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He shifts in his seat a little, and keeps staring at one spot on the floor as though his life depends on it. Or maybe his sanity.


Irene stands in the bread line, or tries to. Her legs are cold, and her arms poke too far out of the sleeves of her sweater. The wind is blowing hard, and she can smell the snow coming. She jumps up and down to keep warm, rubs her hands and ears and nose to get the feeling back. Papa turns to watch. "You can go home," he says.
"I'm fine."
"It's too cold for you. Go home."
"No, really, I'm not cold." Even though her teeth chatter. Home wouldn't be much better.
"Go home."
"I'm staying until we get it. I'm not cold."  Not cold, not cold, not. Cold.

She feels the blanket being fitted around her by the woman in white, sees the man with the greying beard and the gaunt face sitting on the chair beside her bed. The woman in white retreats to the corner by the door, and Irene looks back to the man as he starts talking: "Jess is doing very well in her classes--she got four A's and a B this semester." She stares at him blankly. He coughs and looks sideways at the floor. "Jess, your oldest granddaughter. Nicole hasn't done so well, but academics were never her strong suit. She's going out for softball, though, and she's good at that." She still stares at him. He still doesn't look at her, just continues talking. His large, bony hands are clenched in front of him, and she lets her gaze wander across the jagged row of knuckles.
Irene scrutinizes the fabric, but she can't see the mending. Only when she closes her eyes and lets her fingers explore can she feel the place where the jagged tear was, where Mums spent all night sewing so that it would look good as ever for today. She unzips and steps into it, feeling the slippery fabric embrace her as she lifts it to fit. Slips on the blue garter and fastens Aunt Janet's pearls around her neck. There. Something old, something blue, something borrowed. Now for something new.
The man is still talking. He shifts in his seat a little, and keeps staring at one spot on the floor as though his life depends on it. Or maybe his sanity. And his meaningless words drone on.
The drone of the siren always makes her head ache, but it's a necessity. And so when it rings, in the middle of the geography lesson, she snaps into action, giving the command: "Under your desks, children."  They clamber under theirs, and she burrows under hers, but not before grabbing the photograph off the desk. Of course it's a drill, of course there isn't a thing to worry about. Of course she's glad he's fighting the Commies, because if Korea falls, the rest of the world won't take much longer. But with the wail of the sirens echoing through her mind, all she can think as she studies the picture is, why Stephen? There are so many others who could go, who have gone, why did he have to? She runs her fingers down his face. "Stephen."
"No, Ma, not Stephen," the bearded man with Stephen's face says, waving Stephen's hands through the air emphatically. "Stephen's dead. I'm Gregory, Stephen's son."
That man is not Gregory. Gregory is five years old, just had his birthday party last week. Gregory is out front, watching the older boys play baseball in the lot. She eyes him from her position in the lawn chair. Except he's suddenly twelve, pitching curves to his friends, occasionally letting one get a hit. He waves to her.
Then he's gone.

And now he's sitting talking to her in a chair beside her bed while the nurse looks on. "And Patty sends her love from New Orleans," he's saying. "She's at that advertising convention this whole week, and there's not a thing she can eat. Just spicy food everywhere."
"How's Jess doing at college?" Irene says. Gregory's face jerks up, and he stares at her mutely. She repeats herself. "How's Jess doing? Is she having as much trouble adjusting as you did?"

Gregory smiles. His whole face is transformed. "Oh, she's doing very well, four A's and a B this semester."
"And Nicole?"
"Nicole's not nearly as good with academics. She tries, though. And she's going out for softball this year, too. You've seen her play."
Irene nods. Like father, like daughter. "Just make sure she doesn't neglect her schoolwork."
"Of course."
"And how are you doing?" she adds.
"Oh, well, we finished the Farber portfolio two days before deadline, so the rest of the week was downtime. On Monday we're-- "
"That's not what I meant."
"I know."
"Ma, we've found a nice place. Lots of people your age, and in a beautiful location. You'll love it."
"A nice place? For who?"
He draws in a long breath."Patty and I had a talk with your doctor, and we've decided--you can't live on your own anymore."
"So how are they treating you here?"
"As well as can be expected. Though I wouldn't mind a little more privacy," she says, glancing toward the corner. The nurse understands, and slips out to chat with another nurse in front of the door.
"And the food?" Gregory continues.
"Nothing like homemade. It's all bland. If I had my kitchen, I'd teach these cooks a lesson or two," she chuckles, feebly waving her fist.
Gregory laughs and runs his long, bony hands through his short hair. "Nobody makes split-pea soup like yours. That's a fact."
Split-pea soup on a winter night, sitting huddled in front of the new color television, just her and Stephen. Irene is on the right side, as always, because Stephen can't stand the idea of her touching his stump. Gregory will call any minute, since it's Thursday. He always says the food's good there, but Irene knows better, and fills her care packages with Tupperware containers of soup and stew and cookies.
Stephen's nodded off again. She pulls the blanket up closer around the two of them and whispers "I love you" in his ear.
Gregory sighs. "I love you too, Ma." She looks at him for a moment, sees him, and smiles.

Copyright Sarah Kathryn Blumenthal 1997
Published in Stylus Literary Journal, Spring 1998.