"It has been ages, hasn't it? Years, in fact... Just look at you," he whistled softly through the space between his front teeth. "Every bit as pretty as you were the night you got the standing 'O' for your performance in Antigone." He sighed, "Seems like just yesterday we were meeting in the lighting booth for... I'll never forget your husband's face the night..."
"My ex-husband. . .You still doing lighting over at the community center?" she wrinkled her nose.
"Not since they asked you not to come back, Thelma. Lost the best actress and technician they ever had over there. You should see the pitiful audiences they get now. Why, in our day, the parking lot overflowed every Saturday night. "You remember? How's that acting troop you joined up with?"
"I got sick of Shakespeare," Thelma tossed her perm. "You'd think they'd want to produce something by a living playwright once in a while, but no. I've decided to retire. Gettin' to old for all that gallivanting anyway, and, just between you and me, these young actresses nowadays, at least the ones in my troop, don't know the meaning of the word 'respect.' I wish some of those floozies could have seen me in my hey day," she scowled then giggled then scowled again. "Can we hurry this up, Pete? I've got somewhere to be."
"If you'd just get out your license and registration, I'll move this process right along for you, Thelma." Peter adjusted his hat and yanked up his pants . "Heard 'bout your son," he cleared his throat. "Was on the accident scene as a matter of fact. How you holdin' up? I s'ppose you must be headin' for the church now. Wouldn't have pulled you over if I'd recognized your car." His hairy fingers trembled towards Thelma's license. "Getting harder every year to keep track of who drives what, not that you and your car have been around much with the traveling and all."
"I'll be out and about town more often... now that I'm retiring from my acting career. I'm giving up
my waitressing job over in Concord, too. Got a little insurance money coming to me. Was I speeding, Pete?" Thelma asked, examining her white washed teeth in the rearview mirror.
"Like a bat outta hell," Peter chuckled, looking from Thelma to her license picture. "Clocked you at seventy-five back there on that straight stretch."
"That's nothing," Thelma scoffed, readjusting the mirror. "Gabe was doing ninety-two when he hit that tree on Winslow. Always did drive like a maniac. 'Course the drink and drugs couldn't have helped much. He was racing towards his death from the moment he was born." Thelma shrugged, "C'est la vie... ou la morte...?" she tapped one of her red nails against her protruding chin. "Can we get this rolling, Pete. I'd like to get to the church early, make sure my flowers arrived. People these days just aren't as dependable as. . ."
"Thelma, if you don't mind, I'd like to head over to the church with you," Peter interrupted, scanning the back seat of Thelma's Escort. "Won't be any trouble at all. I'm the chief now you know." Peter pulled his shoulders back and sucked in his stomach. Thelma looked him up and down, considering his proposition.
"Peter, you sly thing," Thelma giggled, "asking me on a date to my only son's funeral. Just 'cause you're still handsome after all these years doesn't give you the right to still be so...so shameless. I'll make it there on my own. Thank-you very much." She patted her perm again.
"Thelma, I'm afraid that leaves me with no other choice but to arrest you," Peter said in the gruff voice that made all the local teenagers tremble in their Doc Martin's. Thelma's eyes widened and she brought her hand to her heart.
"Why...whatever for, Peter? I was just speeding."
"Don't play dumb with me, Thelma. I know you ain't dumb. That's a hemp plant you got there on your backseat, marijuana, pot, weed, reefer. . .We certainly smoked enough in our time, remember? Were you going to try to pass it off as a petunia or something?"
Thelma unbuckled her seat belt, and swiveled around to examine the plant. "My god," She gripped a bud between two of her red fingernails. "It's been so long. I didn't even consider the possibility that I might be transporting such an evil, dangerous, menacing plant in my car." She turned around again to face Peter, replacing her smirk with a coy smile. "Your car or mine, Sweetie?" She dug her red sunglasses out of her sequined handbag and moved the rearview mirror again so she could watch herself put them on. She grinned at her reflection, examined her teeth and patted her perm. "How 'bout mine. I don't want to show up at my son's funeral in a cop car of all things. Climb on in," she reached across the passenger seat and opened the door a crack to unlock it. "Move the plant to the trunk if it bothers you, Peter."
"We're gonna have to get rid of that plant, Thelma. Lord knows, I don't begrudge you any comfort you can find at a time like this," he dragged a leaf across the white line of the breakdown lane with his left foot, "but. . .I am the chief of police, goddamn it." He attempted to kick the red leaf under the car, but it stuck to the tip of his black boot. "Show a little respect." He shuffled his foot, skimming the wet tar until the leaf was flattened against the highway.
"The plant stays." Thelma gripped the steering wheel. "You coming or not?" she asked.
Peter's weight shifted with his eyes as he glanced back and forth from Thelma's Ford to his. "I never could say no to you... my sweet Juliet. Just let me radio into the station," he said handing her license and registration back to her.
you get the plant?" Peter Pitt asked, stretching the seat belt across his
chest. "You grow it?"
"I refuse to answer any questions without my lawyer present," Thelma replied with a half-hearted laugh, shifting the escort into second. "If you don't mind, I'd like to be silent for awhile, Peter. No offense to you. We got a lot of catching up to do, you and me. For instance, I heard your wife passed away two years ago. I'd sure like to hear about that sometime, and what you've been doing with yourself since," she patted her perm. "But right now, I'd just like to prepare myself...mentally for the funeral." Thelma dropped her chin. The needle on the speedometer had risen to seventy miles per hour. She shifted into fifth.
"The plant belong to Gabe?"
"You are such a... a cop!" Thelma struck the dashboard with her fist, then instantly regained her composure. "Yes, Peter, the plant belonged to Gabe. I found it in his apartment yesterday, and I plan to keep it. Now, for heaven sakes, show some sensitivity, please."
"But, of course, my fair lady." He removed his hat with a flourish and rested it on his wide lap. "I thought talking might keep your spirits up, but, come to think of it, you always did prefer the tragedies."
"Peter Perry Pitt, that is quite enough. I can't think with you babbling away like that."
Peter nodded and turned his shiny head to face the window. It took Thelma a moment to adjust to the sudden lack of attention. She repositioned the rearview mirror and switched on the radio. Her hand froze for a moment, then fluttered towards the ignition. She fondled the key to Gabe's apartment. Then leaned back in her seat, allowing the gas pedal to sink closer to the floor under the pressure of her black pump.
Gabe's stepmother, Jake's new wife, her replacement had given her the key. Thelma reached over again to feel it dangling from her chain. She didn't plan to give it back. Her ex husband and his homely wife could get another copy from Gabe's landlord if they wanted to get into the apartment. If there was anything Thelma refused to tolerate, it was a lack of respect, and Jake's wife had certainly been very rude to her the day before.
Thelma sighed recalling how she had pounded on that door for a full five minutes before the new wife answered. And then, the old hag wasn't even apologetic. Instead, she guarded the entrance with folded arms, refusing to let Thelma in. Thelma hadn't blamed her, at first. Jake always did have a roving eye, and the frumpy, aproned woman dripping dishwater on the doormat was obviously no match for her, a glamorous actress. Thelma smiled politely at the woman and patted her perm. "If you could just give me the key I'll be on my way."
Nothing offensive in that. Jake's wife had been completely out of line. Thelma almost fainted on the cement steps when the woman hurled the key at her and growled in her Marlboro Man voice,"I figured only family and close friends would be allowed in Gabe's apartment...but Jake said I had to give you the key." She snickered then. "Seems to think you were Gabe's mama, when everyone in town knows I was. I raised the boy, for Chist's sake." Her voice rose on "Christ" and broke in a sob on "sake." She slammed the door. She wasn't getting that key back.
Peter glanced over at Thelma, "Almost there, speed racer. Say, that's some high color on your cheeks, my dear. Getting stage fright?" Thelma answered with a disdainful sniff, and Peter returned his attention to the window.
Gabe's apartment was number five. Thelma stood outside the door for ten minutes staring at the number. Five pieces of masking tape to make the number five. Gabe was five when she sent him off to live with his father. What a terrible job Jake's fat wife had done raising her son, Thelma thought with a sigh, glancing back and forth down the long hallway. What a dumpy building, she wrinkled her powdered nose.
What kind of person would live in a place like this? Thelma peeled off the number five, balled it up, and stuck it back on the flimsy door.
Thelma fought back tears now. She didn't want to smudge her mascara right before the funeral. She had done her crying already in Gabe's apartment. The first thing she had seen when she walked through that banged up door was the plant, squatting on the end table next to the open window. Then she had sniffled. She saw her son, four years old, helping her in the garden, clutching fist fulls of soil that spewed from his coiled pinkies like the salt in the plastic timer that came with his game of Pictionary. She had wept. The plant was full, healthy, with emerging buds. Gage had inherited her green thumb. She had sobbed. Thelma took the plant and left, just the plant. She hadn't wanted anything else.
Thelma parked her Escort across the street from the church, shoved it into first, and cut the engine. "This is it, Peter." Her stomach felt the way it used to feel just before a performance, as if it were a bottle of shaken champagne, bubbles banding together against the cork. "People are sure going to have something to talk about when they see us walk in together."
"Arm and arm?" Peter asked.
"Yes, Peter, arm and arm. I don't care what those old gossips say about us. If they're still waggin' their tongues over a twenty year old scandal, then they're not worth worrying over."
lip jutted out from the second row, where she had been ushered, nearly reaching
the first row of pews, where she should have been seated. She glared
at the back of the new wife's head, taking note of the first traces of female
patterned baldness. Peter Pitt clutched her hand to prevent her from
reaching out and yanking on one of the greasy, gray strings that dangled temptingly
over the edge of the wounded wood. Thelma resisted the urge to dig her
red claws into his skin. He hadn't defended her when the usher placed
her, the mother of the deceased, behind the evil stepmother. Instead,
he had smiled politely at the new wife's lackey and whispered in Thelma's
ear, "Don't make a scene, my star. This isn't a play...Look, we can
see Gabe just fine from here." Thelma shifted her glare back to
Peter's placid face now.
"Look up front there Peter. Do you see my flowers? They're right behind those hideous carnations. See them? I went to great lengths to pick the perfect arrangement. It's the one with the white tulips. Gabe and I planted white tulips one year. I think he was three. See them?"
Peter rose an inch above his seat, straining his neck to find Thelma's tulips. "Sorry, sweetie," he eased back down. "That's a big bunch of carnations. Can't see much past it."
"Exactly," Thelma's shrill voice hovered above the gentle hum of the murmuring mourners, "That's precisely my point. Not only do they have the nerve to shuffle me, the mother of the deceased into the second row, but on top of that, they hide my flowers. Such nerve, I oughta..."
A mournful wail in the first row cut Thelma's voice off at that moment. "Look up there, Jake," the new wife moaned, pointing at the stained glass window above the altar then down at Gabe's open casket. "Tell me our boy doesn't look exactly like Jesus Christ. Just look at that," she sobbed. Her finger wagged up and down.
"Our boy," Thelma mocked. "Our, boy..."
The minister saved Thelma from a scene this time. Her voice was lost in the opening hymn. The desire to project her trained singing voice over the amateur lilt of the crowd replaced her outrage. Peter nodded his approval, and Thelma's face softened. By the time she sat back down, she was fuming, rather than seething. She had the presence of mind to cork her temper, but was unable to pay attention to the minister's eulogy. Her eyes darted around the room, surveying the array of sniffling mourners, mostly friends of the new wife, people from the sewing circle, the garden club, local business owners. That woman sure had the whole town resting in her dish dirty palm. Gabe would have been appalled if he could have seen all the old biddies the evil stepmother had stocked his service with.
Thelma turned her attention to Gabe's corpse. He looked so pretty laying in his coffin, nothing like Jesus Christ, put pretty nonetheless. Thelma wondered if his body had needed a lot of repairing to make it presentable for the funeral. It had probably required a lot of cleaning, if nothing else. Thelma wished Gabe had showered more often when he was alive. She noticed for the first time in years how blond his long hair was, how fair his skin was. Too bad they hadn't had the sense to shave his beard off. He would have looked like a life-sized porcelain doll if he didn't have his father's hooked nose.
Thelma had always been grateful for that hooked nose though. Nothing else would have convinced her ex-husband that Gabe was his son and not Peter's, not even a blood test. Jake never did put much stock in hospitals. Thelma glared at the back of his gray jacket. He never did put much stock in anything, not even theater. She wondered how anyone could really blame her for cheating on the old lump, but people had. Even now, twenty years after the fact, she couldn't show her face in town without people whispering behind their hands. The new wife certainly didn't help matters. Thelma grabbed Peter's hand again to keep from pulling her hair.
The service was over in an instant. When the crowd rose for the final time, Peter took Thelma's arm and attempted to lead her through the reception line. Thelma shook herself free and stopped at the end of the first row, next to her exhusband. She was the mother. She would receive condolences. Peter went through the line quickly shaking hands, squeezing shoulders, murmuring in ears, then returned to the head of the line to join Thelma, who held her head high and her shoulders back as people passed by her with equal disdain. A few of the mourners shook Peter's hand, "Nice to see you Chief, too bad it's under such bad circumstances." A few people even acknowledged Thelma with a nod and a kind word, but never with the hugs that they were lavishing on the new wife. Red blotches appeared on Thelma's face, then melded together to form a scarlet afghan, but she stood her ground until the very last mourner passed her by.
Then, calmly, she leaned over and whispered in Peter's hairy ear, "I'm going to make a scene now, dear." Before Peter could respond, she glided over to the casket and knelt by the head, by Gabe's unchristly head. The ushers looked away: into the air, at the red industrial carpet, at the Chief of police, wringing his hands and shuffling his feet. Thelma hunched over the coffin for a moment, searching Gabe's face for a sign of life, then bent further and kissed each of Gabe's cheeks, Mafia style. She made the sign of the cross, inspite of the fact that she was a Scientologist (like John Travolta) in a Presbyterian church. Thelma rose in slow-mo, until her perm was where her shoulders should be. She paused. She winked at Peter. She extended her arms. People were looking now. The ushers were looking concerned. The new wife was looking pleased. Peter looked aghast.
Thelma had a plan. An Indian war cry; she directed it at the stained glass window. And a lid on death; she brought her arms down over the top of the casket, punctuating the smack of the wooden lips with another shriek.
That's where the plan ended. It all seemed kind of anti-climactic now, though. Thelma felt unfulfilled, unsatisfied. She stood for a moment, tense, with her back to the crowd, then, issuing her final war cry, leapt up on top of the coffin with more grace than anyone could have expected from someone wearing women's shoes. She turned to face her audience, smiling down at the new wife's shocked followers. "I don't hate you, not a single one of you," she threw her voice at the back wall. "But I will not tolerate disrespect," she winked at Peter again. "And," she paused to allow the bubbles in her stomach to push the cork out of her throat. "I WILL NOT BE IGNORED AT MY SON'S FUNERAL! MY SON!" she screeched. She stifled a sob with a giggle.
Satisfied, fulfilled, she stepped down onto the red carpet, with even more grace than before, a queenly tilt to her head, and left the church with Peter close behind her.
"Could you arrest
me for what I just did?" Thelma asked, turning Gabe's key over in her hand
before starting the Escort's engine. "Did I disturb the peace?" she
giggled, patting her perm.
"A stellar performance, darling," Peter drawled, ignoring her question. "Fabulous, fabulous... Are we going to beat the crowd to the cemetery... to prepare for the final act?"
"The cemetery? Are you crazy...Well, okay, so maybe you are," she giggled champagne giggles. "But we're not going to the cemetery now."
"Yes, yes, I see," Peter rubbed his silver stubble. "The symbolism would be all wrong." Thelma shrieked again, this time with laughter. "Any actress worth her salt recognizes the symbolism of her actions. Now tell me, Ms. Dubois, wher're we goin'?"
"Elementary my dear, Watson, a simple deduction."
"I don't think you were ever in that play," Peter scratched his head. Thelma covered her mouth with her fingers, then patted her perm.
"Oh, my dear, you're still just a cop after all. Not a very good one though, I'm afraid. For," her hand fluttered away from her perm into the air, "you have not yet guessed our secret destination."
"I give up, Thelma. Wher're you taking me?" He looked around nervously at the shops on Main Street, as if he had never seen them before.
"Your place, Peter. Of course, we have to go to your place now."
me do it." Thelma took the shovel from Peter's hand and drove it into
the ground. "I have a green thumb you know."
"A thumb to grow some green?" Peter asked, "some buds, some weed, some..."
"Peter!" Thelma barked, then paused to rebalance her voice. "Life is as solemn as death. Now, please, just watch me plant this thing. Don't talk," she added, recovering a bit of her sharpness.
Peter shifted his weight, dug away a perfect sphere of dirt in the pine needles with his steel toe, and cleared his throat. "My grandaddy used to say that these woods were just burstin' with spirits. Why I just bet..."
"Hush, Peter. I told you to stick to the topic." Thelma kneeled on the ground, raised the potted plant in the air, and then brought it back down to rest on her knees. "I will tell the stories." A crow cawed from the closest treetop. Thelma half squinted and half glared up at the sky.
"Time for harvestin', not plantin'." Peter squatted to pick a bud up off the ground. He examined it for a moment then flicked it into the underbrush and stood up with a groan, brushing his hands against his blue slacks.
Thelma lowered the plant into the hole. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave if you don't start behaving, Peter" she said, sacrificing her nails to the clumps of soil that surrounded the hole. "You're spoiling the moment."
"You're asking me to leave my property? The Chief of police is ruining your pot planting moment?" Peter's nostrils flared beneath his pin-prick pupils. "You crazy old witch. I shoulda arrested you hours ago...Woulda if I could afford the money for a real whore." The birds fell silent and the wind stood still. Thelma withdrew her red nails from the dirt.
"I'm going to ignore that comment, Peter," Thelma said, her eyes riveted to the base of the plant. "I know that the intensity of this moment must be difficult for a brainless oaf like you...hard to comprehend," she continued, still squatting above her motionless hands. "Let me explain it to you Chief, you see, Peter, pot is the reason I sent Gabe to live with his father."
"Doesn't surprise me, why, I bet..."
"Listen, Peter. I came home from the restaurant late one night, a few days before Gabe's fifth birthday, my back aching, my feet burning..." she motioned towards her black pumps, scrunching up her face to demonstrate her pain. "Couldn't afford a babysitter too often in those days, had a lot of travel expenses and I didn't have time to work more than twenty..twenty-five hours a week...So anyway," Thelma shoveled dirt into the hole with her cracked hands. Peter fiddled with a dry twig. "I came home that night, and what do you think was the first thing I saw? I'll tell you. I saw Gabe sitting on the couch, an empty sandwich bag next to him, an empty pipe next to that...You rember...my little glass one? He wasn't even five years old remember, not five years old. Poor boy was screaming like a banshee, thought his throat was gonna close up if he didn't keep making noise. Well, I just..."
Peter snapped the twig in half. "Thelma, I gotta tell you." He glanced at his watch. "All your symbolism and melodrama were just fine and dandy in the lighting booth days, but that was a hell of a long time ago. You think I'm just the same, dopey Peter, ready to listen to any nonsense under the sun in exchange for a little..." he cleared his throat, "attention. Sorry, sweetie, but if I had ever been fond of your babble, I would have left my wife for you twenty years ago." He glanced at his black Timex again. "My time's up. Muriel said the reception'd be over by four. You're free to go now."
"Muriel?" Thelma stood up and wiped her dirty hands on her gray skirt.
"Muriel...You know? Gabe's mama? Your exhusband's wife? A fine woman, she is. We go way back, me and her...twelve...thirteen years." Jake stuffed his hands in his pockets and leaned back on his right heel. "Was her who fixed up my friendship with Jake after you tore it to pieces with those come-hither looks of yours." He narrowed his eyes. "You always were a seductive one. Worried 'bout that when Muriel asked me to keep an eye on you today. When she ever said to me, 'Peter, you do me a favor and make certain that old loony don't cause too much trouble for us'." Peter mimicked new wife's entreating tone. "When she ever said that to me, I thought to myself right away, 'Oh, Lord,' I says to myself, 'sounds like trouble for me'." Peter chuckled, "Yeah, a regular temptress." He winked, then turned to leave. "I'll be up at the house if you want me," he called over his shoulder. "Naked," he hooted, and walked away without turning around again, still laughing to himself.
the door and dropped her sequined purse on the table. It fell against
the old fashioned telephone that didn't do anything but look good now, an
antique. "I'm back," she hollered into the hallway, patting her perm.
"You in there?" She approached the bedroom door, smoothing the creases
out of her long skirt. "Jerry, you in th...?" Her eyes fell on
her husband's tousled hair and rumpled clothes. Husband. She couldn't
believe that she was a wife again. She smiled. Jerry's lips twitched,
glistening corners rising and falling in response to a dream.
Thelma walked over to the side of the queen sized bed and sat down pushing her left hip against Jerry's warm stomach. She leaned forward and swept a wisp of gray hair from his damp temple, then kissed the tip of his nose with a loud smack. Jerry moaned and muttered and shifted his protruding stomach. Thelma brushed her hand across his forehead again and Jerry opened his eyes. He smiled.
"How was the
show?" he yawned, stretching his arms, then allowing them to fall slowly,
placing a large hand on each of Thelma's hips.
"Fabulous," Thelma answered, " I wish you didn't have to work tonight. You should have seen the costumes. All black, not a single drop of color, not even on the actors' faces. Ah, the set though. Now that's a different matter. Real as life, I tell you, every hue known to man. You have to see it. Are we going to tomorrow night's production?"
"If you're up to it, darling," Jerry rubbed the sleep from his eyes and turned to look at the digital clock. "I'd sure like to see if you don't mind...Big crowd tonight?"
"Yeah," Thelma dismissed the issue with her hand. "Jerry...it's midnight."
"I know sweetie,"
"I know...three years don't do much to dull the pain, do they?"
"No...no they don't." Thelma's chin dropped to her chest. Jerry patted her permanent then opened his arms.
"Come lie with me, Thelma." He pulled her shoulders towards his chest. "That's it," he said, running his hand lightly down her back. Thelma nuzzled his drooping earlobe. "That's right, darling. Now tell me a story..."