I had nothing to say to her.
I turned to look into the face of the woman I had known longer than any other woman alive and I felt absolutely nothing. I completed my 360° spin and told the cashier waiting at the counter,
“I’d really like to try some of those sweet potato fries.”
My voice didn’t quiver and my hands did not shake as I paid for my tuna salad sub and the mixed Italian sub that my brother Jon had ordered seconds before he noticed our sister standing silently behind me in line.
“Mary, I didn’t see you standing there.” My brother’s voice sounded like thunder in the confined area.
“That’s because I move very quietly, Jon.” My sister still had that vapid, sickly sweet voice she had used to convince almost everyone in Malone she was the rightful successor to Mother Teresa.
It was bound to happen. In none of my infrequent forays into Malone, my hometown, to drop off prints and cards at my friend Stuart’s art gallery or to check on court papers in the now closed and almost complete mess that was my late mother’s estate, had our paths crossed. It was only a matter of time, I reasoned, before the odds would turn against me and I would see her again. I had not looked into her face in almost a year.
I heard her order two chicken and something subs to go as I collected the tray with my sandwich and bottle of water. I walked to a booth in the back. I sat facing the counter. My crisp, hot, sweet potato fries with chipotle mayonnaise were almost immediately delivered to me. Jon stopped at the beverage dispenser to fill his cup with iced tea then sat down across from me.
“What the fuck….” He shook his head, a half smile playing about his lips.
“What the fuck.” I responded in a whisper, my eyes glued on the half wall that hid her from view as she paid for her order.
I just wanted her to be gone. From the day we buried my mother, December 1, 2006, I had not wanted to ever see her face or hear her voice again. Unfortunately, the settlement of my mother’s estate dragged on for six years, due to my sister’s insistence that everything in my mother’s house and bank account belonged to her. It ended with me, as attorney for my three brothers, engaging in a cross-examination of my sister at the trial in Surrogate’s Court which could only be described as a farce. We obtained a few items of my mother’s that we had to buy from the estate, a few hundred dollars each and a virtually unenforceable judgment against my sister for the rent she owed the estate for all the years she squatted in my mother’s house. A search of records in the County Clerk’s Office was one of the reasons we had come to Malone that day in the middle of our Thanksgiving vacation in Lake Placid. The other had been to visit my parents’ grave, to lay flowers and a few stones and to say The Lord’s Prayer, a compromise to my family’s Catholic faith and my Jewish faith. Jon and I had pulled a few weeds, shared some family updates with the silent black headstone and hugged before we left to drive by the shambles that had once been our family home.
My eyes flew open as I saw her advancing toward me, two white Jreck subs bags clutched in her hands. She still wore glasses, the style out of date by at least a decade. Her hair was dyed an unnatural reddish brown and fell in poodle-like curls from a center part that revealed her natural grey hair color. It was the same hairstyle I had sported in the 1980’s. I recognized the navy blue quilted jacket that she had been wearing for 20 years. She looked every day of 64 and then some.
She stopped directly in front of me. Oh, shit.
“I just wanted to ask if your mother-in-law, Aileen, was still alive.”
What?! I wanted to ignore her but the women in the other booth were leaning in to hear our conversation. Her weapon against me had always been that I did not want to upset the status quo, draw attention to our family intrigues or hurt my mother. She had wielded that sword expertly for most of her life.
“Yes, she’s alive,
“So she survived the hurricane and everything is all right?”
“She is safe but she lost her house.”
“Oh, that’s terrible. Well, I’m glad she’s safe. I think about her all the time and I hoped she was okay.” She smiled that Mary smile, thin-lipped, ingratiating and false.
I said nothing. I picked up my sandwich. She turned and walked away. I looked at my brother and let out the breath I had not realized I was holding. I put my sandwich down. My hands were shaking. What the fuck.
We analyzed the conversation during our drive back to Lake Placid. We repeated the story endlessly to our brothers and our children. It was the topic of some discussion as we gathered for Thanksgiving. The interesting postscript was the encounter my nephew Adam had in Lake Placid on Saturday with my sister’s oldest son. I wondered if she had told him that we were in the area and he had come looking for us. He seemed happy to have the opportunity to speak with my nephew and meet his wife and children and to ask about my children.
It took me a few more days to realize that I felt some regret about losing contact with her children, some remorse that my mother would blame me for not keeping the family together. And I felt sorry for the life the woman who had been my sister had made for herself. Oh, well.