"THAT'S SAD," Ashley commiserated, responding to the tale of Erin's mother's death.
Susan cleared her throat several times until she could speak. "Perhaps Devious Del knew where she was all along," she uttered.
"If he thought it was best for me ... My dad was like that. He said -- I don't know when it was, some school problem I had -- it wasn't drugs -- he'd do anything to help me out, he said."
"Hah!" Susan hooted, leaning forward. "Don't you remember all the ways he undercut you? Do you recall when Terri treated you to a salon visit on your thirteenth birthday? She took Ashley along too. It was perhaps an unfortunate decision, but he had no right to ridicule the hairstyle you had chosen. He said -- "
"Mother! I remember that, but let's keep your bitterness out of this."
"He said -- I'm not being bitter, I'm reporting the facts -- he said you looked like a 30-year-old tart! Who would speak like that to a girl entering her teens?" After a moment, Susan added in a calmer tone, "The bastard yanked you around so, emotionally."
Erin's straight shoulders had slumped, and her fingers picked rapidly at her blouse and slacks. "Is Sal all right with your husband, do you think?" she asked Ashley, eyes wandering toward the kitchen.
Ashley nodded. "I heard the back door, I think they're out for a walk. Is Mom embarrassing you? You don't have to submit to an inquisition. Tell her it's none of her business."
Susan glared at her daughter, who avoided the look.
Erin flexed her fingers in her lap, curling and uncurling. "Because he can be so naughty, pulling out of his collar if he -- He did give me the ring, said it was mine by rights. After she died."
"What ring was that?" Susan asked.
"Oh. My mother's wedding ring. That he bought for her. Not fancy, he wasn't rich when they got married. I guess she left it behind."
"I can understand the impulse to excise all reminders of the man."
"Please, Mother. I think it's good Erin has that as a keepsake."
Erin seemed to blush. "Actually I don't, because ... Maybe I shouldn't say this, but you're both, I mean, we're still family in a way, aren't we? I sold it one time I needed cash. It wasn't worth much, the shop told me."
"Oh, Erin, that's a shame," Ashley mourned.
Having managed to turn her torso fifteen degrees without aggravating her spine, Susan studied both younger women before remarking, "I sold the one he gave me as well. Any child must make her own choices about parental legacies."
After this pronouncement the room went quiet except for the sibilance of the air conditioning vents. Ashley frowned at her mother with pinched lips. Erin's feet had caught the fidget from her fingers, and Susan realized that Erin had never met her eye since entering the room.
Pained, Susan began again more cautiously. "I don't want to make you nervous, dear. It must have been quite a jolt to get our card. I'm so pleased that you came to see me."
"Mother, you make everyone nervous," said Ashley. "But I thought she came to see me. So we could settle that fight about Barbie."
Erin laughed, her arms and legs relaxing for the first time.
"I still have that doll," Ashley added. "You tried to rip her head off but she survived, you know. Barbie lives forever."
"Poor Barbie! You were a terrible mother to her. You left her lying around naked!"
"So you attempted a mercy killing?"
"I don't know, Ashley!" Erin kept laughing a moment too long. "I don't know!"
"It was my fault, sometimes, for provoking you. Girls are so cruel at that age."
Susan cleared her throat again. "We were naive, Del and I, combining families hastily, assuming it would work out, and once the marriage turned sour, I must have neglected to monitor you two sufficiently. But I'm curious, Erin, about what happened when you finished school. You said waitressing? Did you go on to college?"
"Me? No, in school I was never, you know, waitressing was all I could handle."
"And you supported yourself that way? Do you still?"
"No, it made me too -- " Erin glanced at both of them and then at her lap. "Like, when I dropped a plate on someone."
"Again, Erin, if this feels like an inquisition, we can take a tour of the house and leave Mother here to intimidate the glassware."
"No, it's OK, I don't hide it, my psychological stuff. Why should I? If we're family. I mean, I was diagnosed when I went in the hospital awhile, and my dad hired a lawyer to help me get disability, so that worked out. It's better since I'm past the age where guys try to live off my benefits. Dad hated that, he cut me off back then, I was like what you said, naive. But now that he's left me some money they lowered my disability and medical, even though he put it in trust and it's hard to manage on what the bank allows every month plus pay my own health insurance. I tell Sal we're on a budget and he can't have the Mr. Barky's every time, they're $7.71 a box! I'm not complaining, though, we get along all right. As long as the TV works," she ended with a chuckle.
"Oh," said Susan, her mind awash in these details, "diagnosed with -- ?" but Ashley, the nurse, gave her mother a negative quiver of the head.
To Susan it felt that warm icicles, if there could be such things, slid up her shoulders and neck toward her face. The onset of a stroke? She emitted a few short huffs and pressed her back against the sofa cushion.
"Mom, are you OK?" Ashley queried.
It was only sorrow, Susan decided, and guilt. She waved Ashley's worried look away.
I said you have no idea how to act like a father. You have so many stupid rules, then you forget or change them and get mad like it's her fault. Like where she can ride her bike, down by the boulevard or not. He said better than YOU as a mother, don't you think she's embarrassed to be seen with you, sloppy jeans, freakin hair all over the place! NO I said, she's proud her mother's not some Ladies Home Journal dipstick.
It hurt though to think that. Maybe Erin IS ashamed? At the market walking 10 feet behind me. She goes to her friends' houses, never invites them here.
At home she's always with the TV like it's her parent. It's a more normal one for sure.
SUSAN TOOK a deep breath and straightened her skirt. "Dear," she said to Erin, "I am so sorry you've had to endure such trials. If I'd known I would have tried to help. Leaving you at the mercy ... I should have insisted that we keep in touch."
Ashley felt it was time for a note of realism. "It was a vicious divorce," she put in. "After that, the kids don't hang around with their parents' exes. That would have been bizarre, I think."
"It's nice of you to say," Erin murmured, at last looking directly at Susan. "Yeah, I did call you 'Mom,' didn't I?" She placed one fingertip on her lower lip as if the touch assisted her memory.
"I thought it best for you," Susan continued, "since you had to live with him, to be clear about allegiances. Though it hurt me to let you go."
"Mom," Ashley asked, half-teasing, "were you ever so concerned about me? And Terri and Kevin? We suffered through that marriage, too."
"No, you had me before and after, and each other," Susan said curtly. "You had your problems, but it wasn't the same."
"I didn't, afterward," mused Erin, "with the other stepmoms, what's that word you said, allegiances. I didn't get any other sisters either, just two older brothers -- nobody good to fight with like Ashley! -- so I tried to keep to myself. Anyway ... " Erin heaved a deep breath, ran her eyes around the room and looked at her fingers. "I hope Sal's behaving himself with, I forget your husband's name."
"Phil. I'm sure he's fine."
"I brought dog biscuits in the car, I can go -- Let me -- " Erin started to get up but Susan halted her by leaning forward again and reaching out a tremulous hand.
"Honey, there's one thing I kept from you," Susan murmured. "I worried about repercussions for you if he discovered. He could be so violent when crossed."
"Mother, stop running him down in front of Erin. What are you talking about now?" Ashley felt it was up to her to control her mother's sharpness, but her attempts had little effect.
"Nor did I want him to get his mitts on it again. He should never have taken it in the first place."
"Yeah, you said on the phone, something you had." Erin stiffened, not responding to Susan's outstretched arm. "I've been wondering, I'm sure it's not important but ... "
Susan pulled her arm back and slipped it into a pocket amid the folds of fabric at her hip. Erin looked puzzled and mildly disappointed when she saw what emerged.
"What's that?" said Ashley. It was a tiny spiral-bound memo pad with a dingy blue cardboard cover.
"A journal, of sorts. The entries are undated and fragmentary, but it was clearly written by Erin's mother before she left the family."
Ashley gaped back and forth from Erin to Susan. "Mother, aren't you full of surprises! How do you come to have it?"
Susan directed her answer to Erin, who had cocked her head toward the corner of the room. "He must have stolen it from her. There is certainly no way she would have surrendered it; the language is much too frank and personal. Perhaps he planned to use it as evidence in the divorce case, though considering what it says about him, I suspect he thought twice about revealing it."
"Which doesn't answer my question of how you got it!"
Susan rotated her cranky back further toward Erin, whose gaze had fixed on the crease between two walls. "Your father had convinced me to merge our investments, including the money I had from my first husband. Once I agreed, he never again showed me the statements, and I suspected he made risky decisions he wouldn't tell me about. I searched his dresser and desk for evidence."
"So you stole the journal from him! Mother, your sneakiness amazes me. No, I guess it doesn't."
"What this little book reveals," Susan continued, "is that his cruelty was not limited to me. It also proves, Erin dear, that your mother cared deeply about you, and the decision to leave you behind with him was extremely difficult for her. Speaking as another who left you to your fate, I know that nothing can change the life you've led to this point, but understanding your mother's love for you may be a consolation in your later years -- years that, I can tell you, tend to be far from comfortable."
Susan awkwardly straightened her back, then leaned forward again to set the memo book on the coffee table. Erin glanced at Susan but made no move to pick it up.
"Wow, I'm intrigued," said Ashley, "but I won't ask to read it. Erin, did you ever suspect your mother kept a journal?"
Erin swallowed multiple times. "Um, I don't remember much way back then. She could've, I mean, I don't know that she didn't."
"You will see when you read it. It has to be by your mother. It never calls him by name, but it has her name in it and yours too, Erin."
"I feel that I should have delivered this to you many years ago, or mailed it at least. At first, however, I was afraid, if he found you with it, he would take his anger out on you. Later, when I knew you must be grown up, I feared you'd tell him about it -- you always had so little craftiness in your character. Then time passed -- I let matters go. It often seems best not to dwell on the past, but I know this might have made a difference to you, and I will live with my own conscience, as we all must."
For a moment all three women looked at the blue rectangle on the table.
"Mother," Ashley counseled, "it sounds like you're being too hard on yourself. Whatever's there, Erin will read it now and find the words, I imagine, heart-warming."
"Not entirely," Susan countered, speaking to Erin. "I must warn you, some of it makes for painful reading, and I don't mean the poor grammar. Not everything she says about her child is positive. Of course you were a rambunctious girl, Erin, a smart, vigorous, wonderful child, and for a mother in a troubled marriage, dealing with such a youngster could be ... stressful. Perhaps that was one valid reason for not pressing this on you as a young woman. But as we are all, now, mature adults, I'm sure you can forgive her doubts and frustrations and see past them to her abiding love for you."
"I am so curious," Ashley smiled. "In a completely immature fashion. This is almost, in a way, romantic, don't you think?"
Susan took no notice of her daughter's comments. "I thought about tearing out pages I didn't like," she admitted, "ones that would be difficult for you. But your mother deserves to be heard fully, as the individual she was. I feel a kind of kinship with her."
"I should -- the biscuits in the car," said Erin, licking her lips, "and, uh, check on him, do you think they're outside? I'm sorry, I'm not being rude, I'll just go for a minute and ... " She looped her pocketbook on her arm and practically ran to the front door, peeked outside, and then stepped through and shut the door softly behind her.
Ashley's neck jerked to follow her. "What's she -- ?"
"She needs a cigarette, I'm sure. I could smell it on her when we hugged."
Susan's voice was dry and precise, but Ashley could hear the strain behind it.
"If she wanted a smoke, Mother, why didn't she just say so? She's talked about so many of her ... " Ashley trailed off, shaking her head, a bit stunned by all of this. Her stepsister's odd behavior. Her mother's secrets. The way two girls who'd shared a room, not to mention a pair of warring parents, had turned out to have such different lives.
More important, Ashley realized as she collected herself, what was going on with Susan? Lips compressed, face rigid, the old woman scowled at the booklet on the table.
How deeply had this "conscience" thing been bothering her? Would this afternoon settle the matter?
He said are you thinking of leaving, you know if you do you'll never take HER with you. Walk out & you'll never see her again. He'll get lawyers to make sure. He can do that.
Could he raise her on his own? If I went with Margaret. What if he turns all his nastiness on her? No, he'll bring in his slut from the office or somebody else, he has to have a woman to bully.
He does care about her. I should be fair and admit that.
Erin I love you so much but how can I keep taking this.
SAL SNARLED through a wooden fence at a Lab mix, who became justifiably irate and threatened to rip the interloper into miniscule bits. Sal retorted that he would stand his ground no matter what some fat oaf of inferior breeding had to say about it. The language was foul and loud. After Phil dragged Sal across the street, there was a similar, though one-sided, encounter with a squirrel high in a beech tree. Sal strutted away with a victorious cant of the nose.
Scanning ahead for other potential provocations, Phil spotted the figure tilted against the Toyota, head drooped, forearm jutting out. "Is that your mom?" he asked Sal. "Let's not mention your quibbles with the neighbors. Hey," he called ahead and waved.
She peered indecisively, then raised a hand in return. As he approached the driveway he saw her take two final puffs from a cigarette, toss the butt on the ground, then retrieve it and reach inside her car, presumably to place it in the ashtray -- a silly scruple. "Oh, hi. Was he good?" she asked when her head reemerged.
"Sure, he educated me. I didn't realize our neighborhood was so smelly."
She gave a distracted nod and smiled wryly. "I came out to indulge a bad habit. But Sal has some bad habits too, doesn't he, huh baby?" she cooed at the dog. "Thank you for walking him, he was so so bad in the house. Um, do you want me to take him now?"
"No, it's fine, we're having fun together. Where's Ash? Did you see the trains yet?"
"No, they said about a tour of the house, but I can't stay. I have to," she swallowed twice, "get started back ... "
"Back? But Ashley has dinner planned. With a side course from me -- I'm grilling zucchini with vinaigrette and garlic powder."
"Oh, that's so nice, but I can't, I'm sorry. I didn't know she was planning something special for me ... "
"Not special, just the best zucchini you've ever tasted! We'll toss on a sausage for Sal."
She rummaged in her huge pocketbook, not fully listening to him. "There's something, some medicine I need to -- can I get a glass of water, do you think?"
"Of course. Are you OK?"
Her pale blank look convinced Phil that "OK" was a relative term in this case, but he continued cheerfully, "Let's go in then. C'mon, fierce puppy."
Erin suddenly smiled, a warm, bashful, almost flirtatious expression. Bewildered, he smiled back.
It's horrible for her this constant war. Her & me fighting too because it's so miserable.
There's no halfway, he won't allow it. Go or stay.
It has to be a clean break or it won't heal up proper. Like snapping a bone right in half.
"AFTER ALL THAT, she almost left the notebook behind. I had to remind her to take it."
"Ash, a lot's going on there," said Phil as he sat on the bed to remove his socks. "What were those pills she gobbled? Her dog is one neurotic beast, I can tell you that."
"I don't care about the dog or the meds." Whatever the psychological explanation, her stepsister's conduct upset Ashley. "If you were given a journal from your long-lost mother, wouldn't you be eager to read it?"
"The notebook was from a second long-lost mother," Phil pointed out. "She was already dealing with a formidable one in the living room."
"Mom was being very sympathetic. Did you see how fast she scooted back to her apartment when Erin left? I thought she was going to cry. Her face was shuddering."
That was the worst part, in Ashley's view. Whether or not Susan's obsession was a sign of senility, Ashley didn't want her to suffer on behalf of this girl who'd once menaced a Barbie doll.
"Your mom invited this," Phil contended. "She had to meddle."
"I don't call it meddling. In spite of the fact I'm jealous she's been harboring all this concern for Erin while griping at me every day. She's genuinely distressed about a person she thinks she could've helped."
"From what I've heard, by the time Erin got to your house she was already a refugee from a war zone. Situation like that, nobody knows what scars are hidden."
Ashley turned sharply toward Phil. "Are you saying we should excuse her rude behavior because of what happened so long ago?"
"Me, excuse rude behavior? I wouldn't dare. It's just that you can't cure the past, and when you dig it up, who can tell what'll happen? But for what it's worth, Ash, when I talked to Erin outside I got the impression she appreciated being meddled with, in some nutty kind of way. I think she could use a friend that isn't a dog, and a new ex-stepsister might do the trick. Anyway, I think she'll read that journal thingie and you'll hear from her again."
"I hope so, for Mom's sake. All this buildup for her and then ... " Ashley frowned as she began to plot. After a couple of minutes she said, "You know, if we visit David over Labor Day, we could invite Erin to join us for dinner. Our treat."
"Oh yeah, at one of those 'destination' places our son likes, where we spend a hundred bucks for meals the size of quarters. Why not?"
"If you're so critical, you choose the restaurant this time."
Phil's face dissolved in a yawn as he slid under the covers. "The Manayunk Diner. Does that still exist? Speaking of food, I thought my zucchini came out better than ever tonight."
"It was salty."
"But it's a shame she didn't get to see the trains. Everybody loves trains."
Ashley groaned and turned out the light.
I believe in my girl. Whatever happens she'll hang in there. She's a survivor.