Bright Angels and Familiars
by Eugene England, Editor

Chapter 5
The People Who Were Not There
Lewis Horne

all
the past lapping them like a
cloak of chaos
—Thom Gunn

[55] Sure, we wanted to move to the country! When Dad asked us—out of the blue of our Arizona sky, as it were—excitement played leapfrog with our surprise. “Fourteen acres,” he said, “with an irrigation ditch in front.” Seven miles out of town. A new way of life.

But we got used to it quickly. After dark when we went out of doors, as we had to do with the flashlight to get to the outhouse through the trees, a great blackness closed in. No streetlights. No glow from a neighbor’s window. On Saturday night we’d hear the Indians rattling home in their wagons to the reservation. Such quiet … As my brother Ken and I lay in our beds on the screenporch, dogs yipped one to another across the valley, and a bullfrog sang with dignity on the ditchbank. The only sounds.

During summer days we did our chores. Then with William Conner, a new friend, we swung over the ditch, Tarzan-like, on the [56] branches of an ash tree so monstrous it shaded the whole front yard. Those were the years of World War II, and sparked with a patriotism, fanned to a hot flame by Saturday afternoon movies, we also played commando—in our orchard or among the mesquites in the bottom field or in the orchard of William’s grandfather, old Mr. Thorsen. Earlier, living in town, before Pearl Harbor catapulted juvenile energies into the dangers that lay behind German and Japanese lines, we had played at cowboys, stalking about Apache battle grounds.

One day in the second summer we lived on the farm, the two games had a meeting. William, our commando strategist, sent Ken and me crawling in opposite directions through a small gully alongside the road. Mission in mind, faithful and brave, I wriggled through Johnson grass, scratched my knees on rocks, scrambled nose down in earnestness.

This blind earnestness led me directly into the silent horse which might have stepped on me had it been a livelier beast. For even though I cried out, it did not move. Its leg was motionless as a statue as I lifted my head.

Above me seated bareback and peering down with scarcely a smile—or worse, as though I scarcely merited a smile—was an Indian boy a year or so older than me. Not an Apache. Nothing so romantic. Simply a boy from the nearby reservation. The bottoms of his shoes, openings like boils on the worn soles, hit my line of sight, his sock making a downward line from tongue to heel where it disappeared. His smooth brown leg was bare up the calf to the faded khakis he wore.

As I stared up, squatting back on my heels, he took from his mouth a weed he had been chewing and speared it at me. Too light to hold its course, it drifted past my shoulder. But I scrambled backward, crab-like, all the same. Where were Ken and William? This horseman was older than me. He nudged the animal a step forward.

“Stop!”

Arms and legs buckled, raised, bent and stiffened, as I backed away from the plodding horse. The Indian boy smiled.

[57] “Ken! William!”

Where were they? I felt like sobbing as suddenly my arms gave way, elbows collapsing. I flung myself over onto my belly, arms about my head, huddling, waiting. The hoof on my back—I could feel it, injury so unfairly to come. But the sound of the horse brought relief instead, for its movement, frightening at first, took it past me up to the roadside.

Finally I raised my head. The Indian boy, higher yet above me, stared down. William and Ken stood near, looking back at him and then down at me.

Embarrassed to be caught worm-like in the weeds, I rose.

“He was going to ride me down. With that horse.”

The Indian boy laughed and rode off bareback down the road.

“He was going to ride me down,” I said to Ken and William.

William frowned, watching the horse. “That’s Clifford Wellington. He’s a mean Indian. His dad irrigates for us.”

He was going to ride me down! The thought bucked with my pulse. He was! Or—the next thought after some calm returned—or was he?

“He’s ’bout two years behind himself in school. Real mean bastard. Don’t ever get in a fight with him.”

I didn’t get in a fight with him. I never saw anybody get in a fight with him. But after that I seemed to see Clifford again and again, much more often than I wanted. Once, walking home from Ruiz’s store with a can of pork and beans for lunch, I saw him ahead of me on his horse, him on one side of the road, me on the other. I tensed, ready to scramble for the ditch, to jump in and splash across fully clothed if I had to. He simply watched me, unsmiling. He knew I was scared. That knowledge seemed to be enough—this time. Later he came into our driveway chasing horses that had run through our open gate into the orchard. On home ground I felt secure. Frequently I saw him on Mr. Thorsen’s farm, where his father worked. But there too I felt no threat, for William and Ken were company.

Eventually of course I found myself alone with him again. I was hiding during one of our games. A tent, board floor with a canvas [58] top, stood behind the chicken pen in Mr. Thorsen’s yard, and I slipped through an opening to hide from Ken and William. Spy in flight. Shadow of refuge. I settled down, barefoot, my back against a trunk, snuggling in among the boxes near the opening. No one would find me—dusty, dry, hot. Dark corners.

I wouldn’t let Ken or William catch me here, I decided. My secret. I would wait until the game was nearly finished and then leave so they wouldn’t know where I hid. My sanctuary.

Hard to take one’s self away. With Ken, Melissa, Jane—with the family—I felt my life sometimes was too public. I wanted their company, but I wanted privacy too. I couldn’t find it in the house on the farm. The rooms, though large, were few. The screenporch, though wide, was crowded with the four bunk beds spread out across it.

But here, in the tent, in the hot shadowy tent, I could hide away.

Twice I saw Ken and William sneak by, hostile enemies, secretive, seeking their enemy. But I, secure, was no one’s enemy, no one enemy to me. No friction of relationship. Perspiring, I felt dreamy. I might have been watching the hypnotic spread of a desert, buzzards circling on open wing.

After Ken and William had passed, out of sight and sound, I closed my eyes. The floor was warm under my feet. I wriggled backward, adjusting my position. Shifting, my bottom touched a hand.

Monster in the darkness—snake-like.

I knocked one box off another as I whirled, saw the hand dark in the shadows, flat on the floor as it had been when I felt it.

“What you want?”

Clifford Wellington there, his question bringing out the first words I ever heard him speak. His black hair was shiny, falling straight forward in a kind of bang. His brown face was sweaty, dark eyes alive with a quiet, intense, but strangely unaggressive glow, something subdued and burning in them that did not match the threat in his voice.

“I beat you up,” he said.

Maybe he would. Maybe he wouldn’t. For me the threat was [59] half the deed. I stood, wanting to slip out, and Clifford rose, almost a head taller. Easy and strong, easy and lithe.

“Beat you up,” he mumbled again.

“Ken! William!” I cried. “Ken!”

I stumbled backward, yelling the whole time, the tied tent flaps reluctant to open. But Clifford didn’t move. My cries, like birds released, fluttered away, and I felt foolish standing there. For he didn’t move. Would he? Or wouldn’t he?

As though to renew performance, he said again, “I beat you up.”

But before I could respond, the flaps against which I was leaning came apart, and I fell out onto the ground. Clifford’s father stood there and William’s grandfather, Mr. Thorsen. William and Ken came running. I picked myself up sheepishly and dusted myself, flipped back the hair out of my eyes.

Clifford stood in the doorway of the tent. He would have smiled at me I’m sure, possibly remembering how I’d risen, craven-like, from the ground earlier by the road, but his father worried him. He spoke to Clifford in a deep voice, broken vowels—a language I could not understand—and pulled him by the arm from the floor of the tent. He spoke again and pointed up the driveway past Mr. Thorsen’s barn to the citrus grove. Wordlessly, Clifford walked away. Did not look back. Walked with grace and some kind of inward rhythm. With contained energy, managing, it seemed, his furies, whatever they were.

Clifford’s dad told Mr. Thorsen he was sorry his son was where he should not be.

“Don’t worry about it, Allan. Just boys.”

As Clifford’s dad went to the barn, Mr. Thorsen turned to us. “Now what you boys been doing? What were you in the tent for—hah?”

Both Ken and William protested. They weren’t in there. They’d never been in there.

Eyes wheeled to me. “I was just—just hiding. From them. And then I found out he—Clifford Wellington—was in there. And I started yelling. That’s all I did.”

[60] Mr. Thorsen’s face, lined and brown, white hair thick and coarse as a brush, did not tell me whether he believed or not.

“Honest,” I said. ‘That’s all.”

“You’re the Phillips boys—yah?”

I nodded. He spoke heavily, as though some of the words were still awkward for his lips and tongue. He had come to this country from Norway as a boy, parents proselytized by Mormon missionaries, and entered the valley by horse and wagon. He never talked to us when we played with William but moved about, rigid and heavy-shouldered and silent, with his own thoughts. In his seventies, manipulating a cane, he walked down the country road to church every Sunday so long as the weather was fine, kept track of the farm he lived on with his widowed daughter and grandson.

He had dignity. But his dignity came from distance—and heaviness—and history. He was far from us.

“Well,” he said, “I trust you. Your grandfather was my friend and I trust his grandsons.”

The statement frightened me. For my grandfather, dead during the second decade of the century, was a distant and even mythic figure. I wished I could pull back my words to make sure I had cast no shame on his memory.

“You know what is in that tent?”

We all three shook our heads.

He stepped into the opening, pushing himself up with his cane. “Come in,” he said. As we hesitated: “Come on.”

We helped fold back the door flaps and zip open a window.

“Here,” he said, “is my past—yah. William’s past, too.”

In his heavy and awkward voice, he explained. He kept everything, he said. Deeds, mortgages, second mortgages. Diaries. Photographs and letters. Put away in boxes and trunks, each labeled. Some by year. Some by content. “I am a pack rat, ” he said with barely a lift of a smile. “My daughter Maud complains.” One label read: Mother & Father. Something like mute melodies sounded, ghost-songs. Time became quickly tangible and frightening, and I was pushed by a compulsion to track Mr. Thorsen back from his white-haired and bone-hardened age to some imaginable [61] (or unimaginable) babyhood begun in swaddling clothes. But my mind couldn’t hold the trail.

I could only smile weakly, when Mr. Thorsen, seeing me look at the words, said, “Yes, my father and mother.”

In such a holy of holies, Mr. Thorsen was the high priest, Ken and William and I the novitiates.

“I show you something else,” he said.

He turned in the heat, pointing a large root-like finger at the labels as he scanned them. Finding a box in the bottom of a pile, he told us to pull it out: mission. Opening it, he handed us a small smelly Bible. We couldn’t read it.

“That is printed in Samoan,” he said. “My mission was to Samoa. Look at this picture.”

He showed us six white-suited young men, standing on a beach, palm trees behind. The young men stared, stiff, composed, and steady-eyed.

“That one—” almost covering a face with his wide finger—”that one is me. You believe it?” He almost smiled, and we had to tilt the photograph to the light coming in through the Zipped-open window. “And next to me—you know who that is? Hah? That is your grandfather. You didn’t know that—hah?”

Before I had time to look at it fully, he took the photograph back.

“I tell you,” he said. “This box—you want to look sometime at the pictures, you come and look. You can see your grandfather. You come and look. You should have known your grandfather.”

After he left, Ken seemed less concerned about knowing our grandfather than about my trespassing. “Wait’ll Mom and Dad find out,” he warned.

William said, “Wow, he’s never let anybody in there before, Grampa hasn’t.”

“Just wait’ll Mom and Dad find out.”

I would have started something at another time. Who’s going to tell them? I would have said, taunting, belligerent. But I only said, “So what?” and walked off toward the orchard. For I was caught in a tangle of memories, a net of speculations. The photograph had [62] raised dream figures. Those six white-suited young men…. … They floated there of a piece. Frozen. Turning slowly in space like clay figures, all six connected. Yet after the photograph was snapped, there in Samoa half a century ago, they had moved. Had taken deep breaths, laughed, talked to each other, turned to watching natives. Had come to life.

But now my imagination hadn’t the breath of life to move them.

I walked into the orchard. The ground was wet, for Allan Wellington was irrigating. My feet squashing weeds into the mud, I tried to replace orange trees with palm trees, mud with sand. I tried to people the summer air. But I hadn’t seen the picture of my grandfather clearly. With their dark hair and dark eyes, the six all looked alike.

The mud under my feet was the texture of clay. The effort to walk in it pulled me away from Samoan skies. It tugged at my feet, tired my ankles. I turned toward the ditch to wash them and find an easier place to walk. Along the bank was a smoother path.

But at the ditch I came on Clifford Wellington again. Doing what his father had told him to do. He was trying to shut off the opening to the row of trees, the opening through which the water poured, a small torrent, from the ditch. Since the row of trees was fully irrigated, he would shut the opening and break through another one farther up the ditch. But he was having a frustrating time. His energy and anger must have kept him from hearing me. The mud stuck to the shovel. When he finally loosed one shovelful, the swift water washed it away before he could get another in and build up the dam. He was running out of dirt, and the water was not stopped.

I wanted to leave, but I was sure that if I moved he would hear me. Again I was alone with him, Clifford and his anger.

“What you want?”

His voice was low and tense. After he saw that we were alone, the brief smile came back. I was an object he could handle with ease, matter of a situation he could mould. For with me he had time to circle, as it were, to maneuver and plan, gain vantage. Not as in the fight against the endless pouring out of water.

He swung the shovel up over his shoulder. Against the sky it [63] struck a black silhouette. He stood, legs apart, wearing bulky irrigation boots, his body tilted slightly. Mean bastard, William had said. Tall and strong I could see. Also I could sense the harshness of deserts, the arrogance of mountains, hardship and victory, defeat and ignominy. Such flashes made up a photosphere about him. Protective. Like a shield.

Though I sensed the shield, however, even saw it, I saw, too, palm trees and six young men.

He rolled the shovel off his shoulder, held it swinging like a pendulum for a moment before him, then raising it quickly thrust the blade into the mud three or four inches from my toes.

Why didn’t I cower? Or yell for help? Clifford expected me to. My pulse clanged. Though afraid, I was ashamed of my cowering and yelling. Besides if Clifford really meant to get me, cowering or yelling would do no good here. Six young men in white suits with dark unblinking eyes hung somewhere above me. A memory from a time out of memory.

“If I held—” my voice quaked— “if I held that board over there for you, held it against the opening, it would cut off the water enough so you could dam it up.”

“I can do it,” he muttered.

“I can help.”

“You get wet. You have to get in the ditch.”

“So what?”

I pulled my toes away and picked up the ripped 1-x-8 I saw lying under a tree. I also had to climb in the ditch as Clifford said and get my Levis wet to my hips by the time we finished. But by the time we finished, Clifford had the mud and dirt shoveled in, the water blocked off.

“See you later,” I said and walked away, not because I was afraid now (for Clifford no longer scared me) but because it was a kind of pleasure to leave before he could thank me. Would he have done so? Maybe not. But I walked off down the ditchbank anyway, and by the time I got home I was almost dry.

When I arrived Ken seemed to have changed his mind about reporting my trespassing in Mr. Thorsen’s tent. Without giving [64] preliminary details at supper, I told Dad about the photograph.

“By golly, I’d like to see that,” he said. “Your grandfather was never much for souvenirs.”

“Mr. Thorsen said we could go in and look at the pictures in the box. He said it was okay.”

“I’ve always liked the old man. Rough old guy. Kind of mean to his kids. But tough. You be respectful when you talk to him, okay? Wouldn’t hurt to say ‘sir’ even. He comes out of another time.”

Next day, I opened the flaps of the tent and zipped open the window. The inside no longer felt ominous and secretive as it had the day before but instead mysterious—voices whispering, hands fluttering in the space about. Population of the past.

And also, as I noticed right away, population of the present.

“Hey!” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“You tell?” asked Clifford.

He stood behind a trunk. No threats of beating me up. No smiles of superior leisure. No real victories either, as I came to realize. Clifford had gone about as far in his threats as he could have without being called upon by pride to fulfill them. He did not really want to. I had hit the ground theatrically and often enough to satisfy him and shame myself. So helping him irrigate had come not as a great moment of compromise and brotherhood, not even as the only alternative of action, but simply the most reasonable and easy one. That’s why we could be so easy with each other now.

“I won’t tell,” I said. “But what are you doing here?”

“I like to come in here.”

Down on the floor I saw a pad of paper, a box of crayons. “You draw?” I asked.

Rather than answer he asked me again, “What you doing here?”

“Mr. Thorsen said I could. But really—do you draw? Can I see?” He hesitated. So I said, “C’mon. You show me what you have, and I’ll show you what Mr. Thorsen showed us yesterday.”

It was only a I5-cent pad of paper he held out. He used only a box of eight crayons. But opening the tablet disclosed vistas. Even in the subdued light of the tent, I found a free and bristling world in those colors. My appreciative faculties were no stronger [65] than anyone else’s. Yet the designs, the drawings, even the scribblings, pulled a person away, off into a world of wide skies and hot mesas.

My first comment: “Wow!”

The pages gave off drumbeats.

“You really do these? Really, Clifford? Wow!”

He took the pad from me and tossed it on the floor.

“Hey, don’t throw it like that!”

“What Mr. Thorsen show you? You tell me now.”

How could I expect six white-suited young men to speak to him as they had to me? I don’t believe they did. He glanced briefly and handed the photograph back.

“There’s supposed to be more in here,” I said.

I found two other pictures of a South Sea island—Samoa, it must have been. Looking closely I found my grandfather. In one, two men sat in an open hut apparently at a meal. In the other, the six stood beside a sailing ship cast up on a beach. Behind were uprooted palm trees, the aftermath, it would seem, of a great storm.

“My grandfather,” I said to Clifford.

“My grandfather dying.”

I stammered at that. “Well—well, mine’s dead already. Long time ago. Before I was born.”

“He’s sick now. Dying.”

I tried to explain about my grandfather and Mr. Thorsen, about Samoa. But Clifford turned to leave.

“Is he in the hospital? Your grandfather?”

“At home.”

As I watched Clifford walk up the driveway past Mr. Thorsen’s chicken pen and Mr. Thorsen’s house, I was still unable to tell anything about him. His walk was as smooth as ever. I knew quite well the adobe house on the reservation, the ground barren of grass or weeds around it, standing in the sun, baked through many summers. The Indian horses ran free. Two or three dogs lay in the shade of a single cottonwood. The barren river lay beyond.

Was Clifford’s grandfather dying there?

[66] I slipped the two photographs, the meal in the hut and the ship on the beach, back into the box. Outside I saw Mr. Thorsen, leaning on his cane, coming out of the barn.

Courageously—I felt—I asked him about Clifford’s grandfather.

He grunted, answered in his clumsy tongue. “He’s old. We all get old, boy, don’t you know that—hah? He’s an old buck, but life’s gone out of him. He keeps his hair long—nobody could ever get him to cut it—and eats the Indian foods. How do mesquite beans sound to you—hah? Or sprouts of a cholla? But the old man—he’s almost gone.”

He died within a few days. It was September, the first week of school. Clifford, to my surprise, though bigger and older, was in my class. He sat behind me, and I felt proud to sit there without fear, for whispers still went about among my schoolmates that he was a mean Indian.

Then not more than three or four days after school had started, Mom and Dad were sitting on the lawn after sundown. Maud Conner had stopped by with William, and we made a small group—the grown-ups in cast-off wicker furniture, Ken and I with William and my sisters sprawled on the grass—waiting for the day’s heat to cool. The cows were milked, supper dishes done. Bullfrog time as darkness thickened.

Ken was the first to see the red glow in the sky, exclaiming, “What’s that?”

Maud Conner, William’s mother, who was both talkative and profane, said, “Something’s burning like hell.”

We all moved to the front of the yard by the ditch and looked off toward a perceptible horizon marked by mountains and stars. In the earth’s darkness was the red glow with perhaps a suggestion of jumping flames.

Dad asked, “Shall we go see?”

In the car we saw first that the fire was on the reservation. Then as we came nearer, Maud, who along with her father knew all the Indians, said, “That’s old man Wellington’s house.”

I stared. The small house was covered with flames. Sparks flew off into the sky, absorbed by the night. The polished dirt around [67] the house was shining, as though it reflected like a sea the fire’s glow. Heat reached us where we sat in the car on the road. What made it burn so fiercely?

“I’ll be damned,” said Maud softly.

In the yard, safely distanced from the house, sat a group of people on benches. Motionless they faced the burning house, silhouettes against the tonguing flames. Women, children, menfigures of clay. They sat watching, either not hearing or not heeding the sound of our car.

As we eased away, Maud said, “I didn’t know they ever did that.”

“You mean they set it afire?” asked Mom.

Maud said that was right. “I can’t remember ever seeing that before. It must be the old people that wanted it.”

“But what does the wife do—if they burn the house?”

“It must be the old people, holding to the old ways. I’d bet you Allan Wellington didn’t want it that way, but if his mother did—she’s old and set in her ways, that old lady is. And she’s got a couple of brothers … It’s the old people, I bet.”

Could I ask Clifford about it? I wondered. So much of the situation puzzled me. He might explain. But I felt it would be a breach of our friendship to question him.

As I lay in bed on the screenporch, I wondered if Clifford had been one of the dark figures watching the fire so quietly. I’d swear he was. Could he keep that experience out of his face and walk, hide it as he did almost everything else? I didn’t know.

And I didn’t have a chance to find out. Clifford did not return to school. Word came that he was going to an Indian school. Occasionally I saw him after that, but only at widely spaced intervals—in the summer riding a horse with another Indian boy or two, perhaps once during the school year. He looked across me if we met, as though the memory of our acquaintance, of my fear of him and my weak offer of help in Mr. Thorsen’s orchard, were, like the experience of the fire, buried far and deep within him.

There was one more fire that I should mention that was more of a loss to me. Mr. Thorsen’s tent burned down shortly after Thanksgiving. During a storm, the electricity had gone off, and [68] unknown to Maud the old man took one of the kerosene lanterns out through the rain to the tent. Inside he fell and was barely able to get himself out without burning to death. The wind through the door and partly opened window fanned the flames, protected at the beginning from the rain. The blaze became so strong, got such a start, that it took the whole canvas tent in spite of the storm that had begun to abate. All the boxes were destroyed. A few items were saved in the charred trunks. The pictures, of course, of the young men in Samoa were only ashes.

 

Memories can make bleak memorials, but pleasanter all the same than more tangible monuments. I can go back today if I wish and look at the farm as it stands on McKennow Road. We had moved there to an area new to us, a stubborn one made less so by our work, tromping through mud with shovel over the shoulder, searching through the bottom field at sunrise and earlier for cows. But the people—they’re a different matter. You can’t look into them. Mr. Thorsen’s boyhood is beyond my sight. What Clifford suggested I can’t look at, for he pointed to more distant territories, frontiers lying beyond our own time and space. Distant as Samoa, burned in the fire.

It is said that the Pimas have a word, Huhugam, meaning “Those who are gone.” It is sometimes written Ho-ho-kam and is the Pima name for those people who came into our desert country thousands ofyears ago. No one knows where they came from or what became of them (Webb, A Pima Remembers, 1959, p. 53). So with the mind’s desert.

I could find out what became of Clifford, of course, but sometimes it’s best not to know. I prefer to leave him walking away up Mr. Thorsen’s driveway with his violent and hidden grace, part of the desert country, the Ho-ho-kam.

 

The plane for Richmond was late. The earlier flight, so late as to overlap my own later one, had just left. But I had been unable to get on. I had been turned away at the gate with the blonde traveling saleswoman sitting beside me. Or rather she had [69] been turned away, having pushed ahead as I came up a minute behind her to hear her, with quiet aggressiveness, ask for a seat. We were both turned away.

“I’ve found out,” she said, “that you’ve got to make a fuss or you don’t get anything. You’ve got to stand up for yourself. But if the flight’s full—” a quick shrug and a friendly smile—”the flight’s full. That’s all.”

So we had come back and found empty seats to sit together in and look out the window from, absorbing the musty smell of wrappers and butts and bodies in the air terminal. To sit and wait.

“Are we going to Richmond for the same reason?” she asked.

I said I thought not. Explained that I was just finishing law school and was going to interview with a Richmond firm. Added that it was my first trip South. Added—for conversation’s sake and out of my own feelings of exhilaration—that my wife was in an Ann Arbor hospital with our first child, a daughter born two days before, so it was an uncommon time for us.

“That’s lovely,” she said.

She spoke quietly. She was a small woman with, I conjectured, a large energy. For a company in a small Massachusetts town she sold spiral notebooks of varying sizes to college bookstores about the country, the college’s name and insignia stamped on the covers. She was going to Richmond for a convention, she said. And then—”Your wife and baby are fine?” she asked.

“Oh yes.”

“It’s an exciting time with a new baby. I remember when I brought my little boy home. My husband was in South Carolina—it was during the war. He was such a big baby.”

“Well, I’ve barely seen our baby. It kind of worries me. You know—how do you hold them, what do you do with them, things like that.”

“Oh, you learn. It’s wonderful fun.”

I had the impression that she laughed infrequently, that her main response was her smile, a quiet but warm acceptance, the smile of one who had absorbed pleasures and experience, made a warm repository of them, a sustaining gospel of memories, private and [70] confidential. She could draw on these without desperation.

“You’re lucky you were with your wife while she was in labor. You were there?” she said.

I nodded.

“My husband was away both times—when my little boy was born and when my little girl was born too. He was in Normandy then. I drove myself to the hospital both times.”

She didn’t speak with any self-pity that I could detect. Time had made the disappointment up to her. We talked about my trip and her business. She always liked to have plenty of time at the airport, she said. Not her boss. He was one of those who preferred to leap from the car and run for the ramp just as it was being wheeled from the plane. Her nerves couldn’t tolerate that, she said. “I like to take it easy.”

The big sky—storming eagles we saw through the window, the lights beyond, the darkness covering it all—these made up the scene before us. An Army Spec-3 with tired wife and half-awake children wandered by, baby-bag and baby in arms. One terminal was much like another. Willow Run like Washington International. No indication of the particular city from where we sat except for the distant glow.

Our talk lapsed. She smiled sympathetically at the Spec-3’s wife with the two children, a boy and a girl, in tow.

“They can sure be a handful,” she said.

The darkness held us in, made a kind of sanctuary perhaps, for it was a bitterly cold night out of doors, the harshness of the weather lending a privacy to our ménage à deux even among the milling travelers. We all of us, strangers and friends, made a glistening and noisy configuration. The saleswoman I spoke with had opened to me a bit of her life. I had offered her a part of mine. She peopled our talk with the figures of her boss, her children, all a part of her, as my wife and new child and, going back, those figures on McKennow Road were a part of me. Mr. Thorsen. William. Clifford.

To bring them into focus, to make stronger the moment we shared then, I asked further about her children. For it is easier to [71] ask about others than to tell about one’s self. The risk of boring is less great.

I said, “Your children must be pretty much self-sufficient by now.”

Her answering smile shocked me, a gaunt movement on features suddenly dead, like water fading in a desert. I had seen no smile like it, part resignation, part sorrow—a mask for emptiness. “Both my children,” she said, “died when they were very young.” I don’t know what my face showed. I felt like cowering. “Usually I can mention it,” she went on after a moment, “without it hitting back at me this way.” I looked away, then back. Her briefcase lay in her lap, her hands clasped on it loosely. What had seemed so vital in her was gone. Acceptance was there—the fact was old, from another time, but it lay exposed, rooted up. She spoke then, as though, exposed, it might best be described. I was too dumb to speak, so her comments covered the silence between us like a few stray leaves the ground, the silence beneath the hubbub of the air terminal.

“You expect your parents to die before you,” she said, “that’s the way of life. But you never think your children will. It’s the end … the end of the world really. You can have a career. You can work night and day. But no matter how busy you are, nothing makes up for it.”

What could I say? I felt as I had, looking up at the threat of Clifford Wellington many summers ago.

“My little girl died of leukemia when she was two and a half. She was brilliant. At two and a half, she told the doctor that she was four, and he believed her. He never knew the difference. My little boy died when he was four. He had a heart condition.”

A plane was called. The Spec-3 and his wife gathered together sleepy children and their clutter of belongings and rushed off for the loading gate. The mother kept hurrying the children, who were sleepy and balky.

“My only consolation is that I did everything I could. It wasn’t my fault. If they’d smothered or something like that—those things happen, you know—I’d never have been able to live with myself. [72] But you’re right. Had they lived they’d be twenty-three and twenty-four now. Quite self-sufficient.”

I wondered about her husband because she said, “I have no family.” Was he dead? Killed in the war? Divorced? I felt presumptuous for wondering.

“You spend twenty-five years trying to forget. You work. You engage yourself. You try to forget. And then something like this …”

”I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have known.”

When at last the call for Richmond came, we were sitting silently. My embarrassment kept me dumb. Her children as she had described them had seemed so alive. That they were not …

On the plane, she stood waiting with a kind of compassion and forgiveness, I suspect, for me to sit beside her. We fastened our seat belts, and as the plane banked and we saw the dazzling lights below, rising out of the darkness, she said, “Washington’s a beautiful city, isn’t it.”

The monuments rose, illuminated. Memorial flames. The landscape’s decoration flowered out of the dark below, a wrenching, as it were, to the memory. So many monuments burning out of that desert-darkness, all aflame for the people not there. Forgotten often, achingly remembered—a clumsy voice, a smooth walk.

My companion rested her head against the back of the seat, looking out the window until the many lights were gone. Then she turned forward, eyes closed, half smile on her face. Had the hurt receded for a while?

The plane flew on low in the sky towards Richmond. The darkness outside grew deeper and, as it grew deeper, seemed to take on more density, to become populated vastly with shadows. Not forgotten, I don’t believe. None of them forgotten. That was the pain of it. Only waiting—like angels—their call.