Rosemary climbs up ~ short fiction

tree

Short story
and art
by Mo Conlan


Rosemary made a cup of tea the way her mother liked it -- Earl Grey, a splash of half and half and a quarter teaspoon of sugar. She sat down to drink it herself. Her mother was dead, but the motions of Rosemary’s life had not yet caught up.

She sat at the kitchen table in the house where she’d grown up –same red vinyl-cushioned chair pulled up to the same gray Formica table.

Rosemary turned on the coffee pot. Soon her brother Charley would be up and they would talk about what to do next. Her mother, Maude, had been declining for years, heart growing weaker until it quit. The funeral the previous week was lovely. Everyone in the parish said so.

Rosemary had cared for Maude with help from Charley, though not as much help as she would have liked. Charley was a Navy man, like their father had been, and now that he was retired, he gravitated to old high school buddies who drank away evenings telling war stories and watching sports on TV. Everybody loved Charley, especially at the neighborhood bar.

Rosemary heard the thumping of feet in the hall and Charley came through the kitchen door, groggy, red-eyed and trailing a faint smell of last night’s beer. He stumbled into a chair and gave her a slightly embarrassed smile. Even hung-over, his blue eyes and friendly face topped by silver-white hair in a buzz cut, made her smile back. Everybody loved Charley, including Rosemary.

“Do I smell coffee?” he asked.

“It’s brewing.”

“Thanks, Rosie. Let me get a cup and then let’s go over a few things. Best to just get legal stuff out of the way.”

Rosemary nodded, poured a cup of coffee and set it down in front of Charley. He took a sip. “You know Mom left the house to you and left me money worth about the same,” he said.

“I don’t understand why she didn’t leave the house to both of us, equally,” Rosemary said.

“I think she wanted it to stay in the family – not be sold to divide the assets,” Charley said.

“Guess that makes sense,” Rosemary muttered – though the house was a standard Cape Cod her parents bought after World War II – of no historic significance.

Rosemary had been a baby when her parents moved in. The house sat on a street named Rosemary Lane. They figured the name meant the house was right for them. It had been. On Rosemary Lane, neighbors looked out for each other and kids fearlessly went trick-or-treating on Halloween.

Charley interrupted Rosemary’s memories.

“I thought I could still stay here and pay you rent from now on,” he said.

“Uh huh,” Rosemary murmured and rose to pour another cup of coffee for Charley. She could almost count the pots of coffee she would be making for him.

Rosemary imagined her life stretching before her. Nine to 5 at the library. Fixing dinner for Charley, except on Fridays when he would invite her to the fish fry at the local bar. Charley watching football on TV, the volume turned up loud because he’d lost hearing in one ear.

“Maybe you’ll meet some pretty widow and move in with her,” she said. “Rent free.”

Charley’s face turned pink.

It was possible, Rosemary thought, that he was a middle-age virgin. He’d turned to arenas in which no near occasions of sex and sin lurked. She had only narrowly escaped this fate, herself. But that was when she was very young. Since then, her work and her mother had taken up most of her time.

Charley clinked his coffee cup Rosemary’s teacup and looked into her eyes. “Mom was so proud of you – your career at the library, awards. And looking after her … a special place in heaven for that.”

Charley said this without a trace of irony and Rosemary knew he meant it. Except toward the end when Maude became very ill, it had been a pleasure. Rosemary and Maude liked the same things – concerts and plays, “Mystery Theater” and “Antiques Roadshow,” gardening when weather permitted. Yet, Rosemary had suspected that, unfairly, the less attentive Charley was her favorite.

“After I’d changed mom’s bed, given her a bath and fixed her dinner, you would come bounding in, tell some stupid joke and her whole face would come alive. It was you she loved.”

“Don’t say that, Rosie, you know she loved you, too. Maybe she left you the house to show it.”

“Maybe.”

Rosemary sipped her tea. “Don’t you ever think about getting married, finding a girlfriend?”

Charley blushed. “In high school I used to like that cute Italian girl down the street, Nancy something or other.”

“Nancy Fiorini.” Rosemary tried to recall something she’d heard about Nancy. “Nobody since then?”

“I’ve been busy….What about you? It’s been, what, 30 years since Danny died. You ever thought about getting married?”

Danny, the boy Rosemary had expected to marry, died in Vietnam. He was just 19. It was something she and her mom had in common – lost their men too early.

Rosemary shook her head. She finished her tea. “I need to go out for a bit,” she told Charley. “Let’s talk more later.”

“Sure, OK, Rosie.”

Rosemary drove to All Saints cemetery. She sat on a stone bench beside the graves of her parents – her father’s with its weathered headstone and her mother’s freshly dug. The words and melody of a hymn sung at her mother’s funeral played through her mind. “Lift you up on angel’s wings…”

Beside the bench a majestic Sycamore tree rose many feet into the sky. The lowest tree limb hovered close to the ground, thick and weighty. Rosemary stood, went to the tree and stroked the bark. She stepped up onto the lowest limb.

The next biggest limb was about two stair steps away. She stretched and climbed. When she was about halfway up the tree, she sat down, dangling her feet, glad she was wearing old jeans.

She was high enough above the graveyard that she could the town spread out until it melted into low hills beyond. She could see the interstate that crossed the town going north and south and the one heading east and west. A pretty town, a college town and a good town in which to be a librarian. She knew it well.

From below her, a small voice called up. “What ya doing up there?”

It was a little girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, her blond-brown hair in pony tails above her ears.

“I’m looking around,” Rosemary said.

“I didn’t know adults climbed trees,” the little girl said.

“We can, but we don’t usually,” Rosemary answered.

“Aren’t you the lady from the library,” the girl asked.

“Yes.”

“Can I come up?”

“It’s a free tree,” Rosemary called back.

The little girl climbed up and settled into the crook of a limb a few feet below Rosemary. “My name’s Robin,” she volunteered.

“My name is Rosemary. Does your mother know you are here?”

Robin nodded yes. “Our street backs into the cemetery and I’m allowed to walk here as long as it isn’t nighttime. My grandma’s over there.” Robin pointed to a section of cemetery. “Some of the funeral flowers are still there, but they’re dead,” the little girl said. "My mom thinks I come here to go to her grave, but I don’t. Well, sometimes I just walk by fast and say hi. But I don’t really like to because she isn’t really there.”

“My mother’s buried just down there,” Rosemary said, pointing down. “I know what you mean.”

“People try to make it be OK, saying oh she’s better off, she’s up in heaven, blah blah,” Robin said. “There isn’t any up – we’re spinning in space. Anybody knows that.”

“It’s the worst thing, the very worst,” Rosemary said, “to lose the people we love. There’s not a thing OK about it.”

“Grandma was my best friend,” Robin said. “We read ‘Harry Potter’ together and e-mailed every single day.”

Rosemary nodded. “My mother and I loved to read and talk about books. We went to movies and watched TV. We liked ‘Will and Grace’ reruns.’”

“The only thing is, if nobody ever died, we’d run out of space,” Robin said. “It would be good if only the bad people died.”

“We still might run out of space,” Rosemary said.

“Maybe we could fly to other planets and live there.”

“Some people think that might be possible in the future,” Rosemary said.

“So, where are they really?” Robin asked. “Your Mom and my Grandma.”

Rosemary thought a moment. “In our minds and hearts is all I know for sure. And I guess in our genetic material.”

“Nothing will ever be the same again,” Robin said.

“No, but it will be different.”

Robin nodded. “You’re funny for a lady.”

“How?”

“You climb trees and you don’t talk to me like I’m just a kid.”

“You aren’t just a kid. You’re a girl with a knowledge of science and a great love for your grandmother, sadness – and your whole life ahead of you.”

Robin looked down at her sneakers. Rosemary could see she didn’t want to cry. That was the thing about grief – it left you so vulnerable to crying in a non-crying society.

“I have to go now,” Robin said.

“Bye, Robin.”

“Bye, Rosemary.”

Rosemary began to feel giddy, lighter, lifted up. Her mother was tucked safely into eternity. Rosemary was no longer on duty.

When she returned home, Charley was sitting in the recliner end of the couch watching football on TV. Rosemary sat beside him. “How’s the game?”

“It’s half time. Want to watch with me?”

She shook her head, reached for the remote and muted it.

He looked at her in surprise.

“Charley, I don’t want this house,” she told him. “I want you to keep it and give me the money.”

“You don’t want to go on living here?”

She shook her head.

“Why?” he asked.

“I want to do things. Take a trip to Ireland. Write books. Dance. Maybe find another guy. But you want to stay, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said, “but I thought you’d be here, too. I can afford to pay rent.” Charley’s tone was slightly aggrieved.

“It’s not the money… Deal?”

“Sure, Rosie…. OK, if that’s what you want. Hey, I forgot to tell you something I heard at the bar. Nancy Fiorini’s marriage went bust. She’s moving back in with her folks.”

“Maybe you could invite her to the Friday fish fry,” Rosemary said.

Charley had turned the game back on and she wasn’t sure he’d heard her, but she would remind him before she left.


After Rosemary Climbs Up, read more about the author.

A short story by Mo about the power of place, and search for love.

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