8 A.M. She sits at the kitchen table, toast crumbs collecting in the folds of the newspaper, taking a sip of her coffee. She likes it strong, but heaped with sweetener. The house is empty, like it is every morning. Husband at work, daughters away at school. Some mornings, it’s empty softly, but this morning the whole house’s emptiness rings hollow, almost stinging. Every beige-painted, angular corner. Her laptop sits feet away. She can feel the work inside of it that she isn’t accomplishing.
FOUR HOURS AWAY BY CAR, three-fifteen if you’re speeding, a woman sits at the kitchen table, toast crumbs collecting in the folds of the newspaper. She also takes a sip of her coffee. She likes it weak, and black. She makes it in a Mr. Coffee, unlike her daughter with her French press and strewn myriad of sweetener packets. Her house is also empty, but the washing-machine hums in the background and one of the two grandfather clocks begins to chime. Just as it finishes its melancholy song, the clock on the other side of the house begins- the times are off, the chimes are slightly staggered. Though it doesn’t borrow the mother, it absolutely rankles the daughter. Every fifteen minutes, every time she visits, the chimes chase one another’s tails as her hand slips a bit on her porcelain cup of weak coffee, her fingers sweaty from nerves. Every fifteen minutes all night, the chimes talk to her and keep her awake, loudly, wordlessly. She listens to the chimes every fifteen minutes, she thinks, but she never listens to me. The next morning she dumps sweetener packets into her porcelain cup (brown water, she thinks) as her mother regales her with stories about the quilting group and her church luncheons, about the squirrels in the bird-feeder and the woman in the checkout lane, but the only ones she really hears are the ones about the grandchildren. Not her children. The other grandchildren. She hears them and it claws at her insides a bit. The way her mother treasured the minute details of those spoiled children. When she was younger, her mother had gone to her races, but had she been watching? She had hugged her as a child, but she couldn’t remember a whisper of “I love you.” She was sure to whisper “I love you” always to her own daughters.
HER OWN DAUGHTER sits in the college dining hall, scratched mug of black tea between her freckled fingers tipped with stubby maroon nails. She thinks coffee is bitter. She stuffs a loose lock of puffy hair back into its ratty bun while continuing to type with her other hand. Her mother tells her to pull her hair up, that it looks better that way, though the daughter has seen pictures and knows that her mother’s used to be just as puffy and golden-brown. Her mother also tells her to be careful what she eats because she’s been looking a little, well… lately. She rips a curved edge off the poppyseed muffin seated behind her computer, in front of the drowsy-looking boy who also has messy hair. She beams at him a little without ceasing to type.
ABOVE MR. COFFEE and a quilting book, the mother wonders if she should call her daughter, four hours away. (Always four for her. Never three-fifteen.) She’s unsure what to say. It’s not a holiday. They haven’t talked in awhile. The clocks chime in the background. For the first time she notices that one clock begins only as the other trails out. She decides to wind them both, and pick up the phone on the way back to the kitchen and call her daughter. She starts with the grandfather clock, then proceeds to the mantelpiece, the smaller clock, flanked with pictures of the grandchildren. To the left of the clock, the freckled legs of her daughter’s daughters dangle from the boughs of a maple tree, and both girls smile below the soft clouds of their fluffy hair. On the clock’s other side are her son’s children, dressed in coordinated blues and yellows. She realizes they are coming over that night, and that she hadn’t planned a dinner. In a hurry, she forgets to wind the clock, bustles past the phone on the dining-room table, and grabs her purse and keys.
THREE HOURS AND FIFTEEN MINUTES AWAY, however, her daughter is picking up the phone herself. The coffee in her French press is getting cold and her computer is still shut. The other end rings a few times, then a soft, “Hello?” A hello often confused with her own. In the background, dining-hall dishes and soft morning voices are audible.
“Mom, are you there? Are you alright?”
She sips her coffee as she stops to think, and be sure.
“Yeah, I think I am,” she says.
She pauses. Why could she say she had called? It wasn’t exam period, and she wouldn’t be coming home for a few months yet, so no transportation concerns…
“Mom, are you still there?”
“Yeah, I just wanted to hear you.”
“Alright, it’s me,” says the daughter.
“I love you,” whispers the mother.
The daughter paused from her typing for a split second. “I love you too.”