The phone call came on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-July. Willa happened to be sorting her headbands. She had laid them out across the bed in clumps of different colors, and now she was pressing them flat with her fingers and aligning them in the compartments of a fabric-covered storage box she’d bought especially for the purpose. Then all at once, ring!
She crossed to the phone and checked the caller ID: a Baltimore area code. Sean had a Baltimore area code. This wasn’t Sean’s number, though, so of course a little claw of anxiety clutched her chest. She lifted the receiver and said, “Hello?”
“Mrs. MacIntyre?” a woman asked.
Willa had not been Mrs. MacIntyre in over a decade, but she said, “Yes?”
“You don’t know me,” the woman said. (Not a reassuring beginning.) She had a flat-toned, carrying voice—an overweight voice, Willa thought—and a Baltimore accent that turned “know me” into “Naomi,” very nearly. “My name is Callie Montgomery,” she said. “I’m a neighbor of Denise’s.”
“Denise, your daughter-in-law.”
Willa didn’t have any daughters-in-law, sad to say. However, Sean used to live with a Denise, so she went along with it. “Oh, yes,” she said.
“And yesterday, she got shot.”
“Got shot in the leg.”
“Who did that?”
“Now, that I couldn’t tell you,” Callie said. She let out a breath of air that Willa mistook at first for laughter, till she realized Callie must be smoking. She had forgotten those whooshing pauses that happened during phone conversations with smokers. “It was just random, I guess,” Callie said. “You know.”
“So off she goes in the ambulance and out of the goodness of my heart I take her daughter back to my house, even though I don’t know the kid from Adam, to tell the truth. I hardly even know Denise! I just moved here last Thanksgiving when I left my sorry excuse for a husband and had to rent a place in a hurry. Well, that’s a whole nother story which wouldn’t interest you, I don’t suppose, but anyhow, I figured I’d be stuck with Cheryl for just a couple of hours, right? Since a bullet in the leg didn’t sound all that serious. But then lo and behold, Denise had to have an operation, so a couple of hours turns into overnight and then this morning she calls and tells me they’re keeping her in the hospital for who-knows-how-much-longer.”
“Oh, dear . . .”
“And I’m a working woman! I work at the PNC Bank! I was already dressed in my outfit when she called. Besides which, I am not used to dealing with children. This has been just about the longest day of my life, I tell you.”
Willa had known that Denise was a single mother, although she’d forgotten how old the child was and she had only a vague recollection that the father was “long gone,” whatever that was supposed to mean. Helplessly, she said, “Well . . . that does sound like a problem.”
“Plus also there is Airplane who I think I might be allergic to.”
“So I go over to Denise’s house and check the numbers on the list above her phone—doctors and veterinarian and whatnot—thinking I will call Sean if I have to although everybody knows Denise wouldn’t even let him back in the house that time to pack his things, and what do I see but where she’s written ‘Sean’s mom’ so I say to myself, ‘Okay, I’m just going to call Sean’s mom and ask her to come get her grandchild.’ ”
Willa couldn’t imagine why her number would be on Denise’s phone list. She said, “Actually—”
“What state is this, anyhow?”
“What state is area code five-two-oh?”
“It’s Arizona,” Willa said.
“So, do you think you could find yourself a flight that gets in this evening? I mean, it must be afternoon for you still, right? And I am losing my mind here, I tell you. I cannot wait to set eyes on you. Me and Cheryl and Airplane all three—we’ll have our noses pressed to the window watching out for you.”
Willa said, “Actually, I’m not . . .”
But this time she stopped speaking on her own, and there was a little pause. Then Callie let out another whoosh of smoke and said, “I live two doors down from Denise. Three fourteen Dorcas Road.”
“Three fourteen,” Willa said faintly.
“You’ve got my number on your phone now, right? Let me know when you find out what time you’re getting in.”
“Wait!” Willa said.
But Callie had hung up by then.
Of course Willa wouldn’t go. That would be crazy. She would have to call Callie back and confess she was not the child’s grandmother. But first she spent an enjoyable moment pretending she might really do this.
The truth was that lately, she had not had quite enough happening in her life. She and her husband had moved this past fall to a golfing community outside of Tucson. (Peter was passionate about golf. Willa didn’t even know how to play.) She had had to leave behind an ESL teaching job that she loved, and she was hoping to find another one, but she hadn’t exactly looked into that yet. She seemed to be sort of paralyzed, in fact. And Peter was out for hours every day with his golf chums, and her sons lived far away—Sean managing the Towson, Maryland, branch of Sports Infinity, Ian doing something environmental in the Sierra Nevada mountains—and both of her parents were dead and she rarely laid eyes on her sister. She didn’t even have any woman friends here, not close ones.
What would a person pack, she wondered, if this person were to contemplate making a trip to Baltimore? It would certainly not be a formal place. She tried to remember whether that A-line dress she liked to travel in was back from the cleaners yet. She went to her closet to check.
By the time her husband returned from his game, she had a seat on the first available flight the next day.