The letter in her hands fluttered like a drunken hummingbird. When Maggie tried to hold the page still, the flutter shifted to her stomach. Lien. Such an innocuous word. Dangerous words should be big, she thought. Three syllables, at least. Disaster. Catastrophe. Foreclosure. The IRS wanted to take her home, the gallery. She squeezed her eyes shut and imagined men in severe black suits lifting grinning teapots and mobiles of dangling skeleton keys, sitting at her wheel trying to squeeze up a bowl out of a lump of clay.
I haven’t not paid my taxes. I just haven’t paid them yet.
“Miz McKey? You need anything else?”
Dave was looking at her with concern. How long had she been standing there?
Maggie picked the green edged envelope off the counter and crammed the papers into her purse.
“Sorry, Dave. Senior moment.”
“Oh, now, you ain’t all that senior!” he said, laughing.
Maggie laughed too, concealing her shock that he considered her senior even a little bit. Her hands swept up to readjust the clip at the back of her head. With her hair down, the grey corkscrewing through her curls was more obvious. She’d always thought of Dave as a peer, a friendly face at the post office. More importantly, an interested man to flirt with. But she probably was senior to him; she was increasingly senior to everyone. It had never occurred to her that their easy banter might merely be a younger man being kind to an older woman. A good son, teasing his mother. How depressing.
Dave was standing behind the counter in his boxy blue uniform. Waiting.
“Oh! There I go again! Getting older by the minute!”
He reached out and patted her hand. A small gesture, but it caught her off guard and for a moment, she thought she might cry.
Could I be more pathetic?
Maggie turned and headed for the exit. The post office was empty now and Dave’s voice echoed off the marble walls as she pushed open the door.
“You take care, you hear?”
Take care? Oh Dave, it’s too late for that.
On the steps outside, she paused to catch her breath. Yellow fans spiraled down from the gingko trees lining Main Street. October in the valley was a profligate and unpredictable month – equal parts recklessness and regret. Nature threw herself at you, Maggie thought, in desperate showers of sweet gum balls, acorns and leaves that piled up in drifts and crunched underfoot. It felt like the last gaudy gasp of the dying year, before the world turned grey.
The sidewalks were filled with people rushing home after work, coats draped over their arms. She watched them for a moment, these occupants of the Real World. Today, she wished she was one of them, a secretary or clerk who made phone calls and filed papers. A lawyer who wrote terse, sharp words like lien.
The flutter in her belly started up again, driving her off the steps and toward her car, parked by the curb down the side street. She unlocked the door of the Civic and got in, tossing her purse into the passenger seat. Letter and envelope tumbled to the floorboards. She clicked on her seatbelt and slid the key into the slot. Her heart was beating oddly in her chest, like stern men in suits hammering at her door.
Where to now?
The flutter turned into a sharp twinge and one hand went to her belly. A tiny bee sting, deep inside the hive of her womb.
She was ovulating.
No way! She was fifty-two years old, nine months past her last period, though she felt younger, stuck at some fuzzy age between waiting for her life to begin and feeling it slip through her fingers. But there was no mistaking this sensation. That fluttering in the honeycomb of her ovaries was a last futile bee being released to wander through a barren garden. Brave, doomed little thing.
“Hopeless.” Maggie said out loud, patting her stomach. “You and me both, baby.”
She put the car in gear and backed away from the curb. There was a sudden screech of tires, an explosion, the sound of glass breaking, a sideways slide ending in another jolt as her car hopped the curb, connected with a tree and came to a shuddering stop.
Something was hissing. Hair hung across her face and her head hurt. When she looked down at her hands, they were shaking.
There was a man was at her door, yelling. His sandy brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail and he wore glasses. Just like John Lennon, she thought. His palm was flat against her window and she noticed his long fingers. She’d always been a sucker for a man with good hands. Someone yanked open the passenger door and people were there, asking her questions, could she move, was she okay; didn’t she see that car coming?
She slid over to the passenger seat and hands helped her out of the car, passed her to the curb, where she sat down hard. John Lennon offered her a bottle of water and asked her if she wanted him to call an ambulance.
“I’m all right,” she told him. “I’m fine.”
“Maybe you should go to the hospital,” he said.
When she shook her head, a throbbing started up behind her eyes. The guy was kneeling in front of her, talking softly. He wanted to help, to get her an ambulance, to make sure she was all right. Behind his glasses his eyes were brown. Kind.
“No, really,” she said. “I’m not old.”
What did she just say? He was looking at her, confused
She tried again. “I’m not hurt.”
He laid his hand on her shoulder and patted her softly, like he was soothing a small child. Then he stood up and walked away, toward a tan Jeep with a concave fender.
Oh crap. I messed up John Lennon’s car. I should apologize.
He returned a few minutes later with his insurance information. Helped her retrieve her purse from the car.
“I was at the post office,” she told him.
He pulled a card out of his wallet and wrote a number on the back.
“This is my cell,” he said, handing it to her.
Cell. Do they have debtor’s prisons anymore? She glanced at the card. The letters and numbers dipped and rose like synchronized swimmers. John Lennon was tall, so he bent a little to look at her under the curtain of her unruly hair; such close scrutiny made her blush and pull at the neckline of her old blue sweater, hoping it wasn’t hanging off one shoulder. For some reason, she couldn’t really feel her body. Poor guy probably thought she was daft.
“Do you have a pencil?”
John Lennon patted his jacket pocket and came up with an ink pen. She twisted her hair into a rope, grabbed the pen and stabbed it through the bun at the back of her neck. He was still
with her when the police arrived, one hand under her elbow. Like a Boy Scout, she thought, helping an elderly woman across the street. My humiliation is complete.
No, she didn’t want an ambulance, she told the policewoman, who seemed to be writing down everything she said. Yes, she was fine, yes, she had car insurance. One of the few bills she had managed to pay.
“You don’t have to wait with me,” she told him. “I’m good now.”
But he was still there as they watched as a wrecker hoisted the crumpled Honda onto its back. The policewoman handed her some paperwork and asked if there was somebody she wanted to call.
“Please,” Maggie said. “I can walk home, really.”
John Lennon wanted to walk with her, but she urged him to call a wrecker for his own car. The fender was pushed into the front tire. While he was talking on his phone, she went into the post office to the bathroom. Dave led her in the back, past the sorting machinery and rolling
bins full of packages. After she splashed water on her face, she slipped out a side door. She couldn’t face John Lennon any more, already felt stupid and old enough without watching his poor Jeep being towed away.
She headed home. She’d gotten as far as the library when her legs felt wobbly, so she sat on a bench and tried to steady her breath. Her head was still aching and sweat had plastered her shirt to her skin. A bus went by, belching smoke. Feeling dizzy, she swung her legs up onto the seat and lay back. Leaves spiraled down from the trees overhead, making her stomach lurch.
There was a distant, mournful moan.
That would be a freight train roaring through town near her house on its way south. Railroad tracks crisscrossed Knoxville like stitches on a fresh wound, but none of the dozens of engines that roamed the valley hauled passengers. When she sat at her wheel she could feel the vibrations in the clay and count the roads the train crossed by the bullying of its horn.
Catch me if you can.
She closed her eyes and listened as the train passed into the distance and work day traffic slowed to a trickle, hoping none of the drivers thought she was drunk or homeless or both. There was a sharp pain at the back of her head; the ink pen she’d forced into her hair to secure her bun. She pulled it out. It was silver, thick and expensive looking. Engraved with a name in curly script that danced in front of her eyes.
Damn. I stole John Lennon’s fancy ink pen! Not only am I a financial disaster and a lousy driver, apparently I am also a pen thief.
She sighed and crammed the pen into her purse then stuffed the leather bag behind her head, tucking her hair behind her ears so it didn’t blow across her face. It didn’t work.
“You should do something with that mess.”
It was her mother’s constant lament. If only Maggie would cut her hair, get a style, color the springy white hairs that had begun to spiral out of her scalp, her life would be better, she’d magically lose weight, find a man, make more money. Her mother’s answer to everything was a trip to the salon for a little pampering and image control. She was always giving Maggie gift certificates for manicures she couldn’t use. Clay was hard on fingernails and vice versa. She kept hers clipped short and bare – which her mother took as a personal affront.
“Really, Mags,” her mother would sigh. “You are my most perverse child!”
It was an old family joke. If her mother had known how stubborn and contrary her only child would be, she would have had another one.
“You should get out more. Widen your social circle.”
“Now don’t tell me you can’t do it. I saw you at the opening of the gallery, you’re good with people.”
She was good with people. The way others were good with horses or big cats or aggressive dogs. People seemed a different species, with expectations and needs she didn’t understand. Not like her at all.
“Don’t you want a man in your life, Maggie?”
“Sure, Mom, but I don’t think I have to panic yet.”
“Humph. You always think you have all the time in the world, until you don’t.”
Until you don’t.
Time stopped over a year ago, on a perfectly beautiful summer morning. A sudden stroke, the voice on the phone had said. And then the awful weeks that followed, sitting at her mother’s bedside in the hospital watching her mother sleep the last of her life away, stumbling through the mind-numbing details of death. There were the phone calls and cards, receiving lines and the death certificates she dealt out like cards to all the clamoring players. The burial, in a rainstorm, her mother’s coffin being slowly lowered into the plot next to her father. After paying for the funeral and outstanding medical bills, Maggie inherited a small sum of money, some antiques and a treasure chest of prescription medications.
A few weeks later, she woke up before dawn, unable to breathe. In the ambulance on the way to the emergency room she resigned herself to dying young and felt a guilty flush of relief.
Sorry, Mom, but now I don’t have to clean up my house, figure out my finances, get my hair done, make sense of my life.
By noon that same day, she was in a cab for home, chagrinned, clutching a prescription for anti-anxiety medicine and a bill that took every penny of her inheritance. She had never felt so alone.
Maybe her mother had been right. Maybe she should put on something unwrinkled and flattering, apply a little makeup. And then what? Go where? Sit at a bar and look available? Hang around the Post Office and flirt with Dave? She couldn’t have pulled it off if she wanted to. The last time she found a pair of high heels in the back of the closet, they were freckled with grey mold and had to be thrown out. She should do the same with her makeup; who knew what was growing in the mascara tube, the rouge? Maybe this turnip was getting moldy herself – past the point that any decent man would want her.
A red Prius was stopped in the road in front of her. The driver looked familiar – dark blonde hair cut in a neat bob with blonder streaks, aggressive red lipstick. Her mother would approve.
“Oh, hi,” Maggie said.
“What on earth are you doing?”
Maggie waved a hand in the air. “Oh, you know…resting.”
The woman stared at her, waiting.
“I trashed my car.”
“What do you mean, trashed?”
“I had a wreck.”
“Oh my god! When?”
How long had she been lying here? An hour? Longer? She looked at her wrist, but she wasn’t wearing a watch. Hadn’t owned one in years. She giggled.
The Prius pulled to the curb and the woman, Karen, that’s her name, Karen, popped out. She was wearing blue scrubs and bright yellow Crocs. Next thing she knew, Karen was standing over her, her hands on either side of Maggie’s face.
People I don’t know keep touching me today. Weird.
“I’m fine, Karen,” she said as she struggled to sit up.
“It’s Denise. From your Thursday night class?”
Oh crap, that’s right. She was one of the Blondies. Half a dozen women who, for the past six Thursdays, had shown up at her studio to learn how to turn slabs of clay into vases and trays. They all had the same glossy red lipstick and skunky highlights and spent each session cackling like mad hens. Maggie had been relieved when the class ended.
“Sorry. I’m so bad at names.”
“Where’s your car, hon?”
“Dunno. Car hospital, I guess. They think it could be terminal.”
Denise didn’t smile.
“I have the tow truck driver’s card here somewhere,” Maggie said, searching her pockets. “Oh! And I met John Lennon. Imagine that!”
“You should go see a doctor.”
“I’m fine, just a little worn out by all the excitement. I’m heading home now.” Maggie stood up and swayed.
Denise took her arm. “Easy. Let me take you to the hospital.”
“No! No hospitals.”
“But you could have a concussion, sweetie.”
I do not have a concussion. I have a lien, that’s what I have!
“I’m just dandy,” Maggie said. “A dandy little turnip.”
Denise was frowning at her like she was a cracked teapot or a bowl with a glaze fault. Something that needed fixing. The woman leaned in close to her and sniffed.
What the hell?
“Did you just smell me?” Maggie asked.
“Don’t be silly.”
“You totally did! Do I smell bad?” Maggie raised an arm to smell her pit and toddled sideways.
“Whoa honey, you’re coming with me,” Denise said, grabbing her arm. “So I can keep an eye on you and make sure you’re okay.”
“No really….it’s just a headache.”
“Well, you can’t just sit here. It’s going to start storming any minute. You’re coming with me and no arguing.”
Maggie let Blondie Denise settle her in the passenger seat of the Prius. She chattered the whole time, about how she was going to First Episcopal for a meeting and Maggie could come with her, could sit in a corner where she could keep an eye on her. Afterwards, Denise would take her home and make sure she was okay.
“That’s very kind of you.” Maggie said as the Blondie slid into the driver’s seat and started up the car. She couldn’t remember the last time anybody wanted to take care of her.
“So what is this meeting you’re taking me to?” she asked.
“A seminar I’m running called Managing Menopause. Maybe you’ll learn something.” Denise turned to her. “You’re in menopause, right?”
Maggie was aghast. In menopause?
I’m in debt, in denial and in way over my head, but none of that is as scary as being in this car on the way to a room full of women bitching about their hormones. Shit sandwich, is it too late to change my mind and ask her to take me to the hospital? I’d rather have something amputated.
Denise was smiling at her, waiting.
“Sounds like fun,” Maggie muttered.
“Oh hon,” Denise said. “You have no idea.”
No, she didn’t. Not a clue in the world. About anything. Might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. Let Denise fuss over her for a little while. Smile and nod at all those menopausal Blondies like you’re a tourist in a foreign country and don’t speak the language. All that waited for her back home was a pile of bills and phone calls she couldn’t answer. The letter from the IRS was still on the floorboard of the Civic, sitting crumpled in some lot full of other accidents.
Now she was at the mercy of this Blondie. Had been at the mercy of so many people today. This must be what clay feels like, she thought. There was a trick to centering it on the wheel. Plant your elbow against your hip and apply steady pressure with both hands, a strong, meaningful touch. Block off every avenue of escape so the clay rises between your palms. Leave it nowhere else to go and it goes where you want.
Down the path of least resistance.