I can hear their voices through the waiting room walls. My daughter, with her big personality and pearl-speckled beret, making the dental assistants and hygienists laugh. That baby girl came fast the first day of winter. A hard, cold day of gray asphalt and Canada Dry billboards. My husband speeding through the loops and turns. She almost arrived in the car, and then again in the parking lot.
And now I wait at the dentist’s office in a time of quarantine when we’re all supposed to be safe inside. She has a dental emergency, but no one would know. She’s talking and laughing and telling about the fable she read this morning where a man gave his eye for the waters of wisdom. “He ripped his eye out! That is not a story a child should read,” she says.
This morning driving into town, there were frozen drones in the sky. Blinking out a code of green and gold. A spring code, I thought. The redbuds were ablaze and peaks of new growth showed on the trees. The streets were empty all the way to town.
There are birds outside the waiting room window. I watch them from a worn leather sofa. I’m the only one here, so I’ve spread out. My book and phone and backpack take up an entire coffee table. I hear the birds calling to each other from the lawn to the trees. The universal code of blackbirds. I translate their backwards calls. Back through the mulberry bush of my childhood, where my brother and I took turns hiding between the leaved curtains. I was a slow-to-warm child, a nervous girl. But that day I made my first girlfriend. We chased her brother pelting him with balls of clay dirt. He swung a rope in the air like a cowboy. There are summers I want to remember.
And then there are seasons I want to forget but can’t because I’m pulled into them daily. There was the day in early fall when I was called from my typing class to my high school’s main office. I left my typewriter in mid-sentence and didn’t return to it for a week. There was a call waiting for me on the school counselor’s phone. My mother needed to check me out because there had been an emergency.
In the car on the way home from school, my mother told me my aunt had been found in the woods behind her home, slumped under a tree. She had been missing when her husband woke, and we all knew something had happened to her.
Self-inflicted was the polite way the newspaper phrased her death a couple of days later. My mother was angry that a story was printed about her sister. She called the paper. “Why was this news?” She said. “How cruel,” she said.
Three years later when my brother died in that same self-inflicted way, there was no news story.
When we leave the dentist’s office, the blackbirds are gone. The clock in the car says only 45 minutes have gone by since we pulled into the parking lot. We pass a couple of cars on the way home. People heading out for grocery trips or maybe driving into work. Some factories are still open but on a staggered schedule. I sing along to Joni Mitchell’s California, and my daughter hums with her numb mouth. She has always imagined singing this song in her school’s talent show.
Back home my daughter has a pillow of cotton gauze where her baby tooth used to be. I make her mashed potatoes for lunch and add extra butter and a little vegetable stock. She goes to the freezer expecting ice for the swelling but we’re fresh out, and no one has remembered to turn on the icemaker.
There is new gravel in our driveway. Half inch crushed limestone from the quarry down the road. It’s like we crushed up the core of our land and raked it like a long carpet through the woods. The new gravel makes everything look bright and new. The trees are greener, the sky bluer. The space where we park our cars like a pastoral painting. The ramps that grow along the roadside are up and the bloodroot and wood anemone are blooming. I know if I hike off into the woods there will be morels growing where once we found a frozen dove in the leaf litter.
Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pigeonholes, Elm Leaves Journal, The Florida Review, JMWW, Glimmer Train, Gone Lawn, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her book of flash fiction, Tiny Doors, is available from Another New Calligraphy. She lives in East Tennessee with her family.