As dust billows from the gravel driveway and the red sports car disappears onto the highway, Sarah sits rigid in her chair, numb with disbelief and anxiety. Even here on the shaded back deck, the afternoon June sun and humidity render everything damp and uncomfortable. She moves slightly to unstick her caftan from the lawn chair seat, wipes a sleeve over her moist forehead.
“I’m probably overreacting,” she says aloud. “He’s her son, after all, he won’t do her harm.” Counter arguments pummel her brain. His forty year track record. Abysmal. This sudden interest in his mother. Suspect. His unexpected appearance decked out like an aging playboy. Outrageously insincere.
Sarah stands and stares for a moment at the driveway, the bordering lawn, this tranquil country place so right for Deandra, for both of them in their so-called declining years. Perfect, until thirty minutes ago when Larry Mourand sailed in, announcing he was here to take his dear mother out to lunch.
She knows she must find something engrossing to do, otherwise she’ll be checking her watch every five minutes. They’ll be gone two hours at least, maybe three and unless she creates a distraction for herself, she’ll be pacing and working herself into a lather, likely to erupt negatively when they do show up. If they show up. But of course they will. She returns to the cool of the kitchen and begins compulsively tidying up - dishes, flyers, old mail that needs to be filed. It’s a matter of tricking the mind into thinking the task at hand is of paramount importance. It works momentarily until the sheer gall of his sudden unannounced appearance wells up in her again and she slams down the mail she’s been sorting and heads for the living room. She should be doing her exercises, daily stretching to keep her old muscles and ligaments working. She gives her yoga mat no more than a passing glance and walks to the big window that overlooks her lawn and vegetable garden. Friends in town think she’s crazy living out here, tell her she should be in a condo or senior’s residence. She has help when she needs it and the gardening, even at her much slower pace, makes her feel young. The fact there is always something to do is motivation to keep going, to ignore the body’s slow and relentless decline. She knows there are weeds; there are always weeds poking their heads everywhere. It’s much to hot to weed right now and napping is out of the question. The look on Deandra’s face, seeing her son after all these years. Delight, adoration, gullibility Sarah thinks. She fluffs the couch cushions a bit more fiercely than necessary, knocking a book onto the floor. Gullibility and unwavering trust. She retrieves the book, a good novel she’s halfway through. The back of the dust jacket has several quotes, well-deserved praise but she knows she won’t be able to read, her concentration would be nil. The book reminds her of Hannah, book club acquaintance and now good friend. I could call her, she thinks. See what she makes of it all. She puts the novel on the side table next to the phone and dials Hannah’s number.
The response is guarded. “Yes.”
“Sarah. So sorry. I always suspect telemarketers during the day.”
“Hannah, can you come over? I need some advice.”
“Of course. Has something happened?” Sarah knows she pauses too long and realizes her hand is shaking.
“I’d rather tell you when you get here.”
“I’ll leave right away then. Bye.”
Funny, Sarah thinks, I didn’t intend to ask her over. I’d better put the kettle on. Obviously I’m more rattled than I realize.
Now, Sarah opens the door onto the deck, thinking how things have been going so smoothly since Deandra returned. In these past five years she’s stabilized, her sanity and wit reemerging. The heat out here is still oppressive and Sarah wonders momentarily if they should sit in the house. There is a small breeze, however, and the scent from the Locust tree’s white blooms is heavenly. She settles into a chair to wait for Hannah.
Sarah was younger, then, in her mid-seventies and bringing Deandra back from the Ohio institution continues to be, in spite of periodic difficulties, the best thing she has accomplished in a long time. This bond, one of those lasting friendships, has evolved into a care-giver role and even if Deandra’s deceased husband, Hugh, hadn’t put financial assistance in place, Sarah would still be looking after her.
Sarah wonders whether Hannah remembers Charlie’s death and sixteen year old Larry’s obvious involvement. Surely she would. Traumas of that magnitude don’t disappear. She hopes, for Hannah’s sake it’s a closed chapter.
Deandra’s will has been an ongoing roller coaster over the years. Her investments, if she died before Sarah, were originally to be equally divided between Larry and Deandra’s charity of choice. As it turned out, not long after Sarah and Deandra adopted the two cats Deandra, in a period of despair and sure her son had permanently abandoned her, insisted that Sarah take her to see Sarah’s lawyer, Carl Hepworth. She said she wanted to have all her investments equally divided between the local Franklin Animal Shelter and her ballet school in Ohio. She quickly forgot when she had done this however and, during the past year especially, talked again about her money going to her darling son. Only a few months ago, after Deandra began pestering Sarah every waking moment, she gave in and they returned to Carl Hepworth’s office to have the will changed back to include Larry.
Sarah feels herself tensing again and realizes she’s leaning forward, squeezing the chair arms, her old knuckles white, the myriad of age spots staring at her from her tightened skin. She sits back in her chair and attempts to relax. Hannah will be here soon.
Everything is voluptuous and in full leaf, flower beds blooming, that heady early summer smell in the air. Her shed is newly painted, the back deck spacious and the lawn newly cut. Be thankful, she thinks to herself, this is most likely a small setback.
The minute Hannah’s car appears in the driveway, though, Sarah is on her feet. She rushes down the steps and they meet as Hannah’s car door slams shut. Sarah knows she must look disheveled, that Hannah will suspect trouble with Deandra.
“Are you all right?”
“A day of unpleasant surprises,” Sarah replies. “Come, I’ll get the tea I’ve made
and we’ll sit on the back deck. Cooler there.” She walks briskly back and into the kitchen, feeling a little better already.
“Is it Deandra?” Hannah asks as she reppears with a tea tray.
Sarah pours for both of them before replying.
“Larry arrived around noon and took Deandra off, I have no idea where.” Sarah stirs and stirs her tea, staring at it as if expecting some explanation.
“Larry Mourand? Her son, Larry?” Hannah inhales sharply. “How is this possible? How would he even know his mother was here?”
“He wrote to me several months ago,” Sarah begins, still staring at her tea. “Said he wanted to get back in touch. Make amends.”
“He had your address?”
“The hospital did, in Ohio. He must have contacted them.” She turns her head, takes a deep breath. “First a letter and then several phone calls. Each time, I put him off talking to his mother, said she was sleeping, not well. I didn’t know what to do. I suspected Larry was more interested in her money than well-being but, in spite of this, felt obliged to mention the phone calls. Deandra’s response was always the same. Adoring look, hands twisting in that familiar way, voice a little shaky, litany of hopeful anticipation - to see her son again after all these years.
“So he just showed up? No warning?”
“No warning. Red convertible sports car, navy blazer, too much after shave, too much charm.”
Sarah realizes her hand is shaking.
“I invited him in for tea. Alerted Deandra who hadn’t yet made her usual late morning appearance. We sat here on the deck.” She pauses and knows she’s recounting every detail, his appearance, his voice, his charm as if an imprint of him still rests in the empty chair opposite.
“He went on about making amends, trying to be a better son.” Sarah clenches her fists, takes a deep breath. “All of it fabrication, lies.”
“Quite sure. And then Deandra appeared, waltzed in, all confidence and trailing chiffon, arms open, so pleased, so overwhelmed. So gullible.”
“And Larry took her somewhere?”
“Ostensibly out for lunch but who knows? Arm in arm off they went. Sailed from the yard into that red sports car, top down, out the driveway and I didn’t even have the smarts to write down the licence plate number.”
Sarah knows she is clasping and unclasping her hands now, knows but can’t seem to stop until Hannah reaches over and pats her arm.
“I’m sure he’ll bring her back.”
“But where would he take her? She would need clothes, her things, her...”
“Medication. First and foremost. She wouldn’t survive a day without it. He’d be admitting her to Emergency and who know what would happen after that.” Sarah turns her head again, hand shielding her face.”I’m over-reacting, I know and I’m counting on you to calm me down, put some reason into my addled old brain.”
“Your highly intelligent brain has just had a severe shock,” Hannah begins. “Larry may well be capable of whatever nefarious deed you imagine but if he’s planning something, I’m sure this first visit is just part of the set up. His father was smooth, I do remember that, and Larry even at sixteen those many years ago, emulated him. Why wouldn’t he? I’m sure Mr. Mourand junior is smart enough to have a plan that would include wooing his mother back first before working on her money.”
“You think so?”
“Doesn’t it make sense? Your brief description of him evokes an image of someone with pizzaz. Someone with a detailed plan.”
“I wish I could be more convinced.”
“The blazer - something his mother would approve of. The car - flash and dash to impress. His preamble - a set up to try and convince you even though he probably knows you’ll see right through him. His suave manner - a ploy to divert you and impress her.”
“Would you mind if we had a nip of Scotch?”
“I’ve convinced you?”
Sarah reaches over and squeezes Hannah’s hand. “I knew you would provide the voice of reason. You do at the Book Club when some of those silly women get carried away.” She’s up now and at the back door. “Let’s make it Drambuie, more elegant for mid afternoon imbibing.”
Sarah reappears with a silver tray, Drambuie, two liqueur glasses, a box of crackers and a slim rectangle of Gouda cheese. “So we don’t get tipsy,” she says, smiling and cutting the cheese into slices. “Here, help yourself. It’s so very kind of you to drop whatever you were doing to traipse out here.”
“Did you ever think this might happen?” Hannah asks. “Did Deandra talk about her son to you?”
“Once in a while,” Sarah replies. “Usually late in the evening before bed. She has always put off wanting to go to bed. A throw back to her regimented life at the hospital. I humour her when I can. She still thinks of Larry as her handsome young man, full of promise, building up his fortune for her.”
“Is that how she perceived her husband?”
“She was totally dependent on Hugh before the disaster at the hotel. So talented, so optimistic.”
Sarah smiles. “I imagine it’s difficult for you to perceive Deandra in this role. She did wear a shade too much makeup in those days and always the filmy trailing skirts. I’m sure she was mostly in the hotel office and a bit too nosey.
“She was a doting mother,” Hannah adds, putting a slice of cheese onto a cracker.
“She paints,” Sarah continues. “Large extravagant flowers and whimsical animals mostly. Began when she was at the hospital. Part of their recovery therapy, one of the few good things they did at that place.”
“And you encouraged her to continue here?”
“Converted part of the third floor into a studio complete with skylights. She’s been turning out some interesting pieces lately. I’ve thought about a show and sale here but she’s still somewhat unstable at times.” Sarah pours herself more Drambuie and stares out past the Hostas on the hill behind the house. “She has no one but me and, at her age, I can’t bear the thought of her back in another institution.”
“How old is she?”
“ Eighty-two last month.”
“I would never have imagined...”
Sarah smiles for the first time that afternoon. “We have both aged well,” she says, almost coyly.
Hannah nods and Sarah is sure Hannah is trying to guess her age. She has always been coy about it, a generational thing she supposes..
“Deandra seemed so exotic to me when she and Hugh arrived in Franklin in 1946,” Sarah says. “I was a newly-wed waiting for my husband to return from a European business trip, all spit and vinegar as we used to say in those days, taking on causes and getting myself elected to the town council. Dear old boys they didn’t know what to do with me, the only woman ever elected to the Franklin Town Council. I stirred them all up, though, and brought about some democratic change, if I do say so myself.”
“And Deandra?” Hannah says frowning slightly. It’s obvious she finds all this interesting but wants Sarah to keep to the subject..
“And you,” Sarah says, ignoring Hannah’s question. “You were such a beautiful young woman, so intelligent. Deandra said you would do well in life.”
“I always thought Colleen was more attractive,” Hannah says, looking more uncomfortable.
“Deandra said Colleen had pizzaz,” Sarah continues’ “but you had simmering intensity.” Sarah realizes immediately she’s crossed a line. The look on Hannah’s face. One of those awkward moments.
“We were so naive in the Fifties,” Hannah says, obviously attempting to recover. “Was Deandra painting then, when they were living in the Hotel?”
“She sketched in those days. Small delicate pencil or charcoal drawings. Carried her sketch book with her always. Did a number of lovely renderings of old pieces of furniture I had in the store.”
“It’s fascinating how little we, as teenagers, knew about any of the adults in our lives,” Hannah says. “Even our own mothers.”
“Yours was hard on you. Strict as I recall.”
The tension in Hannah’s face escalates. Sarah realizes a fast explanation is in order.
“I’m telling tales out of school,” she says, leaning over to pat Hannah’s arm. “Your appalled look tells me I must give you an explanation. I guess this business with Larry has pulled up the past more than I realized.”
Hannah nods and relaxes just slightly.
“Deandra would talk about whatever waitresses were working there and I remember you two, especially, because that was the summer I lost my best friend and...” Sarah stares past Hannah. “Any hope of maintaining a decent marriage.”
The appearance of a red sports car zipping up the driveway instantly silences both of them. Sarah watches as Larry bolts from the driver’s seat, around to open the passenger door, bends gallantly to offer his arm. She’s sure Hannah will recognize him, not so much his six decade body, but his air of confidence, his swash-buckling manner.
“Here we are, Mother,” Sarah hears him say. “Home again, safe and sound.”
Deandra, her grey hair decidedly windblown, teeters slightly as she holds his arm, face glazed in adoration. Sarah is on her feet now and at the steps of the deck, tenseness radiating through her shoulders.
“Mrs. Finn,” Larry calls out. “We have returned. As I promised.”
Sarah’s fists clench and unclench. Now is not the time nor place for snide comments, she says to herself, giving Larry and Deandra a forced smile.
“Ah, you have company, I see,” Larry booms without removing his dark glasses. Hannah tips her large sun hat so that it partially hides her face and Sarah is fairly sure he won’t recognize her. Deandra appears to be past recognizing anyone.
“A Book Club friend,” Sarah says to Larry, taking Deandra’s arm to help her up the steps. “You’ve had a lovely outing, I’m sure, and you’re likely tuckered right out.”
“Lovely outing,” Deandra repeats almost trance-like.
“Must be off,” Larry says from the bottom of the steps. “Nice meeting you.” He nods to Hannah and turns abruptly. A blink and he is in his car and out the driveway, wheels spewing gravel as he speeds onto the highway.
Deandra gives a little wave before collapsing into a chair. “Tuckered right out,” she murmurs, closing her eyes.
“I’d better be off,” Hannah says, jumping up. “Unless you need help that is.”
“We’ll be fine,” Sarah replies, taking Deandra’s two hands in hers. “Up we go,” “Call me,” Hannah says, watching them, “if you need help in any way.” She pauses at the step. “Thanks for the tea.”
Sarah waits until Hannah drives off to open the door and help Deandra through. She may have had a drink or three, so keyed up to be with her only son at last. Where did they go? What did they talk about? Questions pummel Sarah’s brain as she steers Deandra to the stairs. More importantly, what did Larry promise or suggest?