Authors: Beth Nugent
At dinner, a little mound of black grapes sits in the middle of the table; they are like cocoons, breathing inarticulately against the blue-and-white pattern of the bowl. I pass rolls
to Uncle Woody, next to me; I hand him the salt, the pepper, and I lift my own glass when he raises his in a toast to my mother, who gazes at the trash masher on the floor by her chair. I smile at whatever it is my uncle is saying in his toast, but I saw them kiss, I think, I saw them kiss under the damp leaves, where the grapes stirred above them like sluggish flies. My uncle’s words trail over the grapes and around each curve, warming them; my eyes travel the grapes as if on unknown territory, and I follow the trail of my uncle’s sentences as if on a map.
—You’re going to love this trash masher, Helen, he is saying.
I try to imagine my mother dropping things into the trash masher, cans, napkins, paper plates, but her face disappears into the wide blue sky, the damp leaves, the fat black grapes.
—Ours has saved me plenty–time, effort, money–and let me tell you, that adds up.
Carol cuts her meat up carefully, and my aunt is watching, wondering: What now? What now?
After we have all finished doing whatever we are going to do with our food, my aunt and Francine bring in the birthday cake, a big white thing with my mother’s name spelled artlessly across the top and at least three or four too many candles. Carol and my father struggle to light all the candles before the lit ones drip on the frosting, but they are clumsy and too slow, and little blue puddles of wax spread out over my mother’s name.
—Make a wish, someone says, and she closes her eyes, then blows out the two or three candles closest to her. Francine stands up and blows out the rest, her eyes closed dreamily, thinking already of the boy she met in the bakery, or in the parking lot of the store. My uncle’s hand hovers over the grapes. Do not touch them, I think; do not disturb this. He
stops at the grape where I have let my eyes rest, and touches it, catching my eyes on his hand. When he plucks it from the bowl, he smiles.
tongue, Susie? he says.
Like hot ash descending, he will come upon me now. My aunt watches him with cat eyes.
Waking, I hear my uncle creep along the hall. He comes to a stop at my door, or he does not, then creeps on.
In my dream, I am sitting in a ring of chairs in a circle of sunlight in the exact center of a long sloping green lawn. In the middle of the circle of chairs is an orange-and-yellow flower, like a flame in the heart; it matches the smaller flower I wear at my breast, in the folds of my dress. Over everything is the sound of the locusts, the soft beat of wings, and in the distance I can hear the voices of men. Behind me is a dark wood, where my mother and Carol stand under the heavy wet leaves. As they kiss, the leaves move and stir and fly away, leaving the branches bare and empty. I run away from them, and behind me my uncle follows, when suddenly the sky is dark with locusts, flying in a huge cloud. My uncle falls back, calling, Candy, Susie, candy, but his voice is obscured by the hum and whirr of the sky.
When I open my eyes, I hear Francine’s even breathing coating the night, sliding across the air. I can hear all the different sounds of the house. Disgusting, it breathes; candy, it breathes; carnival, love. I put my hands over my ears, but I can still hear, as if underwater, Francine’s slight moan as she dreams a pair of hands worming up out of the sheets to move over her, to push the hair back from her face softly, to touch her lips.
—Francine, I whisper, —Francine. I cannot listen to her.
* * *
In the hall at the top of the stairs, it is too dark to see my own hand. My mother sits down beside me before I know she is there, as if the darkness has muffled all my senses. She lights a cigarette and I watch the smoke rise from her face. She smooths back my hair and wipes away my tears with the corner of her robe. Her arm around me, we rock back and forth on the top step; my face is against her neck and she rocks me as if I have awakened from a bad dream, as if we are all alone in the world.
—Susie, she whispers, —Susie, and her voice is like the locusts, a whisper of sound that lies over everything, that lies over the breathing of the house and quiets it. This is all I ever wanted.
She looks at me and her eyes shine in the light cast by her cigarette. There are so many things she could say.
—I’m thirty-six, she finally says, and shakes her head. —Who ever thought everything would be so awful?
I put my face in her hair; the brown is soft and the gray is wiry, and I can hardly hear my own voice. —You’ll always have me, I say.
She pulls away and looks at me a moment, then out into the dark room at the bottom of the stairs. They’ll be gone soon, I want to tell her; they’ll be gone soon and we will be back among ourselves, and everything will be as it was before. Nothing will have happened. There are so many things I could say. Her cigarette is burning down close to the end and I can see the fine white bones of her hands and fingers. There are so many things I could say, but the hum of my heart swallows every word, and when she finally turns her eyes on mine, they are like locusts, moving helplessly against the white of her skin.
As Alice’s mother walks down the aisle toward them, she puts her hand firmly on the top of each seat to steady herself against the jerking of the train, and her purse bumps the backs of the seats behind her. People look up, annoyed, and Alice goes back to her book, but she can feel her father
watching each slow step, until her mother finally lurches into the seat across from them.
—For Christ’s sake, Adele, he says. —You practically hit all those people in the head.
Alice’s mother looks down along the row of seats, then back to him.
—I think if they were bothered, she says, —they could have said something.
He looks down at the map spread over his lap, and she gazes out the dirty window at the passing fields.
—Don’t you think? she finally asks. —Don’t you think they would have said something?
Alice’s father rattles the map, then looks up. —Of course, he says. —That’s exactly what they would have done. Exactly.
—Well, she says, —that’s what I’d do.
She looks back and forth between him and Alice, but he is bent again over his map, and Alice leans out to look up the aisle. People have gone back to their books or their card games or their conversations; already they have forgotten that they were disturbed.
—Honey, her mother says, and leans forward. —Are you having a good time? She smells of fresh air and cigarettes, from standing in the breezeway between cars to smoke, rather than going all the way to the smoker.
Alice nods and her mother pats her on the knee, then settles back into her seat. Outside, the landscape changes from gray to brown to gray again, as they pass fields, then farms, then fields. They are traveling through the southern Midwest, from their home in Ohio to the wedding of a cousin of Alice’s father, in Arizona. Alice has never met the cousin before, cannot even remember her ever being mentioned, but, her father said, they were invited, and she is family, and they would go. It is less clear to her why they are taking
the time to travel by train, though at some point it seemed like a good idea, a nice way to break things up. This is how her father had put it: a nice way to break things up; and God knows, he had said, they could all use a change. They had also thought it would be a good experience for Alice, a chance to see different parts of the country, but so far everything they pass looks like everything else they have already passed.
As they rush toward the Southwest, she has seen little that has surprised her; occasionally a dog or a child runs across a spotted field, but mostly what she will remember is a frozen ground of dirt and snow, and the herds of stiff cold cows grazing hopelessly against trembling fences. And everything seems to be the same color; even the cities they pass through are featureless and brown, like little towns built of sand.
They have been traveling since early morning, and will not arrive in Arizona for another two days. Because the trip is so long, they have rented a little cabin, with a set of bunk beds and a bathroom. When they boarded the train, they went straight there, where they stacked their luggage carefully against the wall, then looked around the tiny room.
—This isn’t how I remembered it from when I was a child, Alice’s mother said. —The cabins seemed so big then.
For several minutes all three perched gingerly on the edges of furniture that was bolted to the wall or the floor; then they moved quickly to their seats in the coach car, where they have so far spent most of the ride.
Before they left home, Alice’s father roughly charted out their route on a map, and for the first few hours of the trip he pointed things out to her–landmarks, universities, historic sites–but since then, they have all sunk into a gloom, watching without interest as the towns and the fields and
the late-winter sky spin by. They are in Indiana now–they have been here for days, it seems–and although her father has stopped pointing things out to Alice, he still keeps careful track of their journey. He holds his map out to Alice now and points to a tiny dot at the border of Missouri.
—See this? he says. —This is where we’ll stop next.
Alice looks down at the map; they are still at least four large boxy states away from Arizona.
—Let’s see, her father says. —The nearest big city is Poplar Bluff, and the population is-he stops and looks along the side of the map—three thousand.
—You know, Alice’s mother says, —that map is at least five years old. It’s probably not very current.
He puts his finger over the little dot and looks up at her. —I don’t think, he says, —that the configuration of the states will have changed much over the past five years. Do you? he asks Alice, and she looks down at the map.
—Maybe the populations have changed, she says. —Maybe that’s what she meant.
—I’m not talking about the populations, her father says. —The
are the same. And that’s what we’re looking at here. The states.
He smooths the map out over his legs and looks down, then lifts his head. —Unless, of course, he says to Alice’s mother. —Unless you know something I don’t. He gazes at her until she turns her head toward the window.
—Oh, she says, —look. And they all look out at a gray field dusted with frost; in the center of it a girl skates a halting figure over a frozen pond. She stops and goes back over the figure.
—That could be me, Alice’s mother says. —You know, she says to Alice, —I might have had a career as a figure skater. I was very good.
Alice has heard this before, and as her mother leans forward
to watch the girl, Alice tries to imagine her skating. The girl passes out of sight and Alice’s mother leans back.
—I could skate a perfect figure eight in college, she says. —Perfect. Couldn’t I? she asks Alice’s father.
—Yes, he says, still staring out the window, although all there is left to see is a long stretch of high cold grass, hardly bending under the weight of the winter afternoon. —Perfect.
—But things were different then, she says to Alice. —I didn’t have your opportunities.
She opens her purse and fumbles around inside it, then looks up at Alice. —You, she says, —you can do anything. She nods. —Anything you want. You can be anything.
—Jesus, Alice’s father says, —she’s only twelve.
—I know, Alice’s mother says. —I know how old she is. I was just explaining how things have changed, that’s all. Things are different now. She
He looks down at his map.
—You don’t know, she says to him. —You got to do everything you wanted.
He does not look up, but his mouth tightens as he runs his finger along the blue line he has drawn from Ohio to Arizona.
—It was different for girls then, Alice’s mother tells her. She pulls out her cigarettes, then remembers that she cannot smoke in the coach, and puts them back. —I’d give anything to have that chance again, she says. —Anything.
Alice looks out the window just in time to see the shadow of a cloud pass over the field, and she thinks of the girl on the pond, her hair glazed with frost, bending to try to read some meaning in the shape she’s just cut on the surface of the ice.
* * *
The train pulls slowly to a stop, and Alice’s father rises, as he has done at every stop, and says, as he has said at every stop, —Well, I think I’ll stretch my legs. He walks carefully down the aisle and waits at the door for the train to come to a complete stop. He gets off at every stop to pick up, he says, a little of the local culture, always bringing back with him a local newspaper, which he adds to a pile on the seat across from him, next to Alice’s mother.
—We’ll want these when we get home, he says each time he adds a new paper. —To see what’s been going on everywhere we’ve been.
When he steps off the train, Alice’s mother folds her magazine in her lap. —Are you really having a good time, honey? she asks, and Alice nods. Her mother smiles. —Well, that’s good, she says. —At least there’s that.
The stop is brief, and Alice’s father comes back with a Kansas City
, which he shakes open as he sits down.
—Okay, he says heartily, —let’s see what’s happening in Kansas.
—This is Missouri, Alice’s mother says without looking up from her magazine. —Kansas City is in Missouri.
He looks at her over the paper. —Oh, he says. —Well, Kansas, Missouri, what’s the difference?
He raises the paper. —Now, he says, —what’s happening here? He murmurs as he reads, then stops abruptly.
—What? Alice’s mother says, but he is quiet while he reads. —Listen to this, he says finally. —A man checked into the Holiday Inn last night and jumped from the seventh floor. Killed himself. He shakes his head as he goes back to the article. —They don’t even know who he is yet. Or where he’s from.
Alice’s mother shakes her head. —Imagine that, she says. —Imagine going to all that trouble just to kill yourself. Why not stay home and do it?