By Greg Moody
“Time’s a tiny coin
A penny in your pocket
A thing you think you can save”
— Roseann St. Aubin
The reunion over, the two women wrestled the wheelchair down the driveway, gravity and the incline threatening to pull it out of their hands.
“Who is going to drive?” asked Mary Lou.
“We may not have to drive,” JoAnn answered. “Let her go here and if she can make the turn at the bottom of the hill, gravity should get her most of the way home.”
“If she doesn’t make the turn, she’ll be in the river.”
“If she floats, the river goes right past her place,” JoAnn replied.
Their brother, Dave, hurried down the driveway toward his car.
“I’ll drive,” he called.
The 97 year old woman in the wheelchair was their mother. She was the reason they had gathered here today. As the wheelchair approached the car, she looked back sadly at her younger son remaining on the porch.
Watching this comic drama unfold before him, he pondered any number of questions. When did his family all get so old? How did his mother keep going after a seemingly continuous series of strokes? And, perhaps most importantly, why wasn’t he coming along today?
Yes, he was exhausted. Yes, he had a plane to catch. No, he didn’t know when he would be back.
No, he didn’t know if he’d ever be back.
There were things to do. There were schedules to keep.
His three siblings maneuvered the frail woman toward the front seat of the SUV, as she looked back again at the man on the porch.
With that look, as tired as he felt, he suddenly realized that he had seen all this before, on a hot and humid day in Halstead, Kansas, nearly fifty years ago.
Leon Moody stood in the heavy oak dining room of his home.
It was his home. At least that he was sure of, having lived here for twenty years. He recognized that fact, even though he now lived in a steel, chrome and glass room that forever smelled of disinfectant and boiled peas. He remembered this place, this home, where he was safe.
What he didn’t know was why he was here now, right now, inside this house that was filled with neighbors and friends and people he assumed were family, as if they had gathered for some reunion that was both noisy and quiet at the same time. People talked in whispers, while others talked too loud, some told stories that made no sense, while still more told jokes that were not funny, but somehow were followed by the sound of polite laughter. There were cakes and pies and cookies and casseroles on every conceivable space, from the kitchen to the dining room to the bookcases in the parlor. No one could eat that much food. His home smelled of a highway diner, scents sweet and savory colliding in each room of the crowded house until he had to escape.
He slid through the kitchen and quietly outdoors, past the old women in their flower print dresses and their men in ill-fitting suits, to the patio, the red brick patio he had built himself — with Pearl.
That was when he realized.
Where was his wife? Where was Pearl today?
He hadn’t seen her since two of his sons had brought him home.
You’d think that Pearl would have been standing there to meet him, as she had for fifty years.
Why not now?
The confusion clouded his mind, reshaping his memory. Why had they been saying, “Sorry, Leon, sorry about Pearl?” He rolled their words and sympathy in his mind, until the realization crashed upon him like a wave, physically pushing him farther onto the patio, closer to her garden, where he caught himself in an arbor surrounded by cedar trees and sunflowers.
Pearl was gone. Pearl died.
He remembered that now.
A tear gathered at the corner of his eye and began to burn as it moved slowly through the weathered folds of his face.
Leon hadn’t noticed the boy standing there, on the edge of the patio looking toward the arbor. He wondered if he had stumbled right past him as the reality of his day slammed him back into the yard.
“Are you okay, Grandpa? You almost fell down there.”
“I’m, I’m fine,” Leon whispered, as much to convince himself as the boy.
The boy considered what to say, a litany of platitudes racing through his mind.
“Sorry about Grandma.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
“How’s your room in Altamont?”
“I heard you escaped from the place, jogging down the road to do a ‘job for the government.’ That’s pretty cool.”
The boy thought of hundreds of things to say, rich memories of their time together, of the unbearable excitement of waiting for Leon and Pearl to arrive for a Michigan vacation; of the nightly walks, hand in hand, down to the Halstead train station to stand ten feet from the tracks as The Super Chief came roaring through at 75 miles an hour; of the race to finish ice cream, all the while risking brain freeze, as it flowed down their hands in the humid Kansas heat.
The boy wanted to say it all, to remember it all with him, but each sentence died on the edge of his tongue.
The boy did the only thing he could think of doing, he threw himself forward in a rush and buried his face into the shirt front of the old man. The old man responded in kind, pulling the boy close.
The two shuffled together toward the worn wicker chairs, where the boy helped the man sit down.
“Are you alright?”
The old man nodded. “Yes, I’m fine. You …” He struggled to remember. “You’re … Greg, right? You’re Don’s boy.”
“Yes, sir.” His heart rose that the man remembered.
The old man snorted.
“Nobody has called me sir in years. My father used to call me sir when I got thinking I was too good to work on the farm.”
“What was the farm like?”
“I never said? Well, my father was a farmer up in Riley, Kansas.”
His voice grew distant in the flush of memory.
“You wouldn’t know about the farm, now would you? I’d take you to it, show it to you, but it doesn’t exist anymore. The Army took over all the land and put a base and a big reservoir on top of it. But that’s where I grew up …”
And the dike, slowly at first, then with greater urgency, began to unleash a torrent of memories that captivated the boy and kept the man from embracing the grief that so desperately wanted to take control of his heart.
“I got really good at farming, but when we lost the farm to the Army, I went into teaching at college. That’s where I met your Grandmother. But, I kept up with the farming, you bet. Look at that garden …”
The boy turned to look at what appeared to be a forest of tomatoes and vines and melons and corn.
“I did that. I just loved doing that. I planted everything this year just before they sent me away …” his voice trailed off.
“How’d you meet Grandma?” the boy blurted, trying to keep the conversation flowing.
“Well, that’s another story altogether …” he smiled, before going off on another tangent of his life, this one a warm and graceful memory that still embraced his heart.
They talked about school. They talked family history. They talked about funny things the boy’s father had done when young. They talked about friends and dreams and memories long past.
They talked about life, until a moment came when their lives seemed bound together.
They had talked in the past, but never talked like this. The boy wished it could go on forever.
The screen door squealed open.
“Dad,” his son Dick called, “why don’t you come inside. A lot of people want to see and talk with you.”
And while Leon knew that wasn’t true at all, that likely no one wanted to talk with the widower on a day like this, he nodded and slowly rose to walk toward the door. He stopped, turned, and put his hand out to the boy.
“Moral support?” asked Dick from the porch.
“No,” answered Leon. “I just like having my friends around.”
And they walked into the house together.
Inside, the house, through the kitchen, the two parted the sea of mourners like a boat moving slowly on a quiet lake. The crowd parted, silently, their eyes cast down, as Leon smiled and nodded and held tight to the boy’s hand, trying desperately not to break into tears as he thought of Pearl.
As they moved into the dark wood of the dining room, Leon stopped. Something wasn’t right. He looked to his right, then, left, glanced behind, then straight ahead. Everything in the house, everything that had been his life, had a tag on it. And each tag read “Jim.” His oldest son was claiming Leon’s life for himself.
The TV, the tables, the chairs, the sofa, the pictures, the dishes — all marked. They all had a tag and each tag read “Jim.”
He turned to the boy.
“Have you been out in the garage?”
“Does my car have a piece of tape on it?”
“What does it say?”
The boy whispered, “Jim.”
Leon nodded. He looked around his home, trying to find anything from his life that hadn’t been claimed yet. His mind raced, what’s still here? What’s worth anything to anyone?
An idea pushed itself forward to take possession. It was a memory of something packed away, years ago, in a common cardboard box in the darkened back corner of a drawer.
“I know, I know,” he said, pointing at the roll top desk. “There.”
He pulled the boy over to the desk with him, angrily tearing off the taped name tag. He reached down to open a lower drawer, then, straightened up. He couldn’t quite do it anymore.
“Open that drawer for me, will you, Greg?”
Greg nodded and bent to the task. He pulled the drawer opened as far as it would go.
“See that blue and white box in the back?”
The boy nodded.
“Pull it out.”
The boy pulled the dusty blue box out into the first sunshine it had seen in years.
“Bring it over to the table and open it up.”
As Greg opened the box, dust rained down onto the patterned lace tablecloth that had been Pearl’s pride and joy.
“I’m sorry, Grandpa.”
“Don’t worry.” He smiled. “She won’t notice.”
Inside the box were seemingly hundreds of pages of onion skin typing paper, some clearly typed, others clearly a copy of a carbon of a carbon of a copy.
At the top of some sheets were the words, “The Home Town News,” while others bore a very official looking printed masthead of “The Moody Bugle.”
“We were in the newspaper because of these,” Leon said. “See? The article is right on the top.” He held up a sheet headlined “The Moody Bugle.”
“The paper even printed us our own letterhead. Isn’t that neat?”
The boy stared at the newspaper story, featuring a picture of Grandpa and Grandma as he had never known them, then, looked beyond into his own past.
“They’re the letters we wrote to the kids each week during the war. They were all over the world. Don was in Europe. Larry was in Greece. Margaret Ann was in nursing school, Dick was in the Philippines … there were Moodys everywhere. So, to keep in touch with all of them, we would take a typewriter, open up the paper holder, roll in onion skin and carbons, seven or eight copies, then, once a week, bash away on the keys, trying to write one letter you could read on even the very last copy. Oh, God, our fingers would hurt. Once, every seven weeks, wherever you were in the world, you’d get the worst copy, which was tough to read, then, the next time, you’d get the top copy, which was easy and we’d cycle through again, good to bad to good again. It was quite a system.”
“This is so cool.”
“It’s a history of your family at war,” he said, quietly. He picked up the box and flipped it this way and that, quickly examining it for name tags.
“He hasn’t claimed these yet. Why don’t you take it upstairs and hide it in your room. I want you to have this.”
“No, Grandpa. You should give this to one of your kids.”
“They don’t care anymore. People grow up and they just don’t care about where they’ve been and what happened to them. You still do. I can see it in your eyes.”
The boy paused for a moment, growing close to tears, then nodded, closed the box and quickly moved through the crowd of mourners to the stairs. He went up to his room and buried the box deep inside his suitcase.
He hurried back down to the dining room, where Leon waited, still alone.
“Now, if we could get some of these stickers off,” Leon whispered, “I’d give you the whole goddamned house.”
As they walked in the door of the funeral home, Greg felt Leon squeeze his hand. The boy recognized the touch and the need and responded in kind. He was both sad and nervous to be there as well. As they turned the corner into the main room, Leon gave a sharp intake of breath. There lay Pearl’s casket.
The casket was closed.
“I want to see her.”
“I know, Grandpa.”
“I want to see her one more time.”
“I know, Grandpa. Let’s go up and see.”
The two walked slowly to the edge of the catafalque. Leon ran his hand across the top of the polished wood.
“I want to see her.”
Don came up behind the two and answered, “Mom wanted a closed casket, Dad. We’re only following her wishes. She didn’t want to be on display to the world.”
“What about me?”
“That’s what she wanted.” Don smiled sadly and walked away.
Leon looked at the boy. Greg looked back. The silence carried a weight between them.
Finally, Leon whispered, “Let’s open it up.”
“Do you think we should? Grandma said …”
“Grandma said a lot of things. I want to see her just once. Just for a moment.”
“Grandpa, I …”
“Open it up with me or get over there and keep guard.”
Greg paused for a moment. He hated funerals. He hated caskets. He hated even the thought of dead bodies. But, he knew that this was different.
It was a simple act to answer one man’s desperate plea.
He sighed, drawing on a mixture of school boy courage and false bravado.
“Okay. I’m ready.”
Leon looked around. Everyone was in the back of the room, gathered in the same groups they had been in at the house, talking the same quiet, mindless chatter that had passed the time there as well.
The boy wrapped his fingers under the edge of the lid.
His grandfather nodded.
The boy lifted, slowly, trying to avoid any angry squeals of the hinges that would immediately give them away. The lid caught. It was locked.
The two backed away and examined the polished oak box. There was no obvious lock, but — there was a button about three-quarters of the way down the front half of the lid.
“Okay, I think I’ve got it,” the boy whispered. He felt like a burglar, though he refused to consider what he was about to burgle.
The two moved back toward the edge of the casket. The boy wrapped his fingers around the edge of the lid again and put his thumb on the bronze button. He pushed. It stuck. He pushed harder and it snapped. He lifted the lid quickly, the heavy lid screaming in anger over the breaking of the rules.
The old man looked down and smiled.
“Hi, Pearl,” he said to his wife.
From the rear of the funeral home came a great, collective intake of breath, full of a surprise and anger just short of outright shock.
After the funeral director restored order, the casket again closed, the ceremony proceeded with a long, deathly eulogy by a Presbyterian pastor who recognized Pearl on sight but obviously knew nothing about her. Leon fell asleep in the front row chair to which he had been banished following the opening of the casket, while the boy, still with him, refusing to leave his side, joined in Leon’s rhythmic breathing, leaning his head against the old man’s shoulder until he, too, fell asleep.
The funeral procession moved north through the small town, across the Santa Fe tracks, past the train station and the park, through a forest of grain elevators, toward the burned out grass of the village cemetery. The day continued on in the late June heat of the Kansas plains, both the old man and the boy clutching tightly, out of love, yet also for support, as they wore down both physically and emotionally.
They both cried at the grave, the man knowing that his wife was gone, the boy realizing, more clearly than he ever had, that this man he loved would join her here soon enough.
Storm clouds began to gather in the late afternoon heat, leading one neighbor to proclaim, “looks like we’re in for a whopper.”
As the storm clouds drew in, the day itself quickly began to draw to a close. The procession moved back to the home on Poplar Street, where the women gathered their serving plates and casserole dishes, while their men posed in dark, frayed suits under the cedar trees for one last cigarette. People came up and shook Leon’s hand in goodbye and sympathy. Some shook the boy’s hand as well, not knowing who he was, but knowing that he had spent the day at the old man’s side.
In their world, that was enough.
As the last of the neighborhood mourners departed, Leon’s sons gathered around both him and the boy.
“It’s time to head home, Pop,” said Larry.
“Back to Altamont,” said Eugene.
“Time to go, Dad, for all of us,” said Don. “As soon as Larry and Eugene are back from dropping you off, we’ll take off for home as well. It’s going to be a long night of driving.”
“Don’t go,” whispered the boy. “Stay.”
Leon turned and pulled in close.
“Come with me.”
“Dad says I can’t.”
He wanted to be with Leon, but he wanted to be alone with him.
It began to sprinkle.
“Can you come along?” Leon asked, hopefully.
The boy’s mouth moved, but nothing came out.
His father answered for him. “He’s tired Dad. He’s really tired. It’s been a very, very long day. And, frankly, with Dick and Larry and Eugene and Jim in the car along with you, I don’t think there’s going to be room for one more.”
“Can you come?”
“Grandpa, I want to …”
“Dad,” the boy’s father responded, “I told you — as soon as they get back from dropping you off, we’re going to leave. Greg’s got to pack. We’ve got a schedule to keep.”
The boy understood the arguments. He knew all that, but he wanted to, he still desperately wanted to go, even though he had reached a point in his day when his mind was shooting sparks as it desperately tried to make sense of the moment and the people and the house and this man and every emotion he felt raging through his soul.
“Dad,” the boy’s father said, “he really can’t. There’s really just no room.”
The old man nodded and walked toward the car, looking back every few steps in the hopes that the boy had changed his mind and was running toward him. The boy’s father held Greg tight on the off chance that the boy might do just that. There was, seemingly, no release, no more time together, no possible ride into the darkness with a friend at his side.
Knowing that, and despite the fact that his sons surrounded him, Leon broke free and hurried back to the boy.
“I haven’t got much,” he said, quietly. “Somebody else’s name is on everything I ever owned.” He fumbled in his pockets. “But I do have this.”
He pulled a black, plastic coin purse out of his pocket and pressed it into the boy’s hand.
“It’s nothing. It’s silly,” he whispered. “I think it’s got eleven cents in it,” he chuckled, sadly, “but it’s yours.”
The boy began to cry.
“It’s perfect, Grandpa.”
The boy swallowed hard. “It’s you.”
“Look out for those letters,” Leon said. “They’re yours now.”
“I will. I promise.”
He ran his hand along the boy’s head.
For the final time, the two embraced.
Without another word, Leon broke away, walked to the car and climbed into the middle of the back seat, where he was immediately surrounded by his sons, as if to block any final attempt at escape. He turned to look back.
The boy waved, tears streaming down his face.
The car started, the tail lights flashed, and it began to roll into the mist. The car made a right turn out of the driveway and began to pick up speed.
Leon turned one last time and waved.
The boy paused, then, broke from his father and ran down the driveway, turning into the street after the car. He watched the tail lights flashing once, blocks ahead of him, already turning left toward Main Street and the road leading back to the nursing home.
He stood in the wet street, knowing that no matter how tired he was, how busy they were going to be in the next few hours, how much still remained to be done, how much farther he still had to travel, he had missed his one, last, best chance.
If only he had pushed himself five more steps into the car.
“Yes, I’ll go.”
It was as simple as that.
And, if he had, he wouldn’t feel this way now.
An emptiness colored by a growing and eternal disappointment in himself.
His three siblings continued to wrestle the 97 year old woman into the car, their exchange creating its own comic routine in the process.
“Mother, let go of the car.”
“Get her feet, get her feet.”
“No, Mom, don’t grab that, that’s me and that doesn’t like being grabbed.”
“Turn, turn, turn, now, sit.”
“NO! Don’t sit yet, she’s too far out, she’ll miss the seat and wind up in the middle of the street.”
The people remaining at the house chuckled, then, turned to return indoors to the air conditioning.
Greg remained, spent from a long weekend on an emotional roller coaster with a woman who had not only given him life, but driven his entire life. Her series of mini strokes had made communication difficult, her stories wander, her memories scatter shot and often mistaken. Over the course of three days he had been her nephew, her husband, her cousin, her friend from Rose Street, her old elementary school principal and a long dead family dog, but there had also been moments when she clearly knew and understood who he was and where he lived and who made up his family and that he was a long way from home and had come a thousand miles just to see her for the weekend.
She understood it all, somewhere, deep in her heart.
The weekend was now, officially, over. He had been present for all of it, but now, just needed to sit down, to put all the emotion in the proper compartments and prepare to leave for the airport.
Yet, somewhere inside that familiar sense of exhaustion, that sense of still more to do and schedules to keep was a memory that drove him back in time, to a similar moment, standing under a cedar tree in a misting rain, as an old man begged quietly, “come with me.”
He hadn’t gone then.
He hadn’t taken the step.
On that day, he failed the test.
His hand roamed the change in his pocket until it found the small black, plastic treasure that had always been with him. Cheap then, fragile now, treasured always, as was the eleven cents within, as were the Moody Bugles, safe at home under special care.
What was time? What were airline schedules? Nothing more than social constructs to keep order in a disorderly world.
What truly mattered were the people you met along the road and with whom you shared the journey.
“I’m coming too.”
As Greg jogged down the driveway toward the car, his mother looked out of the front passenger seat and smiled, an enormous grin of laughter and surprise, as if she had just received a great, unexpected gift.
— fin —
(“Winter Haiku #1 used with permission — Roseann St. Aubin, 2015)