“This must have been very difficult for you,” I say.
“Well, shoot,” she says. Nothing more.
Helen stares at something in the distance. I study the creases of her face. They testify to a harsh life. She has not aged in comfort or in a society of anti-aging creams. Lines canvasing her forehead speak to worry. Wrinkles and muscle wasting tell of former hard work left unrewarded. Tiny, puckering folds ring the woman’s lips. I wonder if these are from pursing lips from attitude or cigarettes.
I decide to try again. “Life’s been tough for a long time, hasn’t it?”
“What good would complaining do me?” She continues to look to the thing far off the porch.
I sip sweet tea. If I stall long enough, maybe I’ll think of a better way into her story. Or better, she’ll open up on her own.
Her tea sweats even though the day is barely warm. I watch the condensation drip.
“This is my first sweet tea,” I say.
“I’ll be,” she says, finally turning to look at me. “How does it suit you?”
“Well. How do you make it? I mean, I know how to make hot tea. Is this hot tea with ice?”
“Mercy lands, you have questions brimming to overflowing.” She laughs. The sound is like a wheeze but it lights her face. “Tea can be made many ways, but this is the best. This here is sun tea.”
“Oh,” I say for lack of response.
“You put the leaves in a bit of cloth and tie it up.” She takes a long gulp. “You throw the cloth into a big ol’ glass pot and pour in sugar ’til you can’t see the cloth. Fill it up with water. Put a lid on and set it in the sun. It’s done when you say it’s done. I like mine dark as sorghum.”
“I’ll have to try that.”
“You’re nicer than most reporters.”
“I was telling the truth, ma’am. I’m not a reporter, but I am a writer.” When she says nothing, I continue, “The use of that video of your daughter was disgusting. I wanted to visit you and let you know that not everyone thought of her as a joke.”
“Well, I thank you. You can stay and finish your tea if you like.”
“I also wanted to let you tell your story. To me. If it would help.”
“Whatever could you want with a story except to make money?”
“I’m a writer. Stories are important to me. I don’t want to make money. I just want to help.”
“Help. You’ve said that word more than once as we’ve sat here. My girl’s the one who needs help.”
“What can I do?”
“I don’t know. Can you undo the damage the world’s put on her? Can you make her right again?”
“No.” I feel small, and paying attention to how I feel makes me even smaller. What was my plan? I figured things were bad, but…My plan looks foolish, childish.
“Do you have children?”
I shake my head no.
“I have the one girl. She was a spitfire from day one. She made my days worth something.”
We sit in silence until Helen speaks again. “I’ll take you up to the ward to meet her. Then you tell me if you still think you can help.”