My cousin Scott was relieved that my aunt was not at home. He’d come home from practice with a black eye. He was sitting on the couch in the living room with a bag of frozen peas and carrots pressed to his face. Dad came in when he dropped me off at Aunt Arlene’s on his way to work. Angie was still in bed. Dad ruffled Scott’s hair and asked how he got the shiner, with an amusement that my cousin’s scuffles always brought him.
“Took one for the team.”
Dad chucked and called him a good man. Scott had a trouble with his temper and that bother Aunt Arlene and Mom a lot more than it bothered my Uncle or my Dad. Dad said goodbye to me, admonished me to be good, confirmed he’d be by after work and left me in the care of my cousins.
“Why are you watching the Price is Right?” I asked once I heard the door close behind Dad, “There are cartoons on channel 13.” I was looking forward to an absolutely decadent day of I Dream of Jeanie and Brady Bunch reruns. I’d brought my coloring books, my potholder loom and Barbies, all items calculated to be useful in front of the TV.
“Waiting for the news.” Scott shifted the bag of frozen veggies.
“Why?” My voice was loud, but I didn’t deserve the shushing that my cousin Michelle gave me. She flapped through the living room on the way to the kitchen, she was wearing her bathing suit only. Michelle was a champion back stoker on the swim team, she’d be pulling on a tea shirt and bicycling to practice for most of the morning. Recently Michelle had grown inches and decided since she was the youngest she’d boss me. I didn’t want to make her mad, she’d promised to teach me to do a flip turn.
“Why?” I asked, Michelle was not usually careful of Angie, in fact quite the opposite.
Michelle didn’t even look at me. “Because you’re too loud.”
“Not that, why do I have to be quite?”
“Because you’re too loud.”
“She’s not talking to you Michelle.” Scott put his feet up on the edge of coffee table. Michelle disappeared into the kitchen using a word she wouldn’t have dared whisper if her Dad was at home. Scott watched me watching him, “I’m waiting for the news.”
I only made a low noise, Scott wasn’t a news watcher that I knew of. If Scott was going to watch the news I didn’t want to stay in the living room. The news was old men in powder blue suit jackets and stripped ties talking about bad things that happened far away. The bag of peas and carrots shifted, I could have sworn I smelled them, one of those nutritious smells that is absolutely deadly to a six year old. “You’re supposed to put a steak on a black eye.”
“A steak, that’s what they always do in movies.”
“Cartoons you mean. And do you have a defrosted steak in the fridge at your house?”
I answered in the negative. If there was steak in the fridge we ate it—but then nobody at our house got black eyes in fistfights.
“I’m waiting for pictures of Memphis.”
Scott’s comment was so off handed I shuttered, I hated that my cousins always knew things I didn’t, it hadn’t occurred to me to look for Mom on TV. For the first time in my life the news could bring me something I wanted to know. So I settled down to watch the news.
While Mom and Aunt Arlene were gone I watched the news coverage of Elvis’s funeral obsessively hoping to catch sight of them. My cousins allowed me to color or weave potholders in front of the television, a normally forbidden daytime activity unless I had a fever. We all ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the living room, all four of us, waiting for news breaks, hoping for any footage at all of the crowd at Graceland. We waited through hours of game shows, soap operas or Donohue. Michelle and Scott would come and go, games and practice and friends calling them to the phone or the pool or the park. All day I sat too close to the television and stared hard at the glimpses of the crowds when they were shown (and then usually in the background) and left small peanut butter smears on the screen where I thought I’d identified a familiar face. Angie squinted hard at where I pointed, but the camera would move on. It was like those puzzles where you’re looking for a thing hidden in the picture, find the teapot, find the mouse, find your mother and your aunt.
Other than the few phone calls home, photos in papers or the film of the crowds were my only chance of locating the sisters. I never did find Mom on TV that week, but I made what I thought a marvelous discovery: that time could be warped.
Angie braided my hair into two braids like Laura Ingalls (which I loved), Michelle brought us a pack of red licorice from the store up the street and Scott returned home from practice with no new visible bruises. I’d colored several pages and wove potholders. When the newsman said the events on the TV were “earlier today” or “early this morning” that made sense to me. The footage was ghosts of things that were already done; I understood film worked that way. Our family had a home movie camera and knew you had to take the exposed film to be developed but when you got it back a week later there was a little bit of you captured forever. I find it comforting to know that part of me is still diving off the board at the community pool when I was little or dancing in the recital of Fannie Flex Dancers in my pretty pink tutu. All those happy smiling moments, at least on my family movies though I had some small inkling of how film could lie.
To pass the time, Angie taught me Tomorrow from Annie, she’d bought the cast recording and the piano music book with her baby sitting money. She planned to sing it for her musical audition in September. She was banking on being the only person who had the music book, she’d had to order special and it cost $10.95. Mom had thought it extravagant. I applied the same enthusiasm to the belts of “Tomorrow, tomorrow I love ya tomorrow,” that I gave the last bars of You Light Up My Life. I remember thinking I was pretty good. My cousin Scott left the room.
I was singing at the top of my lungs, standing in the entryway between the kitchen and the living room—chasing my cousin out of the room. Angie came from behind and clamped her hand over my singing mouth. She shouted for Scott, said Elvis was on. Elvis wasn’t on—it was some footage of people screaming and pushing themselves toward a wall. Some police in short sleeved uniforms and mirrored sunglasses trying to wrangle the crowds. “At 5:30 PM in Memphis crowds protested the closing of the gates of Graceland, police were able to get the crowds in some order…”
If it was 5:30 my Dad should have been there and I remember having one of those thousand-thoughts-a-minute moments. I was worried that Dad had dropped me with Angie and taken off to go get my Mom. But then I saw that the clock in the living room (the one with metal work that looked like sun beams) and the big hand was on the twelve and the little hand on the four. I could read the hours on a clock with hands, and the half hour, the rest muddled me. I told Angie it wasn’t 5:30 yet. Told her that the man on TV was wrong. I really wanted the man on the TV to be wrong because the footage showed what looked like a crowd of the parents from my school rioting and my mother was supposed to be there.
“It is in Memphis.” Angie answered.
This stumped me, it could not be two times in one day, the time was the time. Angie shushed me and petted my braided head while she watched the screen, after less than a minute the channel went to regular programming. Then she gave me a brief explanation of time zones. Angie’s grip on the subject was weak but she managed to give me a general understanding. Multiple times in multiple places all at the same time in one day. Angie said it was how Santa Claus managed to get all the presents delivered in one night. I imagined time washing like a wave over the Earth.
To me, then time zones seemed as much an explanation of ghosts as any—beings existing in another time. The idea that it was a different time where my mother was, made no sense. It was science fiction that you could drive through time. Santa Claus magic. Mom was no longer in the same world. That time zones are a result of the curvature of the earth meant nothing to me. Knowing that Mom was in a different time than me meant she might as well have been in Africa, or Australia, somewhere or in a galaxy far far away.
Standing in my aunt’s living room, I started to sob.
But learning about time zones, however, delighted me. I carried that knowledge around like a exotic pet. I tried to wow my friends with my new mystical understanding. Much as I was used to wowing them with my dead mother. Those with relatives out of state (or whose family’s traveled) were not impressed.
It was safe to think about ghosts then. No matter how far away she was Mom was coming home. It wasn’t until she was gone for real, gone permanently that I began to I cling to anything that connected me to her, pebbles in nightstand drawers or half used perfume bottles, even things I had to partly make-up.