Early on, the engagements and weddings and after that, the babies and the christenings and first communions. Each time we passed a white envelope from desk to desk, whatever we could spare, a buck or two, five if it was payday and we were feeling flush. Sometimes there was cake, and we’d flip a coin for the corner piece with the heap of sugared roses that went down sweetly with just the right ache.
Later on, the potluck lunches together in the breakroom where we learned to like Inez’s potato salad with its pucker of onion, Melinda’s tuna noodle casserole crusted with Saltines, the shortbread cookies Judy made from a recipe that was willed to her by her Scots grandmother. Sometimes, and only on Fridays, we sneaked in a bottle of something bubbly to sweeten our iced tea on last break, warm us up for the weekend ahead.
Soon enough, the sorrow. The kids moved out and never called. Parents died and husbands left us for women with clear skin and stomachs unpouched by babies. Cancer helped itself to breasts and ovaries, chemo took what was left of the feeling in fingers and toes, took the hair we’d spent our lives fussing with. We passed the envelope again, this time for flowers, and said what the hell. The few of us who were left started bowling together on Wednesdays, pretending the pins we scattered were second wives or the exes who were late again with the support. We pooled coins from our purses and split pitchers of beer afterward, something cheap and yeasty to wash down the baskets of stale potato chips we dipped into ketchup or drowned in malt vinegar. We clicked our plastic cups together before the first sip, saying one more week. Sometimes we closed down the bar and lingered in the parking lot, watching bugs swarm and bump up against the blue lights. Sometimes we went out for breakfast and cried into our over-easies, hold-the-toast. Sometimes we wondered who would pass the envelope for us.
Sarah Freligh is the author of four books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and We, published by Harbor Editions in early 2021. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Fractured Lit, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018), Best Microfiction (2019-22) and Best Small Fiction 2022. Among her awards are poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation.