Many the Years

Erin Welch

“What was that? I’m sorry, young man—I can’t hear you. Could you please speak more loudly?”
The old woman usually felt life pass pleasantly, slowly. She enjoyed its slow, peaceful rhythms. At eighty-seven years she didn’t really feel old, just pleasantly experienced and pleasantly ingrained in her routine.
At this moment, though, she felt herself to be the inexperienced outsider, bewildered at the transformation of her favorite restaurant into a steakhouse which didn’t sell steak sandwiches and didn’t appreciate her business.
Several people behind her sighed and snorted at her hesitation and hard hearing, and checked their watches
“Lady, I said—” The food server’s voice rose. “—we have hamburgers—” It rose again. “—and cheeseburgers!” And again. “Take your pick!” By the time he finished, he was roaring. The people who had been sighing and checking their watches snickered appreciatively. One of the younger ones even clapped a couple of times.
The old woman blushed. She felt at once old and young, old enough to cause this disturbance, and young enough to feel embarrassed at what others thought of her. She was ashamed to be such a nuisance.
“I’m, I’m terribly sorry. I thought that you served, that you served, steak sandwiches.”
An exasperated groan voiced itself from somewhere behind her.
“Perhaps I had better step out of line,” she ventured.
“Yeah, lady—please!” someone said from behind her.
She did so and ran her hand down the front of her suit dress to smooth it, considering this mystifying surprise. Indeed, they used to sell steak sandwiches—they did! Or did they? Suddenly she felt unsure. She peeked out from under her pretty, new hat with its blue and gray artificial flowers, to the left, to the right. Perhaps, the young server was new. She eyed him suspiciously. Still, it would probably be better not to ask him to verify the non-existence of steak sandwiches in their restaurant. She would just order something else.
She got in line again.
The menu was so far overhead that she was forced to strain her neck backwards to look at it. She squinted. She leaned forward onto the counter that ran along the serving line.
At last she relaxed her concentration, her head aching. She had finally made out the heading “Hamburgers.”
She suppressed a sigh of her own and looked around herself for any hint of a friendly face who might be willing to help her.
Two women in front of her were talking animatedly.
“He married a Korean woman, you know. And now he’s got a 10-year-old Korean boy!” said one.
“No!” the other said with a sharp intake of breath.
She turned to look behind her. A family with a frazzled young mother and a smiling father fidgeted there. Three children ranged around them, the one boy pulling his older sister’s hair while she tried to scrub dirt off her wincing little sister’s face. The mother held a baby, crying out of what seemed to be anger more than anything else, his face red from the effort.
“Here you go!” the father smiled, handing him a striped bib.
The baby took it. Within a breath, the bib was hurled to the floor.
The old woman turned back to face forward again with the uncomfortable feeling that she had a great kinship to that angry, helpless baby.
She didn’t even realize her thoughts had drifted and blown into the past until she discovered that it was her turn to order, for the second time. She still had not read the menu.
“Young man, would you please read me the items listed under the heading, ‘Hamburgers’?” she asked the server.
“Sure!” he said with a friendly grin. As he turned around to look at the menu, the old lady realized that this was not the same young man whom she had so irritated. This one had dark rather than light hair and was slenderer than the other.
“Let’s see,” he said as he scanned the menu.
“Pardon me?” she said.
He turned his head back to face her and spoke loudly. “Sorry! I was just looking at it; ok, we got—” he double-checked the menu and quickly turned back to her “—a bacon burger—” he checked again, “—a Western-style hamburger—a mushroom burger—a veggie burger—”
The list went on for quite some time, through about fifteen different kinds of burgers. The server’s head moved so quickly back and forth that it seemed he must end up with whiplash. Finally, she made her order.
“I would like to order a plain hamburger with a pickle on the side,” she said.
He didn’t even blink. “Sure! And would you like a drink with that, ma’am?”
“Pardon me?”
He raised his voice, “And would you like to have a drink with that burger, ma’am?”
“Yes, thank you. A glass of tea with sugar.” The old woman swallowed and said, “I’m sorry you’ve had to shout to me. I—I have a cold.” She said it quickly and looked back down at the counter.
“Nothing to apologize for, ma’am!” he assured her, his voice barely audible behind the clatter of ice dropping into the glass.
She looked back at him and smiled her sweet smile.
“That’ll be four dollars even, ma’am, and here’s your meal. Hope your cold gets better!”
The old woman looked back down with a small reciprocal smile and thanked him without looking at him. Such a thoughtful young man, she was thinking. She felt rather guilty. She’d never done that before. It was only that if they thought she had a cold, perhaps they wouldn’t feel so annoyed with her. She had only wanted to seem less of a permanent nuisance. She knew it wasn’t so.

She was sitting alone in the restaurant booth by the window looking at the old pictures of her family that she kept in her wallet (her husband and her on their wedding day so long ago, her children when they were small, her husband and her on their golden anniversary, recent pictures of her far-away adult children and their families) when it happened. Her cell phone rang.
She was unused to cell phones and distrusted them, but she hadn’t wanted to hurt her daughter Kelly’s feelings, so each day she dutifully turned it on. It rarely rang.
She pulled it out from among the tissues and medicine and photos and lip balm and medicine in her purse and held it up to her ear.
It rang again.
She held it away and answered again, “Hello?”
It continued to ring, unmoved by her voice. “Hello? Hello, hello?” she said to it, somewhat desperately.
It stopped ringing. She held it away and stared confusedly at it, the digital words blurred and illegible, then placed it on the table.
“You half ta push the button,” a childish voice told her in her ear.
“What was that?” she said, looking around.
“You half ta push the button,” the voice repeated itself.
She turned painfully in her booth seat and saw a wild-haired blonde child leaning over from her family’s booth to the old woman’s booth. It was the youngest child of the frazzled mother and smiling father.
“Push what button?” she asked the child. She felt strange talking to someone other than a server or attendant.
“If you don’t push the button, then Mommy can’t talk to you,” the little one recited. She held up a phone. It looked just like the old woman’s.
The girl’s mother turned and put her arm around the four-year-old. “I’m sorry, is she bothering you?” she asked the old woman.
“No, no. She’s being a very sweet young lady and helping an old lady,” the old woman said.
The mother smiled. “Just don’t break Mommy’s phone now, sweetie,” she told her daughter. She smiled again at the old woman and turned back to her family.
The old woman’s phone began ringing again.
“There!” the child cried, pointing at the largest button on the phone she held. “Push that one!”
“Thank you, sweetheart.” The old woman smiled for the second time that day.
She pushed the button and answered. “Hello?”
“Mom! There you are! I’ve been so worried! Why didn’t you answer before?” the tiny voice in the phone shouted.
“I forgot how to, dear. I just needed some help,” the old woman said, smiling at the little girl still leaning over to her. The child smiled back.
“Mom, where are you?”
“I’m at the steakhouse, honey,” the old woman replied. She looked down at her half-eaten hamburger.
“No, you’re not, Mom. I’m at the steakhouse.”
“Oh! You’re at the steakhouse? Where are you then? I can’t see you,” the old woman said, looking around herself in surprise. The tiny eavesdropper looked around, too.
“I’m at the steakhouse.”
She looked out her window. “Oh! There’s your car. I can recognize it by its wild colors. It’s in the other parking lot, honey. You’re not here.” She laughed in amusement.
“Mom, I’m coming over. You must be in the hamburger place. Just don’t move, ok?”
“Of course I’m not moving, Kelly. I haven’t finished my lunch,” the old woman smiled.
“Just don’t move. Bye.”
The phone clicked before the old woman could tell her to be careful and to look both ways before she crossed the road.
“Are you a fairy godmother?” the little girl asked.
Her older sister turned around, too. “Sit back down, Autumn!” she admonished. She began to pull her sister’s arm with the authority of a big sister.
“Stop it,” the little one said, her eyes still on the old woman.
The older girl pulled harder and the little girl fell backward with a shout. The boy started laughing, and the baby began to cry. The family became an uproar of crying and laughter, the father telling the children to be quiet and the mother’s voice rising above scolding and comforting in turns.
The old lady turned back to her lunch.
Her daughter arrived within moments. Her face was harried and her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail.
“Mom!” she said standing over the old woman, “what in the world—”
“Kelly, dear, why don’t you sit down?”
Kelly rolled her eyes up and heaved a sigh. She put her hands on top of her head, interlacing the fingers, and looked back down at her mother.
“Mom, do you realize we have been frantic trying to find you since you disappeared from Christwood this morning?”
“Oh, Kelly, I just went out for a little time alone.”
“Mom, you didn’t tell anyone where you were going! You weren’t even supposed to leave by yourself! You live in a nursing home for a reason, Mom. You—” she spluttered and stopped.
“Do you know how I found you, Mom? You were reported driving down a one-way road backwards! You could have been killed! And then you tell me on the phone that you’re at the steakhouse, and you’re not! You’re across the street at a hamburger place! Did you just not notice?!” She flung her purse down on the seat across from the old woman and sat down heavily. “Mom this has got to stop. This is the third time this month you have just disappeared. I can’t keep getting all upset and having to leave work to try to find you. You’re acting like a child.”
The old woman stared at her for a second and then looked down, fiddling with the lace on the bottom of her suit jacket. She was remembering the smiling face of the child in the picture from so long ago. Kelly still had the same smile, but the old woman had seen less and less of it over the past year and a half.
“Come on, Mom. Let’s go back.” Kelly stood up placing her purse on her shoulder.
The old woman stood up in as dignified a manner as she could, and the two left the restaurant.
The little girl in the booth looked after her, wide-eyed, while her mother and father gazed at each other across their table, a tear in the mother’s eye, and the older boy and girl, for once, quiet.

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