Six months after he is gone and here comes the insurance money. His life was worth three hundred thousand big ones and she gets it all. She parks a new white Beamer in the drive, puts thick blue carpet on her mother’s floor downstairs, and flies off to Hawaii. She loved Frank, she really loved Frank, but oh, that awful wreck, that awful coma.
The men in Hawaii are all younger than she and dark-skinned. Deep, like mahogany, and they slide smoothly on the dance floor, swaying. Dot is fair and burns herself so badly on the first day that she can’t dance. She can only sit at the bar, the wellspring of a thousand Friday nights pumping in her veins. She orders another drink, something tropical. Under the bartender’s light, it is a pinkish-orangy color, but in front of her, it looks red. She leaves Hawaii depressed and gets off the plane woozy.
The niece meets her at the airport. “It’s Grandma,” she says, and when Dot doesn’t respond, she adds, “Your mother.”
Laura is a plump girl, but her waist is thin. She’s wearing a black jumpsuit with lots of pockets, zippers, and snaps; around her middle a narrow olive belt is looped twice. The outfit has a military effect. Dot decides she isn’t wearing it right; she needs bracelets, a necklace, and chiffon scarf knotted around her waist. Yes, a scarf, pink or maybe aqua. This way she looks too mannish.
“We tried to call you at the motel Tuesday night, but you weren’t in,” Laura continues. “She had really sharp pains in her stomach, so we took her to the hospital. It was awful.”
Tuesday night, yesterday night, her last night in Hawaii. She closes her eyes, feeling Laura’s hand on her arm and sees those boys, with girls this time. She wouldn’t have minded being back in the motel room when the phone rang.
“Thanks for trying,” she says, and the niece appears relieved.
Dot wants to go home, but she goes straight to the hospital. Lying in a hospital bed, her mother, a fat woman, doesn’t seem so enormous.
“How was the trip?” Dot’s mother’s name is Dorothy, and her teeth are out.
“Fine,” Dot tells her. “I enjoyed it.”
“Did you meet any nice people?”
She knows when her mother says nice people she means eligible men, and that makes her so angry she throws her mother a dirty look. Nothing gets by Dorothy. She knows, even though Dot has said she will never remarry, that when she went to Hawaii, she was man hunting. Her mother’s face reddens, and for a moment she seems on the verge of tears. Dot reserves that look for busybodies and salesmen, any kind of salesmen. And Dot blushes, too, angry that she’s given herself away, that she’s upset a sick woman. Mother and daughter are staring out the window when the orderly arrives.
“How are we today?” he asks. Neither of them answers.
The orderly pierces her mother’s flesh with a long, skinny needle, sucking up her blood. Rusty syrup, Dot thinks, and her stomach growls.
When the orderly leaves, her mothers asks, “Have you eaten?”
Dot shakes her head.
“Go, then. Go.”
Back at the house, she takes a shower. In one way or another, she’s lived at home all her life. After she married, she and Frank lived upstairs and her mother downstairs. It is a big house, lots of room. They both worked, and her mother took care of the children. Now, the boy is in the service, and the girl lives in Seattle. Frank Jr. is her favorite; the girl she could never understand. She feels guilty that she didn’t give them any of the money; she feels guilty about her mother. She will have to call her children and tell them. Instead, she calls Laura because she wants somebody to talk to. She offers to take her to Lazelo’s and buy her a steak. Laura says that’s okay, she will buy her own steak, but Dot insists because she knows Laura really would . Laura is a good kid.
They meet in the parking lot. Laura is still wearing her jumpsuit, only now she has a red belt around it. Dot is annoyed. She thinks red and black together look like something a Communist would wear. She wonders if Laura knows what she’s doing. But then Laura is often sloppy. Maybe she will slim down once she gets to Alaska, freeze some of her fat off. As they enter the restaurant, Dot wonders how she manages to keep her waist.
“How about a drink?”
Laura says okay. Since the lounge is crowded, they sit at the bar. Laura orders a Chablis, Dot gets a martini.
‘I bet it seems cold after Hawaii,” Laura says.
“In a way.”
Laura runs her fingers up and down the stem of her glass, and slowly her eyes fill with tears. “I’m just sick about Grandma. I mean, I know she’s old and she’s got to die sometime, but she’s my grandmother and she’s always been there.”
Laura waits, expecting sympathy, counting on the common bond of the dying woman between them. Dot fiddles with her lighter. When it doesn’t work, she gets a little box of matches from the bartender and strikes one. The smell of the sulfur causes Laura’s tears to flow.
“You don’t think it’s . . .”
“Cancer of the colon,” Dot says quickly and takes a draw.
She knows her mother is dying. There was something other than embarrassment in the flush on her face, something pushing from the inside. Dot remembers the day Ruth got her going out in the side yard. Her sister Ruth has a way of upsetting their mother more than anyone Dot knows. It is as if Ruth were the parent and her mother the child, so eagerly does Dorothy want Ruth’s approval. Dot has never wanted Ruth’s approval. She knows that Ruth has always been jealous of her nice house and her naturally curly hair, which makes her look years younger. When Dot got the insurance money, Ruth was livid.
“Well, I guess you don’t have anything to worry about.”
The three of them were sitting in folding chairs in the side yard. They’d been talking about Florida oranges, but as soon as Ruth said this, Dot knew where the conversation was headed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dot said casually, not wanting to upset their mother. “I don’t guess so.”
“No, sir,” Ruth continued. “Not with all of Frank’s money, and then all of this when . . .”
“Ruth!” Dorothy interrupted.
Their mother’s face was blood red. Even the creases in her cheeks were on fire — lines as dark as birthmarks spread across her face threatening to break her apart. Couldn’t Ruth see? Dot thought of the blood that came out of her today. Yes, her mother is dying, but she doesn’t want to admit it to the niece yet.
“I’m not like you are, Mother,” Ruth had pushed ahead, oblivious. “I wouldn’t leave Laura nothing if she wasn’t good to me. When I die I’m not going to leave a dime to anybody that’s not good to me.”
There was a deep silence before her mother cried out, “And who’s not good to me? Who am I going to leave something to that’s not good to me?”
Dot flips a long ash in the glass tray. “There’s nothing to cry about, Laura,” she tells her. “She’ll be all right.” She looks at Laura’s still full glass. “What is it with you?”
“It’s in the diet,” the man beside her interrupts — not drunk, just friendly. “Refined sugar, additives. They foul up your blood. Life is in the blood.”
“Could be,” Laura agrees, reflectively. “When you think about it, it makes sense.”
Dot finishes her drink. The man talking to Laura is her age, maybe older.
“Do you know this girl is going to Alaska?” she interjects.
The man looks at her, then at Dot, interested. “You don’t say.”
“That’s why I brought her here tonight, to talk her out of it. Imagine, Alaska!” Dot reaches over and grabs him by the arm. “Tell her not to go to Alaska!
The man orders another round of drinks.
“You won’t be happy up there,” he says. “My ex-wife was always wanting to run around. She wanted to go out west. Now, she’s got leukemia.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Laura says.
When the drinks come, Dot takes hers and goes to a table. In a few minutes, Laura joins her.
“Ready to eat now?” asks Laura, as if nothing had happened.
Dot pretends to frown, but inwardly she is pleased. This is what she likes about Laura: she takes things so matter-of-factly. She is simple to be around, much simpler than, for example, her own daughter. She could never go out like this with Carolyn. The last time she tried, about five years ago, Carolyn kept saying, “Oh, Mom!” until Dot thought she would scream. Carolyn is a blonde and Dot was a blonde then, too, and every time someone told them they looked like sisters, Carolyn would say, “Oh, Mom!” Dot thought it undignified. She lights another cigarette, knowing Laura won’t mind if she smokes.
“The nerve of some men,” she says, exhaling. “They think you’ll fall for anything because you’re alone. Did you hear that line about his wife?”
Laura starts to say something, but the waitress comes to take their orders.
“And bring another round of drinks,” Dot calls after her, eyeing Laura through the veil of her smoke. Although they’ve already ordered, she is still reading the menu.
“The honey-glazed chicken sounds good,” she says.
Laura is such a simple girl, she thinks, just look at the way she wears her jumpsuit. It looks like a designer, no, it is a designer. Laura is an only child, and her parents are constantly buying her things. And then there is the boyfriend in Alaska. She hears he has money, too. Everything out there is inflated.
“So it’s all set?” asks Dot.
“On, no! We’re just engaged.”
“And Ruth. . . did you say your mother liked him?”
“Mom likes him a lot. Dad, he–“
“Well, that’s good,” Dot jokes. “At least this way she won’t cut you out of her will.”
“Her will?? Who, Mom? Oh, good heavens.” Laura shrugs, then raises her eyes to meet Dot’s. “I’m not worried about it. Anyway, you can’t count on that kind of thing.”
The waitress brings them their drinks.
“Don’t forget to take the menus,” Dot tells her.
“May I have one of your cigarettes?” Laura is an occasional smoker.
Dot wants to talk but she is annoyed by Laura’s plumpness, her good clear skin, the way her hair curls around her forehead, and her voice comes out in a tone other than what she’d expected.
“Are you really going to Alaska?”
Laura takes a draw off her cigarette, then gently rolls the ash on the edge of the ashtray. She is so smooth that Dot wonders if she ever thinks. Does she think about her weight problem, for instance, or what her boyfriend might be doing right this very minute?
“I guess so,” she says, finally. “Mom said I should fly out there first and see if I liked it.”
Dot takes another drink and thinks of her sister. The gin, combined with the thought of Ruth, makes her stomach burn. Ruth is just like their mother, quiet except when it comes to her daughter. Ruth has always meddled in Laura’s life, and Laura doesn’t seem to mind it. Their mother was like that. She had strong opinions on the raising of children, and Ruth always agreed. In the house all day long with Frank gone off on the railroad, Dot could never do anything right. She started working when Carolyn, the youngest, was six months old. Now, thinking of Ruth’s advice to her daughter, Dot feels a closeness to the girl that she’d never have imagined.
Ruth is out to trick her daughter. She’s probably read up on Alaska in the Encyclopedia Britannica they bought for Laura as a child and knows all about the lousy weather. She knows when it’s worst, and that’s when she’ll send her daughter there. Because of her mother’s deviousness, Laura will meet with dark and cold and continuous snow flurries. She will never see the light. She will sit around in an igloo or an igloo shaped lodge until she goes crazy, and then she will come home. If he really loves her, the boyfriend will follow and they’ll have a church wedding that all the relatives can attend. They’ll buy a trailer and put it on the back of Ruth’s lot. Dot suspects Ruth is planning to give them free utilities.
She wants to warn Laura, but she doesn’t know where to begin so she lights up a cigarette.
“It’s five hundred dollars one way,” the girl says. “And three different lay-overs.”
“What if you don’t like Alaska?”
Laura starts to answer, but their food comes.
“Who gets the baked potato?” asks the waitress.
“I do,” Laura says.
“Steak and salad?”
“What if you don’t like Alaska?” she asks again.
“I don’t know.” Laura sprinkles salt and pepper over her sour cream. “I guess I’ll come home.”
“But don’t you love him?” Dot leans forward, her voice too loud, but she doesn’t care. “I thought you said you loved, uh . . .”
“I thought you said you loved Jerry.”
“I do,” says Laura, through her food. “With all my heart.”
“Well, then, don’t let anyone talk you out of Alaska. If you love him, you’ll go there and stay. If you love him and don’t go, you’ll regret it the rest of your life. Go to Alaska. Don’t have a life like mine.”
“Don’t talk sad, Aunt Dot. When you talk sad, it makes me feel blue.”
“I’d like to be young again.” Dot saws a chunk of meat from the bone and dabs it in its own juice. “Not ridiculously young, but somewhere in my thirties. I always thought the thirties were a good age. I’d like to be thirty-three years old again. Thirty-three.” she chews on her steak. “The same age as Jesus Christ.”
Laura looks alarmed. “You led a good life, Aunt Dot. You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Married to a wimp. My mother lived with us. I gave her all those years that should have been for me, years when I should have been doing something. All my husband ever wanted was to sit around and read the newspapers. And sex, he wanted that, too.” She pushes aside her plate and lights a cigarette. “There was a man once, a Lebanese. That’s when Frank was living downtown. We were still married, but you know how things are sometimes. Anyway, this guy and I had sort of a love affair. His name was William Ray. He was a traveling man, sold office supplies, fax machines, copiers, you know. Every time he’d come into town we’d go dancing. He was handsome and dark. I had blonde hair then, do you remember when–“
“We were a couple. Nobody on the floor but us. This went on for, oh, I don’t know how long. He even begged me to go with him once or twice. But in the end, do you know what he did? He came to see my mother! At my house! Can you believe that? He wanted her to tell me he was going away. What a spineless scum. And then he had the nerve to say I was stealing his manhood.”
Dot stops to take a drink. She rubs the untouched cigarette out on her plate.
“Jerry has a really good job out there,” Laura says carefully. “He says I wouldn’t have to work until I wanted to.”
“If you don’t go, you’ll always regret it.” Dot traces the rim of her glass and looks at Laura’s Chablis. Her own drink is gone.
“Go ahead,” Laura says.
An orchestrated version of a country-western hit comes over the stereo system. The man at the bar leaves.
“Well, there goes another one,” says Dot, raising Laura’s glass in a salute. “But that’s okay. At my age, you can’t be too careful.”
“That’s right, Aunt Dot.”
“Hey, what’s all this Aunt Dot business?”
“I tell you, a lot of these divorced men are just looking for a place to stay. They want a woman with an empty house, so they can move in with her.”
Dot mumbles this last, and Laura doesn’t hear her. Laura loosens her belt a notch and sighs, “Whew!”
“I tell you what I’d do if I had a jumpsuit like that. I’d put a chiffon scarf around it. I’d,” Dot pauses and then decides she doesn’t care, “lose some weight and put a pink chiffon scarf around it. Then I’d get some long earrings and a necklace and a couple of bracelets, too. All silver. Silver attracts the light.”
“Oh, I know,” Laura rolls her eyes. “But it’s hard for me to reduce. Maybe once I get to Alaska.”
Dot wants to pinch her, but instead she closes her eyes. If she had Laura’s jumpsuit, she’d buy as much silver as she could afford, and money would be no problem. She’d buy tons of silver and unsnap the first three buttons . . . . Dot imagines herself on the dance floor. At first she is alone, spinning slowly just for the feel of it. Then the tropical boys join her, but she won’t let them touch her. She high kicks in their faces, only inches from their chins; she shimmies by, soundless in her silver, weaving away, waving them away; at a distance, she sees William Ray and still farther, Frank. Poor Frank. Because he is dead, he can’t join the dancing. He must sit, her mother and Ruth on either bandaged side, marking time. It is no hallucination. She feels the blood pouring through her veins, in her throat, her wrists, all her pulse points. Her belt slips loose at the waist. Yes, she would dance. She would dance in a blaze of undulating fire, and sweep herself up in it, sweep herself up in it high.
“You’d better go,” she says thickly, turning up the glass until she sees light through the bottom, knowing she will never be this transparent again. “You’d better go just as fast as you can.”
One thought on “Long Distance, a short story by Joan Spilman”
Love the characters. This reminds me a lot of Hemingway-type dialogue.