April 12, 2016
Vrai wished she had the nerve to leave Skip’s ashes and the box of things from his apartment on his mother’s doorstep. Why not loop Cassi’s leash around the dogwood, ring the doorbell, and run? She didn’t regret the phone call to his mother to offer condolences. Skip would surely have done the same for her. But this visit would be downright awkward.
She and Skip had both grown up here in Knoxville. Decades later they’d become close friends while working in the same library in Baltimore. Just up the street from that library, four days ago, Skip had been hit by a car. According to the article in the Baltimore Sun, the driver, an optician, claimed Skip had stepped off the curb with his hands over his eyes. The article had his name right, Jasper Pascal Howard, Jr., but said he was fifty years old. Skip was only forty-nine, two years older than Vrai.
Bittersweet Way, Skip had ruefully called this quiet, tree-lined street where his mother still lived, and for Vrai, too, his old neighborhood was steeped in sadness. Her best friend, Laramie, had lived next door to Skip.
Vrai’s own childhood home, in a very different part of town, had been razed–sold to a commercial developer when her parents retired and moved to Florida. She still exchanged Christmas cards with three or four friends here but hadn’t let anyone know she would be coming for Skip’s funeral.
Green-shuttered windows scowled down from the second floor of Mrs. Howard’s red brick house. The double front doors were also green, also in need of paint. A flagstone walk led to the front door.
“I’m Vraiment Lynde. Vrai Stevens,” she said to the tall black woman who answered the doorbell. “Mrs. Howard’s expecting me.” Something about the woman looked familiar. “Nancy, is that you?”
It was. The Howards’ former maid opened the screen door. “You were Laramie’s friend. I recognize that red hair. Come on in, Vrai.”
Vrai set the large cardboard box down on the hall carpet. Two days ago, in Baltimore, taking some of Skip’s belongings home to his mother had seemed like a good idea. His ashes, still in the white plastic bag she’d been handed at Baltimore Cremation, Inc., were on top.
She had played tennis (with Laramie) on the tennis court behind the Howards’ house, had been squirted with a hose (by Lloyd, Laramie’s older brother) from the front-yard spigot, but she had never before been inside. The downstairs was carpeted, wall-to-wall, in pale luna-moth green. Matching draperies framed the windows.
“Are you still a . . .” Vrai searched for the right word. “A policewoman?”
“I’m retired now. I’m here today as a friend of the family.” Nancy looked down at the box. “What’s all this stuff?”
Vrai pointed to the white plastic bag. “I brought Skip’s . . . remains.”
“Lord have mercy.” Nancy’s hand went to her heart. “Does Mrs. Howard know?”
“The first time we talked, she asked me to bring them. Last night, though, when I called from my motel, she seemed a little confused.”
“Her nephew gave her a tranquilizer last night. Don’t know what happened. She’s still high as a kite.” Nancy eyed the ashes. “She won’t need those today. It’s only a service. There won’t be any trip to the cemetery.”
Vrai turned toward the door, determined to get the visit over with as quickly as possible. Lloyd had been right. She could’ve mailed the ashes, or asked the crematorium to do it for her. “I have Skip’s dog, too. In my car. Mrs. Howard asked me to bring Cassi down.”
“Not in this house.” Nancy was adamant. “She’s legally blind. How’s she going to take care of a dog?”
Lloyd had also wanted her to ship Cassi down by plane. What would’ve happened to the poor dog then?
“The service is at two, right?” Vrai wished she’d dropped Skip’s high-strung purebred off at the kennel along with her own dogs, two laid-back mutts. “Will I see you there?”
“What else is in that box?” Nancy said.
“Some family photographs. A few other things.” She’d gone to Skip’s apartment building to see about Cassi. The woman who lived across the hall from Skip had taken the dog in and, after some convincing, let Vrai into his apartment.
“Need some help carrying it into the living room?” Nancy said.
“If she doesn’t want the dog, then maybe I should just leave.”
Nancy picked up the box. “Didn’t you say she was expecting you?”
It was inevitable. Even though Vrai and Skip hadn’t spoken to each other in well over a year, she was going to have to sit down and try to make polite conversation about him.
The large living room was dominated by a harp, perhaps the very instrument Mrs. Howard had played as a member of the Knoxville Symphony. Vrai remembered her as a tall, imposing woman, dressed always in a long black skirt, even when she wasn’t performing.
“I’ll set this on the coffee table for now,” Nancy said. “Let me have your coat.”
Coffee. Would it be rude to ask for coffee?
The table’s smooth marble top reminded her of a blank tombstone. After Nancy left the room, Vrai moved the white plastic bag, heavier than she remembered, to a shelf full of standard reference books: Roget’s Thesaurus, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The familiar titles would be good company for Skip, who, until he lost his job, had been head of the Reference Department at the John Joseph Stark Library in Baltimore.
A frail woman with short white hair appeared in the doorway. If not for the black skirt, Vrai might not have recognized Mrs. Howard, whose cheeks sagged now; she looked like a long thin Giacometti frog.
With a deep voice to match. “I don’t see too well these days. Please. Tell me where you are.”
“By the bookcase,” Vrai said. “I put the ashes on the shelf with the reference books.”
Mrs. Howard’s cane preceded her into the room. “Now, tell me who you are.”
“Vraiment Lynde. Vrai Stevens. My father owned Stevens Landscaping. I drove down from Baltimore.”
“So you’re the one who called. You were dear little Laramie’s friend.” Mrs. Howard transferred her cane to her left hand, extended her right. Her long cold fingers were surprisingly strong. “Still have that wild head of red hair?”
A former librarian at Johns Hopkins University, JILL MCCROSKEY COUPE has an MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson College. She lives in Baltimore. Visit her online at https://jillmcoupe.wordpress.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/jillmccroskeycoupe.
Adapted from True Stories at the Smoky View, by Jill McCroskey Coupe, Copyright © 2016 by Jill McCroskey Coupe. With the permission of the publisher, She Writes Press.