“Hey, Mom, how are you feeling today?” Illy glanced at Fern. “Hang on—before you answer, I’m going to put you on speaker. I think Fern and the girls are missing you.” Illy pushed a button and held the phone above the plants. “There, go ahead. How are you feeling?” Silence. “Mom? You still there? I can’t hear you.”
“Yes, darling, still here. Just needed to sit down to catch my breath.” Illy exhaled and rubbed one of Fern’s leaves for moral support. “I’m doing okay. A little tired. Haven’t finished all the vacuuming yet.” Her mom’s voice sounded small and distant. Illy thought of a bottle floating away with the tide, an old letter curled up inside. She pushed the speaker button again and pressed the phone to her ear. “Oh mom, why are you vacuuming? Nobody cares if there’s dirt on the carpet—which I’m sure there isn’t anyway. Please just lie down.”
“Illy, the floor needs vacuuming.” Her voice was stronger, angry. Illy felt the familiar clench of hurt feelings in her chest and then closed her eyes and inhaled. A fragile insight flickered through her mind. “Sorry, mom, you’re right. I forgot you always vacuumed on Wednesday. Just take some breaks, okay?” Illy swallowed the emotion creeping up her throat. “Hey, about these plants, do you think it’s too dry in here now that it’s fall? Do they need a humidifier or something?”
“They shouldn’t.” The anger in her mom’s voice was gone, but so was the distant floating sound. “My plants have always been fine all winter. Maybe just water them a little more often.”
“Okay, I’ll try. Though you may need to remind me. And did Dad tell you about Friday? Do you think you can make it?”
“Yes, he told me, though I don’t know why it’s such a big secret.” Illy could picture her mother rolling her eyes. “We’ll be there. But now I should get back to my vacuuming, sweetie. Thanks for calling.”
“Good talking to you, Mom. Thanks for your plant help.” Illy set down the phone. Her face was wet with tears. She hadn’t realized growing up and grieving were so painfully intertwined.
She picked up a pen and a magazine scrap off the floor, then sank into the couch. Without thinking, she began to write. She vacuums on Wednesdays. Sets the world right with elegance and horsepower. Illy wrote for half an hour, covered seven torn magazine pages, and cried the entire time.
“Special Delivery!” Sally’s voice called through the door. “And hurry up, this is heavy.” Illy ran to the door an flung it open. Sally was beaming over a large cardboard box. “I think these may belong to you, my dear author friend.”
Illy took the box from Sally and savoured the weight of it in her arms. “Sally, can you believe it? A box that’s actually heavy with my very own words.” She rubbed the sides of the box like a long-lost kitten. “I haven’t just been wasting all these months eating animal crackers. There’s a box!”
Sally laughed and leaned against the door frame. “Of course you haven’t been wasting your time. You don’t need a box to prove that.”
“Oh, but I do. My thoughts are so flighty and elusive and this box…this box is so weighty and real.” She resisted the urge to kiss the box. Or Sally. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Sally. You’re amazing. You’ll be here by seven, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Sally started down the hall, then called back. “I slipped a little good luck gift in the top. See you tonight!” She disappeared into her apartment.
Illy closed the door and brought the box into the living room. She set it in the middle of the floor and then stepped back and smiled. A box of her words. She felt shaky and light-headed, stunned by the reality of that brown cardboard. For a moment she considered calling June or Margaret over to open the box with her to make it a real celebration. Then she realized it didn’t need to be public to be legitimate. This was her own private accomplishment and she could celebrate on her own. She sat down by the box and opened the top flaps. The first thing she saw was a bunch of bananas with a small note taped to it. Congratulations to our favourite pretend kick boxer. (This time we hope you’ll accept our bananas) — S+S.
Illy laughed and peeled a banana. She took a bite and then lifted a booklet from the box. The front cover was an old photo of an Amish barn raising. Pasted over the barn was a picture of Harrison Apartments, and in typewriter script across the bottom were the words, A Peculiar Kinship. She lay on her stomach and opened the book. It was photocopied on white printer paper and stapled down the middle. Not exactly a glossy hardcover published in New York, but Illy didn’t care. She hadn’t done this for money or big impressions. She peeled another banana and read every word.
When she was done, she placed the book back in the box and sat cross-legged on the floor, breathing in the smell of ink and the feeling of something unfamiliar expanding in her spine. She stood up and walked over to her laptop, turning on her favourite Ella Fitzgerald album, hoping Frank the Downstairs Priest would forgive her for the volume this one time. As the music filled the apartment, she began pushing the furniture around, propping up pillows, gathering candles. She grinned and swung her hips to the rhythm of Ella’s voice, feeling poised and beautiful, like the heroine in a really great movie. Illy wasn’t sure what kind of movie would dedicate a scene to the lead character cleaning up her apartment, but she didn’t care. She didn’t even pause by the window to check if anyone was watching her from the sidewalk. The once familiar feeling of teetering on the edge of embarrassment with every step seemed like it belonged to a different person. She realized that the new space along her spine was the deep knowing that at this moment she was doing exactly what she was meant to be doing, that all the hours of her life had led to this moment of placing a tea light candle on the windowsill. She hummed along with Ella and headed to the bathroom. Even heroines sometimes had to pluck their eyebrows.
Continue Reading: Chapter Forty-Three