Julie Cox: The Taste of Loneliness

marathonlitreview —  June 30, 2016 — Leave a comment

Kudzu-covered trees and hills sloped down beside the interstate as the car zipped along toward Atlanta.  Chelsi watched as they dipped into Georgia, then back into Tennessee, and back into Georgia, and she tried to be interested as her mother cooed from the front seat while they crossed Monteagle:  ”Look, honey!  A real mountain!”  It was the same thing Mom had said on numerous family vacations down this road en route to Florida when Chelsi and her sister Marci had been young, and they had smashed their noses against the windows as they rolled down the other side, past trucks grinding their brakes into powder.

But none of it seemed fascinating to Chelsi anymore.  The seven year old girl full of excitement had grown into the thirty-two year old woman with an apartment of her own, and somehow she was still sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car as they zoomed down the interstate toward another hotel room in a relatively unknown city.

She crossed her arms and let the greenery outside blur into a jumble before her eyes.  The real difference this time was that there was no Marci in the back seat with her, kicking her legs back onto the appropriate half of the seat.  No Marci to play the alphabet game with, no Marci to share books with, no Marci to lean on for an afternoon nap.  The emptiness in the back seat was like another person, like the sister she sometimes felt she had now.

Silence descended over the car as they drove through northern Georgia.  Chelsi put her forehead against the glass and stayed there, mile after mile, the car’s movement rocking her shoulders back and forth.  She didn’t know what to say to her mother’s incessant chatter.  Maybe there was nothing to say.

“Look!” Dad shouted, pointing to a billboard.  ”Boiled peanuts!  Next exit!”  He swerved over two lanes to the right, angling the car toward the green highway sign.

Chelsi closed her eyes.  Thanks, Marci, she thought.  Here we go back into the past.

*

Boiled peanuts had been the way Chelsi and Marci had marked vacations throughout their childhood.  Dad had an addiction to the slimy little goobers, and a complete hatred for the kinds they found near their home in Kentucky.  “Boiled in a crock pot,” he would say, and Chelsi had always thought that part of the reason for their yearly trip to Florida was so that they got to traverse three states in the deep South, searching for peanuts that Dad thought were authentic.

Marci thought he was crazy, and said that none of the peanuts anymore were “authentic”; they were all just boiled in somebody’s slow cooker, and what was really wrong with that anyway.  Chelsi never stated her allegiance one way or the other, but secretly she sided with Dad.  A good boiled peanut was a beautiful thing, soft and salty, the wet nut swelled into the strongest essence of itself, and it tasted like a southern summer—like wet earth from the freshest garden—especially when washed down with a cold Coke.

Dad parked the car outside an old-fashioned gas station with two pumps and a large fruit and vegetable stand off to the side.  “Promising,” he said, and he left the car running while he headed for the stand.

Mom rolled down her window.  “See if they’ve got peaches!” she called, and Chelsi slumped down in her seat to hide behind her phone, a teenage version of herself.

This is not real life, she reminded herself.  This is—But she didn’t have any good way to finish that sentence.

*

A damp bag of boiled peanuts knocked her phone out of her hand.  She looked up to see her father waving a second bag before he heaved it over the seat at her.  ”They look good!” he said.  ”One for me, one for you.  Put them in the floorboard over there by the cooler.”

She did as she was told, studying the bags as she tucked them into place, words suddenly easy. This part was an old script.  ”I hope you didn’t pay too much for them,” she said.

His eyes gleamed in the rearview mirror.  ”Are you kidding?  What would be too much?”

“What’s this?”  Mom pulled a little bag of gummy candy from the bag with her peaches.

All the joy went out of Dad’s face, like she had pulled a plug under his chin.  ”I bought them for Hannah,” he said.

Mom put them back on top of the peaches carefully and smoothed the edges of the plastic bag over them.  She turned to the window, her chin trembling in silhouette.

“You know, they’ve got candy back in Kentucky, Dad,” Chelsi said.  ”She’s probably eating some right now.”

“Yes.  Well.”  Dad put both of his hands on the wheel and leaned his head back against the seat and sat there for a long moment, staring out the front windshield while Mom cried off to the side, and Chelsi bit the insides of her cheeks and tried not to throw her head back and scream.  Finally, Dad put the car in reverse and headed for the interstate, and Chelsi put her head back against the window.

She understood why Dad bought that stupid candy, and she really couldn’t hold it against him.  They were never out of his heart, even at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Georgia.

*

Chelsi slept most of the rest of the way to Atlanta.  She woke as Dad turned into the hotel parking lot and turned off the car.  ”I’ll just go get the keys,” he said.

Heavy Georgia heat immediately seeped through the frame of the car.  ”Lord, it’s hot,” Mom said, fanning her face with her hand.  She ran her hand over her face and sniffed.  ”Sorry.  I just can’t shake these allergies.”  Her voice was thick and nasal, and Chelsi threw open the car door.  ”I’m going to get a luggage cart,” she said, and she bolted for the hotel.

She burst through the lobby doors and waved to her father, who was chatting with the clerk behind the counter.  ”I’ll just get the luggage,” she said.

He nodded.  ”Hang on.  I’m coming,” he said.  He pocketed the thin key cards.  ”Thanks for the tip,” he said to the clerk.

They walked out to the car together, Chelsi lugging the lumbering cart behind them.  It swung back and forth on wobbly wheels, and she had to use two hands to keep it from bumping into parked cars.  ”We’re on the third floor,” he said.  ”I told the clerk how we decided to come to this family reunion late, so we couldn’t get in the same hotel as everyone else.  He gave me directions to a good place for dinner.  We can meet up with all of them tomorrow.”

Chelsi could not imagine another foray in public tonight, pretending to be a normal family.  It would be difficult enough tomorrow.  ”I’m fine with just staying in the hotel room tonight.  We’ve got snacks in the cooler.  I mean, if you and Mom want to go, it’s okay too.  But I’m really fine with staying.”

“You are?”  They stopped by the car, and Dad opened the trunk with a click of his key ring.  ”We’ll ask your mother, of course, but I wouldn’t mind being able to just go to bed early myself.  It was a long day.”

Chelsi glanced in the car, where her mother was still wiping her eyes.  ”I don’t think she’s gonna care, Dad.”

He sighed, his gaze dropping to his shoes as if he was too tired to lift it.  ”No, I don’t guess she will.”

Chelsi piled their luggage onto the cart.  One suitcase on wheels, her duffel bag, and a cooler.  She placed the bags of peanuts on top of the suitcase.  They could have carried all this, but getting a luggage cart helped her feel more like the trip was actually a vacation instead of an ill-conceived venture to take care of her parents when they foolishly decided they wanted to reunite with fifth cousins from Delaware.  The cart’s metal bars made her hands sweat, and she really just wanted to go back to sleep and wake up when this weekend was over.

The room was unusually large and smelled clean.  She threw her bag on the bed closest to the air conditioner and then returned the luggage cart.  When she came back, her mother had already put on a nightgown and was standing in the open door of the bathroom washing her face.  Chelsi pulled a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt from her bag and waited for her turn in the bathroom.

“Come eat,” her dad said.

He had opened two Diet Cokes on the desk, and spread paper towels in front of the bags of boiled peanuts.  He tugged the paisley ottoman over to the desk and gestured for her to take the desk chair.

“I’m not hungry,” she said.

“For heaven’s sake, have a peanut,” he said, his face creasing the way it used to when she and Marci fought loudly from the back of the car.  She sank into the chair and tucked her feet up under her.  He nudged the bag toward her.  ”Come on, Chels.  Peanut time.”

She pinched a soft, rough shell until it cracked at the edges, then she dug her nails in and split it apart.  Inside, the nut was as soft as skin, and she rolled it to the back of her teeth, savoring the tender meat.  It tasted like it had been boiled in the ocean, and she closed her eyes as she swallowed.  How long had it been since she’d had one?  She hadn’t known how much she missed them.

Mom turned on the TV and found the Braves game.  ”What is wrong with them?”  Mom complained.  ”How are they already losing?”  She took a banana from the cooler and peeled it as she sat on the bed.

“How’s work, Chelsi?” Dad asked.

“It’s work,” Chelsi said.  ”Busy.  I think we’re going to hire a new associate.  I’ve been working twelve hour days for two weeks.  It just can’t go on this way.”

“Well, hiring someone else shouldn’t be hard,” Dad said.  ”There are always a million lawyers.  You have to take care of your health.”

Chelsi smiled and ate another peanut.  Her parents had been surprised when she’d chosen law as a career, but it fit her like her favorite shoes.  She savored the orderliness of it and the analytical thinking.  She actually liked dictating letters and prepping for depositions, and nothing at the office relaxed her more than a long afternoon of reviewing medical records.  She even liked other lawyers, which was how Marci and her husband Joshua had met; she’d gone to law school with Joshua, and she’d introduced them.

She looked carefully at her father.  He was digging into his peanuts with a look of sheer delight, the lines that sadness had dug around his eyes lightened.  She drank Diet Coke and ate another peanut.  ”I probably should call Joshua,” she said.

Her mother squeezed the remote.  Her father’s eyes grew heavy again, and he struggled to swallow.  Finally he said, “Go ahead.”

She pulled her phone out and thought about going in the hall, but then she’d just have to repeat the conversation for her parents.  ”Anything you want me to tell him?” she asked.

Mom’s eyes were dark and hollow.  ”Let him know we love him.  Tell Hannah we love her.”

Joshua answered on the second ring.  ”I’m finishing Hannah’s dinner,” he said instead of hello.

“What are you having?”

“She’s having mac and cheese.  Um, and chicken.  Somebody from work brought by chicken.”

“Sounds good.  What are you having?”

“I’ll get something after she goes to bed.”

Chelsi bit her lip.  Joshua had been living mostly on beer, whiskey, and salads from the Kroger near work lately, and most of that came after Hannah went to bed.  ”Why don’t you just eat with her?”

“I can’t feed her and eat at the same time.”

“She’s two.  She can probably mostly feed herself.”

“Then I’ll have to just dunk her straight in the tub.”

Chelsi laughed.  ”Everything else okay?”

“Yeah.”  He took a deep breath.  ”You’re in Atlanta, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.  I’ll try not to call you at midnight.”

“Just…try to get some food now so you don’t have to later.”  Chelsi glanced at her parents, who were pretending not to listen.  She didn’t want them to know how often Joshua called her, drunk and in tears, in the middle of the night.  He wasn’t eating or sleeping, and he was concentrating all his energy on making sure life was normal for Hannah, although every time she asked for Mommy, he cried in front of her.  ”But call me if you need anything, okay?”

“We probably should have come with you guys like your parents wanted.”  He sighed again.  ”I just didn’t know if I could handle that, you know?”

“It’s mostly old ladies from Louisiana,” Chelsi said, and he laughed.  ”But I understand.”

She hung up the phone and sat back down with Dad.  Slowly, Mom turned the volume on the game back up.  Chelsi hadn’t even noticed that she’d lowered it.  ”Get a peanut, Dad,” she said, and he twisted his lips in a weak smile.

“Do you call him every day?”

“I call him every night.  At dinner.”  She had always called Marci then, on her way home from work.  After the wreck she had found herself dialing Marci’s number without even thinking, and then she had heard the voicemail Joshua hadn’t taken down, and she cried at Marci’s voice.  She called Joshua to fill the void in her day, to keep a connection with her sister.  And then she called him because he was lost without Marci; he was desperately in love with their daughter but had no clue how to be a single parent with his heart buried in the ground.

Dad nodded and slowly ate a peanut.  ”I call him every morning at breakfast before I go and pick up Hannah.”

“I didn’t know you were picking her up in the mornings.”

“It just made things easier for him.”  After Marci’s wreck, Mom and Dad had started keeping Hannah while Joshua worked.  She had beautiful soft brown curls like her mother’s, and looking at her was both painful and healing.  Chelsi ate another peanut.

“Do you think things will ever get better?” Mom asked.

Her face was wet with tears she wasn’t bothering to wipe away.  ”It’s been six months.  Is it ever going to get better?”  She started to sob, her chest heaving, and she bent over until her head almost touched her knees.  Dad sat down beside her, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her body to his, crying along with her.  Chelsi sat at the desk with a boiled peanut in her hand.  She put it into her mouth and swallowed without chewing, feeling the weight of her family across her shoulders and across the miles sink down over her body.  The peanut felt harsh down her throat.

Because the answer was no.  She didn’t think it was ever going to get better.

*

She woke to an early morning news show.  Dad was sitting on the edge of his bed with his back to her and the remote in his hand.  His thick hair was damp, and he was already dressed.  Mom stepped out of the bathroom with one towel around her body and another around her hair.  ”Go ahead and get in, sweetheart,” she said.  ”We’ll wait for you.”

“You guys can go ahead and get breakfast.  Really,” she said.  She yawned and stretched.

“No, we’ll wait.  Hurry up.”

Chelsi closed her eyes so they couldn’t see her roll them around.  She preferred to wake up gradually, not be rushed.  But she climbed obediently out of bed and took a fast shower.  She put on a pair of her favorite jeans and a sleeveless top and braided her wet hair, then stepped out of the bathroom.  “Ready.”

“Oh no, you’re not.”  Mom held out a t-shirt identical to the ones she and Dad were wearing.

“Mom.  You’ve got to be kidding.”  The shirt was bright yellow and emblazoned with the words “Jones Family Reunion—Atlanta, Georgia.”  “I came.  I am not wearing the t-shirt too.”

Mom lay the shirt on the bed and crossed her arms.  “You want to look different from everyone else today?”

“Yes, please.”

Mom shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  But if you don’t get let in to the private rooms reserved for us, Dad and I are not going to vouch for you.”

Chelsi groaned.  Dad stood up and stretched, the yellow of the shirt especially pronounced against his dark hair.  Chelsi imagined it would look the same against hers.  “I’ll call the elevator,” he said, and though he didn’t look at her, she could hear the laughter in his voice.

Chelsi put the shirt on and flipped her braid out the back.  She smoothed her hair in the mirror, seeing Marci’s brown eyes looking back at her, and suddenly she smiled.  Marci would have put on the shirt.  Marci would have rocked the shirt.  Marci would have put a happy Hannah in a tiny version and a grudging Joshua in his matching one, and she would have led the reunion through Atlanta today.

Well, Chelsi knew she wasn’t Marci.  But she linked her arm through her mother’s and kissed her cheek.  “If the hotel coffee is bad, we’re googling the nearest Starbucks,” she said.

“Deal,” her mother replied, and kissed her back.

*

They started their day at the World of Coke, with the collected Jones family from six different states.  Chelsi tried to hang out in the back, but her parents called to her from their spots in the front of the line, where they’d already bought her ticket.  They introduced her again and again to old people whose names she’d never remember, but there were a few third cousins who were vaguely familiar, and to her surprise, her cousin Alaya, with whom she’d spent many fun vacations as a child, was there.  The whole group carried an easy hilarity and a fun vibe which she hadn’t expected.

She stuck by her parents through the whole tour, but she lost them as the group shifted outside to head for the aquarium.  Chelsi stuffed the little white bear she bought for Hannah in her bag and then looked around, spotting her parents once again in the front.  Dad was holding a small bag; he’d probably bought the same bear.

Before she could make her way through the crowd, Alaya appeared and linked their arms.  ”I miss Marci at things like this,” Alaya said.

Chelsi blinked at her.  Alaya lived in Georgia and had probably not seen Marci in ten years.  ”You do?”

“Of course!”  Alaya sighed and sniffed and wiped at the corner of her eye.  ”Don’t you remember all those times on Aunt Odessa’s farm?  When we’d chase the cats and ride horses?”

Chelsi nodded cautiously.  They had possibly been to Aunt Odessa’s farm twice, but Marci was older, so maybe she’d been there more.  ”Why does that make you think of Marci?”

Alaya waved her hand in the air.  ”Oh, you know, all the family all around.”  She leaned over until her forehead pressed against Chelsi’s hair.  ”How are you all holding up?”

“We’re okay.”  Chelsi pulled away and tried to remember the last time she had seen Alaya.  They were friends on Facebook, so Chelsi knew way too much about Alaya’s love for her boyfriend and how cute her daughter was, but she really didn’t know much about Alaya herself.  ”How’s Mara?  I saw the pictures you posted.  She’s getting so big.”

Alaya waved her hand again.  ”She’s fine.  I left her with her dad today.  Too much trouble to try to drag her through the aquarium, you know?”

If Hannah had been here today, Chelsi might not have been able to let go of her hand.  She would have loved to have given Hannah this day, to let the little girl see something besides her mother in every picture all over the house.  ”Hm,” she said.

“Can I ask you a question?” Alaya said.  ”No one here really seems to know what exactly happened to Marci.”

Chelsi’s lips felt stiff.  ”It was a car accident.”

“Well, I know that.  But was she driving?”

“Yes.”

“So, like, what happened?  I heard it was a rainy day and she lost control of the car?”

“Yes.”

“But…what happened?”

Chelsi’s throat felt so dry she could have swallowed all the Coke in Atlanta, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.  ”She died is what happened,” she said, and she pulled her arm free and walked away.

Mom and Dad were waiting at the edge of the ticket line.  ”I don’t want to go in,” she said. ”You go without me.”

Mom studied her face.  ”Are you okay?”

“I just don’t feel like looking at fish right now.  I feel kind of sick.”

Mom touched her face, and the coolness of her hands quieted the fire in Chelsi’s heart.  ”Your face feels okay,” Mom said.

“Why don’t we all just skip the aquarium?” Dad said.  ”Tell the truth, I was getting sick of those people anyway.  Family reunion my butt.  No way am I related to even half of them.”

“They all have your nose,” Mom said.

“Ain’t none of them got my brain.”

“Thank God.”

“Guys, seriously, you don’t need to stay with me.  I’d like to be alone for a little while.”

Dad ignored her.  ”Why don’t we three get back in the car and go have an early lunch?  I liked what they were telling me at the hotel about the Varsity.  That sounded like a fine place.”

“I really don’t mind if you go on without me.”

Mom put her arms around Chelsi and her forehead against her daughter’s.  ”We would never, ever do that.”

*

The Varsity was a crowded, intimidating place that seemed to activate Mom’s inner aggressiveness.  She swept through a line and called out all of their orders quickly and loudly, then led the way to a table with her head held high, while Chelsi wanted to cower in a corner.  The place was packed and overwhelming, and she clutched at her purse while Mom tossed her hair and claimed a chair.  “I love this!” Mom said, taking a huge bite of her burger.

Chelsi dipped an onion ring in ketchup.  “Marci would have too,” she said before she thought.

But for once, a cloud didn’t sweep over her mother’s face.  She took a long drink of her soda and smiled.  “But she’d be eating hot dogs and rench fries,” Mom said, “and she would be covering everything in only mustard.”

“She’d be bossing me around,” Dad said, “telling me I ought to be drinking diet soda, and at my age when am I going to start taking care of my weight?”

“She never would have let that woman cut in front of you in line,” Chelsi said.

Mom’s nostrils flared.  “I wouldn’t have let her either, if you two had kept up with me or at least told me what you wanted.”

“She would have let Hannah eat off her plate,” Chelsi said.  “She would have stolen my onion rings to give to Hannah.  She would have held hands with Joshua under the table, and he would have looked relaxed, and he would have laughed.  Hannah would have fallen asleep in her arms.”

Dad rubbed his eyes.  “We all would have been laughing,” he said.  “If Marci was here.”

Chelsi pushed her food away and looked out over the sea of concrete outside, one lonely building after another after another.  She was supposed to be taking care of her parents.  That was the whole reason for coming on this trip, and instead she was falling apart.

Mom handed her a napkin, and she looked at it in confusion.  “For your eyes, sweetheart,” Mom said, and Chelsi put her fingers to her wet cheeks.  She hadn’t even known she was crying.

Mom pulled her chair beside Chelsi’s on the left, and Dad scooted around on the right.  They put their arms around her, and she clung to their looped arms like a lifeline.

*

That afternoon Dad put in a quick call to his cousin Charlie, and they officially abandoned the rest of the family reunion.  Instead, in honor of Marci, who had loved Gone With the Wind, they visited the Margaret Mitchell House in midtown.  The museum was hushed as they walked through the door, as if they were in a funeral parlor.  The tour didn’t start for fifteen minutes, so they surveyed the tiny gift shop, instinctively speaking to each other in whispers.

The docent was a thin man with a hooked nose and a nasal voice.  His wispy hair wouldn’t stay down, and he waved his hands wildly at the end of each sentence, but Chelsi was captivated at his first words.  ”Let me tell you the story of the fascinating woman who once walked these floors.”

Chelsi looked at the pictures of Mitchell over the course of her short life, tracing the cheekbones and following the gaze of the lovely eyes, and it was easy to match the beautiful young woman on the walls with the docent’s description of a woman who wouldn’t think inside any conventional boxes.  It was easier still to picture a tall young woman with a toddler on her hip hovering near the docent, hanging on his every word, raising her finger to ask a question.  Chelsi turned to the place her sister could have been standing, and Marci winked at her, the snappy dark eyes in her angular face sparkling with excitement.  She shoved her free elbow into Chelsi’s ribs.  ”We are in Margaret Mitchell’s house!” she whispered.  She wrapped both arms around Hannah and did an impromptu whirling little dance in the middle of the crowded room.  ”Whee!  Get excited, y’all!”

They moved through Mitchell’s apartment with the rest of the group.  Chelsi sat on the window seat and imagined Mitchell at the typewriter, fingers clicking across the keys, eyes wandering as she rolled her shoulders and thought about her next sentence, and then Chelsi imagined Marci with her high spirits running her hands over the same keys, telling Chelsi to close her eyes and feel the presence that was here.  ”Some people,” the docent said, “are larger than life, and the richness of their lives leave the most fulfilling legacies.”

*

That night, back at the hotel, Mom and Dad went down to the pool to sit in the hot tub, and Chelsi flopped back on her bed and called Joshua.  “Hannah won’t eat,” he said in a strangled whisper.  “She did great last night and now she won’t eat.  What do I do?”

“What are you feeding her?”

“Carrots and pasta.”

Chelsi wrinkled her nose.  “Well, that explains it then,” she said.  “I’m not in the mood for carrots tonight either.”

“That’s not helpful to me.”

“Joshua, she’s a little person.  She has moods and whims like everyone else.  Ease up a little maybe.”  She hesitated, then said it.  “What did Marci do when she didn’t eat?”

He sucked in his breath sharply, then let it out in a rush.  “I don’t know,” he said.  She could hear the swoosh of cushions as he sat down.  “She played a game with her,” he said finally.  “She would make the spoon an airplane.”

“Okay,” Chelsi said.  “So you need to make the spoon an airplane.”

Joshua didn’t answer, and Chelsi bit her lips.  “Oh!  I know,” she said.  “I remember Marci used to see who could eat a food the fastest.”

“I remember,” he said, his voice quiet.

“But you have to make sure she wins,” Chelsi said.  “That’s pretty important.”

Joshua laughed, a short bark.  “I can handle that.”

“When I get home, Hannah can come and spend the night with me and let you get some real sleep.”

“I’d like that.”

“And Joshua—“ Chelsi chewed the inside of her cheek again.  How close was she to overstepping her bounds?  “I have vacation coming up in a month.  Would you like to take Hannah and go to the beach with Mom and Dad and me?  I’m sure I can get them to go.  Don’t you think it would be good for you to get away?”

“I don’t think I can do it, Chels,” he said, and she could hear his voice cracking.  She hoped he wasn’t in the same room as Hannah.  “I don’t think I can ever get away.”

“I don’t think you can either, Joshua,” she said.  “But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I think we’re supposed to take her with us.”

His sobs quieted and his breathing evened.  “I’ll think about it.”

*

When Mom and Dad came back in, towels wrapped around their shoulders, Chelsi had the Braves game on and was opening the leftover boiled peanuts at the desk.  ”Oh, good,” Dad said.  ”I thought we threw those away.”

“I put them in the fridge last night,” Mom said.  She changed in the bathroom and sat down on the edge of her bed to watch the game.  ”We’re winning!” she shouted.

Chelsi bit into a peanut.  It was soft and cold and repulsive, all the taste congealed inside the chilly flesh.  She spit it out into the trash can.  ”That is the grossest thing I’ve ever eaten,” she said.

“Really?”  Dad picked up the bag and examined them, as if he could discover what had gone wrong by staring, his eyes disappointed and his mouth turned down.  ”We can pick up some more tomorrow on the way home, I guess.”

“Marci would have eaten those,” Mom said.

They both turned to look at her.  She had kicked off her shoes and was curled up on the bed, sipping a soda she’d pulled from the fridge.  ”Don’t you remember?  She always just waited until you guys had picked over the hot ones, and I had put the leftover ones into the fridge.  She would steal cool ones as they got colder.  She’s the reason I always put them in the fridge.  Lord knows you guys never ate them.”

“I never knew,” said Dad. He ran his hand over his chin.  ”I never even knew we had leftovers.”

“She ate them fast.  She could put them away.”

“She was crazy then,” Chelsi said.  ”No one in her right mind would eat that crap.”

Her parents swiveled their gazes to her, their jaws dropping.  For a moment Chelsi was horrified with herself.  Then Mom started laughing, and she laughed until she cried.  ”She was crazy.  She was,” Mom said again and again.

Chelsi and Dad sank onto the bed with her.  Dad held Mom’s hand, and Chelsi put her head on Mom’s shoulder.   They settled into a contemplative quiet then, Mom murmuring at the various plays, and they fell asleep like that, all leaning against each other, before the game was over.

Chelsi woke up around 3 a.m., stiff and creaky.  Mom and Dad were leaning their heads against each other, and Dad was snoring softly.  Chelsi tiptoed around the room turning off lights, but when she snapped off the TV, Dad jerked awake with a snort.  ”Wha–?”  He looked at Chelsi and blinked.  ”Sorry, sweetheart.  I must have fallen asleep.”

“It’s time, Dad.”  Chelsi smiled.  ”You could take off your shoes though.”

Dad kicked off his shoes and pulled the covers up over him and Mom.  ”Good night, Chelsi,” he said.

“‘Night, Dad,” she said, slipping beneath her own sheets.

She had thought, at the beginning of the weekend, that this wound would never heal.  But now she could start to see how it might, someday, and somehow that was more painful still.  She closed her eyes and stretched her body in all the extra space the double bed held.  Then she pulled her limbs back to one side of the bed and looked up at the ceiling in the dark.

‘Night, Marci, she thought, and she tried to keep the sound of her own tears from echoing in the quiet room as she cried.

 

 

Bio:

Julie Cox writes from Kentucky, where she lives with her husband and children and teaches high school.

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