Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va, USA, began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over a 140 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. A collection of his short stories was published by Clarendon House Books. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S.. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.
Lighter Than Air
By Steve Carr
Aunt Roberta’s house was as close to the train tracks as the law allowed. The trains made her entire house shake, causing anything not held down to fall onto the floor. Her cupboards were full of chipped and cracked cups and dishes. As each train passed, pots and pans in the closet banged against each other and the pictures hanging on the walls throughout the house rattled. There was no regular schedule to anticipate a train going by; they suddenly appeared at all hours of the day and night and a few minutes later were gone.
While standing at the kitchen window I watched a long line of empty boxcars pass by, pulled by an engine that was noisier than most. Its whistle screeched non-stop. The boxcars rocked back and forth on the rails, threatening to tip over. Bits of hay and dust blew out of them, mixing with the dirt clouds stirred up by the wheels. The repetitive clacking of the wheels was hypnotic.
“It’s been such a long time since you came for a visit,” Aunt Roberta said. She was sitting at the kitchen table cutting fresh chicken kidneys into small pieces and putting them in a pan of water.
Her voice seemed so distant and vague, as if I was hearing her in a dream. Her next statement yanked me out of my reverie.
“I thought you had forgotten about us,” she said.
I turned from the window. Her dog, Duty, a brown and white mutt nearly fourteen years old, was laying across my aunt’s bare feet. Its pink tongue was hanging out and it was breathing hard. There was a small pool of drool on the floor around its mouth. Its eyes were white with age and it stared blankly out from under the table.
“Why would you have thought that?” I said.
“We didn’t hear from you while you were traveling the world,” she said.
“I was certain I sent you several postcards,” I said. “
Aunt Roberta pulled her feet out from under Duty’s body, stood up, and then carried the pan to the stove. She turned on the burner and placed the pan on it.
“Who are the kidneys for?” I said.
“Duty,” she said. “Boiled kidneys is all she’ll eat now.” Turning from the stove, she said, “You flew in airplanes, didn’t you?”
“Yes I did.”
She spread her arms out and flapped them up and down as she whirled around several times. Breathless, she sat down. “I often feel like I can fly, but not in an airplane, but like a butterfly with big, beautiful wings.”
Duty crawled onto her feet and laid down.
“I wish I could fly for real,” she said. “Don’t you?”
Uncle Junior sat in the reclining chair in the living room smoking a cigar. After each puff he took the cigar from his mouth and rolled it between his thumb and index finger, examining it closely. A cloud of smoke encircled his head. The room smelled of stale tobacco. A baseball game was playing on the television, but he wasn’t paying attention to it. He had parted the curtains and stared out the window at the next door neighbor, Mr. Tompkins, who was mowing his lawn.
I sat down on the overstuffed, floral patterned sofa and took a piece of hard candy from an etched glass candy dish that sat in the middle of the coffee table. I popped the candy into my mouth and as the peppermint exploded in my mouth, a flood of memories came back to me. This was the same kind of candy Aunt Roberta gave me to get me to behave in church when I was a young boy.
“Why are you watching Mr. Tompkins?” I said. I swirled the candy around in my mouth. It clicked against my teeth.
“He’s been putting out poison to kill your aunt’s dog,” he said.
Surprised, I stammered, “Are you sure? Why would he want to poison Duty?”
“She nipped him on the ankle a few months back and he won’t let it go,” he said. “He brings it up every time he sees me.”
“Putting out poison like that is illegal,” I said. “You could have him arrested.”
Uncle Junior closed the curtain and took a draw on the cigar. “Well, I haven’t actually seen him do it, but Roberta says she has.”
Aunt Roberta entered the room and stood in front of the fireplace. She held her hands over the fake logs sitting in a metal cradle. “I wish it was winter so that we could light the fire,” she said. She turned and looked at me and said, “You’ve missed so many winters while you were away.”
“He had winters in other places,” Uncle Junior said.
Duty ambled in, and keeping her nose to the floor, made her way to my aunt. The dog rested her body against my aunt’s legs. It looked like it was on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion. My aunt reached down and patted Duty’s head. “You need to be taken outside, don’t you ol’ girl?”
I stood up. “I’ll take her.”
My aunt sniggered. “She won’t go out the door with anyone but me.”
Aunt Roberta raised her arms, spread them, and slowly flapped them as she went to the door and opened it. Duty followed. They went out the door, my aunt still waving her arms.
I slept in my Aunt’s guestroom at the end of the hallway on the second floor. The window by the bed looked out on the railroad tracks. Nothing in the room had changed in the five years I had been away. The same patchwork quilt, made by my grandmother, was on the bed. No new family photographs hanging on the walls had been added to the ones that had been there.
When there was a knock on the door, I sat up on the bed. “Come in.”
Uncle Junior opened the door and peered in. “I saw light under your door. You doing okay?.” He walked in and sat down on the chair by the dresser.
I swung my legs around and sat on the edge of the mattress. “I was just laying here thinking. It feels a little strange being back. I feel guilty for not being around when Mom and Dad died.”
Uncle Junior took a cigar from his shirt pocket and stuck it in his mouth. “You couldn’t have prevented the accident. At least they put the drunk driver that killed them in prison.” He took the cigar from his mouth, stared at it for a moment, then put it back in his shirt pocket. “I guess you’ve noticed that Duty is nearing the end of her life.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” I said. “She doesn’t seem to be suffering though.”
He rubbed the stubble on his cheek and said, “With animals it’s sometimes hard to know how they’re feeling. I’m worried about how your aunt will feel when the time comes to put Duty down if the dog doesn’t die naturally. Duty is practically blind, has lost most of her teeth, and can barely walk a few yards without losing her breath, but she keeps hanging on. Your aunt loves that dog even more than she loves me.”
“I’m back for good,” I said. “If the time comes that Duty needs to be euthanized, I’ll help in any way I can.”
“That’s good to know,” he said. “Your aunt isn’t a strong woman.”
Uncle Junior stood up. “We can take a ride to the cemetery tomorrow so that you can visit your parents’ graves.”
“I’d like that,” I said.
“Don’t stay up too late,” he said, and then he left the room, closing the door behind him.
I got off the bed and went to the window just in time to watch a train pass by. Movement near the tracks caught my eye. In the darkness I saw Aunt Roberta standing near the tracks with her arms raised, flapping them as the boxcars rumbled by. Duty was at her side. Uncle Junior came out the back door, went to my aunt and wrapped his arms around her and led her back into the house. Duty followed.
Sitting in the back seat of the car, Aunt Roberta had one arm sticking out of the window, waving it in the rushing wind. Duty had her head lying in my aunt’s lap.
Uncle Junior chewed on an unlit cigar as he steered his old Oldsmobile. Gospel music was playing on the radio.
Through my open window I watched the scenery as we left the small town where my aunt and uncle lived, traveled down a stretch of highway, and into the city. The sudden noises—car horns honking, police sirens shrieking, jackhammers pounding the cement—frightened Duty, who began to whimper and whine.
“There, there, you silly ol’ thing, it’s just noise,” my aunt said as she rolled up the window and then petted the dog.
I too rolled up my window, sorry to diminish the distraction the cacophony provided that kept me from thinking about where we were going. As we turned off a busy street and entered into the cemetery through large, black, ornate gates, grief and the rising taste of my aunt’s waffles nearly choked me.
Uncle Junior slowed the car and we drove past willow trees, headstones, mausoleums and a pond where swans glided on the bright green surface. When he pulled the car alongside the immaculately groomed lawn I quickly opened the door and threw up in the lush grass.
Aunt Roberta reached over the back of the seat and patted my back. “Their troubles are over,” she said. “They’re now lighter than air.”
We got out of the car, with my aunt holding tightly onto Duty’s leash, and went to my parents’ graves that were side by side under the overhanging branches of a large oak tree. I knelt down, not to pray, but to let them know that I had returned.
In the living room Uncle Junior sat in his chair smoking a cigar. Wisps of smoke curled around his head. The window was open and the night air blowing in was moist and fragranced with the scent of dandelions. He was watching the television and I was looking at apartment listings in the local paper.
Aunt Roberta came into the room from the kitchen. With her arms outstretched she twirled about several times. “Tonight I feel like a hummingbird,” she said.
“You’re as mad as a hatter,” Uncle Junior said with a chuckle.
She sat on the arm of the sofa and picked at a scab on her forearm. “Time passes so slowly during the summer, don’t you think?” she said.
The whistle of a train screamed from the tracks.
Noticing her absence, I said, “Where’s Duty?”
“You have to let the things you love spread their wings and fly away,” she said.
My uncle slowly stood up. “Roberta, where’s Duty?” he said gently.
She stared at the drop of blood on the open sore as tears began to roll down her cheeks.
Uncle Junior nodded for me to follow as he left the room and went into the kitchen. Duty wasn’t there. He opened the door and there in the moonlight lay Duty’s body a few feet from the tracks. I followed my uncle out. Her body was in the gravel, twisted and broken.
Before moving out I was helping Uncle Junior clean out their basement. Under a box of broken dishes and cups I found several of the postcards that I had sent to Aunt Roberta. I untied the blue ribbon that held them together and looked at the pictures on them. Small birds had been drawn on the images of the Roman Coliseum, the Sydney Opera House and Chichen Itza.