“Odysseys” by Jenny Wales Steele (excerpt)

The tilt and stammer of this storm we’re caught in. I’m jittery and giddy. Kit leans
into the steering wheel and focuses through the windshield. It’s as if buckets of slush are
falling on us. “Here’s an exit,” Kit says and he takes a ramp that leads us to a 7-11. He
parks the Corolla in the empty lot in front of a lone pay phone. Above the entrance are
neon lights that pool across the hood, yellow and blue and pink. Our breath and the
heat of our bodies fog the windows. Thunder bangs around us and icy sludge pounds the
roof. It’s as if we’re in a capsule and we’re flying through a comet. I tell this to Kit and he
says, “Astronauts.”

“I used to play astronaut,” I say. “I had a spaceship. My parents owned an appliance
warehouse and I had my pick of big cardboard boxes. I painted one blue and it had flaps
and a hatch. I glued foil stars on it.” I describe it completely: the flashlight I rigged with
wire, the instrument panel with gauges and dials made of lids of pickle and mustard jars,
lids of my mother’s cold cream. Kit nods and says, “I had a spacesuit, red, white, and
silver, with a bubble helmet. It was a Halloween costume, but I had it on all the time. I
was always on the moon or Neptune.”

This makes me happy. A nice girl and a nice boy out in the galaxy who were destined
to collide. We collided at Laurie’s wedding in June, at the reception, as we were milling,
mingling, as I spilled champagne on his chest; I blotted it with a napkin and introduced
myself. “The bridesmaid. Laurie’s sister. Penelope. Penny.” He blew on the wet spot on
his shirt and said, “Kit George. Friend of the groom. Ethan and I share a cubicle.” We
noticed Laurie and Ethan knifing the cake. Laurie had warned Ethan not to smash the
cake into her mouth, but he took a slice of the white cake and threatened her with it.
Nothing happened, but it was an awful moment. Kit whispered to me, “He’s an asshole.”
I couldn’t react, it would have seemed disloyal, but Kit’s judgment was right and this
was what turned me towards him. We danced, drank, stumbled into his hotel room at
midnight. How awkward and shy we were in the morning, my peach chiffon, his tuxedo
strewn on the floor, but we laughed too, had coffee, scheduled a normal date. We’ve been
a couple since then, two and a half months. Kit and Penny. Kitandpenny. Kitandpenny
on vacation in South Dakota.

“You have the map?” Kit asks. I get the map out of the glovebox and unfold it. Kit
jabs at the highway into Rapid City. “How far are we? An inch. That’s what, fifty miles?”

“It doesn’t matter. This is an adventure. We’re astronauts.”

I begin at the beginning. I was born in Flagstaff to Eudora and Eugene Flint, normal,
optimistic Americans, picket fence, apple pie. I was their first daughter. They’d had a son,
William. He was killed in Vietnam when I was 16, your mother 14. William’s on that wall
in D.C. I took a rubbing of his name. There was a veteran there, a homeless guy in a ratty,
olive-drab jacket, and he was selling sheets of paper and nubs of charcoal. Poignant. I stuck
that rubbing in a book, a collection of Keats (Yeats?). Maybe you’ll find it when you sort
through my worldly possessions after I’m happily dispossessed of them. These tangents I spin
into! A sick woman’s tangents. Begin at the beginning. Billy was born, then me, then your
mother, baby Ruby.

Billy and Ruby and I were a tribe. Behind the ranch house, we built a fort out of dead
branches and scraps of corrugated iron. We were wild Indians, we had ribbon headbands
with crow feathers stapled to them. We found arrowheads, attached them to long stakes, made
spears. At dusk, those painfully lonely dusks, our mother would bang a pan with a metal
spoon and yell out, “Dinnertime, savages!” How clear it all is.

I’ll write about your mother, but Billy’s in my mind now. Wonderful Billy boy! He was the
smartest one, would have been an engineer, a scientist. Always making clever things for our
tribe. Spy periscopes out of cardboard tubes and shards of mirrors. And he was a math wizard.
He got me through algebra and geometry. I can’t understand numbers. Give me history! Give
me a random date and it’s oh yes, that was the day Napoleon this or Churchill that. Balance
a checkbook? Calculate exchange rates? Forget it. Sorry, I’m losing my topic. Billy is my topic.
Smart, smart boy, valedictorian, and he enrolled at UCLA. We delivered him to California
and we toured L.A. Our mother navigated with one of those maps to the mansions of movie
stars. Bette Davis, Henry Fonda. We went to the beach too and Billy collected sand in a jar as
a gift to me and Ruby. That jar is here somewhere. The stupid things we keep.

Billy quit school after one semester and enlisted in the Army. We never figured out why
and he never explained. He was sent home 3 months later in a casket. Our mother was
pinning sheets on the clothesline when the military chaplain arrived. She ran at him and
tackled him on the lawn. She hit him, pummeled him, thrashed him. Our father had to
rescue him, pry our mother away, and he got bruised too. 1969, a year of madness and silence
and things smashed against walls.

The nurse is here now. Her name is Marlene, after Dietrich. Her ancestors were slaves.
She met the descendants of the plantation owners in Mississippi. She wanted to hate them,
had planned a poetic and accusatory speech, but they invited her to brunch and cocktails
and they spent the whole day laughing. Marlene has a key to my apartment. I had to sign
paperwork to give her that key. That’s what the end of life is—sign here, sign there, initial
this, initial that. Permission slips. But I’ve unlocked the doors to the hallway and the balcony.
If thieves come in, I’ll say, “Take anything, but not this pen, I need it to sign paperwork!”
Hello, Marlene. Guten Morgen.


(Spring 2014)