Author's Note: Well, here we are, the final chapter. I hope you all enjoyed this short story as much as I enjoyed writing it! Cheers!
It didn't take them long to find four chairs, a box of cookies, and a warm coffee pot. Settling around the kitchen table, Shirley claimed the seat across from Rueben as Laurie and Keith took one on either side. Positioned as they were, it was almost like they were setting up for some sort of competition. Boys versus girls. Winner takes all.
I almost feel like I'm at another business meeting… Shirley thought dizzily as the faces of her family suddenly morphed into music men and record gurus. She hastily shook her head to banish the faces from view. She needed to stop worrying. She would never be attending another one of those again. Thankfully, that was again Rueben's job.
"So… who's gonna start?" Not being much of a coffee drinker, Shirley noticed Keith settled down with a serving of chocolate milk in his mug. Shirley knew the drink had always been a favorite of his. A comfort beverage, one he had drunken frequently in his elementary school days.
"What's to start? I thought we were just comparing notes," Shirley replied, not being able to resist a smile. Keith was nervous, thus his beverage of choice. Her smile melted, however, when she poured a spoonful of sugar into her mug, her eyes landing upon some sort of residue the washing machine had missed near the upper rim. Was that… cheese sauce?
"Well, we are. Keith and I just thought that perhaps we'd tell each account sort of like a story. That way, we can get the full picture." Rueben grinned at the two females sitting across from him. He was acting a bit too cocky for Shirley's taste, but she knew she had nothing to worry about. The expressions of her children just a few days before were enough to tell her she may have been better off, despite her few errors. Alright, so there weren't just a few.
"Sounds fine to me. I think I'll start with day one when Ma Kincaid ordered more Chinese takeout that any of us could eat." Laurie smirked as she lifted her glass to take a sip. Plain tap water. Laurie obviously didn't need any comfort food; she seemed revved up and ready to put these chauvinists in their place. Though bold, Shirley wasn't exactly sure this was a good thing.
She raised an eyebrow.
"Hey, hey. I don't think it's fair for you to disclose Rueben's experience," Keith objected. "Let him do it."
"What if he starts leaving things out?"
"Laurie? Keith? That's enough." Shirley shook her head as she began to have another case of déjà vu. Day one, the argument that had started this whole challenge. The argument over Allan Howard and Nancy Weiss. "I think it may be best if each of you let Rueben and I tell our own stories. You're free to make comments, but no arguing. At the end you're welcome to add anything that we may have missed."
"But that's hardly fair," Reuben set his mug on the table, "You don't have any secondhand audiences. I have five."
"True…" Shirley hadn't thought of that.
"Well, if you're so worried about it, I'm sure you could call any number of your neighbors and invite them to this meeting." Laurie smiled and grabbed for a cookie out of the box.
Rueben's face turned red. Shirley figured the thought of any of his neighbors bearing witness to his own side of the story wasn't worth any secondhand accounts from the children. "No, no. Never mind. Let's just get on with this."
"Alright then, who first?" asked Keith.
"I'll go." Shirley wanted to avoid any more conflicts. "It's just so hard to know where to start."
"How about when you first left the house in Rueben's car?" Laurie suggested. "That way, Rueben can later start his story at the same part. When you walked out the door."
Shirley looked to the men's side of the table.
Keith shrugged. "Sounds fine to me."
Rueben nodded. "Seems fair enough."
"Great! Mom? Tell us about your experience."
And so, Shirley did.
That evening, after a good home cooked meal, Shirley saw a tired and slowly-recovering Ma Kincaid to the door. The meeting actually went pretty well. There was some cringing and some uncomfortable moments, but in the end, each of them laughed at least once, some of them even laughed at themselves.
"Thanks for helping with dinner tonight, Rueben. I'll have to say, you may be a slow learner, but in no time, I'm sure you'll be wowing some dinner date with your culinary expertise."
"Maybe. I'm just glad this whole thing is over, not that going back's going to be a picnic either."
Shirley raised an eyebrow, "Still finding motherhood easy?"
"I didn't say that. But there is some damage you ensued that I'm not looking forward to fixing."
Shirley lowered her eyes as she recalled the mishap with Angela Gixten. Rueben now knew. That had been the hardest confession she had had to make. "Look, Rueben, I am sorry about that. I didn't mean for that woman to get the wrong impression…"
Rueben waved her apology off, "Forget it. It was my poor planning that caused it to occur. I should have canceled our date."
"Now don't blame yourself."
There was a moment of silence, before Rueben spoke again. This time, a small smile came to his lips. "You know, as tiring as motherhood is, you really do have a great group of kids. I actually sort of enjoyed it. The family togetherness that is, not the housework."
Shirley easily found a smile of her own. "I'm glad to hear that Rueben, and you're welcome to come over any time to help out. Wish I could say some good about management, but I'll have to confess, alone time losses its luster pretty darn fast!"
They laughed together and then Rueben turned to go. "Well, thanks again for dinner."
"No problem. We should do it again. Like I said, you're far from hopeless in the cooking category."
"And actually, you may benefit from asking your kind neighbors to teach you how to wash your own clothes."
"I mean it Rueben, you need to learn to not be so dependent."
Rueben didn't comment more on the subject, but the look on his face was evidence enough that he agreed with her. "Well, goodnight, Shirley."
"Goodnight, Rueben." As Shirley watched him head for his car, she couldn't help but smile, thinking about his kind words about her children. Yes, she was very blessed to have those five kids in her life. Despite their arguments and few quirks, she really did miss them while she was away. Now, watching Rueben leave the house by the very same path she had taken a little over a week before, she couldn't help but wonder if he was feeling the same way. Would he soon miss the children as she had. Even thought it had only been a week, he had been their mother for that time, and she knew it wouldn't be an experience he could easily forget.
She called after him, "Hey, Rueben!"
"Forget something?" Rueben turned to her, one foot in his car.
"I'm going to a parent-teacher conference this Friday night for Chris and Tracy. Since the older two will both be gone on dates, I'll be needing a babysitter…"
A small happy smile came to the manager's face and he held up his hand to silence her, "Say nothing more. What time should I be over?"
"Five o' clock?"
"I'll be there."
Shirley waved as he finally got into his car and drove away. When she turned back inside, she was met with five inquisitive faces. "Something wrong?"
Danny spoke first, "You're letting Mr. Kincaid babysit us on Friday?"
"But Mom, are you really sure that's a good idea?"
"Yeah Mom," Laurie stepped in, "I could always cancel my date and look after the kids."
"Maybe she should," Chris said and Tracy nodded.
Shirley just shut the door and smiled a big smile. "Are you kids really so scared?"
"Mom! You heard what he did!"
Shirley nodded. "So?"
"He's the worst mother ever!"
She started to laugh.
"What's so funny?" Danny demanded. "You're putting our lives at risk."
"You all are. You're so concerned about more Rueben blunders that you're all missing an important aspect of motherhood." Shirley headed over to the couch and took a seat. The children followed her.
"What's that?" Tracy claimed the seat beside her.
"Something I think Rueben wasn't even aware of until our little switch this weekend."
"Which is…?" Keith sat on the back of the couch.
"A mother's unconditional love for her children. You kids might not realize it, but Rueben's going to really miss you all of you soon enough."
Danny's face suddenly lit up, "Oh! I'd like to see him live this one down!" He hurried to the telephone.
"Danny?" Shirley turned to him, "Drop the phone. You're not going to call and tease Rueben."
"He's had a long week. Let's give him some time to relax."
Danny reluctantly complied to his mother's orders. "Well… guess there's always Friday…"
Shirley just shook her head. Some things never change…
"Well, despite all that, I'm really glad this week is over." Keith said.
"Oh? Why's that?"
Keith reached down to kiss his mother on the cheek. "Because despite how they may try, no one's a better Mom than you."
The other children quickly agreed and all gathered around to give her a group hug.
Shirley was touched. "Well, thank you, kids. I'll have to say, I really try my best, but sometimes I wonder if it's enough."
"Oh, it's enough." Keith assured her, getting up from the couch and heading for the kitchen.
"Where are you going?" Shriley watched as he enetered the next room.
"Getting myself a third helping of meatloaf."
"But Keith, you just ate dinner. That very thing in fact."
"Oh, I know. I just want to be sure to fill up on your cooking before Rueben comes by to fix dinner again."
Seemingly considering this comment, the youngest three Partridge children soon rose to their feet and also headed for the kitchen. "Hey, Keith, leave some for us!"
Soon only Laurie and Shirley remained in the family room. Shirley turned to her eldest daughter and smiled. "Well? Aren't you going to fill up before the frightful return of Ma Kincaid?"
"No. Unlike those four, I didn't just miss your cooking."
Shirley patted her daughter's knee.
"You know Mom, even though it was your and Rueben's week to try out some new responsibilities, I think I may have learned some things myself." Laurie said.
"Yeah. It's made me appreciate you more as a mother. I mean, I never thought motherhood was easy, but it wasn't until I was actually doing it that I really understood how much work it really was. I mean, between keeping the peace, schoolwork, and cleaning up after Ma Kincaid, I got really busy. I guess I never really realized what a fulltime job you had."
Shirley leaned in and gave her daughter a hug. "Well, I'm very glad to hear that. I'll have to say, despite that long week, I'm not exactly sure Rueben learned as much as I hoped. I know Keith didn't. I'm glad to know that time didn't go to waste, though I'm sorry you had to take on all that extra responsibility in my absence."
"You don't have to apologize, Mom." Laurie returned the hug. "I really didn't mind so much. Actually, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to give you a little help out once in a while. There's no reason why you should have to do everything all the time. You deserve a little time off."
Shirley was about to decline the offer, but then didn't. She knew her daughter better than that. If Laurie wanted to help out, she would let her. After all, a little time off didn't sound so bad. "Thank you, honey. I may just take you up on that offer."
"Hey, you two want anything?" Just then, Keith appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.
Laurie and Shirley exchanged glances and just smiled. Maybe they had accomplished more than they thought.
"No thanks. The meatloaf's all yours."
Keith looked from one female to the other. "You're sure?"
"Sure, Keith. Eat it all up. Rueben would want you to." Shirley nodded to him.
"Yes. Didn't you know? He made that meatloaf himself." Shirley couldn't be sure, but she thought she saw him turn several shades of green. "Keith?"
Keith went back into the kitchens. "Kids? Change of plans. Ma Kincaid made that meatloaf."
The chorus of disgusted noises that followed was enough to put both mother and daughter into tears and fits of uncontrollable laughter. Yes, things were definitely getting back to normal.