The hilly undulations of the dirt road worn hard and smooth by drought and sun were as familiar as the feel of her tongue against the grooves of the roof of her mouth. Why the movement was familiar not only eluded her but was not a thought she could form. She knew only that the swells beneath the wheels of the car, up and down at specific slopesâ€”how quiet the ride was, not at all like beforeâ€”were a part of her.
Her eyes fell on the barbed wire that separated road from wheat field, and she played the mental game she loved as a child of trying to track only the immovable line parallel to their motion, keeping her focus absolutely still, without allowing her eyes to follow individual posts as they left her view. She could do it only by looking simultaneously at the fence and the line of Badlands formations at the horizon, and she could sustain the focus for only a few seconds at time.
The man sitting in the driverâ€™s seat spoke. When she met his gaze in the rearview mirror, the spell was broken, returning the heaviness of her four score years.
â€œMom, you doing okay back there?â€
Mom. Yes, she was a mother. This was her son, this impossibly large, hairy man who looked nothing like her Jimmy. They were going to a celebration for someone. A birthday. They were going home.
She would see Francis.
That was why she agreed to come.
He was waiting for an answer. She smiled her response, knowing it would suffice.
Francis. Her breaths now were shallow, her heartbeat fast. She leaned forward in anticipation. The purpose of their journey was already gone, but Francis remained. Grew more real, in fact, as she entered the memory. How long had it been since sheâ€™d held him? Francis. She was holding him now, the first day she brought him home. She was at once then and now.
These moments happened to her more and more frequently. She had somehow become disentangled from the flow of time, each moment of living slipping into the past as smoothly and surely as the fence posts. She alone remained still, unable to hold on to what had come just before but newly able to ride an emotion to another place, another time, often in the distant past but sometimesâ€”like todayâ€”to a space not that long ago.
It was more than remembering, more like an action, and more than a little spooky at first. In the beginning, she had tried to explain the experience to the people in the place where she now lived, to the woman in pink who helped her to the dining room and the man in the green pajamas with big pockets who came every week to move her legs as though they were cranks on a piece of machinery. Their kind smiles told her they did not understand.
The woman who sat in the front next to the man said, â€œWe are almost there, Lillian.â€
â€œI got him from the pound,â€ she said, hearing the excitement in her own voice. â€œHe was going to be put down the next day, you see, because no one wanted a dog with only one ear.â€
The man and the woman looked at each other. â€œYou did tell her, didnâ€™t you?â€ the woman asked in an intense whisper.
â€œOf course I did,â€ the man said. â€œLast year, right afterâ€”â€œ He looked up again at the rearview mirror and shook his head. â€œDonâ€™t worry about it. Sheâ€™ll forget all about it in a minute anyway.â€
Francis was a mere puppy at first, a runt who had got into a fight with a wild dog in town, leaving him scarred and wary. She kept him in the house, fed him half of her meals, cooked him bacon, taught him to do his business outside, even allowed him to sleep in her bed. Chester would be appalled. He did not approve of house pets, but it was just her and Francis now. Chester. She rubbed her temple with arthritic fingers, unable to make sense of who Chester had been or why he was gone and Francis remained.
The car slowed, then turned onto a rough gravel driveway, crunching to a stop in front of a white, two-story farm house lined with purple and white lilacs.
Someone opened her car door, and she was suddenly moving as fast as she could into the open air, looking right and left. her vision clouded by a tangle of thick grey hair that had blown loose from the pins holding it in place.
The man who had driven her to this place was walking toward her, frowning, followed by a woman in pants and two children.
Her metal cane fell to the dirt as she clasped her hands over her ears and shut her eyes tight. â€œDo not say it!â€ she yelled as loudly as she could, unsure if her voice was heard by anyone other than herself, her words drowned out by the insistent barking.