“Hi there,” she says. “You from around here?”
I shake my head. She looks me curiously up and down, not the way rich people do when they’re assessing your net worth, but almost sweetly like she’s seeing what she can do to help.
“You okay, honey? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” And I have, haven’t I? The ghost of mayor Delafonte’s past.
“I’m okay,” I say. “Just a little lost.” That is true, isn’t it?
“Lost in life, or in the technical sense of the word?” she asks.
I just smile.
“Very well then…” She pivots her body toward the main road I walked down to get here and says, “Highway’s that way. You can also find the Greyhound station and the bus stop.” She turns so she’s facing the opposite way. “Over yonder is the pathetic excuse for a town—I’m more of a Seattle girl—but there’s a couple restaurants, the post office, stores that sell shit you don’t need, yada yada.” She turns to face me again. “Do you need some money? Do you have a way to get home?”
I nod my head, though my eyes are burning from the salt water fighting to escape my tear ducts. She wasn’t supposed to be so nice.
“Can I ask you a question?” I say. She stops her rundown of Cress End and blinks at me. There’s flour on her sweatshirt; I wonder what she’s baking.
“Yes,” she says. “I suppose you can.”
“Are you happy?”
She presses her lips together ‘til they burn white. “Well, that’s a strange question, isn’t it? I haven’t been asked that in a very long time…”
She stares out at nothing, her eyes narrow slits as she thinks. “I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time. It’s not the happiness I imagined for myself as a young girl, but I’m alive, and no one has broken my will to live.”
She looks directly at me then. “You have to be willing to be happy. Despite the mess of your life—just accept what’s happened, throw away your ideals, and create a new map of happiness to follow.”
It’s the best thing anyone has ever said to me. The best advice. I’m so sorry for what my mother and father have done to this woman that a single tear trickles down my cheek. I nod my head and turn to leave. If I were her daughter, I would have been good to her.
I am half a block away when she calls out, “Goodbye, Margo. Live well.”
I don’t stop walking, and I don’t turn to look back, though every hair on my body is standing up in a surprise salute. I can’t stop myself from wishing she had been my mother. A woman so kind, she takes the time to speak to her ex-husband’s bastard—probably the reason for her divorce in the first place. My mother wouldn’t even acknowledge me, and there she was, a stranger who had every right to hate me, speaking to me with incredible kindness.
My last stop is the wine bar my father owns. I want to see if he’s there, or if not, there should be someone who can tell me something about him. There’s a young man polishing glasses behind the bar when I step through the doors. He glances up and away quickly enough to let me know I’ve been dismissed.
“We’re not open ‘til six,” he says. “And you look too young to be in here anyway.”
“I’m looking for someone,” I say. “Mr. Delafonte…”
He looks up suddenly, and I realize I’m seeing my brother. He is the very image of his mother, with a little of Howard in his shoulders and around his downturned mouth.
“Whaddoyouwanthimfor?” His sentence comes out tinny, slurred, and strung together like a party banner.
“That’s my business,” I say. “He here?”
“Nah. He’s taken a leave of absence…”
I cock my head, shift my weight from one leg to another. I am agitated. I want to snatch the glass from his hand and scream ‘Out with it!’
“Is he sick?”
He sets down his glass and wipes his hands on a towel. “Who’s asking?”
I can’t help the smile that creeps onto my face. I try to bite it back, but, in the end, who cares?
Paul—that’s my half brother’s name—freezes. And then all of a sudden he’s polishing glasses again.
“Ah,” he says. And I wonder if everyone in the family knows about me.
“You want money?” he asks.
“Then what? A reunion? Because that ain’t gonna happen.”
“I wanted to see if he was dead.”
The glass slips out of Paul’s hand. He catches it before it can meet the floor. He walks around the counter, heading toward me.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
I smile. “Tell him I said hello,” I say. “It was nice to meet you, Paul.”
He stops just short of where I’m standing. I give him one last look before I head out the door.
Mission failed, but at least I made him sick enough to take a leave of absence.
When I get back to the eating house, the box in the oven is gone. I slide down the wall until I am sitting, and squeeze my head between my knees. A leave of absence my ass.
I CAN HEAR A BABY CRYING. I curve my way down Wessex, pulling my raincoat tighter around my body. My face is dotted with rain, and every few minutes I have to lick the water from my lips to keep it from running down my chin. The crying gets louder the closer I get to the eating house. My steps slow as I lift my head to catch its direction. It’s not at all unusual to hear an infant wailing in the Bone. The people here are conditioned to concentrate on survival rather than happiness. Parents let their babies cry while they bicker and yell; a single, ragged mother lets her baby cry so she can catch a few hours of sleep. Grandmothers let their grandchildren cry because a little crying never hurt no one. But the crying that I hear is not that of an unhappy baby; it’s the cry of a child in pain; frantic and high-pitched, it’s almost a scream. Mo.
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