Now I am home, though still a little tired and saturated with images and thoughts of the last minute trip. Though we flew to North Carolina, a few days later we had a drive to make. The car trip to Michigan from North Carolina was 14 hours last Friday. The next day was spent with family and attending the memorial service for my sister-in-law. Then the third day: back another 14 hours on many roads and five states from N.Carolina to Virginia, W. Virginia, Ohio, MI., then reversed for return. I often passed the time–I read as well–staring out the window as my husband drove. (I’d have been happy to drive but he was caught “in the zone”, and refused my help. Next time it shall be different; he was too tired to endure this stretch of time behind the wheel. But when he makes his mind up…)
It recalled the road trips I’d taken with my parents and siblings as a child around our country, how excited I felt about each place we went. I gawked at the world, happy even though squashed between four siblings in the back seat. Each town was a story even then, every landscape a magnetic space. Everything crackling alive. And it still is, amid the dying…
Marc and I talked on the way there with some banter; we knew it would not be easy the next day. But we fell silent often, thinking of this second loss in two months. And our old lives in Michigan (several decades ago) and those places to which one cannot ever really return for long, not once grown up and gone. And yet those places and times cling like a tenacious aura of the Past, sometimes bright, sometimes dark.
Seeking relief, I filled myself up with natural scenarios beyond the window, sometimes letting out the dry chilled air-conditioned air and letting into the car little gusts that dripped with humidity and was deeply hot: upper-90 degrees F.hot. It smelled good to me, as if rain that has been held back so long it has to sneak in, delicious-green and heady. And heavy.
I was struck, as I always am when traveling these areas, by the endless rise and fall of deciduous trees (far fewer conifers there) that took over foothills and parts of the Appalachian Mountains. Such abundance! The land rose up, split into graceful mounds, spread out in valleys and turned over this way and that, revealing changing light dabbed that daubed the landscape. I watched and snapped pictures, mesmerized. The clouds were astonishing, utterly magical they are from place to place. We also got through a sudden, bombastic thunderstorm.
So this is what I have today: pictures of daring cloud formations, rolling hills amid such old mountains and fecund, open farmland (with “corn at least knee-high by 4th of July”, as they say). A few bugs may be smearing windows. Not the best pictures, I am sure. They are more half-dreaming images of my perceptions along the way. The land and sky were witness to my sorrows and wonderment. And I, a willing audience for their dramatic displays. This life. This earth. The curious existences everyone does lead. And ever-reluctant me, traveling here and there, anyway– and I’m not even done yet for July, two more trips to go!
If you want a variety of sustenance, travel a little bit, or even take a decent walk. And if you want to see where I went, come along…
Earley waited for the mail all afternoon like he did every delivery day, with the patience of Guernsey cows, which he’d loved as a child on the farm. His grandson would take issue with that idea, tell him, Cows don’t know enough to be patient, but that’s what Earley thought of when faced with the occasionally slow passage of time. Cows liked to eat, rest, socialize, all with a deliberate pace and acceptance. It seemed a good lesson. Being human created issues with time. For Earley, time generally was dashing away. As far as the postal service went, he was just grateful he still got it. What sort of life would it be without a little junk mail and a letter or package now and then?
Sol was too smart sometimes, explaining calculus and reading thought-provoking passages from his contemporary novels. Earley had patience with his grandson, but who cared what sorts of odd tricks numbers got up to at this point in his life? But the books he liked, or rather the being read to, especially when it had to do with a little love or a lot of history. One stimulated the other in the world, he thought.
When his son, James, was at work and Sol was at school he had some waiting while he did chores and puttered. Today was–he checked Sol’s calendar on the fridge–computer club. Three days a week the boy had obligations he said were fun. Earley had neither for the most part, unless you counted being a grandfather.
“You have to get a hobby, Grandpa. Ever since Grandma passed you’re just waiting all winter to garden. I know gardening is your thing but really. You need more than that. Maybe like playing Sudoku or checking out that new fitness club. I saw one of your friends over there. What about your woodworking?”
“I’ve made enough stuff, why do I need more? I do my crosswords and word searches so I don’t get soft in the head. I walk everywhere. Cook. Do laundry and pay bills like when Nana was alive. Plant my garden in spring. What more? You have hobbies, I get some free time.”
Sol and James looked at each other, eyes rolled. It made Earley think a bit. He did get restless at times. Then he saw the ad and put in an order.
For the last week he’d been watching over Sol by himself. It wasn’t hard but it took a little more out of him. Worrying and making sure he did all that homework, catching up with him more than usual. No James as a buffer or disciplinarian. It went pretty well.
James had gotten to Florida on Tuesday. He was supposed to have have come back home by now, not that Earley was anxious for it. It was never much real hardship being there for Sol. James called twice, once when he got to Miami and once when he found out he would be back a few days late. James was a fully degreed person, a writer and a construction worker, which Earley didn’t quite get, but the building trade usually worked out better. Bills had to be paid for three people.
James had this desire to swim his way into that smallish pool of people who might find their stories on shelves. He had been working on a psychological thriller for four years and it was almost done. Earley hadn’t read it yet. He wondered if it would scare him; the thought of that captivated him. Well, in good time.
James poked his head out of his office door one morning.
“I’m going to Miami, you guys! Kevin was hired as editor of Killing Justice, that new thriller and mystery magazine I mentioned, and said I’d be a good addition. But I have to do a formal interview. We’ll all move there, start fresh if this works out.”
Sal frowned and considered. He was fifteen. He had a small, well-defined life that he liked just enough. The house they shared with grandpa was big and had a garden he helped tend. He wondered how his grandpa would manage down there. He did want his dad to be happier. Sal could try Florida after ten years in Omaha despite leaving his best friend. The thought of tan, beachy girls and large reptiles soon held him in thrall.
As it lowered, the sun shot out pink and orange rays behind houses across the street, making half-halos about trees and rooftops. The sky warmed up like a tropical vista. Earley wondered what it would look like in Florida. He watched out the bay window, then saw the porch bathed in a glow despite a deep chill he kept at bay with the heat jacked up too high. The mailman–well, mail woman now– should have been there long ago. It annoyed him despite his resolve. So much for Guernsey patience. He wondered about James coming back late, what that all meant. His stomach growled as he glanced in the refrigerator. Leftover meatloaf when Sol got home.
He grabbed the seed catalog and sat in his worn, smooth leather chair. When he turned on the light and opened it to the first page pictures dazzled him with their lushness, as always. He could hardly stand that he had months to go before the planting.
What would it be like to grow things all year long? he wondered. Florida looked like it sprouted life without any effort. It unnerved him a bit. The winters in Omaha were a good time to hibernate, which he liked. He might have to wear madras shorts in Florida, learn how to swing a golf club well, use terrible smelling sunscreen all the time. Or stay indoors even when there was no snow and no rain because of that heat. He wanted his son to use his degree in English and Sol to be able to try other things, but this was a lot to ask. If it was to be asked. He breathed into the gathering dark, a ruffly sound making its way down his commandeering nose. What if James thought it was time for him to join the others over seventy in those cramped places they pretended were communities? He had one already, right here, on this street, in this house. It had been good enough for forty-five years. The house had conformed to him and he, to it.
The front opened, then slammed shut the same time his cell phone rang. Sol tossed a package on the rectangular table in the foyer. Earley got up, then looked at his phone.
James. He answered.
“Hey, dad. I’ll be home tomorrow but I wanted to talk to you guys. Is Sol there yet?”
Earley beckoned to his grandson and he came over.
“We’re both here.”
Sol put the phone on speaker.
“Hey, dad! See alligators yet?”
James laughed. “Not yet. But we might sooner or later.”
“We? You got the job, dad?”
“I did. They liked me and I like them. I’ll start in May.”
Earley walked to the table where the package lay. He could hear the two of them talking, excitement tinged with disbelief in Sol’s voice. He shook the package to confirm it was his order for sure, then went back to to his chair and sank down in the old cushion, box in hand.
“Hey Dad? You there?”
“Yes, I heard you.”
“Are you glad for me?”
“Happy as a clam.”
“Grandpa, clams aren’t even close to being smart–”
“You don’t know that, Sol. We don’t know every single thing.”
“Dad, I have to get going. Kevin is taking me out to dinner to celebrate. I’ll tell you everything when I get home.”
They hung up. Earley fished his Swiss Army knife from a back pocket. Sol had sunk into the couch, his jacket still on, backpack at his feet.
“Florida… sweet. I think.” He sat forward, hands clasped together between his knees. “What do you think, Grandpa? Oh, you got a package. What’s in it?”
Earley cut through tape, tossed the paper and pried open the box. Inside were neatly bagged pieces of wood. A whole ship.
“Behold, Sol, the Santa Maria. The largest ship of the three sailed during Columbus’ voyage. Modest, really, especially by today’s standards. About one hundred tons of her. Deck was 58 feet. A good seafaring ship until she shipwrecked in Haiti.”
“Nice! A wooden model. So that’s your new hobby?”
Earley smiled. “Could be.”
They looked over the plans and talked about history until Sol said he was hungry. At the table over meatloaf sandwiches, they were quiet awhile. Then Earley spoke up.
“You think you could head down to Miami, then? Or would you want to stay here?”
“We’re all in this together! Dad’s taking me and you if you’ll go and I’m sure taking you, so we’re going together. Right? Florida, like it or not, here we come.”
Earley wiped his mouth and sat back. “Well, it could be a good place to make and sail ships. But I’ll get back to you after your dad gets home and we talk. I’d have to have a garden. At the very least.”
Sol agreed; no garden, no move. He put the kettle on for tea and got out the organic peppermint teabags. That’s what his grandpa liked after a meal. That’s what Sol would always make him.