Millie got nervous when George's mind wandered like this. The whole drive, his conversation had darted around like a hummingbird. One minute he'd chatter happily about this trip to visit their daughters—the joy of hugging Sukey and grandson in Cleveland, the anxiety of seeing Gloria, alone again, in her Syracuse trailer. Next moment he'd think they were headed just across town to visit his long-dead parents or ask for coffee as if they were sitting in the living room.
Surely, though, he'd snap out of it like always. This road trip would clear the cobwebs, show doubting offspring that their parents remained independent as ever. Driving every mile herself was wearing, though. And so many bathroom and rest stops. Getting from Bloomington to Cleveland before dark, even though they'd done it dozens of times before, looked iffy now. She'd quit after-dark driving altogether because her night vision wasn't the best any more. Still, how ridiculous to waste money on a motel when they were only an hour or so away.
A sudden aroma filled the car, a smell from when the girls were babies . . . . Wetness spread across George's lap.
—Oh, George, I would have stopped. George looked down, began weeping. Hush, now, she said. I'm not mad. We need gas anyway.
Off the freeway, she parked behind a filling station and pulled a pair of trousers from the suitcase.
When she opened his door, George looked up at her, smiling, his saturated pants apparently forgotten. This spell had lasted longer than most, but Millie wasn't about to dress him as if he were a child. She handed him his pants and ordered him to change in a hurry while she played lookout, trying to watch both ends of the building and the bushes behind them at once. She had to go herself, but she didn't dare leave George out here or even send him to the men's room alone. Hysterical giggling broke out behind her. Two barely-teenage girls had emerged from an unguarded walkway and were watching George, who stood in the open, naked from the waist down, staring at his crotch, poking and squeezing himself.
—Get out of here, now, Millie screeched. The girls disappeared in swirling laughter. Millie slapped George's hand. Stop that, she said. What if Gloria saw—
George's fist caught her on the shoulder, knocked her sideways. She floated above herself for a moment, sure she'd imagined the blow. She stumbled, but didn't fall. Her husband clenched his fists and stuck out his jaw like a pugnacious schoolboy. She struggled to cover the whimper in her voice.
—George, linguistics professors don't do such things.
A still, frightening moment passed before George's fists loosened and Millie gathered the courage to approach him. Always, she'd prided herself as the oil on troubled waters, the rock in a crisis. But now her hands shook and her lips trembled as she pulled and prodded her husband into his pants. Ashamed, and terrified that the girls would bring friends or that George would turn on her again, she shoved him into his seat, slammed his door, jumped behind the wheel, and zoomed through an angry chorus of honking horns to a station across the street.
George's voice startled her.
— Time to gas up?
Awake and, it seemed, rational at last.
—Yes, George. Why don't you fill the car while I go to the bathroom? On the verge of wetting herself, she nevertheless stayed to watch George start the pump. Everything was fine now, surely. She hurried inside. By the time she returned, the pump had shut itself off, and George was clutching the handle and staring into space. Teary and breathless, she one-by-one pried his fingers loose, guided him back to his seat, and headed for the freeway.
* * *
As dusk thickened, George, thank god, fell asleep. Should she call Sukey? Such a bother, and it would feed her daughter's silly notion that her parents were helpless. Sukey lived east of Cleveland. The town's exact name would come to her shortly. There, on that exit sign, she made out the words "Cleveland" and "East." Once she spotted a landmark or two, her sense of direction would kick in. Twilight wrapped her like a warm blanket as she drove down the ramp and into the darkening countryside.
* * *
A cheerful noon sun lighted Millie's way into Syracuse. She recognized a mall, then a housing development, and she hummed brightly at the thought of seeing Sukey. A few more minutes brought her to the trailer park, then to the green doublewide with the pink-striped awning. Gloria emerged from the trailer. How puzzling. Why hadn't Sukey told her Gloria was coming to visit?
—Mother, where have you been? Why didn't you show up at Sukey's? We've had the police out for three days. Where's Daddy?
—Oh, he's at one of his conferences, dear. I do wish his career would let him stay home more.
—Conference? He's been retired for ten years.
Then Millie found herself at the tiny kitchen table, and Gloria was waving some papers she said she'd found in the car. She was using that whiny tone Millie had tried so hard to train out of her. The place was nice for a trailer, wood trim and plush carpet, but Gloria deserved so much better. She'd talk to George again about helping get her a house. Right now, though, she had to clear up this confusion.
—Of course I didn't put your father in a sanatorium, Gloria. Why would I do such a thing? Those papers, wherever they came from, don't have a thing to do with me or George. And look at you now with your eyes all red and spilling over. He's liable to walk right through that door any minute, and you don't want him to see you like this. Come here, now, like you used to. Let mommy kiss the sad away.