“Tea Hour”

There is something about that Bud Mason, Ardith says, and watches him sternly from the kitchen window. He is not right.

Bud Mason is my mother’s yard man. He is a big fellow who does not say much but has a kind face. For three days in a row now he has come to mow. It is because of all the spring rain, because my father, when he died, left Ardith a large yard. Still, Ardith believes there is more. Yesterday, when Bud Mason came to mow, I offered him a lemonade, and Ardith worries now there is something between us. She suspects I am throwing myself at the help.

Ardith prefers William, my boyfriend of several years, although I am pretty sure she is not wild about William either. Ardith would rather I did not have boyfriends. At my age, she says, nearly forty, she adds, one should either be married or philanthropically inclined. There should not be this question of boyfriends. Most especially Bud Mason, who is not right.

It is my mother Ardith who is not right here. My father, before dying, was home sick a long time and my mother got used to feeling needed. Now increasingly she seems to be losing her way and imagines worrying the same as being needed. Needed primarily now by me.

Abruptly changing the subject, Ardith, I say, listen to this. And I read her the quote from my tea bag. Ardith and I buy tea that comes with little guideposts for living printed on tags attached to each bag. Warnings about steadiness of purpose, advice on tranquility of mind. There are things to learn, and we take our tea hours seriously, Ardith and I. We take our tea bags to heart.

“If every day is an awakening, you will never grow old,” I say now, quoting Epictetus. Actually, it is not Epictetus. I have had this tea bag before. I have looked up the quote and the bag has got it wrong. It is Gail Sheehy here being quoted, Gail Sheehy, best-selling author and giver of generous advice. Still, we mean to be encouraging, Gail and I. Ardith is growing old and we want her to know there is hope.

Ardith nods once, turns back toward the window. She is distracted and does not hold much with Gail Sheehy today. She stares again at Bud Mason guiding his mower across her green lawn. He’s married you know, Sarah Louise. It is an accusation.

I do not right away respond. It is true, it has not occurred to me Bud Mason is married. But it has also not occurred to me Bud Mason is single. I have simply not got so far in my thinking of Bud Mason to consider marital status. So really? I say, Married? just to converse.

Ardith watches Bud Mason make his return trip with the mower. His wife runs the News Depot in town, she says.

Is that so?

Ardith nods. She watches the mowing Bud Mason. That is, the woman who runs the News Depot signed his Christmas card last year. One would assume they are married.

Ardith stares at the window.

Well yes, I say. I do not like where this is headed but I try for assent. People do not generally sign other people’s Christmas cards, I say, unless they are pretty much married.

Ardith watches the power mower make another pass. She looks out the window a long while more, then offers: The News Depot is not what it used to be, Sarah Louise. You know. She turns and studies me.

I do not know. But I smile. I am happy to see we have moved on from Bud Mason.

They lost their lease two months ago and moved in with the manicurist next door.

This last point stops me and I give it some thought. The News Depot is frequented by old men and teenage boys, for cigarettes and the rubbers they sell in the back. It is not clear what the manicurist would gain by giving the News Depot space.

I cannot see it, I tell Ardith.

Ardith fixes her gaze out the window. She does not seem to have heard. Bud Mason passes once more, head down, and Ardith follows his wake.

She gives tattoos on the weekends, people say.

Ardith has lost me here. The manicurist? I ask.

Ardith stares at the window. She shakes her head slowly. Her voice drifting now, The woman who runs the News Depot, she says. She watches the mower pass again. Who may be his wife.

We are back to Bud Mason, I see.

Ardith turns to me. Her voice is suddenly urgent. He will not make you happy, Sarah Louise.

Ardith’s eyes are big, she looks disturbed. This past year, Ardith is frequently disturbed. Please, Ardith, I say. Be calm.

Ardith does not hear me. Guard your heart, Sarah Louise, she says, her voice rising. You cannot go around falling for just any yard man. Think of William.

Ardith, please.

Ardith turns back to the window, watches Bud Mason make one more pass. And quieter, The man is probably thick with tattoos. Think of that too, Sarah Louise.

I do not know what to say here. Please, Ardith, I could tell her, please, please do not worry. Look at Gail Sheehy. Gail is not worried. Consider Gail Sheehy, Ardith, I could say.

But I do not. I only nod and say she has a point there all right. About the tattoos, I mean. I tell her I will certainly give it some thought.

Then, More tea, Ardith? I say.

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About Elizabeth Collison

Elizabeth Collison has published short stories in North American Review, The Barcelona Review, Chicago Tribune, and Monkeybicycle, and in 2015 Harper Perennial published her debut novel Some Other Town. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.