I remember the first time I noticed Gertrude. She had been there for as long as I could remember, part of the scenery, a statue that barely registered. I was five and she was already old, though she never seemed to age. She was sitting on the curb surrounded by weathered pink luggage and I felt, for the first time, a quicksilver curiosity about her.
"Mommy, why does that lady have all those bags?" I tugged on my mother's hand and pointed at the woman not far from us. "Is she going someplace?"
"Quiet, Crystal!" Her voice was a low hiss and she pulled me closer to her side. I stared at the woman as we hurried past. She was still, like stone, her face was sunken and etched with deep lines. "Hello, Ms. Thompson."
She looked up at us, her eyes wide and glistening, and I didn't need my mother's protective arm to keep me glued to her side. "Gary is coming today."
"I know, Gertrude." My mother smiled, sad and faint.
When we reached the end of the block, she stopped and knelt in front of me. "I want you to leave her alone, Crystal. Do you understand me? That woman has been through enough without you terrorizing her."
"I wasn't!" Tears sprang to my eyes at the unfairness of the scolding and her expression softened.
"I know," she murmured, standing and taking my hand. "How about ice cream when we get home?"
As we walked away I glanced back at Gertrude. She had gone still again, sitting among her pink luggage, and even I could see that she was lost.
"Come on, Crystal!" Rhett was somewhere ahead of me, laughing. "I'm gonna beat you!"
I was paying more attention to the burning in my legs and the stitch in my side than to where I was going and nearly ran into him when he stopped in front of me. I bent over, resting my hands on scabbed knees, and tried to catch my breath. When I looked up, Rhett was grinning down at me and my stomach fluttered. He didn't even look winded.
"Who's that?" He pointed his chin towards someone ahead of him.
I followed his face and frowned before I answered. "That's Ms. Thompson."
"Why's she got all that luggage?" His eyes were over bright, mischievous.
"I don't know. She's there every day."
I nodded. "I think she's crazy."
His grin widened and he strutted forward, his chest puffed out. I followed, keeping my body half-hidden behind his. I jumped when he called out, "Hey, lady!"
"Rhett," I hissed, tugging on his arm. "What are you doing?"
He hushed me with a wink. "I wanna know where she thinks she's going."
She was looking at us now, confusion clouding her face. "Did you say something?"
"Yeah." The malicious undercurrent of his laughter made my skin crawl. "Where you goin' lady?"
"Gary is coming to get me." She giggled and I shifted. "We're leaving."
"Oh yeah? Why's that?"
"We're going to be married." Her face softened as she said it and I realized, with a start, that she'd been beautiful once. "As soon as he gets here we're going to the church."
"Married?" Rhett glanced back at me, sunlight glinting off his cropped golden hair and straight white teeth. "How long have you been waiting?"
"Not long." She glanced down the street. "He'll be here any minute."
"She's been saying that for years," I whispered, laughing. Her eyes settled on me and I flushed.
"Lady," He said, deliberately shifting so he leaned over her. "He ain't coming."
"Of course he is!" Shame raced through me, scalding my cheeks and rising like bile in my throat at the panic in her voice. "He loves me! We're going to be married!"
I grabbed Rhett's arm tightly and whispered, "Let's go."
He was shaken, too. I could tell when he didn't yank his arm away from my touch. "I was just kidding, lady. I'm sure he'll be here any minute now."
As we watched, she sank back into her memories. When she spoke, her voice was dreamy and far away, as though Rhett and I no longer existed. "He'll be here any minute. I'm sure of it. He promised."
That night I told my mother what had happened. She was quiet, letting the silence stretch until I began to squirm under the weight of her stare. When she spoke, it was both less than I expected and far worse than I had imagined. "I thought that I raised you better than that."
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
"I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."
I never spoke to Rhett again. I thought my heart was breaking, but I couldn't face that cruel, beautiful boy.
It took several weeks, but after that day with Rhett, I finally worked up the courage to ask my mother why Gertrude was the way she was. Without speaking, she went to the closet and pulled down an old shoe box I'd never seen before. It was full of old newspaper clippings, some yellowed with age. This was one of those and she handled it with careful reverence. At the top was a photograph of a man, vaguely handsome and beside him was a dark haired beauty with a wide, striking gaze. I knew those eyes. Then my mother, in her soft melodious voice, told me what had happened.
"Gertrude was engaged to my uncle Gary." I repeated the words silently, let them settle. "They were high school sweethearts, totally in love. They were supposed to be married the summer after they finished high school. I never met him.
"On their wedding day Gary, went to pick up his suit from Claxton's. He was walking down the sidewalk when Billy Westerton, the local drunk, jumped the curb in his rusty old Chevy and hit him."
She paused here, looking down at the clipping, her fingers tracing his picture. "Everyone knew that Billy wanted Gertrude. There was a fight at graduation when Gertrude wore her ring in public for the first time. It ended with Billy being hauled off for breaking Gary's nose. Still, no one wanted to compound the tragedy of Gary's death and it was ruled an accident. Billy never touched another drink. He even became a pastor."
"Father Westerton?" I breathed, shocked. She nodded.
"When they told Gertrude, something inside her shattered. She refused to believe them and went outside with her luggage to wait. She did the same thing the next day and the next, until they finally left her alone. My mother said they thought about sending her somewhere, but they couldn't bring themselves to do it."
"Oh." I could think of nothing else to say, so I didn't.
"Now you know."
I didn't speak to Gertrude again until high school. It was desperation, the simple mindless need to be with someone who would ask nothing of me that drove me to her. I had been dumped by my first serious boyfriend, left for some buxom blonde cheerleader named Stacy. Even then, it wasn't until I couldn't stand one more second of my mother's concerned glances and gentle questions that I escaped the confines of the house. Walking had always cleared my head, but this time it was different. It took only the brush of the cool evening air to bring out the tears I'd managed to hide from my mother.
I had taken great pains to avoid Gertrude until then. Even seeing her from a distance brought the shame flooding back, leaving me sick and dizzy. At first I only wandered, but each turn brought me closer to where she sat waiting. I didn't know I'd reached her until her voice cut through my misery.
"Oh, my dear." I looked up and there she was, sitting on the curb, surrounded by her tattered luggage. "Whatever's the matter?"
The sincerity in her voice undid me. I found myself sitting beside her on the cold concrete curb, her strong, thin arms wrapped around me as I sobbed out the story, feeling more and more foolish as I spoke. She stroked my hair and made gentle shushing noises until I finally hiccuped to a stop.
Her fingers tightened on my shoulders and she looked deep into my eyes. "You're too good for him anyway."
Her words set off another round of tears, but she seemed to understand. Eventually I calmed down and she lowered her arms and clutched my hand instead. We sat that way for hours, taking silent comfort in one another's presence until the sun began to set. It was the first of many days we spent together.
There were days when she was completely lucid. Those were the worst days. At first we simply sat in silence. It was so common for us that I didn't realize it was different until she spoke.
"I miss him." Her voice was low and heavy and I looked up to see a tear trace it's way down her wasted face. "I've been waiting so long."
I opened my mouth to respond, but closed it when I saw the look on her face. It was one I'd never seen before, the first time I'd ever felt like she was truly there with me. Without speaking, I twined my fingers in hers and squeezed gently. She returned the pressure, her hand trembling in mine, and we fell back into silence. It was a secret, this awareness, and I treasured it.
Gertrude loved sweets. It was something I learned quite by accident. I'd grabbed a handful of caramels out of a bowl my mother always kept on the coffee table and shoved them into my pockets before going to see Gertrude. It was one of the days when we just sat, not saying much, and I offered her one after several minute of silence.
"I really shouldn't," she laughed as she accepted the morsel. "I love it, but it'll ruin my figure."
I chuckled as I unwrapped my own piece. "Don't worry, I won't tell."
"Oh good!" She popped the caramel into her mouth and grinned at me. "I love secrets."
After that, I brought them with me just to watch her eyes light up with simple joy. I never told my mother that I was taking the candy to Gertrude, but she must have guessed because the quality of the treats greatly improved.
It was hard when I left for college. I accepted a full-ride scholarship to a university that took me far away from Gertrude. I wrote to her every week, addressing the letters to her home. She never wrote back, but I never expected her to. When I came home during my long weekends and vacations, I made a point to sit with her.
During those moments, it was as though I'd never left. Some days we were silent, waiting. Others we spent talking about love and heartbreak. She told me about her Gary, the little things that a girl in love would notice, and I told her about Gordon. It seemed to me that she was more aware than she had been, more present, and I carried that with me when I went back to school.
The weather the night I returned home mirrored my mood. It was cold and dark, the rain coming down so hard that even with my wipers going full tilt, I had a hard time seeing the road in front of me. I drove slowly, prolonging the inevitable questions I knew were waiting for me at home. In the back seat, tucked into my only real piece of luggage, was the ring that Gordon had given me the night of graduation. I hadn't given him an answer, but he'd insisted I take the ring anyway.
It was all I could think of as I drove down the familiar roads, barely paying attention to where I was until my headlights flashed over Gertrude, sitting on her curb. I slammed my foot on the brake pedal and jumped out of the car. She was clutching an umbrella, but it did nothing to protect her from the driving, frigid rain. She was soaking wet.
"Gertrude!" I grabbed her hands, they were like ice, and tried to pull her to her feet. She didn't move. "What are you doing out here? You're going to get sick!"
She looked at me, her eyes fever-bright even in the dim light of the street lamp, and I felt a tremor of fear. "I can't leave. He'll be here any minute."
My eyebrows swooped down and I lifted a hand to her face. Hot. "Gertrude, listen to me. You're sick. You need to go to the hospital."
"No," She swatted my hand away and smiled, a beautiful, heart breaking smile. "He's coming today."
"Gertrude," I moaned, near tears. "Please. You need to see a doctor."
She looked up and I thought that I'd gotten through to her, but then her eyes slid past me and she inhaled as though she hadn't breathed in years. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled as she smiled and I resisted the urge to turn and look behind me. She looked young again, radiantly beautiful, as she rose to her feet. When she spoke, her voice was rapturous. "He's coming! I see him!"
I did turn to look then. There was no one there. "Ger-"
"I told you," she snarled, turning on me with her hands clawed. I backed up a step, avoiding her fingernails as she advanced on me. I'd never seen her angry before and it scared me. "I told you he'd come."
She collapsed then, so fast that I couldn't react. I didn't realize I was screaming for help until someone was beside me, pushing me out of the way.
"She's got a pulse," the man called to a woman who had a phone to her ear. "Tell them to hurry!"
They let me stay with her all night. I ignored the nurses with their compassionate glances and watched the seconds tick by. One of the nurses brought me a blanket, which I tucked around Gertrude instead, and offered to call someone for me. I nodded, reciting my mother's number, knowing that my mother would worry when I didn't get home. She came, bringing her sympathy with her, and I immediately wished she's go away. After nearly an hour of her useless fluttering and attempts to distract me, I asked her to leave. I saw the hurt in her face, but she went.
Gordon came just before dawn. He didn't speak and he didn't flutter. He wrapped his arms around me and held me to him, offering what I could take and nothing else. We stood that way for a long time, watching Gertrude's chest rise and fall as the machine beeped in time with her slow heartbeat. It may have been hours or days. Time meant nothing, but it stood still when Gertrude opened her eyes.
I leaned over her, a smile pasted on my face and she raised a hand to brush my cheek. Her gaze shifted, so much like it had on the curb. I turned, saw Gordon.
"He's here for me," She whispered. "I knew he'd come."
When she smiled, my heart broke and the tears began to flow. Gordon stepped forward and took her hand, murmuring softly as he stroked it. I decided in that moment that I would marry him, that beautiful, kind man.
The nursing staff made us leave when the alarms sounded. I watched their frantic attempts to save her through the glass windows. I could have told them it was too late, but they wouldn't have listened. She was finally with her Gary.