“Rollaway” by Lorna Wood: read the story that won 3rd prize in the 2019 OWT Short Fiction Competition Reply

4557996255_57faa63051_oWhen I got to my hotel room I found I had the wrong rollaway suitcase. As I opened it, a light floral aroma transported me to my mother’s spring tea parties in Westport, with the lilacs trumpeting their triumph over winter while the lilies of the valley nodded more modestly around the borders of the newly cut lawn. Once, home from college, I had seen a young woman there, just turning towards the house as I came out with a tray of petits fours. My attention was caught by the amusement in her brown eyes at our shared plight, trapped amongst the ladies, and by her long dark hair—so different from their matronly coifs.

We never saw each other again. I had dishes to wash in the kitchen, she left early, and the aunt she was visiting moved away soon afterward. But in the dreams I have about her, I always smell spring flowers and fresh-cut grass.

Thinking of her, I caressed the sea-green mohair cardigan at the top of the stranger’s things, admiring its tiny, faux mother-of-pearl buttons—then, rousing myself, I checked the luggage tag. “Ellen Beck.” Contact information and some business address in Stamford. I emailed, apologizing for my mistake and asking how I could make it right. I also asked if by any chance Ms. Beck had my rollaway. There couldn’t have been that many so precisely alike in the overhead bins.

Immediately, she answered, thanking me for my timely notification and apologizing in turn for her part in the mix-up. Unfortunately, she had proceeded on from New York to visit a friend upstate. She was extremely busy with work and family at the moment. If my plans took me anywhere near Stamford in the next week, we might exchange bags; otherwise it was best to mail them.

Understandable and satisfactory, but puzzling. In this terse communication there was no flowery quality, no halo of mohair, no mother-of-pearl sea dream. No implicit acknowledgement of mystical possibilities in our accident, not a flicker of excitement or even polite pleasure at our possible encounter. Nor did any such indulgences manifest themselves as I made arrangements to meet her in a few days’ time, after the Drone Masters finished their American tour and before we all shot off to Europe.

But perhaps I was wrong, I told myself, as I acquired the few items I could not live without for the next few days. Perhaps Ellen traveled to shed the trappings of her corporate job, black rollaway excepted. Perhaps even now she was standing somewhere near water, her hair loose, her shawl billowing in the breeze, dreaming of someone she once locked eyes with, someone she wished she knew.

#

The Drone Masters’ show revolved around songs from the 30s and 40s, updated with contemporary arrangements, some altered lyrics, and technology. As “the drone guy,” I supervised the unloading, set-up, and packing away, and I made sure the stage crew knew which buttons to push for which drone effects. I was also the go-to guy in case of drone malfunction, so I watched the shows on a backstage screen with a headpiece for communicating with the crew.

I was flattered to be a part of the Drone Masters’ tour, and I liked the show, for the most part. It could be dark, like when the wounded children sang an Arabic version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but there were also transcendent moments. Many a cynical Internet critic had confessed to shedding a tear when the drones menacing the kids formed a giant dove at the end of the song and silently circled the theater. And I still felt my heart ache every time the last number, “La vie en rose,” ended with the lovers united and the drones becoming a giant bee, diving into a foam rose blooming on a giant LED media wall behind the lovers’ kiss.

Some things bothered me, though. I don’t hate rap, but I didn’t think “As Time Goes By” was improved by its reincarnation as “A Kiss Is Just a Kiss, Yeah.” And after ninety-plus minutes of mostly loud, high-tech wonderland, I was ready for the refuge of my hotel room and the perfumed mystery of the rollaway.

I couldn’t stop myself from rummaging through everything. I was just touching the mohair, trying to imagine her unbuttoning the mother-of-pearly buttons, when I felt a hard lump and had to investigate. It was a snow globe, shoved into a thick, gray, hand-knit mitten, the other mitten secured around it with a rubber band for extra protection. Inside the globe a ballerina delicately balanced on her toes, her legs locked together in a single column beneath her tiny tulle tutu, her plastic hands not quite meeting over her brown plastic bun. Perhaps my rollaway woman danced, I thought, winding up the music box at the base of the globe. Perhaps she was Russian, I thought, as the ballerina twirled to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

On the second night, under a fringed silver scarf decorated with rhinestones, I found two children’s books. One was a collection of Greek myths, the other fairy tales. Both were substantial and dated back to the 1930s, when children, it seems, really read. Both had wonderful pictures, too, full of color and the extra details children love. The illustration of Midas’s golden garden seemed to gleam magically, and I liked Beauty’s sisters’ expressions as they fought over the onion they used to pretend they’d been crying in “Beauty and the Beast.” I read myself to sleep, and I even wished there were some kids around to read to.

By the third night, very late, after we’d packed all the drones away, I was shamelessly rifling through the interior pockets. To my surprise, there was almost nothing there. No toiletries—perhaps she kept those in her purse. Only one delicate silver barrette in the shape of a butterfly, with rhinestone chips on the edges of the wings.

#

 The next afternoon I took the train from Penn Station, then an Uber out on the winding roads through the country to a two-story yellow colonial. The house was unlike the picturesque cottage I’d imagined for my rollaway woman—much more the sort of prosaic dwelling suited to the Ellen Beck who had sent me the emails.

Telling the driver to wait, I walked up the short path to the door, dragging the rollaway behind me, and rang the bell. A woman answered immediately. Her short black hair was streaked with gray, and she was not smiling. I didn’t remember seeing her on the plane, but then hers was not a face I would remember.

“Hello,” I said, proffering a hand. “I’m Hugh Chapman. The one who has your case?”

“Yes,” she said, taking the hand and sizing me up. “I’m Ellen Beck. We appreciate your taking the trouble to come out here.”

She turned and reached for something by the door. “Here’s your case. You should find everything just the way you left it.”

“Oh I’m sure,” I said, with false heartiness. I hoped Ms. Beck would not notice if her things were not exactly as she had left them. I had tried my best.

We exchanged handles, and I was about to march back to my Uber when a voice called out from an inner room, “Who is it, Ellen?”

“It’s the man I told you about, Mother,” Ms. Beck called back. “The one who has your things by mistake.”

“Oh,” came the voice.

I stretched my lips into a smile and was about to make some speech about not wanting to intrude, when the voice came again. “Aren’t you going to ask him in?”

“Oh Mother, I’m sure Mr. Chapman has things to do—“

“No no,” I said. “I can stay a few minutes.” My eagerness surprised even me. I knew now that my rollaway girl was lost in time, if indeed she had ever really lived. There was no reason to meet this old woman who had replaced her. Yet some vestigial tenderness toward the young person she had perhaps been impelled me to try.

Ms. Beck’s eyebrows went up, but her face was otherwise neutral as she opened the door wider. “All right then, come in and sit down,” she said.

I dismissed the Uber driver and made my way into a living room full of overstuffed furniture in muted colors. Ms. Beck introduced her mother, Margaret Lyons, a plump woman ensconced in a recliner. “Pardon me if I don’t get up, young man,” she said. “It’s my hip.”

“Please don’t bother,” I said, and sat on a nearby sofa.

Ms. Beck offered tea. I declined, feeling she wanted me gone, but Mrs. Lyons said, “Well, I would like some of that lovely jasmine tea again, dear, with sugar. And bring another cup and spoon, in case Mr. Chapman changes his mind.”

Ellen eyed her dubiously. “All right, Mother. But go easy on the sugar. You know what Dr. Bynes says.”

Margaret waved her away and leaned toward me. “Quacks, all of them,” she whispered loudly.

I warmed to her, but before I could respond, she continued, in low tones, “Tell me, before she comes back, what did you think of my things?”

I must have looked startled, because she reached out and patted the sofa arm, which was as close as she could get to me from her semi-recumbent position. “Now don’t pretend you didn’t look. I looked at yours, while she was at work,” she said, nodding significantly toward the kitchen.

I was again startled, but I had nothing to hide. “You must have been disappointed,” I said.

She smiled. “I was! Except for those funny diagrams—do you mind telling me about them?”

“Just some designs for using drones in a stage show. I’m really a technician, but I have dreams, like everybody else.”

“I knew it!” she exclaimed triumphantly. “I knew it wasn’t just some geometrical exercise. I’ve seen some drone shows on my computer. Just like magic.”

She regarded me with ineffable admiration before laying her hand on the sofa arm again. “You must never give up on your dreams, Hugh.”

The intensity of her faith in me was a little embarrassing. What about you—did you have dreams—maybe ballet dreams?” I asked, slyly.

“Oh you,” she said, shaking her finger at me. “You saw my treasure, didn’t you? Madame Dokoudovska gave it to me after I danced the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker with the Kansas City Ballet—oh, years and years ago. Before you were born. I did love the ballet so. We made magic too, you know, even without all this high tech.”

She smiled at the memory, and our kinship. The smile deepened her wrinkles, but to me her face seemed full of the beauty of dreams and the pleasure of sharing them. I would have taken her hand, only I thought Ellen might not approve.

There was sadness in her eyes too, though. I hazarded a guess. “You didn’t stay with it?” I asked.

She tossed her head. “Oh, I got married, of course. That’s what women did back then. And if I hadn’t, I never would have had Ellen to take such good care of me,” she said, gesturing toward her daughter, who was coming in with tea things on a tray.

“You two seem to have hit it off,” she said, setting the tray on the coffee table and regarding us dispassionately. “I hope you won’t mind if I go up and continue packing? Mother’s moving into an assisted living tomorrow,” she explained. “I can’t tell you how upset I was, Mr. Chapman, when I found I’d somehow lost Mother’s favorite things after I went all the way to Kansas City to get them. We’re so grateful to you for taking the time to bring them. Please stay as long as you like. I just have to—”

“Of course,” I said. “Don’t let me keep you.” I liked her distress over the things. It was more than just annoyance.

Margaret liked it, too. “She seems all business, that girl,” she said, looking after her daughter, “but she loves her mother. I believe we’re all dream creatures, you know, even Ellen. Our souls are dreams upon dreams, all woven together. So if I get forgetful—” her eyes wandered fearfully for a moment, and she picked at the sofa arm, but then she went on in a stronger tone—“If I start to forget—why, I can just look at my books, my Sugar Plum Fairy—all my favorite things, and I’ll remember again. Ellen understands that.”

I nodded, pouring her a cup of tea while Margaret grew calmer. “One lump or two?”

“Oh, two, young man. I never do things by halves.”

Jasmine suffused us. “Are gardens part of your dreams?” I asked.

“Oh my yes,” she said. “I met my husband in Mother’s little rose garden. He’s gone now, of course.” She laid her hand on her heart. “Have you ever had a great love, Hugh?”

I suppressed my failures. “No. But in my dream of love there is a young woman in a garden.”

She was gleeful over this, trying to push herself up, sloshing her tea. “I knew it,” she said. “I felt it right away. The link between us. Shared dreams. Tell me, is the sea in yours, too?”

“Doesn’t everyone dream of the sea?” I asked. “It’s where we come from, what we’re made of.”

She nodded. “Yes, but so few remember. You and I are different. We will always have magic, our lost love in the garden, the sea—all those dreams will flit about connecting us, even when we’re apart. I’ll think of you whenever I wear my butterfly barrette—symbol of the soul, you know.”

“I’ll remember you too,” I promised.

I put down my empty cup. She thanked me again and put my hand against the soft, loose flesh of her cheek for a moment as we said goodbye.

Ellen heard me leaving and asked if I needed a ride, but I wanted to walk around for a while, so she shook my hand and wished me well.

I trundled down the drive with my rollaway, thinking of all the busy people with their dreams safely packed, rolling away from one another like galaxies in an expanding universe until each of us was left alone, clinging to the past, the departed, the unattainable.

But then I smelled fresh-cut grass, and I thought of Margaret and our dreams, and also Ellen, who loved the mother she couldn’t understand. I imagined what would happen if we all opened our luggage and flung the contents out like stars across the sky. We could float together on our backs in the ocean, looking up at the dream picture we’d made, and nothing would be truly lost, ever again.

 


author headshot

Lorna Wood is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama, with a Ph.D. in English from Yale. Her literary fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in What We Talk About When We Talk About It (Darkhouse anthology), Jerry Jazz Musician (2017 fiction contest finalist), and Wild Violet, among others. She has also published genre fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and scholarly essays, and she is Senior Editor of Gemini Magazine. Lorna blogs at lornawoodauthor.wordpress.com, or find her at amazon.com/author/lornawood.


The drawing of the suitcase is by neilfein; it’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilfein/

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