Thursday, December 24, 2009

Fly Away Home


Fly Away Home
by Cappy Hall Rearick

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place

where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” ~Maya Angelou


In the dead of winter, my phone rang; it was Aunt Paula. I was so surprised I had to sit down to keep from falling. I hadn’t heard from my mother’s sister since Mama and I stopped speaking five years before.

Mama and I had our ups and downs, but one day I got so mad at her that I rooted myself in California and vowed never to set foot in South Carolina again. Since neither of us had a taste for eating crow, the months built like bricks into years.

“Aunt Paula,” I exclaimed. “What’s up?”

“I’m calling about your mama. She’s not doing good and you need to come on home.”

Aunt Paula’s words hit me hard, much like Mama’s relentless criticism always did. ‘Can’t you do anything right? I wish you’d be more like your cousin, Alice. She knows how to act.’

I was through trying to please my mother. She was un-pleasable.

“Is Mama sick,” I asked Aunt Paula.

“Well, yes and no. She’s pushing ninety, you know, so her heart’s bound to give her trouble.”

Mama was almost ninety. When did that happen?

“Did she have a stroke or what?”

“Doc Johnson says she’s been having a series of ‘em, but that’s not why I’m calling.” She paused. “It’s breaking her heart that her only daughter doesn’t come to see her anymore.”

I had my mother corralled in the back pasture of my mind and that’s where she remained until my aunt tore down the fence I’d so carefully built around my feelings.

“I appreciate your call, Aunt Paula. I know you mean well, but Mama has been hurting my feelings for years and I have no desire to go back for more of the same.”

For days I wore myself out shopping, wrapping and decorating for Christmas. I did so on purpose so I’d be too tired to fret about a ninety-year-old super critical mother with a bad ticker. Late one night, however, she niggled her way into my thoughts.

Jumping out of bed, I turned on a lamp and grabbed the invitation I’d received that day from friends asking me to join them in La Jolla for the holidays. Perfect.

An hour later I was on my way to La Jolla. The weather had been abnormally cold for Southern California, so I grabbed up the coat I hadn’t worn since moving to Los Angeles. I hoped the loud music on the car radio would keep me from falling asleep at the wheel, but when a large, angular sign signaled, “EAT” in neon red letters in front of me, I stopped the car as quickly as I could. Weary and fanny-numb, I went inside and sat down at the counter on a worn vinyl stool. A big-haired waitress named Rita shoved a cup of coffee at me.

Grateful, I asked, “Do I look that ragged?”

“A woman shows up this time of night looking like something the cat dragged in? Ain’t hard to figure she needs caffeine.”

A Country/Western rendition of Jingle Bell Rock honky-tonked from the jukebox while I sipped my coffee and chatted with Big Hair. When abruptly, the door flew open, I turned to find out who else the cat was dragging in.

A young man, looking even more haggard than I, staggered to a nearby booth. His face was pinched and gray, his brows appeared to be sewn together in the middle. His sunken eyes were hollow and almost buried beneath his thin flesh. Even as cold as it was, he wore only jeans and a threadbare t-shirt. When he sat down, his head immediately drooped.

Rita glared at him and then rolled her eyes. Her lips formed a straight line that matched the tight grimace on her heavily made-up face. In an irritated tone of voice she said to me, “Not another pretty boy. You gonna eat or what?”

She mumbled something about the pecan waffles being decent, but I ordered a Western Omelet while glancing over my shoulder.

“That boy looks like he’s sick,” I said.

She cocked her eyes at him, then shook her head. “Piece of trash. Humph.”

Was this mean-spirited woman the same friendly waitress with bulletproof hair who had brought me coffee even before I’d asked for it?

Digging inside my large purse, I fished out a dog-eared paperback. Every now and then, I stole a look at the boy slumped in the booth, the guy Rita had not as yet waited on. Obviously, he wasn’t her problem, but he wasn’t mine, either. I felt sorry for him, but reminded myself that I was running away from trouble, not toward it.

When my omelet arrived I looked around for the salt and pepper, but my eyes found the boy’s face instead. He was staring at my plate of eggs.

Now, there’s not a noble bone in my body, but no way could I have eaten a bite while he was looking at me like a starving dog. I picked up my plate and walked over to where he sat. “Do me a favor and eat this for me. My eyes are bigger than my stomach.”

Back at the counter again, I said, “Rita, he might like a glass of milk.” It was not a request.

She rolled her eyes and let out another long-suffering sigh.

He didn’t scarf up the food like I thought he would; he picked at it. His milk arrived, but he seemed not to notice.

Call it writer’s curiosity, but I needed to hear his story.

“May I join you?”

With a great deal of effort, he pulled his head up as though an anchor was attached to his skinny neck; his feverish eyes looked into mine. “If you want.”

I sat down and took a sip of coffee. “It’s none of my business, but I’m concerned about you. Is there someone I could call for you?”

With trembling fingers, he picked up his napkin and covered his mouth just before a deep rattle of a cough rolled out.

“Want something to drink?”

I grabbed the glass of water I’d been served and watched as he gulped it down.

He wasn’t eager to talk, so after an awkward few minutes, I got up. He was a lost soul, but who was I to save it? “Enjoy your meal,” I said with a smile and went back to the counter.

Sipping my warmed up coffee, I thought about my friends in La Jolla. I’d called to say I was on my way and would be there in time for the party. It was going to be such fun.

The boy in the booth coughed harder but I tried not to notice. Rita, unconcerned, hummed along with Elvis singing I’ll Have a Blue Christmas. When his cough seemed determined, I went back over and held the glass of water to his lips. I’m no Mother Teresa, but somewhere inside me there must be a loose maternal thread.

When his hacking subsided, I sat down next to him.

“Are you sure there’s nobody you want me to call?”

He shook his head.

“Well, okay, but you really should see about that cough.” I picked up my purse. If I planned to arrive in La Jolla before Santa and the elves, I had to get going.

While I fished around for my wallet, the boy cleared his throat. “I’m real sick but once I get home, my mama can take care of me.”

The irony was not lost on me since going home to my mother was exactly what I wanted not to do. I nodded. “Where’s she live?”

“Bakersfield.”

He was just a boy, probably not even twenty. “You’re a long way from Bakersfield, son. How you gonna get there?”

A far-off gaze shadowed his eyes. “Don’t know. Looks like I can’t catch a break.”

“What do you mean?”

He shook his head. “I tried hitching a ride, but nobody’ll pick me up looking like I do.”

He did look terrible.

“I appreciate the food, lady, but I don’t eat much these days.”

After a bit, I said, “You really should see a doctor.”

He looked at me with the most defeated expression I ever saw on one so young. On the other hand, his voice was calm when he replied, “Can’t no doctor fix what I’ve got. I’m HIV positive.” He sighed. “I just need to see my Mama. I want to tell her goodbye.”

The tears welled up in both our eyes.

“Does she know you’re sick? Maybe she could come get you.”

He shook his head. “She doesn’t know, and besides, she can’t drive.” He looked down at the uneaten omelet. “If I don’t get to see her now, then I’ll wait for her in heaven.”

Rita was making a fresh pot of coffee but her hard facial expression softened somewhat as the boy told his story. Her nicer side lasted only a moment, however, before she started fiddling with the coffeemaker again.

I looked into the face of that dying child, who would never see another Christmas, would probably never see his mother again, and I told myself I should do something. But I did nothing.

“It was nice of you to share your food,” he said, “but I didn’t come in here for a handout. I was cold and all I could think about was getting warm. I should leave before she throws me out.”

He moved as if to get up.

“I have to go, too. My friends are expecting me,” I said, and then kept talking, hoping to keep him warm for a little while longer. The puny boy was polite and didn’t interrupt.

“Have a safe trip,” he said softly when he got up.

“Wait!” I called. “It’s really cold outside. Why don’t you stay in here until it daylight?”

“No,” he said. “I might can catch a ride in the dark when they can’t see how bad I look.”

I watched him meander through the dimly lit parking lot, occasionally grabbing a tree to lean on for support. I watched until he wandered out of sight.

Why, I asked myself, hadn’t I done something for that boy? I could have bought him a bus ticket, or called his mother. Why hadn’t I taken him to a hospital? I’d given him a meal he couldn’t even eat and then let him walk out into the cold night in those ragged clothes. I could have given him my coat, but I hadn’t even done that.

After paying my bill, Rita surprised me. “Reckon that kid’ll be okay?” she nodded her head in his departing direction.

“Maybe.” My answer was automatic even though I didn’t think for a minute he would be. Not in this lifetime.

Back inside my car, I sat with the motor running, my seatbelt fastened, my hands gripping the steering wheel. Tears of remorse washed the mud from my mind, and I saw clearly see what I had to do. It would mean back tracking, but so what? I’d make it to the party eventually.

The boy was leaning against a stop sign a block away. I pulled over, rolled down the window and said, “Anybody here going to Bakersfield?”

His look of gratitude made my heart hurt.

After he was in the car and buckled up, he fell into a deep sleep that lasted almost all the way. He barely stirred when I stopped for gas, but as if inner radar signaled him in his sleep, he awoke when I turned onto the Bakersfield exit. A big smile eased up on his gaunt face.

“We made it,” I said, enjoying his grin. “What’s your mothers phone number? I’ll call her on my cell and let her know you’re here. What’s her name?”

He shook his head no, but kept the happiness on his face. “Her name is Mary. But would you let me call her? I want to be the one.”

When we drove up to the house, he jumped out of the car and ran to the porch where his mother stood waiting for him with open arms.

Till the day I die, I will remember how that mother held tight to her dying son. I will hear her laughter, see her tears. He was so fragile and she so loving. She touched his face, his hair, a mother bird soothing her wounded baby who had returned to the nest.

I left Bakersfield that day, but I didn’t go to La Jolla; I drove instead to South Carolina to the place that had once been my own nest.

Pulling up in front of my mother’s home on Christmas Eve, I sat for a moment recalling past Christmases. The decorated tree shining through the living room window made the knot in my stomach turn into a big lump in my throat. I took baby steps until reaching the front porch where Mama had hung her traditional magnolia and pineapple wreath on the door ~ a friendly welcome to one and all.

Reaching out, I knocked.

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