Shooting Stars

They’ve packed up almost everything that’ll fit in the the van.  They’re leaving a rocker in the front hall they promised to Sonya and there’s a small pile of odds and ends to be run down to the parish thrift on their way out.  The place smells like pine and lemons and bleach, a sharp perfume that could almost cause a headache if the windows weren’t open.

He finds Jean standing in the middle of their bedroom, staring at a pattern of light and shadow on the wall where the bed was set up only hours ago.  She glances at him.

“When we moved in, I used to look at that all the time and think how lucky we were.  Then somehow I stopped seeing it.”

“It’s pretty,” he says.

She turns from him, a frown pulling her face. Walking to the lone window, she reaches up to take down a glass sphere they hung there years ago.  It was almost forgotten.  Her body breaks the pattern on the wall, the slanting gold light mirroring her shape down to the small flyaway curls around her face.

He digs his hands in his pockets.  “I was remembering that disgusting mayonnaise jar we found when Kath moved out.  Remember? The beer swill and cigarettes.”

She is having trouble getting the sphere down.  They hooped the string over an old curtain bracket twice.

He says, “You called it something funny, like troll puke or something.”

The string breaks and the ornament hits the floor with a crash that is madly loud in the empty space.  Shards of glass scatter all over.

“Shit,” she says.  For only a second, in her mind, it seems like his fault the thing broke.  He’s always trying to talk when she is concentrating on something else.  It never fails.  She takes a breath and smiles over her shoulder at him.

“It was shit, actually.  I called it troll shit.”

He bends down to push the glass into a pile; they already put the broom and dustpan in the moving van.  She kneels down beside him to help.

“Your mom gave you that,” she says.

“I know.”

“Sorry it got broke.”

He shrugs, gives her a smile.  In all the years, that smile has never lost its grave, handsome beauty.  It has not faded one bit, though his eyes are webbed all around with lines.  His long face, his carefully trimmed beard and gentle, intelligent gaze used to make her think of men from other times.  He has a manner to him like the way men look in paintings of American forefathers, as if even when he’s laughing, he bears a weight for many others.  It makes her feel bad for wanting to blame him for every little thing that feels like a crisis for a half minute.

She leans in and drops a kiss on the tip of his nose.  “Well, when we get to Kansas, we’ll find one like it maybe.”

Their fingers touch now and again as they push all the bits of glass into a pile.

____________

He drives the first shift, five hours mostly westward.  She sits Indian fashion in her seat, now and again helping him shift lanes by poking her head out to check their blind spot.  Her hair is blown all around, the curls gone to frizz in the wind.  They listen to the Shins mostly, because it’s one of the bands they can agree on.  It’s good road music.

Jean opens her notebook on her lap and tries to work on her speech for next week.  She was asked to talk to the students of a high school where there was a shooting two months ago.  Three students were killed and a teacher.  It wasn’t in the news for long because another one happened the next week, somewhere else, with more deaths.  It is only used now and again as list filler in the overall argument over gun laws.

She didn’t imagine a couple of years ago that she’d be a spokesperson for the issue of random violence.  When that kind of thing came on the news, she flipped the channel.  Just the kind of thing the media loved.  Despite their grave manner as they read off lists of murdered children, she was wise enough to know a school shooting gave the average reporter a raging boner.  No one ever got an Emmy for reporting a break out at city zoo.

Shaking the tension out of her shoulders, she begins her speech where she left off last night.  In the usual way, her fingers seem to speak to the keys before her mind knows what words to use.

____________

Since that August morning when my mother was killed, I have seen the world differently. Violence changes everyone it touches.  It changes the victims, their loved ones and even the person who commits it.  In one terrible hour, Shane Holtzman went from being a troubled boy who thought about killing to becoming a mass murderer who can never escape his actions.  I’ve thought a lot about that particularly.  Every day when he looks in the mirror, Shane Holtzman is seeing a man who took lives.  He lost his way, becoming someone his own mother says she has trouble recognizing, and he was so alone in his rage and his madness, that he couldn’t turn back once he’d decided to do what he ultimately did.

No one can turn back the clock, although I still have dreams where we somehow have.  My mother is alive again, calling me to ask me about work.  It’s a random dream and it feels real.  I guess if she is alive in my dreams sometimes, the others are, too.  I bet many of you have gone to sleep and found Chloe Michaels again and Ali Farook and Carrie Swartz and Mr. Timbrell. They are here again at school, moving through the days we all wish could come again.  The days when we could be thoughtless about violence, deaf to the unspoken rage in a classmate we hardly noticed.  Then we wake up and this is our world now.

I know all too well how you feel because I still feel it now and I’ve had longer to get used to it and to move on.  I was asked to speak to you, as I’ve been asked to before, and I can’t help but always ask myself why.  I can’t change what happened and I can’t stop you from hurting, from fearing.

____________

They stop for gas around seven-thirty.  In the distance, a huge orange sun sinks behind tall signs for restaurants and hotels.  The noise of the highway is one hiss, occasionally broken by a guttering groan as a semi speeds up to pass, then cuts back to slip again into the outside lane.  It seems to take a long time to fill the tank.  Jean buys them each a bottle of juice and grabs herself a candy bar, glancing out at him standing at the pump.  He glances back and throws up a hand in a quick wave.

She climbs into the driver seat and they ease onto the highway a minute later.  He scrolls through his phone to find another playlist.  The sun has vanished now, leaving a violet smear near the horizon that will darken in the coming moments.

“How’s the speech coming?”

She sighs. “I don’t know why I agreed again.”

“Can’t you use the last one?”

“I don’t like any of them,” she says. “They’re all shit.”

He plays the Rosebuds because he knows she likes them, but she gives him a sidewise glance that leaves him looking for another option.  “Sorry.”

She shrugs. “Don’t be. I think I just want something mellow.”

A few miles down the road, she turns down the music.

“You know why I hate writing these speeches?”

“Why?”

“Because it feels like I have to live with this terrible thing all my life.  To be honest, I’m ready to not be the daughter of a woman who was killed.  I wasn’t that person for thirty-six years.  Each time I sit down and write about it, I have to become her all over again.  And I’m sick to death of it.”

“Why don’t you write about that?” he asks.

She frowns.  “Are you kidding?”

“No, I’m not.  Maybe those kids would like someone to give them permission to stop grieving.”

“You can’t just stop.”

“No, but eventually you do.”

She presses her lips together, feeling like she should argue against him.  Yet she knows what he’s saying is only the truth.  And maybe he’s right.  She turns up the music again.

They drive without speaking for about a half hour.  They come to an area where the highway runs beside a small prairie city.  Traffic slows to a crawl as people get off and on the highway.  She turns down the music again.

“But how do you talk about that with the right tone?” she asks.

He glances over at her.  “I think you just say it as honest as you can.  No need to sugar coat it, no need to make it harder than it is.  You could say to those kids the exact thing you said to me.”

“What? That I’m sick of being the daughter of a murdered woman?”

“Yes.”

She laughs shortly, again feeling something like anger.  It isn’t at him, she knows, but still it feels almost like the moments before a fight.  She reaches to turn the music up again, but then she changes her mind.

“There is something to that.”

“I just think the thing I hated most about being a teenager was being coddled. I felt like I was ready to hear things honest.  And think of how being young feels.  I bet some of those kids wanted to go to the movies and laugh the very next day, because being young is wanting to live and have fun, but everyone expects them to grieve.”

She nods. “I remember the first time I laughed out loud, it felt wrong.”

“Then say that, too.”

His hand finds hers in the dark cab and she grips his fingers gratefully.  Smiling at him in the glow of the dash, she says, “You’re pretty smart.”

The traffic clears and they pick up speed.  In the large side mirror, when she glances back, the little city is a galaxy of light.  The shapes of the buildings and the knotty mess of exit ramps have vanished.  Only the lights shine out in the night, with the lights of the cars behind them bursting outward like shooting stars.

The Inn

After two years of waiting tables in a shopping mall restaurant where clowns and kid’s nights featured heavily in branding, I got hired at a fancy country inn when I was about twenty-five.  At the last place, I learned to study a massive menu, where one cut of steak stalked the pages like a food private dick, turning up in different disguises everywhere one looked.  On page two, under a header that read ‘Southern Style’ in a zealous font, the fillet snuggled up with some mac and cheese and creamed peas, but it showed up again on page seven, wearing a lavish amount of teriyaki sauce and peering out from a forest of steamed broccoli that had somehow taken root on an unstable berm of dry pilaf.  At the inn, the card stock menu was newly printed each day – you could smear the ink if you weren’t careful.  It was a prix fixe menu, so lightly edited it only needed a glance when you got to work.  The one stumbling block was learning new words, most of which were French.

Thankfully the chef was generous enough to demonstrate as well as explain how things like his sauces were accomplished.  I grew up in a house where the fanciest foreign-sounding dish we made was Chicken a la King and even that stopped when the electric can opener broke and we couldn’t find the manual one.   Yet rather than feeling out of place in Jean Pierre’s kitchen, I felt like I had finally claimed a birth right.  Since childhood I was convinced I’d been kidnapped from Hollywood television icons Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman, who I imagined were secretly a real-life couple.  No one would talk about my disappearance, but I knew they were out there, combing the streets of Beverly Hills, looking for their darling little Jonathan from the windows of a sleek powder blue convertible.   Across all the miles me and Mommie Babs had a connection that could not be broken.  She would have taught me about things like béchamel and velouté.  As I learned about French cuisine – or at lest enough to sell it at the table –  I was getting a taste of the childhood that was stolen from me by the same pair who would throw a paper towel at you to wipe away the orange grease of sloppy joes.

If I was getting a second chance at glamour with a ‘u’ in it, the inn was also getting a new life.  It had burned down under unexplained circumstances two years before I was hired, and countless dollars were spent to rebuild it.  As a matter of fact, finishing details were still being worked out in my first week there.  They sent us home with scorched linens form the fire for us to wash, just the kind of curious cheapness that I soon discovered was infecting the place.

The owner came from money; the back porch chatter was that her people were in diamonds.  The new incarnation of the inn was much grander than before, but due to tempestuous relations between the owner and the contractor, shoddy details turned up right and left. The handsome oak staircase terminated at a richly varnished plywood landing.   Much ado was made of the seven piece crown moldings, but no one ever got back around to grout the bathroom tiles.   The owner did a lot of talking about her designer cousin in Greenwich Village who she paid to do the bedrooms, but when the pink and purple coverlets started showing up, it looked strictly amateur. Even before I knew design, I knew this cousin was the family charity case.  One of those trust fund kids with a thin shop on Bleecker Street, his was the kind of place where a ‘back in ten’ sign perpetually hangs on the door.  Meanwhile he smokes cigarettes at the cafe across the street, loudly complaining to his best friend Leona – an aging dancer with good Vegas stories – about how no one understands his vision.

There was something about that job that felt a little wrong from day one.  Even though it was nice to learn some dishes I could order out with my blood mother, should we ever reunite, I found it hard to warm to the owner.  A thin little mouse with the gait of a marionette, Claudia had a habit of appearing at your shoulder, hands clasped before her, eyes probing you for misconduct.  I kept my head down in general and hoped she wouldn’t pop up as I mangled the pronunciations of the wines, my greatest weakness at table side.  Hoping to capitalize on the efficiency I had learned at the steak house, I threw myself into keeping the serving stations clean and filled, work that would have fallen to busboys if she’d funded the staff accounts more generously.  The headwaiter who hired me was a class act, seasoned in fine dining and more than capable of running the place without Claudia’s interference, yet even he seemed nervous when she was around.  With the chilly gaze of an outraged librarian, she was unsettling even when she tried to muster the occasional smile.

By contrast, her boyfriend was a human ox with a raspy laugh and a penchant for crass one liners.  Former military, he said, Stan’s every attempt to inspire camaraderie did often tempt me to go AWOL.  I think he wanted to show he was cool with myself and the headwaiter being gay when he made a joke one day about how nice guys always hold their ass cheeks open for sex.  Like the inn itself, big burly Stan was a class act.

I started at that place in the fall and made the trek across county through many snowy winter days to follow.  The shine of learning about fine food wore off by Valentine’s Day.  By then I had taken about as much of Claudia and Stan as I could and I was discovering that I missed the simplicity of the old steak house.  I made a lot more money waiting tables at the inn and had half the side work, but when I’d go back into the kitchen at my old job, there was always a new set of college kids, cutting up in the break room, making jokes as we rolled silverware wraps.  We laughed a lot and the management didn’t give a rats ass as long as we checked our tables every so often and never left food to die under the heat lamps.  The cooks were mean as hell if you didn’t get your food out quick, so the managers need not have worried.  More and more, I couldn’t stand the quiet-step skulking of Claudia, and I found that the pretty drive to the inn filled me with dread.

She seemed to bother other people, too, because two of the waitresses who started with me had left before Thanksgiving.  And shortly after Christmas, Jean Pierre quit, taking the kindness of his kitchen with him. Eschewing the gentle style of educating servers that the French man was so good at, the smirking sous chef who landed in his place instead posted admonishing notes and reminders all over the place.  One day, Claudia cornered me in the dining room before our first seating and said, “I need you to smile when we pass one another.”

“Okay,” I said.

When I finished my shift, I did my side work with perfect precision, determined that the last napkins I folded at that place should be picture worthy.  I folded my apron, shook a cigarette out of the pack in my coat, and paused for one last smoke on the kitchen porch.  The headwaiter stood beside me as we blew smoke into the cold, starry night.  When I said good night, I gave his arm a friendly squeeze and he cut his eyes at me quickly.

“You’re not coming back, are you?”

I shook my head, casting a glance through the kitchen door.  Now I realize I should have given him more notice, but he didn’t seem to mind that much.  He could have worked that dining room alone, he was so good, and I knew from a thousand sidewise glances how he felt about Claudia.  He patted me on the shoulder.

“Drive safe.”