Unless Soul Clap Its Hands and Sing by Seana Graham
On the morning that they took the bus over the hill to San Jose for a doctor's appointment, Howard Cole and his wife, Elizabeth, had been living with their daughter Lorraine, her husband, Richard, and their two children for six months. Howard hadn't passed his driving test the last time he'd tried, and though he still had hopes of success on his next attempt, the appointment had been made before this difficulty had arisen. The meeting with the specialist had been hard to come by, and canceling it would mean waiting some months to reschedule. Lorraine had offered to take a day off work to drive them over, but Howard had said they would be perfectly fine on the bus, and though he hadn't prevailed over Lorraine in much this past year, he had prevailed in this.
Elizabeth had Alzheimer's. She was in neither the early stages nor the late, but in some intermediate phase that kept them all guessing. Lately, for example, she'd stopped speaking, but whether this was because she no longer could or no longer would was hard to say. She and Howard had moved from their old home in Fremont to Lorraine's home in Santa Cruz after Lorraine had determined that Howard could no longer cope with the situation alone. Lorraine had brought Richard in on her side, and together they had offered her parents an all but irresistible package. She and Richard had converted the garage into a studio for college students some years back, but no longer depended on that extra income—and here Rich had come in very handy for proving to Howard just how easily the family could do without this rent. Howard had resisted and then wavered, surprised as he still continually was that such decisions—major and minor alike—were now to be exclusively his to make. Of course, Lorraine would be very glad to help him with them, but Lorraine was not Elizabeth, and the extent to which wasn't had grown more obvious after he had finally yielded and moved himself and Elizabeth down to the small space he could never quite bring himself to call `the studio' but persisted in referring to as `the garage'.
The bus ride started off uneventfully and even pleasantly, though Howard had never much cared for buses, and this reminder of his current lack of a license galled him off and on throughout this first leg of the journey. Elizabeth was docile, but then, she always was these days. Howard had read a great deal about the disease since she’d been diagnosed, and knew that as far as these things went, they’d been lucky so far—if anyone could be considered lucky who found themselves in this predicament, and personally, he didn’t think so.
Lorraine had made them a snack for the trip over and lunch for later—Howard had never known she was such a one for food preparation until he’d come to live with her, and supposed that it must have arisen out of motherhood. But after they’d met the kindly doctor, who really had not much more to offer them besides that kindness, he decided that he would take his wife out to lunch anyway, despite these provisions. They didn’t go to one of the fancy lunch place sshe would have taken her to in the past, but to a McDonald’s he’d noticed on the way to the doctor’s office. This wasn’t just because it was cheaper or easier to take her there—though it was both, he’d be the first to admit that—but because it contained everything she now preferred—bright colors, simple flavors and the presence of children.
After strolling aimlessly for awhile, they caught a commuter bus back that Lorraine had looked into for them. It was still early afternoon, and as it happened they were the only ones on board apart from the driver. Howard held Elizabeth’s hand as she stared out the window, and thought that, despite having received no new miracle drug from the doctor, or even the hope of any, it hadn’t been a bad day, all in all. He could see that it had enlivened her, and then realized that it had also enlivened him, and further that it was a relief to be out from underfoot at Lorraine’s for an afternoon. He decided that, even without a car, he would find an excuse to take Elizabeth out like this again.
They were maybe twenty minutes into their journey and coming up on the summit when the driver uttered something strange and unintelligible. The man hadn’t said two words to them since they’d gotten on board, so Howard strained particularly to catch it. He was still sensitive on Elizabeth’s behalf to any perceived slight to her on account of her condition.
Then, in the next moment, they were flying. It was so sudden and unexpected when they left the road over the cliff’s edge that this was really what he thought for a moment—that they were somehow actually flying, and not, in fact, falling. This misperception was corrected shortly, as they connected with earth again with a great bone-hammering thump and began sliding willy-nilly down the steep hillside. The bus at last lurched to a stop, upright, the motor still running and everything intact, as if this was what was supposed to happen all along. Howard’s first concern was Elizabeth, but she wasn’t frightened, nor even stunned, and in the next moment he realized that, for her sake, he must not be either.
The driver, however, was dead. It wasn’t clear to Howard, when he went forward to check on him, how or why this had come to be the case, but only that it was. It didn’t appear to be the result of the crash, but more likely the cause of it—a heart attack or stroke, perhaps. As he stared down at the driver, Howard thought of Elizabeth, because it occurred to him that her life must now be full of moments like this, where things must be taken just as they are, without understanding any antecedent causes. It required a kind of faith, he realized—to simply believe in what one saw.
The radio transmitter beside the driver’s hand was making faint, incomprehensible squawks, and then it abruptly died, as did the entire electrical system. After a few more moments, the engine stopped. It was as though the bus and driver had been more intimately linked than anyone had previously supposed, and the life of one could not continue long without the other.
The driver's death was shocking but hard to mourn, and certainty that he was now past the point of help came to Howard as something of a relief. To wait for rescue was one thing, but to wait with someone who was in critical condition quite another. Since the onset of Elizabeth's illness, Howard's sphere of concern had grown progressively smaller. He would have been the first to call this selfishness, except that the self he was preoccupied with was Elizabeth's, not his own. Even Lorraine, even his lively grandchildren, whom he had always taken great interest and delight in, now seemed to exist on the other side of a glass wall. People came into his awareness these days only as they affected the little realm that he and Elizabeth inhabited. The driver, now that he was dead, mattered not at all.
At first, it didn’t occur to Howard to pull the key from the ignition. It felt presumptuous somehow, until he realized that there was no one else to take this probably unnecessary safety precaution. It was yet another of those little glimpses he’d been given of how far he’d slipped from the resolute man he’d once been that, even at this juncture, he should look for someone in authority to make this decision. It is my wife who is diminished, not I, he often had to remind himself. Yet he couldn’t always find sufficient evidence to entirely believe that.
Without the noise of the engine, the world seemed very still. They had come a long way from the road it seemed, for he couldn’t hear any traffic. Neither could he see the road from here, nor, except for the last few yards, any evidence of the way they’d come. Elizabeth was still sitting in her seat, looking at him expectantly. He smiled at her, and decided they’d better get out and take a look around. There was still some danger of fire or explosion, he supposed, and he should check that out before making this their waiting room. For a little waiting was surely all that would be required of them—there was probably a rescue team racing to the spot even now.
He found the hand lever that opened the door—thank God it worked manually and not electrically—and turned to his wife and said, “Come on, Elizabeth—let’s go outside for awhile.” She smiled at him, exactly as though this had all been a perfectly normal sequence of events. He noticed that she didn’t look at the driver as she walked out, though whether this was avoidance or mere obliviousness he didn’t know. He took her to a fallen log about ten yards away from the bus, lay his jacket across it for her to sit on, and then went to look at the route of their descent and see if there was a way back up.
The last twenty feet of hillside they’d come down was very steep, and had propelled them a good way into the forest. The bus had been braked to a stop by brush and a stand of young saplings, and luckily not by one of the older trees that stood all around them. He walked back to the face of the slope. If he were a little younger, he would certainly have tried to climb back up to the road, though even in a young man it would have been rash. The incline wasn’t just steep but loose, and he could easily have started a mini landslide in the attempt. As if to validate his assessment, a rock the size of his head that had probably been dislodged by the bus’s descent now rolled toward him, and he had to dodge hastily out of the way.
Well, even if it had been a great deal easier, he wouldn’t have left Elizabeth alone to try it. They must wait this out together. He turned back to reassure her, but she was gone. His heart thudded a little at this, but he didn’t immediately worry. Unlike some Alzheimer’s sufferers, she was not a wanderer. She had probably just gotten back on the bus.
When he peered back in, however, overcoming a growing aversion to the dead man to do so, she wasn’t there, and he knew he’d been foolish, that she would not step back across the threshold with this stranger lying there—not without him. He went to the log where she’d been sitting and scanned the clearing from what had been her vantage point. Nothing immediately struck him as being a potential lure to her, and now panic did begin to overtake him. She’d never just left like that before. In desperation, he turned and looked behind him and then he saw it—a perfectly comprehensible little trail leading into the forest. She must have noticed it when he sat her down there. Even now, she was still in some ways more observant than he was.
He had barely stepped into the forest proper when he saw her up ahead, stepping out of the brush at the side of the trail, rearranging her skirt—she had obviously gone off in the woods merely to relieve herself. She turned and saw him, then stopped, smiling but embarrassed. It was one of those moments, increasingly frequent, when he wasn’t sure if her embarrassment was because she didn’t know him in that instant or because she did. Then she stopped where she was, and he saw that she wasn’t sure whether to come toward him or to flee. Her near-sightedness was another obstacle to her in such a situation. He decided to wait for her to come to him. But another thought came to him as he stood there—that he might lead her deeper into the forest, that together they would become lost and eventually die there. Well, people did, didn’t they, when they became lost and disoriented. Exposure, wasn’t it? And certainly it would be one solution to their problems. What about it, Elizabeth? he asked her silently. Would you like to take my hand and walk a little further on? Fall asleep on a bed of pine needles and just never wake up?
Ah well, it wouldn’t be as simple as that, would it? Nothing ever was. They would be found too soon, or worse, he might die and leave her to this. The very idea made him start and move impulsively toward her. Luckily, she did seem to know him now, and wasn’t panicked by his urgency.
He took her by the hand and led her back to the clearing, scanning the hillside above for signs of rescue. If anything, though, the clearing seemed quieter than ever. Amazing, he thought. The citizen, the taxpayer, the ticket-buying bus rider in him began to be a little indignant that there weren't highway patrolmen already clamoring down the hillside, with megaphones and dogs. He yearned suddenly for their officiousness, their take charge, can-do mentality. It was in this moment, more than in any yet, that he realized he was old.
It was in the next, though, that the situation suddenly became clear to him. They’d sailed over the edge of the cliff—that brief sensation of flying. This meant they probably hadn’t broken through any brush there, leaving telltale evidence of their calamity. It had been a winding road, and if there hadn’t been any other traffic on their small stretch of it at that moment to witness their departure from it, then they had as good as vanished. And no one on earth knew where they were.
Glancing at his sleeve, he noticed that there were a few drops of blood on it, vivid and new. It took him a moment to realize that the blood was his own, and that he had not come through the accident as unscathed as he had initially believed.
With this thought, some veil fell away. He wondered if he was concussed, to have taken all that had happened so lightly. A man is dead, he thought. A man is dead. And then, but is he dead? Or was that just another hastily drawn conclusion? He started to run toward the bus, and Elizabeth whimpered as she tried to keep up with him. I’m frightening her, he thought. I must remember my priorities here. He forced himself to stop, to smile at her and reassure her. He was winded, anyway. Don’t panic, he thought. It won’t help. He left Elizabeth at the log again, dubious now that she would stay. He walked over to examine himself in the bus’s jutting side mirror, and was reassured to see that the cut on his brow was in fact a very minor one. Then, he reentered the bus.
The driver was still dead. A fly was sitting on his face, adding its own confirmation of this fact, and Howard thought that he probably should go round and close all the windows to stop or at least slow others of its ilk from joining it. A rucksack sat on a shelf behind the body, and he dug through it, hoping for a cell phone. No such luck. There were, however, a couple of sandwiches wrapped in sealable plastic bags, and a large unopened bottle of drinking water, with which he could also clean his wound. These finds buoyed his spirits considerably.
He glanced out the window to where Elizabeth still sat patiently. From this small distance, she looked like herself, by which he meant ‘normal’, and he realized that he’d grown used to looking at her at a distance, though a distance of time rather than space, back to her whole self and not this stranger whom she had largely become to him. I love you for what you were, not what you are, he thought starkly. She looked at him, and superstitiously wondering if she had gained some new power to read his thoughts, now that her own declined, he instantly regretted this. Besides, he wasn’t even sure if he’d meant it.
Howard had run his own small chain of hardware stores for thirty years, confidently, successfully. But ten years had passed since he’d sold them off and retired, and he now realized how much of his power he’d gradually given away in the interim, to the point where he now waited passively not just for rescue, but even to do those small, meliorating things that might make their current plight a little better.
The driver, for one thing, was going to have to go. Howard didn’t want to just abandon his body to the elements, but he and Elizabeth sure as hell weren’t spending the night in the bus with him, either. He got out again and walked down the side of the vehicle until he found the handle of the luggage compartment. It came open easily enough. Space enough for the poor man in here, then, if Howard could just find the strength to put him there. The compartment was empty of luggage, but in the far corner, there was a tarp wrapped around a tire pump and, thankfully, some flares. The driver had also had a big utilitarian flashlight under his seat, Howard had noticed. And, if he could steel himself to do it, as he already saw he must, he would search the man’s body for matches. Nightfall, then, would not bring utter despair, and the visibility of the flares against the darkness might even bring some small renewal of hope.
Night came early in the mountains. The sun disappeared behind a ridge well before it had truly set, and Elizabeth was shivering soon after. Howard was grateful that his slightly squeamish search of the driver's body (though God knew he had afterwards become intimate enough with him, what with lugging him out of the bus and heaving him into his makeshift crypt) had produced both the hoped for book of matches and a pack of cigarettes. That camping merit badge he'd earned as a Boy Scout still stood him in good stead, lo, these many years later, and the small fire he'd put together kept them cozy for awhile. His day's work done, he lit a cigarette for himself, for warmth and cheer and to cut the hunger he still felt after giving Elizabeth the larger portion of the night's rations. After a small hesitation, he offered her a cigarette, not sure if he should. She shook her head—sensibly enough, Howard thought. They had quit smoking together thirty years ago, and it had been a great deal harder for her than for him. But she continued to watch him hungrily as he smoked, devouring the image of him doing it.
He took her to the edge of the clearing once more before darkness completely descended so that they could both relieve themselves. Again the thought came to him of fleeing into the forest, of surrendering to it. But it seemed more frightening now, more imposing, and he was glad that, though they were by no means found, they were not entirely lost yet, either.
The fire now in embers, his last act before extinguishing it was to light two of the precious flares in hope that they might be seen from the air. There was not much point in saving the rest—he doubted that they could both last a second night out here. But he husbanded the others anyway, perhaps more out of habitual thrift than anything else.
Elizabeth gazed at the flares with a child’s delight, as though Howard had put on a fireworks show just for her, and he smiled too, taking his pleasure in hers. Suddenly, everything shifted for him, as he saw the world through her eyes—that there was still joy to be had, here in the night, at wit’s end quite literally, and separated from the evidence of death by nothing more than the metal door of the luggage compartment, and from death itself by not much more than that. He put his arm around her and they watched the flare, entranced for awhile, and then they went and watched the other. Her happiness did not diminish. It burned as steadily as the flare itself. At last he coaxed her into the bus, and taking their original seat out of some unexamined attachment to it, he drew the tarp over them and they settled in for the night. At last the flares fizzled out and they were alone in the dark. He felt that they were more alone in the world than they had ever yet been. He thought of Hansel and Gretel, undone by breadcrumbs, and then of the many ways that he and Elizabeth too had been undone. But there were no birds to blame this time around. There was no one to blame for any of it, not even for this—their latest, perhaps last, improbable mishap.
The tarp kept their body heat in, and if they weren’t exactly cozy, they were far from miserable. They dozed a little, and then at about ten by his glow-in-the-dark watch, Howard was wakened by a noise. Rescue, he thought, instantly alert, but it was only a deer that had wandered into the clearing and was nosing around for food. He was disappointed until he realized that Elizabeth was awake too, and gazing at the deer with a rapt expression. The deer looked up and stared back and something seemed to pass between the two, leading Howard to try and recall an article he’d read once about totem animals. It would be nice to think that the deer was Elizabeth’s own totem—it suited her somehow. After awhile, it turned and wandered slowly out of the clearing again. Howard glanced at Elizabeth to see if this upset her, but her face was blank now, as if she’d forgotten the whole incident already.
Once, in the early days of her illness, he had come upon her sitting on the bed, crying because of some trivial little thing she couldn’t for that moment remember. He’d sat down with her and comforted her. Afterwards, she had looked back at him with rueful eyes and said, “I’m sorry for what I am going to put you through, my dear. I am sorry to become a burden to you.” And he had said all the usual, reassuring things one does say at such times. But tonight, he actually believed them. And so he repeated them now, whispering, because she was already drifting off again.
“You have never been and never will be a burden to me, my sweetest girl. On my heart you weigh less than a feather and in my mind you are only light. And I will get you home and safe again, if it’s the last thing I ever do.”
“Hello? Are you all right in there?” The words came through to him in a muffled way. On the other side of the window, Howard could just make out the dark shape of a policeman, or perhaps a ranger—someone in uniform, anyway—pointing a flashlight in at them.
It wasn’t Howard who had spoken, though. It was Elizabeth.
He stared at her, stunned to hear that loved, familiar voice he’d been afraid he might never hear again. For a moment he wondered if the deer had freed her, and wished that he could shed his skepticism long enough to actually believe this. But the truth was that he didn’t know what had given her her voice back, or how long it would stay. In fact, he didn’t know much at all about the shape of things to come.
She was right, though, Howard thought, as he pulled the tarp away and helped her slowly to her feet—all was well. He was starting to think that it would be.