The Girls From Mapleton (Excerpt)

The Girls From Mapleton (an excerpt from The Hungry Heart by Fran Metzman)

At her therapist’s urging, Andrea had arranged a reunion with her childhood friends, but now she thought she’d made a disastrous mistake. It was one thing to talk about the past with an objective shrink in a wood-paneled office, but to bring it out in the open for the first time with the others felt like incising an infected wound without anesthesia. Yet, this might be the only way to achieve closure. And to her surprise, Barbara and Chris had responded to her e-mail immediately and were due to arrive soon.

With shaking hands, Andrea unwrapped the sandwiches she’d bought from a convenience store a block from the hotel where she was staying. They were simple sandwiches – salami and baloney with American cheese, the type that the working class families of Mapleton usually ate for lunch.

Andrea walked to the ice machine in the hallway of the dingy hotel, Mapleton’s finest, and filled a bucket. She listened to the thunking of the cubes as they hit the bottom. The drink choices she’d chosen were orange and coke sodas, just like they used to drink as kids. At the last minute, she’d added a bottle of vodka just in case it was needed.

Returning to the room, she felt feverish and pressed a cube to her forehead. She then walked to the window and opened it. For a moment she thought she heard the whoops and squeals of children playing street games. She shivered. But not a soul was in sight. The sounds of a bygone era echoed in her head every time she looked through a window on to a city street. Easing the window shut, she wished she could close out the chilling memories as easily.

Andrea had never expected to return to Mapleton, a fatigued and gray town. The recent death of her mother brought her back to dispose of the house and a few dreary belongings. 

After the cremation Andrea had the ashes shipped to her home to avoid a funeral. She wanted to finish the business end of dying by telephone with the realtor, but, after much thought, she reluctantly decided to take her therapist’s advice – try to reconnect with the friends that she had not seen since high school graduation fifteen years ago

After reaching a point of desperation, she needed to diminish the roiling pain that often gripped her without provocation and when she thought she was most distracted. Even though she had come seeking closure, a trendy word that Andrea had misgivings about, in her heart she didn’t think it possible.

Sure that the dark memories would never fully be erased, she sought only to lessen the rage that cut her off from being a full participant in the world. She didn’t know how to love. 

Not a day went by where she didn’t think about what had happened. The unrelenting images of the past clobbered her much like post-traumatic stress syndrome. Work provided the only escape, and she threw herself into her law cases with a vengeance.

Andrea set out the plastic forks and paper plates on the cocktail table in the sitting area and popped the cardboard lids of coleslaw and potato salad. Not exactly New York chic to which she’d become accustomed, but she hoped that reinventing foods from childhood would somehow invoke the forbidden topic. She now questioned her own ability to bring it up. Besides, eating in a diner in Mapleton and seeing the townspeople’s faces etched with futility would have dragged her down into the abyss she often visited.

Then Andrea noticed a black spot on the wall. Instantly, she dampened a napkin in the ice bucket and quickly rubbed it off. In a sweat, she heard a timid knock on the door. Andrea paced in front of the door for several seconds. Finally, she opened it and saw Barbara.

“I’m so happy you came,” Andrea said. Barbara’s girth had thickened and her skin coarsened, but the face within the face resembled the kid she had known so well.

Barbara gave her the slightest smile, but her forehead furrowed. She walked in tentatively, and then stopped. “I was quite surprised when I got your invitation. It’s been so long, although I am glad to see you. You look great. New York is good for you, huh?” She shuffled her feet.

“Yes, but sometimes it can be a tough city.” Andrea motioned for her to sit before Barbara turned tail and ran. She had a momentary image of Barbara as a skinny kid handing out flyers for her father’s church, advertising the next fire and brimstone Sunday sermon. As a really young kid, Andrea had been riveted to her seat as Barbara’s father raged about sinners going to hell. Although Andrea didn’t quite understand all the words she caught the terrifying tone of his voice.

Andrea offered Barbara a plate. She took it gingerly and looked over the heaping platter, selecting a bologna sandwich. Then she poured orange soda into a plastic cup. It reminded Andrea of the times when Barbara, Chris and she played in the back yard of the church while their parents shook hands with the preacher and then chatted with the other congregants. Sometimes it took an hour or more, and the girls picnicked on the lunch prepared by their parents.