What She Calls Life

Fiction
Lisa Heidle


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Photo Credit: Jon Feinstein

Mrs. Shephard wakes at five each morning, surprised and a little disappointed. A reason to throw back the covers and greet the day flew years ago. Her children think it was when their father died. Not true. Her grief sustained her then, a reminder that she was still living, that there was a purpose for the heart: to break. The pain dulled, then faded, replaced with fond memories of the life she wished she’d had.

She drives to the bank and waits for it to open. It is the first stop in her daily rituals: bank, then pharmacy, a quick lunch at the diner, on to the grocery, back home for television, in bed by eight. It would make her sad if it didn’t give her so much comfort. Barbara Jean and Sylvie pull into the bank’s parking lot and Mrs. Shephard watches the employees hurry to the front door, heads tucked against the harsh wind that gently rocks the car. If they see her, they don’t give any mind. It’s embarrassing, the intense craving to be seen, to be noticed. She’s always enjoyed people: making their acquaintance, being privy to all their tiny, self-important secrets. Now she finds herself staring hard at strangers, a hungry smile on her face, coercing an awareness that she still exists. That’s why she comes to the bank first—they use her name, even if they have to read it off the computer screen.

One by one, the lights come on and Barbara Jean, the pretty girl who runs drive-thru, appears and disappears, backlit by harsh fluorescent. Last week, Mrs. Shephard overheard her say that her boyfriend wants other women. Barbara Jean’s face was hidden behind the partition, but Mrs. Shephard sensed tears and a quivering bottom lip. She wanted to tell her that it would be okay, that men are fickle and presumptuous, always certain that something better is on its way. That’s what happens when mothers raise their boys like princes, letting them believe that the world wants to give them their heart’s desire. She taught her two sons and three daughters to know that life is about work, that tenacity makes the difference. Lyle Junior, her oldest, was the only one she was unable to convince. From day one, the boy had no follow-through. Now he sits alone like a monkey in a cage, chewing on her words as he counts the hours, days, months until he’s released back into the wild. She kept her counsel with Barbara Jean, having learned that young people don’t want to know what the shriveled and aged think, believing that if they knew anything about life, they would’ve done it better, wouldn’t be withered crones.

Mrs. Shephard lights a cigarette without cracking a window. She started smoking again after fifty years—a homage to when she was a beauty, not yet a victim of selfish time. Her grandkids refuse to ride with her, shrieking at the stale odor that has seeped into the seats.

“Smoking is bad for you Grandma,” Molly, the youngest, says when she pulls the crumpled pack from her bag.

“So’s being a wise-acre,” Mrs. Shephard tells her.

“What’s that?”

“Someone who tells others how to live their lives.”

The conversation always ends in tears for Molly and a reprimand for her. It’s easier to let them strap her into the minivan, surrounded by car seats, Cheerios sticking to her palms, and act appreciative for the overcooked steak and baked potato. When they drop her in the early evening, before the sun has set, they feel good for meeting the standard required of children with aging parents. She wants to tell them that she does appreciate it; it’s not a waste of time—it’s good to have something to look forward to at the end of the week. She doesn’t, fearing they might feel pressured, which could lead to resentment, which would make her a burden, and no one honors a burden, even if it gave them life.

Looking at her hand, the cigarette pinched between the first and second gnarled fingers, she ponders the crosshatch lines and dark blue veins. The skin hangs loose, making her question the point of muscle and tendon if they shirk their duties. Sylvie unlocks the front door as Mrs. Shephard takes a last pull on the cigarette, holding the smoke deep in her lungs until there’s a slight burn. Rolling the window down, she flips the cigarette into the wind. The wind laughs and throws it back into her lap. Opening the car door, the ember ignites and flames dance on her legs. She sees Barbara Jean’s surprised face framed in the window, hears Sylvie call out, “Mrs. Shephard, drop to the ground and roll.” She knows my name, Mrs. Shephard thinks, and marvels at her neediness. She starts to do as Sylvie says, slapping at the flaming licks as they move up her shirt. With a sigh, she stops, spreads her arms wide and gives the fire permission to devour what she calls life.

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Lisa Heidle has completed her first full-length manuscript, is working on her second and researching the third. She writes short stories and book reviews that have appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, Rebecca’s Reads, The Scratch Anthology, Pine Magazine, Weird Year and The First Line, and has edited numerous manuscripts that have gone on to publication. Lisa writes a literary-based blog, Modern Day Scribe. Email: lheidle[at]yahoo.com