Mom said Dad was teetotaler who liked dark smoky places and hanging out with drunks. If he wasn’t home by five-thirty, she sent me to get him. I ran barefoot on the hot sidewalk to the bar, stepping up to cool my feet on the linoleum. I watched Dad as he stood at the rail, his glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, gesturing and telling a hilarious story to a man and a lady, both red-faced with laughter and drink. The man saw me and said,
“Joyce is here, Paddy, you’re wanted at home.”
“Well, come on then, you gotta eat, right?” Dad said.
The man Dad brought home had a knobby stub where his right hand should be. It looked red and angry as if still fresh. Mom had said he lost the hand in the Vietnam war. She cut his meat for him like she did for me and my brother Paul. The man winked at us as Mom passed our plates.
The lady had her blond hair done up pouffy and high; her bare arms stuck out of her blue satin dress like twigs. She smiled a lot but when she didn’t, her lipsticked mouth looked like a red smear. I watched as the lady moved her food around her plate, and Mom frowned and said to me,
“Eat your peas and don’t even think about that watermelon until you do.“
After dinner, Mom said to Dad, “Do you have to invite the whole bar?”
The bedside phone rang. It was Jenny.
“Mom, where are you? The driver just called. He’s been pounding on the door. You’re going to miss your flight.”
Joyce got up from her chair, fixed her hair, and hurried to open the door. The driver stood on the doorstep, in sunglasses and a dark suit, one of those phone things blinking in his ear. How much must her daughter have paid, for this stranger to come down from St Louis and take her all the way back the airport? The car smelled of his foreign aftershave and B.O. She fumbled for the button to crack her window.
At the airport, the driver carried her bag in. He couldn’t go past security, but Joyce saw him waiting, watching her. She moved to a seat out of his line of sight. It was better when Paul would drive her to the airport. They went early, so she could get a cup of coffee and the newspaper and not feel rushed.
Once, Paul went along with her on her annual visit to her daughter in Atlanta. She remembered how Paul’s jaw clenched, and his hands gripped the armrests the whole flight. Paul could be timid in other ways, too, like how he never got married, or even left home, staying with Mom all those years after their parent’s divorce. But Joyce was grateful for how Paul took care of her too when she was widowed. He invited her to move back home, and she did.
She was more than grateful. She and Paul had all the companionship, with none of the bickerings of marriage. The hatred of marriage, why not call it that? All that energy had to go somewhere when the sex dried up. And yet, it was regret that floored her when her husband lay dying of cancer.
I rushed up the ladder of the slide. A boy came behind on my heels, yelling for me to go faster or get out of the way. He made me miss a step, one minute I was at the top, and the next, on the gravel below. Too surprised to cry, but it hurt so I ran to the asphalt courts where Mom and Paul were playing tennis against Dad. I watched their game through the chain-link fence. One of Mom’s serves hit Paul on the top of his head, and the ball bounced straight up in the air, like in a cartoon. Paul staggered around, clowning.
Mom and I cracked up, but Dad said, “Get the damn ball already.”
Paul saw me and ran over. He pushed his finger through the chain link fence and brushed a bit of bloody gravel off my cheek. “What happened to you?” he said.
The gate attendant touched Joyce’s shoulder, her flight had been called for boarding, didn’t she hear? Joyce blinked. If they would speak up, maybe she could hear. The attendant offered to help, but she didn’t need it, thank you very much, however frail she might look. She was fine, except for the falling asleep, if that’s what it was. On board, she raised the window shade to bright sunlight reflected off the airplane’s wing.
I looked for dropped change, little glints of light on the sidewalk. I found a dime and ran to the drugstore. Paul was there with his friend from school, looking at comic books.
“What’s that?” the friend said, eyeing my fist.
“None of your business,” said Paul as he gave the friend a shove, the friend pushed back, and then they were fighting.
The store clerk chased us all out. It was St. Patrick’s Day, so I went to the hardware store to buy Dad a dime’s worth of nails in a paper sack as a present. I used a green crayon to draw a shamrock on the bag. Mom laughed when she saw it.
“When did you ever see your Dad nailing anything?” she said.
The flight attendant said the old woman didn’t need any help getting off the plane or down the open metal stairway, but she had left her handbag on the plane. Later, airport employees reported seeing her walk away from the terminal along the shimmering tarmac. They thought she was headed to the economy parking, and didn’t recall seeing her enter the wooded area across the road. Unfortunately, the airport authorities didn’t review the security cameras until much later, despite her daughter’s insistence. They didn’t even begin to search the grounds until later that evening and by then it was too late.
Paul and I hiked the trails every day. We built a dam in the creek and corralled the crawdads. That last day we made a fairy house out of a clump of trees, with pine boughs for the roof, and moss for a floor. We ran back to the campsite to get food and stuff for the fairy house, but Mom saw us and said it’s time to pack up.
“But we just got here!” Paul said.
Mom grabbed the towels off the line and shook them hard. Dad sat staring at the dying campfire, his large freckled hands drooping between his knees. I pleaded to let us stay, but Mom said we had to go because Dad had been fired. I gasped, but Paul just laughed at me.
“That’s not what it means, silly, but it’s still bad, and we’re going to have to go home,” Paul said, adding “Come on, let’s hike the trail one more time.”
Paul walked fast, and it was hard for me to keep up. We went farther than we had ever gone, and nothing looked familiar. When we turned back, we came to two paths, and even Paul was unsure which one led back to the campsite. Paul said,
“I’ll go this way, and you go that way, but don’t worry. I’ll whistle, so you know I’m there. Once one of us finds the campsite we’ll call out.”
I walked for a long time and still didn’t recognize the trail, rocky and overgrown with something that looked like poison ivy. More than once I lost the path and had to go back through brush. Then I realized I couldn’t hear Paul’s whistle anymore. What I had thought was his whistle, was just a birdcall, slow, flute-clear, familiar. I had followed it deep into the woods.
I knew that if I got lost, I should sit down and wait for someone to find me. As I sat down on a log near the path, I heard that bird again, or was it really Paul this time? That thought helped calm me down a little, but then a swarm of yellowjackets began to pour out of the log. I started running, but the wasps were on me, stinging me all over, and when my legs swelled up with red welts I lay down on the path, whimpering.
She found herself near a chain-link fence covered with wild brambles and hawthorn bushes. She tried to walk around the fence, to find an opening, but she stepped on a thorn and crumpled to the ground. She looked at her bare foot and wondered what had happened to her shoe. She tried to pull the thorn out, but it broke off, leaving the sharp point stuck inside her heel. Now she couldn’t even stand, let alone walk.
It was hot, and she wished she had something to drink. She looked around for her handbag, and suddenly remembered her trip to Atlanta and the plan to meet Jenny at the baggage carousel. For the life of her, she could not remember how she got into these woods. What would her daughter say now? Joyce was sure Jenny would put her into assisted living or worse, and she’d never see her home again. She saw a patch of moss and crawled over to it and collapsed. The moss felt cool on her cheek, and as she closed her eyes, she heard the call
of a wood thrush. One of her favorite birds! A little brown guy, impossible to spot in the trees, but beautiful to hear. She listened carefully, and soon heard a second thrush, and then a third, their call and response echoing as the final rays of the sun passed over her body.
I felt myself being lifted. His arms were strong, and his hands felt cool on my skin. He started running, carrying me. The light from the setting sun filtered sideways through the trees and flashed in my eyes. I heard that birdcall again, its tuneful rise and fall, the final liquid trill.
PJ Wren is a biomedical scientist living in Kensington, Maryland. Her work has appeared in the Straylight Lit Mag, After The Pause, and other online publications. Wren has a blog on the intersections of philosophy, literature, and neuroscience: glasstunnel.blogspot.com.