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Chapter 4
Sue Richmond is coming to visit and there’s no way to put it off. Shelby has kept her mother away from the apartment with a string of excuses for as long as she possibly can. She’s afraid her mom will be shocked by her living conditions, but Sue won’t take no for an answer this time because she wants to celebrate. The occasion is Shelby’s twenty-first birthday, which Shelby would just as soon ignore. All this week she’s been preparing for her mom with a cleaning frenzy. But even after she’s swept and mopped and attacked the teeny bathroom with a vengeance, the apartment still looks terrible.
“Your mother’s coming to see you, not the apartment,” Ben says. He wishes he could join them for lunch, but he works uptown in the school’s clinic. He brushes Pablo’s hair from his black slacks. He is not a fan of the Great Pyrenees: there’s the shedding, the cost of his food, the way Pablo sprawls across the couch. “Small apartments should have small dogs” was Ben’s initial response when Shelby brought Pablo home. Their place is three hundred square feet. There’s hardly any storage space, so coats and boots are shoved under the bed. Pots and pans line the small countertop, the washed and the unwashed side by side. There’s a big garbage can filled with kibble that takes up most of the small hallway. But there are no decorations on the walls, no prints, no paintings, nothing to hide the peeling paint; it’s as if this place was nothing more than a pit stop when in fact Shelby and Ben have lived here for nearly two years.
When her mother arrives, Shelby buzzes her in. It’s a cold March day and Sue is out of breath by the time she gets up the four flights of stairs.
“I guess you don’t need to exercise when you have to climb all the way up here,” Sue says, collapsing on the couch next to Pablo. “Hello there, big boy,” she says to him, stroking his boxy head. Shelby notices that the couch is worn, with frayed threads on the arms. “This is a cute apartment,” Sue says as she gazes around. “It’s compact.”
“It’s the size of a closet,” Shelby says.
“A closet would have shelves.” Sue laughs, and Shelby does too. Her mother wants to see the best in everything and everyone. She’s brought along two shopping bags full of presents. There are chocolates and a soft alpaca shawl and a new set of sheets, all very much appreciated. “I know you usually prefer black, but the green looked so springy.”
“Definitely springy,” Shelby says of the shawl. She already knows she’ll never wear it.
“You’re only twenty-one once,” Sue says cheerfully. “It’s a big day. I think you’ve made this place very homey,” she adds, even though Shelby is fairly certain her mom has spied the mousetraps in the corners. Her dogs don’t bother to go after the mice; they just watch them as though they were some form of entertainment. Shelby gets Havahart traps so she can bring the ones she captures down to the riverside.
They go to a French restaurant on Ninth Avenue because Shelby knows her mother wouldn’t approve of the Hunan Kitchen as festive enough for the occasion. Hunan is more of a takeout place with two plastic tables set near the window. The bistro is funky with a touch of elegance. They order beet salads and glasses of white wine and sit in uncomfortable rattan chairs. Sue thinks the place is charming. “I’m so glad I get to take you out!” she says. Shelby keeps her mouth shut. She doesn’t want to be a downer, but all this birthday means to her is that she’s lived four more years than Helene.
“I can’t believe you’re a biology major,” Sue says. “I always knew you could do anything you wanted to.”
“It’s not like I’m going to be a doctor or anything,” Shelby says. But secretly she has been thinking about vet school. It’s stupid, she’d never be smart enough; all the same she could do some good for the creatures that need her.
“I forgot to give you this,” Sue says, pushing an envelope across the table.
It’s a birthday card with a photo of a basset hound. Inside the message reads: Have an Arfing great birthday.
“Very funny,” Shelby says. She opens the card to discover five one-hundred-dollar bills. “Mom,” she says. She knows her parents are having money problems. “You don’t need to do this.”
“Your father sold the store, so I wanted you to share in the good luck.”
Dan Richmond has always said the family store he inherited from his father would only be taken away over his dead body.
“Are you kidding me? He sold it? When was he going to tell me? After my death?”
“It’s going to be a Starbucks,” Sue tells her cheerfully. “They bought out his lease, and your dad got a job at the Walt Whitman Mall. The men’s department at Macy’s.”
Shelby is fairly certain that Walt Whitman has been turning over in his grave ever since the mall on Long Island was named for him. She and Helene used to go there every Saturday. Shelby thinks of the day they bought their matching bracelets. They had saved up for months. Babysitting money, allowances, chores. They’d been so proud of themselves.
“And Dad’s okay with all of this?” she asks. “What about the family legacy and all that?”
“Did you want to run a men’s clothing store?”
“No,” Shelby says.
“Take the money,” Sue tells her. “That’s the legacy.”
So Shelby does. She leans over and kisses her mom. “It will be good for emergencies. Like if I ever have to leave Ben.” She’s said aloud what she’s been thinking about for a long time. They’re not suited for each other. They’re like strangers on a train, only they live in the same apartment and sleep together, but they don’t know each other in any deep way. How would you want to die? What would you do for love?
Sue studies her. “Is something wrong between you two?”
The tables are jammed together, ensuring that customers have zero privacy. There is an older couple sitting next to them who have suddenly stopped talking. Obviously, Shelby’s conversation with her mother is more interesting then anything they have to say to each other.
“It’s a what-if situation,” Shelby says. “Like if I catch him having an affair.”
“Your dad’s having an affair,” Sue says.
“What?” Shelby’s ears are ringing. She must have heard wrong.