Monday, June 13, 2022

FAMILY MATTERS - Chapter 15


 




                     Chapter 15


The New York stock market had closed half an hour before. In the family room I was stretched out in my recliner watching a market wrap-up program, gauging the impact of the day’s trading on the dozen or so equities that made up our ‘mad-money portfolio.’ 

Decades of public service, what some folks referred to as “feeding at the public trough,” had earned me a generous monthly pension, along with coverage in a top-tier health insurance plan. Our market investments, handled by a local broker, were intended to supplement that income....to provide an additional cushion and fund the ‘extras,’ including the not-inexpensive motor home that had become central to my retirement dreams, and our retirement debate.

I often gave thanks for the underpinning of a stable pension, even as I followed legislative debates about how long the state could afford the liberal benefit packages it had contracted to pay decades before. 

On the other hand, I was not altogether at ease with our role as stock-market investors. There had been times, before the recent financial crisis, when a particularly strong market had me telling Nell that we had ‘made’ a few hundred dollars that day. I will admit that I enjoyed that. Lately, however, I had grown less inclined to offer daily reports, especially when a market downturn produced yet another string of loses.

Watching the day’s market results scroll by, I was trying to pick out our shares. Near as I could tell the market had treated us well for a change. It would have been fun to give Nell that good news, except she had decided to run away. Then, before I could dissect that puzzling dilemma, the ringing telephone washed it away. Hurrying out to the kitchen counter I picked up the wireless handset.

“Hello.”

“Is that you, Dan?” came the reply. “This is Helen Arhens. I need to talk to Nell.”

For an instant I was put off by the lady’s high-pitched, rapid-fire tempo. Taking a deep breath I explained, “Nell’s not here.”

“Oh good. Then she’s already left. She’ll probably be here in a few minutes.”

“When I said she’s not here, I meant she’s out of town.” Why was I discussing that distressing fact with her of all people? “She won’t be coming by today.”

Helen Arhens was one of Nell’s church friends, and though I scarcely knew her, I had been around the lady enough to realize the silence I was hearing was quite unlike her. For a moment I wondered if she had hung up, until she cleared her throat to explain in soft and halting tones, “She can’t be out of town.”

“Well she is. Besides, why can’t she?”

“Because the carpet cleaners are here.” 

“The carpet cleaners are there?” I repeated, wondering what the hell that had to do with anything. The lady was making no sense at all.

“Yes. I knew I’d be gone this afternoon, playing Bingo at the Senior Center with Nell. So I scheduled the cleaners for today.” Helen paused, perhaps to catch her breath. “They’re here now and they want me out of their way so they can go to work. I need Nell to pick me up.”

“She can’t do that, Helen. She’s not here.” A moment later I was asking myself why I had not seen her next question coming. More to the point, why did I not have a better answer?

“Do you suppose?,” she began hesitantly. “That is, would you be able to take me? I know it’s a bother, but there’s no other way for me to get there.”

“Take you? To Bingo?” 

The wheels were spinning and I was searching frantically for a redeeming excuse, an acceptable reason why I could not possibly do what she was asking. But how could I turn my back on her like that? 

For years, since she lost her Eric, it seemed that everyone had lent a helping hand when it came to Helen. ‘Helping Helen’ had become something of a congregational given. The lady lived in an east-side condo and did not drive. She needed lots of help, and everyone seemed willing to do their share. Now, out of the blue, it appeared to be my turn. What kind of reprobate would try to talk his way out of that?

“I suppose I could get you to the Senior Center,” I finally replied. 

“That would be so sweet of you,” she gushed in a tone so sugary it had me shaking my head. “And as long as you’re there anyway, you might as well stay and play Bingo. That would certainly be easier than driving all the way back to pick me up. Wouldn’t it?”

“Pick you up?”

“Why, of course, silly. I have to get home, you know. Nell always drops me off after Bingo. She says it’s no bother. That it’s right on her way.”

What had Nell done to me? I hardly knew this lady. Actually, I had always assumed I didn’t especially like her. Moreover, I hated Bingo. I would have hated it in the company of friends. In a roomful of noisy ladies and hard-of-hearing old men it was bound to be even worse. 

Of all the days for Nell to be off nursing her silly grudges, this was the worst. Yet what could I do? Nell had let me down, and Helen too. Besides, the carpet cleaners were already there.

“Okay,” I said reluctantly. “We’ll do Bingo. But I don’t know your apartment number, so why don’t you wait for me out front?”


        ~~~


My first, and assuredly last, session of Senior Center Bingo was history, never to be mentioned again. Or so I thought. I had politely, but firmly, turned down Helen’s suggestion that I drive her to an eye doctor appointment the next morning, explaining that one of her church sisters would surely be available for that. 

I stopped on the way home to purchase a nice selection of TV dinners, enough to last Delaney and me for the next few days. I was not interested in expensive restaurant meals every night of the week. Once back home I settled in for a late afternoon nap, mentally patting myself on the back for having done my duty....my Christian good deed. And why not? Surely I had a right to feel pleased with myself. 

Minutes later, as I drifted off into an almost-sleep, a surprising new realization came bouncing to the front of my mind. Bingo at the Senior Center had not been all that traumatic. I would not have admitted that at the time, certainly not to Helen, but in fact I rather enjoyed it. Though, of course, it would have been more fun in Nell’s company. I was still dwelling on that pleasant possibility when sleep finally swept it away. 

It was nearly seven o’clock when Delaney and I sat on the outside upper deck, which served as the roof for the basement level patio, finishing our microwaved dinners. 

Though the day was still warm, the evening shade and a gentle breeze made things comfortable. If anything, it was our stumbling conversational efforts that had me feeling a bit uneasy. What did we have to talk about that did not eventually take us back to the one who was not there? For minutes at a time our awkward pauses felt safer than revisiting Nell’s absence. 

It was the ringing of the telephone in the kitchen that changed all that. By the time I reached the breakfast bar, picked up the phone, and recognized Nell’s voice, I realized that my absent wife was about to put her absence, and her attitude, front and center.

“How could you do that?” she screamed. Her question was loud enough to bring Delaney to the doorway, where she stood watching as I rolled my eyes in her direction.

“What are you talking about, dear?” I asked with exaggerated calm. “I have no idea what has you so worked up.”

“Don’t you ‘dear’ me. Acting all innocent like that.” She had turned down the volume, but not the sarcasm. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t even like the lady. You told me once that she was a phony, who took advantage of people.”

“Nell, will you just settle down. This is about Helen, isn’t it. It’s about your friend. Right? Not mine.”

“It’s about why you would be cavorting around in public like that, with my friend.”

“Cavorting?” I pulled out a bar stool and sat down. True, I was under attack. But, in fact, I was feeling more at ease than I had for a while. At least we were talking, even if it was about Helen. 

“Is that what you call it?” I asked. “Seems to me that ‘boring’ would be a better description....sitting there with a bunch of old fossils, watching them get all excited about N-forty-six or B-eleven.”

“Sitting with her.”

“I was sitting beside her, not ‘with’ her. I drove her there because she’s your friend. It seemed like the right thing to do, the Christian thing, you might say.” 

That probably did not need saying, but there was no resisting a playful jab. “I was there because your friend had been stood up by her friend. She’d been left high and dry.”

“Don’t you make it sound like it’s my fault, you fibber. There was certainly more to it than that.” 

Again, Nell’s protest was loud enough to have me pulling the phone away from my ear. Across the room at the sink Delaney looked up, half-frightened by her grandmother’s latest tirade, though she could not make out what Nell was saying. Clearly the girl was struggling to process the unlikely fact that, even when we were apart, our marital warfare continued.

I turned my attention back to Nell, preparing to defend myself. Sadly, I was too slow on the uptake.

“Don’t you play innocent with me, Dan Padgett.” She was on the attack again. “That won’t work at all. It wasn’t just Bingo. You were also talking about tomorrow, about a doctor’s appointment, or some other silly excuse. There’s no way you can talk your way out of that. I heard all about it.”

“In a pigs eye!” It was my turn to be yelling. “She was the one talking about that, not me.”

“That’s not what Helen told Sally. She said it was your idea.”

“Damn it, woman. You’d better find yourself a more reliable source of gossip. When those ‘sisters’ of yours start chewing on a bone, they sure can get it wrong. Helen did mention her doctor’s appointment. That’s true. And I turned her down flat. I’m not taking her anywhere. If her friend, the one who’s run off to hide, can’t come home to take her then she’ll just have to walk.”

Nell must have known from the beginning that Sally’s report was at best a dubious thing, more manufactured than real. Perhaps she had used Sally’s spurious gossip to stoke her own sense of justified anger. Whatever the reason, she knew very well I was not on the prowl for a new ‘friend,’ least of all Helen Arhens. 

By the time Nell rejoined our conversation she had calmed down a bit. In fact, I thought I heard the hint of an apology as she explained, “Well, I had to find out, you know. Within an hour after you left the Senior Center I had three calls, wanting to know about your date with Helen, and what......”

“My date? What kind of talk is that? Besides, how did anyone know where to call you? You weren’t even home.”

“The girls knew where I was.” She seemed to be laughing at my obvious confusion. “Actually, I’d told Sally. She must have passed it on to the others. Anyway, they knew how to find me. And the way they made it sound, you seemed quite satisfied in Helen’s company.”

“Who cares what the hell they thought?” I barked. “They’re a bunch of loonies, who babble just to hear themselves rattle.” 

I paused for a moment, telling myself to slow down. I knew those ‘loonies.’ I liked most of them and enjoyed their company. Still, as a communications network they were a highly-unreliable bunch. “And you know damn well I wasn’t ‘satisfied’ being with Helen. 

“More to the point,” I continued. “None of that would have happened if you were home where you belong.” I had not planned to go there, turning my defense into a plea for her return. Yet in truth, my primary defense was the fact of her absence. She needed to understand that. “We need you here, Nell. Delaney and I are lost.”

Her response was a few seconds in arriving. “I don’t know,” she said softly. “It feels like it’s too soon. I can’t be giving in every time you call.”

“Hey. You called me. Remember?”

“I know. But the thing is, you’re still leaving, aren’t you? Going off on your silly adventure. In that case....why should I come back to the same old thing.”

“Because I love you and I want you here. We miss you. Besides, who said I was going anywhere alone? That was your idea, remember?”

“And I could tell you liked the sound of it. Didn’t you?”

“It’s nothing but a ‘second best’ answer. You know very well I’d rather be going with you. That’s certainly no secret.”

“But if I don’t go, you’re still going anyway. Right? And I’d be left all alone, waiting for a husband who doesn’t want to stay home.”

“Nell, if that’s the way it works out you wouldn’t be alone. Delaney is here. In fact, I couldn’t go anywhere until you come back to be with her. Heck, I’d never leave anyway, without seeing you first.”

“Wow. I’d forgot about Delaney. Sounds like I’ve got some more thinking to do, don’t I? We’ll see where that leads. In the meantime, you behave yourself.”

“I always do.”

“Ha.” 

An instant later the line went dead.

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