Her grandfather seemed to remember Commercial Street, though he remembered little else when they picked him up on Sunday afternoons at the nursing home—not his daughter, not his granddaughter. “Time for your outing, Mr. Moran,” the charge nurse always said cheerfully, holding his coat. He’d climb into the front seat, nodding when Penny’s mother asked grudgingly if he wanted to see the water, his clouded eyes skewing sideways toward the car window.”Bumpy road,” he’d offer every week as they turned off Franklin Street onto the cobblestones.
Her mother would grip the wheel grimly. “I wish they’d take up the tracks.”
“Where would the trains run?” he’d ask.
The first time, her mother had told him impatiently that there were no more trains. He’d become so upset he could only insist, more and more loudly, that they return home, until finally they turned the car around. Now her mother only shrugged, and Penny, in the back seat, remained silent.
This afternoon, Penny’s mother drove as far as the state pier, maneuvering the Ford Fairlane station wagon around the trolley tracks. She hated Commercial Street, Penny knew. A newly-licensed driver, she hated the cobbles, the wide, unmarked street, the tracks which threw a car sideways into a non-existent oncoming lane. She pulled into a parking space and cut the engine. A cruise ship was berthed at the pier, an occasional crewman crossing the deck. Her grandfather stared at the ship intently.
“I ran away to sea when I was a kid,” he said—for the thousandth time, Penny figured. She rolled her eyes. Her grandfather always told this story on Sundays, as though to people he’d just met, not the daughter and granddaughter who took him for a drive.
Usually at this point, Penny’s mother caught her eye in the rearview, tilting her chin in warning. Today she only sighed, rolling the window down, letting the salt air lift her hair from her forehead. She lit a cigarette, blew the smoke out at the ocean. “I ran away on the train.”
Penny’s head shot up. There was a note in her mother’s voice she didn’t recognize, something that made her feel uneasy. Forgotten. Her mother had never said this before.
“We’ve got that in common, then,” said the old man, approvingly, to a stranger. He still stared at the ship. Under the cloudy sky, it looked like something from an old photo, the edges blurred, turning brown. He held out a hand. “Got another one of those?”
He’d never asked for a cigarette before; something told Penny if he had, her mother would never have given him one. Now she held out the pack, shaking it until a couple slid out. He took one between his spotted fingers, plucked the lighter from the dashboard socket.
“South America,” he said, sucking at the cigarette. “Merchant vessel.”
“New York,” her mother said. “Secretary.”
The old man nodded. “Just wanted something different.”
Gazing out the window, her mother narrowed her eyes; Penny could see that much in the rearview, through the growing haze of smoke. “Father was a bastard.” There was bitterness in the words. Penny felt each one like a sudden slap against her skin. She looked nervously at her grandfather, who didn’t remember he had a granddaughter—looked for his reaction.
Again the nod. The old man’s cigarette burned red. “We’ve got that in common, too.”
The rain started as they finished their cigarettes. The old man stubbed his out in the ashtray, while Penny’s mother flicked hers out the window before rolling it up. They backed out of the parking spot and returned to Commercial Street, where her mother gripped the wheel and Penny’s teeth jarred in her head. The wipers slapped.
“Bumpy road,” her grandfather said. No one answered.
No one spoke again until they were inside the front door of the home. The charge nurse came toward them, clucking at their dripping coats.
“I can take it from here,” the old man said. “Thanks for the ride.” He turned away, then back to Penny’s mother, whose jaw was still hard, and held out a hand. “Nice meeting you.”
Penny watched him limp away down the corridor, growing smaller and smaller as though seen through the wrong end of the telescope, as though regressing to the kid who ran off to sea away from the father who was a bastard. Her legs felt unsteady, like she’d stumbled off a ship herself after weeks on the ocean. When she turned, she found herself alone, her mother striding away in the other direction, resolutely, into the rain.
—Anne Britting Oleson has been published widely on four continents. She earned her MFA at the Stonecoast program of USM. She has published two chapbooks, The Church of St. Materiana (2007) and The Beauty of It (2010). A third chapbook, Planes and Trains and Automobiles, is forthcoming from Portent Press (UK), and a novel, The Book of the Mandolin Player, is forthcoming from B Ink Publishing—both in 2015.