Ivy Guthrie sped past the truck rest stop on the interstate a half-mile before the exit that led to the childhood home where her mother still lived. She hadn’t seen either in over a decade. More than once Ivy considered turning back. But, she needed to confront what had driven her away; and, soon.
Watching for tractor-trailers reentering the highway, Ivy spotted a hawk perched atop a light pole in the parking area. The instantly recognizable hunched shoulders and curved beak resurrected a memory Ivy had buried with her father some twelve years earlier.
On the day of his funeral, eleven-year-old Ivy rode with her mother, Roslyn. Nervous, she watched the hearse skid repeatedly as it navigated the steep ice-slicked road through the cemetery. Ivy feared her father’s casket would come bounding out the vehicle’s back door and spill his body in front of the two-car procession.
It didn’t and the burial was over in minutes because Roslyn didn’t want to stand atop the hill in a frigid wind just to watch the coffin being lowered into the frozen earth. As mother and daughter hurried back to the car, Ivy saw a red-tailed hawk circle overhead before it landed on the skeletal limb of an oak. It remained there like a sentinel guarding her father while a backhoe dropped clumps of dirt into the gaping hole.
Dismissing the images of that winter morning, Ivy slowed as she neared the highway exit. A tanker truck sailing by buffeted her car. She gripped the steering wheel to steady it.
The two gas stations at the end of the exit ramp looked familiar. So did Billy’s Hot Dogs, though a strip mall had replaced the fields of Hagel’s Christmas tree farm. A daycare center, a dollar store, a pharmacy, and several empty storefronts stood where once precise rows of Douglas Fir and Scotch Pine grew. Ivy accelerated up the winding road that crested the foothills. The closer she drew to the street on which to turn, the tighter her chest felt. She was less than a mile from the house in which she grew up and where, as a girl, she blamed her mother for her father’s untimely death from lung cancer. She remembered screaming, “He never even smoked!”
Back then Roslyn rejected her child’s claim, saying there was no such thing as secondhand smoke. It didn’t help that Roslyn was out drinking at Club 199 only a week after burying Clint. When Ivy wasn’t left home alone with only her father’s ghost for company, she would spend the night at her friend Katia Szabó’s house. There, the classmates played and listened to music until Katia’s mother Basha poked her head into the girl’s pink bedroom and ordered lights out. Katia’s father worked nights at a highway department maintenance garage across town. So, most often the Szabós passed each other; one heading out to work; the other returning.
With Clint gone, tensions between Roslyn and Ivy escalated. They often fought, sometimes physically. Ivy begged to live with her paternal grandmother some twenty miles south. To Ivy’s surprise, Roslyn agreed. Almost too easily.
Before moving away, Ivy promised Katia she would keep in touch. They wrote to each other every week, talking about what was happening in their respective lives. That lasted several months until Ivy’s letters came back marked UNDELIVERABLE - NO FORWARDING ADDRESS. She never received another from Katia.
That summer, while shopping with her grandmother at the mall, Ivy saw Basha and Katia walking towards them. Ivy waved. Katia smiled nervously before Mrs. Szabó yanked the girl away. Ivy called after her, but got little more than a shrug and what she thought was Katia mouthing silently, ‘I miss you.’
As her grandmother examined a package of curtains in the department store drapery section, Ivy again spotted Katia, though not Mrs. Szabó. Ivy slipped away unnoticed.
The two girls stepped behind a tall display. Once on the other side they embraced and fired off a litany of questions. Where do you live now? Why did you stop writing? Are you still my friend? How’s school?
They pulled a display curtain around them. Only the tips of their shoes stuck out beneath the hem of the fabric. Careful to avoid discovery, the girls hugged and stroked each other’s hair tenderly.
Hearing footsteps approach, Katia placed her finger on Ivy’s lips. It felt good. Ivy closed her eyes and imagined she was kissing her friend. Without warning, a hand burst through the opening in the curtains and pulled Katia into the aisle. Mrs. Szabó began yelling in a language unfamiliar to Ivy.
Fearing her friend was being punished unfairly, Ivy stepped forward, saying it had been her idea to hide. Mrs. Szabó glared at Ivy and unleashed a volley of what did not sound like compliments. The verbal tirade ended with Mrs. Szabó telling Ivy in heavily accented English that her mother was a home-wrecking whore. The woman stomped away with Katia in tow.
Crying, Ivy found her grandmother who wanted to know why the tears. When Ivy told her, the woman charged around looking for the Szabós. Ivy was relieved they were long gone.
The following spring Ivy met Katia at a track and field event where she learned what Mrs. Szabó had been shouting about in the store. Roslyn had begun an affair with Katia’s father soon after Clint’s death. Mrs. Szabó had caught them coming out of a motel. Katia said her parents had a string of big fights complete with dishes being thrown and doors slammed.
Though Ivy apologized, Katia said she didn’t blame Ivy for what her mother had done.
That was the last time they saw each other. Rumor had Katia moving back to Hungary with her mother, leaving her father behind.
Ivy turned onto Rockledge Way where she had once lived. Her stomach knotted as the recognizable house came into view. It looked a lot smaller than she remembered. So did everything else.
Having parked the car, Ivy crossed the street to the house in which she spent her first eleven years, not all of it bad but most of it certainly not good. She wondered how her mother would look after all this time. Was she still bleaching her hair the platinum blonde that had earned her the nickname Whitey at Club 199?
Ivy stiffened as she pressed the doorbell. It didn’t work. She knocked, then hesitated; almost hoping Roslyn wasn’t there, though in her heart she knew otherwise. The hinges screeched as the door opened.
Peering down, Ivy first saw a pair of stained slippers. Then, a gray skirt, a wide black plastic belt, and finally, a blouse that looked several sizes too large. She ignored the stains. A cigarette dangled precariously from her mother’s lip. A cloud of blue gray smoke encircled the cheap wig that covered Roslyn’s head.
The women greeted one another using only their first names. Ivy worried Roslyn would reach out to offer a gesture of affection, or worse that she was expecting one from Ivy. The women stood awkwardly in the doorway for a moment too long until it was clear neither would concede.
Roslyn led Ivy through a living room cluttered with catalogs, magazines, and newspapers, many still in plastic bags. Ivy followed her into an even messier kitchen. Plates of half-eaten food added to the disarray. A half dozen or so drinking glasses stood on the counter. Most were empty, while in some, cigarette butts floated in stale beer like dead goldfish. Ivy lifted several tabloids off the chair and sat waiting for her mother to do the same, but Roslyn simply sat on the papers as if they were part of the chair.
An uncomfortable silence preceded their exchange. Finally Roslyn asked, “Well how are you?”
Ivy replied with a non-committal, “Okay.” Ivy did not ask how her mother was faring.
A sinkful of crusted dishes and an overflowing trashcan made sitting in the tight kitchen unpleasant as the two sat nearly speechless. Ivy declined Roslyn’s offer of something to eat or drink. Besides, there didn’t seem to be a clean glass or plate anywhere.
Considering the state of the two rooms seen so far, Ivy dreaded the idea of needing the bathroom. If necessary, she’d wait and use the one at the gas station near the interstate. Even with truckers and transients, it was probably cleaner.
Wheezing like an old accordion, Roslyn tried to restart the conversation, asking if Ivy ever heard from ‘that Szabó girl.’
The mere mention of her first love rekindled a fire that lay dormant in Ivy’s chest. She exploded, saying, “Not since her mother took her away after your affair with her father. All those things you did, the check-kiting, the screwing around with married men, made my life hell. That’s why I went to live with grandma. To escape you.”
Ivy found Roslyn’s mumbled excuses insincere, relenting only when a tearful Roslyn admitted she could have been a better mother.
When asked what she was going to do about the house, Roslyn said it already had a second mortgage. So, there was no equity left. Roslyn continued, saying that the bank was about to foreclose and she didn’t know where she’d end up.
Ivy sensed Roslyn was angling for an invitation to live with her. Four sharp knocks at the front door interrupted Ivy who was about to suggest some charities that could offer Roslyn assistance.
Roslyn rose unsteadily and shuffled towards the door she struggled to open. A husky man filling the entryway whispered to her. Roslyn reached into the drawer of a nearby table, then pressed something into his hand before pocketing his money. Ivy watched the man turn and practically stumble down the porch steps.
Ivy questioned what had just transpired. Roslyn responded bluntly that he was buying her pain meds.
“What are you going to do when you need them?”
Roslyn said it wouldn’t be a problem for much longer.
Although Ivy suspected that, hearing Roslyn say it hurt more than she anticipated. In that moment, the brutal past fogged. The uncertain future was no clearer. Despite promising herself it wouldn’t happen, Ivy made a tenuous peace with the woman she wanted to call Mom, but couldn’t yet do.
Ivy was soon back on the interstate, this time heading east to the house she shared with her girlfriend. As she passed the rest stop, Ivy saw that hawk still atop the light pole. Asleep in the passenger seat, Roslyn did not.
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