Monday, July 14, 2014

Confusion wrinkled Mannie Green’s brow as she flipped over the postcard in her hand, looking for some clue to decipher the twelve words hastily scrawled on the other side – “Dear friend, Arrived home safe. I’m not angry any more. Your friend, Mabel.” She closed the front door behind her and leaned against the dark oak grain. The metal door handle dug into her hip. She bit her bottom lip. What on earth was Mabel talking about? When had she been angry? Or, more importantly, why was she angry? Was she upset with Mannie, or angry about something else? Mannie sighed. Who was she kidding – Mabel was always upset with her about one thing or another. She could never seem to do right in Mabel’s eyes.

Mannie dropped the rest of the mail on the table beside the door and carried the postcard into the kitchen. Pulling a chair back from the small wood table, she sat down, her eyes still on the note in her hand. The card had been postmarked in Buffalo on ____, 1908, which meant she sent the postcard a week ago. She and Mabel hadn’t had any communicated in months. Maybe that was it. Maybe she was mad that Mannie hadn’t been in contact recently. But things had been busy – her husband had been sick, she was heading up the church bazaar… Mannie stopped short – but she’d been the last one to reach out. She’d sent a letter to Mabel two months ago and hadn’t heard back. She hadn’t paid much attention, but thinking about it now, it was odd not to have received a reply. If there was anything Mabel loved it was criticizing everything Mannie did. She claimed she was simply helping Mannie to better herself, as only the truest friend would do. She said she felt sorry for Mannie wasting her life in small town Silver Creek, New York. Their usual weekly letters also allowed Mabel time to wax eloquent on all her society friends and the lavish parties they had, always for a good cause, of course. She took every opportunity to point out how much better her extravagant lifestyle was in Boston.

If Mabel hadn’t written for over two months, she must have been angry for over two months. Although, Mabel usually got more vocal when she was angry, not less. Mannie dropped the postcard on the table and sighed. She must have really messed up this time, but she had no idea what she could’ve done. The tea kettle began to whistle and Mannie rose from her seat to turn off the heat. Pouring herself a small cup, she wondered why Mabel had been in New York. She squinted as a ray of light shone through the pane window over the sink, landing on the butcher block counter next to the stove. Perfectly centered in the light was the to-do list she’d carefully written over breakfast. Sighing, she reached over and picked it. She didn’t have time to sit and ponder what minor incident had tipped Mabel off. She had things she needed to do today. Besides, Mabel said she wasn’t angry anymore, so there was no point in worrying about it. Mannie glanced down at the piece of paper in her hand. Laundry. Oh how she dreaded laundry day.

Focusing on the task at hand, Mannie gathered clothes and began putting them in the new rotary washing machine her brother had just given her. She began to slowly turn the crank. It didn’t take much concentration and her mind began to wander. Mabel had visited about six months ago. Had something happened then? She complained about the lack of servants and the cramped quarters, the cold stone floor and the uncomfortable bed. She didn’t like how dark the small cottage, especially in the evenings. She felt they could use more candles. But she complained about all that every time she stayed with them. It was a marvel she even visited at all and a testament to their true friendship, as Mabel reminded Mannie most every day while she was there. During this most recent trip, she had commented on a lack of meat at dinner, stating that even the Bible said, “man could not live on bread alone.” It was an exaggeration, but she was most fluent in that language. But would she really be angry for six months because of eating too many beans? Mannie didn’t think so. And she couldn’t blame anything on her husband. He had been travelling on business, so the traditional Mabel versus James shouting contest had been avoided. They had never gotten along, and Mabel had often said that marrying James was the biggest mistake Mannie had ever made. Sometimes Mannie agreed with her on that point.

Mannie’s wedding day drifted to her mind. She remembered standing at the front of the little brick church almost twenty-five years ago. It wasn’t the celebratory day she’d dreamed about as a little girl. She’d always imagined a bright, sunny day, her friends and family in the yard behind her parents’ farmhouse, some ice cream and lemonade, a new dress, and a handsome man who made her smile. Instead, she was in a dark and damp building, the only people in attendance being her parents, the minister, and the groom. She wore her best dress, but it was several years old and had begun to show some wear. There was no ice cream, and the handsome man who made her smile had just gotten married two weeks earlier to Mabel Thornton. They’d had sunlight and ice cream at their wedding.

Mannie had loved Robert Bailey, and he’d loved her. He was the most handsome and kindest man in the county and every girl wanted to court him, but he had chosen her. He’d said it was because she had the prettiest green eyes in the world. They were going to get married, have three kids, and be happy forever. Then one day her parents had asked her to come into the living room for a moment. She was surprised as no one ever used the room except for special occasions. The expression on her mother’s face worried her. The expression on her father’s face scared her. He told her she was almost eighteen and she was old enough to start dealing with adult responsibilities. They said the farm had been struggling, and they couldn’t afford to keep it unless something changed. Then her mother hid her face behind a handkerchief while her father explained that James Green had just inherited a lot of money and he was interested in marrying her. He promised to help with the farm’s finances. Mannie had fought and yelled. Her parents continued to make their case. She had three little sisters, and her parents’ health was declining. Robert was just as poor as she was, and had no inclination for farming. Mannie cried and refused for three days, but in the end she gave in to honor her parents’ wishes. When she told Robert, he’d been angry, accused her of never loving him, of being a gold-digger. And then, to spite her, he’d run straight to Mabel’s open arms, digging up a little gold of his own in the process.

She didn’t cry at her wedding. She’d cried enough at Mabel and Robert’s wedding. Now, she was simply doing what she had to do to save her family. She decided that sentimentality no longer had a place in her life, so she straightened her back, squared her shoulders, and said, “I do.”

Mannie blinked as she looked at the washing machine. All the clothes were clean, but she was still cranking, her knuckles white as she gripped the handle. Soapy water had spilled over the edge of the tub. She quickly stopped and stood up, flexing her fingers to improve the blood flow. All those years ago, she’d been tempted to hate Mabel, but she had no one to blame except herself. Still, nearly twenty-five years later, the memory of Mabel’s smiling face as she enjoyed Mannie’s dream wedding still managed to bring an unwanted twinge of remorse... and maybe something a little more.

Refusing to dwell on it, Mannie picked up her basket of wet clothes and carried them outside to hang them on the line. Usually her little back yard brought her joy. She loved the small row of flowers lining the inside of the fence. She’d often take off her shoes and squish her toes in the small patch of green grass. But today she noticed the white paint peeling off the fence posts and how the grass was a little more brown it spots than it should be. She glared at the clothes with resentment, as if they’d made themselves dirty. She set the basket down and stretched her aching back. She could hear Mabel’s voice now: “You poor dear, a couple of servants could save you so much. Look at you. You look ten years older than you are, your hair is graying – it used to be such a nice mousy brown – your hands are calloused, and it’s all for what? There’s still dust on the mantle. If your no-good account of a husband really cared about you, he’d hire a maid, or at least a cook. My Robert doesn’t let me lift a finger. As your friend, I’m quite worried about you.” Mannie let out a short huff. Robert had nothing to do with their servants. Sure he’d managed to become quite successful in the banking world, but everyone knew Mabel was the real money of the family. She’d never gone a day without servants and, doting husband or not, she never would. As for James, it’d only taken five years for his gambling and ill-advised business decisions to run her family’s farm into the ground. They’d had to sell it piece by piece until there was nothing left. They’d had to leave Virginia altogether. Her sisters had married decent men, and they’d helped secure a little home for Mannie and James near them in New York, but there was no money for servants. As it was, Mannie took in sewing jobs when she could and hid the money in an old jar in the back of a kitchen cupboard. She’d had to use it several times to make ends meet throughout the years. Once again, things had gone wrong for Mannie, but quite right for Mabel.

It’d been that way all their lives. Mabel’s family was rich, and Mannie’s wasn’t. Mabel always had the toys Mannie wanted, the clothes she wished she had. On top of that, everything just always seemed to go her way. When they were fifteen years old, Mabel had copied off Mannie’s paper in school. Somehow Mannie had ended up accused of cheating, while Mabel was deemed perfectly  innocent. Mannie had tried to defend herself, but Mabel’s charms defeated even the schoolmarm. On the way home, Mabel had yelled at Mannie, saying a true friend would not have tried to get her in trouble. She had benevolently forgiven Mannie. When they’d reached the crossroads where they parted ways, Mabel said she’d be the bigger person and let it go this time because that’s how good of a friend she was. Mannie hadn’t felt friendly while she was getting swatted in the barn that evening.

Mannie let out a small yelp as the she pinched her finger with a clothespin. She shook her head and gave herself a mental scolding. She was letting that postcard make her agitated and upset. She forced herself to think of something else.

A dog barked nearby and she thought about the toy puppy Mabel had broken when they played together as kids. She’d said she couldn’t be held responsible as the toy was cheap and not well-made.

The blue tablecloth she was hanging blew in the breeze, reminding Mannie of waves in the ocean. She thought about the time she’d been allowed to go the beach with Mabel and her family. She thought the day her swimming costume had torn, and Mabel wouldn’t let her borrow one of hers because she was sure it just wouldn’t fit. Funny how there’d been no concern the previous month when Mabel had borrowed one of Mannie’s dresses so she could pretend to be a washerwoman in a play the kids were putting on.

When she finished hanging the clothes, Mannie headed inside to finish dinner, still trying not to think of Mabel. It was James’ birthday and he’d requested a meat pie. As she began mixing the dough, more thoughts came unbidden. The feeling of the sticky, gooey dough in her fingers was very familiar to her. When she was growing up, every summer there was a pie baking contest at the county fair. One year, Mabel thought it would be a lark if they entered. She’d never baked a pie and it sounded like so much fun. For Mannie, baking pies was a regular chore, but there was a $15 prize and her mother had the best recipes in the county, so she agreed. The two of them gathered in Mannie’s kitchen. Mannie was going to make apple pie – it was her mother’s specialty – and she’d set aside a couple options for Mabel to choose from. But Mabel wanted to make the apple pie. She reasoned that it might be her only chance to make a pie and it really was very selfish of Mannie to not allow her to make the apple pie. Mannie relented and helped Mabel make an apple pie while she made do with a blueberry pie. In the end, Mabel won the contest. When Mannie suggested to Mabel they split the $15 dollars, she’d received a lecture on fair play, being a good loser, and the pitfalls of greed.

Mannie shoved her hands into the dough, pushing hard. She kneaded the dough with more force than necessary, her face red with the exertion. Why was she friends with this woman? Why did she continue to allow Mabel to make her miserable under the guise of friendship? Was it just loyalty? The fact that Mabel had been with her for forty years? But Mannie had allowed the friendship for those forty years. Why? She pounded the dough again. Surely the woman had some redeemable qualities. But what were they?

A door slammed from somewhere in the house as James arrived home, and one more memory flooded her mind. Mable and Mannie had loved poring over magazines with pictures of exotic places, beautiful buildings, and marvelous trips. Whenever Mabel’s father received a new magazine, she’d come running down to Mannie’s, the door slamming behind her as she came in, waving the magazine in the air. Mannie’s father would always mutter something about knocking and then head out to the barn. The two girls would spend the rest of the day planning the trips they’d take to see these beautiful places. They’d imagine what it would be like to stroll down the avenue on the arm of a handsome man, to sail across the water on a big ship, to see the sunset over a deep, red canyon.

Mannie added some flour to the dough with a small smile. See, they’d had their good moments, too. Her smile grew bigger at the thought of them huddled together over the magazines, giggling and whispering and conspiring for hours. She remembered the first time she saw the picture of the castle. She’d become obsessed with it. She’d convinced Mabel to let her cut the picture out and she hung it over her bed, dreaming about it at night. It became the place she wanted to visit more than anything, and they talked about going to see it together. Mannie even had plans of how she’d decorate it if she lived there.

Her hands stilled in the dough as realization slowly began to dawn on her. She didn’t know how she’d missed it – too focused on Mabel’s words, she guessed – but suddenly the image caught in her mind. She ran to the table and snatched up the postcard. Bits of dough and flour followed her, making a mess of the card, but she didn’t notice Turning it over, she stared at the picture on the front. It was the castle. Her castle. It was a different angle and time of day, but it was definitely the building she’d dreamed of seeing. And Mabel saw it. Without her. And then she sent a postcard to prove it. Mannie’s hands began to shake.

Wiping the dough off with a towel, she went hunting for a notecard and stamp. Once found, she sat down at the table and carefully addressed the envelope to her good friend, adding the stamp to the top corner. She picked up the pen left on the table from her morning list-making, but she didn’t write. Her words needed to be perfect and she let the pen hover over the paper as she crafted the perfect response in her head. She’d say that although she wasn’t sure why Mabel had been mad, she was glad all was forgiven. However – and she was going to underline the “however” twice – she’d been thinking about their friendship and things had to change. She was going to say that Mabel needed to treat her better, and that she deserved respect. She was going to say… Mannie sighed and dropped the pen on the table. She knew why there were still friends after all these years. Because Mannie had never had the guts to stand up for herself. After all these years, did she really think she could do it now?

She studied the postcard lying on the table. She read the description. Her beloved castle was actually City Hall in Buffalo, New York. For ten years she’d lived within a day’s travel of it. It had always seemed like something so unattainable, so far from her.  Her fingers longingly traced the outline of the building, around the arched windows, up the tall pointed roof. She turned the card over and stared at the words until they blurred in front of her eyes: “I’m not angry any more.” Mannie blinked, her eyes refocussing. Before she had time to think about it, she grabbed the pen, quickly wrote four short words, put the card in the envelope, and sealed it. Quickly, she stood up, knocking over her chair, and ran outside. Not allowing herself an opportunity to change her mind, she dropped the card in the mailbox on the corner. With a small smile she gave the box a quick salute, turned on her heel, and walked away.

Several days later, Mabel Bailey was sitting in a comfortable chair when a servant brought her the mail. A small card caught her eye and she quickly opened it. Confusion wrinkled her brow as she read the words in front of her: “But I still am.”