His would-have-been wife Rachel was coming too, over to the house that he had built for himself but would have been home for the two of them. Mama stood anchored to the welcome mat, gripping the doorknob, having stayed this way for so long that it seemed she might leave an indentation in the brass handle. She bowed her head and closed her eyes, a lone, hunched figure appearing to passersby a misplaced parishioner. “Please help me,” she uttered, then inhaled deeply so the breath might course through her veins, to embolden the part of her that ached to make its way back to the car and drive very far from Timothy’s house. She lifted her head from the pithy prayer, twisted the knob, and pushed open the door.
As the distance to Timothy’s house shortened, and the numbers on the mailboxes decreased by counts of four, Mama’s stomach had become unsettled, and she could taste the sourness of bile coating her tongue. Once parked in front of # 692, she gazed upon the sturdy red brick and unlit windows dressed by garland green shutters. The Japanese barberry shrubs she helped Timothy plant three summers ago bore tiny red berries though they had not been pruned in months. She sat, expecting Timothy to walk out of his house and check his mailbox, to leaf through the letters and tuck the important ones under his arm. Next door, Timothy’s neighbor was blithely raking leaves. He was whistling a cheerful tune that irritated Mama because of its lightness, and its reflection of the normalcy of his Saturday. The steel prongs of the neighbor’s rake trapped the leaves and led them into one tidy pile in the middle of his yard, and Mama wished to curl underneath this pile, allowing the dried, amber leaves to cover her, until she fell into a griefless sleep.
She stood very still in the doorway, her feet not yet over the threshold, her hands crossed in front of her, scanning the room, seeing but not seeing the familiar contour of the staircase or the coat hanger which Rachel bought him, mounted on the wall with its wooden rungs and hooks. Mama remembered Timothy raving as if it were a fascinating invention. She had considered it hideous and inappropriate, believing that coats and jackets belonged locked from the eyes of company, not displayed as books on a library shelf for people to pick as they pleased. The house had maintained Timothy’s scent, a calming mix of mint and the citrus-scented cologne he wore, and it smelled too—Mama inhaled again—of cumin and the heirloom tomatoes he loved to buy. Cautiously, she studied the entranceway like a person who might have stumbled into the wrong home. His sandals, which he had worn in the summer and sometimes to Mama’s displeasure in the brisk autumn months, were as he had left them that day, overturned on one another, a silky cobweb already forming over the shoe nearest the wall.
Mama hobbled, grimacing from the pain in her knees, and closed the door behind her without locking it. Timothy, were he with her, would have lent his arm immediately to steady her. She searched for a light switch to rid the walls of the slanting shadows cast by the sunlight. The house bared itself before her like an unexplored forest, and she thought that lurking inside each room was a piercing memory poised to evoke grief. The living room might be too ambitious an undertaking, with its rolling ridges of letters and newspapers, the poetry and history books, and the recliner Timothy stretched across so often, barefoot and scribbling feverishly on his notepad. She did not want to enter his bedroom, to fold his trousers or see the ties she bought him hanging untouched. He once asserted that anything around his neck made him feel like a mule.
Even the kitchen cabinets might prove unsafe, hiding the blue dinner plates she gave him when he moved into the house. “Timothy, you need real dishes,” she had scolded and lifted one of the plates to show him the branch design embossed on the underside.
To which he laughed, as he extended his arm above her head to place the set of four bowls in the cabinet. “Ma, my dishes are old, but it doesn’t mean they’re not real.”
Mama purchased him kitchen towels and oven mitts, as well as silverware with cobalt blue stems. When Rachel came—adding plates imprinted with clams and scallops, nautilus mugs with spiraled shells etched into the handles—the bowls Mama bought for him were replaced with impractical seashell-shaped ones, his entire kitchen becoming a nod to the ocean.
The thought of packing his possessions, ridding his home of any remembrance of him struck her as acutely and debilitatingly as an abrupt fracture. It was as if he had never ambled about this house in his slippers on a lazy Saturday morning or splashed his face in the bathroom sink. Why had she thought she was strong enough to come? But she knew why. She had not wanted Rachel to be the woman to fold his shirts, to bundle his trousers into shopping bags, to layer his books in boxes, to wipe down and in-between the counters, to sweep the kitchen floors, to leave her fingerprints, her scent, her presence in the house that, to Mama, belonged to Timothy. She had attempted this same task a few weeks after the funeral, but she spent the afternoon drifting through each room, running her fingers along the shelves, clinging to the pillow in Timothy’s bedroom, and finally collapsing in tears on the floor where she remained for hours.
Mama decided then to leave. Rachel was the one who called Mama requesting that they work through Timothy’s house together, but Mama could hear the obligatory undertones in her voice. Let her be the one to do this, Mama thought, it would suit Rachel fine. Let Rachel arrive and find she had the house to herself. Mama sighed, switching off the lights so that the angular shadows assumed their original positions on the walls.
Mama had grown accustomed to Timothy’s faithful and solitary visits. Every Sunday, knowing that her son was coming, she removed the homely scarf around her head, loosened the pink and green rollers in her hair, and put on a laundered blouse. Once he took her to a Greek eatery in the city, urging her to taste the rice and kebabs, saying she needed to try something out of the ordinary. She saw no use for the white, runny yogurt, sitting sadly unused in its container. She never understood why Americans enjoyed cucumbers. To her, they were like ice cubes, nothing but water masquerading as something else. The spices tickled her throat, and the rice pilaf was too lemon-buttery. But she reveled in all of it, sitting there with Timothy under the blue and white outdoor umbrella. Another Sunday, he took her to the ocean near his house; they drove along the shoreline, and the water was the calmest Mama had ever seen as if the waves could sense Timothy’s energy. On the beach, she untied her shoes and rolled up her pants as she saw others doing. Avoiding the black specks and broken shells in the sand, she ventured where the water lapped her toes. Together, they watched the seagulls landing obtrusively on boat decks.
Most times, Mama and Timothy walked the park closest to her house; short walks along the trail were all she could manage. They sat on benches when her knees ached and talked about Timothy’s brother and sister who had gone off and no longer came to visit after their father passed. They were living states away with their families, while Timothy was the one who remained close, and it seemed the others considered her Timothy’s responsibility. They sent holiday cards hastily signed and without warmth added to the printed stationary greetings. She had never thought raising children in a foreign land meant that the children abandoned their traditions and left home as soon as they could. They treated Mama in a manner more suitable for a cantankerous hermit, not the mother who had raised and fed them, sent them to good schools, and remembered each one of their children’s birthdays.
Cynthia—with her husband and army of children in Nebraska—called once a month, elaborating in tedious detail her many tasks so Mama would know the effort expended for a five-minute conversation. Her other son Matthew married a woman who was the epitome of selfishness and extravagance, only matched by the level of control with which she demanded Matthew to herself. Now and then, Matthew and Cynthia let it be known that she had smothered them. How could being a good mother spur her children to leave home and not return? When she bemoaned the unfairness of it all, Timothy nudged her lightly.
“I haven’t left, Ma,” he said. “I’m still here.”
She could never have imagined that Timothy, with all the looks of a Rastafarian wanderer, might be the child who was most consistent. In his long ankara shirts, loose khakis or white linen trousers, and leather sandals, he gave off an air of being someone who meandered through life with time as a marker for others and not a boundary by which he needed to abide. Yet, he was the one who when she fell and hurt her knees on the concrete came to see her each day in the hospital. He stayed through the surgery and even escorted her to the physical therapy sessions, where a Nigerian woman with a tranquil face and warm eyes positioned her into a bridge exercise with her buttocks raised in the air and her back and head touching the ground, saying, “Sorry Aunty. It’ll be over soon. One more stretch.”
At first, Mama had liked the woman, with her sympathetic eyes, encouraging tone, and pink polka dot uniform until the woman inquired about Timothy, asking, “Aunty, is this your son? He's such a kind man.” Mama, upon noting the absence of a wedding ring on her finger and the woman’s coquettish banter whenever Timothy was near, answered in clipped tones and delved, without being asked, into Timothy’s faults hoping to steer the woman from him. Mama was not the sort to be concerned with her son’s bachelorhood. While other mothers assessed any woman they encountered in the shop, on the sidewalk, in a line, wondering was this woman the wife for their son—she did not. She preferred instead to eye a woman and know she was not good enough for Timothy—by the cacophonous print of her blouse, the width of the bracelet on her wrist, or the beauty mark on her cheekbone. When others asked her was something the matter with Timothy that he could not find a wife, she defended him, saying he was too young even though he was a man four years shy of forty.
Every Sunday, she cooked for Timothy, and he finished her soups and stews—efo with goat meat, okra soup finely blended, or fish stew—as he had done when he was younger, pronouncing sweetly that he had never tasted any better. And of course, after they ate, he recited his poetry. He had begun it as a pastime when he was younger, and it became a tradition for the family to sit and hear him recite his latest poem. In his college days, he penned verses mocking his professors or campus life, but maturity had given way to poems of a more elegiac quality. Mama could not understand more than half of what he said, nor did she care for the other half of it, but she listened with vigorous nods so that her neck ached by the time he finished reciting his words. Sometimes the poems were three simplistic verses like words on a billboard. She was astounded that he was paid for publication of his work, and whenever he bought something for her, he said which poem purchased it. Mama had become so accustomed to these times that when Rachel came into their lives it was as an object rolling suddenly in front of a car—unwanted and unexpected.
It stormed the Sunday that Rachel first came, with rain pounding the earth, and Mama saw the streaming sheets like buckets of water tossed against the window and thought it an omen. Rachel arrived in a form-fitting dress that could have been stitched straight from one of the gray, drab clouds that covered the sky that day. Her hair was twisted back in a chignon bun, and she wore solid, black leather shoes without stockings. Mama thought that she looked cartoonish: a pointed nose, hollowed cheeks, and thick eyebrows. But she was a striking woman despite her long face and restless eyes, which bounced from item to item, each thing a new discovery.
Mama was unprepared for Rachel’s attractiveness and how sharply it contrasted with her wit. She had thought her to be beautiful but possibly obtuse. However, Rachel was perceptive, and Mama saw that Rachel was not easily lost by Timothy’s exuberance. She envied how they debated back and forth, and she found herself disoriented by the volley of words. Sometimes they spoke in solemn tones but then exploded in laughter seconds later, with Rachel’s laugh reverberating in multiple rooms of the house. It left Mama with an embarrassing sensation of having missed the crucial part of a magician’s trick.
After dinner that night, Timothy proceeded to read a new piece. Mama noticed that Rachel had a habit of crossing and uncrossing her legs, so that when one thought she had finally settled on a permanent position, she uncrossed them again.
“You know,” Rachel started as Timothy recited his final verse. “It was beautiful. Really, Timothy, but the last line…”
“It’s wanting,” Timothy finished, tapping his nose with his finger. They both smiled at each other, toothily and foolishly. Mama was embarrassed by the obvious display of fondness, and the corners of her mouth tightened.
The relationship continued despite Mama’s predictions that Timothy would tire of Rachel and want a quieter, more agreeable woman who preferred colorful shirts and wide bangles. She thought fondly about the Nigerian physical therapist and wished that she had not interfered with the possibility of a budding romance. Timothy had much more in common with her, and Mama and the woman could have cooked together. Mama would not have needed to explain things to her, like this was the difference between eba and pounded yam.
Rachel started accompanying Timothy to Mama’s house on Sundays. Mama began having to adjust her food for Rachel: less ogbono seeds because Rachel did not like the slimy texture of the draw soup, less dried fish because the smell made Rachel nauseous, and less habanero peppers because Rachel had coughed extensively (a bit dramatically, Mama thought) and requested a cold glass of milk to wash the stew down. Now, when they took walks it was the three of them. But they could not all fit on the narrow sidewalk, and Mama found herself treading the grass. Timothy no longer took respite in sitting on the bench as they had done in the past. He left Mama, while he and Rachel went off to explore the trail by themselves, promising to return for her soon. Mama sat alone, observing how from a distance the clouds nuzzled the peaked roofs of the houses and how the goslings with their fuzzy yellow heads and triangular black beaks waddled behind their mother, trusting her direction.
One Sunday, Timothy called to say he was coming to pick her up and that they were going to Rachel’s house for dinner. Rachel had told Timothy that Mama cooked too often for them, and she wanted an opportunity to host. Mama wore her best dress, a jaunty tangerine-colored one with billowing sleeves, and she scrounged around in her closet to find more stylish shoes to replace the orthopedic shoes with the extra support for her knees.
“You look nice, Ma,” Timothy said when he saw her. She smiled and reached for his arm.
When they arrived, Rachel was in a plain white cotton shirt, sporting dark jeans and a gray blazer that seemed thrown on as an afterthought, since one side of the collar was folded inward. Standing in the apartment, Mama felt like a kerosene lamp alight in her orange dress, which contrasted against the subdued and clean shades of gray, black, and white. Two tufted, elegant gray couches lined the walls with large black Parisian floor vases flanking their sides. The exposed brick created a sense of airiness to the place and a sweet fragrance as if someone had stored dozens of flowering honeysuckles behind the walls. The apartment appeared pristine, but Mama inspected all of it and nodded triumphantly when she detected a powdering of dust on the ribbed, white lampshade and a ring of dirt encircling the flowerpot by the bay window.
Mama went to use Rachel’s bathroom and was disturbed by the portrait posted on the wall, an abstract entanglement of bodies in a compromised position. That Rachel had not bothered to hide or cover it perturbed Mama. Lowering her eyes to avoid the image, she washed her hands with the vanilla-scented soap cradled in the ceramic dish and dried her hands on the towel. She put her face up close to the mirror and touched her graying hair. It was thin, wispy, and a bit oily. The wrinkles around her eyes were partially hidden by the large round glasses she wore, but others were still visible. Staring at herself, the orange dress glowing in the reflection, she knew why Timothy preferred to spend his time with Rachel.
When Mama returned, Timothy’s arms were around Rachel in an intimate embrace, as Rachel set the last plate at the dining room table.
“I made stew,” Rachel said, still enveloped in Timothy’s arms. “It’s from a recipe I found online. All Food African.”
“That’s nice,” Mama said, because she was not sure what else to say to such a comment. There was nothing more nettling than Americans thinking they could achieve in an initial attempt the robust composition of flavors that could only come together with time and experience. She was keen now to try Rachel’s All Food African stew, more to know where it was lacking and give Rachel directions on how to improve the taste. She was sure Rachel had not fried the stew for as long as needed or had chopped a Vidalia instead of a firm, red onion. Mama thought she might even be generous and offer Rachel a few stones of kanwa, if the stew was too acidic.
Surprisingly, the steaming ladles of stew coated the rice well, not too runny that it seeped through immediately and not too thick that it perched like a dollop of cream. Mama could taste the fresh ginger and garlic, not the cheap powdered kind that Mama thought Rachel would have used. Mama watched Timothy eating bite after bite with a contented look on his face and decided to restrict herself to only a few spoonfuls, wiping her mouth with a napkin several times to indicate she was finished with her meal.
“Is it not good?” Rachel asked, concerned. “I know it doesn’t compare to yours.”
“It’s fine,” Mama said in an inscrutable tone.
“It’s delicious,” Timothy said before Mama could say anymore.
Rachel was nonplussed. “It’s okay if she doesn’t like it.”
She picked up Mama’s bowl, stepped on the trashcan pedal so it made a whizzing noise, and the little bits of rice glided into the bin.
After that Sunday, Timothy’s visits grew sparse, and Rachel no longer came with him as often. He still called saying he wanted to visit, but when he came on his own, it seemed that their conversations dulled in comparison to those he had with Rachel. Her own stories about the neighbor’s broken lawnmower or Mrs. Biboye’s husband who had suffered a minor stroke seemed uninteresting, and he did not ask questions with the same enthusiasm as he did with Rachel. Sometimes Mama rambled on and on so that she did not have to contend with the silence. Whenever Timothy did rouse himself enough to share, it was about something new that Rachel had bought him, like the ugly coat rack. Or that Rachel showed him how to sew a button on a shirt, and Mama thought he needed the kind of woman who would do it for him.
She sensed that his visits were dutiful, so she began to make it easier for him. She said that so-and-so was coming over and she could not host him, though there was no so-and-so and she often ate alone. But out of habit, she cooked every Sunday morning, in hopes that Timothy might surprise her and drop in as he used to. Her freezer was stocked, just in case.
Timothy told her he was getting married to Rachel on a Sunday afternoon. Mama turned off the burner for the soup. She had used croaker, which she knew was Timothy’s favorite, purchased fresh that morning from the market. As he made his announcement, she poured a cup of parboiled rice into a pot and swirled it around to rinse the grains.
“You can’t marry her, Timothy.”
Timothy laughed. “What do you mean I can’t?”
“She’s not the kind of woman for you,” Mama responded, the rice forgotten. “You’ve known her for only seven months. That’s not enough time.”
“Seven is the number of perfection,” Timothy said airily, like it was the beginning line to a poem.
“You need more time before you decide this.”
“We don’t have that luxury,” Timothy had said. “We just learned she’s pregnant.”
Mama thought about the lewd portrait in the bathroom of Rachel’s apartment, the reason he must have been so occupied on Sundays. It explained why his eyes glazed over at her stories. Though he wore a half-smile on his face, his mind was somewhere else entirely. She thought how he was no longer at an age where she could scold him for his carelessness.
She forgot about the rice, the water filled up, and the weight of it was so heavy she dropped it into the sink. She turned off the water, bent to get the rag that had fallen on the floor, and cried out in pain.
Timothy ran to help. “Your knees, Ma.”
“I’m fine, Timothy,” Mama said, though she gripped both his arms.
Mama had not realized how comfortable she was with the idea of it being just the two of them. She naively assumed that was how it would continue. Sure, there were lady friends, but Timothy had never spoken seriously about any of them. They came and went as easily as the days of the week, and she never felt reason to be concerned. That night Timothy ate politely in silence, not savoring each bite but as if he were keeping his stomach empty, for there was another place he meant to go afterwards to eat again.
Mama decided not to leave Timothy’s house. She chose to start cleaning in the kitchen, avoiding the cabinets, and beginning with the refrigerator. She threw out the molded tomatoes, and the soggy spinach with the dripping greenish liquid, poured the milk into the sink, and cleaned two containers of noodle soup—which she was sure belonged to Rachel. She sprayed, soaked, scrubbed, and wiped all of it: the drawers, the shelves, and the corners. Soon the rancid odor of rotting vegetables had disappeared, and the fridge looked bare, as if it had never have held any food.
When the doorbell rang, Mama did not move, even a little. She knew it was Rachel. The same intense nervousness rushed through her body as it did when she was on a flight, and she remembered that she was thousands of feet above a massive ocean, trusting a tubular thing made of metal and plastic. Rachel jiggled the handle.
“Is anyone here?” Rachel called, her voice frightened, with the fear of someone entering into a cavern. “Hello?”
“I’m here,” Mama said.
Mama inched slowly towards the hallway, wincing at the pain in her right knee, which seemed now to be far worse than the pain in her left knee. The intensity of pain jumped between both knees, her body encouraging her to use one knee more than the other.
She had not seen Rachel since the day of the funeral when they sat side by side in front of the casket. Then, she was adamant that Rachel sit somewhere else; she thought it more suitable for her to sit in the middle pews of the church. The front was to be reserved for family alone: Cynthia, her husband, and their gaggle of children, or Matthew and even his sulky wife. People had talked Mama out of it, saying it did not look good for Rachel to be relegated to the back of the room. Mama relented, and Rachel sat in the front with the status of a wife, though she had only known Timothy eleven months by that time. Everyone fawned over Rachel, bride-to-be and expectant mother, they kept saying, and her role as a member of the family was cemented.
Rachel was not the only one who held Timothy’s hands after his car accident, as his bandaged body writhed in pain. Mama too held his hands, limp and scarred, in her own. Mama was the one who was there when Timothy eventually slipped into unconsciousness and was unable to respond to the tender squeeze of her hand.
Everyone returned to Mama’s house after the funeral. Whenever Rachel walked by, people rose to give her a place to sit, they brought her plates of vegetables, they hugged her tightly or rubbed her stomach, they urged her to eat more, and they murmured words of sympathy while pressing tissues into her hand. Mama knew that it was her grandson in Rachel’s body, but at that time she could not handle the thought of Rachel forever in her life because of this unborn child. She wanted Rachel gone from her presence as suddenly as she had appeared, and she wanted Timothy in her place instead. Mama had remained in the armchair in a corner where people seemed to have forgotten about her, knowing that as she sobbed, no one understood the selfish reasons behind her tears.
Rachel stood in the doorway as Mama had done earlier. She looked past Mama with brown eyes expressionless so that Mama wanted to turn her head and find the thing she might be looking at on the wall. Rachel, usually impeccably groomed without a hair out of place, outfitted in high-waisted pencil skirts or structured dresses with good-heeled shoes, was wearing black tights and a pale lavender sweater, so pale it could be mistaken for gray, with the sleeves of the sweater pushed up to her elbows, and the bottom of it falling below her knees, the length of a nightgown. Around her neck hung a small, silver chain with an oval pendant the same color as the sweater. Her honey-toned skin, devoid of blemishes, was now punctuated by tiny pimples forming a small line, like a row of anthills, along her cheekbone.
Rachel sniffed. “Sorry, I sat in my car crying a while,” she said, and began folding the tissue meticulously into a square to a rectangle then a smaller square. “The minute I saw the house, I didn’t know if I could come in.”
Mama nodded and went to sit on the couch. Rachel came and sat on the floor, near the couch, and crossed her legs.
They both sat quietly together, and it seemed they were simply waiting for Timothy to come down from his bedroom and join them.
“Maybe it’s too soon to be doing this,” Rachel said. “Only two months.”
Mama said nothing. There was nothing to say. She could be cordial but would not be responsible for carrying on conversation. So she just sat contemplating Rachel’s statement. Out of the open blinds, she watched the sun dazzling in the sky and thought how it acted deceptively, having a tendency to come out on the wrong occasions and keep itself away when it should have filled the sky.
“Do you have boxes already?” Rachel asked. “I brought some if you don’t.”
That was when Mama realized that she had brought nothing with her but plastic bags, and she had not thought through the process of what she needed.
“I came to clean,” Mama said, feebly.
“That’s okay,” Rachel said. “I have what we need.”
Rachel left the room and took boxes out of the trunk of her car, including newspapers with which to wrap plates and glasses, a black marker, and a large roll of tape. She said they were to sort everything into three containers: what to keep, what to give to charity, and what to throw away. Mama said she did not want to throw anything away yet, so then Rachel said that was fine, they should make only two piles and decide later.
“I did this with a friend once,” Rachel said, by way of explanation. “I never thought I’d do it myself one day.”
They finished the kitchen: packing the seashell plates, the oven mitts, and towels. To give to charity, they both decided. They worked together steadily, only speaking to politely request a roll of tape or the marker if the other person was nearer to it. Sometimes Rachel hummed and then the humming transformed into a new sound, a sound of someone gurgling water. When Mama turned to know what the sound was, she saw that Rachel was crying again.
Next, Rachel suggested they go to the spare bedroom. It was up the stairs, and Mama thought of her knees and the throbbing that was bound to ensue if she were to climb the stairs.
Rachel said. “There are only a few odd items in there. I’ll help you go up.”
In the room, they worked the same way.
“Look,” Rachel said, holding up single pages of notebook papers, “half-finished poems everywhere.” She smiled as she leafed through the pages. “I used to say to Timothy, ‘Will it be like this when we’re married? Me finding papers everywhere?’”
It went without saying that the pages would be kept.
Rachel put the sheets of paper aside and reached for a chair. “My back hurts.”
“It usually does by this time,” Mama said.
“I’m sorry. I’ll help again soon in a couple of minutes.”
“You can rest.”
Mama opened the closet door while Rachel sat on the chair and watched, still holding the notebook pages in her hands. Mama rummaged through a bag finding tennis rackets with the tags still attached and clothes he must have meant to give away. She pulled out from the closet an unlabeled box, the flaps inserted into each other. It was large but surprisingly light. In the box were several white and gold pillows, exquisitely embroidered with lace trimmings. She lifted one and fingered the embroidery that was delicately stitched across the pillows. Perhaps Rachel had bought them for her and Timothy’s bedroom.
Rachel reached for one of the pillows. “Oh, he put them here.”
Mama asked. “For your bedroom?”
“No, these were for your room. I thought you might like these so we bought them.”
Surely Rachel had never been upstairs in Mama’s house to know what types of pillows she might need in her bedroom.
Mama shared her thoughts. “But I have no need for this. I have plenty of pillows.”
Rachel said, “It would’ve been for your room here.”
“What room?” Mama said.
“The one that we…did you never see the design?”
Rachel reached into the pocket of her pale, bulgy sweater and brought out a pack of tissues. “Sorry, Ma. This is too much for me. Come with me. I have to show you something.”
Outside, the sky shifted fluidly from a light gray to a darker hue. The porch was painted white, but several rains, footsteps, and dragging of barbecue pits had chipped the white paint off so one could see the original Cypress wood. Mama stood on the porch, hands clasped, staring into the distance. Rachel was a long time standing in the browning grass and dandelions that had overtaken Timothy’s backyard.
“It was supposed to be right here,” Rachel said. She began to walk determinedly straight, turned left, made another turn, and a final left, having completed a square shape and ending up close to the point at which she started. Rachel stopped and looked up at Mama, the tissue balled in her hand.
“I’m not understanding,” Mama said.
“Your room,” Rachel said. “Timothy wanted us to build you a room after we married. One with a bathroom that had a railing and everything because of your knees.”
“What are you saying?” Mama asked.
Rachel came towards the porch. “Timothy was afraid to leave you alone in your house. He wanted a place for you to stay.” Rachel looked at the patch of grass as if an actual bedroom had materialized in the space where she had drawn the shape. “Here—so you wouldn’t have to walk up and down the stairs. All this before the accident.”
They were both very quiet. The darker part of the sky seemed to have consumed the lighter gray. The trees stood with their crooked branches reaching up, imploring the birds that flew across the sky to land and roost.
“All this time?” Mama said.
“And you?” Mama asked.
“I wanted it too,” Rachel said. “He never told you?”
“No,” Mama said, looking from Rachel’s perplexed face to the sky, which could not read her thoughts.
“Well, everything happened so fast. I thought you knew.”
All this time, Mama thought that Timothy had turned out like his selfish brother and sister, if not worse. For they at least left immediately without false pretenses of returning to be of help in her old age, while Timothy was a fixture in her life. When Rachel entered their lives, Mama was convinced that he was going to leave too, and after their wedding she would find herself on the other side of his door. She used to have dreams that Timothy admitted her to a nursing home where the walls were pastel and a smell of decay pervaded the air.
Mama’s own father passed when she was young, but for several years while in America she took care of her mother who lived back home in Karu, even though they were not particularly close. She sent medications for hypertension and backaches, and money to ensure a nurse took care of her mother on a regular basis. Even after she realized that the money was being used for something else entirely, she still sent it faithfully until the old woman passed. She had thought it cruel that this level of kindness was not returned to her, that a woman could raise three children, shaping them by years of sacrifice and love, and have each abandon her as if they cared for themselves right out of the womb. She had read once that elephants honored their elderly, sucking in water through their trunks and bathing the white-haired in the herd. It saddened Mama that her own children would have allowed her to fade away in a place full of strangers.
Now, here was Rachel telling her that Timothy never intended abandonment but planned to build a room for her, to include her in the plans for his new family. It was Timothy’s desire for the four of them to live in the house once Rachel gave birth, and perhaps, they might have asked her to name the child.
Mama looked at Rachel, whom she had despised during the many months she was with Timothy. She could never tell Rachel that when Timothy died a strange part of her experienced relief, that in the end he did not have to choose between her and Rachel. She was not sure she could have accepted the decision she thought he was going to make. Knowing about this room, she would have given him to Rachel over and over again.
Rachel rested her head against the porch and spoke softly. “I’m sorry. He wanted so much to surprise you.”
Mama nodded. Rachel came and placed her arm around Mama, and right then, Mama was hard-pressed to remember what it was that she had so strongly disliked about Rachel.
“I’m going inside to finish packing,” Rachel said, touching Mama’s shoulder. “Will you come too?”
“Soon,” Mama said, and listened to the door sliding behind Rachel.
Mama closed her eyes briefly and imagined Timothy preparing this room for her—telling the builders where to lay the foundation, gesturing to where he wanted the windows, and measuring where he needed the railing. Together they would have planted barberry bushes around the new extension of the home. Mama opened her eyes and allowed her glance to fall to the place where Rachel had walked just minutes before. And this time, she saw the room clearly with the white and gold pillows adorning her bed, and the sun shining brightly through all of it.