HARD FROST • by Regina Buttner

Every October twenty-seventh, my in-laws are the first ones to call. They’re early risers who think it’s perfectly okay to dial the phone and wish someone a happy birthday before the sun’s even come up.

I was running late this morning, having forgotten to iron a blouse and slacks last night. I’m the office manager at a large family practice on the east side of town, and our doctors start seeing patients at seven-thirty on Fridays. I’m supposed to get there early to start up the computers and print out the day’s appointment schedules.

The home phone rang as I was hurrying out the front door, stuffing a granola bar and banana into my tote bag. We still have a landline even though we rarely use it; it came as part of the cable company’s bundle of services. Stan said it could be useful as a backup line in case the satellite went down, or both our cellphones ran out of battery at the same time.

I paused with one hand on the doorknob, my shoulder pressed against the heavy storm door. The phone rang again, echoing in the empty kitchen. Stan was gone already, working the six-to-two. I didn’t have time to go back inside, but then again, that early, it could have been something urgent—a health emergency with my mother at the assisted living center, or something had happened to our youngest daughter at college down in Morrisville. Then it flashed in: my birthday. It had to be Stan’s parents calling, for the annual singing of the Happy Birthday song.

I didn’t feel like answering. I’d much rather have locked the door behind me and gone on to work, never mind my birthday. I glanced across the yard, saw there’d been a hard frost last night and my car windows were whited over. On the driveway, Stan’s heavy tire tracks swerved sharply around my car and disappeared into the road.

My husband used to start my car for me on cold mornings, would turn the heater on full blast as he brushed off the snow and ice. I guess we’re even now. I used to make lunches for him to take to work, but no more. I’d hand him the bulky paper bag with a kiss and a whisper about last night or tonight after the girls are in bed. I packed him heart-healthy meals, since his cholesterol was up: turkey sandwiches on whole wheat, oat bran muffins, baggies of grapes or sliced carrots. I quit doing it when I found the cache of uneaten lunches stuffed behind the seat of his truck, along with the crumpled McDonald’s bags and dented soda cups.

Loving gestures, long gone.

The storm door glass fogged over. The phone rang a third time, then a fourth. I couldn’t not answer. My in-laws have called and sung to me on my birthday every year since Stan and I were married. Eighteen years. No, wait—seventeen. They didn’t call me the first year. They didn’t like me much back then because our eldest daughter was born two months earlier than she should have, given that we’d been married only seven months, and she obviously didn’t look premature when she arrived.

I turned back into the house and grabbed for the phone, catching it mid-ring. They started right in— “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you!”

I smiled into the receiver, hoping it would force a smile into my voice. “Thank you,” I said when they finished singing. “You’re so thoughtful.”

“Not bad for forty years, eh?” my mother-in-law said.

“But I’m only turning thirty-nine.”

“Forty years for us, silly!” she said. “It’s our fortieth anniversary this year, you know.”

Silly me. I should have known.

I thanked them for thinking of me on my special day, and politely hurried them off the phone. I ran out to the freezing car and started the engine, got out again and began scraping the frost from the windshield.

Thirty-nine years of life in this town. Eighteen years of marriage, twenty-two to go to match my in-laws’ example of enduring love and patience.

I don’t think I’m going to make it.

Regina Buttner is a registered nurse-turned-writer in the town of Greece, NY, on the shore of Lake Ontario.

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