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Today's Story by Sue Ellis

I read that you only have sixty days before you have to be out.

January to May

There were no steps at her front door, only the two-by-eight brace that had held them, and a rectangular patch of bare earth where they had been. I had to stretch to reach the door bell. High-pitched barking preceded the shuffle of feet and a voice. “Hold on.”

She opened the door a few inches so the dog wouldn’t get out. I’d seen her retrieving her newspaper in the morning when I drove by on my way to work. She was a thinner version of the Maxine cartoon character, minus any concern for her hair, which was covered that day in a blue bandana. She aimed a kick at the scruffy-looking terrier who jostled with her for space at the threshold.

“Hi,” I said, “I’m Jan Becker. I live a couple of miles from you.” Perspiration prickled at the back of my neck as I stood there in the midday sun.

She reached out to flick ashes from her cigarette onto the ground and started to say something, but was interrupted by a truck that pulled into the driveway. “By God, they’re back with my steps!” She motioned to me. “You’ll have to step out of the way, hon, so’s they can finish up.”

I found shade beneath a maple, thinking about the story that had been in the paper, about how several houses along Sumner Road were being torn down for the new freeway overpass. The residences were all vacant now, save one–the home of Irene Bergman, the woman I’d come to see. Her refusal to budge was causing delays for the state highway department.

Two men got out of the truck, unloaded pre-assembled wooden steps and installed them over the brace. I heard Irene ask how much she owed.

“Two hundred should do it.”

The way she snapped her battered black purse shut after she paid them, I imagined that the expense would strain her budget. She shifted her attention back to me as the truck pulled away.

“You say you live close by?”

“That’s right.”

“I had to get them steps fixed before somebody broke their damn neck.” She spoke defensively, as if she was challenging me to argue. When I didn’t, she must have decided I was all right. “Come on in,” she said.

A cluttered display of photos on the fireplace mantle caught my attention along with a half-read Tom Clancy paperback turned face-down on a dusty table next to her chair. A stack of old newspapers on the hearth made a resting place for a collection of mail.

She was looking at me expectantly when I turned back to her. “I read about you in the paper,” I began.

She snorted. “Who hasn’t?”

“I don’t mean to butt in, but I thought you might need help moving, if there’s no one else.”

I didn’t tell her that my mother had just died or that I was feeling at loose ends. I didn’t know then, and still don’t know if what I was feeling was charitable or if I was lapsing back into a childhood habit of subconsciously searching for my birth mother. I’d wondered about her all my life, although I’d never tried to find her. Guilty loyalty to my adoptive parents had always prevented me.

“Do you have children?” I asked her.

“None I got to keep.”

I felt a jolt, as if she’d read my thoughts. “What do you mean?”

“I gave up a baby girl for adoption when I was seventeen.”

She reminded me of a few of the residents in the nursing home where my mother had lived. If you paused to say hello, you got their life story. “What year was that?”

“It don’t matter.” Irene gave me a sharp look. “It’s got nothing to do with me havin’ to move, does it?”

“No,” I said, once again noticing how defensive she was. “Have you begun to look for a new house?”

“The state ain’t giving me enough for this one that I can afford to look.”

“I read that you only have sixty days before you have to be out.”

“That’s what they say. You want a beer, hon?”

“Can I take a rain check? I said. I have an appointment to keep, but I’d like to stop in tomorrow, if it’s alright.”

“That’d be fine,” she said.

Her smoky house made me long for fresh air, but I paused to take a closer look at one of the snapshots on my way out. A sassy-looking girl wearing a sailor’s cap smiled into the camera. Her hair was styled in a flip reminiscent of the sixties, the same decade I had been born.“Is this you, Irene?”

“Yeah. My husband was on leave from the Navy. He took the picture at Pismo Beach.”

“How long were you married?”

“Almost twenty-six years.” She picked up the photo and absentmindedly dusted the glass with her sleeve. “He died a long time ago.”

I did real-estate searches online and took her a few ads the next day, but got the impression that she only looked at them to placate me. By the next time I stopped in, she still hadn’t called the realtors. “Do you drive?” I asked her.

“Enough to get to the store,” she said, “and the medical clinic.” Then she launched into a story about her old job at a coat factory, and became so wrapped up in telling me about the people she’d worked with and places they’d go after work ‘for a few drinks’ that I didn’t have the heart to drag her back into the present. I figured that after I knew her better, I might feel more entitled to give her advice. As it was, she was more than happy to prattle on about her life as long as I’d listen. She offended me with her assumption that I had nothing better to do, but in truth, I didn’t. And I saw the overwhelming loneliness that drove her to accept me as a friend.

She was the only person I’ve ever known who subtly regarded me as being simple-minded. I got the impression that my lack of enthusiasm for the proffered beers and cigarettes put me in a class that was unfathomable to her. She never asked about my life after I told her I was an elementary school teacher.

One evening when I stopped, I found her in the back yard weeding a flower bed.

“Hi, Irene.”

She startled and turned as the dog erupted.

“I think I’ve come up with a temporary solution for you.”

“Oh yeah. What’s that?” her eyes were friendly, but wary.

“There’s an assisted living complex not far from here.”

“I don’t need assistance.”

“My mother lived there at one time,” I told her. “They let you be as independent as you like, but they offer meals in a main dining hall, and they’ll let you bring Pete.”

The dog wagged his tail as if he liked the idea.

“What if he bites somebody?”

“Surely not.” I scratched Pete’s ears as he pawed at the knees of my jeans. “You wouldn’t mind a leash, would you Pete?” I asked him.

Irene wasn’t diverted by my conversation with the dog. “I need to find me a house. My own house.”

“I know. And you can keep looking, but meantime, it would be a place to land.

“Pssht.” She turned back to the flower bed.

“They’ll let you have beer in your room–I checked–but you’d have to smoke outside.”

She rolled her eyes at me as if I’d lost my mind.

I was there the day the letter came, the one that said she’d be forcibly removed if she wasn’t out by the fifteenth of that month. She crumpled onto the sofa and put a palm to her cheek. “I guess that retirement home is going to have to do,” she said.

Packing her belongings was agony. I began to stop each night after work and help her sift through the mess. It was mostly stuff nobody else would want, but she parted with each item so reluctantly that you’d have thought it was treasure. I coaxed her to keep only the knickknacks that could be enjoyed from the front row of a display, a tip I’d seen on a home improvement show.

“It’s going to leave a hell of a lot of dresser-top wide open for dust, is all I can say,” she said. And then she surprised me. “My girl was born May 11, 1964.” She didn’t look up as she said it, but kept working as if she’d only mentioned the weather.

It took me a second to figure out that she had caught the nuance of the question I had asked her weeks earlier, about when her daughter had been born. My legs felt shaky as I dropped into a chair. “I wonder how many of us are looking for someone?” I said.

“A fair number, I expect,” Irene said. “Were you adopted, Jan?”

“Yes I was.” I got up and put my arms around her, and although we she was taller, she felt like no more than hollow bones and spit. “My birthday is in January,” I said, “but I wouldn’t have minded being born in May. Not a bit.”

Within a couple of months, she’d made new friends at the retirement home and tolerated my visits with barely concealed, fidgety impatience. I gradually stopped going. Three years later I read that she’d died. The obituary listed a daughter, unnamed, as her only survivor.

I tucked her obituary into my bible next to my adoptive birth certificate dated May 11, 1964, a coincidence, probably. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that the possibility existed, that I might be her daughter. I couldn’t have withstood the disappointment in her eyes, and if I am perfectly honest with myself, the disappointment that would have been in mine.


Sue Ellis is a retired postal worker who lives near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Some writing credits include Prick of the Spindle, The Camel Saloon, Cynic Online Magazine and Foliate Oak.


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