To Stay or Go
Claire clutched the letter and pressed the emergency button for the second time. Why her? Again? This was the third time this month that the elevator had got stuck between floors. Standing beside her was Mr. Mitchell. He was breathing into his mobile oxygen mask as though he were auditioning for the part of Darth Vader.
“Mr. Mitchell, Randy will be here soon. I saw him not too long ago in the lobby.” She said it loud enough for him to hear. Mr. Mitchell was a war veteran and had hearing loss due to the heavy artillery on the ships he was stationed. He shook his head and took away the mask long enough for Claire to see his missing row of front teeth.
Her body collapsed against the wall and she blew air onto her bangs. The sticky humidity kept the brown wisps clinging to her moist face. It was June and if today was any indication of this summer, she might have to break down and get another window unit for her apartment. That was the second thing this old building needed—a working elevator was the first and rodent control was the third. Mrs. Simmons said last week she saw a four-legged rat the size of her poor little Mr. Peepers in the hall. Mr. Peepers was her five-pound Chihuahua. Then again, Mrs. Simmons sometimes forgot to wear her eyeglasses—maybe it was Mr. Peepers.
The lights flickered and she heard the motor come on. Mr. Mitchell’s eyes opened. They were successfully on their way up to the fourth floor. And not a minute too soon. That extra-large drink that sounded like a good idea to get while Claire was in the city was now making its way out of her bladder. She might have to scissor-leg it all the way to her door just so she could make it to her bathroom.
“Bye, Mr. Mitchell. Have a good day.” She pushed the strap of her bag onto her shoulder and fumbled for her keys. That letter was still pressed hard into her hand.
“Yes! Finally.” She kicked the door shut and dropped everything on the ground, running toward the bathroom.
As she wiped her wet hands on her pant legs, she heard a knock on her door. “Wait a sec,” she yelled out.
She picked up her bag and slung it to the sofa. After looking through the tiny peephole and seeing it was Pam, she opened the door.
“Hey girl.” Pam walked past her, and dove right for the lumpy chair in the corner.
“Hey yourself. Tough day?”
Pam moved into the building five months ago. Right after Claire’s mother had passed away. It was like God had said, “I’ll take your mother, but I’ll send you Pam.” At least that’s how Claire sometimes rationalized it.
Pam Logan was a wonderful distraction to the world collapsing around Claire. A true New Yorker, Pam took nothing off nobody. She didn’t mince words, and if you were in her good graces, she never let you down.
“Let’s put it like this: Captain Sam’s Chicken Shack almost lost its captain today.”
Claire plopped down on the sofa and popped her eyes at her wild and carefree friend. “Pam, don’t tell me you got into another riff with Jason.”
“Riff? Riff?” Pam began to sway her head and shake that long finger of hers. “No, this was a downright brawl. Like in that movie…what’s that movie I like? It has Patrick Swayze? And he’s hired to keep the peace?” She snapped her fingers, the words almost on the tip of her tongue.
Pam threw the throw pillow she was sitting on toward Claire.
Claire blocked it and laughed. “What? I told you I didn’t watch much television. Or go to the movies. I read books.”
“Yeah, yeah. You told me. I just don’t know how you survived.”
“Just fine. Except for moments like this when I can’t relate to your story.”
“You do know Patrick, right?”
“Uh, yes. Hence the Dirty Dancing answer. He was so completely hot in that movie. Mom and I watched it like ten times in one month. I almost got down the dance, but she couldn’t catch me for the finale.”
“Ha! You’re a trip. But no, it’s not Dirty Dancing. He goes to this place and busts everyone up. It’s like the best movie ever.”
“Sounds it. I’m just sorry I missed that busting moment.”
“Well, Mr. Man is going to get what’s coming to him, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
Claire got up and went to the kitchen to pour herself some water. “I guess you’re referring to Mr. Tate, your employer, and let me guess…is it that he wanted you to take out the trash again? Is that what has you going all Patrick Swayze on him? New flash, Pam—trash is a part of your job.”
Pam worked full-time at the fast-food chicken shack down off Henry Street. At nights, she attended community college. She wanted to become a social worker.
“Have I not told you already that Mr. Tate has it in for me? He only puts me on trash duty, not Daniel or Rita. Me. And I’m sick of it.” She undid her badge and stuffed it in her pocket. Claire could smell fried chicken permeating the room with each movement Pam made.
“It’s not your career, Pam. It’s just a stepping stone.”
“Easy for you to say, Miss Scientist. What’s that place you’re starting? Brainiac Laboratory?”
“Bio Works.” Claire leaned on the doorframe that separated the two rooms and smiled, stars in her eyes. “I pinch myself at least four times a day. Can you believe it? Me? In one of those white coats? Getting paid for what I love to do?”
“Yeah, well, you deserve it. How long did you work there, not getting paid?”
“It was an internship, Pam. And it was a year. Hey, at least they’re giving me a month off before I begin my new position.”
“Have you decided what you’re going to do yet with all that time? Perhaps redecorate the summer home? Go on that yacht trip you’ve been pining to do but never seem to have the time? I know…maybe fly off to France and try your hand at some summer romance with a Frenchman who doesn’t know English.”
“Wrong, wrong, and wrong. I thought I’d just read some books, babysit for Nellie Carlisle on the third floor, and fill out an application for that new coffee shop around the corner. It doesn’t hurt to make extra money, you know? And I can tell them once I begin work at my other job I can only come in on weekends.”
“Okay, I was just kidding with my suggestions. Please tell me you are, too. Get a job? Are you serious? You told me rent was paid this month.”
“So read a book. Live on the edge and watch a movie. Just take a break. I’ve never known someone with your work ethic. The fact you took care of your mother, went to school, and worked at that lab for free. You are my hero.”
“Shut up, you.”
“Seriously. And not to be nosey or anything. Well, okay, to be nosey. How is it rent is paid for this month? Not that it’s my business, but how is rent just paid for any month? It wasn’t like you were getting money from that job, right? I mean, you said it was an internship.”
“Yeah, it was. I mean they paid me some, but nothing that could afford me more than a utility bill. And thankfully my scholarship paid for school.”
“So how about the rent?”
Claire walked over, bent down, and picked up the letter she’d dropped when she was racing earlier to the bathroom. “This.”
“That? What is it? The rent fairy? She sends money arbitrarily to good little girls? Well, I take back all the talk I said about dismembering Mr. Tate. Really I do.”
“No, silly. It’s from Melanie Prescott. She’s…she was Mom’s best friend. She has more money than she knows what to do with. Toward the end of Mom’s sickness, she came and stayed with us. I was so amazed she would do that for Mom.” Claire stared out the window. “Anyway, she insisted paying the rent for six months. Mom hadn’t worked in forever and she insisted I not quit school. She’s amazing.”
“She sounds it. But where in the world does she get her money and what is her connection to your mother?”
“They met here in New York. They worked for the same airline. Melanie hooked up with a frequent flyer who owned his own business and the rest was history for her. She moved out of this wonderful apartment building and into a penthouse on Fifth Avenue. Mom and her never lost track despite Melanie’s new lifestyle. We vacationed at their summer house on this little island called Kelly’s Cove every year. It was unbelievable.”
Claire heard Pam’s phone buzz. She closed her eyes, dreaming of those summers, while Pam typed out a message. The thought of that beautiful house disappeared when Pam’s voice brought her out of the image in her mind.
“So that sounds pretty amazing.”
“Yeah, it was.” Claire glanced at the envelope.
“What’s in the letter?”
“Oh, it’s from Melanie. She wants me to come up. You know, to the summer house.”
“When do you leave?”
Claire shoved the letter in the side of the couch. “I don’t.”
“What? Why not?”
“I can’t go without Mom. Are you crazy? Melanie was her friend. It wouldn’t be the same going by myself. I mean, what would I do?”
“Um, oh, I don’t know. Maybe lay in the sun, flip around in the water. You did say it was on an island, right? I’m supposing it’s surrounded by water?”
“Well, yeah but—”
“Claire, you deserve a break. You graduated summa cum laude, have a great career you’ll be beginning in a month, and the rent is paid for this month. Give yourself permission to go and relax. Does she accept visitors? I’m sure Mr. Tate would give me the days off.” She threw her head back, laughing.
“Are you being serious? Could you get off? Oh my gosh, Pam. That would be wonderful. We could swim in the cove, lay by the pool, eat Frieda’s homemade recipes…she’s the cook, and you’d love Mallory. She’s Melanie’s daughter. Totally cool. I used to get her hand-me-downs. They were fabulous. And her brother, Colin. Although I’m not sure he’d be there. He hasn’t been since he went to college. He might, who knows.” She shrugged. “They’re twins. Mallory and Colin, that is.”
“Look at you.” Pam scooched up on the chair and rested her head on her palm. “And you seriously were thinking about not going? Girl, you’re busting to go.”
“What can I say? It’s like visiting another world. And each year, Mom and I would get to go for a week. Sometimes a little longer if she had extra days off work. Now, what do you say? I know Melanie wouldn’t care. I can call and ask her.”
Pam chuckled. “Oh my dear little naïve bestie. If only I could vacation. Do you know the last time I was off work?” She bit her lip. “Yep, now I remember. It was before I moved here. Yep, that’s it. I had the flu, strep throat, and bronchitis all at the same time. It was a jolly good time. I was off for a full five days. The other five that I was recovering I spent in the bathroom of Jan’s clothing line off of Tyler and Frank Street. There were no hard feelings when Jan had to let me go for throwing up in the cash drawer. Obviously, I wasn’t well enough to return to work.”
“I’m sorry. That must’ve been awful.”
“Yeah, I’m still paying off my last landlord for rent I missed. That’s why my next vacation will be sometime in the next five years. I figure by then I won’t care where I go. Anywhere won’t be here.”
Claire put her head down. “I’ll stay and give you comfort. We’ll go out maybe. Go into the city one night after you get off. Maybe go to a bar. Although I hate bars. I know you like them, though.”
“You’re sweet, Claire. Knowing how much you hate bars, that you would go to one for me. Even stay here and watch me come and go with chicken feathers. That’s saint material. It’s just I’m not going to let you. Now pack your sorry butt and buy that ticket. You’re going to the house of enchantment, eat some good food, and swim in the nice unpolluted water. Just text me pictures. I’ll live through your experience.”
“The ticket is in the letter.”
“There ya go. You have no reason not to go. Don’t make me hurt you.”
“What if I go and miss Mom so much I want to come home? What if for some reason no one speaks to me, stares at me like I’m a freak, or Frieda can’t cook anymore and I get food poisoning and sit on the toilet for a week.” She shook her head. “No, I can’t go. I can’t imagine getting off that train and not having Mom there to shield me from all the what-ifs. She made it so easy to go and have fun. I’d be completely lost without her.”
Pam went to Claire, sat down at her feet and patted her. Claire stared at the gravy stains on her pants. “I think your mom would want you to go, honey. Let this be your trip. Your experience. You need to live a little before you’re chained to your career. Let loose. And that’s an order.” She shrugged. “And if you get food poisoning, just go and barf in the crystal-blue lagoon. It’s better than a rusty toilet that smells like New York sewer.”
“I will feel like a heel if I don’t go. I mean, Melanie begged me at Mom’s funeral. She paid for everything for me to come. And the rent’s taken care of…I mean, she’s been a saint. And I think she’s looking forward to me coming. I have no idea why.”
“Uh, you’re only totally cool. Except you need to brush up with a few Netflix marathons. Please tell me you’ll watch at least two movies while you’re there.”
Claire looked at her friend. “If you read one book, I’ll make sure I watch two movies.”
“Make it a sexpot book where the guy chases after the girl in the chicken uniform and they live happily ever after, and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Pam jumped up from the sofa. “Okay, it’s settled. Now, what do you have in this place that’s junky, totally bad for my health, and would give Dr. Oz nightmares?” She walked to the kitchen and opened a few cabinets.
“You won’t find anything of the sort. Unless you count tofu. I have some leftovers from last night’s dinner.”
“Do you want me to puke in my mouth right now? That’s gross. And leftover tofu? Nasty, Claire. Just nasty. It’s bad enough served fresh.”
“Fine, you go get changed and I’ll treat us to the sandwich shop on the corner.”
“Eww, big spender, huh?”
“Just for you. Now get going. I’m hungry.”
Pam moseyed out of the apartment and Claire jumped back on the sofa and grabbed her phone from her bag. She found Melanie Prescott’s phone number and texted her she’d be on the Saturday train. She pressed Send and leaned back. Her eyes closed and she tried to quell the nervous Nellies bubbling up inside her. Just go and fall into a deep book. Before you know it, the week will be over.