A thousand miles away he is reading a newspaper. A woman brings him his breakfast and he thanks her, but he barely looks up. I know. I remember it well. I watched him so many mornings.
She asks him a question. She asks him about his coffee, or asks him if he needs the salt. His eyes flick up once and he shakes his head and he keeps reading. But she doesn't go yet. She is a good waitress, and the shop is mostly empty. It is a small town, and he is a nice old man, and she is young. She asks him how the world is.
Now he looks up, and he looks at her eyes. She smiles. He tilts the page he is reading toward her. "A hovercraft went down outside Disneyworld." And she ohs, but there isn't anything else she can do, so she leaves him to his breakfast.
Three months of breakfasts. Three months of hours within thirty feet and I don't even know his name. Herbert would have laughed at me. A few mornings I tried getting a newspaper myself to attract his attention. Hiding from someone who was hiding, in order to be found.
Herbert would have laughed. Shifting forward in his chair, he would have taken his pipe out of his mouth and jabbed at me with it. "Elaine, that's like swallowing a cork to clear out a clogged drain." Then he would have sat back for a moment, slowly smiling, until his pipe drifted idly into his mouth again. He turned seventy-four in the ambulance, and in a room I brought him a rose and seventy-four birthday candles in a box because he couldn't eat a cake. I put the rose in a glass of water on his windowsill. When I left, two days and five hours later, I took the rose home with me because it was still alive. I was only sixty-five then. Next year we will be even.
No one brought me roses. That may be why I lived, waiting. Before the stroke I cried for Herbert every morning. I got out of bed and put the coffee on, and then I cried for Herbert. When I was done crying the coffee would be ready. It was almost a year ago, now. I don't cry any more. Every month I still take flowers to the cemetery, but it is nearby, and the places it is on the way to are just as good places to go as the ones in other directions. Some days I sit at home, but television reminds me of the hospital. The house is not huge, but when I leave a room it is empty.
In the hospital we all ate breakfast in the cafeteria. We sat in the same places every morning, because the hospital aides did not speak English very well, and it made things just a little bit easier for them. I sat two tables out from the west wall, near the back. He sat four tables out and right by the window. I faced his profile. On a sunny morning his spoon would flash in my eyes.
I didn't notice him the first morning, because the first morning all I noticed was that I was eating at a table with a glass and silverware, and the salt and pepper in shakers. When they came and helped me into a wheelchair and pushed me down the hall to the cafeteria, that was when I knew I was going to live. Death is loneliness. In my room I was hanging on by television game shows and by the trails of jet airplanes and by the thermometers of the aides, mutely taking my temperature every four hours. In the cafeteria I saw people. I saw faces in the morning that might have been screams or sobbing in the night. When I knew I was not alone was when I knew I was out of danger.
Three months I watched him at breakfast, and he did not look at me even once. Morning after morning I ate and he read his newspaper. He must have read every story. Each page, slowly turned, one at a time, and he never skipped.
I think he didn't really care about the news at all. I know because I've watched people who care about the news read newspapers. Herbert cared about the news. When he picked up the paper he looked at the front page. He checked the headlines. He compared the stories on different parts of the front page. He nodded, or he shook his head. He looked at the front page like it was a painting. He saw lines and shapes, and only after some time would he begin to read a story. That is the way people who care about the news read the newspaper.
I thought about going to him. I have actually thought about it more since than I did then, but I should have. Later, when I could move the wheelchair myself, and just at the end when I could walk. I should have gone over to him one morning, and pushed away his paper and took his hand and asked him why. But I wouldn't have and that's not what you do in hospitals, anyway. I ate my breakfast.
That was the hardest thing after Herbert died. I could go through the days. I didn't say "It's nothing, Herbert's just out for a moment." I didn't pretend. I didn't dream about him. Dreams are the future, not the past. I could walk around our house. Herbert wasn't there, but I had seen the house without Herbert before. The first morning I lived there, he left for work and I walked around, almost too scared to touch. I went to every room. I changed one thing in each place. I closed a shade in the living room. I put a book back on the shelf in the library. I turned the calendar in the stairway to the correct month. I taught myself to think of my house.
But the will didn't say anything about breakfast. Herbert gave me everything that he loved and everything he had and everything he only wanted, but we ate breakfast together for forty-two years and if you have lived just ten seconds less than that then you can't even begin to understand. The day we were going to get married we had breakfast in the kitchen. We were married, and the honeymoon was three days long, and on the fourth day we ate breakfast in the kitchen again. It was his house before we married, and he must have known how to eat breakfast there alone, but I didn't and he died and left me there.
The first breakfast alone was harder than watching him die. I watched the straight green line on his heart monitor. I watched the nurse's blue eyes shake as she looked at him and then looked at me. I watched them roll him out of the room and down the hall, with the back left wheel of the stretcher jammed sideways, squealing and my head screaming with sirens like a disaster on the news, but the heroes and the rescue teams are for when you start to die. They don't come back for you when you are finished. There is another life falling apart for them to catch and hold together for its moment before they have to let it fall so they can catch the next one. By the funeral I had faced breakfast alone five times, and I could have watched them lower a hundred boxes into the ground. When things didn't impress Herbert he would say that he'd been moved more watching street workers fill in potholes. For seven years, every morning hurt.
It was more than no one. When you just eat breakfast by yourself, it is different. You can look around you. You can turn on the radio or get up and walk around. I know this difference now. I learned it when I got out of the hospital and came home again. For seven years, I had eaten breakfast with Herbert's absence so strong I should have seen its shadow. For seven years I hadn't been able to make me and not Herbert equal one instead of two.
It was being in the hospital that changed things. Breakfast was part of the treatment. While I was still in bed, they brought me breakfast. You eat what they bring you. They took the tray away when I was done. Herbert would never have eaten breakfast in the hospital with me. He would have had to sit in the vinyl chair at the foot of the bed. He would have balanced his plate on his knees, sitting forward awkwardly in a piece of furniture that they built to clean, not to sit in. They would not have allowed him to smoke, and all through breakfast he would have reached for his pipe, stopped, and shook his head. "Only things a pipe of mine ever hurt were a caterpillar I dropped one on and a rabbit that swallowed another one."
And after I came home, breakfast stayed that way. I had a special diet sheet, with lists of vitamins and how much I had to eat of which things. Eating is maintenance. There are things my body needs, and the doctors explained the problems. There is one problem to go with every thing I could forget to eat. Except for the vitamins, I still eat mostly the same food. But it took a stroke to make me look at breakfast as eating, rather than missing Herbert.
I'm not crying about it anymore. I am crying again, but that is not why. Those tears in my eyes are for something else.
A thousand miles away he is reading a newspaper. He looks up when I sit down. I tell him my name and he shakes his head.
A thousand miles away he is reading a newspaper. He looks up when I sit down. I tell him my name. He nods and puts the paper down. He asks me if I am better. I tell him yes. I ask him the same. He says he is okay. He says he is as well as he ever was. As well as he ever will be.
He orders coffee for both of us. His paper has fallen under his chair and the waitress pulls it out and folds it again. He doesn't notice her. She is young and she has her own problems and she looks at me and I'm not sure if she wants to smile or cry.
A thousand miles away he puts down the newspaper. "Hello Elaine."
I say hello to him. The edges of his mustache quiver when he smiles. He leans forward. He looks out the window and then he looks at me. "I'm glad you came."
I tell him I am glad to be there. The sun is on his face and on the dishes between us. He wants to walk down to the river. He wants to buy a loaf of white bread and feed it to the swans. He wants to sit on a wooden bench along the bank and tell me stories. It is a small town and I am not busy. He is a nice man and I am getting old.
A thousand miles away he passes me the cream. I put a little in my coffee. I do not use sugar. He doesn't ask.
For a while, neither of us says anything. When he does, it isn't important. Neither is my response. We talk, but it doesn't matter what we say. It is the kind of conversation that doesn't need questions. We are not exchanging information, we are having breakfast.
A thousand miles away the two of us come home. A thousand miles away he is frightened and I hold his hand. A thousand miles away we wake up and we are home already.
Here I wake up alone.
Next year I will be seventy-four years old. Herbert died eight years ago. Last year I had a stroke. I recovered well enough, but I am still old. I may die at a hundred, or I may die tomorrow. Today, though, I am alive. And I am lonely. I need a friend who doesn't go away. I don't want to be alone any more. I think I am old enough to make this decision. Eight years is less than forty-two, but I think it is long enough. I don't want to dream anymore. Dreams are the future. I am too old for dreaming. Dreams are the future and memories are the past. I am too old to dream and I have enough memories. What I have left is now. It has to be real. I need things I can look at without closing my eyes.
Tomorrow I will get on a plane. I will fly a thousand miles. I will walk from the airport to the coffee shop. He will be sitting there. He will be reading the newspaper. I will stand in the doorway.
The woman will bring him his breakfast. She will ask him a question. She will ask him about his coffee, or ask him if he needs the salt. His eyes flick up once and he shakes his head and he keeps reading. She sees me and she leaves him alone. She is a good waitress, and there are other customers. It is a big world, I am old, and she is young.
I walk over to his table. I put my suitcase down beside the chair. I stay standing. "I have come to be here," I say. "I have come a thousand miles," I say. "I have come to take you home."
"I am not going to explain things, I am not going to ask questions. I am not going to cry, but I may not laugh. I don't need your money, I don't have anything to do with mine. I don't need your arm, I can walk as tall as you can. But you are eating your breakfast alone, and I was just eating my breakfast alone about a thousand miles from here, and I don't think either of us like it. That is what I have come to say."
He looks up. He looks straight into my eyes. I look into his and I see the tears. I watch the tears roll out of the eyes I have created in my dreams. I watch the tears roll over the cheeks that my visions have made. I watch the tears fall off the chin which is mine, too, onto the only thing I cannot claim. I watch them soak into the dry newsprint, blurring the words. He tries to rise, but all he can do is tilt the page he is reading toward me. He tries to say yes, but only one thing comes out. "A hovercraft went down outside Disneyworld."
Before I die, I am drawing a map. It is a map of how the world is. From my house it is one thousand and two miles to where the walls of Disneyworld rise out of the Florida swamp. It is one thousand and two miles to happiness. I have just found out that I have been traveling on my dreams. My dreams don't touch the ground. They skim over the surface. They can take me anywhere. But a thousand miles is their limit. A thousand miles is as far as they can go. The swamp outside of Disneyworld is four miles wide on my map. Four miles wide and I am two miles short.
I am on my way. Even though I know, I am going. I am going a thousand miles on the hovercraft of dreams. That is not why I am crying. I am not crying for this end. The swamp does not need my tears. I am crying for you. I am crying for your dreams. My dreams are over. I am crying for everyone whose dreams still fly.
Because it is a thousand and two miles to Disneyworld, and you, too, will finally grow old. Those tears in my eyes are for your Hovercraft Down.
18 August 1987
Copyright ©1987, glenn mcdonald