Sixty-two-year-old Barclay O'Malley sat in her upstairs lounge, a room separated from the marble-floored corridor by glass doors with sheer white curtains. The morning sunshine fired up the rich reds of the Kazkah carpet that took center stage on the hardwood floors and blended with the upholstered seating. She slid her cushioned chair closer to the mahogany table, her fleshy stomach pressing against the edge. Loose wisps of her silvery hair moved in the gentle breeze blowing in through a nearby window. She straightened her eyeglasses and read the title page atop a stack of papers.
Without Hesitation written by Jessica Winward. Barclay whipped half the pages of the typed manuscript over and put them aside. She tugged her typewriter closer to her, alongside a pile of Jessica's books, and placed a sheet of paper in the carriage. Waiting, standing ready for the words to come, she took one of the books, held it and smiled.
As happy as she felt, sadness overcame her. The day of her wife's funeral was as close as her memory, and it was only a matter of minutes before she could continue typing where she'd left off.
I woke up that morning with a sense of familiarity that soon escaped me when I stretched my hand across Jessica's pillow and touched the cold linen. Before the first tear could fall, I wrapped myself in the thick, down comforter, a strange mixture of cool and warmth from the side not slept in and the other sadly taken. Since no awards ceremony or book tour kept her away from me, it felt strange to be there alone.
By October 3, 2002, our time together would be comprised of my visiting her in the hospital and, a week later, I would never sleep next to her again.
I once told an old friend in order to preserve Jessica's memory in mind and spirit he had to find the best way for him of keeping her alive. For me, it would be completing this novel, Jessica's life story.
Water dripped into the bathroom sink as Barclay twisted a hot washcloth. She opened it and draped it across her face, pressed the heat deep into her eyes and cheeks. She smelled the faint sweetness of Jessica's mulberry-scented shower gel embedded in the threads.
She exhaled in broken sobs through the cloth, dropped it and looked into the mirror. "I have to be strong for you, Jessica. This is your day."
She left the bathroom adjacent her room and returned to her bed, where she stood before her black ensemble: a long cotton-wool blend skirt, a drape-necked tunic, pantyhose and a pair of clog-heeled shoes. She picked up her stockings and laid them under the skirt; the legs dangled and the feet hung above the shoes.
At the dresser, she opened a jewelry box and scrambled through a ball of gold and silver chains until she found her beads: gold, brown, and maroon nuggets on a string. Then, she brushed her gray hair and pinned it upward in a bun.
She reached for a shopping bag underneath a window, then raised her head and looked down at the street in time to see two black Cadillacs park in front of her brownstone. Within a minute, a buzzer sounded throughout the two-level house.
She scurried to an intercom in the hall, leaned against the wall and pressed the button. "Yes?"
"Hello, ma'am," a man's voice echoed. "Your ride's here."
"I'll be down in five minutes."
"Yes?" She heard crackling and murmuring in the background then, "Hi, it's Laura." Barclay pushed the lock release and listened to the door open then shut and footsteps on the porcelain tiles. When there was silence, she strolled into the bedroom to finish dressing.
Meanwhile, forty-year-old Laura Winward-Baker and her twelve-year-old daughter, Jessica, passed under a chandelier. "Come on, Jesse Junior," Laura said and they traipsed into the living room. Their eyes scanned furniture covered in white bed linen, paisley blankets, and sheets of plastic. Clean areas marked dusty mantels and shelves where pictures and trophies used to be, those items now only clumps of newspaper piled in open boxes.
Laura's daughter, lovingly nicknamed Jesse Junior after her grandmother, strongly resembled the women of her family. Her hair was the same tint of golden wheat, straight thick strands, as her mother and grandmother. She wore her hair with a front bang to cover the pre-pubescent bumps on her forehead but the rest of her warmly tanned face was smooth. She unbuttoned her black wool coat, which fitted her budding figure, and pulled one arm out. Her mother said, "No, honey, we're not staying," and Jesse Junior eased her arm back inside and her noir outfit was covered again.
Laura wiped her eyes with a handkerchief at the sight of her mother's belongings: books no longer to be read, magazines that featured her mother on the covers tucked away, and crystals that used to capture sunlight never to beam a spectrum of colors on the wall again.
"Ma, are we going yet?"
Jesse Junior pouted and dilly-dallied through the room, picking at the covers on the furniture. "I just want it to get it over with," she said softly.
While dressing, Barclay heard footsteps near the stairwell and called out, "Laura, stay there, darling. I'm on my way," then listened to the taps fade away. She pulled a black hat out the shopping bag, placed it on her head and fixed the veil to stay on top.
In front of the mirror, she gave herself a final inspection and walked out of the room.
Laura looked up the staircase. "Barclay, how are you?" Barclay smiled and nodded, reaching the bottom landing; the young girl hurried toward her and hugged her.
"Jesse Junior!" She leaned forward, kissed her on the head and rubbed her auburn hair. "How's my girl?"
"I'm okay, I guess."
"Yeah, I think I feel the same."
Laura came toward her friend with open arms, and Barclay held her close. They cried with composure on one another's shoulders, a quiet respect for the silence they felt in their hearts.
Soon, Barclay pulled away and held Laura's face in her palms. "You look more like your mother every time I see you."
"Dad says the same, whenever we get a chance to meet, that is."
"This is your mother's day, you know." She puffed out her chest and raised her chin. "Not once had I ever let her down, not once, and I won't do it today."
"She's top headline again, exactly like she would've wanted."
Barclay nodded and said, "We better get going."
The women strolled toward the entrance, and Jesse Junior opened the door to the sound of camera shutters clicking and cluttering voices from men and women holding tape recorders. Laura clutched her daughter to her side and pushed through the crowd. Barclay held out her hand, waving microphones and cameras from her face, replying to some reporters while trying to reach the car. After all, it was her duty to ensure justice was done to Jessica's name. Yet, so many questions drowned Barclay's thoughts.
One of the drivers pierced the horde. "That's enough, excuse me! Will you show some respect, please?" He grabbed a hold of Barclay and helped her to her ride.
She flopped into the leather seat across from a man her age. Straightaway, she caught a whiff of liquor blended in with his cologne. He wore what was to be expected, not only for this day but of his usual office wear in general. However, his suit was disheveled and his necktie hung loose at the collar. He was clean-shaven, though his face was pale and tiresome from the last time she'd seen him. His hair, more gray than she'd remembered, was cut so closely his scalp peeked through the stubbles.
The driver got behind the wheel, lowered his window and watched the outside mirror until he got a signal. Almost in an instant, an arm swung out the second car's window, and Barclay's chauffeur started the engine. "We're ready," he said.
"Thank you," Barclay replied and watched the other passenger stare at his fingers.
Soon, he abated the inept silence between them, lifting his eyes and saying, "You look good, Barclay. Have you been taking care of yourself?"
"Yeah, Ben, thanks. You, too."
He straightened his tie and fixed his clothes. "I wish it was under better circumstances, but um, it's nice to see you again."
"Same here," she said and faced the window. Minimal conversation was ideal in managing the awkwardness she felt from riding with her ex-husband, the same who had also been married to Jessica years before.
After a while, the cars arrived at the funeral parlor and pulled alongside a row of red cones, where they waited for the flower-impregnated hearse to drive away before following.
Again, Ben's broken voice desecrated the sanctified quiet that gave Barclay some peace. "I don't know why she wanted to do this."
"I mean like this: no ceremony, no wake, nothing, only a burial."
She clamped her lips and continued to watch the outside surroundings go by in a blur.
"You knew her so much better than her family," he continued. "Tell me, why didn't she want to give us a chance to say something in her honor?"
He made clear that a distinction existed between her and Jessica's family, drawing a partition between the relationship of kin and the bond she held with Jessica. Her stature became taut, as she turned and gazed into his eyes. "Maybe she thought nobody had anything worthwhile to say."
"Right." He chuckled. "Or better yet, what her family had to say wouldn't matter."
"Would it have changed anything?"
He took a deep breath and answered, "I never could change anything, Barclay--not with you and certainly not with Jessica."
"Well, there you go." She turned her head with deliberate force and stared outside.
Ben leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I'm not going to let them drop her into the dirt without having any final words."
"To whom, Ben?" Her eyebrows tethered together in a frown and she whipped her head around. "Who will you be talking to?"
"There are some things I want to say to you, to my family, to Jessica. I was her husband for fifteen years. I think I deserve that much."
"You do what you have to, but I'm warning you..." She bent toward him. "If you think you're going to take one step out of line--"
"Come on, now!" He shook his head and sat back.
"Or so much as speak one demeaning word, I will request this very car, with this same driver, to take me to your funeral. Do you understand me?"
"You always did have that sharp edge," he chuckled. "I guess that's what I loved about you."
"I mean it, Ben."
"I know you do. Relax, Mrs. Winward. I won't embarrass you."
"I don't care what you do to me. Just don't hurt Jessica's memory." She reclined deeper against the leather seat and ignored him for the remainder of the ride.