It was the clink of the door's closing that woke me that early school day morning, one of the double doors to the outside. The brass bar lifted and returned; the door latch was disturbed and found home again. In the silence of the near-dawn hour, the sound echoed through the high-ceilinged chamber of that older building, bouncing off polished surfaces: the marble floor, the wood paneling, windows, throughout the sparsely appointed lobby, until it reached my slumbering ears.
I was sprawled on the solid wooden bench, almost the length of it, having climbed on the pointed-to surface over an hour before, bleary-eyed from sleeping on the car ride there. I'd tucked my jacket under my head, had a sudden stomach-lurching thought, then immediately fallen back to sleep.
I barely heard my mother's assurances that I'd be fine there, she'd be back soon.
My last thought before sleep had been of the not-quite-finished homework I'd forgotten to grab in our rush to leave the house. It still sat on the kitchen counter, right where I'd carefully placed it the night before, determined to remember to bring it.
I was in trouble if I didn't have that work finished, I'd have to make up a good excuse this time. This far into the school year, with my patchy assignment completion? My fourth grade teacher's patience had grown thin:
"I don't know why you won't apply yourself. You're so bright..."
I'm just like Aunt Agnes, I'd think to myself. I didn't know Aunt Agnes, she died before I was born, but I knew I was like her, Mom told me so all the time.
Now, as my mind slowly woke to consciousness, I closed my mouth and turned my head toward the wall, away from the door. It took me a minute to remember where I was -- what was that noise? The room was dark, gloom filled the corners -- wasn't I in bed? The hard surface under my head, my jacket having slipped to the floor, the unforgiving spot under my hip, my feet still encased in shoes, reminded me that I was not, in fact, at home in my own bed.
A shuffling sound brought my mind to complete attention; someone had come in with that clink of the door. He? She? was there in the lobby, with me.
Where was Mom?
Now I heard rustling closer by, a jacket or coat was leaving someone's arms. I heard it thrown over another bench. I didn't move.
A few seconds later the soft drip drip of water pinging onto the floor caught my attention...it was still raining. The wood creaked, then the sounds grew louder with shiftings of bench leg on marble, as whoever that was sat down heavily and settled.
The sounds changed, a fumbling, crinkling noise, the strike and flame of a match against wood. This is a man -- the forms of these sounds whispered together, wove their image for me. Soon, telltale smoke smell filled the air, accompanied by the inhale and exhale of practiced lungs, while the sounds of the bench shifting and creaking echoed again throughout the space.
Is this a homeless man getting warm?
Are we downtown?
My body froze as my mind continued to race. My eyelids fluttered and clamped shut. I was used to waiting for my mother, I had waited in many places, but we hadn't been here before.
Mom was trying Something New again. I was growing up as youngest child to a parent who'd begun motherhood over twenty-five years before, a parent who was now ready to be anywhere but home....with me, I often added silently.
Whatever the business that occupied my mother's time: errands, friends, her varied volunteer obligations, it inevitably lasted much longer than she expected. Time was a current that carried my mother, more than a pliable force that she controlled. While she was busy, I waited.
That I might be in danger, in any of these places she left me vulnerable, didn't seem to occur to her.
This particular morning, after coming to high alert without moving, I opened my eyes slightly, still pointed toward the wall, and stared for a time through the fading dark at the worn wooden slats at the back of the bench, the would-be-beige wallpaper behind it. My head began to ache from keeping so still. My ears were still tuned to any noise that might be coming from the person behind my back, but the tension was causing my muscles to cramp.
I rolled over as if still asleep and put my back against the wall. My eyes were resolutely closed - lightly - imitating slumber as best I could. I mumbled convincingly, I hoped, and rearranged my limbs into a more comfortable position. After a time, I heard a soft "zip."
I cracked my eyes open to a slit. What was that?
It was still dark enough, my eyes were almost-closed enough, that I couldn't see much, but something was moving in the slowly lightening dawn.
I shut my eyes fully. I stayed very still. The room grew lighter behind my eyelids.
Suddenly, a woman's heels were clicking, reverberating briskly down an unseen hall. Simultaneously, I heard the "zip" sound again.
"Yes, I'll see you next week then..." I heard my mother's voice ring out.
"Oh! (laughter) ...you know that's..."
"Reeaal-ly. But I thought..."
The heel clicking slowed, the mumbling of quieter conversation began. A high heel duet came more slowly down the hall.
I shifted -- maybe I should pretend to wake up now -- when I felt the man get up. I heard him grab his coat, walk away from his bench, push on the bar latch, and slip out the door, all in one, very quiet, surge.
My mother strode into the lobby, I opened my eyes. The dark shapes were banished by her vitality, by the morning light's slow rising. She was stringing along sentences filled with news of her just-finished "reading for the blind" and seeing Miss So-and-So, "...and just like that she..."
"I thought they had..."
She stopped short. "Why does it smell like cigarettes in here?"
She sternly eyed the tall ashtray and then me. I tried to think of an answer.
"Next time, can I just stay home?"
But she was already striding toward the double doors.
"Oh you, you always want to stay home...there's just a strong smell in here... Let's get going, we'd better get on the road before the traffic is stop-and-go...."
Her sentences trailed through the door after her.
I grabbed my jacket and followed.
Miles later, while wending our way down traffic-clogged Atlanta roads, I was busy pushing away thoughts: Was that real? Was he real?
I distracted myself by plotting the minutes I had left, once we got home, to make an Instant Breakfast and grab the homework off the counter. I'd sneak upstairs to finish it before Mom noticed and got mad. I might even catch the bus for once...
My mother's voice broke in, "Where shall we go to breakfast? ...IHOP? Jesus, I could use a cup of coffee. You don't want to go home, do you? You look fine for school..."
The car had already turned onto an exit ramp while I wasn't looking, heading straight for the pancake restaurant's sign up ahead.
"But -- I need to go home !" I wailed in panic.
My short, one-syllable name burst from my mother's lips: staccato, accompanied by crescendo.
"Honestly, you are just like your Aunt Agnes. Such a curmudgeon. Why in the world do you always want to be at home? I offer a nice treat like IHOP...what is wrong with you?"
We pulled into the restaurant lot, Mom parked in a spot, turned off the car, and hopped out.
I didn't answer. Change of plans.
Now I wouldn't have my homework at all. I began dreaming up a lie for my teacher.
Did Aunt Agnes lie too?
After my last post, celebrating my mother's St. Patrick's Day birthday and her zest for life, other specific days came clamoring, demanding their voices be heard as well.
This is one that can rest now.
MARCH 22, 2011 3:14PM