Wendy Tatum Posted March 3 Share Posted March 3 Antique, arched doors tower over a long and unnecessarily wide hallway. Just as Aunt Mary had described, not exactly tacky, but a bit much. “Lottie had those double doors ripped right out of an ancient Tuscan chapel and shipped to Alabama,” She’d said. “I’ll tell you what, when that woman wants something, she’ll use whatever means necessary. Nothing's sacred.” I power walk to the end of the hall and press the doorbell before I chicken out. No answer. I look around. Not one thing about these ornate church doors matches the empty common areas of this 1980s contemporary condo building. The beige doors lining the colorless corridor crouch in the shadow of the dark, ten-foot arch. I press the doorbell again, this time for three long seconds. What do I have to lose at this point? Kenny thinks spending time with my great-aunt is insane. Which, if I’m being honest, makes my gurgling stomach Kenny’s fault. He’d said, “You’ve only been out of the—" “Psych-oh ward,” I’d finished his sentence. “—for eight days. Please stop calling it that, and stop trying to backfill your childhood. You’re only digging a deeper hole of rejection. Of all the douchey Gallants, Lottie’s the worst.” “How do you know? She’s never even said two words to you.” “Exactly. Or to you.” “She’s a lonely old lady. And a freaking legend!” “She’s the Dragon Lady from Hell!” “Well, I’m about to kick in the door and engulf myself in her fabulous flames.” In retrospect, I shouldn’t have peeled out of our driveway and dusted the poor guy in a raincloud of pea gravel. But, in my defense, if my husband doesn’t know by now that a surefire way to get me to do something is to tell me it can’t be done, that’s on him. I’m gunning for it. I ring again. Finally, heels click the floor on the other side of the door. The peephole goes dark. It goes light, and then I hear click-click-clicking away. She’s eighty-three years old. Why and how is she wearing heels? I ring again. Same thing. Click-click-click to the door, dark peephole, light peephole. Footstep clicks fade away. This could go on all day. Kenny could be right. The Dragon Lady might not let me in her world. No, dammit. He’s wrong. This is an act of kindness. I’m taking Lottie to lunch if it kills me. I pound hard on the door with the padded side of my fist, but that hurts, so I whack the heavy circular knocker three times, then make a hand-megaphone and press it against the peephole. “Lottie, it’s Elle.” A whisper-shout startles me from behind, “Quit fogging up the peephole.” I turn around. An older woman with dyed black hair peers through a cracked open door across the hall. “Lottie hates that.” “Oh. Hi. I’m Elle. Lottie’s great-niece.” The lady squints through the sliver of an opening. I can only see about two inches of her face. She’s tall, but her hunch puts us at eye level. “Never seen you before,” she mumbles, with questionable authority. I smile a little too widely. Her door snaps shut. The deadbolt clacks. I turn back around. Lottie stands statuesque, framed by the arch of the doors, clutching the handles of her black handbag. She stares at me with a tepid expression. A thick embroidered red rose on her white T-shirt peeps through the V of her black pinstriped blazer. Her glossy white hair is pulled back tight, giving her forehead and the top sides of her cheeks a slight lift. A black silk camellia is fastened to the side of a flawless doughnut-shaped ballet bun on the crown of her head. “You look pretty. Ready for some lunch?” I say, with too much inflection on the question. My face flushes hot. I tug at my bra’s underwire and wrestle the pointy end out of my underarm while Lottie unlatches the flap of her handbag and digs out her keys. “Well, if we must go to lunch together, we’re going to Burger,” she says. My heart thumps hard against my chest. “A burger sounds good.” Lottie locks the door. “I’m not having a burger. I’m having chicken. I’m going to have chicken at Burger,” she huffs. “Burger Bliss. I have a booth there.” She strides past me. Her pace is brisk, her posture perfect. “Got it.” I trot behind her, trying to catch up. I pull my car around while she waits under the covered entryway. As we exit the automatic gates, I ask, “Window down? It’s not too hot today. Never know what Birmingham will serve up in May. Am I Right?” “Window closed, please. Still humid, and it’s hell on my hair.” We pull up to a four-way, and Lottie shouts. “You. Stop!” I jolt and stomp the brake pedal. “Oh, my God! What?” She points at an overly spray-tanned man in a white G-Wagon, rolling through the stop sign to our left. “No, Mister. No. It is not your turn.” She looks at me and softens her tone. “I was telling him. Not you. Now you go. It’s your turn. Not his.” At the next intersection, I stop at a red light. Lottie stretches out her neck and watches the adjacent light go from green to yellow to red. Before I have time to move my foot from the brake to the gas, she yells, “Go. You go now, darling.” As I drive down Creekview Road, Lottie squirms, crossing her left leg over her right and then switching to her right leg over her left. “Something wrong, Lottie?” “The speed limit is forty-five on this stretch.” “I’m going fifty-two.” “Barely.” “You really take this backseat-driver business seriously.” “I’m seated in the front.” We stop at another light. “You know what I mean.” I force a giggle. It sounds fake, but that’s okay. Lottie doesn’t notice. She’s too busy leaning over the dash, locking her eyes upward. “Yours is about to go green. Be ready this time.” As soon as I pull into the Burger Bliss parking lot, Lottie punches her finger in the direction of a space by the entrance. “There. There’s an open spot. Quick. Pull the car in there.” “Happy to let you drive on the way back,” I say, reaching around for my backpack. “Oh, heavens no. I’m a horrible driver.” She pats my knee. “Now listen, I have an account here, but you’ll need to pay for your own.” ”I was going to treat—” I start to say. But Lottie is already out of the car. I jump out and shuffle behind as she swings open both glass doors and sashays up to the counter. The girl working the register smiles. “What will you be having today, Ms. Lottie? Cheeseburger, no bun, all the way? Or the chicken finger plate with a side of sweet potato waffle fries?” “Chicken today. Where’s Oliver?” The cashier takes a deep breath and taps in the order. “In his office. Paperwork.” “Well, please go and get him. I want him to meet Evelyn.” I glance at the cashier’s name tag. “Hi, Brittney. Actually, my name is Elle. I’m Lottie’s great-niece. Nice to meet you. I’ll have a cheeseburger all the way with the bun, please.” I turn to make sure Lottie caught the name correction and the relation reference, but she’s halfway to the drink station. I slap three fives on the counter. “Keep the change, Brittney.” I hurry over to Lottie. She fills her tumbler with ice and unsweetened tea before grabbing a handful of lemon wedges from the plastic container. She holds each slice up to the light, one by one. This takes forever. After dropping the wad of rejected lemons back in the same container, she scrapes way down to the bottom in search of fresher options. A line is forming behind us. My scalp breaks out in a prickly sweat. Lottie finally settles on three suitable lemon wedges. While she meticulously removes the seeds with her pinky nail, flicking them back into the lemon bin, I cast an apologetic smile at the couple behind us. They glare back at me, arching their brows in unison. My heart lurches into a clumsy pounding jog, and Lottie takes her sweet time squeezing the juice from each individual lemon into her tea. She tosses the mangled rinds back in with the fresh lemons and strolls to her booth. Sweat drips from my hairline. “Sorry. I’m so sorry,” I whisper to the restless couple as I frantically fish out the manhandled lemons and toss them in the trash. I pick up our order and slide down the bench across from Lottie. “Do you like my booth?” She asks. A grid of framed autographed headshots from her movie days and a few group photos with her sisters from the 1950s lines the brown beadboard. She swallows her first bite and gestures with her waffle fry to a photo on my side of the booth. “That’s Joanie, she was an actress too. Not Hollywood famous like me, but she did do a commercial for Burger once.” “Wow. You’re all so lovely,” I say, squinting at the photos and unwrapping my burger. Lottie swivels from side to side, looking for what I assume to be Oliver. She picks up the plastic cutlery and scrapes the breading off a chicken finger. “May I ask what that atrocity is on your wrist?” she asks, still shaving away without looking up. I pull my bracelet stack up my forearm to display my inner wrist. “It’s a Caduceus.” Lottie takes a quick glance and gets back to work on the breading. “It’s a medical symbol,” I explain. “I know what a Caduceus is. Why is it on your wrist?” “I’m a nurse. Was a nurse. I’m not working right now.” I swallow a big bite of burger. “Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” I wash the rest down with a gulp of Diet Coke. “In Greek mythology, the intertwined snakes possess benevolent properties. The rod was believed to cure a patient with a single touch. The snakes also symbolize fertility.” I trail off, “Not in my case, though.” She holds up a naked chicken finger for closer inspection. “You can’t have children?” She asks. I shake my head, wishing I’d left that part out. She scans my face. “You’re young enough.” “I’m thirty-seven. Kenny, my husband, you met him at Aunt Mary’s on Thanksgiving, we married three years ago. Well, it will be three years in June. Our anniversary is next month.” Lottie tilts her head. “And?” “Anyway, we started trying right away. A few months ago, I found out I’ve been perimenopausal for a while. It’s too late.” “And you thought inking snakes onto your wrist would change God’s mind about that?” Water wells up in my lower lids. I blink it away. “The caregiver symbolism is cool. That’s why I like it.” Sensing her disapproval, I lie, “It’s henna ink. Washes off in the shower.” “Humph. Well, you are a Gallant, after all.” She dabs the corners of her lips with the folded points of her paper napkin. “Every Gallant is either screwed or tattooed.” Ain’t that the truth. I dip a wad of fries in the ketchup puddle next to my burger. Lottie looks around again for Oliver and then moves her handbag from her seat to the table. I jump at the chance to change the subject. “I love your Gucci Horsebit bag. Is it vintage? Let me guess: 1955?” Her lingering look at my GAP dress says As if you know anything about handbags. I brush a patch of lint off my chest. “Right. I know what you’re thinking. Obviously, I’m not the designer handbag type,” I say, annoyed at how apologetic I sound. “My mom’s a sucker for handbags. We used to shop around a lot in Atlanta when I was a kid. I appreciate the craftsmanship of a nice bag. I also collect old fashion magazines from the forties and fifties, so I’m familiar with most styles. I get them on eBay, the magazines, not handbags. I make things with the illustrations, gift tags, note cards, sometimes I frame the ads, stuff like that.” I should stop rambling. But it doesn’t matter. Lottie’s not listening. She’s giving someone the stink-eye over my shoulder. “Well, if it isn’t the Glutens,” Lottie smirks. “Let’s pretend we don’t see them.” I whip around. The place is full now. A middle-aged couple holds their trays and scopes the place for a table. They’re both short, plump, and wearing matching coral golf shirts. “Why did you look at them? Stay put. We’re not rewarding those booth stalkers.” “It’s sweet how they’re dressed alike. You know them?" “I’ve had run-ins with those two. They need to focus on their gluten intake and not my booth. Those fatty double chins are practically hovering right over us.” “Oh, the Glutens. I get it, a nickname,” I say, and then mutter, “That’s harsh.” “Well,” she says, folding her napkin into an even smaller square and creasing the edges with a zip of her fingernails. “I would never call them that to their faces. And do not let those chubby cherub grins fool you. They are rude people.” Her eyes land on my lower face. “You know, dear, you could cut back on wheat and calories too.” I reach up and press the underside of my chin with the back of my hand. A common side-effect of depression is loss of appetite, but the opposite is true for me. I’ve been eating my feelings for the past year, about fifty pounds worth. My heart slumps into my stomach, and my voice runs off a cliff. “Trust me, I know.” I push away my tray. Lottie reaches over and pats my hand. “Let’s talk about something else. Shall we?” She drops the napkin square beside the food she’s hardly touched. “You should wear your hair up like that more often. Show off your pretty blue eyes and those long lashes.” I’m about to thank her for the compliment, but she’s not finished. “As I recall, at Thanksgiving, you wore it down. It was hanging in your face. The natural golden highlights are nice, but you need a more proper haircut. It’s a tad unruly and unkempt. You should update your look. Too much hair and too many tattoos. Is that a crooked arrow on the back of your neck?” “It’s a lightning bolt, and it’s henna ink.” “Nonsense. I wasn’t born yesterday. I know a permanent blight when I see one. A lightning bolt of all things.” “Long story, actually.” “A story for another time.” She slides her tray in my direction. “Please have the counter-girl box this up.” She slaps both hands on the table, shimmies down the bench, and hops to her feet. “We can go now. The Glutens landed a high-top.” “You barely ate.” I glance at the counter. Brittney holds up a white Styrofoam to-go box and waves it surrender-style above her head. She knows the drill. “I’ll have the leftovers for dinner, not that it's any of your concern.” I retrieve the to-go box and fill it with Lottie’s lunch. “Please hurry, Ellen,” Lottie snaps. “Elle. It’s Elle,” I say as politely as possible, folding the box shut. “Well then, Elle. We need to go. Wheel is about to be on the television. I follow her to the door. “Wheel?” She sighs without turning around. “Of. Fortune.” “Of. Course.” Sensing the sarcasm in my voice, I overcorrect, “I love Wheel of Fortune.” Before I can stop myself, I blurt, “Would you like some company?” “Not today.” When I pull up to her condo building, I ask, “Want me to walk you up?” “I can manage myself.” "Bye then. I had fun. I like Burger Bliss, I mean Burger.” She half smiles and bounces out of the car. I lower the passenger-side window, “Enjoy Wheel of Fortune. I mean Wheel.” Lottie takes a few steps, stops, and turns around. “Next Wednesday. Don’t be late.” I call Kenny. “Pretty-sure-Lottie-likes-me,” I sing to the tune of Nanny-Nanny-Boo-Boo. A sudden whoosh of embarrassment pulls my shoulders forward. His silence is deafening. Yep. He still thinks this is a terrible idea. *** Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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