A few weeks after Tom’s funeral, the lawyer, Mr. Singer, read aloud the part of Tom’s will that gave instructions on how to dispose of his remains: “I request that my body or any part may be used for the purpose of medical education or research. What is left of me shall be cremated and scattered in the bay.”
Mr. Singer paused and looked at her, but Letty remained silent. Clearly, though, the lawyer had been expecting a response, and now he looked upon her silence as a form of resistance. “It is in the will,” Mr. Singer said. “If it is in the will, you absolutely have to do it.”
Letty nodded. There were so many things she hadn’t known before Tom died: such as, how much money he really had. And whether he would be generous with her. When all was said and done, Letty paid very little attention. Instead she stared in curiosity as Mr. Singer’s navy blue bow tie and the coppery sheen of his thinning hair.
The house was quiet—a good quiet, peaceful. She left her purse on the kitchen counter. It pleased her to think she did not have to worry about hiding things now. Tom had developed the habit of looking in her things, trying to “catch” her at something. She shook her head. Too much.
She brought in the papers. Almost every day, the San Mateo County Times published Letters to the Editor complaining of gangs and graffiti.
“In our own neighborhood!” a man complained. “I decided to walk around after dinner, last Monday. It was around nine o’clock at night. I was at the corner of Jefferson and Middlefield, waiting for the light to change, when two teen-agers came running out of nowhere. They knocked me down and stole my watch, my cell phone, and my wallet. I had $60 in cash. They hit my face so hard, I needed 14 stitches. The police have been asking for witnesses. No one wants to come forward.”
The man was probably close to her age, Letty thought. She was 51.
Jefferson and Middlefield was right in front of the public library. Letty used to go almost every week, to check out books. Now she shuddered, upset for the man who had met with such violence. It was shocking.
Why did her son never call? He never, ever called, and she was so lonely.
He had more than enough money, that was why. When he was needy, back in the days when he was just starting grad school, he called often. Tom would be bad-tempered for days afterward.
That night, she dreamed about her husband. Tom said, “Letty, what are you doing? What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Just filling the time.”
The Dream Tom snorted. She knew he didn’t believe her.
It was a terrible dream. The worst she’d had in months. She took two Ambien, which was her almost-nightly intake now. She wondered how she’d explain that to her doctor. She thought again about her son, and about Tom’s funeral, and about how hard it would be to keep up the garden, all by herself.
The bills came, she filled them out blankly, without checking her accounts. Truly, she knew she had more money than she really needed.
Tom’s roses were dying. They’d been so pretty. He had tended them carefully. But after he died, she spent less and less time in the garden. She could tell, from the way the stems were gradually blackening, from the buds that never fully opened, that they were sick, starved for something.
Winter was settling in. Soon, the rains would come. But next year…?
“A job’s a job, Tom,” she found herself saying, aloud into the empty bedroom. “Like the 27 years I spent being married to you. And it didn’t even do me any good. Ha ha ha!”
Her dream husband’s face went sour. She remembered that look. He’d only been dead a few months, but she’d completely forgotten. After the dream, she remembered the look again.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, she went, and clutched her head. An ache began to spread from the base of her skull, outwards. It was spreading like a net. It had captured the nerves on her face. She was terrified of getting Bell’s Palsy, which the women in her family had gotten, one by one, after they turned 40 or so. Not a single woman in her family had been spared.
Her mother’s case had been the worst. Afterwards, her mother became fearful and inward-looking. Her aunts complained that Letty’s mother had stopped accepting lunch or dinner invitations. On the occasions when she left her house, she wore large sunglasses that covered half her face and refused to take them off, even while eating, even though everyone could see, whenever she bent over a menu, that there was something wrong with the right cheek. That glimpse was enough. That was all she would offer anyone, that glimpse.
The morning after her bad dream, Letty realized that she might forget Tom’s face, but never his smell. It clung to the pillowcases, even after she’d washed them several times. It had even, she thought, seeped into the mattress. She stripped the bed and began sleeping on the day bed in the guest room. The bedroom was too big, anyway. What she needed was safety, and the guest room, with its smaller dimensions, its hardly-used day bed and lone armchair, felt as if it could provide that.
Letty limped to the bathroom and turned on the light. Again she was struck by how different the face in the mirror was from her own. She scarcely recognized that old woman with the wrinkles, the pouches, the deep furrows on either side of her mouth. That woman looked like an utter wreck.
She switched off the light, went back to bed, and pulled the comforter up to her chin. Then she stared at the ceiling for what seemed like hours. Finally, when she saw light slipping beneath the window curtains, she decided to get up and make herself a cup of tea.
Time passed slowly. She thought it was time for dinner, but then she’d glance at the clock in the kitchen and find out it was just 5 p.m. She tried not looking at her watch. She tried reading the papers, or watching TV. The next time she glanced down at her watch, it was 5:26, and then later, 5:56.
She tried to punish herself by saying, “OK, no dinner until 8.” Or she’d say: “No TV if you look at your watch more than three times in one afternoon.”
But she got involved with watching “American Idol.” There was a judge who reminded her of someone she’d known back in high school in the Philippines. Tom wasn’t there to tease and say how silly the show was. She began watching every week, without fail.
She had met Tom in Cebu. She remembered just having gotten on a jeepney. Then a huge American man got in, taking up almost half the space. Everyone stared. Tom stared, too, but only at her. She’d felt a sudden heat creeping over her face and looked away. When she got off at her stop, he put out an arm, as if wanting to be courtly. But his forearm brushed her breasts. She shrank from him, and then he followed her.
They were married three months later, and the following year she was in America.
During her second year in America, she became pregnant. No need for her to take a test: she knew. She had three older sisters, each of whom had gotten pregnant when they were in their late teens. She knew the signs. Unlike her sisters, she had a husband. She felt proud.
When she told Tom, his face became a new face, darkened with anger.
“I will send you home!” he shouted. “I didn’t bring you here to have babies!”
The current President was a man named Bush. She forgot this sometimes. It seemed there were so many people with that name, now.
The two mighty towers in New York were just a hole in the ground. She didn’t understand Ground Zero, had to read articles over and over before it sank in what the reporters were writing about. One day she thought of taking a bus there, just to see. She was fascinated by the thought of the hole in the ground, and how 19 trailers were needed to sift through the dust, hunting the tiniest scrap of DNA. She thought of Tom, and wondered whether that was really him in the porcelain jar she had paid $129 for. Sometimes, she lifted the lid and looked at the gray ash inside. The first time, she had been surprised to discover something sparkly mixed in with the ash. After several weeks, she worked up the courage to dip a finger in the glittery ash. She placed the finger against her tongue. The thought of swallowing Tom was not pleasing. She trembled and spat and later avoided that spot on the carpet. Whenever she happened to catch a glimpse of the spot, she always thought the same thing: I must bring out the Resolve. But now it was months later, and the spot was still there. In fact, it was growing darker. Tom would have been incensed, if he could have seen it.
The one thing useful she had picked up from watching her husband was how to work the computer. It was a shiny gray square which he kept tucked away in a drawer, and the few nights a week he was on it, he would cup his chin in his hand and chuckle. He kept the screen tilted away from the door, as if anticipating that she would stand there and look at him. When she would ask him what he was laughing about he always said, “None of your business.”
“Take my hand, Div, take my hand!” Tom shouted.
They were on the beach in Guimaras. The waves were large at that time of year. No tourists about, but no help either, when a huge wave knocked them both out of the small motorboat Tom had rented for the day.
Water filled her nose and throat, it was awful. She didn’t even know what she was doing, but she seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean. Something slimy grabbed at her arms and she wanted to scream but her mouth wouldn’t open. She thought of manta rays and eels.
Tom’s voice came to her, thick and muffled. She gave one last mighty kick and somehow rose and broke through the water. Tom had an arm about her. His face was red. Somehow, they found the up-ended motorboat and clung to it until a fisherman passing by in a banca came to their rescue. Letty remembered lying on the bottom of the banca, gasping. Tom held her tight in his arms. They never went to another beach.
Letty often wondered if she had been meant to die that day. But Tom had refused to let her go. That was how she had come to marry him, that was how she had come to confuse his stubbornness for strength. Not entirely her fault: She had been 22, younger than her own son was now. She forgave her young, romantic self. She even, eventually, forgave Tom. She was sure, in spite of everything, that her life was not over. There was something yet she was meant to do. She wanted to do it. She wanted to find that thing.
Tom had become small in his middle-age. Not her. She would fight. Life could still beguile, she was sure of it.
The job was only possible because it was something she could do at home. The organization was called The Bridge. There was a toll-free hotline for troubled people. The number was 1-800-U-R-SAVED. The person who had handled the late-night shift: 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., had burned out and quit. Younger people had families, or wanted to keep nights free for their partners. The job was perfect, absolutely perfect for Letty. The person who interviewed her (over the phone) said, “You know we can’t pay you. This is strictly an all-volunteer organization.”
“I know,” Letty said. “That’s fine.”
Only now was she grateful for Tom’s pennypinching. The money in the bank was all hers now. Even after taxes, she calculated it would be (provided she stayed healthy) enough to sustain her for several years.
And after several years?
She wouldn’t think about that. She refused to think about that. She would live in the moment. She would not regret anything.
“Uh, that’s great,” the interviewer said. He sounded young.
The list of rules arrived in the mail three days later: ten pages, single-spaced.
Life was always, Letty mused, throwing her for a loop. Who knew that things would have turned out this well? There was simply no way to prepare for anything. One simply had to endure, or proceed. And hope for the best.
“Don’t despair!” she said. Letty was surprised that her voice came out sounding so trembly and wan. “There is hope!” The wife on the other end of the phone cried and said she felt stupid. She always called, around 10 p.m., when her husband had gone out.
“You’re new,” the wife said.
“Yes,” Letty said. “But it doesn’t matter. I’m here. To help you.”
Her fifth caller had a terrible mother. “Pretend she doesn’t exist,” Letty said. “Only you. Only you are important.”
The caller, a young woman (from the sound of her voice) was silent for a few moments.
“My mother doesn’t exist,” she said slowly, as if repeating a nursery rhyme. Then: “That’s not right. Of course she exists. That’s why I’m always miserable.”
“Make it a game,” Letty said. “Just pretend. You can do that. Anyone can play a game.”
“Ok,” the young woman said.
“Just try,” Letty said. “You’ll see.”
The hardest call Letty took during the first month was from a man (middle-aged, Letty guessed) who said he suffered from Panic Disorder. The caller said the attacks had begun four years earlier.
Letty asked how the attacks usually began.
“They always start with me feeling dizzy,” the caller said. “My wife says I’m probably just tired, but I’m terrified. I always wonder when the next attack will hit.”
“Have you told your doctor?” Letty asked.
“No,” the man said. “I have not told anyone.”
“Why not?” Letty asked.
The caller hesitated a moment. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Don’t worry so much,” Letty said. “I suppose you could say I suffer from something similar. Whenever I hear the words to that Joni Mitchell song—you know, the one about a taxi?—I start to cry. I can’t stop.
The man’s breathing sounded funny. Then, in a low voice, he began to sing the song. Letty let him finish.
“I’ve bought myself a plane ticket,” the man said.
“Where are you going?” Letty asked.
“San Francisco,” the man said. “To throw myself off the Golden Gate Bridge.”
“Don’t do that,” Letty said, then stopped. San Francisco! Letty had never been to San Francisco, though she longed to.
She didn’t have any more words for this man, this man who wanted her to give him a reason not to go to San Francisco and throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge.
She then broke Rule #3: she gave the caller her real name.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“I’m 48,” she said, and stopped, astonished by her lie. She was constantly surprising herself, lately. But he never called again.
A week after that man, she had a call from a young girl. “Oliver’s gone away,” the girl sobbed. “He was married. I sneaked him into my freshman dorm for three months. My roommate promised not to tell.”
Girl, Letty thought. It’s survival of the fittest.
And then there was the husband who wanted to pull everything out of his retirement plan and spend the money traveling the world.
“Where would you go?” Letty asked.
“Morocco,” the man said. “My dad went in ‘59. He brought back pictures of camels. After that, I’d like to go to the Ivory Coast. A friend of mine went. His wife’s from Abidjan.”
After they had gone back and forth for almost 10 minutes, the man’s voice suddenly dropped low. “My wife won’t let me, though. She won’t let me go.”
“Well, that’s sad,” Letty said. “But it’s not your responsibility to keep your wife happy.”
“It’s not that,” the man said. “But there won’t be anyone to take care of her.”
“And how old is your wife?” Letty asked.
“She’s 44,” the man said. “She’s never been alone. We were married when we were both 20.”
That was certainly very sad, Letty thought. Not for the wife, but for the man.
“She’s not an egg,” Letty said.
“Excuse me?” the man said.
“I don’t mean to make light of your situation,” Letty said, “but your wife’s not an egg. She’s not going to crack.”
“I don’t want to grow old,” said a caller, who revealed, moments later, that she was 67.
“Being old is a state of mind,” Letty said soothingly. “You’ll only be old if you feel old. Trust me.”
A caller: “I can’t stop thinking of that girl in the beauty parlor. I’m 54.”
Another caller: “Should I try speed-dating?”
Yet another caller: “I think I might have killed someone. Why am I telling you this?”
Caller # xx: “I don’t love him anymore. But I’m afraid to tell him. Now I’ve started sleepwalking. Every night. Sometimes I wake up fully dressed, and there are stains on my clothing, mud all over the dining room. Why?”
Caller # xxx: “I watch my neighbors making love. They never bother closing their windows. I have them on video. I want to know how this ends.”
Sometimes, the calls blurred together: “I hit my mother (Or was it my child?)”
Sometimes Letty thought it had all been a trick. “You want my advice?” she would say.
Once, during a call, she allowed her mind to wander off. She was silent. Too silent. The caller said, “Hello, are you still there?” She had no idea what the call was about.
She tried to recover. “When you get your money . . . “ she began, hopefully.
“You have the brains of a fucking pigeon,” the caller said, and hung up.
She allowed the obscenity to rankle inside her, for days. Weeks.
It was another dreary Saturday. Rain fell continuously. She was restless. There had only been one call all night. The man said: “Going to work is like going from one hell to another.” With the recession, such calls were increasingly common.
Letters came regularly from her mother, who had never mastered e-mail. They always said the same thing: Come home. One of these letters had come five days earlier, on a Monday. What kind of a life will you have there, her mother wrote. At least here, you can be with your family.
As if 27 years were nothing. As if she could turn her back on all that, turn her back on her son, who though uncommunicative was still the only person in the whole world that she still loved, loved with the transparency of glass.
Absently, her gaze wandered to the bookshelf and fixed on a spiral-bound notebook, Tom’s “Garden Journal.” In it he would make meticulous record of the plants he had bought, and how well or how poorly they did, week by week, sometimes even day by day. He jotted down the days in which he had applied Osmocote, and how long it took for the first flower buds to appear. When he cared to, he would note particulars of the weather, and observations about butterflies and birds. The first entry began 16 years and two months earlier, and the last was only two days before his first and fatal stroke.
She decided to leaf through it again now.
In the first entry for January, he had written: “Rained all day yesterday and today. Ordered six new tea roses.”
In February, he wrote: “Still chilly. Dug holes, filled halfway with compost.”
On 17 April, three months before his death, he wrote: “Noodle head sprinklers worthless.”
Almost two months later, on the second Sunday of June, he had written: “Effective? Wait and see!” The last word was underlined twice.
A page later, Tom had written: “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.”
Letty stared at the words. They were not Tom’s words, she knew. They were from the Bible. But which part? Which Gospel?
There were only five more entries after that. The roses had faded quickly, that summer. They were nothing but scraggly sticks now. Letty didn’t have the time or the energy to weed and water, the way Tom did.
She recalled him fussing in the garden. What was it about his face when he was tending his beloved roses? Hope—yes, that was it. His face was filled with hope. With her he was bad-tempered, querulous, impatient. But in the garden, he was infinitely patient. Yes. He anticipated reward. He was a man of such narrow joys.
She looked through the window at the garden. Nothing was blooming out there now. She had done it. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and began, for the first time in years, to make plans.
Marianne Villanueva is the author of the short story collections Ginseng and Other Tales From Manila, Mayor of the Roses, and The Lost Language. Her work has been widely anthologized, most recently in Manila Noir, edited by Jessica Hagedorn. She has been shortlisted for the O. Henry Literature Prize and nominated for the Pushcart. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is completing her first novel.