By Mindy Friddle
After the accident, they kept asking her about Janelle Wolf’s state of mind. Did Mrs. Wolf seem upset that night? Had she been crying? Did she leave the house angry?
In fact, it was Lizzie who’d arrived at Mrs. Wolf’s house bawling like a baby. And it was Mrs. Wolf who’d comforted Lizzie, sat her down, made her a cup of hot tea, the real kind with ground leaves and a tea ball.
But Lizzie didn’t tell the deputy that, as he sat across from her the next day in her mother’s living room. Lizzie could never admit she went apeshit in front of Mrs. Wolf, that she’d cried about being an “alternate” cheerleader which was nothing but a benchwarmer and you had to wear an ugly polyester uniform instead of a pleated sexy skirt, and those hateful bitches on the squad laughed at you, and Tad not waiting at your locker anymore because you didn’t put out, and then you did, and now he didn’t like you anymore because it was super slutty that you let him and you liked it, and geography was way hard, and your father’s disability checks were still not coming through so your mother couldn’t pay the light bill.
Mrs. Wolf told Lizzie she had a lot on her plate. She said Lizzie was bright and capable and she was certain she would feel better about things tomorrow. Bright! Capable! Lizzie basked in the warmth of those words. Her own mother called her a pain in the ass.
Mrs. Wolf had worn a clingy black V-neck dress and red suede boots. She had her own office in the house, with an IBM typewriter and a fax machine. She was a career lady and a wife and a really good mother.
I want to live like this, Lizzie had thought. I want to be like Janelle Wolf.
The deputy sat on the saggy corduroy couch where Lizzie’s father usually slept, one armrest shiny from his head. Lizzy’s mother was thrilled to have a deputy in their living room, to serve coffee to, to be part of the awful excitement. Her mother would blab it all over. Y’all, listen. Lizzie was the babysitter.
The deputy asked Lizzy, what was her state of mind? Did Mrs. Wolf act different? Think now.
After Lizzie had washed her teacup, she’d helped Mrs. Wolf put the children to bed. Mira was two and liked picture books. Burry was six and Mrs. Wolf read him Charlotte’s Web. Burry was mad that the pig’s name was Wilbur, just as Burry’s was, but Mrs. Wolf told him that Wilbur was a wonderful, kind, and magical pig, and how special it was, to share the name of a beloved character, right Lizzie? Lizzie loved how Mrs. Wolf talked to her kids.
Like they were real people already.
Mrs. Wolf kissed her children over and over and tickled them and they giggled and she kissed them some more.
Huh. The deputy acted like that was weird.
It wasn’t. Mrs. Wolf always kissed them—
Lizzie’s mother said, reckon she was telling them goodbye.
Then the deputy asked Lizzie about the phone call. The phone rang just as Mrs. Wolf was leaving and Lizzie had hoped it was Tad, calling to beg her forgiveness.
But it wasn’t Tad.
Mrs. Wolf had a frantic, whispered conversation. When she hung up, her mascara was smudged. Something was wrong. Something changed. Her state of mind. Then Mrs. Wolf left.
Mr. Wolf had left two hours earlier.
Lizzie watched An Early Frost on NBC. Her mother would freak out if she knew Lizzie was watching a movie about homosexuals. Aidan Quinn played a man who had AIDS. He was a total fox. It was so sad when he got sick, Lizzie cried.
Shortly before midnight, the Wolfs’ doorbell rang. It was a neighbor. There had been an accident—
It was all over the news the next day. Mrs. Wolf’s car had crashed through the bridge and plunged into the river.
Someone from First Baptist started a phone tree to pray for Mrs. Wolf.
Others started rumors.
That Mrs. Wolf was dead.
That Mrs. Wolf was a vegetable.
That it wasn’t an accident. That Mrs. Wolf drove into the river on purpose.
A newspaper man interviewed Lizzie. The article called her the babysitter. They didn’t print her name because she was only fifteen, but everyone knew. The babysitter said Mrs. Wolf left the house shortly after seven, on the way to join her husband at the home of Senator Stan Rex.
The article disappointed, with its bare-boned facts. So the town filled in the gaps.
Jeremy Peters seen when she done it. She just revved up the engine good and drove into the river.
Poor Charles Wolf. Having to raise them kids, and her not right in the head.
Bless his heart. You know she was stepping out on him with the senator.
The ones who got it all, big house, all fancy, they’re not happy.
Mrs. Wolf almost died. She recovered, but she was damaged. Different.
The town was superstitious. The Wolf family’s dirty scandal splattered Lizzie, too. No one asked her to babysit anymore.
Lizzie left the town the day she turned eighteen. She moved to Virginia, married a Navy man. They had two boys.
Lizzie’s mother kept her informed over the years, said Mrs. Wolf was a crazy lady, jabbering nonsense, embarrassing her husband.
But Lizzie never forgot the exotic luxury of that cup of jasmine tea, like drinking flowers, and Mrs. Wolf calling her bright and capable.
When Lizzie raised her sons, she never called them a pain in the ass. Lizzie read Charlotte’s Web to them and smelled their shampooed heads and kissed them over and over, thinking she could never leave her children, she could never do what Mrs. Wolf did. What they said Mrs. Wolf tried to do.
Lizzie never believed it.
* * *
Mindy Friddle’s short fiction has appeared in LitMag, The Gateway Review, The Long Story, Steel Toe Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southern Humanities Review, Failbetter, and Phoebe. Her novel, SECRET KEEPERS (St. Martin’s Press/Picador), won the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin’s Press/Picador), her first novel, was selected for Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program.