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April 08, 2024

Waiting for a Change

By Terry Petersen

Helen studied an early twentieth-century gargoyle at the top of a building as she waited for Evan. Exhaust fumes from constant traffic had darkened the figure. This corner had once been Evan and Helen's favorite hang-out.

The couple had decided to visit it again. And take a break from work burnout. "Meet you at seven, no later," Evan had promised. "We can check out the shops, then have dinner. My client cancelled. Got arrested. Can you believe he called his PO to post bail?"

Helen hoped Evan would arrive soon. At the moment she saw history gassed so hundred-year-old homes could be sliced into tiny eclectic shops, bars, and restaurants. She sighed. This wasn't the way she saw this area of town when she was younger, when she and Evan had spent every weekend at one of the establishments, as they mapped out futures that changed at whim every other sentence.

"We'll graduate, and then tour Europe for eight to ten years," Evan would say, lifting his glass for a toast. Then Helen would laugh, pretending the fear of needing two airplane seats for her abundant body didn't ruin her fantasy. "Sure, begin in France and keep going all the way down into Egypt."

It had been a game buoyed with a single glass of wine. She knew it, even then. They had ambition. School or work absorbed every hour they weren't together.

Now, Helen glanced at her watch. Ten minutes past seven. It wasn't like Evan to be late, even by ten minutes.

Across the street was an exotic imported clothing shop. A red silk dress hung on a headless manikin. After three years of diet change and exercise, Helen could wear whatever she wanted. She'd lost seventy-five pounds that once felt bonded to her soul. Yet she feared, even now, that if she drew attention to herself the fat could find out, and then return. The memories that surrounded those days could follow. She had succeeded, found a service-oriented career. And married Evan.

Helen's cell rang -- Evan's number. She caught it on the first ring. "The expressway's a frigging parking lot. Finally, I see the holdup, a semi blocking all but one lane. Got hit by a Volkswagen. Ugly scene. Some jerk just honked, wants me to latch onto this lady's bumper. I hear sirens. Hope that means help is on the way. At least they are coming from the other direction. A bicycle couldn't get through this mess."

A violinist who reminded Helen of seeded dark rye bread played a medley from Porgy and Bess, apparently lost in his own strings until a passerby dropped a couple of bucks into his open instrument case. Then he nodded and smiled.

This corner belonged to both art and poverty. Somehow she'd always known it, yet never had allowed herself to explore the area. Not during her off-time.

A bony woman sat on the sidewalk. She leaned against a building, her head on her chest. Grimy hair covered her face. It was hard to say whether the dirt came from the walls and sidewalk, or from her. Her shirt, sleeves ripped off, may have been white when it had been new. She wore torn jeans. A green nondescript quilt covered her feet. A red plastic container probably was ready for coins, although Helen didn't get close enough to look. A penciled cardboard homeless sign sat propped next to her.

The woman coughed in her sleep. One of those deep barks that seem to come from the center of the soul. It signaled both body and spirit mired in agony.

Helen winced at the woman's bony frame. Touching misery was part of Helen's job. Even so, she couldn't shake the notion that the skinny, healthy or otherwise, belonged to another species. In grade school she and her mother had the same waist size. Her mother reminded her of it. Daily. "No, dear. You may not have more potatoes. Starch, you know." Helen envisioned her body ironed and stiff like the shirts at her father's dry cleaning shop. She didn't understand the connection between shirts and potatoes. All she knew was that she wasn't good enough for Mother.

Two drunken teens stumbled by. Helen pressed her purse closer to her side. Then she grabbed her gold bracelet, the one Mother had given her last year after she had slipped into a pair of tight capris without a tummy bulge.

"So why do you wear the bracelet all the time if it reminds you of fat cells?" Evan often asked her.

"I don't know. Because it's gold I guess."

"Just put the stupid thing in the safety deposit box," Evan had told her. "Or better, hock it."

Helen suspected Evan was right. After all, she'd won the weight battle for herself, not for her mother. Mom still had some control, however subtle. Helen just didn't want to admit it.

Heat pulsed all the way through her body. Summer grasped and squeezed out the air. Was Helen the only one who felt the noon sun baking the sidewalk at seven thirty in the evening? She stood on one heeled sandal, then the other, like an awkward flamingo.

But where was Evan? Besides late. She pulled her phone from her purse, then heard the woman cough again, face visible now: straw-slender nose with wide nostrils, narrow eyes, high cheek bones, and a scar on her left cheek that suggested an awkward bird in flight. She wasn't anywhere near as old as Helen had imagined.

Helen knew this girl ... from thirty years ago ... when they were children ... Sherry Brownweb. She'd had a twin, Shelly. Except for the scar, the two looked the same as postage stamps on a page, but had desert versus ocean personalities. Shelly seldom spoke, and when she did she acted as if she needed permission for every word. Sherry spent as much time in the principal's office as he did. If there was a dare to be made, Sherry was sure to take it -- like filling a soda bottle with gasoline and throwing it into a bonfire. That's how she got the unique scar.

Helen only visited the Brownwebs once. A single visit had been enough.

The beggar -- Sherry -- dropped her head between her knees.

Helen escaped by walking half a block away.

Forget sixth grade. Forget the Brownweb trailer. It had been made of more rust than metal. The name Brownweb brought looks on the other kids' faces similar to the expression when a toilet overflowed.

Was this some subconscious reason why Helen had chosen social work, and eventually earned a master's degree? She pretended to look in a store window. A flier posted in an ice cream shop suggested losing ten pounds through a tried-and-true method. Helen grimaced at the incongruity of the sign placement, then noticed it included a photo of a girl in a swimsuit so beige she could have been nude.

The picture heightened her last memory of Sherry and Shelly together. Inside the packed ice cream parlor, people sat at tables or stood in line. Helen watched another scene inside her mind -- the one time could never erase. As the fatty of the class, Helen had been a fellow untouchable, so Sherry and Shelly invited her to swim with them in the large pond behind their trailer one incredibly hot Saturday in May.

That scene replayed as if it were just as real now as it had been then:

"You wore a swimsuit?" Sherry asks Helen, grinning.


Sherry rolls her eyes with exaggerated drama. "Even Smelly Shelly skinny dips."

Shelly smacks her sister's arm. "Shut up."

"Dare you two to jump off the cliff." Sherry doesn't bother to rub her arm, even though Shelly had whacked her with some force.

"It's not safe," Helen says. "May not be deep enough. See. The water's not as dark underneath the cliff as it is farther away."

"Aw, bet it's fine. We swim here all the time. Smelly Shelly is a scaredy-cat about everything. She would never try." Sherry turns her back to her sister.

"Am not." Shelly walks away toward the cliff.

"Forget it," Helen says. "Let's swim."

The scene inside the ice cream parlor window changed characters, but not essence, as Helen saw the old nightmare repeat in her memory:

Shelly follows through on her only dare. While her sister and Helen test the water with their toes, she dives naked, head first, and lands too close to shore, into the rocks inches below the surface.

Helen runs back to the trailer to get help. The half-ripped screen door is unlocked.

Mrs. Brownweb is passed out at the kitchen table.

Helen shakes her. "Help! Please!"

No response.

Helen screams directly into Mrs. Brownweb's ear, "Help!"

The twins' mother rouses enough to open her eyes, then collapses onto the table again.

A phone. There has to be a phone. The trailer smells like whiskey, urine, and garbage.

Helen finds the phone. On the floor, in a dusty corner behind an open box of spilled cereal, and dials.

Sirens. Helen hears sirens. Even as the crew arrives, Mrs. Brownweb remains with her head on the table.

Sherry says nothing. She barely moves as if she has turned into a plastic statue.

Hours later Helen learns the meaning of DOA.

There are no funeral services. Rumors spread, but don't agree. The Brownwebs have moved to California. Or Florida, then Mexico. Or just to another county. All anyone knows for certain is that Sherry was taken from her mother, but no one knows where. It all becomes speculation, especially when Sherry doesn't return to school in September.

Helen tried to shake off the peculiar thoughts, so real they were almost a vision. She remembered how she had seen Sherry the next day. For only a moment. And had asked, "Are you okay?"

Sherry had looked at her funny and said, "Sherry's not here. I'm Shelly."

Now, the line inside the ice cream shop grew longer, then shorter. Helen scarcely noticed. Her cell rang. It was Evan. She jumped.

"Sweetie, I found a place to park. Be there in one-hundred-thirty-three seconds. Sooner if I run."

"By all means, run!" Helen wanted to reach into the phone for Evan's presence and sanity. As she slipped the phone back into her pocket she noticed the bracelet on her wrist, the gold her mother had given her. The gold she didn't want. Had never wanted.

I already have my reward.

Sherry was awake, barely, staring straight ahead, when Helen returned to the place she had planned to meet Evan.

She slipped off the gold bracelet and knelt facing Sherry on the dirty sidewalk.

"I know you don't recognize me. But ... I knew you a long time ago."

Sherry shook her head as if trying to recall.

Helen studied the shape of the woman's eyes and line of her jaw. She knew she'd been right. This woman was Sherry. Helen thought about giving her name, but she had been present when the trauma had happened. Why tell her and touch fire with more fire? Gold couldn't change the past. But perhaps a gift could let Sherry know she wasn't a nothing.

"This is for you." Helen handed Sherry the bracelet and allowed their fingers to touch.

"Thank you," Sherry whispered. She stared, lips quivering as if she didn't know whether to be frightened or grateful. Then she ran her fingers around the gold circle. Perhaps she was looking for something, some particle, lost a long time ago, waiting to be found.

"If I send help, will you take it? I have friends. And contact with a shelter ..."

Mute, Sherry looked at her. Possibly she tried to figure out who this person was who dared to get so close. But a flicker of light returned to the beggar's eyes.

Helen was still on the ground next to her when Evan came up behind her. He had a confused look on his face. She would need a lot of time to tell him the entire story. How could she explain years in one evening?

She gave her husband a hug. "We have something important to do before dinner, sweetheart."

While you found a place to park, I gave away my link to guilt, faced an enormous sorrow, and maybe accepted the real Helen.

Article © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-06-06
Image(s) © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
10:20:03 PM
A moving story. Well told and illustrated.
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