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Plainsong
Author:Kent Haruf

They handed her the leftover money and the grocery receipt and she held her open palm in front of her face, counting the money with her finger, and put the bills and coins away in her purse. They handed her the front-door key but she said, I’m going to trust you with that. You can come in if you need to. And I won’t have to get up to let you in. Maybe you’ll want to sometime. She looked at them. All right? They nodded. Very well, she said. Let me see if I can stand up. Slowly she began to rise from the chair, pushing back with her fisted hands against the armrests. They wanted to help her but didn’t know where she might be touched. At last she stood erect. It’s ridiculous to get so old, she said. It’s stupid and ridiculous. She took up her canes. Stand back so I don’t trip on you.

They followed her scraping into the kitchen, where they hadn’t been before: a little room with a small window overlooking the tarred roof of the next building, and a plain wood table with a toaster on it, a half-refrigerator, a trash can and an old hard enameled sink containing a single dirty coffee cup and the toast crumbs of her breakfast.

Wash your hands, she said. That’s first. Here.

They stood next to one another before the sink. Afterward she handed them a towel. Then she told them to take down the additional ingredients from the cupboard and set them out on the table, following the order of the old recipe she’d cut from the top of an oatmeal barrel, the recipe gray and worn now, grease-smeared but still legible.

What’s next? she said. Read it.

Vanilla.

Up there. On the middle shelf. Then what?

Baking soda.

There. She pointed. Anything else?

No. That’s all.

All right, she said. You understand? If you can read you can cook. You can always feed yourselves. You remember that. I’m not just talking about here. When you go home too. Do you understand what I’m saying?

They looked at her gravely. Bobby read the scrap of recipe print again. What does cream mean? he said.

Where?

It says cream the butter and sugars.

That means mix them together until they’re soft, she said. Like heavy cream.

Oh.

You use a fork for that.

They began to put it all in and they stirred it together in the bowl while she stood beside them overseeing, instructing, then they spooned dollops of batter onto the greased sheet and set the raw cookies in the oven.

I’ve been thinking, she said. I’m going to show you something. While we wait.

She shuffled into the next room and came back carrying a flat and ragged cardboard box and set it on the table and removed the lid, then she showed them photographs that had been much-handled in the long afternoons and evenings of her solitary life, photographs that had been lifted out and examined and returned to the black picture book album, the album itself of an old shape and style. They were all of her son, Albert. That’s him, she told them. Her tobacco-stained finger pointed at one of the photographs. That’s my son. He died in the war. In the Pacific.

The boys bent forward to see him.

That’s my Albert in his Navy uniform. That’s my favorite picture of him as a grown man. Do you see that look on his face? Oh, he was a handsome boy.

He was a tall thin boy in a dark Navy uniform, wearing his dress blues, and his white dixie cup pushed back on his head, his shoes gleaming. In the picture he was squinting into the sun. Behind him there was a tree in leaf and a pool of dark shade. He was grinning terrifically.

I miss him every day, she said. I still do.

She turned the page and there was a photograph of the same boy standing with his arm draped around the shoulders of a slender woman with dark wavy hair in a white gabardine dress.

Who’s that? they said. That lady with him.

Who do you think? she said.

They shrugged. They didn’t know.

That’s me. Couldn’t you guess?

They turned to look at her, examining her face.

That’s how I used to look, she said. I was young once too, don’t you know.

Her face was close to theirs, old and bespectacled, agespotted; she had soft loose cheeks, her thin hair was pulled back. She smelled of cigarette smoke. They looked again at the picture of her when she was a young woman wearing a handsome white dress in the company of her son.

That was when Albert was home for the last time, she said.

Where was his father? Ike said. Was he home too?

No, he was not. Her voice changed. She sounded bitter and tired now. He was gone by then. His father was nowhere. That’s where he was.

Bobby said, Our mother’s in Denver now.

Oh, she said. She looked at him. Their faces were close. Yes, I think I heard something about that.

Because she was just renting that house, Ike said. She’s in Denver staying with her sister.