THE HOTEL AJUBA
Times like this, when the tiredness seemed to linger longer into her talks, when her usual pep-talk mantra that, “Oh well, it’s better than a real job,” wasn’t quite as uplifting, she knew the end was near. Not the end of her writing, that was forever, but the end of the book tours and the speaking engagements. She’d never say it was because she was getting older, she knew to attribute it to not having the energy anymore.
She checked her watch and looked up to see how many people were still waiting in line for her signature.
The two and a half hours had flown by, there were only five or six people left, plus two women who had been patiently letting everyone go before them. They were working very hard to be the final people to get her autograph.
She thanked the last man, handed him his book and smiled at the two women, they had to be a mother and daughter.
The author extended her hand, shook each of theirs and said, “Finally! The end of the line. I’ve been waiting all day for you two!”
They laughed, their smiles made it even clearer that they were family.
The mother, who must be in her early sixties, was clutching something to her chest that was flat and rectangular and covered in beautiful taupe wrapping paper. By its shape it was a framed picture or certificate of some type.
The daughter had a tiny, blanket-swaddled baby in her arms.
The older woman said, “Dr. Miller, we’d never heard of you before last week, I’m sorry but we’ve never read much fiction for young people.”
“Shame on you.”
“We promise to correct that mistake with these.” She patted the stack of books in her arms.
The older woman said, “There was an article on you in the alumni news and your name caught my eye so I Googled you.”
She took a deep breath, “We’re pretty sure you knew my mother.”
The author looked closer at the women.
There was something familiar about them, but speak to a million different people at a thousand different schools and libraries for forty years and there’s something familiar about every single person you meet.
She said, “Oh?”
The woman holding the baby said, “Yes. We’re almost positive. But either way, we thought you’d like to meet a very special young woman.”
The writer stood up and took the baby that the woman offered.
She set the child in the crook of her arm and lifted the blanket from her face.
She was an angel, dark brown skin with curly black hair and plump, plump little dimpled fists pressed into impossibly chubby cheeks.
Dr. Miller said, “Oh! What a beauty! Congratulations!”
“Thank you!” The mother beamed.
“I’m very good at guessing ages. Let’s see, six months?”
The two women laughed, “Three.”
“Mercy! What’s her name?”
The mother said, “We named her after you.”
This had happened several times before. The author found it to be very awkward and even embarrassing.
“Oh, dear. That’s such a heavy name for a baby.”
The baby’s mother said, “I don’t know, it’s our name too. We’ve carried it just fine.”
She looked carefully at the two women. They were far too old to be named after her because of the books. She looked back at the baby and said, “Really? All three of you are named after me? But how could that be?”
The older woman said, “Does this mean anything to you?”
She held up four fingers.
The author scanned the auditorium, was there anyone near who could help in case this got any weirder?
The younger woman was holding up four fingers too.
Then the two women did something amazing.
They pointed at their faces, held up one finger and placed their hands on their chests.
Just like they were saying the pledge of allegiance.
They pointed at the author, themselves, then the baby and said, “Four girls, one heart.”
The room reeled around Dr. Miller. She handed the baby back to its mother and sat heavily into her chair.
She struggled for a second to catch her breath. Four or five people from the university rushed toward her.
“Wow,” she thought, “I’ve had to wait almost ninety years to find out I am the type to swoon.”
She pushed away the swarm of helping hands fluttering around her.
“Stop! I’m fine. I just need to catch my breath.”
The younger woman and her mother retreated to seats in the front row of the auditorium, identical worried looks on their faces.
The author stood up, more hands came to support her.
She swatted at them, “Thank you so much, but I just need to talk to those two.”
She walked over to the women.
“Dr. Miller, we’re so sorry . . .”
“Please. Stop. I was just caught off guard. My, what a shock!”
She looked from face to face, she’d played out some variation of this scene in her mind for more than seven decades. How on Earth had she missed it?
“This is a real first, I’m willing to bet that at no time in the history of humanity have four girls named Deza been in the same room at the same time!”
She wiped tears from the older woman’s cheek.
“Why didn’t I see it? You look so much like Clarice! Both of you do.”
She knew, but she had to ask, “How is she?”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Miller, Momma passed away on the twenty-third of June, twenty years ago, in 1992.”
She’d have to look in her journals from ninety-two to see if that was when she first had the feeling.
“Oh, dear. But please, don’t call me Dr. Miller. How are we going to do this? It will be confusing otherwise, and I have seniority, so I’ll be Deza One, you’re Deza Two, you’re Deza Three, and this one . . .”
She took her youngest namesake and held the baby over her head.
“You, my delightful, darling, daughter, you are Deza Four-ever.”
The author noticed people from the university hovering nervously, she said to the other Dezas, “Did you drive?”
“Can you get me out of here?” She fumbled in the pocket of her jacket and pulled out the hotel key-card. “I’m staying somewhere called The Hotel Ajuba.”
“That’s not far from where I live.”
“Great. We have so much to talk about!”
She pointed at the wrapped package.
Deza Two said, “Oh, my goodness, I nearly forgot.”
She took the package from the seat where she’d set it.
“Dee, take the baby.”
“No,” Dr. Miller said, “I haven’t decided if I’m giving this child back, you open it for me, please.”
Deza Two carefully started pulling tape from the package and gently began unfolding the paper.
“Did you grow up in Gary, Deza Two?”
“No, all three of us were born in Sacramento.”
“Well, your Indiana roots are showing in the way you open . . .”
It was beautifully framed and under glass.
Much smaller than she remembered, and the paper had yellowed, but apparently crayons are forever. The colors were as vibrant as the day he’d drawn the picture.
The first thing that struck her were the words he’d printed in black crayon across the top, “DEZA STEERS.”
Jimmie’s work, no doubt.
Her hands trembled as she took the picture.
She brushed her finger over the glass covering the red, ripped-in-two heart.
She read aloud the words she’d written more than seventy-five years before, “My dearest sister Clarice,”
Then, written across the bottom of the paper in Clarice’s beautiful penmanship, “Sisters forever. Deza Malone and Clarice Anne Johnson 1936.”
“Mother kept this in the kitchen and left it to me, it’s been on my living room wall since she passed. We brought it for you. It’s time it went home.”
“Oh, Deza . . .”
The three older Deza’s wrapped their arms around each other, the smallest Deza caught between three wet, smiling faces.
Dr. Miller said, “That is so sweet of you, but the picture’s already home. One day I want this little angel to hang it up on her living room wall . . .”
“And make sure she tells all of her children, that . . . once upon a time . . . in a city called Gary, Indiana . . . there lived two great and loving friends.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Hours later, after her namesakes left the room, she picked up her cell phone. It would be a little before four o’clock in Pittsburgh, he’d be settling in to watch his show.
“Just a second, sis.”
He muted the TV.
“Everything OK, sis? You’re a little early today.”
He started their daily ritual, it reminded her so much of when she signed books for younger school children; some of them could not be side-tracked from spelling their names . . . one . . . tortuously . . . slow . . . letter . . . at . . . a . . . time.
There was no hurrying them along, trying to rush Jimmie was just as futile.
He began, “How’s Roscoe?”
“Good, good. How’s Margaret?”
“Good, good. How’s James?”
“Good, good. How’s Clarice?”
“Good, good. How’s Pauletta?”
“Good, good. Glad to hear the babies are doing good.”
It was her turn.
Jimmie always asked how her children were doing, and she was supposed to ask how each of his ex-wives was. He couldn’t live with a one of them and once all parties involved accepted that, they’d evolved into loving life-long friends.
“How’s Betty Jo?”
“She’s doing good, good.”
“How’s Daisy Mae?”
“She’s doing good, good.”
“How’s Anna Lee?”
“She’s doing good, good.”
“How’s Sally Jackson?”
“Well, she’s doing good, considering.”
The roll-call of Jimmie’s ex-wives was shrinking. One had already passed away, and, judging by Jimmie’s answer, it didn’t seem as though Sally Jackson, who Deza knew was in intensive care, was long for the list.
“Did I leave anyone out?”
“Nope, that covers ‘em, for now. You never know, though, I’ve had my eye on this nurse.”
“Jimmie, sorry to call you at this time, but what a day I’ve had . . .”
Half an hour later they were laughing gently into the phone.
“Something happened today that reminded me of Father, Jimmie.”
“I couldn’t sleep this morning so I was flipping through channels, there was an interview with Bill Withers.”
“Oh, yeah! Fine songwriter, we did a gig together in Nashville back in the seventies.”
“I know, but that’s not what made me think of Father.”
“Ok, Ok. what was it?”
“Hold on, I jotted it down the best I could. Let me get my glasses.”
She picked up the small pad of paper the hotel left by the phone.
“Here we go, he said something along the lines of, ‘It’s OK to head out for “wonderful,” but on your way to “wonderful” you’re going to have to pass through “all right.” And when you get to “all right,” take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far you’re going to go.’”
Jimmie said, “The brother always has had a way with words.”
“Yeah, I thought you might enjoy that.”
He didn’t answer.
She could hear he’d un-muted his TV and was slowly letting the volume creep up, “The cases are real, the people are real, the rulings are final, this is her courtroom, this is . . .”
The second half hour of his show was starting. He’d been very generous to give her the first half, talking any longer would be pushing her luck.
She said, “I’ll let you get back to Judge Judy, Jimmie.”
“OK, sis, the meds are ‘bout to kick in anyway. Talk to you tomorrow.”
She smiled, “The meds are ‘bout to kick in . . .” was Jimmie’s version of her “I’m about to go in a tunnel . . .”
He said, “I love you my mighty Miss Malone.”
She answered, “I love you too, my genuine, gentle, jumping, geriatric, giant, Jimmie.”
She closed her eyes and didn’t hang up, not wanting to cut the connection.
A few moments later, just as she was about to press the off button she heard, “Sis? You still there?”
“Yes, dear, I’m here.”
“You know, the only thing I’d add to that Bill Withers stuff is that here on Earth, with all this pain . . .”
She said, “It’s OK, Jimmie.”
“. . . with all this wall-to-wall heartache . . .”
“I know, Jimmie, I know.”
“. . . with all these chances for joy . . . with all these chances for love . . .”
“I’m here, Jimmie.”
He finished, “ . . . life ain’t no fairy tale so it’s a waste of time trying to get to a place called ‘Wonderful.’ It won’t never happen. ‘All right’ is as good as it gets . . . ‘All right’ is a perfectly beautiful place to end up.”
He never stopped amazing her.
That wasn’t the kind of thing she’d expect to hear from a ninety-two year old Judge Judy addict, but it was exactly what she’d come to expect from the best big brother in the world.
“Indeed it is, Jimmie. Indeed it is.”
© 2012, NOBODY BUT CURTIS