Francine emptied the sugar bowl. Thirty-three dollars and forty-seven cents. No way she could stretch that enough to buy six cartons of cigarettes. Not even a generic brand. Yet her Aunt Adelaide had just phoned and asked her to bring them to her. Francine sighed. It was forty-three miles to town and the gas tank was empty. If she only bought eight gallons, she'd have enough money left to buy one carton of cigarettes and still have almost ten dollars.
She didn't reach her aunt's house until half past noon. Adelaide was waiting at the door. "What took you so long?" she asked taking the cigarettes, a frown forming at the corners of her mouth. "I said six cartons."
"I... I guess I misunderstood," Francine lied, too proud to let her aunt know she was broke.
"Fix us some coffee will you," Adelaide said. "I'll be in the sunroom."
Francine gasped when she entered the kitchen. It was a disaster area. Coffee ran down the sides of the pot and sizzled on the warming plate. Cabinet doors gaped open, cereal idled around in milk puddles, and dirty dishes overran the sink."Where's Hattie?" she hollered.
"I fired her," Adelaide called back.
Francine managed to find clean cups and saucers. She arranged them on a tray, and carried it out to the sun porch now hazy with cigarette smoke. "Why did you fire her?"
"She was stealing," Adelaide replied.
"Stealing? She's been with you ten years. Why would she suddenly start stealing?"
"Who knows? Adelaide shrugged They're all alike. You give them a job, a good income, trust them with your things, and one day they decide to rob you blind."
" Hattie wouldn't," Francine argued.
"What would you know living out there in the country all alone. You don't understand life in the city."
Francine wanted to tell Adelaide she more than understood life in the city and that's why she preferred the country. But she never argued with Adelaide. "Hattie will be hard to replace," she said.
"Not going to. I'm tired of having someone hovering over me all the time."
"Who's going to take care of you?"
"I'm not helpless," Adelaide snapped.
Francine couldn't believe her aunt didn't notice the disorder around her. It wasn't like her at all. "What have you been up to?" she asked.
"The usual," Adelaide replied.
Francine waited for the details of the social events her aunt always rattled out, but this time, there was nothing but silence. "You okay, Adelaide?"
"Aren't you the nosy one," she snapped back, stubbing out her cigarette and pulling another from the pack.
Francine watched her light it, noticing a slight trembling in Adelaide's hands. "You don't seem to be yourself."
"Myself? Don't seem to be myself?" Adelaide mocked. "You think I'm incompetent, too"
"I never said..."
"You're just like all the rest. Just waiting for me to die so you can have my things."
"That's not true, and you know it."
"So you've suddenly become independently wealthy then?"
"You know I'm not, but I manage," Francine replied, tears stinging her eyes. She wanted to leave, but couldn't until she was sure Adelaide was all right.
Adelaide suddenly smiled and abruptly changed the subject. "Are you really happy living out there in the sticks all alone?" she asked.
"Of course," Francine replied.
"You're as stubborn and independent as me," Adelaide grinned. "Good for you. When I lived in New York," she began.
Francine settled back losing herself in her aunt's usual diatribe. Lunchtime came and went while Adelaide reminisced about her youth. "Lawrence proposed twenty-seven times," she said. Francine raised her eyebrows like she always did at that point. She'd heard the story so often, she knew every detail by heart. "Say," Adelaide interrupted herself. "I'm hungry."
"What would you like? I'll fix it for you," Francine said.
"Can't. No groceries."
"But the cabinets are full," Francine protested.
"It's old. Besides, I want to go to China Queen. You gonna take me or not?"
"I guess I could," Francine replied. "Where are your car keys?"
"Out of gas. We'll go in yours."
Francine tried to picture Adelaide riding in her broken down old truck. "Nonsense. You have plenty here," she insisted, and hurried away before her aunt could object.
A few minutes later Adelaide stuck her head in the kitchen door. "Think I'll lie down a while."
"Are you sure you're okay?" Francine asked.
"Okay." At least Adelaide had forgotten about China Queen. "I'll call you when lunch is ready."
When lunch was ready, Francine found Adelaide lying across her bed hugging one of the dozens of photograph albums she was always promising to drag out. Francine gently slipped the album away and pulled up the comforter. Adelaide turned over and settled into its warmth contentedly.
Francine carried the album to the den, anxious to see the photographs Adelaide always talked about. She was disappointed when she discovered no pictures. No wonder her aunt had fallen asleep. Empty pages were boring in anybody's book. Francine laid the album aside and looked around the room. It didn't seem right for such expensive furnishings to be so dusty and unattended. She might as well do some cleaning while Adelaide napped.
She was surprised when the grandfather clock chimed five. It was not like Adelaide to sleep so long. Francine opened the bedroom door and peeped in. An offensive odor hit her immediately, drawing her to Adelaide's bedside quickly.
The old woman's face was white as chalk, and her skin was cold and clammy. "Adelaide? Adelaide? Oh, God," Francine moaned. She grabbed the phone book. There were eight Doctor Goldsmiths. What was his first name? Of course! Adelaide's personal directory. Francine searched the bedside table, checked the dresser, her aunt's purse, and the secretary with the same result, then remembered seeing it on the sun porch.
"Thank God," Francine sighed when she found the directory.
The entire directory was blank. Not one single name or phone number. She hurried back to the bedroom and began dialing the doctors in the phone book.
"Please," she frantically told the first receptionist, "Is Miss Adelaide Drummond Dr. Goldsmith's patient? It's an emergency!"
Adelaide's doctor turned out to be number five. It took the ambulance an eternity to arrive, and a century to reach the hospital.
Another decade passed before Dr. Goldsmith shook his head sorrowfully. "Sorry," he said. "Massive stroke." Francine walked away from the blaring hospital lights, her eyes awash in tears. Numb with shock, she climbed into the truck and drove back to Adelaide's.
It was strange entering the huge house alone. The empty album still lay on the coffee table. Longing for a familiar face, Francine picked it up and hugged it to her breast. She picked up the phone and dialed long distance. "Mrs. Wardlaw please. This is her niece Francine in Westport."
"Francine, dear," Stratton's voice chimed merrily. "So nice to hear from you."
"Stratton... Stratton...." Francine burst into tears.
"What's wrong? Are you all right?"
"I'm... it's...it's Adelaide. She... she's dead," Francine stammered.
An icy silence chilled the line. "How? When?"
Francine wiped her eyes and blew her nose."Today. Massive stroke. The doctor said she'd had some minor ones recently. I didn't know, Stratton. She didn't tell me. Today she...." A fresh stream of tears flowed unchecked. "I don't know what to do."
"Call the undertaker."
"I mean what should I do until you get here?"
"Bury her," Stratton replied curtly.
"But you're her sister... we're her only family and...." Francine had always known there was little love between her aunts, but how could Stratton be so unfeeling?
"You're a dear girl, Francine, but you're a fool. I expect Adelaide has used you for years, strung you along promising to remember you in her will right?"
"No!" Francine snapped back angrily. She was..."
"Your rich old-maid aunt. Your ticket out of poverty row," Stratton interrupted. "It's okay to admit it you know."
"Please," Francine pleaded. "Don't you care about her at all?"
"No. And if truth be known, you don't either. But that's beside the point. Just bury her."
"But her friends will wonder why you're not here," Francine protested.
"Friends?" Stratton laughed. "Now be a good niece and take care of things. I'll fly down in a few days to settle her estate." Francine stared at the receiver. How could Stratton be so unfeeling?
Adelaide's funeral was bleak. Francine stood alone beside her aunt's coffin. Where were Adelaide's friends? She'd put a notice in the paper.
Stratton flew down three weeks later. "My sister was the biggest liar in the world," she advised when Francine voiced her confusion about no one showing up at the funeral.
"I don't see..."
"How old are you now?" Stratton asked. "Forty? Forty-five?"
"Forty-three," Francine said. But what's that got to do with it?"
"Just that you're awfully naive for your age," Stratton said. "Adelaide lived in a dream world. She was a nobody. Nobody liked her. Nobody cared about her. In short, she had no friends."
"Including you," Francine shot back.
"Including me," Stratton replied smugly. "You needn't be surprised. Adelaide had the best of everything. I was always second best. I hated her for that. Mother and Father pampered her as if she were a china doll. I suppose she told you about Lawrence?"
"Yes. Many times."
"Did she tell you he was my fiance?" Francine's widening gaze revealed her surprise. "I didn't think so."
"But he proposed to her ," Francine argued.
"Bull feathers!" Stratton exclaimed. "More of her make-believe."
"He did propose," Francine insisted.
Stratton ignored Francine's protest."Mother left her everything you know. Well, it's mine now, and she can't..."
"Please," Francine interrupted. "Let's just get on with the packing."
"I haven't the time nor the inclination to dirty my hands. Just box everything up and ship it to me. I'll reimburse you, of course."
"Of course," Francine mumbled sarcastically. Her eyes fell on the empty photograph album and a great sadness overwhelmed her. What if Stratton were right? What if Adelaide had been a lonely old woman with no friends? What if all the photograph albums were empty? Francine wasn't about to give Statton that satisfaction. "If you don't mind, I'd like to have her photograph albums. It may be silly to you, but Adelaide and I..."
"Well, aren't we the sentimental one?" Stratton mocked. "She probably filled them with pictures out of magazines."
"What if she did? I loved her, and she..."
"Tish! She was a bitter old maid living in a fantasy world."
"Aren't you going to be late for your appointment with her lawyer?" Francine said through clenched teeth.
"You're right. Take the albums with you. I'll just hire someone to pack up. You've done enough." Stratton picked up her purse. "I do want you to have something for all your trouble. It's only right." She pulled a twenty-dollar bill from her purse and offered it to Francine. Francine shook her head in disgust, and left with the albums.
For days Francine sulked over the albums. They were empty just as Stratton had predicted. It was a sad realization. Sadder still because Francine realized her own life closely paralleled Adelaide's. At least she had friends even though she kept them at arm's length.
And then there was Frank. Francine was fond of him, certainly enjoyed his attention, but she wouldn't allow their relationship to go further. Her marriage to Phil had been so happy she couldn't bring herself to think of being married to anyone else. His memories filled her days sufficiently.
Frank once told her she might as well have died with Phil in the wreck. Maybe Frank was right. Maybe she should have taken a chance and married him, but Phil's memory was too strong. Yet the thought of leaving behind empty photograph albums filled Francine with regret.
Suddenly the stack of photo albums seemed to crowd the room. Francine picked them up and started toward the trash can. She tripped on a throw rug and the albums tumbled to the floor. A wrinkled piece of paper yellowed with age slipped from between the pages and Francine picked it up.
My dearest Addie,
Stratton is pushing ahead as if we were engaged.
You know how I feel about you. Say you'll put an
end to my misery and marry me. I know you care,
my darling. Marry me and save this drowning man.
Forever yours, Lawrence.
Lawrence had loved Adelaide. He had proposed! If Adelaide kept this letter, she had kept others. Francine closed her eyes and tried to picture the closet where Adelaide had kept the albums, concentrating so hard she could almost smell the lilac-scented dresses and furs so neatly hanging in their protective coverings. There were so many things; tons of shoe boxes, drawers of gloves and scarves, hat boxes....
"Hat boxes!" Francine exclaimed suddenly. Adelaide once told her there were stories in hats. Had she hidden letters in hat boxes?
Francine picked up the phone and dialed Stratton's number. "I've been thinking about Adelaide," she said when Statton answered.
"So have I," Stratton replied. "I've been meaning to call you."
"I'm glad you've forgiven her."
"Not hardly. Did you know she was bankrupt?"
"What do you mean?" Francine asked.
"It's gone. All gone. So if you're calling to ask for a share of the inheritance..."
"I couldn't care less about an inheritance," Francine said. "The reason I called is to ask if I could have Adelaide's hats."
"Hats?" Statton exclaimed.
"Yes. There were dozens of hat boxes in her closet. I was wondering if I could have them."
"What on earth for? They're worthless, hopelessly outdated. Of no use to anyone."
"Sentiment I guess."
"Look, Francine, I'm late for an appointment. If my housekeeper didn't discard them, I'll have her send them to you."
"Thank you, Stratton. Thank you ever so much."
When the crate arrived, Francine tore into the hat boxes expectantly, discarding hat after hat. She was about to give up when she opened a box containing a wide-brimmed black hat trimmed with white feathers. She lifted it out carefully and turned it over. Stuffed inside was a small diary.
It took a while to read it. Tears were streaming down Francine's face when she closed it. Adelaide and Lawrence had been very much in love, but she had refused his proposals because Stratton had met him first. The last entry in the diary was a tear-stained page, a poignant testimony of Adelaide's undying love for Lawrence. The occasion being his funeral. He had been killed at Dunkirk only minutes after writing to Adelaide, For the twenty-seventh time, my dear Addie, marry me. His letter was neatly folded and taped to the page.
"Poor Adelaide," Francine sighed. she laid the diary aside and searched the remaining hat boxes. One contained an envelope bearing her name. Francine grinned when she recognized Adelaide's handwriting.
Hey, you old bag,
Hope you find this one day. I wanted to do something nice for you, dear, because you've always been special to me. I know I'm not the easiest person in the world to get along with, but you sure do try. You do something more. You make a lonely old woman's life bearable by sharing my dreams.
By the way, how did Stratton take the news of my passing? I'm betting it took her all of five seconds to get over it. Be assured, it will take her a while longer to get over the will. Ha! Ha!
I never told you what started the feud between us because you would have tried to bring us together. Don't worry about her, Francine. She can take care of herself very well. I'm afraid she's a shoot off the wrong side of the tree. It was very hush, hush. Those days were a lot different and so very complicated.
You see, Father had a mistress. When she confronted Mother with the news that she was pregnant, Mother was afraid Father would leave her, so she promised to raise the child as her own. They pretended Mother was pregnant, then took an extended holiday in the south of France. When they returned with "their" new daughter, no one ever doubted them since Stratton looked just like Father.
Strange isn't it? I often wanted to tell her just for spite, but she wouldn't have believed me. I even thought about telling you, but I saw nothing to be gained. Well, here I am telling you now aren't I? I'll give Mother credit. She tried hard to love Stratton, but she never treated her the same. In a way I felt sorry for her. Even Father paid little attention to her. His own guilt I suppose.
About Lawrence. Stratton's never forgiven me you know. Thinks I tried to take him away from her. If only she knew. But that's neither here nor there. Funny, but we were so close when we were little. I sometimes wonder if things would have been different between us if Father had never told me about Stratton's unfortunate beginnings. Guess he just wanted to clear his conscience before he died. Oh well...more water over the dam.
You know why Lawrence only proposed twenty-seven times? ... just read the diary. I shouldn't have waited so long to say yes. Stratton never really loved him, found somebody else before Lawrence was killed. Didn't even go to his funeral.
You never asked me for anything, and heaven knows you sure needed it. I always envied you. Your life is so rich in relationships. It's what I always wanted, but I was too much the coward to take chances. Besides, Lawrence was the only thing I ever really wanted.
Don't end up like me, ole girl. Marry Frank and take a world cruise or something. Live your life while you can. Don't keep looking back with regret like I did. After all, you're the last of the Drummonds. Who's going to listen to your lonely lies when you're old and bitter?
You're a good woman with a caring heart, dear, got a good head on your shoulders and value the right things. And don't argue with me! I can just hear you objecting already. Ha!
Check out the albums. If you're the sentimental niece you've always been, you've got them. Sorry I lied about the pictures, but I tucked some away between the pages--all of the same man I'm afraid. Thank you for sharing my dreams. Everyone should be so lucky to have a loving niece like you. See you when you get here unless you go to that other place. Ha! Ha!
Francine smiled through her tears. She drug the albums out and started going through them again, eagerly searching between the pages for photographs of Lawrence and Adelaide. Suddenly her eyes burst open in disbelief.
Hidden beneath the black matte was a hundred dollar bill! Francine was stunned. She checked the next page and found another. Page after page of hundred dollar bills! She opened the next album and found the same. Two more albums. The same. All stuffed with pictures of one man--Benjamin Franklin!
"You old bag!" Francine cried out. "You really fooled me. All the times you never paid me back me for running your errands, I thought you were broke and had too much pride to let on. Figured you musta fired Hattie because you couldn't afford her. And me always telling you I was doing fine when I sometimes didn't even have a pot to pee in. What proud women we were! Too damn proud to do anything but share a make-believe world.
"Well, I'm gonna take your advice, Aunt Adelaide. I'm gonna call Frank and tell him to get out here with the preacher, and then we're gonna take a honeymoon cruise around the world. And I'm gonna cram enough living into the rest of my life to make up for what both of us missed. No more sitting on the sidelines for the Drummonds.
"And Adelaide," Francine whispered reverently, "thanks for opening my eyes, and for giving me such a legacy. I pray Lawrence is with you now. If there's any kind of justice," she sighed, tears streaming down her cheeks, "he is."