One afternoon while Preston was pecking away at his laptop on the couch, Tina, using the desktop computer by the neglected living room TV, came across a website for a woman named Glenda Wertschel who made and sold embroidered handkerchiefs. Tina thought some of the examples pictured on the site were neat. If nothing else, it was a unique idea. There were handkerchiefs with detailed scenes of ponds and barns and woodland animals on them. Tina thought they were cute.
“Mom,” said Preston, his fingers hovering over his computer’s keyboard. “How much did you weigh when I was in, like, second grade? It was in the neighborhood of 230, right?”
Preston’s guess was high and besides, Tina had lost a lot of weight since then. But she was afraid to answer so she didn’t. At the top of the main page on Glenda Wertschel’s website was a button that said “contest.” Tina clicked it. She was taken to a page with a short message from Glenda. It read:
Write a 100-word essay explaining why you should win a lifetime supply of my embroidered handkerchiefs and if I judge your essay to be the best, you’ll win a lifetime supply of my embroidered handkerchiefs! Email your submissions to me by November 20th, which is my 39th birthday. You can find my email address by clicking the “contact” button. It’s GlendaMakesHankies@GlendaWertschel.com.
A few minutes later, Preston looked up from his computer and peered across the living room at Tina, trying to see what was on her monitor. “What are you typing, mom?”
“Just a quick thing,” said Tina. “I’m gonna try to win some of these handkerchiefs.”
She did her best to ignore the flurry of typing from Preston that came in the wake of her answer. That’s what she got for letting her guard down.
The next morning when she sat down at the computer, Tina found that she’d received an email from Glenda Wertschel informing her that she’d won the contest and that the first of her lifetime supply of embroidered handkerchiefs would be in the mail as soon as she sent her street address to Glenda. Tina was surprised because November 20th was still days away. Her 100-word essay must have really struck a chord with Glenda. Tina was pleased at the thought of someone as talented as Glenda finding something she’d written good enough to immediately award with the grand prize, even before all the competing entries had been submitted.
Tina emailed her street address to Glenda along with a few humble words of appreciation at being chosen. She ended the email by saying, “I can’t wait to see the first handkerchief!”
Only later, as Tina enjoyed the last hour before Preston got home from his job at the Mulitoak Public Library by lying on the couch and reading aloud from a book of long, rhyming poems, did she wonder exactly how many embroidered handkerchiefs constituted a lifetime supply. The truth was that Tina had little use for handkerchiefs. She thought it was gross to carry a special rag in one’s pocket for wiping snot or spit or what-have-you. For her, a lifetime supply of handkerchiefs would be somewhere between one and three.
But, of course, these handkerchiefs were different.
The first handkerchief arrived in the mail five days later. It had been folded into fourths inside of a large brown envelope sealed shut with too much clear packing tape. Tina opened the envelope with sewing scissors.
The handkerchief was white and smelled like dryer sheets. On one side Glenda had embroidered a picture of a weeping willow next to a stream. There was a toy boat in the stream that looked as if it was about to capsize. Tina thought it was nice. It probably wouldn’t have been her first choice, but it was nice. She folded the handkerchief back into fourths and put it in the top drawer of her dresser with her socks. Then she emailed Glenda to let her know that the first handkerchief had arrived and that she thought it was nice.
Then Preston came home from work and tried to bait Tina into a conversation about the time she made everyone come home from a family vacation early because she had a dream that someone had snuck into their house and disabled the carbon monoxide detector.
“I don’t really remember that,” said Tina.
“You don’t?” asked Preston. “You don’t remember how we drove all the way back from the Upper Peninsula and discovered that we’d never even had a carbon monoxide detector?”
“We should have had one, though,” said Tina. “We have one now.”
“So you do remember?”
“Not really,” said Tina.
Preston looked at Tina with both eyebrows raised as if he expected her to confess to something at any moment.
She gave him nothing, the little rat.
The second handkerchief arrived just over a week later. It had a sleeping lion embroidered in the bottom right corner and a crescent moon embroidered in the top left corner. Tina liked it better than the first one. She considered it more her “style.”
The third handkerchief arrived just under a week after the second one. It was embroidered with a picture of a female stuntwoman jumping a motorcycle through a burning hoop. Tina wondered if the handkerchiefs were really going to keep coming every week and for how long. Also, it seemed like Preston was beginning to lose interest in his memoir. One day while he was fruitlessly searching online for a good bootleg of a poorly-rated horror movie that was still in theaters, Tina told him she’d won the lifetime supply of embroidered handkerchiefs.
“And?” said Preston.
“Isn’t it cool that I won?” asked Tina.
“I never win anything,” said Preston. “Ever.”
The fourth handkerchief arrived exactly one week after the third. It had an intricate spiral design on it that may have been a nebula or maybe it was just a spiral design. Tina wondered how obligated she was to keep all of the handkerchiefs. Surely some of them could be given as gifts to close friends. She tried to give handkerchief number four to her friend Vera but Vera wouldn’t accept it. “It looks very cool,” said Vera. “I really do like how it looks. But what am I going to do with it? It’s a handkerchief, yes?” Tina put it in her sock drawer with the others.
The eighteenth handkerchief arrived almost two full weeks after the seventeenth handkerchief along with a little apology note from Glenda. Sorry it’s late, said the note. Life is a bit crazy right now! Tina barely glanced at the handkerchief’s embroidered scene of a fictional constellation of stars connected to look like a suspension bridge before she stuffed it into the sock drawer. Before long it would make more sense to call it a handkerchief drawer with socks in it. Tina sat down at the computer and wrote an email to Glenda explaining that if her life was hectic and she was having trouble keeping up with the handkerchiefs then she really didn’t need to send anymore or at least didn’t need to send them nearly as often.
Tina received no reply to her email, but a week later, handkerchief number nineteen arrived in the mail. It had one phrase embroidered on it repeated over and over covering one whole side of the handkerchief. The phrase was, “You are welcome.” The words started out small and neat in the top left corner of the handkerchief and got progressively bigger and sloppier until they were almost illegible in the bottom right corner. It was not a handkerchief to inspire tranquility.
The twentieth handkerchief arrived on the day that Preston told Tina that he had abandoned his memoir because it was too painful to relive his childhood. Tina had pretended to be disappointed but Preston had seen through her act and accused her of not knowing “who she was,” which Tina thought was a pretty irrelevant thing to point out. Then she’d checked the mail and there was handkerchief number twenty in an envelope that was far more rumpled than usual. The handkerchief itself was a complex horror, a jumble of embroidered shapes and images that Tina struggled to understand. If she’d been forced to pick out a theme, she would have said either “mouths” or “waves” because there were several of both. This handkerchief was also accompanied by a note from Glenda. It said, Sorry! This one got a bit wild!
Tina showed the handkerchief to Preston, who took a step back and said, “Don’t show me that. You know I get nervous.”
It made Tina nervous too. She didn’t like at all, but Glenda had clearly spent a lot of time on it, so Tina tucked it in the drawer, burying it under the other nineteen handkerchiefs.
But then, a week later, handkerchief number twenty-one was an embroidered scene of a little girl holding a balloon and peering into the top of a small volcano, which was a step back in the direction of normalcy, though perhaps not a big one. Tina decided that there were too many handkerchiefs in her sock drawer so she took them all out and piled them on her bed. The sight of all the handkerchiefs together in a heap made Tina feel tired. She found the box her winter boots had come in and she filled it with the handkerchiefs. Then she put the box under her bed and went to ask Preston to pick up some fried chicken from the Diamond Foods deli. Then she remembered that the deli was closed on Thursdays for no good reason and this realization almost made her cry. She knew it was unreasonable to blame the handkerchiefs, but she couldn’t help it.
The handkerchiefs kept coming, week after week. Sometimes Tina would notice that the quality just wasn’t there on a certain handkerchief, but then the next one would be exceptionally elaborate as if Glenda had realized she’d let herself slip and had done her best to atone for it. Also, Glenda had begun to repeat herself in some ways. For example, the stuntwoman from the third handkerchief was also featured on the twenty-ninth, fortieth, and forty-fourth handkerchiefs. A specific lightning-struck tree, twisted and blackened, had appeared in the background of scenes Glenda had embroidered on at least six different handkerchiefs. Tina thought that the handkerchiefs were taking a grim turn, darker and stranger, but when she compared the newer ones to the older ones, they didn’t actually look much different. Maybe she was just interpreting the new ones differently, viewing them through a lens of weariness and disaffection.
When three and a half weeks passed after handkerchief number eighty-seven with no sign of number eighty-eight, Tina thought it was finally over, that Glenda he decided that eighty-seven was the number of embroidered handkerchiefs that constituted a lifetime supply. Tina was relieved. She would no longer need to struggle with the nagging obligation to appreciate anything she got in the mail. It would be nothing but bills and impersonal form letters and advertisements, all of which she could dislike or ignore with a clean conscience. She got the boxes of handkerchiefs, of which there were now two, out from under her bed. She took out all of the handkerchiefs, refolded them, put them back in their boxes, tied the boxes with white string, and carried them up to the attic.
Then she checked the mail and found handkerchief number eighty-eight in the mailbox, the only piece of mail for the day. Tina wanted to scream. She didn’t open the envelope. She didn’t want to see what number eighty-eight looked like. She sat down at the computer and wrote an email to Glenda. It said:
Thank you so much for the lifetime supply of embroidered handkerchiefs. Winning your contest was such a thrill for me and I’ve enjoyed all the handkerchiefs you’ve sent me very much. But, at this time, having received eighty-eight of them, I feel as if you have more than fulfilled your promise of providing me with a lifetime supply of embroidered handkerchiefs. So while I will certainly always cherish the handkerchiefs I have, please do not feel obligated to send me anymore. I think that eighty-eight is the perfect number at which to stop. So, again, please do not send me anymore embroidered handkerchiefs.
Three days later, Tina received a response from Glenda. Though the spelling was fine, there was no punctuation or capitalization. It said:
tina please i have to keep sending you embroidered handkerchiefs i have nothing else everything else is gone i dont even have a computer anymore im writing this from a library computer and the librarian is glaring at me telling me i need to wrap it up and ive only been here a few minutes i live with a sympathetic friend and i dont update my website anymore i dont know if you checked but if you try to go to glendawertschel.com you see it hasnt been updated in i dont know how long the only thing that gets met out of bed in the morning is knowing i need to make you an embroidered handkerchief and send it to you because youre expecting it it makes such a difference to know youre getting my embroidered handkerchiefs in the mail and seeing them and thinking about them and discussing them with your friends and family i have no one else to embroider handkerchiefs for so if its all right with you im going to keep making them and sending them to you until i dont really know when maybe as long as i live the librarian called the police im going to hide on a low shelf in the science fiction section until the coast is clear goodbye sincerely glenda
Tina felt sick and sad. What had her winning 100-word essay said? What had she written that made Glenda choose her? She couldn’t recall any of it. In retrospect, it seemed like she hadn’t really wanted the lifetime supply of handkerchiefs at all. She’d just wanted to win something. And now there was no way out that wouldn’t result in oppressive guilt and remorse. Tina knew herself too well. She wasn’t going to rob an unwell woman of the one bit of solace in her life. She wasn’t capable.
Tina typed “glendawertschel.com” into the address bar on her browser and pressed enter. It hadn’t been updated in months, sure enough. The example pictures were the same ones she’d seen when she first visited the site: Three bear cubs standing on their hind legs, a man in a top hat photographing a waterfall with an old-fashioned camera, a bi-plane flying over a carnival trailing a patriotic banner. If the handkerchiefs Tina had received had been more like these, maybe she wouldn’t have gotten sick of them so quickly.
Tina reached for the most recent envelope and tore it open, pulling out handkerchief number eighty-eight. It was a typical specimen. There was an anthropomorphic dog in army fatigues sitting at a bar and lapping beer out of a dog dish. The bartender was a short woman in a cocktail dress pointing a remote at the TV over the bar. She looked frustrated. Maybe the batteries in the remote were low.
Tina folded the handkerchief carelessly and took it into her bedroom. She didn’t have the energy to take it all the way up to the attic to put it one of the shoe boxes so she stuffed it into the sock drawer, alone with the socks.
Handkerchief number one hundred came into Tina’s home at the wrong time and in the wrong way. Tina had picked Preston up from the library because it was sleeting outside and he hadn’t worn a coat because he’d been certain “beyond the shadow of a doubt” that it wasn’t going to sleet. When they got home, they found the front door unlocked and the mail stacked on the back of the couch in the living room, a familiar large brown envelope providing the base for the smaller bills and correspondences from institutions that had come into Tina’s life without invitation.
“Oh,” said Preston. “Dad must be home.”
“Dad?” asked Tina. “What are you talking about?”
“He must be back,” said Preston. “He said he would be.”
“What…?” said Tina. “When did…?”
A husky man in dirty gray pants and a denim jacket came into the living room from the kitchen. His hair was partially gray and partially white. He was eating the crust off of a sandwich, a slice of tomato on the verge of falling onto his boot. “Tina,” he said. “Preston. I got the mail.”
“What are you doing here, Nicholas?” asked Tina, unable to conceal her outrage. “Where have you been?”
“Didn’t you see my note?” asked Nicholas. He sat down on the couch. The tomato, by some miracle, still had not fallen.
“I saw it,” said Preston.
“I didn’t!” said Tina. “What note?”
“I left a note when I left,” said Nicholas. He looked at the crust-less sandwich in his hand with mild disgust before taking a bite. “It said that I’d be gone for a couple years. And that was, I dunno, around a couple years ago.”
Tina’s mind scrambled around in warped little circles. “Preston, you saw this note? How come you never showed me?”
“I don’t know,” said Preston. “I thought you’d seen it. It seemed like you didn’t want to talk about it.”
“I thought your father had abandoned us! I was trying to move on with my life! With our lives!”
Nicholas leaned forward and took a big bite of his sandwich. The tomato finally fell, hitting the coffee table with a flat plop. Three globs of ketchup followed, dripping across the table’s polished wooden surface. “Whoops,” said Nicholas.
Tina looked at the tomato and the three blotches of ketchup, the red mess, the vivid red smears, wet and repulsive.
She picked up the brown envelope from the back of the couch, dumping the other mail on the floor. She tore the envelope open. She didn’t even look at the embroidery.