Fifty-nine years. Anna shook her head. It was that long ago that the family’s ’49 Chevy had pulled away from the driveway of the little white stucco bungalow on Willow Street and headed east. She had been eight then, waving cheerfully to her best friend, Peggy, as if they were going on vacation, not moving away. Forever, as it turned out. First, to New Jersey, where Anna had cried into her pillow every night for four miserable, homesick years. Then to a small town in Connecticut — better, but not Nebraska. By that time, she had known not to share memories of North Platte with her middle school classmates. The name always made them laugh, as if she had just said “Hayseed City”.
Suddenly, the roadside sign said “North Platte 155 miles”. It was really happening; she was going home. Maybe not exactly home; it was, after all, just a month-long visit, and then she would head back to Maryland, where she had lived for forty years but never felt at home. Would she feel at home in North Platte, after all this time? Certainly the town had changed, but so had she. Anna grimaced to herself, keeping her eyes on the highway as it narrowed into a perfect image of one-point perspective. The drive from Denver to North Platte — about three and a half hours, according to Google Maps — was already new. When the old Chevy had taken the family to vacations in Estes Park, they had followed the South Platte River on what passed for a highway in the early 1950s, before the interstate system had been finished. There was a time when she could have imagined returning to North Platte on a Union Pacific train — the City of Denver, perhaps. But passenger service to the city had been abandoned decades ago, and now her choice had been a flight to Denver or Omaha, followed by a three or four-hour drive in an expensive rental car.
The landscape near Denver was crowded with new buildings, but the Front Range of the Rockies still rose up in the west, as always. Little by little, the mountains faded on the horizon, first masquerading as clouds before disappearing completely. Then the highway was bordered by range land and farms stretching for miles on either side as Anna slowly descended from the Mile High City to the foot hills and the High Plains. Her friends often dismissed the landscape as boring and flat, but Anna saw it as beautiful and dramatic, dominated by sky and clouds.The hills rolled very slowly, rising and falling gently, almost imperceptibly. Then, after an unusually long incline, Anna crested a hill and saw the plains in the distance, looking like a golden ocean. She gasped aloud, as tears filled her eyes. So beautiful! How had she forgotten?
Far from being impatient with the drive, Anna, wanted to savor it. She stopped at every rest stop to use the facilities (the gift of old age) and to take pictures. At one spot, she opened to car door to the unmistakable sweet odor of cow manure. How could anyone find it unpleasant, she laughed to herself. That and alfalfa, the sure signs of cattle country.
Soon enough, she was speeding east on Highway 80, past the exits for Ogallala and Hershey, and then coming up on North Platte. Her excitement grew as she pulled off the interstate and turned north on Jeffers Street. She knew that the old decorative archway proclaiming North Platte as the Home of Buffalo Bill Cody was long gone, but hadn’t expected the visual confusion that had replaced it. Chain hotels and restaurants on every side, a shopping mall, and — to her horror — a Starbucks. The Walmart she had expected; hadn't every town in America succumbed to the Walton family”s seductive wares? She stayed on Jeffers, knowing exactly where to stop first. It was too early to check into her room, and not time for dinner. She passed the library where she and her brother had played with Legos, but the sign said “Children’s Museum”, so that was changed. Before she knew it, she was on the viaduct that carried Jeffers over the Union Pacific tracks, and she glanced to the east to see the grand old train station. It was gone. Instead, there was a strip mall and a huge parking lot. Ok, so there were no more cross country passengers, but couldn’t they have kept the station and turned into — something?
She drove on, barely glancing at the buildings on either side on the street. Most were new; the old ones were unfamiliar. Wasn’t there a movie theater on this side of the tracks? What else was there? She suddenly felt that the trip had been a horrible mistake. She was going to spend a month as a stranger in a strange town, in the middle of nowhere. But then she saw it — a swimming pool. THE swimming pool! Closed for the season, but still there, and a few yards past the pool as the entrance to Cody Park. She’d never driven there, of course, so the winding road could not be familiar. but there were the kiddie rides, and the carousel — closed for the winter, but obviously still in use. Then the small “zoo” — actually just pens with antelope and other local species. Wait, was that a llama? Well, that was new. The road curved around and she saw the North Platte River. The water was high — the sandy banks where she once had played were flooded. But the smell was the same. Proust can have his madeleines, she thought. I’ll take alfalfa, manure, and the silty waters of the Great Plains.
Walking along the river, Anna once more felt her eyes fill with tears. Good thing she was wearing sunglasses, she thought with embarrassment. A heavy set man, dressed in work clothes, saw her and was strolling over. It made her a little nervous; she’d acquired an easterner’s aversion to strangers in those 59 years.
“Beautiful day,” he said.
“Too bad the nature trail got burned,” he continued, nodding towards a blacked patch of vegetation. “Just kids, I guess.”
Anna looked at the grassy spot where they stood, “There used to be swings here, I think.”
He chucked. “That IS a long time ago. Well, enjoy the day,” and he turned and walked back to the road.
She closed her eyes and saw the swings. They were the big, old-fashioned kind with a flat seat that you could stand on and pump your legs until you almost went all the way up and over and around. The hard kind of seat, of wood covered in rubber, that really hurt if you walked into their path. She remembered coming here after church and Daddy pushing them on the swings, standing behind and between them and pushing one swing with each hand. Fifty-nine years. He was long dead, and so was Mom. Her brother would be seventy in a few months. They had five grandchildren between them.
What if they hadn’t moved? What if she had grown up here with her friends and her brother? Would their parents have stayed married? Would she have gone to college? There would have been no Steve, of course, and their children and grandchildren would have never existed. But would that have been a tragedy, if no one knew they had even been a possibility?
Shaking off the thought, Anna returned to her car. Time to find the motel and check in.
Today's prompt was aimed at novelists as well as short story writers: to craft a turning point in the story. Very interesting challenge.
Imagine, a labyrinth in North Platte! It was just a path of crushed stone, lined with edging bricks, the kind used in landscaping. In the center were three small benches, just the right size for one person. On each one, a single word was incised: “Faith”, “Hope”, and “Love”. Anna stepped onto the path. “Oh”, she thought, “shouldn’t I have an intention first”. She hesitated, but then the word “journey” popped into her head. Wasn’t that her intention all along? To journey back to a place and time that no longer existed. And when you do that, is it even possible to know where you will end up? She paced the labyrinth, sometimes pausing to gaze up at the impossibly blue, clear sky, sometimes distracted by the man mowing his lawn in a nearby yard. She looked at the three benches in the center, as she moved closer and farther away from them as the path twisted around in its intricate pattern. She imagined her life as a jigsaw puzzle with an unknown picture. She’d found the corners, assembled the edge, and pieced together a few areas that seemed clearly defined. Now she was carefully connecting the remaining section, the jumble of colors and shapes that almost seemed familiar, but not quite. And suddenly, there she was at the center of the labyrinth, and she knew, deep in her being, that a piece was missing from the puzzle. She sank down on the bench inscribed “Love” and closed her eyes, with a sigh.
Peggy turned her head. Was that the wind picking up, or was it … a sigh? She looked toward the sound and, with a shock, realized that Mary’s eyes were meeting hers, open and focusing, for the first time in fifty-nine years.
Mary’s head tilted a bit on the pillow, and her expression changed to puzzlement. “No one has called me that since I was a little girl.” Then she was silent for a moment, wet her lips and asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m Peggy, dear. I’ve been waiting all this time for you.”
“Where did you find me? Did I faint at the labyrinth?”
Peggy felt confused and a little panicky. “Mary, you have been here nearly the whole time since the accident.”
Peggy started to explain, but stopped herself. Perhaps it would be too much of a shock to explain right now. Seeing Mary lick her lips again, Peggy stood up quickly. “I am going to get you some water. Just rest; I’ll be right back”.
Her hands shook as she got a glass from the cupboard and filled it at the kitchen tap. “I should call John,” she thought, but then realized he would be busy with the brown bag book talk for another hour. “No, I’ll just stay here and make sure she’s ok.”
At the library, John was getting nervous. The room was arranged, the coffee was made, and the projector was set up for the speaker, but Anna Whitmore was nowhere to be seen. A few early birds were already settling in, opening their sandwiches and take-out salads. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed Anna’s number. “I’m sorry,” a robotic voice answered, “ You have reached a nonworking number. Please check your listing and try again.” Maybe I should call the police, John worried. Returning to the meeting room, he glanced at the clock. Five minutes late. Maybe she was lost. He walked quickly back into the room. “Professor Whitmore is running late,” he announced nervously. “Please help yourself to coffee or tea while we wait.”
“Here’s your water, Mary.” Peggy tried to say it brightly, but her nonchalance was definitely forced. She watched as Mary reached for the glass, and took a long drink. Then, their eyes met again, for what seemed like a long time.
“Peggy, it’s been so long since I was Mary.”
“I know, dear. But you’re back now.”
“Call me Anna. I go by my middle name now. Anna Whitmore.”
Today's prompt is to tell one of my previous entries from a different point of view. Happy to oblige. This is yesterday's story sort of inside out.
John poured another cup of coffee, and took a sip, knowing it was too hot. Looking out his kitchen window, he saw Peggy’s car coming into the driveway. Moments later, she walked into the kitchen, smiling broadly, as always. “The changing of the guard!” she laughed, toasting his coffee mug with her own take-out container. “How’s our girl?” she asked. “No change”, he said. As always. The woman in the spare bedroom was a constant presence, despite her silence.
I swear, the prompts get worse every day. But the typo (?) makes it all worth while.
Your company sends you to meet a costumer at their house. It’s a standard, nice neighborhood. You ring and ring but nobody answers. The door is ajar, and you enter, calling aloud. All is in order in the living room apart from an overturned potted plant on the expensive-looking rug…
"Hello, hello?!" I shouted louder and louder as I walked into the foyer. It was more than a bit creepy, between the slightly open front door and the immaculately clean living room. I was supposed to meet the famously reclusive Nanalee Wendy Ross, to discuss the costume designs for my next Broadway show, but she was nowhere to be seen. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a slight movement to my right, and turned just in time to see a large cactus in a terra cotta pot begin to teeter, then sway, and finally crash to the floor. Dirt spilled across the rare kilim.
I began to back out of the room, then turned and head for the door.
"Wait!!" a high-pitched voice called after me. I froze, and then looked. The cactus was upright, waving one spiny arm at me.
It was Nanalee Wendy Ross herself, and I knew this would be the collaboration of a lifetime.
"Can you keep a secret?"
"Peter and I have decided to start a family. We're expecting a baby in September."
"That's great news!"
"I had to tell somebody. And you're my very best friend. But keep it up it under wraps for now." "OK. Mum's the word."
She had every intention of keeping her promise. But this was the hardest secret she had ever been entrusted with. And it just got harder and harder to stay quiet. It seemed like every day she came close to blurting it out. They could be in the middle of planning an event for next fall or someone would mention the number of office pregnancies that year -- now up to three, not including Susan's. After two days she found herself fidgeting and looking away during these conversations. After four days she was grinding her teeth during meetings. Her coffee consumption doubled. Exactly a week after Susan had shared her news, the secret could no longer be contained. The department social committee was picking dates for the office picnic.
"Well what about the Saturday after Labor Day. Everybody will be back by then, and the weather is usually nice."
There were murmurs of agreement around the table.
"And we can ask Susan if we can have it at her house again."
"Well -- uh uh uh -- I think uh uh --", she said trying desperately to think of an innocent reason to suggest another location.
Every eye was in her face, which was turning very red.
"Er -- I think they expect -- uh -- I mean plan to -- Susan and Peter might be busy in September."
She nodded. "Uh huh." They weren't going to get any more out of her.
"What-- is Susan pregnant?"
She busied herself with her notepad, trying not to react.
"She is, isn't she?"
"Well, yes." She admitted. "B-b-but it's a secret."
"Not anymore," A gleeful voice whooped.
She sighed, realizing she would have to warn Susan that the cat was out of the bag.
"Susan, I'm sorry. I tried so hard not to let on."
"That's OK, sweetie," Susan said with a hug. "Now everyone knows, and I only had to tell one person. I knew you couldn't keep a secret like this for more than a week. "
"Are you out of your mind?!"
"Could be. But it's been on my bucket list for years now, and it was too good a deal to pass up."
Walt turned the brochure over his hand, shaking his head. “I wouldn't do it for free." He's snorted." You couldn't pay me enough to go bungee jumping.”
I shrugged. "Well you can have your bucket list and I'm going to have mine."
Handing the brochure back to me, Walt shook his head once more and said “You're nuts” and walked out of the room.
We didn't talk about it for the rest the week. There was enough going on to distract us: sales reports, staff meetings, and a baby shower for one of the sales reps. On Friday afternoon, I walked back into my office after a long meeting and saw a cryptic message on my whiteboard.
Whatever you do, don't die. See you Monday.
Deep inside, I was not as cavalier about the bungee jumping adventure as I had might've seemed to Walt. I’m afraid of heights, and I sure don't want to die. But bit by bit I had overcome my acrophobia, first on roller coasters, then on bridges, and most recently on airplanes. The arrival of the bungee jumping brochure in my mailbox had seemed serendipitous. With my 50th birthday coming up, what better way to celebrate then to face my biggest fear and jump off into the void?
Saturday morning found me standing on a bridge, the instructor at my side, surrounded by a small nervous group of would-be bungee jumpers. But I was going to go first. We already had our orientation, seen some videos, and supposedly we were ready for the big adventure. I took a deep breath, leaned forward, and was off. If you have never plummeted through the air, you can only imagine what it was like. It was scary as hell — and exciting. Just when you thought you were going to slam onto the surface of the water, you were being pulled back into the air, and coming down again, and up and down, and up, and finally down. I was screaming my head off the whole time. First it was absolutely a scream of fear, but by the end I was whooping with joy. What a rush!
I couldn't wait to get to the office Monday morning and tell Walt all about it. But when I got there the somber faces told me something terrible has happened. Walter had tripped on his shoelaces and fallen down the stairs at his house. Died instantly.
I stumbled into my office and sat at my desk, staring at the computer. On a whim, I searched “odds of dying from accidental injuries”. It turns out that your chances of dying while bungee jumping is one in 500,000. Probability of dying from falling down stairs: one in 1,797.
Spending the weekend at home? Whatever you do, don't die. See you Monday.
It is said, she once had a name. But it had been decades since she had become simply the Doll Maker. In the time when she had a name, she had been famous for her portrait dolls, each made in the image of the fortunate little girl for whom it was crafted. Whether through art or magic, as the girl grew to a woman, the doll mirrored every change in her face, until the day when the old woman was laid to rest, her small, white-haired companion by her side. The Doll Maker herself was impossibly old; village whispers measured her life in hundreds of years, but of course, everyone was too polite to ask her age.
Then, when today’s grandmothers were little girls, the Doll Maker suddenly stopped making portrait dolls. Puzzled and disappointed parents asked her why, and she replied with the story of her dream.
In my dream, I was walking through a crowd of people, all walking slowly in the same direction. I searched for a familiar face, but every head was turned away from me or turned toward the grounds if avoiding my gaze. Moving to the edge of the crowd, I found a small raised platform and climbed up on it for a better view. The faces on the silent, moving figures turned toward me as if on a signal, and I saw they were all the same.
She knew in that moment that she must fill the village with those faces, and from that day on every doll has had a single face. The face of love.
Being a latchkey kid might sound like a lot of fun. It probably is if you're the kind of kid who is sneaky when grownups aren’t around. But I'm a good kid, and that means I come right home and stay out of trouble. No friends coming over to visit, no long phone calls, no snooping around for Dad's smut collection.
Every day, I walk home, unlock the door, lock it again after me, get an approved snack. The fridge isn't locked, so I could have ice cream and cake, or even try to cook something and maybe set the house on fire. But because I'm a good kid, I make a peanut butter jelly sandwich, pour myself a glass of milk, and settle down in front of the TV. I'm allowed to have half an hour of TV when I get home, before I start my homework.
Usually, I catch the last half hour of a talk show. There are several on when I get home, so I have my pick: entertainment gossip, family drama gossip, sports gossip, political gossip. Yesterday was Monday, entertainment gossip day. But instead of my usual entertainment talk show, there was a quiz show. No big deal, I thought. Probably just a schedule change, and I like quiz shows, too. Besides, the category for the day what science, and I had science homework, which seems like a nice coincidence.
"First question: what is the third planet from the sun?"
"Earth!" The TV contestant said. “Venus”. I said simultaneously. He was right.
“Next question: Which of Newton’s laws states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?"
Tough one! I shouted “First!” and the contestant answered “Third”. He was right again.
By the end of the show, I had gotten none of the correct answers, but the TV whiz kid had aced them all.
I turned off the TV, dragged my back pack to the kitchen table, and took out my science folder to start on my homework.
First question: What is the third planet from the sun? Puzzled, I scanned the rest of the page and smiled.
Sometimes being a latchkey kid can be a very good thing.