The BOOKPRESS June 2000

Open in 2048


Franklin Crawford

Mom knotted the sheer blue scarf under her chin with those thin, elegant fingers of hers. The dog there all excited thinking he was going, too. Mom reached down and buttoned the top button of my jacket. When she turned, I undid the button.

"Suit yourself," she said, not looking at me, but in a little cosmetic mirror, working the cherry-red lipstick just right. "But thereís a chill in the air."

She closed the mirror, dropped it in her white handbag, then patted the pockets of her dun overcoat feeling for her sunglasses. She fit them to her face ceremoniously, two-handed, her fingertips resting a moment on the sunglass frames as she acquainted herself to the dark. Mom took my hand and said, "off we go" and I felt the dogís disappointment as we edged and shooed him away from the door.

Out we went into the spinning blue day, out the long, lumpy driveway. Beefer barked a half-dozen hurt and whiney calls, muffled and lost in a stiff offshore breeze that fussed under hedges, flushed out dervishes of dust and carousels of leaves and debris. They spiraled across our path and vanished. Above, more wind demons skinned flocks of cloud from the blue belly flesh of the sky. Sunlight lapped and pulsed over the neighborhood in surging tides of irregular brilliance.

Mom suddenly let go of my hand.

"Canít you walk alone for five minutes without holding on to me?" she said. "Youíre getting to be such a mommaís boy."

"I just want to make sure youíre still there," I said.

"Still where? Frankie, where on Godís earth do you think I would be? Do you think your mother is going to go up in a puff of smoke?"

The question reminded her to have a cigarette. At the stop light, she removed a red calfskin pouch from her bag and nimbly pecked a Parliament from its pack. She struggled to light it with A&P paper matches, but the mischievous wind blew them out one after another.

"Hells bells," Mom said, cigarette flopping in her mouth. The light turned red, then green, then red again before she got it lit. We stepped off the curb. Mom laughed, smoke whirling away from her face.

"Whatís so funny, Mom?"

"My son the voyeur," she said, and took my hand.

I savored the exotic word without begging its meaning. It was a rare treat to go downtown with Mom, and I had already forgotten about the morningís minor calamity.

At breakfast she had promised to take me on errands. Usually, she left me home with Beefer or waited for my brother or sister to get home from school before leaving. I dreaded the sheer scarf, the lipsticks and sunglasses, the deliberate pace of her preparations. Her exit line was always the same: "Donít you fret, Iíll be home in two shakes of a lambís tail."

That was a stumper. I couldnít imagine any kind of animal didnít shake its tail real fast. Like Beefer. You couldnít even count how many times he shook his tail when it got going. But maybe lamb tails were different. Still, it seemed that any animal, even a dinosaur, could shake its tail twice by the time Mom got to the end of the driveway. She strolled at the dreamy tempo of wedding processions or funeral marches. A trip to the corner grocer seemed to me to take half a day. Mostly I waited and waited for her in the empty house thinking, "Sheís gone. They got her. Bad People got her."

But on this particular day the whole morning had been a festivity of anticipation. To kill time before we left, I played in a vacant lot by the train tracks where maple saplings reclaimed an old foundation. With a stick I found some critters under the bricks: a ball bug, a centipede, an ugly white worm with an orange head curled like a macaroni in the wet, wormy dirt and rotten leaves. Then the wind picked up. The saplings shivered overhead and Beefer started digging crazy after things I couldnít see. A mid-morning express hurtled by, mostly empty; a cloud passed over the sun, and suddenly I wasnít sure if I had made up the story about Mom saying we were going shopping or if she already had gone shopping and I was out there alone. I thought she had told me not to come until she called. I tried to remember just how she said it, and the harder I tried the more trouble I had remembering exactly what she said or if any of it had happened at all. Did she really kiss my cheek and say, "Donít get yourself all dirty because weíre going shopping?" Maybe I invented it.

I had to go check the house.

The windows were too high, so I dragged a wooden milk crate under a kitchen sill but she wasnít in there. The crate sank in the damp, moldy ground on the dark side of the house where we buried the dead cats. Coo-coo the black cat was buried there and so was Sweetie, the tabby and white that was named, I thought, because she looked Swedish.

Coo-cooís and Sweetieís cat bodies were there. But their cat souls were in heaven with Jesus and Grandpa Crawford. In heaven, Coo-coo and Sweetie and Gramps looked just like they did on earth only they wore white robes and Gramps couldnít spit tobacco juice because it would make stains. It was better in heaven than on earth and even though I had some serious questions about the cats and Gramps and where they were exactly, I didnít like the way Mom and Dad shushed me and changed the subject when I asked.

I hauled the crate to a row of windows outside Mom and Dadís bedroom. The curtains were pulled, but through a slit I could see shadowy movement: Mom. That was a relief. I stood tiptoe and watched her take a brown bottle from the dresser, which she emptied into a juice glass. Her head tilted back and down. Then she stood and slipped off her housecoat and was completely naked, a startling whiteness. The crate broke and I went "ass over tea kettle" as Mom was fond of saying.

* * * *

Main Street was only two blocks from our house and you could see how the trees yielded and opened like a gateway to the bright skyline of downtown.

In Grantís department store Mom picked out two shirts and a pair of dungarees that I had to try on. Bashful with the sales clerk, I held my ground, clutching the clothes. Mom got mad and whisked me into the dressing room and I tried on the pants and the shirts and they all fit just fine.

"You need to start doing some things on your own, Frankie," Mom said, tugging on the belt loop of the pants, pulling the shirt so it hung right on me. "Your mother isnít always gonna be around to look after you."

"Why not?"

"Because I said so."

"Why wonít you always be around?"

"Because," she said. "Now button your lips and zip up your fly."

I didnít want to leave the dressing room filled with Mom smellsĖĖperfume and something sharper, familiar and rich. I hugged her.

"Mom, if we stayed in here till the store closed, would we have to spend the whole night?"

"I guess so."

"We could watch TV together and sit on all the furniture," I said.

"And sleep in the bedding department, I suppose?"

"And play in the toy department."

"And eat gumballs for dinner?"

"Yeah! Mom, letís stay in here forever."

"We canít, hon. Now letís go."

"Mom, why did you say you wonít always be around?"

"Oh hells bells honey, letís go."

From the rush and swirl of Main Street we entered the library-quiet Thom McAnnís that smelled of wax and polish. Mom got me Oscar Robertson sneakers and a pair of Hush Puppies.

At the Palace Diner we sat in lofty red leather booths and I didnít need a booster cushion and the waitress said I was going to be a real lady killer.

"He already is," Mom said, winking at me. I blushed and fidgeted with the place settings. When you grew up you could kill ladies and ladies liked that. It didnít make a lot of sense. But I forgot about it because the chocolate malted arrived and the first sips were so exciting it got my legs squirming. I made music by kicking the center pole of the table with my toe, ding, then boom, on the baseboard with my heel. It went ding-boom-ding-boom-ding-boom, until Mom said "stop it" just when I was halfway between the ding and the boom and it drove me nuts not to finish with a proper boom. But if you didnít lower your leg slowly the boom would happen and Mom would look up from her nasty-tasting brown drink with the red cherry in it and the good feeling of the morning would be lost.

I ate bacon, lettuce and tomatoĖĖand French fries, with ketchup. Mom ate shrimp salad. I slurped at the bottom of the soda glass and Mom laughed, then slurped at the bottom of her drink, looking up at me with her green eyes crinkly. She fished out the cherry and dangled it for me by the stem and its pulp was tongue numbingly sweet. I was very, very happy.

After lunch we stopped at the stationary to get cigarettes, then the liquor store, a deep narrow place of shelves crammed floor-to-ceiling with colorful, gleaming bottles. My Hush Puppies squeaked on the red and black linoleum squares and I told Mom my new shoes were no good because they made noise. Mom said "shush" and got a large brown bottle with a white label and a green bottle with a yellow label and the man, Mr. Nelson, put them in a crackly brown bag then said, "wait a minute," and, like he was doing something real important, went in the back and returned with a strip of cardboard, which he slid down between the bottles. Done, he patted the bag with his crooked red fingers and tossed a packet of salted peanuts at me.

"Thank you," I said, picking them up off the floor.

"Youíre looking very lovely today, Sally," he said, as he took Momís money. "Like a queen of the silver screen."

"Oh, you go on, Curtis," Mom said.

He was shorter than my dad, skinny. His hair was slicked back with a straight part like a white scar on the side.

"And this fella here," he said. "They grow fast donít they?"

"They sure do. Heís gonna be a big, big boy," Mom said.

"Handsome kid. Gets his looks from his mother," Mr. Nelson said, and winked at Mom. I didnít like that wink.

On the way home the wind shifted, herding cloud animals along Main Street, over shops, cars, people, us. We reached the American Legion Hall. There was a big rock on the front lawn with a plaque that had words engraved.

"Mommie, read the rock to me!"

"Frankie, Iím tired, my feet hurt. I just want to get home and rest. Donít you want to take a nap?"

"Please, Mom, tell me what the rock says."

I stopped and leaned my head between the rails of the iron fence bordering the lawn. Mom stood behind me and set the shopping bags down. I turned to see her lifting the sunglasses.

"It says: Centennial. Eighteen Forty-Eight to Nineteen Forty-Eight, " Mom paused, fished for a cigarette. She tried to continue while she struck a match: "One Hundred ... Years ... ofĖĖoh, hells bells!"

She stopped, cupped her hands round the cigarette and got it lit on the second try.

"One Hundred Years of Progress: History, Documents, July Twenty-Eighth, Nineteen Forty-Eight, Open in Twenty Forty-Eight." I turned and she exhaled a plume of smoke. The breeze yanked it away.

"What does it mean?"

"It means that in a long time from now they are going to break open the rock, or move it, or something, and look at all the old things people put in there."

"What old things?"

"Oh, not very exciting stuff. Papers, maybe some old tools. Just ordinary ... things."

"Why would they put papers and stuff in there?"

"Because," she said, tapping an ash. "Things get important after a long time, I guess."

"Like Dadís Army stuff?"

"Like that."

"Can we go see the rock get opened?"

"Oh geez, honey, that wonít be for a long, long time."

I watched her. She looked down the street, away from me, and bit her lip.

"Please, wonít you go with me?"

"Do we have to make a plan right now?"

The breeze riffled her blue scarf. Across the street, the Methodist church steeple seemed to be sailing, its high white cross lonely and alone.

"Please? Just say youíll come with me to see the rock get opened?"

"Frankie, for heavenís sake, youíll be older than me by then."

Her tone frightened me. The Legion flag snapped impatiently. I tugged on Momís overcoat.

"Please, Mommie, please,"

"Stop it now, Frankie, I mean it," she flicked her cigarette down and squashed it under her pointy black shoe.

"Please say youíll come with!"

She grabbed my hand.

"Frankie, sweetheart, thatís more than eighty years from now. Your mother isnít Methuselah."

MethuselahĖĖthe name sounded like a mouthful of spiders. I gaped at her.

"People just donít live that long, honey?"

"What people?"

"Grown-ups."

"You, too?"

She didnít respond and the silence sucked the stuffing out of me. I collapsed, a slow, dramatic slide down the iron railings to the sidewalk. My agony was so fresh, so complete, that when I opened my mouth, it streamed out of me in a high, thin music. But the tantrum never gathered steam; I was too crushed to get properly hysterical. The cry arced and flattened into a low, excruciating drawl, remarkable for a sustained tone held without benefit of an in-breath. I beseeched Momís feet, groping like a drowning boy. Her pointy black shoes resisted me.

"Itís just a rock. Franklin, if it means so muchĖĖ" she said, pausing, I thought, to tell me "Yes, weíll go." But people passed by and she got flustered. "Pull yourself together, do you hear me? Pull yourself together this instant!"

She stepped away from me and I let myself roll face down onto the sidewalk, tasting concrete and dirt, snot and drool pooling under my chin.

"All right, stay here and make a spectacle of yourself," she said. Her heels clacked like bones as she moved, gone already it seemed. Coo-coo. Sweetie. Gramps. Mommie, too. Already gone.

Of course, she softened, returned, got me on my feet, took me home. But she made no effort to console me about the rock, even though when it got opened in 2048 none of us would live to see it happen. Later that year, President Kennedy joined Coo-coo, Sweetie and Gramps, and my older sister tells me I stopped smiling for family photos.

Ė

Franklin Crawford is a writer who lives in Ithaca.

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