Last night's storm cleansed the air. The heaviness on my chest has eased. Yesterday I resisted the temptation to deploy either albuterol or nitroglycerin, pressed by some inner instinct, perhaps my body's barometer. When the first lightening flashed, Jessica and I looked at each other with some keen mixture of wonderment and confirmation: Here it comes. The hammering rain started moments later.
The storm intruded on my sleep, calling troubled images to rise from the murks where they linger during daylight hours. On waking I paced around the room, flexing cramped calves, lamenting choices that inevitably drew me to this moment in time, this configuration of events. I fell back asleep before dawn and awakened, tense and knotted, at ten past seven. Now I am on the porch where I have been for two hours, with only a cup of coffee for protection.
That I am in my nightgown reminds me of my grandmother Johanna Ulz Lyons, who sat on the patio of the home that she and her husband, my grandfather Delmar Lyons, built in a new subdivision south of Springfield, Illinois. She always wore her full slip. She said one of the benefits of home ownership was the right to do as you pleased in your home but she waited until the sun sank on the other side of the house before she went outside, with her cigarettes and a drink.
I raise my coffee and feel the line of my arm. My eyes close; I deliberately hold them shut, and hear the clink of the ice in Nana's drink. What, Nana? I ask, and I am ten; I am eleven; I am eight. I am the child formerly known as Mary, and I am spending the summer with my Nana before I start fourth grade.
I know there will be shoes. I heard my mother talking in the living room before she left to return to St. Louis. "She needs shoes, she always needs shoes." I scuff one foot over the other. The heat rises in my face. I know how much trouble I am; I assume I cost my mother a lot of money because I don't walk right and I have to go to the doctor a lot. I hear Nana's reassuring voice. I know there will be a trip to the shoe store next to the Sonotone House of Hearing, my grandparents' hearing aid business.
I go out of the kitchen and stand on the patio. The corn rises high and heavy in the field next to their house. My grandfather keeps the neighborhood children out of the crop in exchange for the right to unlimited ears of the sweet corn. We eat it with slathers of butter, melted butter that runs down our chins and drips on our T-shirts.
After my mother leaves, my brother Mark lures me down to a creek at the end of the dirt path beyond the subdivision. He shows me crawdads. I slip in the mud and land on my bottom. I don't mind; the sun shines on my face as I tilt my body backwards and let my foot-long braids dangling in the brownness of the trickling water. I know my grandmother won't scold me for being dirty. She'll just toss my clothes in the washer and snuggle me into a nightgown, then we'll say prayers and I will fall asleep on the sofa bed in the den. My brother took the guest bedroom but I don't care; I like the fold-out mattress, the stack of books on the side-table, and the reassuringly small confines of the room with its solid closet and thick carpet.
I listen to the night noises through the window and think about turning nine. Back home in Jennings, I worry about starting fourth grade while I'm trying to sleep, but here in Chatham, the start of the school year seems distant and unthreatening. I hear Nana and Grandpa moving through the hallway. My door has been closed except an inch or two; the hall light shines bright enough for me to find the bathroom if I need it. My brother, two years older, has a later bedtime than I do but I don't care about that, either, for the solitude of the little den comforts me. I spend most of my evenings reading even before we pull out the sofa bed and straighten the sheets.
On Monday morning, I go into work with Nana and sure enough, we go next door to the shoe store. She buys me a pair of Bass Weejun penny loafers and a pair of saddle shoes with solid ties. I suppress my dislike of the saddle shoes, which I know I have to wear because of how I walk. She tells me to save the penny loafers for Mass on Sunday and to wear the saddle shoes to school, but she lets me wear the loafers from the store, and slips bright shiny pennies into the slots. Then she takes me to Strong's for lunch and I have stewed chicken and blueberry muffins with honey butter. My chest tightens after lunch; we walk that off. No one has yet figured out that I'm allergic to honey. We think I have eaten too much and the walk back to the office will ease the sensation. I hold my grandmother's hand.
When we get to the crosswalk, she says, "Put your best foot forward, Mary." I ask her, "Which one is my best foot?" and she smiles down at me. "Why, the one which is going first, of course." And we step into the intersection, me in my plaid shorts, my T-shirt, and my new penny loafers; she in her crisp cotton dress and a pair of beige pumps. The lunch time crowd of businessmen and office workers flows around us. In that very moment, I am perfectly content with every speck of my world, and I don't even notice the pain in my legs, or the limp, or the stares of people. For all I know, they could be admiring in my beautiful grandmother, and I would not blame them one iota.
I see that nine o'clock has come and slipped away. In three hours, I have to be at my office to meet the Google Fiber installer; in three days, I have Trial Three of Four that were scheduled for this two-week period. Trial one got continued; trial two settled; trial four will be relatively painless. But in trial three, all hell will break loose. A mother and a father will be tempted to spend hours on the witness stand hurdling accusations at one another, with three lawyers riding herd on the testimony, and a judge ferreting through the emotions to find the facts. My heart sits heavy at the prospect. I plan to try to stench the blood flow as much as humanly possible, and direct it towards healing rather than more pain.
Last night's storm brought to mind the closing scene of The Glass Menagerie. Laura, the daughter, leans down to extinguish the candelabra with which she and her gentleman caller have lit the room when the electricity has failed. Her brother, stage right, watches her from a place distant in both geography and time. He laments her simple fragility, and his own inability to protect her. He tells us of his flight away from home and the sadness of his mother and his sister, whom he cannot escape.
It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow.
Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes ...
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be !
I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger -anything that can blow your candles out !