night before we left, Annie got the maps out of the truck and traced out the route
in yellow highlighter pen. She put down three markers, one at the campground where
we would be staying in Vermont, one at the hotel in Upstate New York where we
would spend the night before, and one mark in a neighborhood in Baltimore, about
an hour north of Arlington, where we would be stopping to rest. It was a place
for the dogs to walk, and for me to decompress, because by that time I would have
been driving for four hours. |
Annie also hauled all of her gear out to the garage, so that Amelia, our orange tabby, wouldn't get out as we tried to leave. She packed fruit and Hershey's kisses and salted peanuts into a grocery bag and set the thermoses out for coffee for this morning. She set out cans of Super Supper and Tuna and Egg and Amelia's health record and a Visa card in case of emergency, and I stayed out of her way, sitting at the kitchen table, putting new batteries into the flashlights, and looking at the maps sitting on the table. The park was in Rita's old neighborhood, or somewhere close to it. I hadn't remembered Rita mentioning that.
Annie had gotten to the point in our packing were she was cleaning out the refrigerator, holding up the leftovers without neat dates marked on masking tape on the lids -- the ones I had put away. She was looking for dates. Most of them I remembered, watching Annie mark them down, sniff things, discard things that wouldn't last. I watched her fill up the trash can under the sink, and I took it out for her before we went to bed. Annie held Amelia as I opened the door, keeping her from getting out. For the moment I forgot about Rita and the park.
It's cool in the morning. Annie and I felt the temperature drop off last night as we lay in bed, but didn't get up to turn off the ceiling fan. This morning Annie is dressed in jeans -- she says it will be cool in Vermont but I miss the flutter of her dress around her legs as she moves, and so I tell her we would be passing through hot country first. She says that shorts would only make her legs stick to the seat. She's in jeans and a yellow T-shirt and white running shoes, and as she settles herself into the truck I miss the way her skirts fall around her ankles, the way they settle around her thighs. In jeans she seems thinner to me, not as graceful. Annie puts both of her feet up on the dash and curls herself into a half an "M" shape. In resignation I start the truck down the road.
It's three hours to Arlington, where we'll meet Rosemarie and Rita. Originally we were going to meet them just as the sun rose, but now this seems too early. Around us it's still black, not even the purple of impending dawn, and Annie is yawning still, next to me. She has sleep dust in the corners of her eyes.
"We're meeting for breakfast?" I ask her, hoping for some of the coffee and peeled oranges I know she has with us.
"Sort of. We'll stop in Baltimore and get a few more hours between ourselves and home first. Rita suggested it. There's a park where we can let the dogs stretch."
Rita grew up in Baltimore, in a house visible from the railroad tracks that carry the Amtrak east coast trains. I've seen those houses on trips up to New York; squat, narrow, solid places, too sturdy to be slums. Working poor, I think. Rita's father was a janitor for the public schools, her mother a store clerk. There were eight children. I try to remember if Rita has ever mentioned their names. I don't think so. When the four of us took the train up for Stonewall last year, Rita closed the curtain as we rolled past. I can't think of the names of her siblings. "Did she say what exit the park was off of?"
Annie has a piece of paper clipped to the inside of the map with the directions on it. We don't need the maps to get as far as Baltimore, so she's slid them under her seat. Annie pulls one out, flips it open to the map of Maryland, traces her finger around the Baltimore beltway. "Doesn't Rita have a business around Baltimore somewhere?"
"I knew she grew up there."
Annie nods yes, yawning. "But wasn't she thinking of opening up another store there? Rosemarie was telling me about it, how Rita was trying to decide if she could trust one of her brothers to run it. I don't know what she decided, finally."
Rita had taken her money after she retired from the Navy and opened up a laundromat. We teased her at the time, about her inescapable attraction to water. It had proved to be a money maker, though. Rita and Rosemarie had a detached house on a quiet street in Arlington, lined with old shade trees. The house had a sun room and an in-ground pool in the back yard. They had two laundromats in Arlington, one in Alexandria, and a new one in Fairfax. At one time they were looking at land out in Chantilly. I hadn't heard about Baltimore. "Rosemarie would know."
Rita would know too, but Annie was right, we would probably ask Rosemarie. Annie would, most certainly, sometime during the trip when Rita and I would go off and the two of them would catch up, like sisters at a family reunion. I envy them that, sometimes, their easy ability to talk to each other. Rita and I have evolved a sort of Morse code with silence and gestures. We are bad with words, both of us. Stiff, Annie says when she's angry at me. I think Rita and I married talkers, so the silence wouldn't be as ominous, and there would be the comfortable float of words around us.
There are some things that Annie and Rosemarie talk about only between themselves. Femme speak, I think. The things they say are part of the language they use to talk about us. It's the language I looked for before I knew who my lover would be, before gender and color, before intellect, even before smell, it was the flutter of this language, and the things my lover would know about without asking. Annie doesn't fit this exactly, she has a body, a will, a temperament, but she is close enough to these things that we can touch each other in common places. I want to tell her these things, and when I look over at her, reach out to touch her with my hand, I see that she is curled against the window asleep, and that the map has folded itself closed on the seat between us.
I think about waking her, because on our way out of town we'll pass a marsh that is sometimes the home of Great Blue Heron. There are Heron here along the creeks, but they stay out of people's way, mostly. You have to come upon them a long way off, and quietly, or they'll fly away. Morning is a good time to do that, as the mist slowly burns off and they appear standing silent on one leg, as though they had risen up whole from the earth. Sometimes, in early morning before the fog has burned off, you can see a dim outline of one as your headlights drift across its path. Annie might miss this if I don't wake her. Ghost birds. She hasn't slipped into the deep breathing of sound sleep yet and I think of waking her, but I don't see any birds. I let her be.
When we get to Rosemarie and Rita's house, they're packed and have the canoe tree hitched to the back of the van. Judith and Justina, their two yellow labs, pace back and forth, pulling to get in too. Annie wakes up as Rosemarie leans into the window on my side to refine our directions. I pull the map from between the seats and take the cap off the pen.
"Exit 76B off of 95." Rosemarie says. "There's a diner across the street. It's Oskala Park. That's were we're going."
As I slide the map back between us Annie stretches. She fishes in the food bag for one of the thermoses. Oskala Park. It does sound familiar, and I try to remember if Rita has mentioned it.
Rita is tall and well muscled and perpetually tanned, with an underlying layer of freckles like a fine powdering of brown sugar --the marks of an habitual sun supplicant. Rita is more awake than any of us, checking the oil and coolant in the van. She's probably been running already -- up and running even as Annie and I left home. She's probably showered, put away two cups of coffee, run and brushed the dogs. All of Rita's body works in tandem, careful and coordinated. She's always sucking on starlight mints, to stave off alcohol cravings. That's one of the reasons she runs, lifts weights. Against the sugar of starlight mints, lemon drops, shots of coke a cola. She has terrible teeth, but she's alive and sober. She's happy, I think. A happiness that comes only after lots of work.
Rita's letting her hair grow longer. It's down to her collar now, and when it gets long enough to put up in a ponytail she'll gather it up and cut it with scissors. Rita finishes checking the fluids, puts her thumbs through her belt loops, and slides her hands into the pockets of her denim shorts. Her little fingers run against the ridges of her hip bones, and she watches Rosemarie lock up their front door. She and Rosemarie get into the van and settle the dogs into the back seat.
Rosemarie breaks out new rawhide treats, which they ignore as they watch Annie and I in the truck, watch Annie pour coffee and segment an orange. The dogs are fascinated by Annie, but I don't interest them much. I tell myself it's because Annie is so much more like Rosemarie than I am, and sometimes I believe this. As they take to the road behind us I think about the park again. Rita told me about it once, but I can't remember how much. Sometimes the important things are on the edges of our tongues and then they fill our whole mouths, choking off the air until we're silent. She's told me about the park. Something. Annie slides a section of orange into my mouth, hands over a travel mug with hazelnut coffee and cream that I put up on the dash. I mull over the park for a couple more seconds. "Do you remember an Oskala Park, Annie?"
"I haven't spent much time in Baltimore. Not enough to remember much aside from the inner harbor and the aquarium. Why?"
"Have you ever heard Rita mention it, though?"
"No, I don't think so. Why?"
I shrug. "It just sounds familiar. I was wondering."
"Maybe Rosemarie mentioned it."
"Maybe." I don't think so, though. I think it was Rita. Maybe Annie has forgotten, but she doesn't forget important things. Usually. Oskala Park. I want to look at a map and see how close it is to the Amtrak tracks. How close it is to the little houses with the roofs that shine hot in summer. I think back --red, wooden -- barn? Maybe. No. Bridge. Yes, Bridge. There's a bridge there that's important from her childhood. Maybe that's all she said about it, but that would be strange -- a strange thing to mention by itself. Maybe one night over coffees we both wished were beers she mentioned a bridge.
I'm imagining it a bridge like the ones they show over gorges in Chinese paintings, tall and curved, nearly impossible to cross. I know I haven't seen a picture of Rita's bridge though, and it occurs to me that this is not the kind of bridge they would build in an Italian neighborhood in Baltimore. Not when Rita was younger. Before ethnicity became trendy. I've always wondered why someone would build a bridge that you couldn't use. Maybe it's art -- or maybe in the paintings the bridges aren't meant to be crossed and the builders have left enough room for the river gods to move below. I think about asking Annie about it but I don't.
Sometimes Rita tells me things that she doesn't tell Annie, that she doesn't tell Rosemarie, even. I think that this may be one of these things, but I'm not sure. I don't want to ask Annie about it again. There's nothing to do until we get to the park, so I wait. It's no longer as dark outside, and now the van is more visible in the rear view mirror. I see Rosemarie and Rita and the heads of the dogs. They are still only sketchy outlines though, and we are all still nighttime travelers.
The railroad tracks run parallel to the road as we get closer to the exit. I've seen a part of this landscape before, I think, but this part of Baltimore looks like the houses that frame all rail yards, in Philadelphia, in Washington, in Richmond. Near a source of employment, accented with a shabby park, a crumbling basketball court, a fence in need of repair. We take the exit and end up on a four lane residential street that fades into two lanes, take a left onto a street with businesses -- a tailor, tv repair, a Korean restaurant, one serving Taiwanese, a bike shop. Small signs of prosperity and new kinds of immigrants. To our right along the side of the road is a shallow parking lot, with a sign made out of new green wood in good repair that says Oskala Park. I pull in to the shallow lot, get out to stretch. Annie gets up too, goes and sits on the wooden fence.
I wouldn't associate that kind of fence with a city, three thick beams with tapered ends stuck into posts with oval holes running through them -- two ends per hole. They're the kind meant to hold horses, I think. Annie swings her legs back and forth, runs her hands through her hair. We're there maybe five minutes when Rita pulls up, when Rosemarie snaps the leashes on the girls and they pile over her pulling toward the grass. Rosemarie follows them. Rita follows Rosemarie.
"We'll walk first, I guess. " Annie pulls her hair back with a yellow terry cloth scrunchie she's carried in her pocket, hops off of the fence.
"Guess so." Rita puts both of her hands in her pockets, follows a bit behind Rosemarie.
The trees are old growth -- tall. The bushes are threatening to become underbrush if someone's not careful. I'm used to thinking of city parks as crumbly, paved places. Indestructible recreation. I'm used to the residents banding together to cut down underbrush that might hide drug deals or muggers. I don't know why the foliage has been left to grow over, until I look at the trees. All old growth, standing too close to each other to be planted or paid for -- the younger ones are badly spaced, competing for light and rain. This isn't an afterthought, it was planned from the beginning, kept up. There are picnic tables scattered around, the wood the same new green of the fence. There are square headed cookout grills up on metal posts. Oskala doesn't resemble any urban park I have ever seen. I wonder how it stays this neat at night. It must require legions of police. I know Rita didn't grow up in any place prosperous enough to keep up this park in her time, and wonder when this changed.
Rita separates from Rosemarie and the dogs, goes off down one of the paths. She seems to have some sort of trajectory planned, so I follow her. A path exits the woods just to our left, going away from the picnic tables, past the playground. Still Rita is going too fast and too directly not to have a plan, and with a last look back -- Rosemarie holding the dogs still as a group of children gather to pet and ruffle, Annie looking down what appears to be a bike path or a jogging trail -- Rita goes into the woods. I follow.
It's pretty clear right away that this path has been altered recently. There are gaps in the underbrush where it hasn't grown in, strange breaks in the trees. It looks like the path turned and crisscrossed at one point, and had been straightened later. Rita notices this too because she slows down, is more careful to look at what's around her. I think that maybe the path isn't so much straightened as given more branches, arms moving in multiple directions. Light falls onto the path in strange patterns, overhead the canopy of leaves is empty in odd places. There are branches that haven't rotted off but been cut. We pass a stump treated with blue material against rot, whose roots still gnarl in the path. Ahead of us, where sunlight stands like a yellow curtain through the trees, Rita stops. I wait for her about fifty feet away.
Rita is standing in front of a small wooden gazebo, ten feet or so away from a small, still creek, the water moving only fast enough to keep it from becoming stagnant. Her hands are at her sides, palms flat against the legs of her jeans. She looks lost. The gazebo is the strange green colored wood, larger than the space by the bank seems to allow, the ceiling vaulted and high. There is lattice work and hollows in the corners that don't yet have birds nesting in them. Rita moves around the gazebo, then over to the banks of the creek, scanning the ground. She crouches at the end of the path and paws at the tall river grass that grows in patches near the water.
I think she's looking for the supports for the bridge, the soft brown of rotting wood, the orangy flakes of buried metal, the holes where posts have been dug out. I am guessing, and wondering if I am producing an overlay -- my life over hers, reading her wrong. It's possible. Sometimes the desire to help is so great that we can rewrite other people's lives to include our own. I reach into the pocket with my keys and change, rattle them just enough so that she knows I'm here but not so loudly that she has to notice or answer. She turns around and smiles at me, a thin, dim smile, then turns back. I'm allowed to stay.
I wonder what part of Rita's life was here, her favorite fishing hole, the place where she stole her first kiss, the place where the boys from the junior high caught her one day when she was on the way home from school. I'm used to equating nostalgia with happiness and remember that this isn't always so. I don't know if her reactions to each of these events would be any different or not. I know Rita won't ever tell me, and I know I won't ever ask.
I had thought of the park as well kept, but now I can't think of a time when there might have been a basketball court here, when boys in black Chuck's might have played on it, when there wasn't a conscious attempt to put in wood and not metal, when the place might look closer to the places where Rita and Rosemarie and I grew up. Not something from Annie's world. Annie's trees and wide spaces. I look for an organic reason for the bridge to be gone, try to read the layers of silt on the opposite shore. There would be a thicker layer, brown and fine grained, if the bridge had been washed out. There ought to be fire scars on the surrounding trees and places where the brush caught fire if the bridge burned. I don't see any of these things. The creek bed is fairly even, although I know that in geologic time entire layers can be removed and new ones put down, and this ruins the dating. I remember again that maybe there never was a bridge.
I retreat into the woods a little more, thinking to give Rita some time alone. I see her find the other support, a stain in the dirt maybe six feet from the first one. She unearths it and stands between them. Not a large bridge but a foot path, I think, framing. As we stand there I think of this morning, how I didn't want Annie to miss the birds that weren't there. I'm wishing for a Heron to appear from the earth, right now, for Rita. I want an omen for her, a consolation, a sign. One doesn't come, of course. Not even a slight dimming of the sun behind the clouds, or a change in the wind. I think that we are given omens to save, to bring up and rub like a statue of Buddha or a lucky coin. There is nothing here for Rita, anymore. She stands still looking over the water. From her right pocket she pulls one of the peppermint candies she is always sucking on. She shucks the plastic wrapper in one smooth motion, transfers it quickly from her right hand to her left and then slides it into her left pocket. She pops the candy disk into her mouth. From the opposite shore there is the call of an ordinary bird.
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