“Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see thee . . .”
She was so focused on her reading that the phone’s ringtone made her jump.
The bottle of water somersaulted off the lectern and, in her haste to catch it, she inadvertently closed the book.
She quickly picked up her cell phone and muted the ringer. She glanced at the name; her second son, she’d call him later.
Placing the phone back on the lectern she leaned into the microphone and said, “Apparently not everyone was paying attention to Dr. Casement’s admonition to turn off their phones. Sorry.”
The audience cooed and laughed softly.
She adjusted her reading glasses and said, “Where had I left off?”
One of the women in the front row said, “Calla Lily was going back to the hospital, second paragraph, page 245.”
She was tempted to make a joke about the charms of aging but thought better of it, these people would find out soon enough. If they were lucky.
She paused, then settled back into her reading.
She’d read these words out loud hundreds of times but never found them to be stale or repetitive, each group she spoke to brought its own energy and made the readings different and enjoyable.
But still, even after years of doing this, she never knew how this last chapter would affect her. She had the Kleenex ready, just in case.
The tears welled in her eyes and she readied the tissue in her left hand.
Another ten minutes later she read, “As much as I don’t want to admit it, I know there’s gonna be another fifty years of Calla Lilys.”
She had them. There was silence, then she closed with the Vonnegut line, “Thank you very much for your sweetly feigned attention.”
Another pause, then the explosion of applause. People rose smiling and clapping.
She dabbed at her eyes and waved.
Dr. Casement hugged her and, speaking into the mike, said, “Thank you so much for that, Dr. Miller, we are so honored to have you back in what we like to consider your second home town.”
They hugged again.
Dr. Casement said, “We’re terribly sorry but Dr. Miller has to leave immediately and we won’t have time for questions.”
There was a moan, and the author leaned back into the mike, “Yes, I’m going home to Gary and I really don’t like driving at night.”
She’d signed books for two hours beforehand in case the speech ran over, which it always did.
She smiled to herself. Once she’d collected her notes, her glasses and her book and turned away from the lectern there was the inevitable, almost instinctive rush of people coming at her with extended, helpful hands and the just as quick realization that this was, as her great-grand daughter, Abyaan, would said, “A big no-no.”
She’d figured out years ago that this desire on people’s part to help wasn’t due to either her age or to the fact that she was a woman, it was because she was an author.
Several years ago, at Book Fest in D.C., she had spoken with a burly, unusually handsome, unusually intelligent highly sophisticated author from Gary who had worked in the steel mills for thirteen years before he’d started writing. He told her the same thing always happened to him, that the tiniest librarians and teachers would rush to open doors for him or emphatically refuse to allow him to carry books, boxes or even his own briefcase from their cars.
She was taken out of the back door where her car waited.
She started it and punched “Home” on the GPS.
The strange, disembodied voice said, “Route guidance has been set. Please proceed to the highlighted area.”
She waited for the notification that the Bluetooth had connected.
She said, “Call James,” and pulled onto Kearsley Street.
The voice said, “In two blocks make a left hand turn onto Saginaw Street.”
Right after she made the turn James’s booming voice filled the car’s speakers.
“Hey, Mom, I just called, are you home?”
“No, sweetheart, didn’t I tell you, I’m at the U of M in Flint, I’m just heading back to Gary.”
She knew him so well, she could hear him fighting not to say “Mom, you know I’d’ve driven you,” instead, he managed, “Wow. That’s almost four hours.”
Just as she had a reputation on the speaking circuit that she wouldn’t tolerate unnecessary help, her children knew better than commenting on the when, how, why or where of any of her trips.
She said, “Yes, four hours, but only if you do the speed limit.”
“In two hundred yards make a right turn onto I-69.”
James said, “So how’d the talk go?”
The GPS warned, “Recalculating! In two blocks, make a legal U-turn and proceed back to the entrance to I-69.”
James said, “OK, Mom, I see you’re not paying attention, I’m’a let you go.”
“No, James, I’m fine, how’re the kids?”
He said, “They’re great, Mom, but seriously, I’m hanging up, we’ve talked about this.”
“About the shrinking process. I told you about how as you get older your brain shrinks and, just like an onion, a lot of skills and memories that you used to have are peeled away.”
She said, “Oh, really?”
“It’s a scientific fact, Mom, the things that occurred most recently are on the outside of the brain so as it shrinks they’re the first to go. That’s why things that happened yesterday are hard for you to recall but things in the past seem like they happened yesterday.”
He said, “And at nearly ninety years old, Momma, I’d imagine you’re having really clear memories of the early 1950s about now.”
She laughed again. James was sixty years old and still relished in his ability to drive his siblings insane. She was the only one who got him. He had inherited the same sense of humor as her brother. Each of them could say the most offensive things in such a way that, unless you took them, or yourself, too seriously, left you no choice but to laugh.
She said, “Just a second, sweetheart, I’m pulling into a tunnel, if the call gets dropped I’ll call you right back.”
He laughed, “Uh, Momma, there are no tunnels between . . .”
She hung the phone up.
The GPS voice finally put her on I-94 West and she set the cruise control.
She was still smiling ten miles later.
James was right, past events were becoming much clearer. She’d never give him the satisfaction of knowing that though. Besides, he was way off on the years to which the onion-brain-shrinking process was recently taking her.
© 2012, NOBODY BUT CURTIS