“So,” said Estella, “I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.”– Great Expectations
The phone rang at 8:45 p.m. I’ve never liked answering the phone after 8pm. Other than bill collectors who flagrantly ignore laws stating that no calls are to be made to deadbeats before 8am or after 8pm, who else could it be other than someone phoning with bad news?
“Estella, did you hear me?” The voice on the other end of the phone didn’t belong to a bill collector, nor was it weepy or overly somber—but it did sound pissed.
“I’m here. Hold on, just a second.”
“Estella?” Taiwo repeated, his West African drawl more affected, each syllable stretched well beyond breaking point. “Did you hear me? I said you’re in F O R E C L O S U R E.” This he repeated again, slowly as if English was my second, or perhaps even third language, and not my only language.
“Do you understand me?”
“Hold on, Taiwo, another moment, please,” I coughed, retching back into the receiver, continuing my sputtering knowing even as oven cleaner fumes overwhelmed me, making me both queasy and dizzy, surely this couldn’t be true. The chief reason being: I was selling my house in the morning. So, Taiwo had to be mistaken and, hopefully, God willing, someone had died instead.
“And, on who’s authority do you have it I’m in foreclosure, Taiwo?”
“The friggin bank, Estella, that’s who.” The bank and my settlement attorney, Ida B. Rubinstein, who according to Taiwo cursed him in heavy Bensonhurst–her don’t even go there with me Brooklynese, saying in part that our “shenanigans” were rivaled only by the man who shot his ex-wife in the wrist as she sat signing her copies of the HUD-1.
“Okay, say I am in foreclosure, what now?” I asked. I mean, really, I had only missed two mortgage payments.
“What, now? Well, I wait for word from Ida. You wait for word from me.”
It was already close to 9 P.M. “Yeah, but it’s late, too late for anyone to do anything, so I’m screwed, right?”
“Ida promised to let me know as soon as she got word – positive or not. Just sit tight, and if the phone rings, for goodness sake, Estella, do answer. It will probably be me.”
One hour later, the phone rings, a sharp, piercing trill bringing me back from where I had floated: Whether to begin using the more expensive 50 ft of filament tape or the way cheaper 100 ft of masking tape to close the moving boxes?
“Hey, Glory,” I answered, weary of all the packing that still lay ahead.
“How’d you know it was me? What, you finally broke down and got The Caller ID?”
I pushed aside boxes to make space at the dining room table. “No, I programmed the phone’s ringer so it plays, God Save the Queen, when it’s you.
“Oh, well, that’s sweet…I suppose. So, did you ‘friend’ me?”
“Tell me you didn’t call me about this, mother.”
“Whatever. Still, good daughters ‘friend’ their mothers — I’ve got 965 friends as of this morning.”
“Good,” I said. Whatever my issues were with my mother, others continue to love her to pieces.”
“This can’t be the reason you called? Tell me it’s not, mother.”
“No, you’re right, daughter. I called to cast blessings on your settlement tomorrow.”
I didn’t want to go into this newest hiccup. I just couldn’t go down that road with Glory, not this day, not with ‘she who is so supremely herself.’
So I changed the subject.
“How did church service go tonight? Good turn out?” When most seniors are getting up for that second nightly trip to the bathroom, my mother can be found taking sips of herbal tea from her Jesus Saves travel mug and reciting scriptures at sunrise sermon to the dispossessed and those (she says) merely demonically inclined. In this instance: Those fifteen bleary-eyed congregants content to sit under her aluminum carport, drenched in Florida early morning humidity.
“Of course, it was a good turnout. If only two gather to praise my name,” she answered.
“Your name?” I laughed, emitting a sound more like a pig’s snort than the soft, yet mocking chortle I had intended.
“Little girl, don’t let the Devil make you write a check your butt can’t cash. Thinking overmuch of yourself is what got you in this situation.” With this a silence takes over our conversation, like an old wool sweater that’s both warm and familiar, but still irritating to the extreme.
“Well, whatever’s goin on, and I know it’s something, I hope you’re praying for clarity on the matter.”
I sucked in air between gritted teeth. Glory knew I hated for her to call me ‘little girl’. I was thirty-eight, hardly a girl by anyone’s loose definition.
“Really, of all things to pray for, why clarity, mother?” I said, ignoring the fast clicking heard on Glory’s side of the line, a preemptive measure by her, the result of having been sued several times by the families of congregants.
“Clarity? Why? Isn’t it obvious, Estella? How many people leave a perfectly good job doing PR for books you said practically sold themselves to “find herself”? Ten years thrown out the window to do what? Cash out your retirement, literally throw good money down a rickety house’s rusty drain? Buckets of money–all for what, Estella? Start a yogi babysitting service that failed because you don’t know the first darn thing about kids or yogi, with those parents, those that let you watch ‘em, coming back to find their kids all red in the face, eyes practically swollen shut from crying the whole time you had ‘em twisted and bent back–”
“Mother, really, I’m in no condition—mood, to hear your list of all the ways I’ve fail at life. You’d think–”
“Oh, no, let me finish because you asked, so I’m going to tell you.”
“Go on, because I know you will anyway,” I said, “no matter what I have to say.”
“Right. What about that plan you had to sell used books online? That failed because people don’t read nothing. But even if they did, ever heard of Amazon, Estella? And, what about those gluten-free cookies and brownies and such, tasting like whoever was doing the baking — and I say this because it’s the God’s truth — tasted like you’d never turned on an oven in life, which you hadn’t up until then.”
Even with the receiver resting on my shoulder, and me doing my little ‘I’m-twirling-while-ignoring-you-mother-dance,’ I could just barely make out the voice of one of her most senior Christian geezer flunkies in the background, “Pastor Glory, you want lemon in your ginger tea?”
“No! Can’t you see I’m talkin’ to my child!” Then softer, “No, thank you, precious. I take mine straight,” before starting up again.
“Estella, you’d been better off spending all that money on one of those dating services, least by now you’d got yourself a husband for your trouble. Least then, maybe, you could have avoided all that other mess you got into. In some ways you really are your daddy’s child—God rest his malefactoring soul.”
After this there was no long silence. No, me telling her in no uncertain terms that no babies had been injured doing my “yoga for toddlers,” regimen, seeing how toddlers by definition are bendy. No, rant ending with me screaming, “You leave him out of this!” No anything. Just the click.
Tired and defeated with so much work to do before the settlement, I decided to close my eyes for ten minutes, maybe fifteen, but no more. Then refreshed I’d deal with the packing tape question, and all else yet to be dealt with.
“Estella, are you in there!” I recognized Taiwo’s voice right off, and could only wonder what Ida had to say, that he hadn’t simply called and needed to show up at my door at such a late hour. And if not for the sun casting the room in a gauzy, knocking-on-heaven’s-door supernatural light, and clock reading in orange neon 8:37AM, I would have never guessed I slept even fifteen minutes. I stumbled to the door and as by reflex, touched my face to check for dry drool.
“Your neighbor said this was in with her mail,” Taiwo said, wincing at the sight of me.
“Thanks.” I murmured, taking the envelope. The flap had been slit open. I envisioned Cecilia, her aquamarine nails emboldened with breezy palm trees, removing and reading the contents. I quickly scanned several sheets of paper. I was being foreclosed on. I brushed past Taiwo to stick my head out the door and wave at Cecilia still on her porch, her neck set to permanent crane.
“Thanks, Cecilia,” I yelled as I closed the screen door, allowing it to slam behind me.
“I’ve been trying you since six. Why didn’t you answer the phone?” Taiwo asked. I looked around, and saw the phone on the floor, off its cradle.
“Settlement’s on,” Taiwo said, sighing, offering me the limited edition version of his brilliant smile.
“Give me a minute to pull myself together.” I told him, wanting desperately to get in gear, but still strangely unnerved by whatever was coming next. And though barely whispered, I could have sworn I heard him say, “God, only a minute?”
Ida B. Rubinstein, the woman standing just inside conference room three, was nothing like the Ida B. Rubinstein I had imagined after so many phone conversations. Sure, there was the heavy Brooklyn accent, but she was neither fat nor short, and was not remotely a combination of the two: Squat. She did not have high, architecturally unsound hair streaked with alternating wide bans of salt and pepper grey; her fingers were not stubs, nor were they adorned with what Glory’s fellow flea market enthusiasts called cocktail rings. No, this Ida B. Rubinstein, with her Michelle Obama arms, wavy chestnut mane, and a tan which looked neither sprayed on nor gave her skin a leathery appearance, was not to be stereotyped. This Ida B. Rubinstein was a stone cold, sixty-one year-old fox.
“What you put me through,” she remarked at seeing Taiwo. “On the phone practically all night, the whole time saying, ‘But, we got your money. So, what’s the problem?’ Oh, whatever, com’on in, doll. It’s a new day, go on, find your seat.” Then she looked at me, giving me a quick once over to finally extend her hand and say, “Glad to meet you Ms. Tinsdale, thank you for choosing Ida P. Rubinstein to handle both your settlements today.”
I nodded, still overwhelmed by the moment as I walked the couple steps to the chair Taiwo held out for me. I felt the reassuring pressure of his hand on my shoulder and then, its quick removal, as I sat down and quietly grabbed several pens embossed with Ida P. Rubinstein’s name and her motto: It’s always smooth sailing with Ida – shore to shore.”
Minutes later the buyer arrived. I continued studying my papers, not looking up at him. This youngish, white guy. The sort you see on judge shows, the plaintiff, calm and cool. And then there was me, the defendant, jittery, needing a hit of something–in my case–coffee. Sitting across the table from Mr. America, in truth my savior, I felt as though I somehow had been hoodwinked. Sure, I now had enough money from the sale of my D.C. house to pay off the mortgage and buy the new house mortgage free. Even so, he was getting the bargain of a lifetime, and for some reason this gnawed at me.
“Alright then, if we’re all square, then we can get ready for part two of Miss Tinsdale’s proceedings. Taiwo, I believe the new property’s sellers just arrived,” Ida said, looking over at me and my now Rorschach inky hands as Tookie, her assistant, placed a second packet of papers in front of me. This one labeled: Baltimore.
“Estella?” Taiwo said, reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief.
“No, need, Taiwo.” Ida said, gesturing toward her assistant. “Grab some Handi Wipes—and Windex,” she told the girl. Tookie nodded, heading clickety clack for the door. Smiling down on me, with eyes that looked as if she had bat wings glued to her lids, Ida P. Rubinstein gently removed a pen from my clinched fist, saying in a tone at once reproachful and sympathetic, “Looks like you’ve got quite a mess on your hands, sweetheart.”
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.