I can hear him whispering and then I hear hold music. When he comes back on he says, “okay, elsie. you’re welcome to speak if you’d like to.” He adds, “It will be saturday morning in orange County. I’ll send you further details shortly,” and then he wishes me well.
I get off the phone, and as much as I want to congratulate myself for standing up to her, I know that, if susan had said no, I wouldn’t have been able to do much about it. I’m not exactly sure how I gave her all the power, but I gave it to her. For the first time, it doesn’t feel like Ben was just alive and well a second ago. It feels like he’s been gone forever.
Ana heads back to her place to walk her dog. I should offer for her to bring the dog here, but I get the impression ana needs a few hours every day to get away from me, to get away from this. It’s the same thing. I am this. When she gets back, I’m in the same place I was when she left. she asks if I’ve eaten. she doesn’t like the look on my face.
“This is absurd, elsie. you have to eat something. I’m not messing around anymore.” she opens the refrigerator. “you can have pancakes. eggs? It looks like you have some bacon.” she opens the pack of bacon and smells it. It’s clearly putrid judging from the look on her face. “never mind, no bacon. unless . . . I can go get some bacon! Would you eat bacon?”
“No,” I say. “no, please do not leave me to get bacon.” the doorbell rings, and it’s so loud and jarring that I almost jump out of my skin. I turn and stare at the door. ana finally goes to answer it herself.
It’s a goddamn flower deliveryman.
“Elsie porter?” he says through my screen door.
“You can tell him there’s no one here by that name,” I say to ana. she ignores me and opens the screen to let him in. “thank you,” she says to him. He gives her a large white bouquet and leaves. she shuts the door and places it on the table.
“These are gorgeous,” she says. “do you want to know who they’re from?” she grabs the card before I answer.
“Are they for the wedding or the funeral?” I ask. ana is quiet as she looks at the card. “the funeral.” she swallows hard. It wasn’t nice of me to make her say that. “they are from lauren and simon,” ana says. “do you want to thank them or should I?”
Ben and I used to double-date with lauren and simon. How am I supposed to face them myself? “Will you do it?” I ask her. “I’ll do it if you’ll eat something. How about pancakes?” “Will you just run point on everyone?” I ask. “Will you tell everyone the news? I don’t want to tell them myself.” “If you make me a list,” she says. she pushes further. “and you eat some pancakes.”
I agree to eat the damn pancakes. If you don’t put maple syrup on them, they taste like nothing. I think I can choke down some nothing. as for the list, it’s a silly task. she knows everyone I know. they are her friends too.
She starts to grab bowls and ingredients, pans and sprays.
Everything seems so easy for her. each movement doesn’t feel like it might be her last, the way mine feel. she just picks up the pancake mix like it’s nothing, like it’s not the heaviest box in the world.
She sprays cooking spray on a pan and lights the burner.
“So, we have two things we have to go over this morning and neither of them are pretty.”
When she’s got the first pancake under control she turns to me, the spatula wet with batter and dangling in her hand on her hip. I stare at it while she talks, wondering if it will drip onto the kitchen floor.
“The first one is work. What do you want to do? I called them on Monday, told them the situation and bought you a few days but . . . how do you want to handle it?”
Honestly, I don’t even remember why I am a librarian.
Books? seriously? that’s my passion?
“I don’t know if I can go back,” I say at first, meaning it. “okay,” she says, turning back to the stove. the batter doesn’t fall off the spatula until the last minute, until I have almost given up on it falling to the floor. It makes a small splatter at her foot, but she’s oblivious.
“I know I need to, though,” I add. “If only because I’m not exactly rolling in dough.” Being a librarian meant that when I graduated, my starting salary was higher than the rest of my peers’, but it didn’t grow as quickly and I am now merely making a decent living. I’m certainly not in a position to quit my job. “What about Ben’s . . . ?”ana can’t finish the question. I don’t blame her. I can barely ask it myself in my own head. “He had a good amount of money saved,” I say. “But I don’t want it.”
“Well, wouldn’t he want you to have it?” My pancake is done, and she delivers it to me on the table with containers of butter, maple syrup, jam, and confectioners’ sugar. I push them aside.the thought of tasting something sweet right now makes my mouth sour.
“I don’t know, but . . . I think it puts me in a weird position. We weren’t married long. none of his family has ever heard of me. I don’t want a windfall of cash right now,” I say. “not that it’s a windfall, it’s just more than I had saved. Ben wasn’t a big spender.”
Ana shrugs. “so, then maybe you should call your boss and work out when you’re going back? assuming you’re going back?” I nod. “you’re absolutely right. I should.” I do not want to. I wonder how long I could go before they fired me. It would be so indelicate of them to fire a widow, to fire a grieving woman, and yet, I’d leave them no choice.
“And speaking of calling people . . .” ana flips what I hope is a pancake she’s making for herself. I said I’d eat, but I’m not eating two huge pancakes. I can barely stomach this piece of shit in front of me.
“Wow, you’re really going for it this morning, aren’t you?”
She plates the pancake, which I think is a pretty good sign she’s going to eat it herself. If it was for me, she’d put it on my plate, right? “I don’t mean to push you. I just think the longer you put this off, the more uncomfortable it will be. your parents, no matter how difficult your relationship is, they need to know what has happened to you in the past few days.”
“Okay,” I say. she’s right. ana sits down next to me and starts on her pancake. she loads it up with butter and maple syrup. I am astonished that she can have an appetite during a time like this, that things like taste and pleasure are on her mind. I wipe my chin and set down the napkin. “Who do you want me to call first? let’s just get this shit over with.”
Ana puts down her fork. “that’s my girl! you’re taking life by the balls.”
“I don’t know if that’s the case. I’m merely getting this bullshit out of the way so I can go in my room and cry for the rest of the day.”
“But you’re trying! you’re doing the best you can.” “I guess I am,” I say and grab the phone. I look to her with my eyebrows raised and the phone tilted in my hand. “so?” “Call work first. that’s an easier conversation. It’s just logis tics, no emotion.”
“I like that you think the conversation with my parents will contain emotion.”
I dial the phone and wait as it rings. a woman picks up; I can recognize that it’s nancy. I love nancy. I think nancy is a great woman, but as she says, “los angeles library, Fairfax Branch, reference desk, how may I help you today?” I hang up.
The library was technically closed for Martin luther king day, but I agreed to work. We’d had a group of people, most likely high school students or fancy little rebels, come in and place the entire World religions section out of order over the weekend. they threw books on the floor, they hid them in other sections, under tables. they rearranged the titles in no discernible order.
My boss, lyle, was convinced that this was some sort of terrorist act, meant to make us here at the los angeles library really think about the role of religion in modern government. I was more of the mind that the act was harmless tomfoolery; the World religions section was the nearest to the back wall, the furthest from view. I’d caught a number of couples making out in the library in my few years there, and they had all been in the World religions section.