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Billie Sue Mosiman
His constant hope was to find a way to heal them. Was there a way? The vicious attack on their son had left them all three wounded.
He walked into the room where shades were drawn against sunlight. She always longed for the sun, but now she’d turned her back on it.
A portable box fan trembled on the floor and blew stale air from one side of the room to the other. Magazines littered the floor beside the bed, dog-eared, some of the pages ripped loose.
He looked deeper into the artificial twilight. A book unread but open face down on a table beside a mug of cold coffee. The ashtray overflowed with ground butts. This was her world and no one else’s. He sighed heavily and moved toward her where she lay sprawled across the bed, legs akimbo, eyes fluttering in half sleep.
The bed creaked agonies as he sat on the side of the mattress. He put one arm across her diminutive waist where the white slip was bunched. She struggled into wakefulness one hand groped across the sheet as if to tug on a vanishing dream.
“You shouldn’t do this to yourself,” he said softly. What he meant was she shouldn’t do it to either of them. He ached to hold her, but knew caresses held no salvation. Touching brought recoil and anger. He understood this too and left her alone.
She rubbed her eyes with doubled fists and suddenly flung them out in outrage. Life was too raw and sleep so easy.
“I know I shouldn’t do it,” she admitted. “I’m scared to death. All I want is Jimmy home. Where is our Jimmy?”
He waited, the silence a stone great as the room. Shadows spun past the shades and warbled from the force of the fan. Everything moved—out there. In here, the tone pinned them to the bed.
“Can I just talk? Does it matter if I don’t make any sense?” she asked, her eyes avoiding his.
“It doesn’t matter.”
Had the flecks in the depths of her brown cocoa eyes always been so dark and troubled? She was slipping away, and he let her go. He had no choice.
“First of all, we move back South. You get a job with the Forest Service as a . . . ranger or park tender or something, you know, like that. We can live in the woods, and they’ll give us a house. We can move and begin again, start all over. There aren’t any cars or trains or ambulances or city noise.” She paused, listening to a siren. “No gangs, either. No people crowding us. It’s quiet. Birds everywhere. Pine trees—God, I miss the pines, you don’t know how I miss them. Anyway, there are trees drooping over the front of the house where we sit on hot nights, smelling tar oozing out. It’s lovely and quiet. Are you listening?”
“Yes, of course. Go on.”
“You do things like check the county roads or woods or the wild animals. You make sure there aren’t any fires left burning or whatnot. But the best thing is, we’re free. No phones or worry over bills or noise or air that breathes like plastic wrap. I can read, sew, or just sit, and it won’t make any difference.”
She was fast slipping. She sucked in her breath, and he imagined she could already smell the forest, the tar, the musky quiet. He waited patiently for her to continue. He’d heard it before, but sometimes he was in the role of a marina handyman, and they lived on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, or he was a county deputy responsible for the welfare of an under-populated area in Georgia. Always there was hope of escape, a running away to deserts, mountain retreats, woods, especially woods. Civilization had caused her severe disorientation. The city had always baffled her. Fantasy was an urgent detour in times of stress. Jimmy’s stabbing had completely annihilated her tolerance for city living.
Tears dropped onto her slip, spotting it gray. She brushed her lashes angrily, and her eyes cleared.
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it?” she asked. He nodded his assurance that, yes, her dreams were indeed nice dreams. They always were.
“A man has his choice about how he lives, doesn’t he?” she asked. “We aren’t cattle, are we, waiting for slaughter?”
He winced at the word at the same moment she did. He shifted his weight and struggled to right one ankle that had fallen asleep. It tingled, but he kept his expression bland, a baked custard face.
Creature of effortless days, he thought, as she fingered the sheet, thinking. Her imagination overblown by books. A romanticist caught in an age of realism.
But I love her. This is my fate to love her.
“You could do it, honey,” she said, picking up the broken thread of her fantasy. “Some people live uncomplicated lives. I can see it now. Remember those parks we used to camp in when we were first married? They needed forestry people, attendants, somebody to watch over those places.”
“All right. I’ll tell you about the house. It’s wooden so the outside smells come through the cracks to reach us. There has to be a fireplace with a wide mantle. Lots of split logs piled neatly on the porch. It has to have a porch! And a swing, of course. Then the kitchen is important too. It faces the sunrise, so in the mornings we can eat by sunlight and supper is shadowy and cool. Not like here. Not like looking out the kitchen window on a chalky red building butted up against us and front windows that face the street. Did you know people, perfect strangers, crane their necks to look in on us? What do they want from me?”
He shook his head unhappily. Did people really spy on them like she said? He resisted an urge to glance at the shades.
“I’d have everything blue,” she continued. “Blue curtains and white sashes and blue and white bedspreads. Hardwood floors. A big oval mirror hanging on the wall beside the mantle and vases and vases of wildflowers. They’re the best, you know. Better than a hundred roses from the florist. Honeysuckle and dogwood branches in bloom. Goldenrod—but I used to sneeze around goldenrod. Violets and those wild orange irises that come out in June all along the roadsides. The house would be full of sweetness. At night, we’d count fireflies the way I did when I was a kid. If I could only hear a whippoorwill or a mockingbird. . . .”
Slipping. The South of her youth where sultry vines and bird calls forced her away from the whine of the traffic beyond the windows. The South. That country as strange and apart as if it was transplanted from the far edge of another galaxy. Something magic here, in the South. It suffused her blood with stories and tales, with memories, all of them hard-knuckled and sunburnt and smelling of dark loam and damp clay banks. She suffers an ancestral sickness. She left a trailing umbilical cord attached when she left the South, and it stretches across thousands of miles, its roots buried deep, deep in warm, baked soil. She is a prisoner, however unwilling, of her geography. He suspected this all along. She doesn’t belong to him. She doesn’t belong to Jimmy. The South had its claim first, and it’s the strongest.
I don’t understand.
He willed his thoughts to her, hoping for psychic intervention.
I don’t understand, but sometimes when I’m still awake late at night, I wish I had your roots. I don’t understand, but I wish I could dream your dreams and make them real. But the South, it’s a spot on a map. It’s only a place confined by a section of earth and climate. It’s not even the same as it was twenty years ago when I took you away. Don’t you know that? Time has ravaged the South, too. There have been cataclysmic changes while you weren’t looking.
“There used to be a brook,” she said, clasping hold of the dream by the coattail before it disappeared. “A little bit of water that ran behind my great aunt’s house. I jumped across it when I was little, and it was big to me, almost too big to land on the other side without getting wet. The woods all around it. Steep sides, red clay. The water was clean, pure, cold and icy. Pale yellow sand shone from the bottom like fool’s gold. I’d swing my arms in a great arc and jump. When I was hot and thirsty, I’d slide down to the water and lift the water in cupped hands. It was so good it makes my teeth ache to think of it.
“On the other side of the brook was a little kingdom. I’d find strawberries in the spring. They were the reddest things, like drops of blood spilled between saw-toothed leaves. I had to think real hard when I ate them. I had to think STRAWBERRIES, but when I got it right, they tasted as good as the big field strawberries. They tasted better! The weren’t full of dust and grit and pithy centers. They were wild strawberries so they were made of dew and shade, the only stuff a little girl cares about.
“When I had my fill of them I put the sensitive plants to sleep. Of course, I didn’t know what they were called then. They were just tiny, green willowy plants that magically went to sleep at my touch. I’d touch them all until the whole ground around me was sound asleep, dozing in the forest, and I was a fairy that had done this thing grown-ups couldn’t do.”
He was there. Tasting the wild berries, the cool, refreshing water, smelling the flowers, touching the sleeping plants. With great reluctance he drew himself up mentally. He had to. She was better, more stable, and they had to see Jimmy. One minute more. He could give her one minute. She pulled evenly and purposefully on her eyelashes.
“We have to go to the hospital.”
“I know.” Her fingers stopped their pacing across her eyes and she blinked at him, a wounded fawn guilty of nothing but a stumble towards survival. “I’ll get ready.”
He moved from her side to allow her room to stand. She pulled down the slip to cover milky thighs. She reached for a cigarette, hesitated, replaced it in the crumpled pack. He side-stepped as she brushed past him on the way to the bathroom. To feel busy, he picked up the discarded magazines, thumbing first this one, then that, glancing over the shining, newly minted models, their smiles aglow, tidy rooms of modern furniture, pictures of food that seemed to leap from the page. How sad. How cockeyed the world was. It wasn’t like that here behind the drawn shades. He doubted the pictures were true of any world. They reflected fantasy too.
“All right,” she said from the doorway. She attempted to smile and froze. She let the smile go and was herself again.
He took her arm lightly. She stumbled on the rug, and he caught her by the waist but let her go again when she looked afraid.
Crowds jostled them on the sidewalk. She pushed one man into the gutter. Purely reflex action. She knew how to live in the city.
The hospital was five blocks distant. He knew better than she. He had counted the blocks each day for seven days of Jimmy’s confinement. He had spent his time in one place or the other, in the hospital or in her disheveled world. In between the two he counted the blocks, the cracks in the sidewalk, the passing cars, clouds, anything but the minutes wasted in limbo.
“It could have happened in the Mississippi Delta or the Alabama hill country,” he said, forgetfully speaking his thoughts aloud. A mistake.
“Don’t you say that.” She was a hiss against his eardrums. “Don’t you ever say that again when you know it’s a lie.”
Was it a lie? Was crime less cruel, accidents less real, disease less rampant, death less certain in the South? He wanted to believe.
She stopped and looked up at the hard marble structure blotting the afternoon sky. The floors rose out of squalor, noise, the stink of exhaust and decay. The hospital filled a space between the spires of a Catholic church on one side and a glass skyscraper on the other. He pressed her elbow and she lurched forward. He looked down at her shoes and saw they were the red, dainty ones, but they were scuffed and dirtied. One of her stockings had a run in it that followed a faint blue vein down the back of her leg, ending an inch short of the heel. He wanted desperately to hold her. But she was leaving him, and he’d lose sight of her if he didn’t hurry.
Frosty air buffeted them as the doors slipped open. Too white, too scalding white and antiseptic. Employees in pastel colors moved in streams across the lobby. There was a bouquet. Clorets, Dentyne, alcohol, strong soap, pine oil. A bored receptionist, a volunteer in pink uniform and grey curls, looked up and slowly thumbed through her card file. She extracted two candy pink visitor’s cards from the pile at her side and attached metal clips that hung like silver fingers from the corners. A brief, totally insincere smile. He ignored it and moved her to the bank of elevators. He knew you didn’t have to talk here if you didn’t want to. Social courtesies weren’t enforced.
“How can you stand this?” she asked when they were safely entombed in the buzzing elevator.
“I couldn’t. Not even for you.”
The doors slid apart and she looked into the glaring lighted hallway. He followed behind, gaze on the stocking run, sure the blue vein was even more prominent than it had been before.
“Are you Jimmy’s parents?” a nurse called from behind a closed glass window in a cubicle. Sweat poured from her brow. She might be filling sacks with peaches on a roadside stand. “Would you wait here for a minute? The doctor wishes to speak to you.”
They watched as the nurse dialed a number on the desk phone. When she finished they stared at her expectantly. She wiped her forehead and scattered a pile of pastel papers on the floor at her feet.
A voice took them from the back. “Well, hello! I’m glad you both could come. Will you follow me, please?”
Brisk, self-important footsteps. A consulting room, small, splashed with vinyl chairs in orange, yellow, green.
They faced the doctor. “Two days ago it wasn’t good,” he intoned. “The chances for Jimmy were slim. But I have good news. We believe he’s going to pull through. The cut didn’t reach the lungs. He’s in stable condition, finally.”
Her rigid body toppled like a tower into her husband’s arms. He supported her with an arm around her shoulder. He heard her crying softly. The doctor patted her arm and left the room.
“I want to see him,” she said.
Against the crisp white sheets he lay sleeping. His face was unmarked, his dark lashes calm against his plump cheeks. She touched the mound of bandages around his middle. Her fingers darted up to his chest, his chin, his lips. She pulled away and moved to the door.
Outside the hospital, he whispered close to her head as she pressed her body against his. Horns bellowed, cars belched past, sodium lights winked on to signal nightfall.
He had made up his mind. Jimmy’s reprieve demanded promises.
“We’ll leave as soon as he’s able. We’ll take a train. I’ll send some applications to the park services and try to find a house, a house with a porch and a swing. We’ll leave here.”
“You’ll take me home?”
“Yes. All three of us will go home.”
At the street a cabbie slammed his brakes and squealed to a halt, narrowly missing the couple crossing the street against the light. He shook his fist and yelled obscenities until they were lost in a crowd on the sidewalk.
She remarked on the heat, the city’s terrible heat, as they beat forward against the onslaught of night people seeking an avenue of escape. He stayed quiet and listened because they were inside the circle again and his comments weren’t needed. He let her plot their future into Southern woodlands, her voice dipping below the city roar to reach him. He made an effort to enter the fantasy. He pushed away all doubts, all fears of what it was like where she wanted to go. If she didn’t remember hate or prejudice or boredom maybe it didn’t exist. He hoped she was right. She might have been right all along.
“We’ll look for wild strawberries in the spring and let Jimmy taste them before he’s too old,” she said.
He nodded on cue. Jimmy was not yet a man. The entire country was not yet grotesque and dangerous. His wife was not yet irreversibly lost in the corridors of her own alienation. There was hope and peace and happiness. Until he found where it hid, it was his duty to protect his family, without fail, the way a giant oak supports and protects the lichens growing in feeble masses about its exposed roots.
“Don’t you think so?” She asked and her voice was taking wings.
He didn’t know what she was referring to, but he knew the answer. “Yes,” he said quickly. “Yes, I agree.”
“I know that I’m right,” she said, taking his hand and rubbing his knuckles with her thumb the way she did when she was happy.
In the stale, airless apartment she raised the shades, emptied the ashtrays, sorted the magazines. He reclined on the bed watching. It was her world and he was content to let her guide him through it. She knew the landmarks so well.
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.