by Edith Boyd
The gate guard’s voice was different. Less deferential.
“Mrs. Palmer, there’s a young woman named Melissa here to see you. “
“Did she tell you her last name?” I said. “I don’t know a Melissa, nor am I expecting one, Officer Williams.”
“ She said she worked in Mr. Palmer’s Chicago office.”
Jack…. The gate guard mentioned Jack as if he were still alive. As if all were not lost to me.
“Doris,” I said, breaking the protocol of Sailfish Cove, with its Officer this and Mrs. That. “Does she seem dangerous?”
“Not for me to say, Mrs. Palmer,” the gate guard said, “but she seems O.K. And, of course I had a good look at her license.”
“Please send her in, Officer Williams. And enjoy your evening,” I said, and she added, “I should have said something earlier. I’m so sorry, Mrs. Palmer. The Mr. was never too busy to greet me and the other guards, and we appreciated it.”
Jack wouldn’t notice differences in people’s occupational status, as driven and ambitious as he was in his work. He endeared himself to everyone he met. Maybe a bit too much to attractive women, but even then, he was guileless and remained, in his mind, the geek who couldn’t woo the girl. But woo me he did, enough for me to be admitting a stranger who said she knew him in his Chicago office,
Trusting the guard’s instincts, I prepared myself to meet someone who knew my Jack. As her silver Honda pulled into my driveway, I had a moment of panic that she had come to harm me, but enduring the chronic grief was so debilitating, I didn’t care what she did to me.
Or so I thought.
“Mrs. Palmer, I’m Melissa Hobart, and I knew Mr. Palmer from the Slater office in Chicago.”
Keeping the door slightly open, I summoned my most formal Sailfish Cove tone, and said, “What may I do for you, Ms. Hobart?”
She fumbled in her purse and I feared a gun, and nearly slammed the door. Her slender fingers produced an i-phone photo from Slater with Jack surrounded by employees, including her.
“Come on in Melissa,” I said and directed her to the den.
“Would you like coffee, water…a soda?”
“No, I’m good, Mrs. Palmer.”
“Call me Kathy,” I said as I went into the kitchen and grabbed two bottles of water, relieved that I feared the imagined gun. Perhaps my depression was a sliver lessened.
I sat across from Melissa in one of our matching eggshell colored couches, and I noticed she devoured the water, after thanking me.
“I wanted to meet you. “ she said directly, and then rolled her tongue over her upper lip and said, “Mr. Palmer told me about you.”
Oh no, I thought, Jack was not only unfaithful, he had dipped into the twenty year old set.
“You knew Mr. Palmer well enough to discuss me?” I said fearfully.
“Whatever went on between the two of you….” I trailed off, kicking myself for how wimpy I sounded. Why couldn’t I behave like the heroines of stage and screen who delivered the perfect line with grit and panache?
Melissa looked over at the painting on the wall, and there was something in her profile that was vaguely familiar. I had a few cousins in Chicago whom I never met.
“Are we related ?” I blurted out.
“Sort of,” she said, as she repeated that tongue rolling thing, and I knew. She was related to Jack. By blood.
“He said he was going to tell you, or I would have done this differently.”
“Tell me what?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it, and after a few seconds said,
“That I’m his daughter.”
I got up from the couch and paced around the kitchen trying to do the math. She seemed about twenty. That would have put us smack in the middle of Manhattan and the fertility specialist.
I grabbed the edge of the kitchen entry and said slowly and maliciously, “How old are you?”
“I turned nineteen in May,” she said earnestly.
In the way shock lets normal thoughts through, I thought how open young people are.
Here comes this little creep to ruin my life, and she has no clenched fists or shoulders. No fear that I may be extremely fond of my Second Amendment rights. She just sat there, living proof of my failure to give birth, with a guileless, open expression.
“I’m a Taurus,” she said, as if that explained everything.
I sat down on the couch across from her and surprised myself by saying, “When I lost Jack, I didn’t want to go on living.”
She started to speak, but then looked at me instead.
“Waking up, thinking he was at work, and remembering the horror of it all. Or watching one of our crime shows, and turning to tell him who was the villain, and seeing his spot on the couch empty. Nothing you have to say to me can be worse than that, or at least that’s what I thought until now.”
“Mrs. Palmer, I thought you knew. My mother thought you did.”
Her mother. There was no way I was ready to hear any details about Jack’s other woman. Clearly, the man and the marriage I was mourning were a sham. I didn’t want to cry in front of Melissa, and I needed time to absorb the shock of infidelity. Maybe there were countless other women and maybe other children, which pierced me, and reminded me of the torture of trying to conceive.
Feeling as if Melissa meant me no harm, I fumbled for my i-phone and asked her to enter her contact information.
“Please leave,”I said, as I made my way to the front door and held it open.
She didn’t say anything, but I noticed her eyes were watery and she did the lip thing…so like Jack. As devastated as I was by his deception, I had a sense that I would need to meet with Melissa again. There was so much I needed to know.
I went to the fridge and popped open a soda, and returned to the couch…the spot where I heard the news that exploded my universe. Jack loved another woman, and I never sensed it. My mind went through the time nine months before the May Melissa was born. Blessed or cursed with a photographic memory of dates and time. I could re-create my birthday in July that year, and the frequent trips to New York to the doctor who promised us a baby. I had no clear memory of Chicago trips during that time, but did remember several hurricane warnings that kept Jack from flying home.
As I sipped my Pepsi, I mentally repeated Jack’s many assurances that I was enough for him with or without a child. That we were enough. That we were a complete circle unto ourselves. What a crock, I thought as the tears started to flow. My silent critics during the services who thought me heartless and stoic would be pleased to see my tears, to see me behave like a normal widow…whatever that was.
More than ever, I wished I had a sister to comfort me. I envied the tales of sisterly support and fun from the time I was a small child, talking to my dolls, pretending they were the siblings I didn’t have. I couldn’t share these feelings with my Mom as she’d hoped for a house full of kids, and was only able to have me, Kathy Dolan, the only child surrounded by all the Mc Gee and Conway kids.
And when one of the Conway kids envied my mounds of Christmas presents, I envied the squeals of delight and banter in their home.
In spite of the living proof of Jack’s secret life, I consoled myself that he did love me and my desire for a child interfered with our closeness…..until we gave up. We had ruled out adoption for various reasons, and as I pedaled backward in time, the year before Melissa’s birth was not one of our good ones.
However, the taste of betrayal was very bitter. I got up and poured my soda down the sink and decided to go to the gym. I would pant and sweat through memories of my life with Jack, from the time he approached me on campus until the day he lay next to me motionless, his spirit having departed while I slept.
The gym had become a friend of sorts, as I navigated the hellish loneliness of becoming a widow. I hadn’t befriended the stiff people of Sailfish Cove. I preferred the gate guards to the residents, something Jack and I had in common. A stab of fear went through me that Officer Williams would deduce that Melissa was Jack’s child and share it with the other guards. My fear was reduced when I realized Doris Williams, the gate guard, was not a gossip, and even if she were, nothing in life would alter the fact that Jack was gone.
When I arrived home from the gym, I felt a little lighter and decided to call my friend Julie. I checked the time as it was three hours earlier in L.A. Julie loved her home and still had a few teenagers whom she worshipped at home with her. Our friendship became strained when she was pregnant with her first child, Travis. Always empathetic, she waited to tell me her good news knowing the envy and angst it would invoke in me. I remember the evening she called when phone calls still arrived through land lines. I did the best I could to fake a joy I didn’t feel.
But as soon as I met her little boy, nearly a toddler, hiding behind his mother’s leg, I fell in love and developed a relationship with him that has lasted. Of all the sympathy notes I received after Jack’s death, the one from Travis really got to me. Even if Julie prodded him to write it, the words were heartfelt and belonged to Travis, and I felt not envy of Julie’s motherhood…just a strong love for her child.
I sent Julie a text before calling her. I used my land line to ensure good reception and spilled the story of meeting Melissa.
“Kathy, I’ve never lied to you, and I won’t now. I’m truly shocked by this. Jack loved you completely. It had to be a one night thing, a blunder, an aberration.”
And then she started to cry. She switched gears quickly, and in the language of best friends said between hiccups, “What’s she like?”
“Sweet, young, slender…open. And she does the lip thing like Jack.”
Julie became really quiet. I could tell she was about to say something I wouldn’t like.
“Spit it out!” I said.
“Maybe Jack sent her to you to tell you what he died feeling guilty about. Or to keep him close to you in some way.”
“Oh, for heaven sakes, Julie. Jack cheated on me. Had a child with another woman. Deceived me until the end of his life. Please don’t give me your L.A. hocus-pocus.”
“I’m sorry, Kathy. I really am. “
“Me too, Jules. Thanks for listening. I’m gonna go now.”
The morning after my conversation with Julie, I awakened with something other than the leaden feeling of loss. I was curious. Before I lost my nerve, I sent Melissa a text and asked if she could meet me at the campus Starbucks. Although we didn’t discuss much about her life, I knew she was attending Cutler University near my home. The whole encounter was so shocking, I hadn’t even thought about how weird it was that she would be going to school near me.
I had a hard time holding on to anger at Jack. Or my curiosity was greater than any feeling I had felt other than grief in a long time.
Melissa stood up as soon as I entered Starbucks. She had chosen one of the cushy love seats for our meeting. It was hard not to be taken with her delicate bone structure and her open manner.
She started first. “My Mom was in remission from MS. She had a one night fling with a businessman. Not long before the MS killed her, she told me how my father loved you and made my mother feel somewhat shabby as he spoke aloud of betraying you. She told me who he was, but she never told him about me.”
“Did she have a way of reaching him?” I said, stricken with fear of the other woman.
“It didn’t take research to know about the Slater office, so I assume he told her that,” Melissa said looking down.
“How did you meet him?”
“I interned at Slater so I could get to know him. “
“Did your mother know?”
“She was already gone when I met your husband.”
My husband Jack. Gone from this world leaving me to face this alone.
Sitting here in Starbucks with Melissa Hobart Palmer. My husband’s daughter.
I had no financial worries, which is a lot more than many women go through at the loss of their husbands.
“Try not to hate my Mom. She was single. She was sick. And she was happy to have me. And I, her,” she said with such grace and dignity that all I could do was stare.
Melissa was well-spoken and intelligent.
She checked her phone and said she had to make a class.
We both haltingly said we would meet again, and she added a guileless, “I don’t have many friends here.” Neither do I, I thought to myself as I made my way home.
The following week, at Starbucks, I heard a lot more about Jack which redeemed him somewhat in my eyes.
“When I got up the nerve to meet with Mr. Palmer privately, he belittled me by expressing regret, then saw I felt hurt, and softened his tone. He knew the encounter that caused me to be in the world, and he lost all veneer of Mr. Businessman, and told me about you, and how he had to live with the guilt of that night in Chicago.”
Oh Jack, I hope you suffered, I thought as I was dying for more details of the part that made me seem cherished. I didn’t want the part where Melissa’s mother had six pack abs, or something like that.
On a subsequent trip to Starbucks, Melissa was free from classes, and I invited her to my home for take-out food. We settled on Chinese. I couldn’t ask Melissa all the questions I wanted to about her mother, as the young woman was clearly grief-stricken without her. I knew the feeling…. During the Chinese meal which allowed us to loosen up, she told me how she and Cutler University came together.
Jack, who only met Melissa in the past year, pre-paid her tuition in a gesture to bring her close to us.
“We had a few lunches in a deli, where he was guarded, and told me about you….a lot. He said after you killed him, you would be decent to me. I believed him, so here I am. And you are better than decent.”
Did I kill Jack? I wondered…all that passive aggression, and obsession over our lack of children? Harping on him that he worked too much, which allowed me to sit here in a beautiful home paid for…no mortgage note strangling me…
I began to enjoy meeting Melissa, better than my outings with some of my neighbors.
One evening, three months after meeting her, I admitted to myself that I liked Jack’s kid. . Perhaps it was aided by the chardonnay I was sipping.
We agreed that she would call Jack just that… Jack.
“Jack didn’t take care of living expenses. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful as hell to be at Cutler. But I probably won’t be able to stay on, without a better job,” she said matter-of- factly.
This was the same night I asked if Jack wanted a paternity test.
“No he knew my mother’s name, and that she lived in Naperville.”
I had a hard time breathing thinking of his remembering this woman’s name for twenty years. I nearly lost all kindly feelings about the situation.
But as I was walking Melissa to her car, I imagined the cuckoo clock Jack loved ticking in the den, and I was pierced with joint stabs of loneliness and affection, and said,
“There’s plenty of room for you here in your father’s home, Melissa.”
She did the lip thing, and looked away, and said quietly, “Thanks Mrs. Palmer.”
“Kathy,” I said, blinking back tears. “Please call me Kathy.”
About the Author:
Edith Gallagher Boyd is a former French language teacher. Her short fiction has been published in multiple online literary magazines, and can be found by googling her full name. Her short story, ” The Flower Shop,” published in The Furious Gazelle, appears with her nickname, Dee Gallagher Boyd. She lives in Jupiter, Florida.