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Authors: Jane McCafferty

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BOOK: One Heart
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But we got too comfortable. And we fell asleep. It was Wendell who woke us. He was dripping wet, so was the girl standing beside him, Jan. I remember looking up at them and thinking, Why are they so wet and cold?

“Where's A.?” Wendell was saying. “Where's A.?”

My hand reached over to the blue blanket, but it was an empty space. I sprung up. And as I sprung up, the whole world got dark for a second. And in the dark there was something evil, a force, or a face. It was there for a split second. I began to shake.

James squeezed the back of my shoulder. He was trying to calm me. I pulled myself away from him. I screamed her name. I screamed it and ran along the edge of the water. But I knew even as I was screaming. I knew that she was on the pond's floor. So I was screaming her name with no hope whatsoever. I could feel that she was gone like I could feel the water was wet when I dived in. James and Wendell and the girl dove in too. It was a fairly big pond, but not all that deep. We were diving for her, all of us.

We dove and dove and finally James said, “She's not in here. Jesus Christ, Gladys, why the hell did we assume the worst? She wandered off into the woods is all.” He called her name. “Where'd you get to, love?”

James's voice was packed with hope. I tried to believe it. But I knew. And I was mad at James for not knowing, hated him for being able to enjoy that bit of hope. I watched James head into the woods. He turned for a split second and looked at me. From that moment on nothing was ever the same between James and me.

“I'll stay with you,” Wendell said.

“No, no, go on with your father.”

I wanted to be perfectly alone. I was so calm.

“Calm?” I remember Raelene saying. “But weren't you screaming on the inside?”

“No, I had the kind of calm that's on the other side of screaming.” It's not possible to say what that's like. But I was where I'd never been before. And never been again. Though part of where I was I suspect is still inside me.

I knew if I kept diving I would find my child. And when I found her, I knew I would find a hole in the world that I would fall through. It would be the deepest, blackest, hungriest hole in the world, and I would fall through, and nobody would follow me down, and I wouldn't want them to. But first I had to find her.

Her body was not on the edge of the pond, but out near the middle. At the time this made sense. Only later did I try to figure out how a child who couldn't swim made it out to the middle of the pond.

And to Raelene I didn't say a thing about how it was to swim with her body toward the land, and I won't ever say a thing about that to anyone, though I did tell James.

I didn't tell him until many years later after this happened, though. Because I hated him so much, hated him immediately, hated him more than I loved him, and hated myself even more than that, which was powerful hatred.

I hated myself too much to weep. Weeping in grief is a kind of pleasure. The only pleasure when it comes to grief. I felt I didn't deserve it. No release. Not for a minute. No pleasure, ever again.
No consolation
. So back at home, with Wendell locked in his room throwing a ball against the wall for hours, and James in our room weeping for two days straight, I was sleepless and out on the back stoop chain-smoking. And hating James more and more the more I heard his crying. The grand indulgence of his crying.

So you can see by nature I'm partly cold hearted. And even then I knew that. I thought to myself,
A good woman would go comfort her man, a good wife would hold her husband as he weeps. A good woman wouldn't sit here frozen up with rage, a good woman would run to Wendell and tell him time will heal
.

*  *  *

Does time heal, or is that just something we like to say to people? I don't believe it
heals
. Not really. Time goes by, and the buried pain gets duller, true enough. But is that healing? Was I healing as I froze? No. Healing is something else entirely. It happens within time, but it's not just time doing the trick.

Half a year after we lost A., I got the news that my father dropped dead of a heart attack. It happened in public, on a street in New York City, where nobody knew him. I went to his funeral, but I didn't digest a thing. Not possible. And years later, when my mother died, which was four years after Wendell was killed, I went to that funeral too. All I know is I sat in the front pew with my eyes closed. I tried to hold a picture of my mother in my mind, but couldn't. I'd see her, then she'd start to shatter into pieces. It didn't hurt a bit. And the faces of my children would blend into her shattered face. Then the face would explode like confetti and fall. I watched the explosion, didn't feel a thing but dizzy. I looked at the coffin and thought, She's in there, and didn't feel a thing. But the person I suddenly missed was my father. Missed him like I was a child, like he could come and gather me up. I remember my heart like a car starting to plow into a field of quicksand. I remember I slammed on the brakes and coughed too loud until I felt safe again. Everyone has a time in life where they think,
Cry now and you'll never stop
. Maybe it's these times where you have to say, “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, I'll cry for the rest of my life.” But of course nobody in their right mind makes such a choice. Not usually. You slam on the brakes, thinking you'll save yourself. You won't make a show. You'll be strong. Ivy sat beside me, her head down. I felt her look at me several times with her side vision. Her hands trembled. What she digested, I never knew.

After that night in her cabin, Raelene would sneak out of her cabin sometimes and sit with me, out on the back stoop of the house. The end of May. A number of the summer campers hadn't even come up yet, just the ones from certain private schools that let out early.

Raelene didn't make too many inroads with the other counselors. They'd asked her, “Where do you go?” Meaning what college. She just looked at them, not understanding the question. They said, “What college?” and she said, “Not sure, maybe next year I'll go somewhere.” Well, that would've marked her an Ada the Fringer in their book. If they hadn't already decided that.

She was glad for my company out there on that stoop. My reading stoop, as I called it. Ivy would poke her head out the window and say, “Do you think this is right?” or sometimes, “Keep it down, ladies.” Because we would be laughing and talking and drinking beer. “Come join us, Ivy,” we'd say sometimes, but Ivy felt left out anyway and always said, “I got too much to do, maybe some other time.”

One night out on the stoop on the first of June after it had rained all day and the kids were all wild banshees doing indoor arts and crafts and Raelene was feeling restless, Raelene said, “You ever want to leave here and go someplace else? I mean someplace that's not a
camp
?”

I really hadn't given much thought to that. But I said to her, “Hell yes.”

“Maybe you and me can get some bus tickets. Remember Hambone? The friend I mentioned? He's like a guy I can trust. We could visit him.”

“He's like a guy you can trust,” I said. I liked to tease her about the way she talked. She never minded.

“Yeah,” she said, “He's like that.”

“I don't know Hambone from Adam,” I said.

But I was already seeing myself flying through the country.

You might not want to put yourself on a Greyhound when you're almost forty-eight. Unless the trip's short. The destination particular. Don't just get on the bus with a young girl like Raelene. Buy a train ticket if you need to get away. Don't let a girl tell you, “We can just waitress our way across the United States!”

“You waitress, I'll sit on my hind quarters and watch, honey,” I told Raelene. She gave me one of her smiles.

And I was already on the bus. I have to say at first it thrilled me, just looking out the window. I didn't expect it to feel so good. I put my head against the windowpane and felt the vibration of the bus. I watched the land open up, the sky get bigger. I got off and on the bus with Raelene, the tour guide. Greasy spoons were palaces to Raelene. “Look, Gladys! Real genuine midwest coffee cups!” Whatever that meant. We got off and spent one night in a motel called The Wayfarer in Indiana. That was also a palace for Raelene. “Look at these great little soaps! They're so cute!”

Of course on the bus I was putting up with the usual Greyhounders. Half had just escaped from the nut-house. A man named Albert across the aisle never shut his mouth. I had to hear his couthless stories. He would look across the aisle and say, “Your arsehole gettin' sore?” He didn't understand when I ignored him. “I
said
your arsehole gettin' sore yet?” he'd say. And when I still didn't answer he'd say, “Blessed are the bus riders, for they shall inherit sore arseholes!”

“If he's still here tomorrow we'll need to kill him,” I told Raelene, who threw her head back and laughed her way through the whole ride. Laughed and laughed. That's what you do when you're young on a Greyhound. It's all a big adventure. It's all a laugh riot. You think every lunatic in your path makes the world a little more special.

Finally Albert got off the bus. A girl took his place. She was Amy, she was a talker too. We had to hear all about her rock and roll band, the Helen Kellers. But she was a relief after Albert. She had some couth. We got off the bus with her in Lincoln, Nebraska. She promised us showers.

I'm forty-eight years old traipsing down the street in Lincoln, Nebraska, to visit the house of one of the Helen Kellers. It's getting dark and I'm thinking, Okay, Gladys, you can wake up now, the dream is over. The little dream is over.

Our tickets let us get off and on whenever we wanted. I wanted off, but not in Lincoln. At that particular point, I wanted off the earth, not the bus. But I walked down the street to Amy's house. Raelene and I sat and drank water on her lumpy couch. “So here's to Nebraska,” Raelene said. Amy changed into a purple robe and what looked like white go-go boots, then took us out to her backyard. I thought I'd leave then, I thought I'd go find the bus and just go home. Rather than stay and feel ridiculous.

Instead I sat down in the room Amy had set up in the back of her house. It was a ridiculous room in the middle of a wheat field. A blue couch covered with plastic. A rickety blue table, a hat stand. I thought, Now I'm dreaming someone else's dream. Amy smoked marijuana from a small pipe. “Do you mind?” she said. “I'm not your mother,” I said. “If I was, you wouldn't be wearin' those go-go boots.” She smiled. “That's cool. That's cool.” Then she inhaled too much, had herself a minor coughing fit. She passed the pipe to Raelene, who said, “I hate drugs, I hate all dope, I don't get near it, I'm straight.” She folded her arms. She'd seen enough of drugs in her life.

“Really? You look like you know how to party,” Amy said.

“Well I don't,” Raelene said.

Amy told a long story about her friend who was going to be famous soon, if his record “Come to the Salmon” caught on. I could try hard and never forget the name of that song. She sang it for us. She stood looking down at the ground.

Come to the salmon

with me and me

Come, come to the salmon.

“Can I use your phone?” I said when she was done. I went inside and called Ivy.

It was quite a phone call. Ivy said, “Heard from James, Gladys.”

“Did you really?”

“He called to see how you were.”

“Is that right? And how am I?”

“Sound like the same old Gladys to me, only now you're far away.”

“I'm in Nebraska, Ivy.”

I wanted Ivy to say, “Why? Why on earth are you in Nebraska? You should be here, helping me. The kitchen's falling apart.”

But she said, “Nebraska. Bet that's pretty.”

I wanted to say, “Ivy, I miss you.” I did miss her. How could I sit in an outside room and watch a young girl smoke marijuana and sing a song called “Come to the Salmon” and not miss my sister?

Instead I said, “It's flat,” meaning Nebraska.

I never could say things like “I miss you.”

I said, “Bye, and tell James if he calls again I said hello.”

I didn't sleep that night. I sat in Amy's outside living room on the blue couch. All night long. A big moon lit the room. I might have dozed, but mainly I just sat there. I sat there wondering what I was doing. I couldn't begin to tell myself.

Amy drove us to the bus station the next day. She drove shaking her head and saying, “Pretty pe-culiar, pretty-pe-culiar.”

“What's peculiar?” Raelene said.

“You two. Not even mother and daughter. Traveling together. Peculiar, that's all, peculiar.”

Amy liked that word.

Back on the bus, I slept. Raelene met a boy. This boy would change her life. Funny thing to say, I know, but it can happen like that. Unexpected. He was a scrawny kid with a goatee in a white undershirt. A hyper kid with what they call a boom box for his rock and roll music. Next time we stopped, it was Fargo, North Dakota. The Frank Powers Hotel. The boy and Raelene holding hands, Raelene with her eyes on me, afraid I'd feel left out. “Relax,” I told her. I was happy to get off the bus. Happy to see that hotel. I wanted a shower. That's all. I wanted to get the grime of the bus out of my hair. Off my skin.

Now poor Frank Powers was ninety or a hundred years old, and he took us up on a manual elevator, and charged us each a dollar for a shower. Terrible showers. A trickle. No pressure whatsoever.

“Might as well hire a dog to piss on your head,” I told Raelene and her boyfriend. His name was Anthony. The two of them practically threw themselves down on the floor laughing. Like I was the funniest woman alive. I stood and watched them. I closed my eyes. I was homesick. But not for any home I'd ever had. Not for any home I could even dream up.

BOOK: One Heart
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