The Secret (New Short Story)

by Stephen Paden

When I was a little girl growing up in the fifties, my mother would take me on errands every Sunday. Sometimes, we would go as far as Louisville to fetch my father’s heart medicine, and other times we’d just go a few towns over to Lebanon to pick up groceries and laundry soap.

Our Sundays would always begin very early. My mother would wake up to turn on the coffee pot for father, and then float back upstairs, effortlessly avoiding every creaky floorboard. I always pretended to be asleep so I could watch her when she entered my room−her ruby lips, blues eyes, and silky white skin glowing in the warmth of my nightlight. Her ritual was the same every time: she’d go to my dresser, pull out hose and underwear, and then after quietly pushing in the drawer, she’d go to my closet and pick out a dress. And she would never forget my shiny black shoes roasting beneath the radiator; waiting for tiny feet.

My father was vice-president of the local bank. Sometimes in the summer my mother would run errands during the day while my father was at work, and we’d stop by to bring him lunch or when my mother needed to make a deposit.  He was a quiet man who rarely doted on either of us. But despite his seemingly soft nature, I sometimes heard him yell at my mother. When I would feel brave, I would come downstairs and see my mother hiding one side of her face while picking up broken glass from the kitchen floor. He was a hard man who thought love existed in a wallet, and when he smiled, it felt like a holiday.

The football field was filled with graduates, most of whom were half-asleep in the afternoon sun. After the speeches and the ceremonies were finished, my mother ran up to me, gave me a huge hug, and reiterated how proud my father would have been. I started crying, but she wiped the tears from my acne-ridden skin and kissed me on my cheek, like only a mother or an eager boyfriend would do on such rough terrain. The other graduates mingled about−most of them scurrying off to some party or just avoiding their parents. My mother pulled away and smiled at me with a look I’d never seen. Over the years, her perfect skin had given way to the demands of life and age, the porcelain smoothness all but gone. But in the harsh light of the midday sun, her face wore a look I had seen before. I remembered one of our Sunday adventures.

We drove to Bristol that Sunday. The snow had come in pretty strong the night before. By the time we arrived, the roads had gone from a slightly packed layer to slosh. I, like my mother, would much rather have preferred tightly pack powder under our half-exposed feet. I asked my mother once why I couldn’t wear boots and she prattled on about ‘being a lady’ and how it just wouldn’t work with our dresses. I would have preferred looking different to having cold feet.

Our first stop was the Woolworth’s on Main Street. My father’s heart medicine was always a priority, so mother made sure that was the first stop.

The next stop was always The Bushel; a small breakfast diner run by a man named Marvin. My mother went on and on about the man named Marvin every Sunday on our way there. She told me about some of his war stories, and how he’d saved a friend from German gunfire on the beaches of Normandy. She smiled as she described his work at the Kentucky Derby; brushing horses and walking them back to the stables. She told me about his fascination with cars, and how he’d once met James Dean. I liked seeing her smile like that, but she never did when we talked about my father. When I would ask her about anything that my father had done, she would reply, “He’s a very smart man, your father. He went to college to study finance.”

We were always greeted with a ‘Morning Maggie, morning Stella’ at The Bushel. That Sunday, Marvin wasn’t there to greet us. Instead, an unfamiliar man took the people’s money and their orders and whisked around the place, balancing the trays on his small hands as if he was a clown in a circus. Our usual waitress (or ‘Miss Wilson’ as my mother insisted I call her) appeared at the sign with menus; her somber face juxtaposed against the bustle and excitement of the crowded diner.

She sat us in a booth like she always did; the one by the window overlooking the slanted parking that went up and down Main Street. I loved sitting there because there was a pet store across the street, and I could always see the puppies or kittens sleeping or bouncing about in the window display. Unfortunately, I also got to see the happy children walking out of the store with their new friend and pretended every time that it was me. This want and desire always led to the next discussion−

 Mommy, I want a kitten. Stella, you’re too young.

It was a serious game at first−a girl and her animals−but as the months went by, it became mere formality and then eventually ritual.

Miss Wilson came to our table to take our order and smiled at me. She kept her golden hair wrapped up neatly on her head. She was stingy with her makeup, although I suspect she was born from the same heavenly stock as my mother and didn’t need any. I blushed and smiled back.

My mother said to her, “I don’t see Marvin. He never misses the Sunday crowd,” and then the young woman’s face turned sad.

Marvin had come in late a few nights ago to install a new oven in the kitchen, she told us. The old one had a busted something-or-other, and Marvin, being the practical, hands-on kind of guy, decided to save the money and install it himself. She told us that was just like that and I saw my mother nod softly; her face still in ruins. She proceeded to tell us how Mr. Avery, the fellow who was auditioning for Barnum and Bailey’s in the background, found him the next morning, and my mother quickly covered her mouth, and then put her hand up. They looked at each other with understanding; like a secret code between women that only women could know and I couldn’t because I was yet a woman. It bothered me no to know, and I would ask my mother on the way home.

My mother’s face went blank and her eyes filled with tears, but not one of them fell. She grabbed a napkin and dabbed it at the corners of both eyes (never once smearing her eyeliner), ordered the pancakes for me and just a coffee for her, and then excused herself the bathroom. Miss Wilson stayed with me and then attended to the young couple waiting at the door when my mother emerged from the bathroom.

She sat down and forced her best smile. “Everyone dies, Stella. It’s good you learn that now,” she said again. I didn’t want to die, and at my age I thought death just happened to old people.

“Is daddy going to die?” I finally asked. The mixture of anger and despair faded into a half-hearted smile. She fought back the tears and for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for my mother, but I didn’t know why. I reached over and held her hand with both of mine and she smiled and patted mine in return.

We cut our shopping trip short and made our way to the Sears & Roebuck to buy some perfume for my mother and new panties for me and then we made our way back home. My mother was silent the whole way, and after seeing the pain my mother was in, I forgot to ask her my question.

We pulled into the driveway and my mother stopped the car just before the garage. She looked over at me, leaned in and kissed me on the cheek and said “Love isn’t everything, Stella. Your father is a good provider.”

The graduates filtered through the folding chairs on the lawn. My mother went to look for my cap that fell hidden in a mess of other caps on the lawn of the football field. My father passed away a few years ago at the kitchen table from a massive stroke, but my mother said that he would have been so proud.

Looking back, I don’t think my father ever loved my mother; it was just the times. Men and women did marry for love, but some of them did it because it was expected. At least they had enough of it to bring me into the world, and what my father couldn’t provide for me, my mother did. We never wanted for anything but love. And although she lost it too quickly, mother had found it again in a man named Marvin.

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