|The BOOKPRESS||September 2000|
Tired by a
long country drive, we stopped at a roadside tavern for a drink and something
to eat. The tavern filled the first floor of a two-story brick building,
and in the parking lot stood an illuminated reader board which read: APARTMENT
AVAILABLE LIVE ROCK NIGHTLY.
While eating we engaged the bartender in conversation, and discovered that he was the owner of the establishment. Emboldened by the food and drink, we brought up the reader board, suggesting that he might rent his apartment more quickly were he to remove the reference to live rock music.
The owner nodded sadly, and confessed to us that his teenage daughter had lived in the apartment, but some years ago had died in a drunk driving accident, the result of an evening spent in another bar a few miles down the road. The owner, his eyes brimming with tears, said that he blamed himself for the accident, as he had refused to serve his daughter in his own bar, where she had been employed illegally as a cocktail waitress. With her gone, he had had to hire a legitimate waitress, and as a result the tavern was no longer profitable and had begun to lose money. Renting the apartment would make his business solvent, but he still hadn’t gotten around to cleaning it out, and in fact did not want to face the task. At the same time, actively not renting the apartment was financially unjustifiable. The sign, he explained, was a compromise between his business and emotional needs. It had stood unchanged for two years, even though the band had broken up and live music was no longer played here. The owner admitted that the place was about to go up for sale.
Of course we were sorry to have asked. We left the owner a large tip, though once we were out on the road, driving with extreme care, the tip struck us as a tacky, even insulting, gesture, and made us feel even worse about our rude question.
We live in
a profusely and variously foliated area, and our trees are large and old,
cultivated here by an excellent public works department, so it is not surprising
that our town draws tourists from far away come fall, when the leaves change
color. They drive through our residential streets with their out-of-state
license plates, pointing out to one another the extraordinary colors, from
the stunning reds of the red maple and black oak to the orange of the birches
and radiant yellow of the gingko, a streetside specialty here. Occasionally
a visitor will pull over and talk to one of us, and compliment us on our
leaves, as if we had anything to do with them, but they never thank us.
And then, when they go back to their own towns, our leaves grow drab, they fall off our trees and into our yards and gutters, and if we don’t get rid of them they sit there and turn black and wet under the snow. Nobody comes to look at them then. We walk through them in our boots on the way to our cars and try to forget what’s happened, and we endure the winter, and eventually the city comes and takes the leaves away. We don’t think much about them and do our best to enjoy the bleak view of the valley between the bare branches of the trees.
The one saving grace of all this is the spring, when new leaves come in. They’ve never yet failed to do so. They start out tiny and green, like mint candies, and for a short time they are ours alone, and nobody else’s. And then in summer, even when it thunderstorms and the wind tears through them at a furious clip, even then they stay right on the trees and make a sound like applause, all summer long. As if they are thanking us for spending this time with them before the tourists come and take them away.
aunt, long ago widowed, has spent the past ten years touring the world
as part of an old ladies’ travel club, despite a chronic social paralysis
that prevents her from so much as taking the bus to the grocery store without
a companion. When she returns from these distant places—which have included
Thailand, Egypt, China and Brazil and we ask her to describe her experiences,
she always tells us, after some consideration, that she had a wonderful
time and enjoyed the other ladies’ company. She offers no other details.
At a recent family gathering, conversation lingered on a grisly subject: the crash of a commercial airliner over the Atlantic Ocean, which resulted in complete destruction of the plane and all its passengers. One of us commented that such a crash constitutes a double tragedy, as the passengers lose not only their lives but their identity, because they are blown to bits and scattered in the deep ocean.
All of us were surprised when our aunt spoke up. She said that this would never happen to her. Whenever she flies, she told us, she paints her fingernails and toenails the same unusual shade of purple, to aid salvage workers in the identification of her remains. In addition, she ties a length of heavy twine to one of her toes, then runs the other end up through her slacks and blouse to her hand, where she ties it to one of her fingers. This way, if she is blown apart, the top half of her body will be tethered to the lower half, and she can enjoy a decent Christian burial more or less intact.
The silence following this revelation went on for some seconds, as we all imagined the sight of our elderly aunt’s shattered corpse, held together with twine. This silence deepened when it occurred to us that she had herself imagined this very image, perhaps many times. Since then we have reinterpreted her reticence not as a symptom of some pitiable neurosis but as bold composure in the face of a morbid imagination.
For many years
a large table stood in the center of our dining room, blocking the most
direct path from the living room to the kitchen and necessitating the development
of an angled walking route that, over time, came to be visible as an area
of wear in the dining room rug.
Recently we discarded the old rug and, since our children have grown and moved away and we now eat our meals in the kitchen, transferred our large table into storage. The dining room has been turned into a study, with bookshelves lining the walls and a narrow desk facing the front window.
Despite these changes, we find it nearly impossible to take the newly created direct path through the room, and continue to walk around the edge as if the table were still there. When occasionally one of us must enter the forbidden space, either to sweep the floor or pick up a dropped item, we find that we wince in discomfort, as if anticipating a painful crash into the missing table.
J. Robert Lennon is
the author of two novels, The
Light of Falling Stars and The Funnies.
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