The Happy Family
I've been asked to prevent my Grandmother, Anita Diane, from ordering drinks. But we've got a long flight. And we're traveling on Anita Diane's money. First class. Do you realize they offer you drinks up there before others have even boarded?
"Vodka Tonic," announces Anita Diane, and the stewardess writes this down.
"Bloody," I say. The stewardess pauses, deciding if she wants to understand. She's young—my age. She's slim and angular. Good looking in a technical sense.
When she returns, I hold my cup for a second and glance at Anita Diane, which I guess is my way of saying something like 'cheers.' And in truth it's a nice moment. Nicer than when I got to her house outside of D.C.—I live in New York—and was shown in by her housekeeper, then given, by Anita Diane, a smile I took to be daffy and sweet until I made sense of what she was saying: "Don't you look nice. Don't you look like somebody who's just crawled out of the gutter."
And she kept smiling—as she said this, and afterwards! Widowed, trapped in her easy chair, dressed by her 'girl' in heavy white shoes and stiff polyester fashions, she looked just pathetic. But here was a woman who could hold a big smile while insulting you. Did she not deserve drinks?
We're on our way to Des Moines. Thanksgiving is tomorrow. We're on our way to see my parents and sisters. I cackle in pretty-much earnest delight when I realize they're who Anita Diane means when she says "the happy family."
"I get cards from the happy family," she says. "They're dear little cards. Your mother writes them, you know. On behalf of my negligent son."
I grin at the stewardess, whose knees are opposite mine. (We're experiencing turbulence. She and her co-worker have been forced to pull down those little seats.)
"I get those cards, too," I say to Anita Diane. "To a Special Son on His Birthday. Happy Valentine's Day to a Wonderful Son."
"You're special, all right."
"You think that's funny." She's adopted the emphatic stage whisper of the lush in films of her era. "You think that's funny, but it's really not."
I pour the last of my second small bottle of vodka into my drink. I raise the bottle while pouring. This is whimsical, celebratory. Anita Diane has recently become my favorite person on earth.
"Tell me a story, Trevor."
"Tell me a story about the happy family."
I glance at the stewardess, across from me. She won't glance back, but I see the small shift in her eyes as she registers my attention.
"Here's a story about the happy family. It's from when the happy family was smaller, actually. Before Abby and Kayla were born. The happy family would do bedtime books every night, all together, all three of them. They'd read happy books. One of the books they liked to read was about this mouse, Mousie, and he was no good, and the mother in the story would try to do things to instruct him. Like if he splattered some milk, you know. Bad! Or if he left the door open. Bad! Bad! The mother would try and show him the light, but he wouldn't learn, so she had to get rid of him. The mouse had to go. And the happy family would read about this, all of them together. They'd read about the mother stringing little Mousie to a kite and launching the poor sucker from a dormer. They'd hear about her tying him up to a picket of a fence on a full-moon night, a night when the owl would see him and drop from the sky to peck out his eyes."
"That's—" said my grandmother. "What's wrong with you? What is in your mind?"
I am elevated, stirred by what I've recalled. But I nod. "Not a good story."
Anita Diane considers. Then she drops her head toward the stewardess, whose knees are so close to my own, and says, in that dated Hollywood whisper, "Do you think she'd care to date somebody who tells a thing like that?"
I whisper, just as volubly, "She might date me. She might not. Only she knows, and she knew before hearing about Mousie."
Anita Diane won't respond to this, I gather. But then she does. "I'll tell you a story," she says, and I look at her, because she doesn't sound drunk. "I'll tell you a story. I met the love of my life one summer in Chesapeake Bay, and I married him, and we loved each other every day for nearly thirty-nine years. Then he died. The end. That was the end. I'm still living, but that was the end."
The stewardesses, who've been talking softly, or trying to maintain the appearance of that, stop.
I don't know what to do. Very often I don't. More often than most people, I think. Yesterday I bought a toasted onion bagel and messed up my lines. Now I have nothing. I can't ask the stewardess for another drink, not while the plane is shaking. And of course I can't smoke. I turn to the window at my side and find nothing, just evidence of night. Still, looking enhances the roar of the plane, deepens the glow of the cabin. I think speed, direction. I'm looking forward, it starts to seem, to being home.
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