Taking care of us gave Mrs. Maple life. That’s what she told us, we strays who gathered in her yard late June through Labor Day, our middle school reprieve. Beneath the shiny-leafed shade of her beeches, we slouched in the plastic yard furniture she put out just for us, or sprawled on towels prickly over grass.
Mrs. Maple had no children of her own, no husband or partner of any kind, not that we ever saw. We didn’t even know her first name. Maybe it’s Mrs., we joked. Each summer a different collection of girls came to her. That summer we were the chosen ones. She welcomed us like returning birds.
She did everything for us, her body in constant motion: bending, lifting, stirring, pouring, scooping, kneading. When she walked, her legs pushed out at odd angles, each limb an independent operator. Tight brown curls covered her skull, her cheeks and jowls like an old sofa just starting to lose its stuffing. Touching, soothing, hugging, patting, retreating. She knew when to leave us alone and when to come close. We told her things we’d never said out loud before, we girls from homes thick with the paste of rage and bitterness, its source unknown, unknowable. Dearies, she called us, and a feeling like a warm fist spread through our pleading hearts.
At first we tried to help out, we did. Bustling around her big old cupboard of a house, she pushed us away and served us breakfast, piles of French toast swamped in syrup, bowls of corn flakes, oranges stacked like tennis balls on a huge blue plate. Tuna sandwiches and chips for lunch, tall glasses of sugary iced tea she steeped in the sun. Our voices slurred like fans, slow and dreamlike, or sped up, fast and sharp as a blade, our fingers dancing through the grass. We laughed at our own stupid jokes until we cried and clenched our bellies. On rainy days, we stayed inside, in her den, its cupboards stacked with board games. We played backgammon and Clue, listening to the rain hit the roof like popping corn.
Often we sang, bursting simultaneously into songs we didn’t know we each carried in our heads. Love’s gonna work ya, we’d sing. Love’s gonna hurt ya. None of us had ever been in love. We believed it waited for us just up the road, like a lake we’d stumble upon, crisp and deep on a sticky day. Laughing and singing, we settled into the sweet fug of summer. This, it seemed, was all Mrs. Maple required of us.
One morning, tumbling into her kitchen, we stopped so suddenly we piled into one another. A man slumped at the table, his arms an X against the flowered oilcloth, elbows sharp. Mrs. Maple stood at the counter, her palms taut against her belly, as if she were protecting something soft and rare. Go on out, she told us. I’ll bring your breakfast.
We filed into the yard, arranged ourselves in our chairs, on our towels. We didn’t speak. We listened to our stomachs rumbling, watched the sky tip yellow. When Mrs. Maple came out, he was with her. Dearies, she said, this is Hugo.
Ladies, Hugo said. He tried to take the tray Mrs. Maple carried, heavy with bowls and milk and silverware, the butter dish, a plate weighted with toast.
Mrs. Maple hissed, a sound we hadn’t heard from her before. If her hands had been empty, she would have slapped his away, we could tell. She set the tray on the table and we gathered around her, collected our meals.
Peeking over our spoons, we studied him. He looked like a potato. His hair so pale it might only have been something we imagined. We saw that his feet were bare, his toes squirming through the grass. We could smell them, yeasty and sour. We moved our noses away, busied ourselves with our bowls.
When we were done, Mrs. Maple loaded the tray back up. Hugo bent over the table, picking up plates and spoons, the butter dish. Leave it, she said.
You shouldn’t be waiting on them hand and foot, he said.
Not your beeswax, she said.
Hugo sank into a green and white striped beach chair. We watched Mrs. Maple thump over the grass, down the concrete path toward the house. Watched her fumble with the screen door, and finally, as she always did, bang it open. Watched as the house swallowed her.
You know this isn’t right, Hugo said. You should be doing for her. He looked at each of us one by one, meaningful looks we batted away. We turned our faces to the sky, watched the sun arc west.
Sometimes, for no reason we could name, we rose and ran, like birds swooping. We did this now, down the rutted pavement of Mrs. Maple’s long driveway, out to the street. We looped up Ranger Road, down Tecumseh, over to Paul Revere. We shook our arms and circled our heads, bodies loosening. When we got back, Hugo was gone.
The next day, while Mrs. Maple grocery shopped, Hugo returned. We watched him lower himself into the green and white chair like it was his.
She doesn’t want you here, we said.
She does, he said. She just doesn’t know it yet.
We don’t want you here.
Listen, he said, and called us by our names: Justine, Nichole, Brenna, Sophie, Gabrielle. It jarred us, to be those girls again, the not yet chosen. He slid a piece of folded paper out from his shirt pocket, the one over his heart. He held it up to us, opened it slowly. It looked soft as cotton and ragged-edged, a page torn from a notebook. We saw a scrawl of purple ink. I never really loved you, he read out loud. I just didn’t want to be alone.
He refolded it carefully, tucked it back against his heart. He cleared his throat. That’s how she feels about you, too, he said.
Get out, we said, our hands clenched into fists, fruit-colored nails digging into our palms.
His eyes swiveled from one of us to the next and the next. You watch, he said. I’ll be here long after you’re gone. He stood and stretched and slipped out of the yard. Like a panther. Like a thief.
The next morning he was back. Ignore him, Mrs. Maple said, so we did. We sat in the sun and talked among ourselves, pretending he wasn’t there, slithering around us. We shut our ears when he gave us advice. Stay in school, he said. Just say no. We rolled our eyes the way only thirteen-year-old girls can, with skill and venom.
You don’t know us, we said.
Challenge accepted, he said, and lumbered up from his crouch. We could hear his creaky knees and the way his ankles cracked and moaned. Gross, we said, pointing at our open mouths, pretending to retch.
He started doing things around the house, things that Mrs. Maple had talked about getting to but lacked the time, or money, or expertise (she claimed; we didn’t doubt she could do anything.). He painted the shingles and the back porch: the floor forest green and the ceiling deep blue, a silhouette of birds flying through pink clouds toward the sun.
That’s not half bad, Mrs. Maple said, one afternoon after he’d had left. She pushed her curls off her forehead. Don’t you dare tell him I said that.
Never, we said.
The next day he pruned the rhododendrons. You girls can give me a hand, he said. It won’t kill you.
We can’t, we said. We couldn’t bear to imagine Mrs. Maple angry with us, or worse, disappointed. But he was like some weird kind of beacon. Whatever the absence of shining was, he did that. Despite ourselves, we started to look forward to his arrival. We found ourselves helping him. Little things at first, like laundry. We hung tablecloths and towels to dry in the sun, watched how they waltzed in the breeze, slowing and stiffening as they dried. We ironed, something some of us had never done before.
No matter what she told you, Hugo said, this is what she really wants. He scraped sweat from his forehead. It’s all anyone wants, really, he said. A helping hand.
We mopped floors and polished silver. In the yard we carved a small garden: tomatoes, lettuces, summer squash. Like raisins, we browned in the sun.
Dearies, Mrs. Maple said. This is your summer to enjoy. Work will come soon enough. But then she’d bite into a tomato and murmur. Sweet. So sweet.
While we grew taller and tauter, Mrs. Maple seemed to shrink. Her curls unfurled. Her voice rasped. She seemed to have trouble breathing. Some days she didn’t leave the house.
One morning late in August, we walked into the kitchen to make our breakfast. Hugo stood against the sink, Mrs. Maple slumped against him. Nora, he crooned, stroking her back.
We saw her hands, limp fists against his chest. She moved her head to look at us, one dark eye pleading. It pierced us.
Leave her alone, we said. We swooped and grabbed him, the coarse blue of his work shirt rough against our fingers. Get out of here. Beneath the denim, we felt his flesh, loose enough to pinch. We pushed him out the door and slammed it shut. Stay away. Then we led Mrs. Maple to the table. There there, we said, and fed her from our bowls.
Adina Davis lives outside Boston, Massachusetts.
© 2018, Adina Davis