It wasn’t a request.
“I’m, uh…I’m comin’ up to see ya,” Howard had said.
Bonnie hadn’t even offered an invitation.
I think, deep down, he just…needed her. And she needed him. And maybe she felt it. Maybe she heard it in the lower, lonesome tones of his voice over the telephone.
Howard hung up and drove the 534 miles in that titanic, white, Lincoln Town Car, which took up a giant-sized parking spot along the curb outside her apartment building.
For 7 weeks.
Even my father didn’t realize the timeline of events until Grandma told him this past weekend.
“7 weeks!” he roared. “Can you believe it?” I couldn’t.
But I’ll try.
I imagine my Grandmother, fussing around her apartment, cleaning every speck of dust she could find, which were scarce as it was, scrubbing down the baseboards, the sink, the stovetop where she hated to cook. Even more amusing is when I try to imagine what she was thinking, how she reasoned with herself during his long drive, getting closer by the minute, her pulse quickening at each hour chime. Perhaps her confidence in the situation had solidified, crystalized the more she thought about it. Bonnie was a tough lady who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, but to have a man she barely knew stay at her home? She was still old-fashioned, after all. What expectations did Howard have anyway? How would she explain this to her friends? Neighbors? Oh, God, the boys. They would never understand. Their families? What would they say? What would they think? Howard didn’t dress, talk, or behave like anything they’d ever seen. Was there even anything to this friendship? They’d only spent a few hours together at Dorothy’s. Come to think of it, should she care? She had done her job raising her family. She could live exactly how she wanted, doggonit. And, to be honest, if nothing else, it would be nice to have a friend. Even if that was all it was going to be.
And, like my grandmother divulged this past Sunday to Pops over the telephone, she’d set her mind to the adventure. “Well, I’d been divorced for 10 years by then. On my own. I was…pretty lonely, I guess. We both were.”
The memories slam together here. This period of 7 weeks that Howard spent in my hometown, staying with my grandmother, must be the same span of time where I met him for the first time, at the park in those blazing red slacks. The picnic. Although I don’t have confirmation that those timelines overlap, my gut tells me so, even if Grandma Bonnie can’t confirm it for me anymore. I say this because I’m positive grandma wasn’t married yet when I met Howard. The word ‘boyfriend’ was much too penetrating to my youthful ears. Boyfriend? ‘Yuck,’ I remember thinking. My 7 year old brain couldn’t reconcile the idea of my grandmother dating someone, especially the man who loped into the park shelter we’d rented in flamboyant clothing.
At the end of those 7 weeks, my mother received a phone call.
“Hi, Bonnie,” said my mother. “How are you?” They got to talking about things, about the picnic. She and Howard had enjoyed themselves. Lucky to have such nice weather. Uncle Danny looked good. Need that bean recipe. Grandma was dancing around something, bolting from topic to topic, a clumsy pinball player scrambling for the paddles, something to talk about, which was unusual for her. My mother knew Bonnie, perhaps better than most women know their mothers-in-law. It was my mother who listened to the sobs on the phone when her husband had left her. She’s the one who fielded grandma’s unanswerable questions like, “what in the world am I going to do now?” And, “Why would he do this?” Heard her soul cracking like a great tree limb, coached Bonnie’s strength back into her during a brief, 20 minute conversation each night for months, hunched and whispering in the dark so as not to wake the baby. Pops was nursing his own wounds at the time, and while I know he was there for his own mother, he just wasn’t built for the softer kinds of things. He was Perry. Facts. Problems. Solutions. That is my father’s way. Turn off the valve of emotions and just get it fixed, damnit. He would have excelled at rounding up her stuff, packing it expertly into cars and trucks, moving her into that apartment before she even knew what had happened. Sorted through her finances. Painted the old house so she could sell it.
My mother had provided a different kind of light, a necessary one, and it had bonded them, even if they’d never find a way to talk about the sappy details of this newfound friendship.
“Well,” Grandma finally got to it. “You see, um. I called because…um. Well, Howard wants me to go back with him.” There. She’d said it. And now she waited for the response, that icy silence between the hollow phone receivers, worms wriggling between her ribs.
“What?” my mother asked for clarification.
“I said, Howard wants me to go back with him.”
“Go back with him?” My mother’s voice tends to squawk when she’s surprised or confused. Or when she laughs really hard. “What?” she crowed.
“He wants me to go back with him…to Arkansas. To stay there with him.” Grandma Bonnie didn’t need permission to do anything. It wasn’t in her nature. But, perhaps for the first time in decades, she just wanted confirmation, someone on her side. To give breath to the small embers that were smoldering down deep in the corners of her stomach. She knew it sounded crazy, but she wanted someone to tell her that it wasn’t the kind of crazy that lands you in an institution. My mother, always the supporter, always the woman who is on your side, no matter how bad things sound, surprised her with her response. Bonnie had been expecting her to talk her out of it, tell her that she was nuts, tell her she was too old for this kind of nonsense. Mom gave her the answer she needed.
“Is that what you want, Bonnie?” Release, like air from a pressurized tire. Tension uncurled its tentacles from her hands, which had been balled into fists. Her eyes glossing with tears.
“I think so…yes,” she admitted.
“Then I’m so very happy for you,” my mother sang. “He’s such a nice man, Bonnie. So many great stories.”
There was a long pause in conversation where they each laughed, both with a glow of warmth from their insides that seeped out into their respective rooms.
“What do you suppose Scott’s gonna say?”
“He’s your son, Bonnie. You know Scott. He’s gonna think you’ve lost your mind,” Mom offered. “Except he’ll do it with more four letter words,” and the two laughed hard then, the glassy anxiety having shattered.
“Oh, boy,” Bonnie’s laugh melted into a sigh. “He might be right.”