John helped Low Key locate Gift of the Magi before returning to Some Luck. She interrupted his reading only twice to ask what “imputation of parsimony” and “meretricious ornamentation” meant. She did not laugh at Magi as she had the two O. Henry stories that John had read aloud but out of the corner of his eye he saw see her head nod at places and heard a few sharp inhalations as she laboriously struggled onward. At last she sat motionless and pensive with the book in her lap.
John came to the end of his chapter and asked, “So? What did you think?”
“I’m not sure,” she said quietly. “At first I was a little confused because I thought the combs were to comb her hair but then I realized they were to keep Della’s long hair back. That they were, meretricious ornamentation? Although I guess they had a purpose beyond just being pretty.
“Then it took me a second to figure out that James had a pocket watch and what a fob was. I know it said the watch was really old, Jim’s dad’s and his granddaddy’s, but in my head I still saw a wrist watch and couldn’t figure out why he’d have to pull it out of his pocket. But once I got it I really liked the story. They were so in love. It reminded me a lot of when I first married my husband.”
John had long ago learned the value of a poker face. Accepting what someone told him while maintaining a neutral expression was something he had cultivated in the long, hard, decade-and-a-half since Sydney’s death and his subsequent slide into ever deepening poverty. Even so his normally placid facade was replaced with incredulity. “W-w-w-wait,” he stammered. “You have a husband?”
Low Key looked over at him with her brow furrowed. “Oh, no. I used to, but we got divorced like ten years ago. How about you? Are you married?”
John blinked three times before answering. “I am. I’m on my way to see my wife up in Chicago. Uhm, nosy question, but how old are you?”
Low Key turned her head down and toward him and looked at him from the corner of her eye. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to ask a woman her age?” she asked smilingly.
John blushed slightly and raised his eyebrows for a split second. “Yeah. Sorry. You just took me by surprise. When I first got on the bus and saw you I figured you were a teenager, like sixteen or seventeen? Then when you sat next to me I upped it to twenty-five but unless you married really, really young then you must be north of thirty?”
Low Key smiled and patted his arm. “You got out of that one real good, John. I am, as you said, north of thirty, but I’m glad you thought I was younger. You said, ‘see your wife.’ That mean you don’t live with her?”
“Oh, wow. Long story. I’m on my way to Chicago to see her. Her mom passed away suddenly and I’m heading up for the funeral.”
“You are kidding me? That is so weird! I’m on my way to Oklahoma City and my mother-in-law’s funeral. Sorry about your wife’s mom, by the way.”
“Wait. Mother-in-law? I thought you weren’t married? Is it your ex-husband’s mother?”
“Who said I’m not married? I’m married, but I have a wife now, not a husband. And it’s my dad’s wife who died, not my ex’s mother. Why would you think that?”
“That’s what you called her,” John replied. “Your mother-in-law. Sorry to you, too.”
“Did I? I guess I did. No, not my mother-in-law, my dad’s second wife. My, what do you call it? Stepmother?”
“Okay, hang on. Can we start over? Hi, my name’s John Knopick and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”