The hospital smelled antiseptic and felt cold and lonely, like an unlived-in house with dusty sheets thrown over all the upholstery. Three ward clerks, two elevator rides, and I finally arrived at Lillian’s room. Private accommodations resembling the five star hotel of your choice. Chris sat in a chair beside her bed, dejected as a lost toddler.
No one told me anything prior to my arrival so I didn’t know what to expect. Chris’s text sent less than an hour ago said, simply, “Mom’s in the hospital. It’s bad.” Because of my anger, I didn’t try to call him to find out more details. Punishing him by punishing myself.
The text surprised me for two reasons. Chris and I argued terribly for the past three weeks and just this morning, he stormed out of our house yelling through the slammed front door, “I will never set foot in this hell hole, again.” An hour later, I received the text about his mother, a woman with a presumed lifespan roughly equal to a bristlecone pine. Two shocking events to shatter my already shattered day.
Lillian’s frail body, grey skin, and multiple tubes and wires told a horrible tale. “She collapsed in the grocery store,” Chris said. “The doctor said it is heart failure.”
“Chris, I’m so sorry,” I whispered. Sorry for what? Of course, I felt sorrow for his mother, but did the sentiment mean I forgave his behavior? Not time for that, yet.
“She isn’t going to make it. She is going to die.” Chris dabbed the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand. “What am I going to do? I can’t lose my mother and my wife in the same day.”
“You haven’t lost me. I am just…” Just what? I wondered for several moments while Chris watched me expectantly. He waited for my answer. “I am just angry.”
He looked relieved. “I know what I said this morning, Anne, but I need you. Can I come home?”
“Yes. You can’t sleep on a park bench.”
“Technically, I could. I just don’t want to.” He tried to smile. Chris stood and said, “Have a seat. I’ll find another chair, plus I feel the need to smoke after all these months completely smoke free.”
Are we to share anything? Even this? I watched his back as he left the room. Leaving me alone with his dying mother.
I turned my attention to Lillian, a woman I had grown to love deeply over the past seventeen years. Lillian gave birth to Chris at the age of forty-seven. She and her eldest son, Matthew, raised Chris together because Chris’s father died on the day of his birth.
Lillian told me about Chris’s father shortly before our wedding. “Mr. Archer hung on as long as he could, actually waiting until he saw the baby before he fell into a coma and died about four hours later. Late stage lung cancer from smoking five packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes every day for over forty years. Stupid old bastard. Left me and Matt to raise Chris and I think we did a good job. You must think so, too, if you are planning to marry my son.”
Lillian was already seventy-seven when Chris and I married. Seventeen years later, the ninety-four year old woman lay in a hospital, life rapidly slipping away. Before her collapse, she lived alone in a grand old house that she cared for herself. She even mowed the grass herself and repaired her dishwasher just two weeks ago.
“Oh, Lillian,” I said as I gripped her hand hard enough to make my hand ache. “Don’t leave us alone. We need you something fierce, Chris and me. We won’t make it as a couple without you. Don’t go.” And the tears wet her hand and mine. The woman seemed as solid as Mount Rushmore the previous week when I visited her.
I complained about Chris to her that day. We sat in her sunroom, drinking strong coffee and she said, “Anne, my dear, Chris was a spoiled baby, a spoiled child, a spoiled teenager and a spoiled man. He is the reason Matt and I kept going after Mr. Archer died. We raised him together and gave him everything he wanted. He grew up feeling very entitled. He grew up thinking he didn’t have to work for anything. You, my dear, have made remarkable strides with him. A couple more years and he will be a human being.” She reached across the coffee table and gave my hand a pat. “I have watched the two of you grow up together. You were so young when you married him. In many ways, Chris was very young, too, even though he is ten years older than you. Try to be patient with him.”
“Patient, you say? He is seeing a woman he works with.” I blurted out the issue between us. I meant to keep it quiet, feeling somehow that I failed him. If I was a better wife, he wouldn’t need the company of another woman, right?
The woman who spoiled him terribly gave me a sad smile. “He is not perfect, Anne. Christian Matthew Archer Junior is as flawed as his father.” She took a dainty swallow of her coffee that she served to us using her Royal Doulton’s Old Country Roses coffee set. “I think the two of you need to spend some time together. You have a daughter who became your sole focus when Trip died and now she is nearly ready for college. That’s just a couple of years away. You and Chris both forgot to love each other because you both hurt so badly over the death of your son. Things will be alright. You’ll see.” The cup rattled on the saucer when she set it down, possibly the first sign of frailty. A sign I missed at the time, so wrapped up in my own hurt and anger.
That day Lillian gave me a handkerchief so I could wipe away tears. We spoke of only pleasant things after my grand confession. We walked in her garden and she told me how she cares for her roses. She showed me the new birdhouse she built from scrap lumber and her well-used power tools. She pulled some offending weeds away from her roses then made me promise to see her the next week.
I kept my promise by sitting by her side in the hospital room. Lillian, the glue that kept my little family together, slipped away from me while I held tightly onto her hand, never opening her eyes.
The monitor beeped loudly and a nurse entered the room. She checked Lillian’s vital signs, turned off the monitor, then told me the doctor was on his way.
A man who didn’t look old enough to drive entered the room, checked Lillian’s vitals and then announced she had passed. He squeezed my shoulder and said, “You can spend some time with her.” He walked out of the room just as Chris walked back in.
Chris watched me for a moment, then drew his own conclusion. “I was outside smoking when she died. Smoking. A thing she hated because it killed my father.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Chris. There’s no way you could know she would die right then.”
Chris looked down at his mother, said, “You’ll have to take care of this. I just can’t,” and he left the room. He left me alone to deal with her remains. He left me alone to face the hurt on my own. Just like always.
I picked up my cell phone and called Matthew to let him know. How many people would have to be told? No tangible number popped into my head. Matthew answered, “It’s the Anne Archer. How did you get my number?”
He always said the same thing when he answered my calls, referring to the actress Anne Archer. My stock response: “Not the Anne Archer. Just an Anne Archer.”
“What? Your mother hate you? She gave you two first names. An Anne.” Also part of our ritual.
“Matthew, I have some very bad news. It’s about Lillian.”
“Uh oh,” he said to me.
“She passed on just a few moments ago. I was… still am with her.” I managed to say it without my voice cracking. “The doctor said it was heart failure.”
A long pause followed. Finally, Matt said, “Hard to believe. I thought the old dear was immortal.”
“As did we all.” My voice sounded tired.
“How is Chris doing?” Ever the older brother.
“He walked out of the hospital and went outside to smoke.”
“Stupid man. When did he start smoking, again?”
“About a half an hour ago.”
“At least Mom doesn’t know that. Anne, I am so sorry. I know Chris will make you take care of all the arrangements. Do you know what she wanted?” Matt asked me.
“She wants a wake. Not a funeral or a church service. She will be cremated. Nothing too complicated,” I said.
“How soon?” Matt asked.
“The wake can be just about anytime. We could do it today, if I could get enough people together. What about you? Will you be able to come to her wake? I can schedule it around you.”
I could almost see him shaking his head. “I’m not going to try it. The drive to Virginia is at least a couple of days. I can’t leave Barbara that long and there is no way she can make the trip. Also, you know I won’t fly.”
“How is she doing?” I asked. Anything to get my mind off of Lillian.
“Barb’s chemo is beating her up. She can’t eat or sleep or even concentrate long enough to watch a TV show. She has another month of this, then she will have to recover from the effects of the chemo. We are hoping she won’t have to do this again.”
“I am so sorry, Matt. Tell Barbara I love her. I will call you.”
“Righteo,” he said and then he disconnected the call.
I waited for Chris to return to the hospital room and after a half hour, I realized that likely wouldn’t happen. I walked to the nurses’ station and asked them what I should do next. The RN told me a counselor waited for me in a conference room across the corridor.
The woman in Conference Room F wore a mask of too much makeup, and her smile was thin and forced. She looked up from her tablet when I entered. “Mrs. Archer, I am Sunny Rivers. I am very sorry for your loss.” Sunny Rivers? Really? I refrained from making a joke she had probably heard about ten thousand times.
When I said nothing, she continued, “First, I would like to inform you that this hospital offers a complimentary grief counseling session, if you are interested. You can call me and I will set it up for you.” I took the proffered card that she slid across the table. She continued her rote speech that sounded hollow and rehearsed. “Are you aware of any arrangements Lillian Archer may have had?”
“Yes,” I said. “She wished to be cremated. She has a prepaid plan at the funeral home on Market Street.”
“Very good. We will arrange to have her remains transported later today. Is there anything I can do for you?” What a question. Her tone made it sound like she had no intention of actually doing anything beyond her basic job description. For more than one reason, I welcomed Chris’s absence as I pictured his temper tantrum when he saw the shallow female in the room. Chris worshipped his mother and could not honestly understand when someone else didn’t.
“No. There is nothing.”
Sunny Rivers stood from a white plastic chair that was one of six around a small table and hurried out of the room with a toss of her blond hair and a swish of her short skater skirt.
I returned to the nurses’ station and requested the RN inform Chris that I left if he should return. I didn’t try to call him or to text him. Maybe he acutely felt the loss of his mother, but that was no reason to leave me entirely on my own to handle it. Coward. Besides, I assumed he went to find comfort in the arms of his co-worker. Another tiny blond with short skater skirts.
“Maybe you’ll chain smoke yourself to death,” I muttered while I waited for the elevator. Finally, I left the oppressive building, found my car and climbed in.
The sun crept across the sky, a light breeze rustled leaves on the trees, cars came and went in the lot. Still, I hesitated to start my car. Nothing crossed my mind other than the sure knowledge that my life changed forever. And I suspected not for the better.
I glanced at my watch. Time passed without my noticing. Three hours since I sat in the room with Sunny Rivers. Lily would be home from school in an hour and I couldn’t chance Chris telling her about Lillian. I started my car and drove toward our house.
Thankfully, I didn’t see Chris’s car, so I could tell Lily, myself, knowing Chris generally made a mess of things.
The house looked exactly the same as when I left it earlier. My coffee mug sat on the kitchen counter, the magazine I threw at Chris that morning lay with wings spread open like a dead bird on my living room floor. Dirty breakfast dishes cluttered the sink and the dog’s food bowl stood empty. She looked up at me and her tail slowly flopped back and forth. “Snow, I didn’t mean to forget you,” I told the solid white German Spitz. Snow was only two years old and I loved her dearly. Her manners were impeccable and her disposition very sweet. As a bonus, she completely adored me.
I poured some dog crunchies into the ceramic bowl shaped like a Chinese take-out box and freshened her water. Oblivious to the human emotions around her, she crunched the food noisily.
“You’ve got it right, Snow. Just ignore everything except food and water. In the grand scheme of things, what else do we truly need?” I made another pot of coffee and waited in the kitchen while it brewed. Before the carafe filled completely, I poured coffee into my mug, sat at a bar stool and settled in to wait for Lily to come in from school.
“We don’t normally have a formal reading of the will, you know with everyone sitting around a table and the lawyer making shocking announcements to the family,” Lillian’s stodgy lawyer told me. “You only see that on TV. I think Perry Mason had something to do with that idea.” Mr. Cartwright sat at my dining table on my left and Chris sat on the right. “Because you two are the only relatives in the area and much of what is in here concerns you, I can give you each a copy to read for yourselves. There’s a lot of legal jargon, so I can interpret it you need it.”
He opened a folder and removed two copies of Lillian’s will.
“Mr. Cartwright, is this correct? She signed this version only two days before she died?” Chris asked.
“Yes. She called me to her house, said the revision was urgent and asked me to come right over. She looked healthy enough, so I don’t know if she had some kind of premonition, or not. She was 94, afterall. Maybe she was just making sure of her wishes considering she could go at any time.”
I nodded and read through a lot of party-of-the-first-parts and other legal wording until the section that concerned me the most flashed on the page. Chris and I were to inherit her house, a stately Victorian on the James River.
“Am I reading this right?” Chris asked. “We get the house, but only after we deliver her car and her ashes to Matt in Sante Fe. And we have to drive there through each of the forty-eight contiguous states. There could not be a less direct route.”
“Yes, Mr. Archer. Those are her instructions. If you do not comply, then I am authorized to sell the house and donate 100% of the profits to the American Cancer Society.”
“And the rules state Anne and I have to go together for the road trip through all forty-eight states. And we have to take a time stamped selfie of the two of us together in front of every state’s welcome sign.”
“Yes. She has also provided you with this.” This was a GPS tracker that could record the entire road trip. “It will record the journey and I will have to check it before I can turn the deed to the house over to you. You must cross into every one of the lower forty-eight states. Together. And the selfie at the welcome signs must be of the two of you together.”
“She was serious about this?” Chris demanded. “A trip like that would take months. We would both have to quit our jobs.”
“Lillian said these were her terms if you want her house. You can, of course, refuse and in which case I will arrange for the sale of her house as soon as possible.”
Chris looked over his shoulder toward the living room where Lily played a video game while wearing a headset. He lowered his voice, “You realize Anne and I are planning to separate after we get all this stuff with Mom straightened out.”
“And you still can, Mr. Archer. After you have complied with Lillian’s wishes, you can sell her house and split the money, you can rent it out, you can move in. It will be yours, and all the contents, less the few things that are supposed to go to Matthew and his three children.”
“We get the house, and Matt gets the car and the money?”
“Yes, that is the will in a nutshell. You were not slighted in any way, Mr. Archer. The house and the property it rests on is worth over 3 million dollars and there is only a little over a million in her liquid assets, after all her debts are taken care of. Her Cayenne is worth about $50,000.”
“I wasn’t worried about that. That house is a drafty old barn. We would have to sell this house to be able to afford the upgrades on that one before we can sell it.”
“Chris, do we really want to sell it?” I asked. “Also, I can let Abigail run the store while I am away. You can talk to your partner and I am sure he will let take some time off for this. You own the firm and architecture is not brain surgery. You won’t be missed by your partner if you go on the road for a few weeks.”
“I don’t know, Anne. I just don’t know what I want. I know I don’t want to spend six months in a car with you.”
“In reality, Mr. Archer, if you plan your trip correctly, you would make the journey in just a couple of months. If you average 500 miles a day, you could do in a month,” Mr. Cartwright said. “Lillian has left a prepaid credit card to cover the expenses on the trip. Hotels, food and the like. I will leave you now and give you a few days to think about it.”
“Wait,” I said. “Do we have to drive the entire way in the Cayenne?”
“According to the rules, you just have to make the road trip in one shot. Beginning to end. Sante Fe would be your final stop. You can buy another car for the trip home, or perhaps fly back. There is enough money on the card to do either.” Mr. Cartwright said and he vanished out of the front door.
“She changed her will just a couple of days before she died,” Chris said after Mr. Cartwright’s vanished out of our driveway. “She dreamt this scheme up just a few days ago. We should be able to break this will.”
I walked into the kitchen and said over my shoulder, “She wasn’t addled or feeble-minded. She was brilliant right up to her collapse. She may have been 94, but she wasn’t demented.” I paused for a moment, then turned to face him. “Does the idea of spending a couple of months in a car with me repulse you completely?”
“No,” Chris said; “No, of course not. I am not repulsed by you.”
“There is simply someone you would rather spend time with.” He didn’t even bother to deny it. The names I wanted to call him filled my head. He put a hand on my shoulder and I jerked out of his reach. “I’m going to bed. Stay out of my room.” I said, turning away from him.
“I get the guest room, again? That bed is hard as a brick.”
“Christian Matthew Archer Junior. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t sleep in my bed and hers. I draw the line,” I told him.
Lily stood in the doorway of the kitchen. “You guys are still fighting?” My daughter looked like her father with dark curly hair and blue eyes. At fifteen, she towered over me by a head.
“We aren’t fighting, dear,” Chris said to her.
“That’s all you two have done for the past two years, since Trip died. You have gotten a lot worse lately.”
Chris hung his head and I walked to her to cover her in a hug. “When did you get so smart?” I asked her.
“Doesn’t take a genius to figure this stuff out. You know what I think Grandma Lillian is trying to do? She is trying to get you two together. Think about it. By making you go on a trip together, you two have to talk. You have to get along.”
“It’s not that simple,” Chris said.
“Yeah, Dad, it is that simple,” Lily countered. “If you and mom can survive together on a road trip, then maybe you will stay together. Everyone gets divorced, today. I was really proud of the fact that my parents are still together. I am the only one of my friends who lives with both parents. That is pretty cool. Don’t screw it up, Dad. Work it out with Mom and tell that skank you’re screwing to get lost.”
She spun on her heel and stomped up the stairs.
“What’s a skank?” Chris asked me.
“From her tone of voice, I don’t think you really want to know,” I replied.
Later that evening, I called Matt to tell him what transpired with the will.
Matt chuckled when I laid out the terms. “Well, that sly old fox. Did she know you and Chris were separating?”
“Yes, I told her a week before she died.”
“You know, I need a Porsche Cayenne like I need a hole in the head. Barbara and I don’t even need the money. But, I would love to see you and Chris, so I insist you bring the car to me.”
“You know I love you, Matthew,” I said.
“Don’t tell Barbara or Chris. We’ll never be able to get rid of either of them.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“Just don’t kill Chris on the road trip. It’s hard as hell to hide a body. I know. I’m a Medical Examiner. Tell that punk to give me a call before you kill him.”
I laughed and disconnected.
My own mother wasn’t as supportive. I called her after I talked to Matt to tell her what we needed to do.
“Don’t do it. Just tell that cheat and liar to get lost. Cut your losses. That road trip will lead to nothing but trouble. You will regret spending that much time with him. What has he ever done for you besides sleeping around with everything in the country?”
“Mom, one woman is not sleeping around with everyone in the country,” I said, sharply.
“I’m not surprised to hear about this. I have suspected for years that he was cheating on you. Now that it’s proven, you need to dump him.” Some stories never change. “I have told you for years he is a zip, a zero, a nothing.”
“Yes, I know. You tell me every chance you get. I didn’t call to get a lecture. I just wanted to know if Lily can stay with you while we’re gone.”
“Of course, I would love to have my granddaughter for a few days, but you know your father and I are going to the Hamptons for the summer and there is just nothing there for a fifteen year old girl. Let me talk to your father and maybe we can just stay in New York for the summer, although it is ghastly hot and miserable. I will make the sacrifice for my granddaughter.”
“Thank you, Mom. Let me know.” And I disconnected. “Don’t change the light bulb because I wasn’t going to read anyway.” I said aloud. “You know she won’t help you out, idiot” I admonished myself. Still, I always hope she will finally act like a person.
Snow lounged on the bed beside me, so I nuzzled her neck. She rewarded me with a lick on my cheek.
The little knock on the door alerted me to Lily. She opened the door and then started with, “Mom, I don’t want to stay with Grandmother Lilith. She makes me wear ugly dresses and puts my hair up in a 1960’s bouffant. She gives me lectures about proper ladies needing proper grammar and she says you and Dad have raised a juvenile delinquent. I would be miserable the whole summer. Don’t make me go stay with her. Find someone else to babysit me. Maybe you could fly Charlotte here to stay with me.”
“These walls must be made of toilet paper. Also, your cousin is getting ready for her wedding,” I said. “She can’t stay here with you. But, maybe you can stay with Carolyn and Louis. She can always use help with those three boys.”
“That would be a lot better than staying with Grandmother Lilith. Aunt Carolyn is fun. And you always talk really loud when you’re talking to Grandmother Lilith, so the walls don’t have to be made of toilet paper.” Lily looked thoughtful for a moment and then said, “I only have one grandmother left. Do I still have to call her Grandmother Lilith?”
“Yes, you do. She insisted.” Then, in my well known and well rehearsed imitation of my Mom, “I earned the right to be called Grandmother and I insist upon being distinguished from that other one. Therefore, the grandchildren will address me as Grandmother Lilith and not one syllable less.”
Lily giggled and then said, “I think she holds her nose a little bit higher than you did. Now, are you going to call Aunt Carolyn?”
“I’ll call her tomorrow. My sister goes to bed pretty early.”
“So, you and Dad are going to do this?”
“I think so. He is pretty upset right now, but he will go along. I don’t believe he really wants to separate. He has had more than one opportunity to leave and he is still here.”
“Good night, Mom. I love you.”
I smiled at my beautiful girl. “I love you, too, Lily.”
Virginia to North Carolina
The next morning, I pulled up a map of the United States on my computer and quickly realized deciding a route, myself, would take forever. I borrowed information from a professor who had done the algorithm for the most optimal way to drive around the United States. Within minutes, I had the list ready. Subject to change, of course.
Deciding what to take was the next issue. A shopping trip was definitely in order to buy some road trip clothing. I needed some items that can be stored easily, wrinkle resistant and can be washed out in a hotel bathroom and hung in the shower to dry for the next day. I went to a local sporting goods store and the saleslady helped me find three pairs of pants, five pull-over shirts, a jacket, and two sweaters, and two dresses for the trip. I owned socks and underthings already, so no issue there. I just wanted clothing as maintenance free as possible to avoid having top stop at laundry facilities. Besides, my days of trying to impress Chris with my style of dress were well and truly gone. I look terrible in skater skirts.
At a department store, I bought travel size toiletries and a tote to fit them in. I bought a first aid kit, five cases of water, a variety of snacks and food for Snow. My Honda CRV was pretty well filled by that time. As for what Chris was going to take with him, that was entirely his decision. I had no intention of packing a bag for him. In fact, I may never do anything for him again. He could drive around the country naked for all I cared.
When I got home, I put all of my new clothes plus two pairs of blue jeans in a suitcase. I left out a pair of North Face pants and shirt for the day we actually left. I planned to leave within just three or four days and Chris had just better be ready when I was.
I called Carolyn to ask her if Lily could spend the summer. When I told her everything that had happened, she was more than agreeable.
She told me, “Mom called and said she couldn’t take Lily, which was the same thing as saying she didn’t want to be bothered.”
“What a piece of work she is. She didn’t call me to tell me. I guess I was supposed to figure it out on my own. So, can Lily stay with you?” I asked.
“Sure. I would love to have her. Maybe those boys will behave a little better if she is around. She can help me kick butts and take names. We live outside your school district, but I can drive her until the last day. And if you’re not back by the time school starts again in September, I will take her school clothes shopping. It’ll be like having my own daughter.”
“Okay. I’m not sure when we are leaving. I am hoping in a couple of days. The sooner we get started, the sooner we will be done with it and he can get back to the skank.”
“Skank? Where did you hear that word?”
“That’s what Lily called his girlfriend.”
“She’s right. Any woman who dates a married man is a skank. You would think they would know better.”
“I know, right? I will call you when I know what we’re doing on our end.”
I disconnected the phone and headed downstairs to think about dinner for Lily and me. Chris could eat at McDonald’s or make himself a peanut butter sandwich. He lost a lot of rights in my house, in my opinion.
Surprisingly, he came home a few minutes later. He plopped his briefcase on the dining table. “I am taking the summer off. I turned my project over to Dan. Kathy is pissed that I’m leaving for the whole summer.”
“I could care less what Kathy thinks. She is not part of this equation.” I told him.
“Don’t be like that,” Chris said.
“How should I be? Should I invite her to dinner? Should we go shopping together? Am I supposed to give you and her my bed and then sleep in the recliner? Just what kind of plans do you have for this threesome?”
“I’m just saying you don’t have to act ugly.”
“Yes, I do, Chris. I am not going to pretend I am happy about this and I am not going to make it easy for you by keeping my mouth shut. Sleeping with Kathy is wrong, no matter how short her skirts are. You are still married. To me. Yes, Christian, I have every right to be angry.” Taking a page from my mother’s book, I said the word Christian like it is a swear word.
“Whatever,” he said. “What’s for dinner?”
“Whatever you decide to make for yourself,” I snapped.
“So, it’s going to be like that?”
“It has been like that since your mother died. Oh, but you haven’t been home in the evenings, so you didn’t realize I don’t cook for you anymore.”
“I’ve heard enough. First, I get a bunch of crap from Kathy because I’m going to be gone for awhile and then I get crap from you.”
“I don’t feel sorry for you. I’m leaving in the morning, so you better be ready to go. I want to get this over with probably more than you do.”
“I doubt that.” He stamped out of the kitchen.
Snow chose that moment to trot into the kitchen to beg for a scratch. Absently, I caressed her ears. “Well, Snow. It looks like you can come with Chris and me. I can’t leave you here and Carolyn owns about four hundred dogs. Or at least those two she owns seems like four hundred.” She wagged her floppy tail, furiously. She traveled very well, so no worries on that account. “You will probably have to referee the whole way. Just make sure I am the first one you kiss every morning.” She wagged her tail even more.
We didn’t leave for three days. Carolyn picked up Lily on Friday afternoon and Chris and I started the journey on Saturday. The Cayenne’s storage in the back was large enough for the suitcases, food for Snow, water, snacks, and the urn with Lillian’s ashes. I packed a copy of the will for Matthew, made sure I had medical insurance cards, and about $1000 in cash, just in case we ended up somewhere that didn’t take a credit card. I grabbed my phone charger, my laptop, and my prescription sunglasses.
We drove my car to Lillian’s house, made certain everything was locked and the refrigerator cleared out completely. I talked to Jeff Richardson, her neighbor, about watering the roses for the summer and keeping the grass cut. He said he would keep and eye on things plus he would start my car periodically to make sure the battery didn’t die. I gave him my cell phone number and told him to call me if anything happened.
When we got to Sante Fe, Matt would let us know what of Lillian’s personal items he wanted and I could ship things to him. Lillian generously provided all of us with gifts of her possessions years before she died, so likely there wasn’t much remaining that he would want.
We transferred our things from my CRV into the back of the Cayenne and Snow hopped into the back seat. At least one of us was eager to get started. I put her doggy bed on the back seat and she climbed in, walked in circles for a few minutes and finally settled down for the 14,000 mile journey.
The trip started badly. Chris backed the car into Lillian’s mail box. He muttered under his breath while he got out to survey the damage. The mailbox lay on its side, half in the road and half on Lillian’s property. “It’s not really a problem,” I said. “Lillian doesn’t need it.”
“Real funny, Anne.”
“She could have had her mail forwarded to Santa Fe. That’s where her ashes will end up”
“Still not funny, Anne.”
“You put a dent in the back of her Cayenne,” I pointed out.
“We’ll never get this trip started at this rate,” Chris complained.
Lillian’s neighbor Jeff strolled over to look at the destruction the Cayenne had wrought. “Yep, it looks bad,” he said. “You two are eager to get going, so I can fix the mailbox. Not like she’s going to be needing it.”
Chris shot a look at Jeff and said, “Everyone’s a comedian.”
“Except for you,” I said and I received his evil eye.
“Get in the car,” Chris said as he pulled open the driver’s door.
I kissed Jeff’s cheek and said, “Thank you for fixing the mailbox. I left the key under the mat and you know where the key to the shed is. Here is the key to the Honda. Help yourself to anything you like while we are gone.”
“I’ll keep an eye on the place, Anne. Don’t you worry.”
“See you when we get back.” I said, and opened the passenger door.
The dark blue Porsche wore the new badge of honor on it’s right rear fender and for twenty miles, Chris complained endlessly. “This car cost $68,000 brand new. You would think the engineers could make one without a blind spot. That could have been a cat or a child and I would never have seen it. This car is nothing but a piece of crap. It drives like a tank.”
I grew tired of the tirade, so I said, “Give it a rest, Chris. I don’t want to hear you complain for the next 14,000 miles.”
“Do you have any idea how that kind of mileage is going to reduce the value of this car? It won’t be worth half of that $50,000 Cartwright said it was worth by the time we get it to Santa Fe.”
“What are you really pissed off about?” I asked him in an unkind tone of voice.
“I am pissed about this trip, that’s what I am pissed about. If my mother wasn’t dead, I would kill her.”
“You hear that, Lillian?” Directed my voice to the back of the car where her urn rested between a case of water and a suitcase. “He said he wants to kill you.”
“I didn’t say that,” he said.
“You are lying to your mother?”
“Come on, Anne. She’s dead. No one can lie to her, again.”
“You hear that, Lillian? He says it doesn’t matter if he lies in front of you.”
“I didn’t say that, Mom,” Chris said, addressing the urn. “It’s just that Anne make me crazy. She makes me want to pull my hair out, she is so irritating.”
“Lillian wants to know how I am irritating?”
He glanced at me and then fiercely concentrated on his driving for several miles. “You never take my side. You always gang up against me with your mother and with Lily and even with Lillian.”
“Gang up on you? How?”
“You tell Lillian everything I do that is wrong. Or what you think is wrong.”
“No, I don’t. I don’t tell Lillian half of what you do wrong. And if I ganged up against you with my mother, we would have never gotten married. She always tells me to leave you. So far, I’m still here. As for ganging up on you with Lily, have you noticed that your daughter has a mind of her own and will never gang up with someone she thinks is wrong. Lily thinks you are very wrong for cheating on me with a skank.”
“She doesn’t understand and neither do you,” he said and then sulked for several miles.
The sign for North Carolina appeared on the right so he pulled the Cayenne over to the shoulder. “Let’s get this over with.” We stepped on the grass in front of the sign and I held the phone up in order to capture his face and mine and the sign that read “Welcome to North Carolina” behind us. Snow jumped out of the car and peed next to the welcome sign before hopping back into the back seat and onto her dog bed.
Neither of us smiled in the photo and we stood about a foot apart. The sign ended up between our heads in the photo. I emailed it to Mr. Cartwright.
The journey had officially begun.
North Carolina to South Carolina
Driving through North Carolina on Interstate 95 seems to take forever, especially if you are in a car with pouty man who is ticked off because he has to spend the summer driving his wife all over the country instead of lounging in the arms of a blond twenty year old receptionist. Poor, poor baby.
At least Snow is happy about going on the trip. I wonder if she will feel the same in a few days. Or weeks.
As for Chris, he hasn’t taken a single minute to think about what the trip has done to me. I own a small store that sells yarn, crochet and knitting books, and every accessory anyone needs for a knitting or crocheting hobby–from tote bags to carry yarn, to crochet and knitting kits that come complete with yarn, directions and even the appropriately sized hook or needle.
My store has never made a fortune, netting only about $10,000 to $15,000 in profit each year, but it is a neighborhood fixture. It is a piazza where knitters and crocheters come to socialize, knit and crochet, and drink freshly brewed coffee. Abigail Grint came to work with me almost three years ago and proved to be a master at teaching needle arts. She conducts several classes a week, orders supplies and generally keeps things running. Leaving her for the summer months didn’t seem a hardship as that is a slow time in my business, anyway. I gave her carte blanche to open and close when she felt like it. I gave her a raise, a hug and left my store in her care. I hope it would still be there when I return. Still I worried about what changes she would wrought in the store that I opened and ran alone for almost ten years before her arrival. Would she change displays, order coffee from a different vendor, change my inventory of yarn to the more exotic textures and colors? A small business owner is crazy to just leave their store for several months. While the cat’s away, and all that.
Chris steered the Cayenne into a convenience store along the interstate. I went inside the store catering to travelers, by offering several fast food options, souvenirs, clothing and thankfully, a restroom. I bought a fizzy drink and a burger before returning to the car. Chris emerged from the store to light up a cigarette. He stood outside to smoke and did not try to smoke in the car. If he had done it, he would have to finish this journey on his own.
I put the leash on Snow and took her to a grassy area to pee and then we returned to the car. I gave her some water and then she settled back onto her bed.
When Chris slid into the driver’s seat, he smelled of smoke. I opened the window on my side of the car and endured his glare as he pulled out of the parking spot and back into the traffic on the Interstate.
“You going to give me a blast of crap about my smoking?” he asked me.
“No. I just opened the window because I do not like the way it smells. I never have. I never will. And you smell like smoke.”
“Love me, love my cigarettes.”
“I don’t love either right now.”
His face fell and his face moved from a surly expression to a child who broke his favorite toy in less than a second. “You don’t love me?”
“Yes, I love you, but I am so angry with you.”
“That’s why you keep saying things to deliberately hurt my feelings.”
“What did you expect from me?” I demanded.
“I expected you to be understanding.”
“Are you kidding me? Understanding? Just let you go on with your affair without saying anything? Just let you spend night after night with your girlfriend, who is nearly as young as your daughter? Just let you spend money taking her to fancy restaurants and buying her a very expensive diamond bracelet? Is that the understanding you are talking about?”
He took a deep breath and then said, “I didn’t know you knew about the bracelet.”
“I am the one who pays the bills, genius. I saw the credit card bill for a bracelet and what a surprise. You didn’t give it to me or to Lily. You didn’t even try to cover your tracks. I paid the credit card bills for the dinners, lunches, hotel rooms. Everything. I have a record of your journey into that sordid affair.”
“Is that what first tipped you off? American Express?”
“American Express just confirmed it. All those times you told me you were working late. Imagine my shock when I took a pizza to your office on one of those nights you were working late and the office was closed up, tight as a drum.”
He fell into another sulk breathing sharply in and out. Fine with me. I wasn’t in the mood for talking, either.
I actually discovered his affair, accidently. When I asked him why he wasn’t at the office when I took the pizza there, he told me he and Ben went for a drink after they finished working. He apologized and I believed him.
Two days later, I saw Chris and Kathy just as they were leaving a restaurant during the lunch hour. Again, I didn’t make the connection right away. I walked towards them to say hello until I saw him take her hand while they walked to his car. He leaned over to kiss her before he pulled out of the parking lot. I went back to my car and sat in there for several minutes, dumbfounded. After that incident, I started looking and the clues were everywhere. I found love letters from her and condoms in his briefcase. He put a framed picture of her in his desk drawer in his home office. He even left a pair of her underwear in the pocket of his suit jacket. How could I have been so blind to the signs?
The worst thing that happened when I discovered his girlfriend was the complete loss of trust. I found myself examining every word, every conversation for lies. Every memory changed from marital bliss to suspicions. Suddenly, I trusted nothing he said or did. He would go into the bathroom at home, and I assumed he texted her while doing his business. The longer it went on, the more distrustful I became.
Innocence lost in that one act of watching him kiss another woman. I changed in that instant from a happy wife to a raging shrew.
I alternated from anger to depression and back to anger. Depression because I felt responsible for his wandering eyes. I watched myself in the mirror, making comparisons between her and me. Younger than me, she wore a youthful glow. Her abdomen lay flat as a carpet. One of those size zero girls.
I, on the other hand, wore a size sixteen. Not enormous, rather curvy. Scrutiny in the bedroom mirror did nothing to assuage my inferior feelings. Heavy thighs, bulge on my tummy from childbirth, drooping boobs from breastfeeding. I wore my hair in a casual short cut for comfort and ease of care. A few gray strands stood in stark contrast to the dark blond waves. My blue eyes, made bluer with my contacts, seemed to be the only redeeming feature, but even they sported wrinkles in the corners.
In comparing myself to Kathy, I fell short in every aspect. Fatter, older, grayer, more wrinkled. What did Chris ever see in me? Other than pregnancy, I never gained huge amounts of weight. I weigh now nearly what I did when we married. Maybe he never really loved me at all. Maybe he only married so he would have someone to wash his skivvies and make his dinner. A mother. Not a wife.
Chris pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road and at the Welcome to South Carolina sign, I took a selfie of the two of us, both of us frowning badly. Without a word, I walked back to the Cayenne, slammed the door, fastened my seatbelt and emailed the photo to Mr. Cartwright.
South Carolina to Georgia
“So if you knew about her three months ago, why didn’t you say something, then. Why wait until four weeks ago?” Chris asked me.
“Say what? Would anything have made a difference?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know. It just kind of happened. At the reception for the Waterman Apartments, she put her hand on my arm. I noticed she put her hands on me every chance she got. She smiled at me. Winked at me. Paid attention. You spent the entire reception schmoozing with Waterman and his wife. I could have fallen in a hole and you wouldn’t have known.”
“Chris, the only reason I was schmoozing was because you didn’t. You had just won a huge contract and it was your job to welcome Mr. Waterman and company, but instead of that, you invariably hid in a corner or behind a bush. Just like always.”
“You know I don’t do well in those situations. Forced socializing. I never know what to say.”
“Which is why Ben and I always had to do the schmoozing. Now, you are saying that’s the reason you and Kathy Skank got together, because I paid attention to your client just like you wanted me to do.”
“You always had something else to do. You took Lily to dance classes, you worked in your store, you did the shopping, the cooking. You never paid attention to me.” Did he really just say that?
I attacked. “You seemed to think if you brought a paycheck home once a week you did everything necessary to contribute to a happy home. Things had to get done and waiting for you to do anything is impossible. If I didn’t ride herd on the lawn service, the grass would be tall enough to hid a car. If I didn’t cook, you and Lily would starve. You don’t even take out the trash. Your sins of omission are piled as high as the ceiling. I refuse to take responsibility for your indiscretions. Kathy in your bed is not my fault.” Maybe if I said it often enough, I would start to believe it.
“So you’re saying it’s my fault?”
“Of course, it’s your fault. I am not sleeping with Kathy Skank.”
“Don’t call her that.”
“Kathy Skank. Kathy Skank. Kathy Skank.”
“That’s real mature,” he accused.
“I was the mature one for our entire marriage. You have never taken responsibility for anything that went wrong. You ran out of gas in your car, a car I never, ever drive and you came home, foaming at the mouth because somehow I didn’t put gas in it. You remember that? You left the blueprints for the Benson project on your desk in your office and went off to the meeting without them. You called me an hour later and yelled at me for ten minutes because the blueprints were in your office. I had nothing to do with that, but you blamed me all the same.”
“Well, you’re no prize to live with. You’re always too tired for sex. Most of the time, you go to bed before me and if I try to wake you up, you yell at me.”
“Did it ever occur that I fell asleep so early was because I was doing my job and yours? Did you ever think that maybe I was really tired?”
“Still, once in a while wouldn’t be too much to ask.”
My fury rose higher and higher. This conversation wasn’t productive, but maybe we were getting some of the buried stuff out in the open.
“You know what? You’re absolutely right. What was I thinking? Your massive-three-minute-in-the-sex-department effort wouldn’t have been too much to ask.”
“Kathy never complains,” he said, defensively.
“She wants something from you and you are too stupid to see it.”
“What could she want from me?”
“Let me see. She is twenty with a receptionist’s job and you have a stable career, a nice car, a nice house, credit cards, a swimming pool, a boat, vacations in the Caribbean. In one instant she can achieve the American Dream: Cars, cash, credit cards, maybe a condo.”
“She is twenty-three,” he said.
“You are impossible. Absolutely impossible,” I said and turned my head to watch the pine trees out of the window at my shoulder.
During all of our sniping, neither of us realized we missed the real reason we were at odds. It all had to do with Trip, our son who died two years, previously. Neither one of us had dealt with that death and suddenly, we had Lillian’s death to deal with, too.
Once again, Chris pulled the Cayenne over and we took the selfie of the Welcome to Georgia sign. Snow peed on Chris’s foot, which made me giggle. He looked down at his soggy sneaker and said called Snow a very ugly name. And he said I am immature.
Georgia to Florida
The trip across South Carolina went quickly and mostly in silence. The traffic increased as we neared the Charleston exit. Seven hours in the car and we were both still alive. But, that’s all I can say about it. I watched trees, listened to Chris complain about the road construction and felt generally miserable about this entire trip. Why didn’t he just move out of my house and in with Kathy? Why did Lillian make us do this?
“He is in so much trouble,” Chris said, suddenly.
“Who?” I asked, whipping my head around to face Chris. I stilled fumed at him and his lack of responsibility and had no clue what he was talking about.
“That guy in the pick-up in front of us. He has a dresser back there that isn’t tied down and the drawers have come open. Stuff is blowing out.”
I watched a pair of jeans fly out of the back of the truck and land in the weeds beside the road. Then, a sequined blouse came out of the drawer to flutter down and get snagged on a tree.
“I hope she has clothes somewhere else, or she will end up naked,” I said.
“Look! A suede jacket,” Chris said.
“Oh, my,” I said. Then, a red peignoir flew out of a drawer. “No sexy nighty for him.” I held up my phone and began taking pictures every time a clothing article flew out of the back of the truck.
“There goes a pink lace bra,” he said.
“That guy has no idea this is going on behind him,” I said, as a pair of black lacy panty hose flew out of the dresser.
“It could be his clothes,” Chris said and in spite of my anger, I laughed out loud. Every time another clothing article flew out of the dresser, Chris and I laughed. We watched bras, panties, blouses and jeans fly away.
Several miles passed and just as I was going to announce the dresser was finally empty, a fuzzy white sweater blew out of the back of the pick-up truck, sparking another round of hilarity. Even though the laughter had an hysterical edge, it felt good. Little in my life seemed funny for more than a month. The man exited at the interchange for Brunswick. So went our entertainment.
“You would think he would turn around once in awhile,” Chris said.
“Or at least look at his mirrors,” I said. “But, it was really funny when that peignoir got hung up in a tree and that blue sequined blouse.”
“It will be even funnier when she makes him go back to get everything,” Chris said.
“He is in for a long night,” I said. We laughed again.
After a few more miles, Chris said, “I am stopping at the first hotel in Florida. We need to figure out where we are going from there. Maybe we can share a pizza. Lillian only gave us one credit card for the trip and I can’t eat a whole delivered pizza myself.”
“Okay, but we are getting separate rooms. Plus it has to be a hotel that accepts pets. Snow stays with me.”
“Fine by me,” he said as he pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road so we could take another selfie at the Welcome to Florida sign. This time, we had small smiles that didn’t reach our eyes. Snow barked at a car that passed because a Blue Tick Hound had his head stuck out of the window and his tongue hanging out. Just saying howdy to the passersby. Maybe she was interested in him. Don’t do it, Snow. Men are nothing but trouble.
Florida to Alabama
We stopped at a chain hotel in Yulee, Florida. We both went into the lobby and Chris told the girl that we wanted two rooms. She looked from him to me and back to him. He said, “She snores,” at exactly the same time I said, “He snores.” She said nothing. I like discretion in my customer Service Representatives. The girl filled our request and we went to our rooms–adjoining with no connecting door. I ordered the pizza to be delivered and Chris and I waited outside of our rooms for the pizza man to arrive. Snow stood faithfully by my side on the sidewalk.
The sun had been down for two hours, but the night was clear and the air warm and humid. Not unusual for Florida.
I signed for the pizza having given them the card number over the phone. Chris looked at the pizza box and then me. “This is stupid. We can eat either in your room or mine. I don’t want to stand on the sidewalk while chewing on pepperoni.”
I nodded and went into my room. He followed holding the box and the bag that held our fizzy drinks. The room had a small table, so we ate there, devouring the entire medium pizza. I gave Snow the pizza bones.
After our meal, Chris went to his room with no argument and I immediately got into the shower. I rinsed my shirt out in the warm water and hung it on the towel bar to dry using a hanger I put in my suitcase for that purpose. I wanted to see if the hype was true. If so, the shirt will be dry and odor-free in the morning.
I felt better after standing in the water longer than I would have had I been at home. I dried my hair with the hotel dryer and wiggled between the clean sheets. With HBO playing quietly on the TV, and Snow softly snoring beside me, I fell asleep. No scary dreams or monsters under the bed. The monster stayed in his own room.
The next morning, Chris and I walked to the Waffle House across the street from the hotel and ate a carb-filled American breakfast. I limited mine to eggs, bacon and toast, while Chris loaded up on the same, plus hashbrowns.
I trotted back across the street to the hotel to finish getting ready to continue our journey and to take Snow for a walk. I left her in the room while we ate breakfast and she ate all of the Blue Buffalo I put in her bowl and drank most of her water, so she was ready for her morning constitutional.
We walked in the grass by the parking lot. I picked up her poo with the doggy poo disposal bag and dropped it in the dumpster at the back of the hotel. Snow was eager to get back in the car and travel.
I brushed teeth and hair. I gathered all of my belongings quickly because I didn’t unpack the suitcase. The shirt I put on before breakfast behaved as promised. It dried overnight and didn’t smell funky. The hype is right, so far. I would see in a month if it still held true.
Chris still puttered in his room, so I opened the back of the Cayenne, put my suitcase inside and decided it was my turn to drive. We mapped our journey at breakfast–head west on Interstate 10 to Alabama, Mississippi and into Louisiana. We may even be able to get to Texas before stopping again.
Chris glared at me when he saw me at the wheel. I popped open the back of the Cayenne and he tossed his suitcase in like he was throwing for the winning touchdown. Snow gave a yip because he startled her. He said, automatically, “Sorry, Snow, but your mom pissed me off, again.”
“Hey, genius, if you dump out your mother’s ashes, you get to clean them up. And bring up a bottle of water.” I said.
“Why can’t I drive?” he asked handing me the bottle through the open window.
“Because,” I said.
“That’s it? Just because?”
“That’s what I said,” He glared some more so I said, “You can drive when I get tired.”
He crossed in front of the car and pulled the passenger door open. After fumbling with the seat belt he said, “Whatever.”
He reeked of cigarette smoke, again. “Open your window,” I commanded.
“It’s hot out there,” he countered.
“Then, quit smoking and you can keep the window closed.”
“Are you going to gripe at me all the way back home?”
I pulled out of the hotel parking lot, stopped by the front desk long enough to check out and then headed on I 95 S to catch I 10 W. Maybe we could make it all the way to Texas today, a twelve hour drive.
Driving down the Interstate highway proved to be less than exciting. The lack of interesting scenery lulled me into drowsiness. Chris napped, outright, and I grew angrier every time I glanced in his direction. The very least he could do was to stay awake and help me stay awake. I pointed the car to a convenience store and went inside to buy a huge cup of coffee. I took advantage of the restroom and headed out of the store in time to see Chris lighting a cigarette. At least he had Snow on a leash so she could pee while he smoked.
I pumped gas. Chris aimed for the car, so I let Snow back into the backseat. He went inside the store to, presumably, use the facilities. I pulled the Cayenne up to the front of the store and away from the gas pumps to wait for him. He returned with a bag of doughnuts and a cup of coffee for himself. “You want a glazed?” he asked me and I reached into the bag to remove the sticky pastry. He reached inside and broke one in half for Snow. She gulped the donut down without even tasting it and looked at him from the back seat with great expectation. He fed her the other half of her donut and told her to lie down after she gulped it away.
“Thanks,” I said. I licked the sugar from my fingers and inched the speedometer up another five miles per hour.
“You’d better be careful. You are going almost 80 and the speed limit is 70,” Chris said to me.
“No, kidding. I am keeping up the the trucks and they keep tabs on the cops, so I don’t have to.” He crashed into a mailbox just the previous day, so I didn’t want to hear any diving advice from him.
“Fine. Do it your way,” he said.
I blew out an exasperated sigh. Then, “Okay. I am making a new rule for the car. Whoever is driving gets to decide the speed, the route and what music to play,” I said, setting Sirius to Jazz.
“You have a lot of rules,” he commented.
“I’m not done. No smoking in the car, no talking to or texting your girlfriend while we are in the car. Does that cover it?”
He grunted, then said. “And we have only been on the road since yesterday. This will be a fun trip with you making up rules all day every day.”
“You hear that Lillian?” I addressed the back of the Cayenne. “Your son doesn’t like to follow rules. Big surprise, that.”
“Do you always talk to dead people?” he asked, unkindly.
“Your mother is with us on this trip. It is the least we can do. Talking to her. We don’t want her to get lonely.”
“I don’t want to talk to her,” Chris said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I am pissed as hell that she died.” He turned his gaze to the trees along the highway.
A breakthrough. Christian Matthew Archer Junior admitted to being angry that his mother died. “You know, Chris,” I said. “If you talk to her, you won’t miss her so much.”
“Talk to her about what?” he demanded.
“Anything. Everything. She’s your mom and in her eyes, you are perfect. Nothing you say or do will make her think less of you.”
“I feel stupid.”
“Okay. I will start. Hey, Lillian. It’s been a fews days since you died. We had a nice wake for you and over a hundred people showed up. We rented the Garden Club for the day and it was decorated with roses from your garden. We put that portrait of you that hung in your guest room on an easel and draped a blue scarf over the edges. Because your dress is blue in the portrait, Lily and I decided a blue scarf was better rather than black. We know you are not a slave to convention. We drank your favorite wine and played your record albums on the turntable.”
“Mom had great taste in music,” Chris said. “She liked a lot of different kinds, depending on her mood. One day it was Beethoven, the next it was Pentatonix.”
“The wake was really nice, Chris. You should have been there.”
“I hate funerals.”
“Chris, a wake is not a funeral. Everyone shared memories of Lillian. We laughed at jokes she made. We talked about our favorite things about her.”
“I thought it would be everyone crying and talking about how bad they felt.
“No, not at all. The only tears were right at the end when we gave her a final toast and said goodbye.”
“Maybe I should have gone to the wake. What stories did you hear?”
My first impulse was to snap at him and tell him he should have gone to the wake and he would know what others had to say. But, we had to start somewhere to get along. So, “Jeff Richardson, you know the guy next door to her, told a story about Lillian hanging up clothes on the line she strung between those two big oaks in her backyard. She reached up to hung a sheet and her pants fell down around her ankles. She wasn’t wearing any panties that day and he said her backside was the whitest thing he had ever seen. And if her backside was white her face was the reddest he had ever seen. He politely turned his back while she pulled her pants back up. She said to him, “That will teach me to come outside with no step-ins on.” He said back to her, “At least you washed before you came outside because no one’s butt can be that white if it’s dirty.”
“She said to him, “A true gentleman would have pretended he saw nothing.” And then Jeff said, “Mrs. Lillian. You have been telling me since I was nine years old that I am no gentleman.” Then, Lillian said, “And I was right.””
Chris started to chuckle and then he laughed in earnest. “I can see all of that happening. Mom really did tell Jeff he was no gentleman the first time he came into her house without wiping his feet. He’s older than me, so he mostly came over to visit Matthew. I was the little brother who was always underfoot and he and Matt tried everything they could to get rid of me. Jeff bought the house from his parents when they went to the retirement community in Florida. Jeff has kinda looked after Lillian all these years. He kept her car serviced, cleaned her gutters, shoveled snow from her driveway. Things I should have done. That’s why I know he will fix the mailbox I ran over.”
Lillian adored her youngest son and he spent as little time with her as possible. Another taboo topic Chris refused to discuss. I decided to find out why by going around to the back door.
“You remember Joyce Broome?” I asked.
“Yes. She and mom had lunch together at least once a week. I never understood why she and mom were so close. Mom was sixty years older than Joyce.” I glanced at my husband. How could he be so out of touch with his mother’s life?
I told him, “Joyce used to write a gossip column for the Pilot. She published a story about Margaret Whitney that was not terribly flattering and Lillian got mad about it. She went to the newspaper’s editor to complain about the story and he sent her to Joyce. Lillian marched up to Joyce’s desk and told her that the story was incorrect. Joyce asked Lillian how she knew that, and Lillian explained that she and Margaret had been friends right up to Margaret’s death a week before. After they talked for a few minutes, Lillian told Joyce that she needed to be a serious writer instead of writing gossip that had no basis in truth. They went to lunch to further discuss it. Finally, Lillian became Joyce’s mentor and muse. Everything Joyce wrote, she ran by Lillian to get approval. Joyce learned to love Lillian very much.”
“I didn’t know that,” Chris said.
“Joyce told the story at the wake. I never knew the whole story, either, until then. Joyce said Lilian used to tell her, “You’re not writing for a rag, girl. You are a good serious writer, so ditch the gossip and write the truth.” Joyce said Lillian taught her to be a reporter. Joyce finally won a Pulitzer for a story about a homeless woman who slept in her car four nights a week because on her salary at her receptionist’s job, she couldn’t afford an apartment. She went to a Motel Six every weekend to wash her hair, wash her clothes and to sleep in a real bed.”
“Joyce won a Pulitzer? That’s amazing.”
“She just finished her third novel and it is getting published in a few weeks.”
Chris looked over his shoulder for long minutes and then said, “Mom, I am really sorry I missed your wake.”
“Do you know her favorite joke or her favorite story?” I asked Chris.
“Uh… I don’t think so.”
“It’s one she tells about Barney Simpson.”
“Barney is Matt’s friend who is a gymnast and who almost got into the Olympics?” Chris asked me.
“Yes. That’s him. When he first met Lillian he told her he was a gymnast. Lillian said, “Really? Can you do a backflip?” Barney replied, “Yes. Can you?” and Lillian said, “No. You’ll have to teach me. I’ll be able to do it because I can do everything else.” Barney said he believed her because she was Lillian and no one ever doubted anything she said. And when Lillian was 60 years old, she did a backflip on Barney’s trampoline.”
Chris thought for a moment and then said, “That’s not really funny.”
“That was her favorite story–doing a backflip at the age of 60. Oh, her favorite joke. Sally Friedman told the story. She said that Lillian and she went to a Bette Midler concert and Bette told a Sophie Tucker joke that Lillian loved.”
“Who’s Sophie Tucker?” Chris asked.
“She was in the Ziegfeld Follies. Sophie told jokes because she thought she was big and ugly and she wanted people to laugh with her and not at her. Anyway, Lillian’s favorite joke was borrowed from Bette Midler who borrowed it from Sophie Tucker. Sophie is talking to her friend Clementine and a delivery man brings her two dozen yellow roses. Soph read the card and it said, Love always from your boyfriend, Ernie. Soph looks at Clementine and says, ‘Clem, you know what this means, don’t you? I’ll have to spend the next two weeks flat of my back in bed with my legs spread wide open.’ And Clem says, ‘Why? Soph? Ain’t you got a vase?’”
At the wake, I laughed again at the joke that I had heard Lillian tell many times. Most of the time she only said the punch line, “Why? Soph? Ain’t you got a vase?” anytime someone misunderstood something she said. I had to ask her what it meant and when Lillian told me the joke, I laughed all day, every time I thought about it.”
For the first time on our trip, Chris laughed. Out loud. For nearly a minute. Not the hysterical laugh while watching clothes fly out of a dresser. This was a real laugh from the real Christian Matthew Archer Junior.
Then, Chris said, “I always thought her favorite was that line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Butch blew the railroad car, the safe and all the money to smithereens: You use enough dynamite there, Butch?”
I laughed again, remembering Lillian did say that line whenever someone did too much of anything.
I pulled the car over and we got out at the Welcome to Alabama sign. That selfie captured our giggling faces as we remembered Lillian’s jokes. I emailed it to Mr. Cartwright.
Alabama to Mississippi to Louisiana
We stopped for lunch in Mobile at a seafood restaurant just off of I 10. Because they had outdoor seating, they let Snow stay with us, on a leash, of course. For a little while, it felt like old times because Chris and I chatted amiably about inconsequential things to pass the time and to make us both feel as if we had a dining companion. I have never enjoyed eating alone, so even a cheating husband was better company than no one. If it were just me, a burger in a paper bag defined lunch.
Traveling along the interstate means most of the really nice views are missed. Interstate travel is about speed–get where you are going as fast as you can. The ribbon of asphalt carved its way through a lot of trees interrupted by the inevitable fast food restaurants and gas stations along the interchanges. On only the second day of travel, I decided that the interstate highways may be the quickest way to travel, but you don’t get to see the real America. I enjoyed driving across Mobile Bay and that is all I can say about the trip through Alabama.
We arrived at the Welcome to Mississippi a short time after our lunch in the seafood place. Again, neither of us showed smiles, the earlier camaraderie gone. Clearly we still weren’t happy about having to spend time together. The trip before us seemed daunting and endless. Snow frolicked on the shoulder of the road, getting happier each minute we traveled. At least one of us was enjoying ourselves.
I emailed the photo to Mr. Cartwright and, also impulsively, I emailed one to Lily. I wondered if she missed us. I am certain she didn’t miss our fighting and arguing.
Again, the interstate provided little entertainment through Mississippi. We stopped at a couple of different interstate convenience stores to use bathrooms, grab snacks and to let Snow pee. We filled the very thirsty gas tank and I was secretly glad Lillian paid for the gas. While Chris smoked in a parking lot, I gave Lillian my gratitude.
We managed to pick up quite a bit of traffic in Gulfport, but I still maintained at least 55 mph all the way. At the Louisiana welcome station, we got out of the car and I took another selfie of the two of us. A portrait of two people who were bored, irritated, and disheveled by the road trip. The photo wheeled through cyberspace to Mr. Cartwright.
Louisiana to Texas
Interstate 10 crossed Lake Pontchartrain with a 23 mile long bridge. We reached the bridge at nearly 6 pm and decided to not go all the way to Texas. We drove as far as Baton Rouge and stayed at a small interstate motel mostly because of its onsite restaurant and the sign which said it was pet friendly.
Again, we got two rooms and I went inside to get cleaned up for dinner. After my shower, I called Matthew.
“It’s the Anne Archer,” he said.
“No. Not the Anne Archer. An Anne Archer,” I replied.
“Well, An Anne Archer, you haven’t killed Chris yet. He called me a few minutes ago, mostly to complain about having to spend time in the car with you. He did not find a sympathetic ear, here. I yelled at him about cheating on you, and yelled at him about smoking. He whined and said everyone was beating him up all the time. I told him to behave himself and that would stop.”
“Well, then you know how this trip is going. He’s about as much fun as root canal.”
“Has it been very awful for you?”
“No. I actually got him to admit he should have been at the wake. We have Lillian’s ashes with us and he talked to her a couple of times.”
“Probably more than he did when she was alive.”
“I daresay. Now, how is Barbara faring?”
“Not much change from day to day. But overall, we see improvement from week to week. She sends her love. I know because she just blew me a kiss.”
“I love her, too. Check in with Lily from time to time. My sister’s three boys are hellions and I want to make sure they don’t tie her to a tree or lock her in the tool shed.”
“Righteo.” He disconnected the call.
I stared at the framed generic landscape that hung on the wall in my room for what seemed to be hours, though only minutes passed. My mind raced with all that happened in the past couple of weeks. Mostly, I wondered how I could survive a month on the road with Chris. Things between us grew worse and not better. He sulked all the way through Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana. Dark and brooding, but he didn’t tell me why. Admittedly, I didn’t ask.
A glance at my watch told me it was nearly 9:00 pm. I decided that I would wander to the restaurant. If I couldn’t get anything to bring back to the room, a call to room service was the next best thing.
Chris sat in the bar with a nearly empty glass of amber liquid in front of him. I watched him for a moment and he said to me, “Are you going to join me?”
He slurred his words. Obviously, the drink in front of him was number three or number four.
“I didn’t come down here to drink. I want some food.”
“Suit yourself,” the disinterested voice said.
“I’m leaving at 8:00 am sharp, with or without you.”
“Bitch.” Like I said. Dark and brooding.
I walked into the restaurant and asked the hostess if I could get something to take back to my room. She shook her head sadly and then suggested I call room service.
I thanked her and returned to my room. The braised chicken breast I ordered arrived a few minutes later and I ate while watching a nameless movie on the hotel TV.
I emailed Lily, not wanting to call in case she was already in bed, and I told her that Snow was having a great time. I asked about Carolyn’s boys and then shut the lid on my laptop.
My younger sister, by seven years, had three boys, each named after the city they were born in. Austin was born in Austin, Texas, Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi and Ham which is short for Hampton, in Hampton, Virginia. They continued the tradition started by Louis’s mother who named her only son after St. Louis, Missouri. Carolyn and Louis were exceedingly happy. They didn’t own a pot or a window and they seemed much happier for it.
Another of Lillian’s favorite sayings: They didn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of, referring to a poor person.
I have a younger brother, too. Ian married Stephanie and they had two boys named Drum and Banjoe. My family wins the prize for weird children names. Stephanie named the two kids after her favorite instruments. Granted, she played the banjo exceptionally well and played the drums a little, but that seemed no reason to ruin her boys with those strange names. I didn’t like much that Stephanie did and spent little time thinking about her.
Even my own two children won the Strange Name Award. Lily was named after grandmothers Lilith and Lillian. Her middle name is Anne, named after me, of course. Our son was Christian Matthew Archer the Third. Lily started calling him Triple when she saw his name written the first time with the Roman numeral for three at the end. By the time he was two, his name was shortened to Trip.
Trip, my only son. The only son I would ever have because a tubal ligation made sure no additional Archers entered the world.
Trip was eight when he died, nearly two years ago. Trip’s hair was blonde like mine and curly like Chris’s. His eyes blue and his face cherubic. Trip smiled continually, was always well behaved and happy. He listened, obeyed, ate all his veggies. I know my memory is distorted by his death, but I can never think of any time he cried or did something he wasn’t supposed to do.
We hosted a Fourth of July party at our house with Lillian, and a few friends. The children played in the pool and the adults sat in our outdoor living room to talk, eat, drink and have a good time. No one watched the kids closely. Trip dove into the pool, head first, at the shallow end. His head hit the bottom and his neck snapped like a twig. I winced when I remember his lifeless body floating to the surface. The world went totally silent in the next few moments. Then, I heard someone screaming. Lillian told me later, it was me who screamed. I don’t remember doing it.
Again, I fell asleep with Snow at my side and HBO playing endless movies and tears staining my face.
I woke at 6:00 am and ordered room service for my breakfast. Snow ate her Blue and drank water. She frolicked by the door, eager to go outside.
I dressed, walked her, and returned to the room to get ready to leave. I called Chris’s room and he answered with a groan. “Are you ready to go?” I asked.
“No. I’m still in bed.”
“I was in the bar until around two. I need to sleep.”
I hung up on him. Well, if Chris was going to sleep all day, then Snow and I could explore Baton Rouge. I let her sit in the front seat and she was happy with that arrangement. We drove up and down streets in the downtown section looking at buildings and then headed out of town to see what the suburbs looked like. I almost missed the sign for the Magnolia Mound Plantation and impulsively decided to take a look.
At the entrance, I asked the lady if I could bring Snow on the property and she said yes because it was a slow day. I paid two admissions, one for me and one for Snow, and then we two went in search of plantation’s wonders. We saw the original house, slave quarters and overseer’s houses. We had the tour guide to ourselves and he was very informed about the history of the place. The old man flirted with me and petted Snow. If I were a few years older, I thought wistfully.
After three hours of wandering the grounds, Snow and I got back into the car and I drove to a burger place to buy two burgers. I shared one with Snow. I turned on the GPS to guide us back to the hotel, where Chris, presumably, still slept it off.
I was wrong. Back at the hotel, Chris fumed.
“Where the hell have you been?” he demanded.
“Snow and I played tourist while you nursed a hangover.”
“Whatever. I am ready to go. Now. Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“It’s in my purse and turned off. Maybe, I didn’t want to talk to you.” I got out of the car and handed Snow’s leash to Chris. “Walk her while I grab my stuff.” I packed up before I went sightseeing, so transferring the items to the car was the work of a moment.
Chris returned to the car with Snow while I loaded my things into the back. He went back into his room to get his suitcase and I, once again, climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Hey, it’s my turn to drive.”
“Nope. If you snooze, you lose,” I said. “I was ready to go five hours ago.”
“We are not under any kind of time frame,” he said as he opened the passenger side door.
“I thought you were the one who wanted to get this over with as soon as possible.”
“There is no need to drive twelve hours every day,” Chris said.
“Hey Lillian, did you hear that? Chris wants to lengthen our trip by not driving twelve hours each day,” I said.
“I didn’t say that, Mom. You hear what she does? She twists everything I say.”
“Lillian, you heard for yourself. I didn’t twist anything. Your son is an ass.”
“You can’t say ass in front of Lillian.”
“What’s she going to do? Wash my mouth out with soap?”
“Look, Anne, I don’t want to argue. My head is killing me.”
“Lillian, Chris has a hangover. Drink some water,” I told him.
“Yeah, that’s right, Mom. I drank too much last night. It’s the only way I can get along with her.”
“Lillian wants to know if you are going to get drunk every night?”
“So what if I do? She going to send me to my room with no dessert? Mom, I am smoking like a chimney and drinking like a fish.”
“Captain Cliche certainly is,” I told Lillian.
“I can’t do anything right, can I? He demanded.
“Not lately,” I said and he fell into a sulk, again. What a baby he is.
I didn’t say a word when I pulled onto the shoulder next to the Welcome to Texas sign. He got out of the car and Snow jumped over the seat and followed him out. We took the selfie while Snow munched on some grass. Maybe our fighting was upsetting her stomach. I know it upset mine. I emailed the selfie to Mr. Cartwright, but not to Lily. I didn’t have the heart to email the picture of with Snow in the background harking up the grass she just ate.
Texas to Arkansas
The GPS told us the actual drive time to San Antonio was about 7 hours, but it didn’t take into consideration the traffic in Houston. We averaged about 20 miles an hour just about all the way across the city. Houston was hot and humid. The Cayenne started to overheat in the slow traffic, so I was forced to open the windows and turn off the AC. Even with 26 lanes of traffic, we crept along for what seemed like a hundred miles.
Because of our late start, we stopped at the Candlewood Suites in Houston’s City Centre, never actually traveling all the way across the city. We ate dinner in the onsite Grille, Chris eating light because he still suffered from the effect of his binge the previous night. I was secretly happy he felt bad.
I have never had much sympathy for anyone with a hangover. It is a fully preventable disease. Chris suffered in silence because he knew I would give him a piece of my mind if he complained. Or so I thought. He rarely told me what was on his mind, so I got into a habit of assigning thoughts to him that may or may not be accurate.
About halfway through our meal, he said, “I will never drink that much again. I still feel like shit. Let’s not leave early tomorrow. Maybe we can take a day and sleep in. At least I need to.”
I nodded and said, “Go back to the room, now and go to sleep. Call me when you wake up in the morning. They have coffee and a continental breakfast down here in the morning until 11:00 am.”
“Maybe we should get on the road after the morning rush hour,” he said.
“Just call me when you are ready to get moving,” I repeated.
“You will answer your phone?”
I glared at him, rose from my chair and walked back to my room, unescorted.
I opened my laptop and tried to determine if there was a better route to take to get this over with quicker. After a few minutes, I gave up and turned on the TV to watch the same movie I watched the previous evening. The second time around, it didn’t get any better. I was bored with the trip and bored with my traveling companion. We had to do something different or we would likely just give up and go home. Was a house really worth all of this aggravation?
I called Chris’s cell phone and he answered with “What?”
“I was thinking. Maybe we should try to make this trip more bearable. Like maybe we should pick a tourist spot in each state and make it a point to visit.”
“It will give us something to look forward to instead of just a month or more of driving,” I said. “I took Snow to a plantation in Baton Rouge while you were still in bed and it was great fun. I learned a little about the state of Louisiana, too. It broke up the monotony of just driving.”
“Well, if I agree to that, where would we stop, next?”
“We are turning north toward Little Rock, Arkansas next. We go from US 59 to Interstate 30 North. There is a nice dog park we can stop at in Texarkana.”
“Okay. Whatever,” he said.
I hung up on him and looked into the park a little. Like everything else in our lives, I had to make the plans. It was like Chris just rode along in life without thinking about anything.
Finally, I decided to drive instead of sightseeing. Maybe I would feel better once we got to Little Rock.
We left the hotel right before checkout time at 11:00 am. Snow hopped into the back of the car and sat up straight watching everything out of the front window. Chris opted to drive and I decided to let him, giving me a day off.
Chris picked up Interstate 10 and then took I 610 to I 69 N toward Little Rock. Finally out of Houston, Chris was able to put his foot down and we traveled at a reasonable pace.
Around the time we merged onto US 59 N, Snow got tired of the view, so she settled down on her bed and went sleep. What a life she has, so free from worry and all the human stuff we find ourselves tangled in.
I looked at Chris and asked, “Do you remember when we got her?”
“Yeah. She was this tiny ball of white fluffy fur. I still think we should have named her Dust Bunny instead of Snow.”
I smiled. Lily, Trip and I had gone shopping one Saturday about two years ago. I had never had pets before, as my mother didn’t want an animal in the house and it never came up between Chris and me. A local pet store was having a puppy sale and we walked over to see the little dogs on display. Trip ran over to the displays that were outside the pet store on the sidewalk. Forty or fifty puppies yipped at us from their cages that were spread the length of the walkway in front of the store. I spotted Snow and she looked up at me, her brown eyes full of expectation.
“What kind of dog is it?” I asked the lady who sat on a folding metal chair beside the cardboard box. The woman had brown hair shot with grey, was well over 200 lbs and gave me a grandmotherly impression.
“A German Spitz. She is the last one left from the last litter. I figured I would bring her down here to the sale to see if I could find her a good home.”
“I am not familiar with dogs,” I told her.
“Spitz are great family dogs and they have sweet dispositions. Their fur is dense and they don’t shed like a lot of other dogs. They are easy to care for. You just have to brush them and feed them and give them a bath once in a while.”
“I’m not sure about this…” I said, hesitantly. “A dog is a huge responsibility.”
Then Trip chimed in. “Please, Mom. She is so pretty and so fluffy. Please. I’ve always wanted a dog.”
And Lily said, “Trip and I can help you with her.” Now I had two kids and a dog watching me with expectation.
I turned my attention back to the lady. “I have never had a pet before.”
“How about this,” the woman said. “You take the puppy and I will help you get started with her. I can show you how to house train her, how to feed her and even some basic training, like sit and stay and walking her with a leash. If in a few weeks you discover you can’t handle her, I will take her back. She has got a fine pedigree and I could sell her to someone else. You have a nice family and I would love to see this sweet little dog with nice people. She was the runt of the litter and I have a soft spot for this little one.”
“I don’t want a show dog,” I told her.
“Not a problem.”
“I don’t need papers on her,” I told the lady.
“Again, not a problem. She was bullied by her littermates because she was the smallest and I want her to go to a nice family. She needs a family who will love her. I am real picky about who I place my dogs with. This little one has been loved and played with by me since she opened her eyes. She just wants love.”
“How much?” I asked the lady and we concluded the deal with Trip and Lily squealing with delight behind me.
“Here’s my card,” the woman said and I read her name, Debbie Durbin. “I have a leash for her and her collar and a cage. The cage will seem really big for her now, but she will grow to be about 30 or 35 pounds.”
Debbie gave me the name of the puppy’s vet, some house training instructions, suggested some food I should buy. Just like that, I became a dog owner.
That afternoon, Lily and Trip ran and played with their new toy until she was exhausted and happy and fell asleep in the huge cage Debbie provided. It had a blanket in the bottom Snow was familiar with and Debbie gave me a ticking clock to put in there, too, so Snow wouldn’t feel alone.
Chris came in for dinner. “What in the hell is that?” he demanded when he saw the dog cage in the kitchen.
“It’s a dog,” I told him.
“I can see it’s a dog. Why is it here?”
“I bought her today from a very nice lady named Debbie Durbin.”
“We’ve never had a dog,” Chris pointed out. No kidding.
“We’ve never had any kind of pet.” I pointed out.
“What’s its name?”
“We haven’t officially decided, but the kids want to call her Snowball.”
Trip and Lily ran into the kitchen and Trip reached into the cage to pick up the sleepy puppy. “Isn’t she cute?” Trip asked his Dad and then put the puppy in Chris’s hand.
“She doesn’t weigh anything,” he said. He held her close to his face and her tiny pink tongue darted out of her mouth and touched his cheek.
“See, Dad, she likes you,” Trip said.
I smiled and then said to them, “You better take her outside, now, Trip. Walk her around on her leash until she pees, then tell her she is a good dog and pet her, then bring her back inside.”
“Okay, Mom.” Trip held his hands out and Chris gave him the puppy.
Chris said to me, once they were outside, “You know he will lose interest in just a few days and you’ll have to take care of her.”
“I know. It’s not a problem.”
And just that quickly, Snow became part of our family. She became just Snow almost immediately instead of Snowball.
Training a dog was not as difficult as I imagined. I bought a baby gate that kept her confined to the kitchen during her training, thinking tile is much easier to clean up than rugs or hardwood. She only had a couple of accidents before she got the idea that she was supposed to go outside.
Within two weeks, I removed the baby gate and gave her the run of the house. Trip worked with her to get her to sit on command, to stay, to come and to heel when she was on her leash. I spent the money to create a sizable run for her in our backyard to keep her from the flower beds and the swimming pool. She had a dog house with her name painted on the top and grass to run on. I don’t think she ever actually stayed in her dog house unless Trip got in first and coaxed her.
So many of early memories of Snow coincide with Trip. He loved having a dog and spent a lot of time with her. In his room, the don’t-get-on-the-furniture rule was non-existent because Trip allowed her to sleep in his bed. He crept down the stairs when he thought everyone was sleeping, opened her cage and she followed him upstairs, very happy to sleep with him.
I knew what he did, but didn’t dissuade him. Snow was with us only about four months before Trip died. I remembered her watching as the EMTs tried to revive our son. She whimpered several times and barked at the EMTs when they took Trip away on a stretcher. For weeks after Trip died, Snow went outside and watched at the gate where she last saw him–the one the EMTs used to take him out on the stretcher. One day, she stopped watching the gate, apparently convinced that Trip was never coming home.
My face felt wet and I wiped away a tear. I hoped Chris didn’t see it.
“Oh, Jeez,” he said. Crap, he saw it. “What, now?” he asked.
“I was thinking about Trip and Snow,” I told him. For a moment, I thought Chris was going to say something, but he refrained from making any remarks, snide or otherwise.
Chris pulled the Cayenne to the side of the road beside the Welcome to Arkansas sign and I snapped the selfie, me with a bright red nose from crying and Chris looking helpless.
Arkansas to Missouri
We stopped for lunch in Texarkana at a place called Pop’s Place because they featured outdoor seating. Snow lay quietly beside my chair while I ate bacon wrapped shrimp.
Chris remained silent until we relaxed with coffee at then end of the meal. “Do you feel better?” he asked me.
“Yes. I do. It hits me sometimes, at weird moments. Something will trigger a memory and it is like Trip died just yesterday.”
Chris nodded and then, surprisingly, said, “It happens to me, too. Sometimes.” He focused on his coffee and not one me. He stared into the cup like he expected to find the answer to the meaning of life in the dark liquid.
For my part, I was just shocked he said anything at all about Trip. He never mentioned our son. He never talked about him. He never cried, at least not when I was watching. Lily and I spent a lot of time talking about him right after it happened. When we started, if Chris was near, he would get up and leave like he didn’t want to be reminded of the tragedy.
Death is hard for anyone to accept. When someone we love dies, we all go through a lot of mental changes. We cry, we scream even if it just in our mind, we wonder if it is our fault, we get angry, we get confused, we sit in a corner and try our best to not think about anything. I have lost my son, my husband and now Lillian. I hoped I never had to deal with the feelings of loss again.
We got into the car, found Interstate 30, again and continued toward Little Rock. We passed towns, forests, farms and fields. We stopped every couple of hours so Snow could pee and we could get something to drink to keep us going to out next overnight stop.
About halfway to Little Rock, I propped my feet on the dash and responded to a text from Lily:
Lily: Hi, Mom. How’s it going?
Me: Okay. We’re in Arkansas.
Lily: How’s Snow?
Me: She is very happy. Sleeping in the back seat right now. How’s it going with Carolyn and the boys?
Lily: Ham jumped off the garage roof because he said he was trying to fly and sprained his ankle. Aunt C grounded him so he will stay off of his foot long enough for it to heal.
Me: Did she take him to the ER?
Lily: She did. You could hear him scream all over the hospital when they X-rayed his ankle.
Me: I’m glad it wasn’t more serious.
Lily: One of the dogs got ou. Austin and I chased her all over the neighborhood before we caught her. Jack got grounded for letting her out. Austin got grounded for calling Jack a shit head. So far, I am the only one Aunt C hasn’t put in time out.
Me: Sounds lively over there. Are you alright?
Lily: Sure. Carolyn says Hi, btw.
Me: Hi to Carolyn.
Lily: Grandmother Lilith called me and apologized for not taking me for the summer. She and Grandfather are in the Hamptons.
Me: What a piece of work she is!
Lily: I am so glad I could stay with Aunt C. Going to get a pedicure and nails done in a bit. Maybe get our hair done. Will send pics. Love you.
Me: Love you, too.
I closed my messenger and told Chris, “Ham sprained his ankle when he jumped off of the garage roof. Jack got grounded for letting one of the dogs out and Austin got grounded for calling Jack a shit head.”
“So everything is pretty much normal at Carolyn’s house.”
“Sounds like it.” I smiled.
“They all got grounded when we were there for Christmas Eve dinner.”
“Yes, they did.” I smiled at the memory.
We arrived at Carolyn’s house about two in the afternoon and the boys were wound up because they were anticipating Christmas. Carolyn had made some marzipan and cookies and they were all hyped up on sugar. Carolyn chased the boys outside by swatting their fannies with a broom and Lily went with them to organize a game of football: Lily, Ham and Louis against Chris, Austin and Jackson.
Instead of football, mayhem resulted.
Jackson pushed Ham into a rose bush and Ham hit Jackson in the head with a plastic baseball bat. Austin jumped on Ham to keep him from beating the crap out of Jack and punched Ham in the face. Ham played the baby card and screamed like he was dying. Austin ended up with a bloody knuckle where Ham’s tooth sliced it open. Ham lost his front tooth, but Carolyn said it was loose anyway and ready to come out.
Louis put all three boys on a timeout step on the stairs and then told the Elf on the Shelf everything that happened.
Carolyn yelled from the kitchen, “What, now?”
Louis replied, “Our three feral boys are in time out.”
Carolyn walked into the living room and looked at the stairs that were littered with pouting kids. “They aren’t feral,” she said.
“Yes, they are. They run around like puppies, chewing on everyone’s shoes and peeing on the leather couch,” Louis said.
“They haven’t done that,” Carolyn protested.
“That’s only because we haven’t turned our backs on them, yet.” He said and she laughed. Louis soundly kissed his wife in the living room and then he said, “Go finish dinner and I’ll keep them all caged and hopefully we won’t need an emergency room before dessert.”
Carolyn is my younger sister and we look like twins. Her blond hair is longer than mine without a trace of curl. Our faces are identical and our eyes the same color. She stands about an inch taller than me and weighs about 40 pounds less because of chasing her boys all day, I assumed.
Louis has straight dark brown hair and brown eyes and is absolutely sexy. His Latino heritage glowed in his perfect brown skin and his bright white teeth. Carolyn is nearly three inches taller than Louis, but neither one minds the height difference.
“Carolyn has her hands full,” I said to Chris. “I can understand why she decided to be a homemaker instead of working.”
“But Louis keeps things ticking over most of the time,” Chris said. He genuinely liked and admired Louis Aragon. “Those kids just get out of hand in a second. Even with a roomful of adults watching. They will probably all grow up to be multi-millionaires. That kind of spirit is hard to tame.”
“The Aragons make be glad we have a daughter.”
“Do you think Carolyn will use her degree when the boys get older?” Chris asked.
“I don’t know. There is a high demand for nurses, so she may get back into that field.”
“They would certainly have more money. Louis doesn’t make that much installing air conditioners and heaters.”
“I think for them, it’s not about money. They have enough to keep a roof over their heads and to feed everyone. Neither one seems interested in a huge house or a huge mortgage payment, despite Lilith trying to influence Carolyn into buying a house in the Hamptons.”
“I find that hard to understand,” Chris said. “How can they not want to better themselves?”
“Carolyn has a lot less stress than I do and she and Louis are very happy together. How can her life be somehow less than ours? They concentrate on integrity and honesty and love. Louis is very spiritual and he makes certain that the boys are getting a good spiritual education. He is also a firm and fair disciplinarian. He adores Carolyn and deeply loves his kids. He is involved in every aspect of their lives. Louis is a good, decent man.”
Chris fell silent for several minutes and then said, “Louis is everything I am not.”
“Jeez. That is not what I was saying.”
“You didn’t have to. Why do you think I looked around for someone who appreciates me for what I am?”
“And what are you? A philanderer? A liar?”
“See? That’s what I’m saying. You never give me credit for the things I do. Look how much money I bring home. That should count for something.”
“You are a good monetary provider,” I conceded. “But, Chris, there is more to life than making money. That is all I was saying. I wasn’t trying to compare you and Louis.”
“Yeah, right.” Chris said and fell into another pouty mood. And we still had 38 states to go plus Washington D.C.
Again, pouty faces greeted Mr. Cartwright when I emailed the selfie in front of the Welcome to Missouri sign. Next stop, Branson Missouri
Missouri to Oklahoma
In Arkansas, we saw Texarkana and then on to Little Rock. So much of the scenery flashed by us because we were so deep in our thoughts and hurts. We did the usual bathroom breaks. We ate fast food in the car, adding to the crumbs already there. We would have to get the car cleaned at some point because it was rapidly reaching a point where it was too disgusting to ride in.
Outside of Little Rock, we picked up state road 65 that would take us to Branson, Missouri. We just need to cut across the southwest side of Missouri, so we wouldn’t spend much time there.
Dinner in Branson consisted of yet another burger and fries and a chain hotel for the night. At this rate, I would likely gain 50 pounds before the trip was over. What was Lillian thinking making us do this? How can anyone eat without gaining a ton of weight while on a road trip. In my hotel that night, I looked up information about how to lose weight while on vacation and found some great ideas. And I had a perfect alibi traveling with me–Snow.
That morning, after dressing in my traveling pants, a tank top and my sneakers, I ate a whole wheat bagel at the complimentary breakfast buffet in the hotel. I grabbed a banana and a coffee and took them back to my room. I packed up my things and took them out to the Cayenne.
Snow eagerly awaited her morning walk, so I took her to the back of the hotel parking lot to allow her to poop. Then, we walked to the lobby and I asked for a walking map of the area so I could walk my dog, and of course, myself. Chris called me when we were about four blocks from the hotel to ask me when we were leaving and I told him I was walking Snow and would be back in about thirty minutes.
“Where are you walking her to? Colorado?” he asked.
I blew out a sigh and then answered him. “Sitting in a car all day and eating nothing but hamburgers and fries will not do anything for my school girl figure. I felt like going for a walk this morning. I will call you when I am ready to go. Smoke a few cigarettes and get some breakfast.” I hung up without saying goodbye. I didn’t really care if Chris had to wait for me. The time I spent walking the dog was well worth it in my opinion.
Of course, he was impatient and fuming by the time I returned to the parking lot with Snow. I made him wait a little longer while I went back into my room and used the toilet. A quick survey made sure I had not forgotten anything in the room. The car was running and Snow was perched in the backseat when I closed the door. Chris stopped by the front of the hotel and I went in to return the room key cards. We hit the road by 9:30 a.m. The next stop: Oklahoma City.
Chris plugged in his iPod to the sound system and turned the music up. The music played loudly enough that we couldn’t talk if we wanted to and I am certain that was the object. I am the one who made the rules, so I couldn’t renege.
After about an hour of emo tunes and 90’s rock blasting through my head, the song we danced to at our wedding came on and I saw the slight smile on Chris’s face. I hoped it evoked a fond memory from our past.
We learned a tango for our wedding dance and danced to Asi Se Baila El Tango by Bailongo! and Vero Verdier. We spent several days in a dance studio with a small man who had the incongruous name of Mr. Carlton. When he told me his name, I instantly got a mental image of him doing “the Carlton.” He stood 5’4” in two inch dancing shoes and weighed about 100 pounds. His straight black hair never moved on his head because he used so much pommade. But, the man could tango.
Lillian bribed Chris by promising him enough money for a down payment on a house if he went through with the dance lessons. As usual, he pouted and complained about having to do anything out of his comfort zone. But, he wanted a house badly enough to suffer the humiliation of dancing with me.
Mr. Carlton dimmed the lights in the dance studio on the day of our first dance lesson and put on a deeply dramatic song. A tiny Oriental girl came out of the back dressed in a black leotard, spike heels, and a skirt that only covered her bottom. Mr. Carlton pulled off his coat and tossed it aside and jerked on the girl’s arm, pulling her in closely. They writhed and swirled and posed on the dance floor. Everything except the two people dancing vanished from the earth as I watched them maneuver their way across the floor, never losing eye contact with each other. I was mesmerized.
Chris said, “I can’t do that!” as soon as the dancers completed their routine.
Mr. Carlton shouted at him, “Of course, you can’t. That’s why you came to me. Jasmine and I wanted to show you what you will learn over the next few weeks.” He murmured a thank you to the girl and she vanished from the room as quickly as she arrived. “Now, we begin. You have your shoes?”
Lillian brought dancing shoes for both of us that we would wear at the reception. Although mine had heels, they were comfortable to wear. Chris’s shoes were shiny black and he would wear them for the wedding and the reception.
We put on our shoes and Mr. Carlton inspected the fit. He announced that they would work perfectly and then commanded we stand for our first lesson. Chris kissed my hair and said, “You have to know how much I love you if I am willing to do this for you.”
I countered with, “You are doing this for a house.”
Chris said, “I do love you, house or not.”
I blushed and Mr. Carlton told us to get to work and to stop flirting. For the next two hours we practiced our posing, getting our frame correct, staring deeply into each other’s eyes. At the end of the session, I felt like I had just ran a marathon. I was sweaty and tired. My arms and calves ached. My head ached. My feet felt swollen inside the shoes. Chris looked very much the same.
As we drove home after that first dance lesson, Chris told me, “I have a new respect for anyone who dances. That is a lot of very hard work.” He was silent for a few moments and then he asked me, “Do you think we can do it?”
“I hope so.”
“How long have we got to learn this stuff?”
“The wedding is four months away. Mr. Carlton has scheduled us for two lessons a week. Yes, I think we can do it.”
“You know, we have to get this perfect. It’ll impressed the hell out of Mom.”
It bothered me a little bit that he was learning the tango to impress Lillian rather than me, but I kept my mouth shut. At least he was going to try.
The next lesson was dismal. Mr. Carlton yelled at us for being stiff as a two by four. He flailed his hands and ranted. The muscles in my arms ached terribly from the first dance lesson and I felt like I was moving through glue. Chris didn’t say anything, but I imagine he felt much the same.
The third lesson went a little better and the fourth even better. We discovered we could judge our progress by how much Mr. Carlton yelled. Less yelling meant better dancing.
I progressed with my wedding plans in the midst of all of the dance lessons. Six months before the dance lessons, my mother and I went to Kleinfeld’s in New York to get a wedding dress. As usual, we clashed terribly. Mom wanted me to wear a mermaid gown and I wanted something a bit more vintage. We settled on a dress that was reminiscent of the beaded dress that Ginger Rogers wore in the movie Top Hat. The Hollywood Golden Age themed wedding moved ahead at warp speed. Mom wanted to impress all of her friends from the Hamptons, so we got married in Mom’s backyard. Neither Chris nor I knew most of the guests, but we only had eyes for each other, anyway. The money Mom and Dad spent on the wedding was embarrassing. We got through it.
I had a second dress of the wedding reception; one far more conducive to dancing a tango in that it was similar to my wedding dress but without the train and missing most of the beads. It conjured images of Ginger, again wearing a white silk gown. Chris wore a top hat and tails. Matt, Chris’s best man, introduced us as we entered the tented pavilion my mother had erected in her yard for the reception. “Ladies, gentlemen, honored guests. May I introduce Mr. and Mrs. Archer, Chris and Ann.”
The orchestra cued the music and I slowly walked out to the dance platform. From the opposite side of the platform, Chris appeared and tossed his coat aside, just like Mr. Carlton did that first day at dance lessons. Our bodies molded together as we went through the well-rehearsed steps of the tango. We received a round of applause which would have happened even if we danced poorly. Mom beamed and Chris blushed. I caught a glimpse of Lillian and she shook her head slowly from side to side. Later she told me that entire wedding was pretentious and I agreed.
Of course the wedding was pretentious, but few people could say no to Lilith Weaver. So, the lavish and pretentious wedding proceeded, and Chris and I had fun. And so did my six bridesmaids and Chris’s six groomsmen. That evening, I danced with a Senator or two, a Hollywood producer, a couple of Wall Street Millionaires, and an actor who was famous for creating a superhero on the big screen. We dined on lobster, Beef Wellington, caviar, and a wedding cake decorated to look like a white top hat with Swarovski crystals and white roses to garnish. Just like my wedding bouquet. White roses, Swarovski Crystals and silk ribbons.
By the time I danced with my Dad, I had my shoes off and Mom was scandalized. She informed me as she and a famous TV chef danced by that only tramps and hobos went without shoes. Dad whirled me a way and told me to ignore Lilith and to enjoy myself. Chris and Lillian danced closer to us and Lillian pushed Chris into my arms and grabbed my dad for a spin around the floor with him. Mom fumed at Dad for dancing with the indefatigable Lillian Archer.
Other than our tango, Chris was a terrible dancer. He was just barely able to do a box step. I only danced with him two or three times during the night. Matt, on the other hand, was accomplished and lithe on the floor. He graced me with several dances while Barbara smiled at him in approval.
Around midnight, the party started to wind down and Carolyn, my maid of honor, announced that it was time for me to go so everyone else could go. Matt instructed the orchestra to play a slow romantic song and Chris and I had one last box step dance together. We went upstairs to stay overnight in Mom’s guestroom.
I was happy to have a lavish wedding, but afterward, I knew Mom had over spent. All I had remaining were some memories and an album full of photographs.
Chris pulled the car over so we could get a selfie of the Oklahoma Welcome sign. I smiled because I was still thinking about our tango and Chris just looked annoyed. I sent the photo to Mr. Cartwright and to Lily. I also sent one to Matt. He would enjoy the image of Snow with her two front paws on Chris’s leg, begging for a pat on her head. Maybe that’s why he looked annoyed.
It was after 5:00 pm before we reached Oklahoma City, choosing to drive along the famous Route 66. We stopped at Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger for lunch, getting our meal to go. We ate in the car, surprising Snow with the meat from a hamburger. I got a Frito Pie and an Oreo Cyclone and Chris ate three chili dogs. We shared the fries.
Because we were so close to the attraction, we visited the Blue Whale. Interesting, but not incredibly impressive. Kind of like the world’s largest ball of twine. But, still, if anyone asks me if I have seen the blue Whale, I can say, “Yes, I have.”
Snow became an attraction herself at the Blue Whale when every child who saw her reached out to pet her soft white head. Her tail wagged furiously every time she received attention.
The walk did all three of us good as we were all beginning to suffer from the excess calories we consumed on the highway. All my pants were getting a little snug and apparently Chris had the same problem when he announced that any coffee we got on the road should be just black instead of flavors and sugar. That was okay with me because I like black coffee. We decided to eat more salads and to eat less often when we stopped to use the bathroom or to fill up the car.
Chris agreed to walking every day, too.
In Oklahoma City, we left Snow in the hotel room and went in search of bathing suits because most of the hotels where we stayed had pools. Another source of exercise.
I had never been an avid exerciser or dieter. I knew many women who were perpetually dieting and always announcing right before they ate three eclairs that they “shouldn’t” or “this isn’t on my diet” or “I should apply this directly to my hips.” In actuality, they were not dieting, but making a show for everyone else and making it seem as if eating an eclair was a huge sacrifice.
I mostly tried to moderate what I was eating. For example, I would eat a handful of potato chips as opposed to a bagful of potato chips. At work, I usually subsisted on coffee and a sandwich from the the deli next to my shop. At home, I rarely ate a second slice of pizza and birthdays didn’t consist of a whole cake, but one cupcake for each of us. We rarely had dessert after dinner. We also, didn’t exercise very much. None of us. Even with a pool, I didn’t swim laps on a daily basis. Maybe once a week.
We found bathing suits in a chain department store and I picked up two beach towels, too, all compliments of Lillian. At the same store, we bought some bananas and apples for snacks, pre-made salads for supper that evening, and small bottles of juice to drink instead of fizzy sodas.
Anything to stop the endless flood of fast food.
Chris and I changed into our swimsuits when we got back to the hotel and within minutes, we plunged into the cool water of the pool. After swimming the length of the pool a few times, I was tired, so I climbed out and wrapped the towel around my shoulders to stave off the gooseflesh. The sun set and the air grew chilly, so I rushed back into the hotel to get out of the breeze, to shower off the chlorine and get into dry clothes.
My dinner salad tasted better than I anticipated and so did the banana I shared with Snow. I took Snow out for a final walk before going to sleep.
That night, I slept better than I had in a long time. Maybe the key was getting really tired before retiring instead of just sitting in a car all day.
The next morning, I ate breakfast-a single whole wheat bagel with low fat cream cheese and black coffee-compliments of the hotel and then went for another swim, consisting of several laps of the pool. Another shower, back into travel clothes and I took Snow for her morning walk. Just as we got back to the car, Chris was already putting his things in the back. His hair was still wet from his shower and he held a bagel with cream cheese smeared on the top in his left hand.
“You ready?” he asked.
“As soon as I get my suitcase out of the room,” I announced.
He held onto Snow’s leash while I went in to grab my things. My beach towel was wet from my morning swim and so was the bathing suit, so I left them out of the suitcase. A quick double check and I was ready, again.
I spread the wet towel across the back of Snow’s back seat and hung the bathing suit over the headrest in the back.
Chris drove, again, and he picked up Interstate 235 until it met with Interstate 44. Due north to Wichita, Kansas.
We stopped at the Welcome to Kansas sign and I took another selfie for Mr. Cartwright. I sent the image into the ether and we took to the road, again.
Kansas to Colorado
Lunch in Wichita, in which we got salads at a fast food restaurant. The pernicious odor of burgers and fries overwhelmed, so I took my meal out to the car to avoid temptation. Chris followed a few steps later.
“I had to get out of there. I was one step away from ordering a bucket of fries,” Chris said to me.
I nodded my agreement because I had a mouthful of lettuce. Then, I said, “The lounge entertainer, Joey Bishop, who was a favorite of Mom’s, said once that he lost weight by cutting everything in half and eating only half what the restaurants served him while he was on the road. Something to think about. Mom even met him when she was younger.”
“Did she meet any of the others in the Rat Pack?” Chris asked.
“Most of them, from time to time. She spent her summers in the Hamptons and celebrities were always available for parties.”
“Who had the money in your family? Lilith or Andrew?” Chris asked. He had never seemed particularly interested before, so I readily answered his questions.
“It was Mom’s money. Dad is a good investor, so he took advantage of Mom’s inheritance and more than quadrupled her fortunes. My grandfather on Mom’s side was a second generation railroad magnate.”
“What was it like, growing up in a mansion, having everything you ever wanted?”
“Money isn’t everything Chris. Mom and Dad were always someplace else anytime I needed a parent. I was raised by nannies and servants. I saw my parents a couple of weeks in the summer and sometimes during the Christmas holidays. Once in a while, a nanny would take Carolyn, Ian and me to meet them in some far-flung exotic location for a few days, then back to New York we three kids went.”
I spent a lot of time with my grandmother on Dad’s side. She was a kind little lady who taught me the art of crochet. She could talk for hours on the topic of yarn and yarn making. The first project I crocheted was a sampler afghan in which every 5 inch by 8 inch square had a different crochet stitch. I spent a lot of time pulling out stitches that were done incorrectly or too tight or too loose. Grandma had a keen eye and could spot an error from across the room. I was determined that she not find even one.
She lived in the house with us, so I always had a parental figure around. I adored Grandma and always wanted to please her.
My siblings and I seemed to get along very well without Lilith and Andrew. If they didn’t show up for Christmas or birthdays, they always sent lavish gifts. I think they checked with the nannies or maybe the nannies made the purchases and just sent the bills to Dad. Grandma always made sure we had a birthday party or a Christmas tree. She ran the house I lived in until my marriage at the age of 20.
I don’t recall being lonely, but I didn’t feel loved by my parents. I wasn’t lonely because I had Carolyn as a companion, a little brother to terrorize, and Justice, the butler, who became my father figure. Between Justice and Grandma, I always had the discipline I needed to grow. I brushed my teeth, did my homework, studied for tests, cleaned my room and generally behaved.
Carolyn was the rebel who was always jumping off of the porch roof, after climbing up the rose arbor to get on the roof to begin with. She snuck out of the house as a teenager, was caught smoking by Justice who grounded her for a month, was caught drinking by Hannah, the chef, and again she was grounded. She didn’t study, she never turned in homework, never followed the rules.
Carolyn went to a local community college to study nursing-a subject in which she excelled-much to the disappointment of Lilith. Carolyn refused to go to an Ivy League school to study medicine where Lilith wanted her to go.
She met Louis who was studying HVAC at the same school during her final year. They got married a year later, after enduring Lilith’s insults for the entire time they dated. Lilith finally cut her off, completely, if she agreed to go ahead with her marriage to Louis, but Carolyn was undeterred. She and Louis got married in a small chapel with just me and a friend of Louis’s, and Louis’s mother and father and his brothers and sisters in attendance. Mom refused to attend. Carolyn wore a simple white wedding gown that belonged to Louis’s mom and Louis wore his one and only suit. They went to Olive Garden for their wedding supper and stayed at Louis’s parents’ house for their honeymoon.
It seemed her boys acted exactly the way she acted when she was a child. That same spirit pervaded their bones and they would probably grow up as happy as Carolyn is. She has no money, but she had a ton of love from Louis’s family, her boys and from Louis, himself. A lot to envy, there.
Chris smiled at me and said, “It can’t have been terrible to not have Lilith around on the holidays.”
“She generally ignored her children either way. If she was home, she would throw a huge Christmas party to impress her wealthy friends and I was never invited. The nannies or Grandma would have a party for Carolyn, Ian and me in the nursery wing if Mom and Dad had one of their soirees.”
“The nursery wing?” Chris asked.
“Yes. It had five bedrooms, a living room, a playroom, a classroom, four bathrooms, a pool, a kitchen and dining room. It was the wing in the back of the house. I think Lilith uses it for a guest house, now.”
“I was never in that wing,” Chris said. “In fact, Lilith barely allowed me in the front door.”
“You didn’t miss much,” I told him. “The house was huge and cold. It didn’t feel like a home. It felt like someplace I slept as a kid.”
“I am surprised you didn’t grow up as snooty as Lilith,” Chris said.
“I wasn’t raised by her or I may have. I was raised by my Grandma and Justice.”
“What was it like for you when your Grandma died?” Chris asked, he voice carefully neutral.
“It felt like a gunshot wound to my heart. You know, I haven’t been back to that house in New York since Grandma died.”
Then, Chris said something that surprised me addressing his mother in the urn in the back of the Cayenne. “Lillian, I know just Anne feels. A gunshot to the heart. That’s what happened to me when you died.”
We pushed on toward Colorado. From Wichita to the Colorado Border was 8 hours and we decided to spend the night in Colorado. We didn’t quite make it and stopped at a small hotel 20 miles from the Colorado border. We ate fruit for breakfast and bought coffee at the Colorado welcome station. The selfie I took to send to Mr. Cartwright showed Chris and me, neutral faced and facing more of our adventure with mixed feelings.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
The border to New Mexico meant we were only a few hours from Matt and Barbara. There was no question. We would stay with them for a day or two.
The road to Sante Fe seemed endless, when we would actually arrive shortly after lunch. Rather than taking a more scenic route, we followed I 25, opting to arrive sooner to Matt’s house. We broke our own rule and grabbed a quick burger and fry lunch before jumping back into the Cayenne. Both of us were very eager to see Matt and Barbara.
Chris and I visited a few times since our marriage and the house looked very much the same as I remembered–a sand colored stucco house with a bright blue door and blue window frames. Matt had rocks for his yard and flowers growing in huge clay pots. The walkway up to the front door was glazed ceramic tiles of blue and white.
Matt opened the door for us before we got out of the car and met us in the driveway. He pulled me into a tight bear hug and kissed my hair. He hugged Chris, who endured the torture for a few moments.
Matt and Chris were cut from the same mould. Both had blue eyes, a narrow nose and firm chin. However, Matt’s hair was totally gray and Chris only had a few wisps of gray at the temple.
“It is so good to see you,” I said, then, “How is Barbara? Is she inside?”
“Yep. She is waiting for you,” Matt said. “You go. I’ll help Chris with the luggage.”
I left Chris and Matt to catch up and I went inside to find Barbara with Snow at my heels.
Barbara lounged on chaise in her living room right off the tiled foyer.
Snow ran past me and jumped onto the chaise with Barbara.
“Snow!” I called sharply. She turned her head and looked at me, but didn’t come to me.
Barbara laughed and said, “She is welcome! What a beauty she is. Snow, don’t you listen to Anne. You just have a seat and you and I will become good friends.” Snow licked her hand and settled onto the chaise beside Barbara.
My sister-in-law looked frail and drawn. She had lost at least forty pounds since I saw her last and she was never a huge woman to begin with. Her head was covered in a colorful scarf and I suspected she was bald underneath. Even with the sickness that pervaded her body, she gave me a huge smile.
“Anne, you look well, considering all you have endured the past couple of months.”
I sat in the chair beside her, feeling the tears sliding down my cheeks.
“Now, what’s all this?” she asked me. “You are not crying for me.”
“Not at all,” I told her. “I am crying for me and for Lillian.”
“How about making us some tea. You know where the kitchen is. The tea is in the cabinet beside the refrigerator and the kettle is on the stove. Cups in the cabinet on the right side of the sink. I want Earl Gray.”
I nodded and rose to me feet. I gave her a gentle hug and said, “I am so happy to be here. Can we stay for a day or two?”
“Only if you let Snow stay with me. I get so cold and she is incredibly warm.”
The day was far from chilly and Matt had the windows open. I bit my lower lip and nodded. I went to the kitchen before I started crying in earnest. The sight of Barbara in her infirmity was shocking so I cried for her along with crying for Lillian, and myself.
Matt found me in the kitchen. “The lady of the house sent you off to make tea for her? Such a cruel taskmaster she is.”
“Tea for you?” I asked.
“Hell, no. Tea is nothing but slightly flavored water. I drink coffee. Black and thick.” He paused and assessed me with an up and down look. “None the worse for wear, I see. And the punk is still alive. Progress, I would say.”
Matt looked fifteen years older than the last time I had seen him. His hair was longer than I remembered and his face a lacework of wrinkles. The stress of caring for Barbara had not gone well for him.
“Do you have help with her?” I asked quietly.
“Yes. A nurse comes in every day for about four hours.”
“Good. She looks… sick.”
“I think she will weather this storm. Only one more treatment and then she is done. She will get better after that.”
Matt reached up with gentle fingers and wiped the tears from my cheeks, then busied himself with making a fresh pot of coffee.
Chris came into the kitchen before the brew cycle was done. “I put our bags in the spare room,” he announced.
I looked at Matt. “Only one spare room?”
“Yes. Charlotte is here until she gets married and Julia is here on weekends when she comes home from college. You two get Ann’s room because she is away at Northwestern for Med School and won’t be back until her winter break. Julia will be here tomorrow morning.”
I turned away from the two brothers and made myself busy with the tea. I took the two mugs back into the living room and gave one to Barbara. She sipped and said, “This is wonderful. Very warming.”
“I have an afghan I crocheted for you in my luggage. It is made from alpaca and is very soft.”
“Thank you, so much,” Barbara said. “I just can’t seem to get warm, even in 90 degree heat.”
“I’ll get it for you. First, I need to walk Snow.”
“Take her out the back door. Nothing in the backyard but sand.”
I called to Snow and she jumped down from the chaise to follow me outside. A huge glass door opened to a covered patio and a sand trap beyond. The air was comparatively cool under the ceiling fan right outside the door, but it felt like a blast furnace when I stepped onto the sand. Even through the soles of my shoes, I could feel the heat.
Snow squatted, peed quickly, and trotted back to the door to be let back in. Chris had put her water bowl and her her bowl of food by the back door, so Snow paused long enough to slurp several mouthfuls of water. She trotted back to the chaise and hopped up with Barbara once again. She lay her head on Barbara’s thigh.
I asked Barbara where my room was and she gave me brief directions. My bedroom had a queen sized bed covered in a brightly colored Native American blanket. The plastered walls gleamed with white-wash and the red tiles had two fuzzy rugs covering part.
A girl’s room. My niece, Ann, gave us her space without ever knowing it. I opened an empty closet and saw the suitcases in there. I pulled mine out and put it on the bed. The afghan was kept carefully clean by a plastic bag. I removed it and put the suitcase back into the closet.
Out of the window I looked at the mountains in the distance and the swathe of scrub between them and me. The scene was shockingly peaceful and beautiful. Such a contrast to my life.
Moments wasted while I considered what it would mean for Chris and me to be trapped in the same bedroom. If I had to, I would slip out and sleep on the couch in the living room. I sighed, picked up the afghan and returned to Barbara.
I crocheted the afghan from lightweight alpaca wool in earth tone shades I remembered from times I visited Matt and Barbara. Rows of taupe, sand, blush pink, beige and white were interspersed with sky blue. The blanket was soft and lightweight enough to ward of the chill of sickness without being too heavy for the desert summers.
I handed the blanket to her and she buried her face in the soft folds. “It is just gorgeous. Thank you, so much, Anne.”
“Where are Matt and Chris?” I asked her.
“They went to gas up the car and Matt told me that he and Chris are going to Starbucks for coffee and a stern talking to.”
“Maybe it will help. He still texts her and talks to her on the phone whenever he thinks I cannot hear. He talks to me a little bit, but…” I let the sentence trail away. Barbara had enough to worry about without me burdening her with my troubles.
“Do you think you can reconcile your differences?” Barbara asked.
“I just don’t know. I am so angry at him. I feel completely betrayed and completely alone. Worse, I keep thinking this is all my fault. You know, if I had been a better wife, a better housekeeper, a better cook, was 60 pounds lighter, 20 years younger.”
“Stop that, right now,” she admonished, her voice suddenly stronger. “Chris is the one who is having an affair. Not you. Blaming yourself for this is pointless and debilitating. Blaming him is proper.”
“I get the feeling that I can’t get over this, ever.”
“Maybe you can’t. You two may end up separating. Then, you may end up together, forever. I understand what you feeling. I did, too, when Matt had an affair years ago. Betrayal. Breach of trust. Breach of promise. All of that. Plus, like you, I felt like it was my fault. Finally, one night, I was so angry, I hit him in the head with a wooden spoon and told him to get out of my house. He only made it to the front door before he came back and apologized. He promised to never to have an affair, again. I asked him, “How can I believe you?” He said, “Only time will tell.” That was twenty years ago, and sometimes I still feel the hurt and the betrayal. Sometimes, I wonder if he is seeing someone, especially, if he is late coming home or has to go out of town for a medical conference.”
I felt the tears, again. First, I never knew Matt had an affair. Second, I never knew Barbara had to deal with the same things I am dealing with.
“So, you are saying, this will never go away?” I asked around a sob.
“It may not. You have to decide if you can live with the pain and the doubt or you have to cut your losses.”
Matt and Chris returned to the house after spending nearly two hours at Starbucks. Matt held a bag full of food he got from a local grocery store. “No need to worry about dinner, ladies,” he said. “I have taken care everything and the punk and I will cook. You two keep on gossipping.” He kissed Barbara’s head without spilling any of the food out of the bag when he leaned over and then disappeared into the kitchen.
A few minutes later, he came back into the living room, this time wearing a frilly apron that I was certain belonged to Barbara. “Just to let you know, we are going to have a little ceremony for Lillian after dinner. A final farewell.”
“What are you making?” Barbara asked.
“Nachos. With everything. But first, do you ladies want a margarita?”
“Tea for me,” Barbara said.
“Yes,” I told him. “Light on the tequila.”
“Coming right up,” Matt said and he vanished back into the kitchen.
“Cooking is something Matt has started in the past couple of years. He only works two or three days a week now, so he spends his time trying to make things that I can eat. He researches recipes and has joined a couple of online groups for caretakers of cancer patients to get ideas for food and fun.”
“That is so thoughtful of him,” I said, wondering if Chris would ever do anything like that for me.
Matt brought the beverages to us and said, “I need to get back to the kitchen. Chris is chopping up some tomatoes and making a mess of it.”
I laughed. I could well image the mess he would make. Chris never showed any interest in anything happening in the kitchen. I said as much to Barbara.
“Have you ever corralled him, like Matt did? A cooking project? Something the two of you could do together?”
I hung my head and shook it slowly from side to side. “Not really. The only major project we ever worked on together was learning the tango for our wedding.”
“Working together is important. Maybe that is something that subtly pushed Chris away.”
Could Barbara be right? Is that why Chris and I drifted apart? We lived in the same house, but we lead different lives.
Barbara continued, “When a marriage starts to falter, both people are at fault, at least to some degree. Marriage is not easy and it takes a lot of hard work. Every single day.”
As if I weren’t beating myself up enough already. But, maybe Barbara had a point. It wasn’t because I am not twenty, or not a size 2 or 4 or 6. It wasn’t because my hair was cut short and practical instead of long and flowing. All of those things are totally superficial. Maybe the break-up started a long time ago. It was easier for me to just make dinner rather than including Chris in the project. It was easier for me to do the laundry, to take Lily to her dance class, to do the grocery shopping than it was to include Chris. He likely would have gone along with me, after the obligatory protest. But, I didn’t insist. If he wanted to do with me to the grocery store, I felt like he could just get in the car with me and go.
Life with Chris isn’t that simple. He was likely waiting to be invited rather than offering.
“Now, you and Chris are involved in a major project together,” Barbara said. “You are driving all over the United States in order to get something you both want–Lillian’s house. That is a huge start.” Barbara smiled at me and, winked and swallowed some tea.
Any further conversation was interrupted when Charlotte bounded into the front door. “Aunt Anne!” she said and she pulled me into a hug. “I was so excited when Mom told me you were coming to visit.” Charlotte was the best of Barbara and Matt. She had beautiful wavy brown hair and huge blue eyes. She stood nearly three inches over the man who man followed her into the living room. Charlotte said, “This is Ernesto. My future husband…”
“Husband in training,” he said to me. “Ernesto Ontiveros. I’ve heard alot about you. Especially lately.” I shook his hand. “Anne Archer,” I said by way of introduction.
From the kitchen, Matt shouted, “Ernie, get in here. We need some help!”
“Duty calls,” he said, with a smile and vanished from the room.
“How are the wedding plans going,” I asked Charlotte.
“Come see my dress,” she said as she grasped my hand and pulled me to her bedroom.
In her room, decorated like the one Chris and I were assigned to, Charlotte my beautiful niece, pulled open her closet door to remove as very pretty wedding gown of white flowing chiffon. “Oh, Charlotte, it is beautiful,” I told her.
“You are coming to the wedding, right?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Great! And bring Lily. We are having a church ceremony in an old Spanish Mission and the reception is going to be a huge affair with all of Ernesto’s family catering and playing music. We will dance until dawn, eat until we cannot stuff in another morsel and drink tequila as the sun rises. Bring your dancing shoes and some maracas.”
I pulled her into a tight hug. “I am so happy for you, Charlotte.”
Matt’s voice echoed from the kitchen. “Come and get it, while the getting is good.”
Charlotte and I returned to the living room and Barbara moved from the chaise after gently moving Snow’s head from her thigh. Snow followed us to the kitchen where Matt, Ernesto and Chris spread all the ingredients for nachos. Matt handed me a plate and said, “Pile on what you want and I’ll pop it in the oven to melt the cheese.”
I put some taco meat, and cheese on a bed of chips and Matt put the plate under the broiler for a couple of minutes to melt the cheddar jack cheese. I added lettuce, tomatoes, jalapenos, guacamole, and sour cream and took my plate to the table.
The six of us sat at the tile covered table in boy-girl-boy-girl order. We ate and chatted and it was the first meal I truly enjoyed since we left Virginia. We ate nachos and drank margaritas until Matt said, “Tell me about Lillian’s wake.”
I nodded and began hesitantly. “She had lots of friends in attendance. We toasted her life with telling stories of our favorite memories of her,” I said.
“What is your favorite memory?” Matt asked me.
“There are so many… Let me see… Lillian invited me to lunch at her house about three months after Chris and I married. It was the first time I had ever seen inside the house. Bits of Lillian’s life were everywhere–photos, figurines, doilies. A beautiful hand-crocheted doily was on a round coffee table in front of the green sofa. I asked her about it and she told me she made when she was caring for Mr. Archer before he died…”
“I remember her working on it,” Matt said. “She was pregnant as a pelican with Chris and she crocheted with thread to make the doily. I think it was a way for her to keep her mind off of things.”
“Like being pregnant at her age,” Barbara said.
“Anyway, we instantly formed a bond because of our shared love of needlearts. Lillian and I went to craft shows and yarn stores pretty frequently. When I opened my store, Lillian was a regular shopper. She would keep us fascinated with her tales of learning to sail a boat, building a dresser, and weaving rugs, flying lessons, climbing up Kilimanjaro and crossing the outback. Lillian lived a very full life.”
Barbara said, “When I first met her, she told me, “I’ve never had a daughter until now.” That is the way she always treated me.”
Charlotte said, “She came here to Santa Fe to visit us when I was a kid and she taught me how to ride a horse. I fell in love with horses after that. I pestered Dad to buy me one and he finally did.”
“I blame Lillian for that,” Matt said, and Charlotte playfully threw a crumpled paper napkin at him. He batted it away and continued. “She was a very accomplished horsewoman. I remember one time she bought a new horse and we went to the stables to visit the beast. She was big and white and gorgeous. But, she had a mean streak. Lillian named her Jezebel. The first time Lillian saddled her up, she fell off of her. The horse exhaled and the saddle slid around until Lillian fell of and landed flat of her back on the ground, gasping for air. The horse turned her head and looked at Lillian like she was laughing at her. Lillian said to her, “You are an evil woman, Jezebel,” and the name stuck.”
“I wish I had met her,” Ernesto said.
I picked up the urn with Lillian’s ashed and handed it to Ernesto. “This is Lillian Archer. Lillian, your grandson-in-law, Ernesto Ontiveros.”
“Nice to meet you, Lillian,” he said and he kissed the urn.
“Chris, you tell us a story about Mom that you love,” Matt said.
Chris looked like Matt just kicked him in the stomach. Matt said, “She’s your mother. You surely have a good memory of her.”
Chris nodded and said, “Right after she met Anne, Lillian told me that I would be a stupid person if I didn’t marry her on the spot. We weren’t even engaged at that time.”
“Tell me about your proposal to Anne,” Charlotte said to Chris. For a moment, I thought Chris would decline, but he nodded and said, “I bought the ring about two months before I actually asked her. I had been thinking about marrying her almost from the first time I saw her. We met in a bar, believe it or not. She was there with a couple of her friends and I was there with some of my fraternity brothers. I caught her eye. She was the prettiest girl in the bar. I had a couple drinks, so I had enough courage to talk to her.
“Anyway, about six months later, I bought the ring and waited until the perfect time to ask her to marry me. We went to a Fourth of July celebration in Virginia Beach, walking up and down the boardwalk, looking at the water and the tourists. I had the ring in my pocket and almost asked her at least twenty times that day. Finally, during the fireworks, Anne said she loved to watch them, because they were exciting and beautiful. I said, “Just like you are.” I actually got to one knee beside her and pulled the ring out of my pocket. She didn’t notice at first because she was watching the fireworks. Anne turned to say something to me and saw me beside her. I couldn’t speak because I was afraid I would start crying or something.
“She looked at me, at the ring, and then she said, “Are you asking me to marry you?” All I could was to nod. She didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes and I thought she was going to turn me down.”
I laughed. “I was waiting for Chris to actually ask.”
He smiled at me and said, “I finally figured out what she was doing. Then I said, “Will you be my wife?”
Charlotte said, “That is a lot more romantic than Ernesto. We were at an art show and looking at a painting by some local guy that looked like that painting by Klimt, called The Kiss. The artist told us it was called The Proposal. Then, Ernesto said to me, “I don’t suppose you want to marry me, do you?”
Ernesto blushed and then said, “She said to me, “That’s the way you propose marriage to a woman? Where’s the ring?” Then, the artist guy says, “I would have sprung for the ring if it was me.” I told them both, “I have the ring. I just didn’t bring it with me.”
Charlotte said, “Then, the artist guy says, “You have that ring,” and pointed to Ernesto’s class ring. Ernesto said, “I’m asking her to marry me, not to go steady.” The artist guy says, “It’s temporary until you can give her the real ring.” Then, Ernesto looks at his class ring and says, “I like that ring.” Then, I told him, “You ask a girl to marry you, you should offer her a ring of engagement.” Ernesto says, “It’s a class ring. It’s stupid.” Then he said. “Wait right here. Don’t move an inch,” and he ran away from me. He was gone almost an hour, then he finally came back and took the engagement ring out of his pocket and asked the artist guy, “Will this work?” The artist guy says, “That’s a much better ring than the class ring.” Then, Ernesto turns to me and says, “Do you like it?” And I said to him, “Yes, I like the ring. Can I have it?” And Ernesto said, “Of course you can have it, you daft woman.”
We all laughed and I found myself wiping tears from face, again. “That is the most romantic story I think I have ever heard,” I said. Then I raised my Margarita glass and said, “To Charlotte and Ernesto.”
My family replied with, “Slainte.”
Matt said, “To Lillian,” and we said Slainte again. Ernesto said, “Arriba.”
Matt rose to his feet, picked up Lillian’s urn and walked out to the desert behind the house. We followed, one at a time. He stopped about 100 yards from the house and we lined up, shoulder to shoulder. Chris stood to one side of Matt and Charlotte was on the other. She held Barbara up on one side and Ernesto held her on the other. I stood beside Chris.
The evening was chilly, as evenings in the desert tend to be. Barbara visibly trembled even with my afghan wrapped around her. Stars peeked out from behind the high clouds and the half moon sailed across the sky.
Matt stared at the urn a long time and then said to it, “Mom, I am so sorry I didn’t make it to Virginia before you died. I feel like I should have been there just like you were always there for me. You listened patiently when I called you on the phone. You never pulled any punches when you told me where I was screwing up. You always told me what I needed to hear, even when I didn’t want to hear it. I will always love you, Lillian Archer, my beloved mother.”
Chris stood beside Matt and took the urn from Matt’s hand. “Mom, I am so sorry I wasn’t a better son to you. I resented you telling me what to do. Many times I thought you were nothing but a certifiable old woman who had no clue about my life or about living in a modern society. I laughed at your attempts to use an iPhone and a VCR. But, you always told me what I needed to hear, even if I didn’t like it. Even if resented it and got pissed at you for weeks afterward. Now, I just want to hear you tell me anything, good or bad. Now, you are gone and I cannot tell you to your living face that I love you and I will miss you more than you can know.”
Toward the end of his soliloquy, Chris had tears streaming down his cheeks and his voice broke and cracked. That was all it took for me. I started crying, myself.
Chris opened the urn and up-ended it. Lillian Archer floated away on the cool evening breeze.
Chris pulled me into a warm hug and we held onto each other as we cried together.
Santa Fe at Night
The moment I had been dreading arrived. Barbara retired early. Ernesto and Charlotte went out together and Matt spent some time chatting with Chris and me. Finally, Matt asked if we needed anything and I told him no. He said, “That’s me off, then. You two sleep well. French toast for breakfast. No special time to get up. Sleep as long as you like.” He disappeared into the room he shared with Barbara.
“Do you think you can stand to spend one night with me?” Chris asked.
I didn’t trust myself to speak, so I merely nodded and headed toward the bedroom. I grabbed my pajamas out of my suitcase and told Chris I would be back in a few minutes.
I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I sat on the closed lid of the toilet and buried my face in my pajamas. So many thoughts swirled in my head. Earlier, no time presented itself for me to ponder the things Barbara said to me. I felt properly chastised for ignoring my husband. Chris said it to me when he told me I didn’t spend time with him. Because of my anger, I didn’t pay attention to what he said. He told me what he wanted; me wanted me to pay attention to him.
All day, every day. Big things don’t destroy a marriage. Little things do. My husband and I needed to spend every single moment possible together to get over the hump. Kathy was not the problem in my marriage.
Chris was on the right side of the bed when I entered the bedroom, bedecked in my pajamas. He always slept on the right side of the bed. The lamp on his side was on, so I didn’t bother with the one on my side of the bed.
“This bed is pretty comfortable,” he said to me.
I pulled up the blanket and slid in next to him. The bed was a full size and we slept in a queen size at home. I felt the warmth of his leg beside mine.
“I was kinda dreading this,” he told me.
“Me, too,” I confessed.
“Matt gave it to me with both barrels,” Chris said.
“Barbara did the same thing to me.”
“Matt told me if I wanted you to come with me somewhere, I should just ask instead of waiting for you to invite yourself.”
“Barbara told me I should get you involved in projects like getting you to help me make dinner.”
“Please don’t make me do the dishes,” he said. My first knee jerk reaction was to get angry with him until I saw the smile on his face.
“You don’t load the dishwasher correctly, anyway,” I told him.
He was silent for a few moments, then said, carefully, “Is it really that important how the dishes go into the dishwasher?”
I looked at him for long moments before I said, “No, not really.”
“Maybe we should listen to Matt and Barbara. Maybe,” he said, “We need to get to know each other, all over again.”
I held my hand out to him and said, “Hi, my name is Anne.”
“Chris Archer,” he said as he shook my hand. He held onto it and didn’t let go. “It’s very nice to meet you, Anne,” he whispered. He kissed my lips, slowly and softly. Then, as I felt the panic rise in me again, Chris said, “Sleep well, Anne Archer.” He released my hand, reached up to turn off the light and turned onto his side. Just like he always slept. How odd to be so familiar with him and to feel like I was in bed with a total stranger. Of its own accord, my hand snaked over his belly as I spooned him from behind. Just like it always did. Habit. Chris grabbed onto it. Out of habit. Soon, he snored. Just like always.