By Kathy Strauss
Made using Lisa Ventrella’s story (below) as inspiration
By Lisa Ventrella
Every beginning is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.
— Wislawa Szymborska
The summer Kate died was the hottest summer on record. That July day had been much like today — hot as hello — that’s how we always said it — with a humidity that felt intentional and vicious. Even though the days were shorter now, it being the end of September, the heat needled us well into the evening hours, teasing us occasionally with a tepid exhalation.
Every summer the parking lot fair popped up out of nowhere. I thought the whole thing was kind of trashy but John loved it, especially the Ferris wheel. Usually Kate was the one who went up with him. She knew my fear of heights kept me glued to the earth.
I’d never liked the Ferris wheel even as a kid. Give me any other ride, but not that barely moving, multi-colored circle moving at the pace of old Granddad behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile.
John, however, loved being up high, like a lookout in the crow’s nest of a ship. In previous years, I’d told my son it was a wimpy ride. No action. Boring. I’d tried to talk him out of the Ferris wheel again this year, unsuccessful in persuading him that he was too old, having just turned nine. But, since Kate died, I’d let him have anything he wanted. Tonight, it was a ride on that big wheel that turned my stomach just thinking about its colossal size.
“You’re big enough this year to go on the Tilt-A-Whirl and the BIG rollercoaster,” I said, eager to go on these rides myself.
“Daddy, I really want to go up on the Ferris wheel first. Can’t we do those other rides later?”
I felt my mouth turn down into a frown. All he had to say was, “Pleeease” with that sweet little boy face of his, and I caved. Ever since I got that call from the hospital — I’m sorry to inform you, but your wife is dead — I was forced to be both soft and mannish, both mother and father to my son.
These last two months had passed at the tempo of two years time. Why was that? Perhaps it’s that we simply want youth, relationships, life and love to last forever and when a piece of it falls away, time suddenly becomes aware of itself and we of it. Then we’re forced to get it together and focus on the responsibilities that keep us in the adult world.
I’d read somewhere that dealing with death was like living in the shadow of love much like being in a type of limbo, neither dark nor light, just a gray glow shaped like a question mark. Perhaps it’s because no matter how old or young we are, we want the good things, especially love, to go on forever. But I think the truth is that there is a time for every season, a brief instant when all is beautiful and makes senses. And just when you realize it, the moment is gone even if you find yourself yelling: Wait! I’m not ready! It’s too difficult to keep your heart open in times like these.
“Whoa!” said my son John as the Ferris wheel jerked to a stop. We were stopped at the crest, a sudden quiet except for the occasional carnival sounds below and the squeak of the car rocking to a slow stop. Just a few minutes earlier, we’d smoothly ascended, stars blanketing us overhead, when the usual fear of heights twisted my gut into hot clusters of nausea. After several times around, we froze at the top, hovering over everything below that had shrunk in size as things do when you’re lofted way up in the air. I couldn’t look down, so I kept my focus out in the distance, honing in on the blinking red light coming from the radio tower and trying to make out the horizon in the night sky. I tried to hum something; anything to take my mind of the altitude, the powerful space between our feet and the earth.
If Kate were here she’d probably point out the various constellations. She’d been a painter and a sculptor so she had an eye for visual design. She was fascinated with landscapes and how the horizon was the most colorful at sunrise and sunset. She was a good mom and John thought the world of her. I knew I had to forgive her, but how could she leave us like this, especially John?
With his mother gone, John had been calm; too calm, like he thought he needed to be stoic and strong, a man at nine years old. He didn’t know it, but I’d found the dresses he’d hung in his closet. I assumed he wanted to keep her smell mixed in with his clothes, like a forever hug, a scent that stays with you long after the person is gone. He’d also started calling me Daddy again. It reminded me of a magnet on our fridge, something Kate picked up, that read: Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a Daddy — part of a Father’s Day present from years back.
Once, I’d caught him putting her perfume on a couple of times, dabbing it behind his ears, just like she used to. Later that same night, after John was asleep, I stood at her dresser and patted a drop behind each of my ears. I wondered if he was thinking of her now, as we gently rocked in the old red car attached to a rotating wheel.
One day he’d ask and I’d try to explain what happened. How could I ever give reasons for something I didn’t understand myself? Was it an accidental overdose or just selfishness? She left her boy without a mother and me without a wife. Maybe he’d never ask. Maybe I’d never tell. Perhaps he’d just figure it out on his own or maybe we’d figure it out together.
As I leaned forward, the safety bar dug into my gut and bile climbed up the back of my throat like mercury in a thermometer on a stifling hot day. The pain and nausea reminded me of the call from the hospital. She hated hospitals. When John was a baby and they thought he had meningitis, Kate insisted that she stay in the room overnight with him, although that wasn’t allowed back then. She hated the smell of hospitals — antiseptic combined with the smell of dying flesh, she’d said. She disliked the people who all dressed and acted the same. She’d said she felt like she was in a horror film like Dawn of the Dead.
The night sky swayed in front of us. Closing my eyes made it worse. Just look straight ahead. We’ll be down soon. Think of nothing.
“Why’d we stop? Is it broken?”
“They’re probably switching riders.”
“I’m glad we’re stopped up here. This is awesome.” He leaned into me, his voice dropping a bit with a hint of fear, “Are we stuck?”
A surprise gust rocked us, the car squeaked with each back-and-forth motion. I white-knuckled the cold metal with my right hand and reached for my son’s hand with the other, my golden wedding band shining in the festival lights.
“It’ll be okay. We’ll be down in a minute.”
I couldn’t look at him. With each subtle movement came the battle between mind and stomach. And between all of that I saw Kate, her smile frozen, a flash of our home movie freeze-framed into my memory. John had the same smile and dimple in the left cheek that reminded me of her every time he smiled.
The sky and earth came at us, crunching and blending us in the middle. The odor of overdone hot dogs mixed with diesel exhaust only increased my anxiety. Come on, get this thing going. Come on, let’s go! I couldn’t puke on a Ferris wheel! In front of my son, no less.
“It is kind of neat up here, Dad. I can see everything. All the lights, the water tower. Look how close we are to the sky!”
“Hmmmm. Yep.” I couldn’t muster up anything else.
The sound of a small child wailing, music blaring incoherently from the roller coaster, laughter, all added to my full-speed-ahead fear of heights rising up on the heels of nausea. I started to spin, even though the ride remained on hold.
I swallowed down the acidic chunks of the overcooked hotdog I’d eaten earlier. Then the ride started up. Actually down. The descent. Like a feather making its way down, unknowingly sloughed from a blackbird taking flight.
“Thanks for taking me up to the sky, Dad.”
“I think I saw an angel floating up there. I’m pretty sure it was Mom.”
I stretched my arm over my son’s slight shoulders and pulled him close, the young heat of his body warmed mine. His hair smelled of cotton candy and clean, kid sweat. He was smiling. Kate’s dimples fully represented, her finest work of art. He slid his hand into mine and as I pulled him even closer to me, I realized that there weren’t any shadows here, only the light of love. And for those few seconds, descending back to earth, we were all three together again.
By Kathy Strauss
Inspiration Piece provided to Lisa Ventrella
By Lisa Ventrella
Every other weekend, even in the nadir of winter, Courtney and her husband Scott drove north to their cabin in Wisconsin. This was easy to do because they didn’t have kids and the drive lasted just under three hours. It had been their routine for the last few years, ever since they’d gotten a dog. But, for various reasons, none too important, they hadn’t been able to get there for most of the summer.
On this particular weekend, they’d both decided it was time, but then Scott had forgotten about a charity golf outing through work that he’d committed to some months back. Scott encouraged Courtney to go on without him so as not to miss out on what was left of the fall colors. Courtney imagined a weekend alone would be perfect. A good book, a nice Italian red, a comforting fire, no cell phone or TV … perfect. Except, she’d have to take the dog, Cash.
The light had changed to an afternoon slant, creating shadows on the front of their house. She should have left by now. If she pushed it, she could make it before nightfall.
The drive was just enough time to unwind and breathe in some fresh air. Not a coffee drinker, Courtney kept herself alert by sucking on cherry flavored Jolly Rancher’s. Each time she crinkled open a new one, Cash’s ear perked up, her eyes fixed on the candy, waiting for a piece to drop. Cash rode silently in the passenger seat except for the moments when she’d sit up, nose poked out the top of the open window and inhale the scent of something worthy.
Courtney wondered if Cash was bummed that Scott had stayed back. After all, Courtney hadn’t given Cash much attention since they’d adopted her from the shelter, she not being a “dog person.” Growing up, her family had an old mutt, forced to live outside, that smelled like old, wet dishrags, farted and drooled most the time and expected to be fed and stroked, all in exchange for that “unconditional love” everyone dog person seems so high on. She didn’t know which was worse: a dog that stank like dirty rags or a dog that lived outside in a doghouse. Courtney felt sorry for the brainless dogs stupid enough to act like they hadn’t seen their owners in ten years every time they came through the door. Admitting you weren’t fond of dogs was like saying you didn’t enjoy babies or kids. Courtney liked kids just fine, but “man’s best friend” she could take or leave. It was simple: she loved Scott so she tolerated Cash.
This time of year was Courtney’s favorite; mid fall, October, with the peak season nearly gone, some trees already naked and asleep, ready for the cold months. She imagined the cabin: the crunch of fallen, dead leaves, matted to the ground after the autumn rains soaked the soil. The smell of a burning fire and the hush of quiet inside their ramshackle bungalow tucked in the north Wisconsin woods. Courtney thought the cabin resembled a hillbilly lean-to, a rotting box of a house that looked as if it had been abandoned years ago. The porch, never any good, leaned so far to the left that part of it seemed to have sunk into the foundation. She imagined the thick, stale air hanging inside, waiting for her to set it free. Still, she felt connected to something ancient, sacred and important there that she couldn’t name.
Courtney wondered if she’d finally discover an affection for Cash, who with her playful demeanor and puppy-like carriage was a good dog. Courtney reached over to where Cash sat and patted her head. Her coarse coat, a mix of white, black with patches of grey, was striking. Her eyes were a striking blue-grey with a perimeter of white like a husky’s. She felt like Cash’s protector, but in reality, it was the other way around. If there were an intruder at the cabin, someone who’d discovered an uninhabited and yet livable cottage, it would be Cash who would save her. Wasn’t that a dog’s nature? Safeguard the ones you love, or at least save the loved ones of the ones you love?
Along with the golden fields waiting for the autumn harvest to the right and left of the two-laner, Courtney passed several old gas stations appearing as excited dots in the distance and rushing up as paint peeling structures with slovenly men sporting longish goatees loafing about, their dogs loose around them. If she were an artist, this would make for one of those wonderfully simple American settings; simplicity set against the backdrop of a developed nation lurking just to the south of them.
Courtney suddenly realized she was at the exit to the dirt road leading to the cabin. Scott liked to say, time flies when you’re driving north. Courtney parked in front of the cabin that looked as they’d left it – no intruder after all. The motion sensor lights illuminated the dusk. Standing outside of the car, keys in hand, Courtney inhaled deeply, dropping her head back to see the patchy dark blue that was left of the daylight through the pines and birches as Cash trotted toward the hut, sniffing all the way.
“It’s just you and me, girl,” Courtney said, realizing she hadn’t uttered a spoken since they’d been in the car. Courtney reasoned that since Scott wasn’t here, Cash would make a good listener, the only listener, without the ability or reason to argue or disagree.Courtney and Cash had traveled a short, horizontal distance and were now sheltered by the trees, some with the occasional leaf, like a lone decoration. They’d missed summer, regrettably and almost missed autumn; a turning away from the sun, with the nights chilling slowly and the days slow to warm. How much easier it would have been to stay and miss this season as well. Soon enough autumn will be over and the responsibility of winter will be upon them.