When Elizabeth, a teacher and mother of four, leaves her New Jersey home early on a bitterly cold day, she imagines she can escape the tragedy that has overtaken her life. She doesn’t know that nineteen-year-old Cynthia, only thirty minutes away, will soon slam the door on a mother she can’t abide, or that Alexander, embittered and alone, will steal a computer in Connecticut and take a bus south. Like migratory birds, their journey toward warmer climes brings them to the Florida backwoods, where a collection of unlikely locals help them keep the forces of life at bay. Even while working to resurrect a nearly bankrupt filling station, they are haunted by echoes of everything they left behind. In the end only a hurricane, an alligator and death itself can teach them to let go and love.
… birds are most active early in the morning. Many that are elusive later in the day may be conspicuous at dawn, coming out in the open, singing and calling.
Birds of North America
Even before the alarm rang, Elizabeth lay awake in bed, eyes unblinking, thinking about the calls she had to return, the telephone numbers and accompanying messages that she couldn’t seem to find, no matter how hard she tried. She’d never lost numbers before, had on the contrary found them easy to manage, reliable in their bold uniformity. Where was that Elizabeth, the one who managed lists and data, the one whose records were always meticulous?
The flickering blue-grey light seeping through sheer curtains told her that there had been snow in the night, a vast deep layer of it. The cushion of white diffused the sounds of the neighborhood waking up, the familiar soundtrack to her early morning thoughts. Cars crunched hesitantly out of snow-drifted driveways; trash cans scraped dully to their designated places for collection; drowsy dog-walkers shut front doors with a thudding echo, as though everything were wrapped in felt. Elizabeth longed for the predawn bird song of spring, the clear and hopeful sounds of life renewed. There was something deathlike in a snow-buffered world.
She stretched her legs out in the empty bed and felt the chill of the sheets beyond the body-pattern she had set in the night, imagining her shape as a white-chalk line left by police after a murder. Plotting out the day as she always did before she rose, she tried to shove the trouble of the lost telephone numbers to the back of the day and her mind. Time enough for that. David had left for work before the sun even hit the houses, and the kids lay still in their rooms, sleeping off their various Friday nights, so the emptiness in the day loomed before her, and the time she had to organize it seemed large. Almost beyond imagining.
Thinking coffee, she rose swiftly, her bare feet sinking into the carpet as she pulled on the plush robe, as red as blood and as warm. Barefoot, she crept down the stairs, her cold-numbed feet making no sound. But as she rounded the corner into the front hall, the walk-in closet caught her again like an accusation, as wide open as a mouth, calling.
Years ago, before each of them had their own cell phone, the kids had carried the phone in here, pursuing the elusive privacy everyone sought in their extravagant, clamorous family. Above the closet’s open floor space, flanked on both sides by curtains of coats, jackets and hats, skis and boots that spoke of decades of winters, someone had tacked up a now-dingy poster board. Here they had recorded telephone messages in those long-ago days, and they still did if someone called on the landline. Since Elizabeth rarely carried her cell phone or bothered to charge it, that happened with increasing regularity lately.
Elizabeth shifted from foot to foot, lifting each one in turn to warm it against her trailing robe. She peered at the wall of numbers, mottled by time, covered by handwriting so dense it might have been the fine grey pattern of a concrete wall. Such a lot of numbers, perhaps hundreds, squeezed in like sixteenth notes, written in every direction and in every family hand, slipped in between each other and the messages and notes and even bits of literature that the secluded reader had been inspired to jot down. It was a mess, like laundry left in unruly piles on a clean floor. She held her hands to her head, realizing once again that all those messages she had received, the numbers that had been left for her return calls, were lost somewhere between “Out, out brief candle” and “Mom’s cleaning ready for pickup,” or some other long expired date-sensitive information. Elizabeth had a fierce urge to tear the damn thing down and replace it with a handy notepad on the telephone table, to sweep away the past and start over with unsullied white paper. But important numbers would be lost, so she couldn’t very well throw it away.
Of course, she wanted to find them: her second cousin, Krissy’s best friend’s mother, Hugh’s pastor, and who knew who else. The calls had been seeping into the house like battery acid for months, and so few had been returned. Anxiety closed her throat as it did every day, when she had to face her own inability to take action, to complete what should have been the simplest tasks.
Suddenly unable to tolerate one more day of nagging worry, Elizabeth stepped into the closet, determined to find the numbers and return the calls. But the winter and summer smells, the air of youth and love and despair all blindsided her. She felt queasy and backed out, closing the closet door with a whisper, the messages no more than rolled-up papers in bottles on the high seas, the calls still unmade.
Elizabeth moved on, following the bittersweet scent of coffee left too long on the hotplate. In the kitchen, she poured a cup and sat in the oak chair that had survived her parents and their parents before them, at the singed table that spoke of a thousand meals and family gatherings, a great simmering crowd of people, alive and dead, here and gone. Her hands wrapped the cup as she leaned over its warmth, gazing idly at a pink vitamin pill resting alone on the scarred surface of the table like a life raft, a promise of better things.
The coffee’s harsh taste woke her, shook her loose. But then the wave of hopelessness came on again: a painful, creeping dread of the past and the future that had been assaulting her for months. Her eyes traveled over the kitchen, a room whose perfect order she could navigate blind. She’d arranged the canned goods in categorical rows – vegetables, meats, sauces – and positioned the greens, cheeses and fruits all in their own segregated drawers of the refrigerator. As a young married woman, she’d spent countless hours arranging the items, repackaging them into identical plastic bins and her own labeled jars. Everything matched, everything marched in time, and yet it no longer brought her any comfort.
A voice called her: it said something like, Come away, Come away. Or maybe it was Go away, go away. It wanted her to move, to pack and to leave. And on this particular cold morning, when the world was wrapped in icy death, months since she had heard the voice’s first tentative bleating call, she knew she couldn’t fight it any more. It shoved her forward, causing her to rise and move back to her room, her thoughts fixed on finding a suitcase, packing it, leaving.
She was caught up short at the bottom of the stairs, when she heard the first familiar rustle of waking children, hardly kids any more, but they were no less the hub of her life for that. Running her hand over the curling base of the banister, Elizabeth considered turning back to the kitchen, to make breakfast, to greet each one in turn as they bounded into the day, to smell the musty sweetness of sleep and hear the irrepressible cheer of Saturday morning stories featuring Friday night escapades. These big kids, mostly grown and still right here where they had always been, with their mother and father and each other. All except one, Krissy, the single bird who’d had the courage to test her wings, even though her mother had done everything in her power to stop her.
Now her heart stretched and ached, reaching for her absent daughter, wrapping around all her children with an intense yearning to return to the straightforward family life they’d always had. But it was too late to turn back. The family rigging was frayed now and could no longer be trusted.
She took the stairs two at a time, hurrying now to be gone before they came downstairs, before she changed her mind yet again. In her room, she dressed without showering, packed her toothbrush before she used it, stuffed wads of t-shirts, jeans, underwear and socks into a suitcase. Finally, she tucked the book under everything else in her suitcase and zipped it hastily, only far enough to avoid spillage.
She carried it soundlessly down the stairs, adding random objects to a tote bag on her shoulder, or tucking them under her arms as she made her way to the kitchen. She snatched up a framed photo (her sister and their parents, all gone now), a roll of toilet paper (surely a practical choice), a blanket (it was terribly cold; where would she sleep?), a saucepan (she’d always cooked, assumed she would again, but where, and for whom?), a worn towel hanging on a doorknob (it looked clean). She saw the cell phone she had once carried, sitting expectantly on a table near a pile of recently arrived, unopened mail, but she was not tempted to pick any of that up, these messages still coming in from a life that was finished.
Leaving by the kitchen door, she dragged the traces of her moulting existence down the driveway past the kids’ cars to the old Volvo, leaving tracks in the snow and gathering a damp film of water on everything by the time she had thrown the heap into the trunk. As she used her bare hands to swab the snow from the windshield, the melt trickled into her thin jacket sleeves and left her wrists chafed and chilled, but she felt nothing but urgency, her heart beating hard: away, away, away, away.
The kids might arrive in the kitchen at any moment. She returned to scribble a hasty note and lay it precisely in the center of the kitchen table. This slowed her, as she stood and stared at it, her heart startling at the power of simple words on paper, words so innocuous they might have been referring to an event involving tea and dry scones.
Dear David and children,
I’m off. I have taken the Volvo and whatever else it seems I need. Surprisingly little.
Don’t look for me, please. I do love you all, more than you could know, but I need to think things over.
Give me time. I’ll write.
Elizabeth and Mom
She heard them already thundering down the stairs and into the hall. Her heart leapt, paralyzed by indecision. She heard Sara say, “Look, here’s another letter from Krissy. Can you believe it? She mailed them, like, six months ago.”
Brad’s gravelly morning voice. “Give it to Mom.”
“What’s the point?” Sara’s voice rose, a merciless wind whining through the hall. “She’s useless. She can’t even return her damn phone calls.”
That was her cue: the sign, the invitation she needed. Sara was right. It was time to go.
Elizabeth turned abruptly, and closed the door with a faint click seconds before Brad and Sara entered the kitchen. Her chest was tight with the fear of being allowed to leave, but her mind was already moving ahead, imagining a clean empty road winding away to some other sparser, quieter place. A place where she would be free to forget. She pulled out of the driveway with such speed that her head jerked, the car sliding as if on a gust of air as she hit the brakes and then jammed the gear into first, grazing the curb as she sped away. Her children stood already at the window, watching her disappear, their images blurring as she passed. For only a moment, mottled by car exhaust and frost on foggy glass, it seemed to Elizabeth that their faces were as she remembered them from long ago: a haunting illusion of the expectant, curious, eager babies, toddlers, and adolescents they had been. Had been, but weren’t now. And never would be again.
Several miles away, Cyn woke up considerably later. By now, dazzling light sprang from the snow that had obliterated the ground in the night. She peeked through slits of eyes sticky with last night’s mascara, and saw that the light had intruded not only on her thudding head, but on her black walls, murky grey carpet and all the miserable mess of her life. The light had no right in her room, draped with heavy black cloth to prevent just that. Clearly, her mother had been in and opened the curtains, something Cyn had repeatedly forbidden her to do. In her sudden fury, she leapt up so fast that she lost her footing and hit the floor with a painful bump to the rear and a loud thud, rattling her already wobbly thoughts.
“Cyn? Are you up?” Her mother’s sandpaper voice, grating, grating, wearing her away as usual. What she’d give never to hear that voice again. She yearned to yell something offensive, but her mouth was dry and her energy at low ebb to fire up a good scream. So she sat crookedly on the stale carpet, leaning against the bed and its sheets long past their expiration date, waiting for the inevitable follow-through on her mother’s part.
Cyn surveyed the wreckage of her bedroom: makeup all over the dresser, a sticky mess of Coke spilled weeks ago with a film of face powder dusted over that. Sprinkled about were earrings, studs and hoops, halves of many pairs that would never be united again. Clothing from her battles with the uncooperative closet littered the floor, and plates of desiccated food, the leftovers of her solitary meals, were so old as to be past smelling. It never looked this bad with the curtains closed.
“Cyn. Where the hell are you?” Faith, her mother, loomed behind her in the doorway now, but Cyn lay slumped on the floor on the opposite side of the bed. She heard her mother’s heavy tread move into the room. Forbidden Territory! Cyn’s thoughts exploded in helpless anger. All she wanted was to be left alone; was that too much to ask?
Faith looked down, her face twisted by undisguised contempt. Cyn could see herself through her mother’s eyes: a disappointment, a frustration, the end result of a series of hopeless battles with life. She focused on her mother’s sensible work shoes: chunky-soled with gaping mouths contained by tight laces, her thick legs rising up out of them like resolute trees. When had her mother become so dowdy, such a dull, fun-sucking drudge?
Faith enunciated each word, straining them through gritted teeth. “I have to go to work. Clean up this room before I get home.” Her face was bare of makeup, her neck free of jewelry and her hair pulled back into a stringy, hasty ponytail.
Cyn winced to look at her, so she closed her eyes and sighed as she spoke. “Why? What does it matter what my room looks like? You’re not supposed to be in here anyway, remember? My room, my stuff, my life?”
Faith rolled her eyes and hitched her mouth up at one corner. “No, Cynthia, you’ve got it all wrong. This is my house, and you live here at my pleasure. And as long as you do, you will follow my rules. Get it?”
Both of them were silent for three ticks, examining the challenge implied by the words: Shape up or ship out.
Ship out. It wasn’t the first time Cyn had thought of it, and now she felt the pressure of a shove, just what she needed to make the break.
Faith hesitated, straightening the ill-fitted jacket over her nurse’s uniform, tight across the widening hips it had once covered easily. Perhaps she was having second thoughts, regretting the cold dismissal implied by her words, but when she turned and surveyed the epic disarray of the room again, she slapped her hand down on the dresser, sending up a cloud of face powder and skittering a hairbrush to the floor. Then she turned and hammered out of the room, each footfall sending a message: Damn you, Damn you, Damn you. At the end of the hall, she slammed the front door violently. The blow rattled the small frame house, and Cyn knew her mother had taken pleasure in that. In their furious family life, the last slam, not the last word, established victory.
Of course, her mother wouldn’t expect her to clean up the room, didn’t expect Cyn to be there when she got home, and firmly believed that her daughter would never, ever have anything to say to make it better. Never mind, Cyn told herself. Her mother hadn’t expected anything from her or anyone else in ten years, and had never stopped blaming everyone for her eternal disappointments. There was nothing new here, except Cyn’s rising desire to end it, once and for all.
It was Cyn’s day off at the drugstore. Normally, she’d spend the day watching Turner Classic until darkness fell. Then she’d go out. In the shadows of the night, she liked to imagine herself as the Bride of Dracula, sinister and graceful and elegant. And dangerous. But her friends were gone – to marriage or college or more interesting options – and her life was more like The Night of the Living Dead lately. She knew she’d have to put a stop to that. Now.
Cyn pulled herself up and walked briskly to the closet to pull out her dad’s slick black duffel bag, rescued from the post-divorce garage sale. Cyn started filling it. She grabbed her uniformly black clothing, her favorite DVDs (Rebel without a Cause, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Nightmare before Christmas) and heaps of jewelry and makeup. The overflow she stuffed into her old book bag, blissfully bookless now, and she put her camera in its camera bag next to this modest pile: a summary of her life. She pocketed her cell phone, although she wasn’t sure why she bothered. Her friends no longer called, having moved on to other lives. It was time she did, too.
Dressed in jeans, sweater and boots, she opened the closet door and looked down at a decade’s collection of shoes as she began lifting and emptying them. Out fell wads of cash, bills held with rubber bands that she stored in the toes of sneakers and boots she hadn’t worn since middle school. She stuffed the money into her jeans pockets, her bra, her socks. She never carried a purse, had never opened a bank account, although she’d been earning money since she was fourteen.
She shouldered the bags, surprisingly light, then stopped at the door to her room, looking down the hall toward the front of the bungalow. Her black greatcoat and felt hat hung expectantly on a peg next to the door. This was her escape route, the exit that would finally release her from the limbo of her life: high school finished, nothing else begun. But leaning against the door frame, memories blindsided her. Not for the first time, Cyn found herself hesitating, both fear and something like love restraining her. Maybe she shouldn’t leave, maybe it would finally be more than the crazy, pissed-off woman could take.
But a rush of anger assaulted Cyn again, anger that grabbed her memories in a chokehold: her mother’s controlling ways, her worthless ideas of how Cyn should behave, how she should look, what sort of person she should be. No. As if her mother, a woman who had lost every battle with life, would have a clue as to what Cyn should do, or think, or feel.
Cyn had to make a clean break, and she decided that a cleanup would make a perfect farewell shot. She dragged out rags and cleaning fluid, wetting and wiping and shoving the excess rubble into drawers, her fury giving her speed and strength. She had always been good at cleaning up messes, had been “mommy’s little helper” in the good old days, until mommy stopped wanting anything besides a good fight. Yeah, she thought, I’ll clean up this room. It’ll be nice and tidy when you get back. With one girl less.
She wrote a note, too, and stuck it on her door with a wad of chewing gum, before she made her own slow pounding march down the hall, and heaved the door shut with all the pleasure of one who has had the last slam.
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