This story is a runner-up in our 2019 Great American Fiction Contest. See all of the winners.
On the drive to Ironville, Charlotte imagines the places her mother might be, all of them bad: in a ditch, in the trunk of someone’s car, in the middle of the road. New scenarios keep coming to mind. They pile up on top of each other until she thinks she might scream.
She did scream after the home called to say her mother had walked out, hailed a cab, and ridden off. Charlotte raged at the administrator, frightening even herself. She’s calmer now; she can’t imagine maintaining that level of rage for very long. She assumes — hopes, really — that her mother took the cab to Ironville. She can’t think of anyplace else she might have gone.
It’s 50 miles down Interstate 55 from St. Louis to Iron County and another 15 along back roads through the Arcadia Valley before Charlotte gets to the place where she grew up. With one hand on the wheel, she leans over and paws through the glove box and eventually finds the half-empty pack of Marlboros. They’re at least five years old. There’s no lighter, but there’s a book of matches tucked inside.
She fumbles to strike one, bringing the match to the end of the cigarette before the tiny flame goes out. Once it’s lit, she cracks her window to flick the ashes outside.
Charlotte drives through the town too fast for the unpaved roads, tires spitting up gravel and dust in her wake. It’s been 10 years since she moved her mother into the home, 10 years since her father died and no one was left to look after Charlotte’s mentally absent but still physically present mother. The doctor has given her good odds of seeing 90 or more. She’s 87 now.
She grinds to a stop in front of the house and gets out. It’s breezeless and hot, the drone of insects the only thing worrying the air. Charlotte rushes up the steps, but her mother’s not there. She stares at the front door a moment, at the realtor’s key box on the handle. Jiggles it; still locked.
She glances around. Something besides her mother is missing, and it’s not until she goes to the side of the porch facing the yard that she figures it out. The wind chimes are gone.
Charlotte’s first memory is the wind chimes. She was lying in bed the first time she heard them, a heavy-piped echo that reverberated in her chest. They used to hang from a hook over the railing, directly across from her bedroom window. The hook’s bare now. Charlotte glances over the railing to see if they’ve fallen into the yard, but all she sees are weeds and overlong grass going to seed. She hasn’t bothered to have the lawn kept up since the last listing, and there aren’t enough neighbors around to complain.
A scum of dirt coats the porch swing, a half moon of it wiped away where her mother’s hat rests. Oval with flat sides and a ridge around the crown, its blue-gray wool felt blends in with the dust. As a kid, none of her friends’ mothers wore hats, but Charlotte’s mother always put one on before leaving the house. Charlotte never asked why, too embarrassed by the habit to draw attention to it.
Charlotte picks up the hat and looks beyond the porch, her gaze passing over the lawn and across the alley into the neighboring yards. Ironville’s a small place, and it only seems smaller now. The town has no stoplights, and only a few stop signs. It’s more of a pause, a comma along the way to someplace else.
No one has lived in the house since they moved her mother out. Charlotte and her husband tried to sell it, but the market was soft, prices were plummeting, and no one wanted to move this far out from the city. They still don’t. They put it back on the market last year, where it sat for six months. No showings, and no one came to the one open house. She’s given up now. It’s not like they need to sell it. She and Nick can afford to let it sit and slowly decay.
Charlotte drops her cigarette and crushes it under her shoe before walking down the three steps to the lawn. A cloud of tiny white insects blooms at her feet as she moves through the ankle-high grass to the alley and cuts across the neighbor’s yard to get to the next street. There’s no sidewalk; there aren’t any sidewalks in town. The sight of people walking down the middle of the road was common when she was a kid. Traffic was always either light or nonexistent.
The road leads to Main Street, the last street before the railroad tracks rise up like a levee on the west side of town. All the east-west streets dead-end there. There’s nothing on the other side except farmland and the river about 10 miles away.
Charlotte hasn’t worn the right shoes for climbing up this hill — flats with no traction — but she tries anyway, sliding on the dry grass and catching herself before falling down. It hasn’t rained for weeks. A hollow, desiccated feeling has settled over everything.
There are no trains to Ironville anymore. Once, the town was a stop between Memphis and St. Louis, but service ended before Charlotte was born. Her mother used to tell her stories about taking the train up to St. Louis with Charlotte’s grandmother. Going to the big city, she called it. Since she’s lived there, St. Louis has only felt right-sized to Charlotte.
From the railway bed, she can see for miles. It’s so flat here, the sky a relentless blue, no clouds. When she was a kid, on days like this the sky felt like a heavy, flat anvil crushing the world, pulverizing the hilltops and splintering the second floor of their house before she could get to the basement. If she were out swimming at the old quarry, which would she choose: be crushed or drown?
Drown, she thinks now.
She lights another cigarette and walks between the rails, heading in the direction of the station and St. Louis. From up here, the town looks even smaller. Four streets run parallel to the tracks and four more perpendicular, one continuing all the way out of town toward the highway. The even number and the one endless road make the town look lopsided. She could count all of the houses in town from here. She hasn’t seen another person since she got here. Does anyone even live here anymore? If the end of the world came, would anyone be here to notice?
The train station is no more than a shack, really. The boards of the platform and the siding have turned gray, the windows milky. None of them are broken — even minor vandalism is too much effort, or maybe there are no vandals left.
Charlotte keeps walking. Next door to the station is the hotel, the one building in town that stands more than two stories tall. When she was a kid, Charlotte thought the building looked huge. It was already closed back then, just like the station and the rail line. The older kids at school said it was haunted. Unlike the station, the hotel had been vandalized, the ground floor windows shattered and now partially boarded up. Vines have insinuated themselves into the brickwork. A corner of the roof is caved in.
Charlotte considers going back into town and knocking on every door when she hears the station door open behind her. She looks back. Her mother stands on the platform, peering down the tracks toward her.
“Gonna get yourself run over if you’re not careful,” her mother says when Charlotte nears. “Train should be along any minute.”
In the nursing home, in between episodes of clarity, her mother has repeated that sentence often. Train should be along any minute. She’s dressed up, a pale blue skirt and matching jacket, a darker sapphire blouse, gray shoes. Gloves. The hat, now tucked under Charlotte’s arm, matches the ensemble. Once she climbs up onto the platform, she holds it out.
“I think this is yours.”
As if reluctant to come closer, Charlotte’s mother leans forward and takes the hat. After brushing off nonexistent dust, she settles it on top of her thin hair.
“Train should be along any minute.” She checks her watch and squints into the distance.
Charlotte didn’t expect to be recognized. Her mother’s awareness comes and goes; often, it’s just not there. Sitting on the bench beneath a window, Charlotte wonders how she’s going to get her mother from the station into her car, and back to the home.
“Where are you going?” Charlotte asks.
“St. Louis. I have some shopping to do.” She’s brought her purse with her, a gray leather clutch that matches her shoes. She flips open the clasp and peers inside, removing a handkerchief but not doing anything with it.
Charlotte stares out past the train tracks, across the flood plain at the soybeans quietly shriveling in the sun. Her mother and grandmother used to take the train to St. Louis to shop along Grand Boulevard and Washington Avenue, spend hours in the ladies’ department at Famous and Barr downtown with her grandmother saying bring me this and this and this, and also my husband needs a gray suit and you have his measurements on file and please have it delivered. At some point, in some boutique, a glass of champagne would be put in her grandmother’s hand.
Her mother tried to recreate those experiences with Charlotte, but they had to drive up to St. Louis, most of the boutiques had closed, and the only things you could get on Washington were drugs or hookers. They went to Plaza Frontenac instead. The salespeople at Neiman Marcus never offered champagne.
Charlotte can imagine her grandmother, though, striding through a store like she owned the place. She lived until Charlotte was 19, and Charlotte never stopped being a little afraid of her.
“That’s a terrible habit,” her mother says when Charlotte lights her third cigarette. “My daughter used to smoke. Told me she gave it up, but I can still smell it on her band uniform.”
Charlotte played flute in the high school marching band, over 30 years ago. Her arms got so tired holding up the flute as the band marched across the football field during halftime, all while the blue wool of the uniform chafed her wrists, the collar digging into her neck.
Her mother sighs. “Train should be along any minute.” She seems to address the comment not to Charlotte, but to the tracks next to the platform, to the fields beyond.
“Maybe there’s trouble down the line,” Charlotte says. She should have asked Nick or someone from the home to come with her. A fight won’t surprise her.
Her mother checks her watch. “Too late to go now. No point in waiting.”
She gets up and adjusts her hat, gives her gloves a little tug before starting the slow shuffle to the stairs. Charlotte follows. Her mother’s gait teeters and she reaches for the handrail.
“Can I give you a hand?” Charlotte asks. “These stairs aren’t in the best shape.”
Her mother narrows her eyes but takes Charlotte’s arm anyway. This close, Charlotte can smell Chanel No. 5, the same perfume her mother’s worn since she can remember. Powder and spice.
“I don’t recall seeing you in town,” her mother says.
Charlotte expected things like this to always sting, but it doesn’t anymore. She smiles and leads her mother down. “We’re new here.”
Her mother nods, apparently satisfied with this answer. It’s a good day for her, all the lucid moments. Maybe being back here does it, all the familiar places.
She leans heavily against Charlotte’s arm, her feet sliding down each step. With her mother, it takes twice as long to return to the house. It gives Charlotte more time to look around. Something else about the town has changed, but she can’t put her finger on it. She glances down the streets, looking for something different: something new, or more likely something missing, torn down. All the houses still look the way she remembers them: short, square, faded from decades of sunlight bleaching the landscape, making it look like a memory.
As a teenager she hated this postage stamp of a town, the streets that went nowhere, the dead ends at the railroad tracks and how there was only one road out of town and she was too young to drive, had to walk up to the highway and wait for the bus that took her to school two exits away. She couldn’t wait to get away.
Eventually, Charlotte gets her mother back up to the porch. Maybe she should have taken her straight to the car, but now she’s settled into the porch swing and is pushing it with the toe of one shoe against the boards. She begins to remove her gloves, tugging on each finger to loosen them, and doesn’t look at Charlotte as she asks, “Why Ironville?”
“Why did you come to Ironville? You must have had a reason. No one comes here by choice.”
Charlotte’s mother looks at her with narrowed eyes, and instantly Charlotte feels like a teenager again, on the receiving end of an unanticipated question.
“You didn’t choose to live here?” Charlotte asks, her throat tight. Her mother laughs and shakes her head. It’s been a long time since Charlotte heard her mother laugh.
“I thought I’d put this place behind me when I finished high school,” her mother says. “But then I got married and my husband got a job in the mines, so we ended up here.” She sighs and pats the purse in her lap. “Right back where I started.”
“Your husband worked in the mines?” Charlotte almost said, “Dad worked in the mines?” but caught herself. Her father worked in administration as far as she’s aware. He went to and from an office in Potosi every weekday throughout her childhood. His day began before sunrise and ended after sunset, no matter the time of year. She can’t imagine him in a hard hat and one of the elevator cages that ferried the workers down, like inmates to a daily incarceration, the weight of the earth pressing from a mile above.
“He did for a while,” her mother says. “Everyone did, if you didn’t leave town. He got promoted, though. Works in an office now.”
“So why don’t you move?”
Her mother shrugs, a casual gesture that doesn’t match her outfit. “After a while, it just makes sense to stay put. One place is pretty much the same as another.”
No it isn’t, Charlotte wants to say. St. Louis is nothing like this little town. But contradictions would only confuse her mother, who’s now looking through her purse again. She snaps it shut, her lips puckered in frustration. “I’ve misplaced my key. Would you see if my daughter is home yet?” She gestures toward the front door. “Tell her I missed my train.”
Charlotte goes to the door and makes a show of knocking. If any of the neighbors come out and see them, will they recognize her and her mother and wonder why she’s knocking on the door of an empty house, their own house?
She can’t see anything through the frosted glass panes in the front door. She tries the doorknob but it’s locked, of course. Charlotte goes back around the other side of the house. Her mother has taken off her hat and placed it on the swing in the spot where Charlotte found it earlier.
Charlotte paces from the swing to the front door and back again. The planks beneath her feet give a little, a bouncy thud like she’s walking in heels. Her mother has stopped pushing the swing and stares at Charlotte with empty eyes.
“Who are you?” Just like that, her mother’s gone back under.
“A neighbor,” Charlotte says. “We just moved in. Is your husband home?”
Charlotte’s mother shrugs. “Train should be along any minute.” She goes back to rocking the swing.
In the distance Charlotte hears the wind chimes. There’s a breeze now, gentle but persistent, flowing toward town from the river. The sound of the chimes is deep and metallic, the kind you hear with more than just your ears. Charlotte steps off the porch and into the grass, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. It’s the house two doors down, maybe. She glances back at her mother, who has picked up her hat and is brushing off the crown, then heads off across the lawn again.
As she gets closer to the house two doors down, she can see the wind chimes, several rods of differing lengths arranged in a circle around a wooden striker. They look black from a distance, but once she’s standing at the steps leading to the porch, they’re the color of rust. Charlotte closes her eyes and listens. They make the same music she remembers hearing from her childhood bed. Why would someone steal the wind chimes?
She climbs the steps. The chimes hang in front of a window, the blinds half-open and lopsided. The house has the hollow sound of abandonment. The only other person she’s seen since she arrived is her mother. They’re like ghosts drawn back to haunt the town.
Charlotte brushes her hand across the rods, her fingers coming away red. Before she realizes, she’s decided to take them — it’s not theft if she’s taking them back. She lifts them off the hook, holding the strands together to keep the rods from making any noise. Still, they clank into each other as she turns and hurries down the steps and back toward the house. She listens for a door opening behind her, the thump of footsteps on floorboards, or a shout of protest. Nothing.
“What on earth are you doing with those?” her mother asks, her voice drowsy as if she’s just woken up. Charlotte hangs them up and gives them a rattle, the deep gong pleasing. Her hands are covered in rust, and she has nothing to wipe them on.
“I remember these from when I was a kid,” Charlotte says, wiping her hands together over the edge of the railing. A bit of the rust comes off, but mostly she just smears it into her palms.
“I don’t,” her mother says. “I know someone had them because I’d hear them all the time, but they weren’t ours.”
So she’s the petty thief, not the neighbors. When Charlotte closes her eyes she can see the chimes, though, hanging from the hook right in front of her. If that memory isn’t genuine, maybe she can’t trust anything she thinks she knows.
When Charlotte turns around, her mother’s eyes are closed, her hat back on but perched slightly askew. For a moment she was present, really present, but she’s already passed through and isn’t stopping.
Charlotte sits down next to her and delicately picks up her mother’s purse. She leaves rusty fingerprints on it as she removes the wallet, sliding the one Visa card from the card slot. Her mother only has a few dollars in the bill pocket, not enough to take a taxi anywhere, certainly not all the way back here again.
Pushing with her toe, Charlotte sets the swing rocking again. Eventually she will have to wake her mother and begin the careful choreography of getting her into the car. For the moment, she lets her sleep, her head tipped forward, chin resting on her chest. Charlotte leans closer, marking each exhale her mother takes, not willing to look away until she inhales again.
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