She is an old woman, querulous and domineering. He is a gruff timid old man, sometimes biting dry words into splintered shards. She snaps at him, shrilly plies plaints of empty supermarket shelves and rude waiters. He winces at each grating note, flinches when she begins to speak. And mostly he stays quiet, until he can listen no more, and hears a second of silence to speak, and grumbles a complaint of his own– then the cycle begins again. Every so often, he would be quiet for a long time after one of her tirades. She would look at him, and then her voice would be brittle and bright as she recounted some event from the news. Every so often, she would frown and turn away when his voice was too rough and impatient aimed at her. He would put a hand on her shoulder, and hold it there for a moment, before creaking up to standing and walking away.
They saw her tottering from blocks away. She was wearing black. When she got closer, they waved, and she seemed to see them through the window. She flapped a hand in their direction and walked purposefully over to the door. They watched her wrestle with it, leaning back with her hands wrapped around the handle as if she would try to pull it off the building. A passing busboy yanked open the door for her, and Ella thought she might stagger and blow away.
She got to their table, pressing a hand on its corner to ease herself into her seat. Ella stood, fidgeting. She waited until everyone was still and then she swooped to peck the wrinkled cheek. “It’s so good to see you, Aunt Eleanor,” said Ella. The old woman smiled up at her with thin puckered lips. It was a familiar smile, one Ella remembered from her childhood summers. When Ella was younger, Aunt Eleanor had seemed like a comforting beacon in her small fragile life. She had been a bit plump, always smiling, and her hugs were warm and firm. When Ella’s father died, her mother stopped taking them anywhere in the summer. They stayed at home, under the angry sun, and Ella sent a few halfhearted letters. They visited for the first time two weeks ago, going to see Aunt Eleanor in her creaky house, ostensibly so that she could meet Ella’s fiancé.
The woman across the table from them seemed out of her element in the crowded restaurant. In the dim living room at her home, she was still familiar. Here she was a withered wraith of the woman Ella remembered.
Ella sat back beside Jared, leaning against him a bit in the booth. They both looked at Aunt Eleanor as her hands quivered through the air, plucking up the menu and opening it. The pages shook. Her eyes were brown but the edges of her irises were clouded a pale blue, and her lipstick was a shiny red. Her face was a shade lighter than her neck, a smooth clean foundation that didn’t hide the creases in her skin or the spots of brown and pink that stained her nose and the circles around her eyes. The rouge on her cheeks was spread under her cheekbones and back toward her jaw. Ella could still taste it, a bitter creamy film on her lips.
They sat a while at the table, picking at their plates. Ella and Jared both seemed to hold their breath as Aunt Eleanor cut into her chicken, the knife sawing against the plate with a screech and the fork trembling on the broken skin. They finished without incident, though. When their waiter brought over the bill, Aunt Eleanor paid it without comment, waving her fingers at Ella when she protested.
As they left the restaurant, Jared’s hand folded around Ella’s. She laced her fingers with his, and then slipped an arm through her aunt’s. They stood there at the crosswalk, staring across at the blinking red stick figure that warned them not to move. A car whizzed by. Aunt Eleanor bent forward, looking around the two of them at the empty street. “I think we’re okay,” she said. They both leaned forward too, as if waiting for the cars that weren’t coming, and then they stepped off the curb all at once.
Jen sometimes took walks in the dark. It was oddly peaceful to slip out after the streetlights winked on and the shadows engulfed the streets, to walk through the glow of a light and then swim blind through the shadows only toward the next bright spot. When everything was quiet she would leave, her dishes tumbled in the sink and the bedroom light left on. When the door clicked closed she was suddenly back in the world, not in the house that wrapped her tight and kept her closed off.
When she walked down the street, there was nobody there. She only had to navigate past the odd trash bag spilled out over the sidewalk, belated leftover from the garbage truck. Her thoughts rose up around her and spiraled out, and she followed their threads as she walked. She was so caught up in her mind that she nearly bumped into an elderly woman, stepping with slow solemn care along the sidewalk.
Jen said, “Oh, I’m sorry!”
“That’s all right, dear,” said the lady. “I understand. After all, I’m taking a walk at night too, right?”
Jen fixed a polite smile on her face and nodded. “Yes, certainly. Do you walk often?” She cursed herself silently for starting a conversation, realizing too late.
“Sometimes,” the woman confided, leaning toward Jen. “Sometimes I just can’t sleep, and my house is empty now. Then there’s really nothing for it but this dark sorcery of the night, don’t you know?”
Jen looked up at her, startled. The old lady was grinning, but her face was sweetly set in wrinkles and her eyes gleamed with the yellow shine of the streetlights.
Jen nodded cautiously, and said, “I suppose so.”
The lady let out a chuckle at that, and said, “It’s quite all right, sweetie. What brings you out at this odd hour?”
“I just like to walk at night,” she said. “That’s all.”
The old woman laughed again. “Yes, of course. And at night you never know whom you might meet.”
Jen’s eyebrows drew together, but the old woman was still smiling. “I met you.”
“Just so, then.” The woman, a smile still stretched over her creased face, nodded at her and turned her face forward again, taking a small step on the concrete.
She walked slowly after that, looking behind her every now and then. There was nothing remarkable there, though, just the shape of the old lady disappearing slowly in the night.
When Jen got back home, she stretched across the cool sheets of the bed and curled her hands in the blankets. She was tired after a long walk, and she fell asleep into restless dreams of moonlight and magic.
Claudia was late. Claudia was always late. Sally always saved the seat next to her, and Claudia always pretended to look around for another chair before she lowered herself into it. Doris, who was by far (maybe five years) the oldest, chuckled every single time. Everybody else ignored this ritual, as part of the background as the skeins of yarn spilling from the shelves or the sample sweaters, draped over manikins with notes pinned to the shoulders. Claudia settled in and pulled the yarn from her bag – the bright turquoise tote her granddaughter had given her for Christmas. It was a dep rich burgundy, and it was soft but not fuzzy, just like she liked her yarn.
They were all in the middle of something. Anita was halfway through the baby hat she was making, the pastel colors spilling from the fabric and into the skein. She was beaming and proud of her first grandchild. There was a new round of photos, and everybody cooed dutifully, as they had for the past four Fridays.
Anthony, the only man in the group, was making a cabled scarf, and talking about his girlfriend. At his age, several women thought simultaneously, he really shouldn’t be gadding about with some younger woman anymore. It wasn’t quite decent. He seemed happy though, and he thought she would like the pattern a lot. He could see Sally rolling her eyes, but he was busy managing an extra knitting needle and really didn’t care she thought. She’d probably understand if she met Cynthia – as improbable as that was, since Cynthia wouldn’t be caught dead at a knitting circle.
Sally was working on a hat for her son, whom she’d scolded enough times for a bare head that it would be a good joke as well as a good present. He was awfully busy lately, though she wished he could just pick a nice girl and settle down. He was getting on really, and while he was a very good-looking boy he really didn’t have that much time to fool around anymore. She thought wistfully of that girl he’d dated in college, the quiet one. Sometimes she ached when she heard the others chattering about weddings and grandbabies and their grandchildren already growing up enough to date – though Martha was very firm about her granddaughter staying away from boys for another few years.
Rae was the reserved one at the circle. She liked to sit and listen to the conversations all scrambling along at the same time. The movement of all those fingers, pulling and looping and turning, was always hypnotizing to her. It was so peaceful to sit with her friends, watching all those wrinkled veiny hands turning yarn into something real. Every once in a while, she would venture a comment. They sometimes didn’t hear her, but she didn’t mind. Whenever anyone had a question about something, they usually asked her. Anthony was confused about blocking, and she explained it to him a couple of times. She liked being helpful, and once a week she got to feel useful.
There was a conversation stretched over the table now about kids’ names. Anita’s new grandchild was called Sarah. While Anita denounced boring biblical names several of the others came to the defense of the traditional-sounding ones. In the meantime, the others talked about little things. The weather, grocery shopping, the patterns they were working on. It was somehow comforting to have conversations about the trivial normal things they did in between seeing each other.
Claudia was making a sweater for herself. She’d made things for every family member she had, twice over, and she wanted another sweater in that pattern she’d tried a few years ago. It hadn’t come out quite right, and she’d given it to her daughter-in-law. This one should turn out just fine. Garter stitch was so simple, Claudia thought. You kept up the same movement, over and over, until neat rows of it spilled from your fingers. At the end you had something you could be proud of, in bright colors or soft wool. Or something that was the same as the last thing you’d knitted. That could be good too, even though it was so simple. Sometimes the familiarity of a sweater was the best thing about it. She slipped her needles and half-finished sleeve back into the turquoise bag and stuffed the pattern back on top, ignoring the crinkling paper. She’d done it so many times she didn’t even need the chart anymore, her fingers just moved like they knew what they were doing.