12 | susan taylor chehak

all the time

The wheelchair at the top of the steps is a good safe distance back, and the brake is on. They checked it more than once before they left her there to watch them walk down the drive to where their car waits in the parking lot beyond–a glitter ball of chrome and glass under the high sun of midsummer, midday. Their backs retreat, their faces are hidden from her now, and their figures are vague, but for a splash of color. The blond hair, his green shirt, the girls’ bare legs, their mother’s red shoes.

She holds the little dog in her lap. Gummy eyes, hanging tongue, panting grin. On the other side of the steps an old man sits on a bench, his shoulders hunched and his hands twisted into a burl on his knee. He’ll sit like that for another hour, sweating, until a nurse comes to take him back inside where it’s cool. He knuckles a cigarette. They can’t make him stop smoking; nobody even bothers with it anymore. His lungs are already ruined, along with the rest of it.

She doesn’t look at him, but watches the family as they are absorbed into the glint. The dog pants, shaking her. Her hand on him is dead weight, useless, fingers spasmed into a claw. Her mouth droops on that same side too. Sag in her cheek and the one eye half shut. Monstrous, she thinks, and avoids reflections. She peers at the mirage of the parking lot and opens her mouth. A moan at first. Clucking tongue. Then the moan again. The dog watches her, flexed, ready to leap away. Her hand on his back presses down, holding him in place. She groans now. Grunts. Clears her throat. The struggle further twists her.

The smoking man glances her way. The two of them flank the steps like gateposts. Smoke emanates, steams up around him, silently. The sky is bright, relentless. She moans again, then lifts her good hand, raises it high above her head, the way they’ve taught her to do in therapy. She holds it there, a gesture, a signal, a word made flesh, moving slowly back and forth: Good-bye.

* * *

It’s as if he’s done it on purpose, but that can’t be. Alice is in the front seat and the girls are in the back, each against her window, both hoping to catch a draft from the air-conditioning. She didn’t see what he was about to do until it was done. After they’d followed the long swoop of the drive to its end–or its beginning, depending on how you want to see it–where it meets the road that was to take them back to the highway and then to the interstate and then to the city and finally home. A Sunday visit to see his mother is all it was. The girls along for the ride, and that’s a rarity now, to have them both, without the extra encumbrance of boyfriend and husband and kids.

The woods on either side of the drive are thick and full, a midsummer tangle that brings to mind memories of childhood play. Forest magic, peculiar creatures, abandoned tots, lovers rolling around under the trees. Except these woods are not that dense and they’re not that expansive. Just a bit of green border sheltering the Home–as it’s called, sometimes fondly, sometimes not–from the world.

Alice put on her sunglasses, sat back, and watched the asphalt roll out before her, toward the gate at the end. Or the beginning. Home, the real home, is less than an hour away. She’ll take off her shoes and change into shorts, then pick flowers from the garden for the tables in the house.

Walter pulled to a stop at the end of the drive. Ann, in the backseat, coughed. Sally said, not for the first time, She looks good, I think. Reassuring herself, or them.

A tractor lumbered by. Walter had to wait for it. The GPS piped up, in her calm voice, and told him to turn left. He watched the tractor pass. A farmer was perched on the seat, his sleeves rolled up, one hand on the wheel, the other on his knee. The broad brim of a seed cap shaded his face and sunglasses hid his eyes, so it was hard to tell: old man or young?

The asphalt ended, the gates opened, another car was waiting to turn in. Walter had pulled forward. He hesitated, and then he went right. Ann moaned. Sally said, quietly, Dad. The GPS recalculated, and Alice turned to look at him. He kept his eyes on the road, then nodded in agreement. Yes, he said, she looks fine. His mother. Then, I know what I’m doing, he added, eyes still on the road.

* * *

She will not flinch at this. Alice will not rise, though the girls in the backseat have already started to complain. She holds steady, her own sunglasses hiding her own eyes as well as the sting in them, which she quickly blinks away. She has nowhere to be, nothing to do, all the time in the world. If he wants to go another way, that will be fine with her. He says something to the girls, glances at his wife. She notices that his grip on the wheel has tightened and feels the car jolt forward as he speeds up, kicking gravel.

Apparently he knows of a detour that in the long run will be faster than being stuck behind that tractor. This way is prettier, besides. The scenic route, he says, smiling into the rearview mirror but catching no one’s eye.

Alice rolls down her window and the car is filled with the smell of fresh-cut grass. A rush of air ruffles her hair; a caress.

Sally has sunk into a sulk. Her face turned aside, she must resign herself to this day with her parents. Soon enough she’ll be able to tear herself away from them. This is a girl who lives in her head. You never know what she’s thinking, but the suspicion is that it’s the opposite of whatever she says or does.

Ann is still complaining. To Alice the rising pitch of her older daughter’s voice has always been an irritation, and she knows what Ann means even though she can’t quite catch the words, and also that this is a pose, though for whom it isn’t clear. Ann has left the babies at home with their father and she wants to insist that she must get back, she doesn’t have all day–when really this should be a relief, to be out and on her own for a few hours. If she could only let go. Alice doesn’t have to turn around to know what Ann looks like: puffed up, heavy, her small eyes, her hair cut short, haphazard, without care. Everything she does now is aimed toward convenience. She’ll be reaching for her purse and the bag of candy there, to suck on the comfort of something sweet.

* * *

Alice will not rise. She will not flinch. But then she does, rolling up the window again first, then turning to her husband. She wants to tell him: It will be all right if you change your mind. Turn around and go back, the right way, the way we came, the way we know. He’s upset about his mother, Alice understands that–he’s always upset about her, whether he visits her or not, and he can’t see how that plays out in what he says and what he does, afterward. Clinging to a past, a memory that isn’t even true, was never a reality, but has since shifted and become so in his mind, ever since the starburst in the old woman’s brain that left her as she is now. Alice would like to find the words to comfort him, but even before she can begin he’s turned to her, and his face is distorted by what he means to be a smile, but it comes off as something else entirely. A snarl. I’m awake, he says, insisting. I know what I’m doing.

It’s true that sometimes he dozes as he drives. His eyes close, lids drop, sometimes. She’s seen it, and she watches him, but he always denies it. She’s keeping her own voice low–she doesn’t want to bring an argument into the small space of this car. We’re not in a hurry, she says–meaning he can follow the tractor and it will turn off eventually, probably soon–but he nods. Exactly. We have all the time in the world. And looking in the rearview mirror, trying again to catch the eyes of the girls, he goes on: It will be an adventure. And: A little change of pace never hurt anybody.

The GPS is telling him to turn around. He ignores it, and it recalculates. The scenery on either side slips past. The girls are talking to each other now, just low enough that Alice can’t quite hear, and she supposes they must know this, that they do it on purpose, always have. The car has been divided. Parents, children; front seat, backseat. As if without knowing it Alice has somehow taken sides and she and Walter are in it together, deciding where they’ll go next.

She reaches up, pushes back her hair, rests her head, turns off her hearing aid, and sinks into the silence with a sigh.

* * *

Walter has made the right choice; he’s sure of it. That tractor would have slowed them down, impossible to get around it on this narrow road that curves through the woods. They’d have been stuck behind a farmer in a hat, wasting gas all the way to the interstate, and then the girls would have been arguing about that instead. Urging him to pass or warning him not to. Like birds, pecking at him, which at least would help keep him alert maybe. Or maybe not, and anyway he knows how to stay awake on his own. Blinking. Whistling through his teeth. One hand on his knee, scratching through his pants. Plus he has the GPS if he needs it, so there’s no way to get lost. It’s too simple for that out here in the country where all roads lead to the city anyway, because they have no place else to go.

He thinks the girls should be happy. He thinks they should appreciate the scenery. He thinks they should appreciate everything more than they do. Taking him for granted, for example. Taking themselves for granted too. Everything. All of it. When this life could be ruined in a moment. One shining light of blood in the brain and then there you are in a wheelchair trying to say something that nobody understands, and nobody knows what you’re talking about because you’re not talking, you can’t talk anymore, so nobody knows what you want or what you need, they just have to assume, they have to guess, though it’s a demonstrated fact that Sally really is best at that. Listening to her grandmother and then passing on to the others what it is she’s been trying to say. Except it’s hard to know whether what she comes up with is right, or even close, but at least it’s entertaining. Telling Ann: She wants you to put on a hat. Then going to the closet to get it and put it on her sister’s head. Ann red, uncomfortable, her face flaming, greasy-looking as it is these days, some allergy or something–the babies, the extra weight–and Mom smiling at it, as if yes, that’s exactly what she wants. Sally patting her hand, triumphant. See, we understand each other, you and me. She wants you to give me some money, Dad. See, she wants me to have what I want. But that was a joke, even though she had her hand out, and Alice scolded her for that. But Mom just kept smiling so maybe it wasn’t a joke after all.

No appreciation for the beauty of this place. A summer day and what’s their hurry? He knows the way. Sort of. The general direction at least. This road will hook up with the highway eventually, and then it’s only a little bit of backtracking to get them where they would have been anyway, ahead of that tractor, which might have already turned off, but never mind, because the choice was made and here they are. Even the GPS has stopped correcting. Recalculated and figured Walter’s detour into its grander scheme. He knows what he’s doing. He scratches at his knee.

* * *

The girls were close as children, close in age, alike in personality it seemed. Two peas in a pod, their grandmother called them. The Peas, she said. How are my little Peas? Taking them into the house. Shooing Alice and Walter away, delighted to have the girls all to herself after bringing up a full family of boys.

Not so anymore: a glance in the rearview shows their separation. Bookends now to the empty space between them. Ann leaning against her door on one side and Sally against hers on the other. Ann with a book; Sally gazing out at the scenery. Maybe she’s stoned. Walter wouldn’t put it past her. On this scenic route that’s just more of the same. Fields, woods, creek, farmhouse, old barn, new silo, car for sale with a price on the windshield. Yard full of junk.

As they get closer to the river the road begins to roll, rising and falling, and the scenery peters out into a cluster of houses and fences and trees. He finds it beautiful, the dapple of sunlight through the leaves. He’s alert and feeling nicely energetic. This fine car. His fine family. He’s carrying them, the four of them together, in a way that has lately become so rare, as the girls go on with their lives and their jobs and Alice is out doing whatever it is she does–volunteer work, mostly, and social things, book clubs, and workouts at the gym–which leaves him alone at home on his own a lot of the time.

Not that he minds.

The road makes a turn here, a sharp curve toward the water, and he takes it too fast, skidding on the gravel, which causes the girls to sit up and Alice to open her eyes in time to see the fallen tree that blocks the way. Sally yelps as Walter slams the car to a stop.

* * *

It takes Ann a moment to figure out what’s happened. She can’t see anything out the windshield but branches and leaves. And Sally is bleeding. Mom is turned around in her seat, trying to help and shouting because her hearing aid is off, while Dad has unhooked his seat belt and is getting out of the car. Ann puts her book down and shouts, Mom! Mom! Then reaches out and touches her. Grabs her and gestures–her ear. Mom stops. It’s quiet for a moment as she reaches up to turn the thing on. Sally is out of the car now too, spitting blood from her bit tongue onto the dirt of the road. Mom follows. And, finally, Ann. Now the four of them are standing together, side by side, looking at the tree, the road, the car. The heat is oppressive, wet, and swarming with mosquitoes and gnats. Ann sweats. Her skin prickles into a rash at the back of her neck.

Dad is smiling sheepishly. He’s apologetic. They can all jump on him now, he says, about driving this way, taking this route. At least he stayed awake. He lights a cigarette and stands, contemplating the road, the tree, the car.

Hey, it’s nothing, he says, all right? It’s fine. We’ll just turn around and go back. He can admit that he was wrong. He can say he’s sorry, that he made a mistake. Now the trip home will be twice as long, but at least they’re okay. Ann steps forward to back him up. She should be the one who’s angry, but she’s not. It’s nice to be here, with her family. She almost thought: her real family, as if the other–husband and babies–are something else. But anyway it’s nice to be away from them, to be a child again, not really in charge or responsible for anything. She has given Sally a wet wipe from her purse, and she keeps an eye on her mother, who is looking at the fallen tree as if she can’t figure out where it came from, as if it toppled just now, a near miss, this close to catastrophe.

* * *

Alice sits on the tree, in the shade among its leaves and branches, half hidden as if she isn’t even there. Her deafness isolates her and she’s lost in her own world, in her own head and hearing only her own thoughts. Or nothing at all.

Ann slaps at a mosquito. She tugs at her shorts, which are too tight and have ridden up her thighs; an intimate pinch. Her mother has turned away to watch a hawk circling the sky above them, over a field somewhere beyond where they are now.

Sally has been leaning on the car, her arms folded. She’s chewing gum and smiling at her sister as if they share a secret.

Dad puffs on his cigarette, squinting through the smoke, calculating what will be his maneuver, the reversal he’s going to have to make here on this narrow road with shoulders that drop off sharply into the ditches on either side. There will be some turning and backing and turning again to get the car headed in the right direction, but they can do it, and the girls will help; they’ll guide him through it.

A wind picks up and rolls toward them. The hawk is gone. Not a cloud in the sky. The blazing sun. The fetid ditch. The tangled weeds and dark mud, swarming with flies. The wind rocks the trees then dips to catch Mom’s skirt and lift it, revealing soft white thighs, varicose bruise, black lace panties. The wind twirls her; it sweeps through her hair. Ann is buffeted too. Sally yelps again.

The wind moves on, following its own path through the trees, and then the hawk is back and Mom is looking around, wondering whether anyone saw. Dad is stepping on his cigarette. He brushes his palms. All right. He turns toward the car. Let’s do this.

* * *

First he had to back up, away from the tree. Ann took a position near the left front fender and Sally stood at the back, stepping away as he rolled slowly toward her. The Volvo looked like a large woman, big hips bouncing under her skirt of blue paint. Sally stumbled over a loose stone but caught herself, and the brake lights flashed. Walter was pulling forward then, turning toward Ann, who waved him on until he stopped and spun the wheel around the other way, then reversed again until the tires had crept onto the shoulder, nipping at the ditch reed before Sally put her hand up, fist clenched, to stop him again.

All of this is pantomime. Alice shades her eyes. Ann is waving at her father, drawing him toward her. Sally sneezes, then swipes her hair back from her face.

* * *

The car was perpendicular to the road and not an inch to spare. Alice opened the door and climbed in with her husband so that then it was just the two girls on the road, one on each side, at the lip of either deep ditch. Walter backed up again, rolled forward, back again and forward again, inching the car in a circle round the angle, until it was straight with the road once more.

* * *

No one speaks as they move along now, back the way they’ve come. The same farmhouse, the same turn, the same narrow bridge. Mailboxes and barns, fences and field. The sign for the Home, where an old woman sleeps, speechless, without words but not without thoughts and not without dreams, I suppose.

susan taylor chehak is the author of five novels, including The Story of Annie D. and Smithereens, and her stories have been published widely in journals. As her pseudonymous alter-ego Kathryn Dow, she has recently published a new novel, The Great Disappointment: A Confession, and one of her many online projects includes What Happened To Paula, a collaborative web-based investigation into the as-yet-unsolved murder of a former schoolmate. Susan teaches fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She grew up in Iowa, lives occasionally in Toronto, and at present calls Colorado home.