By Elizabeth Fergason
She drives past the Hop Stop BBQ Café, trying to decide. Over half of the old lunch gang is gone now. Dead and buried, though most of them lived long lives. She does not stop to consider the possibility that the daily gathering at the café may have contributed to their longevity. She doesn’t think like that. She keeps the TV news on in the house, and if something comes up of interest, she’ll stop and listen to it, but after the reportage ends, it rarely again crosses her mind.
She thinks about other things: her dogs, her cat. Her daughter in Raleigh. She thinks about how ornery her first two husbands were and how much she loved the third one. His picture is hanging up on the wall at the Hop Stop along with the five or six others who’ve passed. The café owner hasn’t passed. He is, in fact, quite alive. He catches her eye. She has always liked men. She would like to take the café owner’s hand and press it to her cheek, but he’s recently widowed and still deep in grief. She would like to tell him that the cure for love is love—at any age.
She refuses to give in to the idea of oldness, sees it as an attitude of defeat. It is only the mirror and her bodily let-downs which remind her she is eighty-four. She hates it when her daughter phones every day or so to ask in a hyper-concerned voice ‘how are you,’ ‘what are you up to.’ Hates that she must give a recitation of what she’s done that day and what she has planned for the next. Her schedule is a reliable mix of doctor’s appointments and trips to the beauty shop, as if that isn’t boring enough for her, let alone someone else.
She’s a hard worker, always has been. If her legs would hold, she could waitress. Do a better job than the meth-head girls that come and go from the Hop Stop. She wouldn’t ask for money, just a plate of takeaway for her supper. Or, she could become a hostess, even though the Hop Stop is seat yourself. A hostess might dress up the place a little. She was hostessing over at the Country Buffet when she met her third lover. Second husband, third lover.
Her daughter caught her out in that one. A freak coincidence of wrong place, wrong time. She and her beloved canoodling at the Cliffs of the Neuse, a state park, way off in the middle of the county. Who knew the eighth-grade class had planned a field trip? She and her lover cozying up by the fire, about to move into their tent for a little roll-around. Her daughter happened upon their encampment, sweet-voiced and bird-whistling, then silently fled the wood. The girl never said a word. An effort, she supposes, of the young one trying to help out, save a second sinking marriage. At supper that night, her daughter wouldn’t meet her eye. Not for that supper nor any supper after.
At the Hop Stop BBQ, you see all kinds of goings-on. Adultery and adultery-about-to-happen. She and her third husband used to sit together at lunch and laugh at them. Folks just can’t help themselves, he’d say. She never cheated on him, was not even tempted to. As for the daughter, she grew up sad. A mother’s whirlwind love life can do that to a certain kind of girl.
Last month, while weekending at the beach, she makes an unfortunate discovery. Heading from her motel room, across the parking lot to the DQ for a chocolate-dipped soft serve, there’s her daughter’s husband, Dickey, in line, with a darling girl at his side. A girl young enough to be one of her granddaughters (she has three). She steps behind a light post before she’s spotted. A curious turnaround.
She thinks of the sad arc of depression that has etched its permanence into her daughter’s face. She doesn’t wish to see it deepened. The granddaughters seem to have inherited some of their mother’s sorrow. She wants to spare them all, so she keeps quiet. She keeps her mouth shut about Dickey, same as her daughter did for her so many years earlier.
The Hop Stop recently stopped serving breakfast, and they’ve reduced their stack of logo T-shirts down to the color of lime. It is a degradation, she thinks, of quality, of business, of intent to hold the line. Before passing the café for what is it, the fifth time. She pulls into the gravel parking lot and goes inside. Here is the table near the door where she used to sit with her husband, where their friends gathered for lunch, only three or four of them left now. None of them here today, not even the owner with his lovely, mottled hands. No one is waiting for her, unless you want to count the dead in their frames up on the wall. What if, in the afterlife—what if it isn’t her third husband, but her first or her second who meets her at the pearly gates. God’s little joke. She shakes her head. She’s fairly certain there is no God. It is all random.
She has never forgotten that misty morning at the Cliff of the Neuse when a lifetime of doubt manifests from a single, startled happenstance of heartbreak. Her girl. Torn-heart. Forlorn disappointment. Her daughter’s joyful song losing its next note.
She’s heard about a place located in the Orient where, when you are dying, your loved ones read a list of your good deeds to you in praise of your humanity. Her list will be a short list, except maybe for this recent deed, this gift of not telling, the keeping of her daughter’s husband’s secret. Good deeds, not many. She shrugs. Life is a crap shot. She forgives everything.