by Daniel Brugioni
Stepping out of a supermarket and not being hit with a cold blast that freezes your nostrils and tears the air from your lungs—that’s a surprise I haven’t gotten used to, and don’t mind in the least. Tonight, like all nights on Marathon Key, is lovely. A warm, soft, fragrant breeze blows in off the Gulf, raises the tassels adorning the light poles in the parking lot, greets me, as the sliding glass doors open, like an old friend with news to tell.
I’ve bought only a few things—I didn’t really need to go to the store, but I just love strolling down the aisles in such a far off, wonderful place: it makes me feel at home—even at the edge of the Tropics. And I’m leaving on a cruise tomorrow, and thought it’d be prudent to stock up on some supplies.
I can see why people my age move down here. I’ve been here a week, and the pain in my hip is all but gone. (And I think most of what’s left is just me expecting it, and overcompensating.)
Stopping at the edge of the sidewalk, I look out over the lot. A grove of palms sways before a sodium arc tower, like a troop of dancers in silhouette. Behind it, the white span of my hotel looms miragelike in the newly-full darkness. And behind that, the Gulf Herself. I look forward to lying abed tonight, listening to Her whispering in the curtains.
Millsville, Indiana seems so far away, and good riddance, so far as I’m concerned. The day I left, it was one degree below zero, with a wind that made it feel thirty degrees colder than that. Tonight, according to the flashing yellow numerals atop the Caldo Largo Bank Building, it is 77 degrees at 7:13 p.m. I feel an urge to pinch myself when I think that this is February. Instead, I say another quiet prayer of thanks for my grandson…such a good boy, though everyone had written him off. Everyone but me, that is. To think, it was my son who let me down, and my grandson, whom I had not seen in years, who picked me up. The Lord works in mysterious ways—and also beautiful.
I start across the lot, relishing the way my hip doesn’t hurt, relishing the way the wind feels on my old winter-white skin, relishing the way being able to walk to the store on my own, to buy a bag of ground coffee and a carton of creamer and a bunch of bananas makes me feel—good, like there’s still some life left in my old body, like there’s still a ways to go. I can’t get around very well back home, and where I live, in the Sticks (my grandson’s word) there really isn’t much to get around to, unless one wanted to walk through empty fields and trees full of deer stands at the edge of the Cloud River.
Tomorrow morning, at just before nine, I’ll be leaving. I’ve never been on a cruise before, and I’m eighty-four years old. Just thinking about it makes my knees shaky, like they’re full of water—but in a good way, like I’m a girl, getting ready for her first trip. I am, I decide.
“Evening ma’am,” a tall black man in a uniform says as I pass. “May I help you with those?” I smile and tell him that I’m just fine on my own. I think of my son then, and a wave of bitterness rolls over me.
“Have a good night,” the man says. I tell him to do the same.
Above me, the stars gleam like searchlights, wavering, big as grapefruits. The palms make whisper music. There are no cars on the road, and I cross easily, to home. “My,” I whisper as I make my way through the bright lobby, tipping the doorman a wink as I pass, “how quickly I’ve come to think of this place as home.” I stop before the gold doors of the elevator and, as I wait, realize that I’ve left my cane in my room. The elevator dings and the doors swing open. I laugh. “Going up,” I say to my reflection in faux gold. I’d not forgotten my cane in fifteen years.
There’s something in the smell of the air here, so clean and warm, that makes me sleep deep (and fall asleep fast). Dreams of the most wonderful sort light my nights, most of which involve my husband. He died when I was fifty-seven, and, after a few years, I found I couldn’t remember him that clearly, and so I didn’t really think of him that much. But down here, on Marathon Key, as soon as I touch my pillow, it’s as though he’s waiting for me, holding a light aloft, beckoning. On the night before last, he and I walked down by the Gulf shore, watching the clouds of a distant thunderstorm illumine the faraway horizon. In the lightning, he looked as he did when we were married, a young, clumsy, crushingly-handsome boy just back from the war.
“Mary,” he said. “My little Mary.”
“Let’s move here,” I told him. “I don’t think my old bones can take another Indiana winter.”
“Still living in cloud cuckoo land, I see.”
That’s what he always said to me when we were courting, though he never would explain what it meant.
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“You’ve already moved here,” he said. “With me.”
This made me so happy! We embraced, looking across the expanse of water. Strangely, there was no thunder.
In another dream, last night if memory serves, he led me across the sand to a rowboat tied to a rickety jetty (on the Ocean side this time) and beckoned me, lantern in hand, to climb aboard. “Don’t worry, Little Star, this craft is seaworthy, and I won’t let you drown.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Instead of answering, he pointed towards the stars and water. My eyes followed his gaze, lighting on a huge, gleaming ocean liner. Lights lit up the decks and the masts, every window ablaze with warm liquid fire. When the wind calmed, I could hear music, and though I couldn’t make out the songs, the strains moved me in a way I can’t define. “It’s like angel music,” I said. George nodded and took me by the hand, helping me into the rowboat. “For an angel,” he said.
The dreams ended with my awakening in the predawn, basking in air that smelled like fresh laundry, George’s last words reverberating in my ears: “See you tomorrow, Little Star.”
My last night on the Key, I think sadly as I dim the light and lie atop my covers in the Gulf’s perpetual sighing breeze. My room smells like coffee. I sigh, and cannot sleep. I don’t want to leave.
Waves slosh upon the shore in rhythm with my thoughts, and they turn happier: what, I wonder, is keeping me in Millsville? I loved to wake up early in the morning to feed the animals, sure, but what of that? Weren’t there hungry animals down here? Yes. The Key Deer, so cute and small, even the adults looked like the adorable baby white-tails that came to the edge of my field in the dawn-time, to forage. Raccoons, too, and squirrels, and cats…they are everywhere. I had no friends in Millsville – they’d all either died or moved away and died. Only my son, and he never came…and my grandson, he lives down here.
I think of Casey, then, and my heart swells with sorrow. Of course, Casey— could never leave him. He’s been a friend through thick and thin, always there to greet me in the morning, happy to see me no matter how bad I’m feeling.
“But I could bring him down here,” I say to the room, the waves, the wind. They seem to sigh in agreement: yes, do come. Thus, it’s settled. I rise, and snuff the lamp, and the room fills with stars.
George scarcely waits until I am asleep – here he is, holding his lavender spirit lamp before him, beckoning me to join him, face alight with a smile that makes my heart skip. How I wonder was it that I couldn’t remember him clearly? He is divine!
“Good evening, Little Star,” he says. “How are we tonight?”
I tell him that I am fine, that I have decided to move down to the Keys, once and for all. He merely smiles, waves his lamp across our path, and takes my hand.
“I decided I’ll bring Casey down, too. He’s an old dog, but I think, like me, this air will be good for him.”
“It is an elixir,” George says.
He leads me to the short space of boardwalk at the back of the hotel, beneath a spray of palms that loom remarkably against the star field, through sea oats and tufts of grass stalks that whisper like paper as we pass, on to the beach, where the tide laps obediently.
“Where we were going, George?”
As he had on the previous evening, he does not answer, but points.
The ship I had seen last night, bobbing like a tea light on the ocean, is now at anchor, just a short distance away, so big it dizzies me. (Could one swoon in a dream?) I let out a short gasp and George kills the lamp, tightening his grip on my hand.
“It’s so beautiful,” I say. We move across the sand to a long pier (I hadn’t seen it before) and down it, to where a smiling black man in uniform waits, illuminated before the gangplank—the man I’d seen in the parking lot of the store only a few hours earlier.
“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. LaBounty,” he says as we approach. “Your room is ready, and we’ll be setting sail shortly.”
“Thank you, Derek,” George says, and I nod as I pass.
“Where are we going?” I ask, but George only smiles.
“It’s a surprise,” he says. “And I think you know.”
I think about telling him that I’m booked on a real cruise leaving in the morning, and that I don’t, indeed, know, but I don’t. Instead, I sigh and kiss George on the cheek. We climb the gangplank onto the fore deck, which has been festooned with colorful bunting and streams of lights.
Another man in uniform meets us—Harold; I recognize him from the deli counter at the grocery—and signals us to follow. We can hear a great deal of commotion and conversation from somewhere, but the deck, save for the decorations, is entirely empty. Harold leads us all the way to the front of the ship before turning off the main throughway and down a small flight of stairs. A short, dimly lit hallway later and we have arrived. Our door (complete with small novelty porthole) stands ajar and my breath hitches in my throat.
“It’s beautiful,” I say again. It is. Though the ceiling is low, the room is wide and spacious, ornamented with dark oak paneling and intermittent wall sconces that light the space brilliantly in a dreaming yellow hue. An enormous bed lies below a row of starfilled windows, turned back and ready. Across the room, a couch and two dim-glowing floor lamps wait, before a small foyer giving on the bathroom; I can’t believe what I am seeing. “Is that a hot tub?” I ask. Both George and Harold say, simultaneously, that it is.
This is some dream I think but do not say. Harold stands in the doorway, backlit by the stars. “Dinner is ready when you are,” he says, tips his cap, smiles—and is gone.
George leads me to the bed and we both sit. Looking at him, I have the odd impression of time and dimensions overlapping; at one moment, he looks just as I had last seen him, gray and wrinkled (though still handsome)—old, and at the next, it’s as though he’s been discharged from the War that very afternoon.
A shiver tightropes my spine. George notices and looks at me inquiringly. “It’s nothing,” I say.
“Oh, but it is,” George says, oscillating before my very eyes, smiling warmly. Once, I am sure, for the most transient of moments, that his face is that of a corpse, the way it looked on the morning when he’d gone to the bathroom to shave and had had a heart attack.
“Why am I suddenly so cold?” I whisper. As if in answer, the ship’s myriad engines shudder and then hum to life, vibrating through every pore of wood, through every fiber of my being— a noise so big it is a feeling, and vice versa. George stands and walks to the closet, removes a large bundle from the shelf at the top, and turns back to me, holding a blue blanket, which he unfurls and wraps around my shoulders.
“Our grandson is here,” he whispers. “We’ll see him at dinner.”
I try to tell him that that’s wonderful news, that I’m delighted, but I cannot still the shivering. It feels as though someone were sticking pins into the ends of my fingers. I know that I am dreaming. I cannot awake. George stands, hands clasped before him, his eyes dour, his mouth turned down.
I try to tell him that I must close the windows of my hotel room…obviously the night has turned cold, as is its wont (so I’ve heard) in the wintertime, obviously the warm Gulf breeze has become a gale…but it’s as though my lungs were frozen, my throat as ice.
“In all those years, you never fixed the latch, Little Star?” George asks, smiling ruefully (though quite sympathetically).
I cannot ask him what he is talking about.
“Living alone, so far from everyone…”
I try to tell him that I had Casey with me, that I was not alone.
“Open your eyes, Little Star.” Again, his face is that of the dead man I had seen last, lying prostrate beside the toilet, face half-covered in shave cream. “Open your eyes, my love.”
I do. Sun fills them, and frosty wind. My eyes, focusing to agonizing coherence, light on a span of wasted field ringed by bare trees and, beyond them, the quicksilver flash of the near-frozen river. “What?” I try to say. I can. I am no longer cold. I am lying on the ground beneath the stairs—my stairs. A blur of brown tears across the field’s edge: Casey, roaming the span of bare corn rows and crisscrossing grooves of frozen tractor tracks. My hand…it all comes back to me now.
I had arisen to feed the animals, had let Casey out to use the bathroom. When I tried to get back in, I’d found that the door had locked behind me (on account of the broken latch I hadn’t time to fix). Blood, freezing, lay everywhere…I’d cut my hand.
And then my grandson, whom I had not seen in many years had come, had taken me by the hand, had delivered me…my grandson, such a good boy, though everyone had written him off for leaving us. Where was my son? He was supposed to have come, but he hadn’t.
I close my eyes.
George is beside me, in the sunlight of a ruined winter day, in the windy moonlight of an old gulfside hotel, lit by sconces in a low-ceilinged cabin on our gleaming ocean liner.
“No, Little Star,” he says, and here is the George I knew last, older but lovely nonetheless, composed, still crushingly handsome. “Our son is with you…he just arrived too late. Don’t think ill of him.”
“What happened?” I ask.
But I know. I have come home. To a small Key in Florida, on the edge of the Gulf, where my ship has been waiting, where George has bidden his time in the perpetual summer moonlight, where my grandson has lain ever since he ran his motorboat upon the rocks of a small island in northern Lake Michigan ten years ago (how we thought he’d left us, for he was of that age, and restless, and had never really gotten along with his father). But here he is, now, filling the doorway with his smiling shadow, dressed beautifully in tux and tails. For a moment, his face goes the soft color of seawater, but only briefly, and then he is smiling again, hurrying across the low room to me, ducking to embrace me. “Thank you for coming,” I say, and he smiles and soothes my hair. “We should go, Grandma. They’re about to take anchor up.”
I rise, surprised to find that I am dressed in a sequined gown that touches the floor, which reflects the lights radiantly, which appears, to my dazzled eyes, made of light. With a handsome man on either arm, glad in my heart, we cross the room. Ascending, I see that the deck is no longer empty. I gasp. My friends are all here, smiling for me, clapping for me, singing an off-key though weirdly moving song that raises the hackles on my bare arms for me. A clank from the starboard, and the anchor climbs.
Someone says, “Welcome home, Mary.” It’s my best friend from grammar school, Jeanie, whom I had not seen in fifty years. A chorus then: “Welcome home, Mary!” The crowd parts for the three of us, and we make our way to port, descend another flight of stairs, and enter a long, glowing room, lit brilliantly. My eyes fill with tears as I see the long table, the many, many dishes, the crystal glasses gleaming. They’ve saved me a place next to my husband, next to all my friends.
I sit. Many miles away, on an already forgotten morning, my son is kneeling beside me, laying his hands upon my face. “Mom,” he says. “Mom!” Casey, sensing movement at the far edge of the field, bolts towards it, barking happily.
February 3—February 16, 2008
Hyde Park (Chicago)
For Mary LaBounty