The Confession Club, page 13
“I have fantasies about being on The Voice,” Karen says. “Nobody knows this, but I actually have a good voice. Sometimes I sing in the shower and pretend I’m auditioning and all the chairs turn for me.”
Joanie says, “I have that exact same fantasy! And then after the chairs turn and they say, ‘What’s your name?’ I say, ‘My name is Joanie Benson, I’m from Mason, Missouri, I’m a retired librarian, and I’m sixty-five years old,’ and the audience goes crazy.”
“Let’s stay focused on Dodie here,” Toots says. “So, Dodie, you’re having fantasies of dating an exhibitionist?”
“I’m getting there,” Dodie says. “The point of my telling you about that TV show is that it rekindled things in me that I thought were long dead. I got all dreamy-eyed, sitting with my morning coffee, imagining this and that. So one day I’m sitting there and I see across the way into the kitchen of the house next door and there’s Albert McIntosh, my neighbor. His wife died a year ago and he’s been a hermit. Just devastated, I guess. But there he is at his big kitchen window that faces my house, and he is in the altogether. I could see everything, okay? I’m talking full frontal. And then he saw me looking at him and he just…well, he just stood there.”
“Ew,” says Karen. “That’s disgusting.”
“No,” Dodie says. “That’s not how I felt. I mean, I know how it sounds. You think of him as a dirty old man, Karen. You look at all those buff guys at the gym and you forget about real bodies. And don’t forget, you’re still young. If you got divorced, you could find someone else easily, if you wanted to. You’d have a lot of men to choose from.
“At my age, I can’t afford to be picky. And I can take chances I never did before. What the heck! I know Albert. He’s a nice guy. I don’t mind if he’s a bit of an exhibitionist. Maybe he’s just proud that he’s held up so well. He has held up well. At this age, you figure there’s going to be something wrong with everyone and I’d rather he be a bit of an exhibitionist than pick at his teeth in public. Also, he might just be one of those guys who sleeps nude and he got up and he was standing by the window and he saw me and I didn’t freak out so he didn’t run away and hide. And you know what? You know what? And I guess here’s the real confession: the next day I came down into the kitchen in my sheer yellow nightie that I haven’t worn in I’ll bet forty-five years. And I went to the window and waited for him to come into his kitchen naked again. After a few minutes, he did. And he looked at me and I looked at him and then he waved and then I waved and then I lifted my gown. I did! I flashed him! And then we both started laughing. And he pointed to his backyard, like, would I meet him out there?”
“Naked?” Karen asks.
“No!” Dodie says. “He had on a pair of nice khaki pants and a turquoise-blue Izod shirt and he looked very nice. And I had on my floral-print summer dress with the lace collar and then just my Keds because I’m damned if I can wear any cute shoes anymore.
“When we met outside, we didn’t say anything about…We just started talking and then he invited me to dinner and then that night he came home with me and, well, there’s still lead in the pistol, if you catch my drift.”
“You did it?” Gretchen asks.
“In a manner of speaking, and that’s all I’m saying. That’s my confession: I am dating an exhibitionist. Or maybe a nudist. And I like it. And I don’t care. And I am happy.”
“He’s not really an exhibitionist,” Toots says. “He just got caught naked. And then you made the most of it. Right?”
“I guess,” Dodie says. She looks at her watch. “So that’s all I got. Someone else could go.”
“Anyone have anything?” Toots asks. “Or should we adjourn?”
Iris raises her hand. “I’m in love with a homeless man.”
“You mean that real handsome guy living on the old Dooley farm?” Toots asks. “He’s a very nice man, apparently. Just…homeless. Poor thing.”
Small towns, Iris thinks. It really is true that everyone knows everything. “Have you seen him?” she asks.
“I know about him. He’s about to get kicked off the place—I heard the police talking about him at the town council meeting last week. Unless he wants to buy it. They’re going to offer to let him buy it. It’s for sale, real cheap. The only surviving family lives out in Oregon and they’re tired of paying taxes. They’ll sell it for ten thousand dollars.”
“Really?” Iris asks. Beside her, Maddy stiffens. I’m not going to buy it! Iris wants to tell her. But the truth is, she might.
The morning that John comes to paint the ceiling of Ollie Futters’s porch, she tells him she’s sorry but she’s changed her mind.
“That’s okay,” he says, and starts to walk away.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
He turns around. “I thought you changed your mind.”
“About the color. I don’t want just blue. I want stars up there, too. Gold stars, and if they are glittery, all the better. Do you think they make glittery gold paint?”
“Pretty sure they do,” John says. “Seems like they make just about every kind of paint imaginable. I’ll go to the store and see.”
“No, no, not today,” Ollie says. “Just do the blue today. You can come back tomorrow and do the stars, unless you’re busy. That way, I get to see you two days in a row, don’t you know.” She tilts her head and smiles.
“I’m not busy,” he says. Even if he were, he’d accommodate Ollie. He likes and admires her. She still grows her own tomatoes and pole beans. She is relentlessly optimistic. She uses her magnifying glass to read the paper every day. She wears a White Sox cap even though she’s a Cardinals fan because she feels bad for the way people in Chicago fawn all over the Cubs. “Lovable losers, my eye,” she told John. She keeps her bird feeders full and she has a little band of feral cats that come around twice a day to eat, and Ollie claims they all know which dish is theirs. “I got a tough old yellow tom gets beat up every night, I swear,” she told John. “And you know what bowl he likes? The flowered one. Isn’t that something? Poor guy. His left ear is holding on with spit and a prayer. I’d like to take him to Dr. Thomas. He is just the best vet ever, he came over here to send my sweet golden retriever Breezy over the Rainbow Bridge. She got to be in her own bed when she died and she wasn’t afraid. Fourteen years old—it was her time, but I just cried and cried and Dr. Thomas sat with me and patted my hand and when I finally stopped crying, he wrapped Breezy up in her blanket and put her ever so gently in the back of his van. And then he told me, he said, ‘Let’s take Breezy for one last car ride,’ and we went over to Willigan’s and he bought me a hot-fudge sundae and then drove me home and he said, ‘Now, you watch something funny on television. You gave Breezy a perfect life.’ ”
Ollie grows quiet for a moment, tearful, but then she laughs. “That old tomcat would have a fit if I tried to touch him. I’m growing on him, though. I can tell. Won’t be long and he’ll be right up on my lap.”
After John has applied the blue paint, he knocks on the door to tell Ollie he’s leaving. “Come in for a minute,” she says. “I want to show you something I found online.”
She shuffles over to her little desk and shows him an image on the screen of her computer. Her godson got her all set up on the computer as a birthday present recently, and she’s justifiably proud of the skills she’s acquired from classes at the library. “I want the stars just like that,” she says, and points to a porch ceiling, painted black, stars everywhere. “I found this on Pinterest.”
“But you want a blue ceiling, right?” he says.
“Right. Best of both worlds. Why not? We might could put Breezy up there, too. With a halo.”
They hear a ping and Ollie opens an email. “Oh, look! Someone tagged me on Facebook! Shall we see what they said?”
“Sure,” John says.
He laughs. “No.” He did at one time use it, to keep in touch with guys from his unit in Vietnam. But it seemed pointless after a while, so he stopped.
“You can find everyone online,” Ollie says. “Dead or alive. Give me a name, I’ll show you.”
He says it before he can stop himself: “Laura Cox.” Surely she would have gone back to her maiden name.
Ollie types it in, then leans back triumphantly. Slowly, she scrolls through the faces. “Are any of these her?”
“No,” John says. And then, his throat dry, he says, “Would you try Laura Loney?”
Ollie types it in, and there she is—one of those women is his Laura. “That one,” John says. “Can you click on her?”
Ollie does, and lands on Laura’s Facebook page. Her hair has gone gray, her face has filled out. But there she is, her smile still so genuine, her gaze so direct. She is standing with a man who looks to be in his late forties. Their son? Must be. He looks like John—his eyes, his chin. Only he looks happy. Unbroken.
“Is she married?” he asks. “Can you see if she’s married?”
Ollie leans in to look and says, “Says here she’s single. Pretty little thing, isn’t she? Who is she?”
“Just…a cousin,” John says. “I was always fond of her.”
He shoves his hands in his pockets. “I’ll go and get your gold paint.”
Also, he’ll stop by the library. One way or another, he’ll find Laura’s address.
They’ll help you with everything there. You just have to ask.
The kitchen door is open to admit a cool evening breeze, and a cardinal in a nearby tree is whistling so loudly it’s as though it’s asking to come in. Iris and Maddy are sitting at the kitchen table tasting the lemon ricotta cookies Iris has baked for her class tomorrow: A Lotta Ricotta, it’s called, and it features these cookies; ricotta mousse with balsamic-pepper cherries; ricotta doughnuts; ricotta ice cream; and—best of all, as Iris sees it—a recipe for making your own ricotta. Teach a man to fish. “Delicious!” Maddy says, wiping a crumb from the corner of her mouth.
“I don’t know,” Iris says. “I feel like they need to be tarter.”
“Put in more lemon juice?”
“Then the dough will be too wet.”
“Add more flour, too?”
“Then they’ll be too dry.”
The women sit quietly, thinking, and then Iris says, “Oh, for Pete’s sake. I know this one. Citric acid! I’ll add it to the recipe.”
“Oh, yeah!” Maddy says. “Lucille used that in her lemon meringue pie. She always said, ‘If lemon meringue pie doesn’t make you pucker so hard your eyes cross, feed it to your garbage disposal.’ ”
The screen door bangs open and Nola comes into the kitchen with the puppy, Lassie, followed closely by Link. “What smells so good?” she asks, unleashing the dog. The puppy gets a long drink of water, then collapses on the fluffy rug Iris keeps under the table for her.
“Lemon ricotta cookies,” Maddy says. “Want some?”
“Later,” Nola says. “We have to do an experiment now, and Abby is waiting.”
“What experiment?” Iris asks.
Link comes over to the table and sits down, and Iris resists an impulse to push his red hair out of his eyes. He’s got the best-looking freckles, the bluest eyes. And she thinks he’s one of the kindest, most sensitive children she’s ever met. “Well,” he says, eyeing the cookies, “it’s not exactly an experiment. But my mom has a question, and I found this thing you can do to get the answer.”
Iris looks over at Maddy. Only last night, Iris told Maddy that Abby believed in being really honest with children; she’d told Iris that not long after they first met. And now Iris wonders if the question Abby has is about whether the new treatments will work or not. Thus far, the women have seen no change in Abby, except for fatigue. It’s hard to think, though, that such important and fearsome questions would be handled in this way: a whimsical experiment, conducted by children, to speak to such a serious concern?
On the other hand, why not be direct about these things, even with, or perhaps especially with, your children? If you’re not afraid, if you face things straight on, mightn’t it help them? When Maddy went to the book signing for Lucky Ducky, she had seen a book called My Mom Has Cancer. Abby saw her looking at it and came over and told her that, more than anything, it was a beautiful testimony to living life fully; it was a very comforting book. Last night Maddy wanted to know if Iris agreed it would be comforting to children to know their mom had cancer and Iris said yes, she did think so. Privately, though, Iris was thinking, What do I know? I never had children. I only wanted them.
“Do you have some twine we could borrow?” Link asks now.
Iris pulls out the kitchen table drawer where she keeps her red-and-white bakery twine and scissors, and cuts him a long length. They should never have stopped putting drawers in kitchen tables; they are so handy!
“Thanks,” he says. And then, “Okay, so…”
Iris touches his hand. “Link, I just want to say that I know some hard things are going on in your house right now. I want to tell you that if I can help in any way, anytime, I’d be glad to.”
He shrugs. “It’s not so bad. And it will be over soon. And then things will be different but mostly back to normal. I don’t need so much of my mom’s attention anymore.”
“Oh!” Iris says. “Right.”
He rises up out of his chair. “Coming, Nola?” The girl races out the door behind him.
“Whoa,” Maddy says.
Iris looks at her, eyes wide. “I know. I’m…I don’t know what I am! Are you okay with Nola being in the middle of all this?”
“I think so. I’ve always gone by how Nola behaves and what she says to gauge how she feels. I try not to second-guess her. And she seems perfectly happy, doesn’t she?”
“So I guess I’ll just leave things alone. I think Abby will let us know when there’s something we need to worry about. Oh, I forgot to tell you! Can you pick Nola up at school tomorrow afternoon? I’m driving to a gallery in St. Louis in the morning. I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure, but they want to talk about giving me a show in the fall.”
“That’s wonderful!” Iris says. “Congratulations!”
“Thanks.” But in Maddy’s voice, as well as in Iris’s, is a kind of sadness. Across the way, the light goes on in Abby’s bedroom and the women turn to it as though it is a beacon.
In the checkout lane at the grocery store, Nola tells her mother, “Whenever I can’t decide something, I just stand still and make myself pure blank on the inside, and then I say, ‘Now!’ and—presto!—I know what I want to do. It’s as plain as a hamburger on a plate.”
Maddy wrinkles her forehead. “Plain as a hamburger on a plate?”
“Yeah. John says that. Don’t you get it? Like, just a hamburger on a plate.” She offers a one-shouldered shrug. “You might not understand. It’s a semaphore.”
“ ‘Metaphor,’ I think you mean to say. And I guess I understand. Especially if the plate is white. And there’s nothing but a burger on it. I guess I get it.”
In the car on the way over, Maddy told Nola in as light a voice as she could muster that she was trying to decide if it might make more sense for them to live permanently here, in Mason, rather than in New York. “You do like Mason, don’t you?” Maddy asked, and Nola said, “Yes! I already told you a
Maddy nodded. “I do.”
“Well, me, too. So”—Nola dusted off her hands—“all done. We stay here.”
Now Nola says, “I can’t wait to see the baby.”
“You know. Link’s mom is going to have a baby and it might be here by Halloween and Link says it can go trick-or-treating with him because everybody loves babies. People will get all goo-goo-gah-gah and they’ll give him more candy than usual. But I get all the Starbursts because Link hates Starbursts.”
“Wait. Abby is going to have a baby?”
“Yes! You didn’t know? And she just found out it’s a girl, like the ring said! Remember when we put Abby’s wedding ring on that twine you gave us and it moved around in a circle? That means it’s a girl. Didn’t I tell you?”