” was the mumbled and wet reply.
He kissed her lightly near her ear. Whispering, “No cold feet, right? Little late, sweetie.”
She gave a choked laugh and gripped him a little tighter.
“Mmh? You worried ‘bout us? Cause I’m not your momma and daddy.”
Ilene lifted her head and pulled away slightly, still moving with him. “And I ain’t your momma and daddy either. Don’t you forget it.”
George chuckled lightly, eyes shining. She loved those eyes. She’s sure a sheen still covered hers. “So watcha’ crying about then?”
She sighed, gaze going to the unfocused, bright lights on the ceiling even as she leaned into him again. “I see us, Georgie. I see us dancing tonight long past when the music stops, and I see us tomorrow morning just waking up. I see our kids running around that little townhouse we picked out, and you paying the mortgage while I’m making sure we still have a mortgage.” Another chuckle. “I see us growing old and grey and you bald, and we’ll make coffee in the late afternoon and talk about all those stories, and I’ll say, ‘Georgie, remember our wedding day?’ and you’ll say, ‘Hell, I remember. You remember? It’s been fifty years. You ain’t cheating on me, are ya?’”
George gave her a full-bellied laugh now, drawing her even nearer. “Is that all?”
“Oh, no. I see grandkids and music and our anniversary, the fifty and the fifty-first anniversaries, mind you, and we’re all referencing John Wayne and The Chordettes, and no one but the grey folks like us will know a darn thing about it. And we’ll still get up and dance, you know. I’ll make you leave your walker-“
“Your walker with the stickers the grandkids put all over it and the one tennis ball missing because the dog took it and tore it to pieces.”
“Ah, that walker.”
“I’ll make you leave that walker behind, and you’ll grumble like the old man you are, and we’ll dance, and our kids will tell us how proud they are that we’re still kicking and kicking together.”
“But not kicking each other.”
“Oh, that’ll happen just when they’re not looking.”
He laughed again, resting her head next to hers, and swayed. He planted another kiss near her ear. Another whisper, “I love you so damn much.”
“I love you, too.” Her response was, once again, wet. It came just as the song ended.
They danced anyway.