The first question on late spring mornings is this: Can we go barefooted? We look out of the living room window. The porch and front yard are still shady, but spots of sun stipple the grass. An old woman across the street sweeps her sidewalk, but it’s early; there are no kids outside yet. Our mother calls us into the kitchen and tells us to sit and eat. The room fills with the rhythmic whoosh of percolating coffee. Down the hall, we hear our father shut the bathroom door and turn on the shower. While we chew and slurp from our cereal bowls, I try to get glimpses of the backyard as Mom moves between the table and the storm door. The yard is yellow with light. The grapevine curls around its arbor and the bush in the far corner is in full leaf. Can we go barefooted?
We are sent to our room to find clothes, as few as possible, which we pull on in a hurry. We are told to brush our teeth. When we return to the kitchen, the bowls have been cleared from the Formica dinette set to make room for Mom and Dad and their cups of coffee. In the window framing their heads, the persimmon tree moves in what I hope is a warm morning breeze. Mom looks up and briefly inspects me. With a dishcloth she wipes the last of the toothpaste from the corners of my mouth, and, using a formula that seems to include thermometer readings, newspaper weather forecasts, and perhaps an actual field test, she determines that we can go barefooted today.
I push the metal door handle and burst out of the kitchen. Molly and I run tiptoe down the steps, dropping our rag dolls on the rough concrete, push off the sidewalk and land in the grass. We stand for a moment caught between horror and delight as the late spring soil embraces our feet, sending chills up our shins. Here we pause, feeling the last remnant of the winter’s cold and snow, then we run to the jungle gym and climb the ladder, our toes curling around the warm metal bars as we reach for the trapeze or the white plastic hand rings. We swing through the air, dew drying from our soles and the crevices between our toes.
We tire of the swings and brave the wet grass again. Our feet are light, more like wings than paddles and so we dash around the perimeter of our universe: along the alley in back of our property, along the side of our yard adjacent to the Dennys’ weather-stripped, haunted house, behind our garage, up past the back door again, around the persimmon tree where the roots punish our heels, and then the length of the old grape arbor that is too shaky for us to climb. We relearn our world, where we are likely to stumble or twist ankles, as well as where the dog’s bathroom is. We find patches of clover and ugly crabgrass, and the occasional thistle. Here and there are bald spots where, later in the summer, we’ll find ants coming and going as purposefully as the fathers in our neighborhood.
We stand on the step for a moment, the soles of our feet making perfect wet prints on the concrete. Molly’s are almost the same size as mine, even though I am older, almost done with first kindergarten while she can’t even write her name yet. We sit down, pulling our dolls into our laps, and I scratch at my ankles, where my skin is crawly with dew and the itchy memory of grass blades. Sunlight the color of lemonade finds its way around the small persimmon leaves, leaving spots on the concrete and grass around us. A couple of birds tussle in a branch overhanging the pastor’s side of the fence. In his kitchen we can hear plates and silverware being placed on a table, and the occasional rush of water from the faucet. Across the alley, some neighbor kids run outside and stand blinking in the sunshine. The back door slams behind them. Down the alley, a dog barks and another answers. The day has begun.
Molly’s rag doll has blond yarn for hair while my doll’s hair is dark brown. Otherwise, they could be twins. Both have felt eyes and velvet dresses over white bloomers we almost never make them wear. They are big girl dolls with rosy cheeks. Mine is older, like me, and likes to fly because she is a superhero, and so does Molly’s. Simply running with them does not work, we’ve discovered, for they hang limp in our hands no matter how fast we can sprint, and we are fast. Instead, I hold mine by her hand and spin just like a tornado. She flies at the end of my outstretched arm, her pink legs kicking in the wind. Molly’s doll flies, too; I catch glimpses of her blonde yarn-hair as I turn. I yell encouragement to my doll, and Molly does, too. The house and tree and yard flash by my eyes over and over again until I give in to the urge to close my eyes and tilt my head to the side, which makes me feel like I’m being tickled from the inside out with a little sick thrown in.
I turn a few more times until my knees give and I tumble into the wet grass. Molly, our dolls, and I lie there, behind the garage, catching our breath and staring into the sky, which is a lot like staring into a lake. Instead of darting fish and rolling puffs of algae there is an occasional jet, as slim and silver as a minnow, and the clouds, big enough to make their own shadows on the yard. From where we lie we could simply push off and dive right in.
My sister gave her notice the day before she died. A dark stocking cap hugged her scalp and a white hospital blanket puddled around her body. Well-worn socks kept her feet warm in the seasonless hospital room. My short-sleeved yellow dress and the evaporating warmth of the sun on my arms were the only indicators of the spring day that had opened like the dandelions in our lawns that morning. I sat in a chair right next to her bed, but reaching her was like talking to someone through a closed door. She wiped at her eyes with a tissue and tugged the blankets up under her armpits with a hand so thin her wedding set slid up and down the length of bone between her palm and the first knuckle of her ring finger. This is no life, she said. If I can’t get better, I’d rather die.
No you don’t, I said. But I knew she was losing ground. Watching her walk through the house during the past month had been like watching an unsteady toddler. She struggled to negotiate the single step between her utility room and kitchen, sometimes clinging to the wall with both hands for support, after she started the laundry. Her long legs were emaciated and skin draped across her collarbones into the hollow of her neck. Worst of all, she had nearly dropped the baby a few weeks earlier as she carried him to his crib, and since that time she had been terrified of holding him while standing. Instead she had to content herself with watching from the depths of her recliner as the rest of us swayed with Jesse in our arms. Her eyes followed us until the morphine overpowered her, and her restless hands fell still in a pile of crochet thread.
She never left her home alone now, this thirty-year-old woman who, five years before, had hopped planes on a whim and pointed her rackety hatchback in any direction that looked interesting. This girl who was as likely to be in Chicago as Muncie on any given weekend, letting none of us know about her journeys until well after her return. Her travels within Muncie were just as adventurous, at least as far as I was concerned: Drum circles, dim living rooms full of smoke and philosophy, alternative rocker venues with gypsy friends—people with long hair and antique jeans—who moved through a haze of patchouli. People who traveled lightly and often.
Later I learned how she wept when Dad drove her to the hospital earlier that day. Even now, I cannot bear to think about this home-leaving—the last look around the place, the last shallow breath full of the smell of her new family, a last touch of the doorknob marking an entrance to the familiar and safe. The instinct to die privately is one even animals understand. None of us chooses to begin or end a journey from a strange place.
When I returned to the hospital early the next morning, I found my parents in the oncology waiting room wearing the same clothes I had left them in the night before, and I discovered what it means when an official-sounding voice on the phone tells you a loved one has taken a turn for the worse. I sat down on one of the upholstered foam sofa cushions and tried to feel my way around the tinnitus that reverberates in my head when I am confused or distressed. I watched my parents, helpless with grief and sleep deprivation, and saw the shape of my family shift.
I drifted down the hall to find a phone. It didn’t seem possible that the sun could shine in the windows of the rooms that I passed. It didn’t seem possible that other patients in that ward could still be talking, watching daytime television, or breathing while my sister was cut off. Her door was closed and a white notice was taped to it to keep hospital personnel from bumbling in on mourners such as my brother-in-law, whose heartbroken sobs brought me up short. I ducked my head and kept moving toward a bank of phones at the end of the hall. There was weeping elsewhere, too, and later I learned a counselor was brought in to work with the nurses, who were also horrified by my sister’s death. I was gratified by this, glad that even the professionals recognized this death as one worth noting in a ward where death is far too commonplace.
I was the last of our family to sit with Molly that day. I pushed through the door and entered, frightened as a child. Sunlight streamed through the bank of windows highlighting the scene of a struggle. Chairs crowded against the scuffed wall and the wastebasket gaped in its corner. The bed was askew.
I took the chair next to my sister and rested my forearms against the bedrail. I looked at her for a long time and I said her name. There was the face I had always associated with her name, and the hands, slim and well cared for. There was her nose, thin as a knife-blade, and the thyroid scar in the hollow of her throat. How many times had I watched her sleeping during our childhood years? How many times had I sighed loudly or elbowed her to wakefulness just to ward off loneliness in the middle of the night?
In three days I would reach my 31st birthday, and after that would come the Fourth of July, and then Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The whole merry-go-round would spin in its place as it always had, largely insensible to her absence. Yet, in those few moments at my sister’s deathbed I became aware of a silent universe surrounding the spinning calendar of seasons, birthdays, obligations, and family gatherings. Sitting as I was in the center of the rush and noise, I couldn’t make out much but the blackness of this expanse. Still, I knew it was there, just as I had felt the vast Atlantic at my feet the first time our parents had taken us to see the ocean. We had arrived late at night but insisted on going to the beach. Rooted in the sand, the wind teasing my hair, I could see nothing but blackness, nothing to separate the sky from the sea, the sea from the land. Now, as then, I crouched at the edge, peering into that swirling darkness beyond and wondered about the brave and marvelous beings that moved there.
The muffled scrapings and shufflings of the hospital staff seeped beneath wide door. Dust motes drifted through the light streaming onto Molly’s bed. The business of the day was picking up. Everyone, including my parents, who, God help them, had arrangements to make, was waiting on me. I looked around the room one last time for some sign of my sister, but I could see her body was as empty as a pair of overalls she’d unfastened and dropped to the floor before stepping away.
Night trains sometimes drag me up from that deepest, unknowable stratum of dream into the realm of the half remembered. On those occasions, I am as much girl as woman, still sister to a sister. We drive along the flat, sun-parched roads—Molly and I—after a late band practice, roads that have become narrower and darker throughout the summer as the corn walls rise alongside. Now and then the corn drops back to reveal a tired farm spread out before us on both sides of the road: Harvestore, white barn and weathered farmhouse, cows knee-high in muck, two dogs dashing senselessly at our spinning tires. I bear down on these places like a plane, and swoop past them, honking at the windows’ watery reflection of our dust-streaming car. Windows down, we sing along to Top 40 songs written just for us—beautiful teenage girls, fresh and full of everything the rest of the world craves. But we are flying down the road so quickly nothing but the sun can keep up with us. Even the songs themselves are gone before they have time to play themselves out. As soon as we are bored with the lyrics, Molly turns the dial to find something else. Our tiny forearm hairs glisten against our skin. Gravel thunks along the undercarriage but I slow down only for stop signs and the occasional oncoming vehicle.
The grill parts the late summer air in front of us, and the evening sun nestles into the woods in the distance. Molly twists the radio dial, settling on the a cappella voices of the Eagles. “There are stars in the Southern sky,” we sing. “Southward as you go…” The old song, older than we know, streams past us and I think about a road with seven bridges, one in the country just like this, where moonlight pools in the fields and time seems to hang like dew gathering on a leaf. A place a child would run to, a place we might run to, if need be. So we sing, our voices serious and full of meaning we don’t really understand: “There are stars in the Southern sky—“ Molly pushes a strand of hair off of her sweat-spangled forehead and jumps up to the harmony line: “And if ever you decide you should go/ there is a taste of time sweet as honey/ Down the Seven Bridges Road.”
In this way, we make an angular spiral toward home, following the derelict country roads in an ever-narrowing square until we find ourselves bumping down our own sticky blacktopped road. The light is on in the kitchen and our mother’s silhouette moves from stove to table. Sun gilds the tops of the catalpas, but night is already growing beneath them. We taxi up to the garage and step out onto the warm driveway with our shoes in our hands.
Elizabeth Dalton’s work has appeared in a number of literary journals, including PMS: Poem/Memoir/Story, Earth’s Daughters, New Millennium Writings, River City, Sliver of Stone, and Clockhouse Review.
Read our interview with Elizabeth here.