In the early days of their marriage, disagreements were often about money. Freddie was used to earning her own, and Ken wanted her to stay home. His job was stressful. It soothed him to think of her there, making the place comfortable for them both. But she missed seeing the people who came through her line at the grocery store. Holly was gone, married and living in Minneapolis. Freddie hadn’t thought she’d feel her absence so keenly. What Holly took away with her were truths no one else shared. Freddie held those truths fast. Ken resented her long moments of silence, so she forced herself to babble gently about things that irritated him even more.
“I don’t give a crap about the garden. I’ll mow the grass, I told you that, but please don’t expect me to get out there and dig,” he said.
When she talked about painting the dining room, he put down his newspaper and sighed.
“Anything you choose is fine. Just don’t go overboard. I don’t want to come home and find pink walls, or something,” he said.
Yet other times he grew suspicious of her demeanor. “There’s something you’re not telling me,” he said.
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, is there?”
“What wouldn’t I be telling you?”
“That’s what I want to know.”
She wanted to talk more about her mother. What she had shared so far was a blend of truth and fiction. The truth was Lorraine was a religious fanatic. Also true was that she lived out of state. But then Freddie had said she was too ill to travel, which explained why she wasn’t at their wedding, and why she never visited. Ken had asked why they didn’t get even a postcard or a simple phone call. Freddie said her mother was strange that way. Then as time passed and Lorraine’s silence continued, Freddie relaxed. Her mother had given her a great gift by removing herself from her life.
Then one day she showed up. She reeked of whiskey. Her hair was wild. Much grayer than before, Freddie noted. Streaked all the way through. She had a gift in her hands, a box badly wrapped in silver paper. The paper was torn, and the carton beneath exposed. Freddie immediately saw that she was being given a toaster. She had a toaster. She in fact had two toasters, a broken one from before her marriage, which Ken promised to fix, and one she’d bought recently when she realized he wasn’t going to. When he complained, she said she needed to finish putting her household together. Everything else was more or less in order. Absent a clothes dryer. Made up for with a line out back, where she was pinning Ken’s T-shirts and undershorts when the doorbell rang.
Lorraine didn’t ask to be invited in. She strolled past Freddie, put the gift on the dining room table, looked around, and helped herself to a chair. She was wearing a poncho with fringe that might once have been white and now was gray. Her thumbnails were long and well shaped. The rest were short and ragged.
“I came to see the blushing bride,” Lorraine said.
“Take a good look, then, and be on your way.”
“You are discourteous.”
Lorraine waved her hand vaguely.
“I admit to having had a few. My spirit has been in a state of disrepair.” Lorraine glanced at Freddie, offering an invitation for her to follow up. Freddie didn’t.
“I hope you didn’t drive in that condition,” Freddie said.
“Took the train.”
“Where’s your suitcase?”
“With Pastor Banner.”
“And he gave you my address.”
Freddie wished she hadn’t told him where she lived. She ran into him at the market, he noticed her ring, polite questions followed. He would have written Lorraine with the news. He’d have thought it his Christian duty.
“I would have called first, but you’re not in the phone book,” Lorraine said.
Ken wanted it that way. Don’t want some shithead I arrested calling up in the middle of the night when he gets out of the joint.
Ken’s shift ended in just under an hour. What the hell was she going to tell him? She’d have to modify her story, and say that Lorraine’s illness was never physical, as he could clearly see. It seemed so easy—she didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of it before.
My mother’s always suffered from some sort of emotional imbalance.
You mean she’s nuts.
Ken didn’t mince words.
She was out on a walk and ditched her companion. It’s happened before. But then Ken might offer to make the call himself, given his official capacity, as it were, and Freddie would be caught in another lie about where Lorraine supposedly lived, and what sort place it was.
“Why don’t you beat it?” Freddie asked.
Lorraine shook her head. She seemed genuinely sad. If she broke down crying, there was no telling how long she’d go at it. Once she got started, she could weep for hours.
“You can’t be surprised that I’m not glad to see you,” Freddie said. “You must understand that you’re a part of my life I don’t have room for anymore. Not that I ever did, really.”
“How cruel you are.”
“Don’t talk to me about cruelty. You never gave a damn that I was your daughter, so why show up now? What is it you really want? Money? I haven’t got any.”
Freddie’s anger felt good. She wished it hadn’t taken so many years to rise within her.
“I came to give you my blessing,” Lorraine said.
“I want to meet the man you married, and bless him, too.”
“That might be hard. He’s Jewish.”
Ken wasn’t Jewish, but if Lorraine brought it up, it would just add another layer to her nuttiness.
“There is hope for him. Our Lord Christ was a Jew,” Lorraine said.
Freddie went into the kitchen. She washed her hands. The chicken she meant to serve sat on the counter in a metal pan. It looked feeble and exposed. Freddie put pats of butter on the bumpy skin, and turned on the oven. She had potatoes to peel and a salad to toss. She set to work. Maybe Lorraine would realize how much she was in the way, and take herself off.
Lorraine crossed her arms on the table, laid her head on her arms, and snored. She stayed that way the whole time Freddie was in the kitchen. If she weren’t making so much noise, Freddie could pretend that she wasn’t there and never had been. Thinking this brought back all the times Freddie had pretended when she was growing up. After gaining a bit of confidence, she became something of a storyteller. Her mother was a scientist who traveled the world. Her mother was a famous concert pianist. Because she never pushed the point, she was seldom teased for her obviously extravagant tales. In time she stopped talking about Lorraine. Reinventing her mother wasn’t as interesting as reinventing herself, which marrying Ken allowed her to do. She was a housewife, albeit an unwilling one, but she had an identity. People recognized it when they saw her at the store, or the gas station, or just working in her garden out front. Before Ken, she was a struggling single woman with an empty past, where some misfortune had befallen her that was perhaps a bit sinister. Before that she was an abandoned child with a sister to raise. Being a housewife earned her more acceptance than the other two roles, but what she was accepted into wasn’t entirely clear.
Now Lorraine’s presence would bring the storyteller back to life.
Except that Ken didn’t show up. That meant he’d stopped off somewhere. He made no secret of enjoying a couple of beers after work. Sometimes the couple turned into a few. Once, he had to be driven home. His patrol car stayed parked behind the bar all night. The owner wasn’t happy about that. He said it scared some of his business away. The car suggested some wrongdoing, even something dangerous. Ken quipped that some customers would be drawn to an atmosphere like that. The owner said he wasn’t interested in attracting that sort of clientele.
Freddie picked at the dinner she made. The light faded, and a chill came into the house. She hadn’t closed the back door after Lorraine rang the bell in front. That’s how surprised she’d been. She wasn’t surprised anymore, though, just rueful. Her mother was sleeping off another one, and would no doubt wake up in a robust, energetic state. She thought about calling Holly. Had Lorraine visited her, too? But Lorraine didn’t know where Holly was. Holly had instructed Freddie to tell no one that she was moving to Minneapolis. By no one she meant Pastor Banner, the man who had tried to watch over them when they were children while Lorraine was off preaching the gospel. He’d asked after her, too, the day he ran into Freddie. Freddie lied and said they weren’t in touch anymore.
Holly would just tell Freddie to shove Lorraine out the door. Bold words from someone who’d never had to do so herself.
Freddie saved what she hadn’t eaten, covered everything with plastic wrap, and cleaned up the kitchen. Lorraine mumbled, lifted her head for a moment, then pressed her other cheek to her folded arms. The snoring resumed. Freddie didn’t look at the time. She put her apron away and watered the three ferns that hung from the ceiling in the corner of the living room. She set up the ironing board and pressed several of Ken’s blue shirts. She hung the shirts in their bedroom closet. She left the bedside light on—she never liked returning to a dark room. She tried to ignore Lorraine’s presence. She stopped wondering what she’d tell Ken when he finally came home. She no longer cared.
Yet at the sound of his car and the sweep of his headlights across the living room, she froze. Lorraine’s snoring lessened, as if in sleep she, too, were registering Ken’s arrival. Freddie went to the back door to greet him. She took a dishtowel from the oven handle where she always kept it. She needed something in her hands.
“Sorry about that. Frank needed a buddy tonight, and my number came up,” Ken said.
Frank was a sergeant in the police force. His wife had left him the month before without saying why. A group of officers took turns taking him out so he wouldn’t have to go home right away after work.
“Ken, listen, I have to tell—”
Ken looked past her into the dining room.
“Who the hell is that?” he asked. He’d been in the process of removing his holster.
“Well, you see, she just showed up.”
“Who is she?”
“I have no idea. She rang the bell, and there she was. She said she was looking for some people who used to live here. I didn’t want to invite her in, but she looked pretty bad. She’d been drinking, and was obviously down on her luck.”
“You let a strange drunk into the house?”
“No harm came of it. I mean, look at her. She’s been that way for a couple of hours now.”
“Honestly, Freddie, sometimes I think you don’t know left from right.” He was being polite, because of Lorraine’s presence, even though Lorraine was still asleep. Don’t know your ass from your elbow was what he usually said.
“She hasn’t been any trouble, really,” Freddie said.
Ken poured himself a drink from the bottle of scotch he kept in one of the cabinets.
“And just what did you intend to do with her?” he asked.
“I was going to ask you that.”
He looked down at her. His face softened.
“Okay. Let me have this first, then we’ll get her up and on her way.”
He had his drink. Then he called a taxi. He prodded Lorraine gently, then more firmly.
Lorraine lifted her head. A line of drool escaped the corner of her mouth. She wiped it away with the back of her hand. She coughed. When she saw Ken, she stiffened. Ken was still in his uniform.
“I think I’ll be running along now,” she said.
“Taxi’s on its way,” Freddie said.
Lorraine looked at Freddie, then at Ken. She stared at his badge, which said Officer Chase.
“Fitting name,” she said.
“Come again?” he asked.
“‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.’”
“Anything you say, sister.” Ken got Lorraine on her feet. She tried to smooth out the wrinkles in her poncho. Ken steered her to the front door. The taxi wasn’t there yet. Freddie wished it would hurry.
“Where you headed?” Ken asked Lorraine.
“The kingdom of Heaven.”
“Someplace a driver can find.”
“I have a bag at a friend’s house. Then the train station.”
Freddie came forward and shoved the fifty-two dollars she kept in a ceramic cookie jar into Lorraine’s hands. She had been saving it for a new coat that Ken said was too expensive. Ken stared at the money crossly. Freddie prayed he wouldn’t berate her for her generosity later.
“Take this, and remember please that those people don’t live here anymore. You mustn’t come to bother us again, do you understand?” Freddie said.
Lorraine looked at the money. She took it. From somewhere beneath the grimy poncho she produced a small red-vinyl coin purse. She had trouble closing the purse after she added the bills. Freddie saw that there had already been a fair amount of cash in there. Swinn’s money, no doubt. It was always Swinn’s money.
The taxi came slowly up the street. Ken put Lorraine in. Lorraine told the driver where to go. Ken and Freddie watched as the taxi drove away.
Several days passed before Freddie found the courage to tell Ken who Lorraine was.
“That crackpot? Seriously?” Ken asked. It was a weekend, just after lunch. She chose her time strategically. Breakfast was no good, because Ken was always in a bad mood right after he got up. Evenings were problematic. Sometimes he started early, and wasn’t very receptive after the first few. The middle of the day at home tended to be the least contentious moment.
“Why did she come in the first place?” Ken asked.
“She heard I got married.”
“Why didn’t you introduce me?”
“She’d have preached at you.”
“I could have handled it.”
Ken was on the porch, painting a small wooden table. The old shirt he wore made him look rugged and capable, two qualities that had strongly attracted Freddie to him in the first place.
He drank from his bottle of beer, and wiped his mouth on his arm.
“I can see being ashamed of her. But not saying who I was made it look like you were also ashamed of me,” he said.
“Why would I be ashamed of you?”
“Because I’m just a cop.”
Holly’s husband was a CPA, a partner in an accounting firm. Freddie only brought that up once, when she and Ken were thinking of going out to Minneapolis to visit. Ken was curious about Holly’s new husband. They got married so fast there hadn’t been time to include family. Your sister won’t like that you married down was what he said. Freddie didn’t think he meant it. She thought he was joking with an edge, the way he often did.
“I’m proud of you for being a cop,” Freddie said. Ken rinsed his paintbrush in the sink. His back was to her. She couldn’t read his mood
“Look, if I said you were my husband, that this was your house, she’d still be here. She would have worked her way in. The way it was, she probably figured I called the police, and that you were the one they sent over. You were the face of authority. She was always afraid of that,” she said.
“And if I belonged to you, I would have had no authority?”
Even so, Ken felt his position in the household should be known, even to a loser like Lorraine.
“I didn’t have to tell you the truth. I could have stuck with my story. Don’t come down on me for being honest,” Freddie said.
“I wonder how honest you really are.”
Freddie let it go. She didn’t have the strength to defend herself further. She wanted to forget Lorraine’s visit. She wanted to forget Lorraine. She never would, though, at least not in this lifetime.