Authors: Michael Zadoorian
Our doctor at home, after hearing what happened and a thorough examination, told us that John had what is commonly referred to as an anxiety attack. An
. Can you imagine?
John laughed it off. I personally didn’t really think anyone of our generation could suffer from such a condition. Anxiety was for our children and their children, but not for people who had grown up during the Depression, who had fought in
the war. Who has time for anxiety when you’re trying to fill your belly or keep your head on?
I see now that the doctor was right. I believe this was when John was starting to truly understand what was happening to him. We have always been worriers, both of us. I’m just more likely to worry out loud. John keeps it in, like a man tends to do. I imagine him realizing with a horrible finality that he was indeed going to end up like his mother. Who knows what triggered it? But I imagine him running it through his head over and over as we drove along. That was enough to leave him breathless and heaving by the side of the road. And that, as they say, was the beginning of the bad times.
We eat lunch at a little barbecue joint called “The Pits” in Claremore. Both John and I feel better now, but then barbecue pork sandwiches will do that. John is an unholy mess with orangey-red sauce and grease smeared on his face and fingers. I look much the same way, I imagine.
This is our trip to eat anything we want. You have to remember, after you achieve a certain age, there are always people telling you what to eat and what not to eat. We start off in this life on milk and pablum, and they’d like to finish us off that way as well. (But without the milk because, you know,
.) I say all this now, but I know, even with the Pepcid we took in the car, there will be gastric hell to pay later for this barbecue sandwich.
“You two look like you’re enjoying yourselves,” drawls our
waitress, a rangy middle-aged redhead with too short a skirt, who appears from nowhere.
I smile, wipe the sauce off John’s face, then my own.
“More tea, dear?” she says to me, her voice thick and low pitched, already refilling my glass.
I have never been
ed so much in my whole life as on this trip. If you’ve experienced that first middle-aged shock when you become “ma’am” or “sir,” it’s nothing like when you become “dear.”
“No, thank you,” I say, smiling back. It doesn’t really matter because she has already filled the glass. “My back teeth are already floating.”
Normally I wouldn’t say anything like that, but I don’t seem to care lately.
When she leaves the check, I grab my purse from down between my feet (away from pickpockets and sneak thieves and such) to fetch my wallet. I give the money to John and let him go up to pay. Meanwhile, I hunt down the ladies’ room. As I sit there on the pot, I look up and see that someone has written something in a delicate script on the stall door.
Love Always, Charlie
Who the hell would write something like that in the ladies’ room toilet? The world just keeps getting stranger. As I wash
my hands, I worry that John has taken off on me, but when I exit the restroom, he’s waiting for me, nice as you please, polishing off a Hershey bar and talking to Red like it’s old home week.
“We’re headed back home to Michigan,” John says to her.
“I’ve never been to Michigan. Is it nice?”
“It’s wonderful,” says John. “We’ll be back in a day or two.”
I don’t bother to correct him. As I approach, he holds out his arm for me to take. It makes me glad to be married.
We pass on the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore. I never much cared for the man. A big phony, I believe. Anyone who never met a man he didn’t like just isn’t trying hard enough. I roll down my window all the way and hang my arm out. The wind tries to push my hand back, but I flatten my palm and hold it strong against the flow for a moment, then dip my hand horizontally, then cup it as if I were swimming. I weave my hand up and down, a reverse sidestroke through the air. There is a strange freedom to this gesture, a childishness, I know, but it feels good to be silly. There is so little silliness at this period of one’s life, but it’s the time when you need it the most. I cup my flowing hand and keep swimming in the wind and to my surprise, water soon appears along the side of the road—a long swimming hole, with a fringe of bulrushes, and a giant blue whale smack in the middle. Bright as the sky,
mouth open and smiling, squealing children diving off his concrete back into the water. I sweep my arm forward and am suddenly swimming with the whales.
Sometimes when you least expect it, your life becomes a National Geographic special.
Before Tulsa, I direct John onto the I-44 bypass. We pick 66 back up at Sapulpa. Suddenly, I’ve got some considerable discomfort. I want to take a little blue pill, but I don’t want to do it until we’re settled.
“John,” I say, trying not to sound too weary. “I’m tired. Maybe we should find somewhere to stay for the night.”
“What time is it?”
The clock in the van has been broken for years. My watch says it’s only 3:05, but I don’t want to get into it with John about not traveling long enough.
“It’s after five,” I say, lying to my husband. “Let’s keep our eyes peeled for a place.” I go into my purse for my little blue pills. I try to break one in half, but it won’t break. Against my better judgment, I take the whole thing and wash it down with a sip of Faygo Root Beer.
Within ten minutes or so, I feel a little better, but start getting drowsy. Up ahead, there’s a billboard for a gas station in a town called Chandler. I remember something from my guidebooks about a good place to stay there. No sooner do we enter town than I see the sign for the Lincoln Motel.
“John, turn in here. I’d like to sleep in a real bed tonight.”
John does what he is told, I’m happy to report. We turn in and park by the office. Even feeling as rotten as I do, I have to
say that the place is just darling, an old-time motor hotel from the ’30s. Luckily, there’s a vacancy.
When we drive along the back to park near our cabin, I notice something. “John, look at all these old cars.”
“How about that,” he says, giving a little whistle.
I point to one bulbous, bullet-nosed, gray-green car in particular. “John, there’s a 1950 Studebaker. Remember? We had one like that a few years after we got married. You taught me how to drive in that car.”
“I’ll be damned,” he says. “That was a good car.”
“God, did you scream at me that day. I was so mad at you.”
John shakes his head. “You were an awful driver.”
I want to tell him to cram it, but the fact is, he’s right. I was an awful driver. I never really got the hang of it. I was always afraid of going too fast. I hated freeways and left turns and parallel parking. I was constantly getting yelled at, either by John or people in other cars. Still, it’s hard to live in Detroit if you don’t drive. Yet as soon as the kids were old enough, I let them drive me everywhere. I gave it up for good right after Kevin got his license.
“There’s an old Imperial. That’s a beauty,” says John, checking out a gaudy lavender boat with gargantuan fins and ringed taillights like gun sights.
Yes, we are definitely from a car town. We park next to a shiny red Ford Pinto with a license plate that says:
Our cabin is small, but clean and comfortable and all I want to do is go to bed, but I have to make sure that John is settled in as well.
“Let’s take a little nap, John. Then we’ll bring in our things.”
“I’m not tired.”
“Well, I am.” I turn on the television to distract him. We start watching an old rerun of
and John is immediately absorbed. I swear, he’s seen every episode a hundred times, but he still loves to watch them. I think that’s why he can still enjoy them. They’re familiar, but new. I lock the door, then settle into the too-soft bed, deeply weary.
When I wake up, John is gone. It’s only 5:25
, so I haven’t been sleeping long. I pray that he has not wandered off somewhere. I swing my legs over the side of the bed and raise myself, using both my cane and the night table. Standing somehow makes me feel better, as if I am fooling my body into vigor. I open the door of our cabin and am relieved to see John sitting on a lawn chair, just staring into space. On a little table next to him is our slide projector.
“I set up the projector.”
“Good for you, but it’s too light to show slides.”
“I can see that, Ella.” He can still remember to be sarcastic when need be.
“Well, good. We’ll set up the sheet in a little while. Come
on, let’s go rustle up some sandwiches. I’ve got ham and bologna. What sounds good?”
Why do I even ask? He had a bologna sandwich every day for thirty-five years when he was working. Bologna with one slice of American cheese and a smear of mustard, cut top to bottom, not diagonally. I could make them in my sleep.
We walk around back to the van. I hope the projector will be all right because I don’t feel like moving it. I make us sandwiches and potato chips and root beer. My discomfort has subsided and I decide to whip myself up an old-fashioned. I dig out the booze, find a couple of desiccated sugar cubes in the cupboard, and I’m in business. I top the whole kit and kaboodle with a skewered orange slice and a cherry. It’s not an old-fashioned without. John just gets another glass of pop. The sun’s going down and he’s a little less sharp now.
“Is this home?” he says, as we settle on lawn chairs outside our door.
“No, honey. We’re not going home. We’re on vacation.”
I know this trip is hard on him. The only things that tether him to the world are our house and me, and I’ve taken away our house. But no one, not our doctors, not our kids, not even our congressman, can convince me that this vacation is not a good idea. Hell, it’s the only idea we have left.
At first, all you see is a dense forest: sky and earth both mottled with brilliant gold and crimson and orange, a bonfire of color. It’s as if fall itself has seeped into the film. Then when you look closer, deep into the blazing trees, you can see something else—the outline of the Leisure Seeker. And next to it, another camper that looks just like it, owned by our friends Jim and Dawn Jillette. The two vans are parallel to each other, their extended canopies almost touching. We used to do that to create a common area, somewhere we could move a picnic table, a place to play cards. Sometimes if it was raining, Jim and John would throw a tarp over the gap between the two canopies so we could walk freely between them.
In the next slide, the two of them are at a picnic table playing pinochle. Jim, smoking a pipe, his wire-rims wedged above his eyebrows, is frowning at the cards in his hand. Dawn, auburn hair held back with a mauve kerchief, is laughing at him. At the bottom of the frame is John’s freckled hand, fanned on the gingham oilcloth.
“There’s Jim!” says John, with more enthusiasm than I’ve seen him display this entire trip.
“And Dawn,” I say.
For an instant, John sounds like his old self. J.J. was his nickname for Jim. They worked together for many years at GM, which is how we all got to be friends.
Jim? I haven’t seen him in ages.”
I sigh and turn to John. “Dear. Jim died eight years ago.”
“He did? Jim’s dead?”
“Yes, honey. Don’t you remember? We went to the funeral.” We’ve been through this before. John has forgotten all that he doesn’t want to remember.
“Aw, damn. Is Dawn still around?”
“I’m afraid she died a year before him.”
“Aw, Christ,” he says, clutching his hand over his mouth.
The fragile look on John’s face makes me regret choosing this tray of slides. I should have known better than to tell him the truth, but I get so tired of lying to him. I just keep hoping some of this information is going to stay put. But it never does.
I click forward. In this one, Dawn and I are walking down a road, both carrying gorgeous bunches of brightly colored leaves. I remember so well that we displayed them in an old milk carton on our communal picnic table.
The next slide is just that, the bouquet of leaves on the table, and I realize that this is the problem with photographs. After a while, you can’t remember if you’re recalling the actual memory or the memory of the photograph. Or perhaps the photograph is the only reason you remember that moment. (No, I refuse to believe that.)
I click the remote again. There’s a picture of us all around the campfire that John must have taken with the self-timer. The images of all of us are dim, blurry from the long exposure, while the fire glows bright and harsh. This last slide disturbs me, especially with Jim and Dawn gone, so I pull out the tray. A retina-searing whiteness is projected on the sheet hanging from the side of the cabin, but I can’t turn it off or it’ll be even harder to get in the next tray.
“Damn it, that’s bright,” John says.
I push in a new tray, yet it doesn’t want to catch. “Just a second,” I say. John used to handle the projector, now he’s left it to me. He watches me fiddle with it for a while, then walks over to the table, gives the new tray a push until it clicks into place. He smirks.
“Don’t be so pleased with yourself,” I say. Sometimes I think his disease is more laziness than anything else.
The first slide of the tray is projected onto the sheet and around us I hear hushed chattering. I turn to see that we’ve attracted a crowd, gathered near a streetlight about twenty feet away. At first glance, I gasp—
Then I see that they are not like the hoods of today with their baggy clothes and stocking caps and stone faces. These kids look like what we used to call juvenile delinquents. The boys wear tight white T-shirts with packs of cigarettes wedged in the sleeves, dungarees rolled at the bottom, and motorcycle boots. Their hair is greased back into carefully sculpted waterfalls and duck’s asses. One of the girls is dressed in jeans and a tight blue bowling shirt and clunky black shoes. Another one wears a long felt skirt and Mary Janes, with Fire and Ice lips and an ink-black flip with bangs.