by Joan Foley Baier
She squinted, trying to bring the barn into focus through the rain that was slithering down the window. She kept staring and squinting, standing almost motionless on the worn spot in the carpet. Finally, an area of the window cleared and she could make out the barn.
Rain-stained, it looked darker, even in the gray morning light. The roof sagged horribly, belying the years of rafter-to-beam fidelity. The roof wasn't like that on that other awful rainy day, she thought. The whole barn was newer...
She could see the barn now as she had that other day a lifetime ago - dark, wet, isolated. The rain had kept burying it in a black-brown shroud, perpetuating its look of loneliness since Paul had left to fight that awful war. Tractor tracks leading to the barn had formed ochre rivulets of rain, which scurried about, searching frantically for a place of rest.
She remembered how lights from an automobile had drawn her attention away from the barn. A Hudson, looks like, she had thought as it drove past the barn and pulled in front of the house. The man behind the wheel was wearing a uniform and for just a second, with a delightful skip to her heart, she had thought it was Paul - husband extraordinaire, father of Laura and Brian, love of her life. But then, she had recognized Charlie Goodwin as he ran from the car to the porch.
"Good Grief, Charlie!" she had said when she opened the door for him. "When did you start driving your father's Hudson to deliver telegrams, with rationing and all?"
Poor Charlie! He had never finished explaining. She had only read the words We regret to inform you...before she felt her mouth drop open and her head reel, like a tornado was sucking everything out of it. When she had regained awareness, of where she was, of the world around her, of her aloneness in it, Laura was at her side and Charlie was gone.
Laura. She studied the sky now through the window. Always at my side. As I took over Paul's chores, she took over mine - before any little girl should have had to.
She jumped as the telephone rang and shuffled across the room to answer it.
"Mom? You sound really beat. Are you all right?"
Laura, still there. Still not missing a trick. "I'm fine, Laura. Just... you know how I hate this kind of rain," she answered.
Silence. Finally, Laura spoke again. "I thought I'd drop by and have a cup of tea with you. Will you be home?"
"Sure, honey," she replied, then surprised herself by adding, "Why don't you bring your friend, Nancy? She'll give you company on the drive here." That will be good. The two of them can talk and I can just rest and listen.
"Great idea, Mom!" Laura's voice brightened. "I haven't seen her in a while either and we can catch up."
"Good, I'll see you both later, then."
"Mom, are you sure you're okay?" Laura's voice had that whispery timbre. She's worried. My daughter-mother.
"Laura, it's okay... I'm okay. You and Nancy come for tea. I always enjoy seeing you two have fun together."
That seemed to do it for Laura. "Okay, Mom. See you later."
"I love you, honey."
Hesitation. "I love you, too, Mom. Bye now."
She stood by the telephone, rubbing her shoulder. Damned rain! Shuffling slightly, she walked slowly to the closet for a sweater. She put it on, right arm first to go easy on that shoulder. Then she walked back to the living room and stood in the doorway.
On one side of the fireplace mantle were the familiar three china figurines. She had never taken down the Nativity figures, which Brian had given her, after last Christmas. She liked them there.
She smiled. Brian was so much like his father that it pained her to watch him sometimes. She wondered if he had ever felt her pull away from him, when watching him was like having her heart wrenched from her, like having Paul and losing him all over again. She could feel a rather nebulous wall between Brian and her, and although she was never quite sure one was there, she always felt guilty about it. I'll call him today. Soon.
The ashy remains of last Sunday's fire littered the hearth in cold repose. She remembered that same fireplace ablaze with their own applewood, flames dancing, almost in rhythm with the Christmas songs playing on their victrola. We always said we'd never forget that Christmas.
She leaned against the doorway, as she had that Christmas, so many years ago. She could see Paul setting up the train they had gotten for Brian. Earlier she had helped him with the kitchen set for Laura. They had stopped counting the screws at one hundred and thirty-four and decided that Santa would never again bring a toy that needed assembling.
She walked across the room now and started dragging her rocking chair from where it sat near the fireplace over to her window. At first she forgot about the chair's arm, pulling it until the spindle from the arm came out of its socket in the seat.
"Damn!" she muttered. She pushed down on the arm, forcing the spindle back into its socket, and started pulling the other chair arm, positioning the chair at a precise angle by the window. Then she separated the sheers, giving her a clear view outside. She sat in the chair, checking the view to make sure she could see the barn.
She just rocked for a while, watching the barn as though she expected someone to push the door open and walk out. She felt incredibly tired and a hush moved into the room like a shadow crossing a gravestone. Rocking and watching, her eyes widened and narrowed as the chair rolled back and forth. For a few minutes, she slept.
Light tormented her eyes into wakefulness and she was surprised to see the sun shining through a break in the clouds. Maybe it will dry everything like it did on Brian's birthday. A smile maneuvered her mouth as she remembered.
Brian's fifth birthday. The children had gone with her parents that morning. That was the year Brian wanted to be a fireman, so she had baked a firetruck cake. It turned out so well, she came to the window to see if Paul were in sight so she could brag about it. And, just then - as if he knew - Paul had stepped into the sunlight in the hayloft door, looking toward the house. They had waved to each other and he beckoned her.
"Come on up," he had said when she walked outside. "The weather's fine!" They both laughed and she had run around or over the puddles, climbed up the ladder to the hayloft where he wrapped her with his arms and swung her around till they both fell over, laughing, onto the hay. And right in the middle of that pre-soaked sunshiny day, the fifth birthday of their son, they made love in the hayloft. It started slowly - as Paul cupped his hands around her face, kissing her, pressing on her - and then swelled and surged into impassioned undulations and murmurings, like an ocean surf's prelude to a tropical storm.
The day's rain had left that freshly-bathed earth smell all over, even in the barn, and the sun was toasting everything. It was a perfect day in their perfect world - on Brian's fifth birthday.
She realized she had stopped rocking and she felt the smile soften her face. Brian. She'd call him now.
She pushed her body upright, her hands pressing down on the arms of the rocking chair. With one more glance out the window, she walked across the room to the telephone and dialed Brian's work number.
"Mother!" He didn't mask his surprise, nor his pleasure. "How's my girl?" Oh, God! so like Paul.
"I'm fine, Brian. I was admiring my Nativity figurines again and thought of you." As they chatted, she could hear someone enter his office.
"I just wanted to let you know that you're the best kind of son and I love you very much," she said lightly, trying to sound casual.
He laughed his easy laugh. She could hear his chair move. "Are you feeling all right, Mother?"
"Of course. Now you get back to work so I can call you often like this and not feel guilty about taking up your time." He talked longer, but finally they said goodbye.
She walked to the kitchen. She filled the pot for tea and set out china cups and saucers and mauve damask napkins. She’d warm the biscuits after they arrived. She rested her shoulder against the counter, surveying the simple preparations. Satisfied, she returned to the living room and sank into the rocking chair. The clouds had devoured the sun.
She began to rock again, watching the barn, and wondered when the rain had resumed.
Lights in the distance, wending snake-like toward the farm, hinted that Laura was almost there. I should start heating the water for tea. In a minute, I will.
She could hear the car now. It was suddenly darker. I really have to get up now. Her arms felt heavy, as if they were filled with some ponderous substance.
She heard two car doors slam.
The rocking stopped. Her arms fell into her lap, cupped, as if in prayer and her lips formed a smile of recognition.
Several of Joan Foley Baier’s short stories for children were in children’s magazines in the ‘70s, and in 1998, a mid-grade novel, Luvella’s Promise, was published in POD technology. Her work has appeared in Angels on Earth and in GRIT Magazine. She was a technical writer for Eastman Kodak Company, where the company published on a world-wide basis her manuals, procedures, and a training video. Additionally, she wrote a bi-weekly column for The Greece Post, a community newspaper, and published on a free-lance basis interviews and events in other local newspapers. She lives in Rochester, NY, close to her adult children.