Winnie scrambled off me and straightened her blouse. “Wow, talk about role reversal,” she whispered, adding, “I’m sorry, Henry. Maybe she won’t be here long.”
From the front of the house and over the roof came the sound of crying. “Oh, crap,” Winnie said, “she’s crying, isn’t she? Poor baby. I wonder what happened.
“Sit up,” she commanded. “I need to find out what’s going on.”
I sat up as I was told, wondering what I should do next. I didn’t have to wonder for long.
“Please just sit here with me, won’t you? I’m sorry, but April obviously has something going on.”
The emotional and hormonal rollercoaster that I’d been on for the last thirteen hours was powering through yet another high-G turn. So far, I had been expectant, anxious, angry, entertained, furious, mollified, intrigued, lustful, endeared and paternal; and all of that had been in the last fifteen minutes! Watching Winnie shift from wanton to wistful to worried had left me more intrigued than frustrated. While I had certainly been primed to plumb the carnal depths of Winnie I was pleased to find myself with a firsthand opportunity to see her interact with her daughter.
“So, what? Just act natural?” I asked with a grin.
Winnie lowered her head and looked at me out of the tops of her eyes and in the exact tone my mother would have used declared, “Show me the glass half full Henry, won’t you?”
And just like that my lighthearted acceptance of the situation vanished. My sympathetic interest transformed to righteous ire as though a switch had been thrown and if not for a tiny voice from the doorway calling, “Mommy? Mom? Are you home?” I surely would have been bellowing my displeasure.
“We’re out here, sweetie. On the deck,” Winnie called through the sliding doors screen.
“We?” April said in return, “Who are you with?”
“Henry,” Winnie said, “the man from the bus that I’ve mentioned?”
April walked out onto the deck in the fading light and I saw a young and vulnerable version of Winnie, cat in her arms, outlined against the interior light. “Oh. Henry, did you say? Hi. I’ve heard a lot about you.
“Mom? Could I see you for a minute? In private. Please?”
“Sure, honey, I’ll be right there,” she declared before squeezing my hand and whispering, “Let me see what’s going on, okay?”
I nodded but didn’t return the squeeze. Winnie and April stepped into the living room and I could hear their voices but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Winnie sounded calm and reassuring while April’s tone was frantic. A, “What! Oh, God, no!” from Winnie escaped to the backyard and my curiosity over what was going on helped sweep aside the peevishness that had surfaced with Winnie’s casual yet caustic jive.
“Oh, sweetie,” Winnie declared to April, “I’m so sorry! Give me ten minutes and I’ll go to the hospital with you. Just let me explain to Henry what’s going on.”
“Okay,” came April’s soft reply. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, honey,” Winnie told her daughter as she flipped the back-deck lights on, “you didn’t do anything.”
The darkening sky had allowed Jupiter to shine like a polished diamond even before the sun had set but the glaring artificial lights removed not only Rome’s highest deity from view but also washed out the quarter crescent of goddess Selene that had been growing more beautiful with the coming nighttime. ‘Party’s over,’ I said to myself, no longer angry but certainly disappointed.
Winnie sat on the couch with a six-inch gap separating us. ‘Smallest unbreachable chasm known to exist,’ I thought as she said, “I’m sorry, Henry. April’s best friend Taylor was rushed to the hospital, she’s had a terrible fall and April is just frantic. I need to go to the hospital with her. Forgive me?”
“A fall? Like, what, broke her ankle?”
Winnie looked over her shoulder, down to the ground and then at me. “No. She fell from a balcony. Ten floors. April was over at her dorm room and Taylor was outside on the balcony. The next thing she knew Taylor wasn’t on the balcony anymore and April looked down and saw her lying in a heap on the grass. Poor kid. Both of them.
“April called 9-1-1 and ran down the stairs to help. Luckily the paramedics got there right away. Taylor was still breathing and they rushed her to the hospital but things don’t look good. April called her mother but they’re over six hours away.
“We’re going to go to the hospital to be with her. April needs that and she’s in no condition to drive. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”
I did forgive her. A lot of people thrive on fake drama, creating tales of terrible woe over the smallest inconvenience; this certainly wasn’t the case. “Forgive you for being a good mom and looking out for your kid? Don’t be silly. There’ll be other nights, right?”
“Of, course. And Taylor is like a daughter to me. She’s sort of the reason I moved to Iowa after the divorce. She and April came down from Fargo to go to Iowa State together. They were roommates for two years and they’ve been friends since grade school. After David left me I wanted a clean break and there was April telling me how great Ames is, so I moved down.
“I’m rambling and I have to get ready. Would you be a dear and pour water on the fire? I know it’s in a pit but better safe, huh?”
We stood and hugged and held each other for a minute before I said, “Will you text me when you know what’s going on? Anytime. Call if you need to.”
“I will. And I’ll see you in the morning?”
“Yeah. Of, course. I’ll hold your spot for you.”
Winnie slipped inside to check on her daughter while I made sure that tonight’s fire was out completely. The embers were black and charred but could be reignited with a spark. There was still heat in the pit but the water washed away even a hint of flame.
Winnie reappeared in jeans and a baggy sweatshirt and I was confident she’d taken a moment to put her bra back on, something I confirmed when I gave her a quick, departing hug and a peck. She wanted to drive me home before heading to the hospital but I told her they should get to Taylor as soon as possible and then phone Taylor’s folks with an update. I told April I’d pray for her friend, gave the girl a quick, avuncular hug, and assured them both that I’d grab the bus and be home in a jiff. The women got in the car and I stood on the sidewalk and waited until they’d left before heading home.
Turning the corner from Winnie’s street I realized that I still don’t know if she had a bellybutton or not. I’d have to make a point of taking a look, or at least copping a feel, the first time an opportunity presented itself. Some things just have to be verified first hand.
I walked by the Nighthawk Cafe and saw Margaret and Tanya leaning against a counter, chatting. The diner was nearly empty that time of night and the thought that now would be a good time to rob the place came into my mind. ‘Easy to shoot the staff and the couple tables, grab the cash and just walk away,’ I thought, lifting my hand waist high, pointing my finger toward the big, plate glass window pushing my thumb to my forefinger and adding, “Pow, pow,” quietly.
I came to the bus stop but kept walking. The temperature was perfect for a walk in my sportscoat and I really didn’t have any reason to hurry home. I had that ever-changing moon to keep me company as well as good old Jupiter and in the morning Mars and Venus would be dancing together, the god of war and the goddess of love. Maybe tomorrow one of them would subdue the other.