I APOLOGIZE FOR THE FORMATTING. SO DUMB. BUT...ENJOY!
For Gram: I know that you wander through the shadows of our kitchen while I scratch up my notebooks. Thank you for watching. I see you too.
Route 2’s overpass fence curls toward me: a frozen, mesh wave. Once again, I’m crunching cans through each diamond-shaped hole. I have chugged twelve Moxies, but still, I need more. In October, I began to spell out a message. A sign. For him.
It will soon shout, “WELCOME HOME TRAVIS KENT!”
At first, I had painted a cardboard slab, but it became mushy from rainfall, the reds and blues slipping away. Custom-made banners, to me, look unfriendly and boring.
Cans are best. During Ashfield’s sunrise commute, the tin will fire up just like spotlights.
Which probably doesn’t matter.
Maybe Travis has been machine-gunned by a troop of Iraqi soldiers. Maybe he has been shot, shredded. Maybe, right now, he is bleeding in a gunfire storm.
I loose countless minutes with all my questions. “What if he’s gone? Does Travis exist anymore?”
It’s almost evening. I scowl back at the horizon of my new town. Ashfield, Massachusetts. I have remained here for just one reason, but that reason may never return.
Ashfield is a 40 square mile town in the Berkshire foothills in the southwestern corner of Franklin County [Massachusetts].
For decades, Ashfield was a quiet farming community with dozens of dairy and apple farms dotting the hillsides and lowlands. In the past 40 years, however, several farms have disappeared and the open fields and pastures have returned to wooded areas. It is only in the last 20 years that more people have been moving to Ashfield than leaving it. Lured by the cool breezes and the scenic vistas, people from all walks of life have moved from the cities.
Through all the years, the common theme has been that "small is better" and that Ashfield's role in the world is to be a haven from the world (Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development - DHCD.)
Through the kitchen window, I watch my grandson hurry by. Nelson disappears into the barn. He will most likely mist himself with a can of air freshener hidden behind the tool chest. I am certain that he hides his nicotine habit.
Golden lids crowd the tabletop. They appear similar to fat, newly minted coins. I am canning a fresh lot of green tomato jam, frozen from July 14th. Nelson first arrived on that Saturday. My daughter, Ellie, had puttered halfway up the carport and tossed her son’s bags onto the lawn. She only stayed until Nelson finished changing her sedan’s oil filter. Ellie had said, “He’s no hooligan. Definitely jumbled up in the head. But Jackson just moved in, Mom. We need our own time.” She told me about college courses Nelson had dropped, about cough medicine stupors. Ellie said, “He wants out. And you’re the one person he respects. Friggin kid. Hates his own mother, I bet. Only thing that makes him smile is working on cars and trucks.” Ellie finished her cucumber sandwich and steered back to the suburbs without a farewell to Nelson. Later, on that first evening, I had asked the boy, “Why do you suppose your mother brought you here?” He sniggered and replied, “She probably saw it in a TV movie. I took acid once, plus, Jackson wants to cure my faggotry.” I attempted to locate that word in Webster’s Dictionary, but discovered that, as I had suspected, it does not exist. His own creation. I do, however, know what it means.
Now, in this moment, Nelson stampedes into the kitchen, autumn’s coolness chasing him.
I say, “Careful. Don’t let the heat out.” I towel off my goopy hands, wrench him close and sniff his hair. “You smell like…something.”
“No, I don’t,” he replies.
“You smell like cinnamon.”
“It’s my deodorant. No smokes today. I swear.”
He wiggles off his jacket. “I thought you were baking cake donuts this week.”
“Next week. And you fry them. No baking necessary.”
“Whatever. They’re good.”
“Tell me, how’s your sign?” I remind myself to smile.
“I don’t know,” he says, shrugging lazily. “I started out with letters that are way too big. And I think his last name’s going to get smooshed.”
“Well, I’m sure Travis won’t mind one bit,” I say.
“Yeah. Right. If he even sees it.”
“The war’s about to end…sometime soon. He’ll return. Iraq’s on the mend.” What else can I tell the boy?
He muscles open the ice box and pulls out another Moxie.
“That’s warm. I just put it in.”
Nelson snaps the tab anyhow. He rants, “Bush is a moron. A total idiot. So, probably, Travis’ll be there forever or maybe, he’ll just come back dead.”
My grandson is correct. Unsure of how to respond, I remain silent and begin to place jars into a photo box. They make thudding noises.
“Did you check the mail?” he asks.
“Yes. Nothing for you.”
He drinks, his Adam’s apple jogging up and down. Nelson then pads over to an encyclopedia that lies open on the table. “What were you looking up?” he asks.
“Vertigo. Alma called and said that she had it.”
“No. She’s ridiculous. Will you mark that one for me?”
Nelson dog ears the page and his face twists into something that resembles a miniature smile.
“Don't ask, don't tell" is the common term for the U.S. military policy which implements Pub.L. 103-160 (10 U.S.C. § 654)…The policy prohibits anyone who has sexual, bodily or romantic contact with a person of the same sex from serving in the armed forces of the United States, and prohibits any homosexual or bisexual from disclosing his or her sexual orientation, or from speaking about any homosexual relationships, including marriages or other familial attributes, while serving in the United States armed forces…The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct, which is defined as a homosexual act, a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual, or a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender (“The Pentagon's New Policy Guidelines on Homosexuals in the Military”, The New York Times, July 20, 1993, p.A14).
When I write to Travis, I pose as his girlfriend. I scrawl lies about bikini waxes, periods and double D breast implants. For a laugh. The beginnings of these prettily-penned letters kickstart my chuckles. I hope Travis enjoys the jokes too. But as space on my notebook page begins to vanish, those punchlines fade. I tell him that he is my entire world, my whole galaxy, my complete universe. I tell him that, “I love you to death.” I often propose marriage (something I have done maybe fifty times before; he always tells me to “quiet down”). When I re-read these sentences, I vault away tears, but the sorrow pinches at my chest harder and harder, all through the night. I never cry, though.
If he dies, I hope Travis withers quickly.
Before jetting away to boot camp, he sternly said, “Try not to bust me for being a homo cocksucker. Remember. Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
So, I don’t and I don’t.
Travis has been in Iraq for eight months. Now, I confuse days, dates. I squeeze the poofy mound of blankets that rim the left side of my bed (his side), and I remember Travis’ peppermint smell. I pretend I’m nestling into his shoulder: A strong resting place.
I know that all I’ve ever wanted could be no more.
I can’t forget any part of Travis. His sweat, so easy to show. His eyes like brand new tinsel, his joshing phone calls, his nakedness that always made me feel like a sweepstakes winner. I can’t forget his nostrils which are the size of nickels (I always told Travis I could look inside his brain).
That September morning has become branded into my memory. I said I would rotate his tires, but stripped instead. I told Travis, “Don’t be noisy. Just knock off the groaning and the swears and all that. My Gram is downstairs, writing an article. Don’t be dirty.”
Travis asked, “Well, what if I whisper a few nasty things?”
I chuckled. “Keep it to yourself.”
My fingers were planted on Travis’ cheeks and I grew warm from his flesh. I yanked his curly ducktail.
Moments later, he clicked on the TV. “Oh my God.”
I wiped my chin on the flat sheet. As I turned, I saw the wavering airplane.
Travis didn’t blink, didn’t close his slackened mouth. He simply said, “The country’s being attacked.”
We both watched a massive beam topple down from the twenty-first floor. Hours later, while the iron melted, bent, and folded into a white dust cloud, we remained aghast.
I can’t forget the following night either. Travis told me he had enlisted. He said, “Stop having a hissy. I’ll be back. I promise.”
I then punched his nose, but he didn’t bleed.
Travis pinned me against the panelling.
He said, “How am I supposed to protect you if I can’t protect this…country? I’m going to be like, like Indiana Jones. Superman. Spiderman.”
I had always known Travis thought of himself as a celluloid superhero. But this was real.
Not a movie.
Harlot- (n.) a prostitute, a whore, young roller, rougue.
-Random House’s Webster’s College Dictionary, 1995
Nelson has begun wearing my dead husband’s flannel shirts. He reads all the moldy science-fiction paperbacks Gilbert used to secretly purchase at the drugstore. Nelson steals away after breakfast to construct his sign, then returns, much later, to watch Lawrence Welk beside me. This boy’s life has become partly mine.
Today, November first, he is hunched over a bowl of minestrone.
I confess, “Your mother called three times.”
“She inquired about when you were coming home. She thinks it’s time. Jackson is settled and…she wants to be a family.”
He clicks his tongue. “Please. That’s crap. But if you want me to leave, I’ll go.” He nods and stirs tomato wedges.
I ask, “Don’t you miss home?”
“I like Ashfield.”
“So, are you just…going to hide here forever?”
“I’m not hiding, Gram.”
“Then, what do you suppose you’re doing?”
“Just, I don’t know, living.”
I sigh, but refrain from doing so loudly. “What about work?” I ask.
“I’m going to get a job. After I finish the sign. I can work at the garage and tune up cars. I know how to do that. Dad taught me everything. Or I’ll talk to somebody at the Lake House. I could wait tables, bartend,” he says.
“You really want to stay here?”
“I’m a country boy now,” he says, crushing up a tower of Saltines. Nelson dumps the ruins into his soup.
“See, I’m talking about school. A career. What do you see yourself as? What do you really want to do? What do you dream about doing?”
Nelson chews for quite a while. He napkins his cheek. “I dream about being with Travis.”
I certainly understand. Nelson believes they’ll settle in some farm house, fry up cake donuts and clothespin their shorts to the outside line.
I remember his fifth grade report, now yellowing in the crawlspace. He was told to choose someone that he admired and then write a report. He chose his grandmother. I have two hat boxes stuffed with Nelson’s school papers. He would send them to me even before showing Ellie or, Paul, his real father.
This home had been silent for quite some time. The only sounds that would reach my ears were the croaking floors and clunking radiators. When my husband had passed, I remember feeling crippled each evening. I would curse, sob or sometimes phone Alma. We’d whisper until sunrise. Many years later, I grew to enjoy being the only breathing soul here. I wrote articles for the Ashfield News. I tamed the ancient broiler. I mowed the front lawn, yet paid the Howard boy to tackle the rear.
Nelson lives here today. There is comfort in his cough, his smoked up smell. I have found safety in his love of kosher pickles. I am even fond of the rock and roll music he blares while tending to our neighbor’s trucks.
Nelson is unlike his mother, much more like his grandmother. Often, I believe that he becomes more like me everyday.
I, myself, also waited for a soldier to return. After surviving breast cancer and loneliness, I enjoyed twenty more years with him. It was bliss.
I certainly do long for Gilbert.
OLD FASHIONED CAKE DONUTS
1 ½ Cup sugar
½ Cup melted shortening
1 ½ Cup milk
6 Cups flour
6 Tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. nutmeg
Add sugar and stir.
Pour in shortening and milk. Mix.
Slowly add all dry ingredients. Mix well, until mixture becomes a workable dough.
Knead dough thoroughly.
Using a pin, roll out dough, adding enough flour to handle.
Cut portions with a donut cutter.
Carefully drop donuts in deep fat fryer for 8 minutes.
Lift out donuts and place them on wax paper or paper towels.
In Gram’s house, there are dictionaries, cook books, encyclopedias, Farmer’s Almanacs. Countless volumes rise up, uneven, in each corner of each room. She has always had questions: About begonias or continents. About recorded rainfall or blackberry pie. I bet Gram wants to know everything one day.
Sometimes, I wish I could find every answer too.
In some magical book, I’d look up: “Is Travis coming home soon?” It would tell me, “Yes.” I’d search for the definition to: “Does he love me?” The page would read, “Positively.”
Icy winds swoop down the highway. This is the coldest it’s been since last winter and now, the hard chill has returned. I grind in more cans. I’m trying to form the curvy S in TRAVIS. It looks more like a Z or a cut up garden snake. I gulp a Moxie, my sixth this morning.
I turn, fizz bubbling down my chin. Two girls pose beside the mouth of the bridge. Wrapped in identical sweaters, capped in blonde, they almost giggle, and then, move closer.
I squeegee my lips with my sleeve. “Hi?”
The taller, slimmer one tells me, “We see you making your sign when we drive back from Wal-Mart. We both work there.”
I reply, “Yeah?”
She says, “Your sign is…big.”
“Looks good,” the other girl says.
The taller girl tells me, “My brother’s coming home too. Before Christmas, I hope. Like, so, I see you all the time and I thought I should do something too.” She pulls out a small, pathetic cardboard square from behind her back. A sign. It says, “WE LOVE YOU ROB!!!!” Botched American flags float around the boy’s name. “See,” she says.
“Super. Yeah.” I poke a finger into my left ear and twist. Golden chips of wax hug my fingernail and I flick them away (It feels like another earache is about to arrive since I get them monthly; Travis always said, “Like a period”).
The girl asks, “So, uh, like, is it okay if I hang mine next to yours?”
Spears of annoyance slice at me. I’m also aspeed with cola. “No room,” I explain.
“Well, maybe I could just put it here toward the end,” she says, motioning to a free, untouched space.
“No, thanks. I need the whole thing.”
The other girl says, “You don’t own this bridge.”
Slurping the last of my drink, I tell them, “Hey, I was here first.”
The prettier girl pleads, “There’s only one bridge in Ashfield. This is the only place.”
The ugly girl shouts, “You’re a dick, you know that?”
“You’re a fucking fucker. Come on, Susie.”
I watch them vanish into the overgrown shrubs. Opening another can, I know they’re right. I should let Susie hang her dismal sign. To me, it wouldn’t feel right, though. I’d be nudged and pestered everyday. When I first envisioned his sign, it never had a lame cardboard neighbor. Plus, their brother is alive and, I know that Travis might be gone.
Dead boys are more important.
Abomination- (n.) 1. Something greatly disliked or abhorred. 2. Intense aversion or loathing; abhor. 3. A vile or shameful action, condition or habit (Random House’s Webster’s Dictionary, 1995).
I have just reminded Alma to swallow iron. A kerchief covers her balding, wispy hair and she complains about the cookies. She has always been this way. Alma says, “Not as good as mine, Marianna.”
I pretend to bark. “You should have brought some of your own then.”
“Well, I don’t bake them until Christmas.”
“Too bad for me, I suppose.”
“Indeed,” she says.
I ask her, “Are we playing our Whose the Best Old Lady game again?”
“Oh, surely, dame. Surely.”
“I wish I had a medal because today you’d win first place.”
We both begin laughing and Alma smacks the tabletop.
She yells, “You’re a firecracker!”
I’ve known Alma since Gilbert died. We met during his wake. When I asked exactly how she had known my husband, Alma replied with her trademark nonsense. She’d said something like, “Well, I’m not sure I did know him, but when I saw his photo in the Ashfield News, I thought he looked familiar. So…I didn’t want to foul things up. Figured I should cover all my bases, you know. I decided to come anyway. Oh…and I’m so so sorry for your loss.” I remember cackling almost too loudly. I told her she was ridiculous. Alma clasped both my hands and we didn’t stop smiling for minutes.
Today, she inquires, “Is it time for our anisette?” Alma appears as though she is a child sitting eagerly before a pile of birthday gifts.
“No. Nelson might see.”
“Big deal! This is your house. Plus, anisette on Wednesday afternoons is a tradition.”
I peek out the window and see him. Nelson’s head is buried under the hood of my car. He could be changing spark plugs or dumping in more windshield washer fluid. I do, though, long for that licorice taste, but can’t bear for him to witness. I do not want Nelson to believe that such things are acceptable.
I reluctantly say, “We’ve got five minutes.”
Alma yelps, “Get goin,’ gal!”
I shove aside a pillar of dictionaries and rush for my booze, my tumblers and my sugar bowl.
Alma says, “You’re not his mama, Marianna.”
“See…Ellie is a bit dim when it comes to Nelson. She only has men on her mind. Always has.”
“It’s not your job to straighten him out.”
I rim each glass in sugar, and then pour. “There’s nothing wrong with Nelson. It’s Ellie’s new husband.”
Quietly, Alma adds, “And that army lad too.”
We toast and I swallow a large sip. I remain uncertain of how to speak about Travis. Alma may disapprove and I’d like to dodge another thirty minute debate.
I toss back another gulp. I submit. I proclaim, “Nelson’s in love.”
Alma chokes on her anisette, laughing. “Is that possible?”
With no reservations, I stare into her sagging, dewy eyes. “Yes, Alma. It is possible. I know and he knows.”
“Then let’s pray that boy comes home in one piece. And soon.”
It’s most likely two or three in the morning. I know this house, but still, I grope the walls and stumble toward the bathroom. Light suddenly shines with an eye-burning glare. I can hardly recognize Nelson who remains frozen in the hallway. I then realize that I’m dressed in only a bra and slip. My right breast sags toward the carpet while my left breast remains absent. Crossing my arms, I become charged with embarrassment.
“Sorry,” Nelson says.
“Sorry,” I offer, as well.
“Had to whiz,” he tells me and turns away.
“Too much pop?”
I sigh, throwing my hands up. “It’s okay to look, Nelson.”
He pivots, squints, and then, stares elsewhere.
“We’re bunkmates. It was only a matter of time.”
He asks, “So, like, did it hurt?”
“The mastectomy? Yes, a bit. Having only one breast hurt a great deal more. Your granddad didn’t care, though. I suppose we all loose parts along the way. I’m glad I didn’t loose all of me.”
“I’m glad too,” he whispers, still looking at the wall.
I’ve grown tired of bearing the coldness that scales up Route 2 each day. Sometimes, I climb down, back step the breakdown lane and stare up at my work. One day, Travis’ sign appears lopsided like a drunk had done it. Other times, his message looks simply perfect.
It’s probably for nothing, though.
He might never see this.
I continue to loose more minutes, asking myself, “What if there’s no air puffing up his lungs? What if there is no blood sliding through his veins?”
I scan the entire store. Gram had asked me to buy groceries (bouillon cubes, cream of tartar, floss, shortening?). She begged me, again and again, to write a list and now, I know I should have. I wander down the cramped aisles with hopes of jumpstarting my memory.
As I triple-blink, I see that Travis’ mother is slowly pushing a carriage toward me. She fusses with her scarf. I’m flushed with panic and I pretend to inspect bars of chocolate.
The woman asks, “You think that I wouldn’t notice you, Nelson?”
I force a smile. “Hi, Mrs. Kent.”
“Still in Ashfield, huh?”
“Marvin and I see your sign. See it every Sunday comin’ back from my dad’s in Shelburne Falls.”
I hunt for words, but cannot find them. They are hiding inside some uncrackable safe.
She huffs and places a loaf of bread in her cart. “We got a letter this week. From the army. He’s dead, you know. He’s dead now.”
“He was killed. My son is dead, Nelson. So you can go home,” she says, teary. “And you’re a harlot. An abomination. I believe that.”
I return to the bridge. Only to find a mad spattering of crunched up cans dotting the pavement. The T has completely vanished. The E seems to have braved fifteen bullets. Among the aluminum mess, I begin to cry.
This ache cannot be locked away.
Travis was once swaggering, joking, swearing.
Now, he is not.
My husband’s favorite dessert was Kentucky Derby Pie. After he came back from the war, I couldn’t bake enough. Gilbert would gorge, devouring the chocolate treat like an child. He’d always beg me to eat a sliver too and, truthfully, I would only do so to view the pleased look on Gilbert’s face. Kentucky Derby pie tastes rather bland to me. After his death, I never crafted another. This dessert became a spiteful reminder of my loss. Today, though, I would like to toss that hurt into the wind. What if Nelson would enjoy a slice?
I begin poring through books in my office, but, still, I can’t seem to find the recipe. Then, I spot a 1955 Betty Crocker manual at the bottom of a tall stack. I shuffle over and attempt to slide the book out. When it’s halfway free, the tower tumbles, crashing down on my spotted arms.
Nelson had sulked in with the groceries, uttered maybe one sentence and retreated to his bedroom.
I hear a tap at the door. From the cook book ruins, I stand. The tapping soon becomes knocking and then, slamming. I ease closer, only to see that my daughter, Ellie, fumes on the porch. Her hair has become a lighter shade of brown, longer too. As I open the door, I am certain that I carry a bewildered face.
She almost tramples over me.
I plead, “What are you doing? What is the problem?”
My daughter begins to scream, “Nelson! Nelson!”
“What’s this?” I ask.
“I’ve been calling and calling and I told you that it’s time for him to come home.”
Ellie rumbles to the parlor. Nelson, puffy-eyed, peeps out from the bottom of the staircase.
She commands, “Get your stuff. We’re going.”
“He’s fine. Nelson’s no problem.”
She sweeps the hair away from her creased forehead. “I’m not going to bother you with him any longer. It’s time he got his act together.”
I latch onto my daughter’s arm. “Listen, everything’s okay.”
“No! No, it isn’t.”
“Don’t be hysterical.”
“He’s my son, mom. Jackson and me make the decisions.” She then lunges at Nelson, flailing like a wild creature.
I scream, “Ellie! He doesn’t want to leave. Let him be. Nelson’s a man now. He can decide.”
Her face sags and she glances from window to window. “Alright, then,” she whispers. “Fine. Take him. Have him.” She glowers at Nelson. “If you’re not home in a week, Jackson’s going to ditch all your stuff. It’s right now or not at all.”
The boy replies, “This is where I’m supposed to be.”
Ellie flicks something imaginary from her sweater. “You cocksucking out here, Nelson?”
“Enough,” I tell her. “None of that talk.”
“I know my son.”
Glaring at the woman I birthed, I say, “Watch what you say here. And let’s forget Thanksgiving next week. Maybe we’ll see you at Christmas.”
Nelson’s head weighs on my lap. It feels as though it was crafted from lead. I’m squeezing medicine drops into his ear while someone spins the giant wheel on a television. I do know that he is torn by Ellie’s words.
Nelson says, “Sorry I messed up Thanksgiving.”
I sigh, but do so in a quiet fashion. “You didn’t mess anything up. Your mother’s just angry right now. This is all for the best. Stay still and let the drops sink in. Ideally, this month’s earache will be gone by Tuesday.”
My grandson tells me, “Travis never wrote back to me, you know.”
I cannot reassure him. Nothing I say will bandage Nelson’s wounds. I do recall Gilbert’s war time, though. I decide to tell him, “Your granddad only wrote me once. They’re busy, of course. He said he was hungry. He said he was okay. He said that he needed cigarettes. Small talk. But Gilbert also said something…surprising. He told me that I was his bar of gold and that he was my Fort Knox. He said he’d be back to take care of me. Rather poetic. Unlike him. I thought someone else came up with that.”
Nelson looks up at me, tears pooling in his eyes. “He’s dead, Gram. I found out today. Travis died.”
“Oh.” This is all I can manage.
While he weeps, I see that Calvin Paynes’ funeral has concluded and the procession crawls down our street. Headlights bleed through the curtains, flashing as though we were in the midst of a high beam disco. Nelson almost wets my thigh. I squeeze him, kiss his cheek.
I finally say, “Find those cigarettes of yours. I’ll get my anisette.”
Mr. President Bush
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. Bush,
I hope that you’re enjoying your time in that big big white house. Sometimes, I wonder what it would look like if it was a black house. Or a pink house. Guess I’ll never know.
I’m pleased that your war for oil has been such a success. Cash! Cash! Cash! This year has been a real winner for you.
My big-dicked homo boyfriend fought in your war! It’s true. I bet he killed tons and tons of those terrorists. But he was exploded or shot or tortured. Actually, I don’t know how he died, but I’m sure that it was unpleasant. He’s dead now. Anything for the good ole U.S. of A. Anything for you, Mr. President!!!
Got to be going. I have to find a new cocksucking sinner so we can get married, adopt black babies and ruin the “moral fiber” of this country.
14 Old North Street
Ashfield, MA 01330
P.S. I hope you enjoy the American flag I have enclosed. Sorry for all the white stains on it. Oops!
P.P.S. I pray that you face true horror, true misery, true ache. The massacre of you and yours will be my gold mine.
Gram warns me that her radio pre-sets are forbidden, so I’m trapped with the sound of fiddles and twangs. I creep toward the post office to send away my letter.
I see Travis’ mother again.
She has beached her car on Wagner Road, the hazards winking at me. I guzzle a cloud of air. I know what should be done. Pulling in behind her, my hands cramp into fists. But I get out. Mrs. Kent scowls and then, looks forward as if I don’t exist. I knock on her window twice.
I shout, “Need some help?”
She shakes her head.
“Roll it down,” I say, almost commanding her.
And I hide my armor.
His mother says, “I don’t need you.”
“Did you call anyone?”
“There’s no phone booth for miles.” Her eyes look as though they might shoot searing lasers at me like a villain from one of Travis’ favorite superhero movies.
I say, “No, I mean on your cell.”
“I don’t have one of those,” she snaps. “Marvin gets off work in a few hours and he drives this way. He’ll see me.”
“Well, I see you now. Don’t be…foolish. You want me to take a look at things?”
She says, “Marvin thinks I probably need a new timing belt…some kind of belt. Maybe that’s it.”
“Have to order parts, then. Just…let me take you home.”
“I’ll be fine on my own.”
“You’ll freeze. Lock it up and come with me. Do it. I won’t say a word. I swear.”
I park beside the white curb (the place where I first dropped a kiss on Travis’ forehead). As promised, I have not spoken. Mrs. Kent spent three miles fiddling with her purse, sighing, locking and unlocking the door. Now, she is crunched over. Travis’ mother rocks before the dashboard.
I finally say, “Here you go.”
“Thank you,” she barely whispers.
Mrs. Kent peers at me and then at the car mats. “I hope you know that I never wanted Travis to be this way.”
“Gone? Or gay?”
“Either. He was supposed to be a big football hero. Or a movie star. I imagined he’d have a wife and children and now, he’s just, he’s…” Mrs. Kent hunches over.
I must speak. “There was nothing wrong with Travis. Or with us. I thought he was perfect. I thought we were perfect.”
“To you, I’m dumb, Nelson. Old fashioned. A Jesus freak.”
“All that matters is…we both loved him. A lot.”
She is choking on sadness.
“Travis was a hero. Even before he left.”
Mrs. Kent finally opens the door, planting one foot on the frosted lawn.
I whisper, “Can I see his room? Just once more.”
I see a splash of worn t-shirts and boxer shorts. As it always was, his room is garnished in reds, whites and blues. An American flag droops off the wall.
This is the place where, as a gag, Travis tied a blanket around his neck, pretending to soar like Superman. This is the place where, lovingly, he would grip me while I dreamt. This is the place where he will never be again.
I lift a pillow from his unmade bed. Pressing it to my nose, I suck in the scent of his hair. Sweat. Unwashed. I remember that when Travis slept, he never looked peaceful. He was screw-faced as if someone had slammed him in the groin.
Mrs. Kent eases in and says, “Marvin will be home soon.”
“Can I keep this? Please? Sounds weird, but it’s my favorite smell.”
She sighs. “If you must.”
A large amount of the United States' gold reserves is stored in the vault of the Fort Knox Bullion Depository, one of the institutions under the supervision of the Director of the United States Mint…The two-story basement and attic building is constructed of granite, steel and concrete…The vault door weighs more than 20 tons. No one person is entrusted with the combination. Various members of the Depository staff must dial separate combinations known only to them…The gold stored in the Depository is in the form of standard mint bars of almost pure gold or coin gold bars resulting from the melting of gold coins…No visitors are permitted at the Depository. This policy was adopted when the Depository was established, and is strictly enforced (The United States Department of Treasury’s Internet Fact Sheet - www.treas.gov).
I had asked Nelson what he might like for Christmas. He’d replied, “Does Wal-Mart bring boys back from the dead?” I decided to not respond.
Nelson now spends his days at the auto body shop. He returns home with his tales of cars and trucks. As we eat turkey pot pies, he’ll tell me something like, “I changed Ms. Franklin’s tire because it had already been patched. I told her the hole is on the outer tread and you can’t plug that since it’ll just blow out again in two or three months. I said your mechanic is a doofus. So, I jacked it up and popped on a new one. Seven minutes flat. My record.” Nelson’s stories always warm me.
I have just finished an article for the Ashfield News that highlights developers who are attempting to contract on protected land. It ran just three days ago and, already, I have received a bevy of comments. Alma says it my best feature yet. She believes that I’m helping to preserve Ashfield. After reading it in the bathroom, Nelson had exclaimed, “What a bunch of A-holes.” I am quite proud of my writing.
Everything in this house, somehow, feels fine. My life swims ahead and I am content. Nelson heals each day, casting out more smiles than I have ever seen.
We need this, each the same.
By ten A.M. tomorrow, my entire family will stream in for Christmas Day. These rooms will hustle. People will crowd one another, leaving behind gifts, crinkled bows and muddy footprints. I do love such moments.
Tonight, though, Nelson, Alma and I sip on Anisette, watching a vintage Frank Sinatra holiday special.
Alma almost yells, “Should I sing along?”
I say, “Not unless you want us to leave and go to the Lake House.”
“Should I do a Christmas dance?”
“Not unless you want us to toss you out in the snow.”
Nelson interjects, “A dance would do us good.”
I believe that he’s somewhat tipsy, though I remain untroubled. My grandson takes Alma’s hand, pulls her off the couch and they begin swaying to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I laugh.
“Don’t dip me,” Alma says, “We’ll crash and I’ll break something.”
Amid our chuckles, I barely recognize the doorbell’s chime. I struggle up and meander toward the kitchen.
My eyes widen and my legs quickly feel as though the have become massive barrels. Travis stands on the stoop. His left arm no longer exists; only a pinned up, empty sleeve. The boy’s face appears to have aged five years with drooping eyes and lips. I watch him press the bell again.
Dazed, I open the door. Travis nods at me. He waddles in and simply stares at a bubbling Nelson.
My grandson stops his dance.
Wordless, I could only click on one of his favorite movies. We lie in bed, watching Superman slit through the clouds. It seems like I’m inside my own cinema daydream.
Travis finally says, “You know, those assholes sent my parents the wrong letter. Dip shits. I was at a military hospital in Kentucky.”
My sentences rise up as only whispers. “I’m glad you’re…back.” Nuzzling my head on his shoulder where, once, his arm was connected, I brim with happiness.
He says, “If it’s too weird, you can come to my other side.”
“No. I like this side. It’s my side.”
Travis snickers. “What the hell am I worth now? Not a lot. Can’t do much on my own. Maybe I’ll get disability checks. Maybe I can work at Wal Mart.”
“You’re worth more than anything I’ve ever known.”
At last, he looks into my eyes for more than five seconds. Travis clamps his jaw. In a busted voice, he tells me, “Thank you for taking me.”
“Thank you for letting me take you.”
Black Gold, n. petroleum.
- Random House’s Webster’s College Dictionary