Sam walked down the long green entryway to her grandmother’s door gazing at the new orchids blooming in the courtyard. Her eyes wandered up into the mango tree and she wondered when the fruit would start to weigh heavy on the branches. The year before they had come in April, unseasonably early, almost two months before they should have. Global warming, Sam thought. The flavor of fresh off the tree mangos danced in her head teasing her tongue. She regretted skipping dinner the night before.
When she reached the front door Sam took a moment to straighten out her shirt and smooth down her dirty hair. She could smell that her grandmother had a fresh coat of paint put on the house since she had been there the week before and remembered hearing something about how old Rose’s handyman was getting.
A woman’s voice drifted smoothly through the afternoon heat when Sam opened the door, “At laaaast, my lo-o-o-ove has come along.” Sam smiled at the sound of her old friend Etta James.
Sam looked toward her grandfather’s office. It was empty. Hi, Grandpa, she thought, her eyes lingering on his study, I miss you. He had always played jazz while he worked. Colonel Sommerset had retired from the military years before, but never actually stopped working a day in his life. Everyone in Sam’s family had their addictions, at least his was profitable.
Sam had spent endless hours of her childhood lying on the yellow shag carpet in front of his desk, sifting through his records, playing them as she pleased. The variations of melodies that the trumpet hummed, the soul searching trills of the saxophone, the attention that keeping time with the symbols had required.
The Colonel would look up from his work and Sam would drop whatever else held her attention to stare up at him, fascinated by everything that he was.
“Where’d you get those eyes, Child?” her Grandpa asked.
“I don’t know,” Sam beamed.
“Come give your Grandpa some sugar,” he said and she was up in his lap in an instant. “There’s something about those eyes, Little Girl,” he said balancing her on his knee.
In a family of southern women with light hair and light eyes Sam’s dark features shone brighter than an orchid in the Everglades. Sam could say exactly what was on her mind with those eyes, without ever opening her mouth. The Colonel told her once that before Sam could speak, her eyes did the talking.
They had truly enjoyed the comfort of each other’s company, and hearing the trumpet softly blow reminded Sam of all the questions she had longed to ask about a time that she had missed, but hadn’t, for fear of disturbing her grandfather’s work. She scratched her stomach and it was like the ugly, old carpet, along with the questions she’d never asked, somehow still itched.
Sam wandered into the kitchen and saw Rose poised over the stove stirring a big pot and moving her shoulders to the melody of the saxophone. The smell of her grandma’s vegetable soup hit Sam’s nostrils and saliva gathered on the sides of her tongue.
The music was so loud that Rose hadn’t heard her granddaughter come in. Watching her, and knowing that she was all alone in that big, old house, hurt Sam’s heart. She knew how much her Grandma must miss him. Sam closed her eyes and Etta sang her into the fantasy of a memory.
She saw her grandparents dancing in an old jazz club. The women’s bright dresses were full. Their skirts swished back and forth, a variety of colors and flowers dancing together to the music. The men wore uniforms and smoked Lucky Strikes.
The tall, curvy woman standing at the old fashioned microphone had on bright red lipstick to match the flowers on her otherwise white dress. The spotlight touched her and her skin was like cocoa with thick cream. Her voice was nothing but soul. She was beautiful.
The song ended and the dance partners drifted off the floor. The smoke swirled around itself the way Van Gogh painted the sky.
“There she is,” Rose gushed. Sam opened her eyes out of the smoky night club and saw her Grandma’s pretty eyes twinkling at her. The music had been lowered to a comfortable volume.
“Hi,” Sam wrapped her arms around Rose. “There is no one softer in the world to hug, Grandma.”
“Hello there, Sunshine,” Rose said holding Sam at arms length, “Look at you in black on a Sunday afternoon,” she tisked.
Katherine Rose Tempelton Sommerset only wore black on two occasions: to a funeral or to a black tie affair, and she would wear navy or white to either if she could get away with it.
Sam smiled humbly knowing that Rose had commented on the black clothes she wore because it would have been unkind to comment on the black circles under her eyes. I have to remember to leave some concealer at Jake’s, Sam thought.
“Oh, Samantha!” Rose exclaimed seeing the lilies Sam had placed on the table. She walked to them and stuck her face right into the arrangement and took a deep breath. “How sweet!” she exclaimed and turned to Sam with a smile like cherry preserves. “Honey, they are beautiful. What did I ever do to deserve such a wonderful grandbaby?” She came back for more hugs and kisses.
“Sorry, I’m so late,” Sam said and they sat down at the kitchen table, “Chrissie kidnapped me last night for girl’s night.”
“Oh, you know I don’t mind. I’ve just been bouncing around all morning getting things done here and there.” With this she was up and off to the refrigerator. “I have juice, tea, lemonade, milk, and water,” she paused, “Is it too early to share a beer?”
“Yes,” Sam barked, “I’ll have punch. Please.”
“So, tell me about Chrissie. What’s she up to these days?” Rose asked taking out glass pitchers of orange juice and iced tea. “What was that man’s name that she was seeing?” She placed the pitcher of lemonade on the counter then turned to Sam and put her hand on her hip. “Karma?” she wondered aloud, “Clover? Something like that, right?”
“Dharma,” Sam said laughing, knowing her intentions. “And I liked him, but they broke up.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Rose said. She winked at her granddaughter pleased that Sam had laughed at her joke and then turned back to the punch. Having been married to a republican for more than fifty years; Rose could hardly help making fun of hippies, even if her own daughter had married one.
“Yeah and she dated a jackass after that.”
“Well, that isn’t very nice.”
“Neither was he.”
“Is she still with him?”
“Good,” Rose said firmly. Aside from her joking she was a smart woman who had a heart big enough to defend the basic human rights of any person.
Sam watched her grandma mix the juice, lemonade and iced tea. No matter how many times she had sat right there and watched her grandma make her punch Sam still had never been able to get the portions right when she made it herself.
“What would I do without you, Grandma?” Sam wondered aloud.
Rose turned sharply and looked right at Sam. “You would get along just fine.”
“Maybe,” Sam smiled. Rose set the punch down in front of her, “but no one can make your punch.”
“You know who can?” Rose asked as she returned to the stove to stir the soup.
“It took him a long time, but I think he’s the only one who likes it more than you do.” Rose poured herself a cup of coffee, and sat back down. “So, where did you girls go last night?”
“Monty’s,” Sam said, “I’m still recovering.”
“Well, you just need a bowl of grandma’s vegetable soup!” Rose was up again in an instant gathering bowls, spoons, napkins, stirring the soup, and fishing for crackers. Sam was exhausted just watching her. “Did Annabelle go?”
“Is she still sick?” Rose asked in that grandmotherly way that feigned ignorance.
“She’s not sick, Grandma,” Sam searched for words, “she’s….gone.”
“For some reason she has it in her head that we’re suddenly all out to get her and Chrissie refuses to talk about it like it’s just going to go away. Dee is the only one who Annabelle will even communicate with, but all she tells her are these angry delusions that she has formed. It’s like the Annabelle that we know and love is gone.”
“It sounds like she needs some time to herself.”
“No,” Sam said sharply, “Sorry, but I don’t think that is the case. Mental illness usually manifests in people in their early twenties. I’m afraid leaving her alone is exactly the wrong thing to do, but I’m the only one who seems to feel that way.”
“What do her parents think?”
“Nothing, at all. They’re in denial. They didn’t even meet my eyes when I went to talk to them. They think I’ve turned against their daughter, but I have no reason to! Just like she has no reason to have turned against me,” Sam’s voice trailed off.
“There’s not much you can do to change some peoples minds. You know, I was at the club the other day and this ignorant man…” Rose started on but Sam couldn’t listen.
It infuriated her the casual way people spoke about a person that she loved so much. Sam knew Annabelle inside and out, and knew that this wasn’t her friend. A switch had been flipped inside Annabelle’s head and Sam wanted to flip it back but no one would help her find it. Everyone seemed uncomfortable even looking.
She looked down into her papaya colored punch wishing it were a crystal ball. She wanted to see when she would get her friend back. Or when people would start admitting there was a bigger problem at play, at last.
Jamal slammed his car door shut. He looked down through the tinted window at the resume sitting on the seat and shook his head. He kicked his tire and regretted it as he walked heavily up the stairs to his apartment, the pounding in his head now matched by the throbbing in his toe.
He stopped at the front door to compose himself. Tomorrow will be better, he thought, still the bitterness lingered. He put the key into the lock and tried once again to shake the resentment that had followed him out of the interview and all the way home.
“Hi daddy!” Dee ran to meet him at the door. The four-year-old ball of joy threw herself into his arms.
“Hi sugar!” he said scooping her up and kissing his little girl all the way into the kitchen. “Hi baby.” He set Dee down and wrapped his arms around his wife. She smiled warmly.
“Did you have a good day?” Cassie asked leaning into him. She had one hand flat on his lapel, the other on the stove, both of her eyes right on his, their daughter danced at their feet.
“Yeah,” he said breezily, his eyes communicating that he didn’t get the job, hers saying she was sorry. He sat down at the kitchen table and Dee climbed onto his knee. “So how was your day?” he asked, smiling into his daughters eyes.
“I unna get a baby,” she said proudly.
“You’re going to get a what?”
“I unna get a baby!” she said loudly. She jumped off his knee and ran back into her room to play with her dolls.
“That girl she adores at school, Sandra, her mom is pregnant. They’re all excited about the new baby.” She leaned on the doorframe of the small kitchen watching him. He took off his tie.
“I was so qualified,” he started. He unbuttoned his top two buttons, then rested his hands on his knees and let his head fall. “Cassie, the guy looked at me like I was a day laborer,” he said meeting her eyes.
“Go,” Chris insisted to an audience that couldn’t hear him. His right hand fumbled blindly around the deep center console of his 1989 Bronco. It hit upon its target and he slipped a Marlboro Mild between his lips, pressed the old knob of the cigarette lighter in, and met the eyes of the woman in the car next to him briefly before she looked away. Chris shook his head. The woman’s eyes had glazed over like she didn’t know what she was doing in this world. In Alaska she would have smiled.
The knob popped out and with a familiar fluidity he touched the fiery orange coil to the tip of his cigarette, inhaled, removed the poisonous stick with his left hand and exhaled. He put the car lighter back in its place. The smoke was stagnant in the afternoon heat. It hung around him like the cars amassed in the Miami rush hour traffic.
Continue reading “Acquitted, Evicted, Conflicted.”
“So,” says the darling person genuinely interested in my life, “what have you been up to?”
“Well,” I start, looking to whatever person or book I happen to be in public with for support, “I just finished editing my novel.”
And in that time, before they process how to answer this statement, I wonder: do they not believe me? does it sound as strange to them as it does to me? do they write best-sellers in their spare time?
I wrote a book, I remind myself. My third, and this one’s good, get it together. But I’m not published yet (and this destroys me).
“Wow,” they say, finally, “that’s great!”
And it is. They say.
But I haven’t sold it.
You haven’t read it.
So what is it, really?
It’s just a leap of faith, on your part.
You believe: 1. that I have actually written said book. 2. that I’ve done it well. and 3. that I’ll become successful enough, that you’ll know someone famous enough, to brag about.
Because that’s what this is, isn’t it?
The proximity to greatness.
I know, because I want it too. That light of genuine feeling that people relate to whole heartedly. The one that is pure. The one that shines so bright that basking in someone else’s is fine. Because it’s honest.
This is why I wince. Why this conversation is so uncomfortable for me, and why I hesitate to answer the question. Because in this scenario I am the one who will have made something great.
Which is why I keep writing.
Because here, being naked isn’t just for show, it’s necessary.
It was dark when we arrived. The lights of the city stretched farther than I had expected. Traffic was bad, but not as bad as it had been in Dublin. John took the first parking spot he saw and we headed into the Pub across the street. There was some sort of meeting going on and we invited hostile looks from people present. One woman glared like we had come to ruin her conspiracy.
“Hey mates,” John said. “Hope we’re not interrupting, just lookin’ for a pint.”
“Oh, Dear,” an Irish mum called getting up, “Come in, come in, excuse my manners. What’ll ya have?” She smiled and in the wrinkles around her hazel eyes I saw years of worry, strength, and laughter. Her hair reached out in tight curls.
“Guinness,” I smiled.
“Of course, dear, and for you?”
“There you are.”
She was endearing and nervous and her strong hands and rosy cheeks were everything I expected from an Irish barmaid. She was going on about some old head and John was paying close attention but I was drifting, taking in the authenticity. It was the Irish pub that I had always wanted to be in. I admired the flags and lace curtains and shamrocks that someone had painted on every spot of empty wall, gaily. At this point such space was hard to come by. There were top to bottom pictures from all sorts of celebrations, weddings, birthdays, football matches, all that looked like St. Patty’s Day and all to which we were at least 20 years too late.
“We’ll join,” John said and I turned back to the conversation I had missed. “Won’t we?”
“Sure,” I said trusting his judgment.
“Hey, Pauly,” she called both excited and more serious than I had heard her sound, “we’ve got two new recruits.”
“Sorry, we’re full,” snapped the vicious woman.
“Oh, bollocks,” the barmaid said ushering us over to the group.
A dark haired man with crystal blue eyes rose from the head of the table, “I’m Paul.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said trying not to sound too American.
“This is Violet, I’m John, and we’re always up for fighting the good fight.”
I nodded and wondered what he had gotten us into. I felt like we accidentally stumbled into the den of a revolution, and I liked it.
“Do you know anything about the Old Head of Kinsale?” the steaming woman asked still glaring at me. I shook my head. Her hair was long and deep red and poured over her thin shoulders like the fire she seemed ready to spew.
“This is Nora, don’t let her passion frighten you. She grew up outside Kinsale so this matter is very dear to her heart.”
I wanted to ask what the matter at hand actually was but I was not about to say anything, lest she might rip my face off.
“Well, its nice to meet the lot of you. How can we help?” John asked
The road stretches out before me unwavering, like the heat. The little brown camper that we’ve called home since the start of our month-long trek across India moseys along crookedly, leaning always away. Dried up ditches frame the road and I imagine them as gushing rivers in the wet season. Beyond the dusty windshield, the sweeping flat land extends utterly unoccupied but for an occasional tree and the man that I love riding an elephant that we call Elvis.
The orange tweed interior radiates against my freckled skin like a fake tan. I’ve been wearing the same white linen shirt for so long that there is no longer a white thread to be found. I smell curry spice and compost coming off of my own self as much as anything else, and it has been weeks since I’ve actually minded. This makes me feel like I could belong, something I desperately hope to achieve.
Gone with the town we just departed from are the two men who stood beside the camper each dawn screaming at each other through the dewy haze in a language that I simply can’t understand. The possibility that we might sleep in tomorrow is stifled, like everything else, by the heat. I yawn and stretch, feeling sand stuck to the back of my neck. When I wash I find it in my nose and in my eyeballs as well. The humidity is relentless. Soon, we’ll be to the coast.
The camper finally leans too far away. It takes all my strength to keep it on the road, but in the end I give up and surrender it to the ditch. I step out casually as the rusty mess settles itself into the non-river.
“We’re leaving it,” I say swiftly, deliriously, amused. I hope the lightness of tone will prevent a quarrel.
“Lucy,” Wyatt says, his voice loaded with disappointment, but he stops himself. He looks up at the sky as if for an answer. When he jumps down off the elephant I smile in a way that I hope reads remorse. He walks over to where the camper is.
“Be careful!” I call.
A few minutes later he returns with our packs, the necessities and our sleeping pads. He fashions them to Elvis in silence. I stroke Elvis’s trunk as he tries to fish non-existent peanuts from my pockets.
The man who sold us the friendly mammoth spoke no English. From what Wyatt could gather the elephant was either twenty-four or forty-eight years old and called ‘aracan,’ which means ‘the king.’
“Elvis,” I say looking into his big black eye, “I hope you don’t mind me hitching this ride.”
“Will that be all, Pricilla?” Wyatt asks and I pout. He kisses my cheek and I’m smiling again before he’s through. I stand on my tiptoes to sneak a kiss on his lips before he turns. He gives me that half smile that fills me up with love, and then shows me where to step.
Sorry, I mouth to Elvis as I place one foot on the back of his knee. I take Wyatt’s hand and it feels like I’m climbing up a strong tree trunk. Elvis’s abdomen is hard, stable and sturdy. Aside from the coarse hairs poking through my khakis, it’s not at all uncomfortable.
We both jerk as Elvis starts down the long dirt road. I grab tight to Wyatt and then the animal’s massive shoulders fall into a rhythm that moves us up and down with him. We rock as if in a hammock strung above a small boat in calm water. I loosen my grip. There’s the slightest hint of a breeze. I feel fearless. A surreal sightseer, a tour by the dirty blue sky.
This is why I’m here. This is the adventure I seek.
Elvis’s grey skin reminds me of old people in a winsome way. It makes me think back to the wrinkled faces I’ve met in the villages we’ve passed through. There have been many of them over the last month and yet I feel myself missing the individual strangers. How easy it is to settle into a small towns routine. The beast’s appalling scent overpowers my nostalgia. I remember something that I forgot to tell Wyatt, my nose begs for the distraction.
“I made a friend yesterday,” I say straightening the little saffron colored towel we’re sitting on.
“The girl at the market?” he asks.
“Yeah. She gave me a pear and watched me until I took a bite. It was like she wanted to know if I would eat what she gave me, or if I chewed the same way as her.”
“She was glad to find out that I did. Her eyes sparkled and warmed to me.”
“That’s beautiful,” he says patting my thigh.
“It was,” I say, resting my hand on his for a moment. “I really thought that I’d gotten acclimated to the smells. Elvis, I’m sure it’s not your fault but it doesn’t seem very like a king to smell like old baby diapers.”
“You mean to tell me, diarrhea and old eggs aren’t regal?”
“Ew,” I squirm and pretend to vomit over his side.
“He smells better than you do,” Wyatt says smiling.
I laugh so hard I almost fall off. I grab Wyatt’s chest and hold onto him like a seat belt, feeling my ribs shake against him. Better to laugh than to pass out from the scent.
I take the scarf from my hair and cover my face with it like a bandit. It helps the way a single rose might mask a pile of manure.
The winning purchase of the journey has been the cone shaped straw hats we were sold in the first town. They have served as gallant protectors from the sun and the rain. With the hat on my head and the scarf on my face I feel less like a foreigner. I yearn for someone to believe that I’m a local. My dream would be to assimilate so fully that I could shimmy right out the light skin I’ve always worn and try on this culture’s for a time.
To see what they see. To feel how they feel. To learn all the details.
To walk mile after mile on the back of a hard stinky elephant passing salt fields and plantain tree farms, slowly, pontificating over weather patterns, placing space before time.
Westerners aren’t always accepted in the agrarian villages that we explore. Some embrace us, some fear us, and some have no idea what to think of us. I think that people are either fond of those different than them, or not. It doesn’t matter where you are. It’s the same with the people on the subway back home.
Elvis walks steadily, but with purpose and direction. I feel powerful floating on the giant, like a goddess from an ancient world. He carries us proudly down the flat brown road away from the pumpkin sunset.
Wyatt whistles “Fools Rush In,” I sway to the music, and after only a few bars Elvis begins raising his trunk in tune with the notes. He’s so smart! I hug Wyatt, lay my head on his back and close my eyes trying to commit the moment to memory. This is joy.
We stop when the night falls around us. The moon is small and the stars are vast.
We sleep on mats beside the riverbank under a tarp shelter that Wyatt fabricates with sticks and twine. I can smell the sea in the air.
“The coast isn’t far,” I say. “Do you think Elvis likes the sand?”
“I don’t know,” Wyatt looks at the elephant grazing in a patch of grass.
We lay to sleep and within my imagination slow-paced fishing villages that haven’t changed in two thousand years are busy with commerce. I can’t wait to meet the people. In all of my travels I have always felt most at home on small islands, like the one where I grew up.
One never knows if the sea will be fair or furious, but we always have absolute faith in her anyway. Those who reside near the ocean are equipped with an intrinsically easy feeling. For me that faith is simple.
I dream of lush mountains falling into a turquoise sea.
When I wake the sky is light grey and it’s so quiet that I can hear the dust blowing across the road.
Elvis is gone.
At once my eyes well up with tears. I jump to my feet. I walk up and down the road but its no use. He is an elephant in the middle of an even, far-reaching land, and he is nowhere to be seen. I let out a sob and cup my mouth with my hand. I feel tiny and lost, suddenly stuck in the middle of a strange country without a guide.
“Wyatt,” I whisper. “Wake up.”
He squints one eye open and looks at me. “What’s wrong?”
“Elvis is gone,” I say sweeping tears away with the back of my hand. He carried us across the broad land all the time sinking his elephantine footsteps deeper into my heart.
“What!” he sits up quickly, looks around for a moment, blinks into the daylight, and gets up. Shielding his eyes from the sun he looks in every direction.
“We took him from his home,” I sob, “and he left us for it. Why didn’t we tie him up? Why didn’t he want to stay? What’s wrong with us?”
“Shhh,” Wyatt coos, his arm around my shoulder squeezing me to him. He kisses the top of my head and I collapse into my hands sobbing. “Breathe,” he whispers after a minute or so. I try to get it together.
Wyatt stares down the way we had come for a long time.
“Well,” he says finally, “we wanted to live like they live here. This is part of it.”
He takes my face in his hands and speaks sweetly wiping my cheeks, “We have enough water and food. We’ll survive.”
I gaze back at him, dumbstruck and heartbroken.
“It’ll be ok,” he promises and kisses my salty lips. Then he gets started rolling up our mats and packing our things. He distributes most of the weight to himself.
My friend’s abandonment sits on my spirit. Why hadn’t Elvis wanted to stay with us on our voyage? Were we just dead weight to him? Will we only ever be dead weight to the rest of the world? Worthless and spoiled and weak? This is what I came here to understand.
An hour into the walk the rain starts. It soaks us to the bone. Before long my pack weighs as heavy as my heart, like the saturation has added one rock for each of my deficiencies. The road turns to mud. I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other on the wet ground.
With each step I fight the muck as it sucks at my foot. I pretend I’m trying to step out of that circle thing on the tentacle of a giant squid. The slurping sound is a small kind of reward. I can’t distinguish my skin from my sandals. My toes might very well be growing webbed.
I watch the steady patterns in the puddles. I count steps. I sing show tunes in my head, almost the whole first act of Wicked. Anything to keep the crushing load on my shoulders from my mind.
The dutiful clip-clopping of a cart approaching comes on slowly. The animal pulling it towards us has hooves that are just as slopped in the latte colored mud as my own feet. I look up having to crane my neck in order to see the driver around my hat. An elderly man smiles at me in front of a grey sky. As I blink into the rain at him he closes his toothless mouth and nods. The uncomplicated act of human compassion carries me farther down the infinite path.
The dull ache of my feet is punctuated by intense jabs that I know mean the blisters are giving way to lacerations in the places where the straps of my sandals meet the backs of my heels. I try not to think of that, or the knotting pain in my back. I think of Achilles and how his mother tried to protect him and failed and what pain my own mother might know if she witnessed my current suffering. I’d like to know what that feels like, that all encompassing maternal love.
The rain lets up and when I no longer feel my skin being saturated, I take off my hat. I say a silent prayer of thanks to Achilles’ mother, though I can’t remember her name, and my own for always staying with me. The clouds have finally relented and a low, verdant mountain stands before us. The wet leaves are like glittering emeralds radiating greetings our way.
“Look,” I say, blinking back tears. My voice cracks and it occurs to me we haven’t spoken in hours. Wyatt looks up and I hear myself let out a long, raspy laugh.
He drops his pack and I drop mine and I lean against him, trying to hold some of my weight. I wrap my arms around his middle and squeeze. The jade mountains are a gleaming symbol of our feat. The ocean is on the other side. I stare in awe, satisfied by the road we never wavered from.
The sun breaks through and begins to dry the happy tears that joined the raindrops on my cheeks. I wonder how hard it’ll be to cross the small mountain range. Wyatt has absolute confidence. I can feel it under my fingertips in the muscles on his back. I love him for his conviction.
We sit on the side of the road. He eats wet salami from the bag of emergency food. I lay down resting my head on his leg, too exhausted to eat. Looking up at the new blue sky, my back pressed into the muddy ground, soaked, starved, and blistered, I have never felt such contentment.
When I wake its twilight. The stars are barely shining through the violet sky. Wyatt is asleep. In the absence of rain I hear the sound of the mountains: trees rustling, birds chattering, water rambling down a hill.
I stand and stretch, my back and hips competing for attention with their throbbing. My feet cry at the movement, each millimeter of ripped skin sears with pain. I blink twice into the dark horizon and shriek. The sound of the scream hangs in the moist air.
“Lucy?” Wyatt calls out of sleep.
“Look,” I whisper.
At the foot of the mountain stands an elephant.
“It’s Elvis,” he says, already on his feet.
“You think?” I ask laughing. My eyes are so full they’re over pouring yet again.
We study the possibility, our faces frozen.
“It can’t be him,” I say, sure that it is.
“I guarantee it is.”
“Get back here!” I call. “Elvis! Don’t be cruel!”
He walks leisurely towards us.
I wipe my eyes, and give Wyatt a happy shove. I know in my heart that I proved something to myself. I might be a Westerner, but I’m not worthless, or spoiled, or weak. Tomorrow we have to cross that mountain and it’s sure to wipe this grin off my face, but today I’m a survivor.
I have never seen something so beautiful as that sparkly green mountain, nor felt more humbled than by the comfort of that king.
Gracie dug through her purse looking for a hammer. She pulled out a 45 of the Beatles single “Love Me Do”, then emptied the other contents of her bag: her journal, a broken brush, a long since finished tube of lipstick, and a wallet with nothing in it but a two dollar bill. She turned the whole bag upside down and shook it. Thin candy wrappers and disintegrating tissues fell to the dusty wooden floor. Gracie’s pale fingers picked a library card out of the rubbish. She flung the purse away. The brown leather had turned orange with age, and the sides had deep creases from years of use, but she hadn’t aged like the relic. She hadn’t aged a day since she arrived in Bodie, California in 1962.
Gracie’s knees were folded beneath her and hidden by the thin yellow skirt that flowed onto the floor around her. Her dirty blonde hair fell loosely about her pretty face. She looked around the small, shabby room. There weren’t many places a hammer could hide. She was so frustrated that when she did find the hammer she planned on smashing what little there was in the two hundred year old room that seemed to have eaten her tool.
“What’s wrong, Gracie?” asked a sweet old woman hovering in the door frame. Trails of grey streaked her dark hair and her black eyes sparkled kindly. She was petite but not at all frail.
“Hello, Rosa May,” Gracie said turning towards the door. Her gloomy dress was unmistakably from the nineteenth century. There was a trail of tiny buttons up the front to her neck and a trim of linen lace where the sleeves touched below her wrists. It hung to the tips of her dark pointy boots which Gracie happened to know laced up past her ankle. The sky behind her was shining such a brilliant blue that it seemed to mute the green and gold desert sitting below it. “Have you seen my hammer?” Gracie asked hopefully.
“Darling child,” Rosa May said with worried eyes, “what do you need a hammer for?”
“I found some more sheet metal down by the mill. The winter is coming and the walls on this house get thinner all the time. I need to add another layer on the north side to block that freezing wind from blowing in.”
“Gracie,” she said softly, “you could set this house on fire with both of us in it and you wouldn’t feel the warmth of the blaze.”
Gracie looked down at her hands sitting lifelessly in her lap. She wanted to cry. She hated when Rosa May spoke to her as if there was no solution. “If I could just find my hammer,” she said, but she knew there was no reason to finish the sentence. She stared out the window wishing she could feel hot tears rolling down her cheek. She hated the sight of such a gorgeous day knowing she couldn’t feel the sun on her face.
“You haven’t seen my hammer then?” Gracie asked distantly. Rosa May floated over the door jam and sat lightly on the table.
“You know I used to come to this house,” she said picking up the dusty, cracked tea cup that sat on a broken saucer. She smiled at Gracie in her soft and inviting way.
“Tell me about it,” Gracie said, she laid back on the dusty floor and closed her eyes.
“It was the turn of the twentieth century,” Rosa May began, “and it was colder than you could imagine. Everyone was dying of pneumonia. We did what we could to enjoy our last days. The man who lived here looked as if he was older than Bodie himself. The war had taken both of his legs and all of his manners. A mean old bastard he was,” she said with a coy smile.
“Why did you come here then?”
“He liked me. I tried to make him smile. Seeing a big old grin grace his miserable face was always worth it. You know, they say misery loves company but what they fail to mention is that the company isn’t worth a damn unless they absolve some of the misery.”
Gracie couldn’t feel the cold floor beneath her. She couldn’t feel the rough wood scraping her elbows, she couldn’t smell the desert air, and she couldn’t feel misery, but she enjoyed Rosa May’s company all the same.
“Where is he now?” Gracie asked sitting up.
“I don’t know,” Rosa May said reflectively, “Heaven, I suppose. Maybe hell. I haven’t seen him around here in a hundred years.”
“Why can’t I remember my home?” Gracie asked with sad eyes begging for answers. Rosa May looked down into her face compassionately.
“I don’t know darling. I wish I could tell you, but I never knew any home worth remembering until I came to Bodie. Here’s the only place I ever really felt loved. I guess that’s why I’m still here.” Gracie tried to remember the people who loved her. She wondered why no one ever come looking for her.
“How long have I been here?” she asked timidly.
“Too long,” Rosa May said looking at her pitifully.
Am I a lost soul? Gracie wondered, but wouldn’t dare say it aloud.
Someone would come looking, she thought. And for once Gracie was glad she couldn’t cry.
“No,” the little girl said simply, “I will not go.”
“But Sara,” her mother pleaded, “you must come to Church with us.”
Sara looked plainly at her. “God knows I’m a good little girl,” she said full of purpose, “so you don’t need to pray for me anymore.”
“I don’t know what to do with her,” she said to Sara’s father, “and I swear she reads my thoughts.”
He smiled. “If God knows she’s a good little girl then it sounds like it’s out of our hands.”
“Real funny,” she said leaving the room, “You’re a great help.”
“Come here,” he said patting his knee. The four year old climbed into his lap, staring up at him with big brown eyes. “Why don’t you want to go to church?” he asked.
“It’s too cold there,” she said guiltlessly. “Everyone talks too much and they ask for the same things, every Sunday. Mary asks for dolls, Maggie asks for a little sister, Max asks for his little sister to go away and for a little brother instead, and Johnny asks for yucky things about bugs and boogers.” He couldn’t help but laugh. “And Daddy, you aren’t supposed to pray about football.”
“You’re right,” he nodded, “but am I the only one who prays for us to win?”
“No,” she sighed, “most of the daddy’s do.”
“And we still don’t win,” he said shaking his head. “Tell me something Sara, what do you pray for?”
“Peace,” she said simply. “And to go to church somewhere warm.”
* * *
“You’re too young,” Sara’s mother cried, “why must you go so far?”
“You wish all the time to go far away from here,” Sara said smiling sweetly. Her mother frowned. She placed her palm on her mother’s cheek, “I’m eighteen. I’ll be fine.”
“But alone? Why must you go alone?”
“You understand.” Sara folded her favorite sweater and placed it carefully in her suitcase.
Her father stood leaning against the doorway, his tired eyes watching respectfully.
“And you? You’re fine with our little girl going across the world to Italy, alone?”
He stepped into the room and looked around. He picked up a picture frame sitting on the desk. It was a picture of Sara in a field of wildflowers. He remembered everything about that day.
It had been unusually warm for March, and the snow was beginning to melt. He had told her that he would take her to see something special and she had smiled completely. It was rare that she smiled with all her heart, even at eight years old.
They walked along the small road past the edge of town to the abandoned church. When they reached the top of the hill, she went running down the other side. He stood where he was and studied her intently. She seemed to be glowing.
It was too early for spring. He was sure there had been snow covering the valley the day before, but as she walked through the flowers with both arms outstretched, her open palms touched lightly over the tops of the petals. She was talking, and though he was too far to hear, something held him from moving any closer.
“That was the first time you took me there,” she said smiling.
He nodded, and ran his finger along the glass. He could still smell the lavender in the air.
“You appeared on that hill and the whole valley bloomed for you,” he said with the same amazement he had felt that day.
“That’s my favorite place,” she whispered, “it’s the only place that I can pray for my own dreams without having to listen to everyone else’s.”
* * *
Sara sat in her favorite Roman church looking up at a fresco. Three cherubs floated above the head of baby Jesus. She loved the fat little Renaissance babies, and everything about the art.
“Are you hearing this?” she asked the four of them silently. They didn’t respond. “I didn’t think so.”
She listened as a man very close to her wished for his mother to find someone to grow old with. It pained the man that his mother had been without his father for so many years. Then she melted a little as he prayed humbly for love to find him.
“Ciao,” he said behind her.
I must be imagining things, she thought. She turned around to see a perfect smile, and turned back quickly, blushing. He rose and his heels clicked away on the marble floor, rounded the end of the pew, and came clicking back down her aisle. He sat beside her.
“Ciao,” she said softly, without looking at him.
“You come here everyday,” he said quietly, facing forward, “and you sit in a different place, everyday.”
“Yes,” she said blushing again.
She turned to face him. “What is your name?” she asked after a moment.
“Gabriele, and yours?”
“Sara,” she said extending her hand.
She felt a surge of warmth when he touched her. He stared into her eyes, and shook her hand softly. She loved him at once.
“Do you ever wonder if people can hear your thoughts?” she asked, “And then say ‘Hello,’ just in case they’re listening?”
“No,” his face split into a wide smile, “but I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to hear all that you think.”
Her fists clenched and she realized that he was still holding her hand.
“Can you hear my thoughts now?”
“Only your prayers,” she whispered, “and you shouldn’t wish for such things in a sacred place.”
* * *
Sara stood in her kitchen alone. Leaning against the countertop, she studied the curve of the wine glass balanced in her hand. She preferred the way her satin flats looked against the black and white tile at her feet, to the conversation that she could hear from the dining room.
“They were so drab,” she would tell her husband later, “him continuously praying for more money and her for me to cut the black forest cake.”
She took a sip of wine and held it in her mouth as she closed one eye and looked at life through the burgundy liquid. The blue cheese sauce for the pasta danced up to her nose. Her curls stuck to the back of her neck while random thoughts walked mazes within her mind.
She heard the hot sizzle of water on the burner as the pot boiled over. Her eyes came back into focus and she reached for potholders and turned the burner off. As she emptied the fresh gnocchi into the strainer she saw something move in her kitchen window.
“Gabriele,” she shrieked as the pot crashed to the bottom of the porcelain basin.
He flew around the corner. The terror in his face matched the sound of her voice.
“What is it?” he asked barely breathing. He had never seen her look so scared.
Her thin frame moved slowly away from the window, her head shook back and forth ever so slightly. She stared out the window with wide, unblinking eyes. He looked down at her clenched fists.
“There’s something terrible out there,” she whispered, “and it’s praying for a way to come in.”
He wakes. His feet touch the cool stone floor. He ignores his weathered reflection, rinses his hands, and splashes water on his face. The sticky dawn drifts through the seaward window. He sees the fog and the distant orange circle muted above the horizon. He turns back to the looking glass. You will catch a big one today, he says to the old man that he sees.