March 21, 2016

I’ve arrived too late

I watch her grow smaller down the long hall, clutching her handbag, knowing I should turn and run. But before I do, I wonder at how frail and inconsequential my mother has become. She used to fill a room by just breathing and now there seems to be . . . less of her. She turns a corner and disappears behind the pale yellow walls. I watch a second longer before I rush back to the car.

A MINUTE and a Half LATER, I’m ringing Hilly’s bell. If these were regular times, I’d talk to Hilly about Mama. But I can’t distract her. It is the first moment that will tell me everything arctic tank. Hilly is an exceptional liar, except for the moment right before she speaks.

Hilly opens the door. Her mouth is tight and red. I look down at her hands. They are knotted together like ropes.

"Well, that was quick,” she says and I follow her inside. My heart is seizing inside my chest. I’m not sure I’m breathing at all.

"There it is, that ugly thing. I hope you don’t mind seo company, I had to check something in the minutes from the meeting.”

I stare at her, my best friend, trying to see just what she’s read in my things. But her smile is professional if not sparkling. The telling moments are gone.

"Can I get you something to sip on?”

"No, I’m fine.” Then I add, "Want to hit balls at the club later? It’s so gorgeous out.”

"William’s got a campaign meeting and then we’re going to see It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

I study her. Didn’t she ask me, just two hours ago, to double-date to this movie tomorrow night? Slowly, I move down to the end of the dining table, like she might pounce on me if I move too fast. She picks up a sterling fork from the sideboard, thrums her index finger along the tines.

"Yes, um, I heard Spencer Tracy’s supposed to be divine,” I say. Casually, I tick through the papers in my satchel. Aibileen and Minny’s notes are still tucked deep in the side pocket, the flap closed, the latch snapped. But Hilly’s bathroom initiative is in the open center section with the paper where I wrote Jim Crow or Hilly’s bathroom plan—what’s the difference? Besides this is the draft of the newsletter that Hilly has examined already. But the booklet—the laws—I tick through again—they are gone.

Hilly tilts her head, narrows her eyes at me. "You know, I was just thinking about how Stuart’s daddy stood right next to Ross Barnett when they fought that colored boy walking into Ole Miss. They’re awfully close, Senator Whitworth and Governor Barnett.”

I open my mouth to say something, anything, but then two-year-old William, Jr., totters in.

"There you are.” Hilly picks him up, nuzzles his neck. "You are perfect, my perfect boy!” she says. William looks at me and screams.

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