Edith Hepelschein was the queen of small causes. She’d sat on every committee at Grace Lutheran Church. Her no-nonsense pitches for booster clubs and fundraisers always won the day. She headed the Sunday school program and excelled at arts and crafts. At her part-time bookkeeping job, hers was the first name considered to jumpstart the recycling program. Co-workers routinely visited her cube to ask if certain items should be recycled. She even started a battery collecting program and would make the drive herself to an area recycler with bags of used batteries.
Several times a year, she’d trooped her little James and Sarah out of their manicured suburban two-story to raise money door-to-door for school programs and sports. Marching forth to the world with Edith three steps behind them, her children learned civic duty and responsibility. Edith stood back and urged them forward, never taking control but prompting as needed with whispered cues. Even though as the kids grew older they knew what to say and do, she’d accompany them, just in case. Her children were often praised for their politeness. Edith would affirm with a nod; she’d expected nothing less. Unlike other children, her own behaved like little adults.
If anyone were asked to describe Edith Hepelschein in one word, it would be “capable.” Edith exuded capable. People could and did rely on her. Calm, organized, and sensible, she knew how to make things happen and could fix any and all issues.
So it came as some surprise when Edith’s life turned to chaos in a day.
She’d awakened like any other morning at 5:00 a.m. to put the coffee on for her husband of twenty-one years. Jerry dragged himself out of bed and into the bathroom to work on his morning constitutional; then bleary-eyed, stumbled into the shower, spending twenty-two minutes using up all the hot water. Edith exclaimed, “Jerry, when are you going to save some for me?” To which she received the cheery reply, “Oh, darling. It’ll come back.” This reinforced with a kiss on her cheek which, in turn, was rewarded with a girlish giggle.
Edith took her lukewarm shower, before waking her children, and setting out their breakfasts. Their lunches, made the evening before, were taken out of the refrigerator, and placed in their backpacks. At the bus stop, she’d wait with James and they’d wave at Jerry as he backed out of the driveway to go to work. After the bus came, Edith would drive Sarah to the local high school. In two months Sarah would turn sixteen and Edith looked forward to the time when she’d be able to drive herself to school.
This morning, however, a phone call from her mother interrupted her routine. Her father had fallen again. He was okay this time but they really needed to discuss what to do about him.
Jerry kissed Edith on the cheek and left the house. Edith covered the receiver and asked Sarah to go out with her brother and wait until he got on the bus. Sarah nodded and filed out behind James.
Her mother continued and Edith glanced at her watch. Five minutes when she’d have to leave to take Sarah to school. She said she’d stop by at 2 but had to go.
Just as she hung up, the phone rang again. Sarah came in and stood by the door waiting.
With a heavy sigh Edith almost answered it, “Mother, I can’t talk now!” It’s a good thing she didn’t.
A husky, female voice said, “Edith Hepelschein?”
“You don’t know me but I’m calling to tell you that your husband is having an affair. Just thought you should know.” Click.
Her eyes went to her daughter who had shifted the weight on her feet and looked bored. Edith held her breath for a moment, then slowly let it out with purpose the way she had learned in yoga class. Somehow muscle memory took over and she found her way out the door and into the car. By rote, she drove to her daughter’s school. If anyone had asked if Sarah had kissed her on the cheek as she always did before she got out of the car, she’d have to say she didn’t know.
At her job she sat in a fog and accomplished little.
Someone had been throwing a #1 plastic in the recycling bin. Her boss plopped extra work on her desk. Her co-worker took a super long lunch break and then returned as if nothing had happened. None of it mattered.
When she left work, she forgot to go to her parent’s home. Drove right past. She hadn’t remembered until she’d found herself on her couch staring. The phone rang and she let it go to the answering machine. Melinda Smith advised that Beth Joiner couldn’t do altar guild this Sunday and neither could she. Could Edith possibly help them out even though it wasn’t her week and Edith also had to usher?
Another call came in. A woman identifying herself as Amy from James’s school. Edith picked up. No last name, just Amy. The modern trend of informality was maddening.
“James has had an unfortunate incident in the girl’s locker room,” the woman said.
“What sort of an incident?” She rubbed the skin between her eyebrows where tension sat.
“I think you should come down to the school as soon as possible so we can discuss it.”
Edith found her way to her car again. Her cell phone played the opening movement to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and her mother’s number appeared on the screen. She answered with an apology and explained that there was some kind of problem at James’s school and she’d have to reschedule for tomorrow.
When she got there, Edith asked at the desk. Casual Amy motioned her back to her Vice Principal office. On her desk Edith spied vacation photos of a happy family skiing and canoeing. Two kids just like her own. Husband, good-looking. Probably an awful cheat too. But this did not endear her to Casual Amy No-Last Name.
Casual Amy sat down on the edge of her leather chair, “Thank you for coming. I know this must be an inconvenience but we do appreciate it.”
“No problem,” Edith replied, seating herself in the cloth chair on the other side of the desk and crossed her legs.
“Let’s just get down to it then. It appears we have an issue with James.” The woman leaned forward in her chair.
Edith pursed her lips and said, “James has never acted up. He’s an easy child.”
“Yes, well, middle school can be a troubling time. It’s when kids begin to struggle with their identity,” she said, flipping a bouncy blond curl off her neck.
“My James knows who he is.”
“Edith, I think you should know…”
“Mrs. Hepelschein to you, please.”
“Okay, Mrs. Hepelschein. I’ll just get to it. James has been caught in the girl’s locker room stealing panties. When questioned, he said the underwear was for himself. Apparently, he enjoys wearing them. Makes him feel like the girl he knows he is.”
Edith’s mouth dropped open.
“I have here some information that you can take home with you about transgender children. Of course, he must be punished for stealing, but considering the situation, we feel he would benefit more from working with the counselor here, then by punishing him. He will be suspended for one day with the condition that he return all the panties he has taken cleanto the school. There are places we can refer him and your family for help during this difficult transition.”
When Edith reached for the information, Casual Amy patted her. Snatching her hand back and without taking any of it, Edith marched out of the office. James sat slumped forward on a chair, his head in his hands. He raised his eyes to meet his mother’s. Edith stopped, suddenly dizzy and unsure of her movements. Her eyes met her son’s. His pleading, hers stung. She couldn’t stand to hold his gaze. Without a word, they left. James, hang-dog, shuffled three steps behind the woman in his life who could always make things right.
“Mom…” he said after getting in the car.
Edith sat erect in her seat, “I can’t talk to you right now. Just be silent.”
Edith drove home with caution. She knew if she wasn’t careful, she could make a dumb move on the road. She had to focus all of her attention on getting them home safely. No one would ever believe this had become her life.
James stared out the window, trying to disappear into his seat.
She pulled up in the driveway. “Here’s the house key. I’m going to pick up your sister now. Go in.” James hesitated but did as he was told.
Sarah had acquired a peace symbol head scarf and was now wearing her hair in a turban. Edith chose not to ask. Sarah volunteered it anyway, droned on about how she decided that she was against the war. Her friend Elise had been to the protest on Saturday and Sarah planned to join in the next one. Social justice is important for everyone to embrace, her teacher had said.
Edith pulled up to the McDonald’s drive-thru and ordered for James and herself. Sarah shook her head, said she didn’t want anything and couldn’t believe her mother was getting fast food for dinner. Didn’t she know how many carbs were in that? Besides, she’d decided to become a vegan. Do they have hummus?
“You’ll have to find your own meal then. Because I’m not cooking.”
“What about Daddy?”
“He can get his own too.”
“Mother, what has got into you?” Edith didn’t bother to answer.
Back at home, she and James ate a quiet meal around the table before he asked to be excused and headed for his room. Sarah grabbed carrot sticks and went off to text her friends.
Edith picked up her phone and called Jerry. Went right to voicemail.
“No time to cook,” she said in her message. “Pick something up on the way home. We ate fast food.”
He was probably with her, making love in some crappy, roach-infested motel room. Serves him right.
Edith pulled out her laptop and booked the next flight to Bangor. From there, she could rent a car. Hauling her largest suitcase out of the storage below the stairs, she began packing.
By the time her children would realize she was gone, she’d be at the airport and boarding her flight. By the time Jerry realized that he was now sole-provider and caregiver of their children, she’d be on the Mohegan Island ferry toward her future life at the artist colony.