6. “The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin”

There are certain days when beyond the scents and the shimmering

visions. . . I glimpse the hard outlines of things as they are.    

Emile Zola

 

PART I

OUTWARD BOUND

 

“Is she dead, Johnny?”

“I don’t know, Mama.”

“Wouldn’t someone have found her? The Enquirer finds bodies all the time.”

“Mama, the Enquirer makes up that stuff.”

“Just because you don’t have any interesting stories doesn’t mean they make them up.”

Mama sets the coffeepot on the counter, and turns to look at me. I hollow out at the old anguish, stand weak and empty after all these months still not knowing what to say. So, I lie.

“Maybe, she’s hiding. We don’t know what happened. We’ll find out.” I put my arms around her catching the tears.

I lie to myself, too. Not a whiff of rumor in a year strains credulity. No one escapes scrutiny. Someone utters a phrase. Chatwin’s songlines take over. If she is dead, preserved in a bog, nourishing a North Sea porbeagle, years could pile up. Yet, I wake in the early morning to the ring of the telephone, my arm rushing to answer, I hear the voice, and it is not her. The last time we talked I had just scooped the Examiner with a Harvey Milk exclusive on a new political alliance, and was feeling terrific. I figured I’d cheer her up – isn’t that what big brothers are for? – extract a promise to fly down with Mama, go to the opera, see a show. She, brooding, restless, waiting, grabs the phone in her lair on the bank of the river. The humdrum picture rolls cel by cel, remorseless in its clarity. I hang up.

The snippet fades. I have played my part.

 

SueAnne leans into the window, squinting, absorbed by her search for a hint of movement. When it comes, she checks her watch. 7:11:29. Yesterday it was 7:13:00. Is that because I’m faster, or is it getting lighter earlier? Futile question. The gray shadows quicken, betraying form and bulk as they abandon the mists of a frost-tipped meadow. Phantom images trotting across the frozen ground weave careless strands through fallen trees. An ancient, choreographed pause stills the ghostly advance. There is hesitation before the rotting gray fence. The whitetailed deer gaze at the motionless body pressed tight to the glass. Ears stretched wide, slender heads turning, sleek, lovely profiles wordlessly asking, is it all right? until, incautious, the fall fawn runs ahead.

It is a cruel winter. The cold set in early, fierce, constant, the river frozen solid as the creek. She records the temperature, incredulous. Minus 20 Fahrenheit, minus 27, minus 32, minus 35. It rises a few degrees at noon, but the wind twists the sun’s bleak ray into a slashing shaft, dashing any hope of warmth.

Sighing, SueAnne shifts the logs in the grate, studies the flaming color palette with an artist’s eye, snatches at a broad-bristled brush hanging above a jar of solvent. The motion wavers as a sharp ring pierces the thick stillness, sound waves quivering in the silence of the cabin.

“Blow it up,” the phrase jumps out of the receiver. “I’ll help you. I’ll fly into Alberta. Stow some TNT in one of those cattle trucks coming from the provinces. It’ll take a couple of hours. It’ll make you happy.”

“Yes! That’s what I want to do. Blow it up,” SueAnne laughs into the receiver. But, why not? A soulless winter night. Black sky dissolving into black earth. Arm steeped in memory reaching for the post slack from months of her weight pushing against it, one sharp pull, and the gate swings free. The murmur of the pickup muffled by packed snow. A glide down the sloping stretch “s” to the flat at the bottom of the gully, easing through the dip that catches the spring rain, a lazy angling off toward the river over a mosaic of black and yellow stones glazed with winter’s sheen of ice. Ramming the truck into the side of the building, hurling fire.

In a reverie, she half-listens to the voice on the other end of the line. “If you’re not going to blow it up, you ought to get out of there. You’re going crazy.”

SueAnne’s thoughts spiral back to earth. “I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I have enough people telling me what to do.”

“Sorry! I was worried about you.” With an injured air, Johnny asks how Mama is feeling before hanging up.

I don’t need you to tell me what to do, and I don’t need your help, SueAnne scowls at the receiver. I could do it myself. The shingles are dry. A little gasoline and a box of matches is all it would take. No need to make a big fuss about it. She pauses at the window above the sink. The light, not yet strong enough to separate the old building from its bower of sage, holds the bell tower high, as if afloat on thermals. The clear voice of her freshman English teacher, poor, sad Miss Smith leaps the years. “How the tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, in the icy air of night!” She lowers her head, rapt, marking Miss Smith’s cadence.

Abandoning Miss Smith for the task at hand, SueAnne pours a cup of coffee, and balances it carefully on the arm of the sofa. Retrieving the discarded brush, she leans back, considering the canvases ringing the room, propped against backs of furniture, pitched against the rough log walls. Panels of plunging bluffs, mesas collapsing into grotesque fissures, stormy slate skies spewing columns of jagged iron. SueAnne wipes off clotting dabs of burnt sienna with a scrap of cloth, before tackling a canvas teetering precariously against a corner of the fireplace. She shifts the frame, cursing the dim light filtering into the room, jabs the brush into a pot of paint. Quick strokes destroy a figure hidden in a scraggy thicket.

“For god’s sake, Susie, stop that.” Mama, wakened by the sound of the telephone, pads out of the bedroom, rubber soled flip-flops smacking against the plank floor. She presses her lips together in disdain. “I am sick of this cabin; I am sick of those crazy pictures.” She circles the sofa, stooping in front of the wood box to yank out a log, jostling the nearest canvas in the process. She watches approvingly as shock waves course through the room leaving bluffs tottering in their wake.

“Mama. There’s probably a masterpiece in all that wreckage.”

“I told you, I’m sick of that bluff. Who was on the phone?”

“It was Johnny. He wants us to fly down to the City.” SueAnne crawls on hands and knees across the floor, straightening as she goes. She stops suddenly, still on her knees, wondering, considering Mama, Johnny’s proposal dousing reason, unleashing a tidal wave of desire. Shivering, laughing. “If you help me burn down the schoolhouse, we’ll get out of here.”

An image of a smoldering mass creeping up shallow front steps, herself pushing, falling at last into a worn heap, scrolls past Mama’s retina. “That’s silly, Susie. I couldn’t do it. I’m not strong enough.”

“I’m not talking about you doing the work.” SueAnne improvising now, ideas lightening quick, discarded, embraced, races on, rash, heedless, not breaking stride to wonder exactly what Mama could be thinking. Exhilarated, half mad after months of despair, it’s possible, it’s possible. “I’d do the work. You just have to keep me company.”

“We can’t do that. We’d kill ourselves. Besides, they’d arrest us. It isn’t even yours anymore.” A fleeting look of interest distorts Mama’s outrage. Being in the cabin all winter has bored her something awful.

“Okay, if you won’t help me burn it down, let’s drive to Butte. Get the hell out of Dodge. I want some flowers. White spider mums and red tulips. And, a Baccarat vase.”

“You’re not going to get any of that stuff in Butte.” Mama’s mind is stuck in literalness. “I wouldn’t mind going to the drug store. I need some more tooth powder. My gums are shrinking. My lower plate slides all over the place. Look.” She stuck her middle finger against her front teeth wiggling it back and forth.

“Mama!”

After breakfast, SueAnne warmed the truck leaving Mama to toss garments out of the closet in preparation for the journey. Mama considered the hour’s drive to Butte as full of danger as scaling the Alps. SueAnne wouldn’t admit it, but she was wary of going over the hill herself. This wretched vehicle should be heavy enough to hold the road; she eyed the tires distrustfully. I hope we don’t get another flat. That thief, Rollie. You’d think he’d have sense enough not to throw nails all over when building the place. No point worrying. She yanked the plug on the battery warmer, winding the cord, hanging it neatly in the shed, before starting the engine. Do I have to stop for gas at the Falls, or can I get to Butte? I can make it to Butte on a quarter of a tank. I hope. Yeah. I can make it. Save a dollar or two. She left the truck idling, trudged back to the cabin.

Mama stood in the middle of the room swaddled in down. The bloated coat billowed over a knotted belt like a tethered goose straining for flight. The urge was held in check by a woolen muffler’s strangle hold on the upturned collar. A tweed hat flopped over her ears. “I’m ready to go. Is the truck warm?” Hoisting herself on her cane she succeeded with a mighty heave in landing on the seat. “I don’t know why they make these things so high.” Mama panted in part from exertion and in part from the muffler cutting off her air.

SueAnne herded the pickup down the rutted trail, turning sharply onto the dirt road leading to the Falls. Concentrating on the icy curve winding up the far side of the bluff, she determined not to glance over the barbed wire fence toward the schoolhouse. If they are here, there is nothing I can do about it. I won’t look. Doesn’t matter. She accelerated, intent on getting past before temptation overcame her. An agitated crackling orchestrated Mama’s shifting mood.

“Slow down. I think I see fresh tracks. Do you suppose they came while we were in bed. I didn’t hear anything. Did you hear anything? Can you see the tracks?”

SueAnne gripped the steering wheel refusing to take her eyes off the road. “Those bastards. I really will burn it down.”

Mama, delighted to have scored a point, leaned back, clinging to the bracket above the door. She busied herself making amends, flagging points of possible interest. “Dora has her wash on the line. It’s never going to dry. It’s too cold. If she’s looking out the window, she’ll be thinking, now there’s a pair to draw to. That’s what she always says when she sees us. – Aren’t we going to fill up at the Falls? Do you have enough gas? Are you sure? – Look at all those sad cows. Why do ranchers make ‘em calve in January? Why don’t they wait till it warms up? Poor little things with their ears froze off. – Here comes one of those big trucks. You better slow down. Your windshield will get cracked with all the gravel they put on the road. You won’t be able to see a thing. – You know Jack and I were here once.” Mama’s attention is directed at the mile-long scar etched into a hill, a mysterious Nazca line, pink, mauve, tawny peach, rising as the highway dropped down the pass. “Butte’s a lot bigger now. I can’t remember when we were here. Do you remember when that was?”

“Was it the fifties?”

“No. It wasn’t then, but I don’t remember when it was.”

“Do you want to have lunch first, and then shop? Or shop, and then have lunch?”

“All I’m going to buy is toothpowder.”

SueAnne left Mama checking the prices in a row of dentifrice considerately placed at eye level. When she returned lugging a metal barrel wavy with camouflage paint, Mama was still trying to figure out which brand was the best buy. She pointed her cane in the direction of the barrel.

“What’s that for?”

“It’s for gas. In case we forget to fill the tank. We won’t have to call Dave, if we run out. Are you going to take all day? Why don’t you just close your eyes, and pick one?”

“Don’t rush me.”

The medicine cabinet was jammed with false teeth adhesive when after weeks of wheedling Mama to brave the ice and snow over the summit, SueAnne wrestled the last of a dozen ten-gallon drums of gasoline into the tool shed. Mama stamped into the cabin, flinging abuse over her shoulder. “I am not going to Butte again. All we do is drive back and forth over that mountain. You’ve lost your mind.” She leaned back out the door to shout at SueAnne looking at the bluff.

“Your nose will freeze. Get inside.” “Yes, Mama.” Humming, SueAnne ladled cabbage soup into

bowls, and arranged slices of Mama’s angel food cake on a cracked Jug Town plate. Mama waited for SueAnne to serve her, rocking in front of the fire, eyes widening and narrowing by turn. The room had undergone a transformation. A rosy glow seeped into the murky afternoon light. The dismal bluffs and mesas suffocating the room in an air of gloom the past year were gone. While she was in the bedroom struggling to free herself from that damn muffler, Susie must have stuffed them somewhere. Mama peered around. A jumble of slat frames revealed themselves, jutting out from under the loft railing.

Catapulted into spring, Mama’s nose picked up the languorous scent of Peruvian lilies. She eyed the delicate blossoms leaning, listening, over the rim of a Mason jar. Why, Mama asked herself, was Susie buying flowers? She was thinking so hard, her rocking drowsed to a stop. Her brooding, interrupted by SueAnne’s fussing about with a paisley napkin, draping it over the table next to the rocker, laying out silverware beside a bread and butter plate, sharpened its focus the moment SueAnne leaned over and kissed her cheek. She watched, as smiling beatifically, SueAnne threw herself on the sofa, and lay her head on the armrest gazing dreamily at the ceiling. Mama chewed thoughtfully, keeping her eyes on Susie. She looked awfully happy. It made her nervous. A glaze of stubbornness congealed over her wrinkles. Susie thought she was fooling her with those stories about running out of gas. She wasn’t that dumb the day she was born.

“I have this great plan,” SueAnne announced. It was an assertion delivered with supreme confidence.

Mama heard the touch of arrogance, shifting uneasily. Susie was just like her father. It might have been Jack talking, when he was about to launch another hair-brained scheme. Let us pass. We are Romans. Neither of them had a lick of sense.

“We’re going to get out of here. We’re going to go to Ireland.”

“Ireland.”

“You’ll love it. It’s wonderful. We’ll stay at the Shelbourne. The steps creak when you walk up the staircase.”

“I can’t walk up a lot of steps. My hip hurts.”

“They have an elevator. You can take the elevator.”

Mama frowned.

“I’ll take the elevator, too. I was just trying to describe its charm. It’s the oldest hotel in Dublin.”

“You always want to take me someplace old. I might as well twiddle my thumbs here as there. They probably don’t have television. I’ll never find out what happens to Hudson and Lily.”

“They’ve got television. You can watch “Upstairs, Downstairs” on the BBC. I bet they have reruns. We can have tea and scones in the lounge. They have big overstuffed chairs covered in chintz. The fireplace blazes all day long. They burn turf. It smells sweet, heavy, a little acrid.” With a supreme effort SueAnne drew herself away from charms of the Shelbourne, returning to the quest for a motivating spark. “The land is warm, misty like old velvet. The people are friendly. Witty. Great talkers. You’ll love it.”

“I don’t know. What are scones?”

“Scones are biscuits with sugar and raisins.”

“Are they better than my sour cream biscuits?”

SueAnne struggled a moment before answering. “No, they’re not better. Yours are the best. These are different. They serve them with whipped cream and jam.”

“Sounds fattening. Is there anymore coffee?”

“Mama, they are not going to get that schoolhouse. It’s mine. I’m going to burn it down. Then, I’m going to Ireland.”

“You’re too old to talk like that, Susie. You are thirty-eight. It’s time you started acting your age. Besides, it’s not yours anymore. The judge gave it to Percy’s family. If you married him like you should, it would be yours. There wouldn’t be all this hubbub.”

SueAnne studied the ceiling. “It’s too late to talk about marrying, and I don’t give tuppence about that judge. It’s mine. I’m going to burn it down.”

“How are you going to do that?”

Pouncing. “I’ve got two planks in the shed I can use to roll the gasoline drums back into the truck. The gatepost is loose. If I tap it with the bumper, it’ll come out. Unloading is easy. I back the truck to the steps. The planks will level out between the tailgate and the stoop. I knock a hole in the door, open a couple of barrels, start a fire with some kindling. That’s it.”

“What about us?”

“We drive to Butte. Catch the six o’clock flight to Salt Lake. Get on the eight-thirty to Calgary. Catch a bus to Vancouver. Take the overnight to Heathrow, fly into Dublin.”

“We won’t get past Dave’s. Dora doesn’t miss anything. Sheriff Jorgenson will be lying in wait at the Falls.”

“Dora won’t know anything about it. We’re not going to go that way. We’re going the back way. If we start the fire at four, we can be in Butte by five- thirty. Dave won’t be checking cattle till six. We’ll be in the air. Even if some stranger sees the fire, everyone will be running around wringing his hands for a day or two. When they start looking for us, they’ll be combing the hills for the truck. By the time they find it in the Mooney parking lot, we’ll be in Ireland. Just to be safe, I bought two tickets from Butte to Salt Lake, and two separate tickets from Salt Lake to Calgary. They’ll expect us to go to San Francisco. Everyone knows Johnny lives in The City. They’ll be caught off guard when they discover we didn’t transfer out of Salt Lake. They won’t have a clue to where we are.”

“When did you buy tickets? We don’t have any money.”

“I cashed Daddy’s bonds.”

“Gracious! They were for our old age.”

“This is our old age, Mama.”

“When are you going to do all this?”

“I’m going to do it tonight.”

“I am not going to burn down the schoolhouse. I’m not going to Ireland.” Mama lifted herself out of the rocker. “I’m going to take a nap. You are a damn fool, Susie, just like your father.”

The sounds of Mama readying for that nap filtered from the bedroom. The closet door opened, a muted clatter signaled the pulling of her wool robe from its hanger, a pillow plumped, the bedclothes emitted a tender whoosh yielding to her spare frame. Quiet. SueAnne tiptoed down the hall. Mama lay asleep on her back, wisps of gray flaring over the white pillow case, hands clutching the neck of the robe tight under her chin. Tips of slippers poked from under a second pillow covering her feet. SueAnne touched Mama’s cheek. She grinned. Don’t you worry, Mama. We can do it.

Leaving Mama’s door ajar, SueAnne stealthily zipped her canvas jacket, crammed one of Percy’s caps on her head, walked into the gathering dusk. Unhooking the truck’s tailgate, she leaned two broad planks against the metal strip, moving to anchor the far ends against the shed’s concrete floor. She crept tentatively up and down the makeshift ramp. The planks didn’t budge. Taking a deep breath, she awkwardly tilted the first barrel on its side, and began rolling it up the planks.

 

Waiting for the flush of water trailed by Mama’s pitter-patter back to bed, SueAnne crouched under massy quilts. Dark. No stars. A whisper of wind.

“Mama. What are you doing?”

“What? I can’t hear you.”

“What are you doing? It’s two o’clock.”

“I’m taking a shower.”

One more hour’s sleep would be nice. Too late for that. Mama, mind made up, wasn’t one to tarry. Knotting her hair in a bun, a jabbing pain struck SueAnne’s shoulder blades. Gingerly lowering her arms, she sat up straight. Her stomach contracted doubling her over. A high, defused whine rose behind her temples. Bile stung her throat. Am I going to faint? How can I faint when I feel terrific? The spasm passed. Living in yesterday, Percy, that’s the problem. She listened to the shower spray hitting the tiles, saw him standing, rubbing shampoo in his hair, water streaming down his back. You’re gone. It’s over. Over. A sharp intake of breath, insides emptying out.

“I’m putting the coffee on.”

SueAnne swung her feet over the edge of the bed. She stood. The lightheadedness was gone. She swallowed. Firey, but okay. “We’ve got two hours.” Mocs on feet, Percy’s houndstooth shirt buttoned, tail hanging, she descended the ladder one-handed.

“I’ll cook this morning. You can have a vacation.”

“Stop pestering me. Throw some logs on the fire. It’s cold in here. I haven’t done any packing.”

“I put clothes in the totes the other day. I’ll throw them down after I bathe. All you need is your toothbrush. We’ll be running. We can’t lug a lot of suitcases around. We’ll pick up sweaters and wellies in Dublin.”

“I’ll bring my silk dress. Jack liked red.”

“Plenty room. I’ll stow it as soon as I’m dry.”

“You better hurry. It’s two-thirty.”

The prickly excitement in Mama’s voice made her sound young. A rush of adrenaline sent a glow to her blanched cheeks. It was like the days when she and Jack ran bootleg whiskey. Outwitting the Feds for the thrill of it. She was afraid, but thinking of Jack getting hurt, and her not being there, kept her with him. Jack said it was her Indian blood that made her stick it out, same as now with Susie.

She cracked eggs with one arthritic hand, tossing shells into the compost, swirling a dollop of butter in the iron skillet. Whether she wanted it or not, Susie was going to get a good breakfast.

“Best eggs I ever tasted.” It was tough swallowing, but SueAnne was not being extravagant. The eggs swirled light and yellow, sunny as the first crocus of spring. “Let me wash up.”

“I’ll do the dishes. What coat shall I wear? You said it would be warm in Ireland.”

“Not warm, Mama, but warmer. Wear the tweed. You’ll look smart. Leave the dishes. Who cares?”

“I’m not leaving dirty dishes for Dora to cluck over, and I’m going to pull off the sheets.”

SueAnne reflected on the state of the cabin. “Let’s forget the sheets, make the beds.”

“As long as it’s neat, when they come in.”

She knew Mama was right. Jorgenson would be having the time of his life pawing through cupboards and closets. Icing on the cake, those tantalizing hints of moral decay he would half swallow along with his freshly baked cinnamon bun at the Wolf Den.

“We’ll leave in fifteen minutes.” SueAnne’s voice held steady, masking the heart’s palpitating eagerness, the brain’s sparking neurons.

Mama, rinsing bubbles from the pottery plates, didn’t stop to reply. SueAnne mechanically scraped frost off the pickup windows, checking a mental list. Wire cutters. Planks. Sledgehammer.Emptying the last bucket of oats for the deer, she became aware of Mama on the porch.

“Don’t worry. They’re in good shape. They’ll make it.”

She held the door for Mama hitching onto the seat. Pressing it shut, her hand rested on the handle for a second as if to open it again, then, the hand dropped. The truck didn’t need headlights to settle into familiar ruts. It moved slowly toward the creek, giving a light skip as it bumped over the bridge.

“I don’t see the schoolhouse.” Mama looked over the marsh into the void. “It’s so black, I can’t even see the bluff.”

SueAnne, gliding over the icy snow, felt the truck lighten, its tires spinning out into runners. They coursed around the turn at the dirt road in a graceful curve, galloped up the hill, arcing to the top, stopping at the gate, the sound of the engine roaring with thoroughbred snorts and pawing, impatient. She jumped to the ground throwing her weight into the gatepost. It gave way, exhausted from too many brutal winters. Didn’t need a shove from the bumper after all.

Mama was ready with both hands wrapped around the wire cutters, resting them on the window ledge with the handles extended. SueAnne snipped the wire strands binding the post to the fence line, shifted the freed post to her arms. The gate leaned inward pulling her with it. She let the post drop. Wide open. They flowed down the hill to the schoolhouse rising out of the darkness. She circled, reversing till the tires rested against the risers, tested the ice on the brick surround. Slick. Walking gingerly, she unhooked the tailgate, gripped Percy’s sledgehammer, and began battering the recessed panel next to the door lock. Two blows, the thin lath splintered leaving a gap-toothed hole. She thrust her arm inside, turned the bolt. About facing, she tugged a plank into position against the door sill. The beveled lip, constructed to keep out the punishing weather, was barely high enough to stop the slide. Eyeing the angle of the slant, she saw an end protruding skyward. Too close.

“What is it?”

“I need a couple more inches.” The board crunched as it hit the brick paving. “Damn! Too far.”

She lifted the plank off the sill, slid it inside the entry, inched the truck back. Perfect. Clambering into the bed, she twisted the first drum onto its side, lined it up, shoved. The planks pitched, but held. The barrel came to rest about a third of the way inside the paneled room. By the time the third barrel rolled over the entry, her muscles were working with precision. A column of dark metal skimmed down the incline skittering across the polished floor, breaking apart each from the other in an ecstasy of anarchy. She snatched the cottonwood limbs. Sprinting to the center of the room, she heaped the dry wood, lunged at the nearest barrel. The fumes intoxicated her. In a frenzy, she went from drum to drum violently attacking those closest to her in an orgy of conquest. Enfolding seeping containers she whirled, poured gasoline over shelves, dousing cupboards, saturating carved panels. Staggering, drunk, she pushed open the double windows. Frigid breezes from the river below cascaded over her, stroking her hair, kissing her lips, holding her in a savage embrace. Calmed, she walked briskly back to the truck, and drove as far as the dip.

“Stay in the truck, Mama.”

The old independence flared. “No, Susie. I want to see.”

Sacrificing Mama to the demons of the night, SueAnne trod the fringe of the tract engraving a trail of ragged tears down the crusty surface. Inside, the schoolhouse was a maze of cottonwood and metal, ugly gashes gouged the meshed tongue and groove, dark spreading stains sent a suffocating stench up the curved staircase into Percy’s darkroom. Threading her way though the labyrinth, she hunkered in front of the gasoline-soaked branches, struck a match, held it aloft mesmerized by the sharp, yellow blaze. A trembling silence surrounded her, the only sound the harsh thud of her heart, not rapid, but slow and dogged. Opalescent with a skim of moisture, features indistinct in the thin light, she held out the torch, laying it aslant the kindling. A blast of heat sent her racing to the door. Hitting the stairs at a run, she lost balance, crashed into the stair rail, recovered, and like Lot’s wife, turned to look. A quivering arrowhead, iridescent tipped with blue, radiated up, billowed out, brightened. Dancing oranges circled the room. Low rumbling, faint, distant, swelled, howling, thrummed the ground.

“Susie! You’ll get killed.”

The call wrapped itself around her like a boomerang, pulling her to Mama’s side. The two women gazed, the night transparent, Mama erect on her cane, SueAnne, shoulders back, chin lifted, posing, exultant. A drum exploded, slivers of sound through the bottom.

“We better go.”

The truck, reluctant at first, picked up speed, burst the night, lights sweeping stunted brush, stark against bands of layered rock. A wind flared up. Expiring snowflakes sent rills of water sloping down the windshield. Quick hairpin curves, a narrowing of the road, a sudden descent, they were in the next valley crossing the tinker toy bridge spanning an unmoving river. The thudding of SueAnne’s heart slowed to a muffled drone. I-15.

“A quarter to five. We’ll be there at five-thirty.”

“I don’t see any cars. Maybe, there’s a storm over the divide.”

“Maybe, it’s the end of the world. Maybe, we went to all that trouble. There’s no one left but us. We’ll get to Butte. It will be empty.” She began to laugh.

At twenty to six, SueAnne left Mama guarding the bags, as she nosed the truck into one of the dirty snow banks dividing the Mooney lot into a maze of irregular spaces. A line of ski-jacketed passengers tailed by Mama was disappearing through the boarding gate, when she reached the terminal.

At the Salt Lake arrival gate, outflanked for the last baggage cart, SueAnne eyed the long corridor crossly, shifting the heavier bag to her shoulder. “This way.”

“I think that guard is watching us.”

“He’s watching everybody.”

“He’s coming over.”

“It’s all right. No one knows we’re here.”

Heavyset, cowboy swagger, the security guard ambled over, blocking their path. “You ladies look tired. Where are you going?”

“Mama’s tired. We’re looking for the International Concourse. Is it far?”

“Yes, ma’am, it’s a ways. I’ll save you the walk.” He stared into SueAnne’s eyes.

SueAnne twinkled. “How are you going to do that?”

“Well, ma’am, I’m going to call an electric cart to come get your mother. You stay put. It will be here in five minutes.”

“Our plane leaves at eight-thirty. Will we make it?”

“Plenty of time.” He wandered off down the hall.

They squeezed past the passenger in Seat C, book held firmly on his lap, not raising his glance as he fended off battering bags. Shoving the luggage under the front seat, SueAnne elbowed the youngster holding fast to his headphones in Seat F. The boy responded with an outraged glare. To make amends, she leaned into Mama, her scarf slapping against Mama’s face skewering her bifocals and smearing Ravishing Red across her cheek. Stomach convulsing in sudden recognition of the inherent farce of it all, tears wobbling on her eyelids, she turned her head away, biting her forefinger to force back the laughter. Buried her head in her hands. Didn’t help.

“If you start laughing, I’m going to leave. I am not going to sit here embarrassed, while you act like a nincompoop.”

“Is she all right?” The man in Seat C closed his book, inclining his head confidentially toward Mama.

“She’s crazy. You can’t do anything with her when she gets like this.”

He scanned Mama’s face. As his mind registered the streak of Ravishing Red, the look of concern dissolved to tentative amusement. “Perhaps, she is unwell. Excuse me,” he ratcheted his tone up a decibel, “your mother – she is your mother, isn’t she? – and I were discussing the possibility of you being ill.”

“She’s not sick. I told you she’s crazy.”

Face mottled by red splotches, eyes bleary with tears, SueAnne sat upright, a desperate, besieging smile curving her lips. “I am fine, thank you.” She was interrupted by a forceful whimper wrenching its way through her chest cavity.

“Where is that flight attendant?”

“I’m fine now, Mama. I promise. Really. I’m okay.”

Interceding before another fit came on, the man made his introductions. “Tom Angleton, here.”

“I’m Clara. That’s SueAnne. Help me with this button, Susie. I can’t get my seat back.”

“My side.” Tom ran his hand over the armrest he and Mama shared. “Got it.”

Mama crumpled against the tilted back, an abandoned puppet smothered in tweed and fur, brightly painted face not yet finished. SueAnne and Tom watched, SueAnne with lacerating tenderness, Tom with mild discomfiture, as lips parted. A wheeze, gentle, regular as a grandfather clock, pulsed upward from deep inside her diminutive form. Exhaustion had won the day.

Tom turned his attention to SueAnne. Disheveled. Remnants of a coil of nutmeg hair clinging to the back of her head. Heavy lashes, dappled irises, brown flecked with black. Hysterical. Sexy. A woman of a certain age. He smiled.

SueAnne, ignoring the invitation, buried her face in Mama’s fur piece. It’s past eight. Dave has checked the cows. I wonder what he thought when he looked at the bluff. A laugh bubbled up. Mama stirred. SueAnne shifted her weight to the armrest next to Seat F, receiving a jab on her shoulder. She pulled herself inward. Would he drive to the schoolhouse first, or go to the cabin? Dave would drive to the schoolhouse drawn by the squalls of smoke raging down the bluff, staring at shooting needles, evanescent, ephemeral, marveling at the tower of river stone rising from embers. He squatted, poking at reflections caught in shards of glass, features locked in a puzzled scowl. Her mind hurried on unbidden, forced its way into a light-filled schoolhouse, rushed past her easel, lingered caressingly on Percy’s desk. Percy pushed back his chair, waving a negative high in the air.

“Sue, this is it. Come look.”

 

Sleepy passengers jolted into consciousness as the plane hit the Calgary tarmac. SueAnne’s eyes popped open, awake, focused, muscles ready to spring. She hugged Mama happily. It was all she could do to keep from singing. Testing her charm on the sulky boy to her left, she good-naturedly brushed off her earlier transgressions, before launching a full bore assault on Tom Angleton.

“Good morning. Sorry about the dustup. It is pure hell rushing to an airport in the black of night. All one’s defenses are down.”

Occupied with her own set of problems, Mama swayed between SueAnne and Tom. “Where is that buckle? I am trussed like a barbecued pig.”

“Leave your seat belt fastened until we come to a stop at the gate, ma’am.” A shaved head sloshed Mama with the glow of a broad smile. “Congratulations. You made it. Welcome to Calgary.”

Social obligations attended, SueAnne dislodged the bags, securing one on her lap, nudging the other into position for grabbing.

“I’ll take that one.” Mama locked onto a leather handle.

“Let me carry it. Look at that crowd.” Passengers bent and bumped, juggled coats, carry-ons, kids, pressing forward like longhorns in a chute. “We’ll be lucky we don’t get trampled in the stampede.”

“I’d be happy to give you a hand with those.” Tom eyed SueAnne with renewed appreciation. Back in control.

SueAnne did a quick catalog. Unwrinkled. Manicured. Barney’s suit. “Thanks so much. We’ll manage.”

Tom determined to be helpful, blocked the aisle, deceiving the tightlipped mob massing behind him with a sympathetic nod. Mama marched briskly through the void following a tortuous exit, the seething throng held in check by Tom’s straddling stance. SueAnne brought up the rear, striving to rein in bags entangling arm rests. Thirty seconds ahead, awake, impatient, Mama stood ignoring the throngs doh-si-dohing around her.

“Follow the herd, Mama. We have to go through customs.”

In a purgatory of frazzled signaling at pellmell taxis, they were redeemed by a familiar voice. “Can I give you a lift? Here, Clara, sit in front. It will be more comfortable.” Tom helped Mama into the car with the gallantry of a royal coachman. “I’ll throw these in the trunk.”

Sinking onto the back seat, soothed by unencumbered space, tension drained from SueAnne. She listened in dreamy anticipation at Tom’s blithe responses to Mama’s tart interrogation. He was handy. Carried the bags. Arranged transportation. Took care of Mama. Smiled. What could be better?

“Where are you going?”

SueAnne opened her eyes. Tom faced her as the sedan idled at a stoplight.

“The bus station.” Languidly, she massaged her shoulders, smiling through drooping lids.

Tom started. “The bus station?”

“Is it out of your way?” SueAnne bolted upright, instantly alert, an edgy brusqueness filing her words. “You can drop us at a hotel. We can catch a cab from there.”

“Are you talking about Greyhound?” Tom’s tone betrayed an undercurrent of puzzlement.

“There is a Greyhound station here, I believe.”

“I didn’t know anyone took the bus anymore. Where are you going?”

“A little town up the road.”

“Perhaps, I could drive you. How far is it?”

“You ask more questions than Mama.”

“What, Susie?”

“No, Mama. I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to Tom. If you don’t know where the bus station is, drop us anywhere. We’ll manage.”

“I know where Greyhound is.” Tom countered her growing irritation with an aggrieved patience. “I thought it might be easier for me to drive you, if you’re not going far. Clara, I suspect, is tired after her flight. Waiting around a bus station can’t be pleasant.”

“Very nice of you to be concerned about us, Tom, but, please, take us to the station or let us out.” SueAnne laid her left hand on the door handle ready to spring as the forefinger of her right hand drummed a biting staccato. “It was kind of you to give us a ride, but, really, we do want to go to the bus station.”

“It’s right around the corner. Unless you prefer I stop right here.”

Bulky figures unraveled from vehicles at the curb fronting the depot, engines idling, steam belching from sooty exhausts. Tom, judging his moment, swerved behind a Volkswagen bus groaning into the slow moving traffic, its fading hand painted peace sign visible through a sheet of ice. SueAnne charged three quick steps to the rear, but Tom reached around her taking both bags. Shouldering the swinging door, he guided Mama through the stuffy room to a molded plastic chair.

Au revoir, Clara.” He touched his lips to her smudged cheek. To SueAnne, he executed a smart salute, exiting unhurriedly from an affair which pointed toward fulfillment at the risk of certain madness.

A spiritless twelve hour trip paralleling Canada’s border burgeoned into a convulsion of stops and starts, scrambled thoughts, murmuring voices, unexpected light. Straggling off the bus when it finally arrived at the Vancouver station, SueAnne did a quick reconnaissance of the waiting room. Lone stragglers clutching crumpled tickets bisected shuffling queues. Heads lolling atop knapsacks, heaped piles of ragged dropouts slept on the floor. Nervous young mothers pushed strollers through a shifting flow of humanity.

A driver lounged against the lone cab in front of the terminal. Drifts of exhaled breath, white in the night air, mixed with an erratic plume of cigarette smoke. He made no move, indifferent to their advance across the rain slick concrete, Mama slow and creaky, bent over her cane, SueAnne’s shoulders sloped with fatigue.

“The airport, please. British Air.”

“It’s a long way, lady. It’ll cost you $35. Fare in advance.”

Gearing up for the dash to the gate, SueAnne tried to conjure up the layout, but the memories got there first. She and Percy landing in Vancouver, the ferry to Victoria. Painting flamingos in the Glass House, Percy drenched in perspiration. The ritual slide of sushi down polished teak, salty smell overwhelmed by a sudden stab of wasabi. Hands touching. Haunted by billowing sheets, SueAnne never made it inside the terminal.

The taxi wrenched her angrily back, plummeting into the surreal world of airport traffic. They zeroed in on the British Airways entrance with time to spare, but not much. She pitched totes to the curb, hauled Mama across the seat, dove for her cane rattling across the sidewalk, hoisted the bags, and clutching Mama’s arm made for the revolving doors.

“Stop it, Susie. I’m about to fall.”

“Mama, we’re not going to miss that plane. See the counter to the right. See the British Airways sign. I’m going to check in. You follow as fast as you can. Don’t get lost. Okay?”

“I’m not going to get lost. My mind is fine; it’s my legs that aren’t working.”

Too soon, they were expelled into the chaos of Heathrow’s vaulted caverns, SueAnne vexed, and Mama indignant.

“My goodness. Look at all these people.” Mama stepped closer to SueAnne evading a group of swarthy-skinned men brushing past them. Women wrapped in saris, trailing scarves, followed in the men’s wake, a sprinkling of babies bundled in their arms. Snatches of Oxford English issued from a swathe of black faces milling around a news stand. Turbans, caftans and button-downs hurried past.

“It’s England, Mama. It’s what happens when you go out and conquer the world. The world comes back and conquers you.”

“Yes, Susie, I’m sure you’re right.” Mama gave SueAnne a sideways glance. “Where do we go now?”

“I don’t know.” A defeat, but there it was. “Maybe,” she shook her head, “no, I’ll have to ask someone. Wait here.”

Mama shifted uneasily on her cane, totting up the odds of not getting mugged before Susie got back.

At midafternoon, a taxi rounded Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green halting before the Shelbourne’s austere stone entrance. A gray-coated doorman snapped to attention. Mama, in zombie-like state, barely responded to SueAnne’s prodding, deaf to her hoarse whisperings. Shuffling through the foyer, her cane tapped a funereal march on the marble floor, a New Orleans’s syncopation marking final passage.

Hollow-eyed, SueAnne scrawled her name on the register, insisted on paying at once for a week’s stay, rummaging clumsily through her purse for newly exchanged Irish pounds. Extracting a wad from an inner pocket, she succeeded in laying an assortment of portraits, stern saints, visionary patriots, poets, on the counter. Success sagged as a slow, unstoppable flutter of notes littered the floor. The notes skittered between legs of passing guests as paper boats children launch skitter across twig strewn ponds on Sunday outings. SueAnne, malevolent nanny crouched on hands and knees, lunged to abort passage.

Summoned by an alarmed desk clerk, Mr. Hanrahan, the Shelbourne’s venerable manager, averted his eyes from the dismaying spectacle. To forestall the inevitable, he stole a moment to reflect on the halcyon days. He recalled with absolute clarity Princess Grace of Monaco gliding across his marble entryway, sable caressing the sleeve of his waistcoat. The grace of Grace set the standard by which he judged the bursting tee shirts and rude voices ricocheting off the hallowed floors, putting paid to his hotel’s genteel past. These two dotty women quivering in front of him would have been turned away from the servant’s entrance when he began his tenure at the Shelbourne.

Eyebrows smooth in quiet defeat, Mr. Hanrahan nodded acquiescence to his bewildered underling. “If Madam chooses, she may, of course, pay in advance. I apologize for any inconvenience.” A furtive grimace flitted across his lips. “If I may be of service during your stay with us, please do not hesitate to call on me. I shall be in my office,” he bowed sedately toward the end of the counter, “if you have need of me.”

SueAnne avoided the eulogized creaking staircase stumbling after Mama into the gilded elevator cage. The bellman waited politely for his tip, proffering helpful hints on the use of the telephone, the best television channels, the resetting of the wake-up alarm, as SueAnne delved for a five pound note. He barely exited before Mama slumped, a depleted heap, on the nearest bed.

Shedding clothes, SueAnne heeled into the shower, hot spray whipping around her. Thick, creamy lather dissolved into translucent pink bubbles. She threw back her long neck tinged with the warm shadow of last summer’s sun. The water rushed through her heavy hair to fall singing between her fingers. Skin scrubbed, a towel wrapped around her head, she lay uncovered on a rosy floral coverlet. Idly tracing a sunbeam swaying across the open drapes, an unexpected swell of happiness lapped her toes. It advanced, fell back. Gained strength. Tickled her knees. Flowed over her stomach. Ebbed. Gathered power, came crashing over her, a gigantic, churning wave, purifying, purging, scraping clean. The surging waters plunged back into the deep, dark sea scouring the scarred landscape, leaving behind a placid, empty shore. Tabula rasa. They had made it.

 

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