Weekend Reading: Phase 2 (Part 1)
“Counting the hours,” my dad wrote in his last email. “Exactly forty-six more and I’m out of this God-forsaken place. Phase-Two begins! Love you all.” All meaning Mom, my eleven-year-old brother Neddy, and me, Lara.
“Hey Mom,” I said. “An email from Dad.”
“Is everything all right?” Mom said, hurrying over from whatever she was doing, the laundry maybe – laundry, I remembered at that moment, that I’d promised to take care of before school. For some reason, Mom just couldn’t get used to these emails coming in real time from a war zone, got alarmed whenever one turned up in the in-box. She leaned over my shoulder for a closer look at the screen, a bottle of spot-remover in her hand. I was aware of her eyes tracking the words, could feel her concentration, so intense.
“What’s the time difference again?” Mom said.
“Thirteen hours?” I said. “Or maybe with turning back the clocks it’s – “
“Why can’t you guys get this?” said Neddy, doing his homework at the kitchen table. He glanced at his watch. “It’s eight-thirty-five AM over there, AM tomorrow.”
“That’s good,” said Mom.
“What is?” I said.
“That it’s already tomorrow,” Mom said.
“For God’s sake,” said Neddy. “Forty-six hours is forty-six hours.” Probably the very words Dad would have said, but they wouldn’t have sounded so annoying coming from him. Dad had a real gentle voice, deep but soft. Neddy’s voice had a grating undertone even when he was in a good mood. But he and Dad both had that precise way about them, a precision you could see in Dad’s email, how the grammar was always right and all the letters that should have been capitalized were. That precision was what made him such a great pilot; nobody had told me that – I just knew. Once, when I was really little and we still lived on the base, Dad took me up in an old World War Two P-39, let me sit on his lap while he flew. Somehow his hands on the controls looked intelligent, as though each contained a tiny brain, thinking about every movement. I felt so safe, like the sky was my natural element. He even did a few barrel rolls, just to hear me laugh. Dad liked my laugh, for some reason. “Where’d Lara get a laugh like that?” he’d say.
Mom went to the calendar on the fridge door. “So forty-six hours from now means Thursday at six thirty-five PM?”
“Duh,” said Neddy.
Mom took a red marker and made a big ! in Thursday’s square. That didn’t mean Dad was coming home on Thursday: they always flew to the Ramstein base in Germany first. But he’d be back by Sunday or Monday and then there’d be big changes, what Dad called Phase Two of our lives. Phase Two started with Dad resigning from the service and taking a piloting job with Executive Air, a charter company. Mom and Dad were real happy about it. He’d be home three or four nights a week and most weekends, plus the pay was good. They’d already put down a deposit on a house in almost the nicest part of town. A house with a pool! Plus Neddy and I were going to have our own bedrooms for the first time, instead of sharing. Even the address sounded great: 88 Hickory Lane. I’d already written it on all my schoolbooks, scratching out “3712 Baseline Road, Apt. 19.”
Mom went to the beauty parlor and had tints put in her hair. Once or twice I heard her singing to herself. Mom had a beautiful singing voice, had even made a demo for some record producer when she was a teenager. She cleaned the apartment from top to bottom and rearranged the furniture. Thursday night she made a special dinner – pork roast with orange sauce and pecan pie for dessert. Mom kept glancing at the clock. At 6:35 she went to the fridge and took out a bottle of wine. Mom didn’t drink wine, didn’t drink at all. “Who wants a little sip?” she said.
“Bring it on,” said Neddy.
Mom gave him a look. “Just this once, buster,” she said.
I took three glasses from the cupboard and laid them on the table. Mom was unscrewing the cap off the wine when the buzzer went. She pressed the intercom button and said, “Yes?”
Then came some static, followed by a man’s voice. “Mrs. Byron?”
“First Lieutenant Kevin Skype and Chaplain Ferrarra to see you, ma’am. May we come up?”
Mom went white, the color of a corpse in the movies. The bottle of wine slipped from her hand and smashed on the floor, but while it was still in mid-air I noticed a soaring eagle on the label, rising in a pure blue sky, the image so clear. I remembered that eagle way better than anything that happened in the next few days.
There’s a crazy thing I’ve thought about a lot of times and still don’t understand. After someone dies – someone close to you, I mean, like a father – why should it be so important to get the body back and bury it? They’re dead, right? That’s the big thing. So what difference should it make? All I can tell you is that it does. It makes a big difference. I know, because we never got to bury my dad. Chaplain Ferrarra said there was nothing to recover after the crash, nothing human to bury. We had the funeral – packed church, trumpeter playing taps, buddies of Dad’s who called him a hero. They were all so gentle, big guys kind of trying to make themselves smaller, if you know what I mean, so they wouldn’t be towering over the three of us. Something strange happened to me in the church: I suddenly felt so alive, more alive than I’d ever been, just glowing with it, hyper-conscious of my beating heart, the blood flowing through my veins, the oxygen filling my lungs. That shamed me, but there was nothing I could do about it. Anyway, the full-of-life feeling didn’t last long. Soon the three of us were back in Apartment 19 at 3712 Baseline Road and I was all hollowed-out. Going through the motions: an everyday saying that I now understood through and through.
We got the $6000 death gratuity from the Army in three days and the next week Mom returned to work. We were going to be all right for money, she said.
“I’m sorry about 88 Hickory Lane,” she said.
“Oh, Mom,” I told her. “Don’t even think about it.” Neddy and I went back to school. At first everyone made a big effort to be nice to us. Then they slipped back to normal. Normal was better. From time to time, just for a moment or two, shooting hoops in P.E., say, I felt normal, too. Not normal like before, back in Phase One, but a new kind of normal. Neddy, too – after a couple weeks, I even heard him laughing on the phone.
But Mom cried at night. She tried to muffle the sound, but the wall between the bedrooms was thin. And she wasn’t eating. Her clothes started hanging loosely on her body, and when I hugged her goodbye in the mornings I could feel all the ribs in her back. Then she got the idea that maybe Dad had survived the crash, was a prisoner somewhere in the desert, or injured and holed-up in a cave. Neddy’s face got all hopeful the first time she offered up this new theory.
“Mom?” I said. “You really think so?”
Her voice sharpened. “Why not? There’s no body. And who’s more resourceful than Dad?”
“Nobody, Mom, it’s just – “
She wrote a letter to the Army, asking them to send out search parties. When no answer came after three or four days, she started calling. Chaplain Ferrarra came to the apartment again, this time with a major. The major had pictures of the crash site.
“Sure you want to see these, ma’am?” he said.
“Absolutely,” said Mom. “Kids – go to your room.”
Neddy and I shook our heads. Not that we wanted to see, exactly, more like we had to. Mom glared at us for a moment or two, then her look softened a little.
“All right,” she said.
The major spread color photos on the kitchen table. We looked at blackened metal scraps twisted and scattered across a desert floor, not the beautiful kind of desert I’d come to know a little the two years we were posted to the base in Tucson, but just a stark and empty ugly nothing. Those scraps, so small and deformed, didn’t add up to a plane or anything else.
The major’s eyes were on Mom, just waiting patiently.
Mom met his gaze. “He could have bailed out,” she said. “Maybe into those hills in the background.”
“Problem is, ma’am,” said the major, “there wasn’t time. Surface to air missile – eyewitnesses saw the hit. Direct on the nose. The aircraft broke up in mid-air.”
Mom’s brow furrowed. I could see how hard she was thinking. “What if he saw it coming and hit the ejection button at the last second?” she said.
The major gazed at her and said nothing.
Mom pressed on. “He had great vision,” she said. “Twenty-ten in his right eye.”
The major shifted one of those horrible pictures around in case Mom wasn’t seeing it properly.
“Ma’am,” said the chaplain, very quiet. I noticed a tiny shaving cut under his chin, still seeping a drop or two of red.
Mom stopped calling the Army, wrote no more letters. But she still wasn’t eating, and now, instead of crying in the night she was up to all hours at the computer. Mom had never shown any interest in on-line things before.
“Mom?” I asked one morning, “what are you doing on the computer?”
“Research,” she said, deep dark depressions under her eyes.
That night she didn’t come home till real late. I was awake: in this new normality I didn’t sleep quite as well as in the old one. She went into the bathroom, her footsteps quicker than they’d been for awhile, like she wasn’t dragging herself around. Water ran. Then I heard the squeak of her bedsprings. After that, silence. No crying.
“Lara?” said Neddy, very softly.
“I think I know where she’s been.”
“To a seense.”
“That’s what she’s been checking out on-line. I followed her tracks.”
Not nice, but that didn’t seem important right now. “What’s a seense?” I said.
“You know,” said Neddy. “Where you sit around the table in the dark and try to talk to spirits.”
“Oh,” I said. “A séance.”
“That’s how you pronounce it?”
“Séance,” Neddy said.
We lay in the darkness, not speaking. I closed my eyes but couldn’t sleep. A siren sounded far away. After awhile, Neddy spoke, even quieter than before. “Spirits means spirits of the dead, right?”
Mom came back late the next night. And the next and the next and the next. Her footsteps slowed down. The muffled crying started up again. She missed a couple days work – a Thursday and Friday – maybe not even calling in the second time, because her boss phoned and I heard Mom saying how sorry she was and that it would never happen again. That wasn’t quite enough for her boss, because after listening for a few moments, she said, “Please give me one more chance.” And then: “Thank you.”
Mom stayed home that night. Saturday morning she was up early, already making waffles when Neddy and I went into the kitchen. She sat down at the table with us, rubbing her hands in an enthusiastic way; but all that darkness around her eyes was even worse than before.
“How are the waffles?” she said.
“Good, Mom,” I said. “Thanks.”
Neddy mumbled something, totally incomprehensible with his mouth full.
“Aren’t you having any?” I said.
“I’m not hungry,” Mom said. “I had a big dinner.” Which wasn’t true – she’d hardly touched her food last night. She spooned a little sugar in her coffee, took a sip. “I’ve met this interesting woman,” she said.
“Yeah?” I said.
Neddy poured more syrup on his waffles, globs of it. Dad would have said, “Son?” And Neddy would have stopped. Mom didn’t seem to notice.
“Her name’s Mrs. Foxe,” Mom said. “With an E. She’s lived all over the world.”
“An army brat like us?” I said, although we really hadn’t lived too many places – just here, Tucson and San Diego.
“No, nothing like that,” Mom said. “She’s … different.”
“How?” I said.
Mom stirred her coffee again, gazed into the tiny black whirlpool she’d made, spinning round and round, very fast. “There’s more to life than just the everyday things,” she said. “That’s one of Mrs. Foxe’s beliefs.”
“More to life such as?” I said.
Mom’s eyes met mine for a moment, looked away. “I’m talking about beyond the material world,” she said.
“Outer space?” Neddy said, syrup dripping down his chin.
“Beyond outer space, too,” Mom said.
“There’s nothing beyond outer space,” said Neddy. “It goes on and on. That’s why they call it outer space.”
“This isn’t about space,” Mom said. “Or science, or any of that. It’s about …”
“About what, Mom?” I said.
“The spiritual world, I guess you’d say.”
“You mean religion?” I said.
“Not exactly,” said Mom. “What Mrs. Foxe says is that the life force is so strong it leaves an undying imprint. Those are her exact words.”
“An undying imprint where?” I said.
Mom gave me a long look. “That’s the question.”
“What is?” said Neddy.
“Where the undying imprints go,” I told him.
“Undying imprints of what?” he said.
I turned to Mom.
“Of the living,” she said. “After they’re gone.”
“So it is about space,” Neddy said.
One of Mom’s eyelids twitched; I’d never seen that happen to her before. “I don’t understand,” she said.
“You said these imprints or whatever go somewhere,” Neddy explained. “All somewheres are in space.” That last part could have been spoken by Dad, word for word. But it would have sounded nicer.
Mom rubbed her face; her skin looked tired, took a moment or two to resume its tautness. “Mrs. Foxe says that these undying imprints go where souls go.”
“Souls?” I said.
“Just another word for undying imprints,” Mom said. “She says.”
“Souls of the dead,” I said.
Mom’s voice was quiet. “The undying part.” She stared into her coffee. “Mrs. Foxe believes … in fact, she has actually experienced … that under certain circumstance some extra-sensitive people are able … “ She went silent. Down on the street I heard the bus going by; we were on the route for the number 7 bus, heading downtown. Mom looked up. “Do you kids know what a séance is?”
“Mrs. Foxe is one of those extra-sensitive people,” Mom said.
“You’ve been trying to communicate with … with Dad?” I said.
“Mrs. Foxe thinks we’re very close to making contact,” Mom said. “She can feel it. There’s just one last roadblock in the way.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“Huh?” said Neddy.
“The place where we’ve been having the séances. She says here would be better. So…”
“So we’re going to try tonight. After midnight is best, when you kids are in bed anyway.”
“No,” I said.
“No?” said Mom.
“Us, too,” said Neddy.
“I don’t … “
To be continued.
This entry was posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010 at 8:13 am and is filed under Chet The Dog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.