By Maggie Nerz Iribarne -
If it weren’t for the faculty meeting, she’d be done by now, heading home, Susan thought. Glancing at the clock, recognizing the lingering need to straighten desks, reorganize text books, and email sub plans, she rushed, aggravated by the twinge of disorganization. Swiftly, she finished her work, collected her papers for grading, slipping them into their canvas bag, turned to admire her now-orderly classroom, snapped the lights, and closed the door that had long displayed her name.
He had arrived, earlier than expected. Pulling her blue Subaru into the driveway, Susan noted the unknown vehicle, a small silver sedan. The garage door moved slowly, a wide mouth yawning open as she entered to park as she did every other evening. She regretted her dowdy pastel button down and corduroys, checked her face in the visor mirror, reapplied her standard subtly coral lipstick. In the kitchen, she found her elderly father seated at the table beside a trim bald man who jumped at her arrival, arms out wide for a hug. Her brother, Jack.
“So glad you decided to come,” she forced, held in his stiff, overpowering embrace. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yeah, sure has, have a seat!” he said, offering her a chair. Susan prickled at his commandeering of the space.
“I’ve been sitting all day. I’ll just get dinner out,” she said, eyes darting to the crock pot she’d filled and set that morning, enjoying the slight pleasure of pre-preparation.
“Yeah, smells great, like the old days” he said. He poured a splash of bourbon in his and their father’s glasses. “Alls I’ve had was a Kale salad at JFK. That place! What a zoo!” he shook his head in a kind of hilarious bafflement.
“Dad, watch the booze tonight. You want to be on your toes for Mom tomorrow,” Susan said.
“Your sister takes good care of us,” their father said firmly.
Susan set the table, took out plates, and spooned out stew. All the while, in one kind of breathless loop, Jack talked. He talked about finishing his big project in Europe. He talked about how he and his second wife, Vandy, whom Susan and her parents had never met, were downsizing from the so-called big house. “We got a great contractor. Building a little cottage out in the country,” he said.
“That’s great, wonderful,” Susan repeated.
Afterwards, she sent Dad to bed and filled her brother in on the next day’s schedule, when their mother, who was already admitted to the hospital, would have her surgery.
“They really can’t tell if it's cancer or not unless they go in and take a look. It’s pretty scary,” she said.
“Yikes,” Jack said, “Glad I came.”
Susan pushed out a smile, a sudden exhaustion overwhelming her. “I’m going to get to bed,” she said.
She wound the clocks, checked the doors, and climbed the stairs to the bedroom she had occupied for practically 52 years. On the way, she passed Jack’s, where the light shone from the bedside table and a rolling suitcase stood awkwardly, out of place.
The next morning, in their mother’s hospital room, their father collapsed in tears, hands cupping his face, shoulders hunched. Their mother stroked his thin hair, soothing him. Susan and Jack instinctively backed out of the room into the hallway.
“I really need this to work out,” Susan said. “It’d be hard for me to take care of Dad without Mom. I might have to quit my job,” she said forebodingly.
Jack’s phone pinged. He looked down.
“I just need to take this quick,” he said, holding up a finger, disappearing around the corner.
The hospital had equipped them with a buzzer, like the ones given by hostesses at restaurants, while they waited for their mother to get out of surgery. When it sounded, instead of a table for three, they would be told whether their wife and mother would be dying soon, or not.
They entered the grim cafeteria.
“This is positively disgusting,” Jack said, reaching for a banana.
Susan silently agreed, toasting a bagel.
Their father hobbled to the sandwiches, reached for a tuna on wheat.
“You can’t beat the prices at this place,” he said, balancing his tray.
Susan and Jack exchanged looks. She tamped down a giggle fluttering from her gut. A memory of childhood hysterical laughter at the dinner table came to mind. She found a table and took out the endless grading from her bag. Jack joined her, eyed the hunk of papers.
“I forgot you were a teacher,” he said.
“Yes. Twenty five years,” Susan said, eyes fixed on the first essay.
After more than two hours, Susan’s father stared into space, hands folded across his belly while her brother’s attention remained locked on his phone. She sighed, silently accepting that the somber duty of caring for steadily declining Dad would soon be hers, alone.
Finally, the buzzer sent Susan and Jack jumping out of their chairs. Dad remained oblivious.
“It was nothing. Nada. A big cyst. I sucked it right outta there,” the puckish doctor told them in the hallway.
“So no cancer?” Susan said.
“No. Nothing. She’s fine. I’m out.” He offered a quick handshake and nod, and disappeared.
That night, they joyfully left their mother recovering in her hospital room, picked up a pizza, and headed home.
“Carbs! I’ll indulge myself,” Jack announced, cracking open three beers.
Susan chugged hers, welcoming the desired dulling of senses.
“Thanks so much for coming,” Dad reached over to pat Jack’s shoulder. “It made such a difference.”
“I moved up my flight,” Jack replied, “I’ll be off early - tomorrow.”
Susan nodded, slowly chewing her pizza while her brother talked, his suitcase ready to go, beside the door.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 52, living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work athttps://www.maggienerziribarne.com.