Monday, January 25, 2010

What Will Be

What Will Be

She was standing in the kitchen, holding a cup of steaming coffee. The smell was brilliant and bitter, tantalizingly familiar as it pricked her nostrils and her throat. She looked around: brown wooden cupboards and matching pantry, faded flower-patterned linoleum, old-model microwave and toaster on the counter (both white), old-model white stove, humming white refrigerator, two windows in the wall looking into a wooded back yard (one with an empty bird feeder dangling in the center of the glass, hanging from the eave), ceiling fan with three lights….

Everything looked right, felt right. She looked at it all again, furrowing her brow with effort and frustration this time.

She knew it, every last detail, but those details were not coming together for her into a single, solid sense of ownership. They wouldn’t meld together, finally and completely, into the sense of being hers, because she couldn’t get the sense of who she was.

Then she saw a photograph on the lone wall shelf, above the small telephone table: an old man with a ring of white hair around a bald dome, wearing wire-rim eyeglasses on a narrow face, and a woman with fluffy white hair, slightly curled on the tips, full face, and broad smile, a butterfly pin on her collar….

Sheldon. The man was Sheldon. Her Sheldon, her husband. The man she had married back, what was it, 1956…over 50 years now. And that was the same man who she had laid in a grave over five years ago. Or was it closer to 10? She would have to look at the papers in her filing cabinet later.

Yes, the bright-eyed man in the photo was her Sheldon, and she…she was Millicent Bradley Crenshaw, “Millie” to anyone who knew her for more than, say, two minutes.

She breathed a quiet sigh of relief, feeling whole, real again now that she felt at home again, and sat down to read the newspaper from front to back while she sipped her coffee and ate her oatmeal with milk, raisins, and a banana…and a dab of maple syrup.

It was quiet in the house, the only sounds the occasional turning and shaking of newspaper pages, the clink of metal spoon on porcelain bowl and cup, the slurp of coffee or thin oatmeal. Ages of silence, the quiet morning hours of an old house with one small, slow, simple old inhabitant. The sun rose from the horizon, growing full and confident in its puissance. As it grew stronger, brighter, the thick forest of deep green pine and naked deciduous trees surrounding the house took on a burnished look, steaming away the winter morning’s cold and frost under the sun’s heat. Birds chirped and flitted around in the boughs and branches, hunting for food, singing to pass the time, visiting the empty bird feeder outside of the house’s window just in case there might be a few seeds this time that they had missed the last. Once, for just a few minutes, a doe emerged from the tree line into the backyard, nibbled at a few shrubs that had run wild with neglect, and then disappeared again into the shadows of the forest canopy.

The sights and sounds and signs of life hustled and bustled about on this cold February morning in lower Maine. But inside the small brick house, little was heard besides the few quiet sounds of one woman’s breakfast over the newspaper. Once in a while the house creaked, the gas furnace rattled into life and then clattered into rest, the refrigerator hummed and squirted and farted.

Hours passed, creaking towards noon unnoticed. Millie finished her paper, her cold coffee and sludgy oatmeal, and then went to do the dishes. She remembered, from habit rather than deliberation, that she had to take her pills now that breakfast was finished. First the dishes, one thing after the other, just as it should be…like walking in someone else’s footsteps in the snow. Or like taking a few oddly shaped pills from the proper cell marked for that day, one of the fourteen such cells in the two-rowed plastic pillbox she had in her cupboard.

Millie pulled the faucet arm up to start the water, easing it to the left, and peered out through the window over the sink as the warm water spluttered and splashed against porcelain and steel, against her dry, crinkly hands. The unseen doe was long gone, but there were still a few chickadees and titmice capering about, an occasional cardinal flashing through the green pine boughs dusted with white snow, a blue jay and a squirrel bickering over something near the big oak tree back in the corner where the fence boards had fallen out…oh, probably three or four years ago.

It would be noon in a few more hours, and she would make her lunch and do those dishes and look out of this same window into that same woods-edged backyard. For this moment, though, Millie felt the warm water on her hands and just watched the animals and the light at play outside. Billions of beautiful, delicate little sounds in and out of the old house accompanied the scene, but Millie heard almost none of them.

* * *

Monday, January 4, 2010

Rest Stop

Rest Stop

The night was a dismal bog of black, with tiny pinpricks of light piercing through but doing little to break the darkness. The car’s headlights carved out a small area of substance and existence as Les drove, but none of what they showed so far on the shoulders of Interstate 10 had been worth looking at—tired trees, dying grass, colorless concrete dividers, road signs to nowhere special. The black night had fallen on and filled the world outside of his car. It had somehow managed to spill in through the closed windows and the metal, too. However it made it, the black night was in here with Les, and it whispered to him with the voice of a humming engine and rubber rolling over pavement: SLEEEEEEP, it said.

Les yawned, twisted his neck until he felt the satisfying pop of joints, and then looked down at the car stereo: 1:43. He cursed himself for being in his car, driving, at 1:43 in the morning.

I should be in bed, he thought, huffing out a bemused laugh. Then he thought of Sarasota, stoked his will, and pushed the accelerator down a bit to press on through the murk.

He was tired, but his fatigue was also laced with the heady mixture of adrenaline-alcohol-excitement that he had been jacked up on throughout his week in New Orleans.

Mardi Gras.

Les had been in New Orleans for the entire week once again, his annual ritual ever since college, come hell or high water or work. What was this, his sixth? Seventh? If he tried hard, he probably could remember…but he didn’t feel like trying right now. Instead, he reached up and ran his fingers along the bright bead necklaces hanging around his neck, under his shirt. The few beads that were visible above his collar sparkled in the glow of the dashboard lights as Les rubbed them. He felt the cold, hard plastic balls, one after another, and recalled the rosary his mother had given him once when he was a kid, with the same brown beads as her own, and which he had then lost somewhere with the utmost haste, to her great despair. Staring into the black night, he rubbed these cheaper, more colorful beads and thought—tried to think—back on this latest week-long extravaganza in New Orleans. God it was wonderful, like a cleansing release of one year’s worth of repressed frustration, anxiety, fear, guilt, desire…everything. In his fatigued semi-silliness, Les felt the dying traces of some unnamable, undirected wonder and reverence. His smile slinked along his face a little more, and he let up a little on the accelerator.