I’m waiting on my front porch out of the rain when my ex-husband Rick and his fourth wife Sherry drive up. Sherry gets out of their SUV with a big umbrella.
“Stay there, Beth. I’m coming to get you!” she shouts through the downpour. I meet her halfway down the walk. Sherry is not going to tell me what to do.
“Be careful, it’s slippery,” she says. She takes my tote bag and pulls me under her umbrella so mine tangles with hers. When we get to Rick’s Tahoe, she opens the back door, throws the bag in, takes my elbow and gives me a boost inside. My flimsy little umbrella sticks, and she stands there in the rain until I get it closed. She slams my door and climbs in the front. I’m pretty dry, but I bet she’s drenched.
Rick says, “Hey, Beth,” like I’m an old buddy he hasn’t seen in years.
“Hi yourself, Rick.”
He eases down my steep driveway, and once we’re out on the flooded streets, he creeps along, the windshield wipers whack-whacking as hard as they can but not doing much good. When he doesn’t take the interstate ramp, I can’t keep my mouth shut.
“Why don’t you take the interstate?” I ask him.
“Old Highway 29 is faster,” he says. “No traffic.”
Less than an hour ago, I was sitting in my den, waiting out a serious thunderstorm, when my son-in-law Harris called.
“We’re in labor,” he said. “Laura’s doing great. Want to speak to her?”
My heart felt like it might leave my chest. “Sure, Harris. Thanks.”
At first I thought Laura sounded good. She would, of course—I pictured that determined set of her chin when she’s made up her mind to do something—but then I heard the slightest quiver in her voice. I would have crawled to get to her.
A contraction cut the conversation short. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I said, fighting back tears.
I threw some things in a bag. I was sure they’d called her dad, too, even though she didn’t say, and I expected the phone to ring any minute and it would be Rick, the master of the friendly divorce, making his gracious offer to pick me up. Well, I didn’t need him, and I sure didn’t need the new wife.
As I was walking out the door, the phone rang. Thinking it might be Laura again, I picked up without checking the caller ID.
“Hi,” Rick said. “Laura call you?”
“Sure. I’m on my way out.”
“You shouldn’t drive by yourself in this weather, Beth. Especially at night. Let us pick you up.”
Us. “No, thanks. I want to take my car in case I need to stay with her.”
“She has Harris. You won’t need to stay.”
“Really, Rick, I—”
“It’ll be fine. Sherry doesn’t bite.” I wondered if she was listening. “We’ll be there in ten minutes,” he said. “Be ready.”
So here I am, feeling like a fool for not standing my ground with Rick, but I have to get to Laura.
“Sherry and I were in Memphis a couple of weeks ago,” he’s telling me now. “Bob and Patty Hester said to tell you hello. We were talking about the time we all went to see Springsteen. The Tunnel of Love Tour, 1988. I’ll never forget it.”
Sherry says, “You never told me you saw Springsteen.” She would have been about ten.
“God, that was something,” Rick says. “We could barely buy groceries, but we bought those tickets.” He glances at me in the mirror. “We were young and crazy, I guess, weren’t we, Beth?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t go.”
“Oh, come on, Beth. Of course you went.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I would have sworn you were there.”
“No. Must have been somebody else,” I say. My voice has an edge I don’t like.
Rick raises his hand as if to dismiss me. “Okay, okay. Whatever,” he says, and I’m remembering how he came home that night with those two tickets, all excited. I thought he’d lost his mind. He was in the last year of his surgery residency. We couldn’t afford them, and we didn’t have anybody to keep the children overnight. Laura would have been four, Richard just a baby. I told Rick I didn’t want to go.
“Fine,” he said. “Don’t go.” So he went without me. I never knew who used my ticket. I never asked.
We ride for a long time in silence, and soon Laura’s voice takes the place of Rick’s in my head. I want to call her, but I discover I’ve left my cell phone at home, so I ask Rick to do it.
“Good idea. You have the number, Sherry?”
“Sure.” She starts rummaging through her purse.
He says, “You wrote it down, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did. I had it with me when we left the house.” She turns on the interior light and checks the purse again, the floor, the crevices of the seat, the caddy between them. I have the number, but something’s going on here; I wait to see how it plays out.
She shakes her head. “I’m sorry, Rick. I can’t find it.”
“Beth, do you have it?” He sounds irritated.
“Yeah. Here.” I try to hand him the Post-it, but he waves it off and hands his phone to Sherry.
He says to me, “Read Sherry the number,” and then to Sherry, “Give me the phone when they answer.”
She does, and he drives and talks.
“Put it on speaker,” I say, but either he doesn’t hear, or he’s ignoring me. I lean forward and try to listen. Twice I ask to speak to her, but he hangs up.
“Rick, I wanted to talk to her.”
“Oh? Sorry.” He doesn’t offer to call her back, and I’m too stubborn to ask if I can use his phone. “Don’t worry, Beth. She’s fine, but she’s almost eight centimeters. We need to get a move on.”
He speeds up, but soon the rain comes in blinding sheets again, and we slow to a crawl. The downpour lasts twenty minutes, and I’m trying to accept that we won’t make it before the baby’s born when the rain slacks, and Rick turns on his hazard lights and floors it—he must be doing ninety—and cuts the remaining forty-five minutes to thirty. We pull into the hospital parking lot at eleven-thirty.
When we walk into the waiting room, Harris’s parents exchange nervous looks. Jack and Louise Parker have been married forever; they probably don’t know what to make of the three of us coming in together. We all hug, and Louise tells us Harris has just come out to give them a progress report.
“Laura’s fine,” she says. “Just fine.”
Like an idiot, I start to cry. I sit down, and Sherry sits beside me and hands me a Kleenex. I really don’t know Sherry. She and Rick have been married less than a year, and I’ve seen them only once, at Laura and Harris’s house this past Christmas. She seems so—sincere, is the best word I can think of. Christmas Day, she must have taken a hundred photos. Later, she sent me three framed prints: of Laura (beaming, pregnant), of Laura and Harris together, of our son Richard. In March, she sent flowers on my birthday. It seemed like she was trying to please me, and I couldn’t figure out why. Sherry’s attractive, of course. Rick always did have an eye for pretty women. His second wife, the woman he left me for, was a knockout, a tall redhead. The third one lasted such a short time she hardly counts. Sherry’s petite and blonde like me, but prettier and much younger. I think second wives are much harder to take than subsequent wives. The second one really hurt, but I seem to handle subsequent wives better. Maybe I’m getting used to it.
I take the Kleenex. “This is ridiculous,” I say.
Sherry says, “Mothers worry. It’s normal.” She pats my arm and gets up and joins Rick, who has gone to sit with Harris’s father.
Louise comes over, we chat for a minute, and then there’s nothing left to say. She goes back to sit beside her husband, and I’m left sitting alone, across from the others. During those first years after Rick left, it would have bothered me, but it doesn’t now. I don’t have to be alone. There have been men in my life. There was someone a couple of years ago I thought I might be able to love, but it turned out he was a lot like Rick. Or maybe with him, I was a lot like the old me.
We’re the only people in the waiting room now. We stare at the walls, glance at each other, look away. I look at my watch. We’ve been here an hour. I slap a shabby copy of People down on the table.
“Why is it taking so long?” I ask nobody in particular.
Rick gets up. “I’ll go see what’s happening.” He heads for the nurses’ station. So he still does that, too: glad-hands other doctors whether he knows them or not, charms the nurses. Tonight, I don’t mind. Let him.
When Rick comes back, he’s carrying a cardboard tray with five coffee cups. “Laura’s doing okay. She’s just slowed down a bit,” he says. “Nothing to worry about. I raided the nurses’ coffee. Hope everybody likes it black.” Everybody takes some, except Sherry.
“None for me,” she says.
He just stands there. “Why not?”
“Rick, you know I never drink coffee late at night.”
“Well, you can drink it tonight.” He holds the Styrofoam cup out to her. “Come on, Sherry.” He sets the cup down on the table beside her.
Sherry picks up the cup and sips the coffee, and I know what I sensed earlier. He used to do the same things to me—shift responsibility, like that business with the phone number in the car, or make me do things I didn’t want to do, or try to make me like things I didn’t like. Escargot, for example. He would order escargot for me, even though he knew I couldn’t stand them. “Once you get used to the idea,” he would say, “you’ll love them.” I never did learn to like escargot.
I watch Sherry turn the cup in her hands. She could be me, all those years ago. I feel tears rising again, and this time, they’re not for Laura.
Rick tosses the tray in a trashcan and comes and sits by me. “Laura’s in delivery. It shouldn’t be long now.”
I give him a killer look. “That’s easy for you to say. You never had a baby.”
“Yeah, but I was there with you both times.” To the others he says, “Beth went to the hospital twice in false labor with Laura. And when Richard was born, she must have had the world’s longest labor. What was it, Beth? Forty-eight hours?”
He’s gotten it wrong. “You’ve reversed them, Rick. Laura’s was the long labor, but you weren’t there for most of it. You were on call.”
He picks up a magazine and rifles through it. “I was there when she was born, though. Richard, too,” he says. “And you did have a long labor with one of them.”
Harris’s mother says, “My babies came really fast, under three hours, start to finish.” She smiles too brightly. I want to scream.
Then, at last, Harris comes in, flushed, grinning, teary-eyed. “We have a boy,” he says, “eight pounds, six ounces.” He shakes his head as though he can’t quite believe it.
I feel like I’ve been underwater, and now I can come up for air. “Laura’s all right?”
“She’s fine, Beth. Dr. Raynes wanted her to take her time at the last. I’m sorry I couldn’t come and tell you, but I didn’t want to leave her.”
How I want to say, Good for you, Harris. Stay with her. Always. I suppose I could; I doubt Rick would make the connection. But then I look at him, and he’s wiping his eyes.
By the time we’re allowed in the room, it’s nearly two in the morning. I’ll never forget the scene: Laura, tired and disheveled but radiant, holding the baby, and Harris sitting on the bed with his arm around her, tracing the crown of the baby’s head with his index finger. The picture is so perfect it’s painful. My daughter a wife, and now a mother. I think she’ll be better at both than I ever was.
Laura looks at me. “Come see,” she says.
I walk over, kiss her on the cheek, and move the folds of the blanket to get a look at the baby. He has dark hair that will probably turn light like Laura’s did, a turned-up nose like Laura’s and mine, Harris’s deep dimples, Rick’s long fingers. He’s perfect, this first grandson of mine. Ours, I think. He’s ours.
Harris’s mother asks if they’ve named him.
“Harris Wells Parker,” Laura says. She smiles at Harris. “We may call him Wells, so there’s less confusion.” Wells is my maiden name. Rick was probably expecting Richard. If he’s disappointed, he doesn’t show it.
We all take lots of pictures, and after the Parkers leave, Sherry insists on getting shots of Rick, Laura, the baby, and me, the four of us together.
After the awkward photo session, Laura says, “I was worried about your driving alone, Mama.”
“I didn’t. I rode with your dad and Sherry.”
“Yeah,” Rick says, “we came together.”
He walks over to the window and stands there, looking out, his back to us. Laura looks at me like, What’s going on? I shrug.
“Daddy,” she says, “don’t you think he’s beautiful?”
Rick turns around. “Of course I do.” He comes back to the bed, bends down, and kisses the top of her head. “And so are you.”
Too soon, the nurse bustles in to take the baby to the nursery and tells us we have to leave. Laura and I make plans. When she gets home, I’ll come and stay with them for a few days. It feels good to be needed.
I watch from the door as Rick takes Laura’s hand and kisses it three times—their signal for “I love you” when she was a child. I get this huge lump in my throat, and I slip out into the hall where Sherry’s already waiting.
On our way out, Rick, Sherry, and I stop by the nursery for one last look at the baby. Rick stands behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder.
“They sure made a good baby,” he says.
“Yes, they did.”
I hear the click and whir of Sherry’s expensive camera. Rick squeezes my shoulder. “We made good babies, Beth, didn’t we?”
I glance sideways, but I can’t see his face. Instead, I see a man and woman who were in the waiting room when we first got there. They make silly faces and coo at one of the other babies. The man has his arm around her, and he’s running his thumb along the side of her neck. It strikes me as the simplest, most remarkable gesture of love.
I swallow hard. “That we did, Rick. We made good babies.” I turn away from him, and there’s Sherry, only she’s not taking pictures.
In a few days Sherry will probably send me photographs of Rick, Laura, the baby, and me. I wonder if she’ll send one of Rick and me standing at the nursery window, our backs to her camera, the baby barely visible, but I won’t need a photograph to remember the weight of Rick’s hand, his breath on my neck, his voice close to my ear. I won’t need anything to remind me of Sherry’s face when I turn around and see her standing there, the camera dangling, her eyes, like mine, full of tears.
“I’m going to find a restroom,” I say. “I’ll meet you two downstairs in the lobby.”
“Wait,” she says. “I’ll go with you.” She says something to Rick that I can’t hear and catches up with me.
“Long night,” she says.
“You’re right about that.”
Sherry’s face is a mask; the look I saw just moments ago is gone. She just looks tired. I’m tired, too. I had forgotten how exhausting Rick could be.
“And now we have to drive back,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “It’ll probably take both of us to keep Rick awake. A job for two women.”
In the restroom, we don’t talk. I finish first and stand back out of the way while Sherry washes her hands. Her hands look young: no brown spots, no prominent blue veins. I want so much to put my arms around her like I would Laura and tell her that she doesn’t have to do it Rick’s way, she doesn’t have to try so hard. But I don’t. I don’t think she would believe me.
When we walk out into the hall, I look back toward the nursery, but there’s no sign of Rick. He’s probably downstairs, pacing the lobby. The hall is deserted except for a man who mops a stretch of floor marked off by yellow caution signs and Sherry, who is already halfway to the elevators.
Two more hours in the car. If I know Rick, he’ll stop at an all-night station for coffee and a bag of chips. He’ll find vintage rock and roll on the radio. He won’t let either of us drive.
Gerry Wilson is a native Mississippian who grew up in the red clay hills of the north—Faulkner country. Growing up, she spent many hours watching life unfold through the window of her daddy’s NAPA store, and her yen for storytelling began there. She taught English and creative writing at the secondary level for twenty-plus years. Now retired, she leads writing workshops for adults and does private consultation. She has completed one novel and is working on a second. She enjoys writing short fiction and finds stories around every bend. She has published both short fiction and poetry.
© 2010, Gerry Wilson