The house runs in one relatively short hallway. To the left as I leave the bathroom appear to be bedrooms. I take the right passage through the living room and into the kitchen. Helen sits at the table with a large envelope in hand. Our meal has been reorganized here.
“Thank you,” I say because I suck at icebreakers.
“Glad to,” she says.
“You wanted to show me something?”
Helen passes the envelope to me. I open it and reach for contents. The stack of paper I pull out covers the spectrum from white to beige. They are requests for interviews. Local, regional, national, and international news organizations have asked for opportunities to speak with Helen and Virginia.
“Don’t know why I kept them,” she says. “I suppose at first I just wanted to see how many I’d get. Then, as they stacked up on me, I pressed them flat and put them in there.”
“What do you want me to do with them?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I wanted somebody to see how I have to cut off parts of life to manage what’s left.”
“How did you keep them from camping outside?”
“Sheriff did that for me. Told them to up and leave. Not wanted here.” Helen drinks her tea dry. “Makes it easier to go see my girl.”
“That’s great,” I say.
“Come on, sit and eat. You look half-starved.”
I sit and eat with Helen. She asks about my parents and my books. She’s never heard of me and tells me so in an almost wistful way. Maybe she had hoped to attract a more well-known author, or maybe she wishes I had never heard of her. Anonymity has its privileges.
We shift the conversation to mundane subjects and trivial remembrances. Anyone might’ve happened upon us and thought we were catching up after a long absence. In truth, we were sharing the sorts of surface-level minutiae upon which strangers subsist.
Without warning, Helen says, “Please don’t use Virginia’s suffering to make yourself money.”
I’m flustered. I would never dream— Actually, I suppose I did dream. Of being the one to call out social wrongdoers. Of raising these people as the poster family for social justice. Of quietly accepting my Pulitzer for my work on this important matter.
But those were the dreams of a foolish, fledgling social activist. Weren’t they? Didn’t all beginning activists look for paths to notoriety and dream of being recognized? If not, what does it mean that I did?
And anyway, I hadn’t thought once about those things since…before my sandwich.
“I will never. I will not take one dime from anything related to your daughter.” It’s not a lie. I would have. Once upon a time, ten minutes ago. But I won’t. I will not. If I cannot change my past insensitivities, at least I can change my forecast.
“I take you at your word,” Helen says. Then she returns to meaningless chatter and I follow.