“Quiet Hour” by Peni Griffin
The phone on the kitchen wall rang halfway through Quiet Hour. Delia drank her decaf and continued reading the evening paper while her daughter answered the hall extension. This Patty Hearst business sure was something. Who were the Symbionese, anyway, and what did they need liberating from?
Emma called through the door: “Mama!”
“Is the house on fire?” Delia called back, turning over a page and scratching her instep with her bare toe.
“Abuelita’s going to the hospital!”
Delia lunged for the telephone, tangling her arm in the cord. “Mamacita?”
“Delia?” The voice sounded Anglo and impersonal, an office-phone sort of voice. “I’m sorry to call you during Quiet Hour, but you better get over here. An ambulance is on its way.”
Delia stretched one foot under the table to grab a pump. She heard Emma pick up the extension again as she demanded: “What’s wrong?”
“Arm and jaw pain, nausea, sweating, shortness of breath,” said the unknown woman. Delia kicked her second shoe into reach. “We gave her one of her pills and called the ambulance.”
“I’ll be right there.” Delia snatched her purse off the table, ran out, shooed the cat off the hood of the Chevy, and drove. Rush hour was over, gracias a Dios, and she only had to drive a little too fast to arrive at Mama’s tall, shabby house before the paramedics finished loading the gurney into the ambulance. The neighbors and tenants parted to let her through.
Mama looked gray and small, her face covered by the oxygen mask: an echo of the day Papacito died, but Mama, at least, was able to describe her symptoms to the EMTs in English. Delia followed the ambulance to the hospital, where she filled out paperwork and then sat beside Mama, watching the lights on the monitors. “You’re going to be all right,” she said.
Mama’s mouth moved under the oxygen mask.
“Whatever it is, tell me later. Your job now is breathing.”
Mama made writing motions, so Delia fished a pencil and an old receipt out of her purse. Mama wrote (in Spanglish) “If I’m not okay, you go to my kitchen for Quiet Hour next week.”
Delia blinked. “What?”
“All right, but why?”
Mama’s smile looked shaky beneath the plastic dome of the mask. The pencil skittered across the receipt. “Next Thursday. Just do it.”
As Delia looked up from reading the faint scrawl, her mother’s lips turned blue. The monitor’s beep became a whine. “Help!” Delia yelled till a nurse came, then another, then another, crowding her away. She stood in the middle of the floor, trembling, until somebody led her to the waiting room.
A baby wailed and fought the man who walked up and down, up and down, trying to soothe it. The television mounted under the ceiling had no vertical hold. Delia picked through the magazines available. Sports Illustrated, October 1973. Good Housekeeping, April 1974. She should call Emma, but a weeping teen-age girl hogged the pay phone. At the window, a woman screamed at the nurse: “But we don’t have any insurance!”
Mama had lost her insurance when Papacito died. The family would have to mobilize to pay for this. She hoped, among all the kids, that they could. Even back in the war days, when they’d rented out every room in the house and Papacito’d held two jobs, there’d never been money to put back. At least Mama owned the house, free and clear, and all the rooms were full. Full; but taken cash on the table, no questions. How many tenants would vanish at the prospect of paying an unknown landlady?
Who was that person on the phone? She had to be someone Mama knew well, to know about Quiet Hour. So why hadn’t she been in the forefront of the crowd when Delia arrived?
And she’d said “we.” “We” who?
Delia fidgeted, running the voices of all of Mama’s friends through her head. She found no match, and when she stopped, she saw Mama’s blue lips again, so she tried some more. The crying girl hung up, and an old man pounced on the phone.
“Delia Hernandez?” A nurse called. Her expression made Delia’s eyes burn.
Delia’s boss gave her compassionate leave, most of which she spent doing paperwork and organizing money. The hospital would have to be paid over a course of months, whether it liked that or not. With the whole family pitching in, they scraped up enough for the funeral, one week minus a day from the death. Delia, Joe, Ruben, Rosalia, all the grandchildren, all the spouses, cried in the flower-studded church. Afterward, Mama’s children made a cluster with Tio Nardo at a table in the assembly hall. Mama had used Tio Nardo’s enlistment bonus to buy the house back in ’42, their big Pearl Harbor gamble.
“Remember when we built that big table in the front room?” Joe flexed the fingers that had learned to wield a hammer on that project. “It had to all come apart so Mamacita and Papacito could unfold their bed at night, and be put back together first thing in the morning so the graveyard shift could have their supper and the day shift could have their breakfast.”
“How’d you feed all those people in wartime, anyway?” Tio Nardo asked; not that he’d never heard it before.
“The boarders didn’t have time to shop anyway,” said Delia. “They all gave Mama their ration books. And between the victory garden and the chicken coop, we made a lot of food right there.”
“Wasn’t there a guy who worked in the stock yards?” Rosalia asked. “I remember somebody bringing Mama tripas every day and that was why we always had menudo on the back of the stove.”
“Pepito,” said Delia.
“What, the handyman?” Ruben looked surprised. “Lives in the attic in exchange for fixing things?”
Delia nodded. “She gave him a discount during the war for bringing meat home, and then he was gone for a long time, and then after Papacito died he showed up again. He got hurt working construction, couldn’t hold a regular job anymore.”
“What did she need a handyman for?” Tio Nardo asked. “Herlinda could hammer straighter than I could.”
“Yeah, but she couldn’t get up and down ladders so well anymore. And she liked Pepito. The new boarders, they come and they go. It’s not like in the old days, when she had people for years and everybody ate together.”
“Was Pepito the black market guy, too?” Joe asked.
“There wasn’t any black market guy,” Rosalia protested.
“Then how did Mama always have coffee and cigarettes for Quiet Hour?”
“I don’t know, but we didn’t have enough money for black market.”
“Didn’t need it, if she took rent in cigarettes.”
“Damn cigarettes,” Ruben muttered, and the table fell silent.
“I don’t understand how anybody found her to call the ambulance during Quiet Hour,” said Delia.
“She probably called out for help,” said Rosalia.
“Why? She had a phone in the kitchen. And how did whoever get in?”
“Hadn’t she stopped locking the door?” Ruben asked.
“No, ’cause I lost track of time a week ago and dropped by to help her cut back the hackberry, and couldn’t get in,” said Joe. “I knocked and listened at the door. Just like old times. And she called out – ‘Is the house on fire?'”
They laughed, sad funeral laughs. “Did you hear the ghosts?” Delia asked.
“Just the radio,” said Joe. “That time. But you know something went on. You used to hear voices, too.”
“Sometimes,” said Rosalia. “Delia, remember that time we heard a man in there? And we spent about ten minutes thinking she was cheating on Papi, till we got sane again? And then when she came out, we were too embarrassed to ask her.”
“So why did y’all think it was ghosts?” Tio Nardo asked. “Couldn’t she just have a neighbor in during Quiet Hour?”
Joe shook his head. “No, ’cause we never saw them come out. I even laid an ambush one time, I was so mad to think she’d let strangers in but not us. I heard them and I waited outside the door, and when Mama opened it, she was all alone.”
“I don’t remember this,” said Ruben. “The voices, sure, but you never laid no ambush.”
“Did, too, week of Iwo Jima, and I’ll tell you something else – whoever it was, wasn’t no boarders. They talked English.”
“We had Anglo boarders.”
“Must have. The war was when her English started getting good. You saying she learned English from ghosts?”
“She didn’t learn it from anybody in that neighborhood during the war. Only place we spoke English was school.”
This would turn into an argument any second now. “The house is plenty old enough to have ghosts,” said Delia. “Emma researched it for a project once. It’s older than the Civil War. She says we could get a Conservation Society grant to fix it up.”
Rosalia dabbed her eyes. “That’d be great!”
“It’s not fancy enough to get those little old white ladies excited,” said Ruben.
“Well, we gotta do something,” said Delia. “The roof’ll keep for a year or two, but the porch is getting dangerous, and that beam she replaced the pillar with is all crooked.”
“The whole place needs leveling before we do any of that,” said Tio Nardo. “And who’s going to manage it after we fix it?”
“What are we going to manage?” Ruben asked. “The illegals don’t know us like they knew Mama, and legals want kitchenettes and private baths. We’re talking thousands of dollars.”
Rosalia blew her nose: “We’ll mortgage it. I’ll ask our loan manager. She owes me a favor.”
They all looked at each other. They’d all put off bills to pay for the funeral. Emma would graduate high school this year; Ruben’s youngest boy had started community college last week; Rosalia needed a new chair at the beauty parlor; Joe’s wife was afraid she’d found a lump in her breast.
It was Mama’s house.
“We don’t gotta decide all that today,” said Tio Nardo.
Delia got through that day somehow, and on the next, rose and fixed migas. “I’m gonna go through Mama’s things today,” she announced as she dished up eggs, cheese, and tortillas.
“But that’s a horrible job,” Emma protested. “Wait for the weekend. Everybody’ll help.”
Delia shook her head. “I been dealing with family since the minute she died. I want to be alone for this.”
She parked in the paved-over Victory Garden, alongside a battered pickup and Mamacita’s rundown Impala. Pepito poked his head out of a second-story window and waved. “I’m up here patching sheetrock,” he called. “If that’s okay. It’s just you and me and some guy sleeping off a night shift.”
“That’s fine,” answered Delia. “Thank you.” She unlocked the kitchen door.
She had never been this alone in this house before.
The kitchen smelled of Lysol and chili, black mold and cigarette smoke. She’d dreaded cleaning up the remains of Mama’s last Quiet Hour, but found no cup on the table, no grounds in the percolator, no butts in any of the grandchild-produced ashtrays. Again she wondered about the stranger on the phone. She checked the lockbox under the sink and found it full of cash and receipts.
Delia put the lockbox into her trunk and the subject out of her mind. In order to increase rentable space, Mama had reduced her living area to the kitchen and adjacent room, once the girls’ bedroom, sleeping in Delia’s old daybed. The lavender flowers on the wallpaper looked gray now, and behind the smiling family photos lurked holes in the paper and underlying fabric through which the bare boards of the wall showed. The whole place reeked of cigarettes. She opened every window she could budge, even the ones with no screens.
At noon Delia made lunch for herself and Pepito. At the square Formica table, they talked about cracked sheetrock, loose boards, stuck windows, the old days. “Remember the day we put down this linoleum?” Pepito asked. “Your Papi got the roll cheap and brought it home, and it took the whole family to get it laid down straight.”
“That was such a mess!” The linoleum crackled under her feet as she set the dishes on the table, miscellaneous meat and vegetables, some rice, Mama’s last batch of tortillas – almost too dry now to eat. “Mama wanted him to wait till we painted the cupboards, but there wasn’t any place to put it till then.”
“And we had to replace the floor under the icebox, ’cause we found out the melt water’d been dripping and rotted them,” said Pepito. “Herlinda wanted a refrigerator the worst way, but she didn’t have one yet when I moved out.”
“Six months after VE Day,” said Delia. “We were all so happy. And it’s still a good fridge, but Sears doesn’t stock parts anymore.” Black mold speckled the cupboards, overdue for their weekly scrub; and the door to the bathroom – once a butler’s pantry – didn’t quite close. Closed doors, stuck doors, locked doors. “Do you know who called the ambulance?”
Pepito shook his head and loaded his tortilla. “First I knew of it, I heard the sirens, and I thought, Good, somebody called in that crack house next door. But when I got the flashing lights right under my window, I looked out, and they were at the kitchen door.”
“So do you know who let them in? And cleaned up?”
“The outside door was standing wide open. Wasn’t anybody in here with her. When I went around afterward and made sure the doors were locked, the dishes were all put away already, but it took me awhile to think of it. Anybody could have come in and cleaned up. We all liked your mama. She was a good woman.”
“An Anglo woman called me. Do you know who that would be?”
“Anglo? You sure?”
“She sounded that way. Mama must have had her over for Quiet Hour.”
Pepito shrugged. “I never went near this room during Quiet Hour, you know? She trained me good thirty years ago!”
Delia washed dishes. Pepito dried them before going back upstairs, where she heard him moving and banging through the afternoon – company, of sorts. By five o’clock the boxes – Goodwill, Basura, and Conserva – were too full to lift.
She sneezed black snot into her last tissue, her face muddy from crying. “Quiet Hour,” she thought. “Mama made me promise to sit in her kitchen for Quiet Hour.” Crying. Alone. She’d promised those blue lips. And coffee would be good.
Delia went into the kitchen, closing and locking the door behind her before she noticed. Natural wood counters with granite tops, terra cotta tile floor, big chrome refrigerator, smells of chocolate and pine cleaner and coffee, and a half-dozen strangers around a long table. Outrage trumping surprise, Delia snapped: “Who the hell are you and how’d you get in here?”
“We’re sorry to intrude,” said a mousy white woman with a familiar voice. “You’re Delia, right? This must mean she isn’t any better. I’m so sorry.”
Delia stared at her as a ripple of sympathy and grief went round the table. “You’re the person on the phone.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m Sabrina. I made the call.”
“We’re the Continuity Kitchen Coffee Club,” said the burly brown woman at one end of the table, getting up and pouring coffee out of a glass carafe.
“Why are you in Mama’s kitchen when Mama is dead?”
But it wasn’t Mama’s kitchen. A small Kenmore range instead of a huge Magic Chef, fresh flowers and pastry and a tablecloth. Was that a microwave? Was that a dishwasher? Why were the walls peach-colored? Delia’s knees felt rubbery.
The wrinkled black woman at the foot of the table, with a bandana on her head and an apron like a tent, pushed out a chair. “You sit down, ma’am, and have some coffee and some of these cannoli things. It’ll do you a world of good.”
The burly woman held the freshly-poured mug out to Delia, who didn’t take it.
“It’s a shock the first time,” said an old white woman, in an accent that came from her chest and throat. German? “I thought Herlinda would cut my heart out! Her English was no good then and I had no Spanish. She thought I was a spy.” She held out a papery hand. “I am Amalia Siebenhaare. My husband built this house for me. I thought sure I’d die before Herlinda did.”
Delia found herself shaking the hand, leaving a gray smudge. With her mind detached and stunned, her body went around the table to the sink – a double one, with a garbage disposal and a filter on the faucet. “That dispenser with the flowers is the soap,” said the burly woman, setting the mug in front of the empty chair.
“It was those damn cigarettes that did for Herlinda,” said Sabrina, as Delia washed her hands, dug dirt out from under her nails, and washed some more. “I told her and told her.”
The yard beyond the window was partly paved and partly landscaped. A pale compact car sat under a carport on the next lot, where that firetrap of a bungalow should have been.
“She tried,” said the burly woman, voice deep as a man’s. She and Rosalia had heard a voice like that through the door, years ago. Miscellaneous unknown voices. During Quiet Hour.
“Remember that bunch of nicotine patches I bought her? They just didn’t work.”
“I felt so bad not letting her smoke in here, but Ally freaks every time she smells tobacco.”
“What’re you going to do with all that nicotine gum now?”
“Throw it out? Give it to Goodwill? I dunno.”
“Miz Delia, you gonna wash your skin off,” said the black woman.
Delia dried her hands on a fluffy chili-colored towel and sat down. That seemed to be all her body could do on its own. “Who are you? How did you all get here?” She tried not to whimper. “Where is here?”
“Well, I’m Beulah,” said the black woman, sliding the plate of pastry toward her. “I work for the lady that bought this place after Amalia died. Every Thursday afternoon she goes out to some club or other with her lady friends and I kick my shoes off under the table and just sit. That’s who we are. Run, run, run, all the time, but once in a while, we shut everything out and sit, and that’s how we get here. Amalia and Herlinda and me are the regulars. Amalia and me now, I reckon.”
Delia picked up one of the long, thin pastries and bit into it. Creamy chocolate filling, with cinnamon.
“Whatever now means in this kitchen,” said a girl a little older than Emma, hair springing in wings off her forehead and a t-shirt that said Uppity Wench in fancy red letters.
“There’s no telling – it’s all now.” The woman sitting opposite Delia had straight black hair, green slanted eyes, deep brown skin, and a magenta pantsuit. “I suppose I could look you all up and find out what years you die, but I don’t want to know. I’m Cass, Delia.” She had a nice smile, in a face covered with fine lines. “My – family – buys this place in 2059 and finishes converting the energy framework. We’ve had a couple of people from later than me, but it’s not systematic.”
“I’m Michelle,” the burly woman said. “My partner and I live down here and rent out upstairs. We’re in my version of the kitchen.”
“I’m Haley,” said the Uppity Wench. “I doubt I’ll be here many more times. I graduate soon.”
“This is the break room for my office in the ’90s,” said Sabrina. “I stay late a lot to finish things up after the phone stops ringing, and have coffee and a roll here after the bosses leave, to unwind a bit.”
Delia drank coffee. It was okay coffee. Ghosts, Joe claimed. Mama had coffee with ghosts. “So,” she said. “Y’all are the people that use this kitchen for as long as it exists.”
“That’s right.” Amalia beamed. “Isn’t it grand? I like knowing what nice people live here after me!”
“And you just, what, meet for coffee every Thursday and talk about – stuff?”
“Stuff, yes.” Cass nodded. “Gardening.”
“Kids,” said Amalia.
“Men,” giggled Haley.
“Or reasonable facsimiles,” said Sabrina, glancing at Michelle.
“Jobs, movies, bosses, books – anything,” said Beulah.
“It’s bad for the waistline, because we never know who’s going to be hostess, so we keep munchies on hand all the time,” said Michelle. “It’s your tough luck you’re not in Amalia’s or Beulah’s kitchen. Oh. My. Gawd, you wouldn’t believe what they can do with a pastry.”
“These are very good,” said Delia.
“That’s ’cause I didn’t make them. I swing by the bakery every Thursday. And then if I wind up in somebody else’s kitchen, Ally and I have to eat it all.”
“Not a problem for me,” said Sabrina. “I keep the breakroom stocked and put it on the company card.”
“Herlinda’s pan dulce, now, that is something,” said Beulah. “I got the recipe from her ages ago but I never can get it to turn out right.”
“Neither can I,” said Delia, falling into the ordinariness of the conversation, “and I’ve helped her make it. I think there’s something about her oven – the shape maybe, I don’t know.” She sipped coffee and took another bite of cannoli. “You cleaned up the kitchen. You called the ambulance.”
“That’s right,” said Sabrina.
“Thank you.” Delia breathed, and breathed some more.
“We’re so thankful it happened in her kitchen, and not in one of ours,” said Cass. “If we leave, we’re in our own time again, so we couldn’t have gotten her to an emergency room if she’d been in anybody else’s time.”
Delia found herself able to think about annihilating time and space as if it were possible. Doing it in order to snack became the sticking point. “Don’t you ever, I don’t know, give each other stock tips?”
“You know anything about stocks?” Beulah asked. “All I know is, you try to get something for nothing, you’re likely to lose your nothing.”
“It’s not as if we never give each other advice,” said Sabrina, “but we don’t always have anything relevant to offer. I’d have to do some serious homework before I could give Beulah stock tips, and then she’d have to find money to buy them.”
“I learned Spanish and English here,” said Amalia. “It’s good to speak many languages. My friend Rika only speaks German still and her grandchildren don’t understand her, and she can’t get a good girl to help her keep her house.”
“I only met your mama a couple times,” said Haley, “but I had this paper to write, for my history class, about the home front, and she was so much help! The first time I saw her, you were in grade school; and then the next time, she said you were the same age as me. It’s freaky, but it’s nice, too.”
“Herlinda talked about you kids all the time,” said Sabrina. “You remember when y’all had that fight about whether to stay in school or take the waitressing job? The first time she mentioned it to us, she was all for you quitting, but I explained about the difference graduating would make in your income about ten years down the road, and talked her round.”
“You remember the day her first grandchild started college?” Beulah laughed, and imitated Mama’s voice: “My great-grandchildren going to be richer than you are, Michelle!”
Michelle rolled her eyes. “That won’t be as hard as Herlinda thinks. Oh. Thought.”
“Say, I wanted to tell her,” said Sabrina. “I better tell Delia instead. I had my annual exam Monday and I swear, the nurse that ran the mammogram was the spitting image of Herlinda. Same voice, and that thing she does with her hands when she’s explaining. She signed my paperwork Emma Hernandez-Delgado.”
“That’s, that’s my daughter,” said Delia. “Will be my daughter. Was my daughter.” She closed her eyes, feeling dizzy, and opened them again. “How do you keep this straight?”
Cass leaned forward. “We don’t. Whenever you are, that’s now. The way I figure it –there was some theoretical work done on this, before the – well, never mind, but the point is, I’ve read about this theory, and the math seems reasonable, and I reckon this kitchen supports it –”
“Take a breath, honey,” said Beulah.
Cass obeyed. “The theory is, that all time exists at once, but we experience it linearly. Things like precognition and hauntings and this kitchen are natural glitches in our experience, not in time per se. The future’s already happened and the past is happening and the present will happen, because they’re all the same thing.”
“That’s predestination and I don’t buy it,” said Michelle. “Free will matters.”
“Of course it does,” said Cass, with the patience of one who has failed to convey a point many times. “Free will is part of the system. It’s not predestination if everything’s simultaneous, because there’s no pre and there’s no post. ”
“Don’t start,” said Amalia. “You make my head ache.”
“So if it all happens at once,” said Delia, groping after the important point, “Mama is alive. She’s always been alive.”
“And me, and you,” said Beulah. “And my boy that died in France. And my great-great-grandkids that are born after I die.”
“So if I, if I sit in this kitchen during Quiet Hour some other day, I might see her.”
“You might,” said Haley.
“But you haven’t when I was here,” said Michelle. “And if you met Herlinda when she was younger, even if I wasn’t there, I should have heard about it.”
“One of us would have,” agreed Amalia. “Herlinda didn’t keep news to herself. You can try. We’ll be happy to see you. But I don’t think it will work.”
Delia thought of the roof, the porch, the cost of installing bathrooms and kitchenettes; of Emma performing mammograms because her parents invested in her education instead of in real estate they couldn’t afford to manage. “We’ll have to sell,” she said out loud for the first time. “It’s so run down, and the medical bills, and Emma’s tuition and books –” She felt the tears rise. “I love this house. It’s Mama’s house.”
“And mine,” said Cass. “Remember – 2059. Whoever you sell it to won’t wreck it, because I’m here.”
“People, including me, do a lot of crap to it along the way,” said Michelle, “but this place has good bones.”
“Wait, what year is it for you?” Haley asked.
The tears receded. “1975,” said Delia.
“I’m in 1979,” said Haley. “The management company takes pretty good care of things. I mean, one of the pillars doesn’t match, and the tile keeps coming off in the bathroom, but they always stick it back on. My place is smaller than this because they walled off that bit over there for the next apartment’s bathroom. I didn’t even know there was an inside door till Michelle walked through it.”
“Yeah, she screamed bloody murder,” said Michelle. “Thank goodness we were in Beulah’s kitchen so nobody was around to hear her!”
“My Walther and the folks he hired were good,” said Amalia. “Every bit of this house, he built with love. The people who live here feel that. They take care of it.”
“And it takes care of us,” said Sabrina. “Everybody who walks into our office says so – this building feels good. Even when it’s full of people negotiating divorces and crashing their computers and filing.”
“Even when the owners got the sense God gave a donkey,” said Beulah.
“Even when the world becomes unrecognizable,” said Cass.
“Even when the kitchen has gadgets instead of a cook,” said Michelle. “Don’t worry. We’re not going to let Herlinda’s house get torn down for a parking lot.”
“Or turn into a crack house like that poor place next door,” said Haley. “The neighborhood is a little nasty in my time, but people with no money need a place to live, too. This apartment’s nicer than I ought to be able to afford. One twenty-five a month, all bills paid.”
“When I first learned about the boarding house, I was upset,” said Amalia, “but your mother made it a good boarding house. I’m proud to know she had it so long.”
They were all looking at her.
No law said the universe had to make sense.
“Thank you,” Delia said, feeling something loosen in her chest. “I’m proud to know Mama had so many good friends.”
About the Author
Peni Griffin spent her childhood reading and taking long car trips. She sold her first short story to Twilight Zone Magazine in 1980, and her first book to Margaret K. McElderry in 1989. Since then she’s published a fair amount of short fiction in genre markets like Fantasy and Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, and Asimov’s, and 14 middle-grade and YA novels. She lives in San Antonio, where time travel is relatively easy, with her husband and two cats.