Us and the World
by Tamara Sheehan
Tamarack needles fall from everything, from the sagging, striped awning, the roof of the motor home, the swaying trees. The forest creeps into the old TraveLux by degrees, needles and mud and mushrooms sneaking in the door. We peer in ourselves, more tentative than the forest, and both of us smile.
Lynn and Mike travelled everywhere in this tiny TraveLux. They counted days like soldiers on campaign, marked off campgrounds like downed enemy aircrafts. They went from one end of the country to the other so many times that my husband’s earliest memories are colours — the golden blur of the prairie roads, the sick-making blue grey of serpentine mountain roads.
I know Adam feels the call of the road. He wastes to a slip of himself in our apartment, which is sterile and stagnant and utterly still. It is no wonder, then, that his parents lent us this musty thing, their old TraveLux, so we could take a vacation.
The TraveLux is amazing. It was built sometime in the 60’s, I would say, judging from the liberal use of Formica and faux-wood in the decor. Whoever built it, they intended the TraveLux to last. It only shows its age in the fading of upholstery and the brittleness of plastic and wallpaper.
Nothing inside is broken, all the switches and dials look new, and the same goes for the windows and cabinets and floors. I peer through the door at the arrangement of travel cookware, as pristine and cold as any museum exhibit.
The rain patters down on us, soaking my shoes and the cuffs of my jeans. Lynn grins at me and gestures. “You’d might as well have a look inside,” she says, so Adam and I squeeze into the little space together.
We are new owners, self-conscious and slightly ashamed of the mud and the moss we’re dragging in. We look around at the brown seat coverings, the narrow table that folds down into an uncomfortable bed. We breathe up the stale, musty air.
Outside, I can hear Adam’s dad tinkering with the exterior, latches and gears that go clunk-clunk against the metal siding. We’re silent a while, then Adam leans over to the gently flaking wallpaper between the stove and the cabinet where there’s a toggle switch embedded. He frowns at it.
“Go on,” I say, always the impulsive one. Adam flicks the switch down.
Suddenly we are moving, borne upward on silent hydraulics, our stomachs plunging as the motor home heaves up. Outside, Lynn shrieks and I can hear Mike’s laughter, much bigger than he is, bouncing from tree to tree.
We look out at them, at the fabulous joke and see the ground, which is thick and soft with leaf fall and with tamarack needles, some twenty feet further from the door than it used to be.
Where tires should be, a pair of scaled feet clutch the soft earth in a trident of dinosaurian claws. Instead of axles, there are legs, feathered above the bulbous knee by torn strips of awning.
Suddenly we are moving. Before either Adam or I can speak, call out a question, shout in surprise, the TraveLux is running with a hobbling sort of chicken-gait across the forest floor, legs pumping like pistons, claws sending up gouts of green and brown earth.
I press my face to the back window. Mike and Lynn are laughing and waving, receding fast into the wood as if they are the dream.
“How do I stop it?” Adam shouts, braced in the door frame like an uncertain suicide.
Mike calls back, “It’ll know when to stop,” and goes on waving. And then there’s nothing but the winds and the blur of the trees and the steady drumbeat of the feet in the forest. Nothing but us, and the world.
The TraveLux wasn’t the only thing Mike and Lynn ever loaned us. There was a sentient letter opener, a cup that healed anyone who drank from it and an ornate salt mill that we’ve never actually used.
When I asked where all these things came from, Lynn just shrugged. “We travel a lot,” she said. “We picked them up somewhere.” She waves her hand. “Better you enjoy it while we’re here than after we’re gone.”
Now they are gone and not even Adam knows where. We found out on Sunday that someone had seen that chicken-legged TraveLux heading west on Wednesday night. No phone call goodbye and no note in the mailbox.
I thought Adam would be upset, but he’s not the expressive type. He just shrugged his shoulders. Then he got up from the couch and put on his shoes. “Well,” he said, “we’d better go get the perishables out of the fridge.”
They haven’t been gone long enough for the house to feel empty yet. In fact, when I step over the herd of overexcited shoes that have gathered at the front door, I almost yell, “It’s just us!” as if Mike and Lynn are busy somewhere out of sight.
But they are gone, and aside from the ticking of the haunted clock, the place is silent. We hush ourselves automatically, whisper to one another. “Do you think it’s safe to leave my shoes here?” I ask.
Adam nods and kicks his own shoes into the pile. We go up the steps, sock-clad, and shush across the carpet into the hall. The halls are lonely as pet store puppies. They extend to ridiculous lengths, hide doors on us.
At last Adam smiles his rueful smile and says, “OK, OK, I know you’re lonely.” He nods at me, “Go grab the stuff from the fridge. I’ll just play with the hall a little bit and then catch up.”
The hall gives back the kitchen door and I step through. Mike and Lynn never updated their kitchen and every time I’m here I wonder why. The place is like those pictures in mid-century magazines, Announcing the Kitchen of the Future. It’s all brown and gold linoleum, pea-green counters and copper coloured tiles. And the wallpaper is punishment to look at.
I open the avocado-green fridge and have a look inside. Even here the time-warp persists; opaque Tupperware rolls toward me like a tide, bearing with it ceramic pots of mustard, glass casseroles, pots of walnut ketchup. No squeezy bottles or plastic wrap here. These things were made to endure.
I like them. I like the sturdiness of their form, the milky colour of the glass, the cool aluminium lids on the jars. They are objects built for a purpose and made to last, so far from plastic baggies and cling wrap that I find it hard to believe we depend on things that are so disposable. These jars and pots have lasted out more than one war and more than one owner. And they’ll probably outlast Adam and me.
I take some of the spillage piling around the fridge and put it on the table. Then I hunt around for the perishables we’re supposed to be rescuing. There’s a half empty jug of milk, a few eggs rolling around in the egg tray, but not much more. I stick my head in the fridge and have an experimental sniff to see if anything has gone off, but there’s nothing.
But who knows when Mike and Lynn will return. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll spend eternity in the TraveLux, endlessly singing Bob Dylan tunes and scrutinizing gas station bathrooms. And maybe Adam and I will come to the house every week to visit the hall and the shoes and play a bit of fridge Tetris until finally, weeks from now, everything has gone slightly soft, or brown, or developed a thin layer of fuzz. At what point would we realize if they were gone for good this time?
When Adam comes into the kitchen, a little breathless and pink in the cheeks, I put it to him. “Maybe they’re not planning on coming back. I mean, they took the TraveLux, so, maybe they’re going to be gone for a long, long time.”
Adam is unfazed. “It’s up to them, isn’t it?”
“I guess,” I answer.
Adam looks over my shoulder at the maw of the fridge. He points at a bell jar within which a slice of birthday cake is confined. “Do you think we can take that?”
“Yeah. Birthday cake is totally perishable.”
Adam takes the milk while I grab the cake. “That’s it,” I say.
“Let’s get going then,” Adam says. But on the way out he pauses to leave a note on the kitchen table. Something to the effect of: Call us when you get in.
I give him a questioning look and he smiles a little sheepishly. “You never know,” he says.
“True,” I agree. You never do.
Copyright © 2009 by Tamara Sheehan