|Arrivals and Departures
Copyright 2006 Angus Woodward
Margaret and Henry are crossing the back yard with buckets in their hands, Margaret in the lead. Annoyed, she stops and stoops to look at a small piece of foil that's been trampled in the grass. For one moment it could have been an ancient silver coin. Henry stops just behind Margaret, as she knew he would. He stoops too, fascinated. Margaret stands and runs the rest of the way to the swing set, Henry close on her heels.
She stands there with Henry, on the gravel under the back yard swing set. She scans the ground. The best stones will be by the pole, she thinks, and goes to squat between the pole and the little slide. She starts poking at the pebbles.
Henry sits down hard on his butt, in the middle of the gravel patch. He immediately picks up a brown rock with funny black marks in it. “I found one,” he calls to Margaret. He holds the rock up in his six -year-old, five-fingered hands, and looks for her. “Where are you? I found one.” He drops it in his bucket with a loud clank.
Margaret pushes a layer of stones aside and finds a piece of yellow quartz with fine cracks in it. “It's not clear,” she mutters, and drops it. Margaret is eight, and resents being given a silly task to keep her busy. It sounded like a good idea at first, when Mother gave them each a pail and sent them outside. “Bring me some beautiful stones,” she said, then went upstairs to do her sewing. Now Margaret hears Henry say, “I found one. Here's another. Where are you ?” and two clanks in his bucket. She lifts a piece of dusty pink granite up close to her eye, trying to see into a tiny fissure. Should be bright pink inside, she thinks, and drops the stone on the ground.
Henry scoops up as many rocks as he can from between his legs. He puts his nose down in them. Some are gray and smooth, some pale sandstone, some just old bubbly chunks of concrete. He knows that smooth ones were polished by dinosaur seas, that you can write on the sidewalk with sandstone, and that bubbly ones used to be buildings.
Henry lifts the stones higher, holds them against the sun and lets them slip through his hands. Most of them land in the bucket with an awful clatter.
“Stop it!” Margaret says, standing up.
“Oh, there you are,” Henry says. He squints up at her. “Look.” He lifts his bucket.
“Wow,” Margaret says dully.
“I haven't found any yet.” Margaret starts to wander away, moving onto the grass, angling toward the bright white house. She hopes that Henry will stay on the gravel.
Henry gets up and runs after her with his bucket clutched in one hand. “Look at these,” he tells her.
She glances. “Too many.”
“I like them all.” Henry drops the bucket and trots back to the swing set. “Let me see yours.” He picks up her bucket. He looks into it, turns it over and shakes it. “Where are they?”
There is a familiar movement behind the glass of the patio door, a familiar shape in the corner of his eye. Mother opens the door and steps out; Henry drops Margaret's bucket.
Margaret shades her eyes and watches Mother. Mother is saying she has to go to the supermarket, and that they’ll have to come too.
“Okay,” Henry says, and runs past Margaret. She stares at his little pink feet as he races across the lawn. She knows what he’ll do. He’ll ride in the grocery cart. He’ll ask for toy cars and marshmallows. He’ll talk to the ladies that go by and let them tell him he's cute. Halfway through he’ll get bored and start asking to go home. He’ll fall asleep in the car on the way back home. He’ll refuse to carry anything in and get sent to his room. But just now the idea of going somewhere, anywhere, sends him running to the car.
“Okay, Margaret? Get ready,” Mother calls. Margaret nods. She stays still on the lawn until Mother closes the door and disappears into the dim indoor light. Margaret runs to the side of the house and crawls under the bushes, into a graybranch greenleaf cave where no one has ever found her.
She sits down Indian style and tries not to move at all. She hears Mother's keys and her step. She hears a car door, Henry's voice, then Mother's step, Mother calling her name. The front door opens, and she hears her mother calling faintly inside. The car door closes again and Henry starts calling outside. His little footsteps go by not three feet from her cave as he circles the house.
The front door slams. Mother calls Henry. Two car doors open and shut, and the car starts. Margaret hears the car back up, whining, click into gear, and roll away, fading.
She curls up on the leaves on the floor of her cave, thinking she’ll stay until after they get back. She closes her eyes, hoping to fall asleep, hoping to dream of undiscovered treasure.
Henry, already a quarter of a mile away, looks out the window: sun-struck trees, brick houses, white houses, a kid on a bike. I'm bored, he thinks, wishing Margaret had come along.
Margaret does her best to ignore the bus station, which is as gray, as dingy, and as loony as any other big-city bus station. She stands in line at the ticket window in front of Henry, Mother, and Papa, her back to them. She has her weight on one leg, staring forward, trying to suck her cheeks in. She fingers the handle of her cardboard portfolio, wishing it were leather.
Her destination is Kingsville, far inland. She knows the town is probably small and drab, but the arts academy prep school will be its saving grace. It is prestigious, and Margaret is sure that a few geniuses teach there.
Henry stands behind Margaret, thinking how cool it will be to have a sister who is a famous artist. He finds himself staring at the nape of her neck, where her dark hair starts sweeping away, up into a ponytail. The collar of her purple sweater rests just below her hairline. She looks like an artist already, he thinks. She’ll skip two grades and go right to New York, then Paris. Now that Picasso's dead they're looking for great artists. Henry thinks Margaret looks like the perfect candidate.
He slowly, carefully, puts his index finger on the bare skin at the back of her neck. He wiggles it slightly. “Bee,” he whispers, “a bee.” This is an old joke between them.
Margaret slaps Henry's hand away. “Stop it,” she says, not turning all the way around.
Henry looks at Mother, who is busy talking to Papa about something. He shrugs.
“They have a really nice German restaurant in Kingsville, I heard,” Henry says, to the back of Margaret's head.
“I'm not interested in Kingsville. I'm interested in the academy,” Margaret says, to the side.
“Go,” Henry says. The last man between Margaret and the window has stepped away.
“One for Kingsville, one way,” Margaret says to the ticket man. She gives him forty dollars, and he gives her a ticket.
She turns to Henry, clutching the ticket. “I'm going now. The bus is boarding,” she says.
She seems to be talking to his shirt buttons. Henry nods. “Write to me, okay?” he says, to the collar of her sweater.
“Of course. If anything worthwhile happens,” she says. Margaret lets Mother and Papa hug and kiss her and say all the things they were bound to say. Henry stands to the side, watching Margaret bear it impatiently. At last that's done with, and he walks with her out into the cold. The bus is running. The driver takes her case and portfolio and leaves the door open for her.
Margaret stands there, looking at Henry. He's tall for fourteen and uncannily thin. He is so goofy and stupid about so many things, she thinks, and so smart in school. He doesn't know where to look-- she watches Henry's eyes go here and there, barely grazing her face.
Henry tries to imagine what it will be like for her up there. She's pretty, he thinks; she’ll be popular. He glances into the bus behind her, at the flattened, worn out driver's seat, the big steering wheel, the little fan. People are getting onto the bus behind her, and he is curious, imagining Margaret sitting next to each one as they go by.
“It's too bad you won't be here for my birthday,” he says, as a way of beginning.
Margaret's glee at having found an elegant escape is washed away by her sudden shame over running out on Henry. He is so clumsy and has so much to learn, and she's abandoning him. It chokes her. She steps up and hugs him tight. “I’ll call you. I’ll write,” she manages to say. Henry's hands touch her back lightly.
Squeeze, dammit, she thinks. “Okay,” he says. At last she lets him go, and he can breathe again. Settle down, I’ll see you at Thanksgiving, he thinks. The loudspeaker garbles something about Kingsville. “You better go,” he says, noticing that the driver is in his seat now, gazing down at them.
“Okay,” Margaret says. She grips Henry's hand, then trots up into the bus. The big shiny door swings closed with a sucking sound, sealing her in, and the bus slowly backs away. Henry looks for her in the windows, but they are all faceless black glass.
Margaret and Henry sit alone together in a crowd of strangers, sharing the queer hushed atmosphere of the big airport waiting area. The summer is over, finally, Henry thinks. It was a weird summer, with Margaret back home one last time before college. This summer, Margaret swore at Mother and broke one of her best plates in one swift, thrilling moment. Henry can't remember what they were arguing about, but he can picture Margaret's hand coming down with that plate, her eyes closing as it hit the counter.
For the first half of the summer, Margaret was elated over her new friend Harold, and she talked Henry's ear off while the two of them sucked peanut butter off of spoons in the kitchen late at night. She asked Henry what he thought of Harold, and he shrugged and said, “He's pretty cool.” Henry listened to Harold rattling the trellis as he sneaked in and out of her window; he listened to their passionate motions in the room next door, and to that final urgent fight in the living room. When Harold came up to Henry's room with a bleeding eyebrow and asked for a ride home, Henry shrugged and said, “Sure.” For the last month or so of the summer, Margaret sulked and swore at people, broke things, and ran up to her room to be alone. She got thin and pale.
Henry had crushes on three different girls over the summer. Margaret can't think of all of the their names now, only the last two, Marie and Liz. All three were blonde and pretty and said they had heard so much about her. When he fell for the first one, Margaret asked Henry what she was like. He said she was pretty cool and amazingly pretty. When she didn't fall for him and he began to long for Marie, Margaret asked about both girls. Henry said the first one didn't work out but they were still friends. He said Marie was pretty cool and incredibly beautiful. They talked mostly about Harold after that.
“I like these chairs,” Henry says now. Margaret glances at him. The chairs are these odd, orange fake-leather deals, kind of like little hammocks or hung diapers. Margaret thinks they're decadent; she hates them.
“I wonder if they have these in every airport,” he says across to her, rocking from side to side. “When you get to the airport in San Francisco, write me a letter. Tell me if they have these things.” Henry giggles at himself.
“They're hideous,” Margaret says.
“They're kind of fun,” Henry says. “I think they're neat.”
“You think everything is neat.” Margaret yawns and looks at her watch.
“I don't think murder is neat, or war. I don't think nuclear weapons are neat, or hunting. Have you ever heard me say injustice was neat?”
Oh come off it, Margaret thinks. Henry giggles. “Now these are neat,” he says, making the orange vinyl diaper sway. A loudspeaker announces the beginning of boarding for Margaret's
flight. She stands up. Henry stands and puts a hand on the strap of her shoulder bag. Margaret pulls it away from him.
They move into a crowd next to the sloping, crooked hallway down to the plane. Henry looks around.
“Well,” Margaret says.
“San Francisco sounds like a neat place,” Henry says. “Maybe I'll go to college there too.”
“Oh please,” Margaret says. She applied to twelve schools and got into all of them. She took months to decide which one was best. “You don't just go to any old school,” she says. Henry shrugs. They call Margaret's row, and she begins to inch toward the gate.
“Okay,” Henry says. He offers her a hand to shake. Margaret looks at the hand. This was our last summer together, she thinks. Henry's hair is messy; he is still a gawky kid, not quite as thin. But she can tell that this year, his junior year, the girls will start to take note. He’ll pine for some girl, as usual, only this time the girl will end up returning the favor. He’ll be in paradise, she thinks. Someone's going to love him back. Someone's going to kiss those quiet, smiling lips, going to stroke that baby-fine hair.
Margaret takes Henry's hand. “Be careful,” she says, and turns away.
Henry stands there for a long time, first watching her trot down the long corridor, then leaning on the window to see the plane back away. It taxis here and there, following some mysterious instinct, then gathers speed and bounds into the air.
Margaret squats in the back room of her apartment in San Francisco, the room she converted to a studio. She hung white sheets on the walls so she could fling paint around without worrying about the landlord. The sheets are caked mostly with orange and blue and black, some white and some yellow. There is a big naked window facing a scruffy back yard. The glass is spattered with paint.
She shuffles through a pile of stretched canvasses on the floor, going over the work she did this past semester. She lifts each one and tilts it toward the light, then sets it in a second pile. A half finished painting--a crude expressionist rendering of a pepper grinder--sits on the easel by the window.
Meanwhile, Henry is in the driver's seat of a slightly rumpled blue VW station wagon with a map of San Francisco on his lap. The cargo area, the back seat, and the seat next to him are all crammed with cartons, bags, books, and loose objects--a radio, a Mickey Mouse phone, stereo speakers, a football, tapes. The engine seems to be breathing a little too hard, and the brakes are acting funny. He keeps going, gliding up and down steep hills, looking for Margaret's house.
Henry is glad to be in San Francisco at last, glad the car survived the 1800 mile trip, glad to be about to start college, and glad to be nearer to Margaret than he's been in two years. He's also glad that he's found a good rock station already and that they're playing an old Stones song.
He sees a sign bearing the name of Margaret's street flash by, and gets ready to make a U-turn.
Margaret looks at her necklace watch and swears. She hesitates, puts all the paintings in the second pile, then stands and trots out to the front room. She splits the curtains. Just as she peers out, Henry's old car eases to a stop on the cracked concrete driveway.
She squeals and runs to the door. She opens it and watches Henry unbuckle himself and open the car door. He puts one bare foot on the pavement. His head disappears behind the dash, then pops up again. He drops two shoes on the ground and slips them on. He still hasn't looked up at her. Margaret is a little blinded by the sun off the driveway, by the cloudless sky, by the shimmering leaves of an aspen tree across the street, and by the easy, strange sight of her brother. She runs down the front steps, feeling her way, not quite seeing the ground.
Henry straightens and smiles at her, a smile that strikes her as the warm smile of a very polite young man. She stops short. “Henry,” she says, as if naming him for the first time. She takes a step forward and hugs him fiercely, then steps back. She squints up at him.
“I'm so glad to see you,” he says. “How are you ?” Margaret nods, smiling. “Come on,” she says, and leads him by the hand into the house. His hand feels stronger than it ever has. She lets him loose in the kitchen. “Ice water ?” she says.
“That'd be great.” He looks around her kitchen, at the pottery on top of all the cabinets, sketches taped up everywhere or just lying around, black and white photos of people he doesn't recognize doing ridiculous things. “I like your place,” he says.
“Thanks.” Margaret's voice is muffled behind the freezer door. Henry looks at the table. He sits down and picks up the wooden pepper grinder in front of him. He twists it once. “These are neat,” he says. “Where'd you get it?”
Margaret sets a glass of water down in front of her brother. “Oh, somewhere,” she says. “Excuse me.”
She goes down the short hall and into the bathroom. She shuts the door and turns on the sink faucet. She leans on the sink and looks at the wall.
Henry's footsteps go by outside, heading for her studio. She turns the water off.
“What are these ?” Henry calls. Margaret knows he's poking through her paintings, the ones she was about to take out to the garbage can. “Do I get one?”
Margaret pushes off the sink and presses her fingers into her eyes, preparing herself, getting ready to go back out there, to face her brother and make it through the next three days of his stay.
Margaret seats herself on the steps of the museum where she works, in front of one of the big stone cats--stylized panthers in black stone. Below her, the street throbs with traffic and pedestrians. Above her, the skies are baroque gray and white clouds that seem to boil. It is very humid, here in the South. She hopes it won't be too humid for Henry and his fiancee, who are due any minute, fresh from the airport, fresh from their Midwestern city. She looks at her watch: five-twenty.
Henry is in the driver's seat of a soapy-smelling red Ford. Cold air brushes his face, drying the sweat on his upper lip and forehead. Cold air also blows on the striking face of Julia, who sits with her eyes closed in the passenger seat. She is so pretty, Henry thinks. He puts his hand on her knee, and her eyes open. She smiles.
“Is your sister nice?” she asks.
“ Sure. She's a little different, I guess. You'll like her.”
“Artsy?” Julia says.
“Yeah, I guess. Yeah.” Henry nods.
“She sounds like a pretty cool person.”
“She is pretty cool,” Henry says.
A green sign, bearing an arrow and a symbol resembling a Greek temple, directs them to turn right at this light. Henry can just see the museum from here.
Margaret stands up. She looks down at her watch. Five-thirty. She starts walking carefully down the long shallow steps, sure that she will get to the curb at the precise moment that Henry and Julia pull up. She puts each foot out as gracefully as she can and lets her knee relax. More like falling than stepping, she thinks; a series of little falls. She watches her feet, in black flats. They push her skirt out of the way, fall to the next step.
On the sidewalk she looks up. A red Ford pulls over at the curb, and she can see Henry's hand waving to her. A stunning woman looks at her from the passenger seat, openly curious, smiling.
Margaret climbs into the back seat. It smells of soap. “Hi, Margaret!” Henry says, twisting in his seat to see her. “Ready for some great lasagna? Which way is it?”
“Go straight,” Margaret says. Julia's hair is so black, she thinks. So straight and shiny.
Julia turns around. “I've heard so much about you, Margaret!” she says, smiling. Her eyebrows look strong and black too.
“Oh, same here,” Margaret says. She tries to smile, but feels more like sulking. She leans back and slumps in her seat, looks at her shoes.
“Are you hungry?” Henry asks.
“Yes,” Margaret says.
“Me too,” Henry says.
“Me too,” Julia says.
“I could eat a horse,” Henry says. “In Carbonara sauce, of course.”
Julia gives him a blank look. Where is the spark? Margaret wonders. But she sits up and puts her face near both of theirs. “With garlic bread and antipasto, of course,” she says brightly. Julia and Henry laugh and laugh.
Margaret peers at her shoes, red flats. She points her toes, and the tiny wrinkles on her ankles smooth out. She starts flipping through the pages of last month's Art Forum again, wishing her chair were not sticky vinyl.
The plane is late, as planes always are. Margaret has already studied the faces across from her until they look ugly and familiar. She has already walked down and bought a milk at the snack bar, and has already drunk it. She watched planes land and take off for a few minutes. She sat back down and watched two little kids on the other side of the waiting area, but they were bored too and didn't do anything interesting.
They should be here soon, she thinks. This monotony will be broken. Julia and Henry are coming to visit, bringing Margaret's nephew Jacob. Jacob is three and she has only seen pictures. He looks ruddy and sleepy in all of the shots they've sent her. He has stiff, short, dark brown hair, and she thinks he might be overweight. But all of those photos are almost a year old now.
Margaret looks up, startled by the sudden bustling. People are getting out of their vinyl seats. The little blond boy across the room rushes to the window and leans his forehead against it. Margaret can hear the roar and whistle of jet engines.
By the time she folds her magazine, stuffs it in her purse, gets up, and chooses a spot to stand in, people are beginning to walk up the long uneven corridor from the plane: tired men in wrinkled suits, with suit bags over their shoulders; old couples in pastel pants and garish shirts; stewardesses; a rumpled, silent family of four--two sour little girls leading their parents up the slope. Margaret watches as more and more people come into brighter light and smile, are greeted by others and led away. A few more straggling businessmen emerge, then the hall is empty, blank.
Margaret steps closer. Julia comes striding around the corner way down there, looking up--she smiles and waves at Margaret. Henry comes along, looking back at something on the ground. He puts a hand out by his knee and wiggles his fingers.
Jacob jumps into view, bounces off his father, runs for Julia's legs, and seizes them briefly. Julia keeps walking, still grinning up at Margaret.
Margaret watches Julia's hand find Jacob's hair blindly and stroke it quickly before he stumbles away from her. Jacob's face is bright and sharp, his eyes wide open. Margaret walks through the gate, and starts down the inclined floor. Jacob, to her surprise, latches onto one of her legs. She holds an arm out to Julia, who walks gracefully into Margaret's embrace.
Henry stops next to them. Margaret squints up at him. “Henry,” she says. It is all she can manage.
“Margaret,” he says, touching her elbow. “I'm so glad to see you.”
Now Margaret is tired, sitting with Henry at the end of that same day. There is a table full of dirty dishes and melted ice between them - her table, the remains of the dinner she made for them all.
Julia is upstairs, talking Jacob into going to sleep. Margaret can just hear her voice, a low singsong murmur. Jacob was a real spark at first, as sharp as a tack. He pronounced “Margaret” perfectly, and asked about her job. She told him about the paintings, and he wanted to know if it was her job to sell them. He told her he liked the avocado, which he nearly said right. He said her candles were pretty and so was she.
He also began to get loud during dessert. His voice got shrill and less coherent. He clumsily let a sticky spoon fall on the floor, and almost upset his milk twice. Margaret feels skittish and tired, just from witnessing Jacob's decline into exhaustion.
She likes Julia now. Since the first visit, Julia has abandoned the vague queries into Margaret's life and the over-enthusiastic compliments on her clothes and food and home. She has a new wisdom and boundless patience with Jacob. Margaret watched her all evening, the way she listened to her son's every thought and answered all his questions.
Henry leans back and sighs, feeling well-fed, enlivened by the meal. He is glad to be here with his sister and his little family, and glad that everything is okay--that even after five years he and Margaret can get along, can sit comfortably in silence over a cluttered table. He can tell she is intrigued by Jacob and has accepted Julia. This puts him at ease. “Excellent dinner,” he says quietly.
“Thank you.” Margaret traces a circle on the table cloth, watching her fingers move. It is all she can do at the moment, at the end of such a long day. “I'm glad you're here, Henry,” she says. She has to force the words out, and they sound false, but she knows they have been true, and will be true in the morning.
Henry looks up, startled, at Margaret there across from him--in her simple bright blue silk blouse, with her hair pulled back, her outdated glasses, her downcast eyes. Seeing her there in front of all the hanging wine glasses in the pale wood kitchen makes him think of how smart and tough she has always seemed. She looks as stubborn and as graceful as ever, and she looks strong. The sight of her moves him, and he's not sure why. He wants to stay here. What an odd thought, this overwhelming desire to move his family into her house. I should take her hand, he thinks. I should move around the table and embrace her. I should do something. “Margaret,” he says at last. She glances up and seems to know that he wants to say, “I wish we had been closer.” But the words won't come out, so he leaves it at that.