“Come on in,” she hollers thru the back screen door.
The screen door slowly opens and Miss Mae lightly steps in, smelling fresh baked cookies; chocolate chip maybe, she thinks.
“This is for you dear,” she says in her usual unsteady soft voice as she fumbles to sit at the small dining table. She gingerly hands Gem a little box tied with string. Her frail hands quiver ever so mildly, easily noticeable but no longer a welcomed discussion. “Something sure smells wonderful. No guests in the house today?” Miss Mae smiles, exposing the fact that she’s lost another front tooth.
“Don’t call them guests. You’re my guest. They’re uh…“house patrons”, I keep telling ya’.” She then turns her attention to the small box. “Gosh, how come you always are giving me gifts? I’ve told you before you don’t need to do that.” Wiping her hands on her apron, Gem takes the box and gently pulls on the string bow releasing the lid. She shakes the box, then smiles like a mischievous child as she peeks inside revealing the treasure. “Oh, I love it. Will you help me with the clasp?” Gem would say stuff just like that, not thinking first that Miss Mae’s hands were arthritic and trembling.
“Gem, you know there’s just too many years in these ol’ hands of mine. I don’t think I can. Can you get it on your own?”
“The locket’s beautiful. Just hold my hair for me, will ya? She crouches down lifting up her heavy brown hair in pony tail style.
“Yup, I got it. Oh, how’s it look Miss Mae?”
“Beautiful, dear, just beautiful,” She knew in her heart, it was beautiful, even tho’ with each new day, her world became smaller as darkness closed in.
Miss Mae didn’t have money to buy Gem gifts, they were her cherished possessions. Over the year since they’ve been friends, at almost every visit Miss Mae would bring some little treasure from her home. A vase, a ring, maybe a painted figurine, nothing of too serious value, but they were Miss Mae’s belongings. Once she even hired Handy Dan to load and deliver a handsome old bedroom set, explaining that she seldom had visitors so didn’t need the extra furniture. And month before last, it only took Gem once to complain about their broken Frigidaire, to have Dan show up with another delivery. Miss Mae said that she had one in storage to use but figured this old one still had life in it, although it had a loose hinge. Gem could see how happy it made Miss Mae when she accepted her gifts. Gem was always grateful but at the same time careful not to complain much anymore.
“I love it. Thank you. I’ll put a little photo of Rusty in it.” Gem’s perpetual smile beamed across her young vibrant face, her golden eyes sparkled with love and appreciation. “You want milk with your chocolate chip cookies?” She bounced to the small refrigerator, opening it carefully ‘cause of the loose hinge.
“I thought I smelled chocolate chip. That’s my favorite, ya’ know. Well, I did just have a big lunch, but a cookie with a glass of milk would be extra special dear.” Miss Mae clasped her hands together and pursed her lips, as if in pain… Not so much that others would notice and then as quick as it came, it vanished. “So no business today? That’s good. I know myself and most others try to steer clear of your place.” She snickered at her own silly joke. They loved sharing jokes.
“Ha ha, Miss Mae.” Gem poured the ice cold milk and set down at the table with a plate of cookies, still hot with chocolate chips melting inside. “Miss Mae, remember last time we talked? You told me you were worried about your old tom cat, Barbedwire. Well, I talked to Rusty about taking Barbs, I mean Barbedwire, anyway...you know, if somthin’ were to happen, just like you asked me. He said there would be one condition to takin’ your old cat.”
Miss Mae looked puzzled.
“He said you’d have to change his first name from Barbedwire to Rusty, just like his. Then we’d call him Rusty Barbedwire. Get it rusty barbed wire?” Gem laughed out loud and smiled her infectious smile, then took a big drink of that ice cold milk. But as soon as she thought about that joke again the milk came gushing out of her nose. Wiping her face quickly, she said “No really, seriously, Rusty said he’d be honored to care for Barbs, I mean Barbedwire ifn’ something ever happened to you. He made a promise; knowing you’re only as good as the promises you keep. Rusty understands that without your friendship I might have gone mad, simply mad and probably would have ended up downstairs with my husband as a…. house patron.” Gem’s eyes were as big as gold coins as she laughed a silly hideous laugh. She was always one to be a bit dramatic or to do the unexpected.
Gem loved her husband, but being the young wife of the town’s only under keeper had lots and lots of problems. One was that Gem was barely nineteen with a bubbly spirit that often was in conflict with the business of grieving. Living right upstairs from the Viewing Parlor was a heap of responsibility for such a young girl, in such a small town. Rusty worked long hours and she often found herself with the blues, wishing she was someone else, somewhere else. That was until Miss Mae found her, or should say they found each other. Gem considered her the mom she never knew. Miss Mae felt Gem was the daughter she never had.
Miss Mae was already ninety three years old and although she felt good most days, both her and her old tom cat were slower to get out of the way of folks and neither of them could see or hear much anymore. Knowing that she teetered between this world and the next; the care of her old tom cat had been praying on her mind. Knowing that Gem had promised to take care of Barbedwire brought peace to her aching heart.
She wiped the corners of her mouth were she knew melted chocolate chips hid, “Gem, that brings relief to me. I wish I could take him with me, but know I can’t.”
The following week was business as usual, that was until Doc Mayor called for a “pick-up.” You know, to pick up a dead body. Normally, Gem would take down the address and leave it in “the book” that Rusty checked every time he’d come up from the basement. Gem was never allowed to disturb him when he was in the basement working. Gem never wanted to venture downstairs anyway. That was until today. The basement door flew open wide with Gem rushing down the stairs, “Rusty! Rusty! Rusty.” Gem was crying, or howling, it was an awful sound.
“Gem? What’s wrong?” Quickly pulling off his gloves, he hollers, “Don’t touch anything. Stop!” Hearing panic, he reached for her, “I gotcha Gemmy. What’s wrong?”
“Rusty, its 193 Main St., Number 2. Doc Mayor called for 193 Main St.” was all she could repeat.
“Calm down Gemmy, calm down. Let’s go upstairs.” Not knowing what she meant, he cloaked her in his comfort and carefully escorted her back up the narrow staircase.
“It’s Miss Mae. Rusty, it’s Miss Mae’s address. Rusty, she’s dead! She’s dead!”
“Calm down Gemmy.” Rusty knew how to console Gem. “You gotta’ remember that Miss Mae was old Gemmy; she knew she didn’t have long. She told you that time and time again. That’s why we told her we’d take care of old Barbedwire for her. She probably was ready to go long ago, but didn’t know what to do with that old cat. She’s at peace now.”
Oh my God, what about Barbs? We’ve got to go get em’. Can we go now? I don’t know how long Miss Mae’s been gone. Please Rusty; can I go with you? I gotta’ get old Barbs.”
Gem never went on pick ups. But today, life changed for Gem. She’d been in the basement and now she’d asked to go on a pick up with Rusty.
“Yes, Gem, you can come. You can get Barbedwire and bring him home with us.” The gesture calmed Gem immediately.
Neither Rusty nor Gem had ever been inside Miss Mae’s apartment. The apartment was barren, dark and lifeless. The only furniture was a low cot with a saggy stained mattress; there was no second bedroom. A rickety table sat in the kitchen with a lonesome chair. The cupboards were nearly bare with only a few bags of beans and rice, and only a single plate and cup lay on the drying rack. There was… no refrigerator. Gem’s heart broke. How could she have been so stupid to think that the gifts were…Miss Mae’s extras? Miss Mae had given all that she had to Gem. Even now in her death, Gem was taking Barbs, the only possession she wanted to keep.
“Not now Gem, I gotta’ work.”
Gem found Barbs. He was sweetly curled up on some old clothes in the back of the little pantry closet. Dead. Dead and gone, just like Miss Mae. Gem gently wept. Maybe she wept for Miss Mae, maybe for Barbs, maybe on account she couldn’t make good her promise, maybe for herself ‘cause her best friend in Norfolk was now gone forever and there would be no one to talk to. She peacefully covered Barbs in the clothes and walked to the hearse, where she gently laid Barbs on the front floorboard.
“I’m all tired out Rusty and Barbs’ gone. You about done?”
“Not too much longer Gem, just let me work.”
“I’m plum worn out, Rusty. I’m gonna’ go sit in the car.” Gem was too exhausted to cry, it had been the longest day of her life.
Rusty vowed to make Miss Mae his best work. He knew it meant a lot to his young wife. It was a beautiful little ceremony. They were her only family.
Rusty never did find out Barbedwire’s whereabouts. After the ceremony, as usual, Rusty loaded the casket into the hearse. Tomorrow he would drive out to the City cemetery and Mr. Mills would bury her. And that was that.
“Rusty, I am going to say my last goodbyes to Miss Mae now, like I promised.”
“Gem, she’s all ready for tomorrow, you know I don’t want her disturbed.”
“I know, but I won’t disturb anything. I just gotta’ make good my promise, and I promised her.” Gem pleaded with her husband.
“Ok.” Rusty relented, knowing you’re only as good as the promises you keep.
Gem brought out a small bundle of clothes and walked to the garage. Gently opening the casket, she tenderly placed the bundle with Miss Mae and whispered, “I know you wanted Barbs with you, and I promised we’d take care of him. But, I think its best that you care for him now. She closed the lid, knowing you’re only as good as the promises you keep.