FEATURE- SHORT STORY- Off Limits
If Neil Armstrong hadn't walked on the moon the day before Tommy Ford and I won the three-legged race at the county fair, I wouldn't have given the obituary a second look. But there I was at Dunkin' Donuts, checking the obits for people I knew and waiting for my pal Elliot to join me, and there it was: Thomas J. Ford, Astronaut. I'd hardly thought about Tommy since that summer we won the three-legged race, but I knew it was him alright. Because all he talked about back then was being an astronaut some day and walking on the moon like Neil Armstrong.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
This story took second place in the 2009 short story contest judged noted author John Grisham. "Many of us carry the baggage of a cruel childhood deed inflicted on someone less fortunate," said Grisham. "As this story illustrates, the memories haunt us forever." Author David Ronka, whose day job is interpreter at Monticello, has the distinction of taking first place in the 2005 Hook short story contest with a death-centric story called "What Can't be Cured."
Tommy had come up on the train from Georgia to spend the summer with his grandmother Eloise, who was my mother's maid. Eloise cleaned our house, did the laundry and looked after me and my little sister on days my mother was on nurse duty at the hospital. Tommy's older brother was in Vietnam, and I always kind of figured he'd been sent to Richmond to keep his mind off that and maybe other things. I'd wait on our porch swing for the city bus to stop down at the corner those summer mornings, and then watch Tommy sprint up the hill, with Eloise chugging along behind. We hit it off right away, Tommy and me. Wherever there was adventure to be found within hearing distance of Eloise's shout, we found it.
We practiced for the three-legged race on the back lawn. I remember Eloise kneeling to tie our ankles together with a strip of flannel cloth that first time, then sliding her hands down our bare legs so slow you'd think she was modeling something for herself out of clay. We pretended we were escaped convicts from the chain gang, like Tony Curtis and Sidney Portier in the movies.
And when the race finally came, we hooked our arms around each other like square dancers and took off on three legs like we'd been born to it. My father watched the race with his friends near the finish line. I remember him slowly opening his pocket knife in front of my eyes, then stooping to cut me loose from Tommy so quick I was afraid the blade might nick my leg. And I remember how Eloise had this fierce look on her face untangling the flannel my father had left dragging from Tommy's ankle, then how she marched Tommy straight to the ribbon table without so much as a glance at the ladies socializing along the way.
That evening, Tommy pedaled his bicycle up to our house. We drank ice-cold lemonade on the porch swing, gazed at the faraway moon winking through the poplar leaves, and talked about Neil Armstrong. I remember Tommy saying there's no force of gravity to keep a man down on the moon, and when he arrived there he'd perform back flips and somersaults and what have you for the people watching on television. After a time, my father shouted through the screen door for Tommy to get along home, and Tommy hopped on his bicycle and coasted down the long moonlit hill.
When I told my father what Tommy had said about going to the moon, he said he doubted that would ever happen. Then I remember him kind of winking at me and saying it was a known fact that the moon was off limits to colored boys.
My father never talked like that around my mother and my sister. My mother didn't tolerate him putting anybody down, especially decent folks like Eloise, but it was different when he and I were alone. I think he's always believed that I'd follow in his footsteps, carry on the family name, and that I'd naturally want to grow up in his image. And maybe I have, at least in one way.
After my mother died last year, he started going down hill fast, and my wife Kate finally agreed that he should move in with us, though she wasn't wild about the idea. Every once in a while, I'll catch her looking at him, then she'll glance over at me, then maybe back at him again. Then later, when we're off by ourselves, she'll remind me that it's my father's eyes I've got.
When Elliot arrived at Dunkin' Donuts and sat down at my table, he put on his reading glasses and snatched the obituary page from me. He likes to start his day seeing who died and what they died of. Says it's like a daily jolt of good news, knowing he's still alive, due to his righteous ways, and they're not. I pointed out Tommy's obit and mentioned me and him being friends when we were kids, and us winning the three-legged race, and Tommy dreaming of being an astronaut and walking on the moon. The obituary said Tommy had died after a long illness, and when Elliot finished reading, he said that was code for something the survivors didn't want divulged to the general public. Something like cirrhosis of the liver, or AIDS, he said. Something families don't normally like to talk about.
Then he shifted in his chair to cross his legs, took a sip of coffee, and kind of peered at me over the rims of his glasses. Correct me if I'm wrong, he said, but I can't recall ever hearing of such a thing as a black astronaut. Truth be known, I couldn't remember one either, but I told Elliot that I expected there had been a number of them over the years. Elliot just shrugged his shoulders and said if that was true, he'd somehow managed to miss the hoopla. Then he nodded toward Tommy's obituary. I guess you noticed, he said, that your pal there never made it to outer space, much less to the moon. He gazed out the window for a moment, then looked back at me. If you want my opinion, he said, he did all his walking on the ground right there in Houston.
Elliot's got a way of playing with you, of saying things you're not really sure he means just to see if he can get under your skin. Most times, he's got this little twinkle in his eye when he's ribbing you, but at Dunkin' Donuts that morning, bringing up Tommy being stuck on the ground in Houston the way he did, I knew he was dead serious. And I knew exactly what he had in mind. Because what I was hearing, without Elliot coming right out and saying it, was the same thing my father had said that night after the three-legged race. That someone like Tommy Ford had no business dreaming of walking on the moon. After my father said what he did, he took my hand and we walked into the house together, and that was that. Elliot just looked at me without saying another word, like he's waiting for me to jump in and defend Tommy. But I just let it pass, said Tommy at least got to be an astronaut, and then shut my mouth. Because with Elliot, there are some things best left unsaid.
You see, Elliot's got a daughter, Amy, who married a black soldier she met at the community college. She was there studying computers, and he was back from the Gulf War; and the way Elliot sees it is that hers was a marriage of pure and simple spitefulness aimed at him for nothing more than being her father and trying to bring her up right. The thing is, I don't think he's ever come out and actually told Amy any of this, and you'd never guess it from watching him around her and her two kids. I feel sorry for him, in a way, carrying that kind of resentment inside him. And when I think about it now, maybe my father shooting down Tommy's dream long ago was his way of dealing with something like that eating him inside.
My father had a good job traveling for the railroad. He'd ride trains up and down the coast, making sure all the rules and regulations got followed. Sometimes, on summer Sunday mornings after church, he'd say how about you and your Daddy visiting some trains this morning? Lots of them have been asking about you. Then we'd walk together to the train yard down by the river. I had to race to keep up with him, and he held my hand as we scooted sideways down the steep clay slope leading to the field of crushed stone, glimmering rails and winking signal lights. I can remember the cool river mist falling soft against my face and the rumbling snores of the train engines. Then my father would hoist me on his broad shoulders and take off at a gallop toward the red brick roundhouse where the giant engines slept. Burly trainmen wearing bib overalls and railroad caps that shaded their faces waved at us and shouted my name. I imagined myself a prince riding into my kingdom on horseback. And after a time, I'd shut my eyes against the drifting oil-smoke and bury my face in my father's damp, sweet-smelling hair.
I can remember how the sleek steel engines poked out of the shadowy roundhouse doors like the noses of elephants, their round headlamps seeming to bulge with surprise and pleasure at my return. My father would lift me by the bottoms of my sneakers so I could touch the smooth glass lamps, and he spoke to me in a voice that was soft and secretive.
This one here, he'd say, she's heading to Georgia this evening. And that one yonder, she's got herself all prettied up to visit New York City. Sometimes I thought my father's dreams waited for him in those faraway places.
One Sunday morning, not long after we won the three-legged race, I saw Tommy watching my father and me from the edge of the train yard. When he started toward us with a smile on his face, my father said you tell that boy to stay clear of here. This is no place for the likes of him. I did what he said. Shouted at Tommy like he was a stray mutt. Go away! I hollered. Go home! I remember him standing there with his arms hanging at his sides, staring at me for what seemed an eternity. Then he turned around and took off faster than I'd ever seen him run.
The next day, when the city bus stopped at the corner, Tommy and Eloise walked slowly up the hill together hand-in-hand. The first chance I got, I told Tommy I was sorry for what I did at the train yard. I told him I did it because my father was afraid he might get hurt. I remember the look he gave me like he could see the lie in my eyes and that things could never be the same between us. And they weren't. He still tagged along with Eloise when she came to work, but he spent most of his time helping her clean the house. And the fact is, when he was pushing the vacuum cleaner around or waving the feather duster at our furniture, he hardly even looked at me.
I was asleep when Eloise called my mother from the train station to tell her that Tommy's brother had been killed in Vietnam. She and Tommy were waiting for the train to Atlanta, and she'd return to Richmond after the funeral service. My mother told me that things were hard back home for Tommy, that being up here in Richmond and having me as a friend had been a wonderful thing for him. She said she was proud of me.
My father is failing. He can't hardly tell you what he had for lunch, but he remembers things in the past like they happened yesterday.. Sometimes, when he and I are alone, he'll talk about things I'd rather he wouldn't. About things he did in New York and Atlanta when he was traveling for the railroad. About perfumed ladies and the whispering of their silk stockings in quiet hotel hallways. He speaks in a voice that's soft and secretive, like in the train yard those summer Sunday mornings when he spoke to me of the steel engines waiting to carry him off to those faraway places. He tells me my mother never guessed his secrets. But I know now that she did. Because I'm remembering how she searched my father's eyes when he came home from his travels. How she'd turn away from him, and how, for a time, the house fell so silent that my sister and I talked to each other in whispers. My wife Kate and I have never talked about this, but I'm sure my mother told her about my father. I think it's so because sometimes when Kate looks at me, looks into my eyes, it's as if she's searching for something that hasn't been there before, something like my mother found that first awful time deep in my father's eyes.
When I came home from Dunkin' Donuts, my father was in his reclining chair, and Kate was working in her upstairs office. I asked my father if he remembered Tommy Ford from years ago, Eloise's grandson. He thought for a moment, then nodded at me with a smile. Eloise, he said. Your mother's girl. When I asked again if he remembered Tommy, he gazed past me, then closed his eyes. I had planned to read the obituary to him, but decided to let him be. In Kate's upstairs office, I showed her the obituary and told her the whole story of that summer Tommy and I were friends. When I told her my father seemed not to remember Tommy, she said I had to make him remember. He has to be reminded who you are, she said. He has to know you're different.
They're burying Tommy in Georgia. Kate drove me to the airport this morning, and my flight to Atlanta leaves in an hour. I'm sitting here thinking that if I had been the one who died, and Tommy had seen my obituary in some donut shop somewhere, he wouldn't have looked at it twice. Because I never talked about being an astronaut, or about being anything special, for that matter. All Tommy could possibly have remembered about me is that we played together one summer, that we won a three-legged race, and that I chased him out of the train yard one Sunday morning. I hope he forgot me long ago.
After Tommy's laid to rest, I'll talk to his widow. I want her to know that her husband was a friend of mine, and maybe I'll tell her about us winning the three-legged race. But most of all, I want her to know that I'm sorry he never got to walk on the moon. And when I come back home, I'll sit with my father and help him remember Tommy. And when he does, I'll tell him where I've been, and what I said to Tommy's widow.