By Karen Brode
“Did I tell you about the man in my car?”
My mother had just been telling me about her day, like it was any other day. Her question, though, seemed to come out of nowhere. It hit me like a sour note in a song. We had been talking for at least ten minutes and, not only had she not yet mentioned this man, she didn’t seem at all shaken by it.
I, on the other hand, felt a twinge of panic.
“What man?” I asked. My mind raced through a thousand scenarios of why there might be a man in her car and what could possibly have happened. I tried to remind myself that I was talking to my mother. She was still alive. No mention had been made yet of any ransom required to release her from kidnappers.
But rather than answer my question, she moved on as if noticing this man in her car was just a casual observation, like noticing a house weeks after it had been painted lilac purple.
“Cleo has been so lost ever since Neal died.”
I closed my eyes and held my breath.
“Patience,” I whispered to myself.
Cleo was my mother’s sister. She was tall and stick-figure thin and she hated it. As a young woman, she had worried about being so tall and finding a man who would love her. When Neal came along, it was clear to everyone that she felt as if she had won the lottery.
Cleo wasn’t my mother’s favorite sister, but Mother was happy when my aunt and uncle moved back to Denison. The two of them talked for hours on the phone at night after Neal had gone to sleep. Cleo didn’t talk on the phone if her husband was around. Even after all the years of being married to him, she was careful to cook his favorite foods and listen to his stories and make him feel special.
Mother thought this was not necessary because Neal wasn’t exactly good looking, but he may have thought he was. And Cleo certainly thought he was.
When he died, my aunt mourned like every other widow, but the loss seemed etched into her even more deeply than other widows I had seen. It seemed to take her longer to find her life again.
“Cleo called me this morning and told me she was about as lonesome as she could be,” Mother continued. “You know she sold her car because she can’t drive. It’s lucky that she lives right by Kroger so she can at least get her groceries.”
Mother paused for a moment and I was about to ask her more about the man in her car when she continued on with her story.
“You know the people at Kroger are mad at her because she left the parking lot with one of their grocery carts a few months back.”
Mother sighed. I couldn’t tell if it was because of Cleo or because the people at Kroger were mad. I told myself she was telling me all of this to lead up to the man in her car, but it did seem to be taking forever.
“She told them she was only taking her groceries home and would bring the cart back, but they’ve been watching her when she comes in now. She would prefer to go somewhere else for her groceries. Now she can only buy a day’s worth of groceries, and she picks up her sack and wouldn’t think of even touching a grocery cart in their store. It’s all so ridiculous!”
“Mother, what about the man in your car?” I finally said, sounding more snappish than I had intended.
“Oh yes, before I went to Cleo’s house I made a lemon meringue pie and oh, it was so good! Cleo said she hadn’t eaten anything that good in so long. I stayed at her house all afternoon and we talked about old times because, you know, those were the best times. Even if we were as poor as Job’s turkey, we had fun together when the kids were little.”
An old twinge of jealousy tightened my chest and burned up to my ears. The times she reminisced about—the times she called “the best”—were the years well before I was born. My parents had been married for 20 years and had two nearly grown sons when I came along. Talk like that only reinforced my feeling that I really wasn’t part of my family. I had missed so much being born so late. And I wasn’t stupid enough to assume I had been planned. There’s nothing quite so unsettling as to realize you’re not just an accident but you missed all the years when the family was a real family.
My thoughts were interrupted when Mother continued.
“That Cleo,” she said. “They broke the mold after they made her. Do you remember that summer that she sued the bus company? She wore that neck brace for months and everyone watched when she would try to raise her hand above her head! Her hand would start shaking. You could tell she was just doing it on purpose! Mother would be laughing hysterically by then but Cleo got the last laugh because she won a big settlement.”
“Mother!” I had run out of patience. “Tell me about the man in your car!”
“I will, I will,” she said. She still had the laugh in her voice about Cleo’s bus settlement. My outburst hadn’t even fazed her.
“So, I took Cleo that pie and we had to talk in spurts because, even if it was raining, people still came by to look through her porch sale items. I wouldn’t want people coming to my house all day like that! You can barely get through all the clothing racks and boxes of knickknacks and tables with costume jewelry to get to her front door! That would drive me crazy to have all that on my front porch! You know that one of her neighbors reported her to some city agency, whatever agency it is that makes all the city rules people have to follow. They said she had a perpetual garage sale, and that is not allowed in the city of Denison.”
This went on for another five minutes until I said, “Oh, good grief, Mother! Was there a man in your car?”
“Yes,” she said. Her voice became thoughtful then. “I wanted to get home before dark. You know how I hate to get home after dark. Cleo seemed to be in better spirits. She packed up some of that custard that I like. Mine never tastes as good as hers. It makes me wonder if she may have left out some of the ingredients when she gave me the recipe.
“Well, I had my purse and the custard and a few books in my arms as I started out the door and that’s when I saw him! My car was parked in Cleo’s driveway there at the side of her house. It wasn’t ten feet away from where I was standing. For a minute, I just stood there looking at him, sort of awestruck, I guess. Cleo had gone back to her kitchen at the back of the house, and I stood there looking at him for the longest time. He was sitting at the steering wheel. He was a large man and he was wearing dark shades and a white shirt. I didn’t know what to do. I stared at him but he just kept looking straight ahead. Then he turned his head slightly and looked right at me. You talk about a creepy feeling! I started backing up into Cleo’s house and I whispered real loud for her to come. I told her there was a man in my car.
“By the time she got to the living room, she was white as a sheet! Both of us just stood there not knowing what to do.
“Cleo asked me if I knew the man, but of course I didn’t know him! Would I have been shaking like I was if I did? And then she asked how we were supposed to get him out of there.
“When I told her I didn’t know, she threw her dish towel over her shoulder and started toward my car! I tried to stop her. I told her he might shoot her head off, but she just kept going! She said she wanted to ask him what he was doing in my car! When she got to the car and opened the passenger door, he was gone! Cleo looked everywhere, but there was no sign of the man in the white shirt with dark shades.”
At some point in my mother’s story, I had had to sit down. I imagined my mother’s car being stolen or Aunt Cleo being shot. I was wondering why they hadn’t just called the police and was close to hanging up to call them myself. But when she said my aunt hadn’t seen anybody, my pulse slowed a little and the panic that had been building up eased. It had been nothing, I told myself.
“Oh, Mother,” I said. “You just thought you saw something. It was probably just the shadows playing tricks on you.”
“He looked right at me,” she said, sounding a little hurt. “I didn’t like him looking at me. It was like he was waiting for something. I didn’t like the feeling at all. And then he just disappeared into thin air. One minute he was there, and the next minute he wasn’t.”
“Mother, maybe it was your imagination.”
“Was it Cleo’s imagination, too?”
Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.