Gaining Visibility(5)

By: Pamela Hearon

If she repeated it often enough, maybe it would stick.

“Doesn’t anybody want to stay at home anymore?” Hettie grunted as she started to work on the box lid again. Julia watched the struggle but knew better than to offer help. If Hettie needed it, which she seldom did, she’d ask. “My son, the prick, in Hawaii. My granddaughter up in the Alaskan wilderness. You traipsing off to Italy.” She shook her head and drowned her disgust in a caramel cream.

“That’s still two months away, and I’ll only be gone three weeks. Then I’ll be back home to stay.” They’d been over this all before, but this was the first time Hettie had acted the least bit upset about the Italy trip. Her mother-in-law was out of sorts about something.

She wagged her finger in Julia’s direction. “Just be sure to stock me up on chocolates before you go.”

“I will even splurge on the large box of truffles if that’s what it takes to keep you happy while I’m—”

“Good afternoon. Mrs. Berkwith, is it?”

A man Julia had never seen before strolled into the room like he owned the place. Hand extended, he stepped closer to her mother-in-law’s bed as Julia brought the recliner to the upright position, quickly taking note of the salt-and-pepper hair framing dark eyebrows and eyes that looked like drops from the Caribbean had found their way to Kentucky. She did a quick check of his hand. No ring.

“I’m Joe Proctor, the new administrator.” His voice was like a toasted marshmallow—warm crust surrounding a tender center—and Julia’s mouth watered at the sound. “I’m making my way around, trying to meet everyone this afternoon.” His eyes bounced from Hettie to her, then back to Hettie without so much as a pause.

Invisibility at work. She sighed mentally and again eased the recliner back.

“Nice to meet you, Joe.” Hettie gestured toward Julia. “This is Julia, my daughter by marriage.”

“Glad to meet you.” He glanced and nodded cordially, but immediately shifted his eyes back to Hettie. “Mrs. Berkwith, if there’s ever anything I can do—”

“She was married to my son, who’s a prick.” Hettie continued her introduction. “But they’re divorced now.”

Joe Proctor’s eyes widened ever so slightly at what must have been surprising language coming from one of the residents, but he recouped quickly and smiled. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. But if there’s ever anything—”

“She got new nipples yesterday. So, are you married, Joe?”

Maybe invisibility wasn’t as bad as she originally thought, Julia decided as she looked around for a hole to slither into. With any luck this guy would totally forget what she looked like three minutes after he left this room. Which happened quickly.

A shake of his head and a rapid “Congratulations” shot in Julia’s direction, then Joe Proctor beat it out of Hettie’s room as fast as his long legs could carry him.

Julia lolled her head against the corduroy back of the chair and groaned. “Hettie, why would you say that?”

“Because I can get by with it.” Hettie set the box of chocolates off her lap. “Life’s too short to mince words.”

An odd, gravelly texture to the ancient voice made Julia sit up again. “What’s up with you today?” She pushed out of the recliner, mindful of her stitches, and cleared a spot to sit on the side of the bed.

Hettie’s tone flattened like a deflated balloon. “Thelma from across the hall passed away during the night.”

“Oh, Hettie.” Julia’s throat tightened around the words. “I’m so sorry. I know how fond you were of her. You were good company for each other.” She laid her hand on top of Hettie’s cold one in a futile attempt to transfer some life and emotion into a soul being weathered away by loss.

But her mother-in-law’s eyes were clear, and no tears clouded either them or her voice when she spoke. “Yeah, well, life goes on. People pass in and out and through our lives. It’s the ones who stay and visit who leave their mark.” She squeezed Julia’s hand with a strength that belied her age.

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