I headed down the dirt path in my sneakers in the crisp morning air, hoping I’d have the trail to myself, but I saw Rosemary up ahead.
She was short and squat, and her big navy blue puffy coat made her look heavier than she was. With her round face and bouncy black curls, she looked like a chubby doll. Until she opened her mouth.
“I left you three messages yesterday,” she said. Her voice was shrill and demanding and loud, and I wondered for the umpteenth time if she was hard of hearing. Maybe fluid in her ears. I didn’t like her, and she was the main reason why I’d arrived early, so I could walk alone for once and listen to what I wanted to.
“I was busy,” I said.
Rosemary had a band-aid on her chin. I knew she was dying for me to ask about it, but I didn’t want to, though I’d lived long enough to know we are rarely in control of the stories that are flung at us. I thought about the miniature tape recorder in my purse, the cassette tape with the voice I really wanted to hear, but instead, I was walking with Rosemary who was blustering about the check-out clerk at Al’s Pharmacy overcharging her for hand lotion.
“You got to check your receipts,” she said. “That’s what my dear Al always told me, and you know, he’s right.”
“I have better things to do,” I said.
She huffed something about money and how some people in the world had to watch their nickels and dimes.
I picked up my pace, hoping her stubby legs couldn’t keep up. It didn’t take long for her to fall behind me, and I could commune with the Douglas fir, the hemlock. The sun was warming up the land, making it smoke. I put in my ear buds, reached into my pocket, pressed play and there was the voice of my late husband, as if he was walking right beside me. Last night, I happened to end the tape right at the point where he was going on and on about risk/return, how every decision, no matter how big or small, involved a risk and the best way to evaluate what to do was to think about the return. “What’s the cost? Does it take skin off your back or not?” he was telling me. At the end of his life, he had a lot to say about everything, and at times, when he was taping himself, it felt like he was giving a lecture to hundreds of people. He never got the audience he deserved or needed. I’d never tell him this, but I wasn’t listening to what he was saying. It just wasn’t that interesting. I was feeling his rich deep voice vibrate my skull, like a bass guitar player.
I walked another fifteen yards, then turned it off. I knew what he was going to say next, and frankly, I didn’t want to hear it again. He sometimes got snippy at me, rubbing my face in all my flaws. Not that I blamed him. He was in a lot of pain at the end, and who was I to judge.
I heard Rosemary breathing heavily behind me. She’d lost her husband five years ago and still stumbled around like her heart had been torn out of her. I think that’s what I disliked the most about her. Five hellish years!
“I don’t know if I can make it to the end this time,” she called out. It was two miles out, two back.
Right after Rosemary’s husband died, she had started coming to the pool, swimming in the lane next to mine. I’d said to my husband, “The woman is always complaining about something.” I vowed to learn to flip turn so I didn’t have to hold onto the edge and risk having Rosemary start in again.
Norman had looked at me like I had a smear of jam on my face. “And you don’t? Who are you going to complain to when I’m gone?”
I stood there on the path, the wind blowing my hair around, like it was trying to pick a fight. I pushed play for a second, but then I turned it off. Rosemary was pumping her arms, her face was red, sweaty.
“All right,” I said, as she came up beside me. “Why the hell do you have a band-aid on your chin?”
A small smile came to her eye, and I braced myself for what was coming.
Nina Schuyler is the author of The Translator, which won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Award for General Fiction and was shortlisted for the Saroyan International Writing Award. Her first novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award and named a Best Book by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her short stories have been published in ZYZZYVA, Your Impossible Voice, Fugue, Santa Clara Review and elsewhere. She writes a column for Fiction Advocate about style and teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.