Country Songs Wound Up and Set Free Into Autumn – John Thornburg
Rex had pleasant dreams most nights, though he didn’t sleep much. He thought maybe it had something to do with the smells coming in from under the door, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar. The sparse apartment where he spent his days got good light in the morning, okay light in the afternoon which was nice because Rex loathed the jaundiced light of the lamp he owned. If Beth were here, he caught himself thinking on some evenings, his apartment gathering the darkness of dusk, she’d tell me to turn on a damn light. The bookshelf in the living room displayed the thick spines of paperback spy novels, not a single one he hadn’t read but many that he’d forgotten everything about. Beth would tell me to go to the damn library, he thought on days he was sick of paperback spy novels. Some days he did. The assisted living center had a shuttle that took people back and forth on Wednesdays. He perused the fiction section first, taking books off the shelves, reading their backs, replacing them. Then nonfiction, usually checking out a book about science or astronomy or some other subject he thought he should know more about. Then he’d sit on the bench outside the library, wearing his gold-framed aviators, waiting for the shuttle to return. It disappointed him every time, and he scolded himself harshly for it, but he’d always make remarks to the young people passing him on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes.
“You’re too lovely to smoke,” he’d say to a young woman, maybe twenty years old. She’d seem to recede a bit into her sweater and her walking pace would increase just slightly. And that had made him feel wretched.
So most Wednesdays he stayed at home, minding his own business, reading paperback spy novels. He ate bacon and cooked eggs in the grease, listened to the radio and fell asleep soundly, the smell of fresh cinnamon rolls marching into his dreams like a benevolent spirit. Sometimes he went for walks around the little park adjacent to the assisted living, watch the spruce trees shimmy in the autumn wind, watch the dusk draw out the moths, listen to the pigeons wage brief and nonsensical wars against their brethren. Rex especially loved snow. He’d always walk out in it, much to the chagrin of Andy, the beleaguered and high-strung nurse in charge of his floor.
“Okay, but if you fall you’ll regret it, and so will I,” Andy would say, finally backing down from the door when Rex could not be dissuaded.
“The only thing I regret, Andy, is that I never learned to ski.”
One such day, meandering along the park trail enjoying the sound of his boots crunching into the fresh snow, Rex encountered a man sitting on the bench where Rex usually sat. He was wearing a heavy black coat and wore fingerless black gloves. As Rex walked by the man nodded politely to him, took a drag on his cigarette and exhaled a magnificent white plume of smoke, magnified by the cold air. Rex kept walking but then turned, took a few steps back.
“Have you ever considered quitting.”
“Yeah,” the man smiled. “I think I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Rex laughed at that–that was exactly what Beth used to say, twenty years ago.
Grace thought she heard something coming from the other room. She rushed out of her bedroom and into the kitchen and picked up her cordless phone. It lay in her hand, inert. Music from down the hall again? Someone else’s phone? She pressed a button on the keypad, no messages, either. She walked to the range and pressed the button for the oven light. Leaning cautiously over, she peered in at the cinnamon rolls, rising obediently in the pan. She had Andy bring her several flat-rate shipping boxes and labels, and kept herself busy filling them in with the names and addresses of the recipients. There was Tim, a senior at Creighton University in Omaha, studying Philosophy and French, then Tim’s parents up in Muskogee, a box for them and one for their other child, Jennifer who was studying Computer Science (and loving it) at Santa Clara in California. She worried about that box the most, it had the farthest to travel. Then one to her other grandson Lewis who worked in DC as a contractor for the CIA. His job was stressful, and he couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing. She sent him a tray of frozen buttermilk brownies, his favorite. Then cinnamon rolls to Lewis’s younger brother Ryan and his wife, that one half with pecans, half without. Of course, one for Andy, the nurse, even though he’d asked her to stop baking things for him. She’d gone a little overboard this time. After the cinnamon rolls in the oven were done she put in another batch, and started whisking together another bowl of brownie batter, and a separate one for the frosting. Meanwhile, she placed a banana, some blueberries, and some kale in the blender and some water in the microwave for tea. She relaxed then, checking the progress of the oven until switching the cinnamon rolls for the brownies and resetting the timer. It was later than she thought when she pulled the brownies out of the oven and let them cool on the rack.
She tried to occupy herself while she waited for them to be ready for frosting. Tried to read a book her son had sent her about cancer, flipped through a magazine, picked up the phone, put it back down, picked up the phone. Watched the people who walked by the building on the sidewalk, dogs in tow. Some hand in hand with companions.
Grace’d been seeing mirrors in her dreams. She wondered what that meant. In the winter months she frequently thought she saw a man sitting on a park bench in the driving snow, a blurry occlusion in a world of cold white light. This had troubled her dreams as well.
The light coming in from outside was soft, the sky cast in a shroud of gray-gold clouds. It reminded Grace of the light at her son’s first track meet, though then the trees were bare, and now the trees still had leaves. She turned on the TV for something to do while she waited, found a channel playing what at first she thought was Hee Haw but then turned out to be an infomercial selling DVDs of Hee Haw. Grace recognized the faces of Johnny Cash and John Wayne, and she glanced at the framed photo of Gio on the side table, gazing at her from over a gulf of forty years. He’d looked old, even then, so what did that make her now? She’d lived more without him than with him now.
“I thought loneliness was supposed to kill you,” she’d told Andy once. “So why I am still here, I cannot guess.”
Andy had looked at her not without compassion, and she saw several different expressions flickering over his face like a radio scanning for living channels.
“Chicken cordon bleu in the cafeteria tonight,” he had said finally. “I hope you’ll join us.”
Suddenly a strange awareness flooded into her. How long had she been sitting here watching these infomercials? They had a sort of patternless monotony to them that defied her sense of time. To her dismay, daylight was dwindling on the horizon. She quickly frosted the brownies, finished packaging and labelling all the boxes, and called down to the desk to get Andy’s help in bringing them down.
“Mrs. Bifano!” he answered, “what can I do for you?”
“Well, I have some packages to send off.”
“They already came and got all the mail today Mrs. Bifano,we’ll get em’ sent off tomorrow, ok?”
“Great, have a nice night Mrs. Bifano!”
He hung up.
She checked her phone one more time, just to make sure she hadn’t missed the call waiting signal while talking to dumb Andy.
Rex sat reading in the festering lamplight when someone knocked on his door. Probably Andy again with some new indignity.
“Coming,” Rex called, heaving himself out of his armchair and to the door. A woman stood at his door that he’d never seen before. In her arms were stacked several tin-foil wrapped packages.
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” she said. “I live right across the hall.”
“Just there?” Rex pointed.
“Just there,” Grace paused a moment. “I wonder if I could trouble you for a favor, I had been baking some things for my grandchildren when I lost all track of time and didn’t mail the packages in time. Anyway I’m out of room in my refrigerator. Do you have some room? Just until tomorrow and I can mail out the boxes. And you can help yourself to anything I put in there. As payment.”
“I gave up sweets a long time ago, uh…”
“Oh, uh, I’m Grace,” she shifted the packages in her arms. “Pecan cinnamon rolls and buttermilk brownies,” Grace said wryly. “But suit yourself. Although I’ve heard death comes for us all in our time. Sugar or no.”
“Tell that to Andy! With regard to whiskey.”
“May I come in, sir?”
“Please, it’s Rex,” Rex said, standing aside. “Put those on the counter,” he points. “And I’ll put them in the ice box.”
She set them down and he stacked them one by one on the empty racks, scooching aside the six pack of seltzer, bacon wrapped in brown paper, cartons of eggs.
“It smells like breakfast in here,” remarked Grace.
“How remarkable,” Rex smiled.
“Well, thank you Rex. I’ll leave you be.”
“Grace,” he stopped her before she left. “I’m surprised I haven’t seen you around, why don’t you stay for some tea, it’s prudent to get to know one’s neighbors.”
“Tea? At this hour?”
“It’s herbal,” Rex laughed. “Chamomile. It won’t cost you a single wink.”
So she sat on his sofa and he made her tea. He remarked about her wedding band, she told him of Gio and the cancer that ate his lungs.
“He was a lovely man. Always always laughing. People would say to him, have a nice day and he would scrunch up his nose and say he didn’t know there was another option. Great with the kids, always got your nose, or here comes the bear, telling them these wild stories he came up with out of thin air. I said he should write them down. He balked at that. A comic but a pragmatist. Worked out in the sun his whole life.”
“The war spared him,” Grace continued. “For him to be claimed by a mole on his shoulder.”
She told him about her grandchildren, the women her sons married over the years, the friends she’s lost. He listened intently, nodding, uh-huhing, and ohing.
“Did you ever learn to ski, Grace?” he asked, after she felt like she’s boring him to death. This struck her as a peculiar question, but she nods cautiously. And then enthusiastically.
“Of course! Oh how I miss skiing,” Grace said. “The thrill of it.”
“You know, I have been saving a little something for a special occasion,” Rex said, and vanished into the next room, returned with an unopened bottle of rye whiskey.
He poured her a small glass without seeking her permission first, and for a moment it’s nineteen sixty and she’s in the barroom, haze as dense as milk scribbling through the lights. The needle in the jukebox skips whenever people dance too close to it. She took a sip and it traced a line of warmth to her gut.
“It was my one regret I never learned to ski. Beth never wanted to go.” He poured a glass for himself. The lamplight prisms through the glass in a tarnished arc.
“Beth was your wife?”
“She’s passed on?”
“I know how that goes.”
“I’ve had twenty years to grieve.”
“And that means it’s easy now?”
Rex took a sip of his rye; smiled an incongruent smile.
“You know, Grace. From what you’ve said of Gio. When it’s your best friend you’ve lost, the grief is terminal. I will miss her for the rest of my days and Lord help me if there’s an afterlife, for the rest of that one too.”
“Perhaps she’ll be there waiting for you,” Grace smiled. Rex raised his glass in a silent toast, and Grace returned it. They sat in semi-comfortable silence for a beat, and Grace turned her head.
“What special occasion were you saving this for?”
“Oh, I thought I’d know it when I’d see it.”
“Like if the Stones came to town?”
“Mm. Maybe John Prine.” Rex sang a bar of Angel from Montgomery. “I’m am an old woman / named for my mother / my old man’s another / child that’s grown old.”
“You have a lovely voice,” Grace said
“They have karaoke night every Thursday,” Rex replied. “You should come.”
“We’ll see, Rex.”
“Do you smoke?” The question startled Grace, but she shook her head.
“I think smoking is a vile affectation,” she remarked.
And for a moment the rye in Rex’s throat turned to tar.