The Safe: Part One

A little while ago I was asked to contribute a short story for a book anthology. Sadly, the book never came about. I thought I’d share it with you here. It’s stretched across several parts, which I’ve decided to serialise overt the concurrent days.

The town was nothing really. Just a flyspeck on the window of humanity.

Population: 950 souls.

It lay somewhere west of the Smoky Mountain region of Tennessee. But it was our town, and I’d grown up here. I’d known nothing else. Hadn’t really wanted to. Not until the woman who kept us all from falling apart was, before my very eyes, falling apart herself.

She sat enveloped in a kind of frozen silence as Samuel Graveley pronounced sentence. Graveley displayed neither gavel or black cap. In the cluttered room, filled with dying rubber plants and a bed covered by a white cotton sheet, with a plastic underlay, he was guilty of sealing her doom nonetheless.

Mama squeezed my hand so tightly that I felt my wrist go numb. I wanted the pain. I needed the anguish to help me come to terms with the words that echoed and bounced back at me like a rubber ball.

“There’s good and bad news, Mrs Trenchard.”

Mama said nothing, but fixed her gaze to a point above Graveley’s head. He’d been our family doctor for as long as I could remember. He’d brought me, Lorraine and Johnny into the world. Now he was going to take Mama out of it.

But there was good news. A tiny speck of hope, on a par to a newly discovered nova from a dying planet.

“So what’s the good news, Doc?” I tried and failed to keep the eagerness from my voice. Since Mama had confided in my sister Lorrie that she’d found a lump in her breast, our whole world had begun to crumble around us. Because Mama was our world, and had been since Pa was killed in the War.

“Luke, please.” She gripped my hand, admonition in her voice. Mama was a proud woman. It wasn’t seemly to display our feelings in front of such a prominent personage. To hell with protocol. I needed to know.

Graveley steepled a bridge. Like, you know, interlacing his fingers. I saw they were stained yellow from cigarette smoke. He smiled, which he did rarely. Graveley sure lived up to his name.

“The good news is you’ve caught it early. Yes, it is cancer, Mrs Trenchard.” He reached for her hand, but she kept it folded in her lap. She looked tired and old. Careworn from working and slaving for him. I couldn’t bring myself to say stepfather. She looked sad too, and I slipped an arm around her, for which I received a grateful smile. “I’m so very sorry I couldn’t offer you a better diagnosis, but I can get you into hospital. The Westchester in Nashville is one of the finest hospitals where you will receive the utmost…”

“The Westchester?” Mama looked horrified. “That costs money! Even a local hospital would be too much.”

“I’m afraid a local hospital doesn’t have the facilities the Westchester does.”

“So how much we talking, Doc?” I asked.

“The impatience of youth,” said Mama.

“No, it’s fine. Your son has a right to know. The operation would cost about five hundred dollars. You’d need to stay in for a few days. Oh..” He considered, toying with his spectacles absently, before returning them. He tapped those yellowed bony fingers against his mouth. Dr Graveley was getting on in years, but it was as if his hands had aged before him. “I would say, the figure is an estimate of course, about a thousand dollars.”

“A thousand dollars!” Mama exclaimed, patting her chest as if she were about to faint. “I don’t have that kind of money. I don’t know why you’re quoting these figures to me.”

“But you have an excellent chance of recovery. The cancer’s still in the early stages, I told you. I only have to contact the Westchester and they’ll fit you in.”

“We’ll get the money somehow, Mama. We can’t lose you.” I felt the tears welling. I was almost twenty, but where my beloved Mama was concerned I was a kid again. I was nine years old when Mama told us Pa had been killed. I couldn’t lose her too. Maybe there was a kind of selfishness in me, because  I couldn’t be left alone with him.

“Mrs Trenchard,” his tone was cajoling, “it’s your life, but you’re not yet fifty. Your family need you, I know. And soon to be a grandmother, I hear, with young Lorrie expecting.”

“And where did you hear that might I ask?” Mama asked indignantly. “That’s our business.”

“Mama, the doctor didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“Indeed not. What I was going to say was your husband is a much respected business man in the town. A local banker. You only have to ask…”

“Ask him?” Mama was on her feet, her face going pale. “I can’t ask him for nothing. And you,” she paused to point at Graveley, her familiar determined self once more, “I don’t want this mentioned not to him, to Isaac, do you understand?”

“But Mrs Trenchard, he is your husband. Surely he has a right to know. He  has  been known to be generous with his loans. As his wife…” The withering look she gave him was enough to stun Graveley to silence.

“He’s right you know. You should talk to Ike,” I said, climbing into the Buick. I’d never been able to bring myself to call him Pa. My father, John Franklyn was dead and buried in Forest Lawns Cemetery.

“You have to ask him for money sometime. You do need that operation.” Mama composed herself beside me. “Maybe we oughtta see him now,” I suggested, inclining toward the large grey building on the corner. The County Municipal Bank. As Doc Graveley said, Ike was a respected businessman. He had money. Everyone knew that. Mrs Trenchard had done well for herself, when Ike had  taken on another man’s children. At least that was the talk around town.

“No!” Her eyes came alive in her worn exterior. “Take me home, Luke. I’ll hear no more of it, do you understand?”

“So you gonna let it get worse and… and spread?” I choked.

“I said take me home, boy.” Her tone was sharper this time. “Your Pa will be home for his supper soon. You know he don’t like to be kept waiting.”

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