Erik Peters brings us a small piece of fiction about a small gesture — and how such gestures can mean so much.
I flopped into the cramped airplane seat. I hadn’t slept in ages and didn’t know when I would see a bed again. Terry hadn’t come for his evening shift, so I was stuck at work till 11. In the dark Canadian winters, evening shifts feel twice as long. And, of course, that was when the Regional Medical Centre in Starkville, Mississippi, had called.
I looked at my phone. No updates. That meant Dad was still alive. But Mom would need support. And Melissa and everyone else would want to know every loathsome detail of the coming days. No doubt work would call, disguising questions about when I would return with false concern for my family. But this trip wasn’t for me. Without Dad, I would be the head of the family, responsible for carrying on the traditions, the memories, the good parts of the South that no one wanted to talk about anymore.
An old woman came down the aisle and gestured to the seat beside me. I got up, forcing a smile. She smiled back and sat by the window. I flopped down again and started running through the things to do when the plane landed. I had no luggage (all my baggage was in Starkville), I’d catch a cab to Kyle’s house, we’d have an awkward dinner, I’d borrow his car, and make the three-hour journey northward. The drive would be fueled by gas station coffee, and I would have to make time to get Kyle a bottle of wine. Then? God knows. Next month’s credit card bill would be huge.
I closed my eyes. This wasn’t for me! I had to keep the family together. Mom needed me. Melissa, her kids, Suzy … work … ugh.
I could feel the plane lumbering down the runway. The turbines started to quiver as they prepared for flight. Something tapped my arm.
“Excuse me young man,” came a weak voice.
I opened my eyes and looked at the bent little figure beside me. The woman must have been over 80 and was frail even for that.
“Could you hold my hand?” She whispered so softly only the two of us could hear.
Even with everything the way it was, the sight of her softened my heart. “Yes, of course. I’d be happy to.”
I took her gnarled hand. This was just one more thing that wasn’t for me. One more person to support. Her hand was cool but surprisingly firm.
We sat in silence. I closed my eyes and thought about the Mississippi sun. Would Dad’s room have a window? I hadn’t been home in years. It would be nice not to conceal my drawl. Perhaps I could take Mom to Sterling’s for brunch after church. Was Pastor Frank still there? He always had such good advice. If Dad stabilized, I might even be able to see Tyler on the farm.
The plane sped down the tarmac. The usual heaviness pressed upon me as we gained lift but was soon replaced by the levity that comes when 90,000 pounds of metal thwart gravity.
Once we leveled the old woman loosened her grip. I glanced over.
“No problem. Feeling better?”
“Much better. But you know…” — and here, her lips curled into so kindly a smile that wrinkles enveloped her whole face — “you needed that more than me. That wasn’t for me.”