By Cathy Beaudoin
You wouldn’t know it, but Nadine walked just fast enough to miss the little details in life. Today, like most other days, she walked in the early morning. Skippy, her white, shaggy-haired mutt, trotted alongside her. He panted heavily, not from being overweight, but because Nadine hustled to get in her five thousand steps before breakfast. If she didn’t, she could be so distracted by her failure she’d forget to feed the dog before she left for work.
A cloudless, April morning in the high desert, the cool air was a slap in the face if you underdressed. In a light windbreaker, Nadine shivered as she trotted past a group of two-story structures that reminded her of the summer cottages on Cape Cod. Though dominated by elderly residents, it was not an assisted living facility. That was across the street.
“Hello,” a woman’s voice, cracked with age, called out.
Skippy turned his head, then scurried to catch up with Nadine.
“Hello.” This time the voice was more forceful.
Tall and lean, with her long brown hair clipped to the back of her head, Nadine abruptly stopped, twisted her trunk nearly a hundred and eighty degrees, and made a sour face.
“Yeah you, I’m right here,” the voice persisted.
Nadine quickly scanned the area. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she pursed her lips and looked at her watch. “Come on Skippy, move it.”
The dog scampered ahead, but Nadine’s euphoria from her morning walk was gone, replaced with a sick feeling in her stomach, a feeling she’d lived with for years. Divorced, and mother of two estranged, adult daughters, she understood the consequences of ignoring others. When her girls got frustrated by her constant neglect, they slowly shut her out. It was when Nadine left them waiting on the curb after swim practice for what seemed like the fiftieth time that her girls announced they were going to live with their father.
Nadine rationalized her single-minded focus as a necessary ingredient for being a successful litigator. So, when she ignored the pangs in her stomach, she did so because if she lingered, she’d be late for work, and that was unacceptable. As she turned and walked away, the old woman called out, “Can you bring me a candy bar?”
A rush of stomach acid rose to the top of Nadine’s throat. She took a couple of deep breaths and ignored the urge to look behind her.
The three sisters, ages ten, eleven, and twelve, skipped along the sidewalk as they approached Gigi’s apartment complex. It was their secret, meeting her at the window after school. The rendezvous started when Gigi was working in the yard. Gigi thought the girls, all knees, elbows, and boney shoulders, appeared a little underweight and malnourished, a condition she’d seen when she worked with kids in need of a foster home. Since this was a town where strangers helped each other, when she noticed the three sisters walking home from school, she couldn’t ignore them.
The girls’ school was just down the street from Gigi’s cottage apartment. Every afternoon, at three o’clock, Gigi made sure she was outside, on the patch of grass surrounding the tiny slab of cement meant to mimic a patio. She was patient, and without fail the girls came bouncing down the sidewalk and past her. After a couple of weeks of smiles and nods, Gigi’s gestures morphed into a robust hello. When the girls finally responded, Gigi asked if they had a few minutes to help in the yard, maybe every other day. She offered them the little she could afford, a dollar a week.
The oldest girl’s eyes lit up. A dollar a week was enough to buy a candy bar or a bag of chips. She licked her lips and thought about how she pined for more than the boxes of macaroni and cheese they ate for dinner.
“What do you mean by a few minutes?” the oldest asked. “Our mama won’t leave for her shift at the drug store unless we are home from school.”
“Nice, you like precision and you respect your mother. Those are good traits to have. Say ten minutes. And only if it doesn’t get you in trouble.”
“Mama isn’t going to like this,” the eleven-year-old insisted. Though not the youngest, she was the smallest.
“You let me worry about mama,” the eldest shushed.
“Is it a deal then? Ten minutes a day, a couple days a week. All outside. I’m having a hard time managing.”
The eleven-year-old’s eyes surveyed the small, tidy yard. “It looks like you’ve been managing just fine.”
“Shut up,” said the older sister. “Let’s give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we can forget the whole thing.”
“That sounds good to me,” Gigi said.
“Okay, starting tomorrow though. We need to get home.”
The next day, the girls spent a few minutes raking the small patch of grass and emptying a bucket filled with yard debris. They shoved each other, laughed as their skirts flew in the air, and shrieked when one tugged on another’s long, tangled hair. Gigi laughed out loud when she caught them throwing themselves against each other.
Gigi called the oldest girl over, pulled a piece of fruit from her sweater pocket, and pressed it into the girl’s hand. “Share it with your sisters.”
instead of sharing it, the eldest sister gave the fruit to the eleven-year-old.
Gigi cleared her throat.
The oldest girl stared at the ground. “My little sister gets the most food at home.” After a pause, she added, “And I manage.”
What went unsaid was that the eleven-year-old had trouble concentrating in school and was labeled a slow learner. But her older sister knew the eleven-year-old did better when she got a little extra to eat. Still, the oldest girl tensed. “Our mama got a second job so she could buy extra groceries.”
“It’s okay. I understand. I’m sure your mother’s doing the best she can.”
“We should go.”
The following week, Gigi changed up the chores the girls helped with. “There’s a bag of dirt by the door. Can you spread it around the chrysanthemums I just planted?”
“Cryst…what did you say?” the eleven-year-old asked.
“Chrysanthemums. Most people call them mums. A hardy lot, those plants are.”
The girl went over, crouched, and stroked the long, green leaves with her thin, delicate fingers. “If they’re already in the ground, why do you want more dirt around them?”
“The ground soil is good enough for the plants to survive. But you want them to thrive. So, by adding dirt that has extra nutrients, well, it’s a way to nurture the plants.”
“I thought mums were flowers,” the ten-year-old interjected. “How come there’s no flowers?”
“Those plants are going to have beautiful flowers,” Gigi explained. “They’re just late bloomers.”
“What do you mean, late bloomers?” the eleven-year-old asked.
“Well, unlike a lot of flowers that pop open in the spring, those mums won’t bloom until the fall.”
“So why plant them now?”
“By planting them early, you give the plants time to get used to their surroundings and develop a strong root system. The stronger the root system, the more likely the plant will be able to survive, especially when the weather turns frigid.”
“Mama says I’m a late bloomer,” the eleven-year-old boasted. “She said it’s no big deal.” The girl giggled. “I guess that means my roots are developing!”
The oldest girl gently took her sister’s arm in her hand. “Come on. We need to get home. Mama has to go to work.”
A volunteer from the senior center knocked on Gigi’s door.
“Gigi, you there? It’s Margaret.”
Gigi stood. With each step towards the door, her joints loosened. She unbolted the lock and welcomed the familiar face into a room lit by the blazing sun. “Come in. Come in. Sit. Can I get you anything? A glass of water?”
“I’m good for now. Thank you.”
Margaret sat on a folding chair, just as she had every other Thursday for the last two years. She grabbed the dog-eared paperback copy of The Longest Sail, a story about a group of women who sailed around the world. Though Gigi could see things in the distance, she had trouble with her up close vision. Margaret was working at the senior center when she noticed Gigi struggling to read the newspaper. That’s when Margaret volunteered to read for her.
“Shall we?” Margaret asked with a sly smile.
The Longest Sail was the only book she ever read to Gigi. After the second reading, Margaret asked Gigi why she was so taken by this one story.
Gigi’s answer caught Margaret off guard. “It’s a book about dreams. When I was a young woman, I had big dreams. But, in the end, I took the safer route.”
“The safer route?” Margaret’s voice went up a notch. “You helped so many children. How can you say that?”
“Well, on the one hand, my parents had a great influence on me. They dedicated their lives to serving the poor. I was with them most of the time and witnessed some horrific levels of generational poverty.”
The empty look in Gigi’s eyes stayed with Margaret for months.
“On the other hand, my father taught me how to sail when I was a little girl. Before I went to college, it was my dream to sail around the world.”
Margret asked, “Did you do it?”
Gigi frowned. “Well, I did do some sailing in the Pacific, around the Hawaiian Islands. But then I came back to the mainland and got a four-year degree.”
“And you’ve regretted it ever since?”
“I’ve tried hard not to. But life needs to be a balance. The kids I helped, they had to deal with some terrible situations. You do that kind of thing long enough…” Gigi ran her fingers through the gray stubble on the top of her head. “I’m okay with the choices I made. I have great memories from those early adventures, and I feel good about the kids I helped. But sometimes, well, I wonder what I missed.”
Margret never broached the subject with Gigi again.
Opening the book, Margaret flipped through the pages to find where she last left off. In the silence, Gigi’s stomach growled. Margaret looked up and raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound good.”
She looked around the apartment, saw an empty bread bag, what looked like an empty jar of peanut butter, and a jelly jar that was less than a quarter full. She put the book down, grabbed her gallon-sized pursed and rifled through it until she located a couple packages of saltines.
“Here, have some crackers.”
“I had a sandwich,” Gigi insisted.
Margaret leaned over and dropped the handful of cellophane-wrapped saltines on Gigi’s lap. “Well, you can save them for later.”
Gigi piled the crackers on the small stand next to her. Then she lay her head back, closed her eyes, and smiled. She pictured a boat as it rolled up and down from the deep ocean swells. She imagined the chill of the ocean spray hitting her square in the face.
Once, after the sisters stopped by Gigi’s, the girls’ mother found a small pear in the eleven-year old’s jacket pocket. The mother glared at her child but kept her voice even. “Where did you get this?”
The eleven-year-old froze. She wasn’t about to admit it came from Gigi. “I stole it from the grocery store. I won’t do it again, I promise.”
“My friend Linda seen you girls hanging out by the apartment complex. What are you up to?”
“We work in a lady’s yard,” the youngest called out from the hallway. “And get paid for it!”
“What did you just say?” The youngest child watched as her mother wagged her finger. “Listen to me, you don’t take no money from no one. People who give you money think they own you. And no more stealing, you hear me?”
The girls obeyed their mother and stopped taking Gigi’s money. For the rest of the school year Gigi replaced the dollar with food whenever she could. Though Gigi didn’t see the sisters during the summer, when they returned to school in September, the girls continued to help spruce up the yard. Since Gigi was no longer always outside in the afternoon, the youngest liked to walk up to the window screen and whisper, “Gigi, you in there?”
Like most other days, this time Gigi came to the screen in a cheerful mood. “Good afternoon, ladies. How was school today?”
The oldest girl muttered, “Boring.”
“Oh. Come on. You must have learned something. Tell me one thing you learned.”
The eleven-year-old, wearing a boy’s white tee shirt and a print skirt that was two sizes too big, answered. “I learned the word bungle. Sounds like bugle but it means to mess up. I don’t get how you go from bungle to bungalow.”
Gigi beamed. When she first met the girl, she was barely able to remember three words from her spelling list. Gigi turned her attention to the youngest. “Little Missy, how about you? What did you learn today?”
The youngest girl dug the rounded tip of her black strapped shoe into the grass. “Fractions. One-eighth plus one-quarter equals the same as one-eighth plus two eights, or three eighths. You can test me some more if you want.”
“No need for that. It sounds like you’ve been doing your homework.” The little girl grinned from ear to ear, revealing two buck teeth.
“Big Sis, how ‘bout you?” Gigi asked.
The oldest girl stared at her Keds. “I didn’t learn nothing today.”
“I thought you were learning about the planets?”
“Yeah, but it was stuff I already knew.”
“Too smart for yourself, are you?” Gigi joked. “You girls have lunch today?”
“We shared a sandwich,” the eleven-year-old replied.
Gigi opened the screen to her window and placed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the windowsill. “Good work girls. Learning is so important. The topic doesn’t matter, just keep working your brain.”
The eleven-year-old grabbed the sandwich, took a big bite, split what was left in two and handed the sticky pieces of bread to her sisters. Gigi sighed as she watched them gobble the remains. “Sorry I don’t have more. And make sure you wipe your cheeks.”
“We have to get home,” the oldest urged.
“Thank-you, Gigi,” the eleven-year-old called out over her shoulder as they scrambled down the sidewalk and out of sight.
. With the weather turning cooler, Nadine hadn’t been as motivated to leave her warm bed before the sun came up. Every day for the last week, she threw the covers off her body, swung her feet from the mattress to the floor, and gritted her teeth as she made her way to the bathroom.
This time, the familiar mental anguish was coupled with a debilitating round of menstrual cramps. Her lower back seized and she rolled her eyes at the prospect of enduring several rounds of nausea, stomach cramps, and general misery. Weak in the legs, Nadine made her way to the bathroom and expelled a hefty blood clot and crawled back to bed. After five minutes, she made her way to Child’s Pose, the only yoga position in her repertoire. She prayed out loud to the same God she didn’t believe in at any other time of the month. “Please, let this be over soon.”
Normally, she’d gut out these days at the office, behind closed doors. But she was tired of fighting herself. Nadine picked up the phone and pressed her boss’s number.
“Jack, it’s Nadine. I’m not coming in today. Not feeling well. If you need anything, call me.” Click. Nadine threw the phone on her nightstand and napped for an hour. Feeling better, she got up and made a cup of tea, drank it, then went into the living room and lay on the rug. Skippy came over and licked her face.
“Go away,” she ordered.
By mid-afternoon, Nadine was getting antsy. Though dark clouds loomed on the horizon, she decided to go for a walk. Donning an expensive wool pullover, she unboxed a new pair of running shoes. The last thing she grabbed before calling the dog was a long, silk scarf. She carefully wrapped it around her neck and pulled tight.
“Come on Skippy.” The dog ran to her feet and Nadine clipped a leash to his collar. Walking slower than usual, the dog was in a particularly nosey mood, snorting all kinds of smells along the edge of the sidewalk. The wind increased and spits of rain came and went. When Nadine passed the apartment complex that reminded her of Cape Cod, she bristled at the three girls laughing and joking with each other in one of the tiny yards.
“I want a piece,” one of the girls shrieked.
“Me too, me too,” another shrilled.
Nadine closed her eyes. She never meant to shut her family out. It just happened, and she didn’t know how to fix it.
“Don’t worry, I have a piece for each of you. Here.”
Nadine watched a hand pass something wrapped in a paper towel through the open window.
“Sorry, this is all I have today.”
Each girl took a chunk of the offering and popped it in their mouths. Smiles of satisfaction followed.
“Thank you, Gigi,” the youngest girl said, her hand lingering on the windowsill. The rain came harder and the girls said they had to go.
Nadine gaped as they hustled away.
Hey,” Gigi called out. “I remember you, from a couple a months ago, I asked you to bring me a candy bar.”
“I never heard you ask for a candy bar.,” Nadine lied.
“Well, you saw the girls. Now you know why I asked. It was never for me.” The window slammed shut.
Nadine stood staring into the empty yard. Moisture seeped through the silk scarf, then trickled down the back of her neck. “Come on Skippy, let’s go.”
Nadine picked up her pace, but the scene nagged at her. The girls didn’t appear to be well cared for. And while she didn’t work in the juvenile court system, she’d heard the stories of social workers who neglected the obvious signs of child endangerment. Her forehead scrunched into a question mark. What was with giving them a candy bar anyway? An ambulance whizzed by, hit a puddle, and drenched Nadine with what felt like a couple gallons of water. Already brittle, she felt a fissure grow inside her. With the back of her hand, she wiped the spray from her face.
“Skippy,” she whimpered. “What’s wrong with me?”
The dog cocked his head, waited a few seconds, then returned to snorting the grass at the edge of the sidewalk.
Nadine had everything she dreamed of, a good job, a good salary, a nice house. But the emptiness that came from her inability to make amends with her two daughters gnawed at her. In a moment of weakness, she fantasized about giving up on life and wondered what that might look like. Perhaps walking into the cold, bulging river, located just outside of town, with her winter clothes on? She imagined feeling the water seep into the fabric of her hooded parka, then her wool sweater, then her cotton underwear. All of it getting heavier by the second, until she slid under the water’s surface. Would she fight, or would she just let it happen?
Like usual, Nadine shook off the thought. Her skin damp and cold, she headed home to type up her case notes for a pending court date.
The youngest sister tapped on Gigi’s window. “Gigi, you in there?”
After a minute, Gigi raised the pane. “There’s no work for you today. But here are some graham crackers.”
“You don’t have to do that,” the eldest protested. “We’d stop by to say hello anyway.”
“I know you would. But take these. I have more inside.”
Gigi quickly changed the subject. “What did you girls learn in school today?”
The ten-year-old responded with unusual enthusiasm. “We learned about how butterflies come out of an upside-down worm.”
“An upside-down worm? What do you mean?”
“You know, butterflies start out as worms and then poof, they turn into butterflies. It’s like magic!”
“Are you sure it’s magic?”
“Well, maybe not,” the girl acquiesced. “We watched a movie though. Somehow the worm hooks itself to a leaf and hangs upside down. Then the worm breaks open and a butterfly comes out. Kind of like when a baby is born.”
The oldest sister laughed.
“It’s not funny,” the youngest cried. “Momma said that’s what happened to daddy. He turned into a butterfly and flew away.”
A look of horror crossed the oldest girl’s face. “Daddy didn’t turn into no butterfly. He died of meningitis.”
“We know what he died of,” the eleven-year-old chimed in. Then, with the saddest set of green eyes, she looked directly at Gigi. “Guess his root system wasn’t very well developed.”
The ten-year-old ignored her sisters and flapped her arms like she was trying to fly. “Gigi, do you think the butterfly’s wings ache?”
“What?” Gigi asked.
“You know, does a butterfly get tired of flying?”
“No honey, butterflies don’t get tired of flying. They just get stronger and stronger.”
Nadine went to one of the big box stores to buy toilet paper and paper towels. Walking through the aisles, her eye caught a glimpse of the stacked boxes of chocolate bars.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said out loud.
Nadine turned her cart toward the back of the store, where the produce was stocked. She picked out a jumbo-sized bag of red grapes and a plastic container filled with blueberries. When she got home, she packed the grapes, blueberries, and a single candy bar she bought at the gas station into a picnic basket.
“Come on Skippy, Let’s go.”
For a mid- October afternoon, the sun was unusually strong and warmed Nadine’s cheeks.
“Hello,” she called out when she got to the cottage apartment. After waiting a minute, she knocked on the window. “Are you in there?”
The window cracked open. “I’m here,” Gigi called back.
“I brought you a candy bar. And some fruit, too.”
“Yes, really.” Nadine felt uncomfortable, like she was shedding old skin. “I’m not an ogre, you know.”
“I’m worried we should be calling child services. Those girls don’t look very well-taken care of.”
“There mama is doing everything she can. Just because they don’t look all prim and proper doesn’t mean they are being neglected.”
Nadine blushed as she gripped the basket of food.
“Those girls are loved. They’re just poor is all. That’s why I do what I can. If you see something, you should try to do something about it, right?”
“I guess. Anyway, here. I hope this helps.” Nadine held out the basket. Gigi opened the window and screen as high as they would go.
“The girls will appreciate this,” Gigi promised.
Nadine turned to leave. “The mums are beautiful.”
“Thank you. The girls help keep them up. You know what’s great about mums?”
Nadine raised an eyebrow.
“They have few demands beyond sunshine and water.”
“Sounds simple enough.”
“I’ll try to bring something by again next week. I mean, I will. I, uh, just have a busy week at work. But I’ll find time. I promise. I hope you have a good rest of the day.”
“You too,” Gigi called out before she closed the window.
Nadine chided herself for tripping over her words. Then she turned her attention to the mums, so easy to take care of. Nadine looked at the empty yard, then her phone. Her hand trembled. She fumbled as she dialed her daughters’ telephone number. That’s when the phone slipped through her fingers, hit the sidewalk, and shattered. She dropped to her knees and dragged her hand across the sidewalk. Determined to fix the mess she made; Nadine cupped the tiny glass pieces in the palm of her hand. Despite the pain, she made a fist and held tight.
One thought on “Paths Not Taken”
I always enjoy the short stories published here. Descriptive and beautifully written. The Title is touching and reminiscent.
Thank you for sharing.