Sunday, June 22, 2008


In the clouds, people live in the clouds.

Lila had believed that as a child. Not hoped. Not thought. Believed.

Her MeMa, the most understanding adult she knew, would pretend to agree. She'd point out a cloud to Lila and say, "Look, that one's a face."

No, Lila would explain patiently, clouds weren't people, clouds were where people lived.

One Friday summer night at MeMa's with five other cousins, Mema had gathered up some heavy blankets and they'd all headed outside to the front yard. The yard dropped off at the mid-point, just after the large tree, and sloped down to the street. MeMa had spread the blankets out on the slope, popped open her can of Coors, lit her cigarette and told all the cousins to get on the blankets and look up at the stars.

MeMa pointed out The Little Dipper, The Stars of Orion and other things everyone else seemed to see. Lila saw none of them. Not even The Milky Way, which she'd actually bothered to look for, expecting to see a candy bar.

But while everyone studied tiny strips of the sky, Lila marveled over how the black velvet behind the stars seemed to go on forever.

Every now and then, a car would whisk down the street and a tune would briefly fill the air. The musical notes would linger in the warm air around them before seemingly floating upward. Lila wished she could join the upward journey.

Soon enough they were herded back inside while MeMa made popcorn on the stove. At one point or another, all six cousins would be in the kitchen, but mainly they wandered in and out. There was Tim who loved to go into the large bathroom off the hall and pretend the big shower was an elevator. He'd usually get one or two cousins to go with him. Michele would dart off to the piano and being playing the left hand half of "Heart and Soul" -- the only song she half-knew and one that she not only refused to teach but begged the aunt who taught her not to teach anyone else.

That would be Aunt Sara. Still just a teenager and living with MeMa but, it being a Friday night, out with her boyfriend. NO KIDS IN MY ROOM she'd shout on her way out. But she didn't mean Lila. Lila never dug around or picked up anything. The most she would do was sit on one of the two double beds as she looked around Sara's room. She'd look at the red milk crates holding books and vinyl albums. The ones marked "Borders, Inc." and carrying a warning in white letters of "ILLEGAL-FINE" if their use was "unauthorized."

They'd been swiped from the back of a grocery store. Aunt Sara was babysitting her and they were going out for ice cream. Only, instead, Aunt Sara had driven through the grocery store parking lot, around to the back and parked. She'd lit a cigarette, checked her hair in the rear view mirror and then moved it so she could see the loading dock.

Ever so often, people came out to the loading dock. About every twelve minutes, Aunt Sara told her, knowing Lila never told secrets. As the third group went back inside the store, Aunt Sara said, "Come on."

Following her aunt's lead, Lila opened the car door and they hurried to the dock in something faster than a walk but slower than a run. Aunt Sara had grabbed four milk crates but Lila could only handle two, one for each hand. They hurried back to the car with Aunt Sara saying to put the crates in the back because it would take too long to unlock the trunk.

Then they were speeding back through the parking lot and to MeMa's with Aunt Sara saying the couldn't get the ice cream but she knew Lila would understand. And Lila did. She understood how they waited until MeMa and Papa had gone to sleep and then they'd popped the screen off Aunt Sara's window, crawled out and went to the car to bring in the red milk crates.

MeMa had seen them the next day and asked about them.

Aunt Sara had given some guy at school's name and said he brought them over last night.

"Don't you remember? You were watching TV and I told you that was him at the door as I walked past you. Then Lila and I brought them in and had to walk past you again. Don't you remember?"

"Is that true?" MeMa had asked Lila.

"Uh-huh," Lila had replied without pausing and looking her grandmother right in the eye.

Aunt Sara always trusted Lila because of moments like these. She knew you could always count on Lila to back you up, whether it was on milk crates or that new bracelet Aunt Sara was wearing.

"I must have been watching Alfred Hitchcock," MeMa said as Lila and Aunt Sara shrugged.

That was MeMa's favorite show and every night, after the news, Mama would watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was why they'd come in tonight.

When they'd first gotten on the blankets outside, cousin Carrie had asked, "MeMa, can we sleep out here tonight?"

"Why sure," MeMa had responded.

But Lila had known that as the time passed, they'd be back inside in time for MeMa to catch her program.

Lila walked back into the kitchen and saw the large bowl of popcorn on the counter. MeMa was at the stove melting butter in a pan to pour over it. As Lila inhaled the smells, she saw that all of her cousins were back inside the except the kitchen except for Michelle still pounding away the rhythm of "Heart and Soul."

MeMa poured the butter over the popcorn, put the pan back on the stove, picked up the bowl and told Lila to get the salt shaker off the table as they all headed to the TV.

They sat on the floor in front of the TV. Since the episode where the people had pig noses, Lila never watched and always kept her back to the TV until the show went off and My Three Sons came on. Some would make fun of Lila for that and, if they did, MeMa would say Lila was just like her mother and list all the movies where Lila's mother had hidden under the seat in the theater.

My Three Sons caused Lila no qualms and, as an added bonus, when it came on, it meant her PaPa would soon be home from work. She'd watch the show with him while a few cousins went off with MeMa. After the show went off, it was to the kitchen, where PaPa warmed up dinner and told her about his day as he ate dinner.

By then, MeMa had set up beds on the couches and, of course, Michelle always insisted on sleeping on one of the double beds in Aunt Sara's room.

Such was her life for years until her father got a job transfer and they moved off. She only saw MeMa and PaPa at Christmas for the next two years. It was a very long drive and she fell asleep both times. They were due to drive back for Aunt Sara's wedding one June but instead drove back when MeMa had a heart attack and passed away.

It was hard to believe it until she saw MeMa in the coffin and, even then, she wanted to believe it was a joke MeMa was playing. That any second, she'd open her eyes, leap to her feat and holler, "Surprise!"

She thought about all the jokes MeMa liked to play as she sat forever in the pew, not hearing what anyone was saying. She did notice a commotion when Aunt Sara had entered, wearing sunglasses, accompanied by her husband-to-be, also in sunglasses. It did seem weird to wear sunglasses inside.

And later in the day, she'd caught on to what all the adults were whispering. "Stoned." She was almost twelve, she knew about these things. Some adults clucked, some acted sympathetic but they all got caught in those half-conversations quickly stopped when they noticed a child was listening.

Lila felt very alone. Her parents were off talking to other adults and, since moving away, she really wasn't close to any of her cousins. She wandered out of the funeral home, into the parking lot and kicked at the gravel.

For a second, she was excited to see her Aunt Sara but she didn't even notice Lila as she and her husband-to-be headed for his car, a flashy Camaro. Lila scraped at the ground with her shoe until the gravel was stripped away revealing soft dirt.

And she looked around the parking lot and out at the street. It was a bright and sunny day and she'd always expected it to rain on the day of funerals.

Shielding her eyes, she looked up at the sun and then noticed the clouds. One by one, she went from cloud to cloud.

It looked like someone was waving from one. She stared more intently. It was MeMa. MeMa was up in the clouds. Of course, she'd want to watch her own funeral. She was smiling and waving down to Lila. Lila waived back, smiled and thought, "So that's how the people get to live in the clouds."

Overcome with excitement, she had to tell someone. But who would believe her enough to come outside and would they do it quickly enough before MeMa walked deeper into the cloud and disappeared?

She ran towards the Camaro, scattering gravel as she did so.

The man cursed as he saw her but Aunt Sara looked over as she took a drag off a joint and said, "Oh, it's just Lila. Don't worry, she's cool."

Aunt Sara passed the joint to the man and put on a bright smile for Lila as she said hello.

Lila didn't have time for pleasantries. MeMa was up in the clouds, looking down and waiving. Look! Look!

Aunt Sara and the man burst out laughing.

"Lila, people don't live in clouds. They couldn't even breathe up there, it's so high. That's why they have to pressurize airplanes or something," Aunt Sara said shaking her head.

"Wait!" exclaimed the man. "Wait! I think I see her!"

He pointed up at a cloud that was not the one Lila had seen MeMa in. Lila was wondering if MeMa had moved to another cloud when the man burst out laughing, quickly joined by Aunt Sara.

Lila glared at them both.

"Don't be mad," Aunt Sara chided. "People don't live in clouds. MeMa is in that building, in a coffin, and they're about to place her in the ground. She's not in any cloud, Lila. She's dead. People die. When they're dead, they're . . . like dead. No more. She's gone."

As Lila walked away, they both laughed at her.

She thought about going back into the funeral home and playing dumb as she told all the adults that Aunt Sara smoked cigarettes and even rolled them herself, that she was out in the parking lot doing that right now. That would fix her.

But as she walked, she looked up to the clouds. She couldn't see MeMa anymore. Aunt Sara and that man had run her off. She really was gone now. If Aunt Sara had only been willing to look up, she would have seen MeMa. MeMa might have figured out a way to get them both up there. Instead, Aunt Sara wouldn't even look and that rude man made jokes.

Lila had learned that Aunt Sara wasn't all that she'd thought but, most of all, she'd learned how fleeting moments were. It was a very grown up thought and one to be puzzled over.
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