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floating idea

Saturday Oct. 16 1946 Batesville Arkansas

The river sparkled like a bucket full of costume jewelry. Along both banks the trees were full of gold, greens, and red. Leading the procession a slow churning barge gleamed with the brass of a high school band. In rows on the wooden deck, the players fidgeted in white chairs.

The second river barge chugged along behind. Standing tall in the middle it had a bulky wooden throne, painted gold and draped with craft-shop finery, where the queen herself sat presiding over the celebration. Half a dozen doe-eyed milkmaids lounged in the flowers surrounding the throne. And of the queen, deep in her arms husks lay peeled open, the golden rows of half a dozen ears of corn. Cradled just so, it was a bulky bouquet that itched like nobody’s business. But Cora-Sue persevered in her sleeveless gown and delicate white gloves.

As the floating procession rounded the bend, the first child’s shout of recognition came down from the Main Street Bridge. With a count and the crash of cymbals the band began to play. A milkmaid at Cora-Sue’s feet looked up with a tear in her eye and shaped the words: “You look so beautiful.” For it was a fine autumn morning, the harvest day parade, and Cora-Sue wore the crown.

The barge cut a wake spreading to either shore not unlike the deep ripples of her happiness.

“Cora dear, your wheel chair is blocking the hallway. You hear?”

Monday Sept. 8, 2001 Glendale Arizona

The flowers, the river barge, the adulation, the milkmaids, all dissolved like a mirage with broadcast issues. Cora-Sue lifted her wrinkled face, looked around, and dropped her head in resignation.

A resident edged her walker right up to Cora-Sue’s wheelchair to get by. The woman moved like all the nursing home residents moved and that was carefully, and oh so incrementally. Cora-Sue was certain that if they knew each other better, they’d dislike each other all the more. With that she never remembered anybody’s name.

What’s-Her-Name said, “It’s time for physical therapy and there you sit making me late.”

Cora-Sue stared blankly. It was not in confusion. She understood all too well. Only something else had grabbed up her attention.

The flourescent hallway lights were at it again. They cast an insidious pallor over her slack translucent skin, swelling her arthritic knuckles, yellowing unkempt nails, and accenting her damned liver spots. Itchy eyes stared unbelieving at the lizard claw now gripping the wheelchair armrest — her eyes, her claw. She could just spit had not her mouth been dry. So this is it?

Damn. Damn. Damn.

“You should keep up with physical therapy like me,” said What’s-Her-Name. “It sure is a shame to let your legs go like that…”

Cora-Sue fetched up a kick to the woman’s shin. It was a feeble kick but the surprise violence of it nearly upset the entire works of What’s-Her-Name and her walker. It took a moment for the tottering to settle down. Cora-Sue leaned closer with a sneer. “There. I just kicked you. Now what are you going to do about it?”

And it was about an hour later when the custodian pushed his cart of cleaning supplies through the visiting room. He found Cora-Sue alone, her wheelchair wedged into the corner. On bad days she often parked herself like this, face in.

From the shake of her shoulders the custodian could see she was sobbing. “Cora-Sue,” he said. “What’s the matter?”

She felt his touch on her hand and looked up. Water welled in her eyes and the levee broke. “I just want to go home,” she said.

And where was home now? Even the house was gone. The past was was never what it seemed. Through the sobs and through her hand she could feel the custodian bearing with her, whispering a solemn prayer in Spanish. She yanked back her hand and snapped.

“Speak in English will you!”