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The International Writers Magazine : Life Fiction

Mrs Fletcher
Eric V. Neagu

"Can’t be," said the woman with that same confidence that had made the doctor question himself on previous visits.
"Mrs. Fletcher, I, I," he stammered, a reaction to both her statement and to her new position, once again on the examining table. The doctor collected himself, smiled, and said, "I assure you, the tests are positive. We should just monitor this, and then..."

"Can’t be. Check again," she replied, hiking up the gown and repositioning her feet back into the stirrups.

Dr. Thompson had been her doctor for fifteen years. In that time, she had been his favorite and most irritating patient. Those years had taught him what to say. "Well, if you don’t believe the results I can simply go over them with Sara. She’ll make sure you follow up." He gently tapped her feet out of the stirrups.

After years of alarms, some false, some real, she knew his tap and smile meant all efforts at undermining Dr. Thompson had failed. Moreover, it meant his diagnosis was secure and his prescription, whether diet, exercise, sleep, or medication, would be the correct one. In any case, as a mother she felt commentary was necessary.
"Always the same thing. Threats! I should find a new doctor, that’s what I need to do," Mrs. Fletcher replied. The genuine fear of Sara, her daughter, discovering she had been anything but pure left her threat sounding as hollow as the doctor’s.

Sara had been rapidly flipping through a magazine in the doctor’s lobby for nearly an hour. Occasionally, she checked her watch and then checked her watch against the wall clock. Sara was sure her mother would never understand. "’Never’ is a big word," Jeff had said. He was almost always correct, but then he had never met Sara’s mother.

The first ten years of life had been fine and typical for Sara. A father, a mother, a home, all taken care of. The prescribed paths were followed until one day her father fell from the equation. This, too, would have been fine in the end. In her childhood, Sara had been strong-willed and resilient. Back then she could have handled the loss without scars, without connecting the present to the future. Her mother was not as brave. That was all B.C., Before Church.

Once the great hole of her husband’s death opened, Mrs. Fletcher filled it with prayer, Jesus, and the First Congregational Church of Our Lord. By age eleven, Sara, who had never been inside a church—Mr. Fletcher had been a Jeffersonian skeptic—became a passively unwilling, though regular, fixture at Sunday services, as well as Wednesday Bible study. Sara’s participation in church activities would not end until the day she set foot on the state college campus.
When Mrs. Fletcher entered Dr. Thompson’s lobby with the uncomfortable new truth, Sara greeted her mother with a weak smile, avoiding eye contact. Her mother was not, as everyone could see, all that old. But when Sara or anyone else looked at the woman, they could see the years constricting around her mother’s personality, aging the behavior, if not the body. So when Mrs. Fletcher appeared, walking with her legs slightly too far apart and body hunched, Sara did not react. She simply took her mother’s discomfort as a sign not to get into anything immediately, if at all that weekend. Maybe another weekend would work better. Of course, Jeff would not buy that argument.
"How’d it go?" Sara asked in the car.
"Fine," responded Mrs. Fletcher, with unusual coolness. Sara wondered if she suspected something.
"The doctor seemed concerned. Anything we need to worry about?" Since leaving home, Sara had a constant fear of losing her mother to cancer. One parent had been one too many, already. As a result, she had driven her mother to almost all doctor appointments whenever possible.
"No, no. There are some things children and parents don’t share, that’s all."

There are some things daughters do not share, too, Sara thought. Maybe this would be fine. "Oh, so nothing’s wrong," Sara nervously tried to end the conversation. This not sharing note was a good one to end on.
Mrs. Fletcher caught herself. Remembering Sara’s "unique sensitivity," she interpreted Sara’s comment as anxiety, excessive concern, her "unique sensitivity." Mrs. Fletcher stopped the conversation as casually as she could. "Oh, honey," she strained a laugh, "Getting old isn’t always fun. If Dr. Thompson wants to monitor two more things I’ll have to move into his office just for the upkeep. Let’s get going, shall we?"
"Um, sure. Should we get something to eat on the way?" asked Sara, trying to sound normal, unsuspicious.

They drove and neither noticed the other. Mrs. Fletcher rubbed her knuckles across her lips, while gazing out of the car window. Sara pulled her long auburn hair, absentmindedly checking for split-ends.
Since her father’s death Sara had been as good a daughter as a widowed mother could want. Just a child at the time, she quickly learned to cook, clean, and do all of the yard work, including the gutters. Taking care of her mother never felt like a burden. It was just something that had to be done.

After two years of college, she still kept an eye on her mother, while somehow maintaining a social life, academics, and a part time job. Sara’s concern for her mother was as strong as Mrs. Fletcher’s concern for her daughter. Had it not been for Sara’s own problem, she typically would have been worried much more about her mother that day. As it was, each woman was preoccupied with independent secrets and how to keep them secret.
Mrs. Fletcher looked out of the window, hoping for some sign, something to tell her this could not be happening. She remembered the doctor’s voice just when he said, "Sexual transmission is the most common way." And then her own voice when she replied, "Can’t be. I assure you I have not been with a man since Hal."
"The tests, the sores, and the discomfort, they all add up. I’m afraid this is common enough. We just need to monitor it." Monitor it, she thought to herself. What does that mean? What does monitoring mean? Will I need to wear special underpants? Will I need a special mirror for down there?
"What exactly are we discussing here?" she asked.
"Look Mrs. Fletcher, I admit it is unusual for a woman of your age to come down with something like this. It’s a tricky virus, though. You may have contracted it years ago and it’s just appearing now."
"For the first time?" she said too loudly.
This was her one reminder in years that there had been a past before Hal. She felt the church had taken care of her sins. In truth, as Mrs. Fletcher was discovering, she had simply stopped thinking about them.
"Yes, for the first time," the doctor stated flatly. "Don’t be too concerned. We just need to make sure you don’t miss any checkups. These things seldom become cancerous." Mrs. Fletcher sank into herself, morbid fear, "cancer," the girl’s worst word. She knew Sara’s fear better than Sara. "Unique sensitivity!"
"The girl cannot know. You must never let her know," she implored.
Raised eyebrow, "Let’s just make sure we monitor things and it’ll be our secret."

Sara had experienced panic attacks her first year in college. They were nothing terrible, just some reactions to a new life without ground, being away from home, the rigors of the workload, etc. There were only three of them, but each left an indelible impression on her behavior, her mother called it "unique sensitivity."
Since then, with the slightest sense of anxiety Sara immediately sought relief. If the feeling had something to do with school, she studied harder. If it involved a person, she avoided or confronted them, accordingly. But this new anxiety, the reason for her visit, this was not as easy to resolve. Although his arguments made sense, she could not agree with Jeff when he said, "It’ll be fine. She’s your mother." Reflecting on her current predicament, the anxiety steadily swelled.
Mother and daughter turned down Franklin Boulevard and drove by the ice cream stand. Not much had been said, and neither had yet looked the other in the eyes. Had it not been for a sudden and pleasant memory, nothing might have happened.

Mrs. Fletcher recalled her husband, her daughter, and a picture taken with ice cream smeared on faces. The picture was taken next to the fountain in the park across the street. Mrs. Fletcher had smeared the ice cream and then ran far enough to snap the picture before Sara and Hal retaliated by pinning her to the ground, dripping melted ice cream onto her hair. "Fletcher Ice Cream Torture," Hal called it. They all laughed. That was two days before his diagnosis.
Mrs. Fletcher asked, "Do you remember the ‘Ice Cream Torture?’ Your father thought it was the funniest thing he had ever done." Before Sara answered, a sharp pain returned Mrs. Fletcher to her body.

Mrs. Fletcher rubbed her knuckles across her lips and ground her bottom into her seat. Sara did not respond. The grinding did nothing to help. She needed to stand, to let the perspiration evaporate. Things were flaring. She needed to stand, to get out of the car immediately. Attempting, but failing, to hide her urgency, she asked Sara, "Should we get some?"
Sara asked, confused, "Ice cream?" This was a good sign for Sara. Although her mother could be intimidating, especially to boys, she could also be spontaneous and fun.

In the right mood, the spontaneous Amanda Fletcher could be almost childlike. When they went to Disneyworld she rode all of the rides. In Hawaii she hula danced. Sara even vaguely recalled skinny-dipping on a childhood camping trip. But then there was the other mother; the one who prays twice daily, attends church, the one whose main concern was protecting her daughter. That Mrs. Fletcher is the person Sara lived with the second half of her young life.

On the plane ride home from Hawaii, Sara leaned over to get a book from her bag. The man sitting next to Sara happened to glance down just as her shirt pulled out in the back, exposing her underpants. Before Sara realized what had happened, Mrs. Fletcher slapped the boy in the face. Another time, after a rather dramatic admission by Sara that she had, indeed, kissed her prom date, the mother drove to the boy’s house and had the poor boy tested for venereal disease. Such was the other mother Sara knew.
Sara felt lighter at her mother’s suggestion. Looking at her mother’s face for the first time that afternoon, Sara noticed beads of sweat on her mother’s upper lip. "Looks like you need two scoops," she laughed weakly. Things might work out. Maybe Jeff was right.

Mother and daughter stood at the end of a lengthy line, just beyond the canopy that extended from the service window. They were nearly in the street. Sara did not notice the unusual stance her mother assumed, one foot in the gutter and one foot on the curb. She failed to notice anything about her mother just then, because of a white convertible. Out of the convertible, carrying a small tow-headed boy walked Macy Sams. Sara’s "unique sensitivity" suddenly weighed heavily. Macy knew things. Sara worried that her secret would come out far earlier and with less tact than intended. Macy was born a Texan, which meant she had an inherently loud voice and big mouth. Loose lips sink ships, Sara reminded herself.
Macy was Sara’s oldest, but not best, friend. In the third grade Macy’s family moved from Texas to Indiana. The young girl immediately befriended Sara, who thought Macy’s southern accent was endearing and comical. They were close on and off until Sara went to college and Macy met Tom Sams.

In their town, a pattern existed for girls who never left. Macy followed it. She married Tom, even though she was only twenty and he was thirty-five. Macy quit her career, such as it was, and became pregnant within the first year of marriage. Tom, Jr., Macy’s child, was old enough now to know ice cream when he saw it and obnoxious enough to demand it.
Although Macy had a son and a husband, she still had some growing up to do, as evidenced by the previous weekend. That weekend Macy dropped the boy off at her own mother’s house for Friday and Saturday night. "Can’t be a mom all of the time," she would say as she kissed the boy goodbye and headed to visit Sara at college.

Partying had never been an interest of Sara’s. So when Macy arrived Sara offered several alternatives. "We could go to a movie," she suggested as Macy changed into a halter-top with a floral pattern and checked herself in a mirror.
Macy’s expression soured, ignoring Sara she asked, "Do you have a water bra I can borrow?" Embarrassed, Sara emerged from her closet with the article in hand. It was then that she resigned herself to the evening and Macy’s energy.
That night Macy would not meet Jeff. That night Sara and Macy started out with two beers at a small party in a neighbor’s apartment. From there they went dancing. A boy approached Macy from behind. Macy grabbed him by the hips and ground hers into his. It would be noon the next day before Sara would see Macy again.

Exhausted but cheerful, Macy appeared at Sara’s apartment; she showered, applied make-up and hairspray, and quickly erased all traces of fatigue. "Lunch? I’m buying!" Macy twanged loudly. They dined at Sara’s favorite lunch spot, where they sat beneath a large umbrella on the patio.

The girls ate and gossiped about the night before. Macy talked, Sara listened; no details were spared, "I was fine with everything through the sex. But then I got up to go to the bathroom. It was disgusting. Shaving clippings everywhere, and yellow stains in the toilet and on the seat!" said Macy. Sara knew married Macy’s behavior was wrong, but what’s done was done and who was she to cast the first stone. She had her own secrets to keep.
"What’d you do?" asked Sara, who had never once gone home with a boy from a party.
"I peed in a cup and left it in his sink. You couldn’t pay me to go in that nasty hole." They both laughed.

Macy’s stamina and sex-drive had been tempered somewhat by motherhood, so the next night she agreed to stay in with Sara and rent a movie. Everything worked out well from Sara’s perspective. Jeff’s rugby club had an away game that weekend, so there would be no need to introduce him. The girls ordered pizza and settled in for a night of bad romantic comedies and overeating.

An hour into the first movie the pizza guy pounded up the stairs. Macy paused the movie and stood to pay him. While digging through her purse she was surprised to hear the door open and see the pizza guy enter without pizza. Not knowing how to react to a breaking and entering pizza-less delivery, Macy threw, heaved, and chucked the contents of her purse at him, shouting, "Pervert. Rapist. Go, go on and get." Two tampons, a lipstick tube, a nail file, and a cell phone hit Jeff, who had come home early to study for a test, before Sara could stop Macy.

The ice cream line inched forward and Sara recalled Macy’s reaction when Sara explained Jeff’s presence. Macy howled. Between laughter, she labeled Sara with every ridiculous pornographic title she knew, Good Girls Gone Wild! she found especially hilarious. But Sara Fletcher, Real, Live, Slut! Macy decided was the best. All in good fun, thought Sara, until Macy spoke her last words, "Wait until your mother finds out!"

These last were the words she remembered the most, the words forcing her to drive to her hometown that day. She would miss two of her favorite classes to tell her mother the news. She did not sleep the night before because of those words. Those were the words that echoed in her head as Macy and her little boy approached the end of the ice cream line.

Dear Lord, Mrs. Fletcher thought, taking in her daughter in a moment of clarity between pains, she looks just like me at that age. Watching Sara examine strands of hair, Mrs. Fletcher thought the one sticking point about the monitoring of the vagina was that if something actually happened, if the body really developed cancer, Sara would find out about her mother’s past. "On the big things," she had always told her daughter, "There can be no secrets." But this had to remain a secret. Sara was still young, impressionable. What would this say? What kind of role model, let alone Christian, was a mother with this! What I wouldn’t do to take back all those mistakes. There’s a reason I worry about her. Girls as beautiful as Sara are living, breathing semen targets. Dear Lord.

The sores flared once again, distracting her from all thought. Mrs. Fletcher always wore cotton underpants a size too big, which meant there was a lot of flesh on flesh and perspiration that irritated everything in her current state. Spreading the legs ceased helping her situation. She had to itch. So as subtly as she could, Mrs. Fletcher slipped a hand into the front right pocket of her dress, working her way down, down, down. She did not notice Macy approaching.
"Looky, looky who’s here!" shouted Macy, hugging Mrs. Fletcher from behind. Macy then embraced Sara, who, in her head, busily chanted over and over, again and again, please don’t mention Jeff. Please don’t mention Jeff. Please don’t mention Jeff.
"Ya’ll remember Tom, Jr.?" she said holding the small boy by the shoulders. Embarrassed, he turned and leaned into his mother’s waist.
Things were going to be fine. Please don’t mention Jeff. Please don’t mention Jeff, Sara repeated to herself.
Mrs. Fletcher attempted to make the itching finger, still a little too deep in her pocket, appear normal. She could not. Macy being Macy, bent toward Mrs. Fletcher and asked in a Texas whisper, "Ya got the itching problem don’t you. Don’t you worry, we all get it, right Sara?"

For the first time Sara noticed her mother’s itching. Briefly, she reflected on the doctor visit, on the tension in the car, on her mother’s fidgeting. An idea formed in her mind, but Macy’s quick mouth did not allow it to take shape.
"To what do we owe the pleasure?" Macy asked Sara. "You never told me you were coming home this weekend. I would have dropped Tom, Jr. off with Mama."

The line moved around their little group. It was a hot day and the women appeared more interested in talking than in ice cream. The boy worked his way around his mother and hid behind her skirt. Sara kept up the mantra, even while talking. Please don’t mention Jeff.
"Well, I just realized I hadn’t been home in a few weeks, and I thought I could catch up with everyone. I was going to call you about getting together, but mom had this appointment."
"Catch up?" asked Macy, genuinely confused. "What’s happened since last weekend?"

That was it. Sara had opened the door an unfortunate crack, and Macy was going to blow it off the hinges. Macy did not do it deliberately, of course. Deliberation was not something Macy, Sara thought, was particularly strong in. Please don’t mention Jeff. Please don’t mention Jeff.

Mrs. Fletcher’s fingers were working their way deeper into her pockets. The boy watched the perspiration forming on the old woman’s forehead and chest. Slowly, she bent further over, opening her neckline more and more, and bulging the dress at the waist. It was not a full bend, just enough to push out the front of the dress and hide her wandering fingers.
I will forgive her if she says anything. She is my oldest friend and I will forgive her, but I hope she says nothing, thought Sara. Sara felt her chest constrict. Her shoulders hunched. Unique sensitivity.
With exuberant hand gestures and big voice Macy spoke. "He didn’t?" asked Macy. "Oh…my…God! Did he ask the question?" Macy said, holding both hands to her heart.
Sara did not respond immediately. Her bearings were gone. The word "Jeff" had not yet come from Macy’s mouth, but "He" was a close second. There were few things that caught her mother’s attention, Sara knew, like Sara’s love life. It was the reason for the tact, for the diplomacy, and for the fundamental fear that had guided her surprise visit that day. All the tact and diplomacy had left, leaving only fear behind. Mrs. Fletcher stopped itching, and with no subtlety, withdrew her hands from the deep.

Sara said nothing, which Macy took as an affirmation. "Oh," she squealed putting one arm around Mrs. Fletcher and one around Sara, pulling them together in a hug. The small boy was caught in the middle. "Oh, you must be so happy. When is the date?" She pulled apart, "I can help you with all of the arrangements." Macy turned to Mrs. Fletcher, "You will just love Jeff. He is such a babydoll."

For the first time in two days Mrs. Fletcher noticed no irritation or itching. The hot poker flashes were completely absent. Everything below the waist relaxed, as everything above it tensed. Her face reddened with anger and confusion when she asked Sara, "Who…is…Jeff?"

On the way home they were once again silent, though it was no longer from anger or discomfort. The fury had been worked through in the ice cream line. Then, when the manager asked them to take their disagreement elsewhere, the anger continued to be worked through in the small park across the street. Some children inadvertently learned the word "Slut" from Mrs. Fletcher, before their mothers emptied the playground.

During the battle Sara discovered a resolve that had been hidden deep somewhere. She was angry with her mother. Moreover, she was upset with herself. She knew how important school was and how, even after her father’s death, her mother made sure there was money for college. Nevertheless, Sara held her ground after admitting the boy had moved in. For each argument against, she simply replied, sometimes loudly, sometimes not so loud, "I love him, mother."
Her stoic "I love him, mother," reminded Mrs. Fletcher of Hal’s quiet resolve. She had never seen him in Sara, but there he was. Stoicism had been a powerful tool for Hal and it was equally powerful for Sara. In the face of it, the shock gradually eroded and Mrs. Fletcher approached the problem more civilly.

"My Lord in Heaven," began some persuasive and legitimate arguments against living with this Jeff boy. "My Lord in Heaven, a live-in boyfriend isn’t the same as a roommate. A roommate can’t just walk away from the rent."
Sara knew that was not true. She had already protected herself against that, "Mother, he pays rent and signed the lease."
"My Lord in Heaven, you have top grades. It’s difficult to maintain top grades with boys distracting you."
"He has better grades than me and in a harder major. We study together all the time, mother."

Mrs. Fletcher saved her least favorite argument for last. Not because she believed Sara would not be careful. It was because, if anything, that day had proved to her no amount of caution could prevent everything. She dropped all religion and became fully mother.
"You know nothing of his past. Where he’s been? Who," she paused, "has he been with."
In each instance Sara felt nothing, no anxiety, no concern for her mother’s reaction. Jeff had been right. In each instance, Sara said only, "I love him, mother." Nothing Mrs. Fletcher said could work around Sara’s resolve. The argument gradually ended.

The mother looked worn. Her color returned to normal and she sat in defeat on a park bench. There had been no tears on either side, just genuine concern from the mother, and genuine confidence in the decision for the daughter. For the first time in her life, Sara had won an argument with her mother.

Emotional discomfort capitulated to the physical discomfort erupting in her body. In the car on the drive home, Mrs. Fletcher did not stew or rethink the debate. By then, she had moved beyond this "Jeff" person. Her own problem had returned and it was all she could do to focus.

She tried to figure out just how this had happened to her. Sara’s behavior could be and had been explained. "I love him, mother," was a response with no logical opposition. Additional prayer and a few well-timed surprise visits would at least offer Sara some of the protection a mother can give.

But the other, her own circumstance, was here to stay. How does a post-menopausal sixty-year-old woman come down with this? Was it the facility in some public place? No, she was a hoverer. She never sat on the seat. My Lord, she debated, could it have been…? No, Hal never would have, never would have done anything to hurt me. Of this last she was certain. Then what? A memory, deeply buried, purposely forgotten, slowly surfaced.

Mrs. Fletcher remembered something she had not unearthed since long before Sara’s existence, even before Hal entered her life. She recalled a boy, Matthew, she had met in college. Unlike Sara’s "Jeff" person, he did not live with her, exactly. Matthew never signed a lease and never paid rent. Sara was smart for getting these things out of Jeff. No, Matthew simply spent many, many nights in Mrs. Fletcher’s apartment. He was not her first, only the first who mattered. She did not want to recall him.

She remembered how her roommate, a high school friend not unlike Macy, had hated him. The girls argued one night for two hours about him. Matthew was polite, a good student, handsome, and neat, but her roommate, who was a heavy girl, resented his nearly constant presence. The roommate made it very difficult for Mrs. Fletcher to spend time with Matthew. This created the first cracks in the relationship with the boy.

Nonetheless, she thought they would be married and everything would turn out fine. But without a place to sustain them regularly, things began to fall apart. As students, neither of them had much money to go on dates and the house he rented was full of messy boys. The apartment had been their salvation for the short months they were together. At summer break they promised to see each other at least every other weekend. They talked of getting an apartment together, of future plans, of marriage.

When Sara pulled onto her street, Mrs. Fletcher reflected on the last time she had seen Matthew. He returned to school a much more earnest boy. Neither of them had made the necessary effort over the summer to keep the feelings alive. Within the first two weeks of the school year they made a clean break of it. Mrs. Fletcher remembered laying in the grass on a late summer night, wrapped in a blanket, her naked body against his, agreeing things were not working out. She remembered how sad he seemed and how they made love one last time. This was a memory Mrs. Fletcher had submerged, along with the few other boys she had known, the day she met Hal.

Sara stopped the car in the driveway, ready for another round of argument. Her mother had been moving, rubbing her brow, perspiring again. This could not be it, there would be more. Her mother, she was convinced, was just taking a brief break from what would come.

Instead, Mrs. Fletcher sighed, too busy and tired by her own thoughts and her own problems to continue the fight. Mrs. Fletcher was preoccupied, wondering if that time all those years ago it was Matthew. Matthew, Matt, Jeffrey, Jeff, she thought. Then she heard Dr. Thompson’s voice, "You may have contracted it years ago." And then she heard Sara’s voice, "I love him, mother." Finally, she felt the hot poker itching between her legs and walked, feet too far apart, into the house.

© Eric Neagu September 2008
Eric has an M.A. from The University of Chicago   His recent writing credits include political commentary in The National Ledger.

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