This is part III of the short story based on an excerpt from The Runners, my first novel published in Romania in 1994. Parts I and II were posted in the previous 2 weeks. I begin with the last several sentences from the previous installment (in italics).
Ronny did know. He packed a suitcase and took a cab to the airport to catch the eight o’clock flight to Baltimore. On Friday, he sent Barbara a telegram: “Down payment for Severna Park house, half acre, woods, garden, nice lawn. Four bedrooms upstairs. Dining room, living room, library downstairs. Two-car garage. River visible from second floor and deck. Arrive back tomorrow. Love. Ronny.”
The Copes traveled from Chicago to Severna Park by truck, to which they had attached a trailer. Both had been rented from U-Haul. Ronny’s new company footed the bill. They also paid for a team of professional movers, who packed everything in the old house, carried out the furniture and loaded the truck and the trailer parked in the alley. A second team was waiting to unload their belongings at their destination. The journey began on Thomas’s birthday. When they parted, Pani shed a tear, kissed Thomas on both cheeks and gave him a stuffed rabbit. It was white, with pink ears and red, round eyes. Thomas’ friends stood in the alley, waving good-bye.
Thomas and his parents spent the first night at a hotel by the highway. After dinner, Ronald ordered a chocolate cake to celebrate Thomas’ birthday. Next to a few muffins and éclairs the cake had been waiting for several days to be sold in a glass-covered, refrigerated case at the entrance to the restaurant. A nominal amount of chemicals ensured its lasting freshness. The waiter placed a candle in the center of the icing, elegantly modeled after a rose. The restaurant was full of truck drivers and a group of senior citizens traveling by bus to the Great Lakes. The waiter, the receptionist and the kitchen staff gathered around the table and sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ The drivers and the senior citizens applauded. Briefly, Barbara had the illusion of being surrounded by family. Ronald smiled broadly. Thomas was turning nine years old. He pressed the rabbit close to his chest and thought of Grandmother.
For the next few weeks, the Severna Park house was filled with carpenters and painters hired by Ronald’s new company to do the remodeling. Then came the interior decorator. Barbara replaced the carpeting, first in the bedrooms and the living room and then in the hallways and the stairs. She reviewed fabric samples for her couches and curtains, taking into account the outdoor view of the century-old trees and the river. To give the walls a natural appearance, Barbara, under the guidance of the decorator, chose an off-white wallpaper, discreetly crisscrossed with a silver silk thread. She became so engrossed in refurbishing the house, that she lost her reticence of her new surroundings. Ronny felt as proud as could be. His dream was taking shape right under his eyes, the all-American dream.
The house sat on a quiet street, parallel with the river. It had four double windows upstairs, three across the width of the house and one on the short side overlooking the garden. Thomas’ room was the closest to the river. His parents’ bedroom was situated on the opposite side, overlooking the street. In between were Ronald’s study and the guest room. The house next door belonged to the Roses, who introduced themselves on the first Sunday after the Copes’ arrival. From their deck, Thomas could see the forest along the river and the windows of the Roses’ kitchen. On the opposite side of the street was a large, vacant field overgrown with weeds. A pool of water surrounded by a chain-link fence reflected the sky. The water was brown and the fence was broken. “A lake!” Barbara exclaimed, seeing it for the first time. The interior decorator told her it was a run-off pond for rainwater. The vacant lot was destined for new houses. Beyond it was a cluster of trees and the town’s main thoroughfare. Unlike their house in Chicago, the neighborhood was rather quiet and their street deserted. Well-groomed lawns extended to the curb. Looking out the window at the sky and the trees, without a single friend nearby, Thomas felt an acute loneliness. “Mother!” he called, but his mother was downstairs talking to the interior decorator. Thomas wiped his nose on his sleeve.
The next morning, when he opened his eyes, he saw a few sunrays dancing around Pani’s rabbit which was sitting on the windowsill and casting an unusual shadow on the wall. Thomas toyed for a while with the shadow and then, sensing its fleeting nature, he picked up a pencil and drew its outline on the wall.
“What’s come over you?” screamed his father a few minutes later, exasperated by the effect of the lines drawn on the silk-threaded wallpaper. “Tell me, what’s come over you? You know how much work we’ve put into this house!”
In her pink dressing gown, a cigarette in her hand, his mother wasn’t sure if to laugh or to cry.
His eyes glittering with tears, Thomas turned to his father, put a hand into his pajama trousers and began scratching.
“Take your hand out!” ordered his father.
Thomas did not move. His cheeks, peachy in the morning sunlight, expanded into a smile, both fearful and defiant. Had Pani been present, she would have hugged him and told him that he looked like a muffin.
Barbara longed to hold him in her arms and kiss him. She saw that the doodles on the wall looked like the outline of a little rabbit. “I wonder how I could clean this up,” she said, drawing near. She put out her hand and touched the pencil traces with her fingertips. Cigarette ashes fell on the bed sheet.
“You’ll set the house on fire!” shouted Ronny. He looked at his watch, shrugged in exasperation, and hurried to work.
Barbara spent all morning playing with Thomas. At noon she called Pani. “He’s having a hard time. I think he has some anxiety,” she complained. “He drew the little rabbit you gave him for his birthday on the wall”
That afternoon, Barbara went shopping and left Thomas alone with the workers. The boy sneaked out, crossed the street, and walked to the run-off pond. Its edges were bordered by a red crust of cracked soil and, under the clear sky, the water was like a sheet of glass. Hundreds of tadpoles swam on the surface. Crouching, Thomas watched their rapid, primitive moves and an idea came to his mind.
When Barbara returned, she found Thomas’ room deserted.
“He went outside,” the workers told her.
Alarmed, she rushed through the yard, walked into the street, looked right and left, and searched the vacant lot across the street and the pond. Mrs. Rose had not seen Thomas either, and the two women started looking for the boy together.
The workers in Barbara’s house came out to help and walking along the main road they discovered Thomas by a cluster of trees, seated on a folding chair, facing the highway. Next to him, on a stake thrust in the ground, he had placed a sign which read in big letters, “Guppies for sale, five cents a pair.” He was holding a bowl and a ladle. The bowl was full with murky water and tadpoles.
Barbara gave a shout and began to cry. Thomas’ action was undisputable proof of his loneliness. His world, thought Barbara, was fractured. She returned to the house and phoned Pani begging her to drop everything and come right away. Then she asked the workers to pack up their things. “A family matter,” she uttered.
The carpeting at the top of the stairs was left unfinished.
From his folding chair, Thomas waved the workers good-bye.
That evening, Pani left Chicago by bus and arrived in Cleveland early the next morning. Her tired heart throbbed with forebodings of hard times to come. Pani’s arteries were clogged with cholesterol and her vertebrae screamed with the weight of her bosom. When she breathed, the air was laboriously expelled through her open mouth. Her teeth were yellow from smoking. Her feet swelled. Around her neck, she wore a double golden chain with a porcelain miniature of Virgin Mary. She exuded warmth and commanded attention.
While passing by Toledo at three in the morning, she thought of Eleanor, her daughter who lived in Ann Arbor, only 48-miles away. The clouded sky seemed ready to explode. In Cleveland, she caught the bus that skirted Lake Erie and went to Ashtabula. Her fifth daughter, Elizabeth, welcomed her at the terminal, and they had an early lunch at a picturesque restaurant on the shore of the lake. Travelling toward Pittsburgh, Pani read A Farwell to Armsand broke down in tears. In Pittsburgh, she met her younger brother and together they paid a visit to the graves of their parents, buried side by side. In a silver frame on her father’s tombstone, was a black and white photo. Father had a narrow face, piercing eyes and a thick moustache. Standing straight with his hand on the back of a chair, he looked like a hussar. Behind the trees, the sun set in a haze. Suddenly, Pani felt the smell of a steam engine. That same evening, she got on the bus to Baltimore, where she arrived shortly after midnight.
When Ronny told him in the morning that Pani had arrived, Thomas shouted with joy, dashed to her bed and throwing his arms around her, plunged into the warm depths of her abundant, grandmotherly body.
The coffin was laid on a catafalque facing the altar. Dressed in dark pants and a white, starched shirt, Thomas waited quietly next to Ronald and Aunt Eleanor, who had arrived from Ann Arbor the previous evening. The other sisters and their families, as well as Grandmother’s brothers, were expected that morning. Barbara welcomed them on the marble steps in front of the church.
Pani’s brothers had suggested the funeral take place in Pittsburgh. Barbara wouldn’t hear anything of the kind. Pani was her mother, she sobbed into the phone, and Pani had died in her house, not in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. The last thing Pani would have wanted was to be flown in the belly of a cargo plane. If there were afterlife, she would be together with her folks no matter where she was buried.
“Would she be with Grandfather, too?” Thomas wondered, worried that the distance to Palermo was bigger than between Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
In the months Grandmother had spent with them in Maryland, she had told him about the Grandfather’s fearless deeds during World War II. Thomas thought of heroes and battlefields. Lying in state, surrounded by roses, lilies and chrysanthemums, Pani’s body seemed of normal dimensions. With the exception of Barbara and Ronny, nobody knew about her oversized coffin.
The priest asked Ronny to his office in order to settle some last minute matters. Thomas accompanied his father. On a wall in the priest’s office, he saw a crucifix and a painting of the Last Supper. Books, files, candlesticks, and a calendar with religious motifs cluttered the desk. It was November 18, 1957.
Had he lived, in exactly one month, Archduke Franz Ferdinand would have turned one hundred.
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