The distance between the house and the cliff isn’t long, nor is it short. The distance is the distance. Years ago flowers bloomed here in ever increasing numbers, filling the landscape. Their lithe youthful necks stretched upwards basking in the warmth of the sun’s rays. But no more. Time’s passage stole the flowers beauty and they began a slow, steady decline.
Today, weeds and thick brambles have overrun and choked out the once flourishing flowers. The ground is no longer fertile. It’s dry and cracked. Restoration to what once was will never occur. This land has become like an island. A place where storms now arrive unannounced with greater and greater frequency and unpredictability.
In the house, is a woman named Helen. Today, like most days, she sits in a bentwood rocking chair, blankly gazing out the window through the finger oil smeared lenses of her glasses. Looping around the back of her neck is a black cord, its ends encircling the temple tips of her glasses. The cord keeps the glasses tethered to her, keeping them from becoming lost. A map of veins covers Helen’s small brown hands. They rest on top a photo in the wedding album that lies open on the afghan draped across her lap. Beside her, on an end table, is a pad of paper and a pen. Her name and the numbers 1 9 2 5 are written on the paper countless numbers of times.
The house she is sitting in is not the original house that stood here. That one was comprised of three small rooms and a half bathroom. Like its predecessor, this much larger and expansive house is Helen’s. She’s lived here a long time. But now the house seems foreign and imprisoning. Though the feeling of entrapment sometimes fades, it never goes completely away. It’s as if Helen and the rocking chair are being pulled downward into the earth.
“You need to turn that TV down, Helen. Grace’s asleep.”
“Sorry, Momma,” replied Helen, lowering the volume on the television.
“California’s hours behind us anyways. You ain’t gonna know nothing for awhile.”
“You sure Grace’s asleep?” asked Helen, sitting down on the sofa and using each foot to slide off the others shoe.
“Yes. And you let her be, poor thing,” said Momma, turning over the man’s shirt on the ironing board and pressing its back.
“When are Ed and Daddy getting home?”
Momma shrugged. “Y’know, I voted for Jack Kennedy.”
“Don’t you be rolling them eyes at me, girl,” said Momma. “Only time I ever voted. He was a good man and cared about us Negroes. And you know what they did to him.”
“Yes, Momma. I know.”
“Well, I’m just saying. First, they killed those four little girls at that church. Then Kennedy. Then poor Martin.” She shook her head as she put the finishing touches on the shirt and hung it on a wire hangar. “Left Jackie and Coretta with fatherless small children. I tell you, bad things happen in threes.”
“Momma, please. Can I just listen.”
“TV’s for watching. Radio’s for listening,” said Momma, adjusting her housecoat before sitting down in her bentwood rocking chair and starting to rock.
“Well, I’m watching and listening,” said Helen.
“Fine then, Miss Smarty Pants.”
Helen got up. “I’m sorry,” she said. She walked over, knelt down in front of her mother, and lay her hands and head in her mother’s lap. “I’m just exhausted.”
“I know, Honey,” said her mother, the chair stilled as she gently pats Helen’s hair. “You and Ed both working all day and then going out there working on that house. Just don’t forget to make time for your daughter,” she said, nodding toward the closed bedroom door.
Helen arose, went back to the sofa and stretched out, placing an arm beneath her head. The sound of the rocking chair’s motion soothes and comforts her.
“You go on and take a nap. I know you’re tired. I’ll wake you when Ed gets home.”
“Yes. And if the results from California come in before then.”
Helen thought she heard someone calling her name from a far distance. As if struck with an electric shock, her eyes snapped open and she bolted upright. “Did he win?”
“Honey, I’m so sorry,” said Momma, tears running down her face. “They killed him. Robert Kennedy is dead.”
Going over the cliff, the descent is steep. It’s a journey through an ever expanding wasteland. Through the years, erosion has wiped out everything but a few sharply sheared bushes and scattered tufts of yellow grass. At the base of the cliff is sand. It bears no footprints. And beyond that, the ocean stretching on into eternity.
As the sun recedes from the day signaling its end, a priestly darkness replaces it throughout the sky. It drags along the wind and within it what sounds to Helen like a thousand voices speaking.
The Sunday matinee double feature is “Life Begins for Andy Hardy” and “Citizen Kane.” Helen and her best friend, Carol, are standing arm in arm outside the movie theater. People in line along with them to buy tickets stare at the girls, their eyes narrowed, their lips a tight line. The teenage girls one black, one white, mirror each other in muscle, bone, and blood flowing through their bodies. But the other moviegoers only see an abomination. Due to her lifelong conditioning, Helen notices the disapproving expressions while Carol remains oblivious.
As the girls reach into the box of buttered popcorn on the armrest between them, their hands touch, and the movie screen goes blank. The lights in the theater snap on, momentarily blinding the audience. But before whistles and catcalls can begin an announcement starts.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor. All military personnel, whites and negroes, are to report to their individual units.”
The theater fills with the sounds of chair seats flipping up and slamming against seat backs. People turn to each other asking “what is Pearl Harbor” as men in uniforms kiss girlfriends and wives before making their way out of the theater.
Rain has joined with the wind, producing a storm. Helen shuts her eyes and puts her hands over her ears, trying to block out all stimuli. Though her eyes are shut and her ears covered, the world has fallen out of focus and her head is filled with a sound of millions of ball peen hammers clattering against steel.
It’s July. The window is open on this Sunday night, but it’s still unbearably hot in the third floor apartment. The flickering gray and black images on the Zenith’s screen create a strobe effect, intermittently freezing the expressions on Helen’s and Ed’s faces.
“Do you think it’ll be much longer?” asks Helen, shifting on the couch and loosening the belt of her lightweight pink bathrobe.
“I hope not,” says Ed, rubbing his face with his hands. “That module thingy looks like some kind of squatting mechanical insect,” he says, pointing at the TV.
“Now you’re being silly,” replies Helen.
Ed, wearing only a sweat stained yellow t-shirt and jockey shorts, smiles. “We should wake up Grace so she doesn’t miss this.”
“Don’t you dare, Ed Barry.”
“Only kidding,” he says, laughing. He wraps an arm around Helen’s shoulders. “You think Momma’s watching?”
“No. She says if God wanted man on the moon he’d have put him there.”
“And I bet if God wanted man to fly, he’d have given him wings.” Ed chuckles.
“Don’t you be making fun of my Momma… You’re too hot,” she says, sliding out from under his arm. “Do you think they’ll ever send one of us to the moon?”
“Nah. Dick Gregory says they’re saving us for that first one way trip to the sun… Whoa… Something’s happening.”
Ed leans forward. More than 200,000 miles from earth, the module’s hatch has opened. A grainy, jerky image of a Pillsbury Dough Boy suited astronaut descending a skeletal ladder can be seen. As the astronaut’s foot touches down on the moon’s surface there’s a puff of dust. Helen and Ed stare at the TV as they hear a robotic voice, periodically drowned out by beeps, say, “that’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
“They did it!” says Ed hugging Helen. “What’s Momma gonna say to that?”
“She’s gonna say it never happened.” Then, in her best imitation of Momma’s voice, Helen says, “anyone with common sense could tell they’re in some Hollywood studio.”
They both burst out laughing.
Firmly in the storm’s grasp, Helen’s fingers dig into the arms of the rocker she’s sitting in. Trying to anchor herself in place is hopeless. To feel oneself careening out of control is terrifying.
A fragile cup and saucer rest on the kitchen counter. Their rose pattern is now old and faded. Helen pours the steeped tea into the cup and takes a moment to savor its blissful aroma.
She switches on the radio and the sound of music fills a part of the space occupied by loneliness. Ed has been dead for many years. Grace lives in New York City and like a typical single young person focused on her future, rarely contacts her mother. Helen takes a sip of tea, walks over to the bentwood rocking chair, and sits down. On this early September morning, the field of flowers is beautiful and serene. As she continues gazing out the window, Helen rocks, the familiar sound and rhythm of her mother’s chair reassuring and calming.
As the soothing warmth of the tea spreads throughout her body, the music abruptly stops. A commercial airliner has struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Helen rushes to the television and turns it on. A gaping hole marks the spot where the building’s steel girders have ripped apart. Flames and a mountain of smoke are pouring over the bent and dangling twisted steel.
As Helen stumbles backward, away from the flames and smoke, another airplane appears. Moving left to right across the TV screen, it smashes into the corner of another tower. An orange-red fireball explodes outward and building debris rains down onto the sidewalk below. Sackcloth ash covered figures dash about to the wails and screams of emergency vehicles.
Washington, D.C. An airliner has slammed into a side of the Pentagon. Flames roar from windows and up the side of the building skyward. Firefighters armed with hoses battle the beastly inferno.
A field. In Pennsylvania. A burnt black smoldering hole where an airplane plunged from the sky nose-first into the ground with earthquake force.
The New York City towers. Silhouetted against a smoke-filled sky odd shaped figures fall from the torn open buildings. People trapped plummeting or choosing to leap eighty or more stories to their deaths.
An ominous roar. One tower’s broken body crumbles. At ground level, a cataclysmic acrid cloud shreds everything in its path with the force of a hurricane. The other tower’s needle quivers, shudders, then plummets straight down. On impact, massive chunks of the shattered building explode with the concussive force of a megaton bomb. The world is inverting. It’s unnatural. What was up is down. Down is up.
Helen grabs the telephone and frantically dials New York City.
In the darkened room of the house, a hand reaches out and touches Helen on the shoulder. Her eyes, empty of all recognition regard the pregnant woman standing there.
“Mom,” says Grace. “We’ve lost the electricity. You may as well go to bed.”
“Yes. I think you should go to bed. We’ve lost the electricity,” repeats Grace. She runs a hand over her extended belly seeking to comfort the restless child within her.
“OK, dear,” says Helen, smiling, while continuing to rock in her chair. “Is Ed home yet? He’ll know what to do.”
Grace sighs. “Mom, dad died years ago. You remember.” She lifts the photo album, places it on the end table, and sets the afghan on the floor beside the rocking chair.
“Oh, yes…. That’s right.”
Grace leans forward, wraps her arms around her mother’s upper torso and lifts her to a standing position. Past, present, and future meld in an embrace. The now empty chair continues rocking as Grace steps to Helen’s side and takes Helen’s left arm in hers, cradling it.
“Thank you, dear,” says Helen patting Grace’s hand and smiling pleasantly. She shuffles forward a few steps, then stops.
“I’m sorry, dear,” says Helen, turning to face Grace. “I seem to have forgotten your name.”
“I’m Grace. Your daughter, Grace.”
“Yes. That’s right. You’re Grace,” says Helen, touching her daughter’s face.
The sound of the empty rocking chair calls to Grace. The once tightly interwoven strips of its cane seat now sag, having frayed at their edges and separated from the chair’s frame.
“Do you need anything? Is there anything I can do for you, mom?”
“Thank you, but no,” answers Helen, continuing her journey into darkness.
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