Roller Coaster

Fiction
Terri Moran


“Do you remember that mousetrap you and your father used to ride?”

Since I can’t make sense of your question, I pretend I didn’t hear it. I hum along with the radio under my breath, scrub harder at the potato we will share, along with a small spinach salad and a broiled breast of chicken each, for dinner. I wonder if this is another sign. Another symptom.

“Wasn’t that the name of it? The Mousetrap? That roller coaster.”

I put down the vegetable brush and the potato and turn to lean against the sink and smile at you. Grateful because it is true.

“Jeez, Ma, I can’t believe you remember the name of that thing! You never, ever would ride it.”

You smile back and put down your cup of coffee. “No, I did not, but I remember sitting across from it watching you and your dad. The two of you just loved that roller coaster. Lord knows I never understood why.”

I turn back to the sink, pick up my potato and brush and of course I can’t help but remember.

*

How each summer, during the week Ellen went to band camp, you and Jerry and I made the four-hour trek south to Lakeland. We would check in at the Lakeland Motel, just off the freeway. Jerry would take a walk-through to make sure everything was satisfactory, a habit he developed after we came back from dinner our first time there to find a Hershey Bar I had left on the bed covered with ants. Our stay at the Lakeland was free that summer, so we returned year after year. Jerry said he was impressed with the way they dealt with customer dissatisfaction.

When he was sure everything was okay, Jerry and I would carry in the two suitcases, one that you and he shared and one for me, and set them on the side-by-side luggage racks. While you unpacked, I would lounge on the stiff, shiny orange, beige and brown bedspreads, pull back the matching flowered curtains and look at the shimmery heat rising from the hood of our Cutlass parked in the spot right outside the room. I liked that the car was so close, as if it were in a driveway, our small, homey space together.

Later, we would walk across the parking lot to the Lamplighter Café for dinner. I always ordered a grilled cheese sandwich because they served them with French fries and as many sweet pickles as I asked for. For dessert Jerry and I ordered apple pie with cheddar cheese on top—the house specialty. Then I would wait while you and he drank coffee and smoked after-dinner cigarettes.

Finally, Jerry would turn to me and say, “Well, kiddo, are you about done?” He would pick up the green receipt, and while you went to the restroom, we would walk hand-in-hand to the cash register, which sat on a glass display case filled with gum and candy and mints. Jerry would smile at me and roll his eyes. “Your mom skipped dessert again. Do you think we at least ought to get her a pack of Beeman’s? ” And I would roll my eyes too and nod, and we would buy it, because we knew it was your favorite and you could never find it at home.

At night I would lie in my bed and watch TV and wonder if things could be any better. I thought about Ellen at band camp, but it wasn’t until I got older that I wondered why our trips were timed so oddly, why she didn’t go with us. Of course, by the time I was old enough to wonder, I was old enough to understand that I, being younger, viewed Jerry as my father. He went to work, cut the grass on Saturday, helped me with math. Ellen, though, still remembered the man who had once done the things Jerry now did, and even though he never made any attempt to contact us, or maybe because of that, she could never forgive any of you. Or me for loving you.

The next morning we would get up and after French toast at the Lamplighter, we were off to Lakeland Amusement Park. We arrived early and got a parking spot close to the gate. You wore a big sun hat and carried a tote with Coppertone and a long-sleeve shirt for me to wear as the day went on and little red boxes of Sun-Maid raisins.

I remember you hardly went on any of the rides. It was always Jerry and I. First the spinning rides, the saucers that went in circles, the metal caterpillar that whipped up and around its track. Those rides made you queasy you said, but you joined us in the Haunted House where we rode all three close together in the little car. You liked that kind of scary ride.

Then came the roller coaster. That was the reason we came to Lakeland the first year. Although the park was known for its roller coasters, that summer they had introduced a ride called the Mousetrap. Jerry had seen a commercial on television about it—Like no other roller coaster in the USA!—and he had been talking about Lakeland ever since. When I laughed at a grown up being so excited about an amusement park, you told me the story of Jerry’s childhood, how his parents had died when he was small, how he had bounced from relative to relative. That was one of the things that made you love him, you said, when that childlike part of him came out, when he got excited about silly things. You liked to see that.

You didn’t, however, like to go on roller coasters. I remember the first time we saw the Mousetrap you stood looking at it in horror.

Jerry said, “Well, c’mon, let’s get in line.”

You didn’t move. “No, I don’t think I can go on this one.”

Jerry protested that that was the reason we were here, but still you refused. He seemed bewildered, as if he hadn’t anticipated this, had no Plan B.

And even though I was afraid, I said, “I’ll go!”

He said, “There’s a height restriction for this one, Emily, I don’t know if you can.”

But I ran to the cardboard boy by the entrance to the line, and as I stood with my back to him, feeling for the top of his head just beneath mine, said, “See, I make it!”

And Jerry came close and said, “Well, I’ll be, Emily, I guess you do. She’s growing up faster than we thought, El.”

So you went over to the bench across the way, and Jerry and I waited in line for the Mousetrap. I remember you sitting there, your tote on the ground by your feet, your sandals with a daisy on the thong, your white pedal pushers and matching shell top. Your red sun hat. Every now and then as we waited, I would catch your eye, and you would wave and I would wave back, and I would feel the comfort knowing someone in a strange place, in a crowd.

Then we were climbing into our car, the seatbelts clicking, the shoulder bar coming down. At first we proceeded slowly along at ground level, but then we began to climb. I could hear the steady, rhythmic thump as the car went higher. I looked out, fascinated, at all of Lakeland. At the top of the hill, I caught my breath at the sight of Lake Erie in the distance. And then our car plunged. I came up out of my seat, my body rising up, my shoulders hitting the bar, Jerry’s arm coming across to restrain me. My eyes watered from the force of the wind in my face. Half way down we whipped around a corner, throwing me sideways into Jerry. Then we began to climb an even higher hill. We plunged again, snapped around another bend, and then, in what was the big attraction of the ride, actually curved around and rode upside down for several feet.

When it ended Jerry saw I was shaking. “That sure was a scary one, Emily! But damn, wasn’t it fun? I haven’t been on a ride like that in my life!”

And so I swallowed hard, smiled at him and laughed and said, “Let’s do it again!”

He laughed too and said, “Your mom’s been real patient. Let’s go ride the carousel with her. We’ll try to talk her in to letting us ride again later.”

And we did, one weekend each summer until I turned 18 and left for college.

*

“Do you think it’s still around?”

I am taken aback, because we have been quiet for a while, and the thread of our conversations doesn’t stay with you. “I don’t know, Ma. I don’t even know if Lakeland’s still around. If the Mousetrap’s still there, it’s gotta be close to 40 years old. Why?

“I was just sitting here thinking I might like to take me a ride on it.”

*

I know you will forget, that it was just a light that went on that afternoon, but the next morning you ask me about Lakeland again. I nod crisply, promise that I will check to see if it is still open, and then do no such thing. Just when I have decided that you have forgotten, when I have breathed a sign of relief, you ask me once again as I set your oatmeal in front of you on Friday morning.

“Did you ever find out if that Mousetrap is still there?”

So I know that this is not one of those things that flits through your head only to be forgotten by the time you speak the next sentence. This is one your mind seizes, like a terrier on prey, shakes, doesn’t let go. Same as the story you have told for the past year, every time someone visits, about Ellen sticking Jerry during a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at her tenth birthday party. Like the trip you and Jerry never took to Washington State, but which you nonetheless remember well enough to tell anyone who mentions Seattle that you hate that town. This amusement park ride is one of those things that, in spite of everything, has taken up residence in your brain.

“I didn’t, Ma. Let me get on line right now and I’ll see what I can find out for you.” I go to my computer, open Google, type in “Lakeland Amusement” and just like that, there it is. There’s a home page with smiling families having fun on the beach of Lake Erie, the park in the background, Ferris wheels, roller coaster tracks. I see a list of the rides, click on it, scroll down and find it, the Mousetrap. God, how can that thing still be around? I think about lying and feel guilty. I close out and walk back into the kitchen.

“Yeah, it’s still there, Ma.”

“What day is today?”

“It’s Friday, Ma.”

“So tomorrow is…”

“Saturday, Ma.”

“You don’t work then?”

“Nope.” I don’t remind you that I don’t work at all anymore, that I stay here, that I take care of you. That is one of the things you do not remember. Or maybe you choose not to.

“Well, then we could leave tomorrow morning. If we did that, when would we get there?”

“We’d get there around noon if we left early. But Christ, Ma, you’re talking about a four-hour drive in the car to take a ride on a forty-year-old roller coaster. There’s so many things wrong with that I can’t begin to tell you.”

“I don’t see what’s wrong with me wanting to do something fun.”

“Play bingo, Ma. Rent a movie. You’re eighty years old, you have arthritis and high blood pressure. You can’t sit for very long. And you have been afraid of that ride ever since they built it.” I don’t mention your other illness, because we don’t talk about that. I don’t tell you that your ability to make a decision is impaired, that the possibility exists that on the way to the car tomorrow you will look at me in vague bewilderment and ask why in the world you are outside.

“Emily Elizabeth Monroe! You know very well that I was never afraid of any carnival ride!”

*

I wake up the following morning and prepare your oatmeal, sit down in my pajamas to read the paper and drink my coffee. You come out of your room in your yellow and brown plaid shirt and your pink and white checked cropped pants. Then you laugh at me and ask if I’m going to ride the roller coaster in my pajamas. Clearly I won’t be spared. I get ready to go, throw on my jeans and a T-shirt, a Red Wings hat. I pack a tote with some SPF 45, throw in a sweater for you because you often get chilled, some bottled water, some fruit. I think about suggesting that you change, but you are so happy, so excited that I settle for toning down your makeup and putting your straw visor on your bed head.

We get to Lakeland Amusement Park right before noon, so we can’t park close. I think about dropping you off at the gate while I park, but immediately dismiss that thought. You have to stay with me. We’ll just have to walk slowly, take rest breaks. I find a spot in Lot T, and we bundle out of the car. Just as I finish rubbing the sunblock on your arms, face and calves, the Lakeland Shuttle pulls up, and the driver asks us if we need a ride. You protest that you can walk just fine, but I tell you that I am 45 years old and although you may be spry, the less walking I have to do, the better. So we climb into the shuttle and we are on our way.

I am flooded with memories once we enter the park. Nothing has changed. There just beyond the entrance are all the kiddie rides, off to the left is the petting zoo. I have the sense that no time has passed, that when I turn I will see Jerry by my side laughing, holding out the Lakeland map that the petting zoo goat took a piece out of, even though it was in his pocket. I expect that when I turn back to look at you, you will be young, younger than I am now, lithe in your white outfit with your lovely black hair flowing to your shoulders in stark contrast. But then I do see you, in your plaid and checks. I see my own large denim-clad legs in front of me as I walk. I feel that empty space where Jerry would be. I know that this is something different.

We go past the spinning rides, and you encourage me to go on them. I don’t, because I don’t know what to do with you. The stimulation of the rides will be too much for you if you go on them with me, and I can’t leave you sitting on a bench. Instead, we wander through the gift shops, watch the children at the petting zoo but do so from the other side of the fence because I don’t want you to be bewildered by the animals. I wonder what I was thinking, bringing you here, and I wait for you to be overwhelmed by the activity around you. But at worst you seem a bit out of your element. Still, I wonder if I should have brought you, why I didn’t lay down the law.

As we walk past the cotton candy stand, you stop and rummage through your purse for your wallet. You have never wanted cotton candy in your life, have always shunned sweets. Now you watch as the young girl spins the candy around the cardboard stick. This must be a Lakeland throwback, because all the cotton candy I’ve seen in recent years comes in plastic bags. But she spins, twirls, watches you, smiles.

You smile back and say, “My daughter brought me here to ride the Mousetrap. We always came here when she was a little girl and we had such fun. Now we’ve come back, and we’re going to have such a good time!” You actually wrap your arms around you and hug yourself, twisting from side to side.

In your mismatched outfit, with your gray hair and your little hunched back, the girlish gesture is so incongruous that the cotton candy girl and I look at each other and smile. She gives you your candy, holds out her other hand to you and says her name is Estrella Martinez. And from that place in your brain that still amazes me, you say, “Star.”

She smiles and asks your name, and you say, “Eleanor Monroe.”

Bless Estrella, she holds your hand in both of hers and she says, “Mrs. Monroe, I hope you have a wonderful time today at Lakeland.” Then she hugs you, in all your plaid and checks.

After we have been at Lakeland for about an hour, walking some, taking rest breaks, I begin to think I may be off the hook, that you have forgotten about the Mousetrap. And just as I have this thought, we round the corner and you point and shout “There it is!” I can only marvel at your brain and how it decides to kick in when least I want it to.

“Yep, that’s the Mousetrap. You ready, Mom?”

“Oh, no, honey, you know I just hate that thing. I’ll have a seat over here.” You head slowly to the bench on which you sat once a year for nine years and sit there again.

“Ma, I thought you wanted to ride?” I can’t believe I’ve asked you this question, but even now I am astonished by these quirks of behavior.

“No, honey, I’m just here for you to have some fun. You go on and have a good time, and when you’re done maybe we can go on the carousel.”

Of course I can’t leave you. And then, how magical, your friend Estrella from the cotton candy stand comes up. And even more magically, you recognize her. You smile and wave as she approaches. She says she is on her break. You tell her that I really want to ride the Mousetrap, and she says that of course I do, it is the feature attraction of Lakeland. She catches my eye briefly and then she looks at you and says, “Mrs. Monroe, you must tell me how you get your makeup to look so smooth. I try and try and I just cannot blend mine like that.” She sits by you, takes your hand. Then she points with her chin at the Mousetrap, nods and mouths, “Go ahead.”

And I hand her my tote and go to the line, past the cardboard boy who is now a good three heads shorter than I, and I begin waiting. As I take my slow steps forward, I look at you and Estrella. You don’t look back at me now. You only look at her as she holds your hand, the two of you turned toward each other, talking, laughing. It does cross my mind that I am waiting to ride a roller coaster that always scared me, one that is now decades older. But I will ride for you. Because I know that Estrella will be watching. She will see my car as it crests the highest hill, and she will point it out to you. You both will gasp as my car begins its descent, you will laugh to see my hair fly behind me and my mouth open wide in a scream. When I am done, I will hug Estrella, be teary-eyed at her kindness. You and I will drive home, and at some point on the way, as the sun sets, you will become unsettled, demand to know where the hell you are. If I try to explain, you will tell me that you know better than that, I shouldn’t try to pull your leg. No one rides a mousetrap.

pencil

“I am a writer living in Phoenix, Arizona. My story “The Way Things Are Now” was published in the March 2006 Toasted Cheese Literary Journal.” E-mail: tmoran[at]cox.net.

The Way Things Are Now

Fiction
Terri Moran


The sun was setting and the temperature was dropping. Ken’s hands had begun to ache from the chill. Although he had finished raking and bagging the leaves an hour ago, he continued to loiter in the front yard, finding things to do to look busy. He was watching the blue Ford Focus parked in front of Mrs. Myrick’s house. A man sat inside the car. Ken hadn’t been back in the neighborhood long, having just moved home in July to care for his father. But everyone knew about the Myricks. The story had been all over the news for weeks when he was a kid. How their son, Ricky, had asked to stay out past his curfew to go to a football game at his middle school and then had just disappeared. Ricky and Ken had played together as kids, gone to school together. Ken remembered him as a good kid, obedient, not the sort to run away. The police suspected foul play, but no body was ever found. Ricky just never came back. Mr. and Mrs. Myrick got divorced not too long after things settled down. Mrs. Myrick still lived alone in the house.

The Ford’s engine revved and its headlights came on. It pulled slowly away from the Myricks’ curb, swung into the driveway across the street and backed out, headed in the opposite direction. The red glow from the taillights brightened as the driver slowed in front of Ken’s house. The passenger-side window slid down, and the driver leaned over the console. Ken stayed where he was, leaving the strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from the street in between them.

“Do you know the woman who lives in that house?”

“Yeah,” Ken gave a half-nod.

“Would you please let her know that her son is okay? That’s the message. Her son is okay.”

Then the man drove off. Ken hadn’t asked who he was or how he knew about Ricky. He tried to get the guy’s plate number, but that was after he was halfway down the road and it was too dark to see. Now that he thought about it, maybe the guy didn’t want to be seen, since the light over the license plate was burned out or missing. It was twilight, the Ford was low to the ground, and the guy was across the car, on the driver’s side, so Ken didn’t even get a good look at him. Was he the guy who took Ricky—since obviously if what he was saying was true, Ricky had been alive these thirty years. Maybe he was Ricky. In the darkness, he looked like he could have been around Ken’s age.

But he could have been some crackpot. Old news was easy to find nowadays, and maybe he was just someone who wanted to toy with Mrs. Myrick. Give her hope where no hope was warranted. Ken heaved a bag of leaves onto his shoulder and dragged the other one behind him, through the gate, into the backyard, out the gate to the alley. It was getting colder, and he wanted to get inside, take a warm shower. Watch a movie with his dad. Ken went back out front to get the rake and the box of trash bags, locked them in the storage shed out back, and went into the house.

He could smell the fire his father had made. Hear it too. Ken enjoyed the wood fires they had in this house. He and Sharon hadn’t been able to have a wood burning fireplace in Denver. Well, they could have had one, but if they actually wanted to use the thing with any sort of regularity, they had to opt for gas. Clean burning fuel. Small towns in the middle of nowhere, though, they didn’t try to tell you how to live. If Ken had gone out in the front yard and chopped down his dad’s 100-year-old tree to use for kindling, no one would have said a word. No homeowners associations here. He liked that. People should be able to be in charge of their own lives and make their own decisions without worrying about what everyone else wanted.

“Want to watch Patton tonight, Dad?” Ken called into the living room.

“I’m a step ahead of you, boy. It’s all set up and ready to go.”

He smiled. Things were peaceful here with his dad. He was glad he had moved back. His dad had set aside enough money over the years that Ken didn’t have to have a job, could just live here and take care of things. Mow the lawn in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, shovel snow in the winter. He did the grocery shopping, cooked meals, drove the old man to doctor’s appointments, the household things his mother had done before she died five years ago. It was good for both him and his dad. Ken felt needed, and his dad had someone to care for him as his ability to breathe became more impaired. He’d quit the cigarettes six months ago, but it was too little too late. His oxygen tank went wherever he did now.

The timing worked out very well for Ken. The downsizing had been rumored for months, but it didn’t happen until he had made the trip east to see his father in the hospital. When he got back to work the following week, the layoffs were announced. Fortunately, the agency was small enough that the event wasn’t newsworthy, and Ken didn’t mention the job loss. He just offered to move back and take care of his dad. His brother and sisters were amazed at his sacrifice and willing to let him make it. His father resisted at first, uncomfortable at the idea of his son giving up his job and his life, but Ken persuaded him, pointing out that, really, he was in the best position to make a change. The one-year lease on the apartment he’d moved into when he and Sharon divorced was up in a month, and sure, there weren’t many jobs for advertising executives in Plainfield, but family was important to Ken. He loved his dad.

He wasn’t sure why he let people make the assumptions they did, and at times he felt bad for not setting them straight, except that setting them straight would almost surely invite pity. Divorced, unemployed, middle-aged provided he lived to be 84. Did it hurt anyone? Did he have to divulge every detail of his life? It had been fortuitous timing, and nothing but good was coming of it.

He was glad to have a home again.

“Just let me take a quick shower, Dad, and I’ll be right there.”

Ken bent forward and let the hot shower run on his low back, easing the ache out. He wondered again who the man in the Focus might have been, and, more to the point, he wondered what he should do about it. Clearly, if the guy was just some sick joker, he should do nothing. But how to know that? If the man was the person who had taken Ricky, then the police should be involved. Unfortunately, though, he didn’t have a lot to give them. A guy he couldn’t describe driving a car he couldn’t identify by anything more than its make, model, and color. Why would the person who took Ricky resurface now anyway? Maybe it was one of those deals you heard about every now and then where he was taken by a couple who really wanted a kid. Maybe they raised him as their own, were really nice people (as kidnappers went), and now the man felt remorse for having acted in what clearly was only his own self-interest.

Most puzzling was the possibility that the man had been Ricky. If that were the case, why involve Ken at all? Why not just knock on his mother’s door and give her the reunion she no doubt had been praying for these past three decades? Instead he drives down the street and asks some neighbor guy, some former classmate, to tell his mom he’s okay? What kind of sense did that make? Ken found himself getting angry about the whole thing. There didn’t seem to be any good way to deal with the situation. If he let it go, he’d deprive Mrs. Myrick of knowing that her son was, possibly, alive. If he told her, especially if the guy was some nut, it would just cause her more anguish, when she’d clearly had more than her share. If he told the cops, he’d look like an idiot for failing to get more information and as a result of that failure, they wouldn’t be able to do much anyway. Talk about a no-win situation. He decided to dry off, watch the movie with his dad. Sleep on it.

The following morning Ken sat across the table while his dad ate his oatmeal and read the paper. He scanned the street for blue Fords, but didn’t see any. He watched the kids walking up the street to Washington Middle School, where he and Ricky had gone. Except for Ricky’s disappearance, nothing bad had ever happened in Plainfield. Far as he knew, no one had ever even gotten divorced but the Myricks. Life here had been secure and stable. Boring, he had thought at the time. He’d gone away to college, moved to a big city, got a big job, married, and now had nothing left to show for it. Sharon had sold the house in Denver and moved to Orlando with her new husband. He was 42 years old, unemployed and living with his dad. He wondered how Plainfield could stay the same, when everything else changed so much. Maybe it was that sameness that made it feel like home.

“What do you know about Mrs. Myrick, Dad?”

“Carolyn Myrick? What about her?” His dad didn’t look up from the sports page.

“Just what do you know. How is she doing? Does she have a job? Did anyone ever hear anything more about Ricky? You know, that kind of thing.”

“As I understand it, the police never did find anything else out about the boy. You knew she and Ted divorced—I guess that was while you were still in school. I heard not too many years after that that he remarried. Started another family, I believe. Carolyn never did marry again, didn’t even keep company with anyone, as I recall. Don’t remember her having a job either. She mostly just stayed in that house. Wasn’t the same after everything happened, though. Not like she went off her nut or anything, but she just wasn’t the same, not all friendly and social like she used to be. Stopped tending her flowers and visiting around the neighborhood. And, well, folks were uncomfortable around her after what happened, like they thought her bad luck might rub off. Guess she must have felt that. Pretty much just kept to herself, poor woman.” He took another bite of oatmeal. “What makes you ask about her?”

“I don’t know. Just thinking about Ricky, I guess.”

As he walked up the street, Ken really noticed the Myrick house for the first time since he’d been back. It looked like the kind of house kids would hurry past on their way home at night. There was a low wrought-iron fence around it with a gate that actually hung crookedly off its hinges. He remembered when he was a kid the fence had been covered with sweet peas and all sorts of climbers. Now the yard was bare, except for the blanket of leaves from the giant oak, which, now that it was stripped, Ken could see needed a good pruning.

He crossed over to the Myricks’ side of the street. The house needed some paint, too. That would take a couple of weeks, if someone tried to tackle it by himself. It was a big old house. He reached for the gate, smiling at the squeak when he pushed it open. He rang the doorbell and listened, heard a three-note chime. At least that still worked.

As happened each time he saw someone from his childhood since his return, he was surprised by Mrs. Myrick’s appearance. He remembered a woman in her thirties, dark curly hair, slender, pretty, and in front of him was a little grandmother who almost came up to his shoulder, with her gray hair actually twisted back in a bun.

“Why, Kenny Chamberlain! I am so pleased to see you. Please do come in.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t stopped by sooner, Mrs. Myrick. I really should have.”

“Well, I’m glad you have now, Kenny. Please, sit. Could I get you something? Coffee? Tea?”

“Smells like you might have some coffee on. If you do, I could take a cup of that. Black. Thank you, Mrs. Myrick.”

Ken sat on the formal sofa and looked around the room as she bustled around in the kitchen. It clearly was what they used to call a “front room,” a place where people didn’t spend much time, unless they had company. Ken looked at the magazines arranged on the coffee table in front of him. Quilter’s, Good Housekeeping, A Taste of Home, which appeared to be some sort of cooking magazine. He thumbed through that, wondering just who Mrs. Myrick might prepare such meals for. There had been no other children but Ricky, and he recalled that as a kid he never noticed lots of family at the Myricks’. Even before Ricky’s disappearance, their house had been sadly quiet. Always cared for, always seasonally decorated with a jack-o-lantern on the porch or pictures of cartoonish turkeys taped in the window or red and green lights, but lacking in the bustle and the human activity that bespoke a holiday.

Mrs. Myrick returned carrying a tray with a small coffee carafe and two cups, as well as a plate of cookies. She placed the tray on the table and carefully poured him a cup.

“So, Kenny, what did bring you back to Plainfield?” she asked as she took a seat on the chair across from him.

“Oh, my dad wasn’t doing so well after his last hospitalization and, well, my brother, Phil, lives up in Boston with his family, and Sue and Rose and their families are all back there too. You know, jobs, kids in school. Since I’m the least encumbered, it just made sense for me to be the one to take care of him.”

“Well, he’s quite lucky to have you. The house is looking better than it has in years. And I’m sure he enjoys the company.” She smiled.

“Yes, he does. I think he’s missed having someone to watch war movies with.”

She laughed, and then they were silent for a moment. Ken listened to the refrigerator running, thought about the nice shade that the oak tree probably provided to this room in the summer time. He shifted on the couch, reached for a coaster, set down his cup.

“Mrs. Myrick, could I talk to you about Ricky?”

She had been worrying at a crocheted cover on the arm of the chair on which she sat, but now her hand became still. “Ricky?”

“Well, yes. I just, well, I guess I’ve been thinking about him, what with being back in Plainfield, and I started wondering if the police ever did find out what happened.”

“No. They never did.” She sat for a long moment staring at Ken’s cup of coffee. “He would have turned 43 yesterday, you know.”

“Yesterday was his birthday? No, I didn’t know that.”

“Indeed, it was. I’ve never forgotten the day he was born. Do you know why?”

Ken assumed the obvious answer wasn’t the one she was looking for, so he replied that he did not.

She opened a drawer in the coffee table, took out a photo album, and came to sit next to him on the couch. She turned through a few pages until she found what she was looking for, then she laid the album on Ken’s lap. He looked down and saw a picture of this house as he remembered it from his childhood, painted, cared for. Then he saw the snow, at least four feet of it. “The Blizzard,” he said.

She smiled at him. “We’d never seen snow like that in October, and we haven’t since. Ted was out for three hours shoveling, then I remember he came in to get the camera to take a picture of the mounds of snow. Just a few hours later, we were on our way to the hospital.”

They sat and looked at more pictures. Ricky at Christmas holding up a GI Joe. Mr. and Mrs. Myrick dressed up at a New Year’s Eve Party. A picture of a table set for Thanksgiving dinner with Ricky smiling and pointing to the turkey. Ken stole glances at Mrs. Myrick as she paged through the album. He tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, losing the life she had expected to live. Who would she be, if things had been different?

Mrs. Myrick had been smiling down at a picture of Ricky in a Little League uniform. She gently placed her fingertips on the image, kept them there. “Do you know, Ken, that sometimes I pretend he is here? I pretend he is with me like you are with your dad. His favorite meal was pork chops and mashed potatoes with applesauce on the side. He liked it when I would season the pork chops with rosemary. Strange for a little boy his age to care about that, but he did. So sometimes, what I do, when I miss him especially, is I buy two nice pork chops at the grocery. And I come home and I crush some dried rosemary leaves and I sprinkle them on the pork chops as they cook. The kitchen smells like frying pork chops and rosemary, and it takes me back. It just takes me back. And I set the table, a place for me and a place for Ricky. And I fix his plate and mine, and I sit and talk with him. Because I wonder how he is getting on. Do you understand? I wonder how he does. When I do that, I feel so very close to him, like he never went away.”

They sat in silence for a while, Mrs. Myrick staring at the carpet, and Ken looking at the oak tree out the window. It didn’t have to be today that he passed the message on. He could do it later, when he had a better sense of her, of how she might receive it. It didn’t have to be now. He stood to go.

“Oh, Kenny, I hope I haven’t run you off with my nonsense. It must have been seeing one of Ricky’s friends. I’m so sorry.”

“No, Mrs. Myrick, please don’t think that. I have to be getting home, to get Dad’s lunch ready. I will be sure to come back.” He paused, weighed things. “Maybe sometime you might want to come by our house for dinner.”

“I would, Kenny.”

As he walked away, the leaves crunched under his feet. Later today he’d come by with his rake, bring some oil for that gate. Good could come out of it. Kenny imagined someone out for a walk on a chilly fall night. They might look up, see the warm light of the kitchen shining out into the darkness. The family sitting around the table. Mrs. Myrick passing him a bowl piled high with mashed potatoes. His father cutting into his pork chop. The window, open just slightly to let in the fresh air. The sound of laughter. The smell of rosemary.

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“I am a writer living in Phoenix, Arizona.” E-mail: tmoran[at]cox.net.