by Dave Gregory
Wind increases, carrying the smell of rain. Branches shake, heavy leaves rustle and tilt upward, revealing glossy undersides. Five blocks from home, yet only three from the office – where I stormed out early, determined never to return – I’ve no choice but to continue homeward.
A shimmering ray of sunlight passes overhead and sweeps across the lawn of my former school, where my name is on a plaque in the main hall. For diligence. When the gap in the clouds closes, the sky grows darker than expected for a late summer afternoon.
The first drop gently taps my shoulder but soon a rush of falling water closes in. With the school entrance exposed to the elements, and adjacent pines bearing branches too low for shelter, I sprint toward a giant Norway maple on the front lawn of the first house beyond the school. Once underneath, I turn to watch grass glisten and pavement darken with wetness. Fat raindrops splatter, bouncing off the street and sidewalk, creating a knee high layer of mist. Though I’m protected by a canopy of dark purple foliage, water will eventually filter through, pool on lower leaves and release in rivulets on my head.
Surveying my temporary shelter, I notice an old swing – one thick wooden board, a hole drilled in either end, suspended by white rope. A ghostly, blonde-haired memory reaches through the decades. Grade five. From this same tree, I diligently pushed her on the swing for a solid forty minutes. I thought we shouldn’t be there but she claimed to have permission because her initials were carved in the wooden seat. I could look once she left, if I didn’t believe her.
Decades later, I’m compelled to scan the oak plank again. And there they are, dirty and worn, but readable. The letters: ‘AL.’
Above driving rain comes the rubber-soled slap and splash of little feet. A young girl arrives, wearing a full-length, ivory raincoat with a pink belt and matching rubber boots. Flinging back her hood, she reveals long blonde hair, damp and wild from the storm.
“This rain is biblical,” she shouts, shaking water from her jacket. “I was coming from Tommy’s house and his mother warned me not to go with the storm brewing but I thought I could run faster than the rain, like that time when I was coming from the dock at Laurel Creek summer camp.”
She inhales, having delivered the run-on sentence in one breath. I’ve never seen her before and have no idea what she’s talking about. Her voice rings with laughter.
Seeing the swing for the first time, she skips toward it: “This will be fun. I like swings. You can push me until the rain stops in seventeen minutes.”
It’s a very specific interval and I’d ask her about it if I could find an opening. She drops to her knees to read graffiti on the swing, touching each letter with her thumb.
“An entire encyclopedia has been written on this thing. The ropes look brand new but this board has been here a hundred years and it must be my swing because, look, my initials are carved here, so deep I can put my pinky inside. A for Audrey, L for Lynne.”
“Is Amber your mother?” I sputter. It’s a name I haven’t heard, or thought of, since she moved away forty years ago.
Eyes wide with surprise, Audrey blinks, then rises. Dusty knees disappear beneath the length of her coat. Expecting her to say her mother’s name is “mummy,” I’m unprepared for the sting of her reply.
“Amber was my grandmother. She went to heaven last spring.”
I am fifty but suddenly feel three decades older. Though eager to know how Amber died, I don’t want to ask this vibrant young girl to relive the experience.
“Did you know my nana?”
“I went to school with her, right there.” I point to the two-story, yellow brick building, its facade wet with rain, ‘AD 1928’ etched into the cornerstone.
“Do you remember her when she was my age?”
Passing Courtland School, walking to and from work each day, memories flood my mind – lessons from teachers who’ve died, moments shared with friends who’ve drifted away, jokes, games, joy – but Amber somehow escaped attention. I vaguely recall her arriving mid-year in second or third grade, then vanishing into obscurity when she left before grade five ended.
I’m about to say “barely” but instead “marigolds” leaves my lips. I’ve no idea where the word came from until an image forms of ten-year-old Amber holding a bouquet in her sweaty hand. A forgotten door swings open in my mind and a cavalcade of images charges through. Describing what I see brings transformation: talkative little Audrey grows silent, her loquaciousness passes to me.
“Marigolds were her favorite flower and she liked climbing trees, until she fell from one in her best friend’s backyard. She loved Judy Blume books. We checked her desk after she moved, hoping she left one behind. In the pond, in Belmont Park, she caught tadpoles. For two weeks she brought drawings to school, showing the changes: tails grew, black faded to green, hind legs emerged, then tails shrank when forelegs appeared. They all died but she told everyone she set them free. Her most treasured socks had a bumble bee pattern but she stopped wearing them after being stung by a wasp that lived beneath the eaves of her house. Kathy was the family cat but your grandmother called her: Kitty-Katy-Cat, Silly, Fraidy-Cat. Amber knew all the lyrics to Ruby Tuesday but Delta Dawn was her favorite song. She watched Gilligan’s Island after school. She wanted to look like Mary Ann, dress like Ginger and be rich as Mrs. Howell.”
Audrey’s eyes sparkle with each revelation. She laughs, mimes falling from a tree, holds her hands as though turning pages in a book. She hops like a frog, pretends to feed a cat, sings about catching dreams before they slip away, and does a shoulder swinging, duck-lipped pout before crooning: “The movie star.” I wonder how she’s familiar with songs written, and shows cancelled, before her grandmother was born.
I keep talking, Audrey keeps listening and acting out. Thimblefuls of rain begin leaking through. One splashes Audrey’s face while she looks up to imagine an airplane flying her grandmother to Florida for March break in 1979.
“Sorry Mister, I gotta go,” Audrey interrupts, wiping her cheeks and eyes.
The rain has tapered. I wonder if anyone ever kept the spirited girl quiet so long. She bows, curtsies, then bursts into a giggling run before disappearing down the side street.
Moving to the swing, I bury the carved initials beneath me. The supporting branch creaks as the tree rains a mixture of water and memory. It keeps flowing until sunlight pokes through the clouds, seventeen minutes after it disappeared.