P. J. Wren
At seven o´clock in the morning the sun was already so hot I could feel it through the kitchen window. I stood at the sink, finishing up the dishes, and as I placed my mug in the cabinet, I heard an odd noise. I reached to turn the radio off, but the buzzing was coming from the bedroom. I followed the sound down the hall and pushed the door open. The clock alarm was insistent, but my eyes needed a moment to adjust. I hit the button and sat down on the bed.
* * *
Mom said Dad was a teetotaler who liked dark, smoky places and hanging out with drunks. If he wasn´t home by five-thirty she sent me to get him. I ran barefoot on the sidewalk to the bar, stepping up to cool my feet on the linoleum. I watched Dad as he stood at the rail, his glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, gesturing and telling a hilarious story to the drunks, red-faced with laughter and drink. One of them saw me and said, “Joyce is here, Paddy, you’re wanted at home.”
“Well, come on then, you got to eat, don’t you?” Dad threw his arms around the man and the lady.
The man had a knobby stub where his right hand should be. It was red and scarred. It looked almost like it was still bloody. Mom said he lost the hand in the war, and she cut his meat for him like she did for us kids. The man winked at my brother Paul and me, as if to say, “Aren’t we treated well?”
The lady looked pretty in her blue dress, her blond hair done up high, her bare arms skinny like twigs. She smiled a lot but when she didn´t, her lipsticked mouth was a red smear. The lady just moved her food around her plate, which made Mom frown and say to me, “Eat your peas and don’t even think about that watermelon until you do.”
After dinner Mom said to Dad, “Do you have to invite the whole bar?”
* * *
The bedside phone rang. It was Jenny. “Mom, where are you? The driver just called. He´s been pounding on the door. You’re going to miss your flight.”
I got up from the bed, fixed my hair, and hurried to open the door. Ugh. I must have fallen asleep. The driver stood motionless on the doorstep, in sunglasses and a dark suit, one of those phone things blinking in his ear. How much had my daughter paid to have this stranger come down all the way from St Louis and take me all the way back to the airport? Disgraceful. And the car smelled of his foreign aftershave, barely masking his foreign B.O.
At the airport the driver carried my bag in. He couldn’t go past security but I saw him waiting, watching me. Jenny again.
What am I now, her child?
I preferred it when Paul used to drive me to the airport. We went early so I could get a cup of coffee and the newspaper - not feel rushed.
I thought of Paul’s face that one time he went with me to Atlanta. His jaw clenched, his strong hands gripping the armrests. A man like my brother, calm, strong, capable; afraid to fly? Impossible! Paul had taken care of Mom after Dad left, and took care of me, too, after I was widowed. Those days were wonderful. Paul and I had pure companionship, with none of the bickering, the jealousy of marriage. Call it hatred. All that energy had to go somewhere after the sex was gone, I guess.
Later came the deep, bottomless well of regrets, as my husband lay dying of cancer. I regretted everything then. Every negative word, every refusal, everything.
With Paul it was different. Paul drove everywhere, I cooked, we enjoyed our evenings in front of the TV, we owed each other nothing, regretted nothing.
But Paul too, passed away, and I was once again alone.
* * *
I was on the playground and rushing up the ladder of the slide. A boy came behind on my heels, yelling for me to go faster or get out of the way. He made me miss a step. One minute I was at the top and the next on the gravel below. Too surprised even to cry, but it hurt so I ran to the asphalt courts where Mom and Paul were playing tennis against Dad. I watched their game through the chain-link fence. One of Mom’s serves hit Paul on the top of his head and the ball bounced straight up in the air, like in a cartoon. Paul staggered around, clowning.
Mom and I cracked up, but Dad said, “Get the damn ball already.”
Paul saw me and ran over. He pushed his finger through the chain link fence and brushed a bit of bloody gravel off my cheek. “What happened to you?”
* * *
The gate attendant touched my shoulder. My flight had been called for boarding - didn’t I hear?
If you would speak up, maybe I could hear.
She offered to help me but I didn’t need it, thank you very much, I can walk, however frail I might look. Except for the falling asleep, if that´s what it was, I had no health problems. Healthy as a horse.
On board, I raised the window shade to bright sunlight reflected off the airplane’s wing.
* * *
I used to look for dropped change - little glints of light on the sidewalk. I found a dime and ran to the drugstore. Paul was there with his friend from school, looking at comic books.
"What´s that?" the friend said, eyeing my fist.
"None of your business," said Paul as he gave the friend a shove. The friend pushed back, and then they were fighting.
The store clerk chased us all out. It was St. Patrick’s Day, so I went to the hardware store to buy Dad a dime’s worth of nails in a paper sack as a present. I used a green crayon to draw a shamrock on the bag. Paul laughed when he saw it.
"When did you ever see Dad nailing anything?"
* * *
The old woman didn’t need any help getting off the plane or down the open metal stairway. But she would have forgotten her handbag if the flight attendant hadn’t spotted it. Some airport employees saw her walk away from the terminal and beyond a group of windowless buildings. She looked around, using her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. They thought she was walking to the economy parking. They didn´t recall seeing her enter the wooded area across the road. By the time the airport authorities found her, it was too late.
* * *
Paul and I hiked the trails. We built a dam in the creek and corralled the crawdads. We made a fairy house out of a clump of trees, using pine boughs for the roof. We ran back to the campsite to get food and stuff for the fairy house but Mom saw us and said it’s time to pack up.
“But we just got here!” Paul said.
Mom grabbed the towels off the line and shook them hard. I pleaded to stay, but she said we had to go, because Dad had been fired. I guess my mouth must have dropped open with horror, but Paul just laughed at me.
“That´s not what it means, silly, but it´s still bad and we´re going to have to go home,” Paul said. He added, “Come on, let’s hike the trail one more time.”
Paul walked fast and it was hard for me to keep up. We went farther than we had ever gone, and nothing looked familiar. When we turned back we came to two paths, and even Paul was unsure which one would lead back to the campsite.
Paul said, “I’ll go this way, and you go that way, but don’t worry. I´ll whistle so you know I´m there. Once one of us finds the campsite we’ll call out.”
I walked for a long time and still didn´t recognize the trail, rocky and overgrown with something that looked like poison ivy. More than once I lost the path and had to go back through brush. Then I realized I couldn´t hear Paul’s whistle any more. What I had been hearing, thinking it was Paul, was a birdcall, slow, flute-clear, familiar. I had followed it deep into the woods.
I knew that if I got lost I should sit down and wait for someone to find me. I sat down on a log near the path. Just as I started to calm down a little, a swarm of yellow jackets poured out of the log. I started running but the wasps stung me all over my legs, and when they swelled up with red welts I lay down on the path, whimpering.
* * *
When I woke up I was near a chain-link fence covered with wild brambles and thorn bushes. How did I get here? I tried to find my way around the fence, but I stepped on a thorn with my bare foot and crumpled to the ground. What had happened to my other shoe? I tried to pull the thorn out of my heel but it broke off.
Now I couldn´t even stand.
It was hot and I wished I had something to drink. I looked around for my handbag, where the hell was it? I suddenly remembered my trip to Atlanta and the plan to meet my daughter at the baggage carousel. For the life of me I could not remember how I got into the woods. What would my daughter say now? I was sure she´d put me right into assisted living and I´d never see my home again. I saw a patch of moss and crawled over to it. The moss felt cool on my cheek and I heard the familiar sound of a wood thrush. My favorite! A little brown bird, impossible to spot in the trees, but beautiful to hear. I remembered listening to the wood thrushes, how one would call and the other respond, echoing through the forest in the early evenings. I remembered hearing them long ago, maybe I was camping with my family, or was it with Mom and Dad and Paul? Such a beautiful sound - sad, too, but also peaceful.
* * *
I felt myself being lifted. His arms were strong and his hands felt cool on my skin. He started running, carrying me. The light from the setting sun filtered sideways through the trees and flashed in my eyes. I heard that birdcall again, its tuneful rise and fall, and final liquid trill.