Jacob Morgendorffer, Esq.
Late winter, 1980
"It was a dark and stormy night," Rita Chambers said as the heavy rain that fell from the evening sky beat against the windshield of her Lincoln Continental.
"What, Mommy?" her daughter asked sleepily from the seat.
"Nothing, Erin," she replied without taking her eyes from the road. "Mommy was just talking to herself."
"Oh," Erin said uncertainly. "Are we there yet?"
"Almost, sweetie," her mother answered with artificial brightness. "Aunt Helen said that she lived-ah, there's her apartment complex over there. She said that her's was number four. Can you point to number four?"
Erin sat up straighter in her seat peering through the window trying to remember what the number four looked like by conjuring the correct page from her favorite Little Golden Book. Most of the doors were in shadows but an outside light bathed one in its warm glow.
"Over there, Mommy," Erin exclaimed, pointing with a chubby finger. "By the blue car."
"Very good, Sweetie," Rita said, pulling in beside the seven-year old Chevy Vega that their father bought Helen. Ambrose wanted to buy Helen a new car but she stubbornly refused to allow him to do that. It was only the fact that she and Jake needed a second vehicle that Helen grudgingly but gratefully accepted the Vega.
"I'm four, too," Erin said waving four fingers.
"That's right," Rita replied. "You're mommy's big girl, now."
Cracking her door, Rita popped open a large yellow umbrella. Quickly, she scampered to the passenger side. She muttered an inaudible curse as cold water splashed on her bare ankles. The black kitten heels were comfortable but hardly suitable for keeping winter weather at bay. She saw Helen appear in her entryway while she was reaching for the handle.
"Do you need any help?" Helen called as she opened her door.
"Just keep the door open," she replied as she extracted her daughter from the car. "We'll make a run for it. We'll grab the luggage after while."
Moments later, mother and child were safely inside. In short order, both quickly hugged Helen before shucking wet shoes and finding a resting place for the umbrella on the bathroom's tiled floor.
"Is Jake home?" Rita asked.
"No," Helen replied with a small shake of her head. "He's working late but he knows that you'll be sleeping on the sofa bed so said that he'll be as quiet as possible when he comes in."
"You tell him not to worry about that," Rita said waving a hand in dismissal.
"Coffee?" Helen asked. "Something to eat?"
"We stopped at a burger joint not too long ago but I'd kill for a cup of coffee right now," Rita said. "It's freezing outside. I don't think spring's ever going to get here."
"At least it's not snowing," Helen replied.
"I'm surprised it isn't," answered Rita. "It's cold enough. I left New Rochelle in the rain and it stayed with us all the way down here."
Helen chuckled. "Pitiful you. Please sit down. I'll be right back."
Rita sat on the sofa. Erin climbed beside her. Slowly, Rita took in her sister's apartment. It was small but painfully neat. There was little in the way of decoration. No paintings adorned the walls. No figurines or vases cluttered the coffee table. No rugs camped on the laminate floor. The only concession to style was that the deep blue drapes that covered the front picture window matched the sofa and recliner perfectly. The lone personal touches were the several family photographs that rested on a low table on either side of a small television set. Rita smiled. All and all it reflected her sister perfectly, Spartan yet somehow homey none-the-less much like her room as a teen-ager.
"Here we are," Helen said setting a silver plated tea service on the coffee table before Rita. "Some hot chocolate for you, Erin."
"Thank you, Aunt Helen," the little girl replied carefully taking the cup and saucer into her small hands.
Helen watched her niece for a moment. Satisfied that Erin could handle the mug, she turned her attention to pouring her sister a cup. As she did, she caught Rita broadly smiling.
"What's so funny?" Helen asked.
Rita shook her head. "I was just thinking how we really don't get away from our raising."
"What do you mean?"
"Look at you. All those years of protests, funny cigarettes and getting up to Lord knows what in that commune of yours," Rita answered. "Yet here you are serving coffee in a manner that would make our grandmothers proud. "
"Mom would find some fault with it," Helen said grumpily.
"It makes me wonder why you ran away in the first place," Rita said ignoring her sister's comment.
"I didn't run away, "Helen said as she sat back onto a recliner a cup of her own in her hand.
Her sister chuckled. "What would you call it? Middleton was the closest college to home you applied to and that's all the way up in Pennsylvania."
"Which is hardly the dark side of the moon," Helen pointed out. "And actually closer to Mossy Creek than Cape Henry." she added mentioning her sister's alma mater.
"Yes but Colorado. California," replied Rita. "I'm surprised you didn't move to Canada or Kalamazoo."
Helen looked puzzled. "Kalamazoo?"
"Oh, not Kalamazoo," Rita said. "I mean that place in India where all the hippies go."
"You mean Kathmandu," Helen said laughing. "In Nepal."
"Nepal?" asked a frowning Rita. "Well, close enough. Anyhoo, you see my point, don't you?"
Helen nodded. "Yes, I do," she agreed.
Rita looked at her sister closely as they made small talk for several more minutes. Helen looked tired. No surprise there. She knew Helen was knocking herself out trying to be the valedictorian of her class. Her competitive nature would not allow her to try for anything less and she was working part time to boot. Yet there was an odd tightness around Helen's eyes that Rita noticed but could not put a name to.
"Are you okay, honey?" she finally asked.
"I'm fine," Helen replied quickly.
Too quickly for her sister. Something was not fine at all with Helen. Rita glanced at a drowsy Erin. She gently took the emptied mug from her hands before catching Helen off guard by switching to French. "What is wrong, Helen?" she asked. "School? Jake?"
Helen set her own mug down on the coffee table. She visibly wrestled with her reply for several seconds. "I'm pregnant," she replied quietly in the same language. "Just a few weeks."
Rita automatically started to say congratulations but the tears in Helen's eyes stopped her. She clasped Helen's hands. "What are you going to do?" she asked almost fearfully.
"I'm having the child," Helen answered. "I can't...I just can't but...God, it couldn't have come at a worst time. I don't know how we're going to manage."
"Well, Daddy," Rita started.
"I know," Helen interrupted her voice cracking. "But Daddy can't make more time. How am I going to take care of a baby and go to school? Jake's already pushed to the limit working a full time job as he is and trying to keep up in class. I mean diapers, two o'clock feedings, and God knows what else. I just don't know what I'm going to do."
Rita took her sister's hand in hers. "It'll be all right, honey," she said. "I promise."
Helen smiled wanly while swiping at the tears with her free hand. "Thanks," she replied.
"We'll figure something out," Rita said encouraging.
The weak smile stayed on Helen's lips. "I dread telling Jake. I don't want him to quit school but I know that's what he'll do. I don't want to quit either."
Both women went silent for several moments. Rita started to speak but with a shake of her head, she remained quiet. She finally spoke when she noticed that Erin had fallen asleep. "I think we need that bed now," she said. "I'll run out and get our bags.
Minutes later, a pajama-clad Erin was snuggling next to her teddy bear. Her mother and Aunt retired to the dinette set in the kitchen.
"Sweetie, do you rent this place," Rita asked. "Or do you lease?"
"What?" she asked taken off-guard again by her sister. "We have a lease that runs through June. We'll probably renew. This place is almost exactly halfway between Washington & Lafayette when I go and Virginia Northern where Jake's enrolled."
"I know where you two go to school, Helen," Rita said. "Dad's tickled pink that you're attending Washington and Lafayette. He really wanted Amy to go there when it finally went co-ed but she wouldn't hear of it."
Helen shrugged as she sipped her coffee service "He's paying for it but it's a very good law school, one of the best in the country," she said almost plaintively. "That's one of the reasons that I don't want to quit. If I do, I may never start up again or if I do it won't be at a university anywhere near as good as Washington & Lafayette."
Rita nodded in understanding, her own face showing some anxiety. "Law School's three years long, right?" she asked. "You'll have two more years after this one."
"That's right," Helen agreed.
Rita took a deep breath then slowly exhaled. "In June, when your lease is up," she began. "Find a place with another bedroom and I'll move down here and help you with the baby."
Helen blinked in surprise. "Sweetie, I can't let you do that," she said after a moment. "I mean thank you but no. I don't think Jim would appreciate his wife moving two hundred plus miles away for two years."
Helen caught the several emotions that rapidly raced across Rita face. It was not hard to draw the right conclusion. "Oh, Rita, no," she said reaching over clasping her sister's hand. "Another woman?"
Rita shook her head. "No," she said as tears welled up. "In a way, that would have been easier."
"He's not hitting you, is he?" Helen asked in sudden anger. "Or is it Erin?"
"No, no, nothing like that," Rita replied forcefully. "It's cocaine."
"Cocaine?" Helen repeated. "Jim?"
"Yes, Jim." she replied. "I know you have a different view on drugs but I won't put up with it. I don't know if you can become addicted to cocaine or not but Jim's gone way overboard. It's costing a fortune and changing Jim's personality. Even Erin, at her age, has noticed the difference in him. She's been asking what's wrong with Daddy."
"Cocaine is not physically addictive but is psychologically so,' Helen answered. "And for the record, I was never a major drug user and haven't touched anything in over five years."
Rita nodded. "Good for you, "she said. "If only Jim had that attitude. I told him this morning it was either his family or coke. He packed a bag."
"Oh, Rita," Helen moaned. "I am so sorry."
Rita grabbed a napkin and dabbed at her eyes. "Thanks but honestly if it wasn't cocaine, the marriage would have probably failed anyway. What Jim said he wanted out of life while we were dating isn't what he wants now. He's enamored with the lifestyle of a Wall Street broker."
"Brokers have a lifestyle?" Helen asked with a tinge of humor.
Rita chuckled ruefully. "It's highly completive, cut-throat even and all of them are into status symbols; the right clothes, the right address, the right car, the right wife."
"You should fit right in," Helen said without thinking.
"I'm not as superficial as you seem to think, Helen," Rita replied. "Or as stupid. I might not have cum laude on my sheepskin but no one takes me for a dim witted piece of blonde arm candy in even in the city."
"Of course not," Helen replied. "That's what Mom trained you for, to be the perfect hostess and the perfect guest, a sparkling addition to any social gathering."
Rita sighed deeply. "Helen, we're in our thirties, now. Do you think you can drop some of the childhood grudges, please? Maybe Mom favored me for whatever reason but let it go. I am sick and tired of having to defend myself every time we see each other and it will get old real quick if I am living with you."
Helen's sigh matched her sister's then she lightly laughed. "Pot calling the kettle black. I've been on Jake's case for years trying to get him to get over his past."
"Has he?" Rita asked.
Helen shrugged. "I'm not sure. Since his father's passing, his outbursts have stopped but I just don't know. We stay so busy we make a conscious effort to keep any flies out of the ointment when we are together."
"And look where that got you," Rita quipped.
"Yeah," Helen replied glancing down at her belly. She shook her head before looking back up. "But you got to admit that you getting a British sports car for graduation was a bit more then what I got."
"I got a twelve year-old car while you got a brand new one," Rita pointed out. "Although I confess it was the car I wanted."
Helen frowned. "It was twelve years-old?"
"A '55 MGA roadster," Rita answered. "It was owned by someone who served in the House of Delegates with Daddy whereas he got you the brand new '68 convertible that you wanted."
"Why in the world did Daddy think that I wanted a Dodge Dart?" Helen asked.
Rita looked perplexed. "You didn't?"
"No," Helen answered. "If anything, I wanted a Karmann Ghia."
"But Daddy told me that every time you were in town, he saw you staring at a Dodge Dart," Rita said. "He thought you loved that car."
Helen thought for a moment then started chuckling. "Daddy can be so clueless sometimes, "she said. "It wasn't the car but the fact that Travis Crane was driving it."
"Travis Crane," Rita repeated joining her sister in laughter. "Woof."
"Woof was right," Helen replied. "Oh, mercy, what would Daddy had bought me if that boy drove a Mercedes Benz?"
"Just be glad it wasn't a cement truck," Rita giggled.
Helen laughed lightly for a moment before she abruptly sobered. "A live-in nanny would solve a lot of problems," she said quietly. "But are you certain that you want to do this?"
"Helen, I need to do something," her sister mournfully answered. "I don't want to go back to Mossy Creek yet but I don't want to stay in New York either."
She glanced down the hall at her sleeping daughter. "The divorce will be quick if not painless," Rita continued in a low voice. "I don't want any alimony and Jim has no interest in Erin so I don't think there will be a custody battle of any sort."
"What do you mean he has no interest in Erin?" a shocked Helen asked. "She's his daughter."
"I guess we just don't fit into his plans anymore," Rita replied sadly. "Helen, if you let me to move in, you would be helping me as much as I would be you. Please say yes."
Helen stepped to her sister's side and hugged her fiercely. "Yes," she said. "And thank you from the bottom of my heart. You're a lifesaver."
Both sisters turned at the sound of a key in the front door.
"Better pour Jake a cup of coffee," Rita said. "You have a lot to tell him."