Celebrated (part fourteen)
“It’s an inside joke, just for me. Don’t tell the girls.”
He put a finger to his lips…all kind of fun and flirty. Odd, though. And it was late. “Are you staying for dinner?”
“I shouldn’t. But…thanks so much! Um. Are you home tomorrow?”
It was the mundane constant of her life, to be at home, always. She spent the evening sifting her mother’s things, self-critical, reviewing every turn of their conversation. Always! But, what else? Let me check my appointments. What did you have in mind…?
However, what did he have in mind?
Here were the photographs in their frames, of Madeline’s parents. A brother, and his children, whom Petra had not grown up knowing as cousins. She could never get anything from these, or from the small album with padded cover, her mother’s sorority friends’ slam-book…if those girls had called it that…from the 1930s, their little sketches and catty sayings.
But not very catty. Madeline had had nice friends, a few who’d visited.
I might be jealous.
Or deprived, maybe, made sensitive to it, by these artifacts of well-to-do American suburban life, interwar. Theirs not a class badly touched by the Depression, young college women who could be on badminton teams, press four-leaf clovers and locks of their boyfriends’ hair, find it jaunty to call their girlfriends chaps, nickname each other Bill and Jack, write limericks: There once was a girl named Mad Motty…
Fun for her mother.
In 1946, there had been a woman in a refugee camp, who’d given birth.
In 1948, there had been two-year-old Petra, first name her own, last name unknown, new-adopted daughter of Madeline Motley.
She supposed she did resent…knew, telling the truth, she had…that this rescue work was a Bohemian lifestyle choice; the true legacy, her mother’s Baltimore, never meant to be passed on.
“I have a couple of things,” she told Tom, when he called on his way again, 9:30, a still breakfasty hour, and said, “Doughnuts? Or go out if you like. McDonald’s?”
Her town had two characters: its arts festival, Old West downtown, storefronts painted turquoise, gold, weathered rose-red. Then highway strips on the outskirts, north and south, 70s and 80s in type, cheap boxes housing odd little regional chains that came and went.
She lived cornered from the south strip. And though people in her community were pressured to disdain them for shopping, the stores, the fast-food places, were convenient. “Yes, doughnuts. But don’t spend money on coffee. Unless you didn’t like mine.”
Tom’s holiday could be hers, too, and she would eat things she hadn’t had in years.
Also, she’d let herself get distracted…
But when he came indoors with his bag of bismarcks, he said, “A couple of things?”
“Pictures. I think there’s one of you, on top. I’m not in it, but I was at that…get-together, whatever, I remember. I think I’m a couple years older than you.”
“Couldn’t matter… Oh, yeah. Now that’s the exact day I was thinking of…your mom didn’t write anything…? No.” He smiled up at her. “My girlfriend. I forgot her name.”
There were ways in which it couldn’t matter. But chiefly in that he hadn’t been paying attention. “So keep that. Any you see that are important to you.”
“Listen.” He said this, without even a cursory shuffle through the box. “I was asking around. Kind of walking the parking lot…you know how at motels the air conditioning can be insane… You go outside and it’s broiling. You turn the AC down, it starts to broil inside, you turn it up…”
“Arctic, yes. Fan blowing so loud you can’t think. I’ve been there.”
“So anyway, everyone says the fossil beds are the great attraction. I think there’s a place they let you dig your own? But someone mentioned a canyon, too. Hiking. Well…they’re predicting storms. Is that good or bad?”
“It’ll cool things off a little. Rain is good. Lightning, bad.”
“Let’s drive, then. If it rains a lot, we’ll stop early for lunch. If there’s lightning, we’ll just look and we won’t get out.”
They were out, on an elevated spot, up a curve of road cut through rock, a buffy, silty layer in slow erosion under a shelf of heavy gunmetal, broken in verticals, the walls themselves anti-scenic, claustrophobic—but then you got to the lot at the top, and the point was only that, to look over the rail at the vista.
Tom had brought a pricey, fat-lensed camera. “Fritos.”
“Just to see if you would smile.”
“Tom, don’t put me in your picture.”
Far away, along the highway ribboning off below, were the brown signs pointing to the fossils. She’d never done any of this, for living here.