The letter from Gladys Hansen was written in blue ink in an angular hand, on one sheet of plain white paper. Dear Madeline Stone
, it began, I have thought to write to you for quite some while. I didn’t because I supposed you wouldn’t appreciate it, that you’d think it wasn’t my place. I should have gone ahead and written anyhow.
I was sorry to hear of Emmy’s passing. I know she was your mother, much more than Jackie Stone ever could’ve been. It is a hard loss, of someone so close. I expect you are at sea still without her—a year is not really long in the scheme of things. I won’t say it was for the best or any of that. It can never feel right to lose someone so dear.
Emmy wrote me now and then, I don’t know if you knew. She told me about the cancer, and how you helped her. She always said she wanted there to be some link for you up north, a door open if you wanted it. I should have done better with that.
I am writing now because I need help. My sister, Arbutus, has taken a bad turn. She’s crippled up with the arthritis and since she fell this last time she can hardly get around at all. We are here in Chicago where you are, staying with my nephew Nathan. Moving in with him seemed like the only thing to do, but it is no good. Butte has hardly stirred from her chair since we got here, she says it is too much trouble. This isn’t home and if we don’t get home I swear she will be dead before many more months are gone.
What I need is someone to come back up north with us, someone to live in, to lift and bathe her and so forth, someone young and strong to help with whatever is needed. At least for a while. I hope you won’t take this amiss but I know that you know how to do this. I thought you might come and help us. And I thought that maybe you should see where your people came from. Maybe it’s time.
I would pay a small wage, not much I’m afraid, but there would be your room and board included. There is nothing much to buy up home, so if you had a mind to you could live cheap. Let me know your answer soon. If you say no I will have to think of something else. Nathan seems restless now at having us here and I am afraid he will put Arbutus in a home. I cannot stand to think of that. Please do come.
Madeline had opened the letter as she came in the door from work, and now she stood in the entryway, still wearing her pink waitress dress that smelled faintly of fryer grease, gazing at it in astonishment. This from the woman who had been her grandfather’s—what? Lady-friend? Paramour? Lover?—the estranged grandfather who’d abandoned Madeline to her fate more than thirty years ago. She’d only been three years old. Cards had come like clockwork on her birthday and at Christmas, always with a five-dollar bill taped inside, written in this same hand: Best Wishes from Joe Stone and Gladys Hansen
, the return address a post office box in McAllaster, Michigan. Those cards—answered only by a perfunctory thank you and then only because Emmy insisted—had been the sum total of her relationship with her grandfather.
Emmy had explained it all when Madeline was very small. Gladys was a good friend of Joe Stone’s, and ladies often did do things like that, of the two in a couple—sent the cards, remembered the birthdays. Emmy explained also that Madeline’s grandfather was just too old and set in his ways to look after a little girl, which was why the two of them were so lucky, to be able to live together in Chicago. The lucky part was true, but the part about Madeline’s grandfather was a polite fiction, and she wasn’t very old at all when she understood that.
What her grandfather was in reality was a heartless, irresponsible bastard. Of course someone as kindhearted as Emmy would never have said anything so blunt, not to a child. Not even to an adult. They’d disagreed about it when Madeline got old enough— Emmy counseling Madeline to be forgiving, not to harbor such bitterness, Madeline telling Emmy in the sharp way of the young not to be naïve and soft. Eventually—well, after Emmy got so sick— they’d agreed to disagree and left the topic where it belonged, tucked away, not worth discussing. It was only at the end that Emmybrought it up again. Promise me you’ll try to forgive the man
, she’d said. For your own sake
. Madeline had promised, not meaning it really, just wanting the worried look to leave Emmy’s eyes, but in the end her insincerity didn’t matter. She’d given her word to the person she loved most on earth, and against her will she began to feel obliged to live up to it. At least to make some stab at living up to it.
Those five-dollar bills Gladys Hansen sent stopped when Madeline turned twenty-one (to her relief—both the cards and money had made her uncomfortable; she still had them all, tucked into a box somewhere, the money unspent), but the cards kept coming, two a year, even after Joe Stone died. Nowadays they were just signed, with no message: Gladys Hansen
And now this. It took a lot of nerve to ask. The idea was preposterous.
Madeline crumpled the letter into a ball and hurled it toward the wastebasket, but of course something so insubstantial—one frail piece of paper—couldn’t carry off the gesture. It drifted to the floor a few feet short of its mark. Madeline left it there.
An hour later she was back in the entryway, frowning into the mirror, tugging at her slip. Richard—her boyfriend of three years and fiancé of six months—had said to dress up, they were going someplace fancy, and she had, but she resented the effort. It was a raw night, and she was not in the mood for strappy high heels and the skimpy, clingy red dress Richard had surprised her with on Valentine’s Day. She sighed. The dress was ridiculous. She didn’t have the figure for it, aside from her bosom, which was undoubtedly what he was thinking of when he chose it. She was a sturdy person, not very tall, top heavy, all-over muscular from her years of waiting table. A serviceable person
, she thought, standing there in front of the wavy-glassed mirror.
Brown eyes stared back at her bleakly. A serviceable, capable person with a heart like a volcano, one that was spewing out a lava of rage and confusion and grief. Oh, no one would ever guess it. Her customers would never believe her capable of such fury and desolation, the unending baffled confusion she felt as to how to go on living without Emmy. She was like an animal who’d been blinded and N maimed, clawing and flailing in a cage. She hid this well, she knew. She was ever the sensible and steady one, the cheerful, dependable one, the one who made everyone laugh but always kept their orders straight. But beneath the surface, down in the tunnels of the real Madeline, a train wreck had happened. Madeline felt from moment to moment that there was no telling what she might do.
Her gaze caught the crumpled letter from Gladys Hansen. She stared it down for a moment. Let it lie there, damn it. But she couldn’t. It was untidy, for one thing. Also it looked helpless. Helpless and reproachful. Madeline bent and picked the letter up, smoothed it out, propped it against the small lamp on the library table next to the door. Then she reached for the old navy peacoat she’d had since the fall she almost went to college—one thing she would not do was be cold all evening—and the doorbell rang and she buzzed Richard in.
Copyright © 2012 by Ellen Airgood. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.