Paula drove to the Shakespeare conference from the airport in Pittsburgh. Inevitably, she found the rental car turning toward her old neighborhood on the west side and toward her old house. She had left it twenty-five years ago when she went to college in Illinois and then a teaching job in Minnesota, gradually moving westward. She smiled ruefully. She swallowed as if something were stuck, some tiny crumb, in her throat. The sun set in the west, the pioneers moved west as far as the Pacific Ocean, and her grandparents with their young son, immigrants from Poland, moved to America, the great dream of the west.
In back of the shingled house was a hill, mostly brown but still with patches of green in October. She parked on the brick-paved street and sat in the car, allowing the memories to drift over her like falling leaves or feathers. The lawn that her mother had cared for meticulously was now weedy, and the elm tree spread out as if it wished to straddle the yards and the past. A pigeon pecked at the grass.
On the plane she had read an article about pigeons. Who knew there were so many kinds? The carrier pigeon carried messages tied in a band on its leg; they were used by the British in World War I and, when seen in the sky, shot by the enemy. The passenger pigeon, which was observed in 1866 flying in a flock thought to be endless, one mile wide and 300 miles long, was now extinct; the last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The mourning dove, with its call that sounded like a lament, was its closest relative, and there was speculation about cloning the passenger pigeon by using the mourning dove’s DNA. She remembered Larry’s bird joke: Why did the gum cross the road? It was stuck to the chicken’s foot. Maybe he was leaving her already.
Larry had an amateur’s interest in birds when she knew him in graduate school. He was heaven and earth to her once. Where was he now? Married, probably, with two kids in college, the man who began by administering to the problems of the world declined into suburban affluence. But perhaps he still was preventing environmental disasters and lobbying for clean air.
She put the magazine away in the pouch on the seat in front of her. The passenger next to her was a young mother with a crying baby.
The changing air pressure in the cabin made the baby uncomfortable. The mother had dressed her in a frilly pink smock, though she herself wore saggy jeans and a T-shirt which had been washed into muddy colors. “Oh, Darla,” the mother whispered as she handled the whimpering child. The mother enclosed the baby in her arms and swayed. Still, the child cried. Tears trickled down the mother’s own cheeks.
“May I hold your baby?” Paula remembered quieting her nieces by rocking them on her knees. This baby was puzzled by the stranger holding her. She forgot to cry because of the novelty. Her forehead lifted and wrinkled as she attempted to understand this situation.
The mother was relieved. “My father-in-law died. My Lou flew out yesterday. I barely knew Lou’s father.” She shrugged. “We live in California. It was a massive heart attack. Now I’m worried about Lou’s heart. Maybe he inherited that weakness.”
Paula wanted to reassure the young mother, but she could not legitimately say anything about the strength of his heart. She sighed in sympathy. Paula’s own father died at eighty. She still saw him in her dreams transformed into resplendent youth–not angrily shambling, not white-haired, not twisted with arthritis. She remembered how he taught her to drive–they practiced on Sundays in an open parking lot behind the plastics factory where he worked. She could hear the train shriek across the way. He smiled urgently. It was a long trip from Poland to America. For Paula it was just from the coast to the Midwest. He had said, “I want you to drive, to be able to move. I want possibilities for you.”
The old neighborhood had deteriorated–the houses seemed shabby, people didn’t paint their porches or put flowers in pots on the windowsills. Kids were playing. One of them picked up a feather, waved it back and forth, and blew it away, where it floated in large spirals before it sank to the ground. At the corner, three boys rode bicycles. One youngster had a bicycle with training wheels and his older brother encouraged him, “Keep going, you’re fine, keep going.”
Photo by Victor Antunez