A LITTLE TROUBLE
by Leah Browning
She invited him over for dinner, and when he got there he found that she had made only
potatoes: mashed, fried, stuffed, creamed, browned, sautéed, and scalloped,
painstakingly arranged on their grandmother’s best china on the white lace tablecloth
used only for family weddings
His sister had always been a steady sort of person, dependable. It startled him to find
her in her good blue dress and heels, wringing her hands over a table set with flowers,
candles, wine, and seven different kinds of potatoes.
“Oh, Richard, do you think I made enough?” was all she said when she looked up and
noticed him standing in the entryway from the living room.
The following night, he was awakened by a staccato series of taps on his front door.
He found her on the step, bracing her hat as if against a strong wind. A pot of chicken
soup was cradled in her free arm.
“There’s a fresh loaf of bread in the car,” she told him as she breezed into the house.
She was forty-six years old, six years his senior, and she still had more energy than he
did. He was left holding the door in his ragged plaid bathrobe and slippers, staring after
“We’ll have you feeling better in no time,” she called from the kitchen.
Richard closed the door and slid the lock into place. Perhaps he should have seen this
coming. Their father had died in October, and there had been little things ever since then.
At Christmas, she’d drunk cooking sherry straight out of the bottle, and in front of her
next-door neighbors, the Gilpins, no less. Mrs. Gilpin had played bridge with their
grandmother years before, rouge slashed across her cheeks, hair sprayed into a stiff
helmet for her monthly reign over their living room.
So at Christmas Richard had cringed, expecting something terrible, but it seemed that
he’d misjudged Mrs. Gilpin somehow. “Why, Cordelia,” was all she’d said in the shocked
silence that followed.
Richard had let out a breath, relieved. He hadn’t realized until then how Mrs. Gilpin had
faded with age. Her hair was ancient, yellowing, and her skin had taken on a mottled,
broken look. And Mr. Gilpin: a silent, mole-like man. His eyes seemed to have lost a layer
of color each year, his pale gaze arrested in a way that made him appear blind.
It wasn’t until Cordelia had put on a Perry Como record and suggested that they all
dance that Mr. Gilpin had gathered himself together and told his wife they should go before
it got too late.
“We can’t stay out ’til all hours of the night anymore like you young people,” he told them
apologetically as he held his wife’s coat for her.
Cordelia’s hands hung at her sides, too heavy in the midst of such bright music, a
series of pleats settling around her mouth.
“The dinner was delicious,” Mr. Gilpin told Cordelia again.
He held his wife’s arm as they walked across the narrow patch of gray snow that
separated the two houses.
Richard closed the door, and when he turned around, Cordelia had already gone to her
room, leaving Perry Como still singing “Hot Diggity” in the silence.
A few months later, at a pot-luck supper at church, the minister’s wife had taken a
mouthful of casserole and bitten right through the finger of one of the blue rubber gloves
Cordelia wore to wash dishes.
Now Cordelia returned from his little kitchen, brisk in her high heels. “Richard,” she
He glanced surreptitiously at the clock. It was half past three. He wasn’t due to get up
for work until six.
She squeezed his arm thoughtfully. “You really shouldn’t be out of bed.”
He couldn’t think of any reply to that, and after a moment, she released him and went
back outside to her car. It sat heavily in the drive, a peeling blue Dodge with a small spider-
crack in the windshield. It had belonged to their father, who had been a traveling
salesman many years before. The floor in back was still littered with outdated
encyclopedia volumes, Bibles, and spare pairs of shoes.
“Nothing makes a man feel refreshed,” he’d told Richard once, “like putting on a new
pair of shoes.”
It was the closest thing to advice that Richard had ever gotten from his father. He was a
limp, beaten-looking man and must have made a terrible salesman: he had a weak
handshake, sweated too much, had a difficult time meeting another person’s gaze. Yet he
continued to put on a crumpled brown hat, adjust his tie self-consciously, and peck
Richard’s mother on the cheek on his way out the door.
She left them the year Cordelia went into high school, when Richard was eight and
Cordelia fourteen. They went to live with their grandparents after that, in the beautiful old
house on Maple with its wooden floors and airy, ruffled white curtains. Their father visited
them there when he wasn’t traveling, and finally he gave up the old house, two or three
years after their mother disappeared. She had never come back, and after a while,
Richard had stopped even hoping that she would.
He grew up in their grandparents’ house, its multiple floors filled with large, spacious
rooms and an abundance of windows. His grandmother, whom he had never seen step
outside without a hat, loved open windows, all fresh air and light. Cordelia continued to
live there after high school, working part-time as a clerk at the drugstore, and cooking and
cleaning for his grandparents.
Richard graduated, then started taking classes at the community college and selling
insurance. Eventually he saved enough money for a down payment on his own little
house, only a few blocks away but in another neighborhood entirely. Richard’s house was
as impermanent as if it had been constructed from cardboard, with its buckling walls and
brown plaid furniture left behind by the previous owner.
He had wanted to escape from his grandparents’ house, for some reason that he
couldn’t seem to remember later. Instead, he seemed always to be going back: eating
dinner with them, playing cards with Cordelia. On the weekends, he mowed their lawn,
and then the Gilpins’ lawn. He could never seem to work up the same enthusiasm for his
own house, which was surrounded on all sides by identical houses, each with its own tiny
patch of dry, brittle grass scattered with tricycles and abandoned toys.
After their grandparents died, Cordelia stayed on in their house, and when their father
got too tired to travel anymore, he moved in with her. He had been nearly forty when
Cordelia was born, and he was close to seventy by the time he retired. They lived together
for more than fifteen years, until he’d just died, this past October, slipping out of life as
unobtrusively as he’d waded through it.
Cordelia emerged from the car and carried in a loaf pan covered with foil. By the time
Richard closed the door behind her, she was in the kitchen. “Where do you keep your
salt?” she called. “I can never find anything in this pantry.”
“It’s on the middle shelf.”
“You really should have a spice rack,” she continued, not listening. She rarely visited
his house, but this was a familiar conversation.
Cordelia bustled back into the entryway to hang up her coat. “Are you still here? Get
back to bed and I’ll bring up some soup in a couple of minute. I just need to find a tray. I
should have brought one, but it slipped my mind. Go on, now.” She shoved him gently
toward the stairs. “Do you want butter with your bread?”
Richard looked at the clock again. He was exhausted, and it wasn’t even light out yet.
She was already walking away. “Richard?”
He followed her into the kitchen and watched as she turned the stove on low and began
spooning soup into a bowl.
“Is anything the matter?” he asked.
Distracted, she appeared not to have heard him. She got a knife and began to butter
his bread. “You don’t have a tray, do you.”
“Is something wrong? You can tell me, you know.”
She smiled at him indulgently. “Of course not. We can get by without a tray. No harm
He gave up and let himself be led back upstairs to bed.
On the way home from work, Richard took deep breaths, hoping to clear his head. He
always felt muddled at the end of the day, and being up since three o’clock with Cordelia
had only made things worse. He’d stayed in the office over lunch and left an hour early.
Richard felt on these walks like his father, a lone man in a limp white shirt and tie,
trudging home slack with fatigue, one hand clamped on his briefcase. He always looked
enviously at construction workers, men who had tangible evidence of their contribution to
the world, men who were making something.
He had tried to explain this to his wife, once, many years ago; she had cocked her
blond head at him quizzically and said, “I think the world would be better off without so
many buildings,” missing the point entirely. She had gone on about pollution, and quality
of life, and the destruction of nature, and Richard had listened in silence. She didn’t
understand that a person could never get the same sense of satisfaction selling insurance.
She had been a stubborn woman, though, and it would have been pointless to argue.
She divorced Richard after two years of marriage, immediately after his thirty-fifth birthday.
They’d been set up by someone he’d met during the year he spent in community college.
She was the out-of-town cousin, young and reasonably attractive but awkward and painfully
They were pushed inevitably toward marriage: they got along; he was a decent, hard-
working man; she could settle down and have a family. His future mother-in-law had
ticked these reasons off on her fingers, right in front of him, and what choice did he have
after that? None, it seemed at the time.
The problem was that she had moved into his dim little house, and instead of fixing it
up, had sunk into a deep depression. At night she fixed microwavable dinners and
glasses of Coke, and they watched game shows and made-for-TV movies until it was time
for bed. She started taking the Pill, though their sex was infrequent enough that he
doubted the need for such precaution. Then she got a job in an office downtown and
almost stopped coming home at all.
When she was home, she complained bitterly about Richard’s clothing, personality,
lack of ambition. During all those months of shyness, he thought, she must have saved up
these endless harangues. She had started taking night classes and suddenly had ardent
opinions about everything.
At the lawyer’s office, he almost hadn’t recognized her, a graceful woman in high heels
and a short skirt. She’d undergone some sort of transformation upon leaving him, as
though he were a cocoon. Richard walked out of the office feeling disoriented. He
watched her skip lightly down the steps, lift her arm in a single, astonishing movement,
climb into the backseat of a cab, and drive away.
“But what was I supposed to do,” he wanted to cry after her. “What did you expect from
me, exactly?” At that moment, it seemed to be the only thing neither of them had ever
brought up, and now it was too late.
Cordelia had walked over to where Richard stood at the top of the stairs, staring
woodenly after the cab. She took his arm and patted it. “You’ll be all right,” she said, in the
calm, motherly way she had. “I’ll take you home and fix you something to eat.”
He had felt washed over, suddenly, and he knew that everything really would be all
right. The pressure of Cordelia’s arm on his was so comforting, so familiar. She drove
him back to their grandparents’ old house and helped him out of the car.
In the living room, their father sat up on the couch with a patchwork blanket spread over
his legs, watching a soap opera with the sound turned all the way down. He gave them a
weary smile as they came in. “How’d it go?” he asked Richard.
“All right,” Richard said. He nodded at his father and followed Cordelia into the kitchen.
Even though their father hadn’t died until this past fall, more than five years later, Richard
couldn’t remember him more clearly than at that moment, sitting on the couch in blue
striped pajamas, with five o’clock shadow at eleven o’clock in the morning.
Richard decided to stop and see Cordelia on his way home from work. He hadn’t
talked to her since that morning, when he’d left her at his house and gone to the office. He
paused in front of his grandparents’ house, its beautiful old face as elegant as it had been
when he was a child.
Mrs. Gilpin opened her front door and called, “Richard? Is that you?”
“Oh, good.” She shuffled outside carrying an armload of baking pans and leaving the
door hanging wide open.
Richard hurried over to meet her, shifting his briefcase to the other hand to take the
pans from her.
“Thank you, dear,” she said. “Cordelia is such a sweet girl, and has been so helpful
since Mr. Gilpin took ill. My hip’s acting up again. Tell her I’ll give her a call this week, will
She patted him on the arm and went back inside.
Richard walked back to his grandparents’ house and let himself in. He carried the
pans into the kitchen and laid them on the counter next to the sink.
“What’s the matter with Mr. Gilpin?” he asked Cordelia. She was sitting at the kitchen
table chopping vegetables, and sunlight from the window slanted across her face.
“Pneumonia,” she said. “He can’t seem to get over it.”
Richard nodded unhappily. “Mrs. Gilpin said she’ll call you,” he said, and Cordelia
He sat down in the chair across from hers. “Do you remember coming over to my
house last night?”
“Of course. I brought you some soup.”
“I’m not sick, Cordelia.”
She frowned. “That’s good.” Briskly, she halved a stalk of celery.
Richard rested his feet on the rungs of the chair and watched her finish making dinner.
It was dusk by the time she put plates on the table and walked next door with a set of
Cordelia returned from the Gilpins’ looking tired. She sat at the table and watched in
silence as Richard ate. When it became too dark to see, she got up again and turned on
the light. She sat back down, rubbing her eyelids gently with her fingertips.
“I always thought Mr. Gilpin would leave his wife and run away with me,” she said. She
took her hands away from her eyes.
Richard’s mouth fell open. “Mr. Gilpin?”
“He always seemed like he could take care of things. He wasn’t the sort of man to fall
apart in a crisis.”
“But he must be a hundred years old,” Richard said.
Cordelia nodded. “I always pictured myself married, with a whole houseful of children.
It never occurred to me that things could turn out like this.” She smiled ruefully. “I think my
problem was that I just didn’t plan ahead.”
Richard shook his head, too bewildered to answer, and eventually she got up and left
Cordelia seemed to be suffering from some form of insomnia. Richard came down at
quarter to four for a drink of water and found her sweeping his kitchen floor.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I used the spare key to get in. I
thought I'd make you some breakfast.”
The next morning, he found her doing a load of laundry in his battered washing
machine; the morning after, sitting in the living room darning his socks. Every evening now
Richard stumbled back to her house for dinner, too exhausted to go home and change
first. He’d started making sure she was in her nightgown, in bed, before he left her house,
but without fail, she arrived at his house at some point in the night, showered and dressed.
This went on for weeks, until Richard arrived at her house one night after work and
found the door locked. Cordelia was nowhere to be found. He continued on in the
direction of his own house.
From two blocks away, he could see Cordelia, wearing a hat and kneeling on his lawn.
She was constructing what looked like an intricate little birdhouse from a kit. She glanced
up and smiled when she saw him.
“Hello,” she said, brushing a loose strand of hair off her face. Beads of perspiration
stood out on her forehead.
“Oh, Cordelia,” Richard said. He felt such a heaviness in his chest that he could barely
He offered his hand and she took it, struggling to her feet. Pieces of the birdhouse
were scattered in the grass, strips of wood as thin as popsicle sticks. “I’m having a little
trouble here,” she said.
As a child, when Richard was sick or had a bad dream, Cordelia let him sleep next to
her. She moved over to make room, plumping the pillows and pulling the quilt over to his
side. Her bedroom was still filled with the same sturdy oak furniture, and rose lace
curtains that infused the room with a soft, warm color when the sun shone through them.
He looked regretfully toward his dim, shabby brown house, but it was the best he had to
offer. His hands were trembling as he set his briefcase on the grass, and bent down to
help her gather the pieces of wood together.
"A Little Trouble" (originally published as "The Care Giver")
Copyright © 2003 by Leah Browning
First published in The Saint Ann's Review, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 2004), pp. 26-33.
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