It’s Bridget’s birthday today. So for her, I’ll post something different. The opening of a short story: “Fold and Gish,” a coming of age tale. Not about youth getting older, but older folks becoming alone. It’s a look at the empty nest. I wrote this long before I had one, an empty nest that is, and now that I do, I go to the story and enjoy its quiet. Like my own house, my nest, if you will. It is the story of how one couple adjusts, quite romantically, albeit not without conflict, to the whole thing.
I do keep Bridget’s goldfish for her, feed it, and occasionally clean the tank, as she lives her young, exciting life in New York, and the fish stays with mom. She works in the Village, lives in Brooklyn, and today will be teaching an animation workshop to children before she lunches with friends, dozens of them if I know my Bridget, at Bareburger. I miss her, and I love her, and like her goldfish, she carries on peacefully, not needing much from me at all. An independent young woman of whom I am so proud. Who made the whole empty nest thing a celebration, never tragic or worrisome.
Happy birthday, sweet woman. And for you readers, if after reading, you want a bit more of “Fold and Gish” let me know. I hope to post it in a series, old fashioned like, how they did it before the internet and all. Here goes.
Fold and Gish
When headlights suddenly lit the far wall of their dark room, blinking on the bureau mirror like the flash of a camera, both Jean and Eddie woke up, lay still, and listened. In the driveway, Gary’s truck shuddered as it turned off; it popped and banged, finally settling onto the icy concrete, creaking as the doors opened. The old couple rolled toward the middle of the bed and faced each other, smelling the quietly dry breath of sleep, barely able to see each other’s face in the again-dark room, but they were smiling.
“You know, nobody warms up their cars long enough in the winter,” Eddie whispered.
“Except maybe that lady next door,” Jean whispered back.
“Yeah, but she lets the damn thing run for a full hour. She warms up the whole neighborhood.” He pulled the covers up higher over their shoulders.
It was usually the kid across the way, frantically revving the engine of his souped-up ’69 Roadrunner, who woke them in the mornings, although Jean had recently found herself sleeping through the roar. But Eddie had grown to enjoy the disturbance; he would wait for the kid to finally take off, and then he smiled and threw a victorious fist out of their warm quilt, mouthing the word, “Yes!” Each morning the kid’s car stalled before he’d made it to the first intersection. Flooded. A short pause. But by the time the revving began again, Eddie would be in the shower.
They both listened now as their youngest daughter Rachel tried to quietly unlock the front door, creep up the front stairs, and whisper to her boyfriend Gary to stay quiet.
“Should I go tell them their efforts are fruitless,” Eddie asked Jean, reaching over, letting his hand rest at her waist. It’s curve designed just for this moment. As familiar and comfortable as his own skin.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“I think it must be time for Rachel to finally move out.”
“I think she thinks it will be easier if she just disappears.”
“Why didn’t they just take the rest of her stuff last night?”
“They had to get Gary’s truck for that old couch, the one from the den. And she’s taking her dresser,” Jean said.
“And at least three truckloads of jeans and t-shirts.” Eddie cuddled closer. “I’ll go make them breakfast.” They kissed, gently, knowingly. Every kiss like the first, every kiss like the thousandth.
“Maybe you should just let her leave.”
Eddie rose and put on jeans and a t-shirt. Jean thought of his own truckloads of the same.
There, of course, hadn’t been a morning for as long as they could remember that Eddie hadn’t been up before Jean or the children, fixing Cheerios or Rice Krispies for the kids, oatmeal with strawberry jam for himself. Jam made from Jean’s strawberries, canned fresh from her garden. And for Jean, wheat toast with molasses and low-fat margarine.
These last few years, while Rachel was privileged to have Jean and Eddie all to herself, something her six older brothers and sisters never had, he fixed her brown sugar and cinnamon toast. A breakfast treat that used to be saved for birthdays. Rachel had every morning. Eddie wouldn’t pass up the last chance to see a dark brown smudge or her lip, smell the fragrance of cinnamon as it took reign over his kitchen.
But less than an hour later, as Jean lay in bed listening to Gary’s truck groan and knock as he started it, Eddie appeared in the doorway. “They were too busy to eat.” He said it matter-of-factly, but she knew the uneaten food was a small blow. He prided himself on the littlest things he could do for his kids. The larger things he had done mattered less to him. It was the toast he thought they’d remember most.
Jean took his hand as they stood at window together watching the truck with its final load back out of the driveway. Jean pulled away the curtain and they waved, but Rachel and Gary didn’t look up.
The truck headed down their street towards 12-Mile Road, and a sleeve of a red blouse loosened from one of Rachel’s quickly packed boxes. Every tote and duffel she owned was stuffed to the gills with the colorful collage of her wily wardrobe. The frantic containers seemed to hold both memory, and forgetfulness, loss and hope, for their youngest daughter. Or an ironing disaster, Jean thought.
The opalescent buttons caught the sun coming up over the trees, and sparkled like late stars, the sleeve fluttering wildly in the cold early morning wind. And then the truck was gone.
Jean ate Rachel’s cinnamon toast later that morning, with slow, dainty pleasure, using her third and fourth finger to lightly brush away the sugar crystals that caught at the corners and edges of her lips. She let her tongue slide around the periphery of her mouth, and she grinned like a child. Letting each bite of the sticky bread adhere to the top of her mouth where the spicy sweet flavor lingered until she took a sip of coffee to sweep it away. Of course it meant that she’d have to skip her after-nap chocolate later that day, but it was the last time there might be sugar toast waiting on the table with no one to claim it.
Eddie’s oatmeal cooled on the table across from her. That’s how he liked it: cold, he said. His mouth reacted adversely to food that was not the same temperature as his body, or colder. But it was really that he became so distracted with chores and his to do list after he put the food on table that he would temporarily forget about it, and, well, oatmeal was just never quite right re-warmed. Jean heard him at the front door, and knew he would be in shortly. She covered the bowl with a plate so at least some of the heat would be preserved.
(to be continued….)