By Len Lyons
Mark, my son who is soon to turn forty, and Liz, the daughter-in-law I barely know, are herding my two grandchildren towards the red Ford station wagon for the trip from Massachusetts to Connecticut. On this balmy September day, the pale blue sky harbors a small fleet of secretive cotton-ball clouds that drift from west to east unperturbed by the troubled creatures below. Mark and Liz are both on edge. Not about visiting me, although I could understand that, but about how the children (my grandchildren) will act en route. They have reason to worry. Janice is nine, and Jeremy is seven, and there are times when they act like fighting fish in a tiny bowl. Jeremy is a thick, knotted rope of a boy, not easily untangled. Janice is a taut violin string, clear and resonant, but today she wakes up out of tune, so if you play her wrong, she screeches like a wounded cat. I am Grandma Leah to Janice and Jeremy, and, despite their rough edges, very proud of both of them.
Liz is collecting toys to keep them occupied in the back seat. She has snacks—exactly the same for each, eliminating one reason they may go at it. Janice is walking out to the car now, carrying a pink plastic handbag that contains gum and a Great Shape Barbie, although Liz, who during her college years in the mid-1970s jumped on the swelling wave of feminism like a surfer (I admire her for it too), was opposed to Barbies of any shape. But Mark could not bear the thought of his daughter not having the same toys as her friends (since she would not understand why, it would be unfair, he argued), and he wore down Liz’s strong objections to a weak complaint. Likewise, my grandson travels with a squadron of muscular, battle-ready action figures who look ready to take on the world, having been raised on a diet of steroids. Liz didn’t approve of these either, but she left Jeremy’s toy restrictions up to Mark in the interest of avoiding another disagreement they could not resolve.
Mark, my loving, too serious, often ambivalent son, wonders why he isn’t happier. His family is healthy, except for Liz’s anxiety, which Janice is on the cusp of acquiring like a well-worn hand-me-down sweater. Mark has a job that suits him well—an assistant professor of anthropology specializing in hominids. He travels to exotic sites, especially in East Africa, and to conferences in places most people have never heard of, and he is lucky enough to see the world, even to envision the world that preceded us by millions of years and contemplate all the species of man who have tumbled down through time in the landslide of evolution. He always loved those paperback sci-fi novels as a teenager, and now he gets paid to let his imagination run wild over the past instead of the future.
He has a problem, though, an impediment to happiness that sticks with him like a birthmark. My son—surely in an excess of virtue—tries too hard to do what is right, an impossible goal. Along with that, he is easily confused. When he contemplates taking action in the midst of uncertainty, or reads about some controversy in the newspaper, he visualizes the scales of justice. He can’t help it; it’s a type of affliction, like seeing spots or flecks of light when you close your eyes. If one platform of the scale is higher than the other, he feels unnerved by it, like one feels looking at a painting that hangs crookedly on the wall. He is unhappy if he can’t straighten out the painting. What can he do, walk around with his head cocked to one side like a spaniel? Through his eyes, the world always looks slightly off-balance.
I sympathize with him up to a point. For me, too, the future was once unnerving, inherently unknowable, and produced a fine spray of excitement mixed with dread of the mysterious that is inhaled along with every breath. I like to think Mark inherited his highly polished moral aspirations from me, but perhaps they grew like a pearl in an oyster, a product of his own friction with the world. From my Morris, who never gave any of his decisions a second thought, he did not inherit it, this is certain.
My Mark is a handsome man, with a youthful face after four decades of sun, wind, and gravity have had their chance to smudge the boyish beauty that could charm a mother out of all her disciplinary intentions. His arms, legs, torso, and head are perfectly in proportion like a Greek statue. I admit, maybe his looks he got from Morris. My two handsome men, I used to call them, and I meant it. But Morris is gone. We don’t communicate, but I don’t dwell on that.
Visiting me means a three-hour drive each way for them, and they only visit once a year, maybe twice a year. When the grandchildren grow up, maybe Mark and Liz will come more often. What can a mother expect of a son with a career, a wife whose mental health is a house of cards, two children who are in constant conflict, and a feeling that something is wrong with the world? It’s a demanding lifestyle, all right. Of course, Connecticut is not the other side of the world (which my son does manage to visit), although when their kids are fighting, driving them here must seem eternally distant.
“Can I bring my camera?” Jeremy asks his mother, who is raking some early fallen leaves in the backyard while she waits for Mark to tell her the car is loaded up. Jeremy has been given a camera for his seventh birthday. She looks up from her raking. “Why not?” she says. But she begins to think it over, wondering.
Mark pushes through the gate from the driveway. “Your camera? No, pal, I don’t think so,” he says. Then he reconsiders. “Okay, why not, Mom’s right, go ahead.” Mark is wearing a striped sweater, a dark blue background with a decorative pattern of fall colors—orange, the deep red of Japanese maples, and the yellow of a willow tree’s grasping fingers.
Minutes later, Janice appears, swinging her pink handbag. They are all together in the driveway. “Geez, Jeremy. A camera?” his sister says, shaking her head. “If I had your brains, I’d be . . . uhm, a gerbil.” Her violin needs tuning.
“That’s unnecessary,” Liz snaps. She is brushing wisps of hair off her forehead. My daughter-in-law has a pretty face, in spite of thick nostrils. “Try to remember he’s younger than you.”
“And stupider,” Janice mutters, just loud enough to make sure her parents hear her.
“Cut that out, Jan, or there will be a consequence,” Mark says. Then, sounding like an amusement park barker, “Okay, all aboard.”
Jeremy runs towards the car and, as he passes his sister, he yanks her purse strap, and then climbs up into the back seat on the driver’s side.
“Mom, did you see that? He grabbed my purse, for no reason.”
“She called me a gerbil. Dad, you heard her.”
“Okay, everybody,” Mark announces. “This train is leaving the station.”
“I called driver’s side,” Jeremy says, turning to his sister.
“You had it last time.”
“I did not. She’s lying, Mom.”
“What’s the difference?” Liz asks. Her jaw tightens, lips pressed together. “It doesn’t matter.”
Mark looks over to her. Then, to Jeremy: “It’s not your turn, Jer’. Let’s be fair.”
“It is my turn,” he replies.
“Stop playing their game,” Liz tells Mark through clenched teeth.
“Don’t fight me,” Mark snaps back angrily.
“Yeah, it’s not fair,” Janice echoes her father.
“Just go,” Liz says. “Go, go, go.”
The children do not change seats, but they settle down. Mark promises them a story about his childhood, if they can be quiet a good long time. Jeremy asks “How long is a long time?” Mark replies, “Good question, Jer.” What a smart boy my grandson is. He’ll make a good lawyer, the kind who doesn’t make a lot of money but, instead, makes a difference.
The only sound inside the lumbering red station wagon is the groaning engine and the hum of tires on the road. Mark turns onto the highway going southwest. Mom and Dad enjoy the motion of the car, and the silence of their children. They’ve left the city behind and the green expanse of the countryside rolls by. Janice is combing Barbie’s hair. Jeremy focuses his camera on the back of his father’s head, making occasionally clicking sounds with his tongue.
“How about the story?” Janice says. “Yeah, you want us to start a fight?” Jeremy adds, laughing. Mark turns to look at them in the back seat, and a feeling of pride wells up in his chest.
“All right, all right,” he begins. “When I was about Jeremy’s age,” my son begins, “we lived down the street from a teenager named Lou. He was a runner who dreamed of going to the Olympics. He was very tall and had red hair and freckles. He used to run by our house every day as part of his training, and his legs were so long, Grandpa Morris used to joke that Lou’s parents were ostriches.
“One day, while I was playing in our front yard, Lou was walking by our house with a friend of his named Artie. Lou used to go over to Artie’s house and play cards with Artie’s sister, whose name was Judy. She was always stretched out on the living room couch under a blanket. All she could do was play cards. She didn’t have energy for anything else. She had an illness called polio.”
“My God, are you serious?” Liz says with a short gasp. “What are you doing?”
“What’s polio?” Jeremy asks in a softer voice than his usual outbursts.
“Nothing you have to worry about,” Liz says.
“It’s a terrible disease that used to kill a lot of people,” Mark continues, as Liz glares at him. “Especially children, but now they have a vaccine that kills the virus that causes it. So you and Janice will never get it.”
“Will you stop this?” Liz says. She turns to the back seat and says sternly, “This is inappropriate.”
“No, it’s not,” says Jeremy. Janice, smoothing the fabric of Barbie’s form-fitting clothes, asks, “Did she die?”
“There is a point,” Mark continues. “Anyway, my Mom came out of the house and called out to Lou. ‘Congratulations,’ she says to him. She walks over to us and tells me, ‘Lou made the Olympic team. Congratulate him.’”
“There were Olympics then?” Jeremy asks.
That Mark would choose to entertain them with such things is astonishing, but I know where he’s going, or trying to go, with it. Will my children ever stop surprising me? My daughter, Debbie, is on the West Coast, and she has her own way of mocking my expectations.
“I need to pee,” Janice cries out, suddenly squirming in her seat.
“Already? I told you to go before we left,” Liz says.
“You didn’t really try,” Jeremy shouts happily into the front seat. He glances to his right to assess her reaction.
“I really, really need to pee.”
“Shit,” Mark says under his breath.
“No, pee,” Janice squeals with laughter.
“Okay, to be continued.”
In a few miles, they pull into a Roy Rogers roadside restaurant. While Liz leads Janice into the women’s bathroom, Mark and Jeremy order fries and Cokes for everyone.
“So what happened to that Olympics guy?” Jeremy asks.
Mark makes small talk with the cashier, realizing that Liz was probably right. But Jeremy won’t be put off and asks again. “Well, it was sad. Remember, I told you people don’t get polio anymore, because we have a vaccine.” Jeremy assures his father that he understands. “But poor Artie’s sister died about a week before the Olympic training was supposed to start. So Lou, who had been playing cards with her all during the time she was sick, well, he decided he couldn’t go away after she died. He gave up the Olympics because she died.”
“That was stupid,” Jeremy says with an edge of complaint in his tone.
“Grandma said they were only teenagers, but they loved each other.”
Mark suddenly realized he was glad that Janice, whose fears sometimes swarmed around her like flies, was not there to hear the end of the story. He realized it was a mistake to have told them, but he wanted to pry their minds out of themselves. He had an idea when he started this tale that his Jeremy and Janice should know that not everyone got to live their lives out. Now he realizes they will not draw out that moral anyway. Then he has a brilliant idea: “Let’s not tell your sister,” he says. “it’s our secret, okay?” Jeremy contemplates this offer, and they shake hands on it.
“Okay, we won’t tell her, but what happened to Lou? And Artie?”
“I don’t know really. You leave home, and sometimes you lose touch with people. I don’t remember their last names, honestly.” Mark wants to leave this topic well before Liz and Janice emerge from the long lines waiting at the women’s bathroom.
But I remember them well—Lou Steiner and Artie Greenberg. Judy Greenberg died at age 15, a terrible tragedy. The whole town came to the funeral. What happens to people over the many years of their lives fascinates me all the more as time goes by. Lou comes around now and then, but I’ve lost track of Artie Greenberg. I don’t think he’s been back for years now. I think he became a doctor.
For the next hour of driving, the fries and Cokes keep them all busy and afterwards the children doze off.
This is Mark’s second visit of the year. Last time, he walked around for a bit, sat in the gazebo, ate a sandwich, and spoke to me, of course. It doesn’t matter to me how many words are spoken; it’s the visiting that I’m grateful for, their presence. Words are overrated anyway. The heart speaks its own language, and this is what I listen to now.
It’s funny that Mark should remember the death of Judy Greenberg because he never knew her, except by name. I had only mentioned it once to illustrate something about Lou Steiner, but I didn’t dwell on it or make a big deal. And my Morris, he never talked about things of that sort. Morris was strictly business and what are we having for dinner. Funny how we’ve split up, and despite all those years together, I have nothing left to talk with him about. Mark still visits him in Florida once in a while, I’m happy to say. Good for them both.
Yes, I did tell Mark that I thought these kids loved each other in their unconscious, innocent way. Why should my son remember that? It was just an off-hand comment, a fanciful intuition that bit me like a mischievous mosquito while I was washing the dinner dishes one summer night. If a dish had clattered in the sink at that moment, Mark would never have heard it. Yet this passing comment turns out to have had a life of its own. It pays to watch your words because you can never tell which ones will be remembered. Not the ones you imagined, that’s for sure.
Janice and Jeremy are awake again, but sleep still hangs onto them with its sticky fingers, slowing them down. They gaze through their own windows at the treetops on both sides of the highway. Liz leans back against the headrest, folds her arms across her waist and takes shallow breaths. My son Mark listens to a mariachi band on the new Spanish-language station broadcasting from Hartford, and he notices the pointed evergreens and broad, windswept oaks that parade through his field of vision on the road to Avon. I also remember these trees and the motion of the car, its gentle hum against the road. He thinks about the future, just as I did—and still do—about what will happen to his children when they are adults. The car enters Avon, slows down, and turns off at Main Street and west behind the town center. They are getting close.
The car rolls slowly through the gate, which is always left open on Sundays. I can feel the car’s weight as it crunches over the crushed stones. Mark pulls over to the side of the drive and parks so that the left two wheels are on the dirt shoulder. They get out and walk across the meticulously trimmed grass in no rush. The children are busy taking in the scenery. They know their way by now among the grass, stones, dirt, trees, roads, and benches. Some markers they pause to read, like Jacob Klein’s, June 3, 1982–October 26, 1985. This marker makes Janice realize, momentarily, that not all children grow up, just what Mark had hoped to teach her with his misguided story. Instead, he wasted the story on Jeremy, and Janice came to it without his help. Janice does not choose to mention this frightening thought to her parents.
Now, Janice reads an inscription to Jeremy. When she reads, he respects her. Reading strips away some of the mysteries, I have always believed, peels one layer off the onion. When Jeremy learns to reads, Janice will look for other advantages that enable her to feel like a big sister and the more powerful of the two siblings. Jeremy has his camera in hand and raises it to his eye, points it at the marker. Janice puts a firm hand on his shoulder. “Don’t.” He lowers it, and then hangs it on his shoulder. She walks off towards Mark and Liz, and he follows her.
The family stops to sit for a few minutes in the green gazebo that looks out over the grounds. The Reimer family donated it when they lost their daughter, a place to stand when it rains or snows. It has a pointed, shingled roof, benches all the way around, and a painted white railing. The kids chase each other in circles, their feet hitting the wooden floor like hammers.
“Hey, quiet! You’ll wake the dead,” Mark says with a grin. The children stop to stare at him for a moment, not sure if they’re supposed to laugh, and then run down the steps and out across the grass. Liz takes his arm. “You are really off today, if you can handle some constructive criticism,” she says in a low voice. “I didn’t bring them here to be gloomy,” he answers.
“You could encourage a little respect,” she says.
The children wait for Mark and Liz as they walk towards my marker. “Grandma Leah would have loved you kids,” Mark tells them. And I do. But I’d have had to be a saint to put up with them. God did not grant me that burden, unfairly, if I may say so. Perhaps that is why Mark is unnerved when something does not seem right with the world.
“Like, you always say that, Dad,” Janice says. “Yeah,” Jeremy agrees, looking at his sister.
The children run off to gather stones. Once Mark told them that Jews put stones on graves long ago so wild animals wouldn’t dig up the bodies and disgrace them. They have forgotten the reason, but they remember to gather the stones anyway. Perhaps the real reason is to give the bereaved something to do.
Liz has her arm around Mark’s waist, waiting for a cue. Should she draw him out? Leave him alone? She is sad that we’ve never met. Of course, so am I, but it happens. Mark puts his arm around her shoulders. Absorbed in his thoughts, his wife presses against his side, he briefly, unknowingly, experiences the future, when Jeremy and Janice will be adults. It’s just the feeling he was trying to conjure up while driving in silence an hour ago, and here it is. But he doesn’t grasp it.
My son and the daughter-in-law I never met, heads lowered, take in the headstone written in Hebrew. Leah Rivka bat Reb Shimon Aaron ben Moshe v’ Chava Sarah bat Shmuel, January 12, 1926—September 14, 1971. I am Leah Rebecca, the daughter of Simon Aaron son of Moshe and Eve Sarah, who was the daughter of Samuel. Liz walks off by herself, sensing that Mark wants to be alone in front of my marker. She returns to the gazebo to sit and think.
The children come running in my direction with stones from an adjacent wooded parcel. They place them carefully on the stone marker, until Jeremy accidentally rolls a rock into Janice’s, which falls off into the spongy sod. They eye each other warily like two puppies eating from the same bowl. Janice picks up her stone and replaces it without a word, and they back away cautiously.
Jeremy turns and runs off for more stones. I’ll get more stones than Jan, his heart says. Mark sits on a bench along the path. Janice comes over to sit on Mark’s lap. I’ll get to be alone with Dad, her heart answers Jeremy. She snuggles up to her father and rubs his shoulder with her slender fingers.
He wonders if he should tell his little girl what he’s thinking, what occupies him every day of his career, that the Earth has been home to over one hundred billion of our species. Only six billion of them are living now. Where are the others? Not to be morbid, but where do you think? Mark is thinking that the living are always walking on a graveyard of buildings, people, ideas, whole civilizations. All lie beneath them, and they will hear the footsteps of the future above their own heads. Why not admit it? Mark imagines his daughter visiting his own grave with her children. He wonders what she will say, and what it will mean to his unborn grandchildren. He decides not to tell her any of this.
“I’m embarrassed,” Janice says.
“About what?” Mark asks.
“Not unless it’s a joke.”
“You promise not to laugh?”
“I used to think a dead-end street was one that leads to a cemetery. Isn’t that funny? Remember your promise.”
He hugs her and says, “That’s a very logical thought. I wish you were embarrassed instead about some of the things you say to your brother.”
She stands up and wags a finger at him. “I was just leaving,” she says.
When Janice stands up, it seems that something has happened. No one will know it for many years, but this visit will stick in Janice’s mind, just as Mark remembers the time I told him Lou and Paula were in love, at least I thought they were. In about thirty years—just a shrug of the shoulders from now—Janice will bring her daughter to my son Mark’s grave and tell her about the time her Dad took her and Uncle Jeremy to the cemetery and said, “Quiet! You’ll wake the dead.” She and her daughter will enjoy this remark, and the moment will be a happy one. Mark will be as I am, thrilled to witness life safe from fear.
Our visit will be over soon. Janice runs towards her mother who has been watching them all from the gazebo. Janice slows down until she is walking. She is quiet now, but her heart speaks a mile a minute and has increased its vocabulary.
Copyright © Len Lyons 2012
Len Lyons grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut and currently lives in Newton, Massachusetts. He attended the University of Rochester and, after spending a year in Europe studying French and German, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Brown University. After teaching for four years, he took a very early retirement, at age 30, to write for a living. Along with working for 20 years in technical publications in the computer industry, he has authored six non-fiction books, three of them about jazz. Most recently, he wrote The Ethiopian Jews of Israel: Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land. “The Visitors” is his first published fiction.