Irene had been doing the breakfast dishes, worrying the finish off the plates, her mind picturing her and Maddy in that TV version of the big mother and daughter talk–even though she wasn’t Maddy’s mother–when Helga had knocked on the front door. It was as if Irene had conjured up her friend with the pure power of dilemma. Helga would know what Irene needed to say to her granddaughter.
Helga and Irene had been friends for over thirty years, but this was the first time they had actually seen each other for at least ten. Irene was so glad to see Helga, she could have cried. The two women hugged fiercely.
Helga still had the same crazy style, her hair shocking red, piled high on her head, a loud yellow silk cowboy shirt and blue jeans. Gold and silver bracelets jangle on her wrist. Her cat-like eyes were spidered with black mascara and thick black eyeliner. The only thing different had been the added wrinkles. The skin on her face had always been dark and leathery, but there were deep creases now, lines zigzagging across her face like a road map.
Irene had made a pot of coffee, and they’d spent at least an hour catching up. Helga was on her way to San Antonio, to live with her daughter. She said that when she’d seen the Waxahachie exit, she almost flipped the UHaul, deciding in that instant that she needed to see Irene while she still could.
Helga had moved to Missouri ten years before to take care of her dying mother, but she and Irene had kept in touch over the years through letters and phone calls. But a lot had changed since the last time Irene had heard from her.
Helga’s mother died six months before and not long after that Helga found out she has cancer. She said it was in remission, and with her signature sense of humor, Helga had laughed deep and hard, saying she decided she better “get while the gettin’ was good.” She had always been a tough old bird, and Irene understood exactly what she meant. Being able to drive herself to her final destination at least made her feel like she still had some control over her life.
As she’d listened to Helga, Irene had become distracted by the sounds of a normal Saturday morning streaming in through the screen door, Katie barking as she chased a squirrel, the little boy next door varooming, giving his hot wheel a motor, carefree and innocent. Irene had to shut the door. How could the world just carry on, she’d thought, while Helga sat there, only steps away, bearing the heavy knowledge of her impending death?
Her bright yellow shirt had made Irene want to cry. That was Helga, sticking her tongue out at death, daring it to come. A picture had formed in Irene’s mind, a negative that must have lain dormant for years, waiting for this moment to develop. It became a crystal clear image, a snapshot of life, wonderful and horribly cruel in equal measure. THIS IS HOW IT IS.
Irene’s been tossing and turning in her four poster bed for hours. It’s Sunday night and she needs to get to sleep, she’s got to be at the Senior Citizen’s Center by seven to make the lunches for the shut ins, but her mind won’t let her rest. Seeing Helga yesterday has sent her on a trip down memory lane. They didn’t meet under the best of circumstances; they’d shared a room in the hospital, Helga there for a hysterectomy, Irene with a broken arm. Irene had argued with Dr. Williams in the emergency room, she couldn’t stay in the hospital, she had kids at home that needed her, and besides, she had no insurance. The old doctor had been adamant that he was keeping her for a few days, for “observation.” He had been her physician for decades and had seen the bruises, but Irene had always made up a lie; she’d bumped into the door, tripped over one of the boy’s bikes.
But Eugene had finally gone too far. Irene had decided then that she was through making excuses for him. Dr. Clark had tried to talk her into pressing charges, but she had refused, and that’s when the doctor had decided to keep her there, in the hospital. He wouldn’t even allow her to have any visitors, hoping that if she had a few days to think it over, without any outside interference, she might change her mind. As fate would have it, those days spent in the hospital would end up changing Irene’s life.
Irene gets out of bed and quietly makes her way to the kitchen. Maybe a glass of warm milk will help her sleep. She pours some in a pan, and sets in on the stove to warm. Always the faithful companion, Katie appears in the kitchen door, the look on her speckled black face a question, “What are you doing up so late?”
Come here, Katie,” Irene says. She stoops down, her knees making that cracking sound they always do these days. She puts her arms around Katie and gave her a big hug and a kiss. “You are such a good girl”. She isn’t worried about waking Maddy up, the child could sleep through a tornado.
She hears the milk hissing in the pan, and rises with effort from her crouched position. Damn, she hates getting old. She pours the scalding milk in a mug and sits down at the table. Katie walks over and lies at her feet. Its past midnight, and the only sound in the room is the ticking of the clock on the wall.
Irene has sat here countless times in the dead of night, and she is usually soothed by the sound, but tonight, it’s the most lonesome sound in the world.
As she sips her milk, she thinks about the first time she laid eyes on Helga. She smiles now at the memory, but it wasn’t very funny then. When they’d wheeled her into the hospital room, she was already depressed, her husband had broken her arm, the doctor wouldn’t let her go home, and she had young boys at home, the only person to take care of them the drunken bastard who’d put her in the hospital in the first place.
Then of all the people she had to room with, there was Helga. Irene knew her type, she’d seen her share of women just like her in the honky tonks Eugene frequented, the kind of woman he was attracted to; all dolled up, ready to party. As soon as she’d seen Helga, Irene had shut her eyes, pretending to be asleep. She’d thought, I’ll be damned if I am going to make nice with a woman like that.
But once she’d closed her eyes, she had slept, the sleep of the dead, her mind and body beaten down, exhausted. After the fight the night before, Eugene had left, as usual, and she had tried to sleep, but her arm had hurt so badly sleep had been impossible. When the light of day had come, Irene had driven herself to the emergency room. All she’d been able to think about was getting something for the pain. It had never occurred to her that her arm might be broken, or that she’d end up staying in the hospital.