S H O R T S T O R Y
b y s o n d r a k e l l y - g r e e n ~ o c e a n s i d e , o r e g o n
THE MORNING after my root canal I couldn't decide whether to wax the driveway or carpet the backyard. Steroids are like that.
I'm sort of neurotic to begin with. Every time I go into a store I'm convinced that I've been marked as a shoplifter and my every move is suspect. Especially in grocery stores, because every time I approach fresh produce the sprayers come on. I picture skinny managers all weasel-eyed behind the one-way mirror, cackling behind the broccoli. Another thing is that when I fly I always, no matter where I'm landing, no matter how positive I am to the contrary, expect someone to be waiting for me at the gate. And I was only half kidding in my AOL profile when I listed my hobbies as hypochondria and related research.
I have a certain propensity toward the macabre. You know that color-retouched still photo they run at the beginning of Cheers? All I can think of when I see it is that each and every person in it is dead and the only mark they left behind is that once they were all standing at this bar. It makes you think. But mostly stuff like that makes me feel hopeless. Like restaurants in office parks or Christmas decorations left up well past Easter. I'm also depressed by large inflatable promotional stuff like giant helium tires or fake hot air balloons that say Clearance! hovering over appliance stores. There's just such a sense of hopeful, gosh-and-by-golly silliness that epitomizes, I think, modern man at the end of the twentieth century. The rain forests are being destroyed, half the world is starving and the other half is either dieting or gorging itself on toxic beef. But hey - there's always a tire sale to look forward to!
So back to the steroids. They're euphorics, you know. They reduce swelling as they increase your regard for the world in general. They make me remember that it's easy to figure out what you hate, but it's much harder to figure out what you like. This is something I was attempting while organizing the clutter under the bathroom sink. It's amazing what ends up down there. Barbie-sized shampoos and lotions from various hotels. Lint-covered Q-tips. Scrolls of information from old prescriptions, which make me think that the pharmaceutical companies would be better off listing side effects their drugs don't cause. They'd save paper and everyone could take a quick look and get back in the game. I thought about writing some of the drug companies with this tip, which I think is something they should consider. I only had one or two addresses though and I didn't want to give only a couple of companies an unfair advantage. Once I was done under the sink, I started throwing old food out of the refrigerator and mentally outlining the novel I've always wanted to write.
My dentist called to see how I was doing, which I think was an awfully nice thing to do but it made me remember the whole root canal business all over again. It's amazing how your face becomes nothing more than an excavation site with people hovering around it and Musak playing the Carpenters. I read somewhere that dentists have the highest suicide rates. This I guess I understand. There would develop a certain dental ennui staring into one void after another day in and day out. I particularly like the word ennui, especially now that I know how to pronounce it. I used to say N-U-I. Now I say ON-WEE. It's a very cosmopolitan word and I'm not sure that it can actually be translated. The French are a moody people.
Talking to my dentist made my tooth hurt and reminded me that I'd picked up some pain pills with the steroids down at the Piggly Wiggly. I took two Vicadin and started reading the insert regarding its chemical composition and side effects. From this and other inserts I've read, nursing mothers are pretty much screwed. I mean, I guess it's not enough that they're on call 247. They also can't take anything at all. I'm surprised they're allowed to eat.
I must have fallen asleep at some point because the sound of the plane crashing into my garage coincided perfectly with some natural disaster in my dream. That sort of thing really makes you think, but at the time I just let it go.
When I got out on the porch there was a steaming crater venting through the splintered garage door. The plane was small, a Cessna or something. Its tail fin slumped against my workbench like an old friend who'd had one drink too many. The pilot's side door was hanging open at an odd angle and I couldn't see the passenger's side beyond last year's Christmas tree and my recycling bins.
On some level I realized that I was remarkably high on drugs with side effects like dizziness, nausea and constipation and this realization made me slump down against the frame of the garage door and lower myself into a sitting position.
Still, the steroids were distinctly calling for some act of heroism. I opened one eye. Under the circumstances it was the best I could do. A slightly built woman stepped out of the cockpit and peered over the fuselage at the top of my Christmas tree, taking in the sad strings of tinsel that clung tenaciously to the tinder-dry limbs. At the same time it registered that she had to be at least ninety, she glared at me and said, "Son of a bitch," which pretty much summed up the situation, for me at least.
Amelia turned out to be closer to one hundred. I've never been good with ages. She seemed perfectly fine to me, considering the impact of the crash. I made her some tea and we sat across the kitchen table from each other like she'd just dropped in for a visit, which I guess, in a way, she had. I was amazed at how healthy she looked. Tall but slightly stooped, she had a long, British sort of face and eyes that could have been any age at all. Her face was lined and crow's feet splayed from her eyes but a sprinkling of freckles gave her a sort of ageless look. She kept fishing for her tea bag, eyeing it and dunking it back into her cup.
I kept apologizing about her plane like my garage was responsible for the crash. Finally Amelia shook her head.
"Fuel was low," she said. "I was flying in line of position." She sniffed. "But it wasn't my plane."
She sniffed again and cracked her knuckles. "I've no idea."
Stretched out, her fingers seemed unnaturally long. She wore some sort of vintage flight jacket straight out of a J. Petermanıs catalogue. The cuffs were tattered and torn. Her thin gray hair was blunt-cut, with sharp edges just below her ears. For the first time she looked around at my kitchen and squinted towards the living room. "Where is this?" she said, looking back at me.
Chemically enhanced as I was, this struck me as a bit spooky. "Cumberland Hills."
Seeing no light of recognition, I pressed on. "A suburb of Spokane."
This seemed to satisfy her and she leaned back into the chair. "I was going to land in the field. The fuel was low."
"The football field?" I asked. She nodded. It was seven blocks away. From a weathered satchel she withdrew some old maps, an antique compass and a crinkled packet of Sen Sen. She offered me one of the evil-looking black squares. I declined. She fussed with the maps and I lapsed into a sense of unreality, as if our actions were only for the benefit of those watching.
"There's no Cumberland Hills on this, but the Pacific is 300 miles from Spokane." She pursed her lips. "Is there an airport near here? An area where planes would be housed or tied-down?" I nodded. "But your plane "
"Itıs not my plane," she insisted.
"But you want to get to the Pacific Ocean."
"No," she said. "I want to get over it."
She could have been speaking metaphorically but I didn't think so. "Why?"
She rolled her eyes. "Because I've already done the Atlantic."
My tooth was pounding. I took another prednisone but passed on a pain pill. This seemed too interesting to be zoned out for. I went out on the porch and checked the cavern in the garage door. No more smoke. All my neighbors were safely at work. I went out to the curb and pulled my old Ford pick-up into the driveway, partially blocking the damage.
When I went back in she was striding back and forth in front of my coffee table smoking one of the cigars my Uncle Hagar had sent for Christmas. Seeing someone at age one hundred stride like that is really something. My tooth stopped pounding and my pain seemed silly after all Amelia had been through. Despite all that, she seemed ready for more.
"When you get off a plane, do you ever expect there will be someone to meet you?" I ventured.
She smiled for the first time, her eyes large and alive. "Yes. And someone always does."
She made it all sound so simple and made me feel so stunted and stupid that I drove her to the airport when she asked, no questions asked. I watched her stride purposefully across the tarmac toward a handsome Cessna 207, hauling along her satchel. Setting it down near the pilot's door, she fumbled for something inside and then finessed her way into the plane.
The last I saw of her was her head as she taxied out onto the runway. She raised a hand to her forehead in a brisk salute and surged out into the sky. The spotty clouds reminded me of Amelia's freckles and of islands dotting oceans and of what it means to get over it.
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