Bucket List

Published: July 13, 2018

Piper’s in my purse. In a ziplock baggie. Our family isn’t big on frills. We use what works. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be magic. These days I constantly try to remind myself of this. It isn’t easy, but I try hard. Remember Mom, what Einstein tells us. The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.

Piper wanted to drive cross country. Among 10,000 other things. She had quite the bucket list. Most everything had no reason, other than the doing. She started the list when she was 8. She wrote the first two things on a to-do list I kept stuck to the fridge with a magnet. Fix washer in bathroom sink. Buy bleach. Meet a real Indian. Catch a rainbow trout with Dad. The list ran on to other scraps. Eventually it made its way into a leather notebook she bought herself. She managed to strike through more than a few things on the list.

The leather notebook is in the glove box of the car. I glance to the glove box — See? We’re really doing this — as I turn off the two-lane road and on to a dirt track. I can see the trailer a mile away, the night shadows just drawing away from it. Everywhere is brown grass, looks like it hasn’t seen water since Moses did his parting. Albuquerque is a long way from home. For one thing, everything is wide open, so you can see for miles. The sky looks bigger. It’s like you are an insect, and God took the lid off the jar.

I park in the dirt lot in front of a bleached trailer. I’m the only car. Already my stomach’s heavy and bubbling, like cumin was tossed in, and stones to go with it. My hands are jittery. I sit for a minute, gripping the wheel and watching the sun pull free of the mountains. I tell myself me being here would make Piper laugh herself blue. Which she did a lot. I mean, her face would actually turn blue. The first time, Sean thought she was choking. I’d never seen him move so fast.

I get out of the car. About 50 yards away, there’s a man sitting in a plastic chair, his back to me. In the field beyond him, five large wicker baskets are scattered about, as if giants had just fled a picnic. When he stands and walks toward me, my heart jumps. I breathe fast. I want to laugh. I want to cry. Durn you, Piper.

I hold my breath. Get a grip on yourself, Scarlett.

The man has an easy smile and a comic book in one hand.

“Can I help you, ma’am?”

I see the wedding ring on his scarred, brown hand. I wonder if he has a daughter.

I try not to stare.

“I’d like to take a balloon ride.”

When the man consults the sun, he looks to me like he’s in a poster. The sun is now barely looking down on the mountains.

“You’re a trifle early, even by ballooning standards.”

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

The man’s eyes flick to the trailer.

“Well I’m happy to help, but we don’t open until six-thirty, and the woman who runs this place is particular about procedure and paperwork.”

“I can wait,” I say.

The man hesitates.

“Here’s the thing,” he says. “It’ll be expensive. She charges a flat rate for going up. Usually, you split it with the other people in the group. But there’s no groups today. Our season doesn’t really start up until school gets out.”

I have lived every day worrying about money.

“It’s okay,” I say.

The man nods toward the trailer.

“Door’s open, and I’ve got a pot of free coffee going if you’d like some. I’m the only one who drinks it. Folgers isn’t up to Griselda’s snuff. The paperwork’s on the desk, if you want to get a jump on things.” He winks. “Word of warning. Griselda isn’t overly charming in the morning. She isn’t really Griselda, either. It’s just what I call her. You might want to try Monica.”

He gives me the once over, but not in the way most men do. More like he’s skimming the paper, looking for something interesting to read.

“My guess is you can handle yourself, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he says.

I walk up the swaying steps. I leave the rutted door open so I can see out. I pour myself coffee and sit. At twenty past six, a rusted gold Cadillac crackles to a stop in front of the trailer. A blonde in a tight white dress gets out of the car. She walks carefully toward the trailer atop high heels. Steam rises from the reusable cup in her hand. The man stands and waves to her, but she does not acknowledge him.

I stand as her steps set the trailer rocking.

First time round, lots of women don’t like me. I suppose I’m a funny mix. Daddy used to say I was all sugar on the outside, and all cuss and vinegar directly under that. I’m told I have attitude and blue eyes that knock people back. Looks come in handy, but I don’t put any stock in them. It’s just a mask.

Monica gives me a different head to toe. I wait while she does. It’s her place. She should have first say. I try to look friendly.

“He told you to come in,” she says.

“Yes. The gentleman out front.”

“I didn’t realize there was a gentleman out front.”

“He offered me coffee.”

“Of course he did.”

She walks behind the desk and sits. Sipping her coffee, she looks up at me.

“You know the cost,” she says.

Two months’ rent.

“Yes.”

I’m a good actor, but the woman sees it stings.

She plucks the two-way radio from its stand.

“Say goodbye to Spiderman, and get in here,” she says.

Stepping inside, the man grins at me, then turns to the desk.

“You told her to fill out the paperwork?”

“Good morning, Monica.”

“I asked you a question, Gary.”

The name is a bit of a surprise. I wouldn’t have expected something so bland.

“I did ask her to fill out the paperwork,” Gary says. “The sun’s up. Carpe diem.”

“I like to see the paperwork filled out.”

Gary turns his hands out, the way all men do.

“Why sit idle?” he says.

“Because it’s something you’re good at.”

She looks at me.

I take the cash from my purse.

She counts the bills and hands a 20 back.

“Discount for paying cash,” she says.

She looks to Gary.

“Take her up whenever you’re ready,” she says.

 

Out under the big sky, Gary says, “She’s a tad gruff at times. The rest of the time, she’s bossy with those she knows.”

Gary claps his hands together. The sound rings like a rifle shot.

“So Scarlett, it’s nice to meet you. My name is Gary, and I’ll be your pilot.”

I’m having fourth thoughts. I feel out of place. Disoriented. Helplessness is not my condition, though I’m growing more accustomed to it.

“What do I do?” I say.

Gary flips his pony tail over his shoulder.

“Just get your affairs in order.”

Gary knows.

“Sorry,” he says. “It’s part of the shtick. There is one thing you can do.” He nods at the purse clenched in my hand. “Folks tend to drop things, and it’s not that easy going up and down. You can leave it in the trailer, if it’s easier. It’ll be safe there.”

“I’d just as soon walk it back to the car.”

“Of course.”

I don’t care about the purse, or most of its contents. I come back from the car wearing a jacket. The North Face. It’s Piper’s. We were the same size.

Gary is bumping a wheelbarrow across the scruffy grass. The balloon is in a burlap bag that doesn’t look all that big.

“Don’t worry,” smiles Gary, “it’s all there.”

We crunch through the grass, the mountains looking down on us. We must look very small.

“She was my wife, you know.”

“I know.”

Gary weaves the wheelbarrow as he walks.

“Funny, in the end, the things that bring you down,” he says. “We were married twenty-five years, happy at that until the last few years. Then the little things that used to go away, didn’t. They just piled up until we were both standing there, miserable under the weight. I guess parting was our way of lightening the load.”

Gary drops the back end of the wheelbarrow. With a grunt, he drops the burlap bag in the grass. Opening the end, he begins hauling out a kaleidoscope of pink, blue, and orange fabric. Like a magician.

“Little, stupid things,” he says, pulling hand over hand. “Monica, she always wanted a lawn, but as you can see, the place isn’t exactly lawn friendly. Before they started pumping water in here, the only ones crazy enough to live here were the Indians.”

Gary spreads the balloon, carefully smoothing each section.

“We’re separated. Irreconcilable differences is what the lawyers lump all the small things under. She wants to put sprinklers in here too. Says green grass would make us look more professional. I can’t imagine the water bill for a place this size.”

Gary looks up at the pale blue sky. It’s like a bowl turned upside down.

“It’s a beautiful day for flying,” he says.

Piper always wanted to fly. Not fly in a plane. She did that to France, and she hated every second of it, being shoehorned in with a bunch of sweating, whining, surreptitiously farting passengers. No, she wanted to fly. To lift off the ground, and go. When she was 6, she declared she would. She was so damn determined, for a time I followed her pretty much everywhere. I was sure she’d find herself a ladder, clamber up on the roof and jump.

Dreams of flying, they’re probably not hard for you to imagine. Most of us dream about flying. But Piper didn’t let it rest there. No, she studied it, and she came across some interesting things. One night at dinner, she looked across the table at us.

“Odonata,” she said.

“What, honey?”

I tried to be a good parent.

“Dragonfly,” she said.

Sean’s eyes were always tired, but they always brightened when Piper started in on something. It hurt me a little, but they really were kindred spirits. Sometimes it seemed like one knew what the other one was going to say before they said it. The way Sean would look at her, as if she was the Second Coming. In a way, she was. Sean was a wild thing until he became a father.

Sean put down his forkload of meatloaf.

“Tell us some more,” he said.

The flickering candle light on her sober face made her look like one of those announcers in an old-time movie newscast. War has been declared …

She placed both hands on the table.

“Beware the dragonfly,” she said. “They can fly straight up. They can fly straight down. They can fly in one place, like a helicopter. They catch their prey in midair, but no one sees it because they do it so fast. The only way you can tell is you see them chewing.”

She regarded us with her funeral director’s face.

“They are one of the world’s most fearsome predators,” our daughter said. “They lived with the dinosaurs. Magic in real life.”

There is roaring in my ears. The bellow of Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The gas that’s making the flame that’s filling the balloon.

Gary shouts.

“Scarlett? Back away a little, please.”

The balloon fidgets on the grass, then it lifts and swings up over the basket. It looks like a sausage, but it is rounding fast. It means business. It is going to fly.

When it is round, Gary opens the wicker gate and bows.

“Your carriage,” he says.

I am a slender woman, but when I step into the basket the whole damn thing rocks. Everything moves but the stone in my stomach.

I don’t have internet. I don’t have a computer. Sean took it when he left. Two months after Piper died, I went to the library. The librarian, a crotchety old lady even the adults fear, took me gently by the arm and led me to a table. She found me the rest of Albert Einstein’s quote. We read it together because there was nobody else in the library, and then she left me alone in the room full of books. The full Monty goes like this. The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science. Whoever does not know it can no longer marvel, is as good as dead and his eyes are dimmed.

Piper’s eyes were anything but dimmed. Still, she didn’t see the cab. She stepped off the curb, and she was dead. People shouted in French, but it made no damn difference.

The cabbie was speeding. Twenty yards away, the Seine spun past, probably in no hurry.

When Sean took the news on the phone, it looked like his back broke.

I grip the railing of the wicker basket with my right hand. I’d grip it with both hands, but my left hand is in Piper’s jacket pocket.

I’ve thought about this all the way across Arkansas, through Oklahoma and down across Texas. The more I thought about it, the righter it seemed. These open skies, they kept whispering to me.

The fire-gas contraption roars again. I wish I would get eaten. Gary unloops the last rope. The basket starts a sideways slide. The cold stone in my stomach slides with it. I hate weakness, but I’m strong enough to admit to it. Just going up on the roof to rescue Piper would have been a chore.

“Ballooning is the oldest form of flight!” Gary shouts over the blast furnace roar.

That sure doesn’t help.

The basket swings skyward.

It’s not as if we’re flying. It’s as if the ground is falling away. My stomach falls with it.

Durn you, Piper.

I force my eyes open, but not because I’m paying buckets of money for this.

It’s silent now. Just the wind.

Gary rests a hand gently on my shoulder.

“Good,” he says. “I’d have felt real guilty if you’d gone through the whole thing with your eyes closed.”

Now that the ground’s so far away, it isn’t so bad. It may be a little good, a lovely drifting away from gravity-bound life. Away from the dullness that drains joy and imagination. That makes us adults. That makes us forget our dreams. That sends us to our grave even before our time.

“I’m okay now,” I say.

“I believe you are.”

The wind doles out cool slaps. I feel light and free. I feel the glory of soaring.

This is what it feels like when you run off the roof, lifting toward the sun.

Mr. Einstein, you are right.

Not that I let go of the railing.

I look toward the mountains. They look like sleeping dinosaurs. Maybe they are.

“My daughter wanted to fly.”

Gary watches the mountains too.

“Good for her,” he says.

The breezes circle us as if we are some curiosity.

“I brought something.”

“I’ll give you a moment,” Gary says.

“Thank you.”

Gary moves to the other side of the basket.

The ashes just drift away. One second, Piper is here. The next, she’s gone.

What can you say?

“Odonata,” I whisper.

When Gary steps back, he says, “Makes you feel privileged, doesn’t it? A few steps closer to heaven.”

“How high do you go?”

His noble face is impassive, but I know he is smiling inside.

“Depends on the conditions,” he says.

“How are the conditions?”

“Good,” says Gary. “Real good.”

 

Back on the crackly grass, Gary shakes my hand. I feel his wedding ring.

“It was an honor,” he says.

Driving away I see him in the rearview mirror, walking up the trailer steps. I know Monica stepped into the rest room to tidy up when he radioed to say we were 10 minutes away. Like most men, Gary understands some things, but not others. Why would a woman get dressed up like that to sit in a trailer in the middle of nowhere? It’s almost funny how we see some things so clearly, and others we’re struck dumb and blind. It’s another mystery, isn’t it?

I’m not sure where I am when I pull off to the side of the road. Dust rises around the car. The desert runs everywhere. The dome sky looks down.

The dust disappears just like the ashes.

Sean has caller ID. He answers before the second ring.

“I met an Indian,” I say. I feel the sun through the window. I don’t try to wipe away the tears, but I try to keep the stuttering from my voice. “He had beautiful black hair, and he liked comic books.”

There is a pause.

“I always liked Indians,” Sean says. “They remind me of wild places.”

Outside, the sun bakes rock and dust. In a trailer, maybe a man and a woman are talking.

“You’d like it where I’m sitting.”

I hear Sean’s breathing, and then he says in the voice he only used around Piper, “I think I would.”

After we hang up, I sit and look through the windshield. The empty road is razor straight. A truck comes up over the horizon’s edge.

I open the glove box.

I don’t walk far. I place the notebook on a rock, so that it looks up at the blue sky.

As I step back up to the car, the truck blasts past. The car rocks, but the desert stays like it was.

Maybe no one will find the notebook. Maybe the person who finds it will try a few of the things themselves. I like that idea. Though in the end, we each have our own bucket list. Whether we know it or not. Sometimes the list changes, depending on the circumstances.

I bump the car up on the road. All the windows are down. As the car gains speed, wind fills the car with a madcap whopping. Paper cartwheels and dances.

Piper was right. You can fly.

Something opens in my chest, and I drive toward the sun.

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  • Jill Swaim

    I love Ken’s writing too and Together We Jump is one of my favorite books and should be on the best seller list. This short story will stay with me as I pursue my own bucket list.

  • Katherine D

    I truly enjoyed this short story. Several things hit home. Ken McAlpine is an awesome writer. I have read several of his works. It’s my own shortcomings that keep me from explain in how poetic and suspenseful his writing is. I loved Together We Jump. It was full of imagery and insight as to what was to come. Thank you Ken!

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