There was a pile of money on Bette Miller's kitchen table. It was mostly change, but Bette spotted crumpled dollar bills, even a couple of fives and tens, hidden among the quarters and nickels.
Before getting down to the serious work of counting, she picked up handfuls of silver and let them fall through her fingers, enjoying the satisfying clinks as the coins touched the rest of the change. It made her feel rich.
Barbra, Bette's older sister, had collected the money in a canister for a campus charity, standing in the street and knocking on car windows to get donations. Now Barbra slid into the seat across the table and commanded, "Don't do that, Bette. Money is dirty. Full of germs."
Bette sighed. Since their mother died, Barbra had become a fountain of clichťs that she spouted frequently. "Be careful on the Internet, perverts are lurking there." "Don't go out with wet hair, you'll catch a cold." "Never forget to wash your hands after you touch raw chicken."
"Why would I be touching raw chicken?" Bette had asked in horror the first time Barbra had offered that particular dictum.
"Well," Barbra had replied with resignation, "we'll probably have to cook for Dad. And he loves chicken."
And, in fact, in the last couple of years, Bette had touched more slimy, slippery raw chicken than she cared to remember.
But don't touch the money, it's dirty? What was next? Look both ways when crossing the street?
"How can I count the money without touching it?" Bette asked crossly.
"We're not supposed to count it. The machine at the bank will do that. I'm just supposed to separate the bills from the coins and pick out all the funny stuff."
"Canadian coins. Pieces of paper, lint. Stuff that will clog the machine." Barbra pulled a white orb from the money. "A Necco Wafer."
Bette made a face. "Who would throw candy into a charity can?"
Then something caught Bette's eye. She thought it was a quarter at first, but an oddly shaped one. She looked at it, puzzled. And then she looked at it again. It wasn't a real coin after all. Embossed on one side of the pewter-colored token was an angel in profile, wings unfurled, hands clasped in prayer, its long gown sweeping the bottom of the talisman.
She held it for a moment, and the angel seemed to grow larger, slightly rising from its hammered background.
"What's that?" Barbra asked.
Bette was loath to give it over, but there was no way to avoid her sister's outstretched hand.
"Oh, cute," Barbra said, handing it back.
"I can keep it?" Bette asked, her heart beating a little faster.
"Sure, why not?" Barbra asked curiously. "It's just a good luck charm. You've seen them in stores. Sometimes they're in a little basket up by the cash register."
Had she seen a token like this before? Bette wasn't sure. Maybe she had seen ones with four-leaf clovers, but she didn't think she had seen one with an angel on it.
Barbra began sweeping the money into a cloth bag. "Well, I guess I'd better take this over to the bank. Then I have to get back to campus."
Bette got up and took their glasses to the sink. She still wasn't used to Barbra going to Northwestern University and living in Evanston. Of course, Evanston was only an El ride away from Chicago. Well, two, really, since you had to change from the Red Line to the Purple Line. Not that she had visited Northwestern since she and her dad had dropped off Barbra and a considerable amount of stuff at her dorm at the end of August. When would she have the chance anyway? Barbra had been home every Saturday or Sunday for the last six weeks.
"I'll walk with you," Bette said, grabbing a jacket.
"Don't you have anything better to do?" Barbra asked, putting the sack of money into her backpack.
Bette scowled. Don't¬†you¬†have anything better to do, Miss College Freshman, than make sure that the refrigerator is stocked with enough frozen hamburgers for the next week? But that wouldn't be very nice, because Bette knew that Barbra did have better things to do, or should anyway, like studying or rushing a sorority or trying to find a boyfriend, and the reason that she came back on weekends was to make sure that her sister and father were all right.
What really made Bette angry was that the honest answer to Barbra's offhand question was, No, I don't have one thing better to do than to walk you to the bank.
When they got outside, Barbra looked around and said happily, "I love October. It's the most gorgeous month."
"It's getting cold," Bette said, zipping her jacket.
"But, Bette, look at the sky," Barbra said, standing still for a moment. "It's the color of those Popsicles Mom used to buy. And the leaves. They're amazing. Scarlet, orange, even purple."
"Don't you know why leaves change color? It's because they're not making any more chlorophyll. That's what keeps them green and healthy. The colors mean they're getting old and dead."
Barbra looked at her sister strangely. "Bette, do you realize a lot of what you come up with relates to death?"
Bette snorted. "I wonder why?" If anyone ought to be able to understand why Bette's thoughts drifted to death as easily as leaves slid across the sidewalk, it should be her sister. Barbra had experienced the shock of their mother's death just as she had.
First had come the phone call from the hospital. A car accident on a rain-slicked road. Then the rush to the hospital. The call to their father's cell phone went directly to voice mail, so the girls had taken a cab to an unfamiliar neighborhood close to where the accident occurred.
Pessimist that she was, Bette assumed that she would have plenty of bad moments in her life, but if she lived to be 110, she couldn't believe that there could be any worse than those desperate minutes that had ticked by during that taxi ride to the hospital. It had been endless yet surprisingly quick, a time out of time.
She and Barbra had sat silently clutching hands. But even as she was conscious of the dirty ashtray smell of the cab, the collected tones of the NPR reporter coming from the radio, what was most real were the images that pelted her, as incessant and random as the raindrops hitting the taxi's windshield.
Her mother in a hospital bed. Was she scarred? Were her bones broken? In pain? Bette knew her mother was alive because at least the person at the hospital had told her that. But Bette could tell from the urgency in the woman's voice that might not soon be the case.
Once they had arrived at the hospital, everything had been confusion. Barbra had taken over with Bette standing mutely beside her. At first no one could tell them their mother's whereabouts. When they finally located her in the emergency room, the hospital personnel didn't want them to see her. After Barbra demanded they be taken to her cubicle, a nurse had tried to prepare them.
The nurse's quiet words about internal bleeding and contusions on Mrs. Miller's face, and the effects of the pain medication, hadn't been enough.¬†Who is that woman?¬†Bette had thought, when she saw her mother, looking small and frail and years older; hooked up to so many blinking, beeping machines they seemed to be more a part of her than her arms and legs. Only her golden red curls spread out against the white cotton pillow--the same curls Barbra had been lucky enough to inherit--were familiar.
Looking back, Bette was eternally grateful her mother had lived long enough for her to say good-bye. Bette could not,¬†could not¬†have stood it if they had arrived at the hospital only to find their mother gone. It would have been like falling into a vortex with nothing to hold on to.
Even with the chance to whisper "I love you" in her mother's ear and feel the squeeze of her hand, it was bad enough. Bette walked through the funeral and, for a good many of the days afterward, behaved as if she were an actress in a play titled¬†The Grieving Daughter.¬†She knew she was supposed to feel terrible, and some part of her, maybe the part that was crying hysterically, did feel terrible. But most of the time, she felt like she was floating on the ceiling, staring down indifferently at Bette sobbing and Barbra trying to take care of everyone and her shell-shocked father looking as if he had been the one in a car accident.
And there had been times when she'd experienced the weirdest emotions. Like the stab of excitement before the funeral when she wondered if Peter Waugh, the best-looking boy in her class, would attend and maybe give her a sympathetic hug. So many people had come to the funeral, she didn't know if he came or not, and by the time the eulogy was over, she had completely forgotten about the hug.
Although it had been nearly two years since her mother had died, Bette sometimes felt as if she were still just playing a part, that of her now-almost-thirteen-year-old self. Other times her life seemed all too real. How could it not, when it was filled with such mundane things like making dinners, straightening up, washing clothes, and watching television. Lots and lots of television.
"Bette," Barbra said, breaking into her sister's thoughts, "do you know what's happening with the apartment?"
Bette turned to look back at their two-flat greystone. Their near-north Chicago neighborhood was full of dwellings that looked similar to theirs, but Bette had always known that her two-flat was special, and that was because of the hearts. Some anonymous mason, perhaps artistic, perhaps just bored, had carved a series of small decorative hearts into the smooth, fog-colored stone, and they circled the width between the upstairs and downstairs apartments. Bette had been so proud of those hearts when she was a little girl. Her mother told her lots of different stories about the hearts, but they all ended the same way: "And then the hearts looked for the happiest house in Chicago, and when they found it, they pressed themselves into the stones!"
Bette walked alongside Barbra toward the bank. "It hasn't been empty that long. Just a couple of months."
"Bette." Barbra had the you're-not-five-years-old-anymore tone in her voice. "Dad's probably losing a thousand dollars a month by having the apartment empty."
"We have plenty of money," Bette replied defensively. And it was true. Her mother, a very efficient accountant, had made sure she had lots of insurance. What the family had lost with their mother gone, ironically, had been replaced with more money than the family had ever had before. Not the kind of money you could run your fingers through, though. The kind you put away for college educations. And in the case of her father, enough money to give up his law practice and buy part interest in a jazz club.
"Well," Barbra continued with a frown, "I don't like you living in the building with an empty apartment right below you. It's not safe."
Bette wanted to tell her sister she was used to being by herself, that she didn't get scared at night at all anymore. Well, not much anyway. But she knew that anything she said would just make Barbra feel guilty all over again about not living at home while she went to college. Barbra's guilt spilled over everything enough as it was. Bette felt plenty guilty herself because she knew that if it wasn't for her, Barbra would have felt free to go to college in Claremont, California, or to Duke in North Carolina, two of the other schools that had accepted Barbra.
"Has he even put an ad in the paper?" Barbra asked as they walked toward busy Chicago Avenue.
"I don't know," Bette replied.
"Well, I'll ask him about it the next time I talk to him."
"Whenever that is," Bette muttered.
Barbra didn't say anything for a moment. Then she asked, "Isn't he getting home any earlier? He promised he would try."
If getting home early meant before midnight instead of an hour or so after, then Bette guessed he was trying. But she didn't want her sister to worry. "Yeah, he's getting home earlier."
"I wish he'd never bought into that jazz club," Barbra fretted.
This was an old conversation. Both sisters had been shocked when several months after their mother's death, their father had told them he was going to put law aside for a while and buy part interest in a jazz club located in a hot area, the city's South Loop.
"But I thought you liked being a lawyer," Bette had said at the time.
"I do. I did. But your mom's passing, well, that made me realize I shouldn't waste time doing something I just¬†like. I want to do something I¬†love. And I love jazz."
Bette hated when her father referred to her mother's death as her "passing." The word made it sound as if she had somehow just been passing through their lives instead of being the most important part of it.
"Besides," her father said, "I'll be working mostly at night. That way I can be around in the daytime for you."
It hadn't worked out that way, and sometimes Bette had her suspicions that her father had known that when he had started his glorious undertaking. First the club needed to be renovated, and her father had to be there to oversee the contractors who were enlarging it and installing the sound system. Then he had to learn how to book the talent, and after that he had to hire and train the staff. It added up to a father who wasn't around much during the day or night.
"Do you want to come in with me while I make the deposit?" Barbra asked as they came to the bank on the corner. "Then you can walk me to the subway."
Bette's day may have been empty, but trying to fill a little of it by waiting in a bank so she could take a two-block trip to a dark, dank subway station seemed pathetic even to her.
"No. I have to stop at the bookstore," Bette said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the used bookshop across the street.
"Okay, then," Barbra said, giving Bette's bushy, brown hair, so unlike her own, a pat. "I'll call you tomorrow."
After Barbra disappeared inside the bank, Bette thought for a moment about actually going into the bookstore. If her father wasn't generous with his time, he was certainly generous with money, and Bette always had enough to buy whatever she wanted, and usually that was books.
But her sister was right, it was a beautiful day, and Bette felt like being out in the sunshine rather than under the glow of fluorescent lights. Taking the long way home, she first strolled down Clark Street, peeking into shop windows. Bette wished she liked clothes more. There were such cute things to buy, but when you were thin and plain, it didn't seem like clothes would help much.
She pushed by several shops catering to urban babies and was tempted to go into one of the ubiquitous coffee shops that vied for customers, but she didn't really want to sit by herself. When she got closer to home, she passed one of her favorite landmarks in the neighborhood, the Church of the Holy Comforter. When she was little she thought the name was so funny, because she had a comforter on her bed with several holes in it, one in particular that she liked to make bigger by poking her finger into it.
It took her mother several tries to explain that the Holy Comforter was really the Holy Ghost, and then she had to go into a whole long, rather unwieldy explanation of who that was, since the Miller family was spectacularly unreligious. Which made things rather uncomfortable after her mother's death. Mr. Miller was so lost in his own grief, Bette didn't think she could go to him with her questions, so she had gone to Barbra.
"Where do you think Mom is?" Bette had asked.
Barbra was startled by the question. "What do you mean?"
"Well," Bette began uncomfortably, "do you think she's in heaven?"
"Yes," Bette repeated. "In heaven with God. And the angels."
"I don't know, Bette. I'm not sure I believe in heaven. Do you?"
How was she supposed to know? She was only ten. And she had only the vaguest idea about heaven. Just what she had picked up in books. She tried hard to remember if her mother had ever talked about heaven, but nothing came to mind. Bette hated the idea that her mother was just lying in the cold ground, but she couldn't conjure up that better place that people talked about. With no immediate answers forthcoming, Bette had tried to bury the questions along with her mom.
But she did go inside the Church of the Holy Comforter sometimes. The church, made of the same gray stone as her house, was imposing from the outside, but inside it was dark and warm with stained glass windows that glowed when the sun shone through them. When she was inside, she felt peaceful.
Bette paused in front of the church. She stuck her hands in her jeans' pocket, and she felt the angel token nestled there. It was much warmer than her hands. Hesitating a few seconds longer, Bette felt herself drawn inside, but she decided she was too tired. She wanted to go home.
Picking up the pace, Bette walked to the greystone. When she was within a block of her house, she looked up and something caught her eye. Was that a light in the downstairs apartment? She was sure it had been dark when she and Barbra had left for the bank, and surely no one had been inside since then. For a moment the light shone more brightly, then in an instant it was gone.
Copyright ¬© 2010 by Ilene Cooper