Henrietta sat with her friend Mrs. Pelletier in the back seat of the old Rambler. Her grandson drove. A loud crack, as if a tree had suddenly split in half from age and drought, woke her from a gentle nap. "Oh," she apologized. "I'm sorry. I drifted off to sleep. What was that noise?"
"It was the radio," Mrs. Pelletier told her. "We can't get a station this far out."
"Whoever heard of A.M. radio?" Henrietta's grandson asked. Henrietta didn't answer, not just assuming that the question was rhetorical but believing that the young man's patience with them might be giving out. He twisted the weathered plastic knob and tried to force the tubes to recognize a sound that wasn't static.
"I never cared to listen to the radio," Mrs. Pelletier said.
Outside, the land stretched out flat like a Sunday paper waiting on the foot of the front door. Henrietta had never noticed before how in early spring, just after the snow melt and before the plantings, the earth in Crooked Corners was as grey as her father's whiskers. The land was grey, yes, and flat, and the pale blue wash of late afternoon sky met it at the far horizon and made a thin brown stripe. Henrietta twisted around and tried to locate the sun.
Mrs. Pelletier sighed. Henrietta felt sorry for her and settled down. "Are you all right, dear?"
"I suppose I am. But, you know, I'm rather hungry."
"I am, too. Henry, dear, let's stop and get something to eat."
"Sounds good." He gave up on the radio. It popped like a burning pine log as he turned it off.
In the truck stop, Mrs. Pelletier feared she might not be able to struggle her way back out of the cramped booth near the window. Besides, it was a bit chilly this late in the day, and the air at the edges of restaurants housed in glass always retain more than a hint of the outside weather. It was best, they agreed, to sit down on real chairs at a table in the middle of the room.
Henrietta didn't mind the hustle and bustle of the waiter and the children running ahead of their weary parents to the gift shop, but she was having a little trouble hearing over the air brakes and truck engines idling outside. "Speak up, Henry," she said. "Mrs. Pelletier can't hear you."
"I said I wish my professor would give me a break. She thinks I'm stupid."
"Oh, I don't see how she could honestly think that, dear. You're exaggerating."
"No. She gave me a 'D' on the story."
"What was the story about?" Her grandson glanced at Mrs. Pelletier, then opened his eyes wide at his grandmother. Henrietta understood. "Do you think it was an 'A' paper?" she asked.
"Not necessarily an 'A,'" he said, "but not a 'D,' either."
"Well, maybe you should talk to her," Henrietta said. "Go to the source and find out why you got such a low grade."
"I know why," Henry said. "She hates me."
Henrietta laughed, and Mrs. Pelletier looked up from the menu, which she had studied with the intensity of an organist cold-reading a hymn. "What are you two talking about?" Her voice cracked like an adolescent's, and she followed her question with a racking cough. A small child at the table beside them watched, holding his big glass of milk with both hands.
"Excuse me," Mrs. Pelletier said, when the interlude had passed.
Henrietta reached out to take her grandson's hand, but the harried waiter arrived and took their orders, and after he left, Henrietta couldn't remember the conversation beforehand. She thought about that, about her memory and how sometimes now, especially in crowded and noisy places like stores or at the newspaper office where she still worked, she would find herself getting up and walking briskly to get something or to talk to someone and suddenly realize she had no idea what she wanted. It frightened her, but she admitted to herself, as the busboy plopped down three large glasses overflowing with ice water, that it could be worse.
She turned to Mrs. Pelletier. "How are you doing, dear?" Her friend seemed to hear the question and give it some thought, but her response was "What?"
"I said 'How are you doing?'" Henrietta spoke close to shouting.
"I suppose I'm fine," Mrs. Pelletier said. "What were you two talking about?"
Henrietta picked up her silverware. It was wrapped tightly inside a cloth napkin like a metal burrito. She looked up at her grandson and grinned. "You tell her, Henry."
Her grandson didn't know what to say. "I was...was just saying how...how difficult school is...college is lately," he stuttered.
"Oh, yes," Mrs. Pelletier agreed. "School is very hard." She noticed the glass of ice water in front of her and wrapped her fingers with their swollen knuckles around it, as if to make sure it was really there.
Henrietta remembered: a "D" on a term paper. How awful. Would his parents be upset? She would have to talk to them and make sure they knew it was not a sign of the apocalypse.
"School in this day is so very different than it was when I was about your age," Mrs. Pelletier said. "Mm-hmm, so very different today."
"Really?" Henry asked. "What did you study?"
Henrietta smiled at her grandson. She was so proud of him. Mrs. Pelletier laughed. "Arithmetic and writing my ABCs," she said. "I only went up through the eighth grade."
"The eighth grade?" Henry repeated. He sounded genuinely shocked. Henrietta noticed a small brown stain on his hazel T-shirt, right on the edge where the sleeve met the shoulder.
"The high school was five miles away," Mrs. Pelletier explained. She cleared her throat. "We didn't have a school bus in Crooked Corners. Back then we boys and girls had to walk--or ride the horse."
Henry backed up as the waiter placed a bowl of salad on the paper placemat in front of him. Mrs. Pelletier said "thank you" and observed her salad with a suspicious wince. With both hands, she dug around in the deep pockets of her thick sand-colored cardigan and found her glasses and put them on. She straightened them over her nose, and Henrietta became suddenly self-conscious, concerned that her own wide glasses, with their ingrained bifocal lenses, might be lopsided. She reached up and fixed them just in case.
"You had to ride a horse to school?" her grandson asked. His fork crunched into the ice-cold lettuce in front of him.
"No," Mrs. Pelletier exclaimed. She looked at Henrietta and shrugged with a big smile on her face.
"Times were different then, dear," Henrietta offered. "Not everyone went to school."
"Yes, I did," Henrietta admitted. She eyed her friend, who examined a cherry tomato on the end of her fork. "But I lived closer to town, for one thing."
"But you also went to college," Henry continued. Mrs. Pelletier didn't seem to be listening to them. "You studied journalism, too," Henry said.
"I know that, Henry. I know, dear." She tried not to frown at him, for she did love him for being curious and just for being there with her today, but for now she wished he would be quiet. "A woman studying journalism--studying anything--was quite rare at that time. Mrs. Pelletier was merely living the life of a normal girl. She didn't need to go to school."
"What?" Mrs. Pelletier said, looking up. She put the cherry tomato back, and it rolled from the top of her salad and off onto the tablecloth and then to the floor. "Just like a marble," she said.
"What's the matter, dear?" Henrietta asked. "Aren't you hungry?"
"I thought I was," Mrs. Pelletier said. She had a way of saying "was" that gave the word two sad syllables.
Henrietta felt a tingle in her heart. "Try to eat, dear," she said. "Just a little."
"I will," Mrs. Pelletier promised, "When my potato comes. I can digest that."
Henry dove into his salad and for the moment seemed absorbed by the act of eating. Henrietta ate about half of her own salad, but she felt sad, and when her chicken breast came, even though it looked delicious, she had to remind herself to pick up her knife and cut into it. As soon as she took a bite, however, her appetite returned.
The truck stop's restaurant cleared of people gradually, and aside from the requisite burly and overweight men in flannel shirts stuffed into a nearby booth like swollen feet into new shoes, Henrietta could see no other diners. She ate slowly, hoping that by pacing herself, her friend might regain part of her own appetite and eat a little herself. She was trying--Henrietta observed her pushing her beef stroganoff around on her plate as if she were examining the dung of a coyote--but she didn't even take a bite of her baked potato. The steam that had risen from its opened top lessened and became as transparent as space.
The waiter appeared not to notice the uneaten food as he cleared their plates, and when he brought the check, he joked with Henry about being the only "male server" at a truck stop within a hundred miles.
"He's very friendly," Henrietta said.
"Yeah," Henry muttered.
"We'll leave him a nice tip."
Mrs. Pelletier pushed her thumb against the round brass clasps of her small leather purse, but Henrietta reached out and grabbed up the check as if a silver dollar had fallen from the sky. "No, no," she said. "This is on us."
Mrs. Pelletier's brow grew furrows as deep as a new garden. "Now Henrietta," she said, "It was our bargain. You drove me all this way, and I promised I'd pay for dinner."
"But I didn't drive," Henrietta said impishly. "Henry did." She took out two $20 bills.
"But it was part of the bargain," said Mrs. Pelletier.
"I never make a verbal contract," Henrietta announced.
Henry added, "Besides, you didn't even eat."
Mrs. Pelletier sat back. She put her purse on her lap and shrugged. "Well, thank you very much," she said, and she left it at that.
Henrietta paid the check and left a generous tip for the waiter--18 percent, she figured--and after they left the restaurant, Henry filled the car with gas as Mrs. Pelletier lowered herself slowly into the back seat and closed the door.
Henrietta wasn't quite ready to get back on the road. There was only an hour left of the trip, but she felt restless. She shouldn't have eaten all of the chicken and the green beans with almonds and her cherry tart.
The sky had changed from blue to yellow, and she knew the sun was setting somewhere, but she was lost. Her sense of direction had left her years ago, about the same time she had discovered whiskers--not just whiskers, but long, thin hairs--growing from her chin. Like them, she could get all twisted around these days.
She stepped over to Henry, her handsome and intelligent grandson, and stood beside him. He had locked the nozzle in place and leaned against the trunk of the Rambler with his arms crossed. Henrietta reached up and touched the stain on his shoulder. It startled him.
"What?" he said.
"Thanks for driving, dear," she said.
"No problem." He reached up and waved away a fly.
Henrietta looked in on Mrs. Pelletier. Her eyes were closed behind her glasses, and her mouth hung open. The little purse, clutched in her thin hands with their lollipop knuckles, rose and fell in her lap. "Poor thing," Henrietta said. "She's exhausted."
"What's the matter with her, anyway?" asked Henry.
"She won't say," Henrietta told him. She had her own suspicions, but she didn't want to think about them. "It must be something awful if we had to drive three hours to a specialist."
"Crooked Corners really needs a hospital."
"It's too small."
"It's growing every day."
"You're right about that."
Henry waved at the fly again. The numbers on the pump slowly rose. Henrietta saw a penny on the pavement at her feet, but she didn't think she could bend over to get it.
"We were in the waiting room a really long time," Henry said.
"I know. Thank you, dear. You're a doll. Don't worry about your grades. They'll pick up."
"I'm not worried about them," her grandson clarified. "Just that my professor doesn't like me."
The lock on the nozzle clicked out of place, and he topped off the last few cents of nine dollars. As he returned the hose to the pump, he said, "Eighth grade. I can't believe it."
"Those were the times, dear," Henrietta repeated.
As they walked around the car, she had a rather unpleasant thought. She put her fingers, all wrinkled and so old, on the door handle, but she hesitated.
"What's the matter?" Henry asked. He looked concerned. She smiled at him.
"Nothing," she insisted. "Nothing much." He gazed at her. She felt a chill in the evening air. "I was trying to be nice," she explained. "But I suppose I should have let Mrs. Pelletier pay for dinner."