Safe out there

 

When Jade shuffles down the abandoned railroad track that leads from her junked-up house to the rambling farmhouse I grew up in, the dogs go crazy, barking and snarling. I run out of the house to admonish them, embarrassed that these peace-loving dogs are tormenting the insane with their own insane behavior — behavior they reserve for Jade, she who can least cope with yet another danger.

It takes several minutes of hisses and commands to get the dogs to retreat: Blackie-get-home, Badger-quiet-now, Get now, Get on home! I nudge them with my shoe to get them going, and then I immediately launch into apologies as I turn to face Jade. Her face is slick with tears, which makes me all the sorrier and also, confused, because I am unsure why she continues to brave these dogs to visit my mother.

Mostly, though, I am in awe of her hair: The graying black is matted and tangled with cockleburs, causing the strands to jut out this way and that, balls of hair to clump here and there. I know from previous conversations what has happened: She has been hiding in a ditch somewhere, crawling around to escape the UFOs that hover above her house. I have heard her stories of paranoia and pleading, conveyed in sentences that stop and start and circle around. The sort of stories that would be amusing except for the terror in her darting eyes, which make them anything but.

I invite her in and we sit at the kitchen table. I ask her twice if she wants coffee or tea, but she refuses, and I tell her that I’m so sorry, but my mother is gone at the moment and I myself am just dropping by. There is silence, so I apologize again for the dogs, for my mother’s absence. I clarify that she doesn’t want any tea.

Words are trying to form themselves in her mind. Her mouth opens and closes, and a wave of confusion crosses her face. I want to help, but all I do is watch her struggle. If I were my sensible mother, I would be standing behind her already, cutting out the burrs from her hair, offering to wash her filthy blue coat. I would be telling her, in a no-nonsense tone, that there are no UFOs outside her house, that they are only in her imagination, that the world doesn’t have time for this nonsense.

Instead I sit, and hate myself for it. Activity manifests the essence, I was told as a child. A hundred, a thousand times. Who you are is what you do — not what you think about, not what you plan — and yes, surely some action or kindness is better than nothing; better to rush forward and fail than to sit about weighing choices. Yet I do not move, too afraid, too reserved to even reach out and touch her trembling hand.

When her words finally come, there is no stopping them. Her uncle is dying; someone at the nursing home is trying to kill him. God is telling her so! 911. She must get to him. 911. Where’s his phone number? Where is it!?

I tell her I don’t know.

I do, though.

It is in my mother’s address book. Jade’s uncle changed it to keep her from calling, which may sound harsh, but on the other hand, there is only so much craziness an old dying man can take. I tell her he is no doubt safe; I say this sincerely. But she doesn’t hear me, so I shrug and listen.

When her conversation starts to loop again, I push away the frustration by thinking about Jade nearly 20 years ago, when I was 12 or so and friends with Jade’s daughter, Sue, and how we would go to her house and talk about our crazy mothers. When Jade was due to be home — she must have had a job back then, I can’t remember — Sue would indicate that it was time for us to leave, and we would walk down to the store for candy, or down to the river to throw rocks, disappearing into the safety of the big, outside world.

Back then, we all had crazy mothers. But now I know that Sue was serious, and here I am, wanting to avoid Jade once again. After nearly an hour, I stand up and, apologizing, say I need to go. When Jade doesn’t move, I offer to walk her home, or to hang onto the dogs till she gets to her house. I tell her it’s a beautiful day, and it seems like all the bad in the world is very far away, doesn’t it?

While I say this, I wince at my own failure to be the sort of person I wish I was. I stand at the door and open it. The dogs trot toward us, tails wagging this time. I watch them coming, and a thought forms about my own fears — how they limit me, how they keep me from being more human. Still, I urge Jade to go. Look, I say, nodding toward the waves of mountains and blue sky. Look how safe it is out there.

Laura Pritchett is the author of a collection of short stories, Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, winner of the PEN Award; and a novel, Sky Bridge, winner of the WILLA Award and finalist for the Colorado Book Award.