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Authors: Lorena McCourtney

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BOOK: Invisible
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No more putting anything off,
I decided fiercely. I patted the pocket of my walking shorts and found the emergency five-dollar bill securely pinned in place. I studied the menu posted by the drive-up window. Caffe latte. Cappuccino. Mocha. All of which were as unfamiliar as fancy liqueurs to me.

What’ll it be, Thea? I know . . . let’s go for that Mocha Mama!

I started around to the other side of the stand, where a green-and-white striped awning shaded a trio of diminutive metal tables and chairs. A bright red sports car pulled away from the drive-up window at the same time. But it didn’t follow the directional arrows on the asphalt. Instead it whipped in the opposite direction, sweeping so close that the rearview mirror smacked my arm. I caught a glimpse of a middle-aged man behind the steering wheel, a horrified look on his face, as he only then realized he’d hit something. The car screeched to a stop.

He jumped out and helped me to a chair by the espresso stand. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry. I just didn’t see you . . .”

My heart hopped like a crazed kangaroo as I plopped into the metal chair. If I’d been standing a foot to the left, the man would have flattened me like a pin struck down by a bowling ball.

“I can take you to the emergency room at the hospital,” he offered anxiously.

By then, even though he was a nice and obviously responsible man, I suspected he was hearing siren alarms of liability and lawsuits. I ran a palm along my arm. It would no doubt bruise, but nothing was broken. “I’ll be okay. I just need to sit here a moment and catch my breath.”

“I just didn’t
see
you,” he repeated. He sounded bewildered.

“It’s okay. I’m fine.”

“I’ll get you something . . .” He motioned toward the espresso stand.

Well, since he was offering . . . “I was just getting ready to order a Mocha Mama.”

“Hot or cold?”

I hadn’t realized there was a choice. “Cold, I think.”

“One Mocha Mama, coming up.” He sounded relieved to be getting off so easy.

He went over to the window and returned a minute later with a tall glass of frothy stuff. I again assured him I was fine, and he drove off, very slowly and carefully, as if afraid other elderly apparitions might suddenly leap up in front of him.

The Mocha Mama was rich, chilly, and delicious. I sipped it slowly, enjoying the spread of soothing coolness through my chest as it went down my throat. Thea would have loved a Mocha Mama.

I cut the walk short. My arm, although quickly beginning to swell into the shape of a bluish baseball, didn’t really hurt. But I was feeling a little off-center, like the first time I got bifocals.

I rested a few minutes on the sofa in the living room and then spent the rest of the morning tying up string bean vines in my garden. I was over my nerves about the close call, but I was feeling a peculiar drift toward . . . something. Not truly depression. Just a kind of
down
feeling. Had the collision been more my fault than the driver’s? Were my faculties fading, like yard-sale balloons cut adrift? Would it reach a point where I no longer felt safe going out for a walk?

I also was not, I realized unhappily as I wound a string around a stake, the greatest gardener in the world. That truth had been lurking in my subconscious for some time, but it really hit me now when I picked a couple of string beans to see how they were progressing. Harley grew string beans that were long and plump. They had an
attitude
and sounded like the crack of a miniature whip when snapped open.

My immature string beans were limp and anemic, with no more snap than an anorexic worm. Actual worms had invaded and devastated my green onions within weeks of when I planted them. My tomatoes, though still no larger than green marbles, were already showing bulbous lumps and protuberances.

I framed a particularly lumpy one with my fingers and held it at arm’s length, squinting.
If you look at it just right, it bears an amazing resemblance to—

I dropped the tomato.
No!

I might find inkblot abstracts in a fingernail blister. I might flirt with a bit of whistle-blowing eccentricity. But I was not going to start seeing miniature Nixons in my tomatoes!

Maybe next year I won’t even plant a garden,
I thought.
I’ll spend my time on something more productive and useful.

Such as?
that small voice chirped.

Oh, shut up,
I answered.

I’d long ago given up on houseplants. Thea and my other good neighbor, Magnolia Margollin, enjoyed bountiful green thumbs, but mine seemed to carry an almost biblical scourge of death.

An appalling thought suddenly struck me.
Houseplants. Thea’s houseplants!

I rushed over to Thea’s house. A scent of stale air, with an undertone of aging garbage, met me when I unlocked the door. I hastily carried the smelly plastic sack out to the garbage can at the back fence. From there I could see the small windows that opened into Kendra’s basement apartment. I was surprised that the ugly curtains with bug-eyed fish that the last tenant had left still hung at the windows. Like some old picture of George Washington, the fish eyes seemed to follow you. I’d have thought Kendra would have put up something with a bit less of a fishy presence by now.

Back in Thea’s kitchen, I filled a pitcher and carried it from room to room. The soil in the pots felt dry, although there didn’t appear to be any fatalities among the plant population yet. But so many plants. Delicate coleus. Lush maidenhair ferns. Plump jade plants. Robust aloe vera. Whatever was I going to do with all of them?

I left a note on Kendra’s door asking if she’d like to have some of the plants. Later, Kendra stuck her head in my back door just as I was slapping a slice of ham into a frying pan for supper.

“Would you like to join me?” I invited instantly. “I can thaw out another slice of ham in the microwave. Won’t take but a minute.”

“Oh, thanks, no. I can’t stay. I just wanted to give you this. It’s a new Mary Higgins Clark, and I know how you like her mysteries. I thought it might . . . you know, help keep your mind off things.”

“Why, Kendra, thank you.” I accepted the book with surprise and gratitude for her thoughtfulness. “That’s very generous of you. Please, won’t you stay and eat with me?”

“I’d really like to, but I have a dinner engagement.” Kendra made a little gesture toward her dress. It was ankle length but clingy, with exotic red flowers on a black background, a thigh-high slit up one side, and a back bare to the waistline. I couldn’t see much except willpower holding it in place. “I can’t go to church with you tomorrow, but maybe next Sunday, okay?”

“Great.”

I couldn’t help frowning, even though Kendra’s tentative offer pleased me. Dinner engagement. Undoubtedly with her “friend.” And in a come-hither dress like that. I was tempted to come right out and ask if he was married. The only reason I didn’t was because I knew what kind of answer I’d get. Not a lie. I’d always sensed an innate honesty in Kendra that rejected lies. But she could also slither around a factual answer like one of those Thanksgiving squids slithering off a fork. So instead I merely said, “You saw my note about Thea’s plants?”

“Yes, and I’d love to have some of them. But I think I’m almost through here, and I won’t have room to take them with me in the car.”

“You’ll be quitting your job, then, and moving away?” The ham started to sizzle, and I covered it with a lid.

“The sooner I see the last of Bottom-Buck Barney’s, the better.”

I glanced up, surprised at the fervency in Kendra’s voice. The words also had an edge I’d never heard from her before. “What about your . . . friend?”

“B—” Kendra cut off the name before she got past the first letter. She smiled. An oddly unpleasant smile, almost sly, nothing at all like her usual light-up-your-life flashes. “I think he may be going away somewhere too.”

Kendra did not, I noted, sound brokenhearted. I felt as if I’d been hopscotched through some complicated detour. On impulse, I asked bluntly, “Kendra, are you up to something?”

I hadn’t thought about how Kendra might react to the question, but, if I had, I’d have expected another devious sidestep, or teasing and laughter.
Oh, Ivy, what do you think? That I’m embezzling company funds?
What I’d never have expected was what happened. First Kendra’s face paled, as if all the blood fled somewhere deep inside her. Her gaze made a squirrelly dart toward the door, as if she’d like to escape through it, and she touched her slender throat. Then the blood rushed back to her face in a heavy—guilty?—flush.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“Fine. Just . . . the heat getting to me, I guess.” She touched the back of her hand to her forehead.

“Would you like some lemonade?”

“Thanks, no. I have to be going.”

It was obvious that my blunt question had touched a sensitive spot, and her reaction plainly showed she was up to something. But what? Just as plain was the fact that she wasn’t going to enlighten me. Although what I suspected, of course, was what Thea had earlier suggested: romantic involvement with a married man.
Do she and he have plans for running off together, leaving wife and jobs, maybe even children behind?
I wondered in dismay.
Is that why she won’t be needing the apartment much longer?

Oh no, Lord, please keep her from that!

But what I also regretted was an instant feeling that my question had opened a gap between us, a gap that shut off any possible communication on this subject. I tried to close the gap and make a way for further communication. “I’ll miss you when you leave the apartment. I hope you’ll keep in touch.”

“I’ll worry about you, you know,” Kendra said.

Yes,
I thought,
maybe she will worry about me.
But Kendra’s usual poise and control had now returned, and this was another of her non-answer detours.

I poured a cup of strong coffee into the ham drippings to make a bit of red-eye gravy to go with the meat. Not something those young doctors at the clinic would approve of, of course, but since most of them didn’t even know my name until they picked up my file, I didn’t feel obliged to give their opinions a high priority. And tonight, with my arm now starting to ache and my heart aching with missing Thea, I felt the need of some small indulgence.

Especially after I took a second bite of ham and crunched down on something that felt like a metallic boulder.

5

By Sunday morning, the missing filling wasn’t causing pain, but my tongue wouldn’t stay away from the pit. It explored the rough bottom, scraped over the broken edges, probed for some hidden pinpoint of sensitivity. Even while the choir was singing a lively but unfamiliar chorus and Pastor Elton was preaching on “Community Responsibilities of the Christian,” this Mariana Trench of the mouth occupied most of my attention.

Thea and I had always come to church together, but only a couple of people had noticed the obituary and offered words of sympathy after the service. Several times Thea and I had talked about finding a smaller, more Christ-centered church, but a vague sense of loyalty to the little church on Madison Street that had been absorbed by this much larger congregation had kept us here. On the way out I paused by the bulletin board and saw a posted notice that a Sunday school teacher for the second and third graders was needed.

I’d always taught Sunday school at the little church on Madison. I’d also run a children’s story hour at the library every summer.
Oh, it would be so nice to have a connection with children again!
I picked up the pencil dangling beside the sign-up sheet. But . . .

I’d volunteered to teach Sunday school here at Riverview United once before. The youth pastor had been polite and tactful and so very earnest. “Our churches are losing the young people, you know, and that’s a tragedy of our times. Who will take over when you stalwart warriors are gone? We want to pull in the young families and make our Sunday school and youth programs more attractive than Nintendo and PlayStation for the kids.”

All very admirable. But what it boiled down to was that they didn’t want old geezers teaching the Sunday school classes. I didn’t fit the “youthful image” they wanted to project as a church.

Now I sighed and left the pencil dangling on its string and started toward the side door that opened onto the parking lot. Across an open space, a woman I recognized as president of the women’s “Exploring Ourselves” group lifted her arms and beamed.

“There you are!” Rena Rasmussen exclaimed. “I’ve been looking for you! I wanted to ask—”

My spirits billowed with surprise and pleasure. Never before had I been greeted so enthusiastically here. I smiled as the woman rushed toward me.

And rushed right on by to throw her arms around a young woman in denim jumper and Birkenstocks. The two women chatted vivaciously, hands clasped.

I felt a bit dazed as I made my way out to the parking lot. If Rena Rasmussen had been equipped with a rearview mirror, I’d now be black and blue on the other arm.

Thea and I had often gone out to eat after church, and I promised myself I’d continue that routine soon. But not today. Today I just drove home. That vague
down
feeling had returned.

The Margollins were home, I noted as I passed their chain-link fenced yard. Their enormous whale of a motor home, rear wall covered with a huge mural of a bee hovering over a magnolia blossom, stood in the driveway. I was pleased to see the motor home. Whatever her flaws, Magnolia Margollin is one of the most cheerful and upbeat people I know. A marvelous idea now occurred to me, and I followed up on it after lunch.

BOOK: Invisible
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