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.

* * *

After her small, simple lunch in the quiet kitchen, Millie watched a few hours of television in the den. There wasn’t much to keep her interest--mostly pundits and talking heads bickering over politics or other news, the plights of health care or the economy, neither of which much concerned Millie--so she fought a losing battle to keep her head and eyelids up, plopped in her big recliner with feet in the air and a light throw around her. The TV, turned up loud so that Millie could hear everything--or hear some of it, and follow even less of it--drowned out her soft snores.

Stirring awake mid-afternoon, Millie caught the tail end of a weather forecast. According to the perky young chit standing in front of the map, who would make a better cheerleader than a scientist, there was a strong weather front moving northwards from the mid-Atlantic, riding along the Appalachians. Miss Chit, beaming and bopping and bending to accentuate butt and bosom, predicted at least a foot overnight, possibly as much as two in some areas. Millie snickered. She had seen more snow and blizzards and “monster storms” in her 73 years, and in this house, than she could remember. Or cared to remember if she could. Millie had long ago learned that the coming winter meant re-checking and, if needed, replenishing the ample stock of canned foods, non-perishables, powdered milk, and jugs of water in closet, pantry, and garage. If the power went out, she had a full supply of small logs (delivered each year) in the garage, with more waiting on standby out back of the woodshed, and she was still more than capable, thank you very much, of starting her own fire in the den’s big wood stove.

Chuckling at the threats of heavy snowfall, indeed looking forward to a little more white out the windows, Millie clicked off the TV and worked herself out of her chair: She had work to do.

Today was Saturday, Millie’s day to clean the house. It was her weekly “exercise” and her chore, a routine that was all the more dear to her because it was so time honored. It had become a hallowed ritual in the years since Sheldon’s death, something to occupy her time between meals, naps, and the TV, between jigsaw and crossword puzzles or books. And she never lost focus on cleaning, no matter how her mind might wander, fade, or skip around: With the rag, feather duster, broom, mop, or vacuum in her hands, Millie had a firm grasp on life.

She started in the den, as always, drifting around with her feather duster and rag. So much dust, in only a week, and with only her to stir it all up: on the picture frames, on the TV and furniture, on the lampshades. She stroked here, wiped there, sniffling from the dust as it wafted into the air on unseen drafts and swirled into eddies in her wake. She sneezed once or twice when the tingles in her nose got an attitude.

The den, like the house itself, was small and cozy, not cluttered with needless furniture or bric-a-brac. The most notable decorations in the room were several photos of her and Sheldon, and a couple of their respective parents, on end tables and atop the bookcases. She had similar photos throughout the house, at least one in every room--photos of her and Sheldon sitting for a portrait, or out in the backyard, or on the beach at Cape Cod, or in front of a glittering Christmas tree…. These were all she had to remember him by now. His place within her memory was fleeting, dwindling and growing vaguer with time. The photos filled the hole left by his death, a hole that was not filled by children or extended family to offer glimpses of him in their features, their voices, their names. Sheldon’s lone sister had died in a car accident as a teenager, Millie was an only child, and they had been unable to have children. (Sheldon had always blamed himself, blamed the concoction of hormones they gave the milk cows on the farm when he was a kid, though they never had tests done…and Millie never got past the chilling suspicion that she was the problem, not him). She attended to these mementos with extra deliberation and care, slowing further the motions of her routine to wipe the frames and glass, lingering to stare at the couple smiling back at her.

Besides the small end tables and two small bookcases, there was a small shelf on the wall above the TV. Almost half an hour after leaving her recliner, Millie reached the shelf and stopped, eyes wide and sparkling, lips parted as if seeing something wholly new and spectacular.

Most prominent were two American flags, each folded into a triangle and placed in a triangular frame of wood and glass, showing proud white stars on rich blue. The leftmost was her father’s. At the age of 28, James “Jimmy” Bradley had enlisted in the Army, shaken out of neutrality by Pearl Harbor and his President’s call to action. He had flashed through the ranks after entering service and then stormed the beaches at Normandy, pushing on through bullet wounds and shrapnel in his back. Jimmy Bradley kept charging on, as if invincible, through Europe. Before he was finished, conquered at last by a Japanese torpedo while in the Pacific, her father had won a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, a Croix de Guerre, a Distinguished Service Medal, and a personal signature from President Truman on the letter that informed his family of his death. The letter was in its own frame, to the left of the flag, and the medals rested in cushioned boxes in front of the flag.

Sheldon’s flag was on the right. For him, military service in the Navy had been the road out of poverty, the only way in fact, since his mind could not have survived a life of farm, logging, or factory work. Escaping the Vermont dairy farm on which he had been raised, which otherwise would have passed to him as it had passed from one Crenshaw son to the next, Sheldon had entered the Navy, studied mechanical engineering, and endured the Korean War. Afterward, he had gone on to a Masters in engineering from MIT almost as quickly, it seemed, as his honorable discharge had been finalized. Sheldon had not won any commendations or medals in his short military stint; he had been too busy finding ways to keep his ship (with the others in his group) out of harm’s way and thinking about everything he would do once his time was up. His flag had been folded and framed by his wife rather than by the military commanders after his death. Instead of medals and battle scars, Sheldon had racked up invaluable knowledge, experience, and reputation, all of which made the MIT degree more of an afterthought and formality. But that was his personal greatest conquest: the victory of a poor farm boy over the forces of tradition and hopelessness. Although he had left the military, the U.S. government knew a good thing when they saw one, and they had hired him after he graduated for a reliable, rewarding career in civil service to his country--working mostly on bridges, dams, roadways, other infrastructure, the essential things that never get acknowledged with glamorous prizes or awards ceremonies. Still, the government also allowed them to live comfortably in their golden years, through Sheldon’s military pension and federal retirement benefits, joined by those of her father and by the ample money from her mother’s side of the family.

When Sheldon’s career of service had ended at last, less than a decade before his life had ended at the age of 71, he had not collected hearts, stars, crosses, or oak leafs, those strange symbolic shapes heavy with significance. For him, Millie had very different, more meaningful things: Sheldon’s pipe, eyeglasses, and wedding ring--three things that he was never without, as far as she recalled.

The long-handled feather duster slid along the shelf, over the mementos of Jimmy Bradley first, caressing the wood and metal and glass, clutching the motes of dust that had collected there. Then it moved on to the flag of Sheldon Crenshaw, slowing here, resting more lightly, caressing and tickling more softly.

With the large TV in her way, Millie was forced to reach and raise herself on her toes, despite the duster’s long handle, in order to touch every surface. She had finished with Sheldon’s flag and was finishing his pipe when a sudden swirl of dust tickled her nostrils. She sneezed, lost her balance and pitched forward. Gasping, she flung her left hand forward and caught the TV, stabilizing herself enough to avoid what otherwise would have been a terrible fall--an old woman, at home alone…. But in her loss of balance and grace, the feather duster had gone wild, rammed the rightmost flag, and sent it toppling off the shelf. As it fell, it pitched the eyeglasses off with it, as a tottering man will grab for anything with which he might save himself the pain and embarrassment of landing on his butt. The triangular frame hit the TV with a thud and the sharp crash of breaking glass, followed by another thud as it hit the carpeted floor. Millie didn’t hear the eyeglasses hit anything as they fell, but she found them when she stepped down on something and heard a gritty crunch.

Gasping for breath, not yet fully balanced, sweating with fear and adrenaline, Millie leaned on the TV and shuffled away from the blurry debris at her feet. At last, she was able to clear her eyes and see it. The low light showed it all: the broken frame, the shattered glass, the twisted eyeglasses with shards instead of smooth, clear lenses. Leaning on the TV, bent over and gasping, she could see tiny sparkles scattered across the floor, the sparkling of glass, which soon was joined by the sparkling of her tears.

Hours later, Millie sat in her recliner again, resting in front of the TV, the entire house dark except the small light of the range hood in the kitchen and the lamp in the den. She had not finished her cleaning this afternoon. She had managed to clean up the mess she had made and, with glue and careful refashioning, accomplish some repairs to the broken flag frame and twisted eyeglasses. They rested atop the shelf once more, but Millie’s eye returned often and easily perceived the misaligned pieces of wood, the deformed metal, the incomplete shine of reflected light….

Exhausted, yet unable to sleep, Millie stared at the images on the TV. She heard the words and sounds, but they were just the squawks, clucks, pops, and gibberish of some obscure foreign language. Outside of the den window, fat snowflakes now fell like frozen cotton balls, plopping down to cover every surface, hitting the glass with heavy plops, accompanied by the sharp and crystalline tinkles of ice. Gusts of wind blew in every direction at once, making the white balls into projectiles and the ice into cold bullets.

Millie saw the whiteness swirling about outside but didn’t register it, even when she turned to stare at the dancing shapes. She heard the occasional tinkles of ice and thuds of snowflakes, but they were immediately drowned out by the booming TV and the ringing, pounding, that lingered in her ears, fatiguing her yet keeping her from sleep.

Only after the nightly news and the late-night talk shows, more meaningless blather, did Millie feel tired enough and recovered enough to climb out of the recliner and walk to her bedroom. She thought wanly about gathering wood inside for an emergency fire, but the power was still on, and she wasn’t up for it now, though even a few hours had given Time a little time to touch her with its healing powers. She would take her chances with the storm and the cold. She had lived through a lot worse in 73 years of life…and she wasn’t about to die at the hands of some snow and ice, no matter how drained she might feel. She looked back into the den as she passed through the door. Now, with the TV and lamp off and ice tinkling against the windows, the room was dark and cold.

* * *

The beaches of Cape Cod had a certain smell in the summer, a scent that became something physical, tangible, living, about the time when July tiptoed into August. Millie had smelled it, felt it, the first time her mother and she had summered there in an oceanfront cottage, when she was 12. Each year, it became more a part of her, and she more a part of the Cape Cod sand and the green-gray water and the briny ocean breeze. The return to Portland at Augusts’ end was a teary, slow trudge away from this place. But then months later, as the school year dwindled, Millie’s thoughts and daydreams inevitably returned to Cape Cod, as if they were preparing the way before her. The flowers of spring smelled of the sand and the ocean, the songbirds all looked and sounded like gulls…until Millie’s annual June return.

She was there, here at Cape Cod now, again, standing on one of the boardwalks, up on the dunes, so that she could see the beach extending to her left and right. From below her, children, adults, dogs scampered about under the sun, rested under umbrellas on the sand, swam and splashed in the water.

Millie saw, heard, and smelled it all, felt the life and joy of Cape Cod, so sweet and familiar. Someone took her hand. She pulled her gaze from the ocean, and Sheldon was smiling at her. His hair was a thin white ring, his skin was wrinkled and loose, his eyeglasses were perched on his nose, and his pipe was poking out of his smiling mouth. Same old Sheldon. She felt his warm, soft hand embracing hers; his pinky stroked her index finger, a touch she knew so well, stirring butterflies and goose bumps throughout her body, just as it always had. The bright sun fell upon him where he stood beside her, setting Sheldon ablaze with golden-white fire, the ocean breeze stirring up his light hair into dancing tongues of flame.

Tingling under Sheldon’s gaze and stroking pinky finger, Millie looked into his deep blue eyes. She felt the warm Cape Cod sun, smelled the Cape Cod sand and ocean, heard the laughter of children and teens on the Cape Cod beach.

Sheldon smiled, stroked, stared, but did not speak. He held her eyes and her heart, it must have been for hours, until a song of laughter made him turn his head towards the ocean. Millie’s eyes never left his head, his face replaced by a wrinkled ear and thin white hair, until he turned back towards her and made a slight jerking motion with his head.

Finally Millie looked away from him, and she saw a couple dancing at the edge of the water. The man was wearing red swim trunks. He was lanky but graceful, handsome but unexceptional, his lean muscles flexing as he danced, his blond hair waving in the wind. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, a few years older than the woman in the blue-and-white-striped swimsuit, whom he was spinning about like a top or grasping by the hips to pop up into the air. Her shoulder-length brown hair was straight, twisted by the breeze and the motion of her body. Her laughter was deep and rich, breaking in between the words of “Que Sera, Sera,” which she sang as they danced. Millie could see other people, couples and individuals alike, watching them as they sang and danced and played in the water, some clapping and singing the words that everyone knew so well.

Then Millie gasped out her breath in a quiet, shocked shriek. She knew the dancing couple…she remembered them. It was Sheldon and her. She stared at herself, 20 years old again, dancing with her husband before he was her husband, 26 and so full of life. This was--oh my, it must have been little more than a week after he had first approached her one early July afternoon as she lay on the beach with a book--it was Sagan’s A Certain Smile, the translation. She remembered it, and that she had never finished it…thanks to Sheldon. She had other love affairs to occupy her after he had come up to her and introduced himself, his MIT buddies sniggering at him from down the beach where they sat and gawked….

And here they were, here she was, dancing on the beach with him again, a week after they had met and four months before they had been married. Millie danced with Sheldon, singing in the sunlight and the ocean breeze: “Whatever will be, will be….” But Millie knew this shared future, had lived it, and it was glorious. She sat at the table and watched this future beginning to open like morning glory at dawn’s first light, her hand held and stroked by Sheldon’s as he, too, followed the two of them along the beach.

When Millie turned back, countless minutes later, Sheldon was watching her again. His pipe was sticking out of his lips at an odd angle and…and she cracked up. He always did that on purpose to make her laugh, pinching his mouth, squinting his eyes, furrowing his brow…he looked half mad, completely hilarious. Millie laughed until she gasped, holding her sides to keep her insides inside. Sheldon laughed, too, still stroking her with his pinky finger. Her breath returned under his gaze, and they stood there, in this sunlight and ocean breeze that could be found nowhere else on Earth, in no other summer than the summer of 1956, just staring at each other once again.

* * *

Waking was always an ordeal for Millie these days. Sleep, though fitful and stubborn most nights, was stingy with her, fighting to let her go. Her mouth was particularly dry this morning. The furnace must have run all night…yes, there was a winter storm last night, bitter cold and snow and ice and wind…but, well, at least the furnace had run, and the power had stayed on…she could hear it running now, in fact. Her eyes were crusty, sticky, hard to open. She must have slept on her arm, because it was asleep, pins and needles in her elbow and forearm…and there was the ache of the arthritis in her fingers and shoulder. My, had she done been wrestling under the covers?

And why was it so bright in the room this morning? Wiping the last grains of crust from her eyelids and lashes, she nearly had to squint because of the glare. Even with the curtains drawn most of the way across the two windows in her bedroom, the light pouring through was brilliant, overwhelming, as it reflected off of the white walls and ceiling, even the white comforter on her bed. She sat up and looked at herself in the vanity mirror, beyond the foot of the bed, seeing her old white face lit up as if with a spotlight, her white hair shockingly white.

Confused, Millie got out of bed and hastened over to a window, not noticing the cold air near the floor--she hadn’t bothered to step into her slippers. She parted the thin curtains…and then stepped back, raising her hand to her eyes. The sun was high and immense in the clear sky, each ray a sharp dart that bounced off the inches, no feet of snow that blanketed ground, trees, shrubs, everything outside. The wind was still blowing in hard gusts, and the swirling snow caught the light, shooting the darts off on crazy new courses…millions of them piercing the glass, striking her, passing around her to fill the room and slam into every visible surface.

After many minutes, maybe it was an hour or more, Millie watched as the swirls of snow seemed to gather, in one place back near where the garden had been, creating a tornado, a vortex of grainy whiteness. She watched the vortex spin and dance, hypnotizing, and was sure she could see something within it….

There was someone there, Millie was sure of it. It was a man…yes, she could see his flannel jacket, black and red, his tan pants, his green hat pulled down low on his head and earflaps tied under his chin. The man was facing her, but the snow obscured his face. He wasn’t moving, despite cold and wind…he only stood there, in the middle of the snowy vortex.

And then, suddenly, Millie knew it was Sheldon, her husband. That was his jacket, his hat, his lanky body under layers of padding and insulation…she knew them all, every detail, every square inch. Why, that same jacket and hat were out in the hall closet right now…she wore them sometimes when she went out to get wood or the mail.

Millie squinted, tried to focus her old eyes and see through the blinding sunlight on snow. She knew it was Sheldon, and she wanted to see him…because even from here, she could feel his smiling eyes holding her in their light. She knew, without seeing, that his pipe was in his mouth, his eyeglass were perched on his nose…his lips were pinched and his brow was furrowed, making the madcap face at her through the snow, and the distance, and the time, everything that stood between them.

Her hand was on the glass now. She stood there and watched the dancing snow and the still form within it, Sheldon, for a time out of time…until the snow scattered, the vortex collapsed, and the spell was broken. There was nothing, no one, there.

The bedroom was filled with light, beautiful, glaring light. Millie turned and sighed, seeing it spill out of the room and into the hallway…which was just as bright, the darts of light entering in through every window, gap, and vent of the old house.

The storm had come, poured out its fury, and moved on, leaving tons of snow behind, all before the first light of dawn while she slept. It was another winter morning in Maine, a morning to shovel and plow and build snowmen….

For Millie, though, this morning seemed brighter, perhaps, than any other in her long, light-filled life. She had slept well, and she felt fresh. She had dreamed, something about Cape Cod, but the memory was fading as she stepped into her slippers, wrapped her robe around her, and walked out into the bright hallway. She paused at the door and turned back, looking at the window. She had seen something strange and beautiful outside, had stood there for a long time watching it…but, oh what was it? Maybe it had been a deer? Or was someone out there? She tried to remember, holding her arthritic hand and rubbing her index finger of one hand with the pinky of the other hand. No, it wouldn’t come. She couldn’t remember what she had seen. But it was just another missing memory, something else slipping through her mind’s grasp these days.

Shrugging, Millie left the room and went to get the newspaper and make her breakfast. She walked down the bright hallway, into the bright kitchen, humming a familiar tune under her breath…

“When I was young, I fell in love….”

Original image credit: Erin McDaniel, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.