On Its Way to Some Long Fable

Ellen McGrath Smith

It's better later at night because the man who acts like we're living in the dust bowl Great Depression isn't there to do his wornout Grapes of Wrath routine. As he is by day: a timeclock in his head makes him show up at the Sunoco first thing in the morning, stand by the door, and accost everyone who approaches with the line, "Can a man get a bite to eat?" No, it's better now, at four a.m., the dew and yellow lights a salutary bath on your skin as you stick the pump in, side-glancing at somebody crossing the street now, walking slowly, intent on his cell phone, the way a friar might walk a garden with a breviary. In the car, your passenger is fingering your CDs. It's your daughter. She's 15, and she's shaken you awake at 3 a.m. because the boils were unbearable. Your husband slept through it entirely, being in the Yeungling blackout that has more or less become his default. Across the lot, the Air machine still runs on someone's misbegotten quarters, and the hose is on its way to some long fable of a snake. And, really, you can't remember the last time you were out this late, or this early, depending on your perspective. You made her part her legs and show you. You knew what they were. She's only 15, and you had no idea. This is what's chilling your body right now, though you know that it should be her pain, her discomfort, the fact that she will have this for her whole adult life, which apparently has already begun. You should be thinking what you'll grab from the shelves at the 24-Hour pharmacy, nothing that can make it end—only a powerful doctor's pen can make that happen, and only for a while—but something that will give her comfort until the doctor's office. All you can think of is making a baking soda paste, but would that work? And if it would, you didn't need to leave home for that. Didn't the two of you just bake 2 dozen sugar cookies last week, squeezing pink and green smilies all over them, for her swim team bake sale?  You think about chlorine as disinfectant. Other things to help her feel better will offer themselves when the two of you walk through the bright empty aisles of the store. You suddenly crave malted milk balls. You crave your father, the minister, who's dead. It has been so long since she needed you so desperately. The Air machine shuts off and all you can hear now is the raindrop-on-leaf sound of her fingers texting; the light from the phone in her lap turns the whole lower side of her face the kind of green they use to color pictures of aliens. And it seems only yesterday that you could stick your nose inside the partly opened window, say that very thing, and both of you would laugh and laugh and keep on playing with that light.