Authors: Michael Zadoorian
I think of my closet full of linens at home being sold at an estate sale. When I used to go to the sales, I never even considered buying anyone’s linens. Old sheets are just too personal, too full of dreams.
I pull out an old white sheet, almost worn through, that will suit our purposes nicely. I step outside to find John at the picnic table, quietly weeping.
“John, what’s wrong?”
He looks up at me, eyes red and wet, brimming with frustration. “Ella, Goddamn it. I can’t get this thing started.”
It disturbs me to see him cry. “Sweetie, it’s all right. Let me see.” I look around and find that he has plugged the extension cord to the outside outlet, but has not connected the projector cord to the extension cord. “It’s okay. You just forgot to plug this in.”
John lifts his glasses, uses the heels of his hands to wipe his eyes, pressing hard into the sockets. “
this memory of mine.”
I kiss my husband’s cheek and hand him a Kleenex from my sleeve. “Come on. Let’s watch some slides.”
It’s a long sunset over Lake St. Clair. Our daughter, Cindy, is lounging on a dock in her middle teens. We can see only her silhouette, her then-new young woman’s body set against the sky, which is fiery orange and gold with streaks of periwinkle. The colors seem artificial now, sharpened red with time, hyper-real like the colors of my dreams, on those occasions when they are in color. (As old as I feel, I’m sometimes surprised that my dreams are talkies.) It was a cottage where we spent many summer weekends, one that we shared with my brother and sisters and their families.
“Who’s that, John?” I ask, testing him. “Do you know who that is?”
“Of course I do. It’s Cynthia.”
“That’s right.” I’m holding the remote button. I click to the next slide. There is a shot of the four of us all together, a lovely one that John must have taken with the self-timer on the camera. We are all gathered in our shorts and bright-colored shirts and blouses after a long day outdoors. We look sunburned and happy, except for Cindy, who is sulking, most likely over some boy.
“That’s a nice shot, John.”
A few slides later, we are in the kitchen of the old cottage. My baby brother Ted and his wife, Stella, are there with their three kids, Terry, Ted Jr., and Tina. (Some parents are determined to alphabetize their offspring and there is no way to
talk them out of it. I always felt bad for Stella, being one letter off from the pack.) My older sister Lena is there as well with her brood. Al, her soak of a husband, was probably off getting sloshed in the garage. He spent most of his time there, near the beer fridge. (Cirrhosis, when it happened, was no surprise to any of us.)
“Looks like a party,” John says.
In the slide, people are standing around a table, helping themselves. The table is covered with lunch meats and potato chips and macaroni salads, Jell-O salads, bowls of dips and crackers, bottles of pop (red, orange, green) with names that I barely recognize: Uptown and Wink and Towne Club. I think about dozens of other photos like this one over the years, huge spreads of food, tables covered with it. I think about the people in the slides, most of them gone now, heart attacks and cancers, betrayed by the foods we ate, by our La-Z-Boys, by our postwar contentment, everyone getting larger and larger in every year’s photographs, our prosperity gone wide.
Tonight, though, what makes this particular photo interesting to me is
. (Why are we always attracted to the image of ourselves in a photograph? This doesn’t change, even at my age.) I’m in the background of the photo, standing in a corner, staring off to the side, not talking to anyone.
“You were sad that night,” says John, out of nowhere.
I’m surprised that he would say this. But looking at the slide again, I realize that I do look sad. “I was? What was I sad about?”
“I don’t know.”
Suddenly, I want to know the cause of my sadness. It becomes very important to me to know, but I can’t remember.
Behind us, on the road, a young family stops and waves. The husband, a dark-haired athletic fellow in his thirties, smiles robustly like he knows us.
“How you doing there?” he says, tugging his reluctant little towhead boy our way. His wife, a pert blonde in a pink sundress, follows behind, indulging her chatty husband in a way that looks mighty familiar to me.
The wife kneels down to the boy, points up at the screen. “See, honey, that’s what things looked like in the olden days.”
The boy, who looks about seven, is wearing a T-shirt that says:
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, BOUGHT THE T-SHIRT.
I recognize the look on his face. He wants to escape, probably to go play with his Game Boy, if he’s anything like my grandkids.
“Nice setup you’ve got here,” says the husband.
“We like it,” I say. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to say much more. I’m hoping John will say something, but he’s concentrating on the screen. A few years back, you wouldn’t have been able to shut him up. John used to love to gab with strangers. He and this fellow would have gotten on famously, chewing the fat about the weather or camping or our respective destinations. But now, John sits in silence. The family stays for a few slides, then says good-bye. I’m glad when they leave, slightly annoyed with the blonde’s comment about “the olden days,” but mostly just ashamed
of myself for my envy of their youth, of their lives so full and unfolding before them, of their complete unawareness of their great good fortune.
Some other folks walk by, and I have to say they get bored pretty quickly with our lives projected up there. Then a man and a woman in their late sixties come by. They stand and watch for quite some time. I can tell it’s not just a quaint amusement to them. This is probably what their life looks like, too.
When our kids were growing up, their idea of hell was to watch slides. When Cindy was a teenager, she couldn’t run from the living room fast enough when we’d drag out the projector. Kevin wasn’t much better. I’d make them watch for ten or fifteen minutes, then they’d get so fidgety that I’d let them go off so John and I could watch in peace. But in the past few years, both kids have come around. They like watching slides now and so do their children. I think they’ve realized that this is their history. It’s the history of all of us.
Up on the screen it is a different day on that same summer weekend, a barbecue with everyone outside playing catch, children doing somersaults for the camera, everyone loading up on hot dogs, hamburgers, mustard potato salad, three-bean salad, and ambrosia salad. The other cottages behind the people in the slides look bland and generic, like theatrical backdrops meant only to fill the eye. During a horseshoe match, I am far in the background again, looking no cheerier than before, yet John kept including me in his shots. I don’t know why. Then I remember something. I remember John waving at me
from behind the camera that day, trying to cheer me up. It was shortly after my third miscarriage, the baby I had carried for so long, then so suddenly lost. Crushed, I had given up on having a second child at that point. A weekend party was the last place I wanted to be, but John and my sister Lena thought it would be good for me.
Even though I know the ending to this story and it’s a happy one—I changed doctors, and a year and a half later I gave birth to Kevin—it still wounds me to see that pained young woman up there trapped in her horrible present. I stop clicking forward and continue to stare at my blurry, background self. I am barely recognizable as I start to dissolve. I don’t proceed to the next slide. The oldsters wave good-bye to us and head back down the road, probably thinking that I’m nuts. They may be right. We’ve barely watched a tray and a half of slides, but I think we’re done for the night.
After passing the Route 66 Flea Market, the Route 66 Drive-in, the Route 66 Salvage Yard, another Route 66 Diner, and the Route 66 Bookstore, we enter Kansas. I’ll say this: there may only be twelve miles of Route 66 in Kansas, but they are very well marked. Not only are there “Historic 66” signs everywhere, but the 66 insignia is also painted on the road practically every ten feet. They don’t miss a trick.
Yet the joy of crossing a state line is short-lived. John and I soon find ourselves in “Hell’s Half Acre,” a dire, barren landscape of coarse scrub, welts of dried muck, and random piles of crushed rock. My guidebook says this stretch of land was permanently damaged and depleted by years and years of strip mining. I don’t like this place one bit. It makes me think of smiling, cruel-faced men cutting into the earth, ripping every
thing out, all the while telling you something good will come of it, but leaving only scar tissue.
I feel for that earth. After a lifetime’s worth of appendectomies, episiotomies, cesareans, hysterectomies, lumpectomies, hip replacements, knee replacements, endarterectomies, and catheterizations, the landscape of my body is its own Hell’s Half Acre. (More like a whole acre in my case.) A topographical map of stitches, scars, staple marks, and the sundry etchings of medical procedure. So this time, when the doctors were, for once, loath to slash me open, you can see why I was glad. You can see why I had to take off with my husband and hit the road. Sooner or later, enough is enough.
Here’s how it works: doctors like to save people, but when you’re talking about someone who’s eighty years old, what the hell is there left to save? What fun is it to cut
open? They’ll do it if you really want, yet they’re sure to let you know of the complications. The dastardly buggers pull out tongue twisters like “comorbidities.” It’s a word that takes you a while to figure out, but once you do, it makes perfect sense. It’s the horse race between the things that are eventually going to do you in:
Coming up to the stretch, in the lead is Metastasized Breast Cancer! Second is Advanced Hypertension, behind him, Carotid Blockage is a distant third with Kidney Failure bringing up the rear. Oh! But coming on strong is Ischemic Stroke! Now Stroke is neck and neck with Breast Cancer! Stroke, Cancer! Cancer, Stroke! Ladies and Gentlemen, what a race!
Besides Eisler Brothers’ Grocery Store, the only pleasant sight my guidebooks and maps mention is an old bridge referred to as a “Marsh Rainbow Arch.” There used to be three of these long, elegant rainbow-shaped 1920s bridges in Kansas, but the other two were torn down, so now there’s only the one left. I direct John toward it. In no time at all, we see a lovely little concrete bridge, a long arching span, recently painted white, over a short drink of a creek. Someone has stenciled the 66 insignia at the end of the rainbow. There’s no one around for miles, so in the middle of it, I tell John to stop the van.
“What?” says John, not sure if he’s hearing me right.
“Stop the truck, John.”
Once he does, I open my door and get out. I go stand out on this tiny bridge that links the two sides of Brush Creek.
“For Pete’s sake, what are you doing?” says John, peeved.
I don’t know, but all I want to do right now is stand here for a moment. According to the photos I’ve seen, the other two bridges were much bigger and even lovelier. They were destroyed simply because someone thought they needed something new and bland. Why does the world have to destroy anything that doesn’t fit in? We still can’t figure out that this is the most important reason to love something.
I feel at home here braced between shores. It’s how I feel these days, stuck between here and there, dark and light, heaviness and weightlessness. I lean over the edge of the bridge and try to peer deep into the water, but it’s dark and murky.
.” I look down the creek and spot something along the side. It’s a creature of some sort—cat or muskrat or beaver, with a kind of slick black fur. Whatever it is, it’s been dead for a long time. I don’t know if this is what made me want to stop and look, but if it is, I’m sorry I did. A vision of death is not what I needed. In fact, seeing it makes me fumble myself back in the van, holding on to every extra handle John has jerry-rigged over the years, faster than I can usually move these days.
“Let’s get the hell out of here, John.”
We pass through Baxter Springs. Shortly afterward, there is a sign that says
WELCOME TO OKLAHOMA.
“That was fast,” John says.
This is how quickly we go through Kansas. Even John notices.
“I’ll say. We’re really making great time today,” I say, smiling at him. He smiles back. He seems good this morning, so it’s a surprise when he says what he says to me.
“Ella, have you seen my gun around?”
I’m not really sure what to say. His gun is here in the Leisure Seeker, but I know he doesn’t know where it is. I made sure of that. Anyway, it’s really
gun and we’ve always traveled with one, especially the last twenty years. It’s quite illegal taking a firearm across state lines, but we need something to protect ourselves.
I suppose that I should explain right here that sometimes John, in his more lucid moments, wants to kill himself. He has not said this to me in so many words, mind you, but I know that is what he is thinking.
Decades back, John’s mother had the same disease he has now, only then they called it “hardening of the arteries.” He was not terribly close to his mother, but her illness made a huge impression on him. Truth be told, she was an unpleas
ant woman who believed that the world owed her much more than she ever received. I don’t believe that she was ever really close to anyone, not her two husbands, not her son or daughter, and she certainly wasn’t close to me. Even still, it hurt John terribly to watch her turn into something that was much worse than his unhappy mother. Toward the end of her time at home, she would be up and down all night, wandering her neighborhood, prone to fits of rage and apoplexy.