It’s almost lunch time and the lobby is full of frenzied parents. My cell phone rings. It is Madison, calling me back. Ten minutes ago she huffed and hung up on me because I didn’t have time to talk about her pancakes, which I can’t see or taste from eighty miles away. She desperately needs my validation, except I tell her that she doesn’t, and that she should enjoy her pancakes if they are enjoyable, or make another batch if they are not. That’s how pancakes work, even for me. I answer her call not with, “Hello,” but, “I’ll call you back during lunch.”
The secretary has a phone to each ear; one she is on hold with, the other she is asking questions of while relaying information to the frightened parents in front of her. Their children never made it to school. She tells me my children never made it to school.
Where is the bus driver? Drivers. Multiple. Four buses never picked up the children.
But Jack and Cate didn’t come back home. They didn’t call. Nobody’s kids did.
I hurriedly retrieve my purse, coat, books, and white pashmina from the detention classroom where I’ve been volunteering. Those kids are fuck ups. How did they manage to get to school?
I am nearly running down the hallway with my arms full and heavy when Jack’s ringtone plays from my cell phone. I drop all of my belongings to answer it. My mother is on the line, telling me that she has stopped by the school to have lunch with us. Then I am not on the phone with her, I’m in front of her, explaining that she can eat at my house. We have to go. I don’t know where my children are.
The day is grey and the air is charged with a looming storm. I am frustrated with her for showing up on this day. I am frustrated that she isn’t moving fast enough. I’m frustrated that she doesn’t know where she is going in the parking lot because she doesn’t recognize my rental car. I’m frustrated that I have to help her buckle her seatbelt.
I’m finally ready to back out of my parking spot when I see it – a giant tornado off in the distance ahead. But then I realize it is flanked by skinnier tornados; seven in all, in a row. My mother hasn’t seen them, so I nudge her and point. Just a tad bit closer to us, another row of seven columns of smoke and dirt grow out of the ground into the sky. That’s when I know they are not tornados. They are missiles.
Every few seconds, another row of missiles goes up, each marching closer to us, growling and grumbling louder and louder. My mother asks if we are being bombed. The bombs are being launched from here, our ground, I tell her. Are we bombing us?
I try to calculate if the next row will miss us or erupt from directly underneath my car, but we don’t have to wait long to find out. We feel the next explosion twenty feet behind us. Our ears are ringing and the air is too smoky and dusty to see beyond the windshield. And I don’t know where my children are.
Panic grabs for my chest, but I awake just out of its reach as it brushes me with its burning, icy fingers. My chest is frozen, but it is not squeezed. It’s been so long since my last nightmare, maybe weeks. I lie awake dissecting what I know wasn’t real. My bad dream is my insomnia’s chew toy and it wrestles with the detail of my mother. Why was she there?
It is 2:38am. Flashing blue lights dance on the wall I don’t recognize in front of me and a loud truck rumbles down Broadway. It is my first night in Nashville.
Susan Ann, with her curly brown hair piled on top of her head, told me that Nashville is known for their meatloaf so while I’m here, I have to eat at Monell’s. It was almost one and I hadn’t even eaten breakfast, so that’s where I went next.
Monell’s is family style country cooking. I worried a little bit about dining alone in a family style restaurant, but I needn’t have. I was seated at the end of a very long table and left to occupy myself with big bowls of coleslaw and cucumber salad. Then my waitress brought a basket of biscuits and cornbread; then she brought me some family.
To my left, she seated a husband and wife. They met and married while stationed in Germany twenty three years ago. To my right, she seated two paralegals; best friends who work at different law firms. One of them recognized the couple to my left. When she was a senior in high school she worked at a drycleaner they owned.
Further down the table to my left, the waitress seated a retired couple from Australia. When asked where in Australia they were from, they only said, “the south.” Across from them, a young couple was taking grandpa, or great grandpa, or the crypt keeper out for lunch. He sat opposite me at the other end of the table, but I could not see him over the lemonade pitcher. The young man with him also recognized the couple to my left. The young man’s brother was a firefighter with him a few years ago.
I had to ask, “Is Nashville a small town?”
They all agreed heartily that it is.
Fried chicken, baked chicken, pork chops, green beans, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and fresh preserves were all passed around the table. Eventually I realized there was no meatloaf. It was Wednesday. They told me meatloaf day was Monday.
We ate, we talked, we laughed, and some of us even caught up on old times and how the kids have grown. Nobody asked to borrow money or brought up politics. There were no loud drunks or stoned hipsters. Nobody judged me for having three husbands, or acted like I might as well have had eight. I didn’t bite my tongue bloody or worse, let it fly.
It’s going to be pretty hard to top that family dinner. I wonder who they were.
There is a Fort Pillow. I want so badly to believe there was a civil war battle fought from behind overturned sofas, with war weary soldiers taking refuge in bunkers built from the couch cushions and blankets. I want to believe it so much that I refuse to read this plaque. I can infer from the picture that furniture doesn’t provide the best cover in a musket fight, and since I never plan to be in one, this information isn’t really relevant to me.
Merle is a child of God with only two bad habits and perfectly straight teeth – the ones that are accounted for, anyway. Two bad habits. He smokes cigarettes and he drinks beer, but he’s not going to ask me to buy him any beer, he says.
I am fine as fuck; Merle said so. Repeatedly. I think he misread my lack of response and apologized for his language. He didn’t want to offend me so he amended his compliment, “Girl you is fine as a sandcastle.”
It’s stupid, but it’s novel and I cannot help but laugh. He misreads this and tells me again and again, I am fine as a sandcastle and can I please buy him a pack of cigarettes? He just came back from Chicago and they’re $15 a pack there. I’m in luck because they’re only $5 here.
I tell him he should either stay away from Chicago, or quit smoking. I want to tell him to learn some manners and get a job. I decide to jaywalk instead.
I entered Arkansas on the old I-55 bridge, which afforded me no opportunity to see the mighty Mississippi overflowing his old banks. I was going to West Memphis to look for Lucinda Williams’ Joy!
What I found instead was a rusted town that smelled like giving up and sewage. If there was joy anywhere near that town it would stick out like a sore thumb.
I looked for her joy a few years back when I was in Slidell; all I found was alligators. They look happy when you toss them marshmallows, and happy is close to joy. I think she should focus her search there.
It was nineteen-seventy-something on the eighty-something inch TV screen in front of us. There is no characteristic hip swivel or lip snarl; Elvis is sweating profusely, disproportionate even to the jumping and thrashing he’s doing on stage. Here, in two thousand sixteen, a woman in her seventies is draped over the hand rail, chin in hand, weeping at the sight before her.
“That,” she pauses, “was the Elvis I loved.” Her voice is scratchy. Maybe she spent the morning wailing somewhere, or the last half century smoking Marlboros. I can’t say.
After an appropriate number of silent beats, her slightly younger companion says to her very sincerely, “I’m so sorry.”
The mourner’s reply is not automatic. Finally, she says, “It’s alright.”
It’s very early and I roll over to hold Mike, but it’s not Mike. It’s just the decorative bolster I pushed to the side last night. Disappointed, I fall back to sleep.
I awake at 6 a.m. to a Celebrity Death Beeper notice. It’s been blowing up since the holidays; a couple a week. But I’m weary. There have been no thrilling and earth shattering celebrity deaths in a long time; Since Robin Williams, I bet.
It is David Bowie. It is early and I am devoid of coffee. I think about the rash of copycats we will soon experience as more baby boomers die of cancer. And then I worry that we might stop even trying to cure cancer anymore because what’s the point? It already got David Bowie.
I dress and hunt for coffee. For reasons I can’t explain, A Case of You is stuck in my head the rest of the morning; Diana Krall’s rendition, not Joni’s. I miss my husband. My plane doesn’t leave until 9:30 tonight and guess what? It’s meatloaf day at Monell’s.