Joanna Gentry hadn’t been inside the building in over a decade, though throughout the first year following Patrick’s murder, she went to the parking lot daily. Coleman’s employees came by her Camry during those early months and stopped to speak, awkward conversations avoiding the mention of what had happened or even her presence there at all. Soon enough, they only waved. And then after a few months, many of the younger workers quit their jobs at the grocery when they returned to school, as her son would have, while the permanent employees began to park on the opposite side of the lot and avoided eye contact when they came and went. Joanna understood their discomfort with her lingering presence. And for her, being unencumbered from making small talk was worth being slighted.
Six months after her son’s death, after Joanna’s daughters were put to bed and her husband, Nick, had fallen asleep in the living room, by then a common occurrence, his last beer going warm on the end table beside his recliner, she slipped out of the house nightly and drove to Coleman’s. There, she entered the parking space where Patrick had left his car the last time he’d parked anywhere. There, she sobbed with no fear of being heard and often fell asleep, wakened by the sun’s rise just in time to be home before the clock's alarm blared for another day of teaching and grading or, in summer, for an endless dread. On other nights, Joanna imagined her son alone inside the building, so she ran up to the door, pressed her face against it, and called Patrick, Patrick until her voice grew hoarse.
A vision, clearer than memory, often came to her, especially when in the parking lot. It began at the White Bridge Road Target. Her left hand fiddled with Chloe's pacifier and the right reached for baby shampoo, the tips of her fingers on the yellow cap, when overhead “Forever Young” stopped playing midway and a woman’s sing-song voice paged: Patrick’s mommy, please come to Customer Service. Rod Stewart picked up a few lines from where he’d stopped, and Joanna searched around, panic rising as she realized that five-year-old Patrick wasn't beside her in the aisle. She rushed to the front of the store, fighting tears, nearly running into other carts and a woman in a wheelchair, all while Chloe squealed with delight. When Patrick's platinum blonde hair came into sight, Joanna accelerated. She reached him and pulled his body close. Once in her arms, he’d burst into tears, and the woman behind the Customer Service desk said Patrick had been calm until right then. Those moments of losing him had seemed like hell.
Now, knowing she’d never see him again, Joanna woke daily to a real hell.
Following the one-year anniversary of Patrick’s murder, she stopped going to Coleman’s at all. Then five years after her son’s death, the grocery moved to a new shopping strip a block away and on the other side of Nolensville Road. With the anchor store vacated, she'd hoped the owners of the old strip mall would tear it down, maybe replace it with an office building; but instead that space remained empty while the smaller retail ones rotated with stores selling western boots, cloth goods, and wine. One shop where everything cost six dollars became a favorite of her daughters when they were teens. They'd gone with their friends and brought home trendy dresses and accessories that fell apart even before they were out of style.
One day a few years later, Joanna drove by and found men painting the anchor store’s facade in bold colors. She went to the Taco Bell in front of the shopping strip and asked what was happening. A young woman, excitement in her voice, said, “It’s going to be a bowling alley!” Over the next weeks, Joanna witnessed the transformation with more bright colors and a huge neon sign added. After the bowling alley opened, its parking lot seemed to be full on weeknights and weekends, and she suspected that her girls had gone there with friends, but she still hadn't gone inside the building, not until she had a pressing reason to go.
On that Saturday evening, Joanna met Chloe and Alexandra for an early supper at The Cooks on West End, their favorite restaurant and one where Alex, who’d suffered a brief bout with anorexia at fifteen, still ate bread. Seeing her youngest daughter scarf yeast roll after yeast roll made Joanna happy, if just for the moment. Though now grown women sitting across from her, she saw the baby girls Chloe and Alexandra had been before, dark hair and their father’s vivid blue eyes, all light and laughter, and the little girls they’d become after, tentative and unsure if they could, or should, ever laugh again. When Joanna was asked how many children she had, she always froze, and she wondered if her daughters did when asked about siblings. They were sisters with a brother and sisters without a brother.
The server took their orders for soups and salads, and Joanna plunged right into her reason for inviting her daughters out. "I'm sorry, girls," she said.
Tears formed in Alex’s eyes, and she glanced at her older sister, whose face was ashen.
Joanna hadn't meant to scare them, but then her actions later that night would do worse. That couldn't be avoided.
Chloe took Alex’s hand and asked, "What did the doctor say, Mom?"
"I see her next week," Joanna said. It was a lie; she'd seen the doctor two days before, but she couldn't tell them the results from the scans and lab work. That truth hid behind a dam of rolling rage and surgically damaged tissue.
They sat there, light rock music filling the void. Joanna stared at the three tealights on the table. Three lit lights. Three.
"Mom, what are you sorry about?" Chloe asked. Alex reached for another roll.
Joanna’s brain, once so sharp, remembering minute details of short stories she taught—Flannery O’Connor, Kate Chopin, James Baldwin, Alice Munro, Gabriel García Márquez—had been covered with a translucent haze of grief and loss already by the time she’d started chemo. The fog then became as thick as the restaurant's creamy potato soup. There were other changes, too. She was no longer as energetic or agile; and her straight hair, once the color of freshly harvested wheat, had returned as an initial stubble, soft as a kitten's fur, but now the longer strands were wavy and wiry and the color of pages in textbooks from which she taught. Her body, her memories, her reasoning had a way to go in recovery, if they even could have, if there’d been time.
"Sorry about what?" Chloe asked again, a bit more anxious. A few tears drifted from Alexandra's eyes.
Joanna reached out a thumb against her youngest daughter's smooth cheek. The literature teacher inside her mind recognized the poignancy of the gesture and her brewing interior conflict between the highest love and the most-excruciating pain. "I'm sorry you two got the worst side of me as a mom after Patrick died."
The girls looked at one another, and Alexandra said, "Mom, that's not true."
But Joanna knew from their eyes that they, indeed, believed it to be true. She'd been absent; and their father and she had grown silent with one another when they'd both handled their grief differently, her for the boy their son had been, Nick for the man Patrick would never become. They'd made it past the fifth anniversary before divorcing. After that, the girls traveled the few miles between the home they’d known where they still lived with Joanna and their father’s new house where they eventually lived with a stepmother and the woman's two daughters, all strangers to Patrick. Now that both girls were out on their own—Chloe married and working and Alexandra still in college—Nick often told Joanna that she should move to a condo and make a new life, but she couldn't leave the home they'd made for their three children.
There, Patrick's room was still mostly as it had been. A Yankees pendant from a trip to New York City, school books on shelves, Sports Illustrated issues, a few CDs. Joanna had picked up socks and clothes from the floor and removed pictures of Libby, Patrick’s only real girlfriend. Her son had worked at Coleman’s for dating money and limo rental for the senior prom the prior spring. He’d have stayed at the grocery through the summer, and then in August both he and Libby would have gone to college. Patrick wanted to become an architect and Libby an interior designer. They spoke of moving to New York City after graduation. Patrick would have thrived there, though Joanna hadn’t been so sure about Libby, who always seemed more a hometown girl. Besides, she’d thought her son and the girl would have grown apart by college graduation.
And then there’d been Tommy, Patrick’s best friend. A few months before dying, Patrick told Chloe that Tommy had a crush on Libby, but he didn’t worry because Libby loved him, Patrick told his sister, and Tommy would never make a move. But five years after the murder came the betrayal when Libby and Tommy married.
"I didn't have a playbook," she said to her daughters. "I didn't know how to grieve."
"None of us did, Mom," Chloe said. She reached out. "We're all on the other side of it now, though.”
Joanna squeezed her daughter's graceful hand as she also took Alex's, but in her mind a vision stretched and their chubby baby fingers grabbed for her pearls, her nose, her mouth. Patrick’s fingers rose from the abyss, and bittersweet memories rested on Joanna’s tongue. On some days, it might have seemed to those around her that she had a good life with two beautiful daughters, a lovely home, and work she still loved, teaching American literature and seeing the reaction of students who’d dreaded the class and then found parts of themselves in stories and poems. Maybe on some days she did have a good life, or at least a good-enough life. But not one day passed when that horrid April evening didn’t cross her mind.
She’d just come in from the dimming light on the deck, where she’d been reading a collection of Edith Wharton ghost stories that had somehow not before been on her reading list, when the doorbell rang. She crossed the living room and opened the door to the professional presence of Detective Li Jiang and the glum and overly polite Coleman’s assistant manager, Kevin Houchens. Joanna had fainted when the detective said her son’s name, and she remained sorry she’d ever awakened to her forever-changed life.
Two servers brought their orders to the table, and she turned from the past to what was set in front of her: a bowl of broccoli-cheddar soup and a salad drenched in the restaurant’s house honey mustard dressing. She asked for another basket of rolls. Calories and carbs be damned; this was the proverbial condemned woman’s last meal, and she was determined to enjoy it. She'd already said all she meant to say, I'm sorry. She'd completed that phase of her mission; imperfect as it had been, it would have to suffice. All she had to do now was get through dinner and say goodbye.
While they ate, Joanna let her daughters talk, first about Alex's final exams the week before and her application for an internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York next summer and then about Chloe's pregnancy, a baby due in the spring. Joanna willed part of her soul to rise a few feet above the table, far enough to not accept the pronoun her daughters used in reference to the baby, making it too real, making her question her own plan.
No one lingered long after they finished dinner, though despite her permission, Joanna hadn’t eaten much. She paid the check, and then they gathered their purses and pulled on coats. Outside twilight had turned to darkness, and flurries feathered downward under the glow of street lights. They departed with hugs and kisses on cheeks, Chloe to go home to her husband and Alex to meet friends downtown on 2nd Avenue.
Joanna sat in her car for long minutes and clung to her daughters’ beautiful spirits before she drove south toward her neighborhood. Traffic wasn't heavy for a Saturday night in the city, but the former Coleman’s parking lot was full when she pulled in. A huge Range Rover held both Patrick's final parking space and the one next to it, so Joanna took the closest spot she could find. After she shut off the ignition, she reached under the car seat and pulled out the 1900 model, .32-caliber Colt Browning with a built-in slide safety.
Six months prior, Li had come to her door a few days before Joanna’s first chemo. She and the detective had remained in contact since that terrible initial encounter and had even become friends, so she thought it was a routine visit, stopping by for tea and to check on her; but then he grew solemn and delivered the news that Patrick's killer had died of a sudden embolism in his lung. For Joanna, a little more than a decade in prison was too easy. She’d wanted the murderer to die at one hundred, after more than seven decades behind bars, truly a life sentence where he missed important moments of his own life, of his family’s life, as Patrick had, as she had.
Joanna asked Li about the evidence, which was held in case of an appeal.
"It'll be destroyed someday," he said. "I'm not sure when..."
"I want the Browning," she said.
He reacted with a jolt, as if himself shot. "Joanna..."
"I want it, Li."
During the next quiet moments, he studied her face.
She set it to blank.
"Why in the world would you want it?" he asked.
"I want it."
He left without any guarantees.
All night, Joanna kept remembering the horrible woman who’d owned the gun. She’d kept going back to the damn thing in her criminal-trial testimony, saying, "I really need to get that back. It was Pawpaw's. I had it with his funeral flag there in a shadowbox on my living room wall. How was I to know my daughter's boyfriend would steal it? He seemed like a good boy." She tried to give more details about the Browning, but the judge wouldn’t let her go on.
She did have her say during the wrongful-death civil case, telling how her grandfather had bought the gun as a young man, how he’d cleaned it every Saturday, how it always gleamed. Joanna and Nick made a final offer just before the jury came back: Give them the fucking gun if it were ever released from evidence. Otherwise, if she lost the case, they’d take everything she had, which wasn’t much, but they’d take it all, plus anything she ever earned. The woman had settled as the jury returned, and they’d found out later that she’d been wise to hand over rights to the gun as the jury had found against her.
Joanna woke early the day after Li’s visit and called him. "I want the gun."
"If you're worried about the owner getting it back, don't,” Li said. “She abandoned all rights to it to you and Nick. Let us destroy it. I'll do it myself."
It had been obvious he wouldn't comply, and she wasn't taking no for an answer. She spoke to a City Councilwoman, who spoke to the District Attorney, and soon Li told Joanna he'd deliver the gun to her. When he had, the safety was on though the thing held no bullets. He’d then insisted on trips together to the shooting range. She could have protested, but he’d already become suspicious, and they’d developed a close enough friendship over the years for him to read her. Besides, learning to aim and fire from a professional was a good thing.
Under the dim light of the bowling alley parking lot that Saturday night, Joanna studied the Browning, as she had every night since it had been delivered, still amazed that it was so small and strangely pretty. Though only one bullet would suffice, she checked again to be sure it was fully loaded. Joanna slid the gun into her purse and exited her car. Her legs felt heavy as she walked toward the building, and near the door she stopped and raised her gaze through the now heavy snow, flakes like angel feathers, to the huge sign above: South Nashville Lanes, a bowling ball for the "O" and a pin for the "I." People walked around her like she was only mist, spirit without form, like one of Edith Wharton’s ghosts.
Her breathing slowed, escaping through her lips as puffy clouds, and she closed her eyes. When she opened them, she saw Coleman’s, returned to its previous state. She could finally see it all now.
But then came the sound of children, and she opened her eyes: A family of five exited, and the children squealed with delight, twirling under the huge flakes of snow falling around them. The woman twirled with them, and the man, whom Joanna estimated to be in his thirties, laughed. He held the door for Joanna, a kindness like she'd taught her children. Seven-year-old Patrick had run to every door if he saw another person approaching it, so excited to help. He’d glowed when people acknowledged him.
The man waited, and Joanna willed her body forward. "Thank you," she whispered as she passed him, and he tipped his cowboy hat to her.
And she was inside.
There in the front lobby, noise from the interior was muffled but boisterous. One foot in front of the other, intentional, just like she’d made herself move all these years, she walked into the place she'd avoided so long.
And she met mayhem.
Broad splashes of bold colors on top of bold colors flashed before her. Burnt orange, magenta, and teal bowling balls. Royal blue carpet with stars and bowling pins in red, green, hot pink, and purple. The same images and colors on the walls, a yellow background there.
“You Spin Me Round” loud, so loud, on the speakers.
Digital screens, changing, changing: Team rosters. Strike! Miss! Gutter! 7. 3.
Children, children. Running. Yelling. Begging. Crying. Laughing.
Burgers and fries. Her nostrils mugged by grease.
Balls rolling down lanes, crashing into pins. Crack boom. Crack boom. Crack boom.
Cacophony and chaos to her left. Cacophony and chaos to her right.
Everywhere noise and brightness. Everywhere an assault on her senses.
Her mind had been like this: garish and loud with thoughts that stunk and clogged her lifeline. It had only calmed over the few months with cancer, and she’d perceived the chance for quiet, permanent and blissful.
As she acclimated, the huge room came more in focus. Mirror-image halves were divided by a wide aisle and on each side sat a half-dozen round tables with three or four chairs at each. Beyond those tables, bowling lanes stretched to the walls.
Joanna walked nearly halfway in and took an unoccupied table on the left. A rowdy crowd of nearby bowlers, most of them with gray hair and all wearing matching lime-green T-shirts, drew her attention. Maybe former co-workers, she thought, or lifelong friends. She’d once spent time with her colleagues at museums and author readings, but not often now. The mother of a murdered child saw and heard death everywhere; in time, people had dropped away. Or perhaps she had.
Joanna considered moving away from the rowdiness, but then a family near the front of the bowling alley caught her eyes: Young parents, two small girls, an older couple, probably grandparents. They laughed and cheered, were happy. People would have seen her own family this way years before. Her life had been so wonderful; Joanna had understood this even then. She slipped off her coat and maneuvered her purse onto her lap. Then she slid a hand inside and found the smooth metal of the Browning.
Silence she craved, and silence she'd have.
Joanna considered this to be Plan B, a last resort after Plan A failed her at the appointment on Tuesday when her oncologist had pointed to a lit image and said, “The cancer is gone.”
"I'm going to live?" Joanna stuttered the words. She didn’t have the energy to fight tears.
“Though we cannot declare you cancer free until five years have passed, these scans look excellent. We caught it soon enough for the surgery and chemo to be effective.” She patted Joanna’s hand. “You cry, Joanna. This is such a relief. I don’t often get to share good news." She chattered about Joanna returning in six months before she’d walked out the door.
Endure another six months in this hell, another few decades? Joanna had decided in that moment that she’d die in the same spot where her son had died.
She moved her hand along the Browning and, with the side of her finger, clicked the gun’s slide safety off.
But children laughed nearby and the father of the family she watched swung the youngest girl, so Joanna considered that she would have to wait until most everyone was gone. Then she'd walk to the front where the grocery's customer service desk had been and find peace.
That gave her time, though, time to see what she'd never seen in the courtroom, where she’d been every day of the trial except after she'd fainted and court was adjourned. It hadn't been the autopsy report or the witness testimony or the security video, black and white and grainy, that got to her. Five seconds after the tape began, she’d moved her gaze to her clasped hands in her lap. A pop and then gasps from the jurors and Nick’s hand moving to hers had indicated the exact moment the first shot fired, and sobs throughout the courtroom told of the aftermath.
No, what had caused her to grow dizzy and pass out was the tone-deaf testimony of the gun owner. And Li had been right: The woman would never get the gun. Joanna had left handwritten notes on her nightstand at home. The one to Li thanked him for his friendship, and then it instructed him to destroy the Browning after her funeral.
Like the courtroom that day, the bowling alley now swirled around her, colors and patterns blurring, and she closed her eyes to block the images. She could see what had happened and then be done with this life. When "The Heart of Rock & Roll" faded along with the sounds of balls hitting pins and children shouting about video games, she opened her eyes.
The building was as it had been, a rundown grocery—too bright, too shabby. Musak played overhead, a John Mellencamp song crucified. Joanna sat in the middle of the store, in the cereal aisle under florescent lights. This was a different angle than the grainy video she hadn't watched beyond a few seconds. From her viewpoint, straight up the aisle, beyond the Wheaties and the Lucky Charms, past the checkout lanes and the shoppers waiting in line, was the customer service desk.
Patrick was strolling to it, whistling to the overhead music.
Joanna wanted to run toward him, but she couldn't move. Her breaths came hard, heavy.
Stop. Don't go, please don’t...
Patrick was at the desk, and he hesitated behind the customer at the counter, waiting only for a moment. Then he moved to the customer’s left and reached his hand over the locked half-door, opening it from the inside. He went behind the counter, taking one step up as he did. Her son retrieved a carton of Lucky Strike Lights for the customer who waited at the checkout, and then he was back out of the small enclosed area and closing the door to walk away.
A voice grumbled, "You ain't going nowhere."
Patrick looked at the customer for the first time, and his eyes widened as they fell on the Browning. His puckered lips froze mid-whistle.
If only the dirty-haired man, who was nearly a decade older than her son but looked at least two decades older, had realized Patrick hadn't seen him or the gun he held. If only the man hadn’t been coming down from a meth high, or if he’d not wanted money to score more meth. If only he’d known the Browning’s safety was off. If only he’d let Patrick walk on by. If only her son had gone back to the register and bagged groceries. Or if she hadn't raised him to help others and he'd let the customer go to the counter for cigarettes herself. Or if the store’s management had paid attention to Patrick being under the age to retrieve cigarettes. If only he'd remained at the end of the farthest checkout, away from the robber, from his gun, from the final moments of his life.
But Patrick was at the counter. And a gun was aimed at his heart.
The rowdy bowling group whooped loud, threatening to bring Joanna back to the present, and “You Make My Dreams" blared from the speakers. When her son was a baby, she’d played that song and danced him around. Later, toddler Patrick had bent his knees and locked his bare feet into place, and then he’d bounced from his legs until he was tired enough to nap. But she wouldn't be drawn to the happier past or to the cheerier bowling alley in the present. Joanna was ready to see what she’d avoided for more than a decade. She squeezed her eyes shut.
And then she opened them.
Patrick held the cigarette carton like a shield over his chest.
Behind the counter, the clerk, a cheerful young woman Joanna had seen in the store and remembered for her contagious smile, stuffed cash into a bag while saying the rest was in a safe. She started to cry when the jittery robber spat, "Bullshit." He scanned her area, telling her to add cigarettes to the bag, and she turned her back to do just that.
Suddenly, right past Joanna, something whooshed by. It was her, the girl who’d testified during the trial two years later about the bad man, her tears falling like soft rain, her voice low like distant thunder. In the grocery, she was six years old, and her long brown hair, shiny and straight, flowed down her back and bounced with every step. The girl seemed playful until she stopped and turned, the frantic look on her face visible as she called, "Momma!" But she didn't cry, just turned back and kept running to the end of the aisle, where she paused and looked left and then back and then right, making a 360-degree turn. She continued through an unused checkout, dipping under the plastic red curly-q rope like she danced the Limbo.
Stop. Please, stop.
A thump like the rhythm line of the bowling alley's rock songs started. It grew louder, marking the passage of time. Was this Joanna’s heartbeat or perhaps Patrick's, or maybe it was the beat of grief, counting down to her own final minutes? Soon...
The little girl reached the counter. "I can't find my mommy," she shouted to the young woman who was holding the bag toward the robber.
That day in Target, Joanna had grabbed her once-lost five-year-old son the instant her fingertips could reach him. Maybe that memory of being found and wrapped in her arms was why Patrick moved toward the lost girl.
But the commotion startled the robber: He jerked and pulled the trigger, the harsh shot disparate against the measured beats.
Shrieks and pandemonium broke out, and the customer service clerk ducked behind the counter, but not until after she’d tossed the bag up. Cigarette packs and cash flew into the air creating a green, nicotine fountain.
The robber fired again.
Patrick's beautiful, tall, lean body jerked backward for a second and held still for another... Blood pooled on his chambray work shirt and ran down to his khaki pants, and then he stumbled toward the girl, who already screamed.
The fountain of cash and cigarettes rained down around him.
The robber shot Patrick again as he fell...
...and again when her son was on the ground.
Stop. Please, stop.
Then the robber’s body quivered visibly as he stared at the Browning. His mouth formed an O of surprise, and his wild eyes scanned the scene before he said, “Oh, shit,” and ran out the door.
The beat continued.
The young woman behind the counter peeked over and then rose, and her screams mixed with those of the girl, whose mother rushed up, grabbing her daughter, crying, calling, "Danielle! Danielle!"
As he lay on the floor, alone, blood streamed from the corner of Patrick’s mouth, and it poured from the wounds. Nearby, cash became soaked in little red rivers, and the cigarette carton he’d grasped held a bullet hole perfectly in the center.
Joanna's body shook, and the vision became wavy behind tears.
Patrick gasped for breath; his hand stretched up.
The beat grew louder.
There came a gurgle. And another. And a shorter one.
Then he was surrounded by people, and Joanna couldn't see him. She reached toward her son, ready to go to him.
“Mrs. G?” Someone called from far away, and Joanna’s shoulder was touched, so gentle.
She’d stay with Patrick.
“Mrs. G?” The touch became a squeeze.
Joanna tried to hold her place, but the beat stopped, and the grocery transformed to the loud, colorful bowling alley where the screams were from playing children and adults surprised by hitting a pin at all. A bass-line thumped on a song whose name she couldn’t remember.
A young woman leaned in, her eyes intent on Joanna’s face. “Mrs. G?”
But Joanna didn’t recognize her or the young man behind her, though they looked familiar, like long-lost friends. Their faces held concern. They cared for her.
Then she knew the young woman was Libby. Patrick’s girlfriend, Libby.
“Mrs. G?” Libby repeated. “Are you okay?”
Joanna nodded, slow movements. She wanted to wipe her face dry, but she couldn’t move her arm that far or even down from its awkward reach toward the disappeared. Words were beyond her.
“Why are you here?” Libby asked.
Why are you here, Libby? she considered asking. How can you bear to come here? But then she recognized the young man: Tommy, Patrick’s friend, now Libby’s husband. Joanna stared hard, wanting her fury to strike him like lightning. She used the emotion as energy and lowered her hand into the bag. Her fingers ran up the metal of the Browning, but she feared the fury and jerked her hand back to her lap.
“Tom told me he thought this was you," Libby said.
Tom. No longer Tommy, no longer a teen. Tom, now past thirty years old.
Joanna didn’t have many filters left. “You two got married,” she said. Accusation burned in her tone.
Tommy seemed stunned and then exposed, like layers of tissue paper had been stripped back, revealing his wrongdoing.
Five years after the shooting, Joanna had heard through Chloe that both Libby and Tommy had graduated college and held jobs: Libby teaching special education in an elementary school; Tommy teaching physical education and coaching golf at a high school. She hadn’t seen either much since the funeral, and then their wedding invitation arrived in the mail. Joanna was stunned, but she RSVP’d that she’d attend. After that, she grew weaker every day until six weeks later when, on Libby and Tommy’s wedding day, she couldn’t stop crying or muster enough energy to rise. She’d stayed home, alone.
She’d seen them together once since then, at the Panera two blocks away from this bowling alley. Right away, Joanna had wrapped her sandwich with napkins, leaving the Autumn Squash soup to go cold. She’d pushed the book she read into her purse and started toward the back door, not busing her own table, a pet peeve, but she had to leave right then. A worker cleaning a nearby table stared, and Joanna started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to go. I have to go." She glanced at Libby and her daughter, the toddler’s grandmother and Tommy, all at the counter; and when she turned back to the girl who cleaned tables, Joanna saw pity on her face. “I have to go,” she said again, and she left. Behind her car in the parking lot, she’d vomited. When the sandwich began to stink a few days later, she’d tossed it.
Bowling balls crashed into pins. “Raspberry Beret” blasted. Children laughed.
And there was no avoiding Libby now.
Joanna studied the girl’s face and discovered one more than a decade older than the day when Patrick died, one not as happy-go-lucky. She’d tried to imagine her son with a decade of age and maturation on his face, but he always came back as the teen, the child, the baby. The young woman he’d planned to marry, though, had laugh lines. Had she laughed? Had she felt guilt for doing so? When Joanna laughed, she did.
“Why are you here?” Tommy asked. His tone hinted that he knew the answer wouldn’t be good. “Are you okay?”
Why were they here? How could they come to this place for entertainment?
Libby moved a chair closer to Joanna and sat in it.
She didn’t want the girl there; she wanted her to leave. Joanna had a plan. Fucking Plan B. Tonight.
“Have you come here before, Mrs. G?” Libby asked.
“It’s my first time,” Joanna whispered. She couldn’t stop the tears that formed or keep her voice from shaking. In her lap, her hand twitched.
“Let me call Chloe,” Libby said. Tommy pulled his phone from a pocket.
“No!" Joanna reached into her purse and gripped the metal of her escape.
They stood there, quiet. Tommy's and Libby's eyes were on her and then one another.
Don't look to him for help, Libby. He never was the sharpest student in any class, not like my Patrick who could read at four, who carried Tommy throughout school. Joanna had thought this sweet, had even considered Tommy to be another son, until he’d betrayed Patrick by marrying his girlfriend.
"Tom, go watch the kids," Libby said.
He'd been staring at Joanna, his face showing concern and deep thought, like he tried to figure out a puzzle, and his eyes darted to Libby. He hesitated, and Libby nodded. Then he scampered away, to Joanna’s relief. The two little girls she’d watched before ran to greet him.
"Are you okay, Mrs. G?" Libby asked. "We’ve heard you've been sick."
"I'm okay." But Joanna lied.
"I've let Patrick down."
Yes, she had, but Joanna hadn't expected a confession.
"I should have come to see you, called you, but..."
But she'd traded Patrick in for his best friend so didn't have the time. Joanna silently dared Libby to confess this.
"There’s something I could never tell you, so I didn't say anything."
Joanna shrugged. What could the girl say now, after all these years of silence, after all the heartache, that would possibly matter to her?
"I need to tell you the reason I missed Patrick’s funeral."
Even through her chemo-fog mind, Joanna remembered Libby being there, crying, sobbing, held by her mother, helped along by her friends as she hobbled from the casket to a seat and back again, tender moments with Chloe and Alexandra. “I saw you there.”
“That was the night before. The visitation.”
The days after Li came to Joanna’s door had been a blur of decisions and people. Her senses were overwhelmed by the many embraces, the stories of her son’s kindness, by the crushing smell of flowers and food, the sight of her son’s body in the casket, a shocking blow to her entire being that screamed for this to be a bad dream. Even a decade later, the stench of reheated casseroles and carnation arrangements took her back there, making her ill. But then, everyone had disappeared after the cemetery, leaving Joanna with two heartbroken daughters, a husband who'd settled into a trance, and a giant hole in her own chest. She’d stayed busy caring for everyone else until finally grief overcame her senses, creating a zombie her.
"Would it be okay if we talked sometime soon?" Libby asked. "Maybe I could come by tomorrow?"
There wasn't going to be a tomorrow, but she couldn't tell the girl this. "We're talking now," Joanna said.
"Here?" Libby looked around. "This isn’t..."
"Just tell me." Tell me why you weren’t there for Patrick.
Libby's eyes reflected a brewing conflict, but then she nodded. "Patrick and I had been so scared to tell you and Mr. G.” There was a nervous, misplaced chuckle. “We were going to after the prom, or maybe after graduation instead."
“Tell us what?”
"I was pregnant."
Joanna sat still as a river stone as these words washed over her, and then her eyes darted to Tommy and the two girls. The youngest stood on the chair beside him, her arms around his neck. The older girl, who had flowing dark hair, who looked like Danielle from the back, danced to “99 Red Balloons.” Hope soared to the height of eagles and hovered above Joanna. Her...her... But then an instant later, hope dived to despair. The girl was too young by years. But was there another older child, maybe at a sleepover? Perhaps adopted?
Where the hell was her son's child?
Joanna's gaze returned to Libby, who also watched her family but then she jerked back around. "Oh God,” she blurted. “It’s not them. It is not them.”
Joanna was so near the end; perhaps this was the final piece of her life puzzle, the one to make Plan B easy. "Where is the baby, Libby?”
"My mom told me to tell you, but I felt guilty. I hadn't wanted to be pregnant, not yet, not until after we were through college.”
Cheddar broccoli soup rose into Joanna’s throat.
“Patrick had a plan for us to go to school even with the baby, but I didn't trust that. It just seemed so damned hard." Libby shook her head and then said, "I didn't know what hard was. Not until Tom came to tell me Patrick was gone, not until I saw my love in that casket. And then I lost that last piece of him." There was a long pause, and Libby took a few breaths before saying, "I had a miscarriage the morning of the funeral." She sobbed now.
"Patrick’s baby," Joanna whispered.
"I always swore I'd tell you if we talked, but then I avoided you every time I saw you or even your car in a parking lot. Whenever I drove by your house, I thought about stopping, but I kept on driving, every damn time. Tom wouldn't let me ignore you tonight. He's wanted to visit you, to bring the girls by. Growing up, he considered you a second mom, a better mom than his.”
Tommy’s mother had always been focused on a boyfriend, usually one with a drug or alcohol problem, often one with a criminal record. On one of the rare occasions when the woman had shown up for a school event, all she could talk about when chatting with Joanna was Antonio, the boyfriend she thought she could save, while Patrick and Tommy stood nearby, a blue ribbon on their science fair project.
“If he doesn't know what to do in a situation,” Libby added, “Tom asks himself, what would Mrs. G. do? I think sometimes about how you could have been my mother-in-law, and I could have learned so much from you. When I heard you were sick, I wanted to talk to you."
Joanna crossed her arms in front of her body. "But you didn't come see me."
"You didn't attend our wedding, and we thought... A couple of Patrick's friends said hurtful things to us, Mrs. G. We figured your absence meant you felt the same way."
"I never understood how you could marry him."
"We both hurt so much, and everyone else moved on, so we leaned on one another. Then our love of Patrick turned to something more. But Tom knows there's a place in my heart where only Patrick can be."
Tears threatened now. “How can you stand to come here, Libby?”
"I feel Patrick here.” A sheepish look came over Libby’s face, and she added, “You'll think I'm crazy, but I saw him once."
If only this were true, but Joanna had never seen Patrick or heard his voice, not in all those late-night visits to this place, not at home, not even when she’d consulted a psychic, so why would Libby, the girl who’d moved on to another love, receive this merciful gift?
Shouts went up from the group wearing matching shirts and then laughs. Joanna’s mind swiped the noise away like it was a swarm of gnats.
"It was late at night,” Libby said. “Coleman’s was about to move to their new location, and I was so terrified they’d tear the building down. I wanted to be here one last time while it was still a grocery. It was unbelievably quiet, which is hard to fathom right now. Almost nothing was left on the shelves, so I bought Bubble Yum and the last box of Junior Mints.”
Joanna almost smiled at this. Chloe loved Snickers, Alexandra always chose some version of M&Ms, and Patrick’s favorite candy had been Junior Mints.
“I’d just checked out,” Libby continued. “The cashier stepped over to a different register to talk to a couple of other workers who weren't busy. I had the bag in one hand, my wallet and keys in the other. I stepped from the register, and there he stood.” She pointed.
Libby’s voice disappeared when Joanna looked to the front of the bowling alley, as it transformed to a grocery again; in the spot where he’d died, stood Patrick. Every wound on his body where he'd been shot now glowed a beautiful blue, an ethereal blue. Joanna had been fifteen when she’d first learned the word ethereal while reading a book for an elective English class: American novels. The word had enchanted her, made her want to collect words of such exquisiteness and allure. There, connected to the blue wounds of her son, she expected the word to become a source of pain, but its beauty only intensified.
Patrick's skin glowed, if he still had skin, emitting love from every pore, if he still had pores. Her son’s hair, which had been dirty blonde and darkening at the time of his death, was the platinum of his childhood. His eyes, like hers the green of just-mown spring grass, now reminded Joanna of two precious jewels. She took in his straight teeth, his brilliant smile, the warmth.
She’d last seen her son alive as he'd walked to his car to go to work that day, meeting her in the driveway as she came in from teaching, sunshine on his face and saying, See ya later, Mom. He'd been hiding a secret, but one he was ready to embrace. Who knew what would have happened if he'd lived? He and Libby might be raising a child, or children, in New York City and designing buildings and interiors together. If Alex got her summer internship, she’d be up there with them. Joanna breathed in that path and could imagine it as real, could see herself visiting the city and walking its sidewalks and parks with her family; taking her grandchild, her grandchildren, to see butterflies at the Museum of Natural History or Starry Night at MoMA; having breakfast at Dorothy Parker’s Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel; eating dinner one night with Patrick and Alex at Pete’s Tavern in the booth where O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi.” Maybe Chloe would have flown up for a visit...
"Not yet, Mom." It was Patrick’s voice, but not. Older. Wiser. Loving. Confident. From beyond, yet right there.
Joanna pulled out of her fantasy, though she wanted to stay, wanted to live in it, but her son now stood in the exact spot where she’d been certain her own exit was to happen. She sat quiet, stunned. Had Patrick been there earlier? Even if he had, she doubted she’d have seen him in her state upon entering the bowling alley, lost, so lost. In her purse, the Browning’s metal grew colder and colder against her hand until the frost from it burned her skin.
"Not yet," Patrick repeated. "Not with that. It’s done enough."
She tried to grip the gun, but she had to pull away from the bitter cold. Her hand, when she removed it from the purse, was the otherworldly blue of Patrick’s wounds. She rubbed her fingers, right hand over left, left hand over right, again and again.
“Are you okay?” Libby asked. She leaned forward. “Do you hurt?”
"Neuropathy." Joanna lied, though she did have that. “From chemo."
Libby, the girl, the woman, nodded. "Can we help?" Tears filled her eyes. “Tommy and I want to help. We both...anything you need..." There in the bowling alley, Libby’s tears turned to sobs.
Joanna looked again to Patrick, but he gazed at Libby. There was love in his expression but also a cool detachment. Libby wasn't his now. He loved her but like he loved all.
For the first time, she felt Libby’s grief. And Tommy’s. They’d both lost Patrick, and he’d been absent from their lives as he had hers. Her daughters missed their brother. And Li, who’d said many times how he wished he’d met Patrick. Li had tried to get into Joanna’s heart, but she’d blocked him. She’d blocked them all. What would this girl do if Joanna followed through on Plan B? What would Tom do? And Chloe and Alexandra, Li and even Nick, who hid his grief though she saw it lingering in his eyes?
Joanna touched Libby’s cheek. "Come to lunch tomorrow." She hadn't planned to say the words, hadn't planned before now to be alive by morning. "Bring Tommy and your daughters. I'll invite Chloe and Alex."
A week before Christmas there'd been the gender-reveal party, modern nonsense to Joanna, and she hadn't wanted to go. But Nick told her and Alex told her and the friends who hadn’t let her push them away told her that she had to attend. They said the baby would make a difference to Joanna’s life, make her life worthwhile again. Besides, they said, she had to be there for Chloe. At the party, the new parents had cut into creamy white frosting and inside were layers of blue cake. Baby blue.
Joanna had known that she couldn't see him. If she did, she'd stay.
Now in this moment in this bowling alley, with the news about a lost grandchild, her soon-to-be born grandson was real and consumed her heart. As did her daughters and son-in-law. And Libby and Tommy and their children. It might not have been the exact family she'd planned to have, but it was the one she'd love, the one she’d let love her.
She reached inside her purse to the Browning, which was no longer freezing. At home, she'd call Li and ask him to do what he would with it, and she’d invite him to Sunday lunch, too.
Across the room, Patrick faded. "See ya, Mom."
Joanna watched until he was gone, and then her fingers moved along the gun’s metal. When they reached the safety, she clicked it on.