by Vickie Youngquist-Smith
The kitchen phone rang. Mary straddled a stool at the counter and lifted the receiver from its hook.
“Hello, I listen to fun-loving WOKY.” If it was the station, she’d win $92.
“Mary?” Her mother, a waitress, was calling from work. “Are you listening?”
“Go to the stereo and find the Petula Clark album. There’s a letter inside. Get it and come right back.” It had been there for weeks, now her mother had remembered. Mary wondered why her mother hadn’t sent it to Leo.
Mary set the phone down. She played that album when her parents went out. Her father never played it; he was a Johnny Cash, rebel-in-black kind of guy. But after last week, her mother was terrified.
A week ago, her mother read a love letter from Leo while in bed with her father. She must’ve thought he was sleeping. Morning broke with her father roaring and her mother screeching. Mary waited for him to slap her mother. But he didn’t. Mary waited for him to yell, I want a divorce. He didn’t. Tit-for-tat. He’d had his flings and one-night stands. Still, even twelve-year-old Mary knew girls were sluts for things that boys could do without shame.
“Okay.” Mary held the letter, six pages of her mother declaring undying love for another man. My Darling Leo, it began. Her sister stopped watching Gilligan’s Island and entered the kitchen. They both had radar for drama.
“Burn the letter in the basement stove. Don’t read it, and make sure it burns. Come right back to the phone when you’re done.”
“Okay.” Mary wanted to keep the letter. I dream of us marrying in a small white church. The two of us becoming one, her mother had written.
Mary’s sister followed her down the stairs. “Where are you going?”
“To burn a letter.”
Mary didn’t answer. In the letter her mother was a tender woman whose heart was full of love. I feel your arms around me even when we’re apart. So different from the easy-to-anger woman who occupied the rooms of their run-down farmhouse. Mary wanted the tender-hearted woman to be her mother.
She entered the basement. How long would it take to pretend to burn a letter? If she returned to the phone too soon or too late, her mother would be suspicious. Experience had taught Mary her mother wasn’t easily fooled. Mary’s mother hadn’t learned that lesson about her. She’d known about the affair for months.
Her mother had to give up Leo. Hidden things get found. Mary could only keep one mother.
She opened the door of the pot belly stove, placed the letter inside, and struck a match. Flames nibbled the sides, then greedily gulped the letter in one mouthful.
Mary and her sister walked upstairs.
“It’s done,” Mary said into the phone.
“What took you so long? You better not have read it,” said the always-angry, ready-to-strike mother.
The other version of her mother was ashes.