Below is an excerpt from If You Stay, the third book in the Red Bud, Iowa series which began with If You Knew buy link (Devonny’s story) and If You Dare (Doug’s story). If You Stay is Joy’s story (Devonny’s mother) who returns to her hometown of Liberty, Ohio, after a 25-year absence and tries to reconcile with her family.
Dorothy Laurence still lived in the same single-wide mobile home in the same trailer park where she always had. The structure sagged on one side and rust crept like a vine around the bottom and corners. The skirting was cracked in some places and missing entirely in others. The unfortunate paint choice of avocado made Joy think of that particular fruit gone bad. The small lot was mostly dirt with a few weeds here and there struggling for survival.
Joy pulled off the dirt road and parked in the small space next to the portable steps. She saw a curtain twitch in the window of the place next door. In this neighborhood she suspected there were few secrets. If trouble was coming the residents wanted to know about it and most likely would then look the other way.
Joy didn’t know how many lots there were in the inaptly named Sunny Days park. Twenty or thirty if she had to guess. All looked like close relations of the Laurence place.
She climbed the concrete steps holding on to the metal rail. A small pot in the corner opposite the door held a red geranium. It might be the one and only bright spot in the entire area.
She knocked and didn’t have to wait long before the door on the other side of the rickety screen opened. There stood her deceased husband’s mother.
She’d met Dorothy only twice before, as a teenager, and they’d had minimal interaction since.
Joy’d arrived without giving the other woman a heads up. She had no idea what she’d find. Dorothy had a drug and alcohol problem during Mike’s childhood. Joy didn’t know if that was still the case, but her plan if Dorothy wasn’t coherent was to turn around and walk away.
“Yes?” The woman who answered the door did not seem to be under the influence, but her appearance bore the ravages of past addiction. Veins were visible on her nose and her face was deeply lined, but perhaps that was to be expected as Dorothy would be well into her sixties by now. Her once dark hair was dry and frizzy, streaked with gray. A pot belly pressed against the loose top she wore, and beneath a pair of ragged denim shorts her legs poked like two pieces of freckled kindling.
“Mrs. Laurence? It’s Joy. Mike’s wife.” Joy hadn’t thought of herself as Mike’s wife in years. Didn’t think of herself as his widow either, it had been so long since he’d died. But she couldn’t expect his mother to recognize her after all these years.
Dorothy’s eyes, however, bugged in recognition. “Joy Harmon. I declare. This is a surprise. Come in. Come in.”
Dorothy unlatched the screen and pushed it open so Joy could step inside. The scent of cigarette smoke coated the interior. A worn and stained sofa set along the far wall along with two wobbly-looking end tables, each sporting sad mismatched lamps with stained shades.
A recliner, its leatherette cracked in strategic places, angled in the adjacent corner to face a small flat screen TV on a rusty metal stand.
“Have a seat.” Dorothy waved a hand toward the sofa. Joy sat gingerly, knowing she’d have to shower and change clothes once she left just to get rid of the smoke that already seemed to seep into every fiber of her being.
“You want a cup of coffee?” Dorothy asked. “There’s some left from this morning. It’s cold now but I can nuke it.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
Having performed her hostess duties Dorothy sauntered to the recliner. She got comfortable, kicking the footrest out and reaching for a cigarette. She lit up and blew smoke toward the ceiling. “So what brings you by? You fixin’ to cut me off?” She gave Joy a shrewd, assessing look.
“No. Of course not.” After Mike’s death Joy had taken some of the settlement money and set up an annuity for Dorothy. She’d been receiving a few hundred dollars monthly ever since.
“Wouldn’t blame you if you did. You didn’t owe me anything, that’s for damn sure.”
“You were Mike’s mother.”
“Not much of one,” she said derisively. “Didn’t deserve your generosity but I was glad to have it just the same.”
“How are you? How have you been?”
Dorothy puffed on her cigarette and seemed to consider her answers carefully before she spoke. “I been doing alright. Part of that’s your doing.”
She’d lost Joy. “I didn’t—”
“Yeah, you did. You let me know what happened to Mike. You set up that ‘nuity for me. You done more than anyone else ever did for me. Mike’s daddy ran off and left me high and dry, the bastard. I had this young un to look after. No money. No family. No job.” She cackled sadly and that gave way to a bout of coughing filled with the sound of phlegm deep in her throat. “People wonder why I drank. Did some drugs, too. I was in a bad place. Didn’t know how to get myself out of it.” She shook her head. “Didn’t do right by my son. And then he died.” She sniffed and stubbed her cigarette out before looking back at Joy.
“Then those checks started coming like that lawyer of yours said they would.” She picked up her lighter and tapped another cancer stick out of the half-empty pack. “Took me a few years to believe them checks were going to keep coming.” She held the lighter in one hand and the cigarette between the fingers of the other. She looked at Joy with her son’s eyes. “You were the only person who ever took care of me. I know it’s just money and you didn’t want nothing to do with me as a person.”
Joy made a sound of objection but Dorothy ignored her. “Can’t blame you. I wasn’t much of a person to know.”
She lit the cigarette. Joy waited, sensing there was more she wanted to say.
“I got sober, you know. Went to the meetings. Gave up the booze and the pills. All of it.” She regarded her cigarette. “Except for these.” She took another puff and smiled grimly through the smoke. “We all got our vices, though, don’t we?”
“Yes,” Joy said, breathing shallowly through her nose. “I suppose we do.”
“So you’re back in town now, that it? How long you staying?”
“I don’t know exactly.” Joy’s gaze slid away. She glanced around at the rest of the living space. A compact kitchen and miniature dining area took up the front portion of the trailer. The cabinets were missing some of their knobs and the wood veneer had peeled off most of them. The kitchen faucet dripped steadily into the sink. But the place was clean and tidy as a place in this condition could be.
When she turned her attention back to her mother-in-law it was to find the other woman studying her with that same shrewd gaze.
“You were the best thing ever happened to that boy.”
“Oh, I don’t think—”
“I remember the first time he brought you around. I was half in the bag at the time—hell, maybe more like three quarters of the way in, but I remember. He stood up a little straighter, tried to act like a gentleman, even if he didn’t have any idea what that looked like.”
“We were here for all of five minutes. How could you—”
Dorothy pointed her cigarette at Joy. “He wanted to do better, be better, than what he was because of you.”
“Ironic then, isn’t it, that he died because of me?”
Dorothy frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“If we hadn’t taken off for LA, if he hadn’t married me. If I hadn’t gotten pregnant he wouldn’t have felt like he needed to get a second job. That’s where he was headed when he was killed.”
Dorothy leaned back and lit up. She lowered the footrest and set the chair to rocking. A breathy squeak emitted from the chair’s hydraulics with each backward movement. “That been eatin’ at you, has it? For all these years?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Who’s to say the same thing wouldn’t have happened if ya’ll had stayed here? Maybe even if you’d dumped him and he found some other girl.”
Joy couldn’t answer. She hadn’t expected such directness or soul-jarring insights from Dorothy Laurence.
“You’re not God, you know.” Dorothy’s tone held no admonishment. She merely stated a fact as she saw it. “You ever hear that Serenity Prayer?”
Copyright 2020 Barbara Meyers