The incident shook her for the remainder of the week, even when things back at the office went on as normal. Alberta had held the position of copy editor ofSocietymagazine for the past ten years, and there wasn’t any time in that period when she didn’t love the job in every way imaginable. Despite the time pressures, the unthinking demands of her superiors, and the ups and downs of market sales, she took it all in stride, becoming one of the most dependable workers at the magazine. Her task was to inspire her writers, artists and layout technicians to dig beneath the surface of modern life and unfold the pressures and accomplishments of average people. A shrewd judge of the basic decency of the average citizen, she had succeeded in helping Societyto become a mirror in which people saw themselves undertaking important work, contributing to their communities, and doing the best they could for their children in the modern age of social media.
Alberta thrived in such circumstances and in the knowledge of her importance. But on this particular week she was off-kilter, something of an observer as opposed to a participant. The realization of this unnerved her and, when Friday afternoon arrived, she was more than willing to head back to her house – the home she and her husband Sandy had built from the foundation on up – hoping she could figure out what was wrong.
It was, indeed, Sandy’s face she had seen through the closing elevator doors the day before. The wispy hair, clear grey eyes, and weathered features – they were there alright, so it must have been him. But he had been dead some eight years, buried in a plot not a stone’s throw from where she was standing right now, in a cemetery they used to walk through on their evening jaunts.
Alberta suddenly felt unable to handle all the thoughts and questions that were crowding her brain and overloading her emotions.
She was saved by the sound of her daughter’s voice emerging from the front door entrance. “Hey, Mom, look what I brought us. I figured with Robin gone that we could have our own girl’s night.” Robin was Alberta’s son, two years younger than Jenny, now travelling in France on a cuisine tour as part of his work for a local restaurant. He lived at home with his mother and usually handled the cooking chores, especially on those evenings when Alberta worked late.
In Jenny’s arms were two brown paper bags, each containing various plastic trays of Chinese food. “I knew you wouldn’t have had time to cook, so I thought that a little Kung Pao Chicken, Chow Mein, some Peking Roasted Duck, and your favourite spring rolls would just make your evening.” She announced each food item as she lifted their containers out of the bag, not once looking up at her mother. When she did, Jenny Alexander dropped her hands to her sides, tilted her head, and said, “Mom, what’s going on? You okay?”
Alberta felt a sudden urge to cry, but through years of professional practice she kept the tears in check. It didn’t make any difference; her daughter sensed it all immediately. To get out from under Jenny’s scrutiny, Alberta left the kitchen and walked slowly to one of the two soft chairs in the living room, gently falling into it. Its leather felt cool to the skin in a way that was strangely comforting. She looked up to see Jenny taking the chair opposite.
“You’re worrying me, Mom. Want to talk about it?”
Alberta knew she was being unfair. Other than those difficult months following her husband’s passing, her daughter had only seen her mother as self-possessed, measured, and in full control of any situation she was in. Such a typically composed demeanour hardly prepared Jennifer for what would unfold before her.
“I saw your Dad today – in the elevator at work.”
She had assumed her daughter would look up in shock. But what she saw, instead, was something she couldn’t quite place – a veiled understanding, perhaps, or a sense that Jenny already knew.
“He was just standing there with the others, looking at me casually as the elevator doors closed before I could get in. I grew confused and had to sit down for a time. After some thought, I realized that it was probably just someone that looked like him, but then I thought better of it. He had that look that no one else ever had – that way he looked at me just to let me know he loved me. It was him, Jenny, and yet I know it wasn’t. I … I don’t understand.”
A time of silence passed as each wondered where to take the conversation. Alberta finally looked up at her daughter and immediately spotted a kind of resignation in her features – just another confusing thing on a confounding day. She could contain her curiosity no longer. “What do you make of it, Jenny? I mean, it’s kind of bizarre, isn’t it?”
Her daughter knew that the terrain they were about to enter was deeply precarious, and that if she didn’t handle it correctly there could be lasting damage.
“Mom, have you had things happen like that to you lately – not as serious, maybe, but odd?”
The older woman scrunched her face into a quizzical expression. “Wha … what do you mean? What are you driving at?”
This was it. Whatever happened now would determine how the rest of the evening would go. “Mom, do you remember last Wednesday when you were to meet me at Trattoria’s for soup and salad?”
Alberta nodded, but showed some confusion. “Of course,” she answered. “We were to have soup and some salad, along with Pellegrino. What of it?”
Jennifer shifted ever so slightly forward in her chair. “You didn’t show, Mom. I waited for thirty minutes and ended up eating alone. I phoned you at work and you didn’t even recall.”
“I know you called; I remember. But you didn’t say anything about the lunch. You’re sure it was on?”
“Mom, it was my birthday.”
Alberta was flooded with astonishment and guilt at the same time, and a sense of sadness that she had forgotten her daughter’s special day. It was inconceivable to her.
“My God, you’re right. I remember now. O Jenny, how could I be … I’m so sorry, honestly.”
Her daughter smiled kindly, not quite finished with what she needed to say.
“There’s been a lot of that lately, Mom – little things that you forgot, or events we went to that you couldn’t remember later. Have things like that happened at work for you?”
Alberta Alexander was now on completely unfamiliar terrain, overwhelmed with a feeling she could drown or fall over a cliff at any time. She thought of her daughter’s question as her mind raced back over the last few weeks at the office. No, she realized, everything had been normal. But then she recalled her executive assistant, Leslie, and the quizzical looks she displayed on occasion. In the production meetings, there was the odd time when one of her bosses urged her to make a deadline. It was unusual; in all her years she had always got everything in on time, even if she had to stay all night.
“I don’t know … maybe,” she answered, her expression dour. After a time, she asked, “What about Robin? Has he noticed?”
Her daughter nodded in response, then added, “It’s been about the same time that he has noticed. We’ve talked about it but didn’t want to upset you. He’s worried, too, Mom.”
Later, after they both had cleaned up the kitchen, Alberta stood out on the back porch, thinking how remarkable the last 24 hours had been. Yesterday, at this time, she was carrying on with her life with no intimation whatsoever of what her children were suspecting. And to top it off, she had seen her husband, albeit briefly, and hadn’t known how to process it.
After a time, she smiled to herself. It was wonderful to see you, my love, she thought quietly to herself. Just the remembrance of her late-husband made her wish for his arms around her. If Sandy were here at this moment, he would know what to do, she thought. But he wasn’t. She was alone with her reflections, confused and uncertain as they seemed to be.