Kyle Lewis did not return to Montgomery riding a crest of expectation and hurry—had a mother not been dying, he would not have returned at all, or so he thought at the time. Even that bit of news was fortuitously conveyed: Montgomery had long ceased being a stop along any of his ways. Midnight truck stop in Lawrenceville, outside Atlanta, Kendall Blake slid in across the greasy booth table and said, “Hear about your mama?” Kendall bought the coffee and the pie, old neighborhood ministration, watched the sinkhole chest of his old buddy sink that much farther, and—as far from intended homily as he thought possible—concluded the visit with, “Kyle, I’m the last to tell you what to do, but there is Viv to think of,” Viv who, for forty-five years had lain by whatever open bedroom window Shelley Lewis could find in apartments, duplexes, and even the occasional sputtering house, if the rent was low enough, or the sexual expectations of the landlords not too excessive—Viv, who after two pretty baby years was stricken with something no doctor to the poor had the time or inclination to explain to an already too much burdened woman who knew one damn thing for sure: she was not the least bit interested in the saccharine assurances that permanent residence in the state home for the mentally declined was just a signed application away, she could wipe terminal spit and drool and shit as well, if not better, than any minimum-wage bureaucrat, and she could and would do it with love, and do it beside an open window, beneath whatever ash, oak, pine, or magnolia tree was shading whatever shady domicile was home for the time being. She did not begrudge the beautiful and healthy son, who miraculously appeared twelve years later, his palpable disdain for his sister and her place in his mother’s fathomless heart. Once out the door to a life lived apparently as fast as he could run from all the sadness that had smeared his own heart, his mother prayed Godspeed—but, she would be goddamned if she would see her life as misery, blessed with two beautiful and perfect children is what she said and what she daily thanked her good Lord for. Family, friends, slippery midnight bedmates, even door-to-door recidivists flat broke down in the face of her love and compassion, incapable of the emotional calculus at which she so clearly excelled. Remedial math was the best her son could handle, fleeing the day after his high school graduation. In the earliest years of his exile, he circled back through a labyrinth of guilt, shame, and—yes—love for the expected occasions, but the abyss of his sister’s ruin was a horror that grew, no matter how much distance he put between himself and Montgomery; in time, letters took the place of visits, then cards replaced letters, then silence. Did he live better, lighter, in the silence? Who said I ever lived in the first place, he would have answered, if asked.
Truth be told, he’d known beyond his ability to know his own knowing that he’d planted something, someone, in the belly of Ella Williams, the night they’d spent together. Dozens of nights of running passion, he’d never seen such colors, and never, never, never, the face of his sister like a shining benediction in the dark night. Not the Viv beside windows, not the pretty baby of two-years’ worth of pictures, but unmistakably a Viv within the slobbering cocoon of his childhood, a beautiful butterfly-Viv whose wings gently rocked in the darkness of Ella’s room, and gently touched him through all his years of benighted departure.
Ella had not been able to hold him, nor, in truth, had she wanted to, and the road claimed him until his Lawrenceville annunciation. He’d left the truck stop no more moved by Kendall Blake’s homily than by any of the others delivered through the years, and yet, something resolute within him drove him straight home to Montgomery that very night.
His mama held on another six months, long enough for him to slip in beside her at Vivian’s bedside, watch the leaves turn and fall outside the second floor window, and then listen to his mother’s breath catch one last time and release, in the glow of blue lights on an artificial silver Christmas tree in the corner of Vivian’s room.
There was no convenient release from Viv herself: the day in, day out grind of feeding and cleaning and watching birds out the window continued unabated, and Kyle could not have told you when the tectonic plates of his shame and horror shifted to quiet acceptance of his older sister as a companion for life, but shift they did. It was not shame that kept the door closed when May barged into their apartment, it was simply Vivian’s nap time, safely and blithely free of the brouhaha the empress had in tow.
“Hey, baby,” May whispered to the woman on the bed, when the door was finally opened by her brother, and the three men also walked in. Vivian’s eyes didn’t leave the flight of her beloved cardinals, but her fingers reached along the stubbly tufts of her white bedspread to feel the warm rasp of May’s hand. Kyle calmly walked up beside the bed and made the introductions.
"Thought we might make a little trip, Viv, if you’re up for it,” said Kyle. “Someone we both need to meet.” In the months since his mother’s death, he’d learned to read the simple rise and fall of his sister’s breath, as others might read oracles decidedly more portentous, and he could see, to his surprise, that there was anticipation and glee beaming from her, like the shimmering afternoon light on the waters of his beloved Demopolis Lake.
May caught it, too. “Baby wants to ride, she say.”
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