As soon as I heard her voice I knew the news wasn't going to be good. She said weakly, “Can you come?” I responded, “I’ll be right there. Hang tight.” I hung up without saying goodbye, but she wasn’t the type to be offended by missing trifles. I hit the save button on my word processing program, locking in the latest addition to my ever burgeoning manuscript. I swallowed the last of my cold coffee with a grimace as I grabbed my keys, headed out the door and down the road.
I tried not to speed on my way to the hospital. Normally I’m not at all aggressive behind the wheel, but suddenly the 35 mph speed limit was intolerable. Once there, I swerved into the first parking space I could find and all but ran to her room. She was pale and obviously not doing well physically, but it was the fear I saw in her eyes that really frightened me. I smiled anyway, at least I think I did, and gave her the usual greeting, “Hey, Chiquita!” Rather than respond with her usual, “Wuddup, Banana?” she only raised her left hand in a half-assed wave as her lip began to tremble.
I first met Maretta eighteen years ago when she was my first editor’s assistant. It started with daily phone calls regarding document updates that we passed back and forth between our two computers. Truth be told, sometimes I made up questions or concerns, because I loved hearing her voice. She still had a hint of her old Oklahoma twang, roughened by perhaps a few too many beers and cigarettes on the weekends. In my mind, I had this romanticized vision of the love-child of Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley in my mind. I always ended the calls by threatening to fly to Chicago and take her drinking once my book was, and here I would cough politely, a best-seller.
A year and a half later, to my utter amazement, my book did become a best-seller and my accountant told me to “go have a little fun, you can afford it.” It was a Friday morning, and I booked the first flight out (first class, no less) to Chicago. I called her once I was seated on the plane.
I smiled. “What are you up to this weekend.”
“Not much really,” she drawled. “Prolly gonna go trollin’ for some kinda handsome.” “Yeah? Don’t leave without me.”
“Serious. My flight gets in at 4:26 p.m. your time.”
“Fuck me! No! Really? Really?!”
“You are fruit bat shit totally Bananas!”
“Well, bring on the flying monkeys, because that should put me to your doorstep by about 6 p.m.”
“I can’t wait. Unbelievable. I can’t wait.”
Five and a half hours later, I was pressing the buzzer next to the door of an old renovated warehouse. The unmistakable voice blasted through the speaker above the mailboxes, “That you, Banana? Come on up!” I heard the door lock click open and as I opened it, I suddenly felt nervous. I wasn’t nervous in a way that told me I should be worried, but nervous in a way that told me I was right, that I was in for an adventure. I took a well-aged, industrial elevator to the third floor. There was only one door up there, painted in a style that looked like Chagall had spent a drunken night spattering paint around. I liked it. I didn’t realize I’d stood there staring as long as I must have until the door was flung open and that voice said, “You gonna stand there all day, or what?!”
She stood there, all of 5’2”, hands on her hips, wild red hair that fell half the length of her body, and the most amazing sea green eyes I’ve ever seen. I don’t know exactly what I had pictured in my head, maybe someone with both feet in the Angelica Houston gene pool, but clearly, this woman wasn’t it. She looked more like a mash-up of Debbie Reynolds and Linda Hunt. I grinned.
“Maretta. It’s you!”
“What’s this Maretta shit? You never call me that.”
“I… oh hell… give me a hug, Chiquita!”
That snap decision to fly out and meet her is one I’ve never questioned. We were fast friends, as I’d expected. The weekend flew by in a blur of laughter, tears, plenty of coffee and whisky - depending on the time of day, and talk about subjects that swung on a vast pendulum - everything from the complexities of female vs. male orgasm to the scent of roasting corn on the cob. Two years later, finally fed up with her going-nowhere-fast position as an editor’s assistant, I hired Maretta to be my personal editor. At first she protested, citing that I probably couldn’t afford her. However, by then I had two best-sellers under my belt and had bought a beautiful twelve acre chunk of property in the Cascade foothills of Washington state. I had a house that was much too big for one person and two cats. There was a small log cabin on the property. I offered to have it remodeled and updated for her. She could live in it rent free and bank most of what I paid her.
“Can I have horses?”
“Why not? There’s plenty of room.”
That was how we’d spent the past sixteen years - me in my big house up on the ridge, she in her cozy cabin down the path, half an acre uphill from the river. We worked in the living room of the big house. I’d long since converted it into a huge office with a sizable library. Men came and went in both of our lives, but for whatever reason, not a single one seemed worth settling for. If it was an unusual friendship, it was at least one of the very best.
Last week Maretta had been wandering the hills on her horse, Starblazer. Spooked by a skunk that had wandered across their path, Starblazer reared and threw Maretta to the ground. She landed hard enough for her calf to be punctured by an old jagged tree stump. Surgeons spent hours picking bits of debris from her wound. While she was in recovery, I was told that the main concern was infection.
Now here we were five days post-surgery. I held Maretta’s hand and wiped hot tears from her cheeks. It was the first time I’d seen her eyes without that feisty fire burning deep inside them. She had always been the stronger of the two of us. I’m pretty damned strong, but Maretta is kick-ass-take-names tough. I think when you’re that short and have all that blazing red hair, you either go shy and quiet, or you, as Maretta had, make it your mission to be a spitfire. It was disconcerting that I was the one trying to give the comfort that I owed her. Infection was spreading through her leg faster than antibiotics could work. There was talk of sepsis. “We have no choice but to take her leg just above the knee.” Amputation.
“This is deep ugly shit, my friend. But, we’ll manage. You know we will. I’ll make sure you have the best care while you recover. You’ll stay in the big house so I can be at your side the instant you need me. Amazing work is being done with prosthetics these days. You’ll go through rehab, you’ll get your strength back. I can’t imagine losing a limb, but losing a limb isn’t losing what makes you Maretta. I love you so much, my dear friend. I don’t know what I can say that will make it better right now. Just know that I love you.”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine. Being short, red-headed, and having a voice like Peppermint Patty ain’t enough. I might as well add One-legged Wonder to my list. Fuck me!” She snorted with laughter so hard that snot flew out her nose, which served to make both of us laugh until we were hysterical, and then laugh harder when the nurse checked in on the commotion. But I knew as soon as I heard her voice that old favorite sentiment of hers, “Fuck me!” I knew she’d be okay.
“You know… I didn’t expect you to be this much trouble when I signed you on. I might have to reconsider this whole relationship.” I couldn’t hide my smirk.
“Yeah? Then fuck you too!”
And we giggled until the pain meds took her where I couldn’t follow.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, jahedgepath challenged me with "Write a response to the following opening: "As soon as I heard her voice." and I challenged Eric Limer with "Write about loss of any kind."