He watched the lights. Knew the sequence. What to do. Checked his watch. Been in line forty-five minutes. Sweat sheathed his back. Not from heat.
The woman ahead seemed confused. WTF. How? R-O-Y-G-B. Someone was talking to her from a monitor that he couldn’t see. She was laughing at herself. Hoarse sound. Like she’d been smoking. An odd thought for someone her age, in a lilac and white dress with dark purple shoes and matching glasses and hand bag. Where was she going.
She went on. The light was red. He fixed on it. Glad his wife wasn’t here. And sorry. She would like this. And hate it.
The light turned green. He stepped in. Fixed on the new set of lights to his right. R-O-Y-G-B. Stereo female voice said, “Look into the blue screen ahead of you, please.:
That screen was ten by ten inches, he guessed.
“Find the black light and focus.”
Damn. He’d forgotten that. How could he see the other lights if he was staring at the black dot in the blue screen. Found it immediately — did he get a reward? Focused. A soft click was heard. Gentle whirring followed.
“Welcome, Gerrard. Please look to your left. You will see a series of light. All are now dark except the first one, labeled one.”
Well, they were making this unnecessarily cumbersome. Did that voice have an English accent?
“When light number two turns orange, please put your right arm in the black cuff to your left. You will hold it there as lights three and four turn yellow and green. During that time, you may feel a small jab in your right hand. Do not worry. This is normal. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Might be a British accent. There a difference between English and British accents?
“Keep your arm in the cuff until light number five has turned blue. Do you understand?”
He felt like giggling. Shivered. Cold in this booth. “Yes.”
A chime sounded. The second light turned orange. The voice said, “Please insert your arm into the cuff now.”
Gerrard did. Sweat dribbled down his neck. Why? Wasn’t hot. The cuff closed on his arm. He couldn’t pull it out if he tried. Kind of wanted to try.
Light number three went yellow. Something jabbed his index finger hard. He flinched.
“Please do not move,” the voice said.
Embarrassment washed him. Hadn’t meant to move. He was surprised. That’s all. Harder jab than he expected.
Green light number for came on. Another chime. Same as the first. A blue light came on. “You may remove your arm.”
As he was pulling it out, flexing his fingers and looking for damages, the voice continued, “When the overhead door light turns green, you may exit the booth. Your gate is twenty-seven bee.”
As he looked at it, the booth light turned green and the voice intoned, “Follow the instructions to your gate. Thank you for Traveling with America First.”
“You’re welcome,” he muttered. Ahead was a sign. “Gerrard Miles, please turn left and follow the green line to gate twenty-seven b.” The green arrow pointed straight.
It was dark. Low lights. Cool. Like he was underground. Or in a movie theater. One of those huge complexes with big screens and small rooms. He followed as necessary, losing tracks about how many turns were made. Things he’d read always said this was the offsetting part, getting to your gate. Most deemed this the worse feature.
Gate 27 B was in green to his right. Others were there. About twenty-five. Another sign said, “Pittsburgh.”
A male voice said, “Welcome to gate twenty-seven bee and travel to Pittsburgh. We are ready to board. Please proceed to the door on your left.”
They all queued. He felt weird about it. No seats? No zones? Others were guffawing about it. Nervousness flowed around them like flooding waters. Only one woman, blonde, in a white coat, seemed comfortable. Seemed a little superior in her attitude, too. She’d done this before.
The gate was open. No one was there. A male said, “Please step into the gate when the light turns green.”
This was it. They made it seem like it wasn’t. This was it, though. They all knew it. All were deadly quiet. The blonde woman went. Was gone. The light shuffled forward. Sweat was drenching Gerrard. Like he’d been in a moonson.
He shuffled with the rest. Tenth. Ninth. Et cetera. Then him. Licked his lips. Coped with dryness at the back of his throat. And a dry tongue. Watched the light. Stepped forward.
The ground moved, sucking him forward. He almost screamed but there wasn’t time. The same voice said, “Please step forward. Welcome to Pittsburgh. The local time is five thirty-four. It’s a pleasant seventy-eight degrees outside. You can claim your baggage at carrousel number seventeen. Thank you for traveling with America First. We hope you have a good visit, whether you’re in Pittsburgh for business or vacation.
He walked forward, blinking against dazzling sunshine, his sweat drying, the ordeal over, into the international airport, looking for directions to baggage claim. He’d been at home two hours before. Home in Medford, Oregon. Now he was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He’d gone over twenty-five hundred miles almost instantaneously. Like a bullet.
Fucking technology. He didn’t understand it but it was amazing.
They slice and dice
Little cuts that bleed
Scabbing without healing
Bruising without showing
Being without being
There was a cat in the pantry
A floof with the flour
Back past a few cans of beans
Though washing a leg
He issued a green-eyed gaze
That asked, why are you looking at me?
Issuing a hard squawk, a jay glided into the backyard, settling among the crispy brown weeds after a few hops. Cool mountain air stirred the firs and cherry tree bordering the yard.
A ginger and white cat shading herself on the patio flipped over onto her belly and watched the bird. Green eyes grew big. Watchful. She chittered.
The bird snapped off a chirp. Cat and bird glanced around. Six AM on Saturday, a fenced yard. No humans were about.
The cat strolled into the weeds. Bird hopped to her. Exchanges were issued. Then, business.
“What you got?” the cat asked.
“Not much. Neighbors across the street have gone camping. Will be back Friday. Fran, two doors down, fell. Bruised herself but broke nothing. Sissy was sunning herself on her roof yesterday, started taking selfies and almost fell off.”
The cat chuckled. “People.”
“Not much. Bear visited the Miltons. Drained their hummingbird feeder. Flipped over a trash can.”
“Heard that. You pass this stuff on to your people?”
“Try. I tell them but they don’t seem to grasp it.”
“Well, keep trying, sister.”
“You, too, brother.”
They parted ways. A while later, the man entered the backyard. Chuckled the cat’s way. “Heard you and that bird going at it.”
The cat meowed several times back, trying to convey the information learned.
“What is it? What are you telling me? You hungry? Want water? A treat? What is it?”
The cat repeated the stories the bird had shared.
The man shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re trying to say.” He went on to water the garden.
The cat sat down with a sigh. That all summed up the problem. People could hear but couldn’t understand.
Her life. She had such a life. All centered on her children. Now. Had been different. Career. Charity work. Volunteering at the Guild and the Food Bank, delivering meals to shut-ins, meeting with the garden club and the book club.
All gone with her macular degeneration. Reducing her life to her children. No, her grandchildren. She and her daughter ‘did not get along’. Saw politics differently. Education. Fashion. Manners. Daughter blamed her for – “Whatever,” she usually explained, too limp to delve deeper into words and emotions, too worn to extricate and untangle the relationship to the satisfaction of anyone outside of it.
The grandchildren, though – twins. He, dyslexic. Energetic. Masculine but wary. She, in the forefront. Quick-minded, always watching, pausing to see. Cowboy boots – red – and sparkling tutus. She, ordering him on what to do, when to do it. How. Correcting him. He, obeying, sometimes with frustration, which the girl child – they were only eight, miniature people, perfect little unblemished slender human replicas – soothed with whispers and touches. She could not see their future. That worried her.
Then him. His life. No life. Writing. Living to write. Brooding, apparently writing in his head. Reading. Walking around, sipping coffee, staring at walls, floors, windows, always there but never there. Her son. She could no longer connect with him at all. He was a house that couldn’t be entered. Curtains on the windows. No doors in nor out.
Phone rang with an old-fashioned tinny sound reminding her of the happy times at her grandmother’s home. Her daughter was calling. She didn’t want to answer. Probably about money. Usually was, when she called. She put a smile into her voice. Shook off her weariness. Must not upset the princess lest she cut off access to the grandchildren. But she would not do that, would she?
Not a chance to be taken. “Hello, honey,” she said, fake happiness in her voice, pressing forward with her life.
Pat drank coffee. Sheetz, black and sugary. Squinted. Eyes burned. Little sleep. Too much night telly. Too much sunshine. Possibly vodka, too. And beer chasers. A Marlboro was lit, sucked, stared upon with distaste. Vile habit. Had him in his grip.
This little mélange of acknowledgements about his underlife stirred anger. Anger fed determination. Get ‘er done. He threw down the cigarette. Tramped it. Picked it up and carefully added it to the small baggy in his pocket. To be thrown away later. Litter was terrible. He wouldn’t be part. Smoking might be killing him but litter embarrassed him. ‘Specially butts on the ground. Fuckin’ appalling.
He stared up at the house, shifted himself, and moved. Now he was ready. Pumped himself up. Drank more coffee. Marched the walk. Pavement needed repaired. Up the steps. The rot on them caused a grimace. To the front door. It stuck. Required a shoulder and a grunt to push in.
Mom’s house, without Mom, waiting inside. He had, he was certain, never been to Mom’s house without Mom being there. No, wait. He nodded. Yes, there was the time when she was hospitalized. Yes.
Eyes went to the steps where she’d fallen, flipping over the side, where there was no rail, bouncing off furniture. He’d warned her. Damaged shoulder, black charcoal and gray clouds covering her fair, flabby skin. Pierced lung. Broken ribs. Could have been worse. Gone into Mercy for three days which became ten. Had to come back for items she needed. Dan lived with her then. Her fiancé. But Dan, Mom said, “Can’t do it. He doesn’t know where things are.” The man lived there with her for twelve years and didn’t know where things were? Come on. But Dan beat Mom out of the house, dying while driving, crashing his Prius into a tree on a snowy winter night while the icy road laughed. Fuckin’ roads.
Yeah, only he was left. Shit. To go through Mom’s stuff. Shit. He brushed away tears from his eyes’ corners before they could get a rolling start, finished the final coffee ounce, tossed that cup and looked. Shit. Where was he supposed to start? He was the last of the children. Mom outlived them. Well, till now. Him, the oldest. Cancer took two. Shit. Both non-smokers, just a year apart, pancreas. Just him and grandchildren now. Well, widows and widowers. But they…yeah, no.
He’d called his ex to help. She couldn’t. Sympathized but couldn’t. Busy with their kids, going to Disney. Second wife just laughed. “No. Not bailing you out this time.” Like, when had she bailed him out? Made it sound like he’d been in jail. He’d never been in jail. Third wife was in Vegas with her fourth. Cried a lot on the phone but made no commitment. So here was Pat. Alone. Cleaning out Mom’s life. Shit.
He’d walked, he’d sat, he was thinking. Didn’t know how to do this. Despite everything with Mom, he thought she’d keep on living. Always thought somehow, impossibly, she would outlive him.
He bent his head with a heavy sigh. Yeah, he was wrong. It would take more coffee, more cigarettes, more time.
He was not ready.
5:35 AM swept by.
The sun didn’t show.
The FIC (Floof-in-charge) gave that a whiskery frown. They’d been on the job for over six centuries. The sunrising thingy had a rhythm they’d notice after a few years on the job. Maybe they’d missed something on the schedule. Consulting it, they confirmed Sunday, June 6, 2021…
Nothing scheduled. Sunrise, 5:35 AM.
Pulling out the cosmo communicator, they called up to the regional system overseer. “This is the Ashland FIC. We were supposed to have a sunrise at 5:35.” They were looking around as they were talking. No sunlight. Not even false dawn. The birds were muttering about it. Bears, cats, and nocturnal animals milled around, wondering what was going on.
“What’s the problem?” the overseer said in their nasally voice.
“There’s no sunrise.” The FIC then wondered. “Did the sun rise everywhere else on schedule?” It seemed implausible that it was an Ashland-only issue, but equally amazing that it’d happened elsewhere and went unreported.
“Shit,” the overseer said. “The sun didn’t rise anywhere. Shit!”
The line went dead. The FIC looked at the cosmic communicator. A fox came up. “What’s going on? Where’s the sun?” A couple crows joined him, nodding their heads in agreement. “We have things to do,” the crows said.
“It’s coming,” the FIC mumbled, calling the overseer back.
“What?” the overseer asked. “Kind of busy now. If this isn’t an emergency — “
“I know, I’m the one — what’s going on with the sun?”
“Oh, yeah, you. We’re going to roll the day back. The sun was, um, indisposed this morning, so, um, ah, anyway, let everyone know, we’re rolling back time so that sunrise commences on schedule. They won’t notice a thing. Tell them to just be patient.”
A few seconds later, the FIC looked up as the sun swept past the eastern horizon at 5:35 AM. Right on schedule.
They snorted. Sure. Hopefully, all would go well when the sun was due to set at 8:44 PM, but they weren’t going to hold their breath.
“Through Glass” by Stone Sour (2006) is playing through my head. Something about how some days feel like forever. Ever notice that? Happened a lot when I was a child. Look at the clock, waiting for it to advance, wondering if it was possible that time stopped, or was it just the clock?
Anyway, here’s the music. Stay positive, test negative, wear a mask as needed, and get the vax. Cheers