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I noticed the first crow when I opened the front door for the cat on the morning of my sixtieth birthday. It—the crow, not the cat—sat silently on the bottom branch of the maple that shaded the porch, rather than high up where crows usually hung out.
And it gave every impression of watching me with an intensity that made me pause and blink, twice, before closing the door.
By noon, one crow had become fifty.
“You know that’s weird, right?” My next-door neighbor waved at the tree as I let her in. It was dotted with silent, black-feathered bodies.
“I mean, I wouldn’t think so if they were at Jeanne’s place,” Edie James—short for Edith, but not if you cared to continue breathing—continued, “but here? Weird.” She shoved a bouquet of flowers and a muslin bag tied with twine at me. “Happy birthday. It’s a bath sachet to help you relax. I figured you’d need it after the party.”
“Thank you.” I leaned in for a cheek buss and a hug, choosing to ignore her jab at our across-the-street neighbor. Edie and Jeanne and I had known one another for thirty years, ever since we’d all moved into what had been a brand-new development at the time, and the two of them were frequently at odds with one another. I’d hoped they’d settle their latest spat before today’s party, but according to Jeanne, Edie had stepped too far over the line this time when she’d voiced her opinions of Jeanne’s husband.
I secretly agreed with much of what Edie had said about Gilbert—specifically with regard to the way he spoke to Jeanne. The man had always been a self-important, obnoxious prick, in my opinion, but he was still Jeanne’s husband, and on the few occasions I’d expressed concern to her, I’d done so carefully. Respectfully. In part because I could sympathize with her staying married to a man who was less than respectful himself.
Edie, on the other hand, could be…
Well, let’s just say blunt would be the understatement of the century.
I gave the crows in the tree a final glance, then closed the door and followed Edie down the hall to my kitchen. She stood with fists on hips, surveying the disaster I’d created. She looked over her shoulder at me and raised an eyebrow.
“What time is the party?”
I sighed. “In an hour.”
“And you needed to clean out the fridge now because…?”
I sighed again. “Natalie needs space for the cake.”
“Then Natalie and Paul should have hosted the party at their place.” Edie sniffed, peering at me over the tops of her old-fashioned bifocals, her brown eyes daring me to disagree.
I didn’t. To be honest, I’d thought at the time my daughter-in-law informed me of the plan that it was rather presumptuous of her to expect me to host my own party, but I hadn’t had the heart to say anything. I knew the party idea had originated with my son, who assumed Natalie would see to the details, just as I had seen to the details of his father’s many ideas over the years.
I loved my son dearly, and I knew he loved me, but I had failed him miserably in that respect, and now poor Natalie had to deal with my mistakes. I’d tried to talk to her about it once, about how she should stand up for herself as I’d failed to do, but she’d laughed it off with an indulgent, “Oh, Maman, you worry too much!”
Maman. She’d called me that since the day Paul introduced her as his fiancée, swearing up, down and sideways that she would look after me as she would have cared for her own mother, who had died too young. I didn’t care for the name any more than I cared for the way she hovered over me and sent me endless articles about age-related illnesses, but it seemed to make her happy, so I didn’t object.
I never objected. Sometimes I mumbled under my breath and/or harbored secret resentments, but usually I just adjusted my plans and rearranged my life to accommodate what others needed. It was easier that way. More peaceful. Expected.
And it was how I’d always done it.
I watched Edie roll up the sleeves of her bright pink floral blouse, worn with equally pink slacks. She’d made an effort to match for a change, and her gray hair was pulled back in a tidier-than-normal ponytail. I knew it was for my birthday. For me. I opened my mouth to compliment her, but she cut me off.
“Right,” she said, with the brisk authority of the high-school principal she’d been for twenty-five years before retirement. “We have ten minutes to clear this up, and then you need to go put on your party clothes.”
I glanced down at my slacks and t-shirt, both beige. I’d made an effort to match today, too. “But I thought—”
“That you could blend in with your walls so no one would see you?”
Like I said. Blunt.
She shrugged. “You dress like that for a party, you get what’s coming. Now, what is all this?” She waved a hand at the bottles and jars and packages covering the table. “Any of it still good?”
I bit my bottom lip and wrinkled my nose. “Ish?”
“What kind of answer is ‘ish’?”
“The kind I give when I don’t want to waste something.”
“But…” I trailed off, not wanting to admit that all the food items on the table had been bought when Jeff was still here, and I was still hanging onto them a year after he’d left.
Not because I harbored any secret hopes that he’d return, mind you. I didn’t think I wanted him back, but neither had I ever quite reconciled myself to him being gone. To being alone in the house we’d bought together and had planned on growing old in, together.
And I certainly hadn’t reconciled myself to starting over on my own at the age of sixty.
How on earth had I arrived at that number in my life?
“I see,” said Edie, and I knew she did, because she was as perceptive as she was blunt. Another holdover from her high-school principal days. She picked up a jar of pickled eggs. “Do you even like any of this?”
“Honestly? No. But—”
“But nothing.” She swept up an armload of jars from the tabletop. “Never mind helping. Leave this to me. You put your flowers in water before they go any limper than they already are, and then change. And I expect color from you, woman. C.O.L.O.R. You’re sixty, not dead.”
She turned her back on me, shoved Merlin’s food dish out of the way with a sandaled toe, and set everything on the counter by the sink. The sound of running water and the clank of glass as she emptied and rinsed jars drowned out any objection I might have made. If I’d wanted to make an objection. Which I wasn’t sure I did. Even if I felt I should.
I stood there waffling until Edie leveled a glare at me over her shoulder and raised her voice over the commotion. “You’re still here, Claire Emerson. Why are you still here?”
It was no wonder the town’s kids had been so respectful of her during their school years.
By the time I returned to the kitchen twenty minutes later, my friend had worked a minor miracle. The table was clear, the counters and sink clean, and the fridge interior wiped down. Lips pursed, Edie dried her hands on a tea towel and studied me.
Following her request for color, I’d pulled out the only thing in my closet that wasn’t gray, beige, or black—a sleeveless, purple floral maxi dress I’d had for at least ten years. Or maybe twenty. I didn’t remember the last time I’d worn it, probably because it pulled so much across my boobs and stomach. And because of the upper arm flap I had going on these days. Fortunately, a light cardigan camouflaged the latter, the dress was long enough that it didn’t matter that I hadn’t shaved my legs, and if I kept my belly sucked in enough…
“Maybe do up the buttons on the cardigan?” Edie suggested.
That bad? I looked down at the dress buttons straining across my girls and groaned. “Or I could just change back into my pants?” I asked hopefully.
The front doorbell rang, the door opened, and a child’s excited voice shouted, “Grandma! We’re here! And we have a cake and presents and Mommy invited a man for you to meet! His name is Dave and he’s bald but Mommy says that doesn’t matter. Does it matter, Grandma?”
Edie folded over in a bray of laughter, and I sent her a filthy look before I headed down the hall, trying to paste a semblance of a smile on my face as I fumbled with cardigan buttons. I had most of them secured when a small body launched itself at me and wrapped arms around my waist. Beneath the cardigan, a dress button gave way. Crap.
“You look so pretty, Grandma! You’re wearing a dress and everything!” Braden exclaimed. Since he’d reached five years old, pretty much everything that came out of my grandson’s mouth was an exclamation.
A genuine smile replaced the pasted-on one, and I returned his squeeze. “Thank you, Braden.”
He pushed away from me. “Is Merlin here? Can I see him? Is he upstairs?”
Either an exclamation or a question, I amended.
“He’s probably on my bed.” Or more likely hiding under it. Merlin, a rescue cat I’d brought home after Jeff left, was about as much a fan of parties and people as I was. “You can go look, if you’d like.”
Braden thundered up the stairs, and my son’s embrace replaced his.
“Happy birthday, Mom,” Paul said. “You look lovely.”
“Liar. I look like an overstuffed sausage in this thing. But thank you for being nice.” I stood on tiptoe to kiss my six-foot-two son’s cheek. He hadn’t gotten his height from me. Then I pulled back and narrowed my eyes. “Please tell me Natalie didn’t really bring a stranger to my birthday party.”
Another, I might have added, because Natalie meant well, but bald-headed Dave was the third ‘friend’ in as many months.
Paul waved away my question. “Oh, Mom. You know she’s just worried about you. Dave’s a nice guy. He did some work for us at the house—he’s a plumber. You should give him a chance. Natalie’s right about you not getting any younger, you know. You need to move on.”
I felt a flush rise in my cheeks. I wanted to take a deep breath and tell my darling son where to get off, but I was afraid of popping another dress button.
Plus, old nonconfrontational habits die hard.
“Maman!” a cheery, feminine voice preceded its equally cheery owner. “Happy, happy birthday! You look…”
The voice trailed off, and I met the horror in my daughter-in-law’s gaze across the ribbon-tied cake box in her hands. She blinked and snapped her mouth closed. If Natalie was anything, it was unsinkable—she had to be, married to Paul—and she recovered with remarkable aplomb to finish with, “Cheerful.”
Her face brightened with triumph at having found a solution to her compliment dilemma. “I hope you don’t mind, but we invited a friend of ours to come with us. Maman, this is Dave—uh—”
Friend, my patootie.
A beefy, florid man—as bald as Braden had said—stepped into the front entry from the porch and held out a hand. “Meyers,” he supplied. “Dave Meyers.”
His handshake was clammy and flaccid, and I suppressed a shudder as I let go with more haste than was polite. Not that it mattered, given his fading smile as his gaze swept over my overstuffed-sausage length and returned to rest on the gray braid laying over my shoulder. I found myself wishing one of the crows—I could still see them sitting in the tree by the porch—had dumped on him as he walked up the stairs. Then I berated myself for being unkind. Then I was annoyed all over again with Natalie for putting me in this situation in the first place and Paul for letting her. No matter how well-meaning.
More footsteps on the porch outside saved me from having to decide which feeling should take precedence. I shuffled sideways past Dave’s belly.
“Jeanne! I’m so glad you could make it!”
My neighbor looked taken aback by my unusual enthusiasm, as well she might, because despite having lived across from one another as long as we had, we had never been all that close. Friendly, yes. Neighborly, absolutely. Jeff had given her and her husband a key to our house for house-sitting, and we had one for theirs; Jeff had invited them over for backyard barbecues every summer, and they had reciprocated; Jeff had dispensed construction advice when she and Gilbert had renovated their kitchen, and—
And with Jeff gone, I’d found little more than habit to connect us anymore. Which was how I’d ended up inviting her and her husband to the party.
But Jeanne returned my hug without comment, gave me the customary French-Canadian kiss on both cheeks, and wished me a happy birthday as she released me. Over her shoulder, I saw her husband, Gilbert, climbing the stairs with a large, ceramic garden gnome in his arms.
I twisted my grimace into a smile. Jeff had admired Jeanne’s collection of the creatures when we first moved into the house and introduced ourselves, and I’d made the mistake of agreeing with him because it seemed the polite thing to do. Now my own collection rivaled hers because I’d received one from her for my birthday every year since. As had pretty much everyone on the street, given her seeming determination to populate the entire neighborhood with the things.
“How lovely!” I said, despite the fact I’d run out of trees and corners in which to hide the detested things. It was a wonder they didn’t haunt my dreams. And Jeff, darn him, had refused to take any of them when he’d left. It turned out he’d only been trying to get on Jeanne’s good side so she’d be friends with me because he thought she’d be a better influence on me than the loud, aggressive woman next door.
Ah, Jeff. The more I thought about it, the less I missed him after all.
Gilbert crowded into the hall with the gnome, and I closed the door on the crows—odd how no one had commented on them—and pushed my ex from my mind. It was time to summon every gracious-hostess skill I possessed, see to the guests I didn’t want, open the gifts I hadn’t asked for, eat the cake I didn’t need, and survive the afternoon.
Another button gave way beneath the cardigan.
All, preferably, without flashing my guests.