"Billy? You awake? I want to talk to..."
A paperback copy of the Scarlet Pimpernel lies open face down on his desk, its
pages tattered and dog-eared, its spine lined with creases. A copy of the
Cliffs Notes I bought him still lies in a plastic Waldenbooks' bag, the
receipt sticking out like a bookmark. Several scented candles line the top of
his desk, their wicks burnt black, cooled drips of bulbous wax clinging to the
sides. An empty box of Ohio Blue Tip matches lies on the floor next to a
coffee can covered with a lithograph of Currier and Ives: a snowy scene with
couples skating on a frozen pond. The can holds the ashy remnants of
matchsticks and paper. Lipstick mars a wall mirror with the words love you in
garish red. Notes, pictures, cut out comic strips of Calvin and Hobbes and
Garfield and a blue and black bumper sticker with the words Fleeting Youth
frame the mirror. A copy of The Firm with Tom Cruise on the cover sits alone
on the small bookshelf over the bed. A pair of Levi blue jeans, the little
red tag the same color as the lipstick on the mirror, lies crumpled at the
foot of the bed along with a white T-shirt. My son lies sleeping in a tangle
of forest green sheets and a comforter, with several pillows pushed to the
side and on the floor, his face flat to the mattress. I turn off the lights
and pull the door closed.
I leave the house feeling old, trying to think back to when I was his age,
when that might have been me and my most important worry was reading a book
for Sophomore English. Was it ever that easy?
It is dark out but I am able to make out the shadowy branches of the towering
trees against the black velvet sky, dotted with so many stars and lit by a low
hung moon which glimmers in the dew.
The Chevy Lumina is cold and quiet. For the umpteenth time I look at the
visors overhead, the question in my mind the same. The car starts on the
first try and Bryan Adams is singing Summer of 69. I sigh to myself, wishing
it were so, wishing that Five and Dimes still existed that summers did last
forever and that I could be young and restless all over again. In the dark
street I watch a cat scurry across, its eyes afire.
"How ya doin' Johnny?" I look at Johnny Mac sitting in his old dilapidated
easy chair, its faux leather cracked and split revealing stringy cottony
fibers. He leans forward in his chair spitting a string of tobacco juice into
a brass spittoon at his feet. He coughs, quietly first then louder. He waves
me to sit and wait until the coughing passes. An uncomfortable second or so
stretches by as his face shades to red, his coughing harder, and his face a
grimacing mask of pain. Then he quits. "You been to a doctor?"
He waves the question away. "Somethin' ta drink?" He pulls himself up and
out of the chair, his clothing draping him like drop cloth. "I got soda, or
if'n you want something stronger. I got that too."
"I'll have what you're having."
He nods and disappears into his dark little home. A small amount of light
manages its way out of the kitchen. His shadow crosses in front of the window
and when he opens the refrigerator, the light silhouettes him through the
sheer curtains. I hear his slippers slide across the old wooden floor,
getting quieter and then louder again. He holds two ten-ounce bottles of
Coke, the green glass glistening with condensation.
"Ain't too cold. 'Frigerator's not workin' too well. I had someone out last
week ta look at it, but..." he shrugs his shoulders, the care insignificant.
He turns and puts the head of one of the bottles to the windowsill and gives
it a quick jerk. The metal lid flips away and rattles onto the wooden porch.
He offers the opened bottle to me as he opens the other bottle. "So?" He
takes a drink. "What's it you want?"
I smile. He is a man of few words, direct and to the point.
"Come on out with it. I ain't getting any younger sitting here like this."
His mortality shines in his eyes as he nods knowingly. "How's the boy doin?
He doin' okay in school?"
The psychologist had told us both that if it had affected him in anyway, it
would show up in his schoolwork first. It seemed too early to me. I can
"You talk to him about it?"
I shake my head and take a drink; happy I have something to do.
"You know, just cause he's a child, don't mean he cain't talk about it. He's
feelin what you're feeling. What we're all feelin'. Mayhaps even more. Was
his mother after all. This here is something the two of you will have ta talk
about. The sooner the better." He pulls himself forward and grips my
shoulder for support, but I wonder if it's for me or for him. "You gone to
see her yet?"
I can only look down at the Coke in my hands, studying the condensation as
glistens in the moonlight.
He claps me on the shoulder and nods. "You go on and see her. Talk to her.
She'll straighten things out better'n I can."
I look at him. His eyes are a piercing blue, almost out of place in his aged
wrinkled face. I reach for his hand and hold it, gripping it as strongly as I
think possible. He smiles and nods again, his eyes glistening. "Go on now.
It's past my bedtime. Gotta get my beauty sleep, ya know." He primps at his
gray wispy hair, like he's looking in a mirror. We laugh together because it's
easier than the alternative.
The cemetery is quiet, except for a soft breeze shaking leaves and rattling
the small branches in the trees overhead. Outside the cemetery, a few cars
whisper by along the freeway and in the distance a train whistles its
approach. The horizon hints at dawn as I look at my watch wondering how long
I've been standing in this spot, doing nothing but staring up at the hill.
With a sigh I step forward.
The grave still looks fresh, the mound of earth still settling, and the grass
greener than the surrounding turf. I kneel and look at the headstone.
Jessica Elizabeth Melbourne
Beloved Wife and Mother
We love you Still
1963 - 1999
"I went to see your father today. He won't go to the doctor. I guess I see
where your stubbornness came from." I smile and in my mind's eyes she smiles
too, mischievously with light in her eyes. I fell in love with that smile,
with those eyes, so deep and searching and sitting here, I couldn't understand
how I would live the rest of my days without her. I ached for Billy.
"Billy is doing fine." My voice faltered. I felt like I was trying to put
her at ease. "I think. I haven't talked to him yet." I shake my head and
close my eyes. "I don't know what to say to him. It would be easier if you
came back to us. To me." It's funny how I hear her voice. " I know. You're
not coming back." I look down at my hands and laugh. "Who's going to shade
my eyes when I drive into the sun? I guess I'll have to get new visors." I
laugh again and I can hear her laughing with me, visions of her struggling
with the Lumina's defective sun visors and then giving up and raising her hand
to deflect the light from my eyes. On long drives she would reach into her
purse and hand out sunglasses, a pair for each of us. On Sunday mornings on
our way to church we looked like the FBI.
Every little thought was one more loss.
"I guess I should get going." I hear my voice, a whisper. Maybe tomorrow,
I'll bring Billy. After we talk.
Pulling into the driveway, the false dawn is brighter. The kitchen light is
on in the window. I grab the paper from out of the bushes on my way in.
Billy is sitting at the breakfast table his hands wrapped around a steaming
cup. On the table in front of him is a wooden picture frame. I know what the
picture is. The three of us sitting in the log ride at Six Flags, me in the
front, my hair dripping wet and plastered to my skull, Billy in the middle and
Jessica at the back her arms wrapped around Billy, but one hand straying to my
shoulder. Our eyes are wild with excitement, our faces, masks of joy, our
laughter captured for all time. It was less than a month ago.
Billy looks up at me. I notice suddenly that he has his grandfather's eyes.
"I had a dream about her. She was singing in the kitchen like she always does
when she makes breakfast. Trying to wake us up. I came in to see her. But
she wasn't here." His voice grows softer. His eyes are shining and deep, the
questions I can't answer so prevalent within them. He grips the picture frame
for a moment. "It's like she still here. But I can't find her anymore." He
rocks back and forth, his cup forgotten, his eyes red and wet.
I sit down next to him and pull him to me. "I know." I whisper. "Sssshhhh.
I know. I know." Like him I can only rock back and forth, listening to him
sob into my chest. All the words I want to say how it was going to be all
right, how she is better now and happy, anything that I wanted to say sounded
hollow. But I knew his dream and had had it myself, waking with a start, my
heart hammering at the possibility that the cancer had been the dream. That
she was downstairs in a kitchen smelling of waffles with maple syrup and
melted butter and crispy fried bacon.
The kitchen is a blur to me. And my struggle to support my son is not near
as great as the struggle to stay and keep from running from the room, wishing
I had someone who would rock me back and forth and let me cry in their arms.
She was already dying before we knew. It was that same day, the day we drove
to Six Flags, sunglasses in place, the windows rolled down, the wind through
our hair like in a million songs of summer. It would be the best day of our
lives together. So close to the day I saw her and knew I loved her, to the
day that we married, to the day that Billy was born, all nine pounds of him.
But this day we each knew it was the best day, all three of us. It was a
conscious understanding that I could see in their eyes and in my own when I
looked in the mirror as I drove home after. Billy was asleep in the backseat.
He still wore his giant foam hand that declared him to be number one. He won
it in the ring toss; a game I was certain was fixed. Jessica sat next to me.
She held my hand, her thumb caressing the length of my index finger. And she
looked at me. She was always beautiful to me. Always making my heart stop
when I saw her. I hated to say she was most beautiful that night, but she
was. She looked over her shoulder at Billy asleep and then back at me and in
that instant something inside of me knew what was coming. Her smile faltered
as she contemplated the words she had to say.
"I went to the doctor yesterday." Her eyes glistened which scared me and I
felt the car slow as I reacted to her words. "It was only supposed to be a
checkup. I've been tired." Her grip tightened around my hand. "Everything
looked good." Her words were coming softer and softer. I looked in the
rearview mirror to make sure Billy was still asleep and caught the headlights
of a car far back in the distance. Loneliness overpowered me. "Dr Barnard
called this morning before we left." She shook her head. "I couldn't tell
you." She was suddenly wracked with sobs. I pulled the car over and pulled
her as close to me as I could. She felt fragile. The car that passed was
just a blur of red lights. We sat there in the dark along the freeway, her
whispering the details, me holding on for dear life and my son oblivious to
the sudden end.
I looked over at the picture, the still life in it vivid. I could hear the
screams of glee as I splashed water back at them as our log bobbled in the
calm part of the ride.
It had taken three short weeks before the cancer took her from us. Three
weeks filled with her determination and strength to make sure we would carry
on when she was gone. I felt her with me, as if my arms around Billy were
covered with her arms around both of us. She was gone. But she was with us still.
"Billy? You awake? I want to talk to..."