A short story by Susan A. Jennings
Author and teacher, Susan's book, Save Some for Me, can be purchased from www.justforwriters.ca as well as Writing workshops and E-courses for writers.
The clickety clack rhythm of the train lulled Marci into a half sleep enabling her to relax and think.
She frowned as she recalled her friend's unusually shrill voice and the defiant click as the phone went dead; it was so unlike Judy. The pit of her stomach was telling her something was very wrong and that was why she was heading to Toronto uninvited.
Deep in thought, Marci's furrowed brow relaxed with a smile as she remembered their first meeting at M & F Foods. They were so different. Judy's petite doll like figure adorned in pink frills contrasted with Marci's tall slender frame dressed in a tailored pantsuit.
A casualty of the recession Judy was laid off a few years later. Marci, protected by seniority, stayed until she retired. Even living in different cities hadn't hindered their friendship.
The train slowly came to a stop. Marci caught a cab directly to Judy's place. Judy was sitting on the porch surrounded by flowers and framed by the pretty lace curtains in the bay window. So in character, Marci thought affectionately.
"Surprise!" Marci said, as she stepped out of the cab, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt.
"I had a feeling you wouldn't take no for an answer," Judy said, standing on tiptoes and hugging Marci. "You look good."
"So do you," Marci lied. Black circles rimmed Judy's eyes. Her smile had lost its impish sparkle. The pale blue jacket hung limply from her shoulders. Marci knew she had done the right thing by coming uninvited.
The phone was ringing but Judy ignored it. "Telemarketers," she said. As soon as the ringing stopped it started again. This time Judy answered.
"Are you threatening me?" Judy whispered. "No wait... I'll see what I can do."
"What was that all about?" Marci inquired.
"Umm... nothing. I'll make tea. Could you grab the milk?"
Marci opened the fridge. "Oh my goodness! There's nothing in here."
"I wasn't expecting guests, remember?" They both laughed.
The next morning, as they were driving away a man walked up to the front door but Judy kept going.
"Someone is at your door," Marci said, "and he looks kind of sleazy."
"Oh... that's the hydro guy."
They shopped all day arriving home exhausted. Marci started to unload the parcels and suddenly pointed across the street, "Look! Isn't that the hydro guy?"
Judy stopped dead, her colour drained to a ghostly white and she was gasping for breath. Marci ran to her afraid she was having a fit or stroke.
"Judy, what's wrong?"
"I'm okay," Judy huffed. "I know it is...uh... Thursday ...uh...and I can talk.... I am not having a stroke."
Still worried, Marci sorted the parcels, placed a bag of groceries on the counter and carried the rest upstairs. The phone rang again. Marci crept to the top of the stairs to listen.
"Please... I can only give you two hundred."
Marci went cold. Was Judy being blackmailed?
"Marci! I'm just popping next door. I forgot the milk."
That's strange. I'm sure we bought some, thought Marci, stepping over to the window. She watched Judy walk directly to the sleazy hydro guy's car and hand him an envelope. The man was angry and shook his fist yelling, "I want the rest tomorrow!"
Judy turned around, her face wet with tears. Marci leapt downstairs and out the door.
"Why are you being blackmailed?"
"Please, Judy, don't shut me out."
"Broke!" Marci repeated, "So you are being blackmailed."
"Why do you keep talking about blackmail?"
"Well let's see. The phone calls, the stakeout, the sleazy hydro guy, a suspicious envelope, not to mention how upset you are. Need I say more?" Marci was frustrated. "I can see it with my own eyes."
"Oh my goodness... Marci...He's a bill collector!" Half laughing, half crying, Judy explained, "I'm afraid to answer the phone; I'm spied on, threatened and constantly harassed. I am scared to leave the house." She busied herself at the kitchen counter.
Marci put two and two together. Judy's strange behaviour, why there was no food in the fridge. Guiltily she recalled that all of today's shopping was hers except for one small bag of groceries. Marci had a pension and savings and had assumed Judy did too. How could she have been so blind?
Judy placed two steaming mugs on the table and they fell silent sipping the comforting tea. Judy stared pensively as she talked about the slippery slope from middle class affluence to the fast approaching ‘bag lady' poverty.
"After I was laid off, I never found a good job with benefits. Every month I supplemented with my savings until it was gone. Now I rely on the government pension, which doesn't even cover basic expenses."
"I did something very foolish." Judy stared into her tea. "I borrowed money from one of those money places."
Marci was shocked. "Those guys are all shysters! Why didn't you tell me?"
"I thought I could handle it by selling the car but the car didn't sell. The more behind I got the more money I owed. I thought of selling the house but where would I go? " Judy gave a nervous giggle. " Sleazy hydro guy thinks that I'm a spoiled middleclass housewife hiding some unforgivable monetary sin from my husband." They started laughing hysterically at the irony of this because they were both long time divorcees.
Marci took advantage of the mood change to take control of the situation. "As I see it, the first thing we do tomorrow morning is pay off these shysters."
Judy protested, "I can't —"
"This is not negotiable," Marci said forcefully. "I have the money, consider it a loan. After that, we'll pick up groceries and a bottle of wine."
The following evening they shared the wine and brainstormed ideas until they were satisfied they had a realistic plan that would meet Judy's needs. Pleased with the results, Marci raised her glass.
"To prosperity and no more secrets!"
The glasses gave a TING as they touched.
"To prosperity and no more secrets!"
The impish sparkle now back in Judy's smile.
Author's note: Although this story is fiction, it may surprise you to know that there are many retired women living in rich countries like Canada that are in very similar situations to Judy's. You may not recognize them because they are too proud to ask for help and on the surface they look like you and me. Watch for the warning signs and give a helping hand.
October 23, 2009 — Return to cover.