"MOTHER, I FOUND HIM!" Ashley called. "Or his traces. According to this website, he died just this year, May 27th, in a nursing home in South Carolina."
"At last!" Susan exclaimed.
Did that mean "At last we've found him" or "At last he's dead"? Ashley wasn't sure -- her 90-year-old mother's interest in the matter was too odd to decipher.
"But why would he be in South Carolina?" Susan objected after a moment. "He always had his business in Jersey. Are you sure this is he?"
"It's an unusual name, Mother. Only two Delmore D. Finesmiths show up in the entire country, and the other one is 34 years old. This guy is listed as 91, which would be accurate, right? The Carolinas have become retirement meccas like Florida and Arizona. Maybe they have preservatives in the water there. Of course, he may have moved to Uzbekistan or Brazil for all we know, or he may have died twenty years ago."
"The world couldn't have been so fortunate."
"Wait, there's a link to an obituary. Let me check that."
More than a month ago, soon after what she called her "biggest birthday," Susan Smithers had asked her daughter to find out whether "the old bastard" was still alive. "Use your Internet magic," Susan had directed with an imperious finger. At first Ashley had resisted. Susan had been married to Del for less than two years, almost five decades ago, so why this sudden desire to track him? It seemed peculiar, perhaps morbid.
To Ashley, this incident was just one of the crotchets of old age manifest since Susan moved into what used to be a psychiatrist's office in the back of Ashley's home in suburban Maryland. It was a trial for the daughter, not only checking that the old woman took her medicine and regular meals, but enduring the cranky outspokenness that increased year by year. In Ashley's youth, Susan had insisted on good manners as a sign of respect for one's fellow human beings; now she assumed the privilege of saying whatever she pleased whenever the mood struck her. For example, when Ashley's husband climbed to the attic crawlspace to investigate suspicious animal noises, Susan remarked, "Be careful, Phil, dear, don't get stuck up there. You may be shaped like a raccoon, but there's a difference in scale, especially around the middle."
Each night she had dinner with Ashley and Phil and stayed to watch TV, except that she refused to watch. She had appropriated the best armchair as her own and commanded that it be turned away from the television. From this unsociable throne facing the back window, she would issue comments over her shoulder about the drivel they called entertainment, or sarcastic remarks about politicians and celebrities in the newspaper, or complaints about the plot of the mystery novel she was reading. She consumed a book a week, her eyes still as sharp as her tongue.
After first raising the question about Del Finesmith's whereabouts, Susan had pestered her daughter at least twice a week. Ashley, who had no personal curiosity about her ex-stepfather, lost patience with the obsession, but she did devote a few spare moments to the search, and finally the brief death notice popped up on a New Jersey news site. The linked obituary confirmed Del's identity by mentioning his former import firm as well as his surviving daughter.
Susan demanded a printout of the obit, and over the next several days she examined it repeatedly. When she wasn't studying it, she carried it folded in a pocket of her housedress. Then on Sunday after breakfast, while Phil dozed over the paper and Ashley listened to National Public Radio, Susan declared from her throne, "All right, it's time to do this. I want you to find Erin."
"Find what? Mother, are you talking to me?"
"Find Erin, your stepsister! Del's daughter. Don't pretend you don't remember. The obituary mentions her as a survivor, in Philadelphia. She's the only one named." Susan's pale curls vibrated in a little dance.
"I'm not pretending," said Ashley. "Why would I suspect you were thinking about Erin, after half a century?"
"Address and phone number, please. With your Internet magic."
After reinforcing the command with a craggy index finger, Susan stared again at the obit. She seemed to have something else on her lap, but when Ashley walked over to peek, she shuffled it out of sight.
Ashley sighed, and Phil gently snored.
Ask me 15 years ago, I'd never picture myself stuck with a beast and a whiner. Me and my friends were heading to the Village, hang out with the hip crowd. Or I was taking off cross-country on the back of some guy's hog. Rebellin' Ellen, I called myself. Where did that girl go?
ONCE SHE HAD MADE UP her mind, the delays tormented Susan. Although she had no specific ailments other than forgetfulness, hand tremors, arthritis, a touch of diabetes, hypertension, arrhythmia, and chronic imbalance with sporadic dizziness, she knew there was little time to set matters right. The 90th birthday, after taking so many years to arrive, had startled her when it strolled in and stood behind her left shoulder winking at the balloons and cake.
So when Ashley failed to complete the assigned task the next day, Susan tried the old-fashioned information service from the telephone company. Unfortunately, no number was listed for an Erin Finesmith in Philadelphia.
"Why does she have an unlisted phone?" she carped to her daughter. "Of whom or what is she afraid now that the old bastard is gone?"
"Maybe she has a mobile that's not in the regular directory. Why are you bothering yourself anyway? I said I'd try to get her address for you."
Slender, erect, quiet and firm in her movements, Ashley had an air of reasonableness that Susan often found exasperating. "I can't wait," Susan snapped, "until you find time for your geriatric mother's concerns. I may have a stroke or get lost in the bathroom tomorrow morning."
"Mother, I'm tired when I come home. Being a so-called desk nurse means running laps around the floor! And you and Phil expect a full-cooked meal every night; you watch from your armchairs like I'm some robot programmed to serve food for you."
"According to the obituary, she's still using her maiden name. Apparently she never married."
"How can you assume that? Lots of women keep their own names when they marry. I changed mine only because 'Smithers' sounds like a housekeeper on a British TV series."
Susan gnawed her lower lip. Though annoyed, she refused to defend the legacy of Jim Smithers, whom she'd messily divorced before wedding Del Finesmith. Yes, Jim had been a decent long-distance parent to the children, and Susan herself had resumed using his surname when she dumped Del, but she was long past sticking up for husbands or fathers.
Marriage, she had concluded in her old age, was a joke that people played on themselves, an absurdity that could be laughed away except for the scars it left on the offspring. And she worried that she had worsened particular scars by a deplorable neglect of her duty.
The car ran out of gas. Just made it to our garage. Big argument because tomorrow he'll have to fetch some in a can -- like that's so difficult. Goddammit Ellen can't you look at the gas gauge he says. I say I'm shopping, I'm picking up after swimming lessons, I'm cooking, I'm washing, it's just too much to take care of the car too. And he said Bullshit, if you just got yourself organized. Then I cried which made me furious at myself, giving him that satisfaction.
Later Erin started in on me too and I told her shut your mouth, you're old enough, turning 8 soon, you've got to understand the situation.
ON HER LUNCH HOUR the next day, Ashley phoned the funeral home named in the obituary to ask where to send condolences. Given a street number in Philadelphia, she felt her inquisitiveness piqued, and she checked the address with an online map. It seemed to correspond to an apartment above a corner deli. Would Erin, who was now, what, 63 years old, live in such a place? What would a stepsister from half a century ago be like? How had she stayed so under the radar that she didn't show up in online searches?
In the hospital gift shop she bought a condolence card, and after dinner (the second resurrection of leftover lasagna) she approached her mother's throne with the card in hand.
In her old-fashioned long, loose cotton dress, Susan filled the chair. She had always been a large-boned woman, and in her middle years had put on some weight that old age was only gradually stealing from her. Again she seemed to slide something out of sight as Ashley approached.
"Mom, I got an address for you, from the mortuary. They wouldn't confirm it was Erin's, but I bought a card to send there. Let's address it to Erin and assume it will reach her. We can ask her to contact you."
Blinking uncertainly, Susan took the card in her arthritic fingers, surveyed the front -- an ornate, deep-green illustration of a wreath inscribed "With Deepest Sympathy" -- and fumbled it open to read the inside. "How hypocritical," she grumbled.
"It's a standard card, Mother. Here's a pen. Sign it. You do feel sympathy for Erin, don't you?"
"No one, I'm certain, has 'treasured memories' of Del, nor were we 'saddened' to hear of the loss."
"Then forget it. It was your idea to contact her."
Ashley stalked away, but later that night, when Susan pushed herself to her feet to creep toward her own section of the house, she handed the card back, in its envelope. "I wrote a personal message," the old woman said. "But I'm out of stamps."
"I'll take care of it."
Since her mother's writing had become a nearly indecipherable set of squiggles, Ashley would have added her own note, but the flap was already sealed. Shrugging her shoulders at the vagaries of old age, she addressed the envelope clearly, applied the postage and dropped the card in a mailbox in the morning.
Though her curiosity had been roused, so had her wariness. If they did reach Erin, why would she want to hear from them, and what would be the point of any contact? Most of Ashley's own memories of that period were painful -- screaming in the hallways, brutal silence at meals. It wasn't a time to wax nostalgic about.
As for her mother, was this a sign that the old woman's mind was slipping?
Last night he was sweet, he can do that sometimes. Tender. Of course I've seen him act sweet with the tarted-up girl that does the accounts. Maybe he's bonking her too.
Sometimes I think why am I suspicious whenever he's nice, it's like I want him to make me hate him.
THREE WEEKS LATER the phone rang in the early evening, soon after Ashley got home from work. She dropped the tomato on the cutting board and wiped her hands before answering.
"Oh," a voice said and paused, "is this, is this Susan Smithers?"
"No, she has a different number. Who's calling?"
"There were two numbers but it's so hard to read, it's -- "
"This is her daughter, Ashley Jablow. Can I help you?"
"What -- Ashley? Oh, right. The card said, I thought it said, she's living with you in someplace called Mudland. You sound so mature."
"I don't mean mature old, I mean you have a nice phone voice, I know mine is kind of -- I'm nervous on the phone, you know."
"Erin -- it is you, right? It's so good to hear from you! So you got our card. I was afraid that wasn't your address, or you wouldn't be able to make out Mom's scrawl. We're in Maryland, as I wrote on the envelope."
"Oh ... yeah, you did, I see that. Yeah, I couldn't read every word, but some of it was very, the words there, affectionate, it surprised me after such a long time. It was a shock almost, and I wasn't going to call but then ... Ashley!" The voice rose in pitch. "I remember you as a skinny kid! We kind of hung out together, didn't we? Your brother and sister were older, I never got to know them much."
"Right. Kevin and Terri were in high school by then. They had to have their own rooms, so you moved into my bedroom." Ashley felt a spike of warmth. "You were my big sophisticated stepsister, twelve years old when you came. I looked up to you. ... Remember the ice cream place we went to? Or the time we found your dad's stash of girlie magazines?"
"I remember ... I remember we fought sometimes."
"Fought?" Ashley laughed. "You made a line with tape down the middle of the room -- my room -- and threatened to dismember my Barbie if she ever crossed it."
"I did? What a monster I was!"
"We should get together and talk. But now, can you hang on while I fetch Mom? She's over in her own part of the house. I know she's eager to hear from you."
"Um, actually," the voice dwindled, "I've got just a minute, I need to -- my dog has to go out, he's such a pest -- but um, I can call back I guess, you said the other number is hers?"
"Yes, but wait, let me write down your phone. The funeral home was very sparse in the information they'd give out, even when I said I was your stepsister."
"That's how you found me? The funeral home? How did you know Dad died?"
"It's a long story. What's the number?"
With reluctance, it seemed, Erin provided her telephone number and then abruptly hung up.
After three strides toward Susan's quarters, Ashley stopped to ponder the peculiar turns the conversation had taken. She vacillated for a couple of minutes, then knocked on her mother's door and poked her head in.
Woken from a doze on a daybed under the window, Susan sat up with her white hair frizzing around her face. She tilted to the left while taking in the news, and Ashley worried that she was dizzy.
"Are you OK, Mother? Erin couldn't speak long because she had to run out on an errand, but I got her number for you."
"This is wonderful!" Susan said slowly. "Did she say when would be the best time to call?"
"No, Mother. I guess that's up to you."
"But why," Susan mused, "do people wait for weeks and then phone when they have no time to talk?"
Ashley sidestepped that question. "She couldn't send you an email or text message, could she, because you don't live in this century. Why don't you get ready for dinner now?"
She makes it hard. Screaming fit tonight, the two of them at each other, I want to plug my ears. About what she can watch on TV. He lays down these arbitrary rules then explodes if she ignores them. Does it really matter what she watches?
It's good to see her stand up to him though, my girl is not a doormat like her mother.
LATE THE NEXT AFTERNOON, Susan called from her own phone, a 30-year-old instrument that she refused to trade in for what she termed techno-rubbish.
She had spent the day in anticipation and planning, and she held the line patiently, stubbornly, through seven rings. At last a timid voice answered.
"Hello? Who's this?"
"Erin? This is Susan Smithers, dear. How are you? It's so good to speak after so many years."
"Oh. Oh ... Susan? I see. Right. Yeah, that's what Ashley said."
"What did Ashley say?"
"That it's good to speak -- I'm fine, Sal's nibbling my foot but otherwise. I gave her my phone number, didn't I? I guess I knew you'd call."
"Well, I'm calling because I am very old now, and sentimental. When a person becomes so very old, the mistakes of the past seem hard to understand."
"Why did one behave so foolishly? One wonders."
"I'm saying that it comes with the territory of old age, honey. Regretting mistakes."
"Not what happened with your father. It was obvious that we were incompatible. But losing touch with you, after I'd worked so hard to protect you, that haunts me. ... I'm sorry to become so personal so quickly. I've been waiting a long while."
"Did you say, protect me?"
"During his rages, when he would flail out at anything nearby, I tried to keep all of you kids away from him. You especially were his little blonde angel one minute, and I couldn't say a word about your behavior, but the next instant he would browbeat you about your clothes, your grades in school, your friends, and whenever I tried to calm him down, he turned on me."
"I don't remember that. I mean, of course, he got mad a lot. He always had a temper, with his later wives too. ... Oh. Did you know I had three other stepmoms?"
"I'm not surprised," said Susan, thinking the proper word would be appalled. Whatever the name for it, the feeling traveled along her spine like a centipede, slowly with many tiny legs.
"He got divorced from them all. They fought, too, maybe not as bad as you and him, but one of them, when I was in twelfth grade, we got into it -- 'cause I used to have a temper too." Erin broke out in a stuttering laugh. "There were some big scenes before I moved out -- Even now I get mad at Sal when he misbehaves."
"This Sal is ... who?"
"My little dog? A cockerpoo. He's six years old and still a brat."
"Ah." Susan was perplexed. "Forgive my inquisitiveness. Have you ever, mmm, had children, dear? The human kind?"
"Oh no. Not me. Almost, once. No. ... I never got married."
"And what about -- did you, uh, marry someone else after Dad?"
"No, Erin, I never took up with another man. I'd had more than enough. I went back to work as a librarian until I retired." Susan heard the tinge of self-righteousness in her own voice and deemed it appropriate.
"And so, so, you're with Ashley now."
"Yes, they converted a former psychiatrist's home office into an apartment for me. My son-in-law jokes that the atmosphere should temper my eccentricities. He has been sorely disappointed."
"How about, uh, Terri and Kevin?"
"Terri's in Houston, married to an oilman. He and I do not see eye to eye about politics. They have two grown children, though, of whom I am very fond. Kevin is in Toronto with a woman he refuses to wed. He was married once for a short time and has never had children. But Ashley herself has three, and one of them, David, lives near you, in a Philadelphia suburb. My life is reasonably full, you see, to the extent that a person my age has a life."
"Oh, you sound very, um ... "
"One does what one can. But I wonder about your life, whether you have been happy, Erin, dear, fulfilled -- you were such an active, passionate girl."
"You took to me so warmly; that meant a great deal to me at the time, and still does. Especially that moment in the kitchen -- after we'd been together eleven days: You turned to me and said, 'Mom, is it OK if I make a jelly sandwich?'"
"Heh, yeah, I always made them like that, no peanut butter, just hunks of jelly on bread. I'd still treat myself to that if my waistline wasn't so -- I'm not fat exactly but I have to, you know ... "
"Darling, I'm talking about the way you addressed me: 'Mom.' After your birth mother had left you. It touched my heart to hear you say that. I knew you were reaching out to me."
Erin paused. "I suppose I figured, since we were living together ... "
"And I reached back, taking you as one of my own -- at times putting myself, quite literally, between you and him. In more than one case, I was abused, even slapped for the effort, and I ... never mind that now. But that is why, when I too dropped you -- that is how it came to seem to me, letting him sweep you away, with no further contact -- I worried that it must be terrible for you."
"I don't have real clear memories, I try to not to think about stuff like that. When Dad died I had to, um, sign papers and so forth but his lawyer's taking care of things, at least I hope he is."
"If you need more assistance, Phil's firm might help -- Ashley's husband, he handles the computer work for a law partnership. ... But you haven't told me about your life. I do want to take time to hear the details. And I have -- I have something that should belong to you."
Erin didn't respond.
"It's a matter I must explain, and not one I feel comfortable discussing on the phone. Can we, do you think, arrange a visit? Ashley and Phil and I drive to the Philly area to see David quite often. It would be easy to stop by -- "
"Oh, I -- " Erin spoke up suddenly. "I don't have many visitors, my apartment's such a mess, and the parking here, sometimes you can drive around for half an hour looking for a space ... "
"Erin, dear, I don't mean to impose. Why don't you come here then? The trip is only two hours if you speed on the interstate the way Phil does. Which I am not advising. Or there's a train that -- "
"Um, that's very nice of you, to invite me, right off the bat. But Sal, I hardly ever leave him. There's nobody here to watch him, and a kennel costs, I don't know, approximately -- "
"Erin, honey, you said he's a cockle pooch? A small dog? Do bring him with you, please. I love small animals."
Since Susan had never owned or wanted a dog, this was a blatant lie; nor had Ashley and Phil had a pet since their cat died three years ago. However, she was determined not to let Erin's hesitations block her purpose.
"I'll, uh, think about it, yes, thank you, I'll definitely start to think -- "
At the end of the conversation, Susan returned the handset gingerly to its base. Then she sat in her bedside chair for ten minutes longer, studying the telephone as she chewed her lower lip.
If I divorce him I can get alimony & child support, my friend Margaret says. I don't know about these things, I'd have to get a lawyer.
Some days I just want to vanish. This morning I squashed my nose against the bathroom wallpaper, the flowers there, like I could fade in and disappear.
To be continued...