By Jessica Barksdale
Sitting next to Miss Sweet Senior Sunshine in the tour bus is dangerous, but she’s rarely given me a choice, finding time on each drive to scoot me over and plop down, leaning close, a tanned claw on my pale wrist. Sharp and hard, the pins on her beauty contest winner’s sash and the plastic points of her bejeweled silver crown are hazards as we round the turns of the desolate Burren roads, the wide tour bus taking up both lanes. I try to fend her off, but she sways with me as though we are shoots from the same bulb, her bejangled skinny arms leaning into my rib cage, the smash of her shiny sequins on my hands. Once with an oomph, she knocked her crown into the side of my head, one plastic knob grazing my temple.
Her husband looks back at the two of us wide-eyed, begging me–I think–not to say something to his queen about returning her original seat. He’s moved into the center of both seats in his row, a bag on the one she left behind. But what can I do? How can I say I’d rather be alone, freed to gaze out the window at this strange Irish moonscape? As an older woman on the tour by myself, it would seem impossible or downright odd to insist on isolation. Besides, the queen has adopted me, her new pet project. There’s space in her life—one pageant over, another not for a few months. I’m her cause now, and I’m here ready for the saving.
“It’s so ugly out there,” she says now, leaning over me to get at look at the coastline, this northeast strip of Ireland harsh enough that even on a bright sunny day, it reminds me of starvation. But at least it is what it is. No pretense. There aren’t even any tourist traps, save the Cliffs of Moher, but that was just a gift shop and an information booth.
“Don’t you think so, Cindy?” She looks at me with her “saving” face, pity and kindness and concern underlined, bolded, italicized.
I’ve lost two husbands in twelve years, and I don’t need saving. But try telling that to people. My two daughters thought I needed a vacation, so now I’m here in Ireland where I imagined the green would slide me into peace. I left my home and my church and my children and grandchildren to travel alone with strangers.
“So tell me everything, Cindy. How did it happen?” she asks, settling back and staring hard into my face. “The second one. Kind of sudden, right?”
“He had a heart attack,” I say, as if that could explain anything about the afternoon when my second husband Ray looked at me over the breakfast table, leaned back in his chair, and brought a hand to his shirt collar. Two minutes later, he was dead. From the moment we were married, I understood he would die before me unless I stepped in front of a car or contracted a swift moving virus or a raging cancer. Mostly, we’d assumed he’d die before I did at some point in the near-ish but uncertain and murky future. Ten years older than me at eighty-two, Ray was spry and swift, slick on his feet on the dance floor. He still golfed three times a week and played tennis doubles with fellows decades younger. We traveled on tours just like this one because we both had the money. We ate out four times a week. We spent money on our children, bringing presents and big checks when we visited. Eight more years, I used to think. Maybe ten. Even as the paramedics took him away, I really didn’t believe he was gone.
“A widow maker,” I heard a nurse say from behind the curtain at the hospital as they pulled the last of the tubes and wires from Ray’s body so I could say goodbye. “Painless. Great for him. Totally sucks for her.”
“That’s just awful,” Miss Sweet Senior Sunshine says now. “No preparation. How could you bear it?”
She gazes at me with her big brown eyes, looking more baby basset hound than anything sweet or bright or, god forbid, sunshiny. She’s still pretty, though I can see more of what she used to look like than what she does now–her makeup is more of a map, a reminder, than accentuation.
But who am I to judge? I look like a large piece of white cardboard, shaped like a rectangle in my rain coat. Nothing about me is notable: white hair, white face, khaki pants. I lumber forward. Nondescript, plain, seventy-two year-old woman. Invisible and uninteresting, I knew nothing else would happen to me so I made a decision to keep moving. Go, go, go because, well, I’m not sure what might happen if I stop.
My girls told me to garden, so I did. My pastor told me to volunteer at the soup kitchen, so I did that, too. My neighbor told me to come to her book group on Wednesday evenings. I did. For every activity, I could wear the same pair of sneakers, red with white laces.
I signed up for the tour one day when one Sunday, I realized I didn’t know what I’d done all week long. Seven days of nothing. Seven days of sneakers.
I turn to look out at the grayish rocks, piles of them, walls and walls of them–what else were the Irish to do? They built houses. Barns. Walls. Fences. What little ground they could reclaim, they planted. But how they managed to grow even blighted potatoes here is a mystery.
“And then the one before him? What happened to him?”
I want to be rude, but it’s not in my nature. It’s so far from my nature, I don’t know how to actually summon rudeness, though I recognize it in others: harsh, dismissive words. Miss Sweet Senior Sunshine can’t or won’t see it, but that’s the way all the others on our Week in Ireland tour respond to her, pulling away, turning their backs. A shrug, a sigh, a weary glance.
Even from a distance, it makes me cringe, feeling my mother’s stern look from her thirty-year-old grave.
“If you can’t say anything nice,” my mother used to tell me without a shimmer of irony, “don’t say anything at all.”
So I tell the Queen of all the Seniors the summary of my first marriage: the pertinent dates, the two children, my husband John’s cancer, which unlike Ray’s “widow maker,” sucked for everyone. She listens, nods, clicks her manicured nails on the seat rest. She has a ring on every finger, each cheap and shiny, fake gold and silver, faux pearls and diamonds.
“Oh, you poor thing,” she says, grabbing me again, talking into my ear about her own dead, the list of parents, sister, cousin, niece, the accidents, the illnesses, the hushed-up suicides.
I look out at Ireland. All around me, there is limestone in heaps and piles and the looping small walls to nowhere. To my right, nothing but Atlantic, an ocean I have never understood, the Pacific my water. I don’t know anything about this part of the world. This Ireland is not the land of fabled lore. This is the hard scrabble land of mud and muck and famine, the folk hoping for a leprechaun to spring out from under a white thorn tree with a pot of gold to save them.
“But I’ve never lost a husband. And I’ve had two myself. Oh, you poor thing,” Miss Sweet Senior Sunshine says.
And I think, I’m only “poor” because you are sitting next to me ruining my time. I think, why don’t you go back to whatever county gave you that ratty velveteen sash? Why are you inflicting us with your show-offy antics at every opportunity? Why do you mash your face next to anyone who stops to ask about the crown, needing one more photo opportunity? Bad thoughts well in my throat like gas, and I close my eyes, wait, one, two. Then I blink, open my eyes, and nod, turning to the Queen and finding a small smile to give her.
If I’ve learned anything from two dead husbands, it’s this: there’s pain under everything, in the cracks and fissures, in the pieced together walls of backbreaking work that lead to the edge of the world, in the fake jewels on a cheap plastic crown.
Blarney Castle once protected its inhabitants from the world, swift, vertical walls of stone and mortar rising from the verdant green landscape, tower windows slit for shooting arrows. One hundred and twenty five stairs to the top, a wend of staircase that passes by the murder hole (the spot for pouring hot oil on unwelcome visitors trying to bash down the oaken door). Now it’s a tourist attraction, all of us welcome at twenty Euros each. We come from all over the world to kiss the stone, wanting the gift of gab.
I follow behind Mavis and Frank Butler, who have several times tried to help me steer clear of the Queen and her consort.
“She’s an immature woman,” Frank said last night at dinner, able to pull me to a table in the corner. “She needs attention from everyone.”
“Frank!” Mavis said, but I could tell from the gleam in her eye that not only did she agree, but that she loved the heat and ire in Frank’s eye, that sexy slice of hate.
“Narcissistic personality disorder,” Betty Davidson, another traveler, added. “Like Clinton. All she wants is attention. She doesn’t care what we think.”
Betty and her husband David sat round and sure in their seats, nodding to the general consensus that we were traveling with a nutcase.
“There’s probably nothing that the tour company can do about it,” Mavis said. “It’s not like they can do a mental health screening before taking our money.”
I sipped my water, glad of that.
“Poor Maggie,” Betty said. “How to be a tour guide to a queen? That woman just takes up all the oxygen.”
“She’s harmless,” I said.
“Nothing’s harmless,” Frank said. “Especially not fake royalty.”
All royalty is fake, I thought, but then it was the salad course, plates arriving at the table on cue under metal domes, which the waiters ceremoniously lifted with a whoosh at the same time, all of us suddenly royal.
In the dark nave of an empty cathedral, we stand in a circle around the bagpipe player, listening to his solo. The Irish bagpipes are different than the Scottish instrument and sound nicer even though the notes float on a cloud of melancholy, the tune lonely, like wandering around in a foggy sunrise on a sodden hill. But gentle, too, like a nursery rhyme, lulling despite the message.
The Irish pipes are called ilin pipes, ilin the word for elbow. Even the outfit the player wears is nicer, no fuzz and plaid and knee-high socks. He wears regular clothes that somehow look Irish—dark shirt with buttons down the front, open at the neck; baggy pants, leather shoes.
“Are you okay?” I wonder why Maggie asks until I feel myself crying.
“Oh, yes,” I say. “It’s just so beautiful.”
“A lovely song,” Maggie says, moving on to speak to Betty, now that she knows I’m not losing my mind. But as she leaves, I want to grab onto her, put my face on her sturdy shoulder and cry, the kind of cry that needs support, a wrenching, a keening I’ve kept inside for so long, maybe even longer than the deaths of either of my husbands. The kind of cry that is like the ilin pipes, a mournful sound that rocks inside me.
“You doing okay, hon?” Miss Sweet Senior Sunshine asks, and I nod because at least I’m alive. At least I’m not wearing a plastic crown.
I nod again, swallow down the sadness, and listen.
On the first day in Dublin, we walk the twenty five minutes to the Guinness Storefront. Miss Sweet Senior Sunshine has her arm through mine. We are lost, somehow, fallen back behind the crowd, missing a right or a left, and we are now on Plimco Street standing on the corner.
“There is a gown walk,” she says, even though I haven’t asked her anything. “And an interview about your platform. You know. Our big issue that we want to call attention to. My platform is childhood cancer.”
“What kind of childhood cancer?” I ask, knowing there are so many different kinds that children get. The terrible brain tumor that can be removed. Also, that leukemia. But there must be other hidden kinds that can’t be cured, and it might be possible that Miss Sweet Senior Sunshine wearing her sash will bring recognition to her platform.
“And a bathing suit competition.” She nods, tugs on my arm. I feel her fake fingernails in my flesh. “This girl can still shake it at 72.”
I take in breath, realizing we are the exact same age. I feel so much older than she does, as if my personality is heavier or slower or both; like my character is partially frozen. Wise, but still.
“Bathing suit?” I ask.
“Hon, I can tell you know this already, but you just can’t give up. Who am I talking to, anyway? Look what you’ve survived. Me, I’ve seen a lot of ladies just sit at home and forget about living. Maybe I look crazy to everyone on this tour, but I’m living not dying. Not yet anyway. And besides, when I twirl, you should hear the crowd roar,” she says. “Actually, you can. It’s on Youtube.”
She leans forward and smiles.
“So what kind of cancer?” I ask again, my voice louder than it has been for awhile.
“Oh, well,” she says, pulling away a little, her breath moving from my ear. “Any kind. All kinds. The bad kinds.”
She sidles in close. “It’s just terrible.”
“What?” I ask.
She’s right. It is all terrible, death at any age, one husband from cancer after a long marriage that was supposed to go on forever, one from a heart attack as unexpected as an earthquake in winter.
She makes a fine little turn, terrible all gone. “But it’s my ribbon dance that brings down the house,” she says. “I used to dance with fire, but it was an insurance liability. Can’t burn down the venue. I don’t want to get the pageant in trouble. There are still ladies who need to tread the boards!”
I look at the street sign again, hoping for an answer that doesn’t come. A man walks by and he does a double take.
“Are ya a true queen?” a man asks, his English more Irish than anything else. She laughs, disengages from me, shakes herself a little, a one, a two, a movement back and forth. She glitters in the sun, the rare Irish spring day hot, blue, bright.
“I am,” she says. “A lost queen.”
“Brilliant,” he says. “Grand.”
“Can you tell us how to get to the Guinness store?”
He points and talks, and I wish I were back in the hotel. I hate dark beer, the taste like something old, something dark found under a wet board. My first husband John loved beer, whole Sundays spent drinking it. We married after knowing each other for six months. That’s the way it was in those days. Meet and get married. Forget about knowing who each other really was. There were houses to buy and kids to have. Chop, chop. Who had time to think about anything, much less happiness?
Later, much later, after the cancer had crawled up into his brain and killed him, and I thought about our decades together, I knew that if I’d considered his proposal for a full ten minutes, I would have never married him. John couldn’t help it, but he was boring–like wood paneling in a family room addition–and stiff. Dry like toast, barely there, but I didn’t really notice that until he was gone, and then I realized I didn’t miss him. He’d been gone already.
“Thank you kind sir,” the queen says, pulling my arm. “We are forever in your debt.”
“T’is nothing,” he says. “All in the service of the queen.”
After Guinness, everyone is a little loopy from the free pint, and on the walk home—Maggie making sure no one gets lost this time—Mavis pulls me aside and forward and tells me of the plan to lose the Queen and her husband.
“It’s in the contract. Something about tour disruption,” she says. “Like last night when she got on stage with the Irish dancers? All that picture taking and falderal? Well, that disrupted our tour. It became her tour. Disruption.”
“What do you mean lose? Like ditch?”
Mavis laughs, the sound deep and loud. “Oh, no. That wouldn’t be nice. I mean official lose. Kick out. We sent a delegation to Maggie.”
I turn back quickly, spotting the Queen and her husband walking several yards behind, heads close as they talk.
“Does she know?”
“Not yet,” Mavis says. “But she will.”
I pull away slightly, feeling the tug of Mavis’ fingers. “It’s not like she’s done anything wrong.”
Mavis turns to me, her eyes sharp narrow arrows, something she might shoot out of slit tower windows. I swallow and try to find my breath, feeling like I used to back in grammar school, the mean girl cornering me in the pink tiled bathroom.
“What about that day on the boat? That picture with the captain? We all had to watch her pose and smile, the whole room taken over with her. Then that dance! What about the train station and the conductor? Ridiculous. That poor pub owner in Cork? Really. All that fuss for a free dessert. Day after day.”
Mavis continues, and I think of second grade, all the girls turning against me because of my torn hem, saggy bobby socks, broken barrette. Every day, the same chanting: Cindy Bindy, loose and windy.
Then they made farting sounds on the playground, on the bus, in the back of the class during reading time. The first and last sounds I heard at school. Fart, fart, fart.
Third grade was much the same, fourth grade better. By junior high, most everyone had forgotten the rhyme, and I became slightly pretty, dating Danny Johnson from sophomore year till graduation. And when I could leave, I did, college my way out from who I’d always been.
On this tour, the queen is like second-grade Cindy, with a crown instead of saggy socks.
“I think you’re horrible,” I say to Mavis, who stops and stares hard at me, a glimmer of shock in her gaze.
“I think you’re acting like you’re in second grade,” I say. “I think you’re unkind.”
And then I walk away alone down Nassau Street, swinging my arms.
No word on the tour eviction of the queen and her husband, we board the bus the next morning for a quick visit to another county, and it all just starts when we disembark and walk past the ancient stone buildings and into the 9th century cathedral. I’m crying before I touch the back wall, crying as I pretend to look at the scar of the old fireplace. Crying as I scuff the tips of my walking shoes on the stone floor. Crying as I listen to the stark history of Irish priests.
“Follow me,” the monastery tour guide says, and everyone walks out of the dark square room, everyone but me and the queen.
“What’s wrong?” she asks, but I shake my head, no words to explain the sound like bagpipes in my chest. It’s an old feeling. Older than two dead husbands. It’s a loneliness before there was loneliness, ancient as these walls.
“Oh, now. Here’s what you need,” she says, moving closer. I hear her rustle, and then I feel it, knowing exactly what it is the second it touches my hair.
Miss Sweet Senior Sunshine slips her crown on my head, tucking it behind my ears, adjusting it just so. She smoothes my hair, just like my mother used to before sending me off to school in the mornings, gentle, appraising. My mother was softer in the mornings, calm before the long day beat her down. Her face was sweet from sleep, relaxed from rest. She had time to touch me, to pet me, to give me the only minutes of attention I would get from her the rest of the day, dinner full of activities and my father who ate the room, the air, the house.
But those morning minutes? She helped me dress. She fed me. She opened the front door and bent down, kissing me on the cheek, right in the space between my hair and mouth.
“Have a wonderful day, darling,” she would say, and off I went into a day that would be anything but, the rhyme only minutes away. Yet at that moment with my mother, I could almost believe it would be different. There was still hope. Things just might change.
“I knew it. You’re a queen, too,” she said, and I look into Miss Sweet Senior Sunshine’s dark doggy eyes and feel it, see it, know the way it would be to sashay across this cathedral floor, walk and spin like a queen—even for a moment—twirl my ribbons out the door, into the Irish sunlight, away from the heavy stone walls, away from the dark.
Copyright Barksdale 2013