I call it a vignette since I don’t feel there’s the character progression that makes something a full-fledged story. But maybe that makes it “literary” instead of a vignette…hmm, no I don’t think I write literary fiction. Whatever it is, I like. I hope you do too.
Charlie raised her hand to the doorbell, letting it hover there as she pondered the chipped, red polish on her thumbnail: Va-Va-Vroom. Her blouse stuck to her as she took a deep breath. Somewhere nearby a lawn had just been mowed: it smelled like freshly cut watermelon. People who could afford to care were moving back into the neighbourhood, after decades of mild neglect. Which meant property taxes would probably go up.
A thud told her Katie and Liam were now in the backyard. When she’d told the kids to go hang out for a bit, they’d been happy to comply.
Her cooling car burped its general discontent from where it sat in the driveway. She needed to get it looked at. After she paid the hydro bill and took Katie to the dentist.
Charlie turned back to the faded blue door, let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and drew her shoulders away from her ears. She rang the doorbell, still expecting an answering yip even though the dog had died last year. She’d never say it out loud but she hadn’t been entirely heartbroken when Rat, so dubbed by her and her brother, Jamie, had died, taking its nasty temperament and nervous disposition with it. Pushing that uncharitable thought away, she focused cross-eyed on her thumbnail.
The tock-tock-tock of a sprinkler counted away the seconds as she waited to hear signs of movement inside. Looking in the direction of the sound, she saw waves of heat shimmering above the ground. Returning her attention to the door, her gazed landed on the peeling paint around the front window: another task to add to her and Jamie’s list.
After waiting a reasonable length of time for her mother to make it to the door, a time that had grown longer in recent years, she dug around in her purse for the keys. She frowned as she turned the key in the lock and met no resistance: the door was unlocked.
“Mom?” she called as she stepped inside. No answer. She took another step. “It’s me, Charlie?” She heard a sound from one of the back rooms. An unseen door opened.
“Charlie?” a watery voice said.
Her mom came around the corner, her eyes worried until a cog clicked and a light went on behind them. Her mom was still wearing her nightdress and robe, oblivious to the heat.
“Hi Mom.” She gave her a quick hug. It felt like her mom had lost weight since she’d last visited a week…no, two weeks ago. “How are you? Mrs. Emerson said you took a tumble the other day. Why didn’t you call?”
“What business is it of hers?” her mother said as she pulled away and adjusted her robe. “It was my fall to tell about or not. And why are you gossiping about me with Nosy Nancy? That’s what we called her, you know, when we were at school together. Nosy Nancy, always in the other kids’ business.”
Charlie’s thumbnail pressed against her pursed lips – she pulled it away. A teacher had called home once when she was a kid, when she’d joined in calling a classmate names. Her mom had almost washed her mouth out with soap.
“We weren’t gossiping,” Charlie said. “We bumped into each other, and I made polite conversation. You always insisted on us being polite.” Her face flushed as she bent to take off her shoes. “Besides, it’s not gossip if she thought I knew.”
“Well, it was nothing anyway, just a stumble.” Her mom dismissed it with a wave of her hand.
“If you’re sure,” Charlie said, glancing at her mom’s hand, the bruise vivid under the papery skin, surrounded by a web of blue veins in sharp relief that mimicked the deeply etched lifelines on the palm.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Her mom led the way into the kitchen. Charlie slid the patio doors open to get some air moving. Glancing down, she saw that the dog bowls still sat there in their usual place. It had taken the combined cajoling of her and her brother to convince their mother not to get another dog, all the while tap dancing around the real reason: she had a hard enough time taking care of herself.
“I brought you some new tea.” Charlie raised the bag in her hand. “From that store downtown that we used to go to. Apple cobbler, it’s called.” She put the bag on the counter. “And some ginger cookies too.”
“That’s sweet, such a good girl. Sit down. I’ll put the kettle on.”
Charlie sat in her usual spot and observed her mom. A frown crept onto her mom’s face as she watched her grandkids playing while she filled the kettle.
“I told them to go out back for a bit, so we can visit,” Charlie said.
Her mom turned away from the window, the frown slowly slipping from her forehead, and turned off the water.
“Have you ever seen a kettle like this?” her mom asked as she plugged it in. “Boils water lickety-split. Even shuts itself off when it’s done. Can you believe the things they come up with nowadays?”
Charlie could believe: she’d bought the kettle last year to replace the old stove top one. She had that old one now, though the tea she made never tasted quite the same as her mom’s. She was a coffee drinker anyway, but whenever she’d been sad or stressed or troubled growing up, out came the kettle and teapot. Some things never changed.
“It’s amazing,” Charlie said. She smiled as her mom spooned the loose tea into the pot. Every now and then, growing up, Charlie’d been given the privilege of making the tea, and knew the inside was well-seasoned – tannin-stained from years of use and smooth like the beads of her brother’s well-worn rosary. Her mom poured the water into the pot, slowly, giving the leaves a chance to frolic, as she called it.
“So Mom,” Charlie said, pulling her thumbnail from between her teeth. “I’ve done up a will.”
“A will? Whatever for?”
“You know, just in case.”
“Is something wrong? Are you ill?”
“No, everything’s fine.” Charlie scratched an itch under her left breast. She’d never realized what a powerful word benign was until last week, so unassuming yet able to change a life.
“I know I don’t have much,” Charlie continued with a shrug, glancing at her palms then out the window. Glimpses of Liam’s trainers, already too small, flashed in and out of her vision; her son was on the porch swing. “With Trevor leaving and all.”
“It’s not that.” Her mom grabbed the teapot in one hand and a trivet in the other.
“Let me get that,” Charlie said. “You bring the mugs.”
“You’re just so young,” her mom continued as she pulled out a couple of mugs.
“Yeah, but you remember when dad died….” Unexpectedly, unprepared, of a massive heart attack, just after Liam was born. She paused as her mom pulled a platter from the cupboard and, with barely a tremor, laid the cookies in circles, outside in.
Her mom was silent as she focused on laying out the cookies. Charlie watched as Katie slumped into view, stepping up to give Liam a push, helping him go higher. When her mom finally sat down, plate of cookies neatly arranged, Charlie placed the strainer over each mug in turn and poured the tea.
“You know what it was like,” Charlie said, forcing herself to continue the conversation. “Dealing with lawyers, finding all the papers, figuring out where the money was, getting access.”
Her mom brought the mug to her lips, frowned at it then put it down. “Well…yes. But still, it’s not something to worry about at your age, healthy as you are.”
“Maybe not,” she said, shrugging, looking into her own cup of tea. She picked up a ginger cookie and polished it off in two bites, washing it down with a gulp of too-hot tea. She took a sharp breath in then squared her shoulders. “But if something should happen, just say, I don’t want you to have to worry. Jamie’s executor. And he and Linda have agreed to take on the kids.”
Charlie glanced out the window, biting her tongue to keep from adding a comment about Trevor. Instead she took another sip of tea, more carefully this time, feeling the heat from the mug seep through her fingers. “This is good,” she said, nodding at her mom’s untouched mug. “You should try it.”
Her mother clasped her knobbly fingers more tightly around the mug, glanced at the tea and the plate of cookies, then looked out the window. She frowned at the kids again, who were actually behaving themselves, even without absorbing electronics. Charlie said a mental thanks for small mercies: she hoped to get to the end of the school year, a few short weeks away, without forking over money for yet another pair of school pants.
“I’ve also set up a living will, or whatever they call it. You know, no extraordinary measures.” Charlie let the warm cinnamon, sharp ginger, and earthy cloves of the tea waft over her. “Have you thought about what you’d want, if something should happen to you?”
“Really, such grim talk on such a beautiful day,” her mom said, turning her mug in her hand. “I mean, look at those kids, they have the right idea.” She waved at the window.
“Sorry. I just thought you should know.” Charlie breathed deeply and forged ahead. “Jamie has the details, and he also has power of attorney.” As her only sibling, Jamie had gotten the job almost by default, but accepted it with his usual equanimity. “You won’t be burdened with any of that if something should happen.” Her mother continued to look out the window, seemingly watching the kids, though her eyes didn’t seem focused on anything in particular. Charlie took a sip of tea and picked up another cookie to dunk. “You should try the tea before it gets cold,” she said, nodding towards her mom’s mug, still full to the brim.
“Enough,” her mother said, her palm coming down on the table. “I’ll drink it when I’m good and ready.”
Charlie took a big bite of the cookie, crunchy without a dip in the tea. She looked at her mom’s hand; the bruise was moving from the purple phase to green, the edges already turning the same shade of brown as the age spots that dappled the skin.
Her mom looked at her tea. “Sorry, I have a bit of a headache, not enough sleep I think. Maybe a nap will help,” she said as she wiped away a spot of thick spittle from the corner of her mouth.
“I just thought you’d like the flavour, is all,” Charlie said with a shrug and small smile.
“I’m sure I will. I’m just not thirsty right now.”
They talked about the weather and the new neighbours across the street while Charlie finished her own cup of tea and another ginger cookie. Then, seeing the time, and remembering the supper to be made and piles of laundry to be done in between getting Katie to soccer and helping Liam with Math, she called the kids in. They played dutiful grandchildren, even giving her mother a hug and kiss without prodding, and telling her how they were doing in school before they homed in on the cookies.
When all was said and done, Charlie made her excuses: the kids had school tomorrow, she’d brought work home, supper needed making.
“What lovely children,” her mom said, nodding to Katie and Liam as they got into the car. “They remind me of my kids.”
Charlie hugged her mother, making a mental note to call Jamie, and not just about the sunburnt lawn and wilted flowers. “Lock the door after me,” she said before getting in the car.
“Did you have a good visit with Grandma?” Katie asked as Charlie did up her seatbelt.
Charlie reached over and, with her thumb, wiped the crumbs of ginger cookie off her daughter’s chin. She smiled at Katie in the shadowed car, seeing shades of her mom as she looked in the faded photos on the mantel.
“Yeah, we just chatted. Had a cup of tea.”
If you enjoyed the story, I’d love it if you let me know. If you find typos or things that didn’t make sense, please let me know – although I might not love it, I appreciate it.