Caroline looked up, surprised to hear any conversation at all from the couple on the sofa, much less this. But all she saw was the same thing she had seen for the last hour. A middle-aged, long-married couple sitting a few inches from each other, both hunched over their smart phones, thumbs furiously working the keys.
The man’s dad, Caroline’s husband, looked at her, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged. She could tell he found it both annoying and amusing that his son had flown across the county to see him, yet spent the precious sliver of time thus.
Caroline learned later they were continuing an argument begun who knows when. Hours? Days? Weeks? Decades? Turns out they were sitting right beside each other, texting all the while. Her angry outburst was almost certainly unintentional, but it spoke volumes.
They agreed to break for lunch on the patio. Poolside. A sweet breeze swayed the tops of tall old pines ringing the back yard. But their phones, weapon of choice, remained near their itchy fingers.
Caroline tried to steer the conversation, akin to herding sullen cats, to something fun, some topic at least lighter than a brick. Going anywhere interesting? Thought about where you want to live after retirement? How are the kids? (Always a danger warning zone, but she was desperate.) Ah, this one: tell me about your color scheme for the new house you just bought.
Caroline knew, though. The walls were the color of tears.
Robin checked out of her room at the Hotel Provincial early to drive back home to Pensacola. It was an easy three and a half hours with no commitments waiting, but she was more than ready to go. She and Harry had been coming to this quirky, elegant small New Orleans hotel just at the edge of the French Quarter for romantic getaways for decades. Their last visit, however, had been a surprise treat for their granddaughter’s senior high school spring break.
The room had an old-fashioned wing chair just like the one Robin sat in one year when Harry took her picture before they happily drifted over to the now-defunct, over the top restaurant Stella. It was her favorite photograph of herself, a prized memory. Somehow the slinky black dress and animal print scarf just worked with her cropped black hair and the chunky tumbler of single-malt scotch in her right hand, eyes bright with love for the photographer.
Robin slung the strap of her overnight bag over one shoulder, car keys in hand, opened the door, then turned to look at the room one more time, wanting to burn every detail of it into her memory. She didn’t expect to return here again.
Coffee and cinnamon smells wafting into the parking lot from the hotel kitchen slowed her determined trudge to the car. “What’s another few minutes?” she thought. “Nobody’s waiting for me at home.” God, it hurt to say that. She and Harry had talked about cremation, but when the time came, she just couldn’t do it and went the full memorial service at the old church Episcopal church downtown where they had been arms-length members forever. She sighed and went into the small lobby area where a continental breakfast was laid out on a starched white tablecloth. This was a quickie for travelers ready to hit the road, so while there were beignets and cinnamon rolls on a round silver tray, local bean purveyor Community Coffee’s paper cups were stacked beside the coffee maker, ready to go.
Robin filled her cup with the pungent black chicory-laced brew, wrapped a cinnamon roll in a paper napkin and went to the desk to check out. “Why don’t y’all take a few minutes and enjoy the courtyard before you hit the road? Mama always told me eatin’ and drivin’ ain’t good for the digestion.” The smiling clerk spread her fingers toward the open door leading to the courtyard, nodding her head in encouragement.
It seemed rude to turn down such a nice invitation. “What’s another ten minutes?” Robin found a table and sat, eyes angled down at the table, sighing. She felt so tired. Maybe if she just closed her eyes for a minute.
Robin’s eyes popped open. Did someone shake her? Had she fallen asleep? Was someone staring at her?
“No, cher, ain’t nobody starin’ at you.” Robin looked around. The voice was a deep baritone. But the courtyard was empty. She looked around for the first time, taking in the frilly pink bougainvilleas, lush banana plants and elephant ears, and the stone face of a lion.
The lion. He was definitely looking at her, a slightly grumpy gaze on his marble face. Water streamed in an arc from his mouth to a blue-green pool. For the first time, she noticed bougainvillea petals floating in the pool and couldn’t help but think how they were beautiful on the tree and beautiful floating, fallen, in the water.
Robin suddenly felt hungry, really hungry, for the first time since Harry died three months earlier. She ate half the cinnamon roll in one huge gulp and washed it down with the now lukewarm coffee. Its bitter taste mingled with the too sweet of the iced bun into perfection in her mouth.
Robin still felt someone’s eyes on her. “It’s just me, darlin’, we’re all friends here.” The voice was silky, neither young nor old, male or female. It sounded happy, though. She turned and saw a cherub. Was it made of wood? It looked warm and shiny, like carved and shellacked butterscotch.
“Huh,” Robin murmured. The drive home didn’t feel so urgent after all. She returned to the lobby for another cinnamon roll and some hot coffee, sat back down between the lion and the cherub, took out her notebook and pen and began to write.
Buck and I have attended the funerals of too many people we loved: both of our parents, his adult son (my stepson, the gray sheep), beloved aunts and uncles, and too many friends to count, not to mention the joy of loving and heartbreak of losing our Labrador retriever companions over the past forty years.
Ashes are what’s left when everything else is gone. And even they blow off into the wind, float for awhile on the sea, or are buried in the garden. Buck’s first wife’s sister scattered her husband’s ashes under azalea bushes in their front yard. Her next husband reportedly admired the robustly blooming hedge.
I never smoked, so ashtrays don’t enter my thoughts when I consider ashes. Bonfires, either. No. It’s all about death and how very little is left. What a small pile we make.
Ash Wednesday services in my Episcopalian tradition admonish congregants to remember that we are mortal, that our lives are short. As the ashes are smeared onto my forehead, the priest intones, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Ash Wednesday liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer is satisfyingly grim. My favorite Ash Wednesday service was at the grand old church downtown during a crashing thunder and lightning storm, a perfect prop for the event.
Old-style funerals like I grew up with, viewing the body, “he’s in a happier place,” all that, are sufficiently macabre that both Buck and I eschew attending unless we absolutely must. And the new fashions which feature a large multimedia production complete with music are equally repulsive. Cremation is our stop-gap plan, although we both prefer to simply live forever.
I think when I I die I would be grateful if some kind soul would place me to be left undisturbed in a blooming pitcher plant flat like the one we have on our hundred acre wood at Longleaf and let me be a perpetual meal for the carnivorous flowers, to bloom and bloom again.
It’s been a long time since I took a trip anywhere. A long time even since I walked the Longleaf forest, except for daily treks from home to the gate a third of a mile down a canopied gravel drive.
The grainy video from 2013 reminds me how timid I have become.
Something draws my eye to the bookshelf where I have a small collection of stones, rocks, moss and other items that please me. What is that? A key? I have never seen it before.
I pick it up and see there is a tag attached. The letters are faded. Is that a “B”? B A ? C ? ? F T. I can’t quite make it out. Wonderful old key, though. I like the feel of it in my hand. Returning to my desk, I slip it into the pocket of the comfortable old olive green skirt I wear around the house.
It’s still early morning here. My dog, Lou-Lou Belle, pushes her nose insistently into my hand. “One more sentence, girl. Then we’ll go for our walk.” She sighs and lays down, face between her paws.
The words won’t come. Now I’m the one sighing. “Okay. ” Lou jumps up at my voice. “Let’s go.”
Something about the morning sun’s rays penetrating the dark woods makes me alert.
The surprising appearance of light snow is my first clue that this will be no ordinary walk in the woods. Lou whines and turns back toward the house.
“Okay, girl. Let’s get you back to the house. I’ll come back for you after I check out what’s going on.” I open the door and she runs straight back to the bedroom where Buck is still sleeping. I grab a thermos of coffee and my backpack and head out.
The woods are familiar at first, but soon the terrain changes. The path narrows and the calves of my legs complain as flatland gives way to rolling country and then a steep incline. Clearly, I am not at Longleaf Preserve in the panhandle of northwest Florida anymore.
The flash of snow I saw earlier that told me this was no ordinary journey, returns, and with it a wind that gets up under my hair and whispers in my ear.
The last time I left on a long trip, a trip for nothing but play, a family member back at home died. My husband was with me. We screamed and cried in disbelief, then turned around in Atlanta and drove back home to an inescapable new reality. My 45-year-old stepson had a fatal heart attack. Our trip, of course, had nothing to do with it. And yet, for years we could not bring ourselves to buy airplane tickets or pack up the car for a road trip. And when we finally did travel out West to hike the magnificent parks of Utah, we looked over our shoulder for something following.
A few years later, my husband grew ill with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, mantle cell. Treatment was difficult, but effective. Five years on, he remains in complete remission, fit and strong. But now 81, his age has become the “something following” and we spend nearly all our time together.
I think about all of this when I stop to stand on a large flat rock, drink the rest of my coffee, and wonder whether I should turn back. I think about the brief, sweet time I called myself “writer.” How barely a day went by that I didn’t submit a story or essay to some publication somewhere. How since my stepson’s death and my husband’s cancer, the sluice-way of creative juices has slowed to a trickle from a rusty, stubborn tap.
My right hand thoughtlessly goes into my skirt pocket, as it often does, a habit with no purpose. My fingers close around something strong, slender, metal — the key!
I leave my thermos on the rock, strap on the backpack and continue up the path, head down and into the wind.