Dandelion Summer | Chapter 10 of 41

Author: Lisa Wingate | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 2135 Views | Add a Review

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Chapter 1
 
J. Norman Alvord
 
 
 
 
A single drop of water changes the ocean. A noted colleague of mine once asserted this as we dawdled over lunch at a restaurant near Cape Canaveral. “How can it not?” he demanded. “Some amount of matter is displaced. There’s transference of energy. Nothing is as it was before.” We were young then, certain of our own importance. Convinced that our presence in the world, that our work, was destined to change it. “I discussed it with Einstein, you know,” he said, and went on to share a story of having accompanied the physicist on a fishing trip, of all things. They’d considered the drop-of-water theory while Einstein reclined on the deck of a sailboat, trails of pipe smoke drifting lazily into the air. Less than a year after their conversation, Einstein’s sudden demise sent a ripple around the world.
There are those men whose deaths displace water in the far parts of the sea, and then there are those for whom the pool seems to have dried up long ago. So much of a life can pass without a thought of where the journey might end. A young man’s days grow full and his nights become short, and his mind is crowded with all that must be done, and all that has been done, and all that waits to be done. Hours come and go, a rush of time that seems limitless as it passes.
Looking back through the haze of years, you wish to whisper in the young father’s ear, tell him to put away his books and his calculations, go out into the yard and play a game of kickball, stop worrying about engineering the best tree house on the block and just climb the tree. Sit quietly in its branches with a son or a daughter and watch the minutes drift by in glorious splendor, as aimless as the cloud ships in a summer sky.
There comes a time when the opportunity for sailing cloud ships is gone, when time is not just passing, but speeding toward something. You attempt to communicate this truth to the young people now, but to them you’re just an old man growing uncomfortably sentimental.
You remember, of course, when you stood where they are. There were mountains to be scaled, bridges to be built, bills to be paid, work to be done. A man’s work defines him when he is young. Time flows as water through an estuary, accomplishments collecting like leaves in the brackish tide pools against the shore. The water hides beneath them, moving yet invisible, placid on the surface. Accolades amass in tidy black frames and hang on a wall to be dusted and polished, straightened now and again if tipped askew by a child visiting the office, or a cleaning woman brushing by with a feather duster, or a colleague leaning casually against the paneling, stroking his chin.
“Good heavens,” the visitor might say, if the frame jarred loose. “I didn’t see that hanging there. My word, man! You were in on Apollo 13? That must have been some experience.”
On occasion, such a question fades into the background. A missing frame yields a gap in the covering of leaves, through which the rush of water is obvious. How long ago was that? Twenty years? Twenty-five? Thirty? No . . . even longer. Longer than I’d care to admit.
“Tense times,” I’d say, when recalling those days, for the benefit of conversation. Deborah was just a girl then. Thirteen years old. Thirteen, the same as the mission number. An odd coincidence. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have remembered her age at the time. “A four-day nail-biter, getting the Command Module back. Could have heard a pin drop in the control center when it went through radio blackout during reentry.”
On occasion, I considered telling the rest of that story—there was so much more. Those were glorious days. Exciting hours. What words could describe the moment when the Mission Control Center became impossibly quiet, every man in the room hanging on edge, waiting as the crew of the crippled Apollo 13 plunged through the atmosphere in a hail of fire? The void lay so heavily, I heard my heart pumping that day, each beat individual, distinct, separated by the silence that sucked the air from the room at Mission Control. Over four minutes waiting for a radio response, the difference between success and failure, between life and death. The heartbeats slowed inside my chest, my body hoarding oxygen as if I were in the Odyssey capsule, time stretching and bending as the pilot of an ARIA support aircraft hailed the crew of Apollo 13. “Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.” Already, we were one minute and twenty-seven seconds beyond the expected end of radio blackout.
We waited, the moment one of breathless hope, consuming fear.
And then came the rush of adrenaline when a voice broke through in response: “Okay, Joe.” Swigert, letting us know the crew had survived against all odds.
What words could encapsulate such a moment? How beautiful to have lived it, to have felt the suffocation of fear followed by the rush of joy. I’d often thought that the journey from this life to the next would be like that instant—fear, a struggle for breath, a grasping at what is familiar, a clinging to one’s own understanding, and then surrender, joy, freedom, air abundant, and finally peace.
But it was a hypothesis that remained unproven. I considered it as I lay on the floor of my study, my eyes opening, then falling closed, then opening again, my heart struggling in my chest, the beats erratic, weak then strong, like a peg-legged dancer doing a clumsy jig on a wooden floor. There was a searing pain, a dim awareness that my body was twisted into a strange shape, then another stab, sharper this time, radiating outward like an electrical current splitting, running into my arm. I had the sense of time passing—minutes, then longer, maybe hours.
Am I dying? I thought. Am I dying this time? Finally?
I sank away and let the past come back again. I was in an airplane, an experimental model I’d helped design at Hughes Aircraft. The test pilot and I were chatting idly, discussing the capabilities of the plane, neither of us having any idea a missile crisis was brewing nearby in Cuba and we were heading into danger. . . .
A stab pulled me away from the memory of the flight, dragged me back to the floor of my study. I saw the chair turned sideways, the desk lurking impossibly tall above it, a mountain, the telephone atop.
I could try. I could try for the phone. But there was no motivation, other than a fear of the unknown. Whatever a man’s faith, death is still an untraveled country, a place mapped only by others who claim to know what it holds. Annalee would be waiting on the other side of this pain. I had faith in that much, but even more, I had resignation—the surrender of an old man with nothing important left to do. A few regrets, of course, but who hasn’t?
The current in my chest blazed again, white-hot in the center, shooting outward into my arm, burning my fingertips.
I shrank away from it, sank into the past again, into another memory—one deeper than all the rest. There was a table, large and freshly polished, the dark wood so sleek I could see my face reflected in it. A boy’s face. I smiled at myself, setting out the plates. Seven plates around the table, seven chairs. I could not place the memory, could not tell the story that would surround it, yet it was vivid. I knew the smell of the room—leather and lemon oil, and the faintest scent of gas from the heaters. A woman was singing in the kitchen, her voice full, deep, and melodious.
I knew the voice. I knew the song. . . .
“Dad . . . Dad . . . can you hear me?” The words were out of sorts, lacking synchronicity with the time and place in my mind. “Dad . . . Dad, it’s Deborah. Can you hear me?”
There was a lurch of pain, a heartbeat that fluttered strangely, then pain again. Someone was shaking me, causing my head to rattle.
“Dad? Dad, I’m here. Put this under your tongue. The paramedics are on the way.” The voice was Deborah’s. I wanted her to leave me be. I wanted to remain in the room with the seven chairs, to decipher their meaning. But Deborah was rousing me, insisting, pulling me toward her. My mind rushed as if I were going through a tunnel on one of the bullet trains in Europe. Images, moments, scraps of past and present flashed past like billboards too closely spaced for adequate viewing.
I opened my eyes, and the world swam—the walls of my study, a blue March sky outside the window, Deborah with her dark hair curling around her face, her brown eyes wide. She wasn’t a child, not the thirteen-year-old girl from the days of Apollo, but a woman. A woman with a soft fan of wrinkles beside each eye and a smattering of gray wound into the curls of her ponytail. She looked so much like her mother that for a moment I let myself imagine she was Annalee.
You’re here, I wanted to say. They’ve been saying that you’d gone. I told them they were wrong. There you are.
The words wouldn’t come, so I only smiled at Annalee. Perhaps I’d died there on the floor, in actuality. Perhaps Annalee was here to show me the way. My life had passed before my eyes, after all. I’d seen it all in fast motion—the pictures flashing by outside the bullet train, a montage beginning with the present and moving into the past, as far back as I could remember, and then the room with the seven chairs.
I could be dead. This could be the end.
Am I? Is this what it’s like to die?
But the desk was yet in its place, the chair still tipped sideways. I remembered grabbing it when I fell. The frames remained on the wall—photos and certificates, diplomas and awards for years of service. Items of the sort that do not travel with you when you go. There are no walls for hanging accolades in heaven.
Annalee’s fingers touched my lips, left behind a sweet, burning taste. I closed my eyes, pulled in a breath. The air was thick, like breathing gelatin. I tried to speak, to ask her, Am I dying? Have I died? Are you Annalee, or are you Deborah?
“Ssshhh,” she whispered. “It’s all right. Just lie still. Give the pills a chance to work.”
The sweetness faded in my mouth, and the burning grew stronger. I heard the heartbeats slowing, felt the pain ebbing, like a wave draining out to sea.
“There, see? You’re getting better. What in the world happened? You know you’re supposed to carry your pills with you all the time.” The voice was lower now, harder edged, less patient. Not Annalee’s. Deborah’s. It was Deborah there, kneeling beside me on the floor, calling to check on the ambulance.
I closed my eyes and wished she wouldn’t bother. I couldn’t tell her that, of course. I couldn’t admit that I’d left the pills in the bathroom drawer on purpose and that I’d been doing so for weeks. If . . . when another of these attacks came, I didn’t want the temptation of having them close by. But surrendering is not so simple when the time arrives. It’s easier to resolve oneself to death in the abstract than to make the choice in the moment of truth.
The pain dulled further, and I let myself sink into exhaustion. There was a throbbing in my head. I’d bumped it on the way down. The corner of the desk, most likely . . .
“Dad? Dad, stay awake. Stay . . .”
Deborah’s voice was far from me again, echoing off the walls of the tunnel. It was a selfish thing I was doing, I supposed, trying to leave her this way. It would have been difficult for her if she’d found me too late, crumpled on the floor in a heap, beyond saving. But then, this was difficult, as well, this constant darting away from her work to breeze by my house and look in on me. When Annalee was here, a week or two might go by without Deborah stepping foot in this house. She was busy with her work at the university, engrossed in her biomedical research. I, of all people, should have understood that well enough. She’d learned her intensity from me.
“Dad, stay awake.”
Stay awake, stay awake. For what reason? So she could slip away from her office again to check on me tomorrow, and the next day, and the next? There was nothing here for either one of us—only a big house with no life left in it. Annalee was the heart of this house. I don’t suppose I ever told her that, but she had a way of knowing things. . . .
I drifted away from the study, slipped back to the memory of the seven chairs. Annalee knew of that memory. She was the only one I’d ever told. We were lying on a college lawn together in our courting days. Her hair spilled over the grass in long, dark ribbons, and her eyes reflected the soft hues of a noonday sky. I wanted to tell her that she was beautiful. I yearned to be the sort to spout flowery epithets, but I was never skilled with such sentiments.
“What’s the farthest back you can remember?” she’d asked, looking up from her literature book. “Your deepest memory.”
“I couldn’t say,” I answered, and she poked me in the side, her lips quirking in a playful way.
“Yes, you can.” Rolling onto one elbow, she rested her chin in her hand and gazed at me. “Tell me. You never tell me anything about yourself, Norman. You never let me in.”
I sighed, and as a young man in love will often do, I tried to give her what she wanted. “It’s an odd memory,” I admitted. “There’s a table—a large table, with seven chairs around it. Four of them have pillows to boost up the seats—for children, I presume—and there’s a high chair for a baby, and armchairs at either end. I’m setting out the plates. I must have been five or six years old.”
“Five years old?” she questioned. “You can’t remember anything before you were five?”
“Not a thing,” I admitted. “Nothing I can put a finger on, anyway.” There were other scraps of memory—the beach house at Galveston, where we spent summer weekends when I was small, a great-grandmother who’d died before I was four, the church in which my baptism was held, the house where we lived in Houston before moving to Dallas. But those memories were static in my mind, flat. They had no movement, no depth. My first vivid memory was of seeing my face reflected in the polished wooden table as I put out the place settings. “What seems so odd about it is that it’s just the table. I can’t picture the room around it—only the table and the plates, a red Persian carpet underneath, four children’s chairs, and a high chair. I can’t imagine where it would have been. I grew up an only child, you know.”
Annalee’s nose crinkled as she considered the question. “Did you ever ask your mother?”
“She told me it was something I dreamed. A scene from a book she read to me when I was young.” I lifted a finger, twirled one of Annalee’s curls around it. Her hair was as soft and smooth as satin ribbon, and a bit of poetry came to mind. Yeats. I am looped in the loops of her hair. “But it feels as if it were real.”
Annalee’s lips twitched upward at the corners, forming the silly, mischievous smile I’d first noticed over a sales counter in the student union. “Hmmm . . . it’s a mystery.” She leaned close, her lips only inches from mine. “Just one more thing about you I’ll have to ferret out . . .”
Deborah’s voice chased away the memory. I was conscious of paramedics, an ambulance, the emergency room, doctors. I was poked, prodded, assessed, and painfully shocked with the defibrillator to force my heart into a normal rhythm again. I suppose that was a fitting punishment for having left my medication out of reach on purpose. God has a way of putting a thumb on those who take undue liberties. One experience with a defibrillator would be enough to convince even a stubborn old man not to leave his pills in the bathroom drawer again.
Deborah had reached her boiling point by the time they moved me to a room for observation. She’d lost a whole afternoon at work—missed an online symposium having to do with cancer cells and a meeting with a foundation that funded research like hers. She sank into the chair, tapping away on her cell phone as the nurse settled me into the bed, then hovered momentarily over my medical chart, seeming to sense that family drama would erupt the moment she left.
Finally, the nurse instructed me in the use of the call button and the television remote—as if a seventy-six-year-old man with an irregular heart wouldn’t have seen these gadgets already—and then she moved on with her rounds. Fortunately, Deborah was still busy typing with her thumbs—catching up on work, or giving her husband, Lloyd, an earful about my latest bout of bad behavior, no doubt. I closed my eyes, thinking I’d feign sleep, and Deborah, without the nerve to wake me after such a traumatic day, would leave quietly.
On the television, an episode of Hogan’s Heroes played, the sound loud enough that it must have been audible even in the next room. Hogan and LeBeau were preparing to slip through the secret hatch in the barracks and make an escape from Stalag 13, so as to accomplish some clandestine business in town.
Perhaps I could tunnel through the hospital floor and pop from a manhole cover somewhere on the street. A fiendish and clever escape . . .
“Don’t even think you’re going to drift off to sleep before we’ve talked.” Deborah’s voice was an inconvenient interruption—like the entrance of Sergeant Schultz.
I let my head fall to the opposite side, tunneled into the pillow as if I’d already succumbed to sleep and her noise was distressing me. It seems generally wrong for your children speak to you as if you are the child. Having been overseas with an engineering position during the declining years of my own parents, I was spared this strangely inverse relationship with them. A housekeeper cared for them, and at the end, my mother went into nursing care. I brought Annalee and the children to visit her when I could. She seemed to understand why it wasn’t often. She was peaceful in her final years, with her bridge circles and her television programs. There were no ugly scenes between my mother and me, none like this one.
“I know you’re not asleep,” Deborah insisted, an edge in her voice. She sighed, and I pictured her leaning over the chair arm, fingertips scrubbing her forehead.
On the television, Sergeant Schultz barked, “I see nothingk! I know nothingk! I vas not here!”
I’m not here. I’m not. What possible logic could there be in my existence? Surely a man isn’t meant to be a prisoner inside his own body, inside his own life. Surely, when his glory is at an end, when his colleagues, his friends, so many of his loved ones are gone, he can will himself to slip through some escape hatch and disappear.
“Look at me!” Deborah insisted, and I heard the flatulent sound of friction against vinyl as she stood up and rounded the bed. I opened my eyes. “This has got to stop. First you ran the car into a ditch, so we took away the car. Then you left the gas on in the house, so we put in an electric stove. You fell down the stairs; Lloyd and I moved all the important stuff downstairs. And now this! What were you doing upstairs in the study, and without your pills? Are you trying to hurt yourself?”
I wanted to shake a finger in her face and say, Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady. But her poking so close to the truth was an embarrassment that wouldn’t allow me to produce a haughty answer. “I was watering the plants, of course.”
Deborah gritted her teeth, pushed air through them. “You’re not supposed to be doing that.”
“Plants must have water. Your mother loved her plants. Am I to let them die?”
“I told you, the new cleaning lady will take care of the upstairs and water the plants every Monday when she comes. You don’t need to worry about them. You shouldn’t be on the stairs. What if you fall again? What if nobody happens to come by this time?” She wagged a finger at me and then swung it in the general direction of the house. This was Deborah’s revenge for all the years I wasn’t the father she wanted, for all the times I was on the other side of the world, missing school plays and orchestra performances and birthday parties. This was my penance for not noticing that Annalee was pale and tired the day she died—for not insisting she leave the laundry alone, for letting her lie down on the sofa when she felt poorly after lunch, rather than taking her to the doctor. It was my fault she was gone, and Deborah would never forgive me for that. In truth, Deborah wished it were me, rather than her mother. For two years we’d been prepared for my heart to give out suddenly, but we hadn’t been prepared to lose Annalee.
“Mondays aren’t enough for the plants,” I said.
Deborah’s face reddened, the angry flush traveling down her neck. “That’s all Mother ever watered them—once a week.”
“You can’t trust someone who’s just been hired, some housekeeper. What will this . . . this woman know about your mother’s plants?”
Deborah lifted her palms with a jerk, turned, and walked to the window, stood with her hands on her hips, gathering fistfuls of her clothing. “I’ll move every stupid plant in the house downstairs. How about that? Better yet, I’ll take the plants home with me.”
“They’re Annalee’s plants. They’re not yours.” My back stiffened, the hairs bristling against the hospital gown. “I don’t want anyone in my house, either. You tell that housekeeper not to come. What’s to stop her from stealing something—Annalee’s jewelry, or the silver? I can’t watch her every moment she’s there.”
“You don’t need to watch her, Dad. She isn’t going to steal anything. She’s there to clean.”
“How would you know?” It was hard to say why Deborah and I continually butted heads. Even as a child she was difficult for me, determined to have her way, to have the last word. Her brother was much more pliable, with an easy, relaxed nature that made him more like Annalee. Deborah would argue just for the sake of argument. The characteristic was valuable in a researcher, frustrating in a daughter, infuriating in a caretaker. I didn’t want to be taken care of, to be told what to do in my own home. “Look at what happened to Edward and Hanna Beth Parker, just next door to me. That housekeeper of theirs got into their bank accounts and almost robbed them blind. She tried to take their house while Hanna Beth was in the hospital after a stroke. That was just a year ago. You can’t trust people.”
Deborah turned around, her chin set in a firm line. Snatching her purse off the night table, she indicated that our conversation was at an end. “She isn’t some person I hired off the street. She works for the service that cleans the university offices at night, for heaven’s sake.”
Bracing my knuckles against the mattress, I pushed higher in the bed. “If she already has a job, why does she need to clean my house?”
Deborah’s hand flipped through the air. “What does it matter? Why do you care? Can’t you, for once, just be happy with something I’ve done?”
I turned my face away, staring out the window at the Dallas skyline. “You can’t trust people. You never know what motives they might have.”
Deborah’s heels tapped the floor as she crossed the room. There was a loose tile somewhere near the door. It made a hollow sound. “The housekeeper doesn’t have any motives other than to do the job I hired her for. We’re all just trying to take care of you.” She yanked the door open, and it collided with the wall, sending sound waves through the room. “Whether you want us to or not.”
Quiet overtook the room as her parting shot faded, and I lay there letting my mind drift slowly through the day, and then farther back. Back, and back, and back, all the way to a place I hadn’t visited in years, before today. The house with the seven chairs. Now it was as clear in my mind as it had always been. Was it merely something I’d imagined from a storybook, or was it real, with all its sounds and smells—the woman singing, the clattering of pans in the kitchen, the musty, pine-scented air?
And if it was real, why would my mother have felt the need to convince me that the place never existed?

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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