It was not possible.
That was my first thought. Because had she ever been on a date? Had she ever kissed anyone? Had she ever asked someone to a Sadie Hawkins dance, or been to a prom? Had she ever gone to a bar with someone and put quarters in a jukebox and played pool and ordered a second cocktail because she was having fun? Had she ever sat across from a man who had put on a clean shirt for the occasion, at a small table with a tablecloth and a candle and not one but two menus, one for wine and one for food? Questions shoved up against each other in my head.
No and no and no and no and no.
The interviewer, her legs crossed, her fingers hovering over her keyboard ?— ?“Miss Winter, to your knowledge, did your mother, Tamar Winter, ever go on a date?” ?— ?No, before the quotation mark was fully slotted next to the question mark. “Did your mother, Tamar Winter, ever go on a dateNo.” A broken sentence. Part question but mostly No.
Why so quick with the No, though, Miss Winter? Wouldn’t you want her to have gone on a date? Wouldn’t you want your mother to have had some happiness in her life that way, a few hours where she was not just your mother, but a young woman out with a young man who thought she was lovely?
Lovely? Lovely? Stop it.
It was not possible to think of her as anyone other than exactly who she was, who she had been: a woman of the north woods, a lumber-woman in a lumber jacket, a splitter of wood, a remover of decals, a non-Sunday singer in a choir, a manless woman, a boyfriendless woman, a husbandless woman, a dateless woman, who was, who had been, my mother. The word lovely did not apply, but for the fact that it did.
After I waved goodbye from the porch, I went straight to the shelf in the kitchen. My mother’s faded face smiled up from her perch next to Jack. My heart skipped a beat and then began rocketing around its prison of sinew and bone, looking for a way out. Et tu, heart? Heart, quiet thyself. But the wayward heart did not listen, and down I lay on the floor, photo flat against my shaking chest, the diminished stacks of books-as-coffee-table rising around me.
New images of my mother scrolled by, leaping and dancing across the spines of the remaining books of my childhood. Tamar with her hair French-braided, wearing that pretty white shirt, standing on the porch and smiling as a car drove into our driveway just beyond the frame of the picture. Tamar at the Boonville County Fair holding the hand of a faceless, bodiless, voiceless man just beyond the frame of the picture. Tamar at Hemstrought’s Bakery in Utica, pointing at a half-moon cookie and smiling at a man just beyond the frame of the picture.
Just beyond the frame of the picture. He, whoever he was, was there. Had he been there all along?
“You are way overreacting here, Clara,” I said out loud as the photo and I lay on the floor by the books. “Calm the hell down. It’s a photo.”
But there are times when you know a thing, immediately and of a piece, and you can’t un-know it. You can’t convince yourself that you are overreacting. I held the photo above my head and looked at it this way and that way, sideways and upside down. Nothing made the look in my mother’s eyes go away. Nothing from here on out would make the softness, that softness I had never seen, go away.
Who? When? How? Where?
Out the door and into the Subaru the minute my heart reverted to a normal rhythm. Down the half hour to Sterns, then onto Fox Road. When Annabelle opened the door I held the photo up in front of her, pincered between my thumb and forefinger. She leaned back instead of forward ?— ?middle-aged eyes, reversing course ?— ?and squinted. When she didn’t say anything, I waved it back and forth, dancing it through the air between us. I didn’t trust the steps I was standing on. They were made of plastic and flimsy metals. They could give way at any time. I waited for her to say something.
“Nice to see you too, Clara,” was what she said, after a minute or so. She stood aside so that I could come in, but I didn’t move. From what I could see and smell there was nothing baking in her kitchen, nothing bubbling on the stove under a pot lid. “How can I help you?”
I said nothing. I stood there and kept holding the photo. If my instinct was right, then Annabelle would crumple before my silence and tell me what she knew about this unfamiliar Tamar Winter dancing in the air before her. She would tell me about the look on my mother’s face. She would tell me who had taken the photo.
I stood silently, and so did Annabelle. She tilted her head as if she were trying to figure out why I was holding the photo before her like a piece of evidence. She frowned. She looked at me, except not really, because her eyes didn’t meet mine. And when someone’s eyes won’t meet yours, even though you can tell they’re trying to make their eyes meet yours, when their face turns even a fraction of an inch away from yours, when you can feel the unease flowing through their body even though they are forcing themselves to stand elaborately, casually still, that’s your answer.
Cultivate silence. Silence, and patience, and determination.
Now that I had my answer ?— ?she knew who had taken that photo ?— ?I stepped inside. The trailer felt warm. Not thermostat warm, not oil or gas or baseboard or electric-space-heater warm but warm by nature, as if Annabelle herself, the great furnace of her body and her heart, were all that was necessary. I pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat down. Annabelle stood across the table from me. She was trying to intimidate me by not sitting down, not joining me, as if that would make me stop whatever it was I was doing. Too late, Annabelle. You’ve already given yourself away and there’s no going back.
I laid the photo in the precise middle of the table. “Who took this?”
“No clue.” She was trying not to look at the photo but her eyes kept dragging back to it, as though there were something fascinating about it.
“Where was it taken?”
“When was it taken?”
“You got me.”
The kitchen was the detaining room and Annabelle was the suspect, trying her best not to cave until the public defender arrived.
“Annabelle, tell me what you know.”
She shrugged. “It’s a nice photo of your mother. Something else to add to the pile.”
“The pile? The pile of what?”
“Things you have of her. Memorabilia.”
“She’s still around, Annabelle. She’s not dead.”
“You know what I mean.”
The sentences sounded like Annabelle sentences but the Annabelle-ness of her voice was gone. She sounded quiet. She sounded tired. The photo lay on the table between us, a jigsaw piece missing its puzzle. She pressed down on one slightly ripped corner with the tip of her finger, as if she were trying to make it wh...