Terminal Gravity

The thirteenth was Mom’s birthday. She turned seventy. For several years she’d responded to my happy birthday wishes with the ominous, “I’ve now lived (fill-in-the-blank-number) years longer than my own mother who died at age sixty-three, God bless her.” Sometimes her words sounded defiant. Other times, haunted. This year I planned a preemptive strike. Even before heading off to work that morning, I phoned her.

“Happy birthday, Mom! You’ve outlived Grandma by an auspicious seven years! Let me take you to dinner tonight to celebrate!”

“Who is this?”

“Very funny. How about Chinese? You like Hung Far Lo, right? That neon pagoda place on 82nd Avenue?”

“It will have to be early.”

“Sure.”

“I’ll check the paper for two-for-one coupons.”

Mom could not take pleasure in spending money, even mine. There was no point trying to convince her that I could afford the tenty bucks it would cost for an order of spring rolls, two chow miens and tea. No soft drinks. The profit margin on soda was astronomical according to Mom who was happy to share details with anyone who asked and a few who didn’t. She suggested sticking with water. Tap, of course. I told her I’d pick her up at 5:30.

I left the office early because I knew she’d be pacing the floor at 5:15 and, if I showed up even two minutes past the designated time, she would insist on calling off the whole thing because we were “too late.” Too late for what, exactly, was never specified and I knew better than to ask because there was no answer, at least no logical answer, and pointing that out would only make us both mad. When I drove up I saw her standing in the front window waving me inside. I got out of the car and she met me at the door.

“Hurry,” she said, “we need to get the guest room ready for your sister.”

I thought she was confused. Mom mixed up things more and more often, transposing dates, missing appointments, calling people by the wrong name. She even, at times, referred to Dad in the present tense though she recovered quickly and pretended she’d simply misspoke and not forgotten the fact that she’d buried the love of her life three years earlier. I found it much more disconcerting than she did.

“Lizzie called this afternoon,” she said excitedly. “She’s flying in to surprise me for my birthday.”

“Surprise.”

“We need to make up the bed in the guestroom, dust the shelves, clear some space in the closet. Do you think you have time to vacuum?”

“When does she get in?”

“You might need to change the bag in the vacuum. Cat hair. We’ve got to leave in about thirty minutes.”

“She can’t take a cab?”

“Don’t be silly. She’s your sister.”

There go my spring rolls.

***

but said,”When is her flight?” Mom had a habit of showing up early for everything. I wondered if I had time to run home and change. My skirt felt snug around my waist.

“It’s nice,” Mom said, “to dress up for the airport.”

The Minneapolis airport was second in line to Sunday church for reverence in Mom’s book. If she ever got on a plane herself, I imagine she’d genuflect in the aisle before taking her seat.

I blitzed the guest room while Mom fluttered nervously about offering helpful hints on cleaning. The vacuum bag did in fact need changing. I ended up with a lap full of cat hair on my work skirt. Mom insisted I get under the bed because “Lizzie was allergic to angora,” and I was too exhausted to explain the difference between rabbit fur and dust bunnies so got on all fours and snagged my pantyhose on the floorboards. They were brand new, straight out of the package that morning.

My entire day was like that. I had a new student, a transfer from the public school, who was determined to establish his place in the fourth grade pecking order with smart aleck remarks, and the kids were so wound-up, they couldn’t focus. I was going to need the rest of the week just to catch-up on lesson plans.

When I finally pulled my nose out from under the bed, I found Mom waiting with her coat buttoned up to her neck.

“Let’s go,” she said, “We don’t want to keep Lizzie waiting.”

She tied a scarf over her head even though it was probably close to 68 degrees out and my car was not, needless to say, some snazzy convertible. As I backed out of the driveway, Mom said she didn’t know if the cat was inside or outside. I braked. “Inside,” she decided. I checked the rearview mirror twice to be sure then noticed Mom holding a Tupperware box in her lap.

“Chocolate chip cookies,” she said. “Lizzie loves my cookies. She can buy all the fancy food she wants in New York City but there’s nothing like home cooking. I took a meatloaf out of the freezer for tonight.”

“I thought we were going out.”

“Lizzie loves my meatloaf.”

I bet she did. Lizzie loved to regale her fancy friends with tales of our mother’s cooking. I was there when she spun an elaborate story about being served Ritz crackers with Kraft spray cheese, imitating our mother forming orange smiley faces on the round crackers with the artistry of an insane Leonardo da Vinci. Lizzie’s friends nearly split their sides laughing. God only knew what my sister would do with Mom’s frozen meatloaf.

I didn’t mind shuttling Mom around. She had the good sense to stop driving after she backed into a Mercedes at the mall, pulled forward and dented a little MG. All the St. Christopher medals in the world couldn’t keep her safe behind the wheel and I was happy to keep her off the road for everyone’s sake. Still, I resented playing chauffeur to Lizzie. My sister could afford a cab.

The entire drive to the airport Mom talked about my fabulous sister and her fabulous career. Granted, it’s only a 20-minute drive and only felt like this side of forever. I never understood what my sister did for a living — something to do with finance. Her business card read, “consultant” and when I asked her to elaborate she gave some cryptic answer like, “I make investors happy.” Or “I make CEOs weep.” If I met a complete stranger on the bus and he said he was an accountant, a banker or a salesman, I’d have some idea how he spent his days to earn a paycheck. All I knew about Lizzie’s job was that it wasn’t the kind little kids dreamed of doing when they grew up. But she made a lot of money. She made sure I understood that much.

I intended to pick up Lizzie curbside. Mom said she’d already told my sister we’d meet her at the arrivals gate and Lizzie had a new cell phone number that Mom couldn’t recall. I didn’t trust Mom to go in while I waited behind the wheel, or rely on her to stay in the car while I ran inside. I paid to park.

The terminal was a zoo. Some school group was flying to Washington, D.C. and all the kids’ carried hulking big backpacks of which they were apparently completely unaware. I got whacked in the arm by a bag of bricks wrapped in green Gore-Tex. I elbowed my way through the crowd to check the screen for arrivals. Flights from Chicago, Portland, Kansas and Los Angeles had recently landed.

“There’s nothing from New York,” I said. “Is she flying through someplace else?”

“You know your sister. She would never take a connecting flight! She’s a direct girl, my Lizzie.”

“A flight from L.A. landed ten minutes ago. I know she does a lot of work on the west coast. Did she say if she was coming in from L.A.?”

“Listen to you! West coast. Ell-Ay! You sound so international, just like Lizzie. She’s coming from Enn Why See! New York City. Get it?”

“The only flight from New York is a Delta out of LaGuardia that isn’t even scheduled to land for another forty minutes.”

“That’s it.”

“Mom!”

“I didn’t want to be late. You know how Lizzie hates to wait.”

I said nothing. There was nothing to say. I sat Mom down in the least sticky blue vinyl chair I could find and told her to wait while I ran to The Blue Moose kiosk for a coffee. Mom said she didn’t want a drink. I hadn’t offered. When I got back I found her sitting with both hands on the Tupperware container in her lap, smiling idiotically at empty space.

“Lizzie is going to Paris, France next month on business,” she said before I even sat down as if we were in mid-conversation. “Doesn’t that sound exciting?”

“Wee. Wee.”

Mom tapped her fingers on the plastic lid, a happy little beat she identified as “Frere Jacque.” I hadn’t asked. She’d decorated the box using colored markers. They were not permanent. Green and blue ink stained her fingertips. When she rubbed her nose she made a smudge on the side of her face like a comic book character left out in the rain. I didn’t tell her.

“They speak French.”

“Who does?”

“People in Paris.”

“Of course they speak French in Paris. They’re French.”

“Well, par-lay voo France-say?”

Mom raised one eyebrow indicating the answer to her question and my only failing grade back in seventh grade when Madam Lubowski decided to teach her 7th graders the romance language by popping a video in the VCR while she went out for a smoke. No one in that class learned a lick of French although some practiced foreign kissing techniques in the back corners of the room.

“I’m asking you,” Mom translated, “if you speak French?”

“Touché.”

“Two what?”

“Nothing. Hey, we’re going to be here a while,” I said removing the lid of my coffee. “How about one of those delicious cookies for dunking.”

“Lizzie’s cookies?”

“Never mind. I’d don’t want to spoil my appetite before your meatloaf.”

“Lizzie loves my meatloaf.”

We talked, well, had parallel conversations like that for a while. Mom offered running commentary on everyone who walked by — she admired the cut of someone’s coat, thought a tall brunette should consider highlights, figured a crying kid needed “a snack or a smack,” wondered where a fat man was headed and if he had t blood pressure issues.

“Did you notice the . . . “ she asked, wiggling her fingers to indicate the sparkly rings worn by a bosomy blonde. “Do you think they were real?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“It’s hard to tell with jewelry,” she said after a while, “but her you-know-whats were definitely f-a-k-e-!”

She was still teetering over her risqué little observation when she leapt up, nearly knocking over my coffee, squealed “Lizzie!” and ran toward my sister.

Lizzie all but pried our mother’s arms off with a crowbar while trying to move out of the flow of human traffic, greeting her with a correction.

“Mom, you know I go by ‘Liz’ now.”

“’Liz?’ You’re so formal!”

“No, ‘Elizabeth’ is formal. ‘Liz’ is just Liz.”

“A professional gal needs a professional name.”

“So what are the rest of us?” I asked. “Amateurs?”

“Hi Peg,” she said, extending a hand like we were freaking business acquaintances.

“Hey,” I replied, my hands planted deep in both pockets. “How’ve you been. . . Lizzie.”

She looked old. That was my first impression. Lizzie had been lying about her age for decades. First she lied older. Then she lied younger. Somewhere along the line her lies and her years crossed paths, but she was pushing forty whatever she claimed. I’ll admit she had all the components of a classic beauty — high, cheekbones, chiseled nose, full lips and almond shaped eyes. But Lizzie forced her natural good looks into the mode-of-the-moment. It was like watching a perfectly good evergreen shaped by a gardener with a grudge against nature. It didn’t help that her hair looked stiff, brittle blond and pulled back in a severe ponytail. Maybe her new ‘do was considered modern in Manhattan but in the light of the Minneapolis St. Paul airport, she simply looked harsh. Mom once described Lizzie’s natural hair color as “wild honey.” My sister could cover her roots with bleach and disguise her humble background with fancy airs but there was always something about Lizzie that remained a little wild.

My own hair hung thin and limp to my shoulders. The girl who cuts it told me the color was dull. She’s probably right. I ran my hand over my head as Mom and Lizzie walked and talked a few steps ahead.

“You should get it cut,” my sister had paused for me to catch up. “A blunt bob would give you a more sophisticated look.”

“Thanks for the unsolicited advice but longer hair suits me fine. My 4th graders always guess I’m much younger than my years.”

“How’s their math?”

Mom laughed. I bristled. She thrust the ink-stained Tupperware box of cookies toward Lizzie. The lettering had smeared beyond legible so Mom recited the words.

“’To the Big Apple from the Little Apple.’ You live in the Big Apple. We live in the Mini Apple. Mini-apple. Minneapolis. Get it?”

“Got it.”

Lizzie made no effort to take the package from Mom. That’s when I noticed she was not pulling a little black suitcase behind her like she usually did. This meant either she planned to stay so long she’d checked a big suitcase, or she’d forgotten her bag onboard and thieves were possibly rifling through her collection of fabulous fashions and overpriced lipsticks even as we talked, and wouldn’t that just be too bad.

“Are you here for long?”

Lizzie indicated a wall of monitors up ahead, “Let me just double check the Singapore flight. I think I have two-and-a-half, maybe three hours.”

“Huh?”

“I purposely booked this flight because of the stopover,” she said. “I’m usually in such a hurry but figured, you know, Mom’s 70th birthday. My flight out of New York ran late. I hope we still have time to grab something to eat. There’s a new PanAsian restaurant in Terminal B that’s supposed to be good. I’ve got some interested investors but the location’s a gamble. Wait here.”

And she was off. And I did wait, not because my sister told me to but because I was stunned, literally, stopped in my tracks. I turned to Mom, “Did you hear that?”

“The airplanes?”

“Lizzie is on her way to China on business. She’s only in Minneapolis a couple hours. She’s not staying with us. She never had any intention of staying with us.”

“Oh.”

Mom managed with that one word — not even an actual word but more like a sigh sound with the benefit of formal spelling — to reveal that she did, at some point anyway, have an inkling that my sister’s visit would be brief. She stared at her hands. Across the aisle, Lizzie did a little pantomime indicating she needed time to straighten something out at the ticket counter. Mom wandered over to the windows to watch two planes taxing slowly down the runway. I stood for a while between the two of them doing nothing. Then I followed Mom, not because I was curious about takeoffs and landings but because, really, what else could I do? She stood before the smudge-free glass as though it was a big screen TV turned to a particularly dull channel. I plopped down in an empty seat directly behind her.

“I think that’s Liz’s plane right there,” I said.

“It’s not Lizzie, it’s Liz,” said Mom.

“I said, ‘Liz’s plane.’”

“I know what you said, but it’s not Lizzie, it’s Liz! Anyway, I think that one over there is your sister’s plane.”

Mom pointed to a big-bodied jet with the word United painted in six foot-tall letters on its side.

“No,” I said. “I believe that’s a United.”

“What did Lizzie fly?”

“Liz flew Northwest.”

“Maybe that next one is hers.”

“No. That’s an Alaska.”

“Who’s that on the tail?” Mom adjusted her glasses to get a better look at a shadowy outline of a face. “Is that Lincoln? It looks like Abraham Lincoln. Now, why would they put a picture of Abraham Lincoln on an airplane from Alaska?”

“It’s not Lincoln.”

She suddenly began to sing, loudly and rather out of tune, “’Born on a mountain top in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free.’ Tennessee. Hmm. I guess not. I thought maybe he was born in Alaska.”

“That was Crockett,” I said. “Davy Crockett was born on a mountain top in Tennessee.”

“Well, then!” Mom said, slapping the top of her Tupperware for emphasis. “Maybe Lincoln was born in Alaska!”

When that plane finally took off, Mom cheerfully waved goodbye to the fur-clad Eskimo emblem on the tail as though he were smiling just for her. I actually felt relieved when my sister joined us again, ten minutes later.

“I just wanted to make sure they had my upgrade,” she said. “Business class is fine for domestic, but not all the way to Singapore.”

“God forbid.”

“Do you have one of those new seats that go all the way down to make a bed? Mom asked.

She was glad Liz would get a good night’s sleep. She wondered if Liz had remembered to put her name on her suitcase as if my sister’s expensive designer luggage was summer camp underwear. Mom said, “You should always put your name tag on your suitcase.”

“My name is on it.”

“Good. It won’t get lost. I don’t suppose there are many Lizzie Kalaputiks in the world.”

“Not a one that I know of,” said Lizzie.

My sister had briefly been married to a Joseph Kalaputik. They met through an art appreciation class at the New School when she first moved to New York, and were wed in a civil ceremony a few months later. Mom and I met him only once when Lizzie flew to Minneapolis for a conference, and he joined her on the weekend. He was short and shy with a little blond moustache. He liked musical theater. They were divorced within a year; irreconcilable differences. Mom continued to address all my sister’s mail to “Mrs. Joseph Kalaputik,” which irked my sister. Even when she was married, my sister went by her maiden name. After the divorce, she particularly resented Mom’s traditional labeling and once refused to accept a Christmas package from home, returning it stamped, “Addressee Unknown.” Mom scribbled “Nonsense!” across the top and asked me to drop it back in the mail. I swear, that damn package would have traveled back-and-forth between them for all eternity if I hadn’t stepped in, relabeled it and shipped it UPS to Lizzie’s office.

Turned out, Lizzie had less time than she’d planned. She hurried us to a nondescript restaurant in the main terminal overlooking the runways, ordering even before we could scoot into the booth.

“A half decaf latte with two percent and waters all round ASAP. I’m between flights,” she said, adding. “Please.”

The waitress could tell Mom was going to need more time so scurried off to get Lizzie’s drink first with the promise to return with menus. My sister set her carryon bag under the table. I don’t know what she’d packed but, as I politely pointed out to her, all 40 pounds of it was on my right foot.

“My laptop,” she said, coming as close to an apology as she ever did.

Lizzie told us she was on her way to several meetings in China starting in Singapore, then “onto the mainland” and Tibet. The hotels “were comped” she said, meaning someone else was picking up the tab, and her business contacts were going to take her on a personal tour of the Forbidden City, and another planned to show her Chairman Mao’s personal residence. For almost an hour, Mom and I sat listening to tales of my sister’s fabulous life and career saying virtually nothing ourselves except, “Uh-huh, uh-huh” and “Cheeseburger, medium-rare, with fries” to the waitress and a few more “Uh-huh, uh-huhs.” No one else seemed to notice that the coffee was three bucks a cup and bitter besides until Lizzie looked at her watch and announced it was time for her to go.

“So soon?” Mom said.

“We don’t want her to miss her flight.”

I reached for the bill but Lizzie beat me to it saying, “Expense account” and pulled out a platinum credit card. Then she sucked down all three glasses of water leaving lipstick on the rims, saying how important it was to remain hydrated on long flights.

“Thanks. I’ll remember that next time I fly to Pago Pago,” I said.

“It’s pronounced Pan-go Pango.”

She left a five dollar tip on the table.

Mom and I walked her as far as security. Lizzie said she’d send us a post card. Mom said they probably had pretty stamps in China. Lizzie said she’d look for the prettiest. She hugged and kissed Mom twice on the cheeks like she was freaking European, then turned, waved and blew a final kiss through the air. Mom reached up, pretending to grab the flying kiss, and clutched it to her heart. Lizzie laughed then disappeared. Mom stared at the empty space once occupied by her oldest daughter as though Lizzie left behind a shimmering golden aura in her wake.

I tugged on Mom’s sleeve, “Let’s go.”

“I sure hope she gets a good night’s sleep,” Mom said.

“I’ll be up all night worrying about it,” I said.

“If you need them,” Mom said helpfully, “I have sleeping pills.”

“How many?”

As we pulled out of the parking lot a jet roared overhead casting a shadow like a giant crucifix over the car, I swear, even though it was already dark. I wondered how many she had and how many it would take.

END

(This short story originally ran in the Skive Anthology published in Australia: #fiction #short story #humor)

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