The promise to Amanda haunted Max as he leaned on the walking stick his children had purchased him. They had settled him on a bench in a shopping mall in Greenville, while Barry circled the parking lot looking for a place to park. Ryan, Andrew, Millie and Sharon stood several paces away from him feigning interest in the display at Belk’s. Peggy and Davis had opted to stay with Lily while the remaining siblings with their spouses took Dad to the mall for exercise and lunch. So far the only exercise he’d had involved a few steps on the sidewalk and few more to the bench.
Since his discharge from the hospital in Asheville and his arrival in Greenville, his children’s treatment of him reminded him of when they were toddlers and he was boss. At first the solicitous management had affirmed a long held opinion of his that Lily had raised them well. That opinion faded quickly when he noticed their tendency to huddle together in quiet serious conversations, giving him quick nervous glances, faking quick smiles when he caught them, but not including him in the discussions.
The behavior heightened his alertness, prompted an extravagant stream of “Our Father’s”, and left his tongue sore from biting it. Lily had raised them to be kind, to be sure; so to the contrary their conspiratorial tendencies had the Carnes’ stamp all over them. Acting as if he were dumb to all the scheming strained his natural inclination to butt heads with them, figuratively at least. Max decided he’d force them to speak and make them sweat when they did. So he sat on the bench, waiting them out with the promise he’d made to Lily, Amanda and himself turning uncomfortably in his head. In his gut, he knew whatever his kids were plotting threatened that vow.
Lily’s escape attempt prompted better security measures, but Peggy agreed with both Millie and Sharon that Lily’s current state did not seem to warrant the enhanced safe guards. Lily, in a matter of a few days, had slipped further away. Atrophy diminished her physically so she could not walk without assistance. Mentally, well, Peggy thought ‘at least she no longer confuses me with Grandmother Stanton.’ Lily’s eyes when not closed registered only the barest of responses, the majority defensive. When spoken to, she would search all directions, but no recognition crossed her face; localization of sound existed no longer though she still startled to loud sounds and to touch.
Millie confided to Andrew on the phone on the day their Dad was being released from the hospital her concern that Lily might have had a stroke. She explained that since Lily’s return from her brief disappearance, the only sounds she made resembled gibberish, lacking even the inflection of speech; they were mere guttural murmurings, primitive, animalistic vocalizations.
The mornings took both Millie and Sharon and now that she had arrived Peggy to dress Lily and get her moving. Once in the chair, she sat. In her hand she clutched the aged photograph which had been the impetus for the journey to the ocean. Her fingers curled around it. Efforts to take it from her created such agitation that no one tried anymore. Not one of them had seen her look at it, but like a security blanket it calmed her.
Once in the chair, she seldom moved except for the periodic attempts to take her to the bathroom or to feed her. She showed little interest in food and even less with feeding herself. Trying to coax her into opening her mouth reminded Millie, to whom the job fell most of the time, of her children as babies. Somehow “open the garage door, here comes another truck” didn’t seem appropriate and frankly didn’t work, because Millie had resorted to trying it with no success. Peggy along with the others noticed that the food Lily did allow past her lips stayed in her mouth until someone prodded her to chew and swallow. Drinks of water frequently dribbled down her chin and onto her clothing, leaving her soaked and in need of a change of clothes. The towel they had resorted to tying around her neck like a bib provided some protection, but magnified her infirmity.
Peggy chose the couch directly across from her mother who slept again, Lily’s head awkwardly dangled on her towel draped chest and her toothless mouth wide open—attempts to insert her dentures had proved how strong an emaciated but determined person could be. Drool seeped from the corner of her gaping mouth, caking on her cheek before reaching the towel. Peggy had dabbed at it a couple of times before retreating to the couch in surrender to the perpetual drip. She could hear the baseball game, Davis was watching on TV in the adjacent den. Her own eyes closed but not in sleep.
At a mall somewhere in Greenville, her brothers were determined to explain to Max the importance of getting back to Kentucky as soon as possible. Max hadn’t fooled her at all; his grim face as they prepared to leave convinced Peggy that he was aware of their planning behind his back. What didn’t make sense to her was his silence about it. That pattern of behavior might suit some men of 87 years, but her Dad was not one to hold his tongue or allow others to set his course. Rising from the couch she wiped Lily’s mouth and chin once more, noticing the dampness was chapping her mother’s face. She headed to the bathroom to prepare a warm washcloth and get some moisturizer for repair, sighing as she went. I’d rather be cleaning up drool than telling Dad his driving days and his road trip to the beach are finished.
After cleaning her Mom’s face, Peggy stared down at the photograph. The edges were barely visible from her vantage point and the vise like grip her mother maintained on the photo unabated. She knew the scene by heart but only from the photograph. She remembered not one whit of the trip. There she was in her Daddy’s arms. Her little face beamed and was so like her daughter Kaitlyn’s at about the same age that it made her heart lurch—would Kaitlyn and Rob one day be yanking Davis or her car keys and shutting down privileges that she thought of as rights.
She must have been somewhere near 18 months old in that photo. Her Dad thought it was around 1960, but that was unlikely since she was born in 1957—most likely it was 1959. Her two older brothers remembered the trip; Ryan was a teenager and Barry around nine. Even Andrew only 4 years her senior recalled snatches of the sand and the waves, but Peggy remembered nothing. Dad seemed to think they’d made several trips to the same beach, but Peggy honestly could not remember a one. There had been trips to the mountains and one to Florida, but not to the particular spot in the picture—Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina.
Peggy rubbed her Mother’s shoulders gently still looking at her clutched hand with the tattered picture. How much farther could it be? A few hours at most and even if they took a couple of days what would it matter? Of course, convincing her stubborn brothers would take some doing.
The drive back from the mall after lunch reminded Ryan of the night his Dad had been rousted from his bed in sub-freezing weather to rescue Ryan and two of his buddies after a near miss with a neighbor’s cow—the cow had no business being in the middle of the road—the boys slid down an embankment burying Ryan’s car in fresh snow. With no cell phones available back then, the three had done what most folks did when stranded; they’d walked to the nearest house and called for help.
When Max arrived to pick them up, he’d thanked the neighbors and motioned the boys toward the car. He didn’t utter a word to any of them. Even Ryan’s normally rowdy pals had the good sense to make the ride in silence departing with meek falsetto whispers “thank you, Mr. Carnes”. Ryan saw from the corner of his eye the set of the mouth and jaw he’d seen that night, his Dad’s face had aged but the expression was timeless.
That night—must have been 1961—his Dad didn’t speak until they reached the sight of the accident, there the path of Ryan’s tire tracks, his attempt to stop, the swerve and finally his car’s resting place with the nose buried in the snow provided a glaring indictment in his Dad’s headlights. They’d been goofing off. Ryan had prayed it wouldn’t be so obvious, a prayer that went unanswered.
For a long moment, Max just sat with his head against the steering wheel, then he said, “Son, you got your car keys?”
Ryan remembered the humiliation he felt digging in his jacket and pants pockets for the keys, before realizing he had failed to pull them from the ignition.
“I, I must have left them in the car.”
His Dad had opened the door and moving sideways like a crab on ice inched down the embankment to the car, struggled with the already frozen door until it opened, reached in and yanked out the keys, depositing them in his pocket. They used a tractor to pull the car out the next day but it had been three weeks before Ryan saw the keys again.
His Dad’s Buick keys now rested in his pocket. Ryan tried comforting himself with the purpose; they were protecting their parents not punishing them, but the dismal silence in the van, marked especially by the absence of Millie’s lively voice, and the set of his father’s jaw argued the latter. For the first time in his whole life, he grasped the meaning of ‘this is going to hurt me more that it is you’. The greatest pain stemmed from the acknowledgement that his strong forceful father no longer was invincible. Ryan grimly conceded time had caught up with his Dad and was winning.
The other realization built on that foundation was that not a one of them could halt that stern measure; the relentless march of seconds, minutes, and hours became years then decades. Ryan’s ruminations joined a chorus in the stillness; he sensed a strange cacophony of thought that screamed in the silence. He caught Andrew’s eye in the rear view mirror and held it for a long moment; it took only a heartbeat to recognize the unity of their thoughts, the natural harmony of blood. Andrew averted his eyes first, but there was no denying the understanding that had passed between the brothers. Barry sitting opposite Andrew caught the exchange and nodded in affirmation.
In unison the Carnes brothers chuckled out loud. Max turned and looked at each of them, his brow furrowed in reproach and them smiled. Millie and Sharon giggled nervously from the back, baffled.
Ryan spoke, “Dad, how about we make one more stop on this trip—as a family?”
Max couldn’t speak; tears welled up in his eyes.
“That would be real nice, Son,” he paused before adding ruefully, “It’s going to be interesting watching you three sell this to your sister.”
The van erupted with laughter.
Amanda took off her shoes and dumped them and the contents of her canvas bag into the plastic container at airport security. Her mother and Granny Nan cleared and were retrieving their purses and shoes. She waved at them before crossing the metal detector portal.
The sound of the alarm startled her and the security officer asked her to empty her pockets. What in the world? Reaching into the pockets of her jacket, her fingers touched a familiar object. Rats! Sophia had asked her to return Max’s cell phone when she saw him and she had forgotten. Pulling it out, she handed it to the official and stepped back through the door to try again.
Stepping through a second time she heard a familiar signal of another kind, but it was no less startling than the alarm. It was the William Tell Overture.