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Therese Fowler holds an MFA in creative writing. She grew up in Illinois, and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and two sons. This is her first novel.
Reminders. Meg didn’t need more of them, but that’s what she got when her father let her into his new apartment at the Horizon Center for Seniors Wednesday evening. He held out a plastic grocery bag.
“What’s in there?”
“Notebooks, from your mother’s desk,” he said. “Take ’em now, before I forget.”
He did more and more of that lately, forgetting. Idiopathic short-term memory loss was his doctor’s name for his condition, which right now was more an irritation than an issue. Idiopathic, meaning there was no particular explanation. Idiopathic was an apt term for Spencer Powell, a man who lived entirely according to his whims.
Meg took the bag and set it on the dining table along with her purse. This would be a short visit, coming at the end of her twelve-hour day. Hospital rounds at seven am, two morning deliveries, a candy-bar lunch, and then four hours of back-to-back patients at her practice—women stressing about episiotomies, C-section pain, stretch marks, unending fetal hiccups, heavy periods, lack of sex drive, fear of labor. And still four hours to go before she was likely to hit the sheets for five. An exhausting grind at times, but she loved her work. The ideal of it, at least.
“So how was today?” she asked, taking the clip out of her shoulder-length hair and shaking it loose. “Are you finding your way around all right?”
“Colorful place,” he said, leading her to the living room. He sat in his recliner—why did old men seem always to have one, fraying and squeaky, with which they wouldn’t part? “Pair o’ guys over in wing C got a great system for winning on the dogs.”
The greyhounds, he meant. “Is that right?” she asked, looking him over. He looked spry as ever, and his eyes had regained the smile she’d never seen dimmed before last fall. His hair, once the brightest copper, had gone full silver, making him seem more distinguished somehow, silver being more valuable. Distinguished, but no less wild than before—a man whose mind was always a step ahead of his sense. His diabetes was in check, but since her mother had died suddenly seven months earlier, Meg felt compelled to watch him closely. She was looking for signs of failing health, diabetic danger signals: swollen ankles, extra fluid in the face, unusual behaviors. All his behaviors were unusual, though, so that part was difficult.
The other difficult thing was how he kept confronting her with random pieces of her mother’s life. A pitted chrome teapot. Stiff and faded blue doilies from their old dining hutch. Rose-scented bath powder, in a round cardboard container with a round puff inside. Last week, a paper bag of pinecones dipped in glitter-thick wax. Trivia from a life forever altered by the sudden seizure of Anna Powell’s heart, like a car’s engine after driving too long without oil.
“Yeah, those boys said they win more’n they lose, so what’s not to like about that? Hey—my left kidney’s acting up again. Steady pain, kinda dull, mostly. What d’ya s’pose that’s about?”
“Call Dr. Aimes,” she said, as she always did when he brought up anything relating to his kidneys. “Tomorrow. Don’t wait.” He looked all right—but then, she’d thought her mother had too. What a good doctor she was; she should’ve seen the signs of runaway hypertension, should’ve known a massive heart attack was pending. She never should have taken her mother’s word that she was doing fine on the blood pressure medication, nothing to worry about at all.
Her father frowned in annoyance, as he always did when she wouldn’t diagnose him. “What good are you?”
“If you go into labor, I’ll be glad to help out. Otherwise, tell Dr. Aimes.” She would remind him again when she called tomorrow.
His apartment was modest—one bedroom, one bath, a combined dining–living area, and a kitchen—but comfortable, furnished mostly with new things. He’d sold the business, Powell’s Breeding and Boarding, along with the house and all the property, in order to move here. She didn’t know the financial details because he’d insisted on handling that part of things himself. But he assured her he could afford to “modernize” a little, as he’d put it.
Meg looked around, glad to not see much of her mother here. Memories were like spinning blades: dangerous at close range. Her mother’s empty swivel rocker, placed alongside the recliner, would take some getting used to. If her father would just stop regurgitating things from the farm—or send them to her sisters, all of whom wisely lived out of state—she might be able to get comfortable with the new order. Was that his strategy, too? Was he giving things away so that he didn’t have to be reminded of his loss every time he opened a closet or a drawer? He certainly wasn’t much for facing the past, himself. The past was where all his failures lived.
Well, they had that in common.
He pulled the recliner’s lever and stretched out. “So yeah, I’m doin’ fine. Why’nt you bring Savannah over Sunday; we’ll have dinner in this establishment’s fine dining room. They just put in one of them self-serve ice cream machines, you know what I’m talking about? Toppings, too. Y’oughta see the old farts elbowing each other to get there first! If I’d known this place was so entertaining, I’d’ve moved Mom here. This would be her kind of place, don’t you think? Lots of biddies around to cackle with.”
“Sure, she would’ve liked it a lot,” Meg said. The farm had overwhelmed her mother perpetually, even after Brian and his father— officially Hamilton Savings and Loan—forgave her parents’ mortgage as promised. In the years afterward, Meg liked to take her mother out to lunch for a break and a treat; she offered her spending money (as she secretly did her sisters too), but the reply was always, “Oh, heavens no, Meggie. You’ve done so much as it is. Besides, you know your father.”
She did. Though cursed with a black thumb for profits, he was too proud to let her put cash in their hands. He hadn’t been too proud, though, to let her—to encourage her—to take Brian’s offer. That was different; no money changed hands. Meg hadn’t had to give up anything—Carson didn’t count. It was her choice anyway, that’s what he always said.
“Hey—why’nt you bring our girl over here for dinner Sunday?” He said this as if the idea had just occurred to him.
She stood next to his chair, noting how his invitation didn’t include Brian—intentionally? “I’ll do that,” she said. “Right now I need to get going.”
“Okay, fine, go on, Miss Hectic Schedule. I know, you got things to do. Y’oughta enjoy the ride a little more, though. Now that you can. Don’t you think? I’m fine here, everything’s settled. I don’t know why you don’t just get on with your life.”
Now that she could? What was he talking about?
He continued, “You’re not happy. I’ve known that for a long time. Move forward, Meggie, while you’re still young.”
She looked at him quizzically—he didn’t always make sense, but he hated having it pointed out—and kissed him without pursuing it. “I’m fine, Dad,” she said. “It’s just been a long day.”
Excerpted from Souvenir by Therese Fowler Copyright © 2008 by Therese Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.