RETURN FROM NOVEMBER
First published 1993 – Rockford Review, Vol XII, Editor’s Choice Best Short Story
Re-published 1994 – Genre Magazine, Vol I
One chilly November morning, with the help of Mr. Poindexter, the undertaker, and two assistants, Old Man Rainey rose out of his coffin. The men placed Rainey gently in a high bed surrounded on three sides by a modest forest of flowers. Gradually the heavy scent, along with the flowers that bore them, disappeared. The thick purple curtains were pulled open allowing in the unadulterated stab of yellow sunlight.
Three days passed before the old man could raise his eyelids. More days crept by before his glassy, vacant stare could perceive more than shadows; before his ears could distinguish between the voices and the thunder beyond the walls. Hours ticked away while long faces looked down on his small, withered frame. Muffled sobs mingled with the patter of rain rising off the back patio.
Most of the faces went unrecognized. Great-grandchildren dressed as if for Easter stood foolishly at his bedside, hesitant to move closer, unsure what to do with their hands. Their mothers and fathers were no less uneasy. After a polite twenty to thirty minutes, they would sneak away backwards, closing the door in their faces. His jaw dropped open, his breathing a dry steady wheeze, Old Man Rainey preferred to sleep through their visits.
Sometimes, when Rainey, Jr. knelt at his bedside, the old man's mouth would twitch. The two faces would stare into each other, as if each beheld a mirror—one gazing into his past, the other into the future. The old man's eyes would, at times, follow his son's movements. Still, at other times his eyes remained vacant, responding only to the sudden shift of shadows. Mostly though, merely to raise his eyelids required a weightlifter's effort. More often than not, even before Rainey, Jr. had retrieved his hat and tiptoed away backwards, the old man would close his eyes, a dry deep-throated wheeze announcing his retreat into sleep.
Regurgitating soup made Rainey stronger. Soups and broths eventually changed his bone-white complexion to a spotty brownish texture. More soups and broths, mashed vegetables and baby foods brought firmness to his stare. His green eye pigment, which once seemed dispersed, coalesced; forming bright green irises with a pinhole pupil in each center. At times the face burdened with sagging flesh, formed a vague smile. Eventually, the neighbor, Mrs. Sims, or someone else dressed in white, could prop Rainey up, wedging him between pillows. From such a position he could give back his own food, spit up his own pills, and grasp confidently the hand of whoever came to hold his.
With the years Rainey learned to walk, to walk without aid of walls or canes; without the aid of arms belonging to patronizing or impatient voices. His white hair grew thicker and spanned the back of his head. His complexion darkened. He entered a hospital where his pacemaker was removed. Another visit and he was rushed to a golf course where he recovered from a near fatal heart attack. From then on his heart remained healthy; destined, as he knew, to remain so till the very end.
Shortly before the heart attack, Rainey watched his wife return from the grave. Two black men in matching jumpsuits unearthed the coffin at the foot of his wife's headstone. Family and friends pulled back their tears as Reverend Leach took back his eulogy and Solomon's psalms. Close friends collected their flowers and wreaths as the casket was raised, carried to a black hearse, and taken away. At Poindexter's Funeral Parlor more words were taken back, more tears pulled in, more flowers gathered before Sarah was finally home to be revitalized by regurgitating soups, broths, baby food and pills.
In the months that followed he watched her in the garden. As winter moved into fall and then on to summer, he watched her back straighten—much like the carnations, chrysanthemums and marigolds straightened their backs and basked their multi-colored faces in the healing rays of the sun, tall and defiant in the face of buzzing backward-flying bees. He watched as more often than not she rested her cane on the low picket fence, hunching over each bush, talking as if to small children and puckering her pale lips as if receiving their kisses. The months passed as he watched from the patio; as her face, absorbing the sun, eventually came to reflect it back; as her slow repetitive speech gradually began to gain coherence.
Rainey's memory was like a crystal ball charting his entire future. He knew it was only a matter of time before he and Mrs. Sims would drive Sarah to the hospital. There she would weaken, nearly die, and, weakening further, recover. Shortly afterward she would suffer her stroke and become whole again.
He knew he would not be there to witness her stroke. He would be enjoying his retirement party. He would be beginning his long career: starting as First National's ulcer-ridden comptroller and winding up—or was it winding down?—as a wet-behind-the-ears jack-of-all-trades at his uncle's grocery store. He saw it all: him seated at the head of a long dark table wearing his gray hand-tailored three-piece suit, his hands cupped respectfully on the table surface. Department heads would retract their guarded praises, disassemble their sugar-coated memories while he wrapped and gave back their gifts. He saw himself unthanking his staff for the years they would subsequently unserve under him. Virginia, his personal secretary, would unkiss him removing the hot pink lipstick he wore from home to tease Sarah. He would untell jokes he would then unrehearse for the next two days. And he would cram his desk with papers, folders, photographs and memorabilia he had earlier hauled out of wastepaper baskets and attic shelves.
Then would come weeks boiling over with tension. Profits would ever so slowly climb and the vice president, unseeking a scapegoat, would withdraw from forcing Rainey's retirement. There would be board meetings begun with red angry faces and department heads taking sides. Shouts, threats, innuendos would be unhurled like knives, losing their sharp edges as conversation fell on such neutral subjects as the doughnuts and the new non-dairy creamer for the coffee.
During those months Rainey would be on edge, a voice inside urging him to quit. And why not? he would think. Junior was a successful developer tearing down towering office buildings while massive amounts of money changed hands. His daughters had had sons and daughters who in turn had had sons and daughters all of whom shouted and ran and would unspill jelly on his carpets during the holidays. His favorite daughter, Peggy, would have returned to him from her car accident. And Nan's separation would dissolve into seventeen years of sometimes happy marriage. So why not quit?
But he knew he would stay. He would stay while the vice president transferred elsewhere. He would stay while several vice presidents transferred, while numerous department heads passed through the bank like consecutive breezes on a windy day. He would stay while his gray hairs grew brown and covered his entire head; while Peg's alcoholic husband retracted his suicide, took back the threats he hurled at Peg and the children, secured his construction job and gradually pulled his life back together.
Yes, Rainey would stay, stepping down a position or two while he watched his children and grandchildren grow younger and happier; watched as his gurgling great-grandchildren, after blissful childhoods, grow smaller, losing teeth, eyesight, hair, until finally they climbed securely inside their mothers' wombs.
He would stay. And one day he would again bury his frustrations in Eudora's bosom. Even now, as he watched Sarah in the garden, he relished the memory of Eudora, her dark red fingernails digging scars in his flesh. He could picture her squirming below him; sweaty, crushed between pillows, her face straining, her bitter lips contorting as she grunted, groaned and ordered him what to do next. He could smell the faint whiff of brandy mingled with her breath mints. What delicious moments those stolen afternoons would bring. What heartache packaged in such pleasure. Oh, there would be guilt, shame, accusations. But what would it matter since all sin was destined to be undone? Sarah would someday forget his transgressions as he would someday forget her melancholy, her headaches, her born-again reluctance in the face of his carnal needs. And there would come a time when Sarah's figure, her breasts, her playful smile and the seductive way she twirled her fingers through her dark curly hair would push him again over the floodgates of desire.
On weekends he would tumble with young Junior in piles of raked leaves. Warm smells would fill the kitchen. Little Peg would be helping Mommy unbake cookies while baby Nan lie in her crib gurgling or dreaming.
And in the world: Japan would have taken back its bombs and the U.S. its bomb. The boys would be home, his brother with them. Hitler's atrocities would once more be carefully guarded secrets eventually to be undone altogether. Stalin and Roosevelt would again be his untainted heroes. And the Great Depression? … that time when Sarah was a skinny idealistic schoolgirl who hung onto his every word; when he was a young man, one of the few lucky enough to have a good job; Sarah sneaking away after dark to eat pears and peaches with him in the pine grove near Echo Lake. Sarah had made those rough times—including his mother's nervous breakdown—bearable. And she would do so again. Only this time his mother would grow happier instead of sadder.
And one day, one day so far in the future it seemed almost unimaginable, his father would return. The nose would be bleeding as he would be dragged home in the middle of the night, dragged by plain clothes city officials. He would be returning from some cell where he would have revived from the “suicidal” wounds to his back and head; those wounds forever gone. Eventually the Marxist slogans his father used to hurl at the silent walls, and the leaflets heralding the rising proletariat—those would vanish. Last to leave would be the angry hunger in his father's tense eyes.
His mother's tired, cynical eyes would grow bright and smile. He would once again hear her scream and giggle as his father chased her around their cramped apartment while he, seated in the middle of the room, applauded in innocent glee. His father would take to juggling apples while his mother, lost in her tasks, would hum in that sweet way she used to when she thought no one was listening.
As to death, what of it? Death was no longer to be feared. Nothing died. And why fear birth? Why fear birth when it trailed such a blissful childhood; when a hugging, nose-rubbing, cheerful mom and a tender, toe-tickling dad were always near to serve your simple, innocent needs—even down to those last moments when you crawl inside your mom's belly and are rocked gently into oblivion.
As Rainey sat on the back patio watching Sarah in the garden, their garden, he watched the autumn leaves trickle upward and attach themselves to the trees. He watched airplanes fly backward and imagined how they would one day become raw metals buried in the earth. He stared into the pale blue sky possessed of a peacefulness that must have always been there. He watched Sarah move serenely from flower to shrub to apple tree and back to flower, much like a queen paying homage to each of her many subjects.
A cat, crouched low in the grass, watched the acrobatics of a low-hanging squirrel; the squirrel no doubt aware its antics were being closely scrutinized. The first time Rainey had encountered this moment—during his journey towards death—he had read it wrong. He had thought the cat desired a kill. Now he understood. It was a game. The squirrel teased, the cat chased, the squirrel got away. The cat tried harder next time. It was a game cat and squirrel devised to amuse themselves. To think Rainey had had to see things backward to finally see them correctly.
Rainey removed the hat shading his vision and looked towards the sun. In a few hours it would set in the east. Like a silent bomb it would explode in crimsons and purples, a golden yellow reflecting off the cloud's underbelly. One day, Rainey thought, a skinny sad-eyed man would climb down from his cross and carry it away to be made into a tree. After talking backwards for three years, the wise bearded fool would disappear into the wilderness, and rightly so. Rainey smiled at the thought. Removing a wineglass from his lips, he leaned back and smiled into the warm reassuring sunglow. Overhead a flock of geese had formed a V, no doubt returning from some long journey in search of a warmer climate.