He spoke as soon as she reached the kitchen.
“You go through the boxes on the table. Kimmie left those for you to get rid of.”
The clean-out had begun. Her mother’s things were being sorted and awarded and gotten rid of. Mama was in a facility, no longer writing or speaking, her gaze fixed on an unknowable distance. The various medical types insisted this arose not from Alzheimer’s or dementia or anything else with a convincing name, but was, instead, the result of “an atypical syndrome.”
When this non-diagnosis was announced, Kim said, “Well, Mama did love a martini.” As if a thousand-yard stare and silence were a side-effect of gin. As if martinis were miles more wicked than the ice cube-ridden chardonnay Kim drank as if she’d won a lifetime supply.
Well, her sister was back in Minnesota with her husband and her grown and disapproving children and her chardonnay. Meanwhile, Katie remained in Phoenix, where she’d always been, and today was her own date with family history.
She stood awhile longer, not sure what she was looking for. Her father was in his chair, sunk into the upholstery, visible only in profile. For a moment, memories put her in the passenger seat of one in a series of Cadillacs, him behind the wheel. Papa had always been very generous with his time. Always. When Katie was taking college classes he’d patiently driven her every day — him supportive, her chockful of slightly forced enthusiasm.
Because she’d missed the mark, when it came to schools, to be frank. Missed the mark entirely. But Katie knew how to handle disappointment. It was a matter of being grateful for what she had. And she was still grateful, make no mistake. It’s just that, being older, she was less vocal about it. After all, at this point, wasn’t the ability to handle disappointment a given?
It was some consolation, of course, that her parents had taken the whole thing so well. “You’re our homebody,” her father had said. “You’ll be happier here.” The most recent of Papa’s Caddies sat alone in the carport, almost unused, yet jealously guarded. Papa gave up the keys twice a week, retrieving them from deep in his old man’s pockets, lost among crumpled tissues.
“Three times around the block. Maybe to the gas station, if it needs it. If.”
During the visit, her sister teased Papa about his possessiveness, going on a bit, really. But Katie usually just nodded and took the keys.
Today, the Cadillac would have to wait. Katie sat down quietly at the kitchen table, in the same spot where she’d eaten meals for much of her life. From here she could see her father in the living room, through the archway. Usually, his entire focus was on the television. But, as she watched, his head slowly turned to face her, revealing the gleam of his rheumy eyes.
“You can just throw them out, far as I’m concerned, those boxes.” The old voice crackled with spite. Katie flinched, a trifle startled.
“No. No. It won’t take long.”
She turned back to the table. The several boxes were labelled, somewhat oddly, as “letters to keep.” At first, she didn’t recognize the handwriting. But it was her mother’s, of course.
One small box was labelled, with additional specificity, “Letters to Keep – Katie.”
The truth was, it was amazing anything like letters had survived. Papa was notorious for tossing out old photographs, love letters, and diaries — even as he held on for dear life to broken lawn mowers and stalled alarm clocks and anything else that needed repair. But these boxes had been tucked behind a dented and empty metal file cabinet, making them safe from the family’s anti-historian.
It was Kimmie who found the boxes.
“She hid them. I think Mom hid them.” Her sister’s face had been strange as she said it.
As ready as she would ever be, Katie started with the small box. Opening it, she laid hands on the letter from Bennington almost immediately. It was addressed to her and was easy to recognize, as if it were a familiar object and she’d been looking for it for ages. The envelope was thick paper, originally off-white, now yellowed with age. It had been sliced cleanly along the top edge — as was her mother’s precise habit. The postmark showed a date shortly before Katie’s eighteen birthday, back when she’d talked of nothing but Vermont.
Shaking, much as her hands would have shaken those many years ago, Katie tugged out the letter from her dream school and unfolded it. It was an acceptance letter and Katie was eighteen and weeping with joy. Then time became itself again.
She went through the rest of the small box. There were other letters from other schools, each sliced open in the same tidy way, but it was the letter from Bennington with its immutable yes that she could not let go of, holding it with one hand, while she sorted with the other.
Finished, Katie rose and went through the archway to her father. She stood over him, the envelope dangling from her fingers. He did not ask what it was. After several long beats, he rose up partway from the chair, straining, rummaging in a pocket, bringing out his clutched hand.
“Probably. Probably. You’ll need gas today.” He opened his gnarled fingers, showing her the car keys. She didn’t move.
Her father subsided, sinking back into the chair, his eyes open and unseeing, his face turned away. But his old hand rose to hover and shake between them.
Time passed. Maybe a week, maybe thirty years. Then Katie nodded and took the keys.
Julie McNeely-Kirwan lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and has been published in Sanitarium Magazine, Writer’s Digest’s Show Us Your Shorts, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Another of her stories appeared in the February 2018 issue of Overtime. She is currently working on a mystery novel . Julie has a grown artist son who is currently hiking the Appalachians and a cairn terrier named Maggie.