By the time Helen comes in from her run, the first sparks of dawn, pale orange and chilly, are reaching through the bare
trees in the backyard. On the other side of the fence, across a gully cut by a thin creek, the neighboring hospital puffs steam into the morning. From its vents and chimneys and pipes, clouds rise, catching light in their curling forms, turning pink and then fading to white.
She slides a filter into the coffeemaker, pours in the last of the dark grounds, and leans against the counter. She’s been dizzy since her last mile, and sometimes when she turns her head quickly, her vision takes a moment to catch up: the breakfast table seems to wobble in the corner, and a silver blob resolves itself belatedly into the refrigerator. Call eye doctor, she scribbles on the grocery list, then adds Folgers below milk and carrots.
When her daughter came home for winter break, Helen brewed endless pots of coffee; four months of college had turned Abby into a proper addict. She’d become a vegetarian, too, and a quasi- environmentalist, and an earnest proponent of domestic equity. She’d lectured Helen about the necessity of composting and talked at length about “the second shift,” which had something to do with how Helen, like most American women, had to work outside the home as well as make the dinners and do the laundry.
When Helen went to college, there was Mass every day in the chapel and a dress code; one studied European history, geography, and psychology. Two decades later, her daughter is going to classes with names like “Literature of Conscience” and “Gender, Power, and Identity,” in jeans with sagging knees and sloppy, fraying cuffs. She reads books about poverty and oppression, which she discusses in classrooms with the children of the privileged. Abby considers Helen oppressed, though she will admit that, on the scale of cosmic injustices, her mother doesn’t have all that much to complain about.
Helen yearns for her daughter when she’s gone, and she knows that Abby misses her, too. If Helen could, she’d go back to college with Abby—not to learn about poststructuralism or semiology, whatever those are, but just to watch her daughter’s life unfolding. She’d live in a different dorm, of course, or even off campus. But she’d be nearby, for
support, and maybe sometimes they could meet for tofu burgers at the student-run café. She knows this is ludicrous, but there is no schooling the heart.
She presses the start button on the coffeemaker, and it begins to make its comforting, burbling noises. The cat stitches itself around her ankles as she stands watching the first drops of coffee fall. Helen nudges her with her toe, but the cat comes back, purring, insistent. “Oh, Pig,” Helen says. “Get a life.”
She rubs her temples—Honestly,she thinks, maybe I should go lie down again—and then her thoughts turn to Regina McNamara, one of her favorite and most incorrigible kids, busted yesterday for underage drinking in the city park right next to the police station. Helen has been a counselor at the county juvenile court for almost a decade. She knows all the bad kids and all the formerly bad kids, and every time she pumps her gas or goes to the grocery store she runs into one of the reformed; helping them find jobs is one of her specialties.
The coffeemaker hisses and bubbles. She stares at it, willing it to work faster, and in the corner of her eye there is a strange flash, like that of a lightbulb that has popped and burned out. A second later, there is another flare, a jagged red spark. Her headache intensifies. She puts one hand on the counter and with the other touches her brow. She is alert, wary, and her pulse quickens. She blinks and blinks again, holding on to the old avocado Formica counter that she has meant, for years, to have replaced. The light grows brighter.
There is so much to do—she has to find out Regina’s court date and get Bill Gordon’s transcript and see if she’ll be able to beg him in to Kenyon despite his two turns in juvie (his SAT scores are excellent), and she has to defrost the ground beef for dinner, and she hasn’t called Abby in a whole week—
Wait, she thinks. Wait.
But the light doesn’t wait. The light explodes from a star that suddenly rises up from the kitchen sink. It shines in all the colors she has ever seen and in colors that don’t exist on this earth—colors of nebulae or comets, colors of time and gravity. There is a glow that contains an afterglow; there is a light that eats itself and grows brighter. There is a candle
burning in the center of a supernova. The light has arms, fingers, wings. The light is splendid, but there is no word for splendid anymore.
A great wonder of anguish washes over her. Her hand slips from the counter and she falls down. The sun climbs the trunks of the trees, and the clouds from the hospital billow and pulse and pull themselves apart in the sky. On the counter in the chilly morning, the coffeemaker fills with weak coffee. There is a prism in the window, and soon it will fling rainbows about the room.
From Hello Goodbye by Emily Chenoweth. Copyright © 2009 by Emily Chenoweth. Reprinted with permission of Random House.