by Jody Hobbs Hesler
followed by Q&A
Agatha moved slowly nowadays. When she heard an odd noise in the kitchen this evening, she moved slowly toward it to see what had caused it. Since Molly had been gone, she heard a lot of noises in the evenings, and she’d come to expect very little from them. Sometimes it was wind, or a child shouting in a yard across the street, or a large truck trundling by and shaking her windows. These were all noises she hadn’t noticed when Molly had been here with her. Then, the radio Molly had kept on—classical music, jazz, news, different programming for different times of day—had obscured other background noises until eventually they’d been forgotten. After Molly’s death, the noises had returned, and they continued to spur Agatha’s curiosity.
In the kitchen, for some reason she wasn’t startled to see a young woman sitting there, having hoisted herself on top of the counter across the narrow kitchen from the stove. She wasn’t startled or even bothered, though the girl’s freshly shaven head and challenging posture hinted at malevolence. She wanted to be frightening. Perhaps that’s why she wasn’t. Also, Agatha had seen her before.
“Boo,” said the girl.
“Boo yourself,” said Agatha. She turned her back to the girl and fiddled with the yellow tea kettle on the stove, setting it to boil.
The young woman’s legs dangled from the counter top. Her Converse high-top tennis shoes, once bright red, were now faded, with lolling tongues and gray, frayed laces hanging untied. She looked cold, like she’d been outside recently and for a long time. Her cheeks were flushed.
“Shouldn’t you be afraid of me?” the girl challenged, thumping her feet against the cabinets below her.
Agatha considered the question, but couldn’t find any fear. Molly used to tell her that there were sometimes perfectly sane and healthy reasons to be afraid of things, and Agatha should pay attention for signals that triggered this kind of fear. There was no excuse for a woman, or any person, of any age to clamber out on a rooftop in the middle of a violent summer storm to try to trim a tree branch that kept battering against the roof. “It doesn’t matter what new problem you’re trying to prevent,” Molly had reasoned. “Skittering around on a wet tin roof at the height of a lightning storm is just stupid. It’s something you should be afraid of, and that fear should keep you from doing it.” She’d said this after Agatha had climbed back into their bedroom window that summer night. Outside the storm still raged. Agatha stood dripping in their bedroom, covered with scratches from the thrashing twigs. Molly had toweled her dry, then slowly cleaned the wounds, one by one, humming. She had never stayed angry at her for long, even when she’d deserved it.
But Agatha can’t find even a reasonable reason to fear her interloper. The girl, maybe seventeen, had lived a few streets over in their city neighborhood perhaps all her life. Agatha remembers her from ages ago, walking down Mulberry Street, Agatha and Molly’s street, scuffing along beside her mother who was pushing a younger sibling in a stroller. Agatha and Molly had been gardening. The mother and children had stopped for some reason. Maybe the baby had tossed a toy from the stroller. They had all said hello. Agatha knew this girl. “You live down Center Street. Isn’t that right?”
The girl looked alarmed. Her eyes widened. “How’d you know?”
“You’ve been here all your life, right? I should know. I’ve been here thirty-five years.” Had it been that long ago that she and Molly had moved in, pretending to the real estate agent, to their neighbors for years, to be unmarried cousins who were economizing? They were careful to draw their blinds before even as much as brushing a hand against the other’s cheek. There was no telling what people would’ve said or done, had they known, thirty-five years ago. “I remember you from when you were small.” Agatha held out one hand, hip high.
The girl nodded, maybe remembering herself at that height, too. “Still, I snuck into your house. You didn’t invite me. There’s no telling what I’m like now.”
“Maybe not.” Agatha rummaged the cabinet to the left of the girl’s head, pulling out two tea cups and saucers, from Molly’s family’s best china that Molly had inherited years ago. Dainty purple flowers, not too close, trailed upward and out from the bottom of the fragile cups, rising to a gold-plated rim. In the cabinet below the teacups, Agatha found the tea tin. She opened it and handed it to the girl. “There are several blends,” she said. “Some are herbal. You can read the tags and choose what you’d like.”
“You’re serving me tea?” The girl sounded affronted at the idea. “I could be a strung out meth head. I could be a thug who beats up old ladies. I could be an ax murderer.”
All the while, Agatha shook her head no. “No, not you,” she said. Out of a cabinet to the right of the girl’s head, she pulled a package of ginger snaps. She poured a few out onto a plate, offered them to the girl. “Besides, you don’t have an ax, and neither do I.”
The girl squinched her eyebrows, but nodded and accepted a cookie. She was wearing several braided-string bracelets that looked like they’d been on her wrist for months, maybe years. Her fingernails were bitten and looked sore. Her sweatshirt was new and clean and her jeans were crisp and dark blue. She wasn’t in any material sort of need. But some kind of need swelled up and around her. The closer Agatha stood to her, the more she felt it, like a toothache.
“So,” Agatha said. The water in the kettle churned, almost boiling. “What does bring you here?”
The girl looked down, seeming to fix her gaze right onto the divot on the floor where Molly had dropped a pair of scissors maybe fifteen years before, when this tile floor had been new. The white square tiles, joining at smaller black diamonds, replaced the autumn gold and avocado green tessellated linoleum that had been here when Molly and Agatha had moved in. Molly had been cutting a tag from a new blouse, and the scissors had dropped from her hands, landing open and upright, long blade in the floor, inches from Molly’s bare feet. That was when her arthritis had just started to become a problem and her hands began to freeze in moments of ordinary tasks, like using scissors. For a long time, you could only see the tiny slit if you looked for it. But, over the years, the edges had browned and swollen with changes in humidity.
Before the girl answered, the tea kettle whistled. Agatha moved slowly to retrieve it from the stove and poured the water over the two tea bags, also slowly. She faced the girl again when she returned the kettle to the stove, making it clear she was still interested in her answer.
“I was angry,” the girl said.
“At me?” Agatha asked, but not defensively, only curiously.
“No, not at you, not specifically,” the girl answered. She held the tea cup in her hand, about to sip it, and suddenly she looked at it, and at Agatha again, as if she had no idea how she’d gotten here. “No, I was angry because of all the lies people tell. People can tell a lot of lies and not even think how they make you feel. Not even care.”
Agatha nodded, agreeing, and she blew onto her tea to cool her first sip. She picked up a ginger snap and broke it in half. The clock on the wall over the kitchen table said it was six thirty. Agatha wondered if somewhere this girl’s parents were putting plates on a table, wondering where their daughter was. Agatha had already eaten supper, succumbing to that stereotype of older people, always eating supper at five o’clock. That was when she got hungry. Waiting any longer made the days last so long anyway. Normally she wouldn’t have her tea and cookies until around eight. That was a nice way to break up the time before going to bed at nine. Routines made her feel less alone. “I suppose,” Agatha said, “someone told you a pretty bad lie recently.”
“You could say that,” the girl said. She sipped her tea, took another bite of another cookie. “You could say that.”
Agatha stood in the middle of the kitchen holding her tea cup because her guest was sitting on the counter, but holding the cup and saucer in the middle of the room was awkward. She had to do some tricky balancing to take a bite of her cookie. She wasn’t as agile as she had been in the old days, and it was funny the sorts of things that reminded you, like trying to drink tea and eat a cookie in the center of your kitchen.
The girl seemed to return her stare to the divot in the floor, then she swiveled her head fiercely upward to look at Agatha again. “You know what they told me?” she said.
Agatha met the girl’s gaze but thought the question was rhetorical. When the girl didn’t say anything more, Agatha said, “Who? No, of course I don’t know what they told you.”
“My parents,” the girl said. “And, nothing. They told me nothing.” The next bite she took of the cookie in her hand seemed retaliatory. It snapped loudly. “Nothing at all. I wake up one morning. Come downstairs for school. Half the furniture’s gone. My mother’s having coffee at the kitchen table like a normal day. I say, ‘Where’s dad?’ She says, ‘At his house.’ Can you believe that? At his house? ‘This is his house, Mom!’ I told her. She just shrugged, took another drink of her coffee and told me not to be late for school. That was the whole story.”
“Sounds pretty awful,” Agatha said. The girl drank more tea and thumped her heels against the cabinets below her. Her bald head looked smooth as a baby’s knee and so pale Agatha figured today might be the first day her scalp had ever seen the sun. “That why you shaved your head?”
“That doesn’t really make sense,” the girl said. Somehow the baldness made her look much younger.
“That doesn’t really matter.”
“Well, okay, then yes. I did it because I was mad. They lied to me. They freaked me out. I figured they should get freaked out, too.”
“So it does make sense,” Agatha said, “after all. But what about me? What did that have to do with you coming in here?”
The girl heaved out a sigh. “I was walking around mad, I guess. Thinking about how everybody lies. I saw your welcome mat and thought, ‘I bet I’m not really welcome.’”
“You came in to try to prove it?” Agatha said. “To prove that everyone lies?”
“Something like that.”
“But I don’t lie,” Agatha said. She put her tea cup on the counter beside the girl.
“Why aren’t you afraid of me?” the girl asked.
“I remember you,” Agatha said. “You’re a good girl.”
“From seeing me on the street? You think you can tell something like that?”
Agatha smiled. “I know I can,” she said. She described their meeting the day she had seen the hip-high version of the girl walking with her mother, pushing a stroller, how the baby must have tossed a toy overboard, and the girl had rushed forward to get it. She had bumped into Molly. Agatha and Molly were weeding the garden bed where the sidewalk on the street met the walkway to their house. There were bright purple petunias blooming, and the girl saw them when she went to retrieve the baby’s toy.
“Are these your flowers?” the girl had asked Molly. Molly had said, “Yes, they’re ours.” And the girl had turned back to her mother. “Mommy, come see,” she’d said. “Look at these flowers these two mommies are growing. Aren’t they beautiful?”
Retelling the story to the girl, Agatha paused here. “You probably don’t know why I would remember that, do you?”
“People seeing two women making a household together don’t always know what to say. They ask questions or say things in heavy whispers when they think they’re out of earshot. But you didn’t think we were strange at all. You saw us, do you see what I mean? You called us by a name that made sense to you. Two mommies. So simple. So I remember you, and I know you can see me. You understand what matters about people.”
The girl looked startled again. Twice, as an unexpected trespesser, she had been surprised in this kitchen. Agatha thought that was interesting. “For instance,” Agatha went on, “right now, you’re upset because you feel like your parents didn’t quite see you, the way I just described people seeing each other.”
The girl nodded. The dainty tea cup looked strange in her rough hands, but it also seemed to calm her. She didn’t let go of it.
“They didn’t lie to you, though,” Agatha added. A stormy look came back to the girl’s face, like she was ready to argue, but Agatha kept going. “It’s not a lie if somebody just doesn’t know what to say. People don’t mean to fall out of love. Nobody wants to fall out of love. It happens anyway.”
“Is that what happened to you? Is that why the other lady isn’t here anymore?”
Agatha wasn’t sure how the girl could tell that Molly was gone, not just for a moment, but for good, as though the emptiness Agatha felt she rattled around in were a visible thing. “No, that’s not what happened.” Something caught at Agatha’s throat, and she reached for the counter top to steady herself. “Molly and I never fell out of love. Sometimes, people really do love each other until they die.” Tears stung at the corners of Agatha’s eyes. She picked up another ginger snap and bit it, hoping to give her body something to distract it from the sudden onslaught of her feelings.
“Really?” the girl said, her head snapping to attention at Agatha’s last words. She looked immensely relieved, her body slowly loosening from the fist it had been holding itself into. “It’s easy sometimes to think things are the same way for everybody.”
“But you learn different,” Agatha said. “Nobody’s really the same. And love is always different.”
The girl let go of the tea cup, placing it gently beside her. It was empty. She squared her hands on the counter edge and slid herself down to the floor. It was dark outside and even later now. Surely her mother was worried, pacing a floor a few streets over.
“I’ve got to go now,” the girl said. She reached out a hand to shake Agatha’s. “Thank you.”
“Come back any time,” Agatha said.
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Blue Ridge Anthology, Potato Eyes Journal, Leaf Garden Press, The Writer’s Eye Anthology, Pearl, and Albemarle Family Magazine. One of her stories was a Pushcart Prize nominee, and she has won and placed in a variety of regional writing competitions.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: A childhood friend’s father took off, and the only explanation his kids got was the half-empty house when they got home from school. I’d wanted to work the mysterious, mute awfulness of this event into a story for ages, and Agatha’s gentle bereavement offered an apt foil to the teenager’s angst here—turning the story away from loss and frustration and toward love and hope.
Q: What have you been reading lately?
A: I just finished a couple of recent Man Booker Prize winners—Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Now I’m treating myself to Dickens’s David Copperfield, while I also finish Jared Diamond’s explanation of the rise of Western civilization in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Q: Where do you write?
A: Most often I write at my desk in our study, under a framed sketch of Leo Tolstoy from an old issue of the London Illustrated Times. (My father-in-law rescued that issue along with heaps of other old issues of Illustrated Times from the scrap heap when the Library where he’d worked during college began to dispose of such things to make way for new collections.) But I’ll write just about anywhere you put me.
Q: Deciduous or coniferous?
A: Definitely deciduous. I love the colors and the whole cycle of life thing.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m revising a young adult novel, Voodoo Girl; working on the first draft of an adult novel, Little Angel; and gathering, revising, and adding a few more recent stories for a collection.