She hadn’t traveled by herself in a long time. No, the truth was she had never traveled by herself. Actually, she had traveled by herself once, but not for pleasure or business. She had launched herself on I-75 South as if the car were a rocket with automatic controls, and her role were that of an astronaut-keeping an eye on the gauges, making sure all the needles and readouts were in the middle.
On that trip she went from Cleveland to Lexington after her father’s final dissolution. Like the house where he lived, Linda’s father, Joseph, had weathered since his wife’s death and the gradual abandonment of his three children-to college and a job in New York for his son; first to college and then marriage and a job for his oldest daughter, Linda; and to marriage right out of high school for his youngest daughter.
The farmhouse and the man declined gracefully for a long time. Joseph became gaunt. The house grew more hollow as his children each took something-a bureau, their own wardrobe, lace doilies and tablecloths worked by their mother and lying unused at the bottom of the stacked linen since Joe didn't trust himself to iron them with the necessary care for their preservation.
Then, the house began to shed the tuck-pointing that kept both the porch steps and the chimney bricks in place. Little by little, as Joe lost his thick hair, then one molar after the other, the house showed gaps where bricks had been. Roof shingles flew off in one strong storm, the adjacent ones afterward taking off in lesser winds. A bucket took its place at the foot of Jean’s bed in her old room, and despite Jean and her husband’s weekly offers of help to fix the roof, Joe told his youngest daughter that he was content to empty the bucket when it rained or during the spring melt. As a couple of sashes broke, bringing down the solid wood-framed windows so hard as to crack the glass in one and shatter the other, Joe shored up the openings with plastic in one casement and plywood in the other. Jean’s husband, Bobby, had to help since Joe’s eyes had become so weak that he couldn't see to hit the nails.
In the year preceding Linda’s solo venture on the freeway, the house and Joe crumbled visibly, causing lots of telephone consultations among his children. Jean, who lived on a farm about five and a half miles from Joe’s, was the one who witnessed for her siblings the deterioration of their father and their patrimony. Joe junior, still trying to make it as an actor in New York, was the least capable of visiting or helping out. Linda’s salary, combined with her husband’s, afforded enough of a cushion for Linda to assuage her guilt about not doing more for her father. She sent money for prescriptions, for doctor’s visits, for house repairs. Often the money came back, only to be swallowed up cheerfully by her husband’s large, greedy kin. Joe kept refusing to take drugs, to be dragged again to the doctor, and most of all to allow workmen into his house.
The late-night telephone call shocked but did not surprise either Linda or Joe junior in their respective cities. When she’d called around 10 that evening to check up on Joe for the last time in the day and the phone rang endlessly, Jean drove to their childhood home and found their dad sprawled on the kitchen floor, rigor mortis already set in.
Thus it was that Linda launched herself southward from Cleveland and reached in record time Joe’s farm just outside Lexington, among the hills of grass kept for the horses. Afterward she remembered little of the journey, either to bury her father or to return home, to Thomas. Naturally, things had not been right between her and her husband. Otherwise, she wouldn't have gone to Kentucky alone at such a time.
Now, three years later, Linda, just divorced, arrived in San Francisco in early April. Most of her students had gone to Cancun, Acapulco, or Florida. She had tried to send injunctions with them-pay attention to folk art. Try to see the ruins. Don’t forget to sketch. Why should she stay in her apartment for Easter break? Joe junior had invited her to New York, but she and Thomas had been to visit him many times over the years, and now he was just settling in with a new partner. Jean, too, had asked her to spend Easter with them, for family sentiment, but Linda was weary of the whole notion of family at the moment. A friend from college, now teaching at the University of Toledo, asked her to spend a few days, to meet her “extraordinary” children, was how she put it, and that was just one of the reasons Linda had declined that invitation as well.
It had been thrilling to look up hotels online, check locations against the AAA map of San Francisco she’d picked up at the local office, and to make a decision without knowing much at all about that city. Best, she didn't have to consider any of Thomas’s requirements and restrictions regarding the room: not facing the street (too much noise and bad air) but with a view, king-size instead of two doubles, if a bathtub then only a Jacuzzi; otherwise a shower stall with glass doors. He didn't like French bread for breakfast. The hotel should be able to provide plain yogurt and muesli without corn flakes. There should be a coffeemaker in the room. Linda found a “bijou” hotel on Powell Street, and she asked for a room facing outward, so she could see and hear the clangor of the famous streetcars that go by. It was a few steps away from Union Square, and it featured San Francisco sourdough French bread at every meal. For breakfast, she found, she could have a Mediterranean omelet, with sun-dried tomatoes, pitted kalamata olives, feta, and roasted peppers. And French bread. Once in the room she threw her clothes on one of the two double beds, without a care, leaving them all, stockings, unbuttoned blouse, skirt unzipped, in disarray on the bed cover, like a modern painting. She put on jeans and thin socks and sneakers, a casual black silk blouse, a jean jacket, slung her bag over her shoulder, and went outdoors to enjoy the noise and bad air of a true city.
Union Square was alive with the lunchtime crowd. A line out the door had already formed in front of the café, and young people jumped over obstacles on their blades on and off the main area, where artists had large easels set up to exhibit their work. The artists themselves sat or stood under colorful umbrellas, sipping bottled water and dispensing business cards to potential clients. Linda went up to the easels, amazed by the beauty of the work exhibited so casually, in the strong sunshine, in peril from the rollerblading kids. She routinely went to art fairs in and around Cleveland, always full of hope, but usually disappointed by the repetitive and imitative styles of photography and painting. Among the potters she sometimes found someone whose work struck her as interesting, but often it was beyond her price range. As were these sepia tints and collages and paintings, but she could still enjoy them in the friendly air of this climate that seemed to kiss even the rag-clad homeless man stretching on a wire-mesh bench. She told the young woman whose photographs Linda liked best, “These are magnificent.” The artist thanked her and handed her a card with a tiny reproduction of one of the photos, an archway in chiaroscuro. In her ears, however, Linda still heard echoes, snippets of sentences she’d wanted gone, dissolved, along with her marriage. “Spending money on junk again. Never think of what appreciates, an investment at least”-Thomas’s voice. “Living for yourself, that’s convenient. I guess that’s more fun than having children”-her mother-in-law’s voice. “It’s always so hard to have anything for you; you vegetarians are so rigid”-her sister-in-law now. She shook her head like a dog coming out of water. How had these voices managed to take the flight west with her?
She marched up to the flower vendor on the southeast corner of the square and looked the bouquets over, seduced in turn by the multi-colored flesh of the gerberas, the purple eyes from a spray of white orchids, the roses in rainbow varieties. How useless to buy flowers, for herself, to stick in a hotel room in which she’d mostly sleep. She reached into her purse and pulled out a twenty. “Give me these, and these,” she said, pointing to hydrangeas and to a bouquet of larkspurs and broom and heather. Her arms full of flowers, she ambled on the Kearney side of the square, looking idly in shop windows. She came to an antique shop where the sales wares were displayed on tables near the entrance. The glass doors were propped open. Her Midwestern heart was charmed-a place where shop doors were open in April! Any time, really. After all, in Cleveland they would be closed tight against the cold, then tight again to keep the artificially freezing air in. She walked all the way into the narrow shop. The men at the fancy desks were Middle-Eastern, she gauged. Armenian, Arab, Jew? Who could tell? One was talking with a woman a couple of decades younger than Linda. They were looking up at a grotesque, huge chandelier that would not have been amiss as a prop in The Phantom of the Opera, as the fatal missile loosened onto the audience. The man was talking about its European provenance. The woman was talking about her cathedral ceiling. Linda eyed deep inside a showcase an art deco glass vase, leaves detaching themselves in brown and orange from the ochre background. Another man sprang to attention.
“May I show you something, Madame?”
“I like this vase,” she pointed.
He unlocked the cabinet, while she protested. “I don’t think I can afford it. I just like it.”
“Excellent taste, Madame. It’s an authentic. It sells for $2,800. It’s appreciated considerably in the last few years. A very good investment.”
Linda was startled. The voices in her head had materialized. Was there no getting away? She stood, laughing, her arms full of flowers not exactly fragrant with the smell of nature but with a scent reminiscent of delicate glass. On her way out, she looked at a pillbox. It was an Italian enamel, knocked down, the sign said, from $32.95 to $6.95. It was exquisitely worked, a reproduction on its lid of two grave-eyed putti from some famous Renaissance painting whose name or author she just couldn’t recall. She thought, this is just what Thomas’s mother would like. She fingered it, considering. On every trip she’d been in charge of buying souvenirs for Thomas’s family, of remembering their likes and dislikes. Every time they’d say, “Thomas, how thoughtful of you! This is just what I like.” She put the box down, harder than she’d intended, and she walked away, laughing, first in the shade, then in the resplendent afternoon sunshine, her arms full of flowers like fragile vases, feeling gloriously unburdened and alone.