The following is a chapter that was cut from Running Out of Lies. It existed between chapters 11 and 12 to flesh out the character of Shane’s deadbeat mother, Ellane, who is a nurse. The cut chapter includes a conversation between Ellane and Lyla’s grandmother, Phyllis. Enjoy!
The thin cigarette was smoking steadily. Ellane Alderman held it against her thigh, within the grasp of her limp fingers. Meanwhile, she gazed down the darkened street and shuddered—it was another cold morning in Crooks. A thick fog shrouded everything within one hundred feet of the front step. The only thing she could see was a streetlamp halfway down the block that flickered feebly. Ellane adjusted herself on the hard concrete step. Wincing, she massaged the spot between her shoulder blades. A dull, throbbing pain in her back had awoken her at five that morning. The old sofa was to blame. Ellane tried to recall where exactly the blasted thing had come from. She thought it had belonged to the landlady, but it did not matter. The damage had already been dealt. Working a ten hour shift with a sore back would be a nightmare.
Lifting her cigarette gingerly in the air, Ellane adjusted the scratchy brown coat around her neck. It was barely fall, but these early mornings made it feel like winter was just around the corner. Using her trembling hand, Ellane raised the cigarette. Her dry and cracked lips parted slightly to allow it room. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. The end of the cigarette glowed bright red. Ellane sighed contently as black smoke filled her lungs. She was inhaling death, that’s what it came down to. She had realized that years ago, but in the time it took the addiction to develop she had simply stopped caring. A clump of ash dropped from the end of the cancer stick. It fell onto the moss-covered pavement, smoldering.
Ellane opened her eyes. A dark someone had emerged through the fog. She paused to goggle; its face shrouded by a hood, the spectral figure was riding a bicycle. In all the depictions she had seen of Death, it had never once been mounted on a bike. Chuckling to herself, Ellane raised a hand in greeting.
From inside its cloak, the figure was withdrawing something. A scythe, perhaps? Breathless, Ellane watched as it raised its own arm in the air. A long, slender parcel was clutched in its hand. With one motion, it hurled the mystery object toward her. Ellane’s eyes widened as it spun rapidly through the air, colliding with the ground at her feet. The dark biker, meanwhile, glided into the distance on two wheels. Next time, Herr Death, next time.
Ellane let the cigarette fall to the ground and stomped it out, letting the ashes smoldering on the concrete. Smoking was such a release, but she needed to quit. For herself? For Shane? She didn’t know. Shane would be out of the house, she hoped, in a year’s time. She would have to ask him about college later, she thought as she bent down to retrieve the newspaper.
Ellane stepped inside the small bungalow. A circular table greeted her as she entered the kitchen. She unfurled the paper and sat down. Beneath the enormous heading Crooks Journal, was a long article discussing the city’s upcoming sesquicentennial celebration. She smoothed the front page against the table and began to read.
The lines on her forehead became more pronounced with every word she read. It was a dull article from the get-go. Name after name of businesses sponsoring the upcoming parade were indolently listed, negating the effect of her morning coffee. She searched a few lines up for the writer’s name and made a face. Decent journalists were hard to come by in town and Leonard Katz was no exception. Even those who subscribed to the paper agreed with the unfortunate nickname it was often called: the Crooks Urinal. Frowning, Ellane scanned the rest of the front page. She rolled her eyes at a brief concerning, yet, another unwise decision made by the president.
“Liberals,” she grunted.
In disgust, she flipped past the advertisements (Halloween costumes, mostly) and to the next section. A promising article displayed exclusive pictures taken by the Hubble telescope. There was a feature story beside the celestial images, which Ellane bent over excitedly.
Suddenly, there was a crackling noise from behind.
Ellane jumped to her feet and hurried to the stove. Waving away smoke, she removed a red-hot skillet from the burner. Looking sadly at her scorched toast, she was grateful the bungalow lacked smoke detectors. She glanced at the microwave clock and froze; it was ten after seven.
She looked at the door across the living room. Why hadn’t Shane’s alarm gone off? Fuming, Ellane marched toward her son’s bedroom. She raised a fist to the door and began to hammer rapidly with her knuckles.
“Out of bed! Get up now, or I’m renting out your room.”
With effort, she pushed open the door. A trail of books, fast food wrappers, and running shoes led the trail toward the bed. A body was stirring beneath the covers. Avoiding a heap of dirty clothes, Ellane strode to the window and ripped open the curtains. A pale morning light streamed into the dank room.
“Mom, why?” Shane groaned.
“It’s your own fault for getting to bed so late,” Ellane said as her son glared at her. “Now get moving. I want you showered and dressed in ten minutes!”
As she left the room, Ellane tripped over one of his shoes.
“And will you clean up?” she cried, kicking the shoe so that it bounced off the wall. “It smells like a locker room in here!”
As she set the two plates onto the table, Ellane frowned at a spot of dried syrup stuck to its wooden surface. Grabbing the dish rag from the kitchen sink, she bent over the table and began to rub at the sticky substance. Her task completed, Ellane carefully folded the faded rag in half and draped it over the faucet.
Her breakfast now smoldering in the garbage, Ellane had to start from scratch. She heated a new pan, broke four eggs into a mixing bowl, and beat them with a whisk. In mid-stir, Ellane smiled wryly; she was mixing the eggs the way her husband had preferred. She recalled the time he had taken her hand inside his and together they had stirred the liquid inside the bowl to his liking: runny like snot, he had joked. Ellane smiled at the happy memory before shaking her head to clear it away.
She poured the mixture into the pan and added two slices of bread. Before long, she heard Shane tromping into the kitchen.
“There you are,” Ellane said, picking up the pan. “Won’t you have a seat?”
Shane straightened his hoodie around his waist. He said nothing, but stared down at the table.
“What is this?” he said blankly.
Ellane tipped French toast onto the plate. “Breakfast.”
Shane stared at his mother. “But you never make breakfast. Did the hospital give you a day off?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ellane said impatiently. “New patients are admitted every day and someone has got to check up on them. How do you expect me to afford this house if I don’t work?”
“I didn’t mean anything rude,” Shane told her. “It’s just a surprise, that’s all.”
He sat down and began to eat. Meanwhile, Ellane scraped the sides of the pan, gathering the congealing eggs to the center.
“Could you pass me the funnies?” Shane asked, nodding at the newspaper on the counter.
Ellane put one hand on top of the paper. “It can wait.”
Finishing another bite, Shane looked at her imploringly.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” Ellane began. “You’re about to leave for college and—”
“Not yet,” Shane corrected her. “I still have eleven months.”
Ellane’s mouth grew taut. “Don’t interrupt me,” she said sternly. “Because you are leaving within the year, I have a proposal. If you’d like, you have my permission to move into an apartment of your own. However, there is the issue of money. Since you are short of cash, I encourage you to find a job.”
“You’re kicking me out?” Shane said in disbelief. “But why?”
“I didn’t use those exact words,” his mother replied. “It’s up to you, but the offer is on the table.”
She reached inside her jacket and pulled out a noisy something. Shane widened his eyes as she laid a hand on the scrubbed wooden table. Between her fingers Shane saw metal gleaming in the dull overhead light.
“Yes,” Ellane said, answering Shane’s unasked question, “I am giving you back the car. But on one condition: you use it to look for a job.”
He reached out a hand, but his mother held the keys tight.
“Do I have your word, Shane?”
“I don’t think I’ll have time. Cross country takes up most my day.”
“Then quit the team,” Ellane suggested. “No one is forcing you to do it.”
Shane looked hungrily at the keys. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll manage somehow.”
Ellane relinquished her hand. “You have until November—one month—to find work. If you can’t by then, I’ll take the car again. This time permanently, and sell the wretched thing.”
Turning her back from him, she faced the stove. She removed the pan from the burner and tipped the eggs onto her plate. When she looked up, Shane had moved on to his second piece of toast.
“Well,” Ellane said, crossing her arms, “off you go.”
Shane looked as though he had not heard her correctly. “I’m not done eating.”
His mother shook her head. “Shane, you have school. You’ll be late if you don’t get a move on.”
Shane did not get up. He stared Ellane down, hoping for an explanation.
The corner of Ellane’s mouth twitched. “You have your car back. What more do you want from me?”
Shane looked at the tan line on his mother’s finger where her wedding ring used to be. He swallowed a lump in his throat.
“How come we never talk about Dad?”
It was as though the volume in the kitchen had been turned up. The refrigerator hummed dully as the frying pan on the stove sizzled. Meanwhile, Ellane stared into her son’s eyes. Her jaw tightened.
“Fine,” Ellane replied tersely, “I’ll help you.” She marched across the tiny kitchen. With one arm, she held open the front door.
Grabbing his bag from the linoleum floor, Shane slowly rose. He snatched up the keys from the table and, with a desolate glance at his mother, he walked out the house. The entire time, Ellane did not move a muscle.
She took a deep, calming breath as the door closed behind her son. The way Shane had asked his father was so direct and to the point, just like David. Either it was her imagination or Shane was looking remarkably more like her husband with each passing day. But Ellane didn’t want to think about him. Not now and not ever. She ambled to the table and set down her plate next to her cold coffee. Grabbing a fork, she picked at her food.
Passengers were jostled in their seats as the bus rumbled down the busy street.
Ellane pulled out a black leather-bound wallet from her purse. Though it was scuffed and worn with age, Ellane kept the wallet close to her at all times. She undid the tarnished clasp and opened it to her credit card book. A dozen cards gleamed back at her, each one tucked neatly inside its pocket. Ellane reached inside the last pocket where her Visa was stored. Her fingers touched its cool plastic, feeling for something behind the card. She pulled out a flat object.
It was a photograph of a lively couple wrapped in a tight embrace. Their identical smiles suggested a long and prosperous future lay ahead, much like the expansive white beach in the distance. It was difficult to determine which was more brilliant, the shimmering ocean off-coast or the rings the happy couple wore. Holding his bride close, the man had never looked happier.
The bride, however, was another story. Gazing longingly at the picture, she was rocked in her seat as the bus coasted over a pothole. Eighteen years had passed, but Ellane remembered her honeymoon like it was yesterday. She was still at Stanford then, barely a senior and expecting entirely too much of her honeymoon. David was a year younger at twenty-one, but mature enough that he had planned the whole trip. Though the wedding night was grand, the trip that ensued was a fiasco. It wasn’t David’s fault his credit card was declined at the hotel. His provider, it turned out, was experiencing financial troubles. Their reservation had been rejected and they were forced to look elsewhere for a room.
Stuck in Cabo San Lucas without a net to catch them was not Ellane’s ideal vacation, but David had kept cool. He haggled the price down at a nearby motel to something affordable (and lost his watch in the process). Everything was an adventure to him, and Ellane, who was no risk taker, was amazed by his fearlessness. To her surprise, the disastrous vacation had actually been fun.
Ellane stared at David’s handsome face until her eyes grow moist. She stroked the photo with two fingers, as though reaching past the years of pain and regret since David had left. The suspicion she’d had that morning as she looked at her son was right. Shane did resemble David more in the five years since his departure. Ellane wondered what advice he could give her about parenting. He would just tell her she was worrying too much and that things would work out on their own. But would she even take his advice? After he left her for another woman? Shane didn’t believe David had cheated, but the wedding ring David had left in the Plymouth Reliant was proof enough for Ellane. Why else would he remove it? Still looking at the photograph, Ellane tore her eyes from David and toward her own youthful face and her brow grew tight. Was she to blame for his absence? Hadn’t she been faithful and supportive over the fourteen years they were together? An overwhelming guilt filled Ellane. Hastily, she stuffed the picture of the smiling newlyweds back inside her dilapidated wallet. It was no wonder she kept the portrait tucked away.
Ellane looked up. A woman was sitting across from her, holding an infant. It was dressed from head to toe in blue: a boy. Ellane smiled warmly at the baby as it blinked at her in confusion.
“What’s his name?” Ellane addressed the young mother.
Turning her head to look at her, the passenger smiled. “His name is Andrew.”
“Andrew,” Ellane repeated. “I wanted to call my son that, but his father was adamant we name him after his favorite Western. Knowing him, he probably thought Andrew was cursed. He was superstitious about a lot of things, David, but he had his reasons. I’ve always liked Andrew though.”
The woman was at a loss for words. “Well…thank you.”
“How old is he?”
“Seven months,” the woman said proudly. “He started crawling just this week.”
“He’s precious,” Ellane remarked as the child began to nod off.
“He’s a handful. But he means the world to me.”
“You just wait,” said Ellane conversationally. “Once he’s a teenager, you’ll want to sell him to the zoo.”
“Sounds like you’re mother of the year,” the woman said, but her tone was dry.
Ellane smiled. “I do what I can.”
At the very next station, the young mother picked up her son and quickly got off.
Ellane began to work as soon she arrived at the hospital. Three patients had been admitted early that morning. A motorcycle accident on the highway was the cause and, from the injuries, it had been nasty. The motorcyclist had sustained a head wound and three broken ribs. It was a miracle he wasn’t killed on impact; the man had already lost a lot of blood. Ellane administered stitches for all three victims. Two grueling hours later, the patients were recovering in ICU.
Her tired limbs were aching, but Ellane’s shift was far from over. She had a quick lunch break and then it was back to business. Brenda, a hospice nurse, had broken her leg and Ellane was covering her shift. At half past one Ellane entered the hospice ward, a heavy clipboard in one hand. She made her way down the sterile, white hallway to the room of the patient she was checking on. She slowly massaged the throbbing pain in her lower back with her free hand. Despite having just turned forty-two mere months ago, she wondered whether she was developing arthritis. That blasted sofa certainly wasn’t helping her.
As she reached room 319, Ellane reviewed the next patient’s information. The chart indicated that it was an elderly woman with late stages of pancreatic cancer. Ellane sighed uncomfortably; she was not used to dealing with dying patients. She took pride in helping ailing people overcome their illnesses so they could return to their lives, not prepare for the grave. Ellane shivered as a sudden tightness permeated her chest; either the area was well ventilated or a strong aura of death hung in the air, like an odorless vapor. With apprehension, she slowly grasped the handle and opened the door.
A spacious sitting room greeted her, filled with comfortable looking chairs. The foldout couch appeared recently used; cushions were scattered haphazardly on the floor. Squatting in the middle of the room was an oak coffee table cluttered with picture frames. In one frame a couple was wearing clothing at least forty years out of date. Two brass lamps on either side of the couch bathed the room in a soft, warm glow. The room was inviting, even cozy.
On the other side of the room was a twin-sized bed covered by a beige comforter. Sitting upright in the bed was the tiniest old woman Ellane had ever laid eyes on. Wrinkle upon wrinkle covered her face, giving it the look of a skin-colored prune. Because of the woman’s sagging cheeks, her nose, lips and eyes were greatly enlarged. Ellane was instantly reminded of a wizened chimpanzee.
With the covers pulled to her waist she held a novel in her veined and gnarled hands. Amazingly, the elderly woman’s eyesight appeared fine. Seeing Ellane enter the room, she looked toward the doorway. She smiled and sat the book onto the bedspread.
“May I help you, honey?” the monkey woman said. Her voice was somewhat scratchy beneath a thick Brooklyn accent.
“Hello,” Ellane said politely. She glanced quickly at the clipboard. “Are you Phyllis?”
“The one and only. And who might you be?”
“My name is Ellane,” the nurse replied genially, trying to conceal the tiredness in her voice, “and I’m here to check up on you. How are you feeling today?”
“Can’t complain,” said Phyllis. “Since I don’t have the strength to get out of this bed, I get to do all the reading I’d ever want to. Not such a bad way to pass the time. I always wished I had more time for books.”
Ellane smiled uneasily; the woman talked so easily of death.
“What book is it you have there?” she asked.
Phyllis raised a thin, grey eyebrow. “You’re gonna have to talk a bit louder, sweetheart. I can’t hear like I used to.” She indicated a chair that sat a few feet from the end of the bed. “Sit, sit!”
Ellane did as she was told. She set the clipboard onto the carpet and stared into the woman’s eyes. They were very blue, yet the whites of each eye were tinged with yellow, proof of her cancer.
“Now that I can see you properly,” Phyllis said, “what was it you asked me?”
Ellane smiled. “I was wondering,” she annunciated, “what you were reading.” She held her hands close together, opening and closing them like the pages of a book.
“You mean this?” said Phyllis, patting her novel. “It’s something my son is letting me borrow. I started it this afternoon and I’m about a hundred pages in. I told him I’d give it a shot, but the plot is like honey flowing backwards.”
“You have a nice stack over there,” Ellane said, nodding at the bedside table. “Looks like it’ll take you some time to make it through all of them.”
“To tell you the truth,” Phyllis said, a clever smile playing around the wrinkled corners of her lips, “I made it through them all in a matter of days.”
“I no longer have time for books,” Ellane replied sadly “But I love the way they provide an escape from reality.”
“Is something the matter, darling?” the old woman asked, cocking her head to the side. “You look tired.”
Ellane masked her pain with a smile.
“It’s nothing,” she said, picking up the clipboard again.
“Are you sure?” Phyllis said with concern. “I’ve got all the time in the world to listen.”
Ellane shook her head. “I’ve only just met you,” she explained, looking into the woman’s good-natured eyes. “You don’t need me burdening you with my problems anyway.”
“Try me,” said Phyllis, smiling kindly. “I’ve experienced my fair share of problems: marriage, kids, overbearing mothers-in-law. I’m a good listener.”
Ellane sighed. “I have a son,” she said, bowing her head as if in shame. “He’s seventeen and he’s a menace.”
“Oh, come now,” said the old woman, “all teenagers drive their parents nuts! Call it an unwritten law.” She chuckled. “When my son was in high school I was worried sick, especially after he bought that old Chevy. Every night he was out who knows where with his pals. Eventually, the two of us agreed that whenever he changed locations he would call me. That was our deal.” She smiled. “I always told him that good relationships with your parents would lead to good relations with people.”
Ellane laughed bitterly. “That doesn’t explain why Shane was picked up by the police when he was fourteen. I had to answer to them why he was trying to rob a bakery with some other boys. I thought I was a decent enough mother. Guess I was wrong.”
The elderly woman was silent for a moment, the creases in her face becoming more pronounced as she thought. “Is the boy’s father around?” she asked.
Ellane shook her head. “My husband left five years ago. Things have been a mess ever since.”
Phyllis frowned. “A youngster needs an older man to guide him through those turbulent adolescent years, someone to show him the ropes. Even my husband was a committed father toward our Donnie before the divorce. More committed to him than to me, now that I think about it.”
“What happened? What caused your divorce?”
“Roy was a chemical engineer of a large corporation that had him traveling around the world,” explained Phyllis. “We married young and things were good. It wasn’t long after we had children that we had to move for his job. We all packed our things for England for a spell. Four years later, I had a teacher’s license from Oxford and was yearning for home. Fortunately, Roy was relocated to Mexico which gave us the perfect opportunity to return to the States. But that’s when things got rocky. I was teaching at the University of Michigan and we both were immersed in our work. The kids were getting older and I was raising them all by myself. It wasn’t long before we both simply stopped corresponding.”
“That’s terrible,” Ellane said miserably.
“These things happen,” Phyllis said, waving a hand in the air. “For years the children had the benefit of both parents. Now tell me, is there another man in the picture? An older man who can mentor the boy?”
“Our landlady has a son in his twenties,” Ellane suggested. “But he’s a pothead.”
“That won’t do. Is there anyone else? Do you have a brother?”
“A brother-in-law,” said Ellane. “But he lives in Winters with my sister. We don’t talk.”
“Sounds like you’re in a pickle, my dear.”
Ellane crossed one leg over the other. “What’s the problem?” she said hurriedly. “I have to work when Shane is at home. We barely see one another and—”
“Darling,” said the old woman soothingly, “no one ever said being a parent was easy. It requires patience and devotion, but you mustn’t beat yourself up. You’re a single mother. It’s tough, I know, but worth it. In the end, you’ll thank yourself for the wonderful young person you’ve helped shape. All you can do at present is be there for him.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Ellane said, shaking her head morosely. “I’m not cut out to be a single mom. Every day I look at Shane and…and I see David staring back at me. Every day I am forced to see the face of my husband and I’m reminded of my failure. You have no idea what it’s like to live with that.” She shook with anger. “You can’t just sit there and tell me my life is easy. It takes every bit of my being to stick around, to share a home with him.”
Ellane reached inside her pocket. She pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but it’s the only way I can live with myself. Do you mind?”
The old woman smiled gently. “Go ahead. The window’s open.”
Ellane pulled out a red Zippo lighter and lit ‘er up.
“I used to sing,” she said, puffing smoke from her mouth. “Can’t anymore. That seems a lifetime ago.”
She looked out across the room. There was a particularly old photograph on the coffee table.
“Is that you?” she said, pointing.
“The one in front?” Phyllis asked. “Yes, that’s me and my ex-husband. As you can see, I was a bit more youthful back then.”
“You were beautiful,” Ellane said, admiring her curled dark brown hair in the picture.
“You’re a doll, Ellane.”
“He was a good looking man,” said Ellane, noticing his strong jaw.
“Yes, he was,” Phyllis said, nodding. “We met a long, long time ago. It was at Brooklyn College that we fell in love. Whatever that means.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you and David meet?” the old woman asked.
“David was in my anatomy class at Stanford,” Ellane said, resting her cigarette against her knee. “His blue eyes were what I noticed first. There was this crooked scar that ran down the bridge of his nose. It was so mysterious. He had this devil-may-care attitude, almost as though he could do anything. I wasn’t the greatest student, so I asked him to tutor me. It took me a whole term to find the courage. And not even a year later we were married.” She smiled reminiscently. “Whenever he pulled up in his great big pickup truck, he was larger than life itself.”
“Was he a good husband?” Phyllis asked.
“Yes,” Ellane said forlornly. “He was a wonderful man and a great father to our son. But…”
“But he wandered off,” said Phyllis, shaking her head disapprovingly. “Was it expected?”
“Not at all,” Ellane said softly. “I remember it was a difficult year for him; many things just didn’t go his way. And then one night when I came back from the store, Shane told me David had gone out.” She sighed. “I stayed up hours waiting for him, calling his phone. It must’ve been four in the morning when I crawled in bed, certain he’d be laying next to me when I woke up. When he wasn’t the next morning, I yelled at Shane. He had seen David leave and didn’t have the sense to ask where he was going.” She pursed her lips between her teeth. “Idiot boy.”
Ellane bowed her head. “You must think I’m an awful mother.”
Phyllis did not answer. Instead, she stared down at the covers.
“Well?” Ellane demanded. “Aren’t you going to tell me everything will be alright?”
The old woman looked Ellane in the eye. “How should I know that?”
Nodding, Ellane sucked the end of her cigarette. “Can I ask you a question?”
“You may, darling.”
The tip glowed red. “Are you afraid?”
“Am I afraid?” Phyllis said, raising her silver brows. “Of dying? Of course not.”
“You’re a very brave woman.”
“No,” replied Phyllis, “I just know that my time on this earth is nearly up. I’ve done a lot in this life. ‘Live your life to the fullest,’ I always told my kids and, believe me, I experienced a lot. I’ve raised two fine children and I’ve had the joy of being a grandmother. With every passing minute I’m closer to meeting Jesus. I’ll be in His kingdom where everything will be the way it should. Why should I be afraid?”
“You have done a lot,” Ellane remarked. “It’s funny, I’m in the business of saving lives and I haven’t done a thing for myself. I’ve waited too long. If only I could find a way to start.”
“You can start by forgiving your son,” said Phyllis.
Ellane looked at the cigarette in her hand. “It’s not that simple.”
Phyllis reached over to her nightstand and picked up a glass.
“Ellane, would you fill this for me? I’ve got to take my beauty pills.”
“I’d be glad to,” Ellane replied vaguely. Removing a tissue from her pocket, she moistened it with saliva and proceeded to extinguish the cigarette. She took the empty glass.
As she walked across the room she turned to look at the old woman, so brimming with life.
“Phyllis?” she said, pausing before she left the room. “You are a good listener.”
“Don’t mention it, sweetheart.”