by Deborah Crooks
There were seventeen, he said. Tattoos, that is. Seventeen. It is the number of the star. Hope. And God knows if a fool needs anything, it's hope. The fool has no past, no future. He is outside the city walls, beyond the pack, between the living and the dead. At zero.
My great-aunt Charlotte's body was at the neat orderly number of 1-0-0. One century. "She can die in five minutes or in six months," the doctors from Friend's Fellowship told me.
A year earlier, just as I was getting divorced, Charlotte had called for me from the retirement home in Ohio she'd called home for more than fifteen years, and I'd flown the few thousand miles to the small Midwestern town which hosted a large casket-making industry. The Hale-Bopp comet was visible in the night sky, and my husband had just moved in with my friend, my dad was suffering from depression, and my great-aunt was calling, saying she wanted to see me before she died.
Charlotte was seventy when I was born. During her century of living, she'd traveled extensively, seen Haley's Comet twice, been married and widowed twice, and worked as a nurse overseas during World War II. When she was sixty, she began to paint still-lives and street scenes and gulls wheeling over the ocean. She'd lived only a few miles away when I was growing up. When we visited, she'd show me her new paintings and let me use her art supplies.
During my previous visit, she'd recovered over the week of comparing notes about Colorado. "I'd sure like to see those mountains again," she said, referring to the Rocky Mountains where I was living. During her twenties, she was married to a shop-owner who took her through those mountains on horseback and through the Southwest in a Model T.
"The thing was, we'd always get caught in rainstorms," she laughed. "We'd stop and put the blinds up and be wet by the time we got everything covered." She used her hands to talk. Her fingernails were long and well groomed and she still wore the platinum and diamond ring from her first marriage, though her first husband had died before she turned thirty.
"He caught pneumonia," she said. "And two weeks later he was dead."
"I wanted children," she continued. "But it wasn't until I was in the Army that I found out I had a fibroid tumor. I had a terrible time each month. Maybe that's why I'm bitter!"
This time it was the nurses at Friend's Fellowship who called me to tell me how quickly she was deteriorating. When I arrived after driving halfway across the country in thirty-six hours, a priest was leaving the building. An announcement on the bulletin board next to the week's menu read, "William McClure died last night at 8:32 P.M.." His room was two doors down from Charlotte's.
Charlotte barely recognized me through her cataracts but she was thrilled I'd come. I was glad she was half-blind. I looked ravaged and I knew it. I'd lost weight, and my skin was a mess. Though for the first six months after my divorce I rode the adrenaline high that came with the release of letting go of a partner, I'd come back to earth with a thud. I had no husband, I had just enough freelance work to give me the illusion of having a job, and I'd been fighting colds and flu nonstop for months. I was sleeping ten hours a night and still felt tired, and my life felt as bleak as if Hale-Bopp had slammed into the earth.
Relative to Charlotte however, I was very much alive. Her hair was thin, her skin was sallow and spotted, and her face, in sleep, was a collapsed balloon. She was hallucinating so often that she thought the four oxygen tanks at the foot of her bed were people. The nurses had told me she'd been out in the hall yelling shortly before I arrived.
"They said I was a wild woman," she said to me laughing.
"Well, you have to be wild sometimes," I say. "Maybe you were due."
"I was never wild," she said. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was twelve and she'd raised my grandfather and uncles. I looked around Charlotte's room and at the few things from her long lifetime that she'd kept: a photo album, a Bible, a drawing she'd done of her favorite dog, newspaper clippings showing her at openings for her work.
"Do you believe in the Lord?" she asked.
I hesitated. I didn't go to church, and I honestly didn't know what I believed in anymore. I looked at her bright eyes.
"Of course I do."
"Good, I want to see you again."
When she dozed, I snuggled up alongside her, holding her hand, wondering what it was that kept her body going.
"A door, a door," she mumbled and turned her head to the side, putting her hands up over her eyes. "Then we'll both go."
She slept more and more, hallucinating throughout the night and day, as the cold worked into her body. The last time she woke up she looked me directly in the eye and said, "You don't have to stay any longer. I know this is miserable and ... it's me that's going."
"I wish I could take you with me," I said, a half-truth, because I had no idea where I was going. No one but Charlotte even knew where I was.
"Me too," she said, patting my hand. "It would be a good trip either way." She raised her eyebrows again and gave me a frank look, and we hugged each other one last time. All I knew was that I didn't want to die, not like this, and that I would go back West.
She was asleep when I climbed back into my VW. The sound of my engine was a mantra and after leaving Charlotte and Friend's Fellowship, the miles of straight, flat pavement were welcome. At least I was moving. Beggars and travelers and fools. There an RV, here a woman in a VW.
I took the tan forearm with the tattoo jutting out the driver's window of the white van as some sort of Eden. Add to that a bumper sticker that read "Birdhouse" and I was hooked. I followed this other lone traveler through St. Louis and half of Kansas.
"Hobos," Charlotte told me. "We respected our travelers. When they knocked on the door, we gave them a piece of pie."
But that was decades before my time. It was stray dogs, not people, who sniffed out our place during the years after Mom left: one mean Doberman, post-Christmas puppies, and an unwanted bitch sagging with pregnancy. All the dogs that were dumped on the desolate road that led to our driveway were so grateful for a little food and acknowledgment other than a kick that they smiled and squirmed and wagged their tails for a half-hour before settling down somewhere on the cement patio. After a few days, they'd relax and walk right through the creaky front door and lie down on the carpet.
They were infested with fleas but since I was the only one who got bit, Dad never kicked them out. He challenged me to catch the insects, not believing in my inflamed ankles, and offered me a nickel for every one I caught, then was silenced when I showed him the glass jar with a bottom black with their bodies. After he paid up, I rinsed the jar out and filled it with the coins. The extra money didn't lesson the itch, and no matter how hard I scrub, the smell of dog fur is trapped under my fingernails, but those coins helped fill the first tank.
During my visit with Charlotte she'd opened her eyes suddenly and looked at me. "I used to feel sorry for you," she told. "You seemed like such a lonely girl. I wanted to put my arms around you. I didn't, but I prayed for you."
It took 150 miles before I met up with the driver of the Birdhouse van at a gas station east of Salina. He was skinny and, though he raised his eyebrows at the suggestion, we were checking into a Holiday Inn in Salina within the hour.
I didn't count to verify the number of his tattoos, taking in the blue and red swing dancers, the hearts and skulls, and the two swallows over his right biceps, remembering the cigar-bodied birds who built their nests on our chimney and those of the other homes in the neighborhood. I'd sit in the corner window, looking up at the birds as they made repeated trips from the creek bed, building the nests up by placing precise beaks full of mud on top of one another. When they were done, they looked more like hives than nests. White streaks of their shit would streak the windows, and after the chicks hatched, the eggshells littered the patio.
I didn't care that Noah didn't know so much about swallows. He didn't say much, letting the images drilled into his skin do the talking. I told him about Charlotte, then imagined her between us as we watched TV, her body's scars as illustrative as his tattoos. A left breast gone to cancer, a ladder across her abdomen, skin that had finally, after a century, bowed down to gravity.
Every creature in the world was awake that night and I heard them all. The fog creeping through the cornfields, the waves breaking a thousand miles away, the chlorophyll draining from the sunflowers and back into the soil, the cows baying out their fate, and the swallows on Noah's arms tapping out of their eggs, the shells cracking and sailing to the ground, shattering into yet another fragment as they hit pavement.
But even the birds of Kansas were quiet when I woke up at dawn, and I knew Charlotte was dead.
Noah and I ate cold cereal from the breakfast buffet with a family from Nebraska. He was going south and after he double-checked my oil, we said our good-byes, and I headed west again. I set the odometer back to zero, a fool again.
Overhead the swallows were flying. Their shadows rose over the river. They look down at a world covered in dark spots. So many lights are off. Here and there, I was starting to flicker.
Deborah Crooks' fiction has appeared in Northern Lights, The Dickens, The Boulder Planet, The Colorado Daily, and Beyond Bread. She regularly writes for a variety of national and local publications including VeloNews, Women's Sports & Fitness, Film/Tape World, The Pacific Sun, AOL's Digital City San Francisco, bike.com, and Astrocenter.com.