Summer angles her purse on the table so it leans against the windowsill. A quick shove confirms the table is attached to the wall. Summer arranges the salt and pepper shakers and the container holding the sugar and artificial sweeteners in the middle of the table. A quick check of her watch confirms it’s almost time. “Here we go,” Summer said when she caught sight of Joann walking into the restaurant.
“Glad you could make it Jo.” Summer had picked the booth on the other side of the restaurant from what appeared to be a birthday party. The four small tables in the open area had been moved to create one long table. At one end of the table a highchair took the place of honor. There will be no privacy in any of the booths on that side of the restaurant.
“I prefer Joann now.” Joann tosses her purse. It thuds and jingles when it lands on the bench close to the wall. Joann slides onto the bench with ease “Can’t imagine why you want to talk. Class reunion is tomorrow night.”
Joann still has her athletic body that looks good in a pair of designer blue jeans and designer sweatshirt the color of eggplant. Summer figured the sweatshirt alone cost more than her entire outfit of jeans and sweatshirt without designer pedigree.
“You the only one working?” Summer asks the waitress. The waitress nods as she deposits on the table two menus and silverware settings wrapped in white paper napkins.
“Yeah, one check or two?” Joann holds up two fingers. They ordered their drinks, soda for Summer and water for Joann. The waitress hurries off to get their drinks and deliver and order placed in the window that is announced with a ring of a bell.
“Got you out of dinner with Mrs. Griffin, didn’t it?”
Joann shrugs as she studies the menu. Joann never liked her mother-in-law. To be fair Mrs. Griffin had made it plain she thought Damien could do better than Joann. Joann and Damien had eloped to avoid the drama Mrs. Griffin would have brought to a wedding. To this day Mrs. Griffin swears Damien only married Joann because Joann had told him she was pregnant.
Joann studies the menu as if it is the first time she’s seen it. The truth is it has hardly changed in the years since they would come here in high school. Summer already knew she would order the cheese burger with mustard and onion with a side of fries just like when Joann, Patsy, and Summer would treat themselves once or twice a week. All of them would get a burger with fries and a soda. Somehow Joann would still have room for an apple dumpling.
“You look good.” Summer said.
“Thanks. I like to stay in shape.” Joann continued studying the menu. Summer wondered if Joann would order like in the old days. Back when they could eat whatever they wanted without worrying about gaining weight. The three of them were always playing one sport or another changing as the seasons changed. They were almost always together every day, until that day.
“I’m doing good, almost a whole year clean.” Summer slipped the middle finger of her right hand under the watchband on her left wrist and slid it back and forth feeling each link of the band as she pushed the longing for escape back into its box. She had to trade that escape for sobriety. She had to trade in that escape to have any chance at living.
“Good for you.” Joann replied without looking up from the menu.
“Ready?” the waitress ready to take their orders.
“I’ll have the ham and cheese sandwich, no mayo and a cup of vegetable soup.” Joann closes the menu and hands it to the waitress.
“I’ll have the burger platter, mustard and onions please.” Summer smiles at the waitress who gives a half-hearted one in return.
“So, what have you been doing with yourself?” Summer asked.
“Barely have time to think between work and getting the boys to their games and practices.” Joann walks her fingers through the sweetener packets on the table, white for sugar and blue, yellow, and pink packets for different brands of artificial sweetener. When it was the three of them the packets were rectangles but now they are little paper tubes.
“And Damien? You guys good?”
Joann’s eyebrows knit together as she turns to look out the window. Across the street where the old movie theater once stood is now a parking lot. Every year there seems to be fewer businesses on Main Street for it to service. “The town has really changed. So much is gone. I barely recognize the place.”
“When were you back last?”
“First time since Damien and I moved to Pittsburgh. God, the boys can’t believe we used to live in a dump like this.” Joann fiddles with the blinds adjusting them to block the sun that is low enough for its rays to hit Joann in the eye.
“I’ve only left for treatment.” Summer stirs her soda with the straw clearing the bubbles off the inside of the glass. The longest time Summer had spent away was the last treatment program she entered. Summer swore that this time it will stick but there was one thing she needed to do.
The waitress appears with their food. Joann waives off the packets of crackers offered for her soup. The soup looks to be a day or two old. The ham and cheese on white bread looks so bland and boring. Boring, the one thing Joann swore she would never be in life. Joann would never become like her mother who ordered a sandwich and cup of soup on those rare occasions she was treated out to a meal.
“Enjoy.” The waitress said before hurrying off to see what dish had shattered into pieces on the other side of the restaurant. She manages to rescue the next dish the baby had identified for destruction. The family laughs at the baby’s antics. We would never have been allowed to behave like that in public.
“How long are you in town?” Summer asks.
“No longer than I can help it.” Joann stares at her food, silverware still wrapped in its napkin blanket. “Look, what is this all about? We could have just caught up at the class reunion tomorrow. You said it was important to meet with me. Alone.” Joann’s eyes bore into Summer just like when they were little. The look that always made Summer tell Joann anything she wanted to know.
Summer picks up a French fry and nibbles at it resisting the urge to look at her purse. The French fry is hot and crispy but tastes like an unseasoned boiled potato. The fries have never tasted the same since they changed to a healthier oil. Summer grabs the salt then realizes it is empty. “Remember when the three of us would come here?” Summer puts the white plastic container back on the table while thinking back to the glass salt shakers that used to be on the tables when the three of them were there. Summer always picked it up and rolled it around trying to count the number of rice grains mixed in with the salt.
“Jesus!” Joann turns to look out the window as she shoves her hands into the pockets of her sweatshirt and leans back on the bench. “It’s been fifteen years. It’s a lifetime ago.”
“Not for Arline. You know that Arline visits Patsy’s grave every day?”
Arline drives the ten miles every day to Clover Valley cemetery to visit Patsy’s grave. If Arline had been able to bury her at St. Michael’s she would have been able to walk to her grave. Arline had chosen Clover Valley after some church members had objected to Patsy being buried at St. Michael’s because her death had been ruled a suicide.
“Arline has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She only has a few months left. It would be nice if she could be buried in St. Michael’s with Patsy.”
The muscles in Joann’s jaw tighten. A sure sign she is angry. Joann looks down at the food in front of her as she rocks back and forth. Rocking as one does when comforting a baby. “It’s in the past. Nothing good can come from bring it up now. It should just stay in the past.”
Summer picks up her hamburger and takes a big bite, grease runs down her chin. Patsy used to tease Summer about her big mouth. Patsy said it was a sure sign that Summer couldn’t keep a secret. That was true where Joann was concerned, at least it was true back then.
Patsy on the other hand would take the smallest bites of her food that Summer had ever seen. Patsy was always the last one to finish her food. So many times Patsy was still working on her hamburger and fries when Joann would be scraping the last of the apple dumpling out of the bowl. Patsy bragged it was a sure sign she could keep a secret. If only they had believed in that sign.
“You promised we would take it to our graves.” Joann rocks a little faster. “Why bring all of that up now anyway? What difference would it make?” Joann grabs the side of the table, her knuckles turning white.
“Arline would know Patsy didn’t hang herself, well not on purpose. Arline would know that Patsy’s death was just an accident. A stupid accident because three stupid girls decided to play a stupid game. Behind the school. That day.”
“There was no way we could know that rock outcropping would let go. We didn’t force her to do it.”
That small rock outcropping that had been their secret meeting place behind the school. You had to climb the retaining wall to get to what was left of the small hill. It was located beside the trunk of a giant oak tree that had one large root running across the rock where it met with the hill. The soil under the flat slate rock had eroded away or maybe some animal had dug it out years before the girls found it. There was a little area where they could hide something they didn’t want to be caught with. How many times had they stood or sat on that rock before that day?
“The prospect of losing your best friends when you are a teenager is a pretty big threat to hold over someone’s head. You said it was the only way you would trust her again. You said it was like the tests done to identify witches. If Patsy stood on that rock outcropping with the noose around her neck for 15 minutes and the rock outcropping didn’t collapse then it would prove that she didn’t spread the gossip around school that we all had been kissing during that sleepover.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“We were gone for how long? Do you remember how long we were gone? We promised to be back in 15 minutes and we were gone…” Summer looks at her watchband. She fights the urge to run her finger under the band.
“That was as much your fault as mine. I didn’t force you to talk to Brad. You could have been a good little girl and watched the clock. All Patsy had to do was stand there and wait for us to return.”
“The outcropping collapsed. It collapsed. She couldn’t save herself. If we had stayed -”
“Yeah, well we didn’t stay. We didn’t stay. Both of us, you and me, both of us walked away and left her there.”
“What did we do when we found her?”
“We were kids.” Joann strains against the back of the booth, both arms ram rod straight.
“She was our friend. She was our best friend. She was the best of the three of us. We should have told someone, anyone. We should have told.”
“It wouldn’t have changed anything. It wouldn’t have brought her back. All that would have happened is we would have been called names and whispered about behind our backs. It would have been a piling onto the rumor we were all lesbians because we kissed each other at that sleepover.”
“It was your brother who spread it around school. He was the one who started that rumor saying he had seen us kissing.” Summer wipes her chin with the napkin after taking another bite of the hamburger. “How’s he doing with his family?”
“I didn’t know that then.” Joann grabs her purse. “I’ve got to go. I swear to God if you tell, if you tell anyone, I’ll deny it. All of it. Every last bit of it. I’ll say you made it up during one of your drugged out trips. Who do you think people will believe, a druggy who has been clean for almost a year or a mother of two who has never had any trouble with the law? Not even so much as a parking ticket.”
Joann slides out of the booth. She bumps the table sending her soup sloshing onto the table. Without looking back she marches over to the register. The waitress who had been sweeping up the food thrown on the floor by the baby sets the broom and dustpan aside to ring up Joann’s bill. Joann hands the waitress her tip before turning and fleeing out the door.
Summer watches Joann stride over to her minivan. Joann tosses her purse to the passenger side of the van and slams the door behind her. The tires screech leaving a black strip of rubber in the parking space behind her.
Summer puts her burger on the plate and picks up the paper napkin from her lap to wipe her hands. Once the napkin is replaced in her lap Summer picks up her purse and then the digital recorder on the table behind it. It takes Summer a few seconds to remember how to switch the recorder off before she drops it into her purse.
Summer contemplates getting an apple dumpling for desert.