Sunday, October 22, 2006

100 Things: #58 Prairie

At some point each day they pulled over. At a lot of points every day they pulled over, for gas or to pee or to eat.

At some point each day they pulled over for no reason.

It was part of the essence of the trip, the spontaneity it required. You don't get into a car to go to the Jersey shore and end up in South Dakota because you're following a schedule. Or a map.

You get there by running away. They were getting very good at it. It was terribly Bonnie & Clyde but without all the bullets.

Often the stop would be at a store. Wal-mart, K-mart, really anything with 'mart" in the title didn't count. Lee was driving when they saw the sporting goods store. It was in a renovated barn in Indiana, there was a picture of the owner's family by the front door, all four living generations. Something about the smell, leather and stitching and wood and sweat made Karen's eyes tear up. Sports are the landscape of childhood. Lee squeezed her hand but she let go and walked away toward hockey sticks and face masks. He watched her for a moment before he tried out some golf clubs. Later he ran into her in baseball gloves. She stood before a whole wall of them, from baby-sized to giants.

"Here," he plucked a stiff catcher's mitt off the shelf, "smell."

Karen put her face into the leather and breathed in all that potential. It smelled sharp, almost made her lungs hurt but she liked that. When she couldn't stand it anymore she proffered it to him. He let her hold it, just lowering his face to the pocket. When he straightened up they looked and each other and smiled.

"Does this one fit you?" he asked, handing her a regular mitt.

It seemed to. Felt a little tight, awkward but OK.

Lee browsed the rack until he found another one for himself. Then, taking her ungloved hand he led her to the baseballs. He chose one and they checked out, back on the road in under half an hour. Direction: away.

Over the next few days as she drove he tossed the ball into his glove over and over, then into hers. In the parking lots of motels he improved her throw and taught her how to catch without hitting herself in the face. She got better not because she had any innate athletic ability but out of the satisfaction the thwock of the ball in the pocket brought her. The hard final sound of it tightened her stomach and made her heart stand up straight.

They both looked in the back seat whenever they got out of the car. They looked to be sure the belt was clicked shut and every so often, if they weren't careful, their eyes met over the top of the car. Those moments made the running away obselete.

She had read the Little House on the Prairie books again that year. Something about the wide open spaces they described appealed to her. Still when she drove by her first field of tall, swaying grass she was unprepared for the feeling.

You could get lost out there. That certainly had its good side. It was so big, though. She felt appropriately small. It was hard to keep her eyes on the road with all that motion, the vast expanse of things so small they blended into one. The second time she swerved over into the oncoming lane she decided to pull over.

The windows were down so she wormed her way out on the driver's side, sitting on the door and resting her chin on the roof, just staring. Karen wasn't the type to let herself be hypnotized, giving over her control, but this felt good.

After a few minutes Lee got out and leaned against the car on the opposite side. He seemed keyed up, she thought, he was distracting her. Maybe it was on purpose. So she wasn't surprised when he tossed her baseball glove over the car to her.

"Come on," he said and struck out a few yards into the grass.

Karen disentangled herself and came around the back of the car.

She was two steps from it when the ball sailed toward her. The catch was precarious, on the tip of the webbing, but she kept hold of the ball.

She cocked her arm and hesitated.

Lee knew what she was going to do and he thought it was OK with him but he was still scared.

Standing by the back door of the car she planted her feet and threw the ball as hard as she could. She didn't stay to watch it sail over Lee's head. By the time he realized he was going to have to run she was already unbuckling the seatbelt and nestling the small metal box in the crook of her arm.

Once she joined him they hunted the ball down together and played catch for a bit. One step at a time, after all. The easy rhythm of the ball was soothing, like a placeholder, so they didn't have to move too fast. The box sat between Lee's feet, darkened by his shadow.

It didn't take as long as she thought it would for their rhythm to slow. After one particularly sweet throw on her part he just slid off his glove and knelt down. By the time she sat down across from him he had the lid nearly pried off the box.

Once the lid was off he seemed stymied, holding the top in one hand and the bottom in the other, arms suspended purposelessly in the air.

So Karen touched one arm, gently guiding it toward her so she could spin the twist tie on the industrial strength plastic bag inside. When it finally spun apart she wrapped it around her finger for safekeeping before she opened the bag.

There was no smell. They both thought there should have been a smell. It made Karen think of all the stories of getting the wrong ashes back. She thought she'd know if these were wrong but there aren't any guarantees, that had already been made clear to them. Lee thought about putting his head to the bag and inhaling as deeply as he could to force himself to smell something.

In cases like this it seems it's always the mother who must take the lead, which isn't terribly fair. The mother takes the lead in bringing a person into the world, shouldn't someone else take the first step to let that person out of it?

Karen's hand paused a moment at the mouth of the gritty plastic bag and Lee's hand leapt forward. All ten fingers descended at once so that neither parent noticed when the other gasped. They couldn't maneuver in so little room. Extracting a handful of ashes wasn't possible. Granules and small chunks of bone clung to their skin and a small amount, maybe a tablespoon, was caught balanced between their entwined fingers. Almost giggling at the farcical quality of it Karen cupped her free hand under the tangle to catch any runoff.

The wind was calm for a moment so they could look at each other over this very special scant handful of grit.




"No, right."

Like the crowd noise at the end of the Star Spangled Banner the wind came back a few bars too soon. With no warning or gradual build up it whipped around their awkward huddle and took the ashes with it. For a moment Lee and Karen were surrounded by a cloud and then it was gone, except for the few stubborn grains under their fingernails and in their eyelashes, held temporarily in the webbing of their baseball gloves.

Lee began to put the lid back on the urn.

"Wait." Karen used the tie she'd saved to twist the bag shut first.

"Shall we?" he gestured toward the car.

"You ready?"

"No," he admitted, "not yet." He tossed the ball casually to her.

So, they put their gloves on and Karen wedged the tin box between her feet on the hard ground and they played catch.

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